The best culture writing of 2016

Really good stories from a really garbage year.

From left: Kim Kardashian at New York Fashion Week (CREDIT: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP); DeRay McKesson being arrested during a protest in Baton Rouge, La. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Max Becherer, File); The Washington Monument is framed by a window at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington (CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh); Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Hamilton” (CREDIT: Joan Marcus).
From left: Kim Kardashian at New York Fashion Week (CREDIT: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP); DeRay McKesson being arrested during a protest in Baton Rouge, La. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Max Becherer, File); The Washington Monument is framed by a window at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington (CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh); Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Hamilton” (CREDIT: Joan Marcus).

How can an adult person justify spending literally over one thousand hours a year reading the internet? By mining the cyber for the most engaging, interesting, hilarious, thoughtful, and otherwise top-notch stories, and then sharing those stories with people who may or may not be occupied in other endeavors (like seeing humans in real life, venturing into nature, and other stuff I’ve read about on the internet that sound like fun). And so, as we near the end of 2016, a year I think we’re all ready to kick to the curb, it is time to present the third annual unranked list of the best culture writing of the year.

When Whitney Hit The High Note

Danyel Smith, ESPN Magazine

Smith’s story was published on the eve of the Super Bowl — which is to say, more than seven months before 29-year-old Colin Kaepernick began protesting the national anthem by staying seated as it played before he could play, a silent show of solidarity with people of color experiencing oppression in the United States and against police brutality. It is illuminating to look at Smith’s piece now through that lens, as hers brings you back to the moment in its title: When a then-27-year-old Whitney Houston came to Super Bowl XXV and delivered what is arguably the most famous performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in modern American history, and when, as Smith writes, “just the sight of her, onstage, on MTV, on an album cover — Houston was proof of life. It became easier for black girls in particular to flex, to breathe — to revel in visibility and possibility.”

Like the best heroes, Whitney — the black girl from Jersey who worked her way to global stardom, made history and died early from the weight of it — makes bravery look easy. Although the stadium hears the prerecorded version, she sings live into a dead mic. The image of her singing is interspersed with faces of the fans, of the soldiers at attention and of the U.S. flag and flags of the wartime coalition countries blowing in the breeze. She is calmly joyful — cool, actually, and free of fear. And when she arrives at Oh, say [cymbal] does our star- [cymbal] spangled banner yet wave, she moves to lift the crowd. It’s a question. It’s always been a question. And she sings it like an answer.

Uncanny Valley

Anna Weiner, n+1

“Silicon Valley.” CREDIT: John Fleenor/HBO
“Silicon Valley.” CREDIT: John Fleenor/HBO

Weiner worked in the bizarro alternate reality of Silicon Valley and returned to tell everything her NDA did not forbid her from telling. She manages to be both deep inside this culture and have a surreal, distant perspective on her experiences in start-up central at the same time.

We hire an engineer fresh out of a top undergraduate program. She walks confidently into the office, springy and enthusiastic. We’ve all been looking forward to having a woman on our engineering team. It’s a big moment for us. Her onboarding buddy brings her around to make introductions, and as they approach our corner, my coworker leans over and cups his hand around my ear: as though we are colluding, as though we are 5 years old. “I feel sorry,” he says, his breath moist against my neck. “Everyone’s going to hit on her.”

I include this anecdote in an email to my mom. The annual-review cycle is nigh, and I’m on the fence about whether or not to bring up the running list of casual hostilities toward women that add unsolicited spice to the workplace. I tell her about the colleague with the smart-watch app that’s just an animated GIF of a woman’s breasts bouncing in perpetuity; I tell her about the comments I’ve fielded about my weight, my lips, my clothing, my sex life… I expect my mother to respond with words of support and encouragement. I expect her to say, “Yes! You are the change this industry needs.” She emails me back almost immediately. “Don’t put complaints about sexism in writing,” she writes. “Unless, of course, you have a lawyer at the ready.”

