Tell Us a Story is all new!

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As some visitors to this blog may already know, I curate a true story blog over at For our first three years of existence, we aimed to publish one new true story every Wednesday (we took summers and holidays off). But we found that model to be unsustainable so we have just switched to a quarterly format, which we are very excited about! We also redesigned the look and functionality of our site.

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Tell Us A Story is proud to announce the publication of our first ever quarterly edition of Tell Us A Story, featuring the best work submitted to us over the last few months. Give it a read and a share! Click here to read volume 4, issue 1.
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Look for our next issue in Fall 2016!

Erasing the Pop Culture Scholar, One Click at a Time

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Hello darlings.

I am super pleased to have this piece published over at The Chronicle of Higher Education on the need for well-researched pop culture writing. Yes, even in thinkpieces. Also pleased to have co-authored this with my dear pal, Kristen Warner, who is a big smartypants.

Read, enjoy, make snarky comments about how this article means we are elitists [shrugs]:

Click here to read.

My Mom’s 2016 Oscar Picks

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Dearest readers, please forgive my lengthy absence from the blog. There are many causes for this: I’ve been freelancing more, I’ve been working on my next book project, and perhaps, most significantly, I have come to conclusion that blogging is not going to get me a raise at work or pay for my kids to go to college. In fact, as I recently argued in an essay for Film Criticism , I believe that the academic film blog as a concept is dead or dying.

But don’t start the dirge for Judgmental Observer just yet. I still have things to say that can only be said in the loose, informal, ad-free space of the blog, such as my mom’s annual Oscar Picks! If you’d like to catch up on my mother’s picks in previous years, you can see 2012, 2014 and 2015. As for the rest of you, let’s get started, shall we?

Me: Welcome back to the blog, Mom! It’s been a year since we heard from you, and your fans eagerly await your picks. Are you ready to discuss the 80th Annual Academy Awards?

Mom: Oh I can’t wait!

Me: As always, in the interest of full disclosure, I’d like for you to tell the readers which of the nominated films you were not able to see. Let me give you my list: Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, 45 Years, Trumbo, or Steve Jobs.

Mom: Unfortunately, I did not see: Brooklyn, Room, Carol, 45 Years, Joy, or Trumbo.


John Krasinski and Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the nominees for Actress in a Leading Role during the nominations announcements for the 88th Academy Awards in Beverly Hills, California
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Me: Let’s start our discussion with the Best Actress in a leading role category. What were your favorite performances of the 2015 season?

Mom: I really don’t have an opinion one way or another because I wasn’t able to see any of these performances.

Me: That’s so unlike you! Well, I’ve seen three of the five nominees (Carol, Room and Joy) and I thought all of the women whose performances I saw were great. So Joy was one of my least favorite films of the year. Normally I’m a big fan of David O. Russell but I found her casting in this film–as a down-on-her-luck single, 34-year-old, working mother–to be completely absurd. Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress but no amount of acting will make that young, fresh-out-of-the-womb face look 34 and tired. I thought Brie Larson was excellent in Room but for me, the young actor who plays her son, Jacob Tremblay, stole the show. So my pick for Best Actress is Cate Blanchett in Carol. I didn’t enjoy her performance on an emotional level–I found it icy and severe–but it worked in the context of this film as a stylized melodrama. There are also so few great roles for women, it’s always hard to pick “best” performances.


Me: So let’s move on to the category I know you’ve really been looking forward to discussing: Best Actor in a leading role.

Mom: The actor who should win the Oscar…is without question… [takes dramatic pause] WITH…OUT…QUESTION…

Me: Who? Who are you gonna pick? I’m on the edge of my seat…

Mom: …Leonardo DiCaprio! For his role in The Revenant. Now I will tell you why. I was blown away. It was a phenomenal film, and his acting in the film, and what he went through…

Me: But what did he do, exactly?

Mom: To portray someone living in the beginning of our country, going through horrific weather and violence between his own people, hunting for skins and hiding from the Indians–his portrayal of this man was just amazing. But not only that, he also gave you the feeling of getting to know what someone in that situation would go through. It was much more than surviving the violence. It was also learning about a man who wanted to move on to a better place. And he truly loved his son…

Me: Okay but you’re not telling me about Leo’s performance. You’re just describing the plot of the film.

Mom: He just came through as someone who survived the worst conditions. I found it fascinating that Leonardo DiCaprio performed just about every scene himself. Evidently the temperature was 20 below zero. It was a horrific situation for everyone involved in the film and the director just pushed them through it, which was worth it. In my opinion, this was the best film of the year.

