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!
[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.
The “Family Members, Friends, Neighbors” approach to Mental Illness: Analysis of 2013′s National Conference on Mental HealthPosted: June 7, 2013 | |
“We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives.” – President Obama, June 3rd, National Conference On Mental Health.
It will not shock you to learn that I really, really care about mental illness. After all, approximately half of all the blog posts I’ve written since fall 2012 have been about mental illness. It’s an issue of some interest to me!
And in most of those posts I’ve talked about how stigma and stereotypes about mental illness need to end, how the issue deserves more (intelligent and nuanced) national attention, how we need to create more access to mental health services, and, perhaps most importantly, how we need to change the way society respond to mental health issues.
A few days ago – on Monday, June 3rd – President Obama convened a National Conference On Mental Health at the White House. The Conference was ostensibly called in response to the Newtown shootings, although Newtown was never referenced by name. It brought together advocates, elected officials, medical professionals and others (including Hollywood actors) together to discuss the state of mental illness in the United States today. Both the President and the Vice President gave speeches, as did Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary for Health and Human Services. The conference included a panel on reducing stigma associated with mental illness. Two prominent Hollywood actors – Bradley Cooper, who played a man with bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook and Glenn Close, who has family members with mental illnesses – also spoke.
The conference did almost everything I could want. There was a panel about reducing stigma. President Obama specifically said that mental illness doesn’t lead to violence (!!!). Everyone – including the President – pointed out that one in five Americans will suffer from a mental illness, and less than 40% of them will ever receive treatment.
You would think I’d be pleased.
And I was!
… okay, I was only kind of pleased. In fact, as I read coverage of the conference, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated. Because, for all that the conference was supposed to be about mental illnesses, it turned out to focus far more on *sane* family members and friends of the mentally ill, rather than on people with mental illnesses themselves.
This tendency was exemplified in the President’s speech, when he stated: “We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives.”
Note the construction of the sentence: “We all know somebody – a family member, a friend, a neighbor – who has struggled with mental illness.” The person with mental illness here is always someone else. They are always removed from ourselves. They are the people we help, the people we are sad for, the people we want to save. The people who are sick, the people who are hurting, the people with the problems – they are categorically not us. They are other.
They are, moreover, specifically not the implied audience of the sentence. The implied audience is the people who “know somebody’ with a mental illness. Obama probably wanted to evoke sympathy for people with mental illnesses. But in doing so, he reinforced the trope of the mentally ill as the “other” – as people who aren’t worth speaking to, and about, directly. Despite the fact that one in five Americans suffer, or will suffer, from a mental illness, and thus make up a fairly sizeable portion of the audience.
Thing is, I do actually know a family member, a friend AND a neighbor who has struggled with mental health issues. You know who else has struggled with mental health issues?
It’s frustrating, as someone with mental illnesses, to feel like conversations about mental illness include everyone except people with the illnesses themselves. It’s incredibly frustration to hear public speakers talk directly to everyone except me – even when they’re talking about something that directly affects my life. And yeah, it’s pretty damn annoying to feel like my “friends, family and neighbors” are more important to this conversation on mental illness than I am.
The otherizing component of the President’s sentence is not a difficult problem to fix. Example: “We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives. Indeed, many of us suffer, or will suffer, from mental illnesses.” See the change? It’s a small one – from “them” to “us “- but a crucial one. Suddenly, people with mental illnesses aren’t just other people to be taken care of by their friends and family – they are us. They are a part of the discussion.
And you cannot have a constructive conversation about mental illness without centering the voices, needs and experiences of people with mental illnesses themselves. Not people who KNOW people with mental illnesses. People with mental illnesses. The people, in other words, who are most affected by the problem.
There were a few moments in the President’s speech where he spoke directly to, or about, people with mental illnesses. But they were overwhelmed by addresses to, and anecdotes about, “friends and family members.”
President Obama’s construction of mental illness in his speech was, unfortunately, emblematic of a wider problem at the conference: it seemed much more aimed at those fictional “family members, friends and neighbors” than it was towards actual people with mental illnesses.
None of the actors, elected officials or advocates invited to speak identified as mentally ill. Only one woman on a six-person panel on reducing stigma actually had a mental illness – and thus some first-hand experience. Why are people with mental illnesses so badly represented at, of all places, a National Conference on Mental Health? For fuck’s sake, somewhere around 20% of the country has, or has had, a mental illness. It can’t be that hard to find speakers and experts from that population.
Contributing to the problem, speakers continually praised the efforts – or the struggle – of the “family members and friends” of people with mental illness, while simultaneously failing to mention the struggle and efforts of people with mental illnesses themselves. Vice President Biden, for example, talked about a friend whose son had a mental illness. President Obama talked about former Republican senator, Gordon Smith, and how his son’s suicide led him to start a campaign designed to change attitudes about mental illness. There were very few mentions of the struggles of people with mental illness, or the work or advocacy they were doing (be that work “getting out of bed in the morning” or “starting an organization”).
