Melissa Harris-Perry: I am Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. As we've been telling you this month, The Takeaway has been canceled. Canceled by WNYC, the public radio station that's been making this show for 15 years.
Before our final episode on June 2nd, we're taking some time during these final weeks to highlight some of the best work from our fabulous producers here on Team Takeaway. Today, we're spotlighting our intern, David Escobar. Hey, David.
David Escobar: Hi, Melissa. Great to be on the show with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can we just pause for a second? Listen to that voice, y'all. This kid was born for radio.
David Escobar: [laughs] Hey, Melissa. I've been trying, I'm actually working two radio jobs right now, besides being here at The Takeaway for the past nine months, I've been working as a news reporter and host at WFUV, which is the NPR member station at my college, Fordham University.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, David, that's a whole lot of work, but what have you got for us today?
David Escobar: Melissa, when I first came to The Takeaway, we were in the middle of midterm campaign season, approaching the official end of summer, and what's more quintessential of the summer campaign trail than a good old county fair?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I can just smell the funnel cake and the deep-fried everything wafting through the air. We weren't talking about food now, were we?
David Escobar: Not exactly. Melissa, as much as I love my funnel cake, we wanted to take a look at how county and state fairs have shaped and molded their communities, and their almost 200-year history, especially since in just two centuries, county fairs have transformed from simple cattle shows into a multimillion-dollar industry.
Melissa Harris-Perry: To answer all things county fair related, I talked with Marla Calico, president and CEO of the International Association Fairs and Expositions, and I started by asking her about the universal appeal of the county fair.
Marla Calico: It is a singular community institution, and the cool thing about it is that the fair represents that particular community. For example, you could go to the Robeson County Fair in a different part of North Carolina, and it's going to be reflective of that community. It's something about that reunion. It is something about coming together to celebrate us. Your folks took you to the fair when you were little.
Then maybe, when you were grown, you didn't come back for a while, but there was something that was drawing you back, and you wanted that experience, perhaps for your children. We see that cycle over and over and over again, for well over 200 years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In those two centuries, fairs have gained Ferris wheels, pie-eating contests, and other amusements. Marla told us that today's county fair still embrace traditions of the past.
Marla Calico: Agricultural fairs had actually existed, and still do exist today in, for example, the United Kingdom. They were a different type of gathering. They were more for the land of Gentry. Galcano Watson, who was that gentleman in 1811, who brought his oxen down to the square in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he was actually creating a different model. He had imported Marino sheep, because he wanted the United States to be self-sufficient in wool production. One of the things was that we've got to be talking neighbor to neighbor.
He took his sheep down, he took his oxen down, and we have recorded records at that first fair, they were giving, I think, a total of $70 for all of the prizes combined, but they were recognizing the top pair of oxen, the sheep, the pigs. They even had-- Of course, if you're going to bring people together, they had amusements, they had something called a fatton, which is some an example of an early amusement ride. They had food, of course, and it became an annual celebration.
David Escobar: Food, livestock, and community building have always been part of the county fair model, Melissa, but nowadays, they've become the ultimate battleground for political candidates. What makes the county fair so conducive to campaigning? Here's Marla, once again.
Marla Calico: A friend of mine, who manages a fair in Washington, said this, "When people come to the fair, they leave their troubles at the gate, they walk into the fair with this mindset of reception, that they're open to the wonder around them." I think, from those people who are out there and wanting to serve their communities in an elected office, it's a perfect opportunity to meet the voters, to meet them face-to-face, to hope what we have are rational conversations, where we listen to one another.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, David, in addition to the politics, I was really interested to know what is the economic effect of the county fair for local communities.
