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“Lock her up!” In Phoenix, the signature Trump rally chant was especially ironic
Trump walks to the stage to deliver a speech in Phoenix on Wednesday. | Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images Trump pushed conspiracy theories about Bill Clinton interfering with the DOJ — while he interferes with the DOJ. While the Democratic presidential candidates held a slugfest of a debate 300 miles away in Las Vegas, President Donald Trump was in Phoenix Wednesday night for a rally that doubled as a diatribe against law enforcement and intelligence community officials whom he believes have wronged him. The rally was Trump’s second following his impeachment acquittal earlier this month and the first of three scheduled during his trip to Nevada, Arizona, and California. He devoted a lot of energy to attacking former leaders of the FBI, whom he at once smeared as “dishonest scum.” “We can never let them get away with that,” Trump added, lamenting that, because of the Russia investigation and impeachment inquiry, “crooked politicians” have “really taken away three years away” from his presidency. Trump calls former FBI leadership "dishonest scum," suggests they should be punished for what they did to him, then adds, "we can never let them get away with that."— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 20, 2020 The rally took place just hours before Trump’s longtime confidante Roger Stone is scheduled to be sentenced on seven felony charges that were brought by prosecutors working with then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller, including perjury and obstruction of the investigation into Trump’s campaign dealings with Russia. Considering that context, the most ironic moment of Trump’s Phoenix rally came when he brought up Hillary Clinton then nodded and smiled as his fans erupted in the usual refrain of “lock her up!” Trump brings up Hillary Clinton then nods and gives a thumbs up as his Phoenix crowd chants "lock her up!"— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 20, 2020 Despite the backdrop of Trump’s ongoing interference with the Department of Justice, the president also devoted part of his rally to attacking the Barack Obama-era DOJ for allegedly trying to tip the scales for Hillary Clinton back in 2016. “What do you think he was doing with the attorney general?” Trump said, alluding to a brief 2016 meeting on an Arizona airport tarmac between then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Bill Clinton that spawned conspiracy theories about the subsequent decision to not prosecute Hillary Clinton for her emails. “Remember, he said, ‘Ah, I just happened to see! I was here to play golf. It was 120 degrees out!’ I don’t know. A lot of crooked stuff went on.” “Can’t let it happen, folks!” Trump yelled. One week after publicly interfering in the sentencing of his longtime aide and buddy Roger Stone, Trump pushes conspiracy theories about the infamous Bill Clinton-Loretta Lynch tarmac meeting— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 20, 2020 The reality, however, is that following his impeachment acquittal, Trump has been more brazen about inserting himself into the Justice Department than ever — including in Stone’s case. Last week, Trump posted angry tweets about prosecutors’ original seven- to nine-year sentencing recommendation for Stone, which was followed by Attorney General Bill Barr lowering the recommendation — an abrupt change of course that prompted all the prosecutors working the case to quit. Barr publicly criticized Trump’s tweets interfering in the case, but the president disregarded his AG’s input by posting more tweets calling for Stone to receive a new trial on Tuesday. That same day, Trump pardoned or granted commutations of nine former public figures or billionaires who were convicted of corruption-related crimes — a move seemingly aimed at dismissing the sort of obstruction of justice and financial wrongdoing he’s been implicated in, as well as laying the groundwork for pardoning or commuting the sentence of Stone. Indeed, on Thursday morning’s edition of Fox & Friends, Fox News legal Andrew Napolitano said he thinks Trump “might pardon Stone today” following his sentencing. The rest of the Phoenix rally was normal stuff from a deeply abnormal president Trump pushed easily debunkable lies to inflate his record of accomplishments and collective guilt upon undocumented immigrants in an effort to demonize them. He misled people about his health care record and tried to undermine the democratic process by preemptively circulating conspiracy theories about the Nevada Democratic caucuses, which are scheduled for Saturday. “I hear that in Nevada — I’m hearing bad things about their vote count,” Trump said, citing no evidence. “I’m hearing a lot of bad things are happening, like they don’t know what the hell they are doing.” "I hear that in Nevada -- I'm hearing bad things about their vote count. I'm hearing a lot of bad things are happening, like they don't know what the hell they are doing" -- Trump preemptively pushes conspiracy theories about the Nevada Democratic caucuses— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 20, 2020 All of this stuff would’ve been headline news coming from the mouth of previous presidents. But for Trump, it was a relatively low-key night in the desert. The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.
The debate over subtitles, explained
Parasite director Bong Joon-ho attends a press conference on February 19, 2020, in Seoul, South Korea, following his historic Best Picture Academy Award win. | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images The battle between subtitles and dubbing is messy, layered, and surprisingly political. Following Parasite’s surprise Oscar win for Best Picture earlier this month, an age-old debate has roared to life once more: Which is better, subtitling or dubbing? If you’ve never thought about the question before, it might seem puzzling to you that one could make for a better or worse viewing experience than the other. But there are fierce proponents for both options, and anyone who’s ever been in an anime fandom or group of international film lovers probably has experienced firsthand just how heated the debate can get. The topic of subs versus dubs is far more complex and provocative than it might initially seem. The basic considerations, such as acting quality, translation quality, and personal preference, are all important. But the debate also walks the lines of race and xenophobia, classism and intellectualism, accessibility and ableism. Shortly after Parasite, a Korean-language film, won Best Picture, all of those issues leaped to the forefront of the public conversation surrounding the film — arguably adding even more angles to a debate that was already convoluted. The debate around subtitling is messy, complicated, and political Anime fans from the 80s and 90s seeing the sub vs. dub argument exploding into the film scene.— Steve Kim (@Fobwashed) February 10, 2020 When it comes to subtitles and dubbing, many people take an all-or-nothingapproach and have strenuous arguments for why one is better than the other. Subtitles translate a film’s dialogue into written text superimposed on the screen, thus allowing you to read along and follow the actors as they speak in their native language. Dubbing, or voice-over, most often involves getting actors to read a translation of the script in the language common to the region where the film is being distributed. Today, it’s typical for many regions to offer both subtitled and dubbed versions of many films, when possible. The primary argument in favor of subtitles is that they allow you to follow the action and dialogue while experiencing the actors’ full performance. Additionally, they often function interchangeably with captioning to help viewers (including those who are deaf or hard of hearing) more clearly understand dialogue in their own native language than reading subtitles alone would. The main complaint about subtitles is that it can be difficult to read and follow the action, and that can subsequently make processing the media you’re consuming more difficult. A corollary complaint is that often subtitled translations will discard more of the actual spoken dialogue you hear in the original language, due to time constraints — humans need to be able to read all the words on the screen before the dialogue moves on. And localization could remove nuances in script translations, so there are concerns about loss of quality and full meaning. For example, a 1978 survey of the practice of subtitling by the British Film Institute found that, on average, a full third of a film’s original dialogue would be discarded through the subtitling process. One of the big arguments in favor of dubbing is that it preserves the cinematic experience more fully than subtitling while also allowing for more film dialogue to be translated. There are other, more insidious, political arguments, too, but we’ll get to those in a minute. The primary complaint about dubbing, regardless of the language being dubbed, is that voice actors can often be wildly over-the-top, which can be grating to experience, especially if you’re not used to it. Dubbing, the argument goes, can distract many people from the cinematic experience far more than subtitling. A tangential argument is that any time you replace the original dialogue, you inevitably lose valuable nuance. It’s also costlier to produce a dub, which means a dubbed film or series can take considerably longer to produce and distribute overseas, though this process has sped up thanks to technological advances. For instance, in 1997, the dubbing process alone for a film took around 6–8 weeks; these days, Netflix demands dubbing turnaround times of mere days. But of course, that’s all assuming the film even gets dubbed in your language to begin with. If you’re an anime fan, the topic of subs and dubs is even more complicated. Between the 1960s and the mid-2000s, manyanime series were inaccessible overseas unless they were translated and distributed by fans, usually illegally. The rare exception was when a popular anime would make it to international TV networks,like Sailor Moonor Dragon Ball Z. In countries where anime is an export, these TV runs were nearly always in dubbed format, with no subtitles. Fan translations (or fansubs) were usually distributed illegally, but they could help generate overseas interest for a show. They could also be of questionable quality, and often contained copious translation notes that necessitated pausing to read. On the flip side, professionally dubbed voice acting was often painfully overdone, which was an equally jarring experience for many fans. So if you were a fan and wanted your anime however you could get it, you often were faced with the devil’s choice of unofficial subtitling with dubious translations, or officially translated dubs featuring wild voice acting. Fansub communities often engaged in intense back and forth over whether subs or dubs were superior. If you grew up watching various anime series on Cartoon Network, you might well be used to the over-the-top conceit of voice acting, and you might even resent people who imply that dubbing is inferior. Especially if you associate subtitling with messy fan-made translations, you might prefer dubbing; waiting for a studio-produced dub of a series tends to mean that the translation is more effectively done. There are usually officially produced subtitles as well,but those don’t always guarantee a smooth or a faithful translation, either. You can probably already see from these factors that what might seem at first like just a simple matter of personal preference gets immediately complicated by issues of production, access, regional factors, and translation. These are all huge concerns for many film lovers and anime fans. So the debate surrounding subs and dubs has been an ongoing, extremely contentious, and highly charged topic for decades. Netflix has added fuel to the fire as of late due to its intense focus on providing international content to a global audience. Netflix has been aggressively pursuing subtitled content as well as dubbed properties, and the audiences for each have been accordingly expanding. And in January, Parasite’s impressive awards-season run brought those audiences into conflict. Parasite drew attention to the “one-inch tall barrier” of subtitles In January, Parasite director Bong Joon-ho planted his flag in the subtitle camp, stating during his Golden Globes acceptance speech (forBest Foreign Language Film) that “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” After Parasite’s Oscar win, it seemed that fans of foreign films had punched a sizable hole through that wall. But on February 10, the day after the Oscars, an opinion piece on Mother Jones about subtitles by political blogger Kevin Drum went viral. in the piece, originally headlined “Dubbing is better than subtitles,”Drum made several outrageous and baffling statements: He claimed that “No one likes subtitles” and that subtitles obscure actors “reading lines,” even though subtitles let you hear the original actors performing their lines in the film’s scripted language. In an early version of the piece, Drum also asserted that subtitles are “only common in countries too poor to afford a dubbing industry.” The line was removed in an updated version of the story, in which it was amended to, “They’re only common in markets where film revenues aren’t high enough for studios to recoup the cost of producing dubbed versions.” On top of all this, Drum noted that he hadn’t even seen Parasite. what the fuck— Max Tani (@maxwelltani) February 10, 2020 The backlash to Drum’s piece was scathing. “If you poured holy water on this article it would start foaming and screeching,” read one tweet that seemed to sum up the public reaction. Critics called Drum’s argument about subtitling obscuring line-reading strange, while many others shared their own experiences as international viewers seeking out or being reliant upon subtitles. Some readers additionally pointed out that the take had elements of racism and ableism, and some argued that everything, including films in your native language, should come with subtitles as a default option. Among those who spoke out were vehement detractors of dubbing, who argued that dubbing is an atrocious experience for the viewer. The argument for subtitles often seems inextricable from the argument against dubbing; that was true for this round of debate: Funny thing about Bong Joon-ho and subtitles, one time I pirated "The Host," turned out to be dubbed and it was the worst voice acting I've ever heard, I quit halfway and found a subtitled version which I watched start to finish and have been firmly anti-dubbing ever since— Todd in the Shadows (@ShadowTodd) February 10, 2020 Drum published a follow-up piece that seemed to engage more with the social media furor than with his own argument. Elaborating on why he thought subtitles are bad, he wrote: I didn’t say that subtitles are bad in an absolute sense. I said that subtitles detract from the theatrical experience and there are legitimate reasons to dislike them. This seems obvious: if possible, everyone would prefer to watch movies made in their native tongue. The number of people who asserted throughout the debate that they’d rather hear actors performing in their native languages would suggest otherwise. But Drum also clarified that the original context for his piece was the hyperbolic annoyance he felt in response to a piece about Parasite’s Oscar win by Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, in which she framed Bong’s “one-inch tall” quote as a “challenge” for Americans who “just don’t like reading subtitles.” First off, “everyone hates subtitles” was, I thought, humorous hyperbole. I meant that most people dislike subtitles. What’s more, the context was my annoyance at Alissa Wilkinson saying that “Americans just don’t like reading subtitles,” a derisive attitude that’s uncalled for since in fact it’s a very global phenomenon. Drum called it “faux sophistication” to claim that subtitles are infallible. But both in the responses to Drum’s piece and the concurrent discussion around subtitles, something of the opposite attitude seemed primarily on display. Many media consumers have not only espoused an unwillingness to read subtitles but also rejected the whole pro-reading argument on principle — even if it meant facing vehement opposition. There’s a hefty dose of condescension and intellectual snobbery on all sides of the debate — and some ableism, too Trying to talk to someone who hates subtitles— Tamar Herman (@TamarWrites) February 18, 2020 A less widely acknowledged part of the debate around subtitles seems to be related to the mode by which we consume media. A prevalent argument that emerged in response both to Parasite’s win generally and Drum’s argument specifically was that having to read subtitles felt like a chore. One person who spoke out against subtitles after Parasite’s win was retired esports pro Nick Kershner, who told his 200,000 followers after buying Parasite on DVD that he just wasn’t up for watching a movie with subtitles — only to quickly walk away from the backlash. so no1 wanted to tell me Parasite is all in Korean... bought the movie I’m not about to read subtitles for 2hrs— Nick Kershner (@OpTicMaNiaC) February 11, 2020 Jesus Christ ppl who watch movies with subtitles defend that shit like Taylor Swift fans.... my bad lmao— Nick Kershner (@OpTicMaNiaC) February 11, 2020 Kershner insisted that he’d “just wanted to lay down, watch it, chill out and fall asleep,” which subtitles wouldn’t let him do. In response, one Twitter user replied, “You can’t go into a movie that just won best picture wanting to chill and fall asleep.. mistake #1.” A recurring part of the subs versus dubs conversation is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to consume media. And it’s an especially incendiary part of the debate, as New York Times tech writer Taylor Lorenzlearned when she went to bat for dubbing. In a series of since-deleted tweets about Drum’s piece, Lorenz argued that her “brain” just can’t follow subtitles: Dubbing > subtitles every time. Subtitles you have to read so fast, which is so hard. I can never keep up and miss everything that’s going on on screen ... Ppl saying this is a bad take, take it up with my brain lol. I can’t read fast enough to follow along with subtitles! I wish I could, but I can’t. I’m a very slow reader. Also when I watch movies I’m doing other things, so if I look away from the screen Idk what’s happening. :/ But because Lorenz added that she likes to watch movies while doing other things, the conversation around her thread was partly a sideshow in which many film lovers attacked Lorenz for being a lazy film-watcher. I genuinely admire how you manage to squeeze in a final twist that makes the take even worse lol! "Guys, you don't understand -- subtitles are bad because I'm not paying attention!"