I don’t think that friends and family members of people with mental illnesses don’t struggle, or that their struggle isn’t important. I don’t think that friends and family members of people with mental illnesses don’t do great things to help, or that those things aren’t important to talk about. What I object to is centering their experience and their work at the expense of the experience and work of people with mental illnesses.
In one of the more frustrating moments, Biden mentioned that his friend felt like he was holding a string to his son, and if he tugged too hard, the string would break and he would lose his son forever. Biden ended by saying: “That is how a hell of a lot of people feel.”
I’m sure they do… but a hell of a lot of people feel like they’re the ones on the end of that string about the break. A hell of a lot of people feel like they’re about to lose themselves forever. Why aren’t we talking about them? Why aren’t we centering their experiences? Especially at a Conference supposedly addressing their issues? Why would you choose to center the stories of people who have a secondhand experience with mental illness, rather than the stories of people who have a firsthand experience with mental illness?
Because the Conference wasn’t really about, or for, people with mental illnesses.
Once I realized that the conference wasn’t about people with mental illnesses, many things were suddenly clear. . Like the presence of Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close. When I saw they were on the guest list, I was all: “WHAT THE FUCK ARE BRADLEY COOPER AND GLENN CLOSE DOING THERE?” But now I understand! It’s because they know people with mental illnesses!
And that’s the important thing to highlight!
No disrespect to Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close. I like Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close! They seem cool. But like everyone else at the conference, their experiences of mental illness are second-hand. Glenn Close has two family members with mental illness.And Bradley Cooper played a mentally ill character in a film. How’s that for a tenuous connection?
(since I’ve played not one, but two characters locked in insane asylums, I am eagerly anticipating an invitation to deliver the keynote speech at the National Conference for Reforming Our Psych Wards. I am QUALIFIED.)
(I am not qualified. Do not invite me.)
As Bradley Cooper himself put it: “I’m sort of here by accident. It’s not that I didn’t know about mental illness. I think it’s just that I just didn’t see it as a part of my life.”
Couldn’t the White House have chosen to invite someone for whom mental illness IS an inextricable part of their lives? Did no one even consider inviting a Famous Person ™ with an actual mental illness? They are out there! They exist! What about Rachel Maddow, who has discussed her problems with depression? Or Demi Lovato, who often talks publicly about her eating disorder, addictions and bipolar disorder?
Why would you invite Bradley Cooper, who PLAYED a man with bipolar disorder, when you could invite Demi Lovato, who actually HAS the illness? Or Catherine Zeta Jones? Or Carrie Fisher? Or Emilie Autumn? Or Francis Ford Coppola? I’m not kidding when I say there are lots and lots of celebrities with mental illnesses that the White House could have chosen to invite. How about Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Brooke Shields, Hugh Laurie, Halle Berry or Janet Jackson?
I understand that the point of inviting Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close is to enlist star power to the Conference’s cause. But how much more effective would that star power have been if the stars had actually struggled with mental illness? And could speak from a place of personal experience?
The narrative would shift from “this horrible thing happens to some people and we should help them” to “this horrible thing happens to me.” And that’s a crucial shift, because it forces people – the media, politicians etc. – to stop treating the mentally ill as “other” and start treating them as “us.” It is much harder to objectify, otherize and stereotype people with mental illnesses when they are the featured speakers at your conference.
(As an aside: I would argue that the comic-blog-thing Hyperbole and a Half published a month ago was more influential culturally than the entire conference, precisely BECAUSE it focused on Allie’s personal experience with mental illness. I’ve shown that post to SO MANY PEOPLE and been like “this is exactly how I experience depression” and seen a mental lightbulb go off.)
Moreover, if we assume that the Conference was supposed to help people with mental illnesses (a fairly naive assumption at this point, but bear with me), inviting stars who actually have mental illnesses would have been far more effective than inviting Cooper and Close. Seeing successful, respected people who suffer from similar diseases is inspiring – it shows that mental illnesses are an illness, not a destiny. When I read about, say, Rachel Maddow’s struggle with depression, I feel hopeful. She’s a woman I admire a great deal, and hearing her talk about her illness makes me feel, in the most visceral way possible, that my depression isn’t a sign of weakness or of incapability.
Inviting Cooper and Close sends the message that mentally ill people can be the friends and family of great people. Inviting Maddow, Lovato, Autumn, sends the message that mentally ill people can be great people themselves. Which sounds like a more effective message?
Okay, so, it’s frustrating that the President and the Conference won’t speak directly to people with mental illnesses. It’s annoying that they’re incapable of inviting speakers who actually have mental illnesses, rather than people who have friends and family with mental illnesses? But is it anything more than annoying?