Marla Calico: We know for a fact that fairs change lives, in sometimes the smallest of ways, in your case, to create a memory that makes you want to celebrate, that makes you want to pass it on to your children. It's that opportunity to walk into a show ring, and instead of getting first place, your heifer lays down in the ring and you get last place, and you learn how to do better. The bottom line, for me, is that fairs change lives, and it is their intent to continue to do that for generations to come.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Marla Calico, president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, who is right. Fairs can change lives. I got to say that right here, on the cusp of summer, all this talk has got me excited for this Summer's County fair season.
David Escobar: Before we get into the dog days of summer, we got to talk about some of the historic cases that the Supreme Court is going to rule on in June. We discussed one of these cases, Haaland v. Brackeen, back on the show in November.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's when the Supreme Court held oral arguments for the case, which will decide the future of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
David Escobar: Right, Melissa. ICWA, as it's more commonly known, was intended to prevent native children from being separated from their tribes and biological families. It was originally enacted in 1978, in response to the US government practices that forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of native children from their homes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, some parents are bringing a case to the Supreme Court, claiming the adoption process for Native American parents discriminates against non-native foster parents. We talked with Rebecca Nagle, a writer and host of Crooked Media's This Land podcast. Rebecca is also a citizen of Cherokee Nation.
Rebecca Nagle: What the foster parents allege is that ICWA discriminated against them because it treated them differently. It made it harder for them to adopt native children that they were fostering, and that violated their constitutional rights. In two of the three underlying foster care cases, those parents actually successfully adopted the children that they were fostering when blood relatives also wanted to raise the children.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How is it that they have standing, in terms of being able to claim harm, given that the adoptions they hoped to proceed with did, in fact, go forward?
Rebecca Nagle: Exactly. All of the underlying custody cases are settled. There's one that's ongoing, but the child was born after the lawsuit was filed. Legally, it's not part of the case. It's also in a situation where, again, right now, the foster parents have custody, they're raising her, and they won that custody over her blood relative, which is not how foster care is actually supposed to work. That's a big question. It came up yesterday. Ian Gershengorn, the lawyer for the intervening tribes, argued that the plaintiffs don't have standing.
I think it's one of the really wonky things about this case, where the facts on the ground, in many ways, don't match what was being argued yesterday at the Supreme Court. I think it's concerning for folks who are interested, even just in the rules of civil procedure, this idea of the integrity of the high court. You're not supposed to be able to make up the facts about what happened on the ground to get a lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is at stake in this distinction between sovereign national political identity and racial categorization?
Rebecca Nagle: Yes, the plaintiffs, these foster parents, argue that ICWA is based on race and they were discriminated against, simply because the children that they wanted to adopt were native, and they are not native. That's not actually how ICWA and other laws governing the rights of indigenous nations work. Just like I have certain rights because I'm a US citizen or a resident of Oklahoma, certain laws apply to me because I'm a citizen of Cherokee Nation. That's not a racial distinction.
It actually goes back to the treaty relationship between my tribe and the US federal government, and that treaty and trust responsibility that the US federal government has. The really big worry with this case is that, well, if ICWA is unconstitutional because it's based on race, what about the healthcare that I receive because I'm a citizen of my tribe? What about tribes' rights to operate casinos in states where non-Native casino developers can't?
There's a whole host of laws, an entire section [laughs] of the US Federal Code, called Title 25, that treats Native Americans differently, based on this political classification. If the Supreme Court determines that it's a racial classification, it would be like a bomb going off.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On this same point, you name-checked being a citizen of not only Cherokee Nation, but a citizen of the US, and you name check the state of Oklahoma. I want to listen for a moment to something else that was said during the oral argument yesterday, this time by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson: It's like the background principle of all of this was that states were getting involved in Indian affairs, and the Constitution says, "No, Congress is the one that gets to direct it."
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, Rebecca, what is at stake with this federalism aspect of this case?
Rebecca Nagle: Yes, so one of the big-- Actually, it was talked about more than the equal protection argument. The second big argument that they're making is basically a state's rights argument. It's a question of whether or not Congress has the authority, or had the authority to pass this law, in the first place. A couple of different things come up in that area. Typically, family law is an area governed by the state, but there are a lot of federal policies that govern how states can carry out those laws.