— Daniel Radosh (@danielradosh) February 10, 2020 Lorenz followed up with an acknowledgment that subtitles are a popular, preferred way of consuming much media, even in native languages: It's interesting to know so many ppl's preference for subtitles. Lots of kids I talk to all watch YT w/ subtitles on, and sometimes YTers like Ricegum have made special disses/jokes in the subtitles that u won't see if u watch it without. So I get why ppl like watching that way!— Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) February 10, 2020 But the outrage around Lorenz’s thread seemed to confirm the belief espoused in Wilkinson’s initial Vox piece, that Americans don’t like the “challenge” of reading subtitles while watching films. Throughout the debate, anyone who dared to say they didn’t like subtitles was usually met with scathing condescension. If you didn’t like subtitles, proponents said, you were watching a movie wrong, you were uncommitted to the film experience, or you were just being intellectually lazy. "Dubbing is better than subtitles" is a bad take, just own your preference for dicking around on your phone to actually watching a movie.— Meredith Clark (@MeredithLClark) February 10, 2020 Why people like subtitles:✅ - some accents are hard to understand✅ - low dialogue✅ - people who are deaf or have difficulty with hearing exist✅ - helps with spelling and understanding contextWhy people don't like subtitles:- Can't read fast :(( Brain hurty— grace ❁ comms: 9 slots ♡ (@FLXWERIFIC) February 12, 2020 But all of these arguments also fail to acknowledge that the entire conversation can be equally ableist. Blind film lovers, people with low vision, and those with difficulty reading may appreciate dubbing, while the deaf and hard-of-hearing can benefit from subtitles. Gentle reminder that dubbing is actually useful for the visually impaired, dyslexic, and some other disabled,, so while yes it’s dumb that an article said subbing is inferior (I prefer subs) some people literally cant rely on subtitles so let’s not say things like “dubbing sucks”— somehow palpatine has returned (@remembersolo) February 11, 2020 Sub vs. DubSubtitles are an accessibility feature for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities.Dubbing is an accessibility feature for the blind and low vision communities.Everybody's needs are important. That's it. That's the hot take.— Steve "Man of Wisdom" Spohn (@stevenspohn) February 11, 2020 These arguments often also come with additional stigmas. Someone who has difficulty reading may be unfairly stereotyped as less intelligent, which may contribute to the idea that only unintelligent or lazy people prefer dubs. So that’s yet another layer to add to a debate with many entangled issues. And we’re not done yet. There’s one final significant concern, over and above the many messy factors already discussed, that make the entire subject of subtitles and dubbing even more fraught: the tradition of nationalist propaganda that dubbing is a part of. Dubbing has its roots in fascist propaganda, and the impact is still felt globally Did you think this would be the one debate that wasn’t ultimately going to turn out to be about Nazis? Sorry! The claim that, as Drum put it, “everyone would prefer to watch movies made in their native tongue,” may not seem inherently political. But in fact, thinking that there’s something inherently better about seeing a movie in one’s native language helped turn dubbing into a major propaganda tool during the 20th century. The rise of dubbing as a global phenomenon was due in part to the emphasis on nationalism by fascist European regimes during the 1930s and ’40s. For instance, Spanish censorship boards, founded in the late ’30s and exacerbated under Francisco Franco’s regime, required that, starting in 1941, all foreign films had to be dubbed into Spanish. The rise in dubbing coincided with a number of censorship changes to make the films more palatable with perceived Spanish cultural values. This ban on subtitled films remained in place until 1967, but its impact can still be felt today. Likewise, in occupied countries where the Nazi regime required all films to be dubbed into German during WWII, dubbing remains the most common form of foreign film viewing, and the German dubbing market is still the largest globally. The 2018 book Introducing Translational Studies reports that “Austria is the country with the highest rejection rate (more than 70 percent) of subtitles, followed by Italy, Spain, and Germany.” And dubbing is still being used today in places like Quebec to promote political agendas, as writer Julian Leu observes in his recent pro-subtitle breakdown of the role of nationalism in the debate. On the one hand, we can talk about the intellectual snobbery that lies behind condescending attitudes toward a film-lover who says they don’t like to read subtitles. But on the other hand, the disdain toward subtitles has been systematically, culturally ingrained in many movie-goers throughout the world by nationalist governments. And there’s evidence that this propaganda machine does have a real-world impact on learning: A 2019 study found that non-English-speaking countries that routinely subtitle their foreign television shows have a higher English-language proficiency, while countries that dub foreign TV into the local language have a lower English-language proficiency. None of this invalidates the media consumer who wants to watch movies in the background, has trouble following subtitles, has access issues that require the use of dubs, or just prefers dubs. But a knowledge of the history of dubbing and its role in nationalist propaganda does lend credence to the idea that a preference for dubbing aligns with close-mindedness. Then again, the scathing attitudes toward dubbing within pro-subtitle arguments can seem equally closed-minded. Perhaps the ultimate answer to the subs/dubs debate should simply be, “choose whatever works for you.” But the many factors we’ve laid out here also illustrate why, to many people, personal preference isn’t enough to justify one choice over the other. So despite Parasite’s temporary victory for Team Subtitles, we’ll almost certainly see this age-old debate recurring the next time a major foreign film makes a splash. In the meantime, if you’re firmly in one camp or the other, consider experiencing your next foreign film by switching up your typical viewing format. Who knows? You might actually enjoy watching that way — and help demolish the idea that there’s a “right” and a “wrong” way to experience a movie.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders raked in grassroots fundraising after the debate
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign raised more than $2.8 million just hours after the ninth Democratic presidential debate. | Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images Warren slightly outraised Sanders after the Nevada debate. As the fiery Democratic debate in Nevada raged on Wednesday night, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) began fundraising at a blistering pace. Warren, in particular, lit up the stage in Las Vegas. As Vox’s Emily Stewart noted, the appearance of multibillionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg brought back the Warren who started the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and promised to leave a legacy that meant “plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor” in the agency’s creation. The Warren of past debates calmly promising party unity was gone, replaced by the fighter. And her supporters clearly loved it. Within hours, Warren’s campaign announced they had raised more than $2.8 million on Wednesday, their best debate fundraising day of the campaign to date. During the debate, one of her staffers tweeted that the campaign had raised $425,000 in just 30 minutes. This is very good news for the Warren campaign, given that her fourth quarter fundraising numbers had fallen behind the Q4 hauls of many of her main competitors last year. We just had our best debate day of the entire campaign, raising more than $2.8 million. Will you chip in $2 right now to keep the momentum going? We can only do this together.— Team Warren (@TeamWarren) February 20, 2020 Warren barely edged out fellow progressive Sanders in the fundraising race. Just after midnight, the Sanders campaign announced the Vermont senator had raised $2.7 million from nearly 150,000 individual donations — also their campaign’s best debate day. These are impressive sums for both candidates, and they demonstrate the power of debates to help rally candidates’ bases — and helpvoters choose among them. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) New Hampshire debate performance a few weeks ago boosted her profile so much that she came in a very close third in that state’s primary behind Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The mere presence of Bloomberg — a man who has spent more than $400 million of his own money in advertising to boost his national profile — seemed to shake progressive voters into action, given the numbers posted by Sanders and Warren. It’s too early to tell yet whether this will also boost Warren significantly in the Nevada caucuses, especially since the caucuses’ well-attended early voting period already closed before the debate. Caucuses can be tricky; they have two voter realignments and report multiple sets of numbers. The lack of Nevada polls means we also don’t have a very good sense of what voters on the ground are thinking right now. Warren — who has been flagging in national polls since her fourth-place finish in New Hampshire — needed a good performance on Wednesday night. She overdelivered.
Watch: Elizabeth Warren grills Michael Bloomberg over allegations of sexism and nondisclosure agreements
Mike Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren speak during a commercial break during the ninth debate of the 2020 presidential campaign. | Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images Warren called on the former New York City Mayor to release women from NDAs they had signed about the hostile work environment at his company. In one of the most stunning moments of the Democratic debate on Wednesday, Elizabeth Warren confronted Michael Bloomberg directly and repeatedly about nondisclosure agreements his past employees agreed to sign regarding allegations of a hostile work environment. Warren and others have been pushing for Bloomberg to release employees of these NDAs — which prevent them from speaking out publicly about alleged experiences with sexism and harassment — for months. And she ramped up the pressure on Wednesday, following up on a question initially raised by moderator Hallie Jackson. “Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements? So we can hear their side of the story?” the Massachusetts Democrat asked. Bloomberg struggled to respond as Warren pressed him on the subject, arguing that these employees had willingly agreed to the NDAs, and noting, at one point, that the accusations weren’t so bad. “None of them accuse me of doing anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he said, eliciting groans from the audience. There were plenty of other women who worked at his company and foundation that he’d helped build successful careers, Bloomberg also emphasized, deploying a common tactic those who have been accused have used in the past to evade responsibility for their alleged behavior. Warren, however, wasn’t having it. After Bloomberg failed to answer the question, she simply asked him again. “I hope you heard his defense. ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’” she said. “What we need to know is exactly what’s lurking out there. He has gotten some number of women — dozens, who knows — to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace.” “We have very few nondisclosure agreements,” Bloomberg responded. That Bloomberg eyeroll— Alex Thompson (@AlxThomp) February 20, 2020 But Warren kept calling him out. “How many is that?” she said repeatedly. “Some is how many?” Bloomberg, despite multiple attempts, wasn’t really able to provide a satisfactory response. He never directly committed to releasing the women from the NDAs they signed — and never provided a clear answer for how many women have signed them. The full exchange is worth watching. This back-and-forth, which drew an audible reaction from the audience, culminated in Warren emphasizing how the allegations facing Bloomberg posed an obstacle to his electability — and made it tough to draw a contrast between him and President Donald Trump, who’s been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 20 women. A December ABC News report identified 17 women who had taken some legal action against Bloomberg’s company, and three of the cases the publication found cited him specifically as playing a role in the toxic workplace culture. It’s still unclear how many people have signed NDAs to keep their allegations confidential and Bloomberg has denied these allegations. It’s worth noting that Warren’s point did not equate the potential allegations against Bloomberg with the allegations of assault raised against the president — though she did an effective job of underscoring how his track record could make it tough for him to take on Trump. “We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against,” she said. Bloomberg didn’t have much to say in return.
How to reduce your food’s carbon footprint, in 2 charts
A shopkeeper surveys fresh fruit and vegetables at a food market in Istanbul. | Tim Graham/Getty Images The answer is not “eat local.” “Eat local.” It’s a recommendation you’ve probably heard before. Environmental advocates and even the United Nations have hyped a “locavore” diet as a way to reduce your carbon footprint and help the climate. The basic idea is that more transportation leads to more emissions, so you want to reduce the distance your food has to travel to get to you. And certainly, if you can eat local, that’s great. But it’s not the most effective way to reduce your food’s carbon footprint. The website Our World in Data recently explained,with some great charts, why your focus should really be elsewhere. “Eating locally would only have a significant impact if transport was responsible for a large share of food’s final carbon footprint. For most foods, this is not the case,” writes Hannah Ritchie. “Emissions from transportation make up a very small amount of the emissions from food and what you eat is far more important than where your food traveled from.” Take a look at the chart below, which examines 29 different food products, from beef to nuts, and breaks down how much greenhouse gas emissions each stage in the supply chain is responsible for. The data comes from the biggest meta-analysis of worldwide food systems we’ve got so far, published in Science in 2018. Our World in Data As you can see, the share of emissions from transport (shown in red) is generally pretty tiny; the distance our food travels to get to us actually accounts for less than 10 percent of most food products’ carbon footprint. Processes on farms (shown in brown) and changes in land use (shown in green) typically account for much more of the emissions from our food. Translation: What you eat is much more important than whether your food is local. So, next time you find yourself trying to choose between a couple of different dinner options — local prawns versus non-local fish, let’s say — remember that from an emissions standpoint, the fish is the better choice even though it comes from farther away. One caveat: Although transport has a small climate impact for most food products, that’s not true for products that travel by air. Now, very few products actually fall into that category — just 0.16 percent of food is air-freighted, while the vast majority travels by boat (including those beloved avocados). But it’s worth noting which products do travel by air, and avoiding them when they’re not in season, since air travel is so bad for the climate. It can be hard to know which products in your grocery store are air-freighted, since they’re almost never labeled as such. But a good rule of thumb is to avoid fresh fruits and vegetables that have a short shelf-life and that come from far away (check the label for their country of origin). Berries, green beans, and asparagus are examples of foods that are often air-freighted. Locally sourced berries, green beans, and asparagus, though, have a low carbon footprint. What about “sustainable meat” versus plant-based foods? At this point, you might be wondering where plant-based foods fit into all this. With so many grocery stores and restaurants now selling Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, it’s reasonable to wonder about the carbon footprint of products made from protein sources other than meat. Some have argued that you can have a lower footprint if you eat beef or lamb sourced from low-impact producers than if you switch to plant-based alternatives. But the evidence suggests that’s just not true. (Remember that only 0.16 percent of food is air-freighted, and that figure includes fruits and vegetables.) “Plant-based foods emit fewer greenhouse gases than meat and dairy, regardless of how they are produced,” Ritchie writes. Here’s another chart, which shows that less meat is nearly always better than sustainable meat when it comes to reducing your carbon footprint. The data comes from the same 2018 meta-analysis mentioned above, which considered the food systems in 119 countries. Our World in Data As you can see, beef and lamb are way over on one extreme in terms of the amount of emissions they produce. By contrast, plant-based protein sources like tofu, beans, peas, and nuts have a very low carbon footprint. “This is certainly true when you compare average emissions. But it’s still true when you compare the extremes: there’s not much overlap in emissions between the worst producers of plant proteins, and the best producers of meat and dairy,” Ritchie notes. Translation: Eating plant-based food is almost always going to be better for the environment than eating even the most sustainable meat. That said, it’s worth noting that some types of meat are much harsher on the environment than others. Replacing beef or lamb with chicken or pork — again, regardless of where you get the products from — is an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint. This is all coming strictly from an emissions standpoint, mind you. It doesn’t take into account animal welfare. Perhaps you think the welfare of animals like pigs, which show signs of high intelligence, is an important consideration here; if so, you might think it’s a bad idea to substitute pork for other types of meat. And we have to slaughter about 200 chickens to get the same amount of meat we’d get from one cow, which raises environmental as well as animal welfare concerns. There are multiple factors to consider when making food choices, and your final decision may shake out differently depending on how you weight each of them. Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter and we’ll send you a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good. Future Perfect is funded in part by individual contributions, grants, and sponsorships. Learn more here.
