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The Trailer for ‘Ma’ Just Came Out and It is Scary A.F.

Last week I read the news that the incredibly talented actress Octavia Spencer was going to be playing the lead role in Ma, a psychological horror film by Blumhouse Productions, I practically did a little dance in my car. I was squealing with joy. The intensely disturbing, albeit genius, trailer scared the life out of me and it is definitely not for the faint of heart, although I agree with some other folks who said that the trailer gives a bit too much away about the film (i.e. did Ma kill the kids at the end of the movie or are they just taking a nap while she laughs and says “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time”?). The trailer has spoilers but it’s definitely worth a watch. I didn’t embed it here because it actually is scary and I didn’t want to bodyslam anyone who is squeamish by putting it directly on this page. Still, it’s worth a watch if you’re interested.

For those who don’t know, Octavia Spencer has traditionally been typecast as The Black Caretaker, or The Mammy, a trope that in the past Hollywood producers and writers would often use constantly to appeal to white audiences. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel, a black woman, won an Oscar only because she played a role that typecast her as a Mammy figure to take care of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Flash forward to 2011, and we’ve got the film The Help. In The Help, Octavia Spencer plays a domestic who tends to a white family along with many other black woman domestics, including Viola Davis. As much as I wanted to criticize the novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, as well as the film, for its depictions of black women, I knew it was rooted at a time in history when black women weren’t given a voice (hence Emma Stone’s character writing their narratives for them) and remembered Stockett saying after the book’s end that she is only writing from a historical perspective and acknowledges she, as a white woman, has not had to experience what black women had to go through at the time. Octavia Spencer also stars as a cleaner in The Shape of Water; again, historically rooted at a time when domestic and cleaning jobs were the only jobs available for black people.

I don’t normally watch horror movies but this film really makes a good social commentary about how we should recognize the versatility of black actresses instead of always putting them in films about Jim Crow and slavery. While those movies are of course important for understanding our nation’s history of oppression and capitalism, we also need to do a better job giving black people roles that challenge these traditional narratives, such as scary movies, a genre in which black people have often not been featured in as major characters. It’s why seeing Get Out was such a great film and why it’s one of the few horror films I could stomach, because it addresses racism in its subtlest forms, an issue that is just as scary as any blood and guts film. I might not be able to see Us after the trailer (although I do love that Lupita Nyong’o is starring in the film because she is a really great actress), but it definitely must be said that if Blumhouse Productions can produce three movies with lead black characters in them (Get Out, Us, and Ma) within just a couple of years, then this is truly going to be the 21st century for black people in horror films.

In this film, Octavia Spencer stars as a older black woman who buys booze for these four random teenagers even though she is not interested at first. But then she invites them to stay at her place and lets them throw parties there. However, these teens find out this woman isn’t as nice as they think. These teens think that Ma, the title character, will take care of them, but in reality she messes with their minds as a warning that they shouldn’t have bothered her in the first place. Although I do think it’s pretty brilliant how Tate Taylor went from directing this film about black women as servants who didn’t get credit for their voices until a young white woman wrote a book about their experiences for them (The Help), to a film that takes that trope of the Mammy figure and turns it entirely on its head by having the supposedly sweet gentle Mammy figure turn out to be someone you don’t want to mess with (Ma).

Will I see the film when it comes out? Maybe, probably not at night though. I want to be able to still go to sleep at night remembering Octavia Spencer not as her role in The Help, but as the incredible mathematician Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures, the only other role I’ve seen her in where we can see her phenomenal acting chops in action (no pun intended). Hidden Figures isn’t scary; it’s a historical drama that is supposed to inspire you. Ma will be though, but I’m not sad that it’s scary because it’s about time we had more black women play lead characters in these kinds of films.

If you want more context about why Spencer’s casting in Ma is so important in addressing old Hollywood racial stereotypes, watch Spencer rock an amazing monologue while wearing a fashionable leather jacket on Saturday Night Live.

How Learning About the History of Women in Coding Has Helped Me Appreciate It More

A couple of years ago, I was working as a barista and looking for an additional source of income. My friends suggested I try acquiring coding skills and told me there were free online courses in web development and design. Not only were coding jobs in demand, they were incredibly lucrative (web developers get paid at least $60K in their annual salary according to one statistic). So I signed up for an online program called Skillcrush.

I plowed through my Skillcrush courses in web development, but got extremely frustrated with myself when it came to creating my own webpage. I had to learn how to divide up the tags (those two greater than and less than alligator mouth signs on your keyboard), figure out how much padding to put around my page’s background image, and which fonts were legible. I even took a visual design course where I learned to create a template from Photoshop and my own UX (user experience) web-page design. This not only taught me valuable tech skills; it also taught me patience, and many times I stayed up til 5 am finishing up the website (my shift was the next day at 7 am. Making coffee on two hours of sleep definitely entails making yourself a latte with some extra shots while on the job). In my mind, I didn’t care if it was sloppy because I was done with school and just stopped caring about evaluations and grades. I just wanted to finish, for I had set myself up for perfection and lost steam. For a couple of months, I have taken a hiatus from JavaScript basics because I, once again, lost steam and thought, Maybe I’m not smart enough to pursue a career in tech.

However, as Clive Thompson illustrates in his recent The New York Times Review article, “The Secret History of Women in Coding,” you couldn’t just mess up and call it a day if you were a young woman in computer programming back in the day. In the 1950s, there was a young woman named Mary Ann Wilkes, whose geography teacher in high school encouraged her to pursue computer programming as her career. Mary, like many other Americans at the time, was not interested in this career path. Most Americans back then had little experience writing in code to begin with due to the sheer lack of courses in the discipline (and now STEM and tech industries are booming. Go figure.) While at Wellesley College, Mary heard that computers were going to be the next big thing, so she reconsidered her disinterest and had her parents drive her over to the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) campus, where she went to the employment office and asked if there were openings for programmers. Because there were so few people interested in applying for these jobs, she got it immediately (compared to nowadays, where employers require applicants to these kinds of jobs to have extensive experience. In short, it’s way harder to get a tech job than it was back then since there’s so much more demand for it.)

