As some of you might know, for the last five months, I’ve been volunteering as a clinic escort for an abortion clinic. I live in New York City, a very blue part of a very blue state. You’d think this would be an easy gig.
It’s been… interesting! And by interesting I mean “hair-raising.”
I’ve been planning to write a post on my experiences since the first time I escorted. A month ago, I gathered up allll of my courage, and asked Melissa McEwan, one of my personal heroes, if she’d be interested in running the piece on Shakesville.
*freaks out for a five minutes*
So, if you’d like to read about my experiences volunteering as a clinic escort, you should go over to Shakesville and read the piece: The Truth About Buffer Zones and the Harassers Who Hate Them.
As a side note: I’m currently fundraising (alongside my fellow escorts) for the New York Abortion Access Fund through the National Abortion Access Bowl-A-Thon (whew, that’s a mouthful). Unfortunately, protesters aren’t the only deterrent to abortion access. Abortions are expensive, and are rarely covered by private insurances. A first trimester abortion costs upwards of $500, and anything beyond that can get up in the thousands.
So if you can, please consider donating to me/my team. Or donating to a local-to-you team (you can search the events to find teams in your area). If you donate to a local-to-you team, it would make me super-happy to know about it – leave me a comment, maybe? I will obviously know if you donate to my fund directly!
[Trigger warning for suicide ideation, depression, mental illness, stigmatization]
I am a proud member of Prozac nation.
I refuse to solve my problems and deal with unpleasant emotions. I don’t treat my depression with good ‘ol hard work and bootstraps. I take the easy way out. I medicate. My moods are chemical, my personality is a façade created by neurotransmitters.
Ah, manufactured happiness.
All jokes aside, I love it when I’m told that treating depression with medication is the “easy way out.” Nearly forty thousand people commit suicide every year in the United States, and approximately 60% of those people suffered from major depression. Moreover, 15% of the population will suffer from clinical depression at least once in their lifetime, and 30% of clinically depressed people attempt suicide.
I’m sorry, what, exactly, is the problem with using an “easy way out” of depression?
The idea that antidepressants are a lesser treatment is rooted in the narrative that depression is a personal failure rather than a disease. If depression is a personal failure, then you can correct it through hard work. Taking a pill to “solve” your mistake is a cheat, an unfair shortcut to redemption.
One of the consequences of ableism is our collective distaste for vulnerability, whether of the body or of the mind. We want to believe our bodies are under our own control. We especially want to believe that our minds are under our control. The idea that our brains could suddenly get sick, and we wouldn’t be able to switch them back to healthy is, frankly, terrifying.
So we lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves that depression doesn’t exist, that it’s an invented disease, that it’s just people complaining too much about bad moods, laziness or hard times. It’s easier than confronting the reality – than realizing that yeah, there are mental, and we can’t magically control them with the flip of a mental switch.
Unfortunately, the “make loud noises and hope the problem goes away” tactic isn’t exactly helping. In a 2011 study on why people with depression don’t seek treatment, sixteen percent said they perceived treatment as ineffective, while ten percent cited stigma. 21.2% of the people who drop out of treatment do so because of stigma, and 21.1% do it because of perceived ineffectiveness.
So yeah, when you start denying that antidepressants work at all, or when you say that depression is a made-up disease and the people who have it are weak… there are consequences to that.
This discussion isn’t theoretical for me. When I started taking antidepressants, I, like many people, didn’t believe they worked. I thought the “hard work” of therapy would fix my depression, not the “quick fix” of medication. Thus, when the antidepressants did nothing, I didn’t bother to alert my doctor.
It took a long courtship to reunite me with antidepressants. Our reunification took a the form of a classic, 19th century marriage plot: we had to go through misunderstandings, affronts, passions, separations and despair before we finally found each other.
1. Misunderstandings: Fluoxetine, part 1
It was my first year in college. I hadn’t wanted to go to my university – McGill – because I thought the school was too big and I would be isolated and alone.
And, since 17-year-old me was quite prescient, I was precisely right! I did feel isolated and alone.
I did have one small ray of light: I was in a play! Whooo! Unfortunately, the play had an end date. And on the aforementioned end date, I went back to my dorm, fell asleep, and didn’t come out for three months.
Okay, so I’m glossing over some details. I did leave to get food and go to the bathroom. But I didn’t go to class. I didn’t go outside. I stopped reading. I stopped contacting the outside world. I spent my days lying in bed, listening to music, and watching every single episode of America’s Next Top Model.
I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t filled with angst. I wasn’t even anxious – which, if you know me at all, is pretty rare. I was just numb. Numb, numb, numb, numb, numb. WHEEEEEEE, numb.
Sure, I was failing all my classes, ruining my academic career, spending my days in bed and doing absolutely nothing. But I wasn’t worried!
I wasn’t anything at all.
To me, nothing was wrong. I was just incredibly lazy. That was the problem. Any day now, I would snap out of my incredible laziness and start working again. Bootstraps! Yes sirree. (This strategy did not work)
Three months in, I finally told my mother that I might be a “little depressed.” Because my mother knows that I have an *incredible* gift for understatement, she interpreted this correctly as “I might be really really depressed, oh god help.”
The mental health clinic at my school had a three-week waiting list for an appointment, and my health care coverage in Quebec was crap, so my parents flew me back to the United States to see a doctor. I took the two-page test medical practitioners give you when they think you’re depressed (some of you know exactly what I’m talking about) and my doctor took one at it before he said: “Uh… yeah, you’re pretty fucking depressed.”
Except he didn’t use the word “fucking,” and he did use the phrase “major medical disorder.”
Then the Doctor recommended that I take a medical leave from school (before I failed allllll my classes) take antidepressants, and start therapy. I was worried that therapists wouldn’t think I was depressed enough to take a medical leave (remember, I still thought I was just a “little” depressed), but the two therapists I saw back home couldn’t sign the “This student should really take a medical leave of absence” sheet fast enough.
Meanwhile, my doctor put me on one of the most common antidepressants: Prozac, AKA Fluoxetine.
Fluoxetine is an SSRI – a Serotonin Selective Reuptake Inhibitor. The way SSRI’s work is by inhibiting the reuptake/ reabsorption of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Because your brain isn’t “reuptaking” the serotonin, there’s more of it around, which leads to more ‘happiness.’ At least, that’s the theory.
I took a medical leave from McGill. I came home. I took antidepressants. I started therapy. Therapy was good. Not being in school was good. Being home was good.
Fluoxetine… was not so good.
“It works pretty fast,” people told me. “It was pretty instant when I took it.”
Well… I wasn’t feeling anything. Not after two weeks. Not after six weeks. Not after two months. Therapy and lack-of-school were making me feel better, but I didn’t feel like the numbness – the nothingness – was gone.
Then again, I’d never taken antidepressants before – and frankly, I didn’t really think they “worked.” Maybe the effect was really subtle. So I never brought the “not working” part up to my doctor.
When I went back to McGill at the end of the summer, I fell straight back into depression.
So much for fluoxetine!
Told you. It’s a complicated courtship.
This time I made it through the semester – somehow. It was a pretty terrible semester.
During the winter break, I found a new, less stressful, living situation. I decided to take only classes I thought I’d enjoy. And I stopped taking fluoxetine. I did not consult a doctor – I was in Montreal, and I didn’t have any medical authority to turn to. I just knew that the fluoxetine wasn’t doing anything. So I stopped.
Things got better. I lived in a good place; I went to interesting classes; I started making friends. By the end of the semester, I was in recovery.
So hey! you might be thinking. Doesn’t this story prove that antidepressants don’t really work, while therapy and changing your life circumstances does? You took antidepressants and things got worse, you stopped them and things got better. Case closed, right?
Here’s the thing about depression: we haven’t quite figured out how the fuck it works. Some of it has to do with brain chemistry, but some of it is definitely due to environmental or psychological factors. And we’re not sure how those three interact, or which ones to “treat” first.
Let’s look at those factors in the case of my depression.
1. Environmental: I was in a university I hated. I had no support system. I had no community. I had no friends. There was nothing to be happy about.
2. Psychological: Without getting into a ridiculous amount of details, one of my parents was emotionally abusive (or, to quote my first therapist: “your parent is a real bully, huh?”), and the emotional abuse caused me to adopt some pretty maladaptive lines of thought. Like blaming everything on myself; thinking I was worthless, hating myself etc. The usual.
So these environmental and psychological factors were definitely fueling my depression. And then we get to:
3. Weird brain chemistry stuff.
We know that depression changes a person’s brain (see above). We think it might have something to do with the neurotransmitters that regulate mood, like serotonin and dopamine. It’s not entirely clear whether your brain chemistry gets weird, so you get depression, or whether you get depression, and then your brain chemistry becomes weird. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s different for different people. Probably it’s different for different people.
But right now, science is still a bit baffled. Yes, we’ve got antidepressants, but no one’s quite sure how they work, or why they work. We know they’re doing something, because they help a lot of people. But they’re also totally useless for a lot of other people. Some people respond terribly to one antidepressant, but do great on another one. And nobody’s sure why! But we’re dealing with a pretty terrible illness, and if a tool works, we’re going to use it, even if we’re not sure exactly what it’s doing.
(This is, obviously, a massive oversimplification of the current state of depression studies)
So, to recap: since environmental and psychological factors were a big part of my depression, changing them – finding a better living situation, going through talk therapy, surviving the hell of my second semester – made a big difference. Enough of a difference that I went into depression-recovery even though the meds I was taking to target my brain chemistry weren’t working.
Here’s the flip-side: it took me over a year-and-a-half for me to recover from my first depression without the help of medication. And it was not a fun year.
Still, you think: all the medication and neurotransmitter stuff I just talked about? That’s all theoretical. The proof is in the pudding. You got better without antidepressants!
Just wait. You’ll see: there’s more to this story.
Affronts – Fluoxetine, part 2:
The next two years went pretty well. I switched my major, fell back in love with school, made friends, participated in a play, found my community. When I had the time and resources, I went to therapy.
And then: the migraines.
My migraines have always been problem, but in my junior year at McGill, they became a plague. I got them almost every day: blinding pain in the back of my skull, accompanied by dizziness and aching muscles.
I decided that the solution to my migraines was to overhaul my diet. Protein, I thought, was the key. Cut out all those carbs and sugars, and eat miles of protein instead. Oh, and I should start an exercise program. An hour at the gym every day.
I told myself these changes – the diet, the exercise – were for my migraines. But deep inside, I knew the truth: convinced I was too fat, I wanted to lose weight.
The migraines got a lot worse. Shockingly worse. Before I started going to the gym, my migraines would always go away with a good night’s sleep. Now, I would come out of the gym and have migraines that lasted for days. Nothing made them budge – not medication, not sleep, nothing.
And even though I knew the exercise was causing the migraines, and the diet was making it worse… I kept going.
That’s when the shit hit the fan: my migraines became light-sensitive.
I would go to school feeling fine, and after an hour under fluorescent lights, I would have a migraine bad enough that I’d need to go home immediately. I couldn’t handle any light – I closed all my shades, turned off all the lights, switched my computer off – and spent the day in the dark. I couldn’t do anything. When I tried, the pain would be so bad that I would start throwing up.
