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Out of Bounds Ep. 4: Russian Rinks and Russian Rings

By Entertainment, Featured

Cover art by Jade Sheng

Episode 4

Kat explains Artemi Panarin’s social position as a Russian player in the NHL, Aidan gives a crash course lesson on MMA Russian Fighters, and Ben sits on the sidelines making dumb bear comments.

MMA Reference Videos

Kevin Randleman vs. Fedor Emelianenko:

Khabib Nurmagomedov World Championship in Combat Sambo 2010:

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Dear Sports Fans: Let’s Be Heard

By Entertainment, Featured

Illustration by Jade Sheng

Uh oh, the star player of your favorite team has said something racist, sexist, or possibly quite homophobic. Now what? 

I’ve spoken at length about how politics and sports have, historically, always intersected, and how important it is for athletes to use their voices in political spaces. But today, I’m not here to talk about athletes using their platforms for social justice — I’m here to talk about the ones who don’t. 

Social media has allowed us to communicate with each other like never before. We’re able to share opinions and information instantly. Apps like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and even Snapchat let us form those same emotional connections with athletes and sports teams as we do with our peers. As we follow their lives through our feeds, we feel like we get to know them on a personal level. And when we assume that much, we feel betrayed when their views fail to align with our own.

This brings us to a complicated and uncomfortable question: What happens when your favorite athlete becomes “problematic”?

We expect a lot from professional athletes. We idealize them, see ourselves in their success, and look to them for inspiration. They represent ideas outside of themselves — but should we separate an athlete’s personhood from their playing ability?

This isn’t a new question, although the widespread visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement and social media has changed the landscape of athletes and social justice. If we frame this conversation through the lens of athletes’ actions as they unfold on social media, how do we, as fans, address issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia? 

Part of that anticipatory response in addressing systemic oppression in the sports industry comes from how we react and respond to athletes statements. The players are part of the playing culture — and while not every athlete thinks the same way, of course, how a league or a team responds to a player’s controversial or inflammatory opinion is a good litmus test for determining a sports culture. 

We can think of how Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee was deemed inappropriate, or the way the USWNT’s fight for equal pay has been regarded, or even how issues of domestic violence within the NFL and NHL have been handled … and sometimes not. 

It’s easy to say “no thanks” out loud, but what does that look like in practice? 

For myself, I can make small actions against an individual player who says or acts with bigotry and prejudice. I can choose not to forgive someone for refusing to acknowledge the dignity and personhood of others, and I certainly will not pretend that an athlete hasn’t subjugated someone else’s existence by exhibiting de-humanizing behavior. 

When I think of my favorite sports team, individual athletes aren’t the first thing that comes to mind — it’s the identity of the team that I think of and how that identity makes me feel. That’s where it gets complicated. Notice how I said “my” team. We speak about our favorite players and teams in terms of possession. We have a relationship with whatever identity we attach to them, and that sort of emotional investment means that it hurts when a player’s actions demonstrate that they  just aren’t who we thought they were. 

I love sports and I love my sports teams.

But if this past year has taught me anything, it’s taught me this: It’s okay to love your team — as long as you acknowledge the issues within it.

At the end of the day, if an athlete makes problematic remarks and behaviors, then you should be upset. Be angry. As we transition out of the Trump era, no longer can someone pretend that systemic oppression and entrenched, internalized hate in American culture and politics don’t exist, or those same attitudes, behaviors and values aren’t perpetuated in sports culture, sports media, and yes, athlete’s actions. 

It’s time for a new era of the sports fan.As fans, as consumers, we’re in the unique position of being able to work towards changing our teams and sports community for the better. We can’t change rosters and we aren’t in the executive suites but we can call out problematic behavior when we see it. Use social media to our advantage. We can be as visible as we want. We can create more productive, informed conversations about the existence and perpetuations of systemic oppression in our sports. We can direct dialogue about our reality, and what we want our future to be, with more than just our wallets — with our words.

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Where Did That $281.5 Million Go? A CARES Act Infographic

By Featured, News

Illustration by Lela Johnson.

Of the $1.2 billion in federal funding that Chicago received in June 2020 from The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), the city was allowed $470 million to use for discretionary expenses incurred during the pandemic; 60 percent of these funds went to personnel expenses for the Chicago Police Department (CPD).

When this fact came to light in February 2021, it was met with outcry not only from the public, but from a handful of the 50 elected members of Chicago’s City Council.

We’ve broken down the city’s distribution of its CARES funding into various areas of need: rental assistance, contact tracing, homeless services, etc. The $281.5 million in discretionary funds that CPD received was not accompanied by precise data in terms of where it went and how it was distributed, and that’s one of the main criticisms that aldermen brought to both the Committee on Budget and Government Operations meeting on Feb. 19 and the City Council meeting on Feb. 26, which saw the finalized approval to appropriate the $281.5 million to the CPD despite staunch opposition from several of Chicago’s aldermen.

Infographic by Lela Johnson.


In Chicago and almost everywhere else, COVID-19 has proven to exacerbate disparities in health and resources which existed long before the pandemic, and which will almost certainly persist after its decline. That said, it’s important to consider how these disparities came to be and what stands in the way of diminishing them, now. In the statements below from Chicago aldermen about CPD’s $281.5 million of CARES funding, there’s a question of whether the city’s financial priorities match the needs of its residents:

“I’m just having a very hard time understanding how the coronavirus relief fund went to fund essentially CPD personnel expenses. I would have thought it went to the Chicago Department of Public Health for direct support there.” —Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22), Feb. 19 Committee on Budget and Government Operations meeting

“Other cities have made other choices when it comes particularly to personnel costs. We’ve seen other cities that are a fraction [of] the size of Chicago spend a lot more money on different types of support programs for residents in need during this crisis.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35), Feb. 19 Committee on Budget and Government Operations meeting

“I’m sure most of us drove by McCormick Place when the facility was being remodeled to accommodate patients. I think most of us have neighbors that might be in need of wellness checks.  I’d be hard pressed to understand how wellness checks could account for hundreds of millions of dollars.” —Ald. Edward M. Burke (14), Feb. 19 Committee on Budget and Government Operations meeting

“Across the city we see the disproportionate effect that this pandemic has had on Black and brown communities. Over 5,000 Black and brown residents in the Black majority have died. We have serious suffering in our communities — over 750 murders last year. And with all those tragedies, mainly affecting the most vulnerable, I truly think it was a slap in the face to our communities to see $280 million dollars go to the Chicago police department.” —Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25), Feb. 26 City Council meeting

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Evan Marnell, TikTok Star

By Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Justine Guzman.

Evan Marnell (former BFA 2022, @greggiana on TikTok) surprised us all last May. Or maybe it wasn’t really that shocking, because if you’ve met Evan, you know how bubbly and outgoing he is. However, at the time, I was shocked to see Evan’s face pop up on my “For You” page on TikTok. The like count was enough to make me do a double take. 

The premise of his first viral TikTok was the perfect story — an out-of-the-ordinary circumstance and a mesmerizing cliffhanger. Isabel Cooling (BFA 2022, @imnotisvbel on TikTok) had a hearty 48,000 followers on her TikTok, and lucky Evan happened upon her unsupervised and unlocked phone in the stairwell of SAIC’s 162 Residence Hall. He opened this mysterious phone to find almost 50 thousand people ready to listen to him. 