Me: Hold on, let me chime in here even though I am woefully underprepared for this category–the only performances I saw were Damon’s and DiCaprio’s. I thought Matt Damon was fine in The Martian but nothing special. Honestly I’m a little shocked that he was nominated at all for this role. As for DiCaprio, I agree with you, it was a great performance. I will say this though–and I’m not trying to be cynical–but a lot of the role felt to me like it was screaming “Nominate me for an Oscar!!!” And I feel like sometimes actors will take on these roles and then make a big fuss in interviews over all they had to go through to prepare, all the suffering, and I’m kind of over that. I don’t care what you had to do to play the role. I just care about what appears onscreen. Having said that, I do think Leo deserves to have an Oscar on his shelf and I do think he will win this year, perhaps as an acknowledgment of his past body of work.

Mom: I see what you’re saying, but his performance was incredible. No matter how much people might say that he took on a role to show how tough it was and how he can do all of this stuff, I just don’t think that’s true. DiCaprio, no matter what role he takes, he is so brilliant. Every film he’s been in, and every time he’s been nominated, I feel like he should have won.

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Me: I think we need to establish for our readers, that you do in fact have a Leonardo DiCaprio bias. I think you heavily favor him anytime he’s in a film. Why do you think that is?

Mom: The first role I ever saw him in was The Aviator, then Catch Me if You Can, then Blood Diamonds…

Me: You really liked him in J Edgar. 

Mom: That’s another one! I cannot believe he did not win for that role…I mean, talk about a difficult role.

Me: Here is something you have said to me in the past: “Leonardo DiCaprio is penalized by the Academy for being a good-looking man.” Can you say more about that?

Mom: Absolutely. I still believe that and it’s been part of the Academy’s nomination process for a long time.

Me: Why do you say that?

Mom: Two absolutely gorgeous men–Paul Newman and Robert Redford–have been nominated many times. And Newman won once [editors note: Newman received an honorary Oscar for his body of work in 1986]. Redford, another incredible actor, has never won [editor’s note: Redford won an Oscar for Best Director in 1980 for Ordinary People]. I think the Academy is absolutely biased against handsome men.

Me: That theory is insane, Mom. Plenty of handsome men have won Oscars!

Mom: I’m talking model-looking, gorgeous men. There have been very many nice-looking men who have won. I just feel it’s a bias. When you’re that good-looking, they just look at you as a pretty boy actor. But that’s not done with women. Just with men.

Me: Last year you threatened to quit my blog if JK Simmons didn’t win Best Supporting Actor for Whiplash:

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Mom: [laughing] Yes I said that.

Me: And luckily for my readers, Simmons did, in fact, win the Oscar.

Mom: Of course he did.

Me: Are you prepared to never appear on this blog again if Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win Best Actor for The Revenant?

Mom: AB.     SO.   LUTELY.

Me: Really? You’re willing to give up all this?

Mom: Yes. I’m sorry. I must. If he does not win this year for Revenant, I’m done.

Me: Okay. Before we leave this very contentious category, I would like to talk about a performance I thought was snubbed by the Academy this year: Steve Carrell’s performance in The Big Short. I thought he was absolutely fantastic in that movie. There were a lot of characters in that film and a lot of visual tricks–it was a very “busy” movie–and he was the emotional heart of that film. He took what was a very reflexive and theoretical film and he expressed the human toll of the short selling phenomenon. And by the same turn, I was frustrated that out of that entire cast it was Christian Bale who got the Oscar nomination. This brings me back to my earlier complaint regarding Leo: I just hate how performance gets wrapped up in process. We all know that Christian Bale learned how to play the drums for his role as Michael Burry. And he didn’t even need to learn how to drum! There was no point to that stupid scene where he drums–the movie would have been the same with or without it. He just wanted to make a big fuss about his process. Then he gets a nomination and Steve Carrell doesn’t.


Me: Let’s talk about our picks for Best Supporting Actor. Out of all of these performances–and of course I can’t speak about the Bridge of Spies actor–I’m gonna have to go with Tom Hardy. I thought he was great in that movie. He’s a gorgeous man who you want to stare out but he made himself into such an ugly person in this film–not just physically, but his overall character. He was just so despicable you almost had to look away from him, which is hard because, holy cow, it’s Tom Hardy! I did like Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight but that was a more understated role.


Mom: I agree with about Christian Bale. He should not have been the nominee from The Big Short. As for Tom Hardy, I just thought he was so overshadowed by Leo in that film. I can’t even remember a lot that he did…

Me: He was the antagonist! He had the second biggest role in the film!