Then it's this big question of what authority does Congress have when it comes to passing laws that govern indigenous nations and our citizens? Historically, that power has been seen as very broad. What the plaintiffs in Texas are asking for is, they claim to narrow it, and to only narrow it a little bit. The fear is that they actually want to upend it. Other laws that Congress has passed, whether it's about healthcare or funding for education, would then also be called into question.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering how you're feeling around optimism and pessimism, about how Brackeen will be decided, and if any of the relatively more positive effects of having had at least a single case decided towards the direction of sovereignty gives you any additional hope.
Rebecca Nagle: I think, unfortunately, at the high court, we still have justices that don't understand federal Indian law, but also justices who don't respect it, and don't actually see the rights of indigenous nations as part of the Constitution. I think it is likely that ICWA will be declared unconstitutional by this court. This case, the Brackeen's case, it's not one of the big blockbuster cases that everybody is talking about, but I would argue that it should be, because it is absolutely a test for the Supreme Court.
Anybody who's interested or worried about the integrity of the High Court, I would argue that this is the case that they should be paying attention to.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rebecca Nagle is a writer and host of Crooked Media's This Land Podcast. Rebecca, thanks so much for taking the time.
Rebecca Nagle: Thank you so much for having me.
[MUSIC- Dolly Parton - 9 to 5]
Tumble out of bed and I stumble to the kitchen
Pour myself a cup of ambition
And yawnin', stretchin', try to come to life
Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumpin'
Out on the streets, the traffic starts jumpin'
With folks like me, on the job from 9 to 5
Workin' 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin',
Melissa Harris-Perry: David, that song never gets old. There is nothing like belting out this Dolly Parton anthem to the workday grind as you prepare to enter yet another eight hours of labor.
David Escobar: Except it's not really eight hours for you, is it, MHP?
Melissa Harris-Perry: No lie detected. For me, a lot of times, eight hours is just like the first half of my workday.
David Escobar: You're not alone, Melissa. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that most American workers put in more than eight hours each weekday, and another four to six on the weekends. That's not what our labor-organizing foremothers and forefathers wanted for us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It sure isn't. Efforts to institute a 40-hour work week began in the 1860s, but they weren't instantiated into law until the 1930s. Fast forward almost a century, and there are new rumblings on the margins of the labor market, as pandemic-fueled fatigue has many employees looking around for options to push the ever-creeping workday back into a more limited box.
David Escobar: In the UK, a test group of 60 companies and 3,000 employees just ended a six-month trial run of a four-day workweek schedule. Nearly every company that tried it is planning to stick with it. That's because the majority of employees reported less burnout and better work-life balance. Businesses in the study reported less employee turnover and consistent revenue streams.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We sat down with Erik Loomis, professor, and labor historian at the University of Rhode Island, and I started by asking, in the US, what does our work week look like?
Erik Loomis: Well, it could be almost anything. If you're a working-class person who's working service jobs, you might be pulling together two or three jobs, and that could be anywhere from 30 hours a week to 60. If you're a professional, the average is well over 50 hours a week. In this nation, we have pretty long work weeks, compared to places such as Europe, or even parts of Asia.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why do we think we have a five-day, 40-hour-a-week workweek?
Erik Loomis: Yes, that was established, the 40-hour work week, the eight-hour day, by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which was a key piece of new deal labor legislation, that established, again, the eight-hour day, overtime, after 40 hours a week, ends child labor in most industries, establishes the minimum wage, et cetera. That became the standard, in what Americans think of as a work week, but now, very few of us actually are working a 40-hour week.
The eight-hour day had been a major goal for the American working class for a very, very long time. The Knights of Labor, which is the first major attempt to organize the entire American working class into a single union, had risen into prominence in the mid-1880s, based, in part, on the eight-hour day. They had a slogan of eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what you will, because the average workday, at that point, is 12-14 hours a day, often in really horrific conditions.