“Um, so I just found this phone in the stairs … you didn’t have a password, silly, silly girl, and you have 48 thousand followers on TikTok?! Don’t mind if I do!” Evan said sassily. It looked as if he had just picked up the phone as he was making his way down the stairs. He changed angles quickly, zoomed in and out, and shook the phone to emphasize points. “I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do with this, I’m gonna give your phone back to security I guess? But in the meantime … anyone got any ideas what I should do with this page? Cause … got 48k here, what’s good, fam?” This video was posted on May 19, 2020. It currently has 2.7 million views, 730,000 likes, and 1,500 comments. 

As it turns out, this wasn’t exactly the sequence of events that happened. Reality is a bit less dramatic. I asked Evan to tell me his side of the story: “It all started off as a joke. Just because quarantine was a thing, I needed to find something to stimulate myself that was outside of art. Isabel was really bored with her TikTok and she was like, ‘Ya know, I kinda just wanna give you the username and password.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I think I have an idea!’”

The fact that this wasn’t a funny coincidence shows how much thought Evan has put into this venture. He constructed a story line that he knew would do well with the TikTok algorithm saying, “My job is just to make stuff, and TikTok does all the work for me: finding the right customers, clients, personality types that will clash with what I’m putting out there.”  Having a video go viral and getting your 15 minutes of fame is one thing, but Evan was able to retain and gain attention. 

Part of his hook was these funny little ceramic eggs that he created. “The eggs came about,” Evan explained, “from this one video I took in my dorm that was about random things in my college dorm that just make sense. It was just little knickknacks and posters and different things that friends from school had made me. And then I had my eggs in it and I called them my ‘window eggs,’ and everyone was like, ‘I need a window egg.’”

That’s when Evan knew he had found his thing, his niche.

Evan essentially has two types of videos: marketing for his artwork, and what can only be described as a form of very absurd performance art. When he’s not promoting his art, he is in the middle of nowhere, comedically discussing existential topics, always accompanied by his eggs, and sometimes a chinchilla. A lot of comedy on TikTok is just so absurd, you can’t help but laugh, and Evan fits right in with the rest of them.

He explains a bit of his thought process: “How I got people excited about the eggs was using them as a prop for so many different videos. I started making P.O.V. and transition edits to Billie Eilish [songs] with them, and then I started running around in the forest, chaotically, with them, and then I started doing cult-vibe videos with them. I was trying to saturate the market and get them used to this idea before I released my first set of products.” 

Despite having this exciting opportunity fall into his lap, Evan, like most of us, was not immune to the worst effects of the pandemic. He moved back home with his mother in Vermont, started working at a preschool, and decided to take a semester off of school. 

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, I should use the money I make from the preschool to start my own business and fund startup costs.’ I got a cheap, $500 kiln off Amazon, that was so tiny it was a joke, but big enough to work!” Digging up mud from a stream in his backyard, he started learning how to make his own clay. He was able to use the clay from his backyard to make his ceramics.

“I say it to everyone, in all of my thank you letters that go out with every order: ‘You’re getting a piece of my home, this is very special to me, and you have, therefore, not only a piece of my home but a piece of me.” He has made over 400 ceramic pieces in the last six months in that tiny little 5×5 kiln. Describing how he felt after his first launch, Evan said, “I was at the preschool job realizing orders were coming in while I was sitting there at this one job, making minimum wage, I was making more off of my website.”

Once he realized what this venture could become, he decided that returning to SAIC wasn’t in his best interest, at least for now. However, he is planning on returning to Chicago soon. This, of course, means he will lose access to his backyard clay, but he talked about how it can be limiting in some ways, so he’s excited to expand what he’s able to create. 

Evan seems happy making his eggs … or, well, kind of. “I was starting to feel like that was all I could ever be,” he told me. “My entire branding was based around it, like I am The Egg Man.” However, he seems to be taking steps to change this. In our conversation, Evan disclosed to me that he is currently working on a new collection and gave me a sneak peek at the pieces. It won’t be a complete rebranding, he still plans to make eggs, more of a shift to showcase more of what he is capable of. He talked about how truly interdisciplinary his art is and that this next launch will not only include his ceramic pieces, but also paintings, prints and clothing, which he is doing in collaboration with his partner. He hopes to launch in April or May.

Despite Evan’s hefty following on TikTok, he is currently on a hiatus, having not really posted anything since January. However, I’m glad he’s taking time for himself. I’m excited to see what the Egg Man does next — as are his 400,900 followers, I’m sure.

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No TikToker is An Island

By Entertainment, Featured

Illustration by Cortney Anderson

“Iʼm ready if you are!” my new therapist enthusiastically greets me. Four years and four months ago: That was the day I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I was a sophomore at NYU.

Coming from a family with two immigrant parents from India, balancing living a hyphenated identity (Indian-American), and always having been praised for being “the mature one,” in hindsight this was not a surprise.

I can firmly say now that those diagnoses changed my life. I started going to therapy weekly, took my antidepressants daily (tasks that are still challenging), and worked on unlearning the stigma around mental health that had been drilled into me by my culture and the hush-hush nature of the topic among my peers. “Find your communities,” my therapist had said.

“Find your communities.” Fast-forward four years. Itʼs 2021, and while mental health awareness has increased, the stigma still remains, especially on college campuses. bell hooks writes of building a “love ethic,” in which love is defi ned as “the will to extend oneʼs self for the purpose of nurturing oneʼs own or anotherʼs spiritual growth.” With the pandemic still ongoing, itʼs easy to wonder: Is anyone practicing this anymore?

After talking one night with a friend, she convinced me to give TikTok a chance.

I was skeptical, but I downloaded TikTok anyway — and delightfully discovered I had been wrong. I found many accounts that advocated for self-love, mental wellbeing, and connection. I reached out to three of these TikTokers to share their thoughts
on what itʼs like to create a space for open, educational conversation.

@theproductivitycoach, Mackenzie Sweeney

Sweeney heard about TikTok through her 13-year-old daughter and uploaded her first video in July 2020, about how the brain only has 3 hours and 53 minutes of focus in a day.

“As a productivity coach — people go to TikTok to procrastinate. I wanted to support people in their productivity journey, and it was such a fun and easy mechanism.”

Now, with over 492,000 followers, Sweeney explains, “I was literally knocked into productivity.” Seven years ago, Sweeney was struck by a car walking across the street that left her with a traumatic brain injury. “Seven years and a whole lot of healing, therapy, research, education, and practice — I now teach others to be so in control of their brains that they get everything they want, starting with mastering their time and energy by combining neuroscience, therapeutic techniques, biology, psychology, and physiology when talking about productivity.”

Sweeneyʼs most noteworthy videos are “The Ideal Day Series,” in which she focuses on the neuroscience of the rhythms and currents of the brain through episodes featuring different aspects of “the ideal day.” These episodes also respond to specific questions in her comments or in her DMs.

“My favorite part of this work is witnessing or hearing someoneʼs breakthrough. A simple tool or deep neurolinguistic programming work — seeing how it has created a course correction in someoneʼs path is fuel to my fire.”, Jake Goodman

An incoming Psychiatry Resident Physician, Jake Goodman is using his platform to upload content that centers the importance of mental health. With 912,000 followers and growing, Goodmanʼs TikTok originally tracked his journey to medical school, provided tips for pre-med students, and made content about depression, anxiety, and how to seek help.