How a white evangelical family could dismantle adoption protections for Native children
The Young Falcons drum group sing at the 21st Century Community Learning Center at the Wind River reservation in Arapahoe, Wyoming, on February 28, 2017. | Joe Amon/Denver Post via Getty Images The federal court case could have a sweeping impact on Native families and tribal sovereignty. In June 2016, a 10-month-old Navajo and Cherokee boy was placed in the home of a white, evangelical couple in Fort Worth, Texas. The baby had been taken from his Navajo mother, who’d left the reservation and was living in Texas, because of her drug use. The foster couple — Jennifer and Chad Brackeen, an anesthesiologist and a former civil engineer — were “self-conscious about their material success,” the New York Times reported, and told the paper that fostering a child was a way to “rectify their blessings.” The next year, the Brackeens were temporarily held back in their plans to adopt the boy, when, under the provisions of the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Navajo tribe located a Native family unrelated to the boy to take him in. So the Brackeens filed a federal lawsuit. “He had already been taken from his first home, and now it would happen again? And the only explanation is that we don’t have the right color of skin? How do we explain that to our own children? We’d done nothing but sign up to do good,” Jennifer Brackeen told the Times. Since the suit was filed, plans to send the boy to another tribe fell through and the Brackeens have been allowed to formally adopt him. Last year, the Brackeens fought to obtain custody of the boy’s sister, whose Navajo extended family wanted to take her in. At the hearing deciding the girl’s fate, Chad Brackeen left out any self-consciousness about his large home with a pool on an acre of land that he had expressed to the Times. He told the judge that he worried for the baby girl, “not as an infant living in a room with a great-aunt but maybe as an adolescent in smaller, confined homes.” “I don’t know what that looks like,” he continued, “if she needs space, if she needs privacy. I’m a little bit concerned with the limited financial resources possibly to care for this child, should an emergency come up.” This cultural difference — that a family’s fitness is determined by its wealth, and that those concerns should outweigh a child’s connection to their family and heritage — is essentially why the Indian Child Welfare Act was created in 1978. The law recognizes the history of federal policy aimed at breaking up Native families and mandates that, whenever possible, Native families should remain together. Sarah Kastelic, the executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, said that ICWA acknowledges important familial and tribal bonds that have long been disregarded, and that Native ways — such as extended families living under the same roof — have often been used to show unfitness in child welfare proceedings. “No matter the picket fences and swimming pools and things, most of the time, kids want to be with their families,” she said. With their lawsuit, in which they’re joined by the State of Texas, the Brackeens have become the public face of the case that could dismantle ICWA. The couple — and the Goldwater Institute, the conservative think tank who backed the lawsuit — scored a win in 2018 when a federal district court ruled that ICWA was unconstitutional. Last year, a Fifth Circuit panel of three judges partially reversed the decision. Then, last month, the case was taken up by all 17 judges on the Fifth Circuit in an “en banc” hearing; Native advocates say it’s likely that whatever the ruling, the decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court. If overturned, the repeal of ICWA could upend a law in place for more than 40 years. And the legal case has much broader implications than just child welfare — it cuts at the heart of tribal sovereignty in this country. The 573 federally recognized tribes could be left open to legal challenges on many fronts if the basis of ICWA is found unconstitutional. “The core of their argument is that it’s an unfair racial preference and that we should have a colorblind system,” Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, told Vox. “What that misses is what’s a bedrock of federal Indian law in this country, which is that tribes are sovereign, not distinguished as a race but as a special political designation. That’s a critical underpinning of not just ICWA, but many laws that relate to housing and healthcare and education and employment. For that to be eroded by a successful attack on ICWA — that would have broad implications on all of these.” Kastelic said that ICWA has long been subject to lawsuits from two groups — those with the ultimate goal of eroding tribal sovereignty, and those in the adoption community who disdain the lengthier process that must be undertaken to adopt a Native child. “We’ve seen the rise of think tanks — Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation, Cato — that have a broader agenda about state rights and subverting or dismantling tribal sovereignty as part of their agenda,” Kastelic said. “And then there’s a religious agenda, a number of Christian organizations wanting access to Native children still with the premise of ‘saving Indians’ — that because of high rates of poverty or substance abuse or mental health challenges, that that still warrants them to take our children. They feel entitled to them.” The US’s long, disgraceful history of breaking up of Native families Forced removals of Native Americans from their homelands by the federal government in the 1800s caused the deaths of thousands of Native American people, especially children and the elderly. In 1879, the federal government undertook a mass assimilation effort of Native children, creating Indian Boarding Schools, in which Native children were forced to drop their language and customs and were indoctrinated in white American ways. Many in the boarding schools suffered abuse — 180 graves of children can be found on the grounds of the single most famous school of that era, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. When the boarding schools began to die out in the 1950s and 1960s, a new effort took its place. From 1958 to 1967, the federal government enacted a program called the Indian Adoption Project, with the goal of white Americans adopting Native children. A 1966 Bureau of Indian Affairs press release described it like this: “One little, two little, three little Indians — and 206 more — are brightening the homes and lives of 172 American families, mostly non-Indians, who have taken the Indian waifs as their own.” Frances Benjamin Johnston/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images A teacher stands in front of young Native American students during class at the Carlisle Indian School, circa 1903. It was in this context that Bert Hirsch, an attorney with the Association on American Indian Affairs, first came to Devils Lake, North Dakota, in 1967, to help a Native grandmother who’d lost custody of her 6-year-old grandson. A member of what’s now the Spirit Lake tribe, this grandmother hadn’t been accused of abuse or neglect, Hirsch told Vox. “The only allegation was that she was too old — at 62 years old,” he said. Hirsch and the Spirit Lake tribe fought that case successfully, but it got them thinking: How many other families were going through something similar? Hirsch led an effort to gather data, first from the child placing agencies in North Dakota, and then in all 50 states, trying to glean the scope of the problem. Prior to this, individual tribes had thought the battles they were fighting and losing to the child welfare system were unique to each of them. But Hirsch’s numbers were a wakeup call, not just to the tribes, but to national and international news outlets: The data showed that 25 to 35 percent of Native children around the country were being taken from their homes, and that 85 to 95 percent of those kids ended up in non-Native homes or institutions. “As we pointed out to Congress over the years, it was way, way, way out of proportion to what was happening to any other demographic,” Hirsch said. Hirsch worked as an attorney for these types of cases for four decades, and in that time, “I’ve seen a lot that makes my stomach turn, it’s just sickening,” he said. In the days before ICWA, a law that Hirsch helped to write and pass, judges “had no trouble just taking tribal kids away from their families and putting them in foster care, because they didn’t like Indians and they didn’t like their way of life. Ostensibly, they were removed for neglect, but really it was all about poverty,” Hirsch said. “If you’re poor and you’re Indian, you lose your kid.” Although Native Americans are still overrepresented in the foster care system, ICWA stemmed the tide of removals that were severing children’s bonds to their heritage at such a widespread and alarming scale. The provisions call for a Native child’s tribe to be notified as soon as child welfare proceedings commence, and for the child’s tribe to be a party to the case in the courtroom, if they wish. Preference must be given for the child’s family — whether the family is Native or non-Native — and then to the child’s tribe, and finally, to other Native American tribes. “ICWA guides in preferences — none of them are ironclad mandates that a child be placed with an Indian family,” Hoskin, the Cherokee principal chief, said. Hoskin said ICWA rightly respects the rights of tribes to help decide what happens to their children. “It’s just as much about the right of the tribal government to be in that courtroom as it is for that child to have their government in the courtroom,” Hoskin said. “Their culture is at stake and the future of their people is at stake.” While the creation of ICWA was a good first step toward keeping families together, there has been no federal agency designated to oversee its implementation and ensure that states comply with the law. Because of this, no federal data has been compiled on what has resulted from the law’s passage. Also, the continued overrepresentation of Native children in the child welfare system around the country calls states’ compliance into question. In 2016, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of two South Dakota tribes challenging the state’s lack of compliance — statistics showed that Native children were 11 times more likely to end up in foster care than white children in South Dakota. A federal judge ruled the South Dakota courts were violating the stipulations of ICWA. Hirsch said the law has been successful in reducing removals of Native children when it is followed, but that its success is based on compliance that is nowhere near universal. “The law was designed to, one, keep Indian kids from being removed from their families. That should be a goal everyone should support if you believe Indian families should continue to exist. And two, to recognize the legitimacy of Indian tribal existence,” Hirsch said. “If you believe in what this law is seeking to achieve and how it seeks to achieve it, then you can get some pretty decent compliance. But if you start from a premise that rejects all of that, it’s a different story.” The stakes are high for Native children What sometimes gets lost in the conversation about ICWA is that the principles it sets forth — including trying to keep family units intact if at all possible — are widely considered to be best practice in the child welfare field today. In 2013, 18 of the nation’s most prominent child welfare organizations, including Casey Family Programs, the Child Welfare League of America and the Children’s Defense Fund, filed an amicus brief in support of ICWA in another case challenging the law. “In the Indian Child Welfare Act, Congress adopted the gold standard for child welfare policies and practices that should be afforded to all children,” the organizations wrote in the brief. “ICWA works very well and, in fact, is a model for child welfare and placement decision-making that should be extended to all children.” “Whereas ICWA seemed like anomaly in the late ’70s when it was passed, the whole body of child welfare law has moved more and more in alignment with ICWA since,” said Kastelic, whose team at NICWA helps train child welfare workers around the country on how to implement ICWA. “Prioritizing family placements, keeping sibling groups together — ICWA was doing that in the late ’70s.” Genevieve Naylor/Getty Images A Native American boy sits at the piano making music with his adoptive white family, circa 1997. The media’s coverage of these issues often focuses on specific cases, like those of the Brackeens, without much of the needed context of how much our failing systems contribute to the problem. Eighteen states around the country have been targets of class action lawsuits filed by nonprofit Children’s Rights over their poor treatment of kids in care. The suits outline a familiar pattern: Chronic underfunding has led to low-paid and overworked caseworkers who don’t have the time they need to truly care for children’s best interests. Because of this, many kids around the country slip through the cracks, and are subject to all types of abuse while in the care of the state — sometimes worse than the conditions that led to them being in care in the first place. With ICWA, Native kids who are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system have an added line of defense against spending long periods of time in a system that we know harms children. But the focus on individual stories over systemic problems leaves many well-meaning Americans unaware of the true scope of the problem. “In part because of the historical underpinnings of our child welfare system, most people come at this thinking ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving.’ And most parents, who have no ability to address the structural problems they are facing ... we’re still thinking about it at just a personal level,” Kastelic said. There’s another voice missing from many of these conversations: that of the adoptee. Sandy White Hawk, a Sicangu Lakota adoptee from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, is the founder of the First Nations Repatriation Institute, which researches Native adoptees and helps to reunite them with their tribes and families. “When we grow up in a white home in a white community, that’s all we see and know. We don’t know anything about being Native, and most white people don’t know anything about who we are,” White Hawk said. “You don’t have your image mirrored back to you in any way. That’s a distortion as you develop your identity.” White Hawk, who experienced abuse in her adoptive home, said it’s important to recognize that all adoptions aren’t happy endings. A 2008 University of Minnesota study has shown adoptees have greater odds of an ADHD or ODD diagnosis than those who have not been separated from their families, and that adoptees are more likely to have contact with mental health professionals. In 2017, White Hawk and several others published a study of hundreds of adoptees that showed Native American adoptees were more likely to report mental health problems — including substance use disorder and recovery, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal ideation — than white adoptees. “There’s nothing in our societal messages — everything about adoption is a forever happy home, and while there are happy children and there are kind and loving parents, this other reality is there, period,” White Hawk said. “And that doesn’t mean a bash of adoption. But we’re so invested in this forever-happy-saving-children thing that anything that critiques it — there’s no willingness to hear that.” White Hawk helps organize an annual “gathering for our children and returning adoptees” powwow to help welcome Native adoptees back into their tribes. “I knew how painful and how hard it was to take your place in the circle once you’ve been gone. There was no roadmap, no one could help,” White Hawk said. “For those that may not have even met their family or have been home for a long time, it’s the first time it’s been acknowledged that they’ve suffered grief and loss.” The Indian Child Welfare Act case has broader implications for sovereignty The Brackeens aren’t the first to bring a case against ICWA. They’re not even the first family the Goldwater Institute has backed in such a suit. The think tank, whose funders include top Trump donors and an organization linked to the Koch brothers, has fought to dismantle union power and to “vindicate the constitutional rights of businesses” to contribute to political campaigns. The institute has challenged ICWA a dozen times since 2014. “The only basis for forcing these kids to be sent to tribal courts is because they’re racially connected,” Timothy Sandefur, Goldwater’s vice president of litigation, told the Nation in 2017. “It’s like saying that children of Japanese descent need to be adjudicated by the court of Japan.”
 When asked for comment, the Goldwater Institute referred Vox to a blog post written by Sandefur, in which he says that Indian children “must be abused worse and for longer than children of other races before the government can rescue them from abusive households.” As of now, the 17 Fifth Circuit judges are deliberating on the fate of ICWA; it’s likely that whatever the ruling, there will be an appeal to the Supreme Court, although it’s unclear whether the highest court will take up the case. If the Supreme Court were to agree with the plaintiffs’ assertions that ICWA is unfairly based on race, the consequences could undermine the entire concept of tribal sovereignty — and some critics of Goldwater and other conservative organizations like it say that this, and not the children’s best interests, is the point. “I think there are critics that are specifically critical of ICWA and don’t have a broader agenda, but some do have a broader agenda. And the attacks on ICWA have very big implications,” Hoskin said. “A very basic act of sovereignty is the tribe’s ability under law to protect their children.” In the Atlantic, two Michigan law professors argue that by seeking to dismantle ICWA, the plaintiffs “risk undoing a set of doctrines that has facilitated tribes’ ability to govern themselves and prosecute individuals who victimize Native people.” “In Brackeen, Texas has mounted nothing less than a frontal attack on the entire corpus of federal law that governs Indian affairs today,” the professors write. Another group vocally opposed to ICWA is the adoption industry, including the huge number of Evangelical Christians who want to adopt children. Around the turn of the century, celebrity pastors with huge followings began framing adoption as a moral imperative. The result was a boom in the adoption industry both domestically and abroad — a 2013 survey found that practicing Christians are more than twice as likely to adopt than non-Christians and that American adoptions make up nearly half of all adoptions worldwide. “The regulation of adoption from state to state varies widely — and there’s a confluence of factors that mean that with quick-and-easy adoptions, there’s lots of money involved,” Kastelic said. With the future of ICWA uncertain, tribes around the country worry about what might happen if Native children lose their special protections. “The fear is without these protections in place, we know the system continues to be biased. Bias is baked into the policies and safety assessments and you name it,” Kastelic said. “Our fear is that we are going to go back to the pre-ICWA days — the mass removal of children.”
