Is Joss Whedon a Bad Feminist? A Reading List

I don’t remember when Joss Whedon went from being a garden-variety household name to being someone I refer to on a first-name basis. I quote Joss, I verb Joss, I adjective Joss. I’m conversational in the native tongue of Our Lady of Buffdom, so I’ve probably even made with some of the Jossing. As a woman who was once a teenage girl who grew up with Buffy, I’ve internalized more than my fair share of her -isms. For the better part of twenty years, I’ve known Joss Whedon as the creator of a feminist hero.

For the better part of the same twenty years, Kai Cole knew Joss Whedon as her partner and husband. He was just Joss to her, too — far more intimately Joss than to any of his first-name-basis-ing fans.

This weekend, Cole wrote about her divorce with Joss in a post on The Wrap. She writes about how, on their honeymoon in England in 1995, she encouraged him to turn his script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer — which had just been misinterpreted as a film — into a television show. Joss apparently hadn’t wanted to work in television anymore. I repeat: As of 1995, Joss Whedon “didn’t want to work in television anymore.”

Yet on March 10, 1997 — two years after their honeymoon — Buffy aired on The WB.

According to Cole’s post, Joss had his first affair on the set of Buffy, and continued to have affairs in secret for fifteen years. I believe Cole. I believe that when she quotes Joss in her post, she is quoting him verbatim. I’ve quoted him verbatim, too.

(Or have I? I wonder, knowing more now than I did then about writers rooms, whether every line I attribute to episodes credited as “Written by Joss Whedon” were, in fact, written by Joss Whedon. Every time Jane Espenson tweets credit for specific lines to specific writers on Once Upon a Time — or retroactively to Buffy quotes — I wonder. Every time I watch UnREAL, a show co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon that sends up how often women are discredited in television, I wonder. I don’t doubt that Joss was responsible for the vast majority of what I’d call classic Joss dialogue. I’ll just never know which lines weren’t actually his.)

After I saw Joss Whedon trending and read Cole’s post, I scrolled through other longtime fans’ and non-fans’ reactions on Twitter. Many were not surprised. I texted friends about my own lack of surprise, punctuated with single-tear emojis: “I almost can’t even call it disappointed. As though it would be actually inhuman to expect something else.”

Cole quotes a letter Joss wrote to her when their marriage was falling apart, when he was “done with” lying to her about the truth of his affairs. He invokes the inhuman in his confession, too — or, as is so often the case with Joss, the superhuman: “When I was running ‘Buffy,’ I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.”

Was it superhuman for Cole to expect her husband to resist that kind of power? Would Joss have been running Buffy, if he hadn’t married Cole? “I was a powerful influence on the career choices Joss made during the 20 years we were together,” Cole writes. “I kept him grounded, and helped him find the quickest way to the success he so deeply craved. I loved him. And in return, he lied to me.”

As Marianne Eloise notes below in Dazed, it remains to be seen whether Cole’s letter will impact Joss’s career, most notably as director of the upcoming Batgirl. In the meantime, his fans are left to resolve tense, charged questions, none of which have easy answers: How do we come to personal decisions about whether or not we can separate the art from the artist? Does Joss deserve to be punished? Will punishment come as a public fall from feminist grace, or cost him professional opportunities he’s been enjoying for decades as a self-proclaimed feminist artist? Do feminists, male or female, need to be perfect to count?

In “Lie to Me” — Season 2 Episode 7, “Written by Joss Whedon” — Angel asks Buffy if she loves him. Buffy answers, “I love you. I don’t know if I trust you.” For fans and collaborators who are working through hard questions about love and the loss of trust this week, here is some guided reading on feminism, fandom, and fidelity for Whedonverse enthusiasts:

1. “Why I Am A Bad Feminist” (Roxane Gay, BuzzFeed, August 2014)

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying — trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.

I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.

2. “I Believe Dylan Farrow” (Matt Zoller Seitz,, May 2016)

I feel what I feel. You can’t just decide not to feel the way you feel. The human personality doesn’t work that way.

More importantly, trying to suppress that reaction would be tantamount to denying that Allen molested Dylan.

I can’t do that.

As a witness to, and survivor of, domestic abuse in childhood, I just can’t do that.

It’s not worth it to me, going through that. Not even for a couple of hours, or a few minutes.

I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure from Allen’s films over the decades, but they are not so important to me that I’m willing to deny what my gut tells me is almost certainly true, and deny my own experience, which affects how I treat people in real life, not just how I react to particular films and filmmakers.

So, Woody Allen has gone, in my mind, from “One of the great American filmmakers” to “One of the great American filmmakers, and probably a child molester.”

It’s a different lens through which to view a director’s work, that’s for sure.

But I didn’t do that to Woody Allen. He did it to himself.