Reductress takes on Brock Turner

Issue 29.3

California state Senate president Kevin De Leon calls for the removal of Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky from the bench, at a protest outside the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose, Calif., Friday, Sept. 2, 2016., because of the six-month jail term he sentenced Brock Turner to for a sexual assault conviction. CREDIT: AP Photo/Paul Elias
California state Senate president Kevin De Leon calls for the removal of Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky from the bench, at a protest outside the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose, Calif., Friday, Sept. 2, 2016., because of the six-month jail term he sentenced Brock Turner to for a sexual assault conviction. CREDIT: AP Photo/Paul Elias

The satirical women’s website, which launched in 2013, was created by Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo with the intention of mocking women’s magazines and their faux-friendly but actually-vicious guidance for female readers. But it feels like 2016 — perhaps due to the stunning amount of raw misogyny material floating around — is the year Reductress came into its own. The best day in a banner year? August 17, when the entire site was dedicated to stories surrounding the non-sentencing of Stanford rapist Brock Turner.

Found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault, Turner was given only a six-month sentence and released after serving only half that time. Reductress responded with a murderer’s row of sharp, hilarious stories: “Man Who Sexually Assaulted You Likes Your Facebook Post About Assault.” “Fun Summer Cocktails When They Ask You ‘Well, What Were You Drinking?’ “How to Be an Ally to Both a Rapist and His Victim.” “I Anonymously Reported My Rape for the Anonymous Attention.” “Let Me Tell You What An Actual Witch Hunt Looks Like.” “This Rapist Has Figured Out a Way to End Rape Culture.” “Have You Considered Spending $300 On a Self-Defense Class?

Jeff, a yet-to-be-convicted serial date rapist, offered to share his secret on how to end rape culture. How generous! Here’s his advice:

“Rape culture doesn’t exist.”

Wow! Jeff admits that rapes “do happen” but that culture is “not even a thing.” “There are individuals who make decisions, and that’s it,” Jeff says. “It’s like, why can’t you use logic?” Good point! We should just drop it. Be the change you wish to see in the world!

When asked to explain further, Jeff asked, “Why are you so obsessed with this? It’s weird that you keep trying to talk about it when we’re all just trying to have a good time here.”

Good Bones

Maggie Smith, Waxwing Magazine

CREDIT: Wikicommons/Steven Pavlov
CREDIT: Wikicommons/Steven Pavlov

How often does poetry go viral? Chances are you’ve spotted Smith’s poem, initially published in Waxwing, on your Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook feed sometime this year. It is spare and considered. There are zero wasted words. Hers is a cool appraisal of how wretched everything on Earth is, laced with hope for a future in which maybe everything could be marginally less so. No wonder it spread so far and wide in a year in which despair feels so unavoidable and optimism so necessary, albeit harder to come by than ever.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

‘Thinking of the past, considering the future.’ Inside the African American History and Culture Museum.

Robin Givhan, The Washington Post

The Washington Monument is reflected in a window of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, during a press preview. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
The Washington Monument is reflected in a window of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, during a press preview. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

On visiting our nation’s newest Smithsonian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, within days of its opening, surrounded by the generations that came before and are coming after.

I’ve never met any of them, but I know them and they know me. I am a black woman who grew up in a post-Civil Rights America with parents who were part of the Great Migration. I have the life they fought for, endured for. They are my elders.

They have arrived with a bit of extra shine on their shoes, a little more starch in their collar. Of course they have.

The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens

Elspeth Reeve, The New Republic

CREDIT: Screenshot/Tumblr.com
CREDIT: Screenshot/Tumblr.com

Tumblr: Where youths go to revel in their weirdness and, as one expert tells Reeve in this story, “the lingua franca is absurdist dada.” Read and be both heartened by the kids these days — their A+ wit, media fluency, observational skills, and ability to mint money from those aforementioned traits — and be amazed by how much internet is out there that most adults will never even see.

Each social media network creates a particular kind of teenage star: Those blessed with early-onset hotness are drawn to YouTube, the fashionable and seemingly wealthy post to Instagram, the most charismatic actors, dancers, and comedians thrive on Vine. On Facebook, every link you share and photo you post is a statement of your identity. Tumblr is the social network that, based on my reporting, is seen by teens as the most uncool. A telling post from 2014: “I picked joining Tumblr and staying active on here because: 1. I’m not attractive enough to be a Youtuber 2. Not popular enough for twitter 3. Facebook is dumb.” You don’t tell people your Tumblr URL, you aren’t logging the banalities of your day — you aren’t even you.