It was a half-a-century or more struggle to get to that point of success, in 1938.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In so many ways, when technology is introduced into our work environments, we hear that it's going to make us more productive, make it possible for us to do the same amount of work in less time, but has technology changed the way we work in that way?
Erik Loomis: It does make us oftentimes more productive, but rather than that extra time coming to us, it goes to the employer. We work harder, we work longer hours, and a lot of the technology really operates as a surveillance technology so that we are expected to answer our phones, take a Zoom, or check text messages at 8:00 PM, or on a Saturday, or Sunday. It's really increased the workday and reduced our autonomy, even as the promises of technology will be to free us from the burdens of some of our work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How did COVID-19 then shift how we as Americans were thinking about our work, and what a work week looks like?
Erik Loomis: Yes, a big part of what the aid packages did, to pay us to stay at home, was-- It allowed people to rethink their position at work. Nobody had really thought that much about their relationship with work. A lot of people now, staying at home for months or even well over a year, or longer, working from home, began to rethink what they really wanted out of their job, rather than something that they had to think about all the time. It gave them space to reconsider things.
A lot of people began to say, "I don't really want to commute to work five days a week. Couldn't I be just as productive working at home, or couldn't I be just as productive working a four-day week, and actually taking that extra time and applying it to my own life, applying it to my family?" It really does create, for the first time in a very long time, a collective, although relatively apolitical rethinking of the role of work in our lives.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Let's talk about that four-day workweek. What would that be like for US workers?
Erik Loomis: The way that it's really oftentimes constructed at this time, is something that would really benefit professionals over the working class. That office workers, especially, could work four days a week, and they could maybe even work from home some of those days. Maybe they're working an eight-hour day, maybe they're working a 10-hour day, but even if they are working a 10-hour day, they still have that extra time.
It's less articulated for the masses of service workers in America, which really is the core of the American working class, because a lot of the ideas around the four-day workweek is that we would have more leisure time. People would take that leisure time and they would demand services, especially in a tight employment market like we have today, with relatively low levels of immigration, compared to what we could have if we had more open borders.
Then you're really looking at, potentially, some real labor shortages at the working class end of this. That would be my concern here, is that we would be burdening working-class people, but for the professional classes, it would be a pretty freeing experience.
John: Hi, this is John, from Omaha, Nebraska, I'm a physician. Five weeks shift between administrative and outpatient clinic duties. That's about 40 hours a week, to inpatient duties, which ranges from 60 to 100 hours per week, with multiple 24-hour shifts throughout, the typical four-day work week conversation just does not include medical folks.
David Escobar: It's not just about who would and wouldn't get to have a four-day-work week. There's also the question of what it actually looks like?
Andrew: Hi, this is Andrew, from Milwaukee, Oregon. I would just want to know more about whether we're really going down to a four-eight-hour workday, or is it four 10-hour workdays? As a parent of two children, knowing that going down to four tens would be even more difficult to find time with my kids in those four days. What's the trade-offs?
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, so let's take up these questions in our continuing conversation with Erik Loomis, Professor and Labor Historian at the University of Rhode Island.
Erik Loomis: It's pretty clear, from study after study, that a more satisfied workforce is a more productive workforce. A tired workforce, a worn down workforce, is just an unproductive workforce. There's evidence from experiments in places like New Zealand, or parts of Europe, that that seems to work. I think that the question is, are employers, especially in this country, which has traditionally been less receptive to work experimentation that would help workers, are they willing to give up the power?
The surveillance that the technology has provided them, in order to give their workers the chance to be these more productive laborers. I think that's a question that we need to think about, because again, traditionally American employers have been more concerned, honestly, with power over their workers, than creating workplace scenarios that would make for a happy and therefore more productive workforce.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why? Why would you rather look at your employees, like surveil them five days a week, rather than have them maybe produce even more for you, whatever it is, widgets, or whatever your business product produces in four days?