3. “The Legend of Vera Nabokov: Why Writers Pine for a Do-It-All Spouse” (Koa Beck, The Atlantic, April 2014)

Twenty-three years after her death, Vera Nabokov remains a revered figure in capital “L” Literature—not necessarily for her own work, but for devoting herself fully to that of her husband, the great Vladimir Nabokov. Vera not only performed all the duties expected of a wife of her era—that is, being a free live-in cook, babysitter, laundress, and maid (albeit, she considered herself a “terrible housewife”)—but also acted as her husband’s round-the-clock editor, assistant, and secretary. In addition to teaching his classes on occasion (in which Nabokov openly referred to her as “my assistant”), Vera also famously saved Lolita, the work that would define her husband’s career, several times from incineration, according to Stacy Schiff ‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 biography, Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). With Vera by his side, Nabokov published 18 novels between 1926 and 1974 (both in Russian and English). Through 1976, the year before his death, he also published 10 short story collections and nine poetry collections along with criticism, plays, uncollected short stories, and translations.

4. “What’s Wrong With Infidelity?” (Emily Bobrow, 1843 Magazine, December/January 2017)

Reliable statistics on infidelity are hard to come by as there are few incentives for candour and definitions vary. Numbers of those in Western countries admitting to some sort of infidelity range from 30% to 75% of men and 20% to 68% of women. Now that more women enjoy financial independence and jobs outside the home, the gap between philandering men and women is narrowing swiftly. “There is not a single other taboo that is universally condemned and universally practised,” says Perel. Basically, cheating is something we don’t want and don’t like, but it is something we do and do often.

“It’s because fidelity is the last thing left that defines a marriage,” she says. “You don’t need to wait to have sex, you don’t need kids. You don’t even need marriage anymore. The only thing that distinguishes it is that, after years of sexual nomadism, you suddenly say ‘I have finally found the one. You are so extraordinary that I am no longer looking for anything else. For you I promise to be suddenly exclusively monogamous’.” The only hitch, says Perel, is that sexual nomadism doesn’t prepare you for exclusivity. “It’s not as though you got it out of your system. Love and desire aren’t the same thing.”

5. “A Chat With Mimi Pond on the Service Industry, Cocaine, and Writing the First Episode of The Simpsons” (Anna Fitzpatrick, The Muse, August 2017)

MIMI POND: I was never invited to be on staff, and I never knew why for the longest time. No one ever called me or explained to me or apologized or anything. And it wasn’t until years later that I found out that Sam Simon, who was the showrunner, didn’t want any women around because he was going through a divorce. It had remained a boys’ club for a good long time. I feel like I was just as qualified as anyone else who came along and got hired on the show, and it was just because I was a woman that I was, you know, not allowed entry into that club. I always wind up being the turd in the punchbowl because the show is so beloved and everything, and I’m sorry to burst bubbles but [laughs]. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for me.

JEZEBEL: I know you said the ordering of the episode was arbitrary but you were still largely responsible for bringing that family to the masses.

POND: Like every TV script ever, every script is rewritten in the writer’s room. So I can’t claim that responsibility. It’s always a group effort. Just in terms of being denied the opportunity to participate in something that became that big is kind of a drag. And then having to explain this over and over is the biggest drag of all.

5. “Joss Whedon and the problem with ‘male feminists’” (Marianne Eloise, Dazed, August 2017)

Joss Whedon has built his empire off the back of claiming to be a feminist and a Good Man. His work is good in its own right, but his glowing public profile is based on pretending to be a feminist, and it was only a matter of time until the cracks that were always showing completely burst open. Whether or not these accusations will actually impact Whedon’s career remains to be seen. There is every chance that he will get off scot free; that, as is so often the case, the people who hire and idolise him will brush this off as a domestic issue. But there is a lesson in Cole’s essay for all of us: never, ever trust a self-titled male feminist who is comfortable with how ‘good’ for women he is.

from Longreads

Ellen Pao Is Ready to Name Names

Ellen Pao, who sued her Sillicon Valley employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for discrimination, was saving the names for her upcoming book Reset: Ajit Nazre, a partner who became hostile after she rejected his advances; Ted Schlein, a managing partner who explained he liked white, Eastern European sex workers during a private flight in which a tech CEO in attendance bragged about meeting Jenna Jameson. In her six years at Kleiner Perkins, Pao was passed over for promotion, her clients were stolen, her performance maligned, and eventually she was fired after complaining about harassment to an independent investigator, who asked “Well, if they look down on women so much, if they block you from opportunities, they don’t include you at their events, why do they even keep you around in the first place?”

The competitive world of venture capital was familiar to Pao, and she played the game as best she could. But the game was stacked against her, she explains in an excerpt from her book featured at The Cut.

Predicting who will succeed is an imperfect art, but also, sometimes, a self-fulfilling prophecy. When venture capitalists say — and they do say — “We think it’s young white men, ideally Ivy League dropouts, who are the safest bets,” then invest only in young white men with Ivy League backgrounds, of course young white men with Ivy League backgrounds are the only ones who make money for them. They’re also the only ones who lose money for them.

