It’s official: Donald Trump is no longer just the “presumptive” 2016 Republican presidential nominee

Donald Trump

Donald Trump (Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Monday’s attempted coup by forces loyal to Texas Senator Ted Cruz and a swirling plagiarism scandal notwithstanding, the Republican Party took its roll-call vote Tuesday afternoon and decided that Donald Trump will, in fact, still be the GOP presidential candidate in 2016.

The nominating process began with House Speaker Paul Ryan welcoming Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to the stage, who proceeded to compare America to trench warfare on the Western Front in World War I. He claimed that only Trump would be able to lead America out of these metaphorical trenches via his boasts of great strength. “The American voters heard this message and they rewarded his courage and leadership with a huge victory in our primaries,” Sessions said.

He added that Trump is “unfailingly courteous” and is “positive by nature,” possessing “tremendous energy and strength, and is a warrior and a winner. He loves his country and wants to see it be a winner again.”

The chairman of the Utah delegation, Phill Wright, told CNN’s Dana Bash that despite “arm-twisting” by party and Trump loyalists, he will be casting his state’s vote for Ted Cruz, who won the support of 78 percent of Utah Republicans in that state’s primary.

As should be obvious, the loss of his “presumptive” status does not mean that Trump has won over many of those within the party who don’t believe he can win in a general election, and Tuesday’s speeches — in particular, those by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — will reportedly address the concerns of those aggrieved factions.

McConnell will apparently spend the majority of his speech reminding the assembled masses that the alternative to Trump is Hillary Clinton, whose perfidy is a long-established fact in Republican circles.

Christie told CNN earlier that he will be drawing from his experience as a prosecutor to “make a case” for Trump, which is as close to an affirmative defense as the candidate is likely to receive this week if Monday night’s focus on Benghazi and McConnell’s planned speech are any indication.

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Steve King is very wrong: Here are 8 major contributions to civilization made by non-whites and non-Europeans (including civilization itself)

Steve King

Steve King (Credit: Reuters/Brian C. Frank)

Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) posed an interesting question during a panel on MSNBC Monday night.

Just moments earlier, Esquire’s Charlie Pierce had made a comment about “old white people” making up a majority of the GOP. In response, King fired back in white people’s defense. He asked, “ … Where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

When moderator Chris Hayes asked, “Than white people?”, King clarified: “Than Western Europe itself. That’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States of America.”

To begin with, King’s use of the term “subgroups” is a racist one. Geographically, Europe and the United States make up only 17 percent of the global population and a significantly smaller land mass compared to the Africa, Asia, and others. Why, then, would the rest of the world be considered a “subgroup” to Europe and America? Why would it be considered “lesser?” In King’s worldview, European culture is obviously the superior one. But is it?

Historically, non-American and non-European “subgroups” like Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East are almost solely responsible for what we consider modern society – everything from language to mathematics to medicine. Don’t believe me? Here is a brief list of what “subgroups” (ie, nonwhites, non-Americans, and non-Europeans) have contributed to civilization:

1. Humanity

Evolution may be hotly debated among some members of the GOP, but fossil evidence shows that our early human ancestors originated in parts of Eastern and Southern Africa. In fact, most anthropologists believe that Neanderthals, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens originated in Africa and then moved en masse through Northern Africa to parts of Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

2. Civilization

Thousands of years ago, human beings were nomads, venturing from place to place in search of shelter and food. But that all changed circa 8500 BCE, when humans started to settle in Mesopotamia and plant crops and domesticate animals. Pre-agricultural sedentary settlements started appearing in the Middle East and Japan – and yes, parts of Europe — around 12,000 BCE.

3. Citizen rule

Although Democracy is usually credited to the Greeks (“democracy” roughly means “rule of the people” in Greek), some historians posit that other ancient civilizations showed signs of “primitive democracy” long before the Greeks did. In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, Assyriologist Thorklid Jacobson uncovered evidence of all-male assemblies whose function was to debate issues that were of concern to the community, like going to war. Although not democracy in the modern sense, it was certainly a type of sovereignty by a “portion of the governed,” as Jacobsen says.

4. Written Law

At Monday’s GOP Convention, several speakers upheld the Republican Party as the party of law and order. It’s important to note, then, that actual law and order came about thanks to non-white, non-European culture. The Code of Hammurabi is the earliest known example of written law, originating in ancient Mesopotamia (in what is now present-day Iraq) and dating back to nearly 1800 years before the birth of Christ. These ancient Babylonian laws were written and preserved on large clay tablets and consists of 282 distinct laws, addressing property laws, military service, punishments, and inheritance.

5. Tools

The oldest stone tools predate the human species by about 70,000 years, and were recently discovered in a riverbed in Kenya (that’s Eastern Africa, not Eastern Europe, FYI). Scientists believe this tool was used for hammering or cutting.

6. Surgery

The origins of surgery can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt, where Egyptians practiced trephining, or drilling small holes in the skull, to relieve cranial pressure. Additionally, anthropologists have discovered drilled teeth dating back to 9,000 BCE in what is now India and Pakistan, while cataract surgery and plastic surgery are said to have originated in India, nearly one thousand years before the birth of Christ.

