Personalized discovery engines for knowledge

The next massive search engine will be a personalized discovery engine. As we experiment with new platforms like AR/VR and explore new models of engagement in web3, I imagine that the next wave of human-computer interaction will focus more on “pushing” us the right, relevant information versus the user “pulling” for information.

The debate between search and discovery (and sometimes browse) is a tension between two desires: speed to information versus exploration of information. Both aim for knowledge gathering; but while Google search can tell you in .43 seconds that most of you have until April 18th to file your taxes, discovery introduces a serendipity that sends the user down a rabbit hole to find new ideas and the links between them.

The Morgan Library & Museum | New York | United States | New York | AFAR
The Morgan Library & Museum in New York

This Internet of the future will feel a lot more like a collaborative library — a place to browse and unearth ideas, publish your thoughts, encounter new opportunities, and make connections across bodies of knowledge. In the early 2000s, I spent most of my days online on Tumblr, WordPress, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Blogger, Blogspot, not always knowing precisely what I was looking for yet coming upon ideas and topics of interest. The Internet was more unruly then, and in the 2010s, we optimized search and layered in social features to support discovery via curation. Nuzzel used your Twitter following to recommend top shared readings while Medium encouraged following new writers by topic. Today, we have no shortage of writers on the web via platforms like Substack, Mirror, Foster, collaborative Roam graphs, and more. They enable us to contribute to our own public and private web, creating unprecedented volumes of observations and thoughts that we can index.

In a world where the Internet will be more decentralized and with more contributors than ever, search results that feed us information will be insufficient. Knowledge is information with context, and “language is humanity’s longest running program.” The latest advances in machine learning — namely transformers and self-supervised learning in natural language processing — will also make it possible to build personalized discovery engines that organize and surface information that is timely, relevant, and impactful. We won’t always have to know what we’re looking for, but akin to meandering around a library, our fellow readers, authors, and knowledge seekers in this new paradigm will point us in the right direction.

Special thanks to @smerity, @jamescham for our many conversations on all things language and discovery

2022: A Year of Gumption

I love the turn of the new calendar year. As arbitrary as it may be, it offers an opportunity to let go and reset intentions for the year ahead. 2021 marked my fourth year in the Bay Area and a year of agency and change. Looking back, I can characterize each year by a core intention:

2018 was a year of Yes — I moved across the country and embraced a new city (SF), new job (hello, venture), many new friends, and a host of new hobbies (hip hop dance, backpacking, skiing). It was at times overwhelming, but it exposed me to so many interesting, smart individuals and pushed me to expand my curiosities.
2019 was a year of No — I learned the hard way the consequences of overextending myself. As someone with chronic people pleasing tendencies, I had to learn — with the help of my fantastic exec coach Gia — to say no, so I could focus more deeply on a select number of priorities, including investing and community building.
2020 was a year of Introspection — This was a tough year for many, and at times, I felt guilty for feeling sad or stifled when I knew so many others were suffering in worse ways. Without the day-to-day distractions outside of work, I sought ways to articulate how I want to live a good life. I leaned on my housemates who became chosen family, and peers in communities like The Grand to find solace from the loneliness and uncertainty.
2021 was a year of Movement — Especially after getting vaccinated, I found myself revisiting my disposition of 2018: saying yes instead of no and finding ways to exercise agency. I went nomadic for 5 months, got bangs, moved into a new home, pursued love, and left a job and team I adored for an exciting new opportunity at On Deck.

As I set my intention for 2022, these are the highlights I’m commemorating to inspire the coming year.

Create to connect
I got into blogging over a decade ago for two reasons: as a way to connect with others and because I strongly believe that if I’m spending time on a platform, it is more valuable to be an active participant versus passive consumer. In 2021, I started hosting audio-only conversations on Clubhouse — about building startups in “unsexy industries” to how to learn anything — and co-hosted #thisisnotadvice, a video series about the future of work with my teammate Roy Bahat. Video was a new, and frankly scary, medium to explore, but leaning in also led to interviewing the one and only Sarah Frier about her book about Instagram on IG Live. I also experimented with making TikToks and even co-hosted a Clubhouse chat where I got to meet one of my favorite TikTok creators Nick Cho. These outlets offered catharsis and inspired new opportunities to meet other creators.

• No need to “save” good things
As part of my 5-month nomad life, I traveled alone to Greece and Italy. After a brief stint in Spain, I intended to return to San Francisco, but I had wanted to visit Greece since I was a child reading mythology comics in bed. For a long time, I held the romantic notion that I needed to “save” this destination for a special occasion — a major birthday, an anniversary, perhaps a honeymoon. With helpful nudges from great friends, I booked a one-way flight to Athens, then Santorini, Naples, on my own, just for me. While solo travel isn’t new to me, it felt special to claim a destination and create memories that reflected the privilege of being healthy and having the utmost freedom to pursue my desires and ambitions.