Sometimes the whole world felt like a nerdy frat house. People in the venture world spoke fondly about the early shenanigans at big companies. A friend told me how he sublet office space to Facebook, only to find people having sex there on the floor of the main public area. They wanted to see if the Reactrix — an interactive floor display hooked up to light sensors — would enhance their experience. At VC meetings, male partners frequently spoke over female colleagues or repeated what the women said and took the credit. Women were admonished when they “raised their voices” yet chastised when they couldn’t “own the room.” When I was still relatively new, a male partner made a big show of passing a plate of cookies around the table — but curiously ignored me and the woman next to him. Part of me thought, They’re just cookies. But after everyone left, my co-worker turned to me and shrugged. “It’s like we don’t exist,” she said.

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Serena Williams on Returning to Tennis and Embracing ‘Power’

Serena Williams is planning on returning to the Australian Open next year to defend her grand slam title a mere three months after she gives birth. “It’s the most outrageous plan,” she told Vogue’s Rob Haskell from her home in Florida.

Williams has also learned to embrace what it means to be a powerful player on the tennis court:

Power—it’s a word that has clung with a sometimes unsavory vigor to Williams over the years, perhaps as a dismissal of her prodigious technical skill or, worse, as a proxy for her race. And it’s a word she has only recently come to embrace. “I think I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the idea of power,” she says. “In the beginning I didn’t like it when they said that my sister and I were power players. I thought, I don’t hit as hard as a Monica Seles. In Australia last year, I read that Maria Sharapova’s backhand and forehand are as good or better than mine, and that the only reason I win is that my serve is bigger. I was like, wait a minute, please. I place my serve. And what about my volleys? My speed? I’m the player who’s hitting angles. I’m the player who moves you. I use my brain, and that’s really why I win. Not only me, but women in general sometimes feel that power is a bad word. As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to feel differently about it. Power is beauty. Strength is beauty. So now on the court I want people to think that I’m powerful. But I also want them to be shocked at how I play. I want people to expect something, then get something different.”

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The South Carolina Dylann Roof Knew

When Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah first began to cover the trial of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine parishioners of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in June 2015, she initially assumed her feature for GQ would focus on Roof’s victims. But as Ghansah began to report on the trial, and specifically on Roof himself, she realized the thrust of her piece would have to focus on the murderer.

Over and over again, without even bothering to open his mouth, Roof reminded us that he did not have to answer to anyone. He did not have to dignify our questions with a response or explain anything at all to the people whose relatives he had maimed and murdered. Roof was safeguarded by his knowledge that white American terrorism is never waterboarded for answers, it is never twisted out for meaning, we never identify its “handlers,” and we could not force him to do a thing. He remained inscrutable. He remained in control, just the way he wanted to be.

And so, after weeks in the courtroom, and shortly before Dylann Roof was asked to stand and listen to his sentence, I decided that if he would not tell us his story, then I would.

To do so, Ghansah had to confront the history of South Carolina. This was a journey that Roof had also undertook in the days and years before he entered Mother Emanuel with 88 bullets — one that ended with a perverted viewpoint of the antebellum period before the state became the cradle of secession. What Ghansah finds as she crisscrosses the state — visiting Roof’s own place of worship in Columbia, walking along “Slave Street” on Boone Plantation — is that South Carolina prefers its history viewed through a heavy-handed filter.

Dylann Roof was educated in a state whose educational standards from 2011 are full of lesson plans that focus on what Casey Quinlan, a policy reporter, said was “the viewpoint of slave owners” and highlight “the economic necessity of slave labor.” A state that flew the Confederate flag until a black woman named Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole and pulled it down. A place that still has a bronze statue of Benjamin Tillman standing at its statehouse in Columbia. Tillman was a local politician who condoned “terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable…to rescue South Carolina from the rule of the alien, the traitor, and the semi-barbarous negroes.”

Roof is what happens when we prefer vast historical erasures to real education about race. The rise of groups like Trump’s Republican Party, with its overtures to the alt-right, has emboldened men like Dylann Roof to come out of their slumber and loudly, violently out themselves. But in South Carolina, those men never disappeared, were there always, waiting. It is possible that Dylann Roof is not an outlier at all, then, but rather emblematic of an approaching storm.

I took a road trip last week down the Atlantic coast and spent a few days in Charleston. It was a somewhat shocking experience to be in a city that purports to treasure its history but so openly glosses over the gritty details. Boone Plantation is one of the few sites to feature slave cabins dating back to the 1700s, but as Ghansah notes, the majority of the cabins are staffed by odd-looking dummies, which she writes “are supposed to represent black people in their deepest ignominy…there were no dummies that were supposed to represent the masters or the mistresses of the plantation.”

It is also at Boone I first learned of the “compassionate” slave owner, mentioned in one of the cabin’s audio tools. To enslave another human being immediately disqualifies anyone from being described as compassionate, no matter that person’s other qualities. This was closer to historical fiction than history. This distinction continued through the tour. The text in one cabin explained the significance of an archaeological dig on the property, an effort undertaken by a private firm which suggests Boone Plantation was forced to review the land (so as to not run afoul of Historic Preservation Act) rather than act on of any sort of archival inquisitiveness.

