As a pop-culture fanatic, Janet Mock can recap the latest episode of The Real Housewives Of Atlanta. But as the host of MSNBC web show So Popular!, she’ll also explain what it revealed about race, gender, and identity dynamics in the U.S. Since releasing her best-selling memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path To Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, last year, Mock has been a voice for the transgender community, whether through her annual book drive for trans people who are incarcerated or her recent appointment as a correspondent for Entertainment Tonight.
Fast Company: What motivates you to do the work you do?
JM: Really driving the deep, nuanced, complicated truth. On So Popular!, we’re using pop culture as a tool to talk about more difficult conversations.
Why did you create So Popular!?
I worked as an editor at People magazine for nearly six years. There’s so much that I learned–consciousness-raising from my own experience, from feminist texts–that I wasn’t using. When I got invited to the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC, I would talk about Scandal and Olivia’s hair, or Beyoncé and Jay Z and the surveillance culture of social media. The digital producers approached me about hosting a new culture show. The tagline for me has always been, “We go deep on issues you pretend you’re too smart to like.” On the surface, pop culture seems like this ridiculous, table-flipping, booty-popping thing. But what does Miley Cyrus’s and Nicki Minaj’s twerking really mean? Whose bodies are being policed in our culture?
Last year, you put out a memoir. What inspired you to tell your story?
One of my favorite quotes is from Toni Morrison: “I write the books that I should have been able to read.” Staking a claim on my narrative was the first step toward being able to do all the other things I want to do.
Fast Company’s social media followers once called you one of the “smartest women on Twitter” for starting the hashtag #girlslikeus. What led you to do that?
It creates a place that says: “This is what we go through. These are our issues.” Now I see it on Instagram. Someone even started a Twitter account called Girls Like Us News.
The trans community faces many issues. Is mainstream culture finally starting to grapple with them?
There’s greater cultural visibility now that enables us to have deeper conversations. You love Laverne Cox’s character on Orange Is The New Black, but what does it mean for her to survive in prison while having to figure out how to get health care access? I can’t just separate and talk about being trans when my trans-ness is also affected by me being a black person, a woman of color, in this world.
Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?
Oh my God. Where do I seek out my creative inspiration? I think first what I do is I check in with myself. And so being a writer, I wake up in the morning and I write three freehand pages. Every morning, just to get everything on the top of my head out of me. And that usually then frees me up to have more space to be creative, because if you get all the junk out of your head, by the third page you tend to come up with great stuff or some great initiative that you kind of need to do. So that’s the first layer.
And then the next thing is obviously caffeine. And Twitter. And you know Twitter then points me to what are people talking about today and where are the gaps in the conversation that I can help fill in? Whether that’s speaking through a tweet, maybe that’s through an essay that I write for Marie Claire or for Black Book or for whatever platform. Or maybe it’s more suited to have a conversation with a few other people on my show. And so I’m always–that’s how I’m always looking.
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
That most of the work you don’t see. I think most people in media, that’s what they would say. Because I think that we seem so–it seems like a lot of our work is so visible, right? Because you see the product of all the work, right? So you see the TV segment or the fun conversation that’s being had on streams. So you’re like, oh wow, you’re everywhere. Or you’ll see the segment that I’ll do on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show or NOW with Alex Wagner. Or the essay that I wrote, or the piece I reported on for Marie Claire.
But you won’t see all the emails that came with that. All of the coffee dates that came with that, all of the little emails are just enough work, right? It’s like, oh my god, it’s so much behind-the-scenes conversations before the media piece is shared. And because most of my work is in media it looks like all my work is visible. But largely it’s not.
What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?
I have a list on my Twitter that I actually do follow every morning. It’s called Cultural Voices. And it’s largely people who tend to be essayists or cultural critics or movie reviewers or super smart–like people who would be on my show. Cultural voices, a lot of people who write think pieces. Some of them include: @youngsinick, @e_alexjung, @laurenduca, @zblay.
What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?
I usually take my cockapoo out on a walk, I do some kind of physical activity, whether that’s Bikram yoga or Soul Cycle. Usually it’s some kind of creative activity. Or it’s completely turning my mind off and watching something that doesn’t really challenge. Like Real Housewives Of Atlanta. Literally watching people argue about one little thing of shade that they threw.
See Janet Mock speak about changing perceptions about the trans community below: