These Were The Pop Culture Stories I Couldn't Stop Thinking About This Year

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 06 2021

14 mins read

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Hi! I’m Stacy Lee Kong and this is Friday Things, a weekly newsletter about a pop culture story I can’t stop thinking about—and why it matters. If intersectional takes on media, entertainment and celebrity gossip are your jam, subscribe here.

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Not to echo every other year-end list you’ll read in the next little while, but 2020 has been… the most. When I launched this newsletter at the end of January, it already felt like an entire year’s worth of news had happened—remember Megxit, Brexit, the Australian wildfires, Donald Trump being impeached and, of course, the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other people in Calabasas, California? Well that all went down in the first four weeks of the year, and things did not slow down as 2020 trudged on. From the way celebrities responded to the COVID-19 pandemic to an extremely necessary racial reckoning, to troubling revelations about several beloved celebs, here are Friday Things’ 11 biggest pop culture stories of the year, in no particular order because ranking things is hard.

Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson Made Us Take COVID Seriously…

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In early March, Hanks and Wilson revealed they’d both tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Since then, Hanks has periodically spoken up about the pandemic, how the virus affected him and Wilson and his lack of respect for people who refuse to take basic precautions to protect others—but none of that is as interesting to me as the fact that it took an actor publicly admitting he had the virus before North Americans believed it could affect us, too.

… But Then So Many Celebrities Had Extremely Wrong Opinions About the Pandemic

If there’s one thing the pandemic showed us, it’s that celebrities actually are not like us at all. When I wrote about this the first time, back in March, I was thinking about Gal Gadot’s ill-advised “Imagine” singalong, Vanessa Hudgens saying, “it’s a virus. I get it, I respect it, but at the same time, even if everybody gets it, people are gonna die, which is terrible, but like, inevitable?” and Evangeline Lilly refusing to social distance because she “values her freedom.”

At the time, I said, “it seems like every time I log onto social media, I’m annoyed by another celebrity who’s demonstrating just how out of touch they are. To be fair, this isn’t all on celebs—they’re just fulfilling the social contract that we’ve all been holding them to, posting ‘relatable’ content that we have shown them we want with our likes and follows and comments. But I genuinely think something has changed—at least, it has for me. In the past, it has been very easy to see the ways we’re all alike, especially since social media offers the illusion of unprecedented access. Celebrities love their kids! They make awkward faces! They get high and live-Tweet Cats! I mean really. Who doesn’t do that stuff? But when we’re all trapped in our homes worrying about money, health and (I can’t believe this is still a thing but…) toilet paper supplies, seeing stars check in from their mansions is jarring at best and infuriating at worst. And that’s not because I want their material belongings. It’s because I want their peace of mind. I want my biggest worry to be self-care, not the health, safety and security of myself or my loved ones.”

And unsurprisingly, it got worse. Celebrities were able to access COVID tests when most people could not, or showed off their wealth in the midst of a devastating economic crisis, or made racist statements about the origins of the pandemic or shared anti-science views about vaccines alongside a healthy dose of transphobia. It’s been a lot.

But Don’t Worry, Stars Were Also Problematic In Non-COVID Ways

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The first celebrity to really make me angry this year was Lilly Singh, whose appropriation of Caribbean culture reached a fever pitch this year. She has defended herself by claiming she grew up “within Caribbean culture.” But as I wrote back in March, “what she actually means is, she grew up around Caribbean people. She’s familiar with Caribbean culture. That doesn’t mean she’s part of it, or that she has the right to profit off it. But that’s exactly what she’s doing.”

And then there was Hasan Minhaj. In June, I noticed a tweet from a former Patriot Act producer that claimed the show was a toxic work environment, especially for women of colour. The conversation bubbled up again in August, when the show was cancelled, at which point I read every tweet and post I could find. “It’s not that I wanted salacious details,” I noted in that week’s newsletter. “Rather, I wanted confirmation that Minhaj hadn’t been the one ignoring Galati, that he wasn’t gaslighting Ibrahim. If I’m being honest, I wanted to know that someone else was at fault here. But that impulse, though I think understandable, is part of the problem. Like Ellen DeGeneres, Minhaj allowed a toxic work environment to flourish. It doesn’t matter if he did so through his actions or his inaction. It doesn’t matter that he’s incisive and funny and charming and there are no rumours (so far) about people not being allowed to look him in the eye. It doesn’t even matter that Patriot Act was an important win for representation, but didn’t play into stereotypes or descend into tokenism… we still need to hold its host and figurehead accountable.”