• I decide when is the “right” time
Leaving Bloomberg Beta was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in 2021. Over the course of four years, I fell in love with the craft of venture investing, had the fortune of working with colleagues whom I consider extended family, and supported founders for whom I continue to be an unyielding supporter. I had one of the best jobs I could ever imagine doing, but I always had an itch to build. So when Erik Torenberg and David Booth, the co-founders of On Deck, offered me the opportunity to build an accelerator and help put 1,000 startups into business, I decided it was the right time to jump into something new. It was one of the most momentous decisions I made in 2021.

So 2022 will be a year of Gumption — 2021’s highlights share common themes around experimentation, embracing discomfort, and pushing to reinvent myself. There will be even more of that this year; this time with gumption.

I’m looking forward to more writing, video making, and exploring new creative pursuits to connect. This year will combine courage and play so that I can build at high velocity with a spirit of “done, not perfect, ready for feedback.” January is already off to a roaring start — launched our first ODX cohort with cohort 2 already in the works, building a team, an offsite with founders — and there is so much more to come.

• No need to “save” good things
As part of my 5-month nomad life, I traveled alone to Greece and Italy. After a brief stint in Spain, I intended to return to San Francisco, but I had wanted to visit Greece since I was a child reading mythology comics in bed. For a long time, I held the romantic notion that I needed to “save” this destination for a special occasion — a major birthday, an anniversary, perhaps a honeymoon. With helpful nudges from great friends, I booked a one-way flight to Athens, then Santorini, Naples, on my own, just for me. While solo travel isn’t new to me, it felt special to claim a destination and create memories that reflected the privilege of being healthy and having the utmost freedom to pursue my desires and ambitions.

• I decide when is the “right” time
Leaving Bloomberg Beta was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in 2021. Over the course of four years, I fell in love with the craft of venture investing, had the fortune of working with colleagues whom I consider extended family, and supported founders for whom I continue to be an unyielding supporter. I had one of the best jobs I could ever imagine doing, but I always had an itch to build. So when Erik Torenberg and David Booth, the co-founders of On Deck, offered me the opportunity to build an accelerator and help put 1,000 startups into business, I decided it was the right time to jump into something new. It was one of the most momentous decisions I made in 2021.

So 2022 will be a year of Gumption — 2021’s highlights share common themes around experimentation, embracing discomfort, and pushing to reinvent myself. There will be even more of that this year; this time with gumption.

I’m looking forward to more writing, video making, and exploring new creative pursuits to connect. This year will combine courage and play so that I can build at high velocity with a spirit of “done, not perfect, ready for feedback.” January is already off to a roaring start — launched our first ODX cohort with cohort 2 already in the works, building a team, an offsite to connect with teammates from all over the globe — and there is so much more to come.

The Books that Stuck with me in 2021

My preferred approach to reading is to take a single topic that interests me and to read a number of different books on it. So this year, I found myself diving deeper into a select number of topics and exchanging my pace of reading for a deeper, more syntopic approach, in the pursuit of uncovering nuances between multiple perspectives and helping me answer some key question on the subject.

So here are the Big Questions I continue to explore and one book from this year that helped me sharpen or otherwise deepen my perspective on the matter.

What happens when we have radically extended life?

Human beings are living longer than ever before. While the U.S. life expectancy decreased last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, our overall life expectancy is nearly twenty more years than the average life expectancy of someone living a century ago. Today’s longevity research enables us to slow down the aging process even further, steering us towards the opportunity to live well above a hundred years. Naturally, who wouldn’t want to? In university, I became fascinated by this growing trend and wanted to understand it from the other side: for those who choose differently, what will it mean to die with dignity? In The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die, Katie Engelhart deftly explores the idea of autonomy around a life almost finished. She offers a history of the contemporary right-to-die movement and manages to lay out all the arguments for or against a “good death” without bias, without reproach, and with heroic empathy in the human stories behind this choice. It only underscored my own belief that as we are gifted with more time, we will all need to think more intentionally about the ends of our lives.

What kind of relationships will we have with artificial intelligence that’s embedded into our lives?