Yep! There are some pretty grim consequences to the trope of highlighting “friends and family” of the mentally ill at the expense of actual people with mental illness. I mean, aside from otherization and erasure (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, like those aren’t grim consequences in and of themselves, oh, I do make myself laugh).
First, it adds to an already-potent cultural myth that people with mental illnesses are so addled and deranged that they can’t possible voice their own experiences, or participate in discussions about their own illnesses.By choosing to highlight the “friends and family” (and actor-portrayers) of the mentally ill rather than the mentally ill themselves, the conference reinforced the idea that people with mental illnesses are incapable of advocating for themselves. They are incapable of speaking for themselves. They are incapable of solving their own problems, or of being responsible for wider social change. They are problems to be solved (by sane people), not problem-solvers.
There’s a long history of giving families and governments the power to control the lives of people with mental illnesses, because we assume that people with mental illnesses are irrational and incapable of making intelligent decisions. Reinforcing that trope is dangerous as fuck.
Second, the “friends and family” approach makes it seem like people with mental illnesses are only important in the context of their relationships. In the President’s speech, we are defined not as individuals, but within the structure of relationships with “sane” people – the “family member, friend, neighbor” who knows us. This makes us secondary players in our own illnesses: our conditions are important not because they’re destroying our lives, or making every day a struggle, but because they’re making our loved ones miserable.
If you’re going to try to improve the state of mental illness in the USA, please, don’t do it because you want to spare my parents, my family, my friends, my neighbors. Do it because you care about how it affects people with mental illnesses.
I have a family. I have friends. I have neighbors. I have loved ones. But that’s not why I deserve to be treated as a human being. That’s not why you should reduce the stigma around mental illnesses, or increase mental health access, or change societal attitudes.
That’s not why people with mental illnesses deserve help.
Not to mention the fact that some people with mental illnesses DON’T have family or friends. I’m serious. Some of them are kids in foster systems. Some of them are kids with abusive parents – they have family, but their family is the source of their mental illness, not their support system. Some people with mental illnesses don’t have friends. Some have lost their family. Some are far away from the people they love. They are still valuable people. And they are worth our time and attention, regardless.
There was a lot of good stuff in the conference. People pointed out that mental illnesses aren’t inherently linked to violence! There was an entire panel about reducing stigma! There was talk of improving access!
Unfortunately, the conference’s potential was marred by its lack of focus on people with mental illnesses. In a conference where people pointed out that one in five Americans will suffer a mental illness in their lifetimes, there were shockingly few people with mental illnesses, either as speakers, as the implied audience, or as the focus of speeches and discussions. Instead, most of the focus was on “sane” friends and family members of people with mental illnesses – their experiences, their advocacy, and what they could do to help.
And it’s not like President Obama and the other organizers don’t understand the value of personal experience. In my favorite moment of the President’s speech, he talked about Patrick Kennedy: “when he was running for reelection back in 2006, he could have avoided talking about his struggles with bi‑polar disorder and addiction. Let’s face it, he’s a Kennedy. His seat was pretty safe. Everybody loved him. And yet, Patrick used his experiences as a way to connect and to lift up these issues, not hide from them. One day a woman came up to Patrick at a senior center and told him she was afraid to tell her friends she was taking medication for a mental illness because she was worried they might treat her differently. She told Patrick, “You’re the only one who knows aside from my son.”
From this anecdote, it’s clear to me that Obama understands (some) people with mental illnesses have agency, and that having people in prominent positions talk about their personal experiences with mental illness can make a tremendous change.
I just wish that anecdote had set the tone for the conference, rather than the “we all know someone with a mental illness” sentence. If it had, this conference could have been tremendously influential. Imagine a giant panel of superstars like Rachel Maddow, Janet Jackson, Demi Lovato etc. talking about their experiences, their successes, their struggles, and what they think is necessary to change the state of mental illness in the USA. And then a panel of non-superstars – just regular people with mental illnesses – doing the same. Now THAT would have been a conference.
It’s not that hard to change the focus. You just have to stop seeing people with mental illnesses as the “other,” and start seeing them as part of the “us.”
OH HAI EVERYONE. I’m back! After writing my senior thesis and then *dying* for a few weeks. I SHOULD BE BACK MORE REGULARLY. I will tell you all about my journey with Tiptree, Russ and Butler soon. Maybe. Feminist Science Fiction, yay!
(can you tell I’m still exhausted from the end of the semester?)
Anyways. Back to your regularly scheduled yelling and rants and statistics!
[Content Note: GIFs, misogyny, racism]
Whenever I explain about why I prefer television to movies, I throw one random line in: “Television is more friendly to women.”
Don’t ask me where I first got that idea. It’s one of those unexamined assumptions floating around my brain. But I’m not the only one who thinks this way. It seems like a broadly accepted truth that television is some kind of haven for women. Movies are aimed towards men. Videogames are aimed towards men. But more women watch television. Waaaay more women watch television. Network prime time television has 65-70% female viewership. Some stations, like the CW, go up to 70-75%.