That a site like Boone would include these fallacies only confirms what Ghansah discovered during her time reporting on Roof:

In Charleston, I learned about what happens when whiteness goes antic and is removed from a sense of history. It creates tragedies where black grandchildren who have done everything right have to testify in court to the goodness of the character of their slain 87-year-old grandmother because some unfettered man has taken her life. But I also saw in those families that the ability to stay imaginative, to express grace, a refusal to become like them in the face of horror, is to forever be unbroken. It reminds us that we already know the way out of bondage and into freedom. This is how I will remember those left behind, not just in their grief, their mourning so deep and so profound, but also through their refusal to be vanquished. That even when denied justice for generations, in the face of persistent violence, we insist with a quiet knowing that we will prevail. I thought I needed stories of vengeance and street justice, but I was wrong. I didn’t need them for what they told me about Roof. I needed them for what they said about us. That in our rejection of that kind of hatred, we reveal how we are not battling our own obsolescence. How we resist. How we rise.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Lighter

Colin Gillis has lost a tremendous amount of weight, and it changes things — the way he moves around the world, the way people react to him. But as he lives in his smaller body, he finds that there are other, deeper parts of his existence as a person of size that he’s lost along with the weight.

But there was also something attractive and deeply pleasurable about being—and living—large, about cultivating huge appetites and satisfying them with abandon. Eating piles of calorie rich food and guzzling it down with wine is tremendously fun, and I look back on occasions when I did that with fondness, a hint of jealousy, and with only the slightest regret. And my large body was so powerful! I trained until I could deadlift 420 pounds. The rush of excitement doing this gave me, the sense of accomplishment, the physical pleasure of muscles flush with blood, was a palpable sense of strength that I carried with me, in body and in mind.

Removing over thirty percent of my total body mass has entailed losses of pleasures that I once associated with being huge and that remain important for me. These are more than just the pleasures of regular excess in food and drink. I am physically smaller now and less strong than I once was. I may never gain back all of my old strength.

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How Can Alt-Right Women Exist in a Misogynistic Movement?

Days before the events in Charlottesville, Harper’s published the cover story from their September issue about the prominent women of the alt-right: Women who want to bring others into a movement that is misogynist at its very core. In the piece, “The Rise of the Valkyries,” Seyward Darby profiles Lana Lokteff, the “queen bee” of the alt-right who David Duke has described as a “harder-hitting” Ann Coulter with a “movie-star quality.” Lokteff finds likeminded women online and promotes them via Red Ice, a white nationalist media company she runs with her husband. But for women to have a voice in the alt-right, let alone be prominent in the movement, is its own paradox, as Lokteff admonishes women to give counsel to men and embrace classic notions of femininity. I spoke with Darby about what it takes to interview a subject whose very existence appears to undermine her own claims.


I was listening to an interview with Elle Reeve, the Vice News Tonight correspondent who embedded herself with the white nationalists in Charlottesville, and she says that shared misogyny, usually online, is often what brings white supremacists together — that misogyny is a kind of gateway to white supremacy. How does Lokteff understand the role misogyny plays in the alt-right?

I think Elle did a great job in that Charlottesville segment; I was impressed with her access and poise throughout. The question you pose is the one that drew me to this story in the first place: How can alt-right women exist — or, going a step further, be vocal advocates — in such a misogynistic movement? The answer isn’t simple. Lokteff and other sources provided several different responses, revealing complicated — or confused — views of gender dynamics.

First, they do not agree that the rhetoric uttered by movement leaders like Richard Spencer is misogynistic. (I quote him in the story as saying that women should not be able to make foreign policy because “their vindictiveness knows no bounds.”) They insist this language is merely cognizant of biological, predetermined, symbiotic differences between men and women: Men are strong and assertive, while women are soft and emotional; men should lead and women should follow, providing their men with support and counsel. To protect the white race, men should run countries, make policy, and fight wars, while women should perpetuate bloodlines, nurture family units, and inculcate new generations with pro-white beliefs. I remember one source telling me what people outside the alt-right might find misogynistic she thinks is “just true.”

The corollary to this answer is that these women detest feminism. Many of them came to the alt-right as anti-feminists first, not unlike the men you mention. Their reasons were myriad, but at base I think a lot of them felt ostracized by, angry with, or otherwise disappointed in feminism, which they would define in caricature: an ideology that celebrates man-hating, racially diverse, fat, ugly women demanding whatever they want from the world. The women I examined believe that the progressive feminist agenda castigates traditional wives and mothers and depicts the white man as public enemy number one. (They would call that real racism.) They argue that feminism, which they see as the spawn of washed-up, Marxist, lesbian, and/or Jewish women in the early 1900s has perverted the natural gender order by convincing women to be more like men and men to be more like women.