The big business of BTS, the K-pop band that’s changed music
BTS will release their seventh studio album Map of the Soul: 7 on February 21, which has already received more than 3 million preorders. | Kevin Winter/Getty Images The Bangtan Boys’ brand is built on authenticity and an emotional connection with millions of fans. In one photo for their upcoming album, Map of the Soul: 7, the seven members of the South Korean supergroup BTS, or the Bangtan Boys, are cloaked in feathers, obscured by an ominous cloud of darkness. Other photos show them dressed in all-white and in neutral tones, posing in the midst of a sumptuous feast in a shadowy room. These images are a sharp detour from the colorful, Wes Anderson-esque aesthetic of their previous album, Map of the Soul: Persona, but that wasn’t a shock to fans: The Bangtan Boys’ public image, one that doesn’t rely on traditional forms of Western masculinity, is constantly evolving, as is their music. Fans will tell you that the Korean supergroup’s discography, once heavily inspired by hip-hop, belongs to no genre. What defines BTS — what sets them apart in the eyes of fans — is their emotional honesty, expressed through their lyrics, press interviews, and personal vlogs. Theirs is an underdog story, where they managed to surpass the odds to become one of the highest-earning K-pop acts and the unofficial face of Korean music worldwide. In “Home,” a sentimental track that reflects on BTS’s material success, there’s a verse that translates to “the world thinks we own the whole world.” It sure seems like it. BTS’s new album, which comes out February 21, has garnered more than 3.42 million preorders within the first week of its announcement. The boys have drawn comparisons to legendary music acts like the Beatles and the Jackson 5 for their ability to sell out massive arenas worldwide. They’ve sold out at least seven shows for the North American leg of their 2020 tour from fans in all 50 states, surpassing ticket sale records of top US pop stars Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift. The Western media — and the world, for that matter — has only been able to gawk at the sheer scale of BTS’s dominance. They’ve posed on the covers of glossy magazines with headlines like “How BTS Is Taking Over the World,” “Music’s Billion Dollar Boy Band Takes the Next Step,” and “The K-Pop Megastars Get Candid About Representing a New Generation.” BTS is receiving star treatment, but skepticism and resistance to their status as the world’s biggest pop stars still persist on the grounds of their “boy band” label, the (wrongful) assumption that their fanbase is fueled solely by teenage devotion, and xenophobia from an industry traditionally dominated by white Western stars. BTS’s path to superstardom was paved, in part, by South Korea’s wave of cultural exports to the West — from music to television dramas to elaborate skincare routines. Before BTS, a series of top K-pop acts (Big Bang, Girls’ Generation, EXO) have made US debuts, yet none really stuck, making the boys’ success even more unprecedented and unexpected. In 2019, BTS reportedly brought in $4.65 billion for the South Korean economy through physical album sales, concert tickets, and branded merchandise. The band is currently worth 0.3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and is projected to contribute $48 billion for South Korea by 2023, according to a report from the Hyundai Research Institute. These staggering numbers highlight how BTS’s influence is a 21st century tour de force, something few Western pop artists are capable of achieving today. At its heart, the music industry is driven by fan activity — the money poured into live shows, album sales, and official merchandise to bolster an emerging artist onto musical charts, whether that be the US’s Billboard Hot 100 or South Korea’s Gaon Music Chart. To understand the scale of BTS’s success among other K-pop acts and Western artists, you have to delve into the Korean entertainment industry and understand how it’s a wholly different beast than its American counterpart, down to how its biggest stars are cultivated and marketed. While record labels, artist management companies, and talent agencies operate as separate entities in America, Korean entertainment companies are a configuration of all three. “The top K-pop music companies are hybrid, highly integrated, full-stack ‘cultural technology’ enterprises,” said Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based agency that specializes in distributing Korean music. That means they have a top-down approach when it comes to managing creative endeavors and, in some cases, producing and shaping an artist or a band. Jeff Kravitz/iHeartMedia/Getty Images Fans in all 50 US states have bought tickets to BTS’s 2020 world tour. This is best reflected through K-pop’s intense trainee system, where potential stars are recruited through auditions and cultivated over years of rigorous performance training. Music studios are typically responsible for a group’s formation, their marketing and music, and even their personal lives. While BTS members were recruited through this system, their management label, Big Hit Entertainment, took a different approach, placing fewer restrictions on them. BigHit CEO Bang Si-hyuk envisioned the boys as relatable, down-to-earth figures that fans could connect with. (BigHit did not respond to an emailed request for comment from Vox.) Compared to other idols, BTS members have more creative and personal freedom, like the ability to write their own songs and lyrics and manage their own social media — aspects that BigHit aggressively marketed to audiences. The result is a massive international fanbase nicknamed ARMY (an acronym for Adorable Representative MC for Youth), consisting of millions of people that span across ages and cultures. These fans are well-organized and single-mindedly devoted to the Bangtan Boys. They constantly flood Twitter with hashtags to promote the band’s activities, organize to stream new music, and even create merch for other fans. Perhaps most importantly, fans see BTS as original, authentic, and socially conscious public figures who aren’t afraid to talk openly about the struggles and anxieties of their career path. I think about this a lot, but I believe a big part of @BTS_twt’s success and what has won people over, especially a lot of older fans, is their intelligence. Emotionally and cognitively, they are all extremely smart and thoughtful. They’re much more than just pretty faces.— Annie ⁷ ✨ (@AnnieLuvsBTS1) September 24, 2019 This core notion of authenticity — something that influencers, celebrities, and politicians alike aspire to embody — is a key factor in BTS’s astounding success overseas. It is a large part of the group’s appeal to companies seeking their endorsements. From 2013 to 2018, BTS sold more than $1.1 billion worth of branded items, and they’re expected to have an even greater economic impact than the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics within 10 years, according to the Hyundai Research Institute. “When I talk to American BTS fans for my research, they say that they’re drawn to how genuine BTS is and how they’re saying something about themselves, rather than just talk about money, sex, and drugs [like American artists],” Jade Kim, an associate professor at Texas A&M International University who researches Korean pop culture and media, told me. “BTS blurs the line between [being a pop idol] and a person, and that’s a big difference for fans.” The price of a music download or stream in Korea is worth shockingly little, Cho told me. “Selling the same exact song or exact same album, Korean acts could earn more than eight times more profit outside of Korea than inside,” he said. This has driven all types of Korean artists, from idols to indie singers, to go overseas and target an international audience. “There aren’t enough Koreans on this planet, living inside or outside of Korea, to singlehandedly make K-pop go global,” Cho said on BTS and the genre’s ascending popularity. “Simply put, international fans are why K-pop is international.” “International fans are why K-pop is international” While product sponsorships are common in the Korean entertainment industry, BTS has broken into the US market by the sheer force of its fandom, who have rallied stores like Hot Topic, Target, and Walmart to carry band merchandise and albums. That’s why you can find virtually every type of BTS-branded product imaginable on the internet. There’s BTS cold brew coffee, hand cream, Mattel dolls, and Funko Pop figurines. You can also buy BTS-inspired colored contacts, streetwear, Reebok shoes, and bank checks. Granted, this is only a short list of BTS’s brand collaborations and official merchandise. There are thousands of other unofficial products on the market, and the Bangtan Boys are also ambassadors for Fila, the city of Seoul (for three consecutive years), the Hyundai Palisade, and an electric street racing championship hosted by Formula E. Alastair Pike/AFP/Getty Images BTS partnered with Mattel to create two lines of fashion dolls, which have boosted the company’s sales by 10 percent. In short, BTS is everywhere — in Korea and abroad. Their branding prowess is undeniable, and even products that are unintentionally promoted through a BTS member’s “golden touch” can quickly sell out, whether that be a sweater, fabric softener, or a bottle of wine. As careful as a member might be to not name-drop a brand, it’s only a matter of time before sleuthing fans and BTS product accounts identify whatever they’re wearing or alluding to. “The fandom is very focused on buying official merch from concerts, BigHit, or the BTS Line store because it directly supports BTS,” said Liv, a 24-year-old BTS fan from England, who didn’t want to disclose her last name for privacy reasons. Liv has stopped purchasing BTS merch for herself, but she sometimes gives away items on Twitter for other fans to have a chance at owning some BTS goodies. Money is an inextricable aspect of any music fandom culture, not just BTS’s: Fans want to support their favorite artists, and that devotion is usually expressed through purchasing concert tickets, albums, and merchandise collections — all things that help the artist succeed. Still, not everyone can afford that or live where merch is easily accessible, Liv told me, which is why she and her fellow ARMYs are so passionate about hosting social media giveaways. K-pop fan culture is especially consumerist because, as Caitlin Kelley wrote for MTV, fans understand “many Korean acts do not make much money if they haven’t attained the rarified stature of a top-selling group like BTS.” Therefore, fans can feel like they have a responsibility to “support their faves” by buying branded items every time a new collaboration or album is released. The relationship is “like a parent giving unconditional love and support to their child, the band,” David Kim, a YouTuber who analyzes Korean culture and K-pop, told the Washington Post. Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images As a BTS fan, keeping up with the latest products can be overwhelming. At concerts alone, a person can buy anything from t-shirts and pins to posters and light sticks. There’s a downside to this focus on consumerism: Some fans spend thousands of dollars on merchandise or travel to attend concerts and meet-and-greets. It’s normal to spend extra on multiple versions of collectibles. “Merch-shaming” also exists within some corners of K-pop fandom — the idea that having a more extensive merch collection or attending a lot of performances is the marker of a “good fan.” Fan culture is complicated, and not everyone buys into the consumerist (and classist) ideology that owning merch makes someone a more dedicated fan. Most fans buy merchandise and concert tickets simply because they love the artist. Within online fan circles, ARMY members like Liv have found ways to make the BTS community more inclusive, especially for younger fans and those who live in places where it’s prohibitively expensive to get items shipped. US BTS ARMY, a not-for-profit organization and fan news site for BTS, occasionally hosts worldwide merch giveaways for global fans, and Album For Every ARMY is a charity project for fans who are unable to buy their own BTS albums. bts unsealed album giveaway prize: - one unsealed answer album 's' ver w/ NO photocards - unofficial photocards and lomo cards (ynwa pcs are unofficial) - bts enamel pin + badge how to enter: - rt + like - reply with @bts_twt ! - mbf this accountends: 12th feb— kimmi ♡ red moon (@0325LIGHTS) February 9, 2020 “There’s a wide spectrum of ARMY fans, including those who are teenagers or are in school, that don’t have the extra income for merch,” Jackie, the chief financial officer at US BTS ARMY, told me. (Jackie, who volunteers to work on the site, asked to only be identified by her first name.) “We like to partner with a company and host these giveaways so that anyone can have access to some of this official merchandise,” she said. As with most popular artists, there’s a vast black market for unofficial products created and sold by companies and independent artists alike. Big Hit Entertainment has previously sought to curb the use of the Bangtan Boys’ image and crack down on unauthorized merch outside of concerts, but online, small businesses by fans proliferate. To their credit, fans are wary of off-brand merchandise that appears to be exploiting BTS’s image for purely monetary gain. However, ARMYs are generally supportive of small artists who create original trinkets and drawings, said Stephanie Le, a 21-year-old college student who runs The Happi Peach pin shop on Instagram. Le has turned several of her original designs of BTS members into enamel pins, a hobby that she’s managed to successfully monetize in the past year. “Fans tend to purchase official merchandise, but they also see the value we bring to things that aren’t normally produced,” Le told me. “I consider myself a multi-fandom pin maker, but BTS has lately been a big inspiration for me so I’ve been drawing them more often.” View this post on Instagram A post shared by The HappiPeach ⁷ (@thehappipeach) on Jul 31, 2019 at 7:55am PDT Her operation is relatively small (she needs at least 20-50 preorders before she can manufacture a pin design), but some apparel and merchandise makers operate full-time businesses that solely cater to K-pop fans and even carry official products. There’s a constant stream of demand for novel items or t-shirt designs, especially when a band like BTS releases a new album. Demand for branded merchandise is huge, but most devoted fans know that physical album sales carry weight in official music rankings. ARMYs have been savvily setting goals online for the boys’ comeback in late February, according to Jackie. “When a new album comes out, we as a fanbase try and encourage the purchase of the album in the country where you reside in so it counts towards a chart in that country,” she said. “Since we’re a US base, most of our goals are directed towards the US.” That’s why Korean entertainment companies put so much effort into developing sleek, beautifully crafted albums; they’re marketed as collectibles, not just music products. (BTS was nominated for a 2019 Grammy in the Best Recording Package category.) “Instead of buying a CD with a booklet, you often buy a luxurious photo book bundled with posters, postcards, stickers, or tickets — with the CD thrown in as a bonus,” Cho of DFSB Collective told me. This is what industry insiders refer to as bundling, or including a piece of merch with an album or song, something many top US artists do to boost album sales. More details of @BTS_twt's 'Map Of The Soul: 7' have been unveiled.US & PR ARMY, remember to only purchase from stores that count for Billboard Charts!For those who have already ordered on Weply, you can cancel your order & order again at recommended US retailers!— BTS on Billboard ⁷ (@BTS_Billboard) February 13, 2020 For ARMYs (and other K-pop fans), it doesn’t really make a difference whatthe album comes with or what it looks like; they’ve planned to purchase it from the start. This level of sincere devotion to an artist — and even mass mobilization on said artist’s behalf — is what helped propel BTS into the international limelight. In other words, BTS fans take it upon themselves to actively promote the band’s work. They’ve already figured out the number of iTunes and Spotify streams, YouTube views, and Shazam song requests it would take for BTS to reach the No. 1 spot once Map of the Soul: 7 is released. If achieved, these goals would once again prove BTS’s ability to top the Billboard charts. This energy is something that even well-known stars like Justin Bieber struggle to capture: animating legions of fans to stream or buy music that will benefit the artist. When journalists and music critics speculate about the future of BTS, the narrative inevitably turns to South Korea’s two-year military service requirement, which all BTS members will be subjected to by the time they’re 28. For fans, it’s a fraught and bittersweet reality, given how Jin, BTS’s oldest member, will turn 28 in December. With this latest record, however, 2020 will likely be another big year for the young men in both music and commercial spaces. In a corporate briefing in early February, BigHit announced its plans to invest in a more immersive BTS concert experience, introducing “tour villages” in select cities with attractions like a BTS-themed hotel, an exclusive pop-up store, and other themed exhibits. The label is placing its focus on what fans want, a crucial part of its formula for success, according to executives. BTS’s trajectory in the past three years has been unstoppable; they’ve smashed records, sold out stadiums, cemented their international presence, and signed another seven-year contract, which means they’ll likely keep performing into their 30s. “As long as our bodies hold up, we’ll be doing the same thing in 10 years,” Suga, one of the group’s three rappers, told the Hollywood Reporter in a cover story last year (a story that was thoroughly criticized by fans for its inaccuracies, culturally insensitive sentiments, and lack of prior research). And, likely, as long as BTS’s bodies hold up, it’s not a question whether their fanbase will continue supporting them, financially and artistically, individually or as a group. Whatever they do and wherever they go, the ARMY will be behind them. Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.