With those kinds of numbers, television as a medium must be female friendly, right? It must have lots of female creators and female characters and female-friendly stories, right?
See, this is why I should always examine my unexamined assumptions.
Sure, women watch more TV. But according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, only 38.9% of characters in prime-time programs are women (compared to a 60%-65% female viewership). Only 22% of prime time shows feature girls and women in roughly half of all speaking parts. And 20% of shows cast men or boys in 75% or more of speaking roles.
TV! The Land of
Women Mostly Men!
(also, I swear to claude, if anyone responds “but there are more men on TV because women WANT to see more men because all women are attracted to men and only want to see men men men men and they hate women” I will throw things. LOTS OF THINGS)
So that’s what’s happening on-screen. But what about off-screen? Who is creating these shows? Who produces them, directs them, writes them?
Every year when the Oscars come around, feminists (including me) complain about how few female writers and directors are recognized by the academy. Movie directing and writing is still very much a boys-club.Given the high female viewership, would it be different for TV? Do female creators thrive in television?
(probably not, tho)
Two months ago – right before the hell of writing my honors thesis hit – I decided to find out. Given my interest in SF/F – and the time necessary to gather the stats (the numbers for one TV show takes about 15 minutes, which sounds fine… until you realize there are hundreds of prime-time shows) – I decided to concentrate on female creators in SF/F television. Plus, in SF/F fandom, we often talk about the number – and visibility – of female creators in books, in comics and in movies. The television stats, I thought, would make an interesting addition to the discussion, especially given how many big, influential SF/F shows there are on TV today.
The following statistics are very ad-hoc. Very ad-hoc. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t interesting, or that they don’t speak to the general state of female creators in SF/F television. But they were done by one overwhelmed blogger with a weird methodology. They are not supposed to be the be-all, end-all of a discussion.
Thus: I made a list of as many SF/F shows that appeared in North America in 2012 and 2013 and that I could think of/find on the internet. I was pretty loose about the definition of SF/F, which is why you’ll see shows like Elementary and Drop Dead Diva (she is a GHOST) on the list. I only looked at one season of each show: for those shows that had more than one season, I chose whichever season was most current. So for Supernatural, I looked at Season 8 (the 2012-2013 season) as opposed to Season 7 (the 2011-2012 season), while for Eureka, I looked at the 2012 season (because that was the show’s last season).
The twenty six shows I covered are: Lost Girl, Eureka, Beauty and the Beast, Being Human (US), Alcatraz, Arrow, Touch, Fringe, The Neighbors, Last Resort, Revolution, Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Once Upon A Time, Person of Interest, Drop Dead Diva, The Walking Dead, Alphas, Warehouse 13, Supernatural, Game of Thrones, Elementary, Grimm, Falling Skies, Teen Wolf and Doctor Who.
I only took stats on episodes that had already aired, which would have been a great idea if I hadn’t let two months go by between gathering the stats and writing up this post. This is why, for example, I looked at Game of Thrones season 2, instead of Game of Thrones season 3 – season 3 hadn’t started when I gathered the stats. Like I said: this stats gathering is wonky. WONKY. I thought about redoing the stats for shows that aired more episodes, but it took me twelve hours of work to gather stats the first time and I’m lazy. So, fair warning.
(Fun experiment: if you were really dedicated, you could use these stats to figure out the exact date when All The Shit Hit The Fan and I had to abandon my blog for three months)
Once I had the 26 shows, I calculated the gender breakdown for
1. The Executive Producers (colloquially known as the showrunners)
2. The episode directors
3. The episode writers
4. How many episodes were written by men v. women. As I quickly realized, sometimes a show can have a fair number of female writers… while most of the episodes are still written by men.
The results were… interesting. And by interesting, I mean “depressing.”
In 77% percent of SF/F shows, less than half the writers were female. 77%. Twenty out of twenty six.
Twenty three percent of shows – 6 shows – had 50% or more female writers. Out of those 6 shows, only three had a majority of female writers (three shows were exactly gender-balanced). So basically, 77% of shows are majority-male written, 11.5% are majority-female written, and 11.5% are perfectly gender-balanced.
On average, 68.2% of writers for SF/F shows were men, while 31.5% of them were women.
I want to go deeper in those numbers, because there might be an instinct to go “well, there are some shows where men dominate, and some shows where women dominate, and it all evens out.” Which: no.There are 77% of shows where men dominate, and 11.5% of shows where women dominate, so it’s clearly NOT evening out. But even in those shows where women “dominate,” they don’t dominate in the same ways men do. Numbers, please!
