TIME Culture

Take Jared Leto’s Lead and Chop Off That Man Bun—You Look Ridiculous

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Angela Weiss—Getty Images Jared Leto attends NBC Universal's 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards After Party at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 12, 2014 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Brian Moylan is a writer and pop culture junkie.

Top knot-lovers around the world, listen up: this trend is (thankfully) over.

Yesterday, Jared Leto, who for years looked like he was impersonating the guest of honor in da Vinci’s “Last Supper” painting, shocked the world by posting pictures of himself with short hair and no beard to his Twitter account. The reason he looks like fresh-faced Jordan Catalano again is presumably for his role in the DC Comics sure-to-be-blockbuster Suicide Squad. But maybe there’s another reason for the change. Maybe Jared Leto is just as sick of a trend that he presumably started as everyone else. Maybe he wanted the man bun to be gone for good.

Leto wore his infamous ombre locks (RIP) in a man bun to the Golden Globes in 2014 when he won an award for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. He changed it up for the 2015 Oscars, where he let his mane roam free to present an award. Just as plenty of guys are growing out their hair to try to copy his signature look, maybe Leto knows the style is already passé.

A meaty man bun like Leto’s wasn’t so horrible (especially when immaculately styled), and it was functional. There’s a reason you never see a female jogger with her long hair flapping in the breeze, and guys need a way to get their locks out of the way as well. What is annoying is the gross mutation the man bun has wrought—the undercut and top knot phenomenon. This style is achieved when a guy wears his hair long on the top and very short or shaved on the sides (which is called an undercut), and then fashions the long portion into a little beaver tail that shoots out the back of his head. Man, this look is so played out it might as well be The Rachel in 1996.

Leto is presumably one of the progenitors of the look, along with Jake Gyllenhaal, who was spotted wearing the top knot as early as 2013. In fact, as early as 2012 The New York Times spotted the man bun trend coming out of Brooklyn, but as with so many fashion trends these days, it was these celebrity spokesmen (and others) that took the look to the masses.

After Leto’s 2014 win, we were completely saturated with these pygmy ponytails on dudes. It’s as if they wanted his hairstyle but didn’t have the time or dedication to grow out an actual man bun, which is how we ended up with its bastard stepchild the top knot, to begin with. In April, the Awl had a photographer snapping the look on the wild on the streets of New York. Then there was the YouTube tutorial on how to make one, the BuzzFeed listicle about hot guys with top knots, and even a Tumblr called Guys with Top Knots devoted to…well, you get the picture.

That’s when the problems started. Stylish guys who had long hair to start with and the fashion sense to pull off such a hardcore look adopted the man bun early. But then the trend, as it always does, went too far. Now we have schlubs just putting an elastic in the back of the head without their hair cut to accentuate a top knot. Instead of looking hip, they look like they have a fuzzy pencil eraser hovering over their skull. Just because a guy’s hair is long enough to be gathered at one concentric point doesn’t mean it should be. Now we’re stuck with all sorts of bros with randomly pulled back hair looking like they’re trying too hard. The great thing about a man bun was it looked like the guy was barely trying at all. Nonchalance is the key to cool. This erroneously coiffed look is far too self-aware to inspire anyone.

Then there are the guys who don’t have enough hair yet but are still trying to jump on the bandwagon. You know them, the ones who wear the “nipple knot,” which is just like a little bump on the top of the head gathered up in a rubber band. It’s almost like these guys are trying to excise a growth from their scalp using an elastic.

These Johnny-come-latelys are ruining it for the top knot pioneers, who now look less like fashionable provocateurs and more like sleazy yoga teachers in bad rom-coms or, even worse, what is going to start passing for “hipster” at central casting in about two months. What used to be a look that showed a guy who was sensitive and unafraid to sport what could be considered a feminine affectation now looks like a douchebag who is trying to fit in with what men’s magazines are telling him the cool guys are doing.

Gyllenhaal advocated for his slimy character in Nightcrawler to put his hair in a man bun every time he did something “larcenous.” Now, people wearing this or similar styles are associated not with a chill guy who wears tank tops and gets all the ladies, but with a criminal who stages crimes so that he can sell news footage of them. Is that really the look we’re going for?

Two weeks ago, a group of South African hipsters (they self identify as the subspecies) created a viral sensation when they went around town cutting off the top knots of gentlemen in public. It was like marauding acts of tonsorial kindness. After 6 million views, the perpetrators admitted the video was staged and all the victims were friends of theirs. But, like Leto, were these willing victims just getting rid of style that had become so mainstream that it was now déclassé? Quite possibly.