7. Numbers

The first example of mathematics can be traced back to the etchings on a bone found in Central Africa, dating back nearly 20,000 years. Now housed in a museum in Belgium, the etchings on the Ishango bone are thought to be a primitive numerical system or possibly even a lunar calendar. The numerical system as we know it today originated in India, between the first and fourth centuries.

8. Christianity

Although Christianity was spread on a global scale thanks to the Roman Empire, it is by no means a European invention. Not only was Christ himself an Aramaic-speaking Jew from Galilee, thanks to Jesus’ apostles, Christianity spread from Israel to Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt long before it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380.

This is by no means an extensive list. Other contributions made by “subgroups” include gunpowder, steel, fireworks, compasses, paper, astronomy, and countless more. Although “old white people” may be responsible for the GOP today, they are nowhere near responsible for humanity’s most important historical achievements.

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“I blame Hillary”: Mother of intelligence analyst killed at Benghazi calls Clinton a murderer

Pat Smith

Pat Smith (Credit: CNN)

Pat Smith — the mother of Sean Smith, an information analyst who died in the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi — gave an impassioned, if factually sketchy, speech at the Republican National Convention in which she stated that she “blame[s] Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son.”

An emotional Smith claimed that “in an email to her daughter shortly after the attack, Hillary Clinton blamed it on terrorism. But when I saw Hillary Clinton at Sean’s coffin ceremony, just days later, she looked me squarely in the eye and told me a video was responsible.”

“Since then,” she continued, “I have repeatedly asked Hillary Clinton to explain to me the real reason why my son is dead — I am still waiting.”

According to Smith, this entire campaign “comes down to a single question — ‘If Hillary Clinton can’t give us the truth, why should we give her the presidency?’”

“That’s right,” she concluded, “Hillary for prison! She deserves to be in stripes!”

Smith followed a heavyweight lineup that included Willie Robertson from “Duck Dynasty,” Scott Baio, and failed GOP presidential nominee Rick Perry.

Watch her entire speech below via CNN.

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Rep. Steve King defends RNC’s lack of diversity: “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

Rep. Steve King

(Credit: MSNBC screengrab)

Ultra right-wing Republican Congressman Steve King stopped by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes’ Republican National Convention coverage in Cleveland on Monday and sat for a seemingly non-controversial segment with the host, Esquire writer Charles Pierce and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks April Ryan — less than week after this lovely photo was taken:

But after a forced but pleasant exchange between Hayes and King about Trump’s inability to unify the Republican Party, Pierce made an observance that obviously irked King.

“If you’re really optimistic, you can say that this is the last time that old white people will command the Republican Party’s attention, its platform, and its public face,” Pierce said. “Of course, I thought this was going to happen after 2012, but thanks for the good work of Congressman King, I was disappointed . . . But I’ll tell you what, in that hall today, that hall is wired. It’s wired by unhappy, dissatisfied white people.”

To which, King replied with his handy white supremacist argument, live on television.

“This whole business does get a little tired, Charlie,” King pushed back in clear frustration. “I would ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you are talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

“Than white people?” a startled Hayes asked incredulously.

“Than—than western civilization itself that’s rooted in western Europe, eastern Europe and the United States of America, and every place where christianity settled the world,” King said. “That’s all of western civilization.”

“But what about Africa, what about Asia?” Ryan asked. “Let’s argue the history of this country, okay?”

“We are not going to argue the history of civilization,” Hayes abruptly interjected as the panel erupted in chaos. “Let me note for the record that if you’re looking at the ledger of Western civilization, for every flourishing democracy, you have Hitler and Stalin as well.”

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John Kasich laughed when asked if he’d speak for Trump at RNC: Only if he “changed everything he says”

Donald Trump, John Kasich

John Kasich, Donald Trump (Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

NBC’s Lester Holt interviewed Ohio Governor John Kasich Monday and asked him why he wouldn’t be speaking at his party’s convention, given that it’s being held in his home state.

Kasich said it’s simply a matter of principles, and that those held by the presumptive Republican nominee simply don’t square with his own. “He’d have to change everything that he says,” the governor said. “We can’t be attacking Muslims and Hispanics, and trying to shut down trade, and not caring about the debt.”

“Those are all problems for me. And so it’s not — I don’t hold any personal animus towards Donald Trump. We just are two companies that have different values, different directions, and different philosophies.”

When Holt asked what he thought about Trump’s campaign manager claiming that he was “embarrassing [his] state” by not participating in the convention, Kasich claimed he just laughed.

“Ohio’s doing great and you know, people in the state, at least today still like me, and that’s just politics,” he said, adding that if Trump wants to win Ohio, he would need to find “a unifying message,” because “if you go too hard one way or the other, it’s very difficult to win.”

Watch the entire interview below via NBC News.

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Free Jillian Holtzmann: It’s time for Sony to let the most compelling Ghostbuster be out and proud

Kate McKinnon

Kate McKinnon in “Ghostbusters” (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Sony won’t let Paul Feig say gay.