When I described to Lokteff my personal concept of feminism — very roughly, it advocates women having the same rights and opportunities as men to choose to be what they want to be and do what they want to do — she told me that white women already had that before feminism came along, because white men have “propelled us like crazy.” Which, of course, circles back to the whole men lead, women follow thing: Women succeed thanks to men giving them the platform to do so.

Another answer I heard is that men’s rights activists (MRAs) and men going their own way (MGTOW), the most virulent of internet misogynists, aren’t really alt-right. Lokteff told me that to be alt-right, a man cannot disdain women; he must love and cherish them, because otherwise how will the white race reproduce and thrive? This raises all kinds of questions about who gets to claim the alt-right mantle, which was forged in the depths of the internet with minimal organization and maximum self-amplification. I don’t think men who identify as MGTOW and alt-right would be thrilled to hear a woman tell them, “You’re not one of us.” I’ve seen as much — but said far more crudely and cruelly — in some comments sections attached to Lokteff’s videos.

The last thing I’ll say about this question is that my sources insist that the mainstream media intentionally depict the alt-right as misogynistic in order to degrade it, to make it seem like it isn’t and couldn’t ever be a real political force. They want white women to know that the movement has their true interests at heart, that it’s a sorority where they can feel safe and accepted. Any which way they spun it, the responses boiled down to, “You’re wrong about us.”

So much of what you describe with Lokteff reminds me of the character of Serena Joy, as she is rendered in the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Serena is as much of an architect of the new government that her husband is, but when the revolution comes, she finds herself forced to live the life she preached — one of subservience — shut out of the political life she aspired to. How does Lokteff understand her own place between femininity and power?

I’m so glad you asked this question. I started working on this story in January, and over the next four months I read The Handmaid’s Tale and watched the Hulu series. It was a bizarre experience to see everything I was researching dramatized in a worst-case scenario. In the episode about Serena Joy’s backstory, I had to hit pause on my remote because all I could think was, “Oh my gosh, that’s Lana.” The parallels were eerie.

I put the question of femininity versus power to Lokteff and she said a few things worth noting. First, she described herself as having “guy brain,” or masculine tendencies toward assertiveness and leadership, which makes her unusual among women. On the whole, she thinks most white women want to be beautiful, adored, married with kids, living in a nice home, and maybe fulfilled in a career. (But that’s secondary.)

The other thing she said is that the alt-right believes it’s currently fighting a war for the soul of Western civilization — a grand sociopolitical battle to save the white race from destruction. All hands are needed on the frontlines promoting the cause and recruiting acolytes, including women. The implication, I think, is that women who are outspoken today would take a step back once the white ethno-states that many in the alt-right wish to create finally exist. They would shift back to the natural position that they want — or say they want — to be in anyway.

Lastly, the women I examined view femininity as a form of power in its own right. Lokteff talked about white women — namely, their sexuality and vulnerability —as inspiring men to fight for and protect them. This is one of the reasons alt-right women place a high premium on aesthetics: The more beautiful you are, the more likely men will be to take care of you, personally and existentially. I heard several women say that they can get away with saying things that alt-right men can’t; they think that femininity makes racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise offensive ideas more palatable.

You describe an alt-right podcast hosted by a white nationalist couple (“Good Morning White America”) as having calculated “bubblegum” tone. It’s a tone that’s similar to Lokteff’s physical presence: equal parts cheerful and hateful. How did this come across as you interviewed her? Did it affect the kinds of questions you asked?

Another reason I did this story is because I wanted to sit down face to face with people I don’t agree with. It’s easy from a distance to dehumanize such people as thoughtless, malevolent, and not worth an ounce of your time. I wanted to challenge myself to see women of the alt-right as fully-formed people, no matter how much I found what they said to be abhorrent.

The women I spoke to were friendly, articulate, and accommodating. Lokteff offered to pick me up from the Charleston airport, to drive me back to my hotel after our interview, and to appear in a debate on Red Ice. (I declined all three.) I didn’t hide who I was, save briefly divorcing my husband on Facebook because he is half-Jewish and I wanted to maximize the chance that women would talk to me — not a foregone conclusion at the start of this research. They were aware that I am liberally minded and do not support Donald Trump. I was told that some of the women who declined to speak to me or never responded to interview requests did so because they saw on Twitter that I support refugees, which I guess was a non-starter for them.

I tried to be cordial and measured in my interviews. One rule I had was to not get into arguments. I knew there was no way they would change my mind, nor was there much chance I could change theirs. I also knew that I would be pointing out what I disagreed with — or letting repugnant views speak for themselves — in the final article. So I endeavored to keep the dialogues going for as long and into as much depth as I could, in order to wrap my head, and hopefully my readers’ heads, around their zeitgeist. That kept the combativeness on a pretty low burn, even if on the inside I was angry or alarmed (which I was a lot of the time). This approach only affected my questions insofar as I tried to pose them anthropologically, for lack of a better word. And because I didn’t get into fights, I was able to ask more questions than I think I otherwise would have.