Now is the time to liberate all the other straight dudes who are sporting top knots (gay guys are either too good for this trend or, like with most things, have adopted it and abandoned it far faster than the general public). Most of them are doing it wrong and, well, it just looks ridiculous. In 20 years this hairstyle will be like bell-bottoms or butterfly collar shirts, one of those things we look back on and shake our heads, saying, “Why did we ever do that to ourselves?” Don’t do it now. Don’t do it ever. In fact, do what Jared Leto did and put a stop to it before it’s far too late. Tell people your shorter cut is for a movie role, if that makes you feel any better.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

What I Learned by Adding Diversity to My Reading List

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xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

I thought: What if I only read stories by a certain type of author?


Back in 2012, I faced a conundrum. I write short fiction, and I wanted to get better at writing it. To do that I had to write, write, and write some more. But just as important was reading, reading, and reading a lot more. And I tried. But every time I thought about delving into one of the many science fiction and fantasy magazines at my disposal, or even reading compilations of the “best” stories that had been nominated for and/or won awards, my brain resisted.

Because every time I tried to get through a magazine, I would come across stories that I didn’t enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.

Then I thought: What if I only read stories by a certain type of author? Instead of reading everything, I would only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers. Essentially: no straight, cis, white males.

Cutting that one demographic out of my reading list greatly improved my enjoyment of reading short stories. That’s not to say I didn’t come across bad stories or offensive stuff in stories or other things that turned me off. I did. But I came across this stuff far less than I did previously.

Limiting myself in this way also made me aware of how often certain magazines published whole issues in which no women or POC authors made an appearance. And pretty soon I didn’t even bother looking at those magazines when I went on my monthly search. When I ran out of known-to-me magazines, I went on the hunt and discovered several that published new-to-me writers and also a surprising number of magazines dedicated to under-heard voices.

I ended that year with a new understanding of what kind of fiction I enjoy most, what kind of writers are likely to write it, and how different the speculative fiction landscape looks when you adjust the parallax.

This past week, Sunili Govinnage wrote in The Guardian about her experience reading only novels by writers of color for a year. It’s a challenge she set herself at the end of 2013 inspired by a similar project by Lilit Marcus who read only books by women for a year.

Govinnage is a writer of color herself, yet she still learned a few things from the experience, including “just how white [her] reading world was.” Even when you’re coming from the viewpoint of a marginalized identity, the privileged view is everywhere and pervasive. It’s easy to buy into it without really knowing that you are.

It doesn’t help that most high-profile venues that exist to alert readers to new books and their worthiness are skewed heavily toward privileged voices. A few years ago, some best-selling women writers pointed out that the New York Times reviewed significantly more books by men than by women. The problem is not limited to the Times. Nor limited to just men vs women. If the majority of books being held up and pronounced Good and Worthy are by white, straight, cis men, it’s easy to slip into thinking that most good and worthy books are by authors that fit that description.

And, of course, that’s not true.

“Slowly but surely, the world is noticing that ‘meritocracy’ in the arts and entertainment industries is as fictitious as Westeros,” Govinnage says.

The “Reading Only X Writers For A Year” a challenge is one every person who loves to read (and who loves to write) should take. You could, like Lilit Marcus, read only books by women or, like Sunili Govinnage, read only books by people of color. Or you could choose a different axis to focus on: books by trans men and women, books by people from outside the U.S. or in translation, books by people with disabilities.

After a year of that, the next challenge would be to seek out books about or with characters that represent a marginalized identity or experience by any author. In addition to the identities listed above, I suggest: non-Christian religions or faiths, working class or poor, and asexual (as a start).

Whichever focus you choose, it will change the way you read and the way you go about picking things to read. When I settle in to read a magazine now, I read in order of stories I think I’ll like best. And if I do decide to read one by a new-to-me author who appears to be a straight, white, cis male, it’s usually because I trust the editor and the magazine. My reading sessions are filled with much less stress these days.

Are you up for this challenge? If so, I have some reading list seeds to get you started.

Women Writers

Writers of Color

Books in Translation

K. T. Bradford wrote this article for xoJane.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

6 Things You Should Know About Young Girls in School

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One day your child feels like part of the gang; the next she’s been elbowed out of the lunch table or left off the invitation list for a birthday party. Here’s what you need to know to get her through the clique years—and endless exclusive photo tagging—with fewer scars.