Not surprisingly, these circumstances took a psychological toll. Combine the pain from the migraines with the fact that I couldn’t do anything and you’ve got a recipe for a very unhappy Suzanne. Before I even realized what was happening, I’d landed back in the middle of the town of Total Numbington.
Once I stopped going to the gym, started eating better and kept spending all my time in the dark the migraines got better subsided. My residency in the town of Numbington, however, was far more permanent.
In a repeat of my first depression, I spent most of my time in bed, reading piles upon piles of X-Men: First Class fanfic. Fortunately, this depression didn’t seem as severe as my first, so I was still able to go to class and do work. My grades held steady.
I did not see a doctor in Montreal.
When I finally came home to Wisconsin, my parent had switched health insurance plans, and I could not longer access my long-term therapist or doctor. My new doctor asked me almost no questions before diagnosing me with depression again. Then she asked me if fluoxetine had given me any side effects when I’d first taken it.
“None that I noticed.”
“And did it help?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t feel anything, but maybe it was subtle.”
She started me on fluoxetine again.….I am not a good advocate for myself in health situations. At all. Because I should have stopped her there and said “no, fluoxetine didn’t work, we need to try something else.” But since I still didn’t realize that you’re actually supposed to * feel * the effects of antidepressant, I just acquiesced to the fluoxetine. Again: telling people that antidepressants don’t work HAS CONSEQUENCES.
The doctor, of course, wins a gold medal in “wut” medicine for translating my “I’m not sure fluoxetine did anything” response into “let’s just throw more fluoxetine at the problem.” (In a shocking twist of events, fluoxetine did absolutely nothing. Who could have predicted that result, huh?)
Some good things did happen that summer. I found a great new therapist. I started a fairly effective migraine treatment. The lack of school-related stress from school also helped. I certainly wasn’t as depressed at the end of the summer as I was at the beginning.
Eventually, I saw another doctor. I brought up the fact that fluoxetine (still) wasn’t doing anything. She decided not to switch my medication since I was about to move back to Montreal.
“We don’t want too many changes at once.”
I was pretty much on the “FUCK ALL ANTIDEPRESSANTS FOREVER” train by this point.
Passion, or Wellbutrin Part 1
I returned to school, still on fluoxetine. Though the fluoxetine remained useless, my depression was under control.
It was a good semester. I found a low-cost therapist. I started dating the Feminist Philosopher. I worked on my honors thesis, I enjoyed my classes, I wrote some popular blog posts.
But even in those good moments, part of me was still stuck in Numbington. And I was sick of it.
The next time I went to Wisconsin, I made an appointment with a new doctor. This was the third primary care doctor I’d seen in less than a year, and I was not optimistic.
But this time, I did my research. I wrote a list of concerns. I found a website with lots of information about antidepressants (Crazy Meds), and I read the relevant information. I knew enough that I could advocate for myself.
And this time, the doctor actually listened to me. Our appointment was supposed to be fifteen minutes long, but she spent an hour with me. We went through my list of concerns, discussing the various things that could be contributing to my mood, making a plan. She asked my opinion on various medications.
I walk out with a list of concrete suggestions and a prescription for Wellbutrin.
Wellbutrin, otherwise known as Bupropion, is not an SSRI. And it’s not… entirely clear how it works (you may have noticed a trend here). Our best guess is that it inhibits the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that, like serotonin, work as mood regulators. Since I hadn’t responded well to an SSRI (fluoxetine), my doctor bet that targeting dopamine and norepinephrine would work better than moving on to another SSRI.
Wellbutrin works quite well with depression. It also has very few of antidepressants most infamous side effects: it doesn’t (usually) cause sexual dysfunction, weight gain or somnolence (feeling tired all the time). It occasionally leads to weight loss – which some people may feel is a plus, but which could be a problem for others.
Crucially, Wellbutrin works particularly well with people whose depression is coupled with social anxiety (*raises hand*) and people whose depression manifests through anhedonia – an inability to take pleasure from activities you usually enjoy (*raises hand*).
Wellbutrin, in other words, was an ideal antidepressant for me. It wasn’t an SSRI, it had few side effects, and it tended to work well for people whose depressions were similar to mine.
I felt so much better when I walked out of the doctor’s office, in large part because I wasn’t just taking a pill on faith. The doctor had explained her reasoning, and I felt that she was addressing my specific needs, rather than giving me a one-size-fits-all medication.
Thus, armed with a new antidepressant and a whole lot of hope, I returned to Montreal’s cold embrace.
Reader, Wellbutrin worked.
Two and a half weeks after I’d started the pills, I woke up at nine, lounged in bed for less than five minutes, got up and started making breakfast.
Wait. Pause. If there was something I’d never been able to do during my depressions, it was actually waking up. What the hell was going on?
It kept going. I started getting out of bed with energy in the morning. I was motivated to do things. I was procrastinating less. I’d finally started outlining my honors thesis. My appetite was back. My insomnia was gone. I planned for meals and sleep. And my anxiety, the electric beast perching on the back of my head day and night, seemed to have gone to sleep. I only felt occasional prickles.
Then, reader, I had to have a bit of a sit-down. Because if a medication could make my depression better so quickly and so radically, then maybe I wasn’t the problem.
Maybe I actually did have fucked-up brain chemistry.
You think I would have figured this out earlier. But even though I believed that depression was a disease, not a personal failure, and even though I knew the mechanics of depression, and even though I knew I couldn’t just “snap out of it – subconsciously? I was pretty sure it was my fault. I bought into the “depression as personal failure” model.
Wellbutrin knocked a couple legs off that theory.
Part 4: Separation, or Wellbutrin, part 2
A few weeks after Wellbutrin started working, I started fainting. Plus, I had a noxious combination of dizziness, nausea, constant-never-ending hunger and hypoglycemia.
… side effects.
I was in Canada, and I had no way to pop down to my doctor’s office in Wisconsin to figure out if Wellbutrin was indeed causing these symptoms. They weren’t on the list of common side-effects, but there weren’t a lot of competing explanations. At some point, my doctor stopped responding to my emails. I was cut off of medical advice. Any doctor I could have seen in Canada would have cost a whole lot of money, and would have zero knowledge of my medical history.
And meanwhile, I was dizzy/fainting/hungry/nauseated/ freaking out.
I stopped taking Wellbutrin. Cold turkey, no titrating. It seemed like the best option at the time.
I stopped fainting. The dizziness went away. And the depression, temporarily banished to the outer atmosphere, fell straight back home. With a vengeance.
Going from “doing good!” to “severely depressed” in a week was viciously painfulI spent a lot of the month of February and March curled up in bed, watching Elementary and drawing pictures of naked women (don’t ask).
But I did return to functionality. Depressed functionality, true, but functionality. All of my assignments got turned in on time. I missed minimal classes. I finished my honors thesis with time to spare. I graduated with first class honors. I made some big life decisions; I moved apartments; I dealt with bed bugs. I started playing video games.
I was depressed, but I was okay.
Part 5: Despair
Then I stopped being okay.
It was summer. I was no longer in school. I was facing a really massive change in my life: the end of college, the beginning of my adult life, a move to a terrifying new city etc. etc. etc.
And I was now entering year two of an untreated depression.
My depressions were usually characterized by numbness, exhaustion and lack of interest in the world. I did have moments of overwhelming sadness, but they were moments. They lasted twenty minutes to an hour at the most.
Now they lasted days. My numbness now translated into constant sadness and despair. I took frequent breaks during the day to lie in bed and cry. I cried myself to sleep most nights.
And then, for the first time in my near-five years of experience with depression, I experienced suicide ideation.
Feeling suicidal is Not Fun. Especially when it’s happening 2-3 times a week, and you’re too terrified by the feeling to tell anyone. I’d always been able to handle my depression. I didn’t know how to handle this. I didn’t know how to handle the overwhelming sadness and shame and guilt that made me want to die. I’d always felt like a burden; now I felt like so much of a burden that I just wanted to disappear, to make everyone’s life easier.
Yes, I wanted to live; I wanted to live desperately. I had so much to live for. But I also wanted desperately not to feel, to stop the pain of living, to end my constant guilt. In those moments, I felt trapped – I couldn’t see a stopping point to the pain. I didn’t believe there would be a stopping point. I just wanted it to end.
It never got bad enough that I started planning, or even considering options. But the “not bad enough” was more than bad enough for me.
I was so scared.
A friend and I were talking over facebook around this point, and she said, “I don’t understand. You have the Feminist Philosopher. You two seem so happy together. And you’re moving to NYC, and there’ll be lots of opportunities there. Why are you depressed?”
See, that’s what’s so terrifying about depression. It’s not necessarily a response to something. It can be caused by psychological and environmental factors, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s an illness.
It doesn’t need to be caused by anything.
Which, when you’re lying in bed thinking about death, is horrifying. Because if it isn’t caused by anything, how are you going to make it go away?
Reunification, or Paxil
To cut a long story short: I found a way to get back to Wisconsin (for a ridiculous amount of money). I saw my doctor and left her office with a prescription for a new antidepressant: Paxil, AKA Paroxetine
Even today, I have zero idea why I was prescribed Paxil. It’s one of the more prescribed antidepressants, but it’s not one of the most effective ones – in a lot of trials, it’s not even as effective as fluoxetine, which we’d established didn’t work for me at all. It’s also one of the worst, if not the worst, antidepressant for side effects – especially for sexual side effects.
I… was not happy about that. I really like sex. Sex was one of the things that remained wonderful despite the depression.
And, on top of the horrible side effects, Paxil has a notorious discontinuation syndrome. If Paxil didn’t work, not only would I have to find a new antidepressant, I might also have to deal with withdrawal.
At the same time… Wellbutrin was supposed to work great and cause zero side effects. But it didn’t. So maybe I wouldn’t know how Paxil would work for me until I tried it.
So I tried it! Very unhappily, but I did!
I really wasn’t expecting much.
But taking Paxil, my friends, was a good life choice, because two-and-a-half weeks later, the fog just – lifted.
I know this whole “fog-lifting” thing sounds like a figure of speech, but it did not feel that way at the time. It was as though every color in my brain had reset to a brighter setting. Two weeks.
I stopped feeling suicidal. I haven’t had a single episode of suicide ideation since I started taking Paxil. All my random crying jags ended. I mean, I still cry, but there’s always a reason – I’ve had a bad day, I’ve dropped a stack of books on my foot, I’m watching Catching Fire and I can’t handle the flashbacks to RUUUUUEEEE.
My moods made sense. I wasn’t randomly desperate or unhappy or mad. If I was sad, it was because something sad had happened. And my default was no longer “numb/sad,” it was “fairly happy.”
Yeah, when antidepressants work, they can really work.
A few weeks later, I moved to a new city – New York City, in fact. Unlike my first major move (to Montreal), this one did not provoke a new depression. In fact, I was pretty thrilled. I found a great job. I found a second job as a freelance book reviewer (!!!). I made friends. I explored the city. I spent lots of time with my boyfriend.
When people say that antidepressants squash creativity, I laugh and laugh. Sometimes I can stop laughing before they start talking about calming drinks.
Prior to Paxil, I was basically incapable of reading, much less writing. When I got to New York, I started writing again. I managed to publish a few blog posts – those had essentially disappeared during the Major Depressive Summer. I began writing fiction again for the first time in years. I taught myself how to spin yarn using a drop spindle. I started painting my nails. I took the GREs, I applied to graduate school, I got a 750 on the GRE in Literature. The three people who have taken that test are now suitably impressed.
I started volunteering.
… yeah, I’m pretty sure the antidepressants aren’t destroying my personality.
Okay, let’s talk about the bad news – the side effects.
I’ve got a couple. The usual vivid dreams – serotonin is notorious for this one – but vivid dreams don’t really bother me. I’m sleepier, although I can’t tell whether this comes from the paxil, or from all the migraines I’ve been getting. I now shake my leg when I’m working at my desk – again, I can’t tell if this is a side effect from paxil, or if I’ve just picked it up in the last few months.
I haven’t had any sexual side effects, which is BLOODY FANTASTIC. My sex life is great, thanks for asking!
I have gained a lot of weight. Side-effect fatty over here! Obviously, it is possible that this is an unrelated weight-gain, but the evidence seems to indicate that it stems from the Paxil. I’ve also been eating less and exercising more since I started Paxil (it’s amazing how not being depressed can help you get out of the house/cook food). And I gained weight on my other SSRI, fluoxetine, which I lost it when I stopped taking the drug.
I think I’ve gone up a couple dress sizes. Am I super-happy about this? Nope!
I am a product of our society, and although intellectually, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being fat(ter), I struggle with a shit-ton of body issues. Plus, you know, having to buy new clothes sucks.
At the same time, I’d rather be bigger and happier than thinner and depressed. At least when I’m in recovery, I have the emotional resources to deal with body-image issues. When I’m depressed and thinner, I still hate my body, but I have no capacity to deal with it.
So. On balance, I’m quite pleased with Paxil. It took three medications, but I’ve finally found one that puts me in recovery, and where the side effect are tolerable.
Part 7: The end of the courtship
Having been through the whole courtship and marriage plot shindig, let me tell you, I’ve learned a lot about antidepressants. I know how to make a relationship with serotonin and other neurotransmitters work.
Let me share my secrets.
1. If you don’t feel antidepressants working, they’re not working
I wasted an incredible amount of time taking fluoxetine because I thought it might be working even though I didn’t feel any different. Now I know better: if you don’t feel an antidepressant working within six weeks, it’s not doing anything.
You definitely want to give it six weeks (although many doctors will want you to check in after three weeks to see if they should up the dose) because some antidepressants take time to work. But if you’re not feeling anything, or if what you’re feeling is so subtle that it’s meaningless, you have the right to bring it up. There’s nothing wrong with you because a treatment didn’t work. And you are not obliged to keep quiet about it to make the doctors feel better or to avoid inconveniencing anyone.
Moreover, just because one dosage of one antidepressant doesn’t work does not mean that antidepressants are wrong for you, full stop. After using fluoxetine, I was pretty sure antidepressants did nothing for me. Five years later, I can say with certainty that some antidepressants do a whole lot for me.
Is it a pain in the ass to deal with the trial-and-error of finding the right medication? Absolutely. Just like it’s a pain in the ass to do the trial-and-error of finding a new therapist.
But one experience with antidepressants does not seal your fate with psychiatric medications.
2. Doing your own research is a good idea.
Understanding how antidepressants work and having my own internal database of medications, their side effects and their efficacity went a long way to reconciling me to the idea of psychiatric medications after my bad experience with fluoxetine.
Obviously, it’s important to remember that what you find in your research doesn’t determine how you’ll react to any given antidepressant. See: my experience with Paxil. But it can help demystify the process and allow you to advocate for yourself in the doctor’s office.
You can also get an idea of what side effects are unacceptable to you. Heightened anxiety? Cognitive problems? Somnolence? Loss of libido? If you give doctors an idea of what you don’t want, they can try to tailor their prescription.
At the very least, if you’ve done your research, when your doctor says something you know is false, you can run.
(I’m personally a big fan of the irreverent and comprehensive website Crazymeds. It’s got a ridiculous amount of information on various psychiatric medications (not just antidepressants). It’s also run by crazy people, for crazy people, which I find reassuring))
3. Advocating for yourself is important, but is also paradoxically the hardest thing to do while depressed.
Finding the right antidepressant involved a whole of lot of me standing up for myself, demanding that doctors help me and refusing to believe that it was all my fault.
In other words, it took a lot of investing in myself.
But there’s a reason it took me five years to get to that point. Because when you’re depressed, you have nothing to invest in yourself. Your resources are gone.
And depression, meanwhile, is actively convincing you that there’s no problem at all… except you. You’re the problem. You’re not sick, you’re just lazy/stupid/etc.
Which is why:
4. Getting good treatment involves supportive, continuous healthcare.
You know when I started getting good treatment? When my doctor started listening to me. That’s how I got prescribed Wellbutrin. That’s how I got prescribed Paxil. Before then, I’d been through two separate doctors who either hadn’t listened to my problems, or hadn’t inquired further about my experience with antidepressants when I said they weren’t doing much. That… was not okay.
Mental illnesses are a chronic problem, and they need continuous care. A prescription is not the end. Often, problems will arise, the dosage will need to be adjusted, side effects will appear, or the medication won’t work at all. Healthcare here needs to be seen as a long-term process, both by the patients, and by the doctors. My biggest problem with recovery has been my lack of continuous healthcare. Even when I found medications that worked for me, I couldn’t go see my doctor for a regular check-in, because I was in Canada and she… wasn’t. I probably would have found the right antidepressant a whole lot faster if I were able to access healthcare more often.
But unfortunately, access to healthcare was geographically and economically impossible for much of my college life. (It’s still economically impossible for me at this point, which… is great! (not))
5. Who gives a shit if Antidepressants Are the Easy Way Out?
So, are antidepressants the easy way out?
Time for a rant: The idea that antidepressants are an “easy solution” to depression is such bullshit. The flip side of that coin – that therapy, exercise, diet change etc. and tackling the “root psychological problem” – are the “correct” way to solve depression is also pure BS.
Both these ideas are rooted in the narrative that depression is a personal failure, a mistake you can “correct.” Some people choose the “easy” way out and just take pills, which means they never “correct” their personal failures. Others pull themselves up by their own bootstraps by doing therapy and running 30 miles a day. Those people are actually “correcting” their personal failure by doing the hard work of personal redemption.
Yo, depression isn’t a tragic flaw in a shakespearian tragedy. It’s a disease that fundamentally changes the way your brain works. You do not “deserve” to be depressed. You aren’t depressed because you took the wrong path in childhood. You aren’t depressed because you’re lazy. You aren’t depressed because you’re weak. You’re depressed because you have an illness.
And since depression is an illness, not a character flaw, it responds to treatments like an illness. Which means that everyone’s depression will respond differently to therapies and treatments. No treatment is inherently better or worse than another. If therapy helps you, that’s great. If antidepressants help you, that’s great. If a combination of the two is an optimal solution, that’s fantastic.
Important side note: since depression is an illness that no one really understands, you won’t know what works for your depression until you’ve found it. There’s no great way to guess what’ll work for someone, which is why we shouldn’t assume that one treatment is better than another for any particular person (unless, obviously, there are allergies/side effect issues/other health factors).
Finally: Who the fuck cares about whether something is “easy” or not when you’re severely depressed? Seriously, this is life we’re dealing with, not an endurance contest. There is no prize at the end for the person who Worked The Hardest To Solve Their Brain Chemistry Problems.
Disclaimer: This was my long, long, long post about my personal experience with antidepressants. As a reminder, it’s… my experience, not anyone else’s. And there are a shit-ton of problems with antidepressants beyond the fake issues people invent. Hey, it’s harder for people of color to get correctly diagnosed! Doctors make all kinds of terrible mistakes based on stigma! We don’t have the healthcare structure necessary to make sure that people who need treatment *get* continuous treatment!
Tons of problems.
Antidepressants being “easy” isn’t one of them.
Today, February 14th, is the global day for Missing and Murdered Indigenous women.
In Canada, first nations women are seven times more likely to be murdered than other women. They are three and a half times more likely to be victims of violence than non-native women.
There is no way to know exactly how many first nations and aboriginal women have been murdered, or have gone missing in Canada and the USA, because no reliable database exists. Sisters in Spirit, a research initiative whose funding was cut by the Harper government in 2010, counted over 600 cases of missing and murdered first nations women. Another database has numbers as high as 824 murdered and missing first nations women, just from 1980 to 2013.
Between 2000 and 2008, 153 cases of murder were identified in the Native Women Association of Canada’s Sisters In Spirit database. First nations women make up only 3% of the total female population in Canada, but 10% of the female homicides in Canada in the 2000 to 2008 period. An additional 115 women in the database are still missing.
To quote NWAC: “The overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in Canada as victims of violence must be understood in the context of a colonial strategy that sought to dehumanize Aboriginal women.” The violence that is perpetuated against Native American, Alaska Native and First Nations women is rooted in colonial violence and racism.
In the United States, on some reservations, the murder rate for Native women is ten times the national average. Some 88% of these types of crimes are committed by non-Indians.
Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations like Amnesty International have condemned the United States and Canada for their inaction with regards to the violence against indigenous women.
For decades, Indigenous women in Canada have held marches, vigils and rallies on February 14th to honor the Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered in the past thirty years. The vigil was started over 20 years ago in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Mainstream feminist organizations have ignored the significance of the February 14th date in planning One Billion Rising, and have dismissed or belittled indigenous activists like Lauren Chief Elk, who have protested the coopting of the February 14th date.
Here are important links and resources:
Murder of Indigenous Women and Community Activism:
Youtube movie on the Downtown East Side, the roots of the Memorial March, violence against indigenous women and the activism of women in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver.
The Save Wįyąbi Mapping Project, which shows unsolved and solved murders of indigenous women in the United States and Canada.
Crucial acts about the missing and murdered indigenous women of Canada.
The Native American Women of Canada’s report on missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada: “What Their Stories Tell Us: Research Findings from the Sisters In Spirit Initiative.”
Indigenous people in Canada creating their own database of the missing and murdered, in part because the government will not do it.
The Women’s Memorial March in the Downtown East Side: ” “Why is it such an uphill battle to get justice for missing and murdered women and their families and communities? We are calling for a national and international public inquiry led by family and community members. We need political will at all levels of government to address these tragedies as well as ongoing gendered violence, poverty, and racism.”
Government collusion with violence against indigenous women.
Individuals on why they participate in the Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women:
Why I March: Marlene George “When I realized how the march came about I was horrified that such violence could be thrust upon another human being to that degree and was immediately taken by the importance of this work.”