And speaking of Ellen… as much as she wasn’t my fave, I can acknowledge that there has been a lot for her fans to take inthis year. Yikes.

Kanye West Ran For President

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Kanye West had been teasing a presidential run for years, and this summer, he finally made the leap. It went, um, about as well as we all knew it would. But at least that unfortunate journey led to some important conversations around the way we talk about mental health both in pop culture and IRL.

Britney Spears’ Conservatorship Court Battle Ramped Up

This year, I often thought about West in relation to Britney Spears. Not because they hang out (that I know of, though can you imagine what the paint nights would be like?), but because they’re both subject to a lot of speculation concerning their mental health—and a lot of that speculation is ableist. Yes, even when it’s coming from fans and is well-meaning.

In November, when news broke that a judge had temporarily denied Spears’ request to remove her father from his role as her conservator, I chatted with Erin Soros, a Mad writer and postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University, who pointed out another important flaw in the discourse. “I think the #FreeBritney movement is interesting… But I’m thinking, ‘You know, there’s a lot of people who could be freed.’ Are Britney fans concerned for her access to her income also engaged with other struggles for disabled/Mad rights? Are these less visible struggles being represented by the hashtag?” she asked. “Britney’s fans are concerned that her liberties are being compromised. But that’s part of how disabled and Mad people are treated in a larger way by society. If people are bothered by her father taking control of her finances, well, that’s what the state does to people who are Mad. It takes control over their bodies; it takes bodily integrity and autonomy away.”

Conspiracy Theories Went Mainstream

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If you’ve somehow made it through this year without hearing about #SaveOurChildren or QAnon, congratulations. And also… I’m sorry, because I’m about to ruin it.

For the past several years, far-right internet trolls have pushed a narrative that Chrissy Teigen is somehow connected to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, something that’s patently untrue. The conspiracy theory, which also claims that other A-listers are involved in a wide-reaching plot to victimize children, spiked in July, likely because Epstein’s best friend and collaborator, Ghislaine Maxwell, was charged with six crimes the same month.

Back then, I broke down why so many of these campaigns revolve around child abuse… and I was still thinking about that the following month, when Netflix bungled the marketing for Cuties, a French coming-of-age film about an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant who is torn between cultures and between childhood and adulthood. Conspiracy theorists jumped on this one, too—and there were real consequences for the director, Maïmouna Doucouré, a French-Senegalese Black woman who had to delete her Twitter account to avoid threats on her safety and even life.

It’s especially disappointing that the film itself was overshadowed by these wild theories because, as reviews and op-eds pointed out post-release, the claims these people spread so casually were both “reckless and untrue.”

Chrissy Teigen Helped Reduce the Stigma Around Pregnancy Loss

Teigen was also the subject of another major story this year. The model and cookbook author experienced pregnancy loss in October when Jack, her third child with John Legend, died in utero. Notoriously open about her life, she posted a series of photos from her hospital room, which made a lot of people very uncomfortable. I wrote about the criticism she faced—that pregnancy loss should be private, or the photos show she’s attention-seeking, or for a particularly noxious segment of the internet, that because she’s pro-choice, she somehow deserved this loss—and why I think society’s impulse to control women’s bodies was at the heart of it all.

But there was a bright spot: Teigen speaking so publicly about Jack allowed other people who had experienced pregnancy loss to share their own stories. I really feel like there’s been a shift in the discourse, and I hope it lasts.

Megan Thee Stallion Was Shot—and Became the Subject of Transphobic Memes

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I know Megan The Stallion had been the subject of transphobic comments in the past, but after she was shot on July 12 (allegedly by Tory Lanez, who has since been charged with one count of felony assault with a semi-automatic firearm, personal use of a firearm and carrying a loaded and unregistered firearm in a vehicle), they were everywhere. Her fellow rappers, including 50 Cent and Cam’ron, even shared them.

I wrote about why Meg, and other Black women who don’t conform to white supremacist beauty ideals, are so often subjected to this type of cruelty, and how it’s directly tied to the torture and murder of actual trans women, especially those who are Black.

Megxit Happened

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Every time I think about how angry racist royal-watchers must be that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry live in L.A., seem to be absolutely rolling in business opportunities and have 100% won in the court of public opinion, I want to cackle with glee. When the couple announced they’d be stepping back, I wrote about why even dubbing the move “Megxit” was both unfair and inaccurate.

