Category Archives: Teaching

An English Instructor Asks: Did Greta Gerwig Plagiarize Lady Bird?


PC: Johanna via Creative Commons

I’m just going to say it—the movie Lady Bird, which will win awards this awards season, is plagiarized. It’s the white-lady Real Women Have Curves — a Latina themed movie that came out fifteen years ago in 2002.

 A busy mom, writer, and community college English instructor, I finally got a chance to see Lady Bird the other night, and I sat in a row with two other women who, like me, came to see it alone and late in the season. Even though I laughed in all the places, writer/director Greta Gerwig, would have me laugh, I also felt underwhelmed and I didn’t know why until a near copy of a scene from Real Women Have Curves flashed up on the screen, and it hit me. I’ve seen this movie before and a better version of it. To be fair, I will concede that I might like Real Women Have Curves better because it resonated with me both as woman and culturally. I am a Xicana; I was born in LA where the movie is set, and I rebelled against my mom’s favorite activity sewing, opting to play drums in a punk band instead. However, none of that excuses plagiarism.  I’ll still argue that Real Women Have Curves is a better movie and that Greta Gerwig stole it, colonized it, and will get all the recognition for creating something new, something unique, “one of the best reviewed movies of all time.”

Once the movie was over, ending quite similarly than Curves with the protagonist, Lady Bird, having gotten into college in New York even after her mom said that she would only go as far as the local community college. I had time to kill since I was waiting for my son to finish up a gig he was playing at a nearby hotel. I sat down in the movie theater lobby to think more about how I was feeling: confused, guilty for not liking a movie that got a near perfect rotten tomatoes score, angry that it seemed no one else saw what I saw, or worse, they saw it and nobody was saying anything because whiteness still rules in Hollywood. I pulled out my phone to do a search; surely the internet could tell me how to feel. Someone else out there must have seen the similarities, I thought. Someone else must have saw what I saw in that movie theater, a movie written and directed by a white woman who was clearly more than inspired by Real Women Have Curves, a white woman who copied the film written and directed by Latinas, a white woman who is now going to win awards for a movie that I’m sure has many autobiographical aspects, but is basically stolen from the plot of another movie –plagiarized. “A la chingada!” as my grandmother used to say.

Of course, it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who saw it Matthew Rodriguez points it out in his article for Into, and he expresses a thought that was simmering around inside me, “Curves doesn’t get quite the reputation it deserves. It doesn’t get cited like it should, though, at the time, it did something for Latinas — and women, in general.” Rodriguez doesn’t go as far as to use the P word, plagiarism, to describe Lady Bird, but he does urge readers to write about Curves and to tweet about it too to “allow it to live longer.” Enter this critique, only, I won’t be spelling out the similarities because I wouldn’t want to appear plagiarize Rodriguez who did that already in his article, and college English instructors don’t like plagiarism or lack of creativity. I will, however, quote my friend and fellow writer Anna Armstrong who helpfully watched Real Women Have Curves and assured me that I wasn’t being petty or just going mad with the community college English instructor privilege: “You’re not crazy,” Anna wrote on my Facebook page,  “It’s the same skeleton of a story. And the characters are so similar – the loving but hardened mother, the spirited daughter who years for independence, the quiet understanding father who mediates – it’s all there. And Lady Bird completely plagiarized that last scene when Ana is leaving for college and Carmen refuses to come out of the room. The fact that Carmen makes an attempt but fails makes the scene more poignant than the one in Lady Bird.”  

This kind of plagiarism by Hollywood and the ripping-off of unique ideas by peoples who it continues to largely ignore or only feature in caricature has happened before. One example that comes to mind is Kimba the Lion, the Japanese anime cartoon that Disney seems to have ripped off in the form of The Lion King. And then there’s the caricature in the terrible depiction of Frida Kahlo as narcissistic and self-absorbed in the recently released Coco, a movie that boasted several Latino advisors, advisors who somehow allowed the depiction of the dead to be required to go through border patrol and “show their papers” on their trip back for Dia de los Muertos to get a laugh. Ay, Hollywood, when will you ever get it right?