First of all, Kazuo Ishiguro is hands down one of my favorite authors of all time. His earlier work Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite novels for his characters’ subtly revealed devastation (I won’t spoil any more of it.). In his latest novel Klara and the Sun, he paints a similarly familiar yet dystopian future where intelligent machines play a huge role in our lives. The plot is timely, with children, like Josie, forced to attend school mostly online these past two years. Perhaps they too would have benefited from a companion like Klara to fight loneliness and have an outlet for socialization. The book struck me for Ishiguro’s delicate and haunting writing style just as much as it did for the depiction of a future where our machines go beyond the utilitarian. It makes me wonder, how will our relationships with our machines change in a future where they increasingly fulfill more of our needs ; and how close are we to it?

What is the future of families?

Americans are having less sex than ever before, marrying or cohabitating with partners later in life, and having fewer children. At the same time, women are undergoing egg freezing in record numbers and forgoing the traditional notion of the nuclear family. So this year, I found myself thinking a lot about how community will play an increasingly large role in redefining what family is in the future.

While only tangentially related, I kept coming back to the philosophical underpinnings of Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex which considers the unconscious and conscious factors that contribute to when, how, why, and with whom we pursue physical intimacy. This isn’t a book about sex itself. It’s a book about how feminists have historically reclaimed bodily agency. I didn’t agree with it all; in some ways, it makes a huge miss in distilling sex into something purely rational and denying the role of raw physical desire. But there are lucid moments in it that helped me draw new connections to explain why we are seeing a generation identify as gender fluid, and the omnipotent role of media in learning about intimacy and why platforms like OnlyFans became so popular.

Orienting my reading around Big Questions shaped not just what I read but how I read. These were just three highlights, and 2022 will continue to expand on these and even more Big Questions, including “What is the future of cities in an increasingly remote, decentralized, sustainable world?” “What does a post-college future look like?” “How do we make decisions in an increasingly noisy world?”

If you have recommendations for readings that relate to any of these Big Questions, I welcome them.

“I feel a lot. Sometimes it’s horrible, and sometimes it’s awesome.”

I recently stumbled upon an interview with actress Victoria Pedretti by the channel StyleLikeU. Founded by mother-daughter duo, Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum, the channel is dedicated to telling stories about self-acceptance, expressing individuality, and empowerment.

In their flagship The What’s Underneath Project, activists, founders, artists, models, and more undress layer by layer as they open up about style, self-image, and identity. It was my first time learning of Victoria Pedretti (and my woefully TV-ignorant eyes didn’t register her as the star of Netflix’s The Haunting), but her 17-minute interview is captivating in how open she is.

Pop culture and pop psychology made us all too familiar with phrases like radical candor and practicing vulnerability. But their casual use in small talk and office parlance belies the impact of seeing it in action. Identifying what emotions we’re experiencing is a skill to help us make active choices on how we respond; not as a crutch or excuse.

The interview move from what her style says about her to what she is insecure about, and as her hat and jacket are gently set aside, the tenor of the interview shifts. She admits a simple but raw truth — that she wants friends who accept her and worries about being a burden unto others. She holds back tears when she recalls a former partner who created a secure environment for her to experience love, not just know that it existed in the world.

My favorite part is right after her shoes come off, and she’s asked, “When do you feel most beautiful?” The question is asked so earnestly, and instead of giggling it off with a blasé quip, she pauses and looks up. Her eyes glisten with unshed tears, and she offers simple answers: dancing, cooking, engaging in the things that allow herself to embrace herself. With her sweatshirt now placed neatly away, she bares her heart. Feeling a lot can be horrible, painful, lonely, but it can also be a gift and “feel good, when [we] can accept it.”

Here is the link to watch the interview in full.

Taylor Swift, Reclaimed: A masterclass in bringing your community along for the ride

That first snare in “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” hits, and I’m fifteen again. I’m dancing alone in my room, hand curled around an imaginary mic, singing along nostalgic of a love not yet even lost. Taylor Swift was simultaneously best friend, older sister, confidante. I was young, but I believed her; that [we’ll] do things greater than dating the boy on the football team.”

Taylor Swift To Release Rerecorded Version Of "Fearless" Album

And greater things she did indeed. Taylor Swift’s latest album is not just a re-recording of her 2008 studio album “Fearless,” the album that catapulted her to stardom and earned her Album of the Year at the Grammy’s. It is also a triumphant culmination of the last two years of dispute around the issue of master ownership between artist and record labels. “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” is an album proudly written by, produced by, and performed by Taylor Swift.

As one of contemporary music’s most recognizable, popular, and objectively successful artists, Taylor holds a uniquely powerful position, and she has not been shy about using her voice to fight for artists’ rights. When Apple Music launched in 2015 with a three-month free trial, they reversed their payment policy to ensure artists were paid for music streamed during trial periods when Swift refused to allow the company to stream her album “1989” until they did right by artists. In 2019, when Taylor declared her intentions to re-record her earlier albums, she managed to turn the acquisition of a record label into a moral, ethical debate about musicians’ rights to their creations.