Sandra Delarond: “Lorna Lynn Blacksmith and her family are from Cross Lake. It just rattled my being to know that such a young woman from my home had dissappeared from the streets of Winnipeg. The media portrayed her as a sex trade worker – just another Aboriginal woman who was responsible for her own misfortune. Her community remembered her as a dedicated army cadet, strong and carefree young woman with dreams.”
Danielle Boudreau: “February 14, 2006 the First Annual Memorial March for All the Missing and Murdered Women of Edmonton was started [...] Two weeks later, on February 26, 2006, my younger sister was found murdered in her home, stabbed to death by her friend over a cell phone and a guy. Now the March had a new meaning to me.”
Raven Bowen: “She was calling out in bewilderment and anger to her society, a society where patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism unite in callous and dangerous ways. The blood of poor women, Indigenous women, and women of colour mark our streets such that we cannot march but a few steps without stopping. “
Maya Rolbin-Ghanie: “I want to walk down the street alone at night with no other distraction than the curve of the moon and the wind at my back and the shifting of the leaves. It’s unacceptable, all the blood and pain of daughters still pooling and seeping into the ground all around us.”
Coopting of the Memorial March by Eve Ensler and One Billion Rising:
Lauren Chief Elk’s Open Letter to Eve Ensler
There is No “We”: V-Day, Indigenous Women and the Myth of Shared Gender Oppression: “The actions made by V-Day on February 14, 2013 bulldozed and railroaded existing grassroots organizing by Indigenous women, and then attempted to silence Indigenous women for dissenting. This was not the first time that V-Day and Ensler were condemned by Indigenous women, and these actions are unfortunately emblematic of mainstream feminism and its anti-violence movement.”
Valentine’s Day and V-Day: “February 14th is an iconic day for Indigenous women in Canada, with marches, vigils, and rallies being held for decades to honor the over 600 Indigenous women who have been murdered or gone missing on Turtle Island, most of them over the last 30 years. It is an opportunity for us to come together to grieve the loss of many women, to remember the women who are still missing, and to dedicate ourselves to the continued struggle for justice. Despite the fact that women continue to go missing or are murdered, there is minimal to no action by the state of Canada to address these tragedies or the systemic nature of gendered violence, poverty, racism, or colonialism.”
It would be near impossible to name all the indigenous women in the United States and Canada who have been murdered, or are missing, but, in an effort to avoid disappearing these women further and turning them into a mass of nameless faces, here is a small list of some of the women who have recently been murdered or gone missing in Canada and the United States.
Cheyenne Fox, 20 years old. Died in April 2013 in Toronto under suspicious circumstances. Police refused to investigate.
Bella Laboucan-McLean, 25, died under suspicious circumstances in on July 20th, 2013 in Toronto.
Tricia Boisvert, 36. Lived in Montreal. Disappeared on January 17th, 2014, found dead in Ottawa. Homicide.
Courtney Johnstone, 26. Grande Prairie resident, reported missing to the RCMP on Jan. 30, 2014. Police have revealed that her disappearance was a homicide.
Hanna Harris, from Montana. 21 years old, went missing July 4th 2013. Found dead July 8th 2013. Family believes her death was a homicide.
Summer Dawn Bear, 15 years old. Missing since January 17th 2014 from her Saskatoon residence
Jenilee Rose Ballyntyne, 22. Murdered in Winnipeg around January 24th, 2013.
Kelsey Kahpeechoose, teenager. Missing from the City of Prince Albert since June 16th, 2014.
“We are here to honour and remember the women, and we are here because we are failing to protect women from poverty and systemic exploitation, abuse and violence. We are here in sorrow and in anger because the violence continues each and every day and the list of missing and murdered women gets longer every year” Marlene George
Today, I stand in solidarity with the people marching to honor the missing and murdered indigenous women of Canada and the United States.
I acknowledge that this post was written on the traditional territory of the Lenape people.
[Content note: flashing gifs, abusive relationships, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, violence against children, dating violence, misogynistic slurs, misogyny, racism]
Remember that time Grey’s Anatomy made physical and emotional abuse seem totally okay, as long as it was aimed towards disabled people?
Well, now comes part 2! (Huzzah). Yes, everyone, it’s time to sit down, gird our loins and talk about that time a show primarily aimed at kids turned physical abuse into a hilarious joke.
I am talking, of course, about the second season of the Legend of Korra, and the relationship between Bolin and Eska.
Now, there’s been a lot of really screwed-up stuff going on in the second season of Legend of Korra. A total lack of female characters, the disappearance of really cool characters like Katara and Lin Bei Fong, the return of the terrible love triangle ( NO ONE CARES), inconsistent characterization, nonsensical sexism, plots that make absolutely no sense etc. etc. etc.
But right up there in the Hall of Horror with the sexism and the bad writing is the way the show turned a physically and emotionally abusive relationship into a “funny” punch-line.
You may remember Bolin as one of Korra (the protagonist’s) best friends. In the first episode of season 2, Bolin becomes enamoured with Eska, Korra’s cousin. Eska decides Bolin’s cute, and hey presto, they’re dating.
Ah, young love. Sweet, adorable and…
Wait, what’s this?
… did Eska just use a wall of ice to physically drag Bolin away from Korra?
Did she seriously just physically prevent her boyfriend from touching one of his best friends?
DID THE SHOW JUST PLAY THAT MOMENT FOR LAUGHS?
Uh, not okay, Korra. What Eska did is the equivalent of physically grabbing and restraining Bolin. That. is. assault. It’s a pretty major red flag for abuse.
I wish I could say this moment in episode 2 was an isolated incident. Unfortunately, over the next few episodes, Eska becomes more and more abusive towards Bolin – and the show continues to portray the abuse as a joke.
In fact, given how the show has portrayed the relationship as *hilarious*, you may not even have realized all the gross, abusive shit that’s been happening!
Here’s a (shortened) recap:
A. Eska uses threats of violence and emotional abuse to force Bolin to stay in a relationship with her.
1. When Mako tells Bolin to”tell [Eska] you’re not into her anymore”, Bolin appears terrified, and says “”Oh no, no, no, I don’t think she’d like that.”
2. Then when Bolin takes Mako’s advice and tries to break up with Eska, she threatens to freeze him in a block of ice and feed him to dolphin piranhas. In case you think this is hyperbolic, let’s remember that this woman trapped Bolin in a block of ice when he hugged his friend.
3. The next time he tries to break up with her, she forces him to accept a marriage proposal and drags him away. The image makes it clear that Bolin is in pain as she pulls him.
4. When Bolin finally manages to get on a boat and escape the southern water tribe, Eska chases after him with on a massive water wave of doom, and it’s pretty clear that she’s prepared to use violence to get him back.
B. Eska consistently humiliates Bolin, and enjoys watching him in pain.
1. At the beginning of episode 3, we see Bolin forced to carry Desna and Eska in their cart. He’s very obviously unhappy about it. When Eska makes a joke, she orders Bolin to “laugh at my humerous quip!” and we see him look terrified and laugh.
I feel like I have to make this clear: forcing your boyfriend to pull you in a cart and then laugh at your jokes is pretty fucking gross. And, in most contexts (including this one) pretty abusive.
2. Later in the season, Eska tells Bolin: “Boyfriend! Bow to me before I exit!” Looking, again, terrified, Bolin throws himself on the ground. Eska grins: “You are so sweet when you grovel.”
HILARIOUS! THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE A HILARIOUS MOMENT! AS OPPOSED TO A “HOLY SHIT THIS RELATIONSHIP IS SO FUCKING ABUSIVE” MOMENT!
… sorry. I needed that.
3. When Eska forces Bolin to accept her marriage proposal, she does not even wait for him to say yes before she puts the betrothal necklace on his neck and drags him away, telling him he can “express his joy with tears.” Crying, Bolin says “[The necklace] is really tight”
And we’re expected to laugh at all of these scenes. We’re expected to laugh at someone being forced into a betrothal. We’re expected to laugh as their partner physically drags them away and they cry in pain. This is Legend of Korra‘s idea of a joke.
[There are, of course, relationships where physical violence and humiliation are okay: consensual BDSM relationships. But what's happening between Bolin and Eska is pretty clearly nonconsensual]
To recap: Eska (non-consensually) humiliates Bolin and enjoys watching him in pain. She controls his actions and his emotions. He’s not even allowed to talk without asking for Eska’s permission first. And she uses fear and abuse in order to prevent him from leaving the relationship.
Yup! That’s abusive! Almost any of these moments, taken in isolation, would be a red flag for abuse. Together, they’re a Massive Abuse Warning Siren that screams: “BEWARE: HERE THERE BE REALLY GROSS ABUSE HAPPENING.”
Now, I don’t actually oppose showing abusive relationships in TV shows. Hell, I don’t even oppose showing abusive relationships in children’s TV shows. What I oppose is showing abusive relationships as lighthearted and funny.
Legend of Korra isn’t trying to make a point about how gross abusive relationships are. They’re trying to make a joke.
I know this because the Avatar Universe (of which Korra is a part) has a history of portraying abusive relationship with nuance and sensitivity. I know what it looks like when an Avatar show portrays abuse with nuance and sensitivity: it looks like Zuko’s relationship with Ozai, his father.
Ozai is a horrific parent. He forces his thirteen-year-old son to duel against him when Zuko speaks out of turn. After Zuko refuses to duel his own father, Ozai burns his son’s face, permanently scarring him, and then banishes him from the Fire Kingdom. Later, he tries to kill Zuko when his son turns against him.
Avatar: the Last Airbender never turned Ozai’s actions into comedy. And it never allowed us to forget that Ozai is a terrifying, violent and manipulative parent.
In Legend of Korra, on the other hand, the relationship between Bolin and Eska is a non-stop, unrelenting joke.
There are, I suspect, two forces at work in the “hilarity” of the Bolin/Eska relationship: first, the myth that men can’t be abused (which means that domestic violence against men isn’t “serious”), and second, the “bitches be crazy” corollary (which means that women acting violent against men isn’t “serious” either).
In other words, Eska’s abuse of Bolin is hilarious because she’s a woman abusing a man.
Let’s parse these problems separately.
First, it’s pretty clear that no character in the Korra universe thinks Bolin is being abused. In fact, they blame him for his treatment at Eska’s hands.
When Bolin tells Korra and Mako that Eska threatened to freeze him in a block of ice and feed him to dolphin piranhas, they both shrug it off, and act annoyed that he’s ruining their date. Neither Korra nor Mako – Bolin’s brother – seems the least bit worried that Eska told Bolin she would kill him if he tried to break up with her, even though they’ve already witnessed her being violent towards Bolin (when Eska traps him a block of ice to prevent him from hugging Korra)
Hey, what’s to worry about, am I right?
Bolin starts to hide in order to avoid Eska. His friend Asami tells him he should “stand up for himself” – and later, when she witnesses Eska ordering Bolin to bow, she says: “Don’t LET her treat you that way.”
Mako, Korra and Asami’s reactions put the blame for Eska’s abusive behavior squarely on Bolin. Bolin should have known better than to date Eska. Bolin should “stand up for himself.” Bolin is LETTING Eska treat him this way. It’s his fault his girlfriend is violent and abusive!