Had Gerwig only cited her source, I wouldn’t be, as my students like to say, “putting her on blast” nor would I be giving her an F. And in not citing her source she did plagiarize, as according to my college’s academic honesty one generally recognized aspects of plagiarism “is defined as… Overusing the ideas of a source, so that those ideas make up the majority of one’s work.” And by “overusing the ideas of a source” we’re talking about the movie Real Women Have Curves directed by Patricia Cardoso, and whose screenplay was written by Josefina Lopez and George LaVoo, based on a play that Lopez wrote about her own high school experiences.

Now, if only the film industry was held to the same standards as college students all over the Americas. Until then, I’m happy to serve as the Latina .










Ministry of Truth II: Do I Have To Keep Telling You To Read 1984?


In George Orwell’s 1984, Orwell’s governmental agencies are given ironic names, names that might have you think that they responsible for one thing, when in fact they do the opposite of what you would expect given the name – the very definition of irony. For example, the Ministry of Plenty is responsible for wartime rationing, which is to say, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly rationing because Oceania (the super state that is the setting of the novel) is in a state of perpetual war.

Before I go any further, let me state the obvious. If you haven’t, yet, read 1984, now would be the time, if you can find a copy given its recent surge in popularity. I can’t tell you everything about the novel, but I will tell you this: dystopian novels like 1984 are satires, satirical works that employ heavy irony to make a point. Most dystopian novels are also cautionary tales – texts that attempt to warn us about abuses of power in hopes that we’ll do something about it before it’s too late. They are novels that look at history, to what has happened, to show us what is possible, and they look forward to a future, that the author fears, is possibly looming.

Not my president’s top advisor, Kellyanne Conway is a one-woman-Ministry-of-Truth. She who coined the term ‘alternative facts,’ in an attempt to justify the presidential press secretary’s explaining away the very real fact that way more people turned out to witness Obama’s first inauguration than Trump’s. Of his assertion, Spicer later said, “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”

While it’s not stated explicitly, it was presumably Oceania’s Ministry of Truth that created concept of Doublethink. Through 1984 protagonist, Winston Smith, doublethink is described this way:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling                            carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out,                      knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic                                    against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that                                          democracy was impossible and that the Party  was the guardian of democracy, to                          forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again                        at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again … (Orwell 35)*

Might our current administration want the American people to do just what Winston describes here, “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic,” and that Conway and Spicer are “conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies.” Could the entire Trump administration be emboldened by the fact that most Americans cannot discern real news from fake news? It sure seems that way to me. And I’m not talking about the so-called legions of ‘un-educated’ folks who voted for Trump. In “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds,” a NPR article by Camila Domonoske, a Stanford study of nearly 8000 students in twelve different US states reveals that students in middle school, high school, and college (even Stanford students) had trouble discerning a fake website from a real one, fringe sources, or the difference between a sponsored and non-sponsored site. Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer are betting on the very real possibility that most Americans adults are as easily duped.

* Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classic. New York. 1950. Print.

The President Elect’s Ministry of Truth


I can understand the urge to boycott things as a form of resistance, but I forced myself to listen to and watch  — not my president’s—first press conference since the election because as exhausting as it is and as it will get, I need to get angry and stay angry. We all do. “Let fury have the hour, anger can be power/D’you know that you can use it?”

All that said, I’m not the first person to point out how Orwellian things have gotten in American politics, but having read 1984 with my students just about every year for the past 13 years, and having the ability to recite several parts of it by memory, I feel it’s my duty not to simply make the comparison, but also to point out that Orwell’s chief concern in writing 1984 was to warn readers about authoritarian rulers and the tactics they use to manipulate, confuse, trick, and control. As a disciple of Orwell’s, I realize, all this comes a bit late bit. I should have started writing this sooner, but as a disciple of Orwell’s I also know that one must continue to resist – to keep a record, to remember, to stay focused, vigilant.