In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, the prolific director discussed Jillian Holtzmann, the breakout fan favorite from his “Ghostbusters” reboot. Played by Emmy nominee Kate McKinnon (“Saturday Night Live”), Holtzmann is nothing short of a revelation. Sporting yellow-tinted goggles, a leather jacket, and a haircut that suggests her barber is a light socket, McKinnon exudes an off-kilter bravado that’s reminiscent of a young Bill Murray, whose deadpan delivery made the 1984 feel unique and unpredictable. Whether it’s eating a potato chip while hunting down ghosts or appearing out of nowhere wearing a bright purple wig, anything can happen when Holtzmann is onscreen.

For many viewers, one facet of her character particularly struck a chord: her flirtationship with Erin Gilbert, a fellow scientist played by fellow “SNL” alum Kristen Wiig. The first time they meet, Holtzmann appraises Erin, giving her a long, penetrating stare. “Come here often?” she asks. Later, Holtzmann offers a sly smile and a wink in Erin’s direction, the tease that launched a thousand Tumblr posts.

Queer audience members, like AfterEllen’s Trish Bendix, took it as a sign that Holtzmann is a lesbian, but Feig was evasive on the subject. As he reminded The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato, Feig has a studio to please. “I hate to be coy about it,” he said, “but when you’re dealing with the studios and that kind of thing.” The director said that most of Holtzmann’s persona was based off McKinnon herself, who is an out lesbian. “This is stuff that is coming out of Kate!” he explained. “That’s why you connect with those characters. They’re playing versions of themselves. That’s what makes a comedic actor fantastic, when that personality comes out.”

A separate interview with screenwriter Katie Dippold (“Parks and Rec”) didn’t clear things up much. Speaking to The Wrap, Dippold said that she would describe the character as “outside the box.” She added, “Someone like that would never have any kind of labels.”

It’s difficult to speculate what the creators of the “Ghostbusters” reboot have and have not been allowed to say, but Feig strongly hints that Sony is keeping a tight lid on the subject of Holtzmann’s sexuality. In an era where television is breaking unprecedented ground in LGBT representation, you might wonder why Sony would consider issuing a gag order on something that doesn’t seem like that big a deal. It’s 2016! Hasn’t Sony seen “Empire?” But the problem is that Hollywood has become increasingly conservative about queer inclusion in an era where big-budget tentpoles have to make as much money as possible to justify their production costs. That bottom line will keep forcing characters like Holtzmann back into the closet.

With or without Holtzmann, “Ghostbusters” faces an uphill battle to breaking even financially. The film, also starring Melissa McCarthy (“The Boss”) and Leslie Jones (“SNL”), bowed to $46 million its first weekend in theaters. That’s the best live-action comedy opening since the smash debut of “Pitch Perfect 2” last year and the best opening of Feig or McCarthy’s careers. Their previous best was “The Heat,” which premiered to $39 million three years ago.

Those would be big numbers for a movie with a smaller production budget. “Spy” and “Bridesmaids,” two of Feig and McCarthy’s previous collaborations, carried respective budgets of just $65 million and $32.5 million, chump change by studio standards. “Ghostbusters,” though, cost $144 million to make, and that’s before production and advertising. Deadline estimates that Sony spent over $100 million to market the film. Factoring in the costs of worldwide distribution, “Ghostbusters” will likely have to earn at least $300 million at the box office to finish in the black, twice its production budget.

That will be much harder to do after the film was denied a release in China, the second-biggest film market in the world. Although many speculated the ban was due to their distribution board’s prohibition on movies with supernatural content, its members just didn’t feel there was a demand for the film in China. “Most of the Chinese audience didn’t see the first and second movies, so they don’t think there’s much market for it here” one executive told The Hollywood Reporter.

The Chinese film market has been a godsend to “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” and “Warcraft,” domestic underperformers that all earned big bucks overseas. As of the time of writing, “Warcraft” has earned $220 million in China, which accounts for more than 50 percent of its worldwide gross. “Ghostbusters,” without that cushion, has a much steeper climb to profitability.

“Ghostbusters” was always considered a risk to its studio. In order to get the picture off the ground, Feig told Jada Yuan of Vulture that he had to “[cash] in all [his] chips.” He continued, “I had to use every chip to make this happen.” According to Feig, there’s a mentality at the studio level that women can’t carry tentpole movies—especially women over 40. (In “Ghostbusters,” only McKinnon is under that mark.) Any factor that adds additional risk to the equation—such as having the best queer character in a big-budget film in recent memory be out and proud—is not considered an option for a studio that has to answer to its shareholders.

When it comes to pleasing the Chinese film market, that may be one gamble too many. Although same-sex intercourse was decriminalized in 1997, the portrayal of homosexuality remains banned outright on Chinese television. A 2013 report from USAID shows that the subject remains equally taboo in the workplace: 47.62 percent of LGBT people in China reported that they weren’t out to their coworkers in fear that they might lost their job. Statistics from PFLAG further showed that many queer folks in China aren’t open with friends and family about their sexuality either: Although there are an estimated 40 million LGBT people living in the country, 98 percent choose to stay in the closet.