Not to put too fine a point on it, but those guys are the worst friends.
They’re also doing a superb job of reinforcing the idea that abuse just can’t happen to men. In this worldview, no matter how violent or how manipulative a man’s partner is, a man just cannot be abused. Their relationships are always under their own control – they can put an end to them at any time and “stand up for themselves” whenever they want to.
No wonder none of Bolin’s friends take his problems seriously. They know that what’s happening to him isn’t serious at all – after all, he’s a man!
It gets worse. When Eska forces Bolin to accept a marriage proposal, he rejoins his friends, wearing a traditional betrothal necklace.
Korra: “I’m pretty sure the guy is supposed to give the girl the betrothal necklace.”
It’s FUNNY because Eska has forced Bolin to take on a FEMALE role. HAHAHAHA… so gross. . It’s the other side to the “Men can’t be abused” coin: if men are abused, they are like women. They become feminized by their abuse.
And we could get into the misogyny that idea implies, but frankly, we have enough on our plate.
In most of the world – maleness is defined in opposition to victimhood. Men aren’t victims. They’re the aggressors, the winners. They’re strong, in control. Our definition of manhood, therefore, leaves no room for people who are victims, who are used and abused and wounded. After all, if you can’t protect yourself, you’re not a “real” man.
In this twisted logic, Bolin – and other men and boys in similar situations – aren’t experiencing abuse. And if they are, it is either because they choose to stay, or because they aren’t “real” men.
It’s pretty clear that the “joke” of Bolin’s abuse relies on the assumption that Bolin’s relationship with Eska is totally under his control. If he were only able to stand up for himself, the abuse would just magically go away. It’s also “hilarious” because Bolin’s inability to stand up to Eska shows how incompetent he is as a man (“the guy is supposed to give the GIRL a proposal necklace”)
Moreover, if you take a wide view of the season, you’ll see that Eska isn’t the only woman who physically abuses her partner. For example, when Korra and her boyfriend, Mako, have an argument, Korra earthbends his desk into a wall. Which is pretty fucking threatening, in my opinion. And if your partner is throwing things while you’re arguing? Massively abusive.
When Lin Bei Fong, Mako’s boss, walks in the room and notices the torn-up wall and the broken desk, she asks Mako what happened. Mako tells her he broke up with Korra, and Lin smiles: “You got off easy. You should have seen Air Temple Island when Tenzin broke up with me.”
Oh, yeah, hilarious.
In both cases, we have women physically destroying things at their boyfriends. And as someone who has experienced people breaking things at me, I can tell you right now, it’s terrifying. It’s an obvious threat. I’ve been in cars with someone who starts driving really erratically when they get angry at me, and oh god, it does not make you want to make them angry ever again, because I was terrified we were going to drive straight into a tree. Which is exactly the point. It’s behavior that’s supposed to teach you not to go “out of line” again – or you’ll be next.
(As a note, abusers who throw or hit objects in when arguing with you almost always escalate to violence eventually)
All of these moments – Eska’s violence towards Bolin, Korra’s violence towards Mako, and Lin Bei Fong’s violence towards Tenzin – are meant to be comedic. Korra and Lin Bei Fong are both characters we’re supposed to like – I highly doubt the show wants us to read them as abusive, even though that’s exactly what they are, at least in these moments with their partners. It’s supposed to be funny that Lin Bei Fong destroyed Tenzin’s home when he broke up with her.
So what is with this trend of comic portrayals of abusive women?
That’s the second half of the Bolin/Eska joke – the “bitches be crazy” corollary.
This season has had a plethora of the “women are so hysterical and crazy in relationships” trope. Korra’s behavior this season with Mako is a prime example – he can’t do anything without making her blow up. And that’s an incredibly misogynistic trope to begin with. But it also has really unpleasant consequences when you line it up with abuse, because it makes it seem like Korra, Eska and Lin’s violent behaviors are just “crazy” things women “naturally” do.
Because women, am I right? They’re just “crazy.” And men have to put up with it, because women, am I right?
This narrative transforms abuse from an aberration into something “natural” and comedic.
I think, moreover, that there’s something more than your average “bitches be crazy” trope going on in The Legend of Korra. I think the show is having a hard time coping with their female protagonist.
You would not thing a strong female protagonist would be a problem for the writers of Korra, given that the previoous series, Avatar, is full of strong, interesting women: Katara, the waterbending master, Toph, one of the greatest earthbenders to ever live, Azula, who… I mean, how do you even talk about the powerhouse that is Azula? And Mai, Tai-Lee and Suki, three non-benders who could stand toe-to-toe with any bender and come out on top.
But in Avatar, unlike in Korra, there was always one male character who was theoretically more powerful than any given woman: Aang, by virtue of being the Avatar. In Legend of Korra, however, the protagonist is female. Aang is dead and Korra is the new Avatar – the most powerful person in the entire show. Once she’s fully trained, nothing will be able to stand against her. There is no male character more powerful than Korra.
People have… problems with that kind of female power. A whole lot of writers just have no idea how to deal with it, especially in the context of western patriarchy and western-prescribed gender roles (most of the characters of Avatar are POC, and the areas they live in correspond to asian and first nations locations, but the writers of the show are mainly from north america). There aren’t a whole lot of creators with the kind of talent and chutzpah to deal with a world where women and men are on equal footing – and where a woman is the “savior” of the world.
Which is where you get weird stuff like the Korra abuse narrative. The writers are unable to separate the world of Korra from western ideas about gender and patriarchal structures. More specifically, they’re unable to conceive of a world where the strength of women doesn’t come at the expense of the strength of men. They’ve moved beyond the patriarchy by flipping it.
Thus, in Korra, gender equality doesn’t mean that relationships will become healthier and more equitable. No – a gain in power by women must mean a loss in power by men, since we’re still stuck in gender hierarchies. Thus, if women are the “strong” ones – if women are captains of industry (Asami), police chiefs (Lin Bei Fong), Avatars (Korra) and incredibly powerful waterbenders (Eska) – then the men must be the “weak” ones. Thus, we get all the heterosexual relationships where the women are abusive and the men are passive.
Which, I should note, tells you a whole lot about how the writers conceive traditional male-female relationships. And a whole lot about how the writers conceive “strength.” They seem unable to conceive of a woman with stereotypically male attributes – like Korra, who is very physically strong, who acts first and think later, who is competitive and impulsive – without also making her borderline abusive. I don’t know if it’s because the writer’s vision of masculinity is so entwined with strength-as-abuse, or if it’s because they can’t help but see a character like Korra as an aberration, and thus infuse her with “bad” qualities. Whatever it is, it’s disturbing.
It’s also a pretty disturbing message about female strength. Women are only strong and in control, the narrative goes, because men have ceded the place to them. If men *wanted* to be in charge again, they could.
The other explanation for the woman-as-abuser and man-as-passively-accepting-abuse trope in Korra is the narrative of men being “whipped” by their girlfriends. In a sentence: men allow women to walk all over them because they love/admire/desire the women so much – or because they’re just too lazy/stupid to exercise their male control over the relationship. This brings us straight back to the victim-blaming: Bolin and Mako are abused because they “let” the women abuse them. Moreover, it makes it seem like abuse is the price you pay for a woman’s love. Being in a relationship and having access to women’s bodies is worth the emotional and physical abuse – a storyline that plays directly into the stereotype of men being voracious, mindless, sex-pursuing velociraptors.
(okay, so I made that part about the velociraptors up).
Oh yeah. There’s a whole shitload of toxic stuff wrapped up in the “joke” of Eska abusing Bolin.
Let’s be clear, finally, and explain exactly why the victim-blaming, misogyny and toxic masculinity at the root of the “comedy” of abuse is so disturbing:
Because abuse is a thing that happens in the real world.
And abuse is a thing that happens – in spite of the myths – to men. Often it happens to them exactly how it happened to Bolin. And often, people will react exactly the way Bolin’s friends reacted to him – with laughter, with victim-blaming, with a complete lack of support.
According to the latest study by the CDC, approximately one in seven men have experienced some form of domestic violence (compared to one in four women). 1.4% of men have been raped, while 6% have experienced some form of sexual coercion. One in nineteen men have been stalked. One in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner.
Abuse happens to men. Abuse happens to men a lot. And just as it’s socially unacceptable for women to talk about their experiences with rape, sexual violence, harassment and domestic violence, it’s also socially unacceptable for men to admit to being the victims of rape, harassment and domestic violence. Because we see those stories as funny.
Yes, men are threatened, stalked, hurt and emotionally manipulated, just as Bolin was on the show. It’s not funny when it happens to them. And it’s not funny when it happened to Bolin.
The abuse-as-comedy trope is particularly harmful because Korra is aimed at children and young adults. And guess who is most at risk of abuse?
That’s right! Kids.
More than one in four male victims of rape experience their first rape when they are ten years or younger. Of the men who have experienced stalking, 1/3 have been stalked before the age of 25. 53% of male victims of domestic violence experience their first incident before the age of 21.
Of the men who have experienced rape, stalking or physical abuse by an intimate partner, 15% had their first experience when they were between the ages of 11 and 17. 38.6% of them had their first experience between the ages of 18 to 24.
So when you turn abuse into a joke in a kid’s show, you’re basically teaching the most vulnerable male demographic (children and young adults) that abuse is funny, not serious, and to be expected in romantic relationships. Right as they’re entering their first dating years – and the years where they’re most likely to experience abuse.
Great job, guys. No, seriously.
Here’s another important fact: Bolin is a man of color (as are Mako, Tenzin, and every other male character on Korra). Which is great! But dismissing the abuse of men of color as “funny” carries particularly damaging connotations, since men of color are much more likely to experience rape, stalking and domestic violence than white men. Approximately 1/5 of white men reported experiencing sexual violence, rape or domestic violence. In comparison, one third of multiracial men, one fourth of latino men, forty percent of black men and 43.5% of american native and alaskan native men reported experiencing rape, physical violence and/or stalking in their lifetimes.
To put it bluntly: men of color are more likely to experience rape, sexual violence and/or stalking. So turning a man of color’s abuse into a joke? Is really not okay.
(this is not to say that 20% of white men experiencing abuse is in *any* way okay – it’s just that men of color experience higher rates of abuse)
Is this the lesson we want to teach the young audience of Korra? For that matter, is this the lesson we want to teach the older audience of Korra? That abuse is acceptable? That abuse is funny? That abuse is the victim’s fault? That men can’t be abused? That abuse is to be expected in a romantic relationship? That abuse is a fair trade for romance, love and sex? That men should fear female strength because it leads to emotional and domestic abuse?
What a toxic message.
And what a disappointing narrative from Korra, a show that follows in the footsteps of the wonderfully progressive Avatar: the Last Airbender, where abuse was treated seriously, and gender hierarchies were ignored in favor of good storytelling.
Sure, it’s just a show. But if the writers of Korra didn’t want to shoulder the responsibility of treating abuse with nuance and sensitivity, they shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. Because it’s not “just” abuse, not when it’s happening to one in seven men.
