Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Aug. 19)

Aug 19, 2019

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.

Greetings, friends! Thanks for your patience while I was out of town on vacation. I missed you all, but it was good to hang out on the beach, especially because the beach with a baby old enough to enjoy it is one of life's great pleasures. Roaring at the waves and patting them, then going for ice cream? Absolute bliss. Let's dive in!

Just curious if you've caught on it or planning to catch up on soon?

At the request of a lot of folks here, I'm trying to binge "Succession" first and saving "Mindhunter" as a treat for myself. I'm not sure what that says about me, the true crime genre, or the state of the media business in 2019, but that's where I am.

Unsure if it has already, but just curious if you think a movie about America purchasing Alaska from the Russian Empire could make for a good on-screen depiction?

Hmmmm, maybe as a mini-series rather than a movie? I think you'd want time to flesh out the personalities and social currents at play, which are honestly a lot of what would make it a compelling story to people.

How do I get out of going to a gender reveal party for a family member? I think they're narcissistic gift grabs, more for the parents' ego and attention than anything else. Should I develop a migraine?

Have you accepted the invitation already? If so, then I think you're out of luck: go, keep your feelings to yourself, and if you're feeling especially puckish, offer the family a gender-neutral gift. If you haven't accepted, then I think you're within your rights to offer a polite but plausible excuse.

Look, I personally hate the idea of gender reveal parties, not necessarily because they're a gift grab -- after all, raising a kid is expensive, and it's nice to help new parents get equipped with the stuff they need and that will make those earlier days easier -- but because they imply that physical biology locks kids into a rigid kind of gender expression. When you're welcoming a kid to the world, why would you want to diminish the pleasure of getting to know them as a unique human being by insisting that their genitals and chromosomes proscribe them to a very specific kind of destiny?

That said, I think the least-effective way to convince anyone that they're selfish or gender essentialist for throwing a gender reveal party is by lecturing them about what a monster they are. Just don't participate, or if that's not possible, participate politely, and strap in for the long game: there's going to be a kid arriving, and your presence in their lives will matter a lot more to their ability to explore their gender expression and relation to material goods in a healthy way than any dumb gender reveal party will.

Last week, I got a Facebook message to wish a friend a happy birthday. Unfortunately, this friend died two years ago. A recent WAPO article alerted me to the fact that I could choose a "legacy contact" under the "memorialization settings" on FB. This person is authorized to delete my account after my death. I chose my sister. However, this does not address the issue of the unexpected and disturbing invitation to send birthday greetings to a dead man. Is there a way to close out his account, being that he has been inactive on the account for two years? He left no heirs, just friends.

Does he have an executor who handled his affairs? I'm afraid that's the only person other than an immediate relative who can handle deactivating or memorializing a deceased person's account. I realize this may seem logistically cumbersome and upsetting, but it's also protection against accounts being attacked or taken over.

I kind of love that Pepe the frog has been taken over by the Hong Kong protesters. Taking a silly carton that was co-opted by a hate group and yanking it right back and making it a symbol of democracy makes me smile. (Also their total confusion about why they shouldn't use it is just great. From the NYT, "To me, Pepe is just a Hello Kitty-like character.")

I love this, too! And I'll have some more thoughts on it in the newsletter this week.

I was sad to see the ELEMENTARY finale. Even though it never quite matched its debut season I never found it less than enjoyable. Similarly I like/liked INSTINCT, also heading for the TV graveyard. I found them both a welcome alternative to all teh CSIs and the CHICAGO Fill-in-the-blanks. "Comfort TV" seems a little dismissive but they certainly made for comfortable viewing.

I'm a big believer in comfort television! When I first moved to DC and lived along, "Law & Order" and its many iterations kept me company on those early, lonely nights. I recognize that the discussion of television feels very stratified these days, but it's entirely fitting that we should mourn the shows that have been our faithful friends, as well as those that we admire as towering artistic achievements.