The perverse side of all this is that the women’s friendliness is, to a certain degree, calculated. If they want the alt-right to have a real civic future, which many of them do, it’s in their interest to seem normal and reasonable. It’s also in their interest because, from a recruitment perspective, they want to make potential converts comfortable with the idea of becoming alt-right. They promote themselves as being on the side of truth and light on matters of race, gender, and nationality. They depict their critics as aggressive, nasty, and violent — hence all the rhetoric about antifa and other leftists post-Charlottesville.

The last thing I’ll say about this is that there are exceptions: There are online female pundits and trolls who are crass, sarcastic, and impatient with “normies” (people outside the movement). I certainly encountered some of that, though it came mostly from anonymous pundits.

You include in your piece a short history of women within white extremist groups. It seems like they fare best within tight organizational structures like the Klan. (The bureaucratic effectiveness of the Daughters of the Confederacy is responsible for the spread of confederate monuments and “Lost Cause” rhetoric). Does Lokteff see her role in the alt-right as an organizer? Or is she more interested in adding women’s voices to the movement’s purposeful disorganization?

She demurred about this when I asked. I don’t think she would ever outright say, “I’m a leader of the alt-right.” But she would say that among women in the movement she’s more vocal and deeply involved in generating propaganda. I think she knows that the more female voices she can harvest from YouTube, Twitter, Gab, and other platforms to promote via her media company, Red Ice, the better. Not to create purposeful disorganization, but to convey momentum. The alt-right is concerned with showing that it has strength and numbers. Its shrewdest leaders realize that a critical piece of the project is proving that they aren’t just a bunch of slovenly white guys on their computers in their moms’ basements. They want to seem like smart, virile white men and smart, beautiful white women who’ve finally realized what’s in their best interests.

As for the historical comparisons, I found these very striking. No, the alt-right isn’t a tightly organized structure like the Nazi party or the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. It’s an umbrella term for a motley cluster of hate groups, internet personalities, quasi-intellectuals, and trolls — all of whom believe in the cause of white nationalism. But the way that believers talk about women’s roles in their movement today is very similar to how predecessor groups talked about the same topic. I found myself underlining and highlighting bits of speeches and articles from nearly a century ago because they rang so familiar to what I was reading online or hearing said in interviews.

You say that the alt-right is notoriously cagey when it comes to talking to the mainstream media. When Lokteff agrees to meet with you, she invokes a sense of female empathy—that you wanted to hear her out—and then immediately revokes it. (“It’s not because you’re a woman.”) How did this play out in your interaction with her?

She rejected female empathy, but then invoked it again when she compared herself to me, saying we’re both vocal women who are interested in politics. So her line on the issue wasn’t a straight one. One of the things I found most striking about how she approached the interview was that she showed up with her husband, without mentioning in advance that he’d be there, and recorded me at the same time I was recording her, on equipment that was much more sophisticated than mine.

I gathered that there were two reasons for this: First, she wanted to make sure she had a precise record of everything she and I said, so that she could call me out on any discrepancy in what I published. (Several people I asked to interview said they would only do so if they could get questions in advance, record me simultaneously, or respond in writing.) The second reason is that she sees herself as a journalist just as much as I see myself as one. One with an agenda, to be sure, but a truth-teller and muckraker all the same, out to upend the mainstream media narrative.

The majority of white extremists at the Charlottesville march were men — men who were willing to show their face in public, who were emboldened to transform their talk online into the public space. Do you get the sense that Lokteff and the women she mentors want to enter a public sphere? Or would they rather remain online?

Some do, and some don’t. Some want to do so now, others claim they aren’t ready. Some insist that they can’t go public because they risk their careers, reputations, and so on; this is a piece of a broader narrative they try to spin about the alt-right being the new counterculture, the renegades of the 21st century. But to me, the bottom line is that the internet is a fertile space for this ideology because it offers anonymity, room for hate speech, and connections across wide geographies. (The alt-right is a transatlantic movement, with a strong presence in parts of Europe.) Many alt-right acolytes feel emboldened by Trump’s election and are stepping out into the world, as we saw in Charlottesville. The internet, though, is home base.

from Longreads

Family Band

Ben Rothenberg | Racquet and Longreads | August 2017 | 9 minutes (2,122 words)

Our latest Exclusive is a new story by tennis writer Ben Rothenberg and produced in partnership with Racquet magazine.

To hear Alexander Zverev Sr. tell it, the tale of how his younger, golden-haired son began to play tennis has the simplicity of a fairy tale involving the Three Bears.

“It was all natural for Sascha,” he said. “Mama played, Papa played, brother played. And so, he started to play.”

While the Williams sisters have made family reunions in the finals of Grand Slams feel normal, multiple branches of a family tree breaking through to the top of the sport remains a rare phenomenon. This is particularly so in the men’s game, where brothers have rarely shared space in the top 200 together over the past decade. But in a sport that demands individualism, the Zverevs have managed to become the archetypal tennis family, a story line that’s become increasingly prominent in professional tennis, where the various methods of grooming top players are hotly debated.