The controversy around the acquisition of Taylor’s masters is noteworthy for how it reflects the shift in the power dynamic between artists and record labels. In today’s digital era, record labels are no longer the powerful gatekeepers to distribution that they once were. With social media platforms like Instagram; self-hosting platforms and streaming services like Spotify and Twitch; and new content discovery platforms like TikTok, artists (and creators more broadly) have unparalleled direct relationships with their fans at scale.

Taylor Swift has also always recognized the power of her fans, and she offers a masterclass in how to engage and mobilize a fanbase. She always wanted her creative process to feel special for fans, inviting a select group of her most devoted fans to Secret Sessions in advance of new album launches. As a long-time Tumblr user, I can recall how active Taylor was (and continues to be) with her Tumblr Swiftie community. So when she learned that Scooter Braun acquired Big Machine Records and subsequently acquired the masters to her first six studio albums, she took to Tumblr to express her disappointment. Her (now controversial) plea to fans led to an #IStandWithTaylor Twitter trend where fans came forward to defend artists’ rights to have full ownership and autonomy over their creations.

As a result of this, “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” feels like a collective win for fans, new and old. Taylor’s re-recordings are an ode to the listeners who have been with her since the beginning. Coincidentally, her re-recordings allow her to introduce many of her most iconic teenage anthems to a new generation of listeners. Moreover, the wistful themes of love and youth throughout “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” may resonate even more with GenZ, who may be one of the loneliest groups yet.

I’ve now listened to all the tracks a few times over, flipping back and forth between the 2008 originals and 2021 re-recordings. The songs remain faithful to their original arrangements, with Taylor even bending her intonations to match how she sang them originally at seventeen. Of course, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear how her voice is deeper, her tone richer, and her delivery wiser. Some of the earnestness in her voice from the 2008 versions is replaced by a cheeky confidence, the kind that comes through knowing it’s a confident, successful, young woman singing the words she wrote when she was just a girl.

I can’t help but sing along. “Fifteen” inspires a desire to relive moments of teenage naivete. “Forever & Always” still captures the pettiness of young heartbreak. “You’re Not Sorry” remains a gut punch. “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” a new track from her vault drops the “casually cruel” zinger we’re familiar with from “All Too Well” two albums later.

One of my favorites on both the 2008 and 2021 albums is “Change.” Listening to the re-recordings, I found myself briefly wishing I were fifteen today and experiencing the old Taylor Swift as the new Taylor Swift. But then again, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss how I can hear that her voice is more defiant than ever when she sings: “And the battle was long, it’s the fight of our lives / But we’ll stand up champions tonight. / It was the night things changed. / Can you see it now?” 2008 Taylor sang that last question with hope in her voice, mustering strength knowing her biggest fights were yet to come. 2021 Taylor sings that line knowing she stands tall even after years of criticism and heartbreak. It’s the rallying cry of an artist who remains at the top of her game and wants to bring us along for the ride, believing in the collective power of her community to continue to defy the odds.

When do I get to be an American?

This week’s shootings in Atlanta are unfortunately the latest in a growing number of violent acts against the Asian American community.

I’ve often found myself downplaying the racism we face, but the rage, fear, and grief are there. It doesn’t help that the former President stoked fear and resentment across the country towards Asians this past year. So just as I am disgusted by the discrimination and violence leveled at the Black, LGBTQ+, POC, and other underrepresented communities time and time again, I am indignant at the pain inflicted against the AAPI community.

The recent events — from the Atlanta shootings to multiple, horrible stories of (elderly) Asian men and women being attacked unprovoked — sting. The victims could have been my parents. They could have been my childhood friends. It could have been me. 

I was born in Seoul and am the proud daughter of immigrants. My parents moved to the States in their thirties with little money to their names. They had university degrees from prestigious South Korean institutions that held no weight in corporate America, especially with their lack of English skills. We were the first of our families to set out West, and we came in pursuit of the “American Dream.” And guess what? We made it. 

My parents are lifelong entrepreneurs, founders of their own small businesses. When they immigrated to America, they unconsciously accepted that a level of suffering and discrimination would be the price to pay to earn a brighter future for their children. So they tolerated being made fun of for their accents. They bit their tongues when being scammed because they struggled to negotiate in English. They resigned themselves to smashed windows at their brick and mortar stores. They swallowed the loneliness that comes from being made to feel different yet rendered invisible. 