He had always wanted to be a doctor, and when one of his fraternity brothers passed away from suicide in college, he became more determined to pursue medicine in mental health.

“I really saw the damage untreated mental health can have.”

The first time around, Goodman was rejected from every medical school he applied to. In the midst of reapplying, he worked many jobs, including driving for Uber, and began volunteering at the University of Georgia to offer advice to pre-med students. The sessions started increasing in student turnout and need, so he started traveling around to other colleges. Goodman also used Instagram to share educational posts, but found TikTok right before the pandemic began. 

Goodman went viral pretty quickly. The video was titled “What getting into medical school actually looks like.”

After gaining followers overnight, Goodman chose to start making videos advocating for mental wellbeing. He is most popularly known for creating a virtual FaceTime video.

“The purpose of these FaceTime calls is to simulate a real call in order to help people feel more comfortable and safe in uncomfortable situations such as a bad first date, or walking home alone at night,” he told me. “These videos have been viewed over 100 millions times in the last few months.”

Moving forward, Goodman wants to move into policy and advocate for mental health education, especially with college students. “What I want to do with this platform is I want to be at the table when mental health policies get enacted and bills get proposed. … I am motivated by the people that I reach and help. I get DMs everyday and emails everyday from people, that theyʼve been having suicidal thoughts, or are in a depressive state, but when theyʼre on my account they feel less alone, more empowered … that sense of community and empowerment is what motivates me.”

@mdmotivator, Zachery Dereniowski

Now with 1.5 million followers and growing, Dereniowski uses his story to talk about mental health, common misconceptions about the way depression and anxiety are experienced, and why itʼs important to get help. His most famous videos feature him running through the city with red block text at the top of the screen, exploring some aspect of mental health, like “6 signs youʼre beginning to heal.” With music and voiceover, Dereniowski addresses the things that are silenced when it comes to mental health, like “Toxic is Toxic: Do YOU Agree?” which addresses unhealthy family dynamics.

Originally from Canada, he failed out of college at 18. “I was really at an all-time low in my own personal life, on top of my academic life,” he told me. Over the next seven years Dereniowski did everything he could academically to become a competitive applicant for medical schools, and realized he had a story he wanted to share. He started an Instagram account and posted his story “in hopes that maybe Iʼd reach that one person” who needed it. And there was that one person — this person opened up and shared his struggles with Dereniowski, thanking him for speaking up. “He was really real,” Dereniowski told me.

After that, Dereniowski held an Instagram Live every night for three months with medical students, residents, and doctors around the world. The mentee/mentor relationship was something that inspired Dereniowski to encourage those who were experienced, to share their struggles and how where theyʼd gotten to wasnʼt a linear path. Through this work he created this formula: vulnerability = relatability = empowerment. This was so powerful, he got invited to speak across North America to medical students and share his story.

In January 2020 he moved to Sydney, Australia to attend medical school, and the pandemic hit. He had ACL knee surgery, went through a breakup, still had medical school — and the weight of all that plus not being able to go home really hit him.

“I remember days I would go on runs in the city and cry because there were all these random strangers around me and no one would know me.”

Dereniowski sought support and ultimately found himself on TikTok after Jake Goodman, a good friend, encouraged him to join the platform. “The formula wasnʼt just about academics, but also how I speak from a mental health perspective.”

Even though Goodman and Dereniowski have never met in person, they founded “Mental Health Movement” in October of 2020 as a clothing company on a mission to normalize conversations around mental health and break mental health stigma. Since launching, they have raised over $2,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention through a portion of clothing sales and philanthropic events. They have also started three $1,000 scholarships in partnership with available to students in
the U.S. who have battled mental illness.

Dereniowski believes vulnerability is about coming to terms with your true self, and how you never know who will become empowered by relating to your story.

TikTok communities like these three are changing the way we approach mental health conversations. All possess a determined awareness of the work that must continually be done to build communities that hold all the intimacies of grief and joy: two emotions on the same island, just on opposite sides. All are doing it out of a place of love — the kind of love that is embedded in the arteries of community, the kind of love that breathes life, the kind of love that proves the “love ethic” exists. Perhaps then itʼs not crazy to think that TikTok has the power to become a radical empathy machine. Regardless, belonging is hard, and it is hard for everyone, but these three content creators are making it just a little easier.

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The Supermodel: Muse, Divine Other, Alienated

By Entertainment, Featured

Illustration by Chanina Katz

When I walk down Michigan Avenue, I pretend that I am the legendary Naomi Campbell, slyly strutting down the SS 1998 Menswear runway with a gun gifted to me by renowned designer, Gianni Versace. I turn towards a glittery shop window — Bang! I find myself face-to-face with a fractured reflection. The fact that I am attractive by conventional standards is overshadowed by my slim, but-not-slim-enough frame which stands at a mere 5’5″ (on a good day). It is a somber reminder that I will never be a supermodel.

The supermodel is hated by all: by the socialist for promoting meaningless capital, by the feminist for upholding unrealistic body standards, and by the conservative for her raunchy sexuality. The idealist assumes that only the very stupid and materialistic engage with her mirage, ignoring the seeds of standardized femininity she sows in consumer media’s patriarchal panopticon. Her overbearing image seeps into the collective unconscious of contemporary womanhood; thus any person who yearns to align themselves with “woman” becomes subject to her influence. 

Yet criticism of the supermodel, while just in nature, is too often lacking in its surface-level and one-sided analysis of her mystique. It is my aim here to condense the social implications of the supermodel into three separate but complementary parts, answering a question I often spend considering: Why do I still dream of being a supermodel?

The Supermodel as Muse

I refer to the supermodel as “she” despite the broader boundaries of the common model, because it is a role that is, uncoincidentally, subject to hyper-femininity. The phenomenon of supermodeling developed alongside an ever-changing industrialized America. The elite supermodel, a prized line of work once synonymous with prostitution, was thrust into the limelight during the post-WWII boom. Marked by the founding of Ford Models in 1946, the supermodel began marketing her glamorous lifestyle to a thriving public. The ideal supermodel creates trends, tears them down, and then reinvents new ones, haunted by the ephemerality of late-capitalism. 

Artists have found muses in the natural world since prehistoric times, and the fashion model is still conceived as an art model, though their form as a human mannequin pushes their individuality inward: the clothes dominate the person. In other words, the name of the common model is not as well-known as the designer and the supermodel. 

The supermodel, too, is alienated from the artist-muse relationship when she is thrust into pop-culture stardom. Claudia Schiffer, considered one of the most iconic supermodels of the ’90s, posits the distinction with the following: “In order to become a supermodel one must be on all the covers all over the world at the same time so that people can recognize the girls.” As a result, the supermodel is not only the muse of an individual designer, but also that of the public consciousness. 

The Supermodel as Divine Other

The 1930s gave birth to whom many consider the first supermodel, Lisa Fonssagrives. Infamously favored by male photographers Man Ray, Richard Avedon, and her husband Irving Penn, Fonssagrives reflects the paradoxical objectification of womanhood in a patriarchal society which worships femininity as divine but Other. 