Since I started writing this post, the show has gotten, if possible, worse on abuse. Bolin has turned from abuse-victim into rape-culture perpetrator, when he kissed his co-star, Ginger, against her will, and then told her “I think you liked it too.”Ginger eventually goes out with Bolin, because he’s rich and famous – and women don’t mind sexual assault as long as it comes from a rich and famous dude! This, again, is played for laughs, because if there’s anything funnier than abuse, it’s sexual violence.
Then Eska and Bolin reunite, and it’s clear that Bolin still harbors feelings for Eska. Which I don’t have a problem with in and of itself (often, abuse victims remain emotionally attached to their abusers). But since the show keeps pretending Eska hasn’t abused Bolin, I have no reason to believe they’ll treat the romantic subplot with any kind of nuance or sensitivity. The writers have turned what used to be a joke subplot into an actual romantic subplot. With both narratives, they’ve ignored Eska’s abusive behavior.
So since the show won’t say it, let me, once again, emphatically explain: What Eska did to Bolin is abuse. It is physical and emotional abuse. What Korra, Mako and Asami did to Bolin is victim-blaming.
And none of it is fucking funny.
1. Do not try to explain that Eska’s behavior is not abusive. It is.
2. Do not victim-blame Bolin (or any other victim of domestic violence)
3. Please don’t start blaming abuse on misandry.
If you engage in any of these three activities, I may just delete your comment, because LOL, I am not playing the “but physically dragging people around isn’t ABUSE” game.
1. CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: Executive Summary
2. CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: Full Report
3. Domestic violence red flags: one, two, three, four, five (includes red flags specific to men experiencing domestic violence)
4. One in Six: A group that helps male survivors of child sexual abuse
5. Male Survivor: Group for male survivors of abuse
1. Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women: 1-888-7HELPLINE
2. Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project: 1-800-832-1901
3. National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline: 1-866-331-9474
4. National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
5. National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
[Content note: GIFS, mentions of racism]
Meet Nina Davuluri. Nina Davuluri just won the Miss America contest, and is now Miss America 2014. And she’s pretty fucking awesome.
1. Her platform was “celebrating diversity through cultural competency.” When I first heard that, I had *no idea* what it meant. But once you look it up, it turns out it’s fucking awesome. Cultural competency means developing an awareness of your own cultural viewpoint, and then learning to understand, communicate with, and interact with people from all kinds of different cultures and socio/ethnic backgrounds.
Uh… amazing, right? Social justice-y, right?
2. She’s the first Indian-American – and Asian-American – Miss America. And yeah, there have been some racist motherfuckers who’ve been oppressive assholes about this, but that doesn’t take away from Nina Davuluri’s very real accomplishment. Nina Davuluri is damn cool. And talented. And smart.
And she knew she was making history. When Nina Davuluri was one of the last two women standing, alongside Miss California’s Crystal Lee – also an Asian-American woman – she said: “We’re both so proud. We’re making history right here, standing here as Asian-Americans.”
3. She makes terrible jokes.
Damn it, she’s got my favorite sense of humor. AND she’s got an adorable embarrassed smile!
4. Her talent was really fucking amazing – a fusion piece that combined bollywood dance with classical indian training.
Apparently, she chose her talent against the advice of her team, who thought it was “too foreign” for american judges. To which Nina Davuluri was like “Fuck you” and won the WHOLE DAMN THING.
Ugh, I want to be her when I grow up. Ridiculously talented and super-brave.
5. She’s a nerd.
[Okay, so, apparently, this picture is photoshopped. And I am terrible and can't detecting photoshopping. *headdesk*, Which basically means that... this particular photo is photoshopped. But everything else in the post stands - she's still a fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, she's still a nerd etc.
Also, who photoshopped this? Was it her? Because that would be adorable. Was it fans? Was it peopel who liked her? I don't even know!]
She cosplays. She loves Star Trek, Star Wars and anything Science Fiction. And she knows R2-D2 (don’t disillusion me. THAT IS R2-D2 IN THIS PICTURE AND NINA DAVULURI IS HIS BEST FRIEND)
She has a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science. She wants to be a doctor. She’s going into traditionally male fields and she’s a geek and a girl, and she’s fucking awesome.
I wonder what kind of SF books she loves. Maybe I’ll see her at a convention sometime!
And Nina Davuluri isn’t the only awesome nerdy WOC in the Miss America Pageant. The first runner-up, Crystal Lee, is Chinese-American. She graduated with a BA and an MA from Stanford in FOUR years. Her platform is women in STEM fields (awesome). She’s interned for DropBox, and she wants to start her own tech company. Her talent is Ballet-en-pointe, because HOLY SHIT.
It’s easy to focus on the disgusting racism that’s been happening around Nina Davuluri’s coronation. But don’t just talk about the racists. Talk about the awesome women they’re trying to erase through their racism. Don’t let their voices dominate the conversation.
The top two women at the Miss America pageant this year were both WOC. They were both hard-core nerds who study STEM, They care about women and cultural diversity in tech fields. They like Star Wars and cosplaying. They’re going to start tech companies and promote diversity. They’re remarkable women. And it’s a remarkable thing, to look at the Miss America pageant, and see exactly who’s winning – STEM women! Nerds! Women of Color!
As a fellow nerd, ladies – I salute you!
And I’m inspired by you. You’re Big Damn Heroes.
(Hey, geeks of america – could we wrangle a con invitation for Nina Davuluri or Crystal Lee? Wouldn’t that be awesome? I think it would be awesome)
Full credit goes to
Thinkspeakstress on tumblr
Arturo R. Garcia at Racialicious
Lakshmi Gandhi at The Aerogram
for making me check my white privilege, waking me the fuck up and reminding me to stop focusing so much on the racists and start focusing on the people they were actively erasing. I really appreciate the call-out. Thank you.
Note: I realize there are a shit-ton of problems with Miss America. I am aware. It’s never been my favorite institution either. But this post is not a place to complain about how terrible Miss America is. It’s to celebrate the accomplishments of the amazing women who’ve been erased by racists – and people talking about racists. So please don’t comment about the problems with the pageant *on this particular post*.
[Content note: misogyny, racism, whitewashing, transmisogyny, heterosexism, bad faith, flashing GIFS)]
Okay. Let’s talk about Doctor Who, shall we?
(artist/writer: ponyscribbles on tumblr)
A month ago, the BBC announced that Peter Capaldi will play the Doctor in Doctor Who after Matt Smith steps down. He’ll be the twelfth regeneration of the doctor. And the twelfth white man to play the role.
I think most fans were pleased. Peter Capaldi apparently has quite a following in Great Britain (as an American, of course, the only time I’ve seen him was in the Doctor Who episode “The Fires of Pompeii”). He seems like a great actor, and a lovely person.
A large group of fans, however, were quite disappointed. I was among them. We’d hoped – against all odds – that this would be the regeneration where the Doctor was finally played by a POC and/or a woman. This was our chance. We’d been discussing it for years, but now – maybe now – it could finally happen. The BBC even put up a poll asking whether the 12th Doctor would be a man or a woman, thus acknowledging the possibility of a female Doctor.
[note: I use "we" a lot in this post. I use "we" not because we all share the same oppressions and marginalizations, but because we've all been erased by, and ignored by, Doctor Who (and other media). But I don't mean to conflate my identity with those of other marginalized people: as a white cisgendered woman, I'm relatively privileged, even when it comes to media representation]
We knew there wasn’t much of a chance.
But we hoped.
So yeah, a lot of us were majorly disappointed when it was another white guy.
And then, in the midst of my frustration, I saw the above comic. And lo, I saw the error of my ways, and stopped complaining about Peter Capaldi’s casting.
Sorry about that. No, this is not going to be a post about how I finally learned to stop complaining and love oppression. And my sarcasm is probably also making poor Peter Capaldi cry. Sorry, Mr. Capaldi. You actually do seem lovely.
This comic isn’t some giant exception to the rule. Everywhere on the internet, you’ll find this idea that we’re being mean or unfair to Peter Capaldi by criticizing his casting.
So let’s talk about it, okay? *Really* talk about it.
I’m going to establish a few things upfront: I think I will really enjoy Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. I’m betting he will be a great Doctor. He seems, from everything I’ve seen of him on the interwebs in the past two weeks, to be a great actor. I’m also glad an older actor is playing the Doctor – it will make a nice change from Matt Smith and David Tennant.
I also love Doctor Who. I think it’s a great, beautiful, ridiculous, wonderful show. I would not bother to argue about it as much as I do if I did not love it. I would not keep watching it if I did not truly believe in its promise and its potential. I would not be a fan if I did not believe it had a place for people like me.
We’ve gotten those things clear? Good.
Here’s the rub, my friendly readers: I’m also disappointed as fuck in Capaldi’s casting. I know! It’s so shocking. But it is, in fact, possible for me to feel more than one emotion about an event. I am a human being, and I can grasp complexity. I can be excited and disappointed at the same time.
Yes, I wanted the Doctor not to be a white man.
One of the most wonderful things about the Doctor is his (1) capacity for change. He constantly regenerates into completely different bodies. He is never static, never singular, always chaotic. He is simultaneously one and many. Everything about him is changeable, and changing.
So can you blame fans who want the Doctor’s various incarnations to reflect of the diversity of the world around him? To change races, genders, gender identities, ages, shapes, ability levels, sexualities, etc? In fact, it doesn’t make any sense for the Doctor to *not* change things like race and gender. To convince yourself that the Doctor should *always* be a white man, you’re ignoring the central tenant of his identity: nothing about him is unchangeable.
Except that some things are.
We’ve now had twelve doctors – with a recently revealed thirteenth (John Hurt) (2)- and they’ve all been white cisgendered men. Everything about the Doctor can change, apparently, except his race, gender and gender identity.
I cannot stress how incredibly depressing it is for people who are already erased, ignored and marginalized by the media to see a show like Doctor Who – which has a built-in excuse for being as diverse and inclusive as possible in their casting – just keep casting white men. It’s almost deliberately cruel. “We could include you, but we choose not to. Let them eat the kyriarchy!”
So yeah, I’m pissed that Peter Capaldi was cast as the twelfth Doctor.
I’m pissed because there is absolutely zero evidence that showrunner Steven Moffat even considered casting anyone but a white man. Because, as Moffat put it, he had a shortlist of one: Peter Capaldi.
To everyone who has said: “Well, Capaldi was probably just the best actor for the part.” Really? How would Moffat even know that if he never bothered to audition anyone else? I mean, this isn’t a case of a white male actor legitimately beating out a bunch of actors of color and/or female actors through a stringent audition process. This is a case of a white man just being chosen, without anyone else getting a shot.
(If nothing else, it shows a shocking lack of imagination from Stephen Moffat. “I could only think of one person! So I cast him!”)
I’m pissed because Moffat has had three chances to cast a Doctor – Matt Smith, John Hurt and Peter Capaldi – and *all* of them have been thin white men. All of them. I have given up any notion that he gives a shit about inclusion. He’s had more chances than any modern Doctor Who showrunner to make the show more diverse, and he’s refused all of those chances.