The issue, however, is not solely a Chinese problem. “Captain America: Civil War,” the biggest international hit of the year so far, earned a not inconsiderable sum from territories where homosexuality is still punishable by law. These include Malaysia ($10 million), India ($12 million), Singapore ($8 million), Russia ($16 million), and the UAE ($6 million).

Things are, however, changing in many of these countries. India’s Supreme Court, for instance, is set to rule on its prohibition against homosexuality, which dates back to the colonial era. That law was struck down in 2009 but reenacted by a court decision four years later. In China, progressive cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai are now home to some of the continent’s most vibrant Pride festivals, safe havens for the country’s LGBT community. In Shanghai, there’s even a yearly LGBT film festival.

“Star Trek Beyond” will represent a major test for the global film market. The Justin Lin-directed film will feature the long-running movie and television series’ first gay character: It’s revealed that Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) is gay and that he and his partner have a daughter together. Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script for “Beyond,” says that the reveal is true to the groundbreaking history of “Star Trek” itself. “I don’t believe Gene Roddenberry’s decision to make the prime timeline’s Enterprise crew straight was an artistic one, more a necessity of the time,” he said in a statement. “Trek rightly gets a lot of love for featuring the first interracial kiss on U.S. television, but ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ was the lowest rated episode ever.”

Could “Star Trek Beyond” follow that trend by bombing at the global box office? Perhaps. Rebooting Sulu’s sexuality has proven surprisingly controversial—with George Takei, who portrayed Sulu in the original series, claiming that the decision isn’t true to creator Gene Roddenberry’s original vision.

But if things are getting better for LGBT people around the world, there are signs that Hollywood may be changing along with it. Currently, the biggest movie of the year in the U.S. stars an out lesbian actress: “Finding Dory,” which is set to become the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, features Ellen Degeneres in the title role, playing a perpetually confused fish. In addition, a lesbian couple briefly appears in the film. Their inclusion initially sparked outrage from conservative groups on the Internet, but the backlash has done nothing to harm the film’s box office grosses. Arguably, it has only helped raise awareness about the movie.

If it wants make continued progress for its queer viewers, Hollywood has a lot of work do to catch up. As of last year, just 17.5 percent of major studio releases featured an LGBT character, and many of those representations were less than ideal, to say the least. For things to improve, they have to be willing to boldly go where no tentpole has gone before—by allowing everyone’s favorite queer gadget whiz to say what we already know.

It won’t change the world, but if you have to start somewhere, why not with a wink?

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White fragility is real: 4 questions white people should ask themselves during discussions about race

Baton Rouge Protest

Kerron Stewart, 10, sits with demonstrators on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, July 10, 2016. (Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

Since the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of law enforcement officers earlier this month, millions have taken to the streets as well as social media to express their outrage. Tags like #BlackLivesMatter and #EndWhiteSilence have been trending consistently on Twitter and Facebook, and CBS News footage of Alton Sterling’s death on YouTube has garnered over 1.7 million views.

Earlier today, a fourth Baltimore police officer indicted in the 2015 death and arrest of Freddie Gray, an event that sparked a series of protests known as the Baltimore Uprisingwas acquitted of all charges, including manslaughter and reckless endangerment. The conversation — and the outrage — is now louder than ever.

On Facebook, I’m fortunate to be friends with scores of people, white and black, who are outraged at these deaths and others like them, and who are willing to shout down overt racism when they see it. But when difficult conversations about race arise, there also emerges a coping mechanism that all white people are privy to, one that is equally damaging as blatant racism and one that not all of us realize we’re employing: white fragility.

White fragility is a phrase coined by author Dr. Robin DiAngelo, and is defined as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” According to DiAngelo, most white people “live in a social environment that insulates them from race-based stress,” due to their privilege as part of the cultural majority. In turn, says DiAngelo, whites are infrequently challenged and have less of a tolerance to race-based stress, causing them to be hostile, guilty, defensive, or fearful when confronted. This phenomenon is white fragility. In the end, white fragility ensures that conversations about race are derailed, and the status quo of white supremacy is upheld.

I consider myself an ally, but I frequently need to check myself against white fragility, in order to make sure I help center the conversation where it’s appropriate – black deaths at the hands of law enforcement – and not on feelings of white guilt, anger or denial (mine or anyone else’s).

Here are a few ways I check myself against white fragility.

1. Am I trying to change the subject?

Raise your hand if you’ve heard (or said) the following:

“Arguing on Facebook is pointless.”

“ALL lives matter!”

“Why are we talking about this when we’ve got ___ to worry about?!”

In other words, this translates to: I’m uncomfortable. Can we talk about something else? And it harkens back perfectly to what DiAngelo says about racial comfort: “In the dominant position, whites are almost always racially comfortable and thus have developed unchallenged expectations to remain so. When racial discomfort arises, whites typically … blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of color). … White insistence on racial comfort ensures that racism will not be faced.”

White people don’t like to be uncomfortable or challenged – I’ll certainly own that.

