The Best Culture Writing Of 2015

We look back at the profiles, features, and essays that shaped our year.

December 22, 2015

Every year feels like it was wilder and more intense than the one before it, with lower lows and higher highs. Today, we're taking stock of the past 12 months by rounding up some of our favorite pieces of culture writing of 2015—longreads that have stayed on our minds and sparked necessary conversation, whether because of beautiful prose, incisive commentary, or the impressive breadth of their reporting. In re-visiting these profiles, features, and essays, we're also reminded of the most important stories, people, and themes that collectively defined our year.

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PROFILES

The Best Culture Writing Of 2015 Getty Images / Ted Aljibe
"The Meaning of Serena Williams"

By Claudia Rankine

"The word 'win' finds its roots in both joy and grace. Serena’s grace comes because she won’t be forced into stillness; she won’t accept those racist projections onto her body without speaking back; she won’t go gently into the white light of victory. Her excellence doesn’t mask the struggle it takes to achieve each win." [New York Times Magazine]

"Amor Prohibido"

By Jeff Winkler

"When we pulled up to the museum, I marveled at the compound before us. This was the home of the Quintanillas’ musical empire. When Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, founded the studio, in 1993, the place had been nothing more than a body shop—two old warehouses with a patch of dirt in between. Now there were tour buses outside, several professional studios inside—some with beautiful hardwood floors and space enough to fit a small orchestra—and, in the back of the complex, a massive state-of-the-art soundstage, with an overhead sound-and-lights room. In an industrial part of an already industrial city, the family had built a castle." [Texas Monthly]

"'Our Demand Is Simple: Stop Killing Us'"

By Jay Caspian Kang

"Since Aug. 9, 2014, when Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department shot and killed Michael Brown, Mckesson and a core group of other activists have built the most formidable American protest movement of the 21st century to date. Their innovation has been to marry the strengths of social media — the swift, morally blunt consensus that can be created by hashtags; the personal connection that a charismatic online persona can make with followers; the broad networks that allow for the easy distribution of documentary photos and videos — with an effort to quickly mobilize protests in each new city where a police shooting occurs." [New York Times Magazine]

"Ina Garten Does It Herself"

By Choire Sicha

"Throughout her thirty-seven-year career in food, Ina has remained remarkably unchanged in both concept and presentation, with her bangs 'n bob, and her cute, untucked, custom-made button-front shirts that are literally the only tops she wears. The only time I have seen her forehead is in a black-and-white picture from her wedding day. Her veil is pushed back and she is smiling, her husband Jeffrey is laughing and in uniform, and they are cutting what looks like a quite inedible three-tiered cake." [Eater]

"Yoko Ono and the Myth That Deserves to Die"

By Lindsay Zoladz

"I have always been drawn to the women who can arouse this kind of vitriol. The kind of hate that seems too big and billowing to be directed at just one woman, the kind that seems like a person or an entire society is vomiting out all its misogyny onto one convenient scapegoat. At some point — after successive Joan of Arc and Courtney Love phases — I started to see this position of feminine abjectness as a kind of superpower. A position from which a woman could offend far more deeply than a man." [New York Magazine]


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BODIES AND BELONGING

"All About Me"

By Anupa Mistry

"Before encountering the interminable list of things to hate about my girl-self it was a name, literally plucked from the stars per Hindu astrological tradition, which drove me nuts. Anupa; it’s so different that that’s what it fucking means. Unique or unusual. Incomparable, if you’re looking for a word with a more positive connotation. I could only focus on how it was foreign and unwieldy and bulging, with rambunctious syllables and rounded letters, easy to rhyme with terrible things." [The Hairpin]

"Who Will Claim You?"