Like Mary, I, too, majored in philosophy. However, I wasn’t sure how to really use any transferable skills from the discipline in my career. Thompson says that Mary Ann Wilkes “had studied symbolic logic, which can involve creating arguments and inferences by stringing together and/or statements in a way that resembles coding.” (p. 40) As a philosophy major, I didn’t know how my discipline would be even remotely relevant to my coding courses. Everytime I talked about my major, it seemed people would ask me, “Well, what are you going to do with that?” I told a music professor once about me being a philosophy major in college and he told me, in an “oh-so-sad, you’re-screwed-for-choosing-this-major” voice that there weren’t that many post-secondary jobs out there for philosophy majors. Now I’m open to teaching and honestly if I had my druthers (and adequate funding) I would teach courses that integrated philosophy with social work. I just wanted to explore other career options out there, and coding seemed to be a good fit.

As a philosophy major, like Mary and many others, I had to take a Logic 101 course as one of the major requirements. It was one of my hardest courses during my entire time at college, and believe me philosophy classes in general aren’t easy. I think it was because it triggered so many bad memories of me sitting in math class as a kid (although props to me, I actually did love algebra and passed with flying colors) and failing so many assignments that by the end of senior year I thought, “I’m not going to take ANY math classes whatsoever in college. I’m terrible at it!” Note that this is coming from a person who took math classes at the local learning center on the weekends and absolutely enjoyed it (no, seriously, I actually loved math growing up). As a kid I thought math was fun. When I got to 5th grade, however, I hated it because no matter how late I stayed up trying to finish the worksheets, I lost steam and failed them. I always felt everyone else was so much smarter than me.

So it’s no wonder that I carried that low self-esteem with me to Logic 101 and was so reluctant to speak in class because it seemed every time I asked a question or answered the professor’s question on the chalkboard, I couldn’t deal with the fact that I often said the wrong answer or some student would try to make some sarcastic remark about my question. I seriously wished I could wear an Invisibility Cloak so that I didn’t have to make myself known in class. Even though, ironically, the room was full of other young women who probably felt just as insecure and were hiding it. After reading the article, however, (woah, I’m actually getting emotional here. Cue the violins and the Kleenex) I have come to better appreciate my logic course, as well as my other philosophy courses. In these courses I learned how to form cohesive arguments, and in logic, I learned how to make inferences from problems on the page. Logic isn’t easy and I pretty much forgot everything about it by the time I got to taking JavaScript. But at least else/if statements unit in the course jogged some memory of what I learned in Logic 101.

Unlike today, where we are incredibly spoiled to have free online courses and text editors where you can just type in whatever text you need to and save any changes you make with the click of your mouse, it was just paper and punch cards in the 20th century. And you couldn’t afford to have imposter syndrome, thinking, “What if my calculations are wrong?” There were no people out there to give you the answer if you got it wrong. You had to fix anything wrong and just hash it out until you got it right. The kind of serious mental math that these female program writers had to do, though, was considered “menial” work because men were more interested in putting together the actual hardware rather than writing the content to make the hardware carry out commands. Funny, because nowadays writing computer programs is far from menial. In fact, it is really, really difficult.

In the piece, Thompson dates back even further than Mary Ann Wilkes in the 1950s (and her fellow pioneer Grace Hopper, ). In 1833, Lady Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician, wrote the first ever computer program to help inventor Charles Babbage execute his design for an Analytical Engine that would carry out commands and store information in a memory. Sadly Babbage never managed to make the computer work, and as for Ada, she died of cancer at just 36 years old. Neither she nor Babbage got to see how far technology has advanced throughout the centuries. In the 1940s, however, there was a major resurgence of lady techies who called the shots as the lead software writers. All-female teams found and fixed bugs in coding software because there were a lot of glitches in first time programs. Coding, as I mentioned earlier, is not easy, and you will make mistakes. But take inspiration from these leading ladies and see these mistakes as opportunities to dig deeper for solutions to those nasty computer bugs. But the all-female team who developed the first programmable digital computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (Eniac for short), put in tremendous effort to get this computer to work, and Betty Snyder, one of the women on the team, realized late into the night how to fix the bug (after multiple calculations and–I’m sure–cups of black coffee) and came in early the next morning to simply flip a switch inside the computer. The bug was gone. However, sexism wasn’t; even with all the blood, sweat and tears these women put into the computer, the male project managers neither mentioned nor introduced the women at the first official Eniac demo.

Still, women continued to slay in the coding game, with Grace Hopper creating the first compiler, which let users create programming languages similar to everyday English. The compiler would take these languages and turn them into numbers that the computer could understand. Coding jobs continued to boom in the 50s and 60s and women continued to dominate these jobs because employers just wanted people who were good at problem-solving and detail-oriented, so this typically worked in women’s favor. Also, applicants were judged based on an aptitude test they took, not so much on how much previous experience they had coding. If they passed the aptitude test, they got the job. When they got the job, they learned as they went. It was as simple as that. Even if the candidate was a black woman, at a time when few white-collar jobs were open for black women and black people in general, Arlene Gwendolyn Lee got her coding job simply after taking an aptitude test, excelling at it, then answering a few questions from the employer. If you have seen the film Hidden Figures, you get to see three powerful black women go from doing complex math problems on blackboards in their first-grade classrooms to crunching numbers at the predominantly white and male NASA laboratory. Thompson says that

By 1967, there were so many female programmers that Cosmopolitan magazine published an article about “The Computer Girls,” accompanied by pictures of beehived women at work on computers that evoked the control deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise. The story noted that women could make $20,000 a year doing this work (or more than $150,000 in today’s money). It was the rare white-collar occupation in which women could thrive. Nearly every other highly trained professional field admitted few women; even women with math degrees had limited options; teaching high school math or doing rote calculations at insurance firms.

“The Secret History of Women in Coding”. The New York Times Magazine. Sunday, February 17, 2019. Clive Thompson. page 42.