The supermodel begins her career by being discovered as a rare beauty, becoming separated from the ordinary crowd, and is given special treatment. Each time another designer or artist asks her to be their muse, her status increases. Iconic ’90s supermodel Kate Moss, was discovered at the mere age of 14 at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Considered the “anti-model” with her waifish looks, Moss quickly climbed the supermodel food chain as fashion houses changed industry standards to accommodate this new look. At one point, Moss was dropped from various contracts after being photographed using cocaine, but this controversy was short-lived. Now age 47, Moss continues to find success in the fashion world as a model, businesswoman, and designer.

The irrationality of placing privilege on socially-construed beauty standards constitutes this as a type of charismatic authority. Sociologist Max Weber defines this term, charisma, as “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers and qualities … not accessible to the ordinary person … regarded as of divine origin.”

The supermodel’s charismatic authority could perhaps be called aesthetic authority. Her physical prerequisites allow the supermodel to enter the modeling industry, giving her a chance to reach prominence as an icon. Physical expectations are treated as prerequisites for every high-fashion model, but the one-of-a-kind supermodel has an unexplainable allure. “They had something inside that came through … they had character, they had personality,” says Calvin Klein in the HBO documentary About Face: Supermodels, Then and Now (2012).

The Supermodel as Alienated, The Supermodel as Alienator

Supermodels construct their charisma through both natural and artificial manifestations. Natural manifestations, such as likeability or personality, stem from innate or unconscious origins; artificial manifestations, such as elegant posing and walking, are learned and perfected over time. The performance of femininity and glamor is integral to the supermodel’s role, and it is a talent that separates them from the common woman.

In othering herself in this way, the supermodel becomes instrumental in manufacturing the dreamlike and glamorous world of advertisement. In doing this, she not only alienates herself from the public but alienates the public from herself. The two only converse with each other through mediated platforms: social media, magazines, billboards, etc. and the conversation often appears to be one-sided. 

This simply isn’t true.

The supermodel’s high-visibility is reflective of collective material desire. The perceived desires of the consumer hold even more power than the supermodel, who cannot reach iconic status unless those wielding capital feel that the public is ready to consume her. In contemporary times, this explains the sensational “Instagram model.” Exemplified by the likes of Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid, the supermodel’s social media following directly correlates to her fame and monetary status; therefore, the capitalist has a concrete estimate of which models will sell an abundance of magazines.

The physical requirements upheld by the supermodel are widely criticized. She both perpetuates and mirrors the harmful, eurocentric, and ageist definitions of womanhood entwined in consumer society. In criticizing her, however, it is too frequently forgotten that the supermodel is under the jurisdiction of the advertiser. Her image becomes an object, reproduced by capital. Subsequently, the supermodel achieves another form of alienation: alienation from the designer, thus alienation from the process itself.

This much is true when considering the tragic story of Gia, whose heroin addiction was ignored by photographers and editors who used her popularity to spin her sickness into the trend “heroin chic.” Gia is not a tragedy because she was an addict. She was a tragedy because she was discarded, symbolically and literally, by the industry that exploited her entire life.

* * *

We are all alienated under capitalism. The mundanity of the 9 to 5 deteriorates our minds and bodies; overworked and under-appreciated, we are rendered no different than a stalling machine. I search ceaselessly for an escape. The supermodel is just out of reach, her divinity so close I can caress and mold it. I identify with her humanity, yearning to be worshipped and beloved, so I give her the last shards of my hard-earned individuality. If I steal the clothes she wears and paint my face to mimic hers, I can pretend I am her, if only just for a moment. 

There is a Dior campaign in the shop window. A giant poster of Bella Hadid stares down at me, but she seems far away as if belonging to an alternate reality. Advertisement is the world of dreams and glamor, and the supermodel is its manipulator. I can’t help but be captivated by her spirit, but I know that she is nothing but a mystical fantasy. With one last glance, I walk away.

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The Makings of a Fearless Artist: A Taylor Swift Tribute

By Entertainment, Featured

Illustration by Justine Guzman

I recently had someone tell me that she loves Taylor Swift now, but “hated her when it was cool to hate her.” Even now, after 14 years of being a fan, this bothers me. Swift is much more than good music and entertainment — she is a voice, a bit of warmth, someone who understands our feelings which we cannot put into words. Many of us who grew up with her experienced middle school, high school, and college with her discography as a soundtrack for our own lives, and her specific yet accessible lyrics make it astonishingly easy to do this. 

Simply trying to write a somewhat objective piece about Swift is a struggle for me because she has created such a rich bond with her fanbase that it is so easy to feel loyal and even indebted to her. As a fellow songwriter, she has always been an inspiration to me, with that humble country background beginning in a little café in Nashville making her success seem almost within reach. Not just for aspiring artists, though; she has always had a way of breaching the gap between herself and her followers, from crowdsurfing and squeezing fans’ hands in her first tour, to sharing inside jokes on social media and contributing to fans’ GoFundMe fundraisers. However, her innocent disposition and vulnerable writing style have been used as weapons against her by casual listeners and fellow artists alike. 

From Kanye interrupting her 2009 VMA award acceptance speech to Katy Perry allegedly stealing her tour dancers in 2012 to Scooter Braun buying her former record label in 2019 —  Swift’s rampant success has ensnared her into some of the biggest front-page stories in popular media over the last fifteen years, leading her to ruthless public scrutiny. 

The worst of the condemnation began after her fourth studio album, “Red,” hit shelves in 2012 and it seemed that Swift went from being America’s sweetheart to being perceived as a serial dater with an obnoxious victim complex. She was shamed by fans and fellow stars alike for referencing celebrities she had publicly dated in her songs, sometimes by name. While she had to have known it would make her a target, it also created a devoted fanbase who appreciated the way she kept her heart on her sleeve throughout years of growing fame. She was never hesitant to call someone else out, not even herself. 

Take “Back to December,” the second single from “Speak Now” (2010) — this was released shortly after Swift’s public yet brief relationship with “Twilight’s” Taylor Lautner (as a couple they were “Taylor squared”) and in it she confesses her regret in taking him for granted (“it turns out freedom ain’t nothing but missing you / wishing I’d realized what I had when you were mine”), admitting her own missteps and apologizing to the subject of the song. On that same album, she wrote “Dear John,” widely known to be about singer John Mayer, who she mercilessly accuses of breaking her heart (“Don’t you think nineteen’s too young to be played by / your dark twisted games / when I loved you so? I should’ve known”). 

When “Red” was released, Swift was 23, and although she still existed in the country genre, presenting herself as a cherry-lipped, soft-spoken young woman, she began to be criticized for writing too much about her relationships and being “immature.” Once the criticism began spreading, there was no stopping it (think COVID in Florida during spring break). Hating her became a trend — lifelong fans such as myself can attest to the struggle of being a supporter during these dark years. One fan warned others on Twitter to watch what they say online in the name of defending Swift, because “[reporters] are going to be shaping the narrative around our behavior.” The loyalty among fans is so fierce, many fans will go to extreme lengths to protect Swift’s name. My best friend in the 9th grade was a Directioner (One Direction’s fandom) and let me tell you, that was the equivalent of Trump vs. Biden supporters in 2020 for high schoolers in 2013. I’m not proud of the amount of times she had me in tears by trash-talking Taylor Swift.