Mom: I just didn’t think it was that impressive…

Me: Wow you ride hard for Leo.

Mom: Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight was phenomenal. I’m glad he was nominated. And Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies was so low key and brilliant. I’ve never seen him before, I don’t know who he is. But throughout the film I just kept thinking “This guy! He’s got it down.” But then I did see Creed and the way Sylvester Stallone portrayed the old boxer trying to help the young boxer, the way he moved his body, his whole persona, I just thought he was terrific.

Me: Was he really terrific, Mom?

Mom: Yes.

Me: Wasn’t he just a big dumb guy?

Mom: When you see Stallone you expect to see him in the role of a warrior, of a fighter who wins. But in this film he’s a down and out ex-hero and I thought he added a lot of passion to that film.

Me: Let me bring up another role I felt was snubbed this year and that is Oscar Issac’s performance in Ex Machina. It was an amazing movie and his performance as this sleazy tech bro–young, thinks he’s hot shit–was great. He was the puppet master for most of the movie, until he isn’t, and he plays the role very cool and hard to read, yet there’s this vulnerability there too. That was my favorite supporting actor performance of the year. Also, that jumpsuit!

Me: Let’s talk about our pics for Best Picture. What was your favorite film of 2015?

Mom: The Revenant.

Me: Seriously?!?

Mom: There was so much involved in that film. The one thing I remember while watching it was the beauty of the photography. It was a joy to watch. The realism of the violence, and what the characters endured, their lives were so tough… I just thought it was a beautiful film. No other film from 2015 had such a dramatic effect on me.

Me:  I agree with you. The cinematography was unreal. Iñárritu is famous for those amazing long takes he uses that last for minutes. The film is filled with those gorgeous landscapes. But for me my Best Picture selection is The Big Short. First, it’s incredibly timely–it’s talking about the subprime mortgage crisis, which America is still reeling from right now, and which literally impacted everyone in the world. To make a movie where your topic is sort of dry and dull and you make it compelling to a mainstream audience, to non-experts, is so important. I mean, that’s how we got into this crisis in the first place–people being uninformed. As a society, Americans (I include myself here) don’t know much about how Wall Street or the stock market works. The economic recession was the direct result of a few people who had specialized knowledge and who took advantage of loopholes that no one else knew about. I appreciate a movie that illuminates that to the audience. In addition to that, it was a really innovative film. I love how they illustrated difficult concepts like “synthetic CDO” with Selena Gomez and an economist playing craps. And of course the performances were great, as was the script. For me, The Big Short hits all my Best Picture marks.

Mom: Well my second choice is Spotlight. This was a film highlighting one of the greatest tragedies in this country.

Me: I just watched Spotlight and I did find the story to be equally compelling and horrifying. This crazy conspiracy! It highlights how important good journalism is to justice and truth in this country. In many ways it reminded me of All the President’s Men. But overall I wanted a little more from that movie.

Mom: You kept hearing it was wonderful and then you watched it and it let you down.

Me: Yes that’s true.

Mom: That’s the problem. It’s best to see movies cold, before you hear the reviews. Now one film I am very sad to see with a nomination for Best Picture is Mad Max: Fury Road.  It was absolutely horrible…

Me: Whoah, whoah. I am delighted that film was nominated. In fact, that film is my second choice for Best Picture…

Mom: [horrified noises] If you like a film that is nothing more than looking at filthy, dirty men with blood coming out of their mouths, and their bodies torn apart…

Me: It sounds like you’re describing Revenant, you realize that?

Mom: …and there’s this stupid guy, playing the guitar…

Me: Yes, see that’s what was missing from The Revenant! We needed a bear playing a flaming guitar!

Mom: Now that’s not fair. Mad Max was absolutely disgusting.

Me: How can you praise The Revenant and the Hateful 8 for their violence but critique Mad Max for its violence?

Mom: Mad Max made The Revenant and The Hateful 8 look like a fairytale.

Me: WHAT?! What is the difference?

Mom: There’s a huge difference! The violence in Mad Max is pretend and it’s over-the-top. I mean one character in Mad Max captures this guy and straps him to the front of his car so he can drain the blood out of him. [shakes her head in disgust]

Me: Well I loved Mad Max… 

Mom: LOVED IT???