The highest percentage of female writers on a show is 57%. The highest percentage of male writers is 100% (in fact, there are two shows – Doctor Who and Teen Wolf – where all the writers are male). The lowest percentage of male writers is 43%. The lowest percentage of female writers is 0%. In other words, while there are shows with no female writers, there are no shows that do not have male writers. There is always male representation, and the lowest male representation is 43%… for two out of twenty six shows.
In 31% of SF/F shows, less than one fourth of the writers were female. Most shows – 46% – employ between 25% and 49% percent female writers. 11.5% employ exactly the same number of men and women, and 11.5% employ a higher number of women (between 51-57%).
Do women thrive as SF/F television writers? I don’t know about you, but I would not call that “thriving.”
If you think the numbers for female writers are depressing, you might want to take a second before we move on to the statistics for female directors. Trust me, we haven’t even gotten to the
best worst part.
Out of twenty six shows, absolutely NONE had 50% or more female directors. Zero. Zip. Nada.
Ten of the twenty six shows – Thirty eight percent – had ZERO female directors. A whooping 96% of the shows had 75% or more male directors.
Let me rephrase that: in twenty five out of twenty six SF/F shows, less than one fourth of the directors were female. Only one show had more than 25% female directors.
On average, 89.9% of directors for SF/F shows were men, while 10.9% of them were women. Men aren’t just a majority of directors. They’re an overwhelming majority. Women barely have any presence at all.
So that’s the cursory overview state of women in the marvelously female-friendly land of television.
Unexamined assumptions, huh? Really worth examining.
Here’s the complete breakdown for writers, directors and executive producers for all twenty six shows. I put them in order of highest-to-lowest percentage of female writers (which yields results both obvious – Game of Thrones is #21 – and surprising: Elementary is #22).
1. Lost Girl (Season 3)
Executive Producers: 3 (2 men, 1 woman) 33% women, 67% men
Director: 6 (5 men, 1 woman) 16% women, 84% men
Writers: 7 (3 men, 4 women) 57% women, 43% men
-episodes written only by women: 4 (57%)
-episodes written only by men: 3 (43%)
2. Eureka (season 5)
Executive producers: 2 (1 woman, 2 men) 33% women, 67% men
Directors: 8 (3 women, 5 men) 37.5% women, 62.5% men
Writers: 14 (8 women, 6 men) 57% women, 43% men
- Episodes written only by men: 3 (23%)
- Episodes written only by women: 4 (30%)
- Episodes written by both: 6 (46%)
3. Beauty and the Beast (Season 1)
Executive producers: 11 (3 men, 8 women) 27% women, 73% men
Director: 12 (11 men, 1 woman) 8% women, 92% men
Writer: 11 (6 women, 5 man) 54% women, 46% men
- written only by men: 4 (28.5%)
- written only by women: 6 (43%)
- written by both: 4 (28.5%)
4. Being Human (season 3)
Executive producers: 2 (1 man, 1 woman) 50% men, 50% women
Directors: 4 (3 men, 1 woman) 75% men, 25% women
Writers: 8 (4 men, 4 women) 50% men, 50% women
- Episodes written only by men: 3 (43%)
- Episodes written only by women: 3 (43%)
- Episodes written by both: 1 (14%)
5. Alcatraz (season 1)
Executive Producers: 5 (4 men, 1 woman) 20% women, 80% men
Directors: 8 – all men (100% men)
Writers: 10 (5 men, 5 women) (50% women, 50% men)
- Episodes written only by men: 4 (31%)
- Episodes written only by women: 4 (31%)
- Episodes written by both: 5 (38%)
6. Arrow (Season 1)
Executive Producers: 4 (all men) 100%
Directors: 13 (12 men, 1 woman) 8% women, 92% men
Writer: 10 (5 men, 5 women) 50% men, 50% women
- Episodes written only by men: 7 (44%)
- Episodes written only by women: 3 (19%)
- Episodes written by both: 6 (37%)
7. Touch (season 2)
Executive producers: 7 (3 women, 4 men) 43% women, 57% men
Directors: 4 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 5 (2 women, 3 men) 40% women, 60% men
- episodes written only by men: 3 (60%)
- episodes written only by women: 2 (40%)
- episode written by both: 0
8. Fringe (Season 5)
Episodes : 13
Executive producers: 1 man (100% male)
Directors: 12, all men (100% male)
Writers: 5 (3 men, 2 women) 40% women, 60% men
- 9 episodes written by only men (69%)
- 4 episodes written by only women (31%)
- 0 written by both
9. The Neighbors (season 1)
Executive producers: 4 (all men) 100% men
Directors: 7 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 10 (4 women, 6 men) 40% women, 60% men
- Episodes written only by men: 9 (50%)
- Episodes written only by women: 4 (22%)
- Episodes written by both: 5 (27%)
10. Last Resort (season 3)
Executive Producers: 4, all men 100% men
Directors: 10 (8 men, 2 women) (20% women, 80% men)
Writers: 11 (3 women, 8 men) (37.5% women, 62.5% men )
