post cover

My 11 favorite things I wrote in 2019

(Not including all of the things I wrote in 2019 that you won't see until 2020 at the earliest)

logo

Emily VanDerWerff

Dec 30 2019

17 min read

0

Another year is ending, and if you are of the writing persuasion, then you most assuredly know that all writers are required by the first amendment to the US Constitution to “publifhe a lift of the content they are proudeft of in the year prior.”

Most of us do this on Twitter, but what do I have this newsletter for if not to post links to my favorite things I’ve written?? Forthwith, in publication order, here are my favorite pieces I wrote in 2019 (save for the piece that will either go up today or tomorrow that really belongs on this list, but we’ve gotta Keep To The Schedule).

Caption

Jordan Peele’s Us and its ending explained (sort of), Vox, March 22

The year breaks down pretty evenly between pieces published before a certain big essay (that is on this list!) and pieces published after, but this list skews heavily toward pieces published after that essay, because a lot of wheels were in motion preparing for it to publish for the year’s first few months. Still, I wrote this explainer of the end of Jordan Peele’s Us that I thought got at some of why I ended up preferring this movie to Get Out (yes, I did, I know, a heresy).

First things first: I’m going to give this article a headline that’s something like, “Us’s ending, explained” or “Us’s ending, dissected,” and I should tell you upfront that I’m not going to explain Us’s ending. I can’t.


Jordan Peele’s second film has an ending that dares you to bring what you think to it. Where the ending of his first film, Get Out (for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), was a series of puzzle pieces snapping into place, Us ends in a way that causes the film’s structure to sprawl endlessly. It’s five different puzzles mixed up in the same box, and you only have about 75 percent of the pieces for any of them at best.

But I found that approach incredibly engaging. The audience leaving my screening the other night seemed sharply divided on the film — and its last-minute twist — but I plunged deeper and deeper into it because of that messy, glorious ending.


Cardinal, Stealth, March 26

For much of 2018 and the first little bit of 2019, I was publishing a secret transition newsletter called Stealth that a lot of people didn’t know about. I ended up folding it into this one, so the archives are all available if you keep scrolling down. But one of the weird offshoots of transition was that I had to reteach myself how to write, and that newsletter ended up being a big part of my rebuilding of my writing brain. The piece linked above is about coming out to my parents. It’s sad!

It felt a little like the bird was following me around the upper floor of my parents' home. I would walk past a window, and there it would be -- thonk -- flinging itself at the glass, for reasons unknown.

Red has always been my favorite color, so when I was a kid, I longed to see cardinals. They didn't make it as far west as where I grew up, but one was not only that far west but was a perpetual visitor to my parents' backyard. There weren't other cardinals around. He had just decided the strip of trees behind their house was the place he belonged. How he made his way there, I have no idea. Climate change, I assume. Or maybe he was just lost.

My mom said he was "dumb," because he kept banging against the window. Sometimes, a bird will hurl itself against the glass just firmly enough to be stunned or even to die. When I was young, our cats would wait for such an event, an easy supper they didn't have to work for. But this cardinal, somehow, knew exactly the right amount of force to apply to let us know he was there, while not breaking his neck or otherwise injuring himself. Thonk.


How The Matrix universalized a trans experience — and helped me accept my own, Vox, March 30

Wow, a lot of March pieces on here. I wasn’t quite expecting that. Anyway, I published this article under the name Emily Sandalwood, a sneaky thing to do that resulted in me getting at least two serious offers to freelance for publications I would love to write for that I had to respectfully decline (due to the Vox of it all). I was genuinely surprised to find out how many people had no idea that The Matrix — of all movies! — was a trans allegory, because of the red pill thing. Of all the pieces I wrote this year, this was the most shared. Makes you think!

Some online trans communities have a word for trans people who haven’t realized they’re trans just yet: egg.