So…What Happened to All The Women?

Well, it’s more complicated than you think. It was a combination of various factors, mainly the wider access to computers and the reinforcement of historical gender stereotypes. First, people were learning how to program differently than they did in the 1950s, when people came into college with little to no exposure to computers (remember how I talked about Americans’ initial disinterest in computers? Well, it sort of backfired). Most Americans couldn’t afford the computers that scientists and businesspeople had, and there were so few of them made in a mass-produced setting (again, no one really cared about computers other than the Grace Hoppers and the Ada Lovelaces of the mid-2oth century). So then the PC gets invented, and pretty soon people are having them in their homes. Most of the people who played around with these early devices were boys; girls were more likely to receive dollhouses and play-kitchens than they were computers, and even when families got a PC they almost always put it in the boy’s room. Moms, unlike dads, often had little interest in these PCs, so their daughters, too, began to think, “Oh, Mom doesn’t care about the computer? Neither should I.” The dad also would work with his son through the PC manual, but when the daughter wanted to learn, she was often ignored. Thus it’s no surprise that these boys would come to college computer science courses thinking they knew everything, simply because they had been exposed to PCs earlier than girls did. This also manifested in schools; boys who loved computers were often seen as the unpopular “geeks”, but even as they got bullied by jocks, these “geeks” weren’t any nicer than their aggressors, and often excluded female students and students of color from joining their computer clubs.

Thus, computer science classrooms essentially became boys’ clubs where, if you hadn’t had all of this previous exposure to programming and you weren’t constantly exposed to a PC, then programming was not the field for you. Many female students, as well as many Black and Latino students, started doubting their capabilities as a result and dropped out of these programs because they felt that because they hadn’t had as much exposure to these computer programs as the guys did, that they failed somehow (#stupidgendernorms). However, turns out that these female students were getting perfectly good grades and mastered coding at pretty much the same level as the dudes. However, people by the ’80s had pretty much forgotten about the legacy of coding’s female programmers, and Hollywood didn’t help much either, churning out movies that overrepresented young white men as the “real” computer whizzes, such as Revenge of the Nerds.¬†I mean, I used to laugh at Weird Al Yankovic’s song “White and Nerdy”, but after reading this article, I’m thinking that a woman can rap about her love of video games and JavaScript just as well and funny as Weird Al can. Sure, the song might sound different than “White and Nerdy” but at least it would make a valid social commentary about how white men aren’t the only nerds.

When female programmers would raise their hands in class, their male professors and male classmates would often ignore them. The women also dealt with sexual harassment (you thought Trump was the only one to speak “locker-room talk”? Try young white male programmers, who would often openly rate their female classmates’ attractiveness or outright demean these women’s intelligence. By the mid-90s, American computer science classrooms became set in their ways, and males made up most of the programmers. If the lone woman was there, she had to endure serious hell, from dealing with male students who kept pictures of naked women on their desktops to professors telling them that they were “too pretty” to be study programming. It was a vicious cycle. Managers started to take on the misogynistic biases of professors, and began basing their selection of applicants on how these applicants would fit well in the job culture. In the late 1960s, employers began using personality tests to see if an applicant fit the ideal of the antisocial loner they wanted for the position. More often than not, men got hired for these. The women? Not so much. Companies to this day require prospective employees to write code on an algorithm while the employer watches them do it. Because men were given more access to computers than women, they had an unfair advantage and often aced these “whiteboard challenges”. It’s also important to note that most of these companies managers were white or Asian, male and single, so if you were a woman and pursuing coding, the managers would make up reasons why you couldn’t join the team, like “Oh, it’s not safe for women to stay up late coding. Let the men do the overnight work”. The days of the Eniac women pouring over their code in the wee hours were, once again, forgotten.

People would also use sociobiology as an excuse for excluding women from coding. According to this B.S., women were seen as less “biologically capable” of writing programs than men were (again, goes back to good ol’ B.S. gender norms) simply because, well, biology made them that way. Not only is this a bunch of bullcrap; it is historically inaccurate. Clive Thompson just spent several pages explaining how women reigned supreme at coding and programming languages, and biologists are just going to completely disprove what actually happened in the past? That’s more than unfortunate; it is purely unfair. However, in other countries, women do make up a greater percentage of programmers, such as India, where 40 percent of the coders are female, despite the more rigid gender roles in the country. In fact, parents in India encourage their daughters to pursue coding and women saw coding. Similarly, Malaysia’s women made up 52 percent of techies in 2001. In America, however, if women feel discouraged in the tech field, they leave it for other career opportunities. It’s not that these women aren’t skilled, far from it. Hell, they may be even more skilled than their male colleagues. But these women battle hurdles that their male coworkers didn’t have to, namely sexual harassment and not being given the credit they deserve. This has lead to some pretty terrible representation of women, with only 26 percent of them being in the tech field last year (the percentage of Black and Latino people in the tech field was also abysmally low). Thus, it’s not surprising that these intelligent capable women would decide to blow a big raspberry at Silicon Valley and leave for other opportunities.

So…What Are People Doing About This Issue?

In the late 1990s, Allan Fisher at Carnegie Mellon University addressed the lack of accessible courses for new coders by having experienced coders start on a different set of classes than the new coders. The new coders would have beginner classes, while the experienced coders would pick up where they left off in their learning. There was also extra tutoring offered to all students, which allowed new students a chance to catch up to their more advanced peers and ask any questions they had about their coursework. Fisher and the professors also taught the students about the real-world impact of coding to show them how software could improve people’s daily lives. This kept students from thinking all they had to look forward to was crunching numbers all day. The faculty adopted this new approach to the computer science curriculum because they realized that even though they at first placed experienced coders on a pedestal, they realized that those students were no better off than their less experienced peers, and that the less experienced coders had just as much potential to succeed as the more advanced students. And indeed, the university saw actual change happen in the department; the percentage of women in the computer science program rose from 6 percent to 42 percent and increased to that of the graduation rate for male students. Other schools like Harvey Mudd College followed suit, and pretty soon these computer science programs, which once were completely hostile environments for young eager women, were much more welcoming of female students.