Welcome to The Highlight’s Gender Issue
Anshika Khullar for Vox Nonbinary adults discuss life in a changing landscape; passing while trans; remembering the “Axe effect”; parents’ tug-of-war over baby clothes; and more. We are experiencing a moment of profound clarity when it comes to understanding gender, a shift precipitated by a dramatic turnaround in the acceptance of gay identity and expansion of marriage rights, a new spotlight on trans rights, and a reevaluation of masculinity brought on by the Me Too movement. So what better moment to examine the way we live gender now? In our cover story, we dispatched photographer Annie Tritt to capture the stories of older adults who have only recently arrived at the language to identify as nonbinary — to acknowledge that they do not fit neatly into male or female boxes, that they are neither, both, or fluid. They shared journeys from fear to self-discovery that affected their relationships with their children, with spouses, and with God. In a frank essay on her experience as a trans woman, Vox’s critic-at-large Emily Todd VanDerWerff explores the nuances of craving to be feminine, of wanting to “pass,” and the misgivings she feels about her desire for pink razors. It took having a child this winter for writer Chris Chafin to wonder why we dress infants in either pinks or blues, even at the risk of being wrong about who they are. Turns out we can blame Freud, not to mention the parental instinct to project our likes and dislikes onto our offspring. Also in this issue, we explore how Axe body spray inundated teenage boys with a vision of masculinity — and sexuality — that still haunts us today; and how a new exhibit reveals compelling truths about the notion of proof for survivors of sexual assault. While creating the Gender Issue, we turned to diverse writers and artists to tell us their stories in their own voices — even as we imagined our cover, a garden-like “gender utopia” in which the subjects of the issue mingle. In fact, the vibrant world drawn by trans nonbinary artist Anshika Khullar is not so far off from the real one. It’s complex, and it is beautiful. Life in between: Nonbinary adults, in portrait Five people on finding the words — and the strength — to be themselves. by Annie Tritt Annie Mok for Vox The Assimilationist, or: On the unexpected cost of passing as a trans woman The trouble with finding my true self in the beauty aisles. by Emily Todd VanDerWerff Zac Freeland/Vox How baby clothes became a pink and blue battleground A century ago, we dressed infants the same. So why is it so hard now? by Chris Chafin Michelle Kondrich for Vox The pungent legacy of Axe Body Spray For a generation of teens, the fragrance and its iconic ads upheld a bygone image of masculinity. by Mac Schwerin Courtesy of Kyle Knodell Opening a Pandora’s box of truths about rape kits Artist Aliza Shvarts collected exam kits from across the country. Now, an exhibition is using them to explore evidence, consent, and the standard of care for those who’ve experienced assault. by Lux Alptraum
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The Assimilationist, or: On the unexpected cost of passing as a trans woman
Annie Mok for Vox The trouble with finding my true self in the beauty aisles. Part of the Gender Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. In March 2018, a handful of days after I came out to my therapist as a trans woman, I decided to buy a razor to shave my legs. For the first time in my life, I was aware that my legs had hair on them, and I was at once irritated by that hair and a little anxious about it. I didn’t know why, but I wanted it gone. Even though I had a perfectly good razor I used to shave my facial hair, I felt strongly that I needed something pink or purple to tackle the thicket on my legs. So, standing there in a Target razor aisle looking for something functional but also cute, my anxiety growing as I was sure people were looking at me and seeing my secret true self and judging me accordingly, I found myself torn. The pink razor marked as explicitly “for women” was so lovely and sleek — but it was also functionally the same product as the black-and-neon-green razor for manly dudes right next to it. And the pink razor was $1 more expensive. Intellectually, I knew the “pink tax” existed because I had spent most of my adult life reading up on women’s issues. (I wonder why?) But this was my first encounter with it in the wild, with the fact that you could want so badly to feel a sense of belonging that you would let capitalism gouge you over and over again. I wanted so desperately to indicate my essential woman-ness that I was willing to pay extra for it. Screwing up my courage, I grabbed the razor, keeping my head down at the cash register, ready to say that it was for my wife, should anybody ask. (Newly out trans people are terrified of the gender police, who generally don’t exist except in our heads.) That pink razor was a piece of crap, and within six months, I had to replace it. My old men’s razor — which I still use to shave what facial hair I have left — is going strong after years of use. It was as if I was experiencing the market pressures of being a teen girl in the space of about three months In the months thereafter, money seemingly poured out of me. It was so, so expensive to be a woman. I found myself having to buy an entirely new wardrobe, one I’m still struggling to fill out here and there. I needed new shoes. I needed makeup. Buying all this stuff in aggregate was expensive, of course, but each individual item was expensive in and of itself. Can a man spend a lot of money on clothing? Of course. But he also has many affordable options. Finding such options in the women’s section was its own challenge. It was as if I was experiencing the market pressures of being a teen girl in the space of about three months instead of over several years. Even beyond that, there’s the cost of laser hair removal and electrolysis to get rid of my facial hair. There are regular sessions with a therapist who specializes in gender dysphoria. There was a crash course in voice training, in an attempt to coax my old rumble into a reasonable alto. Changing my name cost almost $500, and a printout of the paperwork proving my name was changed was another $50. There are so many expenses to come, including surgeries and more documentation of my identity, and so on and so forth. It’s expensive and exhausting, and it will never end. And yet I never ask myself why I’m doing all this. I just am. I need to. There’s a word that comes up in trans circles often, and I think it probably describes me (or, at least, people have used it to refer to me at times, when they think I don’t know they’re doing it): assimilationist. The best way to describe an assimilationist is to describe myself, so here’s what I’m wearing right now, on a chilly California day at the start of the year: My hair (on which I use somewhat expensive lightening shampoo to coax it toward a dirty blonde) hangs just past my chin. On my nose sit round-framed blue glasses ($500). I’m wearing a full face of makeup (my first visit to Sephora ran me $250, good fucking God), and I have on a pink sweater, a gray undershirt, black tights, and a ruffled black skirt (around $120, all told, mostly from Target). Cap this off with some dark purple running shoes ($75) and you’ve got the whole look. This outfit would not seem out of place on just about any woman in her 30s who works in the media. It’s a solid everyday look when I don’t have to make any on-camera appearances. (I have a more expensive wardrobe for when I do.) That’s precisely the point of the assimilationist claim: As trans people, we’re supposed to complicate the gender binary, not uphold it. By trying my damnedest not to stand out but to blend in — to tilt whatever little equation you run in your head when you see me away from “man” and toward “woman” — I’m propagating a system that hurts both trans people and women disproportionately, via everything from broad, systemic violence to the relatively minor sin of the pink tax. Here’s the thing that gives me a thrill but probably shouldn’t: It’s working. I can count the number of times I’ve been misgendered in the past six months on two hands, and it now happens so infrequently that I can chalk it up to somebody misspeaking far more often than to a deliberate attempt to make me feel like shit. I’ve even had a few encounters where someone was shocked to learn I was trans, not cis. I’ve developed camouflage. My justification for my style, from the first, has always been that if you Google my name, the very first page of results is filled with stories about how I’m trans. Even as I increasingly “pass” for a cis woman, I can’t escape the fact that I became a vaguely public figure and spent more than a decade publishing journalism (and a book!) under a man’s name. Even if I am invisibly trans in a crowd of people on the street, I am visibly trans once you know who I am, because unlike so many trans women, I was already visible when I transitioned. Still, my transition has gone much, much better than I expected it to. I had certain advantages in this regard, from economics (I have much more money than the majority of trans women) to race (white trans people have the same built-in societal advantages as white people in general) to geography (California presents few structural barriers when an adult wants to transition). I also had advantages when it came to my genetic code. My testosterone level has been low my whole life, so my body was already fairly androgynous. It didn’t take that much estrogen to shift androgyny toward traditional femininity. See also: Same dress, same mirror, 7 months apart.— Emily VanDerWerff (@tvoti) January 15, 2020 Many trans women have few or even none of my advantages. They cannot escape the fact that when they go out into society as themselves, they are constantly, visibly trans, with all the horrors that can bring. They can’t pay to eliminate their beard shadow. They can’t buy feminine clothes that fit their frames. They can’t spend countless hours training their voice to sound just so. And not all trans women are traditionally feminine. Many prefer looks that might skew toward androgyny or butchness. And this is just trans women — I haven’t touched on trans men, on nonbinary people, on gender fluidity, on those who are agender. Our goal as trans people should be to normalize all of these identities and in so doing push back against an unfairly limiting gender binary that hurts cis men and women, too. That binary imprisons all of us within a limited set of ideas of who we can be and what we are capable of, and many of the rules that govern it are arbitrary and invented by a society built by cis men for the benefit of cis men. Okay. I agree with all of the above. But I also love to be a traditionally feminine woman. Womanhood and women in general just make more sense to me than anything else I’ve ever tried. (My attempts at male bonding over the years glistened with flop sweat.) The gender binary makes me feel more like me. I want to eliminate it. I also want to hang on to some of it. It feels like I just got here. The thing about self-acceptance is that when you’re just getting used to it, you become an easy mark. The first time I went to Sephora, I spent way more on makeup than I ever thought possible, because the salesperson who helped me made me feel so good about myself. From the second she learned my name, she called me Emily, even though I was in full guy mode. She used she/her pronouns. She told me I was pretty. I plunked down $250, and I would have spent well over $300 if she had managed to talk me into a $70 foundation. (My wife saved me on that one.) To be clear: None of this is the salesperson’s fault. None of it is my fault, either. This is just how society is designed to function, and to come out as trans later in life is to suddenly start careening downhill into a newer, truer gender, without some of the guardrails that snap into place when you grow up cis and figure out the ways society tries to exploit you on the grounds of gender. It’s not like any of us are immune to these capitalist pressures. There are distinct economic expressions of “womanhood” and “manhood” that are meant to help us all find a sense of belonging and centeredness in our own genders by spending money on products to affirm them. We can be aware of this manipulation, can even roll our eyes at it, and still be susceptible to it. Annie Mok for Vox The problem, I suppose, is that I like being an assimilationist. I like it when people just assume I’m a woman without a second glance. I like it when I don’t have to explain myself. I like that if I go to buy a pink razor that’s more expensive than a men’s razor now, I never feel I have to come up with an excuse for why I might be buying it. This makes me feel more affirmed as an individual, but it also makes me feel like a shitty member of the trans community. The larger political project of dismantling the terrible structures of the capitalist patriarchy continues apace, and here I am cooing over my friend giving me a bracelet that spells out my name in Morse code. (Want to win a trans girl’s heart? Give her jewelry that involves her name somehow. You’ll have a friend for life.) I cannot ignore that in my attempts to slide headfirst into womanhood, I am more or less appeasing a society that is set up to favor cis people. I am especially doing a disservice to my nonbinary siblings, whose very existences challenge the idea that there are “men” and “women” and that’s it. I am a safe version of transness, corporatized and commodified, fit for mass-market consumption. I do not challenge you to rethink the gender binary in any real way. But affirmation is not a thing that can be given to us. It is something we nurture and grow from within, and it comes in as many shapes and sizes as there are people. Gender is a social construct, except for all the ways in which it sure seems like it’s deeply ingrained within my very self, and if you tell me I look pretty today, I will smile and thank you for the compliment. This is not all that different from how a cis woman might navigate the world, or so I’m told. We’re all constantly making our own compromises with some feminine ideal that was created for us at some point, an amalgam of a million different ideas of what it means to be a woman that is internally inconsistent and makes no sense, yet holds this unattainable appeal for way too many of us. (Men do this, too, of course.) Maybe I run so hard toward becoming that idealized girl because I know I can never be her, due to the circumstances of my birth. Maybe if I run hard enough, I’ll get there and suddenly wake up a suburban mother of two in Omaha, Nebraska. Maybe I wear so many dresses because I really love wearing dresses. Maybe I’m just overthinking it. There are reasons to blend in beyond self-acceptance. Namely, the world is already cruel, and being trans only ramps up that cruelty. If you can find a way to escape that cruelty, shouldn’t you? Let me give you an example. While riding the train from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica recently, I became dimly aware that a man standing right in front of me was shouting a homophobic slur at someone sitting behind me, over and over. This other person, whom I could not see, begged him to stop, in a voice deep enough for me to assume masculinity. I was wrong. When the target of the man’s slurs launched herself at him, I saw she was wearing a woman’s top and skirt. She had long messy hair. She windmilled down the aisle of the train and tried to land a punch or slap or something on the man. She failed, while he dropped her to the floor, flailing at her with his fists and feet, mostly failing to connect. Eventually, they were separated by others on the train. The world is already cruel, and being trans only ramps up that cruelty. If you can find a way to escape that cruelty, shouldn’t you? As the woman pulled away, I felt the lurch of recognizing a fellow trans woman, albeit one who does not pass for cis, whether she wants to or not. I cannot know her situation, but I have seen variations on her in every support group I’ve been to, in every young, scared woman DMing me on Twitter to ask if she, too, might be trans, as though I had the power to lift a terrible curse. While she retreated, other passengers laughed that exhausted, relieved laugh that arises in any situation where people who’ve just been through a tense situation are simply glad to have gotten out unscathed. But I felt something else in the laughter, something beyond “What the fuck was that?” I figured it out as I exited the train at the next stop, in front of some teenage boys who were still laughing about the altercation. “You see that dude?” one of them said. “He was in a skirt.” They howled at the thought, while I was two steps ahead of them, wearing a dress. They were oblivious to my presence and to my transness. I passed, because I assimilated. Here’s the part where I tell you that I turned around and told them to shut up, risking the freedom of passing to do the right thing. Or here’s the part where I tell you I found the woman in the crowd of people exiting the train and walked her to wherever she was headed. Or here’s the part where I tell you that I resolved to do better, to push more against the strictures of the binary. But I did none of these things. I simply quickened my pace and walked on to my appointment. Assimilation affords me the privilege of not getting involved, of doing the easy thing instead of the right thing. It also afforded the teens walking behind me the privilege of laughing at a cruel joke, rather than trying to push back against it. And it afforded all of my fellow passengers the privilege of rolling our eyes when the man started yelling slurs at the woman, rather than trying to get him to stop. Assimilation lets me be seen but also not seen. I can disappear. And in disappearing, some part of me evaporates. Could I have said something? Certainly. Should I have said something? I don’t know. I keep wanting to call myself a coward, but I am also right to feel scared. What if everybody had found me out? What might have happened then? The border between my safety and something horrible is so tenuous, and societal norms dictate that I am the one who’s asked to enforce it, not anybody who might dare to cross it. Annie Mok for Vox This is insufficient as an apology to the woman on the train. I’m sorry about what happened to you, and I’m sorry I didn’t stop it. I’m sorry literally anybody else who could have didn’t shout down that man. I hope you are okay. I have no excuses. I blend in because I love to wear dresses. I blend in because I love to go out with my women friends and have no one bat an eye when they see us together. And I blend in because I feel a power in living as my true self. Assimilation is powerful and affirming, but it is also a bind that traps me, tempting me into closing the door behind me to all of the trans people who cannot assimilate or do not want to. It’s a false choice between the allure of belonging and the power of speaking out against injustice. Early in my transition, a trans guy friend told me that sometimes trans people are so aware of their individual privileges that they become all they can see. I didn’t understand what he was saying at the time. I do now. But my friend said something else, too, which is that one’s own happiness is not a sin. Assimilating, blending in, is not a choice I made for safety reasons or even aesthetic ones. It’s an expression of who I really am. The challenge is to keep holding that door open, to not close it behind me, to take a sledgehammer to its edges until it’s wide enough for everyone. Womanhood is too expansive a category to be defined by limited parameters, no matter how it’s marketed. Capitalism feeds off this ideal woman, but it didn’t strictly create her. She’s an outgrowth of all of us, a golem created over millennia by an ever-shifting set of thoughts on what it means to be a woman. To be a trans woman is perhaps to be more aware of this odd set of expectations, of the way you probably don’t need that pink razor but want it anyway. But it’s not to be uniquely aware of those expectations. I am an assimilationist not because I have failed to examine my choices or the options afforded me under capitalism, but because when I find myself affirmed by family, by friends, by random strangers, I realize how deeply intoxicating it can be to love your life. What a novelty this is! To fight and fight and fight and discover the simple beauty of actually living the life you merely occupied before. Emily Todd VanDerWerff is Vox’s critic at large, and the former TV editor for the A.V. Club. She previously weighed in on the 25 all-time best episodes of television for The Highlight.