If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, IT NEVER                     HAPPENED—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?  (Orwell                        43-44)

‘I didn’t say shut down immigration.’ Donald Trump


The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith,               knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago.                   But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case                   must  soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed— if             all  records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who               controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present                   controls the past.’ (Orwell 44)

The day after the Brussels terrorist attack (3/22/16), Trump said in an interview with CBS “This Morning,” “I didn’t say shut it down. I said you have to be very careful. We have to be very, very strong and vigilant at the borders.”

On December 7, 2015, Trump issued a press release that begins, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” He read and reaffirmed his statement at a rally that day.

Video begins at attack of the press, dictatorial behaviors displayed by the pres elect in the recent past.


Winston sank his arms to his sides and slowly refilled his lungs with air. His mind slid                     away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be                             conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold                           simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and             believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying                   claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian             of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into                     memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again:               and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate                       subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become                         unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word             ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink. (Orwell 44-45)

Jan. 28, 2016: Asking for Megyn Kelly’s removal from a debate

Trump’s war with Kelly led to him boycotting the Fox News/Google debate in Iowa. An hour before the other candidates took the stage, Trump insisted on CNN his absence was due to a mocking Fox News press release and he “never once asked that (Kelly) be removed.”

We found several instances of Trump and his campaign telling reporters and tweeting about skipping the debate because of Kelly. He went so far as to say Kelly “should not be allowed” to moderate, that she “should recuse herself,” and she “shouldn’t be in the debate.”


The Spitboy Rule Book Tour: Day 5


Interstate 80, en route to Kansas City

Tonight we get to see, Spitboy bass player, Dominique Davison. Dominique was Spitboy’s second bass player, and I was in her wedding in 2002, a few years after Spitboy and Instant Girl broke up. We’ve always hoped to visit her where she lives now, but I was never sure we would because one does not often plan to go to Kansas City. Tonight, will be the last reading of the book tour. It has gone by surprisingly fast.

I booked most of this tour myself, but I had a lot of help from my Mid-West friends. I’ve also had a lot of help from my family. This is how it works for us on tour. My husband drives our rented car, and my son sits in the front and navigates. In the early days of Spitboy, we all had specific jobs too: I fixed the van door latches when they got jammed; Adrienne kept things tidy; Karin was the expert map reader, and Paula was our mechanic. Later Dominique, who was younger than the rest of us was good at just about everything. My son is way better with cell phone apps than I am, and he gets car sick sitting in the back, so we’ve made him the designated copiloto. Just like in Spitboy, we pay him $10 a day for his services, which make it possible for me to sit in the back of the car, post to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, read, plan what I’m going to read, make contact with our next hosts, and write these blog posts. Even though I had a sore throat since Madison, I’ve only slept a little on these drives, which are usually about four hour long. Since my son has always hated long car rides, I tried to keep the drives at this length. He won’t like the drive from Kansas City back to Minneapolis, which is around 6 hours. He has, however, seemed to have enjoyed these drives, judging from the way he looks out the window, and the conversations he has with his dad about the scenery, reading music, and how many tolls we missed by accident. It’s really nice being, literally, this close together for extended periods of time.

Last night, I read at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, Iowa. I’m pretty sure that Spitboy never played Iowa City, but I think we did play in Cedar Rapids. Iowa City is a very cute college town, the city center has many shops and restaurants, pianos outdoors on the plaza that anyone can play (in fact, an older-looking man all dressed in black who came to my reading and napped a bit while I read was playing one of the pianos when we walked by afterward), and the neighborhood streets are lush and tree-lined. I would love one of those houses with a screened in porch to write in and drink coffee and wine.

Before getting into Iowa City, I got a notification on Facebook from Shell, my Wayward Writer hermana who got me hooked with Prairie Lights Books, and who introduced me when I read, that the Daily Iowan article was up on the website. The piece turned out great and featured a photo of me taken by Ace Morgan. It was a real thrill to get press in the Mid-west. Ines thought to ask if the article also ran in the print paper, and we found out it did, when the cashier at the bookstore said that they had a copy in the bookstore café that I could take have. The print copy has a banner of a photo of Spitboy playing at Gilman at the top of the front page, and the Arts section had a full spread of photos that weren’t featured on the website, including a photo with Ines! Shell couldn’t believe it either, and she said that Steven King was in town about a week ago, and even he didn’t get a full page.