And it’s not just universities; young women across the country have formed coding groups such as Black Girls Code in order to encourage more girls to pursue computer science. Social media has helped, too; on Facebook, you can join various coding communities geared towards getting more women into the field (someone I met told me about the Facebook group she joined for female coders). There are hackathons where coders are given 24 hours to create a new robot system, app or other technological innovation that would fix some sort of problem. On the Skillcrush blog, for instance, you can find a lot of great articles about freelance coding jobs, overcoming imposter syndrome and how to ace your job interview. Coding is an art form much like music, dance, poetry, literature and film; you are communicating a language that people normally don’t speak like in everyday society and it takes patience and persistence to communicate that language to the public. Many creatives learn programming skills; while coding is about numbers and logic, there are also so many different avenues for coding, such as digital marketing, graphic design and web development. And as I mentioned earlier, there are tons of online courses out there in programming languages, web design, and development. Some of these courses require you to pay a fee (such as Skillcrush and Treehugger) but a lot of them are free. Many coders also blog about technology-related topics to help coders, especially new coders, keep up with the latest technology trends and career paths for future techies.

However, the culture still needs to change. Thompson talks at the end of the piece about a group of young women in New York City who win a hackathon for creating a virtual-reality app to test children for signs of A.D.H.D. These young women’s parents came from India and encouraged their daughters to pursue technology as their career, so from a young age these girls developed a love for coding. However, after they won the competition, people would make them feel tokenized, saying that they only won because they were people of color and women. Akshaya Dinesh, one of the girls in the group, said that she enrolled at Stanford to study computer science and attended a tech conference there where it was all middle aged white and Asian men (she joked that she was never going to that conference again after seeing she was the only woman there). However, she says that she is hopeful that the tech culture will change its attitudes towards women.

Indeed, I am hopeful as well. As a creative, coding has opened quite a few doors for me in ways I didn’t expect. At first, I was learning it because I wanted to make more money, but after reading Thompson’s piece I have come to appreciate its real-world purpose and its application to the arts. Even though I got rid of my domain and no longer have my website up, I appreciate having the persistence and confidence to finish it even when I lost steam and the project wasn’t perfect. So for Clive Thompson, I say: thank you for publishing this incredible piece. I was practically shaking in my boots in excitement for it to come out and I finally got to read it! ūüôā And, finally, for all the female pioneers who coded behind the scenes and didn’t get credit for it until much later, I say: thank you.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin is Changing the Game in Classical Music

Quick Content Warning At Beginning: I briefly talk about the sexual assault allegations of people in the entertainment industry at the beginning, but only to give background on why I am writing this article in the first place. Still, sexual assault is a difficult topic to discuss for many survivors of such trauma, as well as for people in general, so I just wanted to issue a brief warning before getting into the post itself. I also post links to news articles about LGBT discrimination in my discussion, so these could potentially be triggering stories as well. 

Before deleting my Facebook, I checked my newsfeed only to find several stories about the conductor James Levine. People were petitioning for him to step down from his leadership of the Metropolitan Opera because he sexually abused his students for decades. Now, I was pretty indifferent to James Levine during his prosperous career. I never really cared that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra “Rhapsody in Blue” recording I was listening to was conducted by James Levine. I can’t remember even going to his performances, and I used to attend a lot of classical music concerts. But it only took the aforementioned articles in my newsfeed to get me to start caring about Levine, only in the sense of the horrible abuse he committed in order to feel power and pride over his pupils. Levine kept his sexual abuse of these young men hidden from the public so it wouldn’t ruin his career, but look where it got him: a final “good riddance” from the Met, as well as from several other orchestras, for good. His allegations showed the public that classical music isn’t the cutesy pristine art it used to be known as; it’s just a microcosm of many other industries that, while getting better at addressing abuses in the workplace, still have quite a few higher-up people making terrible decisions just because they somehow feel their social standing will protect them from public judgment.

That’s why Zachary Woolfe’s timely article in the recent January 20 issue of The New York Times,¬†about newly appointed Metropolitan Opera music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin, was so encouraging, because a lot of leaders in classical music even to this day are straight (except for the openly gay conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, Marin Alsop and some other folks). Nezet-Seguin has been openly gay for his entire career and feels totally comfortable talking about his sexuality, something that not many conductors were comfortable talking about before.

Nezet-Seguin says in the article that

it’s becoming more important for me..to just realize that both of us [him and his partner Pierre Tourville] can be examples, in a way, to inspire young musicians who fear that this is going to be a problem in their profession and career advancement. And I want to embrace that role more and more.. Just by being, and by living our life…this is hopefully something that breaks the preconceived ideas.

“Milestone at the Metropolitan Opera”, Jan 20, 2019 Arts and Leisure. The New York Times.

Speaking for myself, as a queer-identifying individual, reading this article was incredibly inspiring because it made me feel that I don’t have to fit a certain mold in order to satisfy what society has traditionally expected classical musicians to be like (e.g. straight, white, male, patriarchal). In fact, my college experience in orchestra was so empowering because the orchestra had many LGBTQ+ identifying members in it, and everyone in our music department was incredibly supportive of us and our musical endeavors. Even though society’s arguably more tolerant of LGBTQ+ people nowadays, this isn’t always common in some places, and classical music in general has a long history of oppression, particularly with LGBTQ+ people and people of color. We normally think “oh, classical music is this universal language that everyone can relate to” and as I’ve learned over the years, everyone has their own narrative, their own life experiences that can serve as inspiration or a way to address social injustice, such as sexism and homophobia, and it’s important to embrace these less-discussed narratives so that we can embrace a more inclusive idea of what diversity means.

Diversity in classical music isn’t just about numbers and statistics (e.g. “we’ve got one black kid, a pansexual person or two, and one woman. Yay we’re diverse now!”) It’s about letting individuals in marginalized communities bring new styles, new ways of doing things, to the field. Basically letting them have a say in the artistic expression of the group. Nezet-Seguin says that he wants to go beyond what is standard stylistically for the Met’s orchestra and experiment with greater dynamics and colors.