By Akwaeke Emezi

"When I was six months old, my mother took me to Kuala Lumpur. My hair was slick and straight, bands of fat bulged at my wrists and ankles, and she put a round black dot on my forehead. In a house in Petaling Jaya, my Malaccan grandmother held me on her knee, her hands strong in my soft armpits, and we laughed at each other. She called me Miss Gums and fed me rice porridge. After we returned to Nigeria, my mother continued to put the round black dot on my forehead ever so often, as if to remind everyone in my father’s country that I was still her daughter." [Commonwealth Writers]

"Swole Without A Goal"

By Anshuman Iddamsetty

"A theory: We crave beauty because, like the unalterable spectra of light itself, it finds us, and not the other way around. We’re helpless to its whims. Beauty could seek us, or not. Beauty couldn’t care less. Power has the same allure—we only understand what it can do, and to whom, after a demonstration. Exactly how much of beauty or power is that elusiveness, I don’t know. But what I do know is that what I increasingly find magisterial, unquestionably beautiful, involves the smashing of 400-pound bellies. I’ve written about my attraction to fat people before, but this is… different." [Hazlitt]

"SELFIE"

By Rachel Syme

"Selfie-taking is often described by its detractors in terms of vulgarity: too much, too often, too desirous, too sensual, too much lip, too much body. Those who are deeply in touch with their body always get labeled obscene. Like most insults, these barbs rise from a place of insecurity: so many people are so afraid of themselves! Of their flesh, of their nooks and crannies, of how they might be found wanting." [Medium]


INSTITUTIONAL DAMAGE

The Best Culture Writing Of 2015 Getty Images / Justin Sullivan
"The Age of Mass Incarceration"

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

"Our carceral state banishes American citizens to a gray wasteland far beyond the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens. Banishment continues long after one’s actual time behind bars has ended, making housing and employment hard to secure. And banishment was not simply a well-intended response to rising crime. It was the method by which we chose to address the problems that preoccupied [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan, problems resulting from 'three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment.' At a cost of $80 billion a year, American correctional facilities are a social-service program—providing health care, meals, and shelter for a whole class of people." [The Atlantic]

"An Unbelievable Story of Rape"

By Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller

"By the end of January 2011, the detectives had connected four rapes over a 15-month period across Denver’s suburbs. The trail started in Aurora, east of Denver, on Oct. 4, 2009, with the 65-year-old woman. It picked up nine months later and 22 miles to the west, when the rapist attacked the artist in Lakewood. A month after that the 59-year-old widow was raped in Westminster, some 10 miles to the north. And then, finally, in January 2011 came the attack on the 26-year-old in Golden, about 15 miles southwest of Westminster. If you drew a map, it was almost like the rapist was circling the compass points of Denver’s suburbs." [The Marshall Project]

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"Revenge Killing"

By Rachel Aviv

"In the decades after the Civil War, Caddo Parish—home to the last capital of the Confederacy—had more lynchings than all but one county in the South. Several men were lynched in front of the courthouse. In 1914, when some Louisiana newspapers called for the abolition of the death penalty, an editorial in the Shreveport Times warned that without capital punishment the number of lynchings would rise: black criminals wouldn’t be able to reach the jail before they were overwhelmed by the 'vengeance of an outraged citizenship.'

Juries in Caddo Parish, which has a population of two hundred and fifty thousand, now sentence more people to death per capita than juries in any other county in America. Seventy-seven per cent of those sentenced to death in the past forty years have been black, and nearly half were convicted of killing white victims. A white person has never been sentenced to death for killing a black person." [The New Yorker]

"You Just Got Out of Prison. Now What?"

By Jon Mooallem

"It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that this looming 'prisoner re-entry crisis' became a fixation of sociologists and policy makers, generating a torrent of research, government programs, task forces, nonprofit initiatives and conferences now known as the 're-entry movement.' The movement tends to focus on solving structural problems, like providing housing, job training or drug treatment, but easily loses sight of the profound disorientation of the actual people being released. Often, the psychological turbulence of those first days or weeks is so debilitating that recently incarcerated people can’t even navigate public transportation; they’re too frightened of crowds, too intimidated or mystified by the transit cards that have replaced cash and tokens." [New York Times]


WHO WE ARE

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"How M.I.A. Is a Lifeline in Times of Terror"