Is there a movie you're putting off watching so far?

I actually just treated myself to back-to-back viewings of "Vox Lux" and "Star Is Born," movies that came out while I was getting into the swing of things back from maternity leave, and had really missed. I think I probably liked "Vox Lux" better: Natalie Portman basically plays both halves of the Jackson-Ally duo in "A Star is Born," and is amazing in both. But I enjoyed them both a lot, and it was nice to feel caught up on at least this little corner of the pop culture universe, though I still want to watch "Her Smell."

The parents are indicating that the gender of their baby is important. And you (and they) don't know it yet. So you can't get them gifts appropriately targeted to the gender of the infant. And the woman is, absent other gestational arrangements, still pregnant, so it isn't going to be a particularly boozy party which can make behavior harder to control. I think you should go to that one (bring a practical, non-gendered gift) and skip the shower if you loathe gift grabs.

It may be that this couple has sent out a registry for multiple events, and there are plenty of things folks ask for that aren't gendered in any instance.

Do they have any responsibility to be accurate? Not in details of the real life characters. No one reasonable thinks that writers know the details of, say specific conversations between Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln unless one of them wrote a letter or diary entry about it there is something similar from a witness, but in general. I think people would have been upset if the burning of Atlanta had been transformed into the burning of Macon. Downton Abbey killed off a young adult character in the 1918 flu pandemic which was particularly devastating among young adults. But this is a more subtle detail. Plenty of old people die in any flu pandemic so they could have killed off Violet Crawley even if it failed to educate the watchers about the young people who died from that particular disease. Is there a responsibility to try to get that level of detail right because you know that a fairly large percentage of your audience won't know these details unless you tell/show them?

Hmmm, this is an interesting variation on this question. It's hard for me to think why anyone would want to change the burning of Atlanta to the burning of Macon, so that seems rather hypothetical to me. I think what you're asking is whether it's all right for people who are making historical fiction to present scenarios that while not necessarily implausible, are at least atypical. Demographically, maybe Violet Crawley would have been more likely to die in the 1918 flu pandemic, but I don't think it's misleading to have her live: some older people did survive the pandemic, after all. While I think that it's incumbent on people making historical fiction to be generally interested in and engaged with the established facts of that era, I don't think they're obligated to behave as if they're a substitute for textbooks.

I semi-binged the first season of THE TERROR and was blown away. Dark, relentless, and populated with what could have been interchangeable hairy/ugly/compelling Brits. t could've gone wrong in so many ways and it was terrific (pardon the pun). I was shocked and appalled that it got no awards show love.

I have to hook you up with my colleague Alexandra Petri, who ADORES "The Terror" and has been beating the drum in its favor.

"American Psycho"?

Hey, that one is less for me than it is for you guys. I will get around to it eventually.

Alaskan purchase is one thing, but considering our President, you think moviemakers or TV makers would be interested in Andrew Johnson, another really racist President.

I have been on Ken Burns to make a Reconstruction movie for a while; it's been on his to-do list forever, but other things, including "Country Music," out next month, keep getting in the way.

What do you think of "Succession" so far?

Honestly? It's kind of making me want to barf. I think it stresses me out on two levels. The first is the fairly standard anti-hero These-Are-All-Terrible-People anxiety, made worse by the fact that the show is sort of relentlessly anti-humorous and the actors are, I think fairly intentionally, anti-charismatic. Obviously it's a lot less violent than, say, "Game of Thrones," but at least there we had a sense of people doing the best they could under trying circumstances! 

Second, I think I've got some ideological ick about it. The thing that makes the Murdochs both important and horrifying world-historical figures isn't that their internal family dynamics are dysfunctional. It's that they play an incredibly powerful role in the information ecosystem and use it in an incredibly dangerous way. I've been told by some of you that some more attention to the content is coming down the pike, but the show's weird inattention to what WaystarRoyco is actually saying in the early going makes it feel sort of morally misaligned to me.