To enact change on a large scale, however, white people need to have painful, uncomfortable conversations about white privilege, white supremacy, and about how we benefit from it. Otherwise, nothing can change.

2. Am I using inappropriate humor to deflect?

One major way I’ve noticed white people derail conversations about race is to inappropriately inject a little “humor.” During one online conversation, when things started getting heated, a white person who hadn’t been part of the conversation prior to that moment parachuted in on the comment thread and posted a picture of two Labrador Retrievers with the caption, “Black Labs Matter! All Labs Matter!” Okay, then. In another online discussion, an acquaintance tried to diffuse the tension by posting YouTube compilations of puppies in the comments section. (By the way, fellow white people, what is it with us and dogs?) In both instances, the conversations ground to a halt and the women of color in the conversation were understandably pissed. Sometimes humor can be healing – but sometimes it can minimize another person’s pain.

3. Am I getting defensive or angry?

As a white woman, I know I’m absolutely cocooned in privilege: The color of my skin gives me an advantage when I’m applying for a loan, interviewing for a job, or even being taken seriously when I speak. But sometimes hearing from other people about how privileged I am can send a jolt of hot anger through my body. I forget that having white privilege doesn’t mean my life has been perfect, or that I’ve never had a single hardship, or that I’ve never suffered loss. I have.

Anger is something I see (and personally experience) often when I’m confronted with racial issues, because accusations sting. I know theoretically that white people have oppressed and colonized indigenous people and people of color, and the effects of that are still felt to this day, from the Rwandan Genocide to Apartheid to the subliminal fear of black men that killed Philando Castile. But hearing that I’m personally part of the problem? That hurts. DiAngelo explains this perfectly in her paper on white fragility when she states, “people of color are almost always seen as ‘having a race’ and described in racial terms (‘the black man’) but whites rarely are (‘the man’), allowing whites to see themselves as objective and non-racialized. … Race and racism become their problems, not ours.”

I may be outraged by the deaths of Sterling and Castile. I may have never participated in slavery or personally colonized a country, but you can bet that I still benefit and enjoy privileges that my friends of color don’t. I’m still part of the problem. By recognizing that, I hope to be part of the solution.

4. Am I going out of my way not to focus on “the negative?”

If you have white friends or are yourself a Fragile White Person, I can almost guarantee you’ve said or heard the phrase “negativity” in reference to the uproar around Sterling and Castillo’s deaths – be it the news itself or the way people are responding to it. One popular Christian blogger I follow (a white woman) wrote a brief blog post after the Dallas shootings, begging her readers to “choose love and forgiveness” instead of “dwelling on the negativity.” It sounds noble, but asking others to “choose love and forgiveness,” especially so soon after suffering a tragedy, is just one way of many to minimize black pain.

Consider this: If you think it’s inappropriate to go to a funeral and tell the bereaved to “cheer up” and “focus on something positive,” then it makes no sense to call for “forgiveness” or flood your twitter with “positivity” immediately after a shooting. Right now, people need to grieve and feel some feelings. Let them.

In the wake of Sterling and Castillo’s shooting deaths, my white friends and I feel hopeless, angry, desperate to help in some way. I certainly don’t know how to repair systematic white supremacy, but what I do know is this: When white people get defensive, conversations grind to a halt. Understanding stops. Feelings are repressed. Tension builds. Nothing is resolved.

Want to help? Don’t want to be a Fragile White Person? Get uncomfortable, and get used to it.

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The “Cooks vs. Cons” dream: How the Food Network got back in touch with its aspirational roots

Cooks vs. Cons

“Cooks vs. Cons” (Credit: Food Network)

Last Sunday night on the Food Network, a Polish folk dancer served Daphne Oz lasagna — though at the time, she didn’t know his occupation.

That’s essentially the plot of “Cooks vs. Cons,” a Food Network competition that pits two home cooks against two pros to see whose kitchen skills reign supreme. If you’re thinking “Wow, that sounds an awful lot like ‘Chopped.’” you’d be right, though “Cooks vs. Cons” takes the TV game show antics a step further by concealing the true identities of the competitors from both the judges and the viewers until the end.

The amateurs try to con the judges into thinking they are a real chef, while the pros simply try to prevent the “embarrassment” of being beaten out by a real-estate agent or a high school geography teacher. If at the end, the winner is a con, he is awarded $15,000. If a cook comes out on top, she’d make $10,000.

On the surface, “Cooks vs. Cons” is simply another in a long line of shows featuring chefs sweating over the clock and secret ingredients — which is a far cry from the network’s initial programming — but if you dig a little deeper, its premise might actually serve as a reimagination (albeit an unfilling one) of the channel’s original mission for a new generation.

Yes, Food Network was created to educate — but more than that, it was also meant to inspire confidence in home cooks. By tuning in to watch “Essence of Emeril” or “East Meets West,” viewers felt by the end of the episode they could cook like Lagasse or Ming Tsai. Thirty minutes with Ina Garten, and you too were ready to serve Jeffrey the perfect roast chicken and blow your entire paycheck at the local cheese shop. It was both empowering and aspirational television at its finest.

