The Year’s Best Cultural Criticism

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2014 was a year when entertainment and real life crossed in ways both thrilling and unfortunate. We are cursed to live in interesting times, our sense of security as a culture growing ever more tenuous; but we also have more and more arenas to shout about injustice and fakery. Here’s a selection of the articles that took on the year’s more relevant pop-culture topics with style and grace, helping us to figure out just what our stories mean about the way we see the world.

SNL‘s Leslie Jones Uses Slavery to Make a Point About Being Black and Beautiful,” Roxane Gay, TIME, May 2014

Roxane Gay is the hardest-working cultural critic on the Internet, and there’s a plethora of pieces to choose from among her 2014 work. This piece smartly takes a sketch — Leslie Jones on “Weekend Update,” saying she’d be the “#1 slave draft pick” — and finds the pain and humanity underneath the edgy humor, and it contextualizes it within ideas about the “black is beautiful” movement and what “diversity” really means.

Obvious Child, the Abortion Comedy, Isn’t a Great Film, But It Is a Revelation,” Michelle Goldberg, The Nation, June 2014

Obvious Child, the comedy starring Jenny Slate that follows a Brooklyn comedian who has a one-night stand, gets knocked up, has an abortion, and falls in love, inspired a raft of great writing this year. Goldberg places the film within the pantheon of work that addresses abortion (spoiler: there isn’t much), usually as a “tragic choice” for female characters. Obvious Child, on the other hand, is refreshingly straightforward about the role abortion played in one woman’s life.

A Snowpiercer Thinkpiece, Not to Be Taken Too Seriously, But For Very Serious Reasons,” Aaron Bady, The New Inquiry, July 2014

Snowpiercer, the Wizard of Oz-like Korean horror journey through a post-apocalyptic train of social inequality, has been read by audience after audience as an allegory for capitalism. But in this piece, Bady argues that it’s less of an allegory and more of a horrific post-capitalist piece of ruin porn, showing us what the world may look like if we have more and more cities fall into disrepair like Detroit.

I Don’t Care If You Like It,” Rebecca Traister, The New Republic, July 2014

Esquire issued a clueless missive called “In Praise of 42-Year-Old Women,” and we all got amped up about that ridiculousness, but it took Traister to provide the most incisive commentary, linking the shallow chauvinism of Esquire‘s “Ladies, you’re still fuckable!” rant to the fact that “every barometer by which female worth is measured… has long been calibrated to ‘dude.'”

Let’s Be Real,” Wesley Morris, Grantland, August 2014

Grantland has a murderer’s row of reliably great pop-culture writers — Rembert Browne and Molly Lambert also come to mind — but the piece that stuck out from their year in culture comes from their film critic, Wesley Morris, who managed to turn the supremely poor timing of Let’s Be Cops into a beautiful lament on the state of the world in light of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson.

Top 40 in a Summer of Discontent,” Ann Powers, NPR, August 2014

At a time when black America has something urgent to say, pop radio is instead turning towards androgynous voices that are the most interested in erasing any trace of race or ethnicity. Powers points out the disconnect between our weary times, when J. Cole’s engaged and aware hip hop feels so urgent and alive, and the ghostly voices like Sam Smith and Iggy Azalea, whose purposes are to erase race from their music.

Overanalyzing Basic Is the Most Basic Move of All,” Kara Brown, Jezebel, October 2014

The term “basic” went mainstream this year, and as writer after writer overused it and then wrung their hands about what it all meant, it took Kara Brown at Jezebel to make the point, succinctly, that maybe “basic” isn’t quite the anti-female, anti-mainstream diss term loaded with meaning every time someone calls another person basic. Isn’t it basic to think too much about basic?

My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK,” Kiese Laymon, Gawker, November 2014

“We are not OK. We are not OK,” Laymon writes, after detailing microaggression after microaggression and explaining how a seemingly “liberal” promise of financial and intellectual security at an institution like Vassar comes up short in the face of everyday, banal, insidious racism. It’s a call to arms, an exhortation that we need to change the way we treat our fellow Americans.

I Can’t Even With TIME‘s Suggestion That We Ban the Word ‘Feminist,'” Jill Filipovic, Cosmopolitan, November 2014

We may be living in a time when feminism is the trend of the month, particularly for celebrities. But we still need feminism — and not just of the celebrity thinkpiece variety. Filipovic writes, “Feminism is still alive — and still under fire — because it’s both a simple concept and an inherently threatening one,” and TIME‘s “joking” suggestion that we “ban the word feminist” in a year-end poll is a clear sign that it’s still a threat.

The Pain of the Watermelon Joke,” Jacqueline Woodson, The New York Times, November 2014

Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award in the young adult category for her memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming — a moment that should’ve been magic, marred by the night’s MC, Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler’s, awkward and offensive watermelon joke. While the moment incurred Internet outrage (and Handler’s $100,000 apology, donated to the new grassroots group We Need Diverse Books), we didn’t get to hear Woodson’s perspective she wrote this piece.

Bonus: “Memoirs of a Non-Prom Queen,” Ellen Willis, The Cut, republished April 2014

Women, we are lucky these days: We live in a world where we can greedily lap up all the works by the late, crucial feminist writer Ellen Willis, particularly in this year’s vibrant doorstopper The Essential Ellen Willis. In this decades-old essay, reprinted on The Cut in honor of the book’s release, Willis discusses her social ineptitude in high school and how it left its marks — and she turns the oppressive ugly duckling myth upside down in the process.