Erik Loomis: That's a fascinating question. I think it goes back-- If you go back even all the way back to the 1880s, at the same moment that the French and the British are coming to terms with their workers joining unions and having a say on the workplace, American employers are uniting to keep their workplaces union free. There's plenty of evidence that demonstrates that a unionized workforce and a workforce that has a voice on the job is a more satisfied and more productive workforce.
That employees are engaged actively in ensuring that things run smoothly on the job. Yet, the entire idea that workers would have any say about the conditions of their work really is outrageous, to even purportedly more progressive CEOs, and you see this in their response. There's this long tradition in the US, of employers really resisting any kind of-- Whether it's coming out of the labor movement, or it's coming out of government, to engage in the experimentation that would put autonomy back into the hands of their workers.
David Escobar: When we talked with Erik earlier this year, Melissa, one of my biggest takeaways was that the four-day work week is really about taking back control over our own labor. Historically, one of the biggest ways we've done that is through labor unions.
Erik Loomis: Public support for unions is an all-time record high. Even going back to the era of the great union organizing of the New Deal, and the World War II era. Americans overwhelmingly now approve of unions, at least in the abstract. However, union density is at the lowest point it's been since before the New Deal, only about 10% of the American workforce actually has a union. Where you've seen, there's been a lot of very public attempts to unionize Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joe's.
They haven't really been successful, in terms of getting a union contract. This is because the structure of labor law in 2023 is almost completely controlled by the employer, as of this moment, there's something like 290 Starbucks stores that have voted to unionize, but not a single one has a contract, because Starbucks is delaying as long as they possibly can. That's even with a favorable National Labor Relations Board under the Biden administration.
It's going to take more, I think, coming from both the working class and from the government, to push through labor laws, such as the Biden's proposed PRO Act, that would solve some of these problems and move America back to a place in which unions really do have the structural ability to grow, which, right now, they really don't.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right. To go back to your point about technology and the idea that technology may in fact make us more productive, but then that productivity, those hours, they go back into the bank of the employer rather than into the bank of our own lives. I'm wondering if a four-day work week could potentially have the same effect. I mean that it ultimately might feel just as exhausting as a five-day work week, if the hours or the expectations rise, right along with that productivity capacity.
Erik Loomis: What it ultimately takes to control your work is collective action, and that collective action can happen through a union, theoretically could happen through other ways, but there needs to be pretty hard and fast rules about time on and off the job. Yes, the scenario that you described is entirely plausible, that employers-- You would be on the job four days a week, but you're still facing the cavalcade of emails, text messages, zoom meetings, and everything else that you were supposed to prove yourself as a good committed worker by engaging in, rather than spend that time with your family.
As we as Americans rethink our relationship with work, it also requires thinking about the structural possibilities, to actually create rules about work that would limit the ability of the employer to exploit new rules. Which, ultimately, much more so than about pay or anything else, is really what the labor movement traditionally was about, is establishing rules on the job to provide workers the greatest dignity possible.
We have to think in terms of more structural action as well as trying to convince our employers that, "Hey, a four-day work week would be better for everybody." That's fine, as far as it goes, but it may not go that far the first time a crisis comes up on the job.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Erik, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.
Erik Loomis: Well, thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Erik Loomis is a Professor and Labor Historian at the University of Rhode Island. Okay, Takeaway, we got to take a quick break, but when we come back, we're revisiting the conversation I had with Harry Turner, from the film Wildcat. We'll talk with Harry about how he addressed his mental illness with time in the Amazon rainforest, and how taking care of baby ocelots was a bit like parenting.
Harry Turner: They're going to be a pain. They're going to do all the sorts of things to wind you up, and they're going to get in trouble a lot. You have to be the one to guide them to be the best that they possibly can.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, David, give us that cutaway.