The reading itself was well-attended by about 25 people. One of Shell’s students came, her family, and Ariana Ruiz and her husband, who name I didn’t catch (sorry vato). Arianna supported the Indigogo campaign, and is friends with Mimi Thi Nguyen, and originally from the Bay Area. She brought a student of hers too after teaching my whole book already last semester. I know! I read an excerpt from “A Band is not an Identity” and “Not a Riot Grrrl Band,” and then Kathleen moderated a Q & A session, complete with a cordless mic that she took around for audience members to ask questions. Kathleen, who I adored right away, listed off a bunch of Clash songs, including “Guns of Brixton” when I couldn’t remember the name of one of the songs off of Combat Rock — “Rock the Casbah.” She also prompted me to talk about my book in relation to the other rock members written and published recently, which I think is a particularly interesting topic. We spent so much time at Prairie Lights Books and we liked the people there so much that we wound up buying four books. Normally, I would try not to buy books while on a trip because they are so heavy, but we came with so many books in our suitcases that we’ve since sold, we’ll have the space going back.

After the reading, we did one of my favorite things, went back to Shell’s and hung out in the cool air on her back porch. Shell’s partner, Sean, BBQ’d, including this cheese and garlic bread (not store bought), which almost gave me an orgasm when I bit into it, and Shell and I drank a bit of wine. LM finally ate after not eating since breakfast, which made Sean super happy. When you’re on tour, there’s not much time to sightsee, but we could have done a bit. Still, I preferred sitting still, eating, and having a good laugh with Shell and her family.

Summer Reading, Feels So Good


MCG with Wayward Writer hermana, Lisbeth Coiman at The Last Book Store in Los Angeles

Because I teach and grade hundreds of essays during the school year, I don’t get to read as much as I like – just the books I’m teaching, books I’ve read five to ten times or more already. Because I’ve been writing mostly memoir in the last couple of years, I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs.

This summer I read four memoirs, all by women.

           I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, Shawna Kenney/1999

           Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon/2015

           How To Become a Chicana Role Model, Michele Serros/2000

           How to Grow Up, Michelle Tea/2015

Not only does it appear that I really like memoirs written by women, and books organized like how-to guides, but I also like books written by women who share my unfortunate first name.

imgres I Was a Teenage Dominatrix by Shawna Kenney made me laugh out loud several times. At only twenty-nine when she wrote it, Kenney is wonderfully self-reflective and good at punch lines. The thing that surprised me about this book is how much she included about her family, her working class background, and her determination to do everything she had in her power to do pay for college, since no one else could pay her way for her. I could have read even more about that, but I also loved her honesty about the choices she made about when to drop the dominatrix personae to just be a friend to a caller when she saw that some of these guys were just poor lonely saps with bad social skills and had only called her for the company. She even helped one guy learn to dress better and get some dates, and ultimately married. I am lucky to know Shawna personally, and I could really see her doing that.

imgres-1 Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon was practically required reading, as it was one of the books I read and wrote a brief summary of for PM Press to include with the distributor’s info, along with Violence Girl by Alice Bag, and Clothes, Music, Boys, by Viv Albertine of The Slits. Girl in a Band is well-written book, quiet and subtle in ways that I liked, but Albertine’s book was more my style, louder, brasher, and forthcoming. It’s important for me to point out here that it’s likely that I felt this way about Albertine’s memoir because she was in an all female band like I was, and because her background is similar to mine. We were both raised by single moms who were often down on their luck and money and necessities were often hard to come by. It’s not Kim Gordon’s fault that her mom was stable and that her dad was an academic with steady work and expectations that his children would go to college too. Gordon admits to being the type to keep her emotional reactions pushed down, but when she opens up in the, she is good at writing about her emotions, as a reader, you feel like super let in — I liked that.