But over the last few years, the channel has moved from recipes to redemption challenges as cooking game shows take over an increasing number of time slots.

It’s been a gradual rebranding for the network — but one that has alienated many longtime viewers who can’t tolerate another Friday night with Guy Fieri as their culinary guide. For those viewers, The Cooking Channel now serves as a somewhat of a safe space where the hosts still stand and stir.

There is still afternoon “Food Network in the Kitchen” programming, which is reserved for the remaining shows dedicated to instructional cooking. But the only shows that promos identify, regardless of when you watch, are the “Food Network Nighttime”  competition programs.

Entertaining? Perhaps.

Aspirational? Not particularly — unless you dream of sprinting down supermarket aisles on “Guy’s Grocery Games.”

Yet with the introduction of the show “Cooks vs. Cons,” Food Network has solidified their new brand of aspirational television. Now young home cooks don’t have to merely take tips from the professional chefs; they can ostensibly beat them at their own game. The Network has been building to this for a while now — like with special episodes of “Chopped Pros vs. Joes” — but “Cooks vs. Cons” totally teases the concept out.

And so far, it’s been pretty successful. According to Variety, the show “notched double-digit increases in  viewers between 25 and 34” during its six-episode preview run. In a recent Food Network Q&A, Zakarian explained why he thought fans found this show so craveable:

“It’s on everybody’s mind that they all want to be a chef,” Zakarian said.  “So it’s very fun for people to imagine trying to trick someone like myself and two judges into [believing they’re] a chef, so I think it really sets up their interest first.”

In that sense, “Cooks vs. Cons” is aspirational for today’s audiences. Viewers can dream of being the one to fool the judges with their superior cooking skills.

And because of this premise, the show also hearkens back to Food Network’s original goal of making home cooks believe that they can dish it out as well as a professional chef. Though considering the network’s current lineup, they’ll have to find somewhere other than the Food Network to learn how to do so.

For that reason, there’s a Food Network purist inside me that hopes the show’s success will create a demand for for more instructional programming, like in the good old days when Alton Brown taught us things on “Good Eats” instead of running around in a shrunken camp counselor uniform as host of “Camp Cutthroat.” After all, in order to beat the pros, it would make sense to learn from them.

But for now, it seems that “Cooks vs. Cons” is the interpretation of the Food Network mission that viewers want to see — and as Zakarian says in the show’s promo, “that truth is hard to swallow.”

“Cooks vs. Cons” second season airs Sunday nights at 10.

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“Beautiful is a woman being her true self”: Why I declined reconstruction after my double mastectomy

Author Photo

A photo of the author (Credit: Theo Congdon)

Early on the morning of my double mastectomy, I wash my chest with a noxious-smelling pink soap that kills germs before surgery. In the shower I scrub, rinse and repeat, dawdling under the hot water, not quite ready to face this day. My fingertips trace the lump in my left breast for the millionth time since discovering it three months ago. On my doctor’s recommendation I’ve been doing chemo to shrink the tumor before surgery. Four rounds so far, but the lump doesn’t feel much smaller to me.

Frankly, I’m terrified about what the mastectomy is going to reveal. According to scans, my organs are free of cancer, but it has spread to the lymph nodes in my armpit. Today we’ll find out how many, and whether or not my ovaries are clear. They’re also being removed because, to my shock, I’ve tested positive for a BRCA2 mutation. This faulty gene is what caused me to develop breast cancer and puts me at increased risk for ovarian cancer.

All week I’ve had a recurring dream that I’m in my car, driving down a steep hill, quickly picking up speed, and when I go to apply the brakes, there’s no pedal. I always wake stomping my foot and yelling. My husband, Theo, holds me until I calm down, whispering reassuring words in my ear even though he’s scared shitless too.

When the water runs cold, I reluctantly step out of the shower, wrap myself in a towel and tiptoe into the bedroom so I don’t wake Theo. It’s not dawn yet but he’s already up, dressed and ready to head to the hospital. He stands in front of me wearing a sad, worried expression. We both sigh. I unwrap the towel.

“Well, it’s been real,” he tells my boobs. I laugh. Eighteen years together and we’ve cracked each other up through everything, even this. Even things worse than this.

“I’ve had a lot of fun with you two,” he says. Then his voice cracks and his face crumples. He kneels on the floor and gently kisses each of my breasts. Kisses them goodbye.

*

The women’s surgery center at the hospital is decorated like a spa with soft lighting, plush white robes and stacks of expensive magazines on every table. As if I’m here for a mud bath rather than the removal of major body parts. Actually, I appreciate that whoever designed the space tried to make it comfortable, to take the edge off the terror of this experience. I sit in my robe on a deep couch next to Theo, waiting for the surgeon and reminding myself to breathe.

Months ago, at my first pre-op meeting with Dr. C, he launched into a spiel about the various options available for reconstruction after my mastectomy.

I heard him out and thanked him for the information. “But I’m pretty sure I don’t want reconstruction,” I said.

“Oh.” He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “May I ask why?”