By Anupa Mistry

"Since the attacks in Paris, I’ve been sleeping in pants and keeping a coat and my laptop by the bedroom door. I live on a busy downtown Toronto street, in a row of buildings close to a mosque, and I’m scared of retributive violence. Sometimes my cynicism in the wake of Western terrorism makes me feel ashamed because I want to mourn, but since 9/11 I’ve seen how terror crests outward, away from the site of impact into ordinary communities like mine specifically aimed at people who look something like me. What could happen to the mosque next door, and what violence toward it means for me, a non-Muslim, is terrifying. What if I wake up to my smoke alarm blaring in the middle of the night? I’ll need to make a quick escape. Before closing my eyes, I remind myself that if I can feel the heat I’ll have to leave the cat behind." [Pitchfork]

"They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don't Exist"

By Jenny Zhang

"Another white writer talked openly about searching for some kind of obscure “ethnicity” that she could write into her stories to give them an extra edge. “Like what you have in your writing,” she added, meaning well, of course. She and the other white writers who marveled over my luck wanted to try on my Otherness to advance their value in the literary marketplace, but I don’t think they wanted to grow up as an immigrant in the United States. I don’t think they wanted to experience racism and misogyny on a micro and macro level, be made to feel perpetually foreign no matter how long they’ve lived here, and be denied any opportunity to ever write something without the millstone of but is this authentic/representative/good for black/Asian/Latino/native people? hanging from their necks." [Buzzfeed]

"The Separatist Gospel of Louis Farrakhan"

By Jason Parham

"The crowd erupted, a mix of agreement and shock. A man standing to my left turned to his friend and asked a question to which he already knew the answer. 'Did he just call Congress a whore on their steps?'

It’s Louis Farrakhan, after all: the last great black preservationist, the man who incites disdain in millions, the man will say some real wild shit you probably won’t agree with—why would you?—but who, for the last four decades, has attempted to chart a new course for black Americans, a course built on self-determination, in a country that has tried to blot them from existence.

Farrakhan’s gospel is not one you will find in the churches of Tyler Perry movies or in the books of James Weldon Johnson. It is a gospel that is often full of contempt for the 'poisoned doctrine' of white supremacy that has washed over our nation. But it is also a gospel of self-love and God-fearing love and Black Nationalism; his is a teaching of racial preservation. It is a gospel that spares no man and pardons no injustice." [Gawker]

"The Weeknd's East African Roots"

By Hannah Giorgis

"[F]or his Ethiopian and Eritrean diasporic fanbase, Tesfaye’s voice itself (and the length of his songs) had long been a dead giveaway of the singer’s identity. His trademark vibrato, the characteristically pained whine that pervades much of Tesfaye’s music, draws from a long Ethiopian musical legacy of tortured pining. Imbuing our voices with the shaky pain of loss—romantic or otherwise—is a hallmark of Ethiopian musical tradition. Tesfaye, with his staccato wails and aching nostalgia, is a young, North American addition to a dynasty of melodramatic Ethiopian singers." [Pitchfork]


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MATTERS OF MEDIA

"Instagram's TMZ"

By Jenna Wortham

"Part of The Shade Room’s appeal is an updated version of an old insight: Celebrities are just like us — they’re obsessed with likes, faves and follower counts, and are highly prone to posting things they come to regret online. Famous people might have regained some control of their public personas through social media, but this has only opened the door to a new form of gossip reporting. Rather than stalking celebs in the wilds of Beverly Hills, Angie and the Shade Room team prowl their profiles, looking for clues in the data exhaust of social media that can be made into news: hastily deleted tweets, Instagram follows that hint at a coming collaboration (or a covert romance) and intracelebrity trash talk." [New York Times Magazine]

"The Man Who Broke the Music Business"

By Stephen Witt

"From 2001 on, [Bennie Lydell] Glover was the world’s leading leaker of pre-release music. He claims that he never smuggled the CDs himself. Instead, he tapped a network of low-paid temporary employees, offering cash or movies for leaked disks. The handoffs took place at gas stations and convenience stores far from the plant. Before long, Glover earned a promotion, which enabled him to schedule the shifts on the packaging line. If a prized release came through the plant, he had the power to ensure that his man was there." [The New Yorker]

"Access Denied"

By John Hermann

"Once you’re looking for it, you see signs of access panic everywhere. Before election coverage had gathered much speed, Awl pal (and newsletter creator) Laura Olin, who led social media operations for Obama’s 2012 campaign, suggested that Twitter would be used by candidates as a sort of press wire: for some stories, or responses, it was easier for a campaign to simply @ an opponent or make a point directly in front of millions of followers. If the post or exchange is sufficiently newsworthy, the press would write about it anyway.