Last Taboo

Wesley Morris, The New York Times

Alex Hibbert in “Moonlight.” CREDIT: David Bornfriend/A24 Films
Alex Hibbert in “Moonlight.” CREDIT: David Bornfriend/A24 Films

Morris’ thoughtful, emotional investigation into “why pop culture can’t deal with black male sexuality.” (And a special mention to whoever at the Times had the very clever idea to illustrate Morris’ piece with carefully-constructed black and pink balloon appendages.)

It can be a peculiar thing being black in this country. Even the people who claim to love you are capable of these little accidents of hate — the social equivalent of finding hair in your food.

This is it, isn’t it? Here’s our original sin metastasized into a perverted sticking point: The white dick means nothing, while, whether out of revulsion or lust, the black dick means too much.

The Babysitters Club

Jesse Barron, Real Life Magazine

Seamless advertisement.
Seamless advertisement.

Have you ever noticed how tech companies talk to users like we are — how best to put this — totally helpless juvenile dumb-dumbs incapable of completing even the simplest, most menial tasks without digital assistance? Barron dissects the infantilizing language and packaging of apps that attract the attention and dollars of adults by treating those adults like children.

All year, riding to meetings and home from drinks, I have been obsessed with figuring out why I hate the Seamless ads in the New York City subway. “Welcome to New York,” one reads. “The role of your mom will be played by us.” That’s quite a claim. Is Seamless going to tell me it’s not too late to go to law school? A second ad suggests that when I think I’m “angry” I might just be “hungry.” A third ad derides suburbanites, who are “dead” because they live in “Westchester.” The personality is half mom, half teenager: “cool babysitter.” Seamless will let me stay up late, eat Frosted Flakes for dinner, and watch an R-rated movie.

Shade Court

Kara Brown, Jezebel

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to delegates during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Monday, July 25, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to delegates during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Monday, July 25, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

2016 was a year lousy with so many lousy things, one in which the term “garbage fire” could be relevant often enough as to be rendered meaningless from overuse. So it is not surprising that nary a public figure could get through the day without insulting at least one adversary. At the same time, mainstream blogs, magazines, and other assorted media outlets latched onto the word “shade” like a six-year-old who just learned her first swear word. They used it indiscriminately, applying the label to everything from direct attacks to the subtlest of subtweets. Someone needed to bring order to this chaos. Someone versed in the teachings of Dorian Corey needed to restore the rule of law to this lawless land. That someone is Jezebel’s Kara Brown who, after formally adjourning Shade Court last October, brought it back to life this summer, inspired by the (when they go low we go) high-level shade thrown by Michelle Obama at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

The nature of the shade thrown by politicians and the Obamas in general tends to skew more delicate, in part because of the conservative nature of politics and the potential for ugly backlash at anything too overt. But be clear, the shade was there. And in some gaudily expensive hotel suite somewhere, Melania sat on a plush couch — her designer dress beginning to wrinkle, Donald’s musty breath breathing down her neck — and she felt the chill. She felt it.

The Hamilton-Pence Incident Was More Than Just a Distraction

Mark Harris, Vulture

The cast of “Hamilton” performs at the 2016 Tony Awards. CREDIT: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
The cast of “Hamilton” performs at the 2016 Tony Awards. CREDIT: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Have you heard the one about the time Vice President-elect Mike Pence went to see Hamilton, easily the biggest cultural phenomenon of the year and, not incidentally, a celebration of the contributions people of color have made to our nation since its founding and a musical in which two people literally high-five over the ability of immigrants to get the job done? The show ended and cast member Brandon Victor Dixon (Aaron Burr) read a statement — on behalf of the entire production and penned, like all things Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda — addressing Pence as Pence was hightailing it out of a theater where he was met with more booing than cheering. “We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us, and uphold our inalienable rights, sir,” Dixon said, and everyone else reacted as in-character as ever: Trump tweeted, Pence demurred, and a vocal segment of liberals (who are probably dying to get tickets to Hamilton, for what it’s worth) chastised the oh-so-playable masses for allowing the blow-up to “distract” from the “more important” news of the day: The Trump University settlement.

Harris, with eloquence, humor, and a decent dose of annoyance, makes the alternate case: The Hamilton confrontation was anything but a distraction; emotionally intelligent people have the capacity to care about more than one thing at a time; and to dismiss theater and everything that occurs there — particularly this theater, home to a musical that is aggressively, proudly political and stands for the very values Trump campaigned against — as frivolous is to make a shallow, foolish mistake.