The biggest and most innovative forms of connection with her fans began in 2014 with her album “1989.” She started doing what she called “secret sessions,” where she would invite a group of fans to her homes in different cities across the U.S. and in the U.K. to spend time with her and listen to her albums before they were released. 

I remember being beyond envious of these fans — most of them Swift’s team found on Twitter, Tumblr, or some other social media platform where they expressed their love for the star. In these photos, Swift is hugging them, letting them hold her Grammy awards, and snuggling up on her couch. She bakes cookies and laughs with them, singing along to her songs while everyone sits cross-legged on the living room floor. Many gave testaments to how she acted when they met her. One young woman with cerebral palsy wrote in a tweet that Swift’s team rented a private van to get her to Taylor’s house to meet her when she had no other means of transportation. “She was very normal and witty,” she explained. “That’s what I loved about her. Also her whole team could not have been nicer to me.”

Yet, only a couple of years later, this private image of Swift was a startling contrast to that of the media spotlight in the summer of 2016 when Kanye dropped “Famous,” which include the lyrics “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” Worse, the music video, which premiered three months later, included a wax figure of a naked Taylor Swift, lying in bed next to Kanye. 

When Swift went public to say she never approved of the lyric calling her a “bitch,” Kim Kardashian, Kanye’s wife, took to Snapchat where she posted videos of a recorded conversation between Kanye and Swift, alleging that this was the phone call where he asked for her permission to use her name in the song. Swift does give her blessing for the name drop only, but her agreeing to the specifics is not included in the recording. Kardashian then tweeted a row of snake emojis, which quickly blew up. 

Within minutes, the entire Internet was calling Taylor Swift a snake. Not long after, she went completely black on social media.

Many took Swift’s silence to mean she was accepting defeat. In reality, she was quietly, carefully, biding her time and creating an album that would flip the snake image onto its head and put herself in power once again.

The release of “Reputation” in 2017 allowed Swift to somewhat regain the delicately calibrated image of herself, while also allowing her to reshape her future as an artist. After a three-year hiatus during which her social media activity had diminished little by little (until the Kim and Kanye feud, when it completely stopped), “Reputation” was a fresh start. As snakes shed their skin, Swift was shedding hers. Her first-ever black and white album cover became one of many precise details the singer used to convey a more callous, sharper version of herself. Cue the iconic line: “Sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, cause she’s dead.”

This album and tour coined a newborn artist, someone who is unapologetic, deliberate, and playfully vengeful. She got called a snake in the media, so she had a giant moving snake on tour. She sold snake rings for $60 a pop. Her music video for “Look What You Made Me Do”, which features snakes from beginning to end, has gained 1.2 billion views on YouTube (Kanye’s “Famous” has 47 million views, by comparison). You can call her a snake, sure, but you can’t say she isn’t clever. 

In the summer of 2019, Swift regained some control of her narrative, coming out with a very impassioned statement on Tumblr about how Scott Borchetta, the founder of her former long-time record label Big Machine Label Group, had sold the company to Ithaca Holdings. The chairman of Ithaca, Scooter Braun, is an apparent nemesis of Swift — in her first post about the situation, she referred to his behavior towards her as “incessant, manipulative bullying.” She writes that this was all done without her knowledge or permission; she was never given the opportunity to buy the rights to her first six albums, and therefore they now belonged to Scooter Braun. Soon after, Big Machine released a statement directly countering her argument, saying “Taylor, the narrative you have created does not exist.” 

In response, Swift has just simply chosen to rewrite her narrative and her legacy — again. As she prepares to release her new version of “Fearless” (to be released on April 9), she will likely prove that she can and she will create whatever narrative concerning her career that she wants.

In February of this year, Swift released her new version of “Love Story,” the iconic (no thanks credited to the viral TikTok remix) single that had, once upon a time, recruited many of her early fans back in 2008. This version is almost indistinguishable from the old, but true fans will recognize the maturity in her voice; they’ll notice the way her voice swings when she says, “Romeo take me,” how she’s choppier and more controlled in the first “oh, oh.” The differences are small enough to maintain the integrity of the original song that fans loved so much, but big enough to make the rerelease of this album just as exciting as if she were putting out a brand new one. This is the first step to her rerecording every album she once created that now puts money into Scooter Braun’s pocket. 

On the first day of its release, the song garnered 5.8 million streams, and it’s already outselling the original version. With a new, sepia-toned album cover reminiscent of the original (the classic long blonde hair toss and silky white dress remain) and six unreleased songs that didn’t make the cut when she produced the track list with Big Machine, this project is already on track to do what Swift does best — twist the negative publicity and the drama into her own victory, splattered with that one-of-a-kind sweetheart, calculated, pop-sensation bad bitch energy that only Taylor Swift can provide. 

The timing of “Fearless” is especially notable given Swift’s recent departure from her old style. 

Last year, Swift did something that surprised even her most avid fans  — she dropped not one but two albums within a five-month period, both within 24 hours of their original announcement. And not only was the promotion of these albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore,” radically different from her previous methods, so was the sound. 

Before, she had experimented with country, pop, hip-hop, and rock, creating current pop blends that were sure to gain critical acclaim. These new albums are alternative, folksy, indie.

“Folklore” and “Evermore” are eloquently written, gentle in sound; even accusatory lyrics seem hard to attack because they’re presented in your ear so peacefully. In “mad woman,” she sings, “and women like hunting witches too / doin’ your dirtiest work for you / it’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together,” which is very likely about Kim and Kanye. In “it’s time to go,” she sings, “now he sits on his throne in his palace of bones / praying to his greed / he’s got my past frozen behind glass / but I’ve got me.” This is assumed to be about Scooter Braun and/or Scott Borchetta. 

I used to listen to “Reputation” while I did my best friend’s makeup before a night out, or “Lover” in my car on the way to the dog park with the windows rolled down. I now listen to “Folklore” and “Evermore” in the bath with a glass of wine, or at a low volume while I’m falling asleep. #TaylorSwiftIsLovedParty is trending on Twitter as I write this. The page is filled with photos of Swift performing with arms wide open in the rain, squatting down to the eye levels of children, sitting on the floor in a gown with too many awards in her lap to hold. The amount of adoration in the tweets is impossible to ignore. 

What compels these people to feel this way? 

What compelled me to blast “1989” from the speakers of my Honda CR-V at 7:30 a.m. in the parking lot of my high school on the morning of its debut? What compels me, now, to write this, to fervently defend her despite the fact that I’ve never met her, that she has no idea who I am? 

Yes, I do believe Taylor Swift can rewrite her narrative — I think we’ve seen her do it a hundred times before. Even more than that, though, I see it because of her part in my own narrative — her words that I cry to, her words that I feel the urge to sing when I’m making dinner and dancing in my slippers, her words that bring me back to my first love as if it’s 2013 and I’m watching the nervous red-headed boy smile at me from across the room. Taylor Swift will likely continue to form and reform her sound and public appearance, from pop to folk, from despised to adored for the rest of her career, and there will inevitably come a time she removes herself from the spotlight and slowly dwindles from mainstream consciousness.