David Escobar: Don't go anywhere, it's The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and I'm here with David Escobar. We're highlighting some of his work for The Takeaway as part of our Producer Appreciation weeks.
David Escobar: Hi, Melissa. I might be one of the token Gen Z members of Team Takeaway, but believe it or not, I too remember the days of basic cable, and one of my favorite things to watch with my dad was a good old PBS Nature documentary.
Speaker: A tiny island lost in the midst of the Pacific. It's the tip of a huge mountain that rises precipitously from the sea floor, thousands of meters below.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love that. Back in January, we explored a different nature documentary, told through the eyes of British military veteran, Harry Turner.
David Escobar: That's right, Melissa. After Harry suffered from war-induced PTSD and depression, he went to Peru's remote Amazon Rainforest, and found solace in raising orphaned baby ocelots.
Harry Turner: Okay, piggyback. The introduction was always, for one reason, that was to put a wildcat back into the wild again, but it's just hard.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When I sat down with Harry earlier this year, he said while the documentary was born out of his love for the natural world, it also tells a more complex story of navigating mental illness.
Harry Turner: This film came about just because of a passion of mine. I was in the middle of the jungle filming, because I was 21 years old, after coming back from Afghanistan. I was struggling, dealing with my depression, and I was walking through the jungles with this wildcat. This journey starts like unraveling, not only with this cat, but with my mental health. This film, I think, can relate to so many different people, because there's just so many avenues and corridors that people can look at.
David Escobar: One of the things Harry says in the film, that really stuck out to me, was that he wanted to go to a place where no one would know if he was dead or alive. Harry said the Amazon represented that space for him.
Harry Turner: Coming from the United Kingdom, there isn't really anywhere that you can escape. It's a very small, compact, piled-in place. I wanted to escape. I wanted to get away, but I didn't know where. Growing up, I used to watch documentaries and TV programs about different places, like Africa, or different places like the Amazon. I just remember one day, after I'd been medically discharged from the British Army, just going online, and just thinking-- I need to go away.
I need to escape. I need to go somewhere which I can just hide. I can just go away, and if I do die, then no one will be able to find me. I just dove in at the deepest end I possibly could, because of my situation and where I was, mentally.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Harry's journey might have been about getting away from the stresses of day-to-day life, but he says the decision to document his experience, that was an easy choice.
Harry Turner: When I first ever saw my first ocelot, saw my first jaguar, or saw my first sloth, I got this feeling of pure adrenaline, that just I can't explain it to anyone, how I felt. It was just like this incredible feeling. It felt like I wasn't alone, it felt like I needed to be a part of this earth. When Khan came into the mix-- Khan is the first ocelot that you see in the documentary. I just was like, "This is unbelievable." I am dealing with my issues in a way which isn't normal.
I'm just wandering barefoot in the jungle, and I am experiencing this with this animal. It just felt completely surreal, and I just wanted to film it, because I wanted to have their memories. I never thought about making a documentary, that wasn't even a thought in my head. I thought I just wanted to have this footage so that I could look back on it. I think that when I'm in the jungle, I forget about all my issues. I forget about all of my problems, but they're still there.
I want to be a healthy human being, and I want to be somebody who doesn't struggle with depression, but at the end of the day, that's going to be a part of me for life now. It was also a way of healing. If you've ever seen the film Cast Away, you see that when he's alone on the island, he's actually talking to a volleyball. In my eyes, the volleyball was my camera and I was healing via the camera. I think that's what gives it the depth that it does in the movie.
David Escobar: Ocelots are mostly native to Central and South America. They have these little white ears and speckled golden coats of fur with black markings, but because of hunting and deforestation, they're losing their habitats, which is why Harry became an ocelot foster parent.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As Harry told us, there are lots of challenges to parenting, even being a parent to an ocelot.