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How baby clothes became a pink and blue battleground
Zac Freeland/Vox A century ago, we dressed infants the same. So why is it so hard now? Part of the Gender Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. When Laura Hunter wanted to buy a gift for a coworker’s baby shower, she did what a lot of people who need baby gifts in a hurry do: She drove to a big-box retailer, in this case Buy Buy Baby. Looking for a particular swaddle — a long strip of fabric that is wrapped around a newborn to comfort them to sleep — she flagged down a sales associate. As they twisted and turned through the aisles, the associate stopped short to ask Hunter an important question: Was this swaddle for a girl baby or a boy baby? “It took me aback,” says Hunter, an attorney living in Washington, DC. “It’s a swaddle for a baby. It’s just a baby. It’s a blanket!” Jennifer Marmor, a podcast producer in Los Angeles, told her family and friends she didn’t know the sex of her child when she was pregnant because she thought it was the simplest and least confrontational way to make sure she got gender-neutral clothes (in fact, she knew she was having a boy). Shopping on her own, she was constantly surprised by how aggressively gendered everything was. Browsing in Target, she says, she’d find a cute onesie, notice she was in the girls’ section, and think, “Well, this doesn’t scream girl,” before noticing an overt and (to her) pointless feminine detail, like “ruffles on the butt.” Americans are obsessed with the sex of their newborns. Expectant parents are so seized with gender-reveal mania that they’re accidentally setting wildfires, crashing planes, and even killing people in ever-wilder stunts. Visit Amazon for baby clothes and you’re asked to pick a sex before you can see any merchandise. Retailers such as the Gap, Gerber, and Walmart all sort newborn clothing into boy and girl categories by default — indeed, this is the most common way to encounter baby clothes. This isn’t limited to children. Finding clothes that match your gender identity is fraught, even when an adult is making a decision about their own clothes for their own body. But how do you navigate sartorial choices for someone else, especially when that person hasn’t made any determination about their identity, or hasn’t even been born yet? Marmor would freeze, not knowing what to do. On the one hand, who cares? But on the other, she says, buying an explicitly, pointedly gendered piece of clothing for a baby of the opposite sex “feels like a statement that I don’t necessarily want to make, either: ‘I’m going to put my boy in clothes clearly for a girl!’” Hunter had similar problems. “I brought home a cute pair of overalls with a striped yellow tee underneath them,” for her infant son, she says. “Someone told me, ‘Oh, no, that’s for girls. See the frilled collar and ruffled bottom?’ Like, he’s 5 months old. Why can’t it just be a cute pair of overalls with a onesie?” Hunter and Marmor are among a group of new parents fueling a backlash to the hypergendered world of newborns. Parents give lots of reasons for rejecting the options currently on the market: wanting to reuse infant clothes for future children who could be of either sex; not wanting to advertise a love of trucks their infant almost certainly doesn’t have; being surprised at the tastelessness of so many infant clothes; or, yes, feeling uncomfortable enforcing gender norms. While there are some gender-neutral items on the market, they can require a huge amount of expert online shopping to find. An expectant or new parent casually visiting the site of a big retailer could easily miss them. Yetevery well-meaning parent is terrified of unintentionally doing damage to their child, whether that means feeding them food that turns out to be unsafe, buying a crib that’s later recalled for some ghastly hazard, or a million other accidental disasters. And with the recent increase insupport for transgender people (a 2019 study from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that 62 percent of Americans said they have become more supportive toward transgender rights over the past five years), some parents are worried about forcing a gender identity on a child. But above all, many new parents like Hunter and Marmor are asking themselves, isn’t a baby … just a baby? Wind back the clock just over 100 years and you’d be hard-pressed to tell an infant boy from an infant girl, says Jo Paoletti, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and the author of several books on the history of the gendering of children’s clothing, including 2012’s Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America. How we ended up in a culture so obsessed with the gender identity of infants turns out to be a complicated, century-long tale involving everything from Sigmund Freud to 1980s advances in medical technology. For most of the history of the Western world, Paoletti says, infants were considered almost a different class of human being, sexless and dressed more or less the same regardless of gender. In Europe — and, later, the United States — all babies typically wore swaddles, then dresses until they were as old as 7 (though, to be fair, there were boys’ and girls’ dresses of slightly different cuts). Just look at a painting from mid-1700s Connecticut, Boys in a Garden, which shows two young boys, the older one in breeches and a frock coat (“boy clothes”), the younger one in an elaborate gown not uncommon for his age. Throughout the past two millennia, babies in art were depicted nude, in gowns, or in swaddles of various types. Consider Jesus. He is perhaps the most famous baby of all time, but good luck finding a sculpture of him in a tiny pair of pants. There are many reasons for this. In some parts of Europe, wealthy parents preferred long gowns that prevented their children from crawling, which they considered base and animalistic. Practically, of course, a loose gown is also easy to change, and in later times, white gowns were easy to bleach. But there were philosophical reasons for the gender-neutral treatment of young children, as well. Victorians, especially, were concerned with thinking of children as pure, pre-sexed beings for as much of their lives as possible. Parenting convention at the time held that “draw[ing] attention to children’s sex prematurely is to risk all kinds of deviation,” explains Paoletti. “They’ll become sexually precocious. The boys will be homosexual. They’ll masturbate too much.” Any gender attribution to a young child was frowned upon, she says; even something as relatively benign as calling a male child “such a little man” had “a kind of creepiness to it from the 19th-century point of view.” Giving babies gendered qualities was, simply, gross. The way we dress babies began to change with Sigmund Freud’s 1905 publication of “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” which held not only that sexual characteristics were innate, but also that our experiences as children could influence us for the rest of our lives. Freud’s theory of identification was particularly influential in the early 20th century. It held that at a certain point, children must identify with one or the other parent and adopt their characteristics; a boy identifying with his mother was supposedly the root of a whole host of mental disorders. This belief merged with several others, notably those of psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who studied the sexuality of adolescents, to create a period in the 1910s and ’20s focused on establishing ever-younger children as proper men. (This focus was almost entirely on men). “How do we toughen up our boys and make them more manly?” was a common concern throughout that period, which was addressed in various ways, says Paoletti, including the 1910 founding of the Boy Scouts of America. Dresses for boys older than infants went out of fashion, along with the idea that early gendering would somehow harm a child’s psychological and sexual development. Dresses for infants, however, existed at least into the 1950s. The next major touchpoint — in many ways the one that began our modern gendered world — is the rise of amniocentesis in the 1980s. This test, originally given to pregnant women to check for birth abnormalities (principally the chromosomal markers for Down syndrome), had the side effect of being the first reliable assessment to accurately determine sex before birth. Hunger for both of these results helped amnio explode in popularity. “‘Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl,’ a very modern query to someone still obviously expectant,” Patricia A. Nelson of Albuquerque, New Mexico, wrote to the New York Times in response to a column on amnio in summer 1988. According to the Times, about 3,000 women each year were having the procedure in 1975; by 1990, it was 250,000. Parents now knew the sex of their baby before birth, which helped spark a kind of mania for gendered dolls, frilly onesies, tiny cars, and pink and blue things of basically every size and shape, according to Paoletti. New parents were almost irresistibly compelled to buy as many gender-specific things as they could. “Now what we have is that the children are just like mini adults from almost the point they appear in the world and aredressed accordingly,” said Hazel Clark, a professor of design studies and fashion studies at the Parsons School of Design. Retailers have been engaged in an escalating gendered arms race in children’s clothing ever since. There is evidence that the wave of hypergendered clothing may be cresting, at least among older children and teens. According to a 2016 study from trend forecasting agency J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group, a full 56 percent of Americans ages 13 to 20 shopped outside of their chosen gender, the same percentage said they knew someone who went by gender-neutral pronouns, and 81 percent said a person shouldn’t be defined by their gender. The same year, a UCLA study estimated that 1.4 million transgender people live in the United States. “People who don’t want to feel restricted ... to what’s historically been male or female? That’s not going anywhere. That’s only going to expand,” said Christina Zervanos, the head of public relations at Phluid, a Manhattan boutique that exclusively sells nongendered clothing. She sees a general softening of strict gender norms across society and believes it will continue to have ripple effects beyond those who identify as trans — maybe even to new parents. And gender-neutral doesn’t have to mean some kind of massive, boring tan sack that we pour our infants into, like a bundle of potatoes. Indeed, every parent interviewed for this story talked about being frustrated that retailers seem to think “unisex” means “gray.” They want vibrant colors — yellows, greens, reds, patterns, drawings — just not things that are restrictively gendered. “People assume that if you’re going to have something that’s gender-neutral, then it’s going to be oversized ... or drapery,” says Zervanos. “We celebrate color. If you walk into the store, there’s a lot of color and a lot of print.” If retailers were quick to catch on to and promote the rise of gendered baby clothes, says Clark, they should also reflect this change in society. “The convention of having the boys’ and the girls’ section, [and] the way of sort of directing the consumer, and making assumptions about where the consumer will be going to find the clothes has got to be rethought by the retailer,” she says. Some have already made strides. COS and its parent brand, H&M, for example, exclusively offer unisex or gender-free infant clothes. The Gap recently launched a hub for gender-neutral baby clothes, the Neutral Shop, which has been steadily growing in popularity, though it isn’t particularly easy to find when poking around the Gap’s website (it’s effectively hidden under the heading “Newborn 0 to 24m”). But making moves is easier than staking out a position. Vox contacted Amazon, Walmart, Target, Buy Buy Baby, Carter’s, the Gap, H&M, COS, Old Navy, and the boutique infant brand Mac & Moon for this story; Target was the only brand to offer a comment on the record, via email. This is that comment in its entirety: We organize clothing by gender in stores and on We understand parents don’t always know whether they are having a boy or a girl, so we intentionally create products that span a variety of colors, prints, and patterns, including offering a number of more neutral aesthetics. We also organize baby clothing on in a unisex baby clothing category to make it easy for our guests to find. For most of my life, the sartorial choices of infants weren’t, shall we say, top of mind. But this past fall, my wife gave birth to our first child, a girl. When shopping, I was surprised at how early and how often I was required to make choices about my daughter’s likes and dislikes and her presentation to the world. Of course, all those choices aren’t really about my daughter; they’re about me. Parents use our children to signal things about ourselves to other people. For parents, there’s lots we want to say: We like the Ramones, we shop responsibly, and we care about the environment. For the past few decades, the sex of our babies — and all the gendered characteristics that supposedly go with it — was high on that list. From birth, we wanted people to know about our sweetgirls and our tough boys so much that when all else fails, we strapped pink bows on their heads so it’s utterly impossible for anyone to mistake a girl for a boy. Now, we wonder, are some tasteful, colorful, attractive gender-neutral options too much to ask? My wife and I bought a lot of stripes and polka-dots, and an adorable sweater with cartoon bears that the retailer told us was for boys. The gender fixation is a historical anomaly, a perfect storm of technology, psychology, and anxiety about a changing world. But the world is changing, inexorably. And many new parents agree with the Victorians: There is something creepy in waxing lyrical about the gender characteristics of your infant. There’s something sensible in this 19th-century way of treating an infant as something of a blank slate, not daddy’s little girl or mommy’s little hellraiser, but, you know, just potential — a beautiful, lovable human that could become almost anything. Chris Chafin covers the business of culture for publications including Rolling Stone, Vulture, and the BBC. He also hosts a movie podcast.