1. Cliquishness is ingrained—and it starts early. “We come from a hunter-gatherer society,” says Julie Paquette MacEvoy, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College who studies children’s social and emotional development. “There was a greater chance of survival if you were part of a group. The urge to form cliques is evolutionarily ingrained.” By toddlerhood, this behavior starts to show up. A 2014 study published in Psychological Science showed that children as young as two will mimic their behavior to match that of their peers so they don’t stand out from the crowd. And not long after toddlerhood, we’re able to pinpoint the person in our group with whom we’re closest. “I don’t think we ever stop using that label [best friend],” says Rosalind Wiseman, a parenting educator and the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes ($10, amazon.com). Why are we so attached to it? “We need to have the sense that we matter. If we have a best friend, that means we count to someone.” And though children today certainly won’t perish if they don’t have a core group of buddies, there are benefits, like a boost to self-esteem and a sense of belonging, says Wiseman. Also, it just feels good to be included. That’s why it’s so painful to be left out.

2. There are two types of dominant personalities. They typically emerge during middle school: one is positive and fun to be around, and the other is influential but also manipulative, says Brett Laursen, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University. If your child hangs out with a manipulative leader, she may feel demeaned fairly frequently. What helps: emphasizing the importance of thinking for herself and being her own person, not merely the sidekick of a bossy pal. “Have conversations about when it’s OK to give in and when it’s not,” says MacEvoy. For example, it’s fine to let the group’s leader decide which movie to watch if you don’t care, but it’s not OK for the queen bee to determine on her own who’s invited to go to the movie. If you happen to have a child who’s the leader of her clique, you can help her cultivate empathy by regularly asking her how her friends are feeling and doing.

3. Cliques can be physically painful. Research shows that exclusion triggers activity in the same part of the brain that controls physical pain, says Judith V. Jordan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. For some kids, ejection from a friend group can be more painful than being rejected by a crush because that pain involves only one person. “When you’re pushed out of a clique, that’s an entire group of people who don’t value you, care about you, or want to hang out with you,” says MacEvoy.

4. Your child’s pain is easy to downplay—but don’t. Yes, you know clique trouble is a universal experience and we pretty much all survive. But it’s important to take your child’s grief seriously. If the situation seems to demand it, ask teachers for help in making sure the exclusion isn’t overt or cruel. (Have them keep an eye out for bullying and name calling.) At home, listen to your child’s daily recaps (if she’s willing to share) and empathize, says MacEvoy. Tell her you understand why she’s so upset and that you would be, too. But don’t go that extra step of disparaging or belittling other kids. As much as it may feel good to both of you in the moment, it sets the wrong example and could make reconciliation difficult for your child later.

5. Role play at home will make school easier. To help make the days ahead feel surmountable, ask your child if she would like to talk through hypothetical social scenarios. What should your child do if she has to eat lunch by herself? (Maybe she can read a book while she eats, or you two can talk about who else she could approach.) What should she do if one of the girls says something mean to her? (Walk away.) For younger kids (up to around age 11 or 12), this exercise tends to feel empowering, says MacEvoy. Teenagers may find it cheesy; offer them an ear instead. If there’s potential for your child to patch things up or make amends, discuss the reasons for the exclusion in the first place. “Often it involves a member of the opposite sex—especially in adolescence—or just sheer jealousy,” says MacEvoy. If your child offended just one member of her clique (and the rest of the girls are excluding her as an act of solidarity), encourage your kid to talk to the person with whom there’s a real problem. If they can make up, it may be possible for the whole group to get back together, albeit with a bit of tension in the ranks.

6. Sometimes you just have to find new friends. When a group has truly caused pain—or formally ousted your child—she may have no choice but to leave it behind and seek out new friends. If she’s feeling intimidated (and who wouldn’t be?), talk about trying to make just one new friend rather than entering a whole new clique. Think about it: There’s a world of difference between eating lunch alone and eating lunch across from someone else. Having additional friends is great, too, but children are much less lonely when they have even one supportive friend, says Steven R. Asher, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina. It’s ultimately up to your child to find this new buddy (or buddies), but you can lay the groundwork. Nudge her toward a club, a sport, a volunteer activity, or even an after-school job where she can meet peers with similar interests. And take heart in the knowledge that this lonely state isn’t forever. Faris and his colleagues conducted an eight-week study in which they asked kids in the 8th through 12th grades to name their best friends every few weeks. “We found a shocking amount of turnover,” he says. In other words: Your child may feel excluded on Friday, but that doesn’t mean she’ll still be on the outs come Monday morning.

For more informed and practical parenting advice, sign up here for Time for Parents, Time’s free weekly newsletter.

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

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TIME language

Oxford Dictionaries Adds Janky, EGOT and Ridesharing

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From the dictionary that keeps track of modern usage

Oxford Dictionaries Online added hundreds of words and phrases to its online database Thursday, many of which reflect the technology-influenced world we live in.

This branch of the Oxford family is focused on modern usage: the language people are using now. And if the addition is any indication, we are talking a lot about tech — from ridesharing to bioprinting — not to mention using more abbreviations and acronyms as words.