When you’re an egg, you’re safely closed off by your shell, unable to see the wider world. It’s kind of like being in a sensory deprivation tank. Everything is muffled, and the world is hazy and translucent through the walls. There is always some barrier between you and reality. Being inside the egg is comfortable. And leaving the egg is a lot of work, a lot of painful, grinding work that many people would rather avoid.

Eggs hatch, though, and the hatching process is messy and complicated. It leaves behind something new and beautiful, but getting there can take days or years. (It took me 15 years after thinking, “Wait, am I ...” to realize, “I am.”) And what will crack the shell isn’t always predictable.


But if you look back on your life pre-hatching, you’ll find a host of clues that read not as questions but as evidence. Which is a long, roundabout way of me saying that when I was 18, I was obsessed with The Matrix.


Game of Thrones and the danger of planned finales, Vox, May 27

But I wasn’t just writing about the trans experience! I was also writing television criticism! And it’s rather remarkable to remember now that the vast bulk of it was about Game of Thrones. Here’s one piece to stand in for all of my Game of Thrones writing this year, but also a piece to reflect on how much I hate the idea of a “planned finale.”

The season certainly has its defenders, who feel the series wrapped up just about perfectly. And there are plenty of people like me, who feel the season was conceptually interesting while whiffing several key moments of execution.


But I still think it’s fair to say that the general consensus on Game of Thrones’ final season could be described, charitably, as “disappointing.” And the further we get from the finale, the more I can feel myself detaching from the show in a way that suggests I might not think about it much in the years to come. For a show this big to mostly evaporate is somehow more disappointing than if it had ended in a way that actively infuriated me.


So what was it about Game of Thrones’ final season that left so many people disappointed? Sure, some of the disappointment was an inevitable function of hype. But I would argue it was just as much a function of the show having a planned finale.


The Catastrophist, or: On coming out as trans at 37, Vox, June 3

This is probably the best thing I will ever write. Pack it in, everybody! (Also: To correct the most common misconception about this article — I am not named after the character Emily from The Handmaid’s Tale. I am named after an even weirder pop culture Emily. Glad I could help!)

In March 2018, I came out to myself as a trans woman. Six weeks later, I started having the dream.

In it, my wife and I are on the run, driving up the backroads that hug the California coast. I don’t know why we’re running, but I do know we are trying to get to Canada. Our daughter, who doesn’t exist in reality but feels so, so real in the dream, is in the back, too young to understand what is happening.

The other car comes out of nowhere, crashing into us and running us off the road. Usually in the dream, there’s a jump cut, like my brain is omitting part of a memory it blacked out. A uniformed officer gets out of the car. He drags our daughter from our grasp. And then he shoots me.

I have the dream enough times that it loses its sting. I try to see past its surface to the crew members who must be just outside the frame, holding boom mics and moving the camera. I try to imagine what happens between the edits. I try to make the dream feel less like prophecy and more like the pastiche I know it is.


TV is having an identity crisis. Here’s how to fix it. Vox, June 19

And then I was out, but I was still distressed with the state of television. This piece was an attempt to succinctly explain why this age of bigger and bigger TV frustrates me so much. It’s as close to a summation of my critical theory of TV as I’ve yet come up with.

Storytelling bloat — the inevitable result of an endless demand for original content — has swallowed TV drama whole. Since so few shows know what to do with their narrative real estate, many of them sort of run in place for weeks at a time, over the course of long, handsome, and ultimately empty episodes that often last well beyond the one-hour mark.

The above complaint is an increasingly common one in TV criticism, and I don’t disagree with the sentiment. TV drama has almost entirely lost its sense of brevity and its economy of storytelling, to the degree that when a show has episodes that don’t run over 50 minutes, it’s something critics will point out.

Many of those episodes increasingly seem like they have no reason to exist. They are there to mark time across the length of a story, but have no story of their own to tell. Too many shows spend eight or nine or 10 episodes on what they could have accomplished in three.