For the company’s recent new production of “La Traviata,” he said, he worked with the ensemble on “a much richer sound, resonant, pizzicato, bass-oriented. Cellos and basses: I’m a lot about what they need to do. Not because they’re not good, but because for years they’ve been asked to be as short and light as possible…That was the conception of sound of my predecessor…I just have a totally different idea, and we miss very often the fundamental of the harmony. Whenever it’s a little bit longer and richer and with more vibrato, it changes completely the aural spectrum.

First of all, I’m down with anyone saying they’re all about that bass, so when he said that I just had to give him some finger-snaps in kudos to his acknowledgment of the cello and bass struggle of having to “tone it down.” In orchestra, I remember always feeling like I sounded too loud as a lower-clef instrument and the conductors always going “too loud!” in my direction. The fact that Nezet-Seguin wants cellos and basses to challenge themselves to play out more so the ensemble can sound more “bass-oriented” is so revolutionary to me that I just want to give him serious props for that. Let me go off on a tangent here to say that…a lot of times individuals in orchestras are told to not stand out, and of course to an extent that’s reasonable. After all you are playing with a group of other individuals, so there’s really no room for “I” in team unless you’re the soloist. But at the end of the day, you just have to speak to the music, and if that means the conductor needs to add some different phrasing or get the musicians to think about the music differently than how it’s traditionally been performed, then all the better. Also , resonance really does make a piece sound richer and more interesting. Even playing “Air” in high school, our conductor really wanted us in the lower strings to pluck the strings so that they echoed instead of kerplunked with a flat dull sound. Doing this gave a beautiful color to the piece and was a way of communicating with the higher strings (violins and violas) in this incredibly melodious dialogue.

Somehow I think that Nezet-Seguin’s yearning for a richer sound in the Met’s orchestra reflects his incredibly rich and fulfilling life as an openly gay individual who feels comfortable in his own skin. In the article, Nezet-Seguin talks about his life with Tourville, from when they first met, to the differences in their coming up as gay men (Tourville, unlike his partner, endured relentless anti-gay bullying as a kid) to their early struggles as musicians. Both of them recall struggling to make ends meet with freelance musician work and “a $20 all-you-can-eat pasta deal on Tuesday nights at a local restaurant” during which they would talk about their desire to travel the world together. Their persistence paid off and Nezet-Seguin got more opportunities to conduct orchestras such as the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, while also getting to travel and perform with Tourville (funny enough, Nezet-Seguin was the director of one of the orchestras that Tourville was a member of, so it was pretty awkward at first for Nezet-Seguin to know his partner was going to be auditioning for him. I’d feel pretty awkward if my partner was going to be my panel judge for an orchestra, too. Heck, even if they were to be my 9-5 job hiring manager at Capital One.)

Not just that, but they live a cool comfy homebody sort of life together. Nezet-Seguin says the couple likes to just spend time at home cooking a meal and watching HGTV. Ain’t nothing wrong with that; I’m a homebody at heart and love to just curl up on the couch and watch a good movie with some herbal tea, so amen to having comfy time together. A music career can often be cut-throat and stressful, so it’s important as musicians that we find time to take care of ourselves. Now of course, it depends on your situation; if you have to really hustle, like Nezet-Seguin and Tourville did, it’s hard to make time for yourself because you’re constantly worried about money. But still, self-care doesn’t need to be extravagant, expensive or lengthy. It can be as simple as watching a funny TV show, reading fiction for fun or just breathing for five minutes. Taking time for self-care is still pretty helpful for us musicians to manage our overall well-being and also foster new ideas and ways of looking at things. It also helps us become more vulnerable; people might often think of conductors as these intimidating guys at the podium and are hard to talk to. But even just by living their daily lives, Nezet-Seguin and Tourville are challenging a lot of the stereotypes about conductors.

Overall, I am very glad I read this article. I know that Nezet-Seguin and Tourville are not the only openly-LGBTQ+ folks killin’ it in a heteronormative industry (as I mentioned earlier San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is openly gay and got married to his longtime partner Joshua Robison back in 2014. Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony conductor, has a son with her partner Kristin Jurkscheit and has spoken publicly about her family. Her website menu also has cool rainbow colors). However, when we think about the wider scope of LGBTQ+ rights, the history of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and ongoing discrimination (just recently two men brutally attacked singer and Empire actor Jussie Smollett and called him homophobic and racist slurs. I don’t care if people are thinking it was staged, it’s not ok regardless.), this article raises an important discussion. Even in classical music, coming out was extremely distressing, and even though people in the West accept that Tchaikovsky was gay, the topic on Tchaikovsky’s sexuality is a much uglier debate in his home country of Russia. Many Russians, despite editor Marina Kostalesky’s tireless unearthing of his sacred letters, in which he talks in great detail about his sexuality, still question whether these letters were true or made-up, and with ongoing homophobia in Russia (remember the Sochi Olympics?) Tchaikovsky would be rolling in his grave right now. Hell, he’s probably been rolling in his grave every time something homophobic happens. I don’t blame him; even in the U.S. we still have a long ways to go, and classical music is no exception.

But still I can’t help but feel a glimmer of hope that I, like Yannick and Pierre, can defy the odds as a queer musician in the classical sphere. And that I can encourage other LGBTQ+ musicians to embrace themselves and not feel pressured to go with the status quo.

Here’s this incredibly awesome interview that Yannick did recently on his becoming the Met music director. His conducting is quite amazing to watch because he puts so much beautiful feeling into it.

Book Review: Bossypants by Tina Fey

If you have ever seen Tina Fey perform on Saturday Night Live, you know that she is an incredibly funny individual. But have you ever wondered how she became so successful?