Here are some highlights from the quarterly update, along with definitions:

AFAIC (abbrev.): abbreviation for ‘as far as I’m concerned.’

awk (adj.): of a situation, causing uneasy embarrassment; awkward or uncomfortable.

bioprinting (n.): the use of 3-D printing technology with materials that incorporate viable living cells, e.g., to produce tissue for reconstructive surgery.

colorblocking (n.): in fashion and design, the use of contrasting blocks or panels of solid, typically bright color.

data scientist (n.): a person employed to analyze and interpret complex digital data, such as the usage statistics of a website, especially in order to assist a business in its decisionmaking.

divey (adj.): of a bar or similar establishment, shabby or sleazy

EGOT (n.): the achievement of having won all four of the major American entertainment awards (i.e., an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony).

janky (adj.): of extremely poor or unreliable quality.

koozie (n.): an insulating sleeve used to keep a canned or bottled drink cold.

McTwist (n.): in skateboarding and snowboarding, an aerial maneuver in which the boarder spins one and a half times while holding the edge of the board with one hand.

party foul (n.): an act or instance of unpleasant or unacceptable behavior at a party or other social gathering.

patient zero (n.): used to refer to the person identified as the first carrier of a communicable disease in an outbreak of related cases.

ridesharing (v.): to participate in an arrangement in which a passenger travels in a private vehicle driven by its owner, for free or for a fee, especially as arranged by means of a website or app.

sharing economy (n.): an economic system in which assets or services are shared between private individuals, either for free or for a fee, typically by means of the Internet.

superfan (n.): a person who has an extreme or obsessive admiration for a particular person or thing.

teachable moment (n.): an event or experience that presents a good opportunity for learning something about a particular aspect of life.

unbox (v.): remove (something, especially a newly purchased product) from a box or other packaging.

vishing (v.): the fraudulent practice of making phone calls or leaving voice messages purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information, such as bank details and credit-card numbers.

TIME comic books

Now You Can Read Comics About Gwen Stacy as Spider-Man

Marvel Spider-Gwen

Spider-Gwen has returned

What if there were an alternate universe were Spider-Man was a woman?

Now you can see exactly what that would be like in a new Marvel Comics comic book series. Spider-Woman is Spider-Gwen, as in Gwen Stacy, girlfriend of original Spider-Man Peter Parker. Gwen was killed off in the 1973 Spider-Man comic books (and again last year in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 film). But in this parallel world, the radioactive spider bites Gwen instead of Peter.

Spider-Gwen was originally introduced last year in the crossover story Edge of Spider-Verse No. 2. The first new Spider-Gwen issue came out this week and featured her playing in a female band called the Mary Janes and watching Peter die in her arms after he tried to give himself superpowers to be more like her.

Her reintroduction is part of Marvel’s ongoing effort to reach out to its growing female fan base. In the last few years, Marvel writers have also created an all-female X-Men series, relaunched the comics of female fighter pilot Captain Marvel, introduced a female Thor and created a new Avengers-like, all-female superhero team called the A-Force.

Read Next: Why Marvel Decided to Create an All-Female Superhero Team

TIME Media

Why Can’t Hollywood Tell America’s Stories?

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Our onscreen heroes are white men. But most of us aren't

The 2015 Oscars broadcast may reflect the demographics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters—who are overwhelmingly older Anglo men—but it won’t reflect the demographics of the rest of the country. All 20 acting nominees are Anglo, and all the directing and screenwriting nominees are male. The Academy Awards may not tell the whole story, but they certainly indicate that many American stories still aren’t being told on our screens. In advance of the Zócalo/UCLA Bunche Center “Thinking L.A.” event “Why Can’t Hollywood Look Like America?”, we asked media scholars: What are the critical and integral contemporary American stories that Hollywood is not telling?

Camille Fojas — Stories of inequality and social and economic immobility

Hollywood is an industry in pursuit of profit. It is not an open marketplace of new imaginings or ideas unless those ideas draw audiences and increase profits. That said, it has all but ignored a major social and cultural upheaval. Since the economic collapse that began in 2007, there is heightened awareness of the deepening economic inequality of U.S. culture. While Hollywood responded quickly to the economic collapse with epic tales of the cruel machinations of the big banks and their minions, it has yet to tell the story of the most economically vulnerable and those burdened by oppressive student loan and mortgage debt. It is more profitable to deliver a melodrama about malevolent banks that fits neatly into the age-old morality tales of good versus evil. We have yet to see the story of those at the bottom of the labor market—those who are out of resources, silver linings, and options. The economic crisis intensified wage stagnation and further limited opportunities for employment and upward mobility. This new scenario does not square with the Hollywood myths around the “American Dream” centered on “rags to riches” storylines. The story of inequality, of the deepening divergence between rich and poor, and social and economic immobility, is the real story of our times.