I have my father’s insatiable curiosity and penchant for thinking big. I have my mother’s compassion and steady resilience. But we are also not cut from the same cloth. I, alongside millions of Asian Americans in the U.S., see myself as just that: an American. Not all of us were born here, but we grew up here. We studied here. We earned jobs here. We contribute to our communities here. We don’t see ourselves any less deserving of the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness afforded to any other American. Comedian Hasan Minhaj put it best: “We have the audacity of equality.

If your Asian friends haven’t publicly shared their concerns, it may be that they are still processing. Asians are not a monolith. There are 21+ million Asians in the U.S., and different ethnic groups have their own unique bi-cultural experiences. There are many of us who have led very privileged lives, and we may be unpacking our own frustrations towards a society that dangles the illusion of our equality yet punishes us when we don’t neatly fit into its stereotypes of us. Layer on top of that the dehumanization and fetishization of Asian women, in particular, and there is a lot to contend with. 

So if you take notice of and enjoy our food, our music, our films, our culture, take a moment to remember that our country is beautiful because we embrace a variety of cultures. #StopAsianHate is a step to remind ourselves that we are first and foremost Americans.

What is your “loathe language?”

In 1992, anthropologist and philosopher Dr. Gary Chapman published a book called The Five Love Languages, describing a framework for how we communicate love with our partners, be they romantic or platonic. All of us can give and receive love in all five ways, but most of us tend to have a primary way we express and understand love. Being able to communicate what is our dominant love language can often resolve miscommunications between two people who don’t share the same love language.

Now here’s something new (thanks to #therapytok): Our self destructive tendencies are often the converse of our love language. Think about what kinds of self destructive behavior you engage in, and then consider your love language.

My primary love language is quality time: time that is set aside for paying full and undivided attention to a person or topic, often in the physical presence of each other. My self destructive behavior is self-isolation, which is the exact opposite of how I experience love.

Some examples of how your love language may relate to a particular self destructive behavior:

Words of affirmation ➡️ negative self talk
Acts of service ➡️ avoiding self care
Physical touch ➡️ not eating or overeating
Gift giving ➡️ intentionally buying things harmful for us or impulse shopping

It’s perfectly human to feel blue, stressed, scared, etc. What’s important is how we react and take care of ourselves. So if you know how you experience love, next time you’re down, will you show yourself the same care in your own love language?

Get out of your own way

I started writing on this site in undergrad, after years of online blogging across Xanga, Blogspot, Blogger, Tumblr, and finally deciding that I should invest in my own domain and make a home for all my musings on various intellectual pursuits, commentary on society’s relationship to technology, and my ongoing exploration of personal and professional identity. Occasionally when I sit to write, I’ll scroll through the scores of drafts I have from the last eight years of writing here. Some, more akin to journal entries than any objective writing, make me cringe. Others become helpful fodder for encouraging me to revisit a topic that I see with new perspectives.

Here is a quote from an old draft on vices from 2013: “What I know is that I am a people pleaser by nature, and that…has proven to be both a blessing and a vice. [It’s] inspired me to develop empathy and compassion…[but it can also drive me to fulfill a] sycophantic need to please others [at the expense] of my own happiness.” This got me thinking about how my relationship to others have evolved since then. More importantly, it highlighted how much I’ve evolved over the years.

One belief that radically helped me gain greater confidence personally and professionally was to internalize that no one is paying attention to me as much as I think. I was the type that would ruminate for hours after feeling like I interjected at the wrong time in a conversation or wished I had said something smarter, more clever, more memorable. Those scenes would loop over and over in my head, and the reality was that barely anyone would have noticed nor have perceived it as big of an issue as I did in my mind. Instead, I could and should have taken that self-imposed stress and channeled it toward a more productive activity.

As I grow in my personal and professional life, I will occasionally fall into the trap of (over) worrying about what others think of me. I want those I respect to think well of me, which isn’t an inherently bad desire. However, being able to balance it with stronger judgement on when to pursue my own independent beliefs, goals, ambitions is gratifying. It’s how I decided to no longer pursue playing the violin, despite having spent a decade of my life competing and dedicated to it, in the hopes of devoting that time to other academic interests. It also helped when I decided to leave New York, the city of my dreams and the place I still consider home, for San Francisco, despite many question marks from well intended friends and family members. I recall being worried that I would let people down because I wouldn’t be able to see them as often or just be there for them. It felt selfish at the time to pursue decisions that fulfilled what I wanted and no one else’s. But of course, in doing right by me, I also did right by those I care about and respect.

So if I could go back and reiterate something to my younger, people pleasing self, I’d remind her this: “Get out of your own way, and stop worrying about what others may or may not think. Frankly, no one is paying attention to you as much as you think. Embrace that freedom, and use the knowledge to pursue what you want and not what you believe others want of you. Your life will be richer for it.” I still remain a work-in-progress when it comes to getting out of my own way, but skimming an old draft written by past me was a sweet way to reflect and quietly celebrate my progress.