Spanning generations and cultures, the Zverevs travel the tour together as four: father Alexander Sr., 57; mother Irina, 50; older brother Mischa, 29; and younger brother Alexander Jr., called Sascha, 20. The group is completed by Lövik, a toy poodle who does not play tennis himself but seems to enjoy the sport.

Under the guidance of their parents, both Mischa and Sascha became world-class juniors and now top 30 ATP players. Their biggest successes yet came in early 2017: Mischa reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open after beating top-seeded Andy Murray, and Sascha made his top 10 debut after winning the Italian Open, the first Masters title for a player his age in a decade.

The younger Zverevs had their courses charted by parents who also achieved tennis success—though by different metrics, as Soviet athletes were rarely able to compete outside the U.S.S.R. during what would’ve been the heydays of their careers.

Family friend Olga Morozova at Wimbledon, 1970. (Photo by Ed Lacey/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Olga Morozova was wary that the elder Zverevs might downplay their pedigrees. Morozova—perhaps the best-known player of the Soviet era, reaching the French Open and Wimbledon finals in 1974—had ostensibly joined our table in the players’ garden at the Italian Open to be a translator for Alexander Sr. and Irina as needed, but she quickly turned into a booster instead.

“This gentleman in front of you was one of the best tennis players in the Soviet Union, and I think he was unlucky not to be here and doing it here,” she said of Alexander Sr. “And that lady, Irina, was on the national team. I have to start, because sometimes they don’t know how to say it about themselves, but they both are very good tennis players. And that’s why their sons are playing so well, because they have very good knowledge about tennis.”

* * *

Both from the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Alexander Sr. and Irina both played the sport as children with the free equipment provided by government-backed coaches.

“You come to tennis courts, the coach gives you racquet and balls,” Alexander Sr. said. “And if there’s no court, you go to the wall and you start to play there. It was very simple, very nice.”

They married when he was 24 and she was 17.

“Why not?” Morozova said, anticipating any objection to their age difference. “It’s normal. She was a good-looking girl, and he was a good tennis player.”

Both were good tennis players, in fact: Irina was the fourth-best in the Soviet Union, which meant she narrowly missed out on the limited travel opportunities her husband enjoyed as a member of the Davis Cup team.

“This generation of people were lost for tennis,” Morozova said. “It’s bad luck for them—and bad luck for the rest of the world, because they were such talented players.”

Irina said there was no sense of frustration at the time about what they missed out on.

“We didn’t know another way,” she said. “We first know it’s a possibility when we moved to Germany. Before, in Soviet Union, it was a nice country. Everything was for free, everybody was happy. And after, when we moved, we can see the difference.”

In November 1991, one month before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Alexander Sr., Irina, and their 4-year-old son Mischa emigrated, legally, from Russia to Hamburg, Germany, where work awaited them in a tennis club.

It was an adjustment in culture, language, and sport. Alexander Sr. had previously coached at CSKA Moscow, one of the Soviet Union’s training centers for elite talent. In Germany, he worked as an instructor for average players of all ages.

“It was completely another job,” he said. “But, okay. After one month, I understood what was happening, and okay, I worked.”

A new elite player was in his midst, however, as Mischa developed into one of the best in Germany, Europe, and then the world.

“Growing up, my dad was my idol. And he played tennis, so I wanted to be like my dad,” Mischa said. “When I was older, Sascha looked up to me and my dad and wanted to be a tennis player too. It was a natural thing. If the whole family is professional tennis players, I think the chances are very slim that my brother and I would grow up wanting to be a doctor or lawyer or something like that.”

* * *

At first, Sascha stayed behind.

“My mom always tells me Sascha’s first real sentence was ‘Where’s Mischa?’ because when he was little I always used to travel with my dad,” said Mischa. “He understood that I was traveling and playing for tennis, and then he always wanted to play.”

When Mischa came home, Sascha would set up a net of sorts out of VHS cassettes for them to play five-set matches in their apartment, playing the roles of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.

“These imaginary battles, that’s how it all started,” Mischa said. “As he grew, I kept playing with him—in small-court tennis, mini tennis, and then advanced to the big court.”

Though still much too young to compete, Sascha tagged along as Mischa began competing in junior Grand Slams, getting to know other promising juniors in Mischa’s age bracket such as Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Gaël Monfils.

Sascha took advantage of his access to the Grand Slams by trying to talk his way into playing on the biggest courts. “When he got to a tournament he’d say, ‘Where is the tournament director? I must speak to him!’” Irina recalled. “I’d say, ‘Sascha, why do you want him?’ ‘I must speak to him! I must speak to him about my match. I must play on Centre Court.’”

While he didn’t manage to get into Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, young Sascha did successfully talk his way into hitting in Hisense Arena, which seats 9,500.

“I always wanted to do everything my brother did,” Sascha said. “My brother was a professional tennis player traveling around the world, and I always wanted to do that as well. I came to the biggest events on tour and saw the amount of people that were watching him, and the stadiums that he played in, so that was something that I always wanted to do.”

