Critical: Eric Reads the Week, #62

Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?

This week: the women lead Wakanda, on Queer Eye and the straight gaze, and clones. CLONES.

I gave a talk for the school I graduated from (also known as the best high school in the nation, including Bayside High) this week. It was an event for parents of students, prospective parents, and alumni. I was super intimidated because when I think of "Park School Parents" I think of the parents of my friends from high school, people who'd be like "Call me Joe!" and I'd be like "No... I'm going to call you Mr. Cunningham. Cuz I'm awkward around adults, especially parents, and I think it's a thing that will pass once I grow up, but spoiler alert: it will not!"

I got so nervous standing the back of the room waiting to speak-- it was in one of those gorgeous open floor plan think tank idea lab spaces that always feel utopian even though I don't ever quite understand what happens there. I'm always like, "So... where are the ideas hatched? Can I hold one? Is this coffee free or do you want, like, some money? Cronuts? You have a to-go box? I'll just, I'll just put them in my pocket. Don't worry about it."

I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that many of these parents were not kindly authority figures from my youth but people my age, even younger than me. You throw a nice sweater on a homeowner in their late 30s and I'm shewk apparently. I turned into a weird urchin from a Dickens novel. "Uh, g'day guv'rness! Spare a tuppence, can ya?" (Even in the writing, this accent is a disaster.)

It was a TED-style event with a fairly open format so I chose to talk about the importance of good critique, both for art-making and for intelligent discourse in our society. As much as I need to believe that every first draft I write is absolutely perfect, I know that the only way I grow and the only way the things I write reach their full potential is when people engage with the ideas, test the concepts, ask hard questions, and hold me to a higher standard. As much as disconfirming information isn't always fun to hear, I'm finding more and more that I crave it. I don't want to be out in these streets looking like a fool. I'm trying to put out good work! Why else would I do it? If I'm not interested in rigorous development, I might as well go back down to the idea mines and toil away there.

Anyway, I had a good time at the talk. I referred back to Liz Lerman a lot, who if you don't know, you must know. Her process of critical response is the one I'm most familiar with and it's never not made me better. It starts with statements of meaning--not judgements, not suggestions wrapped in passive-aggressive questions--affirmations of places in the work that light a fire inside of you, that sparked a thought, that meant something to you. Then the artist asks questions of the critic, then the critic asks questions (actual questions, not leading questions); the artist isn't compelled to answer. Finally, the critic can give commentary. I find, by that time, there is such strong mutual buy-in to the project that's being endeavored, that the commentary is not nearly as self-centered or focused on the project the critic wishes they were engaging with as it sometimes can be. It's amazing. Imagine that every troll on the internet who doesn't agree with something you said started out with making a statement of meaning. What a world?! Imagine if Fox & Friends had to follow a multi-step process before spewing lies. Liz Lerman's critical response process could transform the world.

I'm seeking critical response pretty much constantly--for plays I'm in various stages of writing or revising, for my book as it gains shape, for my articles. I was all hype about this, after leaving the talk so of course The Universe was like, "Oh, you want some critical response?! Buckle up honey."

It's not even a big thing (he says about something that is clearly a big thing) but anyway... Long story short, on Facebook a friend of mine shared the Queer Eye article I wrote. I scrolled by it on my feed and noticed a comment underneath in which someone I don't know wrote "Not much I agree with here, but on the plus side, I didn't strain a muscle rolling my eyes like I usually do when reading R Eric Thomas."

This was me reading that comment:

And also:

As well as:

Honey, what is this?! Thoughts and prayers for your eye muscles. Also, whaaaat? I will literally never forget that. 1) Because I remember every mean thing that has ever been said about me. 2) Because it's so salty! And, honestly, if I can't take the saltiest shade, I should turn in the reading glasses over which I peer at the world. It is what it is. But I found myself repeatedly thinking about this person who can't stand what I'm putting out. I wished there was some way that I could get actual feedback from him, a critical response. Because he's not talking about me; he's talking about my work. So, I imagine there's something in there that might be of use to me, that might teach me something, that might spark an idea.

No really.

I really do think it's possible for all of us to engage with each other critically, which is to say, with consent, with respect, leading with statements of meaning and asking questions.

This week, I got to put on my critical response hat for two pieces of pop culture and it was very hard to switch gears, but very rewarding. I also recapped two episodes of The Bachelor and the Shondaland crossover, so there was a lot of different kinds of feedback. Lastly, I was up to my same old tricks, writing about the First Lady's superpowers and cloned dogs. But first, Wakanda Forever!