After #MeToo, it’s #UsToo

Don’t let the campy, bubble-gum pink, and vibrant set and costume design fool you. Promising Young Woman may force you to, as it did with me, contend with the uncomfortable familiarity of the film’s darker themes around consent, sexism, and shame. Multiple viewings later, I’m still thinking about several scenes from the film while replaying the (intentionally female-forward) soundtrack featuring familiar voices of fallen pop stars of yesteryear.

*Spoilers ahead for the film, so if you haven’t seen it, you were warned.*

Promising Young Woman is bleak, and in terms of a hero’s journey, intentionally dissatisfying.

The #MeToo movement made us all too familiar with the blatant injustices of sexual harassment and assault. It’s now fourteen years after the first popularized use of the phrase “me too,” and Promising Young Woman offers viewers a rare revenge thriller that gives voice to the frustration and anger that often accompany the hurt of sexual violence.

The film centers around Cassie, a young medical student drop-out (portrayed by the delightful Carey Mulligan) who embarks on a singular mission to condemn self-proclaimed “nice guys” as sexual predators. This comes after her best friend Nina suffers a sexual assault at a school party, and no one is held accountable despite formally reported accusations. The injustice ultimately leads Nina to commit suicide, and Cassie suffers a figurative death as she reels from the trauma and drops out of medical school to live with her parents and spend her days as a careless barista at a local coffee shop.

That said, it’s an unusual revenge thriller because our protagonist Cassie is no hero. She is not aspirational or inspiring in her pursuit for justice, and she seeks neither peace nor forgiveness. After her friend’s death, she is angry — rightfully at her perpetrators — and guilty — at herself — for not being there to protect Nina. Unfortunately, Cassie is unable to accept Nina’s death, forgive herself, and move on from the past. Her grief and anger consume her. Instead of finding a support system or going back to medical school, Cassie becomes a vigilante who weaponizes her femininity. She adopts a persona who pretends to be sloppily drunk at clubs late at night, waiting for a “nice guy” she can expose when he makes advances on her while she’s vulnerable.

The film forces the male gaze to look into a mirror and acknowledge its ugliness.

In one of the last scenes in the film, Cassie comes face to face with the man who hurt her friend. He believes himself a “nice guy” and chocks up his past misdeeds as stupid, drunken medical school behavior (mind you, medical students are often well into their mid to late twenties); and that it is “every guy’s worst nightmare to be accused of [rape.]” Without skipping a beat, Carey Mulligan’s character looks upon him squarely and replies, “Can you guess what every woman’s nightmare is?”

It’s no surprise to me that this film was written, directed, and produced by a woman (Emerald Fennell’s debut!). The scenes between Cassie’s fake drunken character and her supposed white knights in bad suits are delightfully subversive. Cassie has a script — appear very intoxicated; protest the initial advance; take up “nice guy’s” offer for a ride home, who somehow always persuades her to come over to his place instead; gives him a chance to stop when he inevitably makes unwanted advances; and finally confront him with stone cold sober eyes when he won’t stop.

These scenes are alarming yet so satisfying because they portray the importance of enthusiastic consent, which can’t be given when one is practically in a stupor. Of course, she isn’t really drunk, and Carey Mulligan’s character always lets the man advance just far enough for it to cross some line before she breaks out of her pretend blackout to ask him, “What are you doing?” At this point, they stop what they’re doing and quickly attempt to revert to their “nice guy” personas. Unfortunately, the damage is done, and we the audience can no longer defend him to be the standout guy he projected himself to be.

The sinister logic of the “nice guy” misinterprets what is and isn’t consent.

The “nice guy” finds Cassie attractive, and her drunken helplessness incites his inner “goodness.” He convinces himself that by offering to take her home, she, despite her inebriated state, must want him as reward for saving her from herself — or worse, from other potential predators at the club. When instead they end up at his place, he reads that as permission to make additional advances (again, despite her drunken state). When she asks him for water because she’s not feeling great, he thinks himself the hero who’s rescuing a damsel in distress.

In another romantic comedy, we’d root for him. He is agreeable, non-threatening, slightly nerdy, and reasonably successful. He calls her beautiful and that she shouldn’t wear so much makeup. He’s downright woke, until he’s not. It’s no accident that the male cast for these “nice guy” characters are all lovable actors, including Adam Brody, evermore the sweet and awkward Seth Cohen from The O.C.; Christopher Mintz-Plasse, better known as Superbad‘s McLovin’; and comedian Bo Burnham, who goes on to play Cassie’s love interest.