- Episodes written only by men: 9 (70%)
- Episodes written only by women: 4 (30%)
- Episodes written by both: 0 (0%)
11. Revolution (season 1)
Executive Producers: 3 (all men) 100% men
Directors: 8 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 8 (3 women, 5 men) 37.5% women, 62.5% men
- Episodes written only by men: 6 (60%)
- Episodes written only by women: 2 (20%)
- Episodes written by both: 2 (20%)
12. Vampire Diaries (season four)
Executive Producers: 4 (2 men, 2 women ) - 50% men, 50% women
Directors: 12 (11 men, 1 woman) - 91% men, 9% women
Writers: 11 (4 women, 7 men) - 36% women, 64% men
- 6 episodes written only by men (40%)
- 5 episodes written only by women (34%)
- 4 episodes written by both (26%)
13. True Blood (Season 5)
Executive producer: 2 (both men) 100% men
Directors: 9 (8 men, 1 woman) 11% women, 89% women
Writers: 6 (2 women, 4 men) 33% women, 67% men
- Episodes written only by men: 8 (67%)
- Episodes written only by women: 4 (37%)
- Both: 0 (0%)
14. Once Upon a Time (Season 2)
Executive Producers: 2 (both men) 100% men
Directors: 10 (9 men, 1 woman) 90% men, 10% women
Writers: 10 (3 women, 7 men) 70% men, 30% women
-10 episodes written by only men (67%)
- 4 episode written by only women (27%)
- 1 episode written by both (6%)
15. Person of Interest (season 2)
Executive Producers: 5, all men (100% male)
Directors: 11 (10 men, 1 woman) 9% women, 91% men
Writers: 13 (4 women, 9 men) 30% women, 70% men
- 9 episodes written only by men (60%)
- 3 episodes written only by women (15%)
- 3 episodes written by both (15%)
16. Drop Dead Diva (Season 4)
Executive Producers: 5 (all men) 100% men
Directors: 9 (8 men, 1 woman) 11% women, 89% men
Writers: 11 (3 women, 8 men) 27% women, 73% men
- Episodes written only by men: 9 (69%)
- Episodes written only by women: 1 (8%)
- Episodes written by both: 3 (27%)
17. The Walking Dead (Season 3)
Executive producers: 2 (both men) 100%
Directors: 9 (2 women, 7 men) 22% women, 78% men
Writers: 8 (2 women, 6 men) 25% women, 75% men
- Episodes written only by men: 8 (67%)
- Episodes written only by women: 4 (33%)
- Episodes written by both: 0 (0%)
18. Alphas (season 2)
Executive Producers: 6 (all men) 100% men
Directors: 8 (6 men, 2 women) 25% women, 75% men
Writers: 11 (8 men, 3 women) 27% women, 73% men
- Episodes written only by men: 9 (69%)
- Episodes written only by women: 1 (8%)
- Episodes written by both: 3 (27%)
19. Warehouse 13 (season 4)
Executive Producers; 3 (all men) 100% men
Directors: 6 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 9 (2 women, 7 men) (22% women, 78% men)
- Episodes written only by men: 6 (60%)
- Episodes written only by women: 4 (40%)
- Episodes written by both: 0
20. Supernatural (season 8)
Executive Producers: 1 (male)
Directors: 14 (14 men) 100% men
Writers: 9 (7 men, 2 women) - 22% women, 78% men
- 12 episodes written only by men (81%)
- 1 episode written only by women (6%)
- 3 episodes written by both (13%)
21. Game of Thrones (season 2)
Executive producers: 2 (both men) 100% men
Directors: 5 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 5 (4 men, 1 woman) 20% women, 80% men
- episodes written by only men: 8 (80%)
- episodes written by only women: 2 (20%)
- episodes written by both: 0
22. Elementary (Season 1)
Executive producers: 4 (3 male, 1 female) – 25% women, 75% men
Directors: 14 (11 male, 3 female) - 20% women, 80% men
Writers: 12 (2 women, 10 men) – 16% women, 84% men
- 13 episodes written only by men: 76%
- 2 episodes written only by women: 12%
- 2 episodes written by both: 12%
23. Grimm (season 2)
Executive Producers: 5 (all men) 100%
Directors: 12 (2 women, 10 men) 17% women, 83% men
Writers: 10 (1 woman, 9 men) 10% women, 90% men
- Episodes written only by men: 9 (90%)
- Episodes written only by women: 1 (10%)
- Episodes written by both: 0
24. Falling Skies (season 2)
Executive Producer: 1 (male) 100% men
Directors: 7 (6 men, 1 woman) 14% women, 86% men
Writers :7 (6 men, 1 woman) 14% women, 86% men
- episodes written only by men: 8 (80%)
- episodes written only by women: 2 (20%)
25. Teen Wolf (Season 2)
Executive Producers: 6 (5 men, 1 woman) 16% women, 84% men
Directors: 2 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 6 (all men) 100% men
26. Doctor Who (series 7)
Executive Producers: 1 (man) 100% men
Directors: 4 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 3 (all men) 100% men
(note: the executive producer stats are BY FAR the most fuzzy. With some shows, it’s really hard to tell WHO the showrunner is. So take those stats with a MASSIVE grain of salt, and correct me if I’m wrong)
A few weeks after I took these statistics, articles began to pop up about Steven Moffat, Doctor Who’s showrunner. Apparently, people figured out that he hadn’t had a female writer on the show during his entire tenure as showrunner.