  MicheleSerros           images  How To Become a Chicana Role Model by Michele Serros is a memoir of sorts, more a book of semi-instructional essays. In March, I read at a Michele Serros memorial reading in Highland Park. Shawna Kenney invited me, and I was honored to do it, especially since I only met Michele Serros once at a reading where she signed my copy of Chicana Falsa – a book with the best title ever. There’s a poem in that book that has a stanza strikingly similar to a poem I wrote around the same time. The stanza was about how both Serros and I did not grow up speaking Spanish because our families have lived in California for a few generations already. Michele was good at expressing the shame you feel when you can’t communicate in what most assume is your mother tongue. My favorite part of How To Become a Chicana Role Model is when Michele, who has grown tired of being asked where she’s from and not satisfying with the answer California, begins asking the same question back. “Where are you from?” She says this near the end of the essay.

      It was then I suddenly felt sorta sorry for him. It’s amazing how many white                          people don’t know anything about their own ancestry or background and so it’s                    no wonder why a lot of them confess to feeling so culturally bankrupt.


imgres-2 How To Grow Up by Michelle Tea — if you’re trying to learn to treat yourself better or break up with someone, you should read this book now. It is charming and super influenced by her roots in punk rock, spoken word communities, and recovery. It’s sort of weird that I’ve never met Michelle Tea, not because I feel I have to know every writer or every writer named Michelle, but because we have always traveled in similar circles, and we have a lot of friends in common. I  will finally meet her in October, as she’s reading at Lit Quake sponsored Zocalo Spits: Arts in the Dro event, a reading series that I host with Soma Mei Sheng Frazier.

In addition to sharing a name, Michelle Tea and I also have a similar background, but it was my mom who was the one doing all the drugs – that’s not to say that I never experimented, or made terrible choices, and it’s for those reasons that did not agree at all with Michael Shaub at NPR’s review of the book, especially this:

                 Even for slow learners, the lessons here are painfully obvious, but Tea spells                           them out anyway: Don’t date people who sell pills in bus stations. Don’t date                         people who you know in your gut are lying to you all the time, whose stories are                   so shady you start to hope they are lying to you.” Fine advice, to be sure, but it’s                   hard to imagine readers who wouldn’t consider Tea’s story and come to those                       conclusions by themselves.

Those of us who are slow learners, or for whatever reason, growing out of a state of arrested development do need IT spelled out for us. Yeah, Michael Shaub (maybe you are just super lucky, privileged and well-adjusted), the lessons are obvious, but being raised a certain way and/or living a certain way for so long makes certain behaviors so ingrained that we need lots an lots of reminders to avoid them, and these lessons are extra helpful when they come from someone we admire. In this case, for me, it was Michelle Tea.

Why The Hero Narrative is Hurting America

My husband, Ines, is from Mexico. He views America and American culture from somewhat of an outsider perspective, and he often complains while watching the nightly news that in America, everyone’s a hero. I see his point that when everyone is called a hero that no one really is, but I used to scold him anyway for being so pessimistic, or not quite appreciating the goodness in people that these stories seek to display. However in the midst of another season of mass killings and the worn out hero narrative, Ines’ familiar complaint is starting to make a great deal more sense.

The TV news media does have its favorite heroes: the teacher hero, the quick-thinking by-stander hero, the immigrant with an accent hero, the child hero, and even my personal favorite, the hero pet.

In this week’s shooting, the Lafayette, Louisiana, shooting, the heroes are teachers, two quick-thinking women are being hailed as heroes. One woman shielded her friend, took a bullet even, and the other had the presence of mind to find and sound the fire alarm. As a teacher myself, I love the hero teacher narrative, women who soothe or shield young children, jump into action, as if on instinct, women who use their bodies and their intellect to save others. There are male teacher heroes too, the men, some muscular, some not, who tackle the gunmen and hold on until authorities arrive.