The Most Important Debate in Black Panther Is, Unsurprisingly, Between Two Women

Okoye and Nakia are headed in different directions, physically and ideologically, and it's here, with these two characters, that director Ryan Coogler chooses to lay out the film's central debate in clear, well-elucidated terms. It's a rare moment in film and almost unheard of in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: two women speaking alone about ideas and framing the film's central themes. Their conversation plays like an AP Bechdel Test; even as Wakanda falls, these two women are able to engage in passionate, intelligent debate that involves men but is actually about the women themselves, and actually speaks not only to who they are, but what they want their country to be. [READ THE FULL ARTICLE]

Queer Eye Is, More Than Anything, a Docu-series About Queer Emotional Labor

Dr. Alan Downs writes, after name-checking the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, "Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely crafted facade... The naked truth about who we are wasn't acceptable, so we learned to hide behind a beautiful image. We learned to split ourselves in parts, hiding what wasn't acceptable and flaunting what was."

For many queer people, the merging of the two parts, like the warring sides Hedwig sings about in "Origin of Love," is the work of a lifetime. Which is why it was so gratifying, and so cathartic, to see that work put in service of a queer, black person in the fourth episode. [READ THE FULL ARTICLE]

Double-Barked: Barbra Streisand Cloned Her Dog Because We're Living in the Future

"Don't tell me not to clone,
Or give me troubles!
Life's candy and both of
My dogs are doubles.

Don't bring around the clouds to rain on my parade of identical dogs built in a lab and armed with superhuman singing abilities and also laser eyes." [READ THE FULL COLUMN]

12 OMG Moments from the Scandal/HTGAWMCrossover

OLIVIA AND ANNALISE GO TO A BEAUTY SHOP TOGETHER. AND THEN OLIVIA TELLS THE BEAUTICIANS TO GIVE HER AND ANNALISE THE ROOM! Like! Can you believe?! First of all, no one has ever told a beautician to clear the room in their own shop. In any case, these two people leave Olivia and Annalise alone when Annalise finds out that Olivia has been fired from the White House and is putting up a front. Annalise lets loose a righteous-anger, Papa Pope monologue that would have snatched Olivia bald if her hair wasn't clipped into curlers all over her head. [READ THE FULL RECAP]

Let's Talk About the "Extraordinary Abilities" That Got Melania Trump Her Immigrant Visa

No shade (some shade) but what are these extraordinary abilities of which we speak? The Post notes that the visa is reserved for "renowned academic researchers, multinational business executives or those in other fields, such as Olympic athletes and Oscar-winning actors, who demonstrated 'sustained national and international acclaim.'" It's true that the future Mrs. Trump would go on to give an Oscar-winning performance as someone who is against cyber-bullying but at the time her LinkedIn profile was a little sparse. [READ THE FULL COLUMN]

Instagram May Introduce a Calling Feature Because Life Isn't Terrible Enough

Soon, you may be able to make calls on Instagram and, honestly, please just bury me at sea. It's another ingenious change from the service, which, with their last update, gleefully pulled apart the fabric of reality, resulting in a timeline where you can see pictures from Halloween, Valentine's Day and Barack Obama's inauguration simultaneously. The mad scientists who keep hacking the app—which, I'll remind you, exists literally just so you can look at pictures of food, babies, work outfits, vacations, and body-oddy-oddies—are rumored to be planning another attack on humanity. [READ THE FULL COLUMN]

Pivot!: Arbitrary Rankings From The Bachelor, Ep. 10

Ranking Least Fantastical Things in the Suite

5. The floor the ceiling mirror.

4. Huge potted ficus. Really with this?

3. Stack of random old books on a glass desk.


I am so mad about that ergonomic chair. Is someone going to make a post-coital Skype call with their lumbar fully supported?

Wildest Moments from The Bachelor: The Women Tell All

The episodes where the contestants "tell all" are some of my favorites in the sprawling Bachelor Nation. They're such delightful theater! They play a little bit like a Jerry Springer episode, a little bit like a community theater production of 12 Angry Men, and a little bit like a murder mystery dinner party that everyone has strangely over-committed to. Oh, the acrimonious screaming! Oh, the pre-rehearsed speeches!

Here's the truth, y'all, this is about 35 minutes of television stuffed into two hours of television. This is like those Golden Girls episodes where they would sit around a cheesecake and "remind" each other of hilarious clips from previous shows. But with fewer shoulder pads and less sharp insults. [READ THE FULL RECAP]

Let's Hang Out! THIS MONTH

Chicago: TIME IS ON OUR SIDE is now running! On stage at Theater Wit through April 7! MORE HERE.

Philadelphia: Hosting THE MOTH StorySlam at World Cafe Live on March 5. Online tickets are sold out; but there are some left for day of door sales.

DC: Hosting THE MOTH StorySlam at The Howard Theater on March 19. Tickets go on sale March 12 here.
Also hosting THE MOTH StorySlam at The Miracle Theater on April 5!

Random Thing on the Internet

This conversation between the four African-American directors in history to be nominated for Best Director is phenomenal and very funny.

Make meaningful statements!