Having not seen "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" just curious if they make a point that part of the Manson Family's motive was to make it look like the Black Panthers had committed the murder sprees so as to incite a race word? They do in "Mindhunter" (not really much of a spoiler since Charles Manson is mentioned in a bunch of the trailers).

I would need to ask Sonny or one of my other colleagues who has seen the movie!

No question just excitement that it is only a month away. Also on last night's special on PBS they hinted at future movies if this one does well.

I'm excited, too! I've been waiting for them to schedule a press screening for us here in DC...

If you even remotely like Reese Witherspoon in "Big Little Lies" (particular Season 1), you'll love her in "American Psycho" Her character of Evelyn Williams is like Madeleine Mackenzie in the purest form.

That sounds both like a lure and a threat.

Actually older adults were more likely to survive the 1918 flu (as I indicated in the question) because the very high death rate was caused by the reaction of the very healthy immune systems of the young adults. Young people were much more likely to die than in other flu pandemics. But older people did as well. So they could have gone with a death that didn't illustrate the special thing about that particular pandemic. Would it have been a disservice to do so. There would have been no reason to mention the aberration of that one without killing off a young character.

Ah, sorry for misreading you. In any case, I think it's okay for historical fiction to focus on events that are aberrational. In fact, that's often what makes for the most interesting historical fiction. "Gone With the Wind" is an enduring novel for all that it's perfectly reasonable to find it problematic in part because Scarlett O'Hara doesn't fit in with her neighbors and treats her inability to embrace the South's position in the Civil War as a flaw even though it's one of her most admirable qualities.

Sonny's essay about the book "Because Internet," and the ways that language creates communities that both include and exclude, touched on one of my biggest anxieties: our willingness to accept policing on our speech. I completely understand the ways that language can be used to diminish marginalized groups, but it seems that the principal response is to call for a ban on certain speech, rather than collaborating to work out how to build responsive and inclusive language; and there is a sense in which if someone misspeaks you should presume neither accident nor ignorance but only ill intent, and condemn them for it. Some language can be harmful, but silence can also be harmful. Did you get the same sense from Sonny's piece?

I don't disagree with you, though I think perhaps I'm a bit more optimistic than you and Sonny, in that I think there are vigorous and constructive conversations about language going on and I see them every day. I do agree that being constructive is the way to go: I read a very interesting Facebook post from a friend about the downsides to defaulting to singular "they" pronouns that I thought was very insightful and thought-provoking without being harsh towards anyone for whom those pronouns are extraordinarily helpful. I've rarely, if ever, been asked to completely give up a word that I actually find vital: I can't actually think of an occasion in which this has happened. It doesn't cost me anything to listen to people tell me about what their needs are and what their perspectives on language are.

I have seen it - no, they did not go over the white supremacy angle at all. Overall I liked the movie, but there's no doubt that it is a fairy tale type take only loosely based on real events. Although I do question why every recent Tarantino film has to end with over the top violent wish fulfillment/revenge.

I actually think Sonny's recent essay recasting Tarantino's endings might make for some interesting reading for you.

Glad you had a good time - which beach did you go to? We just got back from the NC outer banks, which was nice but more developed than I expected.

We were on the Jersey Shore, and it was lovely, thanks! And yeah, I think the Outer Banks have been going that way for a while. It's honestly one of the reasons I love my trusty Cape Cod beaches when we can get up there: colder weather and more of a local following makes for a more relaxed scene.

Do you see the superhero wave as a phase that will go away, like westerns, or something destined to stick around, even if maybe in lesser numbers, like doctor and cop shows?

Well, the superhero genre has been around for decades! We had a "Superman" serial as far back as 1948. I think it's probably a permanent part of the landscape, though how long it eclipses everything else is an open question!

Folks, I have to run to an appointment. As always, it's a joy being back here with you. See you next Monday!

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