I will not lie! My initial reaction was: “Damn, they got the drop on me. This is why you publish blog posts EARLY, girl.”
Anyways – people were understandably mad at Stephen Moffat. Doctor Who is a very popular Sci-Fi show – more importantly, it’s a show that is very popular with women. Steven Moffat has had thirty two episodes to work with. You’re telling me he can’t find one female writer he wants on the show? Over thirty two episodes? Not a single one?
Yeah, it’s pretty terrible.
It’s also worth noting that Steven Moffat has had zero female directors and zero female writers on the other show he runs, Sherlock. And he hasn’t had a female director on Doctor Who in two series (twenty four episodes). So it’s a pretty obvious pattern.
But here’s the thing. Steven Moffat is not a glaring exception from the norm. Steven Moffat is the norm. A slightly more extreme version, yes. But only slightly.
And listen, I do not like Steven Moffat. At all. My boyfriend and I recently watched all of Doctor Who, and it’s pretty striking how quickly our attitude went from “yay, another Doctor Who episode to watch!” to “… I guess we should watch the next episode of Doctor Who, huh? Blurrrgh” when Moffat took over as showrunner.
(Aside from anything else, he’s not a good writer. Example: WHY THE FUCK DID THE TARDIS BLOW UP? Are we ever going to find out? WHY DID THE SILENCE NEED RIVER SONG IN THE FIRST PLACE, if the spacesuit was CONTROLLING THE PERSON INSIDE IT?) Plus Steven Moffat is terrible to female characters. Like, painfully terrible. I have so many rants stored up about his treatment of Amy Pond, River Song and Clara Oswin.
… sorry, that rant was supposed to be shorter. Point being: I do not like Steven Moffat. I do not want to defend Steven Moffat. But he is not alone in his show’s lack of female creators. So if we’re going to call him out for his lack of female writers, we should also call out all the other shows with few – or zero – female writers and directors.
And that’s basically all of them.
Put it this way: I’m worried we’re turning Steven Moffat into the bogeyman. He’s terrible to female characters! He’s terrible to female creators! He says the most despicable shit in interviews (as a bisexual woman, I particularly enjoyed his comment that he doesn’t put bisexuals on his shows because “[bisexuals] are too busy having fun” to care about representation. Thanks. No, seriously). So we (correctly) get outraged and yell at him a lot, and call him out etc.
But meanwhile, we don’t even notice that, say, Elementary’s writers are 80% male, and its directors are 84% male. Elementary is a great show for female representation. It’s a great show for POC representation. It includes all kinds of feminist concepts like boundaries, consent, good treatment of abuse victims, gaslighting etc. But behind the scenes? It’s only a tiny bit better than Doctor Who.
How about Once Upon A Time, a show where the hero, the villain and a whole lot of the main supporting characters are all female? Where there are a lot of kick-ass, interesting, complex women? Where women are portrayed in a variety of ways (not just the Strong Female Character TM?) Ninety percent of their directors are men. Seventy percent of their writers are men.
(and it’s a show that tends to fail pretty hard on female characters of color).
So why does it matter? If a show is doing well in terms of female representation, why should we care if their writing staff and directorial pool is filled with men?
That argument – the “good representation in one area negates bad representation in another” argument – is, I submit to you, poppycock.
Having more women writing, producing and directing TV shows is good in and of itself. Not just because it might bring about better female representation – as we’ve seen, men are capable of writing good female characters, and of avoiding sexist narratives. Better female representation might be a side effect of more female writers, producers and directors, but it’s not the only reason to push for it.
Both Elementary and Once Upon A Time do a better job with female characters than Doctor Who. A way better job. Hell, I would go so far as to say that even Game of Thrones does a better job with female characters (when it’s not busy adding more sexism to the source material). But it’s not just how you write the female characters in your show. It’s not just how you incorporate feminist concepts into your script. It’s also who you think is good enough to CREATE that show. To create those worlds. To tell those stories.
For most SF/F shows, the people they think are good enough to create those shows and tell those stories are – men. Sure, there are a few women thrown in there. But mostly, it’s men.
