This week’s question is from Senior Editor Marah Eakin:
Like everyone, I watched Making A Murderer over my holiday break. And, like everyone, I was fairly incensed at the lack of justice contained within. I have my theories on whether Steven Avery is guilty, but I left the series wanting to do something, not just for Avery and Brendan Dassey, but for the undoubtedly hundreds if not thousands of other people who have faced down the justice system in a way that’s less than ideal. I’m still figuring out what I can do, besides sign a petition, but that’s left me wondering: What piece of media has inspired you to actually do something? And, as a follow-up: What did you do?
In an effort to score the most trivial change of behavior on this list—albeit one I wholeheartedly believe makes the lives of fast-food employees slightly, but measurably, better—I’ll throw this out there: Ever since I read the Onion article “McDonald’s Janitor Would Like To Thank Everyone Who Tossed Half-Full Cups Of Soda Into Trash,” I’ve made a point of always pouring my leftover fast-food beverages into the drain of the self-serve drinks machine, instead of hurling 32-fluid ounces of high-fructose liquid death into a leaky plastic bag that another human being will eventually have to lug around. I’m not saying this deep personal sacrifice—often taking seconds, if not tens of seconds, out of my day—makes me a hero. But given how often my corpulent, lazy sack of organs schleps its way to McDonald’s to guzzle from the Coca-Cola corporation’s sugary, sticky teat, I’m also not saying it doesn’t.
Here’s a relatively silly example that had an unexpectedly large impact on me. During Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged performance, in the midst of “Porch,” the final song of their set, Eddie Vedder stands up on one of the stools on stage, grabs a Sharpie, and writes “PRO-CHOICE!!!” down the side of his arm. He then proceeds to add a few extra lines to the tune, ending with the phrase “I want to choose,” before launching into the song’s rollicking finale. In retrospect, it’s a fairly innocuous case of a guy deciding to use one of his first TV appearances to make a mild political statement, but there was something so earnest and D.I.Y. about the maneuver, it stuck with me after the show had ended. Plus, being awfully young at the time, I was vaguely aware what the term meant, but had no idea of the culture clash that surrounded the subject. Vedder’s almost guileless act pushed me into learning more, as well as triggering a lifelong appreciation for the simple unpremeditated act of political expression. Now, it makes me want to roll my eyes every time someone accuses an artist of preaching to the choir—because you never know when that choir includes a curious young kid.
For as much pop culture I’ve consumed that has enraged me, none has actually succeeded in provoking my inert, sedentary self into action. The most I’ve managed is changing some negligible aspect of my own behavior. In his essay Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris writes how witnessing the identical behavior of adults visiting Santa has destroyed his sense of humans as individuals:
It is sad because you would like to believe that everyone is unique and then they disappoint you every time by being exactly the same, asking for the same things, reciting the exact same lines as though they had been handed a script. All of the adults ask for a Gold Card or a BMW and they rock with laughter, thinking they are the first person brazen enough to request such pleasures.
He includes himself in this critique by recounting a visit to a curio shop where he almost placed a pair of glass eyes against his own before reading a sign admonishing him not to, spurred by every customer before him having the identical idea. My own experience in customer service bears this out. Working behind the cash register, there was hardly a time when an item didn’t properly ring up that a customer wouldn’t blurt, half-jokingly, “So I guess it’s free, then?” Since reading that essay, I’ve trained myself to fight my every compulsion and not just say the first thing that comes to mind to my cashier, server, or bartender. Chances are they’ve heard it a thousand times already and nothing I can say is so witty as to improve on a simple “Hello.” Or a “Thank you.”
Though I don’t agree with this documentary 100 percent, 2010’s Waiting For Superman was the final nudge I needed to become a teacher. I had already sipped the Kool-Aid by interning with Teach For America the summer before the film came out. And watching it shortly after I was accepted into the two-year program, made my decision that much easier, because even if some of it didn’t align whatsoever with my own outlook on education, what did hit home was the basic truth that kids deserve more than a “really crappy education.” A line from the film that still resonates with me and that applies to each student I taught is, “Someone has taken an interest in you, someone loves you, and they recognize the importance of education.” I wondered while watching Making A Murder if Brendan Dassey’s life would have had a different outcome had someone taken that interest in him and told him he wasn’t stupid.
Coming off the suggestion of seeking justice after viewing Making A Murderer, this is going to come off as incredibly inhumanitarian, but let me tell you about the time Ted Leo led me through Spain. Let me be clear: Ted Leo didn’t convince me to go to Spain. My wife and I had always planned on traveling there for our honeymoon, but what the lead Pharmacist did was affect the trajectory of our trip. With “La Costa Brava,” off of 2007’s Living With The Living, Leo sings of everyone needing “a Sunday some days” and paints a glorious picture of drinks with friends and locals alike on the northern coast of Spain along the Mediterranean. It was with this song (and its closing layered refrain) in mind, that we charted a course from Madrid to San Sebastian (in the Basque country) to the Costa Brava and then down to Barcelona, eschewing the more typical get-it-all-in-in-a-week trip that favors historical locales Seville and Granada in between typical stops Madrid and Barcelona. Not to speak ill of that course of action (which appeals to those who’ve set out for sightseeing), but if your primary aim is to “take a week and change your pace,” you’d be hard-pressed for a better place to do it than the region of Spain that translates, quite unfittingly, to “the rough coast.”