* * *

Sascha Zverev defeated Roger Federer to win the Rogers Cup in Montreal on Aug. 13, 2017. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

When it was Sascha’s turn to compete on those stages, he thrived, winning the junior Australian Open in 2014 and reaching his first ATP semifinal in Hamburg later that year.

Headlines in Germany declared him the “next Boris Becker.” Becker, the last German man to win a Grand Slam, won his last in 1996, a year before Sascha was born.

Coming from a major but dormant market with a head of shaggy blond hair that would light up any boy band poster, Sascha has the tour salivating at his superstar potential, and he was made the face of its “Next Gen” campaign.

Alexander Sr., who still coaches both his sons, said he tried, futilely, to quiet the buzz that Sascha is a can’t-miss champion. “At first we tried to stop this,” he said. “Of course we have this target, but he must do a lot of work. If he thinks one time, one moment, ‘I am good,’ that’s very dangerous. Federer is unbelievably good, but he works, he practices. For Sascha, it’s important not what people say, but what he does.”

While he attracts the attention, Sascha remains ebullient and deferential about Mischa’s talent and potential, which was stalled for several years by a myriad of injuries to his wrist, ribs, back, and knee.

The two compete against each other in PlayStation games like FIFA and NBA 2K—“He gets very annoyed and then quits after a few times,” Sascha said of Mischa—but they’re quickly each other’s greatest supporters. Any suggestion that his career has surpassed his brother’s leads Sascha to quickly point out that Mischa has made a Grand Slam quarterfinal, something he hasn’t yet done.

“I always thought he’s actually better than his ranking,” Sascha said of Mischa. “I always said that to you guys, and maybe some of you guys thought that I’m just saying that because he’s my brother, but he’s proved that I’m right, in a way.”

That sort of defiance can be typical for Sascha, who often quickly loses patience with the media who gather in increasing numbers after his matches, eager to understand and validate the hype, often asking repetitive, basic questions.

At the start of one press conference in Rome, Sascha balked at a question that began with an observation that he possessed “confidence on court and off court.”

“Off court in what way?” Sascha asked, cutting the young Italian reporter off. He was unsatisfied by the stammering clarification that followed.

“Yeah, I think you meant something else,” he determined with a withering stare.

Sascha and Mischa Zverev in a doubles match in Indian Wells, March 2017. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Despite his antagonistic response to the suggestion, Sascha’s assuredness is hardly disputed on tour. John Isner, whom Sascha beat in the Italian Open semifinals, described him as “a certainly very confident kid” who carries himself with “a lot of swagger.”

Isner is based at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, where the Zverev family also established a training base; he remembered being blown away by Sascha’s skills as a young teen.

“Like, goddang,” Isner recalled.

After adding praise for Mischa and the parents—“They don’t gloat about anything, they just go about their business”—Isner also spoke glowingly about the youngest in the clan.

“I like that dog a lot as well,” Isner said of Lövik. “He’s pretty cool, and he fits in with the family. It’s a cool family, and they have a cool dog.”

* * *

Lövik, who has a somewhat similar mop of curls atop his head, most reliably brings out the softer side of Sascha.

“Sascha doesn’t have too much time, but when he does he loves it, to stay with Lövik,” said Irina. “He can sleep, he can play with him. Lövik every morning comes to him first—to Sascha, every morning—and kisses him for 10, 15 minutes, nonstop. It’s very important for him.”

On tour, though, care of Lövik often falls to Irina, which can be a welcome distraction for her during Sascha’s matches. Since Sascha turned 16, his mother has been too nervous to watch him play. She’ll wander off into a park, or onto a beach, and wait for a message on her phone telling her that the match is over.

“I think I was too long with Sascha alone,” she said. “Papa traveled with Mischa, and Sascha was too close to me, so it hurts too much.”

Irina’s self-exiling is an extreme example of a balance the family has managed on the road of knowing how much space to give one another.

“We’re close, but at the same time my parents are very smart people,” Sascha said. “They know that if we’re going to spend every single minute together, then at some point we’re going to go nuts at each other. So on the tennis court they’re always there, when we’re on site they’re always there, but they let us do our own things. But they’re always there, so I have nothing to be homesick of.”

Irina, who cedes most all of the coaching duties to her husband, also finds peace in making the road as much like home as possible. During Grand Slam events, the family will rent a house, where she cooks and cleans.

“The kids love it when I cook, you know?” she said. “Because 300 days a year they travel and stay in hotels. It’s mom work, it’s normal, but I think this is very important for travel.”

Morozova, again, showed her approval. “It makes them feel good, so it’s very important,” she said, nodding. “I think they’re doing a great job. I think you have to write this article and tell people how they’re supposed to raise children.”

* * *

Ben Rothenberg is a freelance tennis writer from Washington, D.C. He contributes to The New York Times and other outlets, and cohosts the No Challenges Remaining tennis podcast.

from Longreads