But no matter what, her fans, me included, will never let her legacy fall. We have grown up alongside her, watching her consistently “come back stronger than a ’90s trend,” embracing her artistic desires and instincts every step of the way. It’s the fans that she always credits, as we credit her for much of our growth, as I listen to her music while I write this so I can remember while telling her story how much she has done for me and will likely continue to do. That’s the biggest love story Swift has to tell.

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What Happened to Godzilla vs. the Art World

By Arts & Culture, Featured, Uncategorized

Illustration by Chanina Katz.

Every day on my way home, I walk past the United Methodist Church on Broadway. Since the George Floyd protests last summer, the church’s iron fences have bore the names and faces of Black and Brown Americans killed by police on the fences. At the top of every one of these mini-memorials reads “Say their names.” The other day, I noticed that more faces had been added. Faces that looked like my aunties’, faces that looked like how I would age.

These faces, of course, have by now been broadcasted across the world. On March 16, eight people, six of whom were Asian women, were killed by a shooter. Much has been published, and much coddling done, about the shooter. He attacked three Asian spas — one of which is literally called Young’s Asian Massage — in quick succession. According to Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, a surviving employee testified that the shooter had said that he’d “kill all Asians.”

Anti-Asian sentiment is nothing new. During this pandemic, however, it’s become deadly. Hate crimes against us are up 150 percent from 2019 and 40 percent of Asian-Americans say that people have been uncomfortable around them since COVID-19 started. What this translates into is a barrage of hate crimes. Attacks on Asian elders have been making headlines for months. Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84, was sent flying into a garage door by an assailant; he died from the ensuing head injury shortly after. Henry Cheng, 30, along with his grandparents, 73 and 80, were attacked at a subway station; his grandmother was pushed onto the tracks. The day after the Atlanta shootings, Xiao Zhen Xie, 75, was assaulted by a man who threw a punch at her face; she managed to fight back with a wooden plank but sustained injuries regardless. Footage in the immediate aftermath shows Xiao with paramedics, face swollen and choking back sobs while she explains in our language how the assailant hit her.


I grew up in Scarborough, Toronto, by Pacific Mall. Almost everyone I went to school with was Asian; when your race is the norm, you don’t learn about community. I never questioned why my parents, along with so many other immigrants from East Asia, had congregated into this one corner of Toronto. I never even realized until I left for college that I had grown up in probably the biggest Chinatown on this side of the globe. Our common cultures, ethnicities, and diasporic experiences had no bearing on how we related to one another beyond geography.

The culture shock of moving to America wasn’t just about moving from a suburb to a major city. On my very first day in New York, I stepped out of the dorm and was immediately approached by an NYPD officer who looked me up and down, nodded, and murmured, “Mmm, Asian girl.” Some months later, a classmate brought two hometown friends from New Jersey to visit our studio. “There are too many fucking Chinese people here,” one of them muttered. The three of them laughed.

I started working in Chinatown so that I would feel less alone. My language became a passcode that unlocked the neighborhood. “You can speak Cantonese?” they’d realize excitedly. Every elderly auntie I met in Chinatown looked out for me, did little favors for me. The necessity of community — of collectivism — became glaringly obvious in this hostile land.


On March 9, the Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA) moved to cancel an exhibition ironically entitled ‘Godzilla vs. The Art World: 1990-2001.’ The show was meant to look back on the groundbreaking work and politics of Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network, a collective and network founded in 1990 to, in their own words, “establish a forum that will foster information and networking among Asian and Pacific Islander visual artists and arts professionals.”

The reason the MoCA show was cancelled? Because 19 Godzilla members withdrew from the show. An open letter from the collective cited, among many reasons, the board’s co-chair Jonathan Chu, being a major property owner in Manhattan Chinatown, an area deeply affected by the pandemic. Todd Ayoung, a member of the steering committee of Godzilla and a professor at Pratt Institute, brought up the shuttering of Jing Fong, an iconic New York dim sum place and the only unionized restaurant in Chinatown: “Chu, the largest real estate owner in Chinatown and a board key member at MoCA, wants to close the restaurant, to possibly build a luxury hotel. This will devastate many lives dependent on the restaurant’s survival.”

Another major point of contention is the museum’s complicity with a new plan for a bigger, larger jail in Chinatown. ArtForum reports that the existing Manhattan Detention Center, a 15-story building, was to be replaced with a larger jail of double the size on the same lot. In their open letter, Godzilla asks how and why a museum that often preaches support for Black and brown lives can remain silent as the prison industrial complex expands further in Chinatown, opining that the city’s $35 million funding to the museum may explain the MoCA’s silence. The cite “war profiteer Warren Kanders” and “the opiate-dealing Sackler family” as other examples of recent controversies surrounding art donor complicity, whose affiliated museums have been roundedly criticized by the art world


Among some swaths of the Asian community, there was a deeply damaging reaction of anti-Blackness in response to the violence. This took two different forms: unfounded beliefs that the majority of anti-Asian crimes were being committed by Black people, and calls for more policing. A subreddit made to track instances of anti-Asian violence became an immediate breeding ground for more racism in the comments, forgetting that there’s deep bias in crime reporting, especially when it comes to violent crimes. On top of that, a study by the American Journal of Criminal Justice (albeit one using available data from 1992 – 2014) showed that a staggering 74.5 percent of hate crimes against Asians were committed by white offenders.

The second form of anti-Blackness, of calls for more policing and more arrests, is more innocuous but troubling in the long term. Asian-Americans have been calling for these hate crimes to be classified as, well, hate crimes, and lobbying for more policing. This has resulted in, first, developments of hotlines for reporting anti-Asian crimes and now, the deployment of plainclothes officers in a new initiative for the Asian Hate Crime Task Force. Police Commissioner Dermot Shea of the NYPD said of this new initiative that “the next person you target […] may be a plainclothes New York City police officer so think twice.”

This threat becomes all the more ominous when racial profiling is so prolific. I have no doubt that plainclothes NYPD officers wouldn’t have stopped the white man who attacked Xiao. In Atlanta, police arrested the shooter without incident, but accosted Mario Gonzales, a survivor of the shooting whose wife had been murdered, with guns drawn, after which they detained him for four hours. As journalist Sophia Li tweeted, “We all know that massive policing is anti-Black and leads to violence against Black [and Brown] bodies.”


I asked Ayoung about Godzilla — what it meant to him, why it had started, what it is now. “My impression in 1993 [when Ayoung joined] was that Godzilla was primarily about education, inclusion, and representation of Asian-American artists in the NYC artworld,” he says. He recounts how Godzilla, especially member curator Eugenie Tsai, demanded that the Whitney Museum include more Asian-American artists. “So that year, a Godzilla painter was accepted into the [Whitney] Biennial, along with a few other Asian artists.”

But in 2021, the goalpost is different. He says, “There are many Asian-American and Asian artists practicing now and visible in the global art market, so it is not about inclusivity and representation anymore, but ideology and collective politics. We need more Asian artists to interrogate how the art machine works hand-in-hand with capitalism, especially since the neoliberal art market is about artwashing, whitewashing, absorbing political contestations.”