But I think the solution, weirdly, is the one that probably sounds most counterintuitive: Rather than pledging to tighten its storytelling to create more concise series, I think TV needs to lean into what makes TV great. The problem with most of today’s bloated shows isn’t the bloat, per se. It’s the stories the shows choose to tell and the way they tell them.


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s many, many controversies, explained, Vox, August 15

When I write Vox explainers, I often try to find a way to make the final section point beyond the work itself to some larger discussion we’re having in our culture. The final section of this piece does that about as well as I think I ever have. Even though it came out several weeks after Once Upon a Time came out, it was one of my five most-read pieces of the year, and it’s been one of the most positively received things I’ve ever written. Naturally, I didn’t want to write it. Go figure.

What’s fascinating is how little the three main Once Upon a Time controversies (for there are also many smaller ones) seemingly have to do with each other. One stems from Tarantino’s treatment of women in his movies. Another stems from his casual rewriting of historical events. The third has to do with his treatment of his very fictional version of the very real Asian American star Bruce Lee.

At the core of all three of these ideas is that Hollywood is still a place that largely tells stories dominated from a cisgender, heterosexual white guy point of view. But also at their core is that Tarantino is a filmmaker who loves ambiguity, who doesn’t want to have to tell you the proper way to behave, who instead prefers to work within the troubling gray areas that make up much of human existence. And if there’s an approach to storytelling that seems designed to provoke heated responses online in the year 2019, it’s one devoted to moral ambiguity.


Tarantino is a major artist whose movies are worth discussing, and Once Upon a Time is a sprawling film that provides many different opportunities for potential conversation. For a little under three hours, the movie resurrects the Hollywood of 1969, embarking on a largely plotless ramble through a long-gone world. Its journey concludes with a depiction of the Manson family murders that symbolically marked the end of a Hollywood era.

But the director’s status as one of the last auteurs standing and the movie’s general critical acclaim (not to mention its amazing box office success) also don’t make him or it above criticism, especially when the movie stumbles in portraying women or people of color. The tension between those two ideas is the tension around how we talk about art in 2019 in general.


Hustlers asks what Goodfellas would look like if it were about women. It rules. Vox, September 12

I still write plenty of reviews, but I decided to only single one out here: my review for Lorene Scafaria’s terrifically entertaining Hustlers, a movie that deserves better from the awards conversation than a single nomination for Jennifer Lopez. I love reviewing movies and wish I got to do more of it. But Vox employs one of the best movie critics in the country, so.

It’s only appropriate that Hustlers hustles its audience, but in a thoroughly pleasurable fashion.

The new crime caper, based on a true story about a group of strippers who start ripping off their rich clientele through a scheme involving drugs and credit card swipes, is enormous fun, starting with its very first scene. It’s a casually brilliant tracking shot tour of the strip club where Destiny (Constance Wu), as the “new girl,” walks from the dancers’ dressing rooms out onto the floor where men lustily cheer and shower money on the women who work at the club.


But as you’re distracted by all that razzle-dazzle and the movie’s many, many great jokes, Hustlers is quietly composing some deeply profound thoughts about the relationships women build with each other. These ideas percolate in the background of the film and only reach a full boil in its final act. But even there, writer-director Lorene Scafaria prefers a light touch to anything that might overpower the momentum.


The result meshes popcorn sensibilities and personal sentiments in a way that never feels cloying or like it’s trying too hard. Hustlers isn’t a fatuous tale of empowerment; it’s also not ignorant of the sisterhood its characters find in the midst of their sordid deeds.


The rise of Succession, TV’s new must-watch show, Vox, September 24

This is my favorite piece of TV criticism I wrote in 2019.

The moment that crystallizes how far Kendall has fallen comes halfway through season two: After a night of genuine connection with another person who struggles with addiction, he wakes up to find the sheets of his bed caked in his own shit. As a visual metaphor, it’s perhaps a bit too cheeky — Kendall shits the bed again! But the way he simply sighs and gets on with his life is telling.