I’m pissed because Moffat denigrated the very idea of a female Doctor. When asked about Helen Mirren’s call for a female Doctor, Moffat joked that the Queen should be played by a man next time.
Which… wow. This simultaneously brings in transmisogyny (because there’s nothing more hilarious than drag queens and men who dress up as women, am I right?), a false equivalence, and stunning amount of bad faith. Having a woman play a traditionally male role is not the same as having a man playing a traditionally female role. Women are underrepresented in the media, so giving a woman a traditionally male role is being inclusive. Men are *already* well-represented in the media, so giving a man a traditionally female role only exacerbates the lack of inclusion.
And also: bad faith. Queen Elizabeth should be played by a woman because the Queen is an actual historical figure who is female. The Doctor is not an actual historical figure. Moreover, the Doctor is a person whose identity constantly changes. Are you actually saying that being male is a constant part of the Doctor’s identity? That he can be anything – except that he must always be a man?
I’m pissed because of the message Moffat sends – and the show sends – by constantly casting white men. I’m pissed, because it it implies that gender and race are so *essential* to a person’s identity that they are the one thing an ever-changing alien can never change. It implies that those two things are so fucking fundamental that changing them would ruin the character.
Which is not at all a racist or sexist notion, no. Gender and racial essentialism, everyone!
I’m pissed because this casting is part of a long trend of the showrunners being oppressive and awful. Doctor Who hasn’t had a female writer in three seasons. It hasn’t had a female director in two. It hasn’t had a writer or director of color in at least three seasons (3). It’s female characters get the wonderful privilege of participating in misogynistic storylines, including the mystical pregnancy trope, the “mothers are the most powerful people in the world because uteruses” trope, the “stalking is super romantic” trope and the “silly women and their obsession with their looks” trope. I’d be upset over the storylines surrounding major POC characters, but the truth is… there really haven’t been a lot of major characters of color in the past three years. And the ones I remember all die (like Rita in “The God Complex”). Moffat himself explains that he doesn’t bother with bisexual representation on Doctor Who because bisexuals are having “FAR TOO MUCH FUN. You probably don’t even watch because you’re so busy.” Asexual representation? Don’t even think about it – Moffat thinks asexuality is boring.
I’m pissed because I see no signs that this is going to change anytime soon.
I’m pissed because whenever we bring this up, we’re being mean.
We’re being mean. We’ve been systematically ignored and erased on the show. People like us are denied representation, made fun of and stereotyped. We’ve gone through thirteen Doctors with no sign that we’re ever going to get representation – even though the show’s own rules mean it makes *no sense* for the Doctor to keep being white and male. We don’t have representation in the writer’s room or the director’s chair.
Peter Capaldi and Stephen Moffat are powerful people. They have nice big salaries. They’re media creators. One of them is the head of one of the most successful franchises in the world, the other is about to be one of the most famous actors on the planet.
But we’re making them feel bad.
… somehow, I kind of doubt it.
Comics like the one above are a silencing mechanism. They’re meant to make us feel bad for voicing our reality. For talking about the very real misogyny, heterosexism, transmisogyny and racism displayed by Doctor Who and its showrunners. They’re meant to make it seem like *we’re* the ones who haven’t been inclusive, even though we’re the ones who have been systematically marginalized by the show and the showrunners. But we’re not inclusive. Because inclusive means no one ever feels bad. Especially not the poor, powerful white men who keep getting roles and jobs and representation.
Comics like the one above rewrite the narrative of Doctor Who. They rewrite our very real grievances, transforming marginalized people into a bunch of complainers who are trying to make Peter Capaldi and the Doctor feel bad.
Why isn’t our sadness ever depicted? Why is it always about the feelings of the most powerful people in the Doctor Who world? Why isn’t it ever about our feelings of exclusion, our feelings of marginalization, our anger at being erased and ignored? Why – even in a comic that is supposed to be about *us* complaining – why is it about Peter Capaldi?
Why aren’t we ever the protagonists of these stories?
… you know, on one level, this cartoon perfectly encapsulates the problem. Powerful white men in the Doctor Who world give other white men influence – as writers, directors and actors – while systematically ignoring the criticisms of those who feel excluded from the show. White men keep all the power for themselves, while making the people they’ve marginalized feel bad for complaining about it. White men take the issue of system oppression and make it all about them.
Stephen Moffat hands the screwdriver over to Peter Capaldi, and then, when people point out they’ve never had a chance at that screwdriver, he berates them for making the new Doctor feel bad.
Frankly, everyone, I appreciate your concern for the Doctor, but seriously: the Doctor is a fictional character, and I can’t make him feel bad. So I’m not terribly worried about it. I’m not even worried about making Peter Capaldi feel bad: he’s got the job now, and he’s probably surrounded by wonderful people cheering his casting. And good for him! I don’t *want* him to feel bad. I don’t want him to feel bad, because it’s not his fault. He’s just the manifestation of a larger phenomenon.
The truth is, I don’t even think the comic writer above – and all the fans and creators who are trying to shut down complaints – care that much about Peter Capaldi’s feelings.
I think they want us to stop hurting *their* feelings. I think they want fans with legitimate grievances with the show to shut up.
Shut up, and let us enjoy Capaldi’s casting. Shut up and let us enjoy the show. Shut up and don’t remind us that some of this stuff is problematic. Shut up – I don’t want to feel guilty for enjoying the party. Shut up – I don’t want to think about the racism and the sexism while I’m watching my favorite show.
Please stop hurting my feelings. I don’t want to know about your problems.
I just want to enjoy the party. Why can’t you let me enjoy the party?
And I’m sorry to those people. I’m sorry that we’re making it harder for you to enjoy the Doctor Who party. But we’ve been left out of the party entirely, and we’d really like to come in. I’m sorry that when we press our noses up against the windows of the Doctor Who party, you feel bad. I’m sorry that we’re taking away from the glamour and excitement of the occasion, all bedraggled and locked-out as we are. But no one seems to be coming towards the door to let us in. And we’d really like to come in.
It’s not just that we’ve been locked out. We’re supposed to shut up about it. We’re simultaneously supposed to accept our outsider position – the constant attacks on our right to be fans of the show, and our right to see people like us represented in the show – while never complaining about it. The show can lock us out, and we should never ever complain about it. Because we’re the problem. The walls and the lock and the people who hold the key aren’t the problem. We’re the problem.
We’re always the problem.
I love the show. I’d love to come into the party and enjoy it with you. But I can’t.
It’s adorable that you think people like me have the power to bar Peter Capaldi from the party. But while he’s inside enjoying the celebration, most of us are still waiting for our invite.
It’s great if you can unreservedly enjoy the entrance of Capaldi into the canon. Hey – it’s also great if you’re part of a marginalized group and you can *still* enjoy the entrance of Capaldi without reservation.
But stop telling those of us who see it as the shutting of another door, the turning of another lock, the erection of a new barrier that we don’t get to talk about it. Remember that you can be a fan of problematic things. That liking something problematic doesn’t make you a bad person – but pretending something *isn’t* problematic does. Don’t silence the people who want an oppressive show to change. Don’t silence us.
Don’t watch the show bar the doors on its marginalized fans, and then accuse those same fans of not being inclusive enough.
Don’t lock us out of the party and then get angry when we make noise about it.
And maybe – just maybe – consider letting us in to party with you.
(1) I’m using male gender pronouns to refer to the Doctor because he’s only ever presented as male, and his latest incarnation is male
(2) It is unclear where John Hurt figures in continuity, or even whether he’s the Doctor. All we know is that he’s one of the Doctor’s regenerations.
(3) I went through each director and writer for the past three seasons and checked their race and gender. Obviously, this is a subjective process, since I’m one person, and there aren’t a billion pictures of all the writers. But I’m 95% sure that there have been no directors or writers of color in the past three seasons.
Commenting Policy: I’m going to make this explicit: this is a space to discuss the feelings and needs of marginalized fans of Doctor Who. It’s not a space for privileged fans to come in and say “well, this is what *I* want” or “I’m white and male, and I’m okay with the Doctor always being a white man!” That is welcome in almost every discussion on the internet. Not here.
Furthermore, if you want to argue that the Doctor should stay a white man, you’d better have a better argument than “because I like him that way.”
Because when the argument is “The Doctor’s static race and gender contributes to oppression and actively hurts already-marginalized people”
and your counterargument is “But I like him being a man!”
You sound like a fucking douchecanoe.
Again: This is a space to discuss the feelings and needs of marginalized fans of Doctor Who. Talking about the ways Doctor Who is oppressive is fine! Talking about general issues of oppression is fine! Talking about liking the show despite its problems is also okay! But this is a space that centers the needs of marginalized fans. Not privileged ones.
Content Note: Spoilers for Batwoman, discussions of homophobia, heterosexism, Bury Your Gays
I just moved into a new place (Stressful! Fun! Exciting! Terrifying!), and I’m trying to be more organized. Instead of putting ALL the books on my desk, most of them are going on a bookshelf. Radical, I know!
I’ve decided that only my most important reference books should live on my desk.
Oh, and I also put two comic books on my desk, to accompany the big serious boys of literary criticism, gender studies and racial deconstruction.
They were expensive – twenty dollars apiece. I bought them as gifts to myself.
… That’s a lie. I bought them as protection, not as gifts. I bought them the day after Amanda Todd, a victim of cyberbullying and slut-shaming, committed suicide. I’d just spent an hour on the internet, reading the horrible things people said about her both before and after her death, and I was devastated. Just – devastated. That Amanda Todd had to grow up in this world, where people treat women so despicably. That so many people would say such vile things to, and about, a child. That Todd was just one of many girls who experience this level of cruelty and bullying.
I needed something – someone – to remind that there is hope, and power, and possibility .
So I bought Batwoman.
Last week, Batwoman co-writers J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman announced that, due to DC’s editorial interferences, they would be leaving the comic after issue 26. J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman are largely responsible for Batwoman’s success over the last two years (with Greg Rucka, who wrote the initial Elegy storyline, and whose departure I still mourn). J. H. Williams III’s art defines Batwoman – he’s been with the comic since the beginning, and his work is so superb and distinct that I still find myself flipping through my trade books to look at the art. His artistic vision of Kate Kane made her an instant superhero.
Williams and Blackman cite several instances where DC overruled long-outlined plot events at the eleventh hour. But the one that is receiving the most attention – and that angered Williams and Blackman the most – was DC’s edict that Kate Kane (Batwoman) could never marry her fiancee Maggie Sawyer.
Batwoman is a lesbian superhero. She’s the only one in the DC or Marvel universe, as far as I know, to have her own book. She was kicked out of the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, she’s had several girlfriends (including my favorite, Renee Montoya), and she’s now engaged to marry a woman.
DC and Williams/Blackman all say that the marriage prohibition was due to creative reasons, not to Kate Kane’s sexual orientation. And I believe them – I think Dan Didio and the higher-ups at DC honestly didn’t want one of their superheroes to be married. They have a bizarre anti-marriage policy for their protagonists.
