Whatever your politics, it's been a crazy year. There are endless questions to ask and too few clear answers. Perhaps that makes this a good time to be a nonfiction writer. We talked to three authors whose new books investigate sexism in Hollywood, the unjust treatment of black men by police, and the history and seductiveness of fake news. They are asking some of the true questions to which we crave true answers.
Leading Ladies: Carino Chocano
Chocano, a former TV and movie critic, got fed up with one-dimensional female characters. Her new essay collection, You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks & Other Mixed Messages, offers a passionate critique of sexism in Hollywood.
Was there a particular film that got you going on this book?
Knocked Up. I expected to like it, but I didn't, at all. But I was really nervous about not liking it. I felt like I couldn't say anything bad about it, or I'd be attacked. Katherine Heigl told Vanity Fair that it was "a little sexist," and the backlash was massive; it pretty much ended her career. Actress Isla Fisher had suffered the same kind of attacks after Wedding Crashers, when she told an interviewer that all of the scripts she saw are for men, offering women the option to "play the girl in the hot rod." I thought the hostility just proved that she was right.
Do you think things have gotten any better over the last few years?
I intended to write this book in 2009, but I put it aside and picked it back up again because the culture was starting to become more open and you could talk about these things. But every time there's a new surge of feminism, there's also a backlash. It's a cycle. I think that women have really changed and people have changed, but the system hasn't changed. Yes, it's easier to talk about this now than even seven years ago, but there's danger in just thinking we are done progressing.
Do you feel hopeful about better roles for female actresses in the future?
It's gotten a lot better among the new digital players, especially compared to movies and network TV. There are more women writing, and there are more dynamic female characters. In a lot of new shows like, Orange Is the New Black, you are seeing individual characters who are really vastly different from each other. In the opening credits, you see all of those different faces, many that you would never see on TV before. It just shows you the range of things that we hadn't been seeing. So there is hope, but we still have a long way to go.
Policing The Justice System: Angela J. Davis
Davis, a law professor and former director of the D.C. Public Defender Service, edits Policing the Black Man, a powerful collection of essays on the treatment of African-Americans by the U.S. criminal justice system.
You make a profound statement at the opening of your introduction by naming many of the victims who have died at the hands of the police: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, among others.
These men are the inspiration for the volume. These awful killings made the nation and the world start to pay attention to what is going on in our criminal justice system, in terms of how black men and boys are treated. The idea was to put together a group of essays that would discuss, explore, and contextualize these killings.
Can you briefly explain the historical perspective these essays offer?
Bryan Stevenson's essay draws a straight line from slavery through black codes and lynching to the present day, and shows how in all stages of history, black men have been targeted by law enforcement. Understanding that history informs where we are today and how that horrible legacy continues to impact how black men are treated, from arrests and sentencing all the way to the discretionary use of the death penalty.
What did you find most shocking or painful in these essays?
Kristin Henning's chapter on black boys made my jaw drop. I didn't know just how bad it was for black boys. They are treated even worse than black men. A study found that police perceive black boys to be older and larger than they actually are, while they underestimate the age and size of white boys. This perception influences how police interact with black boys, which socializes black boys for their interactions with police as they grow up. Black boys aren't allowed to be boys. They can't make the same mistakes that all kids do, and that is very painful.
What can people do to work for change?
Pick an issue that you feel passionate about and work on it. Whether it is police brutality or prosecutorial bias, there are many issues to work on. It can be organizing folks in your community, or talking to your local prosecutor about their plea bargain policy, or calling and writing letters to your state legislator to advocate against oppressive sentencing. Everybody can't do everything, but everybody can do something.
A History Of Fake News: Kevin Young
In Bunk, the poet, nonfiction writer, and incoming New Yorker poetry editor delves into the history of the hoax and examines our growing susceptibility to "fake news."
Was ‘Bunk' underway before the 2016 presidential campaign? How did the rise of Trump and his exploitation of the idea of fake news affect the project?
I started about five or six years ago. One of my arguments is that we're in a very bad spell these days with more, and more serious, hoaxes happening now. But who knew Bunk would be so relevant given the prevalence—and more than that, the ubiquitous charge—of fake news. Now, too often "fake news" means "news I don't like." It's this particular kind of bunk that I explore.
Why—especially now—are we so susceptible to untruths, half-truths, and hoaxes?
I'm interested in exploring not just why we deceive, but why we believe. I think the hoax exploits our deepest social divisions, especially race. But we've also seen unprecedented change in technology, which both inspires hoaxes and allows them to be distributed easier than ever.
Do you have a favorite hoax that you encountered while working on the book?
The strange "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax, which was really a straight white guy from Georgia who started a blog by that name and got caught up in the Arab Spring—but you have to read the book to learn the ins and outs of that one.