In her memoir Bossypants, Fey talks about growing up in a Greek community in Pennsylvania, awkward relationships and being a woman in the entertainment industry (she gives a lot of good backstory about 30 Rock and her sketch in which she played Sarah Palin). I normally don’t read non-fiction, and I put off reading this book even when it came out back in 2011. But after watching one too many tearjerkers and reading one too many sad books (and the news), I was desperate to read something funny.

One of the sections I really liked was when she talks about her Kotek Classic ad on SNL. For those who haven’t seen it, Tina Fey and other female comedians on the show, including Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, starred in a fake SNL ad for Kotek-brand pads. These pads were the old-fashioned 1960s kind that had a complicated belt and snaps (I’m too young to remember this even happening lol). In the commercial, we see the various women wear the incredibly tacky Kotex Classic pads, and it’s incredibly hilarious because these pads are easily noticeable and just look plain bad. The women in the commercial pretend that this pad makes them feel more confident and sexy, but in reality they’re making fun of the ways in which sanitary products have been marketed to women, as well as the pervasiveness of the term “classic” in advertising (Reebok, Coke)

In the book Fey says that comedy writer Paula Pell came up with the idea, and Fey rooted for her idea in meetings only to have people (most of them men) say it would be “too difficult to produce” (Fey 140). However, Pell and Fey (fortunately) persisted, and after convincing people that it wasn’t going to be a graphic sketch about menstruating or actually showing women putting on the pad, they let the ad air. After you watch it, you’ll be glad it got the chance to air live because it is funny AF.

I also really loved her discussion on motherhood. Personally, I’m not a mom, but reading about Fey’s experiences as a mom really taught me to embrace the individual experiences that women have with motherhood, as well as the sensitive motherhood topics that people normally stigmatize. In one part she talks about how people would be nosy and ask if she was going to have another kid instead of just letting her daughter stay an only child. She reminds us that no one should judge people for only having one kid and that each family is going to be different from one another, so we shouldn’t base our status on how many kids we have. Another thing that she discusses is breastfeeding; she talks about how the upper middle class moms she ran into would be super judgmental about her weaning Midge, her newborn daughter, off of breastmilk and switching to infant formula. These are incredibly personal matters though, and Tina lets mothers know that they don’t have to feel obligated to answer such nosy questions about why they’re missing out on the joys of breastfeeding their toddlers or why they don’t want another child. Also, miscarriages are real, so not everyone can have kids.

This kind of unnecessary judgment reminded me of Bad Moms, when Gwyneth, a super privileged and arrogant mother, makes Amy, a regular old working mom, feel bad about bringing donut holes to the school bake sale. In another scene Amy is already super-flustered because she just dropped her kids off at school and is trying to do a lot of things, and when she tries to drink her scalding hot coffee, Gwyneth pops up out of nowhere, scares Amy and causes Amy to spill hot coffee all over herself. As she watches Amy scream in pain, Gwyneth doesn’t offer to help or ask if she’s ok. Instead she bugs Amy about running the bake sale and condescendingly asks “How do you juggle it all as a working mom?” Now of course, again, I’m not a mom, so I can’t speak for any working moms, but this has got to be a super irritating question for many of them. In fact, Tina Fey devotes a whole chapter in Bossypants, called “Juggle This”, to that question. Her daughter checks out a children’s book called My Working Mom, and Fey’s description of the book had me howling because the book’s plot actually sounds quite terrible (the working mom is a witch who makes it to her daughter’s school play at the last minute while still juggling her work commitments) and, as Fey reminds us, was written by two men.

Fey didn’t grow up with a babysitter* and so she feels alone when she cannot spend time with her daughter. When the babysitter, or “Coordinator of Toddlery” as Fey calls her, cuts her daughter’s nails too short, it causes her stress because she doesn’t want to spend the whole evening telling the babysitter how to properly cut Midge’s fingernails. Even though Fey says she is gifted with an incredible dream job in the entertainment industry, she says it is hard to “juggle it all” and even though she dreams of quitting her job, she knows she is incredibly fortunate to be working her dream job while her other coworkers, whether they enjoy the work or not, have to have the job so they can pay their bills. And Fey argues that she has had exhausting moments taking care of her kid as much as she does tender moments (the “Me Time” part on page 243 was rib-bustingly funny but also so real), so she makes time in the morning to clip Midge’s nails while they told stories to one another and it has helped them develop a good mother-daughter relationship. Asking working moms how they juggle it all, according to Fey, is a way of making working moms feel bad for not always doing everything perfectly and for not always being there for their kids. However, at the end of the day, working moms are still human and deserve to be treated as such. The stereotype of the working mom depicted in that My Working Mom book that Fey describes is actually a very harmful stereotype for women, because it implies that if working moms aren’t staying home with their kids 24/7 then that means they don’t deserve to have a perfectly normal beautiful relationship with their children. Stay at home moms struggle just as much as working moms do, so it’s pointless to make it seem the former is better off than the latter; motherhood in general is no joke, based on what many moms have told me over the years, and all you can do is your best.

Overall, the book was amazing and brilliant, just like Tina herself. You will howl at a lot of things she says and also feel for those tender serious moments in the book, such as the aforementioned discussion on motherhood. And check out her Kotek Classic ad (it’s also cool that she wrote Excedrin for Racial Tension Headaches, another great SNL ad starring Queen Latifah).

*I honestly appreciate her not using the term “nanny” though. Like her, I feel really uncomfortable calling a babysitter that term, kind of like how I no longer use the term “janitor” to refer to custodians or folks working in maintenance since someone told me it’s disrespectful to do so. I actually like “custodian” better, or even just simply calling them by the name they want to be called.

Bossypants by Tina Fey. 277 pp. 2011.

In Memoriam: Valentine’s Day

In celebrating a holiday of love and giving

Let us remember the 17 people

Killed on this very February 14th last year

At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

In Parkland, Florida.

A day where people should be free to love

In any way, shape or form.

At the hands of one individual’s bitter rage and gun

These souls shed blood and tears and

Experienced unimaginable pain and trauma.

Let us also remember the many people and

Especially young people

Preteens, teens, toddlers, adults

Killed by gun violence.