(And I maintain that Harry was likely the driving force behind this decision.)

But you know what? As the year has gone on, I’ve come around on Megxit. Now, it feels far less like a sly way for The Sun to criticize Markle and more like a nod to who actually won this round.

Jada Pinkett Smith’s “Entanglement” With August Alsina

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I touched on this when I wrote about Scott Disick’s very problematic habit of dating teenagers, but I wish I’d devoted an entire newsletter to this strange relationship-turned-meme. Over the summer, singer August Alsina claimed that he and Pinkett-Smith had been in a relationship with Will’s blessing. I admit, at first I wondered whether this was some kind of publicity stunt, or if it was confirmation the Smiths actually did have an open relationship, as has long been rumoured, or that this was straight-up cheating. But then they released an episode of Red Table Talk to address the rumours, during which she characterized whatever was going on with Alsina as an “entanglement” that went down when she and Will were separated. After that, the word was everywhere… but strangely, there wasn’t a lot of conversation about Alsina’s vulnerability—he first met the Smiths as a friend of their youngest son, Jaden, and was experiencing alcohol, sex and drug addiction at the time. He says no one preyed on him, but I still think Pinkett-Smith’s behaviour was suspect.

A Racial Reckoning In Media And Entertainment

But the biggest pop culture story to me was the way everyone had to grapple with racism this year. From highlighting incidents of anti-Asian racism due to COVID to reigniting the movement for Black lives following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, it’s been heartening to see the media and entertainment industries—and others, of course—finally start listening to the Black and racialized folks who have been talking about racism forever.

And, actually face consequences! Ben Mulroney stepped down from his anchor role at eTalk over his wife Jessica’s racist bullying, which lead to Lainey Gossip grappling with her own past anti-Blackness. Also, after Alison Roman’s racist interview about Asian lifestyle personalities Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, there was a notable cooling of her until-then red-hot career. And at several seemingly progressive brands, revelations about racism and toxic work environments led to leadership shakeups.

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The same week that Refinery29, Bon Appétit and Man Repeller lost their editors-in-chief, I wrote about working at publications that espouse progressive ideals but don’t uphold them IRL—and more broadly, what it’s like to be a woman of colour in Canada media. The reason I started Friday Things is because I felt like I’d hit the much-discussed glass ceiling; after years of doing senior-level work without credit or pay—and worse, never getting hired to officially fill those senior roles—I realized that if I wanted to run a media brand, I’d have to start it myself.

Canadian media is still a white institution that perpetuates racism, which is why, as I noted in June, I’m pretty happy to see at least some people “facing consequences for their actions, even if it did take worldwide protests and… almost non-stop conversation about anti-Blackness for resignation to even become an option.”

Of course, there’s still far more work to be done. But here’s hoping this story at least continues into 2021 and beyond.

OOO Alert

Thank you for reading my pop culture thoughts every week! I’m going to take the next two Fridays off to celebrate the holidays and—let’s be honest—eat all the cookies and take all the naps. (Though I’ll still be sharing pop culture observations over on Instagram, so come hang out!) I hope you and your loved ones have a safe, happy and healthy holiday season and I’ll see you in 2021, which I am not going to speculate about at all for fear of jinxing it.

And Did You Hear About…

Some of my friends who are also writing brilliant newsletters. For your holiday reading pleasure, I highly recommend checking out Hannah Sung’s At The End of the Day, for a people-first perspective on the news, Sarah Lazarovic’s Minimum Viable Planet, a weeklyish newsletter on how to fight the climate crisis, Wing Sze Tang’s The Knowhow, which offers up insights from ambitious women doing notable things, Mishal Cazmi’s Small Joys, about the little things that bring great joy and Renee Sylvestre-Williams’ The Budgette, a finance newsletter for single people.

The Texas Monthly wedding photographer story that has been taking my timelines by storm. (Warning: It’s infuriating.)

Actor Leonard Roberts’ essay about his experience as a Black man on the set of Heroes—which includes an anecdote that implies actor Ali Larter, who played his on-screen wife—didn’t want to shoot a bedroom scene with him because of his race.

This perfectly snarky round-up of the most egregious products in the Williams-Sonoma December 2020 catalogue. (Though, let’s not kid ourselves, I 100% want a matte black Smeg toaster.)

The uproar over Lizzo posting a video detailing her juice cleanse—and this excellent breakdown of what the outrage missed by Meaghan Wray.

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