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The pungent legacy of Axe Body Spray
Michelle Kondrich for Vox For a generation of teens, the fragrance and its iconic ads upheld a bygone image of masculinity. Part of the Gender Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. Was there ever a time more suited to the whims of a male American teen than the early aughts? The video game Grand Theft Auto IIIhad just shipped. LimeWire made Shaggy’s entire discography free and accessible. Hollywood was bullish on Seann William Scott. And then, in 2002, Axe arrived. A body spray meant to split the difference between deodorant and cologne, Axe bulldozed the senses with a fragrance so strong it seemed to precede the bodies it clung to — like Febreze, or a bad reputation. Almost 20 years later, it hasn’t managed to shake its association with the scent of middle school. Its introduction to drugstore aisles was attended by a series of notorious ad campaigns built on naughty jokes and blunt promises, the crux of them involving a parade of women lusting after some schmo. Over the next decade, Axe evolved to include deodorant sticks, shower gels, and hair care. But even as its product line began to reflect the refined grooming habits and shifting sensibilities of the modern metrosexual man, its branding stuck to old-school attitudes about romance. In ads suggesting that its scents would overpower all resistance, Axe pitched itself as artillery for a perpetual battle of the sexes — the howitzer of attraction. It was a winning formula: Axe sold $71 million worth of bottled machismo in 2006, just four years after entering the US market. Today, the iconic ad campaign feels fossilized, obsessed with a bygone vision of masculinity. (Axe rebranded in 2016, and although it still enjoys annual global revenues of more than $1 billion — comparable to a decade ago — it has posted year-over-year declines in the cultural cachet department.) Nevertheless, those 2000s-era commercials continue to notch thousands of views on YouTube. There’s the one in which an attractive spokeswoman spanks herself with the arm of a mannequin she just demo-sprayed. There’s the one with the guy made of chocolate who gets licked in a darkened movie theater. Part of these ads’ charisma rests on misdirection. Axe would have anthropologists believe that its target audience was 20-something men for whom quick-draw sexual episodes were a semi-regular occurrence; in fact, the brand’s power user was a 13-year-old boy with a mom who humored him. Glimpsed from the vantage point of the #MeToo era, Axe looks like a spasm of late patriarchy, but its legacy is complicated by the women who helped develop and champion it and the environment that teen boys fostered with it. To America’s horniest pubescents, it didn’t matter that the ads weren’t “real.” It only mattered that the body spray was. The scents smelled like what they had been told men should smell like: patchouli and sandalwood and musk; like Burt Reynolds in that famous Cosmocenterfold. That was the feeling of dousing your barren chest in two ounces of uncut manstank. If the sprays imparted that tiny bit of confidence, if they helped gangly tweens lurch their way toward adulthood, what was the harm? As it turns out, we’re still asking. Axe was officially born in 1983, in France, under personal care behemoth Unilever, which launched the line with three original scents: Amber, Musk, and Spice. But the brand as we know it today was born 12 years later when the company handed advertising duties to hip London agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty in 1995. (For trademark reasons, Axe is called Lynx in the UK and a few other countries.) At the time, Axe had flattening sales and stale marketing that leaned on the kind of self-serious fragrance tropes — stock jazz tracks, square jawlines — “that you see in 101 different ads,” says Sir John Hegarty, BBH’s co-founder. The brand needed a facelift. Hegarty and his team reasoned that Axe’s missing ingredient wasn’t sex, per se. It was irony. The brand was already gesturing, clumsily, toward seduction, but that only got you so far. Among a younger, savvier audience, the implication of sex wasn’t subversive; it was hackneyed. Nobody believed a body spray could single-handedly seal the deal for its wearer. Leaning into the absurdity of that proposition let BBH deliver its message with a fat wink. “So we came up with this whole strategy about the Axe Effect, as though it was this amazing effect that once you spray it on, any woman would fall for you,” Hegarty said. “Which of course is nonsense.” The Axe Effect anchored ads for the next 20 years. For the message to land, the guys had to be geeky, a bit socially deficient, and relatable — James Bond doesn’t need the Axe Effect. The women would be stunners. That was the joke: The starker the hotness differential, the more it beggared belief, the more clearly the ads would present as self-aware. “Really, you were talking to 15- to 18-year-olds,” Hegarty said. “And you were talking to a group of kids who were emerging into adulthood who needed confidence. I mean, the background to all this is they were very insecure.” Suddenly a worldview coheres. The brand’s first commercial to use the strategy, which depicts an awkward young man at a cocktail party who turns suave as soon as he applies the spray, conjures a dystopian vision of adulthood. There are elaborate cocktails, freestanding pieces of art, finger foods. Axe promises not just to help boys get the girl, but to help them navigate a world that punishes inexperience. Take as a given that teenage boys are deathly afraid of their perceived immaturity. Imagine or remember a world in which the opinions of your male friends and classmates were everything, and girls belonged to a mysterious order that you thought about constantly — and occasionally consulted — but whose value-add was theoretical. To be able to go to the drug store and spend a few bucks on a spray can that cleanly telegraphed a worldview that assured peers you wanted the same things they did: How could you not prize that kind of commodity? “It’s the easiest possible way to try and become a man,” said Frank Karioris, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies masculinity. “It doesn’t take labor, it doesn’t take work, it doesn’t take money ... it just takes you using Axe.” He suggested that although the brand offered no real utility when it came to actually picking up women, its grammar of seduction helped affirm a sense of manliness — “particularly for teenage boys, who are told that having sex somehow is the thing that defines you being a man,” he said. The ads changed a lot as Axe grew up, but certain elements stuck around to remind viewers who the product was really for, like the floppy haircuts and unripped torsos. The application ritual always involved an extended crop-dusting over the chest. Of course, Axe took liberties with its suggested volume. (“Spray more, get more,” read one straightforward tagline.) If your olfactory nerves were irreparably frayed, if you can still picture the fog of your junior high gym, blame the ritual, and the unstoppable appeal of a reusable prop for teenage boys to play-act manhood. Targeting teens meant Axe was also targeting their mothers, who often did the grocery shopping, and who were among the most important stakeholders in their sons’ hygiene habits. The explicit nature of Axe’s branding, not to mention its infamous pungency, made an alliance between moms and Axe counterintuitive — until you were in the company of a sweaty 15-year-old. “I’ve got two sons,” said Rosie Arnold, a former BBH employee and the creative director on some of Axe’s most celebrated ads. “When people say, ‘Oh my God, doesn’t Axe or Lynx smell awful?’ I’m like, ‘Not as awful as teenage boys.’” The brand counted girlfriends as another constituency and regularly tested its campaigns with young women, many of whom liked the ads. “I adored the Axe advertising,” said Cindy Gallop, the president of BBH New York during Axe’s stateside launch. “I thought it was fantastic, because it was absolutely on the right side of that line” between cheeky and profane. And yet, in some ways, women were beside the point. One mid-aughts commercial featured Ben Affleck playing himself over the course of a regular day. As he walks around and does his errands, he tallies the number of women who check him out. At the end of the spot, Affleck enters a hotel elevator with a geeky blue-collar guy (played by a young Scoot McNairy) and the two compare their numbers. The joke is that McNairy, an impecunious nobody covered in Axe, gets 20 times the attention as an A-list Hollywood star — but the metajoke is that after 12 hours of female come-ons, both men are more concerned with homosocial posturing than actually getting lucky. The ad lays bare Axe’s sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary messages. McNairy’s cartoonish success with women proves that when you have Axe, “You don’t need to be a good talker, you don’t need to be the most attractive, you don’t need to be wealthy, you don’t need to have the perfect job,” as Karioris put it. But his levered sexual capital isn’t spent on sex; instead, it’s used to extract respect from Affleck. The same insecurity that powered the Axe Effect ultimately ate it from the inside. An existential threat was brewing — not within the FCC or bronchially besieged gym teachers, but something far more vital: sales. By 2013, the rate of global growth “had declined a little bit,” said Fernando Desouches, who was then Axe’s global brand development director. Unilever was forced to confront the possibility that the Axe Effect no longer resonated with adolescent dudes. That year, the company conducted a study of more than 3,500 hundred men in 10 countries, poking at conceptions of masculinity and self-esteem. “When we talked to people, we realized that men were in a different place,” Desouches said. He had worked on Dove’s groundbreaking “Real Beauty” campaign and saw parallels in the socialscape. In describing them to me, he deployed a familiar word. If the Axe Effect was saying “that you’re not good enough — not attractive enough — until you wear a product that will make you attractive, this is not empowering.” Other tectonic forces were at work, aptly summarized on Unilever’s website: “We know that the rules of attraction are changing and that it is about connection, not conquest.” Management had come around to the idea that women were not prizes to be won. Teens had, too, in their way. Plus, Axe had so relentlessly polished its image as a tool for the needy that it had started to become associated with them. “[T]o most high school and college-aged males, Axe had essentially become the brand for pathetic losers,” writes Martin Lindstrom in his book Brandwashed. In 2016, Unilever introduced a new platform animated by the tagline “Find Your Magic.” This campaign treats empowerment as teleological: Young men are told to find what makes them special (there’s gotta be something) and learn how to flaunt it (whatever it is). The anthem commercial is strategic and sensible and well-made and doomed to fade from our collective memory like 99 percent of all marketing efforts. It might yet save Axe from stigma, but at the cost of the brand’s iconoclasm. The architects of the Axe Effect, for their part, aren’t sure it needed saving at all — at least not the strategy that informed the original messaging. Like everything else related to sex and gender, the wake of Me Too brings new gravity to a frank discussion of Axe’s faults. “When it comes to the Me Too generation, of course you’ve got to be sensitive to that,” Hegarty said. “You can’t ignore it. You can’t be on the wrong side of the debate.” But he argued that seduction still ought to be respected. “Since the beginning of time, the guy who’s been able to seduce the girl is the one that wins out. And that isn’t going to change.” Gallop maintains that Axe’s early advertising exploded taboos surrounding women’s libidos and should be viewed as a net positive. But didn’t the Axe Effect imply that men needn’t worry about impressing a woman on their own merits because Axe would hotwire a sexual outcome no matter what? She laughed. “Good God, man, you are really overthinking this,” she said. “It’s only fucking advertising.” Mac Schwerin is an advertising copywriter and freelance journalist. He lives in Singapore.
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Opening a Pandora’s box of truths about rape kits
Artist Aliza Shvarts’s Anthem, shown in 2019 at SculptureCenter in New York, pulls together rape kits from across the country to show differences in how each state treats the important act of collecting evidence from sexual assault. | Courtesy of Kyle Knodell Artist Aliza Shvarts collected exam kits from across the country. Now, an exhibition is using them to explore evidence, consent, and the standard of care for assault victims. Part of the Gender Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. Aliza Shvarts first became fascinated with rape kits a decade ago as a graduate student at New York University. In her research, Shvarts focused heavily on speech act theory — a field that looks at the way words can be used to create realities, altering the world around us through speech. She was also watching a lot of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and her professional studies began bleeding into the way she consumed the show. One of the show’smost common tropes centered on the rape kit. Without one, survivors would find themselves vilified and disbelieved. But once their kits had been collected and processed, they had power and credibility, ultimately winning their cases. “The thing that makes you matter all of a sudden is the empirical object that corroborates your testimony,” says Shvarts. The idea of a concrete object that could render the truth unimpeachable was deeply appealing, particularly when it came to a disputed and seemingly unknowable subject such as sexual assault. Rape kits — known alternately as sexual assault forensic exam (SAFE) kits, sexual offense evidence collection kits, physical evidence recovery kits, sexual assault kits, and sexual assault evidence collection kits — loom large in the public imagination. On procedural shows such as Law & Order: SVU, they’re often presented as the difference between a rapist’s conviction or acquittal. In the real world, rape kits also highlight how our criminal justice system routinely fails survivors. Advocates frequently use the rape kit testing backlog — it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of kits go unprocessed and untested after they’ve been collected — as an entry point for exploring the low priority that sexual assault cases are given by law enforcement, as well as the stress and trauma of reporting a sexual assault. Kits are often the only physical evidence a survivor can present in court, but they’re frequently lost in the system; because many states don’t require them to be logged or tracked, it’s both easy for kits to be misplaced and impossible to know precisely how many untested kits there are. Courtesy of Kyle Knodell Shvarts began researching rape kits a decade ago, as a graduate student at New York University, first purchasing them online, then reaching out to state agencies for sample kits. And yet for all our conviction that rape kits are the key to justice for sexual assault survivors, most of us do not know what these kits contain, or even what purpose they serve in the criminal justice process. Despite her obsession with the role rape kits played on Law & Order, “I didn’t really know what they looked like,” says Shvarts. Determined to demystify them, Shvarts purchased a few from websites selling SAFE kits. But once she had one in her hands, she was surprised to find not some high-tech forensic device but a simple cardboard box full of paper envelopes and instruments for collecting debris, skin cells, hair samples, clothing, and other items used by forensic examiners to document evidence of an assault and potentially identify a perpetrator through DNA evidence. The SAFE kit began to seem less like unassailable proof and more like one more way of taking control away from survivors. “Certainly [the kit] does a lot of important work in terms of collecting physical evidence,” says Shvarts. But at the same time, she says, there’s a crucial piece of evidence that cannot be documented through a rape kit examination. “A rape kit can never discover the presence or absence of consent. That’s something only the survivor can really testify to.” Even at a passing glance, Anthem makes clear that not all rape kits are created equal. That a rape kit could somehow reveal a nonconsensual experience is rooted in some persistent myths about rape. “Consensual sex can leave injuries,” says Maggie von Dolteren, a victim’s advocate at West Virginia’s Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center. “And the injuries that are associated with sexual assault are just not as violent as some people expect them to be.” As helpful as rape kits can be in reconstructing the details of an assault, the key factor that distinguishes sexual assault from consensual sex can’t be documented by swabs, slides, or photographs of bruises. Shvarts began exploring this tension in her artwork, incorporating the kits into her performance pieces, and, as her work evolved, eventually treating the kits as a form of sculpture. In 2018, Shvarts exhibited all the kits that were publicly available for purchase in a piece called Box Choreographies, inviting viewers to examine the range of ways a SAFE kit could be constructed — to understand the kits not as a fixed authority, but as inconsistent, works in progress, still being refined. Soon, Shvarts began reaching out to various state agencies to request samples of their kits. If the six kits included in Box Choreographies already showcased a diverse range of shapes, sizes, and procedures, what would dozens of them, displayed side by side, show the world about how we talk about rape? Last January, Shvarts debuted a new work at SculptureCenter, a museum in Long Island City, Queens. The artwork, Anthem, invited viewers to make their way down a long, concrete hallway, its arched ceiling lending the scene a somewhat Gothic effect. On the walls of the hallway were small boxes and envelopes, recreations of the dozens of rape kits that Shvarts had collected from forensic examiners, sexual assault nurse examiners, and other sexual assault response experts from across the country, displayed in alphabetical order by state. Shvarts didn’t manage to secure kits from all 50 states. In the original version of Anthem, 28 states were represented. (Since Anthem’s debut at SculptureCenter, Shvarts has received kits from Delaware and North Dakota, which are being added to the collection for its next showing this February at Art in General in Brooklyn.) Even at a passing glance, Anthem makes clear that not all rape kits are created equal. The boxes come in a wide variety of sizes; in some cases, they’re not boxes at all, but oversized paper envelopes. Glancing inside the kits reveals more differences. In some states, examiners only have seven steps to go through; in others, there are more than 20 separate tasks on the checklist. The language states use to direct examiners also varies widely. Some limit themselves to medical or legal language, others are more colloquial in their terminology. In Florida, examiners collect underwear, while in Washington, they request a survivor’s underpants; in Louisiana, panties. The Virginia kit lists various sexual acts on the evidence collection envelopes, distinguishing between swabs that collect evidence of forced cunnilingus and those that indicate forced anal penetration (or, as the kit refers to it, buggery). Courtesy of Kyle Knodell A detail from Anthem, pictured in 2019 at SculptureCenter in New York City. The exhibition returns to New York’s Art in General this month. Anthem’s viewers see not just the stark differences between kits and the broad range of experiences survivors may have at the emergency department. These kits reflect the piecemeal way the country understands and addresses sexual assault — and how far we are from a national consensus on how to respond to rape. “A lot of visitors were looking at kits from states that they had been to or had lived in, trying to see whether their sense of that state’s awareness of the gravity and importance of addressing sexual assault was reflected in the [kit’s design],” says Gee Wesley, a former curatorial fellow at SculptureCenter who worked with Shvarts on the project’s debut. In many instances, Wesley says, visitors left Anthem more “attuned to the unevenness of access” to quality care for survivors. Shvarts hopes audiences will also develop a deeper understanding of the fundamental limitations of these kits — that they’re simply one more imperfect way to help a survivor make their case. Anthem isn’t the only way Shvarts is reassessing rape kits. This spring, a follow-up project titled Anatomy will debut at the 8th Floor in Manhattan. Where Anthem offers a broad and comprehensive view of SAFE kit variation, Anatomy hones in on one specific aspect of the kits: the diagrams provided to examiners to document the locations of injuries. Though they ostensibly represent a universal body, more often than not they read as white, cis, and female. “If you are a black trans woman, and a nurse is trying to diagram your injuries, one of these diagrams would not allow for an accurate representation of your assault,” Shvarts says. “A rape kit is meant to embody the voice of a survivor; it’s meant to speak on your behalf,” Shvarts says. Through her work, Shvarts highlights what a complicated, and perhaps impossible, mission that truly is. She hopes more of us will begin to question why we put more faith in a small cardboard box full of envelopes, swabs, and DNA than we do in the testimony of a person. Anthem can be viewed at Art in General (145 Plymouth St, Brooklyn, NY) February 21–May 9. Anatomy can be viewed at The 8th Floor(17 W 17th St, New York, NY) April 16–July. Lux Alptraum’s writing has been featured in publications including the New York Times, New York magazine, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and Hustler. Her first book, Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal, explores our cultural obsession with feminine deceit.