The two teachers in Louisiana, Jena Meaux and Ali Martin were really brave and probably saved many lives, but we don’t know that for sure. And that’s the problem – probably dressed up in a touching narrative about heroism in the confusing, sad, and intensely emotional days following a mass shooting provides solace in the face of inexplicable and senseless death. Probably gives us something to feel good about, something to cling to, a story to tell when what we should be doing is asking the obvious questions. The first question is why? And then, what the fuck is wrong with this country? Why are there so many angry gun-toting white men? What would motivate this epidemic of random killing? And the police shootings, all the black Americans shot and killed in quickly escalated episodes, those detained, often dying in custody, the violence against women, human trafficking, and sexual abuse of children, often by acquaintances or even their own family.

I hate to say it, but in the midst of this violence, the sadness that is our country, heroes, while they may feel necessary to go on, to allow us to breath a sigh of relief while we sip our morning cup of coffee, they are beside the point. They detract from the problem; they keep us from asking the hard questions, from doing real work, insisting on gun control, insisting on increased funding for family support and education to end the cycle of violence and for mental health services, insisting on better police training, insisting on just and equitable housing and educational opportunities for all Americans, and some very real soul searching about our racism problem. So after every mass shooting, stop waiting for stories about the community coming together to help the families of the victims; stop waiting for slogans, and wrist bands, and stop waiting for heroes, the anticipated, comfort of the hero narrative, and the elusion that alone without your participation that the heroes make it all better – at least until the next shooter opens fire.

On Why Dystopian Literature Is Totally Punk Rock

MG.NL.Suzy.SeanIf there were ever a literary genre designed just for punk rockers, it would be dystopian literature. Dystopian literature is notoriously dark; for sure, it wears all black. In the 1990’s when I was playing drums in punk bands, I was naturally attracted to and read books like 1984 and the Handmaid’s Tale for the first time, two books that would provide me with important frames of reference and ideologies about dark realities of government and human nature, things like mind control, pervasive surveillance, systematic oppression of women, and propagandistic uses of war – books that I now teach to college students.  

Like punk rock, dystopian literature is urban, and gritty, and gray scale, and like many punk rock bands, dystopian literature makes important critiques of society. Dystopian literature sneers satirically at social ills, inequality, hierarchical divisions, abusive power, and glib politicians – punk rock often does the same. In fact, many punk bands have referenced dystopian novels in their songs. The Dead Kennedy’s reference 1984 in their song “California Uber Alles,” an anti-Governor Jerry Brown song, a song that rails against yuppies taking over the state and making kids meditate in school:

                        Close your eyes, can’t happen hear

                        Big Bro on a white horse is near

                        The hippies won’t come back you say

                         Mellow out or you will pay

                        California uber alles    4x

                        Now it’s 1984

                        Knock-knock on your front door

                        It’s the suede-denim secret police

                        They have come for your uncool niece.

The majority of the Dead Kennedy’s lyrics were satirical, and satire is a device/genre that makes extra close examination of meaning especially important, for unlike what many of my students often think, author Jonathan Swift isn’t being literal when he says we should turn to cannibalism and eat babies to help the poor. Satire aside, a friend of mine once articulated something that I wondered about the “California Uber Alles” even at the age of fifteen when I was blasting this song in my room and pumping a fist in the air, or when I saw the DK’s at the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway in San Francisco: why pick on a liberal democrat? Why pick on Jerry Brown? Looking again at these lyrics now, I realize why. First off, George Orwell, author of 1984 would say all people in power, all politicians should be questioned and scrutinized, and secondly, if you look closely at what Jello Biafra, singer and lyricist of the Dead Kennedys was railing against, may seem like yuppies, but it’s also gentrification in its references to jogging, organic food, and “zen fascists.” In essence, Biafra’s fears of a “cool, hip,” read expensive, California have come true, especially in the hyper-gentrified San Francisco where the Dead Kennedy’s were based.