(L-r) TOM HARDY as Max Rockatansky and CHARLIZE THERON as Imperator Furiosa in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' action adventure "MAD MAX: FURY ROAD," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. from Warner Bros. media site

Me: They took this character who is the star of this franchise, this hero, Mad Max and they put him in the film with the words “Mad Max” in the title. So you’re going into this movie assuming Mad Max is the center of the story, the hero of the narrative. The movie starts with him…

Mom: …eating a live lizard…

Me: …and then he is literally pushed aside so that we have these female heroes instead. And it’s one-armed Charlize Theron? Come on, that was awesome. It was a feminist action film. I mean, if you’re going to praise a movie like Revenant for its intense and realistic depiction of violence, why critique Mad Max for that?

Mom: First of all, The Revenant was about American history. Mad Max is nothing but horrific people rolling through a desert

Me: I see no difference there. Revenant was nothing but horrific people rolling through the woods.

Mom: You’re insane.

Me: Okay, let’s discuss The Martian.

Mom: I really enjoyed it.

Me: Me too.

Maisy [my 9yo daughter]: Can I say something about The Martian? I thought it was awesome! It was so cool.

Me: Yes, that’s why I liked it. It was such a great family movie. I wish there were more movies like that for the whole family to go to.

Mom: It was a very pleasurable movie. I learned about how an astronaut could grow plants in space!

Me: Okay, any final thoughts, Mom?

Mom: Yes, one person who I felt really deserved an Oscar nomination was Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful 8. He was just great in that film. I can’t believe he wasn’t nominated.


Me: Well, Mom, as always, it was a real pleasure talking to you about the Oscars.

Mom: Thanks for having me!

Editor’s note: I received this email from my mom today:
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There you have it, folks. We’ll be back again in a year to discuss the 2016 nominees, that is unless Leonardo DiCaprio loses the Oscar. Then I’ll be on the search for another mom who wants to talk movies with me. Keep an eye out just in case, won’t you?

Thirty Seasons of THE REAL WORLD

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I know. I know. I haven’t written anything here in many months. But here’s the thing: work is busy. Also, no one pays me to write for this blog.

But you know who does pay me to write? The New Yorker. God bless them.

Here is my latest essay tied to my larger project on MTV and youth identities, “Thirty Seasons of The Real World.” Please read and share so maybe I can make more money writing and then can write some shit for free for you fine folks.

Click here to read the full piece.


Consider the Catfish

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My dear blog, I truly apologize for my long absence. The summer is filled with family trips and preparations for fall courses and now the fall is here and I am busy with back-to-school meetings and student queries and the endless forms parents must fill out for their kids during the first weeks of school.

But I wanted to pop in to share some most excellent news–that a portion of my book project on MTV’s scripted identity cycle is currently live on The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker. They paid me and everything, because those folks are civilized. And as I’ve been published on the online version of The New Yorker (life goals: to get published in the print version), you all can read it for free!

Click here to enjoy.

“Clueless” and the End of Gen X

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Did you know that Clueless was released 20 years ago? That’s the year I graduated from high school and the year, I think, Gen X was pushed out of the cinematic spotlight. I wrote about this for Salon:

“In an early scene in “Clueless,” a close-up reveals the sagging waistbands of a pack of young, SoCal teens, all loping to class in the signature Generation X uniform of baggy jeans, exposed boxer shorts and wallet chains as World Party’s cover of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” blares on the soundtrack. Then Cher Horowitz’s (Alicia Silverstone) chipper, California Girl uptalk—surely the vocal fry of the 1990s—cuts through the straining authenticity practiced by the pack:

 “So OK, I don’t want to be a traitor to my generation and all? But I don’t get how guys dress today. I mean, come on, it looks like they just fell out of bed and put on some baggy pants and take their greasy hair—ewww—and cover it up with a backwards cap, and like, we’re expected to swoon?”

Here, with a single toss of her healthy blond coiffure, Cher, the “Clueless” protagonist and moral center of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” dismisses the entire ethos of Generation X. As Jeffrey Sconce explains:  “X’ers have long been regarded as the most cynical, detached and ironic of population clusters.  Boomers, the logic goes, got all the good jobs and prime real estate, while Gen Y (aka, “the Millennials”) got a renewed sense of earnestness, enthusiasm, and optimism.  X marks the spot in between—those pissed off at baby-boomers for their narcissistic entitlement and pissed off at the Millennials for not being more pissed off.”

Read the rest here.

When My Daughter Asks Me if She Looks Fat

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Last night, I had a rather disturbing conversation with my 8yo daughter. I was in the middle of doing the laundry and she walked into the room and asked me if I thought she looked fat. I’ve been dreading this question since I became pregnant with her. This is how women destroy themselves.

I decided to write about it over at Medium’s Human Parts.

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You can head over there to read it by clicking HERE.