There are situations that used to require the presence of a reporter to write something down and publish it that can now be resolved with a short, colloquial post. For the quick quote-response type of story, a subject has less need to grant access and the reporter has less leverage to demand it. This, it seemed, would change the jobs of both political operatives and reporters alike." [The Awl]

"The Agency"

By Adrian Chen

"[Ludmila] Savchuk told me she shared an office with about a half-dozen teammates. It was smaller than most, because she worked in the elite Special Projects department. While other workers churned out blandly pro-Kremlin comments, her department created appealing online characters who were supposed to stand out from the horde. Savchuk posed as three of these creations, running a blog for each one on LiveJournal. One alter ego was a fortuneteller named Cantadora. The spirit world offered Cantadora insight into relationships, weight loss, feng shui — and, occasionally, geopolitics. Energies she discerned in the universe invariably showed that its arc bent toward Russia. She foretold glory for Vladimir Putin, defeat for Barack Obama and Petro Poroshenko. The point was to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person.

In fact, she was a troll." [New York Times Magazine]


DEEP DIVES

The Best Culture Writing Of 2015 Getty Images / Andrew Burton
"The Price of Nice Nails"

By Sarah Maslin Nir

"On a morning last May, Jing Ren, a 20-year-old who had recently arrived from China, stood among them for the first time, headed to a job at a salon in a Long Island strip mall. Her hair neat and glasses perpetually askew, she clutched her lunch and a packet of nail tools that manicurists must bring from job to job.

Tucked in her pocket was $100 in carefully folded bills for another expense: the fee the salon owner charges each new employee for her job. The deal was the same as it is for beginning manicurists in almost any salon in the New York area. She would work for no wages, subsisting on meager tips, until her boss decided she was skillful enough to merit a wage." [New York Times]

"The boys who could see England"

By Anders Fjellberg

"What do you hope for when a son, a brother, a nephew goes missing for eight months and the only alternative to a constant, nagging uncertainty is depths of grief? There is always hope in uncertainty. Notification of a death is an answer, but it is final. The telephone call you are waiting for, with the voice you’ve missed saying, 'Mother, I’m alive,' will never come.

Twenty-two years is not a life. It is barely a beginning." [New Statesman]

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"The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogotá"

By Susan Dominus

"When Wilber arrived later that afternoon, William said he had to show him something and clicked, on his phone, on a photo of Jorge and Carlos. Immediately, Wilber saw, with total clarity, what it took everyone else hours to grasp.

'So we were swapped,' Wilber said, shrugging, annoyed by the sense of momentousness William seemed to want to attach to the photo. 'I don’t care who they are. You’re my brother, and you’ll be my brother until the day I die.'" [New York Times Magazine]

"Where Are the Children?"

By Sarah Stillman

"Shortly before Alfredo Godoy received the phone call about his sons, two men in Trenton faced trial for kidnapping a fifteen-year-old girl in Texas while she made her way from Guatemala to New Jersey, where her mother lived. The mother told police that the kidnappers had starved and abused her. 'They caused so much pain for my daughter that she does not live a normal life,' she wrote to the judge. The girl would not be able to testify, 'due to fear that they will see us, follow us, and do us harm.'

Fear of the police can loom as large as fear of captors, particularly in parts of the country where law enforcement is believed to detain undocumented people who come forward to report a crime. One person who did contact the police was Sonia Avila, a woman living in Texas whose teen-age son, Franklin, reached Arizona from Honduras in 2011, only to be abducted by men posing as good Samaritans and held captive in a stash-house bedroom. Franklin’s kidnappers phoned Avila, demanding fifteen hundred dollars. Otherwise, they told her, they would chop off Franklin’s ears, or kill him." [The New Yorker]

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The Best Culture Writing Of 2015