Camilla Fojas is Vincent de Paul Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies and director of Critical Ethnic Studies at DePaul University. Her newest book is Freefalling: Pop Culture and the Economic Crisis.

Priscilla Peña Ovalle — Universal stories that don’t star white actors

Hollywood trades in the spectacular, the dramatic, the titillating. Even romantic comedies usually elevate the “everyday” business of love with fantasies of wealth. To some degree, that’s OK. Audiences gravitate towards escapist films. I do. But I’d like Hollywood to tell these spectacular tales with actors who look more like contemporary America.

I want to see more women and nonwhite people on screen. I’d like to see a good romantic comedy about a black couple falling in love that can exist without being pigeonholed as a “black movie.” I’d like to see the Latina version of John Wick (2014) or Office Space (1999). I don’t necessarily want to see films about race or women’s issues. Right now, I just want to see some different folks lead.

Hollywood too frequently employs white actors to tell universal stories; a continued reliance on the white “everyman” results in films that lack the texture of (contemporary) America. Where are the sci-fi protagonists with curvy bodies or the vampires with brown skin and curly hair? Such long-standing inequities stem from racist and sexist standards of beauty that have governed a racist and sexist system of film production and stardom in the United States since the silent era. But at a time when 44 percent of moviegoers are nonwhite, it is unbearable that 76 percent of the bodies on screen remain white.

So, I have hopes for the new Ghostbusters starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon. While the film highlights Hollywood’s reliance on “sure hits” that often recycle white male protagonists along with narratives, this version of Ghostbusters promises something more: a crew of women that represent radically diverse body types in a film that is presumably not about their looks or struggles as women. What an escapist fantasy!

Priscilla Peña Ovalle teaches film and television in the cinema studies program at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom (Rutgers 2011) and is currently working on a project about race and hairstyles in Hollywood.

Ellen Scott — Institutional exposés

Hollywood tells many stories about race, but those that lay bare invisible power relations—the struggles of not individuals but of a larger segment of society against institutional constraints—are most rare. These stories are difficult both because such institutional forces are hard to name and personify and because Hollywood, an institution itself, has a vested interest in muting these images.

The problem of incarceration, and the prison industrial complex, is a massive rather than merely personal story. Sixty percent of black male high school dropouts will go to prison before age 35. In the process, they and their families will find many of the gains of the civil rights era effectively reversed, from voting rights (which are often denied to felons) to their prospects of reaching middle-class status.

Such stories remain rare in American media, partly because Hollywood censors long forbade broad condemnation of the criminal justice system as a professional courtesy to police and judges. However, stories from behind prison walls—often told by independent cinema, primarily documentaries but also feature films like Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere (2012)—stand to reveal much about contemporary America.

Experiments like Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation (2006) and John Sayles’ City of Hope (1991) show how narrative cinema can operate as institutional exposé. One challenge is motivating the often individualistic, solipsistic art of cinema to tell the intricate stories of the many. How might we, for example, tell a cinematic story that makes palpable the power and impetus behind the “Black Lives Matter” campaign not only through personal stories but through the story of networks—both digital and human? Such stories even more difficult to sell than they are to tell. The other challenge is to find funding for films whose politics conflict with the whitewashed stories Hollywood has traditionally enshrined as “the” American narrative.

Ellen Scott is Assistant Professor of Media History at CUNY-Queens College. Her work concerns the relationship between media and the ongoing struggle for African American equality and her current book Cinema Civil Rights: Race, Repression and Regulation in the Classical Hollywood Era is now available from Rutgers University Press.

Ana-Christina Ramón — The Latino version of Parenthood

Latinos are not only the largest minority group, but also one of the fastest growing in a country that is expected to be majority-minority by 2043. Many businesses and political interests have taken notice and made a concerted effort to appeal and market to Latinos. So why has Hollywood been slow to catch up? Although our research at the Bunche Center at UCLA shows that relatively diverse TV shows excel in ratings, Latinos remain underrepresented onscreen. One underlying reason may be the belief that Latinos will continue to consume media regardless of who makes or appears in movies and TV shows. But will this reasoning (true or not) hold up as younger Latinos become savvier about their entertainment options? And, is Hollywood leaving money on the table by not appealing to Latinos’ experiences?

Growing up in Los Angeles as a daughter of Mexican and Peruvian immigrants, I know how varied and rich the Latino experience can be. From my grandmother’s journey as a single mother who worked as a housekeeper to give her kids opportunities to my life as an academic researcher advocating for social justice issues, a multitude of stories exist that are uniquely Latino yet encompass universal themes of struggle and triumph. Recent hits such as Jane the Virgin and Devious Maids show that TV audiences want to see Latino content. But not every Latino show has to be based on a Spanish-language telenovela, either.