Let us remember the passion

That these Parkland students

And so many more

Continue to burn with for social reform

For stricter laws

For more frank discussion about this issue.

Even after the trauma continues to bring

Back horrific memories of rivers of blood

And screams and pops of bullets.

Let us remember.

6 Movies I Want To See

  1. Little: I want to see this film for a few good reasons. One, it’s starring Issa Rae from The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and Marsai Martin from black-ish. It is about an arrogant CEO who gets turned into a younger version of herself. I couldn’t stop howling during the trailer because it was so darn funny.

2. Roma: Alfonso Cuaron is both the director and cinematographer for this film. The last film I saw directed by him was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, so I can’t wait to see this incredible film. There are few words spoken in the trailer, but the silence, combined with the beautiful music and black and white film shots, speak volumes.

3. Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Normally I have seen Melissa McCarthy playing in comedy films such as Bridesmaids and The Boss, but I can’t wait to see her perform in this intense drama. Also, I didn’t realize this until I saw the trailer a second time, but it has an instrumental version of one of my favorite songs (Bob Moses’ “Tearing Me Up”).

4. Cold War: I love a lot of historical dramas, so this one is definitely on my list of films to see. It also got a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.

5. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: I meant to see this when it came out, but never got around to it. I love Eddie Redmayne’s acting and Harry Potter, too, so I really want to see this film.

6. RBG: A clever play on rapper The Notorious B.I.G., this documentary features long-time Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg killing it in the male-dominated realm of law.

So…About That Oscars Host (or Absence Thereof Anyway)

Just a few months ago Saturday Night Live did a clever sketch in which several actors audition to be the new host of the 91st Academy Awards after some particularly bigoted tweets of a certain host came to the surface. (I think you know who I’m talking about) It featured the SNL cast impersonating people such as Hannah Gadsby, Allison Janney, Kanye West and Rami Malek.

Fast forward a few months later and Kevin Hart finally issued an official apology for his homophobic tweets after much pressure and decided even after Ellen DeGeneres’ persistent efforts to forgive him and get him back his reputation, he finally stepped down. And so there probably won’t be a host this year.

Not only that but The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it is also going to cut four very important awards from airing live during the ceremony: Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Live Action Short, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. This means we won’t get a chance to stand up and cheer from the comfort of our living rooms when these people win. However, they will be somehow edited back into the broadcast at a TBD time, so we’ll get to see the speeches. Just not during the time when they’re supposed to be seen. (aka on our television screens)

This is just sad, and also, quite unfair. All these behind the scenes positions may not seem important for ratings’ sake, and honestly in the past all I cared about when seeing the Oscars was who won for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Picture. I wasn’t really concerned about Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Live Action Short and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. But in retrospect, as I started doing more of my own behind the scenes work (administrative work, food service, hospitality, dishwashing, and even learning HTML, CSS and Javascript to build a website), I started becoming more interested in behind-the-scenes work in general, including that which goes into making films. I realized if I want to be a more well-rounded person of the arts, I would do well to watch more short films. I’m so used to watching 2 hour movies that it escaped my mind that even films that are four minutes long (or 10, depending on the film) can really say so much. In college I was indifferent to short film festivals and didn’t go a lot of the time. But I wish in retrospect I had done so because it would have made my college experience more enriching (I spent most of my time studying and only really went and saw long movies, plays, and concerts. And occasional performances by the dance department).

Also, cinematography, makeup, hair, and editing are all things that make films the masterpieces they are, whether or not they become popular movies. As much as I didn’t enjoy the overall message of Black Swan, the cinematography was incredibly captivating. The blends of dark shades of color, the incredibly nuanced lighting…even the end credits (I talked about those at some length in my post about the film itself, but not enough) where they have the black lettering of the film crew’s names against the cream white background while black feathers are floating around the screen gives the film its deeply scary effect. None of this would have been possible without Matthew Libatique’s incredible behind the scenes camera work. And the masterful way they transformed Nina from the White Swan into the Black Swan? That’s the makeup and hairstyling crew for you.

In all, I am rather disappointed by the Academy’s decision. I’ll still watch it, but I’m probably going to not like it as much as previous awards ceremonies. Although I wouldn’t mind if they had Rachel Brosnahan as a host, or Hannah Gadsby.

Thoughts about the Oscar’s changes? Let me know in the comments!

Eclectic Playlist: Female Musicians

  1. “Go Down”- Doja Cat
  2. “Hallucinating”- Elohim
  3. “Marry Me”- St. Vincent
  4. “Fitness”- Lizzo
  5. “Casanova”- Allie X feat VERITE
  6. “Summertime Sadness”- Lana del Rey
  7. “Money”- Leikeli47
  8. “Army of Me”- Bjork
  9. “Hold Up”- Beyonce
  10. “The Chokin Kind”- Joss Stone
  11. “In My Bed”- Amy Winehouse
  12. “Everything’s Just Wonderful”- Lily Allen
  13. “Beautiful Trauma”- P!nk
  14. “Crush”- Tessa Violet
  15. “Tightrope”- Janelle Monae
  16. “Turiya and Ramakrishna”- Alice Coltrane
  17. “Think”- Aretha Franklin
  18. “All For You”- Janet Jackson
  19. “Lady Marmalade”- The original version with Patti LaBelle and the Moulin Rouge version with P!nk, Mya, Christina Aguilera, and Lil’ Kim
  20. “Day Too Soon”- Sia

My Thoughts: The 2019 Grammy Awards

So like many things, I’m still processing the Grammys. I’m not shooketh in a bad way, I’m shooketh in a oh-my-goodness-this-ceremony-was-dope kind of way. So this is going to be a bunch of exuberant word-jumble. Of course, I’m leaving out many other moments that happened during the Grammys, so this is by no means all of my thoughts.