Harry Turner: To be honest, they're useless in the jungle without their mum. They are like normal cats, normal house cats. They are born and then they can't see for the first two weeks, because their eyes are closed, and then their sight is terrible up until about a month and a half old. To bring them up and take them on the journey that they needed to be on to become wild, I needed to do what my mother had to do, and that was sleeping with them, cleaning them, feeding them. That's just how it started.
David Escobar: As I'm sure you know with parenting your kids, Melissa, sometimes them kids can teach you a few lessons. For Harry, his ocelots did just that.
Harry Turner: I knew bits and pieces about the jungle, but I didn't know everything. I wasn't born there. I'm not a native. I don't know the ins and outs, and everything to do with the jungle. What these ocelots gave to me was a sense of learning. They became my teachers. They taught me so much about the jungle. They taught me how to walk off-trail and navigate. They taught me how to listen for different animals, and see and smell different animals. They taught me to basically become an ocelot.
Whilst they were teaching me, I was also teaching and helping them. It was like this relationship that we formed together, of teaching each other different bits of the jungle. It was just the most incredible feeling, just walking in the jungle and learning from this animal, but also walking in the jungle and helping this animal become the most fierce and the most incredible cat that he could possibly be.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Harry Turner, from the documentary Wildcat.
Speaker 2: This is M3GAN.
Katie: Hi, M3GAN, I'm Katie.
M3GAN: It's nice to meet you, Katie. Do you want to hang out?
David Escobar: All right, Melissa. Our last topic is near and dear to me, because last October, I, like many social media users, was captivated by the trailer for a new horror movie called M3GAN. Yes, Melissa, that's M3GAN with a 3, not an E.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is one of those moments when my young producers and intern teach me so much, because I hadn't even seen the trailer. Besides that unusual name, the trailer showed clips of this AI-powered robotic doll attacking her victims while doing pirouettes.
David Escobar: M3GAN's awkward campy dance moves inspired countless imitations on TikTok, and fan edits on Twitter. Even Saturday Night Live got in on the fun.
Speaker 3: M3GAN is a box office powerhouse, but just captivated one demographic above all-- Gay men.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It wasn't just queer communities buzzing about M3GAN.
David Escobar: It's true. Even though viral videos of M3GAN's sassy twirling put the movie in the spotlight, critics say the film's success speaks to how Hollywood is reimagining the horror genre.
Erik Piepenburg: My name is Erik Piepenburg. I write about horror movies, television, and LGBT culture for The New York Times.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Erik talked with me about M3GAN shortly after its debut in January.
Erik Piepenburg: M3GAN is directed by Gerard Johnstone and it is about a robotics engineer named Gemma, who's played by Alison Williams, who enlists her orphaned niece, a girl named Katie, to be a test subject companion to this robot named M3GAN. Katie develops a big sister relationship with M3GAN. They play together, they talk to one another, they do TikTok dances together, but this is the horror genre, and as any horror fan will tell you, robots often turn on their makers, and let's just say it doesn't go well for anyone in M3GAN's orbit.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I so appreciate that you started by saying it's a horror movie, because in our team Slack this morning, there was a bit of a dust-up about-- Is this a horror movie, or is this a comedy?
Erik Piepenburg: I would actually argue that it is a horror comedy. It is firmly a horror movie if you ask me, but there's definitely a camp thing happening here, which adds a little bit of comedy to it. I would say it's a horror comedy. I think that's fair.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Not a horror-ible comedy?
Erik Piepenburg: [chuckles] No, it's a wonderful comedy, actually.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, tell me a little bit about M3GAN, the doll. We know she is robotics, she's AI, and she's going to turn. Are there corollaries to M3GAN in our world right now? Asks the mom of a nine-year-old, who gave the kid a robot for Christmas.