Ayoung continued: “Asian artists engaged in the transformative context of events such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, anti-gentrification movements, abolition, dismantling the prison industrial complex, defunding the police, income inequality especially magnified in the pandemic, climate change, the living wage, free health care for all, affordable housing, and anti-Asian violence. [We] must initiate paths of intersectional solidarity with other cultural workers/activists/organizers.”

Ayoung also spoke on collectivism, that practice of caring for our community. “Recently, we reflected that Godzilla was a network in the 1990’s, not a collective,” he says, citing that “we were able, because of the ‘withdrawal’ letter, to take a political stand, an ethical embodiment of a collective action, instead of an act of individuation […] In the museum’s corporate posturing, Godzilla as a network meant we were dispersed actors, not necessarily acting together, because we were being curated. A collective means a coming together, in struggle, to enact ethical and political demands. Withdrawing from the MoCA’s Godzilla vs. the Art World is an act of solidarity.”


Asian-Americans have always been able to look out for each other. Ayoung noted that “in part, due to our solidarity in showing up, there has been discussion that the $35 million that MoCA is supposed to get for the jail plan will be given to Chinatown restaurants and workers struggling because of the pandemic instead.”

But we now need to reckon with our identity within the larger POC community. As Asian-Americans, we are at our best when we rise with other communities of color. I remember the pride I felt the first time I saw a famous photo of 60’s Berkeley protesters; one Asian boy with glasses and slicked-back hair — so resembling my own dad — holding a sign that read ‘Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.’ I remember my surprise and awe when I found archives of Gidra, an Asian-American newspaper out of UCLA that reported on not only Asian issues here and abroad, but rallied for Black and Brown folks.

Instead of advocating for mass policing, you can volunteer to walk elders if you’re in California or New York (Chicago has no such organization yet), report incidents of hate crimes, and keep your mental health in check. The model minority myth may have changed how Asians are perceived in relation to whiteness, but our forefathers of Asian-American activism have always known that we are people of color. COVID has shown as much. As Ayoung says, “Asian-American artists are an essential part of this collective narrative revolution towards environmental and social justice, and they must build this through comradeship, allyship, and solidarity with other struggles and change makers.”

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Out of Bounds Ep. 3: Tournament Bracket – Jersey Edition

By Entertainment, Featured

Cover art by Jade Sheng

Kat, Aidan, and Ben throw down in a round-robin tournament to declare the best jersey in the history of the NHL, NFL, NBA, and MLB. It’s a bloodbath.

One Minute Preview

Full Episode


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Brief: How to Advocate For a Monument To Chicago’s Police Torture Victims

By Featured, News

Photo Courtesy of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials.

The Chicago Monuments Project, an initiative by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), put out a call for proposals for monuments that “rethink the place, purpose and permanence of monuments in our public spaces” with a deadline of April 1; meanwhile, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) is working towards the final piece of a 2015 reparations ordinance — a memorial for the over 100 Black men and women tortured by disgraced Chicago police commander Jon Burge.

CTJM’s proposed memorial is the work of artist Patricia Nguyen and architectural designer John Lee. Titled “Breath, Form and Freedom,” it combines data collection with a curatorial process that involved contributions from survivors and communities affected by torture and violence within the Chicago Police Department’s legacy.

While DCASE is accepting memorial proposals from the general public, CTJM is hoping to flood the city’s submission with requests “Breath, Form and Freedom.” Here are the steps to take action:

  • Open DCASE’s online application
  • Go here to CTJM’s google template that contains answers regarding CTJM’s bio and memorial overview
  • Complete the form by filling in the personal details at the top of the DCASE form (in pink on the template) and either: 1.) cut/paste provided CTJM responses OR 2.) create your own answers and provide examples of your past work OR 3.) a combination of the two.

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Who Framed Britney Spears?

By Entertainment, Featured

Illustration by Jade Sheng

“Framing Britney Spears,” a documentary by the New York Times, is the latest chapter in the pop star’s long scrutinized life of celebrity. The documentary, which is potentially slated for a sequel on Hulu, has increased attention on Spears’s legal case. But for some who already follow her story closely, the documentary wasn’t the full story — “I really disliked the way they framed the fans in the documentary,” noted SAIC student Hanna Field (BFA 2021). F Newsmagazine sat down with several SAIC students and a music history professor to get their thoughts on Britney Spears and the documentary.

“Framing Britney Spears” tracks Spears’s career from her childhood in Kentwood, Louisiana, her rise to stardom in her teens, years of tabloid harassment, and finally to her infamous “breakdown” in 2007. During that crisis, she was placed into a conservatorship, meaning her legal, medical, and banking decisions are handled by her father and other parties. Now, after over ten years in legal conservatorship, Spears is making legal moves to be released

The public anti-conservatorship movement was originally spearheaded by “Britney’s Gram,” a podcast hosted by Tess Barker and Barbara Gray. #FreeBritney became an online movement in support of Britney’s legal freedom, but unfortunately, like much content on social media, some of the videos that fly under the #FreeBritney banner begin to verge on conspiracy theory territory. Fan theories began to run so rampant — things like Britney was coding distress messages in her Instagram posts — that her social media manager publicly dismissed these theories. 

In reality, #FreeBritney was spearheaded in 2017 by “Britney’s Gram.” At that point, says Field, no one had talked about her conservatorship in years. A new generation of young fans grew up after 2008, who would only know Spears from her music and demeaning jokes like “If Britney Can Make It Through 2007, You Can Make It Through Today.”

“They blew the whistle! As much as Ronan exposed Weinstein, they exposed Britney to the next generation,” Field said. 

But the documentary didn’t devote much time to the “Britney’s Gram” podcasters. In fact: “As a film student, something that bugged me was the way they framed the two women who started the #FreeBritney movement as crazy conspiracy theorists,” Field commented. It’s a common trend, she noted: “The way that fans (young women, queer men) are always coded as stupid. … but women and queer people saw this first, and started this movement,” said Field. This type of person is more in tune with people who need help, she said, because they themselves are more likely to need that kind of help.

Zeinab Ajasa (BFA Comics 2021), on the other hand, did not feel misled by the documentary. Like Field, she is “tapped in” on news of Spears’s career and her conservatorship. A makeup video from YouTuber Jaime French was what first sparked Ajasa’s interest in #FreeBritney. In the video, French discusses Spears’s 2002 movie “Crossroads” while doing her makeup in the style of the movie. “It’s more commentary on the movie than a makeup tutorial,” explains Ajasa. She had been a fan of Britney’s music since she was a kid, but from there, Ajasa jumped down a “rabbit hole” of videos about Britney and her legal case. 

I asked Field whether she would call the #FreeBritney content “true crime,” and she said yes. True crime TV shows, documentaries, and podcasts like “Serial” are currently enjoying a rise in popularity, and they typically explore murder or missing persons cases. Britney’s conservatorship, on the other hand, is a complicated legal case, and all parties involved are still alive. 

In Field’s opinion, this genre classification is exactly why “Britney’s Gram” didn’t get its due in the documentary — because the podcast is considered a true crime series, and true crime is considered trashy for its popularity with women. But to Field, true crime is an important genre because it exposes flaws in the legal system, and demonstrates what people in power — white men with money, typically — can get away with. “And this is definitely a crime,” said Field. “It’s a financial manipulation.” 

