Eating for Free is the perfect pop culture podcast for the post-truth age

Connecting the dots between celebrity gossip and capitalist crisis, the podcast by Joan Summers and Matthew Lawson investigates the stories behind the stories.

Aysen Gerlach
May 16, 2019

In the fall of 2018, a strange story snaked its way across the internet. It came together in bits and pieces, spread slowly and surreptitiously by members of Seattle’s gay kink community. Someone had died, and someone was to blame. On October 15, 2018, a young man named Jack Chapman — referred to by his nickname, Tank — died from silicone embolism, toxic leakages that seeped into his lungs from a silicone injection he received in his testicles as a form of enlargement. The injections were part of a set of body modifications allegedly prescribed by Chapman’s partner, an internet-famous dom in the west coast bear and kink community known as “Noodles and Beef” (his real name is Dylan Hafertepen).

Chapman was part of a harem of submissive pups that Hafertepen exercised near-total control over. In the wake of Chapman’s death—and its attempted cover-up—more and more abusive patterns in this dynamic were being exposed, and more and more questions were coming up without answers. 

News travels fast, and a story as shocking and unsettling as this had just the right currency to go far. But I first heard of this story weeks before coverage appeared in VICE, BuzzFeed, and other mainstream outlets. I heard it on October 23, 2018, in a 77-minute reported investigation on the podcast Eating for Free.

Eating for Free is a collaboration between Bay Area artists and media critics Joan Summers and Matthew Lawson (though, on the show, they’re introduced as an “international menace” and a “local artisan,” respectively). The two were the first outlet to take the story seriously and get their facts from individuals connected to the community, who recognized the situation as one of abuse. Instead of mocking the victims or dismissing their relationships as simply a cautionary tale, Eating for Free guided its audience through an explanation of how abuse takes place, ways to spot and prevent it, and how similar dynamics have become commonplace in an online entertainment landscape where appearances are everything.

By exposing these stories and taking pains to fairly represent the victims with compassion, they’re doing their small part to show the rest of the media world how it’s done.

Their insight could only come from a place of commonality. As queer people with a long history online, Lawson and Summers are both conscious of how the practice storytelling often shapes popular understanding. By exposing these stories and taking pains to fairly represent the victims with compassion, they’re doing their small part to show the rest of the media world how it’s done. This may be especially true for Summers, who is a trans woman; for members of the trans community in the public eye, crossing that fine line between attentive storytelling and breathless sensationalism can be the difference between seeing a victim as a nuanced human being or simply as a lost cause. Recognizing that reality put them in a position to be principled, but still trustworthy.

“Somebody sent me a dropbox link with like 180 different screenshots and PNGs of things that happened within Noodles and Beef between their friends,” said Lawson over the phone from California. “It was kind of bizarre how people just kind of trusted us to talk about it.” Over the course of the episode, Lawson, Summers, and their mononymous guest host Chris revealed a web of abuse allegations, unsafe surgeries, online facades, and exploitative kinks.

Strictly speaking, Eating for Free is a gossip podcast. But it’s a lot more than that. The stories that Lawson and Summers cover range from celebrity scandals to Hollywood cold cases, ongoing murder investigations involving political figures, the exiled Chinese cult behind those ubiquitous and endlessly meme-able Shen Yun ads, the Instagram influencer marketing industrial complex, fast fashion labour law violations, and unpacking alt-right plots to infiltrate children’s YouTube channels.

Lawson and Summers initially met two years ago as coworkers. Today, they’re co-creators who produce Eating for Free out of a home studio in their shared Bay area apartment. Roughly a year and a half in, the show is on its third season, though I’ve been listening to Eating for Free since its first few episodes. In that time, I’ve watched it grow into itself as exactly the kind of critical, chaotic celebrity reporting to fit a post-truth age. And according to the hosts, that’s been the plan all along. Eating for Free was always conceived of as a targeted intervention — an opportunity to challenge a status quo in the world of news and criticism that took celebrities at their word, ran with whatever line was at the top of a press release, and refused to recognize unchecked wealth accumulation as a harmful practice.

The Noodles and Beef story was just the tip of the iceberg, but it spelled huge success for the podcast. Their listeners doubled, then tripled, basically overnight. Now, Summers and Lawson typically put out two episodes per week. One is a roundup of hot topics and blind items, the kind of content you might come across if you made excessive use of Instagram’s explore feature, infused with their unique political perspective (the podcast is explicitly radical and anti-capitalist). The second episode is called their “Late Lunch,” and it’s devoted to a full exploration of an underreported topic. They launched “Late Lunches” after the success of the Noodles and Beef story.