  • First and foremost, thank you Alicia Keys for making the ceremony so upbeat and awesome. You also wore incredible outfits. Also, Michelle Obama! ūüôā And when you jammed on those two pianos, it made my heart soar. You played “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” and so many other incredible hits, as well as your epic “Empire State of Mind.”
  • The tribute to Dolly Parton was phenomenal. Seeing Miley Cyrus and Dolly belt out “Jolene” was especially beautiful. And I loved the clocks in the background while everyone sang “9 to 5” together.
  • Lady Gaga’s speech when she won for her duo with Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born had me in tears. She also raised awareness of mental health, saying that as musicians struggling with mental health we need to support one another, and if you’re struggling with mental health issues to never be afraid to ask for help. And her performance of “Shallow” also had me in tears. She put so much raw emotion into her performance, and her sparkly bodysuit was pretty. Her stare down at the camera while rocking the mic showed the passion and hard work she put into performing the song. I haven’t yet seen A Star is Born but I want to.
  • Janelle Monae killed it, and I mean, KILLED IT tonight. I love the song “Make Me Feel” and the music video with her and Tessa Thompson (from the film Sorry to Bother You). She and the backup dancers livened everything up with their killer sweet dance moves (I saw some Michael Jackson moonwalking in there at some point), and the brilliant juxtaposing of pink, black and white in both the outfits and the set also gave the performance its eclectic fun character.
  • H.E.R. was amazing. Her performance of “A Hard Place” was beautiful, and it was so cool how the violinists (and violists. I want to acknowledge if there were also violists playing) were black women. And I loved the chorus. I was also just really happy H.E.R. won two Grammy Awards that evening.
  • Childish Gambino won for Best Record of the Year and Song of the Year for “This is America.” I’m so glad because the song and the music video were super powerful. I wish he was there, but at least Ludwig Goransson and Jeffrey Lamar Williams went up there to accept it for him. Ludwig also was the only one who mentioned 21 Savage (for those who don’t know what’s going on, HuffPost has an article about this).
  • St Vincent and Dua Lipa’s awesome performance of “Masseduction” was phenomenal. St. Vincent is one of my favorite artists and seeing her rock out on that electric guitar with her and Dua Lipa sporting black and white outfits and bob haircuts was classic. I noticed they also incorporated some Aretha in the song by chanting “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” to each other. And Dua Lipa won Best New Artist and gave an encouraging speech to tell other youth that their stories matter and gave a shout-out to other female artists. Seeing her tear up was quite sweet and touching.
  • Can we just talk about the fierce female pianist during Cardi B’s performance of “Money?” At first I thought Cardi B was playing piano but then the camera showed who was playing it, and it wasn’t Cardi B but another incredible young woman by the name of Chloe Flower (I didn’t know who she was until the next day when all the articles emerged about who the dope pianist was during Cardi B’s performance). Chloe and Cardi both slayed during the performance. Cardi and the backup dancers busted some extremely well-coordinated moves on a large purple sofa, while Chloe busted out those hip hop beats with the utmost passion. Seeing Chloe bust out those epic chords on that shimmery crystal-covered piano (first time I’ve ever seen a piano with this much pizzazz) made me reconsider what I really want to do with my music career. At first I was so hell-bent on being in a professional orchestra, but I don’t know. After seeing Chloe perform with Cardi B, I feel inspired to practice more contemporary music (and classical, too) so I can one day earn the honor of accompanying Beyonce, Cardi, or any other popular artist at the Grammys. Oh, and I loved Cardi’s black feathers at the end. ūüôā
  • Yolanda Adams, Andra Day, and Fantasia both paid the most sophisticated tribute to Aretha Franklin. I also liked how they placed Aretha last in the In Memoriam montage so that it segued right into the trio’s performance of “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman).” Like many people, I cried when I heard about Aretha’s death, and this beautiful performance by these three incredible black female artists made me cry even harder, especially seeing the montage of Aretha photos in the background. There’s supposed to be a tribute to The Queen of Soul next month on March 10, and I know I definitely will not be missing out on such a momentous occasion: to remember the Queen.
  • Diana Ross’ grandson is everything. Diana Ross is everything. Her elegant magnificent fire-red dress sizzled with everything. Her performance was everything. I cried.
  • J Lo, Ne-Yo, the legendary Smokey Robinson, and Alicia Keys collaborating onstage to give a unique spin on a medley of Motown classics. What more could you want? ūüôā
  • Brandi Carlile’s performance of “The Joke” was incredible. I never listened to her music before, but after hearing her performance I want to listen to more of her music. I also loved seeing the string players having so much fun while accompanying her.
  • Kacey Musgraves’ speech at the end was quite moving. I also loved the neon rainbow display behind her during her performance. In her speech she acknowledged other female artists who were there during the evening and who were nominated for their albums. It was truly beautiful.

Got any thoughts on the Grammy’s? Post in the comments!

Six Hilarious Sketches by Roy Wood Jr.

Roy Wood, Jr. is a comedian who is part of Trevor Noah’s team on The Daily Show. In honor of Black History Month, I decided to post six of his most hilarious sketches. Contains strong language.

  1. “Desegregation and Chipotle.”: honestly, it would be cool if more rappers talked about how cool kale is in their songs. Of course, there are exceptions, such as this song by Dead Prez.

2. “Starbucks Shuts Down for Racial Bias Training.” As a former barista whose store didn’t get to participate in the nationwide Starbucks racial bias training, this was truly hilarious.

3. “The Daily Show- The Oscars Reach Peak Blackness.” Yep, the Oscars did in fact reach the ultimate “amalgamation of black excellence” that evening.

4. “Roy Wood Jr. Can’t Walk Out of Best Buy Without a Bag.” In this video, Roy discusses why films about the Civil Rights movement really make him cry, and why he needs a plastic bag every time he purchases something from the store.

5. “Teachers Take to the Streets & Kanye West Says Slavery Was a Choice.” Roy Wood Jr.’s part doesn’t happen until 3:19, but Trevor Noah sets up the context for why Roy’s parody on West’s poor choice of words is so brilliant.

6. “Black Eye on America- What Is Black Twitter?” I heard about Black Twitter from friends, but hadn’t been on it before since I don’t use Twitter. This was an interesting take on the platform.