But creative decisions cannot be separated from their cultural context. And preventing a queer couple from getting married has a very different context from preventing a straight couple from getting married. As Susana Polo from The Mary Sue explains, gay characters have “a history of being disproportionately depicted in either no relationships, failed relationships, prematurely ended relationships, or terrible relationships.” Moreover, queer people in comics, movies and literature are rarely allowed to have happy endings – think Ennis/Jack from Brokeback Mountain, Willow/Tara from Buffy and Jack/Ianto from Torchwood.
Hell, DC made the original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, gay – and then promptly killed off Alan’s boyfriend WHILE ALAN WAS PROPOSING.
The “Bury Your Gays” trope isn’t an old narrative we’ve all outgrown. It’s well and alive. And harmful.
Yes, it sucks when straight couples can’t get married in the DC Universe. And yes, in my opinion, it’s shitty storytelling. But straight people can look out into a world where their relationships are validated, are legitimized and are common. They can go to literally any medium and find straight couples living happy lives and getting married. They will not find a whole pile of narratives where straight people die because of their sexuality.
Queer people, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. They don’t get to shrug off the Batwoman marriage ban and say “okay, well, we’ve got so many other examples of happy queer couples in real life and in fiction, we’ll be fine.”
And it’s a fucked-up, oppressive and harmful trope. It makes queer people believe they have no chance at happiness – that their sexuality dooms them to failed relationships and death. It reinforces the idea that queerness is fundamentally tragic: it’s not something you want for your children, or your friends, or yourself.
There are many places in the USA where you can be fired for your sexual orientation (29 states, in fact). There are few places where you can get married to a same-sex partner. Yes, the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned this summer. But the end of DOMA didn’t magically solve the marriage problem. Charlie Morgan, an officer in the National Guard, died of breast cancer before she could see DOMA overturned. Her wife and daughter will not receive the federal benefits to which military spouses and children are entitled. Charlie Morgan spent the last few years of her life fighting to make sure her wife and child were recognized as her family. She had to fight - while dying of breast cancer – for that basic right. And she lost.
She’s not alone.
Queer children – and children who “seem” queer – are bullied, sometimes to death (MASSIVE trigger warning for that link – the stories of bullying are horrific). Some states have tried to pass anti-bullying laws, only to see them vetoed by conservative governors. Because apparently, children killing themselves due to bullying isn’t problem. Sometimes, teachers are barred by law from helping gay kids or talking about gay issues. Kids at my brother’s school still throw around the word “gay” as an insult. His gay friends are afraid to come out in Madison, one of the more progressive cities in the USA. In Russia, same-sex couples are facing a law that could take their children away from them. Their children could get taken away because of their sexuality.
So that’s the context in which Dan Didio and the DC executives decided that Kate Kane couldn’t marry her girlfriend.
That’s… not a neutral context. And that’s not a neutral choice. Even if it was well-intentioned. You can’t avoid playing into anti-queer tropes when you bar the queer protagonist of the only queer-headlined book in DC from getting married.
You just can’t avoid playing straight into those tropes. Your intentions do not matter. The tropes you are playing into reinforce the oppression that queer people have to navigate on a daily basis. I do not care about your intentions. You are now part of a long and proud tradition of grossness. Congratulations.
Now would be a good time to explain why Batwoman is the only trade I’ve ever bought. And why it’s the only piece of fiction on my desk. And why my computer background is a picture of Batwoman. And why this blog’s icon is Batwoman.
About a year ago, I announced on this blog that I would start a new project: I would read as many comics as I could so I could find some that were non-oppressive and female-friendly. My friend immediately recommended Batwoman: Elegy. And since I trusted her. I immediately ordered it from the library.
That summer we had a massive heatwave in Wisconsin. No rain at all, and sweltering temperatures every day – it was pretty miserable. And I’d volunteered to take care of my family friends’ garden, which was enormous and intricate and required an extraordinary amount of water. So I had to bike there every day around five (when it started to cool down), water for about three or four hours, and then bike home. In epic heat.
By the time I got home, I very rarely had energy to read. So I kept putting Batwoman off.
One night, I brought all the comics I’d ordered from the library with me to the garden. As the sun dropped slowly towards the west, I listened to Adele and and watered the roses, the tomato plants, the lilies. I put the sprinkler on, sat on the porch and pulled out Batwoman. The garden was lit with the orange-pink light of sunset.
I read for a long time.
I’m a fast reader – a trade comic usually takes me twenty minutes to read.
But I was in that garden for at least two hours.
I read until it was dark, and I had to turn the floodlights on – and then I kept reading. And reading. And reading.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had an experience with comics as absorbing as I did that night with Batwoman. I read pages over and over again, looking carefully at JH Williams’ artwork, flipping pages back to check relevant bits of dialogue, marveling at Kate Kane’s character and admiring Batwoman’s costume.
When I got home, I reread the entire comic.
I loved Batwoman. I love Batwoman. The art is incredible. The storytelling is engrossing and powerful and painful. Greg Rucka gives us information exactly when we least expect it, complicating our understandings of the characters and their motivations. When we feel like we can’t handle anymore, he pushes again, shattering our impressions and forcing us to reconsider everything we believed. Meanwhile, Williams’ artwork is such a perfect interpretation of Rucka’s plot: it’s arresting and beautiful and thematically resonant and disturbing all at once.
Batwoman: Elegy is a stunning, superb piece of work. I love it for many reasons, and I re-read it for many reasons.
But there’s one sequence that kept drawing me in. At this point in the story, Kate Kane is a military cadet at West Point. She’s called into her Colonel’s office and told that she’s been accused her of homosexual conduct. The Colonel tells her that if she apologizes – if she says it’s a mistake, a joke – she’ll face a disciplinary action, but she’ll stay in the army. The Colonel believes she’ll make a great officer, so he’s willing to bend the rules a little and let her stay on.
The next few panels are worth seeing in their entirety:
[Transcript: Kate Kane, a white woman wearing a cadet's uniform, stands in the Colonel's office. He's a white man wearing a military uniform.
Kate: "Sir, all I've ever wanted since my mother and sister were murdered is to serve."
Colonel: "Then it seems to me your choice is clear. You know what I need you to say."
Kate: "A cadet shall not lie, cheat or steal, or suffer others to do so. I'm sorry sir, I can't."
Kate: "I'm gay."
Kate removes her cadet's ring and places it on the Colonel's table.]
That sequence, for me, was Batwoman. Honor. Integrity. And a desire to serve without having to compromise herself.
That’s what Kate Kane achieved when she remade herself into Batwoman after being barred from military service. She could still serve, even if her country did not want her service. She could still protect her city and her people, even if her sexuality kept her out of the military. She could serve by her own code.
It was a message I needed to hear.
For the next few days, I was in turmoil. Was I living by my own code? Was I being honest about myself? Was I even being honest to myself?
I’d identified as straight for my entire life. My only relationship was with a man. I talked about crushes on boys all the time, and I certainly never mentioned crushes on girls. Sure, I always said I wasn’t 100% positive about my sexuality. Anything could change, and it was entirely possible that I could also be attracted to women. But I wasn’t attracted to women now. And I hadn’t been at any point in the past.
I acted like I wasn’t hiding anything.
But I was. I was lying, even to myself. I was deeply attracted to women. I’d had crushes on women – only I didn’t *call* them crushes, even in my mind, even when I thought about what it would be like to kiss them, to touch the and to hold their hands. I’d flirted with women. I’d wanted women.
Those crushes were so vivid in my mind. The incredible actress I met in high school. A friend I admired. Another friend I admired. A girl who flirted with me. I remembered them all perfectly, remembered the way they’d made me feel, the way I stared at them, and desired them. And the way I didn’t think of it as attraction at all.
The longest crush I ever had was on a woman.
And the most instant attraction I’ve ever had was to a woman. I sat down next to her in class, glanced over at her face, and it hit me right in the gut. My lips and my fingertips were tingling
I sat next to her all that semester. We became friends. My crush dissipated when she talked about her boyfriend, though my attraction never did.
But these weren’t crushes, even though I’d had them for just as long as I’d had crushes to men. This wasn’t attraction. I was still straight, to everyone else, and to myself.
I was scared to admit my desire towards women. Scared, because yes, queerness is dangerous. Scared of how my friends would react and what my family would think. And what it would mean for me to identify as queer, to openly admit to liking women. But I was also hopeful. I saw something in that comic – in Kate Kane’s strength, in her honesty, in the normalcy of her life as a gay woman and a gay superhero. The strength of my reaction to Batwoman - the way I kept reading and rereading it, the emotional force with which it gripped me – made me reconsider my identity. I questioned myself, questioned those memories, questioned my feelings.
A few days after reading Batwoman, I came out on my social networks as bisexual.
I told my brother when we took a trip to New Orleans. “Oh, cool,” he said, and we started talking about Octavia Butler. I’ve never really told my parents, although I’ve mentioned it on the blog, and at least one of them reads it. But even if I haven’t formally “come out” to everyone, I’ve exited that strange place of dissonance where I could be attracted to women on one level, and completely straight on the other.
And I feel… better. Much better. Much happier, and more comfortable with myself.
There’s a reason Batwoman is my avatar, and my icon.
There’s a reason the Feminist Batwoman lives on this blog.
Batwoman means a lot ot me. And part of the reason she means so much to me is because of the way she – and her writers – handle her sexuality. With honesty, integrity and simplicity.
Even though I’m a Renee/Kate shipper, I was excited for Kate’s marriage to Maggie. I knew it was a major milestone. It meant something to me, a bisexual woman, to see a queer relationship treated with so much respect. To see that Kate’s sexuality was still an integral part of her storyline , without the writers ever turning it into a token social justice commentary.
Kate Kane’s creators respected her.
I respected her.
Now we’ve got the DC executives nixing storylines at the last minute. We have them kicking off the creative team two issues earlier than they planned to go (JH Williams and W. Haden Blackman both planned to stay until Issue 26, but DC’s decided to put the book under new management starting on Issue 24). You have Dan Didio saying the company stands behind the character – while calling her Kathy Kane the whole time.
Hint, Mr. Didio: Kathy Kane is a totally different character. And Kate *never* goes by Kathy, which you would know if you’d read Batwoman: Elegy.
And the execs are acting like nixing Kate’s marriage isn’t problematic. At all.
Which shows how little they understand about their own creations.
This is not respect.
Batwoman inspired me to be honest about my sexual orientation. Her bravery gave me courage. Her relationships with women filled me with joy. I felt safe within the pages of those comics. I felt hopeful within the pages of those comics.
I will keep my Batwoman trades on my desk.
But I will not be buying any Batwoman comics after Issue 24.
I asked the Feminist Batwoman, who sometimes takes over my blog, what she thought of DC’s handling of Batwoman.
This was her response:
Not very mature, but what are you going to do? She’s a vigilante who sometimes steals my computer to write on my blog. She’s not exactly polite.
Second Note: DC is also responsible for the Harley Quinn debacle, which combines stereotyping of mental illness, casual use of suicide, mental illness/suicide as a pinup etc. DC comics is doing GREAT right now.
Comment note: please do not try to defend DC’s stance as “neutral” or non-oppressive towards queer people.