I explained to him that, much as I like my breasts, they aren’t really integral to my sense of self or womanhood. I’ve never gotten a lot of attention for my rack, so it’s not a feeling I’ll miss. I do, however, know how it feels to get pleasure from my breasts and that’s something no reconstructive surgery can restore. For all the upbeat talk about new-and-improved tits after a mastectomy, the fact is that those big perky numbers will have little or no sensation.

“It’s just not worth it to me,” I told Dr. C then. “The extra surgeries, the risk of infection. I’ve been through enough with the chemo, and soon I’ll be in menopause from having my ovaries removed, and then radiation … My gut is telling me to let my body heal and just … be what it is.”

Dr. C listened respectfully. He didn’t object or pressure me into getting reconstruction the way I’ve heard some surgeons do. “It’s your decision,” he said. “But remember, you can always change your mind down the road.”

Since then, every single doctor I’ve seen – oncologist, gynecologist, radiation specialist – has echoed my surgeon’s assurance that I can have implants put in later. Later, as in, after I’ve gotten over the trauma of a Stage III breast cancer diagnosis, of testing positive for a BRCA mutation even though there is no strong history of cancer in my family. These doctors all assume I will want implants once I’ve finished treatment and am ready to “get back to normal.”

But there is no normal anymore. Given the aggressiveness of my tumors, I’m not sure I’ll be here five years from now. Time is precious. I don’t want to spend any more of it than necessary in surgery, or recovering from surgery, or sitting in a waiting room like this one, no matter how comfortably decorated. I have other shit to do. Finish the book I’ve been working on for the last decade. Get out of New York, move to Maine with Theo and plant the gardens I’ve always dreamed of. Allow my body to get strong and expend its energy on keeping stray cancer cells at bay.

Finally Dr. C breezes into the waiting room, bright eyed and freshly shaved. He perches on the coffee table in front of Theo and me to go over the details of the procedure again.

When he’s finished, I clear my throat and say, “Just so you know, I’m not planning to get implants down the line. I wanted to mention it in case that makes any difference in how you do things today.”

“It does, actually. Normally I would leave extra skin so there’s room for tissue expanders to be inserted.”

“Uh, no, don’t do that,” I tell him. “You can sew me up nice and tight.”

“Okay.” He pauses. “If you’re sure.”

I check my gut one last time. “I am. I really am.”

*

Now, five years later, luckily cancer-free and back to “normal,” I am still just as sure about my decision to go flat. Thanks to Dr C’s handiwork, the scars are hardly visible. It’s as if my breasts have been erased. Sex without them is different, but I imagine sex would also be different with two numb implants on my chest. I’m glad that I didn’t saddle my body with foreign objects in order to conform to our society’s current porn-ified standard of beauty. To me, what’s beautiful is a woman being her true self. I happen to be a woman without breasts or ovaries, and anyone who doesn’t like it can lump it, so to speak. Of course, that’s easy for me to say. I have a husband who accepts me as-is and didn’t want me to get implants. I like to think I would’ve made the same decision even if I were single, but I’m not sure that’s true. Dating without boobs seems like a daunting proposition.

My thought process might also have been different had I tested BRCA2+ before cancer struck and gotten a prophylactic mastectomy instead. Maybe if my body hadn’t been ravaged by chemo I would’ve been more receptive to reconstructive surgery, more willing to risk the possible complications, like infections and loss of strength and mobility in my upper body. If I were in the same position as, say, Angelina Jolie.

But I’m no Angelina Jolie. I don’t look like her or live like her. As a professional gardener in rural Maine, it’s more important that I be able to wheelbarrow a load of compost up a hill than look good in a low-cut gown. Whenever I do dress up, I just stick falsies in a bra or else wear pants so crazy and colorful no one notices my flat chest.

That works fine for me, but I don’t judge other women for making different choices. None of this is easy or clear-cut. I know women who’ve had reconstruction and been satisfied with the results, and I know women who’ve been miserable afterwards.

One of my friends from the chemo infusion room had implants that leaked into her chest and caused a major infection that required multiple trips under the knife.

“The only reason I got these is because everyone said I’d be happier with them,” she told me. “But I’m not fucking happy.” She ended up having the implants removed and was glad she did. Another friend from chemo loves her implants and feels they helped her reclaim her life after cancer treatment. To each her own.

With the recent rise in BRCA testing and early cancer detection, more women than ever are facing the reconstruction dilemma. It would be great if we could all make this decision based on our own gut instincts about what’s best for our bodies and lifestyles, to not be so affected by the opinions of other people – whether pushy doctors, tit-man husbands, or our breast-obsessed society at large.

Easier said than done, though. A few years after my mastectomy, I went in for a routine follow-up with Dr. C and mentioned how a female doctor had recently asked if I was “ready for reconstruction” yet.

“She seemed skeptical when I told her I’m fine without implants,” I said. “But it’s true. I don’t feel maimed or disfigured at all. I was a whole self before I grew boobs and I’m a whole self now that they’re gone.”

“Plus you’re feminine as hell,” Dr. C chimed in.