The #FreeBritney movement has prompted conversation about disability, mental health, and legal rights. Why should a diagnosis of mental illness remove someone’s rights to control their own life, Field asked? “Even if she’s not a mentally fully functioning person — who is? She should be an independent person. You can be mentally unwell and be a free person.”


According to “Framing Britney Spears,” the national fascination with Spears’s sexuality began with her provocative breakout video for “…Baby One More Time,” in which a 16-year-old Spears dances in a private school uniform. This lurid fascination quickly expanded to her personal life. At the height of her fame, her sex life, her marriage, and her motherhood were all targets for the paparazzi, and subjects for constant national discussion. 

“There’s a sense of artificiality around female singers, as opposed to the idea of authenticity around male performers,” explains Dr. Emily Hoyler, a music history professor who teaches a course called Music and Sexuality at SAIC. Spears’s music and music videos were something to be consumed, “not something to be valued.” This extended to her personal life. 

This link between singing and sexuality is part of our cultural mythos, Hoyler told me. For example, she cited the myth of the siren, a singing goddess from the deep who lures men with their voices — then kills them. “Seductive and sensual women are feared. The voice itself is almost a magical thing to be feared,” Hoyler said — because singing comes from the body, unlike other ways of making sound, such as instruments. There are no common myths about seductive pan-flute playing ladies, she pointed out. 

Hoyler’s class, Music and Sexuality (Liberal Arts 3255), explores mostly 20th century music, including pop, jazz, blues, musical theater, and opera. She also compared Britney’s fall from tabloid favor to the typical structure of an opera:  

“There are many examples of operas in which the prima donna is “undone” by realizing her sexuality in some way. Often the soprano’s character arc concludes with some sort of iconic mad scene in which she virtuosically performs her madness (and often death) to an adoring audience,” she said. Examples include Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Richard Strauss’s “Salome.” “As soon as she demonstrates sexuality, she’s torn down.” 

Britney was a worldwide star, a household name, before the conservatorship. She is “one of the most successful performers in history and she doesn’t have control of her own career,” said Hoyler.  

I asked each interviewee whether they thought Spears’s kind of legal bind would ever be placed on a male performer. “No,” said Ajasa, and Field agreed, no, never. But Hoyler pointed out that boy bands, including a few that were popular at the same time as Spears, have been exploited by record labels and managers too. Lou Pearlman, creator of Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, manipulated his contracts and was later sued by almost all of his bands for misrepresentation and fraud. 

But there is, Hoyler said, a different perception of ownership around young female popstars. “Young woman pop stars where bodies are very important. So there is a different sort of anxiety about how they control their bodies and messages and images.”

Spears’s legal proceedings are due to resume in April. Ajasa says she’ll be keeping up-to-date with the case, hoping that Britney regains legal freedom. “You watch old videos, and you see how happy she was, and it’s just different now. No one deserves that.”

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1996 Film Retrospective: Improvising Reality in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies

By Entertainment, Featured

Illustration by Yajurvi Haritwal

This is the first in a series, a retrospective on the cinema of 1996. 

Realism, on a surface level, can be explained simply: It is the idea of a film or a character achieving the feeling of real life. 

While this seems straightforward, achieving it at a high level can be extremely difficult. To create a cohesive, seamless narrative, allowing actors to improvise entire scenes is sometimes seen as a crutch. But this mindset takes away a lot of what can be done with improv. Many people think that it’s simply just actors riffing, but it can be so much more than that. 

In his 1996 film, “Secrets & Lies,” Mike Leigh takes improvisation and realism to heights that are still being chased by filmmakers today. Improv in the context of film is often reduced to an actor going “off script,” or telling some joke that the director decided to keep in the movie. While it may be funny, watching people go back and forth doesn’t really get you a lot of substance. 

Mike Leigh uses improvisation in the complete opposite direction. Instead of something being unplanned, Leigh’s films are painstakingly constructed from months and months of work. Leigh’s process begins with the actors. He starts with no script and works out each character with each actor, always based on a person they know in real life. The character’s whole life is planned out, even things that won’t be included in the film. Once he has his characters, Leigh introduces them to each other, but in the order that they would have met in real life. Then he has them perform the scenes fully improvised, and records them. He develops the script from those improvisations, and then shoots the film. 

This is much more complex than just actors riffing — improvisation is the backbone of Leigh’s work. How he uses it to achieve realism is another story.

Leigh’s work is rooted in the Italian neorealist tradition, which was intensely focused on documenting postwar Italy, shooting in bombed-out cities, casting nonprofessional actors, and focusing on simple stories, often about the working class. We see a lot of these ideas present in Leigh’s work. Thatcher’s England, more specifically London, serves as Leigh’s environment just as much as postwar Italy was to the Neorealists. While improvisation can lead to reality, the setting is just as important, mainly the understanding of that place. Compare some cookie-cutter rom-com set in New York to any Scorsese film, or “Emily In Paris” to Varda’s “Cleo From 5 to 7.” Leigh documents London, and British life, with the depth that only someone with intense knowledge of the place can. He has a deep care for his subjects and treats them with respect. When we combine these two factors, realism can be achieved at a level past spontaneity.

“Secrets & Lies” has many plot threads, but the story between Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), and Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is the driving force behind the narrative. Hortense, a Black optometrist grieving her adopted family, is searching for her biological mother when she finds out that Cynthia, a white factory worker, is her mother. When they finally meet, Cynthia is confused, and denies being her mother, but goes into a diner with Hortense anyways. 

The scene is simple, just a static shot of Cynthia and Hortense sitting next to each other. Cynthia denies being Hortense’s mother, saying that she has never been with a Black man. As she turns away from Hortense, we see a slow realization creep over her face, a memory being unlocked. She completely breaks down, but cannot leave as Hortense is sitting next to her, blocking her path. She realizes Hortense is her daughter, and apologizes, as Hortense just sits there. Instead of cutting, Leigh stays right there. Cynthia tries to connect with Hortense, asking her about her job, love life, but breaks down again. Cynthia is realizing that Hortense was better without her, especially compared to her other daughter, Roxanne.

This scene lasts 7 minutes. No cuts, no movement, nothing but Hortense and Cynthia. The difference in clothing, Cynthia trembling and knocking things over, Hortense shuffling through her birth certificate, every movement informs the audience of what is going on. Even when Cynthia turns from Hortense, she is confronted with her own reflection. The situation is inescapable to her. And Leigh’s process adds so much more to the film. When the two actors met, Leigh had not informed Blethyn that her daughter was Black. The feelings we see her go through are real, as real as they can be. Without the painstaking process Leigh has, this scene would lack the incredible emotional depth we see. This scene feels real because Leigh has done everything he can to make it that way.

Leigh’s process is something worth discussing. He is not a mainstream filmmaker by any means, but his influence on cinema is monumental. We’re starting to see cinema become more of a processed product than it ever has been. The auteur is losing power for the sake of profits, characters are losing depth, and a lot of movies seem to just want to mash the dopamine button in my head rather than challenge me. Leigh’s films are purely about his vision, and no one else’s. His process never considers “How will focus groups react?”

When asked about this, Leigh said, “There is no pressure on it to be attractive or saleable or commercial. It is whatever it is because of my own natural response to life, which is emotional and optimistic and pessimistic. That leaves the way open to create a character who is the way people are.”

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