Soon after, downstairs on his way to breakfast, a maid passes in the hall behind him, carrying a basket full of laundry. He exchanges a look with her. She knows. She knows what happened, but she can’t say anything. They’re linked by an incredibly precarious understanding of his frailty and deep-seated shame.


The maid appears in just this one shot. She is not a real person on Succession. The show doesn’t give her a name. The true action of the episode will continue at breakfast, where Kendall will hear more about a possible business deal. But the maid appears, for just that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, because she, too, is important to what Succession is trying to say.


Kendall and his fellow members of the ruling class have power and money. They have self-determination. But they can’t escape themselves. And the tragedy on Succession — what makes it perhaps the best TV drama of the year — is how acutely it understands that nobody else can escape them either.


Why Elsa from Frozen is a queer icon — and why Disney won’t embrace that idea, Vox, November 22

I left Frozen 2 being vaguely amused by how Disney clearly wanted certain portions of its audience to think that Elsa was queer, while never letting other portions of its audience come close to thinking so. I made some funny tweets. My editor saw the tweets. I realized I was more irritated by this than I had known. I’m still getting used to being able to write from a queer woman’s perspective — but it turns out I’m good at it?

In the spring of 2019, a flurry of headlines sprang up around the blockbuster hit Avengers: Endgame, insisting that the film featured the first openly gay character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Dubbed the “Grieving Man” and played by director Joe Russo, the character turns up early in the film, at a support group attended by Captain America. The entirety of Grieving Man’s character is: He lost someone in the Thanos snap that eliminated half of all life in the universe, and after working his way through the ensuing grief, he’s started dating again. He explicitly says he’s dating a man.

This is all well and good, honestly. If you’re going to use a random peripheral character to illustrate how the world is struggling to get past this traumatic event, why not a gay guy? But the triumphalism around the “first openly gay character” headlines irked me and plenty of others. “First openly gay character” doesn’t imply “random peripheral character.” It implies someone who at least has a name.


This is often the way these things go when it comes to Disney and its many subsidiaries. The company dominates the entertainment press because the 2010s have proved especially fruitful for two specific types of stories in the entertainment press: stories that tease major developments in new projects based on major pieces of intellectual property (MarvelStar Wars, Disney animation, etc.), and stories that suggest important progress has been made in terms of representation both in front of and behind the camera.

That’s how we end up with headlines like the “first openly gay character” ones. They reflect onscreen representation where the fine print contains “some assembly required,” because it merely nods to queer subtext and asks you to go digging around for it. The works themselves chicken out of doing anything meaningful, in favor of winking at you and nudging you in the ribs, daring you to read queerness into properties where none exists.


Anyway, Elsa from Frozen is queer, and I can prove it. Just don’t ask Disney to check my math.


A Very Arden Thanksgiving, Arden, November 27

So a lot of the writing I’ve done this year has been on creative projects, and you won’t get to see them until 2020 (if not later). I’m really jazzed about these projects, but a complete accounting of my 2019 output is impossible without acknowledging the creative work I was doing, too. So here’s a publicly available minisode that I wrote for my scripted podcast Arden. It is mostly a collection of bits, but it amuses me. Also, a prominent figure in the audio fiction space plays a turkey, so. Y’know. Worth it. Season two of Arden is one of the things I’m most proud to be associated with, and I can’t wait for you all to hear it in a handful of weeks. (And if fake true crime podcasts aren’t your thing, can I implore you to check out my TV history podcast Primetime? So we can get a season two? Please???)

Join Bea, Rosalind, Pamela, and Andy as Wheyface Radio celebrates Thanksgiving in its own inimitable way. Turkeys, parades, presents, and more! Brought to you by Wheyface Industries. The Festive Good People.


That’s all for 2019, everybody! It’s still so weird to me that anybody cares what I think, but a lot of you evidently do. I am really proud of the work I did this year, and I hope to be even more proud come 2020.

Thank you so much for reading all along the way, and I always love to hear your thoughts. We’ll be back with a more typical newsletter next week. See you then.

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter