Red Scare Leans Into Nothing

A podcast that offers a critique of feminism, and capitalism, from deep inside the culture they’ve spawned.

Photo: Photographs by Amanda Hakan
Photo: Photographs by Amanda Hakan

On a muggy August Tuesday, the basement of Brooklyn’s Union Hall was overflowing with the fans of the podcast Red Scare, doing its first, sold-out live show. The podcast’s hosts — Dasha Nekrasova, Anna Khachiyan, and their producer Meg Murnane — opened the program by surveying the room and asking all the white people in the audience to make some noise, then all the Jews. The audience was overwhelmingly white, although uncomfortable about cheering that fact, and the prevailing fashions for both men and women — the crowd was an even split — featured a lot of round, oversized wire-rim glasses and tall white athletic socks pulled up winkingly over the calves.

The women onstage, all striking, were more Sevigny-goes-Hollywood, with leather miniskirts and Catholic schoolgirl provocation-gear and tiny sunglasses. After discussing their newfound addiction to Brandy Melville, a fast-fashion retailer for teens where Nekrasova had shopped for the show, the group moved on to a game: neoliberal disaster or crypto-fascist catastrophe? They debated: was SoulCycle neolib for its conflation of self-improvement with the outlay of cash? Or was there something more fascistic in the cult-leader instructor having her way with a room full of people pumping earnestly on bikes in darkness? Was Beyoncé, with her clothing line, a classic neoliberal opportunist, or, with her utter control over institutions like Vogue, a crypto-fascist? The intended lesson of the game, revealed swiftly, was that the two labels often were interchangeable. The subtext, revealed by the casual facility with which the hosts discussed the cultural products they professed to dislike, is that it’s all inescapable, no matter how mockable.

Red Scare represents a critique of feminism, and capitalism, from deep inside the culture they’ve spawned. Listening to the show — which features segments on everything from Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to Vanderpump Rules — is like putting so much of the language of contemporary feminism and femininity through a feedback loop until it becomes meaningless: even their mocking of it is indistinguishable from their organic use of it. It is a document of the confusion of our moment. The hosts’ regular preoccupations include the “tyranny of neoliberalism,” the sexiness of Jewish men (and Tony Soprano), the veneration of Camille Paglia and Sigmund Freud and Azealia Banks, the overratedness of both Meryl Streep and Jennifer Aniston, and, at least for two of the hosts, the right to say the word “retard” as a descriptor. (Murnane says that’s a hill she doesn’t want to die on.) They are skeptical about the way #MeToo has played out. Recently, they hosted a conceptual artist as a guest on the podcast, who mocked gallerists for earnestly trying to get people to vote, and referred to “climate hysteria” as a “bourgeois eschatology.” They are funny and cruel, given to blasé provocation, casual factual errors, self-contradiction, and sweeping theoretical leaps, all delivered with a disorienting mix of sarcasm and sincerity.

After the show, a group milled on the sidewalk outside. Among them was Audrey Gelman, the co-founder of the women’s social club The Wing, which has been the object of barbed commentary on the podcast. Red Scare has described the club’s aesthetic as “a giant Thinx panties ad,” and Gelman as a “hardboiled Clintonite,” who came up with the concept as “a place to change outfits” between stops “shilling for Hillary.” The Wing was not just an “exponent of the worst kind of coastal elite, pink-pussy-hat feminism,” they had concluded, but its headquarters.

“I met Dasha’s agent inside,” said Gelman, who, in a leftward turn, had just hosted a fundraiser for the Democratic Socialist Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. “I was like, I wish you could angel-invest in ‘It’ girls.” When Nekrasova walked outside for a cigarette, someone asked her if she would pose for a photo with Gelman, who, for the snap, formed two fingers into a V around her stuck-out tongue — the international symbol of ironic cunnilingus. Gelman made herself a Zazzle t-shirt that read “Frenemy of the Pod” after being referred to that way on Red Scare; she’s subsequently been upgraded to Friend of the Pod, she recently told me proudly.

The appeal of Red Scare to a certain niche audience is perhaps best understood as a reaction, to exactly the kind of capitalist-feminist mashup of which Gelman is an avatar. The dominant mode of millennial feminism has, for the past several years, been something that might be described as girl-bossism: a catch-all term for the aesthetic-political philosophy that urges women to pursue their own professional success, and to view that success as a triumph for the movement. In this school of thought, women ought to be not just running their own companies and acquiring devoted Instagram followings, but doing so in a manner that lifts up other women. Meanwhile, on Twitter especially, language is carefully monitored; a misstep (or perceived misstep) can mean getting publicly fricasseed. The Red Scare hosts, who seem to feel so disenfranchised that they have nothing left to lose, serve up a vicarious thrill with their willingness to offend, their apparent nihilism.

“You can look at these conversations happening all day online, and wonder to yourself if you’re going crazy or if everyone else has. Then, you turn on this podcast and you find out that you’re not crazy. There are, in fact, tons of people who do care about left politics and making the world a better place, but who don’t think screaming about Wonder Woman (or whatever) online is a necessary component of advancing those goals,” one listener told me. “It’s like unwoke samizdat.”

Elizabeth Bruenig, an opinion columnist at the Washington Post, calls the show “really funny” and “more irreverent and searching than Chapo.” A pro-life leftist, Bruenig debated abortion on a bonus episode for Patreon subscribers; part of the reason that she did it, she says, is that even she knew they wouldn’t consider her “the worst person they had ever talked to or a complete idiot or malicious” for holding the view she does. “Red Scare doesn’t care to be outraged,” she explained. “That’s not the emotional response they choose to present, and in political theater that makes a world of difference.” In place of a firehose of outrage, “there’s this almost decadent, Baudelarian, reclining-on-a-divan-drinking-heavily-from-a-carafe-of-brandy vibe to the show. ”

Red Scare is recorded in the hosts’ apartments, and on the July day I went to meet the group at Murnane’s sublet in Williamsburg, they had just finished an episode discussing topics that included “thin privilege” and Maria Butina. Murnane’s bedroom was strewn with pink bottles of rosé spritzer, which they drank while taping. Early episodes of the podcast relied heavily on ice clinking in cocktail glasses during moments of silence after one of the hosts had said something particularly potentially offensive; you could hear, in the gaps, them figuring out whether reacting would ruin the provocation.

It’s a shock-swagger combination that recalls both Old Vice and Old Jezebel of a decade ago. Crowdfunded podcasts, in general, feel a little like the O.G, pre-professional blogs: Not only does everyone seem to have one, but they can be a place to work out ideas, to risk offending, to explore, to mostly try to make your audience laugh, all without too much fear of official, mainstream censure. (Red Scare seems to offer something of the frisson of fuck-you free-thinking that people with a different set of cultural and aesthetic preferences are seeking from Jordan Peterson, minus the dash of self-help.)

Murnane and Khachiyan, who knew each other from art-world circles (Murnane’s boyfriend is the artist Brad Troemel) describe bonding during the runup to the 2016 election; they were underemployed and felt that the instability they’d experienced in the gig economy wasn’t being addressed politically. Khachiyan, 32, has an ’80s punk haircut and often describes herself as resembling Nathan Fielder. She was born in Moscow and grew up in New Jersey; a dropout of NYU’s art-history Ph.D. program, she’s currently unemployed save for the podcast. Murnane, a dark-haired 30-year-old from Columbus, moved to New York to work in reproductive health research; following a layoff, she moved into media production. (She is a recurring moderating presence on the show, along with being the professionalizing force behind it.) The pair talked about trying a web series. Soon after the election, they attended a satire-writing workshop, run by the Reductress. They recall walking out after the woman in charge gave a speech about how, now that Hillary had lost, these were the people who it was okay to make fun of, and these were the people who it was not.

After the post-Trumpian runaway success of Chapo, leftist podcasting started to look like a viable option — and there was an apparent opening for a specifically female perspective. Nekrasova, whom they knew from Twitter but only met in person last summer, seemed like an ideal addition to the team. She and Khachiyan share what they believe to be a certain Russian sensibility: Nekrasova grew up in Las Vegas after emigrating from Minsk. (“All the Things She Said,” the 2001 Russian pop song by t.A.T.u., serves as the show’s theme music.) A 27-year-old actress, who stars in the critically praised independent film Wobble Palace, out now, Nekrasova has wide-set brown eyes and an Ambien-slow drawl to her voice, especially when she’s making a dig.

Red Scare is a podcast in the key of Chapo Trap House; irony and leftism are the tonic and dominant notes. As the Democratic Establishment is to Chapo, so the feminist Establishment is to Red Scare. Like its dirtbag cousins, Red Scare is constructed with the architecture of a comedy podcast, applied to an ideological reading of the news of the day, with a particular focus on political feeling or style. (“Sorry, but I’m too glamorous to be part of the dirtbag left,” Khachiyan tweeted recently.) “Chapo is a straightforward political podcast with comedic undertones,” explained Khachiyan, as we sat around a table in the backyard for more canned rosé. Cumtown — another leftist podcast, which Nekrasova’s boyfriend hosts — “is a comedy podcast with leftist undertones, and we really wanted a feminist podcast that was different from the typical kind of of left-liberal feminist shows.” They can also, thanks to their gender, get away with edgier stuff without being called misogynist — an assessment that has plagued Chapo in particular.

Red Scare has about 20,000 listeners, many of whom are in places like Berlin and London. According to Murnane, many of the listeners are younger than the hosts themselves; there are plenty of male fans. (Three such men hosted a Red Scare Roundup podcast that breaks down the latest episode. One of the hosts is Ilan Zechory, a co-founder of Genius — and Gelman’s husband.) Red Scare is supported through its Patreon, which currently draws monthly from around 1,300 donors, for $6,960. (By comparison, Cumtown gets around $36,000 per month, and Chapo draws more than $102,000.)

The podcast got a lift in its early days from a viral video, which made Nekrasova a minor internet celebrity as “Sailor Socialism.” She was at SXSW in March promoting Wobble Palace when a representative from Infowars approached and asked her about Bernie Sanders, also at the conference. Nekrasova’s replies, to a series of increasingly fevered questions about socialism, had an amused simplicity: “I just want people to have free health care, honey.” All the while, she was wearing a navy and white sailor-style top, and slurping iced coffee disdainfully through a straw. “You people have like, worms in your brains, honestly,” she added, to the Infowars interviewer.

A disinterest in politeness is a Red Scare signature. “I think they like that we’re a little bit mean,” Khachiyan said of their bond with their listeners. Red Scare has described Elon Musk as looking like “if Eva Braun and Hitler had survived that bunker and given birth to a baby who was a burner,” and called Lena Dunham “our favorite human bean bag,” none of which is generally considered okay in liberal circles. (It seems increasingly likely that the rising generation is more likely to turn conservative not because they want to be rich, but because they want to be mean.)

Nekrasova identifies as a leftist, and phone-banked for Sanders in the last election. Before his candidacy, she was “nihilistic” about politics. Murnane describes herself as a disillusioned, reluctant Clinton voter who felt more “abandoned by feminism than capitalism.” Nekrasova echoed her: “Abandoned by the girl-bossery of it all,” she said. “Feeling like you have to, like, shatter something.”

“I think liberal feminism in America is very shame-based,” Khachiyan interrupted, arguing that women who identify that way don’t know what they actually want. “Liberal feminism often talks down to women in the guise of sisterly morale boosting or female empowerment,” in the constant pushing of “hustle-grind-repeat,” she said. “They’re crying out for basically what the leftists have been advocating for, a state safety net, and they’ve attributed all of capitalism’s ills to patriarchal oppression or toxic masculinity.”

“We maybe have socially conservative ideas about gender relations,” said Nekrasovoa. “It feels very dangerous to talk about this.” Khachiyan is less shy, and began ticking things off. “I think that women want a daddy, a provider, whether that’s the state or an individual man. I think it’s positive or pleasing when a man pays for you or compliments you. I think heteronormative or heterosexual sex is mostly about the male physically dominating the woman in the bedroom and both sides get off on that, it’s not a shameful thing.”

Murnane interrupted. “I don’t. If I could just take care of myself, I wouldn’t care if ‘Daddy’ could take care of me.”

“I would!” said Khachiyan, grinning widely. “I will go on record as saying that I would not be podcasting if I could be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.”

“That’s a point of disagreement,” said Murnane.

“A life of feminine bondage,” Nekrasova said, slyly. “Sexual objectification, I’m all for that,” concluded Khachiyan. They were all, by then, cracking up.