Viewers have been conditioned to root for the “nice guy.” It’s why the betrayal of Bo’s character Ryan, who plays Cassie’s love interest, stings so much. He’s a pediatric surgeon with an unrequited crush on Cassie, who at her request, respectfully woos her slowly over the course of the movie. He’s sweet and self-deprecating and cracks dry jokes over dinner with Cassie’s parents. You want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, when faced with several opportunities to actually be the good guy we’ve come to believe he is, he fails. We discover he was just as culpable in the event where Cassie’s friend was assaulted. Worse, he conveniently told her he didn’t remember the event despite being friends with the perpetrator. When Cassie finally confronts him with video evidence of his involvement from years ago, he immediately becomes defensive citing the same, “It wasn’t me. I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice guy” plea. He, along with all the other men Cassie confronts, never acknowledges his own role in causing harm.

Promising Young Woman is uncomfortable because it asks us to confront our own complicity in a society that readily upholds misogyny.

The first wave of #MeToo shed light on egregious physical and psychological abuse by men in positions of power unto (mostly) women. Now, we find ourselves grappling with the less obvious but equally (if not more) insidious moments of casual misogyny.

I don’t condone Cassie’s vengeful approach toward men in the film, but I can relate to her years of pent-up rage. It is rage against the expectation that in order to be desirable, it is not fun to set boundaries. (There’s a scene where one of the men Cassie lures at a club realizes she’s not drunk and storms off pouting, “Why do you have to ruin everything?” implying he’d rather have messed around with a woman who barely could stand up on her own.) It is rage against how the anger, no matter how righteous, can be as destructive as the traumatic incident itself. It is rage against the disturbing normalization of a society where abusers continue to lead normal lives with little to no consequences while survivors are often swept under the rug.

One of the best pieces I’ve read in the last few years on misogyny is Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne’s book Down Girl. It reshaped my understanding of misogyny. Instead of seeing it as a deep hatred toward women by men, misogyny is defined as an unconscious moral manifestation of sexist ideology. Put differently, misogyny enforces patriarchal social structures that uphold male privilege and entitlement while sexism supports the assumptions and stereotypes that normalize and justify patriarchal norms. We may not all be sexist, but all of us are likely culpable in upholding misogyny which polices women, keeps them in “their place,” and preserves expectations that serve male interests.

Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo. This is most evident in two scenes between Cassie and two other women. The first is at a lunch with an old medical school acquaintance Madison, played by actress Alison Brie. Cassie wants to talk to her about why she dropped out of school, implying Madison must have known about the sexual assault. Madison gets flustered. She defends herself by deflecting blame back at Cassie, citing her promiscuity. “If you have a reputation for sleeping around, then maybe people won’t believe you when you say something has happened. [It’s like] crying wolf.” Watching it, I saw my own disappointment reflected in Cassie’s face.

The second scene is even more gut turning. Cassie revisits her old medical school dean under the guise of re-enrolling in school. She asks the dean if she recalls why she dropped out. Frustratingly, the dean does not recall Cassie’s friend Nina and the rape that led to her dropping out, but when Cassie asks about Nina’s assailant, the dean lights up. He is a successful alum who gives back to the school community. (“He’s a really nice guy!”) The dean doesn’t remember the accusations made against him, despite Cassie reminding her that the incident was reported to the dean herself. Even worse still, the dean also gets defensive saying the school receives many similar accusations. She “has to give him the benefit of the doubt” lest she ruin a promising young man’s future. It’s hard not to recall Chanel Miller and the 2015 Stanford rape case from this scene.

These two scenes, each a dialogue between two women, underscore how much we expect women to police themselves. Like the “nice guys” at the club, neither of these two women — one a supposed friend and the other a figure of authority — acknowledged their own roles in perpetuating bad behavior by a male abuser while condemning the female victim. It should have been the other way around. Cassie recognized that and was fighting for it.

#UsToo calls for more responsibility from all of us.

The ending of the film is rather bleak. Cassie plays femme fatale and dies in the grand finale where she faces Nina’s assailant. She is fully aware that she might die at his hands, and she does. When confronted by Cassie, he is more willing to smother and kill her than to admit to the truth of what happened in that dorm room many years ago. His unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions reflects a society that never held him accountable. In fact, he almost gets away with Cassie’s murder, and if he had, his original victim Nina would have ended up as a footnote, an unfortunate casualty in the event started this whole story.

In the post #MeToo era, we’re still trying to find the right ways to make amends for past and ongoing missteps around consent and abuses of power. This moment is less about finger pointing at others and much more about introspection: How are we contributing to a culture that often sets up (especially young) men and women to hurt and get hurt? How do we create enough space for those who may have done wrong — intentionally and particularly unconsciously — to apologize and make amends? The backlash against Justin Timberlake’s public apology to the recent documentary Framing Britney Spears comes to mind, where he apologized for his role in benefitting from Britney’s fall from pop stardom after their breakup. Is his apology too late? Is it sufficient? I don’t know. However, I do know I’d rather encourage more of us to take ownership in how we’ve benefitted from unconscious biases at the expense of others; not to make us feel bad about ourselves but to make us aware of these implicit power dynamics. This feels particularly important for those of us who do have power and agency to go against the status quo and support those who may not be able to.

Promising Young Woman doesn’t offer catharsis, not in the traditional revenge thriller sense. Empowerment doesn’t come from Cassie’s gotcha moments with “nice guys.” Instead, the film’s punch comes from realizing that we may recognize a little bit of ourselves in each of the characters — the angry victim, the concerned family member, the chagrined bystander of abuse, the defensive perpetrator. It’s #UsToo, a mirror to represent society as it is. We may not like what we see, but the good part is that it means we can change it.

Kimi no Na wa, a visual dream that could use a splash more history

With how much I adore Hayao Miyazaki films (Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle being my picks), I’m shocked it took me this long to hear about and get around to Makoto Shinkai’s film Kimi no Na wa (aka “Your Name”). Special thanks to Kevin for introducing it to me and asking me to jot down these first impressions.

REVIEW] 'Your Name' (Kimi no Na wa) | Rotoscopers

The film is about a country girl Mitsuha and city boy Taki who swap bodies and live out the other’s life in their dreams. There is a subplot on time travel that culminates around a rare comet passing overhead, which itself is a rich, technicolor piece de resistance to a stunning visual experience. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’ll say the the film’s magic is best experienced firsthand. I wish I had had the chance to see this in theaters on a big screen.

Beyond the visual splendor of the film, the plot revolves around a young love story. It’s written as a romance exploring the idea of a “soulmate,” but I believe the protagonists’ development could have been equally fulfilling left as a coming-of-age self-discovery story. For example, from the onset of the film, we get flashes of Mitsuha’s listless and lonely life; she feels unseen. With a father who neglects her, a sister who is too young to be her listener, and friends who have blindly accepted their small town lives, Mitsuha feels trapped and bored in her countryside life. It’s no wonder she grows frustrated and one day yells into the void wishing she could be a “handsome Tokyo boy in her next life.” Careful what you wish for.

Mitsuha’s wish to experience life as a “handsome Tokyo boy” feels like a nod to two tensions: one of tradition versus modernity and the other of different freedom of the sexes. Japan is a country steeped in tradition, so it’s no surprise that Mitsuha holds the perception that she could only lead an interesting, free life as a boy in a big, bustling city. Her life kept pulling her to an olden world while Taki’s Tokyo life reflected the future.

I wish Shinkai had spent more time exploring this cultural tension, especially from Taki’s side too. There is a tremendous amount of backstory on Mitsuha, especially about her family (along with an explanation for why she might be having these body-swapping dreams), but there’s very little on Taki’s history. It’s unclear why he’s having the same body swapping dreams and if he had aspirations for a simpler, pastoral life. It would have, for me, made it more believable that he could fall in love with a random country girl far away.

Shinkai uses Japanese Shinto religion, belief in the supernatural, and spirituality as a way to explore the ideas of fate and time, but if only he had another half hour in the film to dig into them. There are several scenes between Mitsuha and her grandmother, where they touch on the spiritual significance of nature and rituals, that feel under-explored. I was left hanging when her grandmother seemed to notice that Mitsuha was not herself and implied how it’s something that runs in her family, but the film doesn’t have the time or desire to expand on the family history.

Despite my wish for more depth to the characters, my favorite part of the film is hands down Shinkai’s interpretation on memory. Memories are often ephemeral and flawed but they are permanent in their emotional resonance. Neither Mitsuha nor Taki can recall the details of what happened when they switch bodies, so they start to keep a diary on their phones as recap for when each wakes to his or her original body. However, they’re able to maintain their emotional connectedness, even as time and memory start to warp so much so that they can’t recall each others’ names (hence the film’s title). While they never get to be together, the two appreciate how the other makes them feel stronger, braver, and loved. It reminds me of the quintessential Maya Angelou quote, “People will forget what you said…[or] did, but [they’ll] never forget how you made them feel.”

Kimi no Na wa is the kind of special film I need to watch 3, 4, 5+ times to appreciate all of its components. I didn’t even touch on the music — a mix of mostly Japanese upbeat pop — in this review, but that’s what I’ll be paying attention to the next time I watch.