There has always been a portion of the left that shares with a portion of the right a fundamental mistrust of Hollywood, of art, of pop culture. The right may think it is all degenerate — a word Trump has used about art that offends him — but the left thinks it’s all frivolous, insubstantial. An opiate for the masses, and a way of not looking at real issues.

The Loveliest, Sexiest, Madliest of Them All

Caity Weaver, GQ

Kim Kardashian poses during a photo call at the Cannes Lions 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File
Kim Kardashian poses during a photo call at the Cannes Lions 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File

Weaver starts this story by getting to second base with Kim Kardashian West at the Beverly Hills Hotel — as one does after asking “please describe what your boobs feel like” and subsequently being invited to see for yourself — and it only gets better from there. (You may know the story better by its online headline: “Kim Kardashian West on Kanye and Taylor Swift, What’s in O.J.’s Bag, and Understanding Caitlyn.”)

Kim Kardashian West’s boob is so soft it makes velvet feel like splinters. It makes the fur on a baby bunny’s tummy feel like a plastic bag of syringes. It is so soft that touching it is like scooping up the delicate pink dawn sky with your fingers, or holding a ball of lotion in your hand. It is softer than the thick, warm, all-enveloping smoothness that caresses a globule of wax as it travels up a lava lamp. I know this because Kim Kardashian West has just put down her passion-fruit iced tea and peeled back her sleeveless Adidas x Kanye West bodysuit so that I could place my hand on it (the boob) while we eat dinner under the furious early stars at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The Superhero Photographs of the Black Lives Matter Movement

Teju Cole, The New York Times Magazine

Edward Crawford throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers worked to break up a group of bystanders on Chambers Road and West Florissant on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 in St. Louis. CREDIT: AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Robert Cohen
Edward Crawford throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers worked to break up a group of bystanders on Chambers Road and West Florissant on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 in St. Louis. CREDIT: AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Robert Cohen

Cole looks closely at the most iconic images the Black Lives Matter movement has produced and finds they share a visual language with something we’ve all grown used to seeing at the movies: Comic book superheroes.

Black Lives Matter as a movement originated in images: the video clips showing the extrajudicial killing of black people. The “superhero” photographs of protesters, with their classic form and triumphal tone, are engaged in a labor of redress. They bring a counterweight to the archive. Against death and helplessness, they project power and agency… These stills from the American racial passion play all deployed the visual language of the comic-book superhero.

Maybe You Should Just Be Single

Laurie Penny, New Statesman

Mindy Kaling on “The Mindy Project.” CREDIT: Evans Vestal Ward/Hulu
Mindy Kaling on “The Mindy Project.” CREDIT: Evans Vestal Ward/Hulu

A heartening, well-reasoned Valentine’s Day manifesto in favor of women spending their formative years outside of romantic relationships with men.

Nothing frustrates me so much as watching young women at the start of their lives wasting years in succession on lacklustre, unappreciative, boring child-men who were only ever looking for a magic girl to show off to their friends, a girl who would in private be both surrogate mother and sex partner. I’ve been that girl. It’s no fun being that girl. That girl doesn’t get to have the kind of adventures you really ought to be having in your teens and twenties. It’s not that her dreams and plans don’t matter, but they always matter slightly less than the boy’s, because that’s what boys are taught to expect — that their girlfriend is there to play a supporting role in their life.

MFA vs. CIA

Jennifer duBois, Lapham’s Quarterly

Keri Russell in “The Americans.” CREDIT: Patrick Harbron/FX
Keri Russell in “The Americans.” CREDIT: Patrick Harbron/FX

How does a person wind up applying to the CIA and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the same year? And what does it mean to discover you might just be spy material after all?

Here is a common paradox of curiosity, in parables and in life: a condition of knowing the truth is to never, never tell it. When it comes to writing for publication, the CIA’s terms are stark: once you have been under their employ, everything you write for the rest of your life will be subject to their review and redaction. Some of the books on their suggested reading list included these redactions: blocks of black obscuring sentences or words. The CIA emphasizes that these redactions apply only to matters of national security — that a potential novelist would not, for example, be forfeiting her artistic autonomy for a lifetime, which is a question I think I actually asked — and, for what it’s worth, I believe this. But then, how could we ever know? Who would ever tell us? To be a spy is to permanently relinquish authorial agency in order to become the protagonist of a highly interesting plot.