Khachiyan’s ideologies, a mix of economic leftism and a certain kind of cultural revanchism, are in some ways the driving animus of the show. She believes in reproductive rights, but also that “the liberal feminist fairy tale is that it tells women to be casual about sex and militant or fanatical about work, and it should be exactly the opposite way.” Polyamory and easy Tinder sex are, in this framework, both evidence of neoliberal devaluation, and distractions sold as progress. On Twitter, she courts controversy with tweets both flip and deliberate: “I want to move to LA and give up on my misguided intellectual aspirations to be a retarded yoga pants juice slut”; “I wish I could writhe around in bed all day wearing some slutty getup a man bought me but instead I have to be an ideological freedom fighter because no one else will do it.” She’s been tagged as transphobic, homophobic, and racist, charges that she says are unfair, deliberate misreadings.

A friend of mine who was an early listener to the show explained that he had found in it “a thrill out of hearing these people who seemed to have no fear about violating the relatively new and very strict rules about how to talk and what to say. Not so long ago, I didn’t feel particularly constrained in how I expressed myself, and I didn’t feel out of step with other liberals.” The show offered him “a fleeting sense of fearlessness,” and a shared sense of frustration with “how most people online discuss the news and culture.” And then, he says, he began to notice that the hosts had doubled down on saying “retarded” and “gay” as insults; it didn’t offend him, per se, but he was turned off by the pride with which the hosts use them. “I feel like if that’s the norm you’re choosing to violate, it means you don’t really have any real arguments to make — your whole thing is just defiantly proclaiming that you have the right to make whatever arguments you want,” he said. He’s found himself less quick to tune in lately.

“I get sick of PC Twitter culture,” another friend told me, “I am so happy people want to lean into irony or being shitty, but I think it also comes from such a place of privilege when it’s these two white semi-Russian women,” she added. Indeed, the podcast can sometimes feel as if it is trapped in a hermetic, obsessive battle with the internet’s hypermediated analysis of “woke” culture. Upon the occasion of Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer Prize, Khachiyan declared that Lamar was “the poster child of the liberal resistance,” and mocked all his fans at Wesleyan — all told, a willfully narrow view of Lamar’s audience.

The hosts are also skeptical of another ongoing conversation in progressive circles. Much of Red Scare’s critique of where #MeToo has gone rests on a disgust with Hollywood and the media paying too much attention to their own importance, ignoring the broader inequalities revealed by the harassment. “If you weren’t scrambling, trying to navigate some way to get scarce resources you would never be in the position to begin with,” says Khachiyan. “A woman like that who is like an actress or a young journalist would be more comfortable in that instance saying no, if she knew that she wasn’t in an unequal, imbalanced financial situation.”

Nekrasova has joked about replacing corporate feminism with “Venmo feminism,” as reparations for the “rampant sexual harassment in our society,” she said on one podcast. After a piece in The New Yorker mentioned the idea, she says people sent her more than $100 via Venmo. It’s a joke, and not. Nekrasova said that, as #MeToo began to unfold, she Venmo requested $1,000 from Hollywood producers who had been particularly hurtful and exploitative as she was trying to break into acting. No one paid.

In a New Yorker profile of Chapo Trap House, one of the hosts described their fans as, by and large, “failsons”: smart young men who’d declined, or been declined, meaningful participation in ambitious work, who preferred solitary internet exploration and online expression. By contrast, he said, their female fans seemed to be “success-daughters.” Red Scare’s worldview seems a rebuke to this pat analysis. Its project, maybe, is working out what happens when the world says you must strive hard for professional and personal success above all, but offers only the conditions to become a faildaughter. It offers a look at the kind of feminism that is being developed by young women for whom the promise of feminism doesn’t seem to be working out — faildaughters, not girl bosses.

Then again, Red Scare’s Patreon’s donations have doubled since early summer. They had professional, glamorous promotional photos taken. (By a friend, but still.) There was the mention on The New Yorker’s site, the Union Hall sell-out, this profile. Their mothers, they say, are very proud to see their daughters finally finding success.

This article has been corrected to show that three men, not four, hosted a podcast about Red Scare.

Red Scare Leans Into Nothing