Overall, Hollywood needs to move beyond its one-dimensional Latino character tropes. Where can I find a drama about successful Latino professionals who maintain strong ties to their families and culture? Where’s the Latino version of Parenthood or Best Man? Take a chance, Hollywood. The results may surprise you.

Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón is Assistant Director and Associate Researcher of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. She currently manages the Hollywood Advancement Project that examines diversity in the entertainment industry and is the co-author (with Darnell Hunt) of the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report and the new 2015 report.

This article was originally written for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

Your Chinese Menu Is Really a Time Machine

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Sweet and Sour Pork and Chop Suey aren’t just delicious—they also tell stories of waves of immigration from China

I grew up in a Chinese restaurant called the Peking Restaurant in rural New England during the 1970s and ’80s. I was that kid you saw running around the tables and through the waiters’ legs, and playing with whatever I could get my hands on. I had access to some cool things—pupu platters for my birthdays, all the fortune cookies I could eat, the pleasure of celebrating two different new year’s days every year with treats like a roasted pig during the Year of the Pig. And, when I was old enough, I could use the deep fryer to make dinner. As a child, I didn’t see the complexity of the Chinese-American story hidden amongst the aromatic dishes being served. To me, the restaurant was just home, the place I grew up.

My family’s restaurant was far from the hustle and bustle of the nearest Chinatown, all the way down in New York City. For many years, we were the only Chinese family in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Today, Chinese food is so thoroughly woven into America’s culinary tapestry that you’d be hard pressed not to find a Chinese restaurant in most modest-sized towns. They run the gamut: chic, high-end eateries, barebones take-out counters, and bustling all-you-can-eat buffets. But the success of Chinese food culture was hard-earned. And the history of the challenges it faced appears in a surprisingly common place: the finely inked print of your local Chinese restaurant’s menu.

The most fascinating aspects of the restaurant menu aren’t the exotic names or the daily special, but the wonderful time capsules captured by the food and ingredients that make up each dish. Some of the selections you make for your family’s Chinese food night provide snapshots of the different waves of Chinese immigrants coming to the United States, as well as the American reactions to those new arrivals.

A Chinese restaurant’s menu is usually comfortingly familiar: sections for noodle, vegetable, meat, and the chef’s special. One common dish is sweet and sour pork. It is a traditional southern Chinese dish that in its original form looks far different than the Day-Glo red dishes served today. Many of the first Chinese immigrants originated in southern and southeastern China. They took the risk of coming to America for new opportunities and a chance to make their fortunes as miners, railroad builders, farmers, fishermen, launderers, and restaurant owners in the mid-19th century.

Those Chinese were increasingly looked upon as outsiders who refused to conform to societal norms and took jobs away from Americans. Anti-Chinese feelings began to rise across the United States in the late 19th century, but were especially strong in the West where jobs were scarce as cheap manufactured goods and European immigrants arrived via the railroad. Chinese immigrants found themselves being blamed for the nation’s ills. This wave of resentment culminated in the 1882 Exclusion Act barring Chinese immigration.

Around the turn of the 20th century, chop suey became the quintessential “Chinese” dish and was one of the earliest to capture the imaginations of adventurous Americans. During the heart of the exclusionary period, the dish exploded in popularity and actually aided restaurant owners in overcoming the restrictive attitudes and laws of the time. People may not have liked their foreign neighbors, but they loved their chop suey. Soon the dish began appearing in pop culture: One song pined, “Who will chop your suey when I’m gone?” Edward Hopper depicted two women conversing at a restaurant in 1929’s “Chop Suey” painting.

There is some irony here. It’s long been assumed that chop suey is actually a wholly American invention. A recent book by Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, indicates that chop suey in some variation or another does exist in China. I asked my personal expert on the subject, my father. His opinion? Chop suey (sort of) means extra bits or leftovers in Chinese, and who doesn’t have leftovers?

The exclusionary laws were lifted during World War II, when America allied with China, but wholesale changes in immigration laws did not happen until 1965 with the Hart-Celler Act. The new law opened up immigration to the broader Chinese diaspora spread around the world, including those that had fled the civil war on the Chinese mainland for places like Taiwan and Singapore. With the arrival of more Chinese immigrants came a wider range of regional tastes and recipes. Sichuan and Hunan (provinces in China) started showing up in the names of dishes. Recipes inspired by those provinces make up a recognizable portion of many Chinese menus. For example, it is possible that a section of the menu will include an entire row of Hunan beef, chicken, shrimp, or—in my latest takeout menu—something called “Hunan Delight.” One of the more popular and successful Sichuan dishes to come from this period, is kung pao chicken, a dish well known for its spiciness and easy-to-remember name.