“Some of these topics — like Noodles and Beef — really needed a whole episode to fully talk about it,” Lawson told me over the phone from the at-home recording studio he and Summers share. “Late Lunch was an idea that we’d kind of already thought about, and since we switched to that format, I think fans have been really enjoying it. It’s been great to be able to do those deep dives, it’s what people are looking for and we love an investigative moment.”

Covering pop culture in 2019 requires an acute political awareness and a willingness to dig deeper. By being so “logged-on,” Summers and Lawson have managed to bridge the gaps between pop culture gossip column, buddy improv hour, and true-crime drama. The hosts are relentless in holding celebrities to account for public incidents of racism, homophobia, and exploitation, but they don’t dwell on accusations and callouts. The twists and shenanigans that make up each episode’s contents tend to avoid the kind of headline-grabbing gossip that you’d see in the average tabloid or half-hour comedy serial. Instead, Lawson and Summers chart the peaks and valleys of capitalist decline and community politics, often using Hollywood drama as a jumping off point to investigate darker, more challenging storylines.

The connections come up in surprising ways. When Beyoncé performed at an oligarch’s wedding in India, Eating for Free took the opportunity to chart a history of pop stars performing for plutocrats. When Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson broke up, Eating for Free explained how women are doubly impacted by trauma going into relationships. When Lena Dunham was exposed for lying to defend a rapist, Eating for Free explained how she attained success on the inherited clout of her parent’s misogynistic art. When Lindsay Lohan was punched on Instagram live for harassing a Turkish family in Moscow, Eating for Free reminded us of the political dangers facing refugees in authoritarian states. When Azealia Banks was stuck wandering around Elon Musk’s mansion, Eating for Free illustrated the contrasts between Musk’s fun-loving lifestyle and his company’s dreadful working conditions. And to make sense of the phenomenon of JoJo Siwa, Eating for Free documented the multi-million dollar cottage industry of YouTube child stars. The list goes on, and every item gets weirder and weirder.

I spend altogether too much time online, and it leaves me exhausted. Bad news is everywhere, to the point of confusion. And because culture moves so quickly, it can be all too easy to lose track of things that feel worth knowing. In that way, Eating for Free feels like the perfect answer to the kind of indifference and fatigue that often comes with being so consistently online and over-exposed to pop culture news. They’re able to explore the kind of stories you might otherwise scroll past, and provide the vital background information behind a headline — exposing the processes that bring a story to the fore, and its significance within a broader cultural context. That context is important, say the hosts, because they show how deeply connected everything online is through the flow of capital and the forms of coercion and control bubbling just under the surface of the world of the rich and famous.

Eating for Free feels like the perfect answer to the kind of indifference and fatigue that often comes with being so consistently online and over-exposed to pop culture news.

“I think the key theme of our show is Venn diagrams,” said Summers, who also writes Jezebel’s weekly gossip column. She was talking about Democratic donor Ed Buck, a wealthy white man who is linked to the deaths of two young Black gay men. The second dead body were found in Buck’s West Hollywood home in January. For Summers, this story is intimately linked to the Noodles and Beef story. “I tell Lawson that my brain works as like a giant graph with yarn lines connecting various things.”

In Summers’ view, these topics are fair game for pop culture reporting, because their coverage and subsequent mythologizing in the media ends up feeding into mainstream pop storylines. She pointed to the Golden Globe-winning series The Assassination of Gianni Versace as evidence of these connections and their consequences in a media age defined by ruthlessness, especially on the part of white and straight tastemakers and gatekeepers.

“With Noodles and Beef, that was something where the story was driven by the gay community. It was a grassroots campaign of twitter users and bloggers getting that story out there,” said Summers. “If we look at the way that the victims and the story around Gianni Versace were treated in the press, and the way that people are reporting the Ed Buck story, there’s a very clear line that we can draw with historical connotations.”

This emphasis on stories and their consequences means that the show is continually concerned with how listeners engage with topics and ask critical questions. Memory can be hard to come by in the internet age. This kind of media literacy — being able to identify and unpack narratives, engage with material critically, and not accept anything from the jump — is extremely valuable. It’s how we avoid falling into the traps of stereotypes, and missing how money, power, and fame shape the kind of voices and silences present in the media landscape. “We try to get as much of a wide net as possible, just so we can get multiple points of view,” said Lawson. “The amount of research that goes into an episode is intense; I think I go through a hundred tabs in one day just looking for stories.”

But where Eating for Free succeeds is in the hosts’ capacity to play up the fun even amidst the intensity of their politics.”I’m a reporter, I’m a culture critic, I think that I’m pretty logged on, but I still do not have a net wide enough to cover everything out there,” said Summers. “There are things I get brought that are so shocking that, and I’m like ‘How on earth did I not find this?’ The internet is so big at this point. I think that’s kind of the beauty of our show — there is always an unlimited amount of things to discuss.”

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