Growing up, I felt much like a dystopian protagonist: trapped in world that denied me my individuality. A spikey-haired, black eye-liner, ruffled Mexican rick-rack skirt, wearing teen, I noticed that many punk kids came from broken homes, or had parents who were addicts, or lived in boring go-no-where suburbs. We were kids who lived with a lot of stress, kids who were prone to depression. Our lives as we were living them didn’t fit. While some tried to make us feel like it was us, like we weren’t right, like we were messed up, like we were the problem, we had enough sense to know that there was a much larger looming problem. Angry punk rock songs and angsty literature were good outlets for these feelings. The Subhumans address some of these feelings in the song “Big Brother.”

            Here we are in the a new age

            Wishing we were dead

            There’s a TV in my front room

            And it’s screwing with my head

            There’s a scanner in the toilet

            Two watch you take a bath

            And there’s a picture of Hiroshima

            To make sure you never laugh

In 1984, the actual 1984, at the age of 14, I saw the band Reagan Youth at the Democratic Convention held that year in San Francisco with my freshly chopped hair, dyed blue black. My friend Nicole Lopez’s mom drove us three hours from our small town to San Francisco just so we could see the bands and take part in the protest. A protest site was designated in the empty lot at Mission and Howard across from the Moscone Center, which back then was simply a large slab of concrete that took up an entire city block. It was there that Reagan Youth, who had named themselves after President Reagan, played with the Dead Kennedys, MDC, and the Dicks. Given the year, 1984, and the draconian policies put in place by the outgoing president whose policies had further marginalized the lives of many, especially youth from low-income families, there was a lot to protest. Sort of unknown on the West Coast, Reagan Youth played early in the day, but they were loved by the crowd right away for their energy and aptness of a band with their name playing on the rock Against Reagan tour. Dave Insurgent with his hippie punk, white-boy dreads stood at the edge of the stage, leaned into the crowd and incited our ire. Frustrated about class hierarchies, Regan Youth wrote the song Brave New World whose lyrics are drawn straight from the book of the same name by Aldous Huxley. Many English punk bands wrote anti-Thatcher songs during the same time period, songs that often also referenced dystopian texts, or the dystopian nature of the Reagan/Thatcher era.

Like dystopian literature much of punk rock is a critique of societal norms or trends, but while dystopian novels are cautionary tales, political punk rock lyrics are a document of concerns and frustrations current for the band, issues that are themes common in dystopian literature, themes such as frustrations about squashed individuality under the pressure of societal norms, corporate control of our lives, and subtle and overt forms of propaganda used by democratic nations who should know better. The straight-edge band, Set It Straight, from Redding, CA, active 2004 -2007, address some of these themes in the song “Self-Deprogramming,” a song written prior to Gary Shtenyngart’s modern dystopia, Super Sad True Love Story, a novel about a nation obsessed with mobile devices, youth, hotness ratings, and group think. The novel and the song have a lot in common.

A sea of suits with empty, mindless eyes

swarming like bees amongst their platinum high rise hives, and every single one?

Yeah, they know their place.

Super latte charged electrons, androids with no face.

But only those who subconsciously want to live their lives spoon fed, subordinated, placid, incarcerated, succumb to the machine.

I’ll tear down their graphs and charts, and take back rational thought.

It’s not too late to start.

I refuse to live my life homogenized.

I refuse to just sit by with half shut eyes.

I will think… think for myself

Like Shytngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, this song rails against modern day forms of brainwashing via slick technology and the allure of power. Its references to lattes and androids are references to familiar dystopian fears regarding loss of individuality and a loss of humanity, a loss of humanity that we sadly participate in by our robotic obsession with digital technology that does our thinking for us.

I have often said that being an English teacher is a natural extension of being in a punk band without quite understanding the connection myself, but it has always felt true. And even though I don’t always only wear black and try to look tough like I did when I was in a punk band, helping students learn to think for themselves, to avoid lazy thinking and to spot fallacious arguments, to question authority is one way the two are connected, but the other way is teaching dystopian literature, a genre, that demands all those things, especially questioning authority, by its very style and content, a genre that warns us about hierarchical thinking, class privilege, and endless wars, a genre that begs us to open our eyes, to be better.