It was during this period, circa 1968, when my family came to America via Taiwan. My father chose to open a northern style eatery with specialties such as Peking duck, double-cooked pork, and hot and sour soup. He wanted something different than the traditional southern restaurants that already dotted the landscape. But in the end they served both newer northern dishes and the more common and expected southern recipes. Business was business.

Opening a Chinese restaurant might not have been my father’s first choice. He came to America originally to carve out a career as a scholar with his degrees in political science and mathematics. But like many Chinese immigrants, even some 25 years after the end of exclusion, this was the route to success open to him. It did give my mom, a lifelong fan of cinema, the chance to meet Paul Newman. Newman had stopped by after a promotional event in our shopping mall for lunch. He liked it so much he brought his wife Joanne Woodward back with him a few weeks later.

The complexity of the Chinese-American story cannot be unraveled though a menu alone. But it can tell us a little bit about ourselves—how we as Americans treat one another and how we accept the new and the different. These little windows into Chinese-American history show us how, despite restrictive laws and great animosity, Chinese immigrants persevered. They took the limited opportunities given them and succeeded so wildly that Chinese restaurants are a thriving, essential part of the American experience.

In fact, at last count there were over 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S.—more than McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s put together. Critics say that Chinese food from a takeout menu isn’t authentic Chinese, that it’s more like American Chinese food. I think there’s a clear alternative way to describe it: It’s now all-American food.

Cedric Yeh is the deputy chair of the division of armed forces history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His latest exhibit is “Sweet & Sour: Chinese Food and Restaurants in America.” He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

In Defense of Terrible Coffee

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Mass-brand coffee remains the dominant coffee in the U.S., even in this era of gourmet coffee. And that's okay

One June morning years ago, during a cross-country bike trip, my brothers, a couple of friends, and I sat in a diner in Sandpoint, Idaho, waiting for a drizzle to pass, eating eggs and drinking coffee.

The coffee, as I recall, was no great shakes. It likely came in thick, bone-white mugs, the rims pitted and slightly stained from years of use. We were just becoming aware of gourmet coffee in those days. And, sure, if you’d asked if we wanted the diner joe or a cup of Sumatra Mandheling like they served at Brillig Works in Boulder, we’d all have opted for the latter. But we weren’t in Boulder, the gourmet coffee was not available, and yet we had a blast, drinking the bitter diner joe, joking around, and, finally, too jacked up to sit still, rolling down the road.

These days, gourmet coffee is everywhere. And we’ve got a million new ways to prepare it. In addition to cold-pressed coffee, we’ve got the Japanese siphon process, a plethora of pod brewers, and coffee that comes from fancy machines like the Roasting Plant’s Javabot. And there are concoctions like the flat white—an espresso-and-steamed-milk blend—that suddenly become trendy when the Starbucks marketers put them in heavy rotation.

But it is easy to overlook an enduring truth amidst the gourmet coffee shuffle: Most coffee we drink in the U.S. is not the type favored by coffee connoisseurs. Folgers and Maxwell House remain the nation’s most popular coffee brands, by a long shot. Despite the gourmet coffee boom, this golden age of fine coffee, it’s primarily these mass-market blends that keep America caffeinated, and those diner cups full.

Once, hitchhiking through Wyoming in a snow squall, I caught a ride from a young couple. They were vagabonds who had made a tidy little home in their pickup with a camper shell. We pulled off at a truck stop in Rawlins. And I remember how that coffee—plain old truck-stop coffee—warmed us up, strangers waiting out a blizzard. When they dropped me off in Cheyenne a couple of hours later, I felt I was leaving old friends.

Over the years, how many late-night or early morning road trips, outdoors adventures with friends and family, or travels to remote job sites have been undergirded by diner coffee? Too many to count.

Is it just nostalgia that makes me appreciate—not crave, but appreciate—the coffee so often dissed as inferior? Probably. Who can deny the deep emotions triggered by a late-night cup of Joe, reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks: Adrift in midnight America, the clatter of the dishes, the warm cup of diner coffee. You don’t get that feeling at Starbucks.

So, partly, it’s a matter of nostalgia, but partly it’s a matter of caffeine.

Ounce per ounce, Folgers and Maxwell House coffees are more caffeinated than most specialty coffees. And there are two reasons for this. First, they tend to be lightly roasted. A light-roasted coffee has slightly more caffeine per bean than a dark-roasted coffee. Too, they typically include blends of arabica and robusta beans. Arabica, the mountain-grown coffees beloved by coffee connoisseurs, tends to taste smooth. Robusta, the cheaper, hardier, easier-to-grow coffee, often has a bitter tang (one coffee expert says it tastes like burnt rubber). But here’s the catch—robusta has much more caffeine than arabica, often twice as much.