Erik Piepenburg: I think there are. I'm not a parent, but I have a niece and a nephew, and I think that there are robots out there, that if you gave it to them, they would think, "This is wonderful." It's a little bit of a babysitter, but also a best friend. M3GAN is AI and can have conversations, walks, and runs, which comes in handy when she starts to pick up weapons and go after people who are really bullying Katie. There is a sense of-- This is a robot, but she's also a protector.
Melissa Harris-Perry: M3GAN's trailer came out, coincided with National Coming Out Day, and lit up social media. Why that response?
Erik Piepenburg: I think one of the reasons was a couple seconds of this strange, awkwardly leggy dance that M3GAN does to a Taylor Swift song, that actually isn't in the movie at all, but I remember watching the trailer and thinking to myself, "What is this move that she's doing?" She was gorgeous, she has these beautiful big eyes, this middle part, and she's wearing this strange A-line dress. There was something in that move, and in the way that M3GAN expresses herself, that caught on, especially with the gay community.
There was just something gay about it. I remember thinking to myself, "This is not like any other horror movie that I've seen before. There's something fashion, there's something gay here," and I think it all comes down to those couple seconds of this weird dance that she does.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. I want to dig into-- There's something gay or queer. I wonder if there's also something here about her fierceness or protectiveness, maybe even the fact that, as AI she's definitely not blood family, but she family.
Erik Piepenburg: [laughs] Right. That's true. It's interesting. I've read interviews with the director and the writer, and they both said that-- To them, one of the reasons that they think queer people might be drawn to M3GAN is because of this idea of chosen family, and that family can be whoever you want. I think that's a perfectly fine answer, but to me, I think it goes beyond that.
I think there's there's a gay sensibility to the film, in the sense that M3GAN is this fierce girl who I grew up with. I knew girls like this in high school. M3GAN 's the kind of girl that you want to hang out with.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right. M3GAN is like, "No, girl, no, no," but also, "Yes, yes."
Erik Piepenburg: Yes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. I'm also wondering about the emergence of queer tropes and representation in Hollywood, especially in a time and place where the world can be so heavy and difficult for queer folk. In the context of the horror genre, how do we come to a place where we have a movie like M3GAN?
Erik Piepenburg: Horror has always reflected the world in which we've lived. You go back to Night of the Living Dead, and the civil rights era, you go to the horrors of the '70s and '80s, war, and conservative politics, horror movies have always held a mirror up to how we are living, and I think, for queer people, that mirror has reflected, often, very negative things. As I said, I'm Gen X, and I remember growing up during the Golden Age of slasher films in the '80s, when gay people were completely invisible.
They just weren't there, or if they were there, they were clowns, they were often the first people killed, so I think horror has changed so much since then. I think horror has a very complicated history with queerness. Things are better than they were when I was growing up, and I think M3GAN is an example of a film that there's nothing gay in the story itself, but there's a queer sensibility, and I think that's actually really exciting.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Eric Piepenburg, from The New York Times, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Eric Piepenburg: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, y'all. That's all we've got for you today. Remember, there are only two more episodes left of The Takeaway, so be sure to tune in and join us right up to the very end, but before we head out, let me add just a few words of praise for David Escobar, who now has the distinction of being the very last intern for The Takeaway. For all you HR managers, executive producers, and content creators out there, consider this my sonic letter of recommendation for David.
There is no hand-holding on The Takeaway, interns don't get coffee, they get assignments, and from day one, David has been pitching segments, hooking guests, conducting research, writing scripts, cutting tape, and stitching together stories for a national audience, and all along, he's never missed a chance to engage, to build, to learn, and to contribute to the work of the team. He's funny, he's thoughtful, he's a gifted writer, and again, did you hear that voice?
David, we're going to be watching and cheering you on, as you build what we know will be an exciting and meaningful career in media.
David Escobar: You're too kind, Melissa. I did not think I was going to cry right now, but here we are.
Melissa Harris-Perry: [chuckles] We'll take it. Again, thank you for all that you did for the show. That's all for us today, but come on back tomorrow. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and it's still The Takeaway.
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