I know I asked the question, but I’ll answer it. In college, I was really into reading all the social justice classics, whether we’re talking Nickel & Dimed, The Jungle, Unsafe At Any Speed, etc. One of those books, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way Of Death, about the funeral industry, happened to be on my nightstand at a pivotal point in my life when some of my friends and loved ones died unexpectedly, one after the other. Like Fast Food Nation or No Logo, The American Way Of Death is one of those books that tears the curtains back on an industry most of us would rather not know anything about, and that became both fascinating and revolutionary to me. Though the book was originally written in 1963 (it received an update in 2000), it resonated all the same almost 40 years later, and I started thinking about the commercialization of death, how and why we’re buried, and all that morbid stuff. The American Way Of Death helped me come to terms with my life, and—in a roundabout way—made me make a plan for my own eventual demise. While growing up, I thought I’d eventually be buried, mourned repeatedly and eternally while I lay stoic and statuesque in the ground. Now, I think “Fuck that.” Set me on fire, throw my ashes in a lake, and have a beer.
I was a scrawny kid who’d grown up on food stamps when I first heard The Smiths’ 1985 anthem “Meat Is Murder.” But even for a 15-year-old as hungry as I was, the song affected me so deeply, I became one of the many thousands of Smiths fans nudged toward vegetarianism by Morrissey’s argument that eating meat is “not natural, normal, or kind.” I was a vegetarian for four years, much to the puzzlement of my family, who could never quite figure out why the hell I refused to eat turkey on Thanksgiving throughout my late teen years. During that time I also got into straightedge hardcore, and my meat-free lifestyle was thusly bolstered by bands like Youth Of Today—but after four years of eating nothing but spaghetti and french fries (hey, I was a trailer-trash kid, and there weren’t a lot of vegetarian options in the late ’80s and early ’90s), I wound up switching back to meat again. But I’d like to think I saved a few animals during my time as a vegetarian, and I still respect that stance quite a bit. Though it doesn’t change the fact that “Meat Is Murder” may be the most overblown, histrionic song Morrissey’s ever written. And that’s really saying something.
I hadn’t eaten at McDonald’s in over a decade when I saw Morgan Spurlock’s anti-fast-food documentary Super Size Me, so he didn’t have a huge impact on my already-low opinion of the Golden Arches. But the movie’s look at the impact fast food has on the body got me reading more about where our food actually comes from. I spent weeks reading up on factory farms that keep animals in cramped, unsanitary conditions and feed corn to animals never intended to eat the stuff. I was appalled enough at how little the meat you find in the supermarket resembles what your grandparents bought at the butcher shop—thanks to hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, as well as the conditions the animals are raised under—and within a few months I went vegetarian. My wife (who, like Jason, stopped eating meat as soon as Morrissey told her to) had been vegetarian for years, and while she had never put any pressure on me to change, us both eating from the same menu made the transition an easier one. And I haven’t looked back, even though my concerns are less about animal rights than that I like my food to actually resemble food.
This isn’t a noble cause, but one movie moment comes to mind so far as influencing my behavior—from a movie that makes fun of noble causes, in fact. In the half-forgotten campus comedy PCU—which was written by alumni of my alma mater, specifically about my alma mater, albeit well before I went there—campus cool guy Jeremy Piven admonishes a metalhead (Jon Favreau) about wearing the T-shirt of the band he’s going to see: “Don’t be that guy.” I was “that guy” once and then never again, which for these purposes I’ll count as taking action. It’s possible that I would have gleaned that wearing the band t-shirt to the band’s concert is lame without the help of Piven or Favreau, but then again, I’m a They Might Be Giants fan and I have a ton of band T-shirts, so there’s a good chance that PCU gave me a permanent 5-percent reduction in my dorkery.
I owe my entire career as a writer to this shitty rom-com called Something Borrowed. Even back as a fledgling feminist I could immediately spot the 2011 Kate Hudson/Ginnifer Goodwin vehicle as one of the most disturbingly regressive films ever marketed as a schmaltzy romance. It involves two best friends who destroy their relationship over a guy—a romantic hero so vile I thought the movie had to be subverting a trope. But nope! The final “happy” image is of Goodwin picking up the dude’s dry cleaning, having found romantic bliss at the expense of her friendship with Hudson. The movie pissed me off so much I felt compelled to launch a blog where I dissected romantic comedies (a genre I actually really love), which eventually led me to a job at The A.V. Club. Now in addition to discussing the minutiae of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I also write a lot of feminist criticism in the hopes of helping other people see how twisted our media is when it comes to presenting women. Because Something Borrowed shouldn’t feel the need to make us hate one female character in order to love another one.
It seems like a lifetime ago now, but once upon a time, I was pursuing a career in politics. I interned on various campaigns before eventually becoming the campaign manager in a small city council election in Michigan. (To my dismay, my life was nothing like Parks And Recreation.) I have friends who still like to remind me that when we first met, I had dreams of occupying the Oval Office. While my political ambitions have long since vanished, I often return to the 2005 documentary largely responsible for my early career dreams: Street Fight, about Cory Booker’s 2002 bid for Mayor of Newark against the corrupt Sharpe James. Booker, who lost that initial election but went on to become Newark’s mayor in 2006 and is now New Jersey’s junior U.S. Senator, is an immediately infectious presence in Street Fight. He’s framed throughout as a nearly too-perfect hero, so it’s no surprise that I was instantly smitten and inspired to jump into the chaotic but addicting world of campaigning. My days of canvassing may be behind me, but I’m always down for a Street Fight rewatch.