So that cup of Java in the diner or truck stop, unless it is brewed weakly, will likely give you more of a jolt than a cup from an upscale café. And that caffeine is a big part of what pulls us off the two-lane road to a diner in the middle of nowhere, and brings us back to the downtown deli where the waitress is endlessly refilling your coffee cup.

Recently, I stopped at a country store at a northern Maine crossroads on a frosty morning. I’d only planned to ask directions, but got into a conversation about fishing with a friendly local. So I had a cup of coffee while we talked. Unlike some New England convenience stores, this one did not have 15 flavors of Green Mountain coffee in vacuum pots, just two of the old Pyrex coffee pots on hot plates. It sure wasn’t the gourmet stuff, but it definitely hit the spot.

Murray Carpenter is a Maine journalist, and the author of Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us. He tweets at @Murray_journo. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

What Kanye West Can Learn From the Olsen Twins

Vivien Killilea—Getty Images Kim Kardashian and Kanye West attend the Robert Geller show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Fall 2015 at Pier 59 on Feb. 14, 2015 in New York City.

Brian Moylan is a writer and pop culture junkie.

To become a successful fashion designer, Kanye needs to retire from music

Kanye West wants very, very badly to be accepted by the fashion establishment. Remember his 2013 rant about how he invented the leather jogging pant but didn’t get the credit? As usual this New York Fashion Week, Kanye is ubiquitous, including a show for his Kanye Wext X Adidas Originals collection. Sorry, Kanye, but there’s only one way you’re going to do fashion justice, and that’s to quit music.

The collection, West’s first since a mocked 2011 debut in Paris, looked a lot like a bunch of torn up sweatshirts and other items of clothing you might find on a trendier hobo. Many noted that the work was derivative of others, but many also noted that this was his best effort to date and the one that looked the most like a collection. “He is an amazing performer, but his merits as a designer are still in doubt,” Cathy Horyn writes in The Cut. “Kanye’s clothes…just fine if you want to look like you’ve forgotten to get dressed,” says the always colorful Daily Mail.

Yes, Kanye has made great strides, but if he ever want to be taken seriously by the fashion establishment, if he really wants to run his own fashion house, then he needs to quit music and focus on his design work. Otherwise he’ll be like James Franco, doing a million different projects and not doing any of them well.

There are plenty of musicians who have tried their hands at fashion (including Jessica Simpson, whose line of basics brings in literally billions, with a B), but as far as celebrity fashion designers go, Kanye couldn’t have a role model better than the Olsen Twins.

Mary-Kate and Ashley’s line The Row is a super-high-end luxury brand that makes $39,000 backpacks and is a favorite of fashion editors around the world. This did not happen by accident. The pair decided that they were done with acting and, in 2006, launched their brand. Since then, they have attended to that and a handful of other fashion lines including Elizabeth & James. They don’t make movies, they don’t sing songs, they just design. While we see Kanye trying to rush the stage at just about every awards show, we only see the Olsen twins on stage at the award show for the Council of Fashion Designers of America. And when they’re up there, they’re winning for best accessories designer of the year.

By keeping a low profile and showing the fashion world that it has their undivided attention the Olsens have not only honed their skills, but they’ve also paid their dues, something Kanye doesn’t want to do. And he knows it! “As I work on clothing more, I’m not rapping as much. . . I’m not rapping as much, I’m not having as much finances,” Kayne said in that 2013 interview. “I’m losing relevancy. The relevancy is part of my power that allows my brand to be big.”

It’s that relevancy, not his fashion prowess, that gets Anna Wintour seated in the front row of his show next to his crying baby. Kanye does have a lot of powerful fashion friends in his corner, like Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, but is that because he’s such an interesting person who can bring the spotlight that follows him to their brands, or because he really is a talented designer?

The one thing that is certain is that those who opt for fashion as a second career need to work hard and show that they’re serious. The Olsens have done it, as did Victoria Beckham, the artist formerly known as Posh Spice. Gwen Stefani tried her hand at it for some time while on hiatus from No Doubt, but decided, in the end, that she wanted to go back to music.

Kanye clearly has a choice in front of him: quit music and dedicate all of his time and talent to the fashion world, with its year-round schedule of shows, orders to ship to retailers, and other sundry details. Or he needs to quit fashion and get back to the mic. For my money, I’d rather have him rapping than sewing. He can still influence the fashion world through his style and his other public output (tour costumes, video shoots, what he wears when he tells everyone Beyoncé deserves more awards). But the choice is his to make. Sadly, he can’t have his cake and force someone to wear it too.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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