I blushed at that. May have even giggled. That afternoon I walked out of his office with extra pep in my step, feeling more attractive than I had since, well, to be perfectly honest, since my boobs were cut off.

I’m not even sure what the doctor meant when he called me “feminine.” Maybe just that, since finishing chemo, my hair had finally grown past my shoulders, or maybe he was just trying to be nice. I don’t know, but I thought a lot about his comment over the following months, always with a flush of pleasure. Because a man other than my husband had approved of my body, had deemed it womanly enough. And his opinion meant more to me than I like to admit.

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5 feminist history reasons to visit Cleveland — whether you’re protesting, attending or working the Republican National Convention

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart (Credit: AP)

Cleveland is having a bit of a moment. The city just won their first professional sports championship since 1964 and will soon be hosting what might be most incendiary political conventions in decades.

But beyond LeBron, Trump’s upcoming visit and the booming food scene, Cleveland is also home to a surprising number of sites that celebrate women’s history and accomplishments. Here are a few suggestions from a native Clevelander that are definitely worth the visit if you’re in town attending, working or protesting the Republican National Convention.

1. The International Women’s Air & Space Museum

When you think of aviation history in Ohio, typically the Dayton area — home of the Wright brothers — comes to mind. But chances are, you might not have heard of Orville and Wilbur Wright if it weren’t for their charming and chatty sister Katharine, who essentially functioned as the publicist for her shy brothers. You can learn all about Katharine (and see one of her dresses on display), along with Bessie Coleman, Viola Davis — and yes, Amelia Earhart — at the International Women’s Air & Space Museum in Cleveland. Women in space also feature prominently, including a new exhibit entitled “This is Mission Control…Women in Mission Control,” featuring NASA’s female mission controllers, and a permanent display on the Mercury 13 Women. The museum began as a committee of Ninety-Nines — an international organization for women pilots founded in 1929 headed by Amelia Earhart — who wanted to preserve artifacts and history of women in aviation. Located in Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport since 1998 — itself an interesting place to view a midcentury airport interior — the museum is free and open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

2. The History of Contraception Museum at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History

Fun fact: Cleveland is home to the world’s largest collection of contraceptive devices. More than 650 items come from the collection of Percy Skuy — a pharmacist past president of the Canadian company Ortho Pharmaceutical — and were donated to the museum in 2004. The exhibit features everything from folk contraceptive methods — including douching with Lysol or eating poisonous herbs like pennyroyal or drinking tea made from beaver testicles — to today’s conventional methods, such as the condom, IUD and birth control pill. Although not specifically dedicated to women’s history, the museum examines the politics of birth control, including the impact of criminalization and multiple waves of the feminist movement. There is also a display of stories of some of the women from Cleveland and the roles they played in making contraception legal, safe and accessible. The Dittrick Museum of Medical History is open to the public from 9:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

3. Union Chapel

Located on a country road in the township of Newbury, about an hour east of downtown Cleveland, Union Chapel was once one of the most important places in the women’s suffrage and dress reform movements. Also known as the Free Speech Chapel, the one-room white wooden structure was built between 1856-1858, when future president James A. Garfield was not permitted to speak at the Congregational Church across the street, out of fear that his speech would be too controversial. According to its deed, the chapel was to be free, open to the public and not used for the exclusion of anyone by serving as “public hall or meeting house for literary, scientific, moral and religious purposes and lectures on all useful subjects.” Since its establishment, Union Chapel served as a hub of women’s suffrage, hosting public figures including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Stone. In 1871, nine women cast their ballots in the chapel, making them Ohio’s first women voters. The chapel is open for tours May through October, by appointment only, by calling the Geauga Park District at 440-286-9516.

4. Lynn Hershman Leeson: “Cyborgs and Self-Promotion” Exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Cleveland native Lynn Hershman Leeson began creating her pioneering art examining the intersection of humans and technology in the 1960s. This exhibit — which features photography, video and sculpture — marks Hershman Leeson’s first appearance at the Cleveland Museum of Art since 1968. One of the featured works, Seduction of a Cyborg, depicts a vision of the future where women are lured into becoming cyborgs through manipulated computer chips. Her exploration of issues surrounding transhumanism combines digital art with sharp social commentary, highlighting humans’ ever-changing relationship with technology. The exhibit runs through Monday, August 8, in the Video Project Room, Gallery 224a in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

5. “Louder than Word: Rock, Politics & Power” exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Although not focused specifically at women, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s current exhibit on rock, politics and power features some of the women whose music and activism made a lasting impact on society.The exhibit utilizes interviews and interactive tools, photography and artifacts that center on eight topics: feminism, LGBT issues, civil rights, war and peace, censorship, political campaigns, political causes and international politics. For example, the display features the work of women whose music influenced the both the women’s and civil rights movements, like Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. Also on show will be the guitar used by John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their Montreal “Bed-in for Peace,” when they introduced the anti-war anthem, “Give Peace a Chance.” More recent artists will also be featured, including feminist punk rock protest group, Pussy Riot, who utilized their music as a form of social activism in Russia. During the Republican National Convention, July 18-21, 2016, the Rock Hall will be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with free admission.

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