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Life in between: Nonbinary adults, in portrait
Annie Tritt for Vox Coming out as neither male nor female transformed the lives of these five Americans. Here are their stories. Part of the Gender Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. Bobbi Ullinger was browsing an online support group when she first saw the word bi-gendered. “It was like the lightbulbs went on, the choir of angels was singing, and the light was shining down on me,” said Ullinger, 64. “And that was really the first inkling that I had of the gender spectrum, that you didn’t have to be one or the other. You can be both or neither.” The past decade has ushered in visibility for people who identify as nonbinary, meaning their gender is neither male nor female but somewhere in between, fluid, both, or neither. Thirteen states now offer a nonbinary gender option for driver’s licenses, and stars such as singersSam Smith and Janelle Monáe and Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness have come out as nonbinary or gender-fluid in recent months. They/them pronouns have entered the national conversation, and the dictionary. Much of the focus from lawmakers and the media around those who don’t fit into a neat gender box has centered on young people, in part because today’s youth are simply more likely to know somebody who uses gender-neutral pronouns — 35 percent of 13- to 21-year-olds, compared with 16 percent of Gen Xers and 12 percent of boomers, according to a 2018 Pew study. Left out of the conversation is how older nonbinary people, many with already established lives, are navigating an increasingly accepting world. Photographer Annie Tritt traveled across the country to explore the lives of five nonbinary and gender-fluid adults. Many mentioned finally having the words to describe their experience. Others expressed sadness over the years or sometimes decades spent hiding a part of themselves. “If I had discovered this freedom and clarity in my 20s, or if I was 20-something now, I would have a completely different outlook,” said TL Thompson, 42. “This young generation of queers were socialized very early in their development [to understand] that they could be whatever they wanted to be.” For the adults interviewed for this project, coming into their identities later in life added complications to theirestablished careers and relationships with partners,children, and their communities. Yet the stories that emerged were ultimately about resilience and love. Bobbi Ullinger, 64, audio technician in Kent, Ohio I can remember when I was little, really little, I would go to bed at night and say a prayer that I would wake up as a girl in the morning, and when I woke up in the morning, I’d be very disappointed that I wasn’t a girl. But there were also times I would be very relieved that my prayer was not answered, because I still wanted to be a boy, too. I went through cycles where I would sneak into my mom’s closet. I would feel good dressing in her clothes, and then I would feel very ashamed and swear that I was never going to do it again. That went on for years — for most of my life. Even up until the time that we [Bobbi and her wife, Cathy] were married. In the early days of the internet, there were just bulletin boards. Doing any kind of rudimentary search with the terms that I knew — cross-dresser or transvestite, transexual — even after the internet started to come around, all you would get was page after page of pornography. I knew that wasn’t me, and that put me further in the closet. And then came the movie The Silence of the Lambs. It was about a guy who’s transgender, but the way he expresses himself is by killing women, skinning them, and sewing their skin together to make his own. And all I could think of is, this is what people think that I am. If I ever get caught, that’s what they think I’m going to be: a monster, a freak. That put me in total denial. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-40s that I finally found a website called GRITS, which is an acronym for Girls Raised in the South. On there were stories of people, stories that sounded a lot like my story. And that was really the first time that I knew I wasn’t the only person like this in the world, that I was not some terrible freak. From that website, I found another called Gender Tree, run by a trans woman named Sandra Stewart, and she was at the time in seminary. And she would take these verses that Christians used to clobber us over the head and tell us we’re going to go to hell, she would break these Scriptures down and show that they didn’t mean what they were being used for. That was my first inkling that maybe this is okay with God, that I’m not going to be condemned to hell. So I ended up making a deal with God: This was okay to do, as long as it didn’t interfere with my relationship with my wife, Cathy, and my family, and with God. And like most of those kinds of deals with God, it lasted about six months or so before I started to feel guilty about keeping this thing from her. The first thing [my wife] said [when I told her] was, if this has been going on for that long, then it’s obvious it’s not going to stop. So let’s figure out how to work through it.We had been married for 30 years. I originally identified as a cross-dresser.It was in an online support group for other cross-dressers that somebody used the word bi-gendered. And it was like the lightbulbs went on, the choir of angels was singing, and the light was shining down on me. That’s what I am. I feel both masculine and feminine. That was really the first inkling that I had of the gender spectrum, that you didn’t have to be one or the other. You can be both or neither. When I’m talking to a group of people, that’s how I identify myself: “I’m Bobbi, and my preferred pronouns at this point are she/her/hers,” although that’s because right now I am presenting as Bobbi 99 percent of the time. But for a long time — and I still am comfortable presenting in the middle — for my preferred pronouns, I had two asterisks and would say, it’s contextual. If I’m presenting masculine, he/him; if I’m presenting feminine, she/her; if I’m presenting in between, they/them. As far as being gender-fluid, I still have those shifts, and I have no control over it. And it can just kind of pop up no matter how I’m presenting or the circumstances that I’m in. And I guess the best way that I can describe it is like a mental itching powder. It can really throw me off balance; it catches me by surprise. One time in particular was really very awkward. I was dressed to the nines. Cathy and I were going to asmall cabaret-style theater up in Cleveland. We walked in, got a glass of wine, sat down, and all of a sudden I’m feeling very, very macho and very masculine. I had a hard time really enjoying the play, because that was preoccupying my mind. There have been other times when I have been doing very manly, macho work and all of a sudden felt very demure and very feminine. I’ve gotten better at being able to focus through that. And that’s kind of how I work my way through it — just really focusing on what I’m doing. TL Thompson, 42, actor in New York City My mom always took me to my aunt to get perms, or she would straighten my hair on the stove with an iron. She was really invested in making me the woman that she had grown up to be. This is what you do with your daughter, she probably thought. And I was just like, I love you, Mom, but I can’t. So at 11 or 12, I shaved my head. I was a little fearless and reckless in weird ways. I loved Dirty Dancing. I was totally Patrick Swayze when I would act it out in my room. I was like, “Oh, my God, I can do that. I can act like I would want my life to be onstage in front of people. This is amazing. And you’ll pay me?” My mind was blown. I come with a socialized female experience, and I think the combination of that experience, and the way that I look, and — people have said this to me before — the openness in my spirit makes it an interesting thing to watch. As an actor, I’ve done roles where I’m wearing heels and a dress, and I’m a water nymph, and it’s like, yes, this feels right. I just did this web series called These Thems, and I play a DJ named TI, and they’re this smooth, nonbinary person that loves love and loves sex and is poly. And that feels good, too. That feels right, that feels true. But while there are more specifically nonbinary roles now, the roles that I have traditionally gone for, the call sheet said female. I can play a small guy, maybe a scrappy guy, maybe the mischievous one. But I’m not going to be the leading football player dude. I’m never going to be that guy. Men have a really hard time placing value on what trans masculine and nonbinary people are. They can’t get things from us that they would normally want from a feminine body, so our value is less than — it’s less than male, it’s less than female. So of course we’re not in media. Of course no one’s writing roles for us. If I had discovered this freedom and clarity [to be nonbinary] in my 20s, or if I was 20-something now, I would have a completely different outlook. This young generation of queers were socialized very early in their development [to understand] that they could be whatever they wanted to be, more often than not. I was at the end of the generation that had to work very hard to even be acknowledged as queer or nonbinary. In my day, you were butch or you were femme. There wasn’t even language in the mainstream that gave voice to the nuances in sexuality. I come from the generation of trans performers that had to pick a gender where roles were concerned. I believe that the arts are a way to make social change. There’s so much beauty in a painting. There’s so much joy in a song. So much activism in theater. It’s always been that way. From the time we could tell stories, that’s the way that we change. And I think that’s absolutely why I’m an artist. That’s how you change the world, baby! Leland Koble, 62, retired nurse in White Haven, Florida I didn’t know I was a girl until the age of 5, when I went to kindergarten. My parents never, for whatever reason, had judgment, or asked me about my gender or my sexual choices. I don’t have one of those sad stories of being judged and oppressed. I grew up in a great family that allowed me to live my life like me. When I was 54, I guess I came out in a different way. Because Ifound out then that my grandmother was Seminole Indian, and that’s why she used to call me “two-spirit.”At the time, I thought she meant I’m a Gemini. My grandparents were wealthy, and on Easter, they used to always have a party and all the little girls would be dressed in little bonnets. I was always playing with the little pigs [at their house]. My aunt used to say it’s disgusting, but my grandmother used to always say, you just need to leave that child alone. She’s two-spirit, and she’s going to do well. Charlotte Kesl for Vox I grew up in a little tiny town, with only, like, 12 kindergartners. Everything was fine until we went to phys-ed. The teacher said, “We’re going to play dodgeball,” so all the little boys lined up over here and all the little girls lined up over there. It was the most defining moment in my entire life. I ran over to where all the little boys were. I’ll never forget it: The teacher walked over to me, grabbed me by the arm, and said, “Kathy, you’re over here.” And she took me over to these screaming, giggling little girls. And I thought, these are not my people. They called my dad to come to the school. When I went to the principal’s office, my dad was sitting there, his arms crossed. The principal said to my dad, we have a situation with your daughter. She refuses to play with the little girls. She’s always with the little boys. I’m going to have to request that tomorrow, and from then on, your daughter comes in dressed in the dress code, which is dresses down to knee length. My dad stood up — I’ll never forget it — and just said, “Come on, we’re going home.” He looked at the principal and goes, “That’s not likely to happen.” And I never wore a dress to school again. In a small town like that, where everybody knows everything, nobody wants a hassle. I really wasn’t judged much until I had my breasts removed [at age 54]. The transgender community tried to put pressure on me to make a decision about changing my gender, taking testosterone, and declaring who I was. I didn’t have much relationship with the community before surgery, except for a few trans friends. After surgery, there was a lot of pressure from certain patients to declare my gender and also about my non-use of testosterone. Charlotte Kesl for Vox I think using they/them pronouns is still really hard for people. Using they/them doesn’t make any sense to country folks. And they’re not having it. But you’re in New York? Okay, well, that’s completely different. I think that acting somewhere in between a man and a woman, it’s still just inconceivable for more than 50 percent of the populace. It doesn’t make sense to them. Darren Rosenblum, 50, law professor in New York City For law school, I started out at CUNY, then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. About 30 percent of the time, I was wearing dresses and skirts. At CUNY, people were really, really supportive, like vocally supportive, almost a little bit oppressive. And then at Penn, there was a small group of people who were really supportive in a cool way and then everybody else was just civil. Once I graduated and worked at a law firm, I would trot out my dresses every now and then, but it became less and less. I put them in the back of my closet. I went to some interviews wearing a professional skirt and jacket, and I didn’t get any callbacks. Maybe it was that, or maybe it was just my own awareness, but I really shied away from [wearing dresses] throughout much of my career. Then, five years ago, I started reintroducing women’s clothes into my wardrobe. It was maybe about two and a half years ago when I started wearing it [when I was teaching at] law school. There was an incident where this anti-trans activist from the Federalist Society came to debate me at school about bathrooms. And it felt like I really had to wear a skirt to represent. The first time I wore [women’s clothes] to teach broke it open for me. And I did it more and more frequently. But I realize that my body is a man’s body. I’m not under any impression that people think that I pass as a woman. It means people probably think of me as a man wearing women’s clothes. I think of myself as more gender-fluid or nonbinary. My daughter, I think a part of her thinks that this is natural and that’s who I am. And she sees me in a context where I am treated as completely normal for dressing this way. But I do think kids who are 10 are very aware of what’s normal for themselves and for their families. And so 10 is the age kids become very embarrassed of their parents all the time — and not just when their parents are gender-nonconforming. So whatever resistance she has is really just age-appropriate. But I know that she knows that this is who I am, and she’s playful about it and supportive about it in her own way. It’s not ever, “I wish you wouldn’t dress like that.” I do think there’s more freedom for people today to be themselves at work and dating than I had when I was their age. That makes me happy. Although I should say, there’s a little sadness too, because I feel like being[LGBTQ]is so normalized now that there’s not that kind of camaraderie there used to be when I came out. You would see somebody who was visibly gay, there would be a sort of smile that you would share, and you would greet each other. And now that sort of doesn’t happen so much anymore. I wear what I want, and I feel very feminine in what I wear, and I enjoy that. And that’s why I feel like “gender-fluid” might be more appropriate than “nonbinary,” but I don’t care about the labels. I think there’s some value in it, but the label isn’t a core part of what I’m doing. Addison Rose Vincent, 27, activist in Los Angeles When I was 21, I officially came out as nonbinary. Dating for me was incredibly hard. I just saw this post the other day saying that straight privilege is being able to date in middle and high school. I completely agree. I feel like at 27 years old, I’m still learning how to make friends, and how to have a relationship. I’ve had to not only navigate all that queerphobia and transphobia, but also so much social anxiety. I’ve had to unlearn really toxic and unhealthy representations of the community. Until just this past year, I didn’t have a beard, and I presented in a way that many people would read as a trans woman. I was very feminine. I tried dating apps, like OkCupid, and if I put things like nonbinary on my profile, I would get so many questions, and so many people invalidating me, sending me horrible messages. Questions like, do you have a penis or vagina? What are you, male or female? A couple guys were interested in me, but they didn’t really want to take me out on a date. They just wanted to hook up. So I felt a lot of shame around who I was, because I felt that the only type of love or attraction that I was capable of receiving was if I was seen as a sexual object. It made me feel I was never going to be capable of dating. Then I met Ethan, and everything kind of changed. He taught me that I’m worthy of love and affirmation beyond just being treated as a hookup. Which is how I’ve gotten to the point of really embracing my expression that I have now. For the longest time, I felt I had to keep shaving my beard and keep plucking my beard to get rid of it. And it didn’t really align with what I really truly wanted. But I felt that I had to do it. I had to do it to be attractive. I had to do it to be accepted. I had to do it in order to be palatable. About a year ago, I started growing out my beard, and it was probably the most exciting thing that I had done in a long time. I felt that I was going against the norm and I was paving my own path. I had a lot of resistance. I felt it from people within the community, especially older trans women, who were my mentors and whom I looked up to. I’ve learned so much.I’ve grown a thicker skin now more than ever to people’s reactions, but I’m still really vulnerable. When Ethan and I got married in July, we went to Puerto Rico for our honeymoon. We had been talking about how I should look, not because it was uncomfortable but as a matter of “How should we navigate this in order to be safe?” I decided that I needed to remove my beard. My beard grows in extremely fast. Knowing that, and knowing we were outside of our home city, knowing that if I don’t blend in and look like a cisgender woman, we felt that I may experience violence. I ended up plucking my entire beard. It took me about four hours to do, and my face was extremely puffy. Something that I talk about with other queer and trans people is just how fear can sometimes control our lives. But I’m in a place and in a time in an era where it’s a lot safer to be who I am today. Yes, there’s a lot more visibility, and with visibility comes violence, but I need to sometimes just learn to enjoy the moment and be present — be present with my fellow community members, with my siblings, with my family, with my partner, with my friends, and in the world. We’re nothing new. We’ve been around for thousands of years, and we’re not going anywhere. Annie Tritt is a New York-based photographer who seeks to create spaces where viewers have the potential to experience transformation. They have previously photographed and interviewed nonbinary youth for Vox, and their work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Billboard, and Variety, among other outlets. CREDITSEditors: Karen Turner, Jessica Machado Visuals editor: Kainaz AmariaCopy editors: Tanya Pai, Tim WilliamsDesign: Amanda Northrop
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