And not having good representation of female creators isn’t just an implicit commentary on who you think is good enough to create a show. It also has economic consequences.
Having more female creators on TV shows is important because it means women are getting paid. I don’t know how to spell it out more clearly: these are jobs. These are jobs for which people are getting paid. And women are not getting paid to do these jobs, because women are not getting these jobs. It’s part of the reason I thought the sexism on American Idol in the last two seasons was particularly terrible – by denying women a chance to compete in the higher ranks of Idol, you’re denying them a higher paycheck. And that matters. On a basic, fundamental level, this is about money and jobs. Money and jobs that women cannot get, even on shows that are supposed to be catering to women (like the Vampire Diaries or True Blood). We need to support women economically just as much as we need to support women creatively.
And yes, representation offscreen is also important because it’s about supporting women creatively. As the stats show, women are not allowed to write, create, or direct their own stories. Even in shows that are ostensibly about women (Once Upon A Time, True Blood etc.) and that are ostensibly aimed towards a female audience, men are the ones creating, crafting and writing women’s stories. We don’t get control over our own narratives. Which is problematic because women are a marginalized group. The right to self-definition is one we rarely have – we are the other, not the self. The Self – men – get to define us. And part of breaking down oppression and marginalization is gaining the ability to define ourselves – to write ourselves, to tell our own stories.
(This is not an argument that no man should ever write about women. It’s an institutional problem, not an individual one, which we can change by getting *more* women into the industry. Nor is it an argument that women are obligated to write about women – it’s important women be able to write about men, particularly since many people still think women are restricted to writing about their own experiences)
Moreover, most showrunners – the people who create those new shows, new mythologies, new characters, new stories – start off as TV directors or TV writers. If we want more showrunners to be women, we need to give them access to writing and directing jobs.
In other words, when we think about women in the television industry, we need to remember that both women’s representation onscreen and women’s representation offscreen matters. We shouldn’t write off bad representation behind the scenes just because a show has good female characters onscreen; a show can do well in one respect and fail in the other. And both sorts of representation (or lack of representation) have consequences.
For example, consider a girl who loves Doctor Who. She loves Amy Pond (one of the Doctor’s recent companions) so much that she decides to become a writer, just like Amy. And since she enjoys SF/F TV so much, she decides to become a television writer. Maybe she’ll even get a job on Doctor Who!
The problem is, given the current state of SF/F television (and Doctor Who) – she would probably have a really hard time getting work.
There are consequences to not promoting female creators offscreen.
These statistics, unfortunately, are fundamentally flawed. They only look at one axis of marginalization (sexism), and they do so with no real intersectionality. It is undoubtably the case that women of color have an even harder time getting jobs writing or directing SF/F TV shows. It’s almost certainly true that there are very few POC (men or women) writing or directing network television. That I didn’t look at these statistics means that my conclusions are inherently flawed – I can tell you that women are less likely to be hired, but I can’t tell you if certain kinds of women (white women, straight women, abled women) have an easier time, or if women are more likely to be hired than POC. Partially, these flaws come from the fact that it’s much easier to tell how many women v. men write a show – you can just count names (ah, the convenience of gendered names). I also tried to figure out number of POC writing for certain shows, and felt really gross, as a white woman, trying to guess who was a POC and who wasn’t from pictures (when I couldn’t find any self-identification).
But I do think the information I didn’t gather – information on race etc. – is crucial to understanding who exactly is allowed to create SF/F television.
For example, in taking a second look at Elementary, I realized that even if Elementary doesn’t do a great job with female writers and directors, it does do a pretty good job in terms of Directors of Color. They had at least two WOC and three MOC directing episodes (out of twenty four episodes). Which isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than most shows. While that doesn’t negate Elementary’s lack of women, it does provide an extra dimension to consider (and gives me hope that they’re *trying*)
Here are some broad, if incomplete, statistics to add to my numbers. According to the Writers Guild of America West, 87.3% of television screenwriters are white (while only 63.7% of the US population is non-hispanic white/european American). And 55 shows in the 2011-2012 television year hired no writers of color. Those shows include Game of Thrones and Once Upon A Time.
I mean, again: even shows that are good about representation onscreen can be terrible about representation behind the scenes (not that either Game of Thrones or Once Upon A Time is good about POC representation onscreen). And it’s important to document and publicize those aspects of representation.
On a final note, these statistics are important because they belie the idea that creators and narratives respond to the audience – as opposed to the patriarchy. One of the most common (misogynistic) arguments you’ll hear when you talk about lack of female creators in literature or in movies or in comic books is that the audience for those mediums is mostly male. Therefore, the creators are mostly male, because they’re best suited to respond to male desires. So it’s not misogyny! It’s just Reflecting the Audience.
This is a bullshit, victim-blaming argument to begin with, but it’s pretty much completely disproven if you look at the television statistics. Women watch way more television than men. Women watch way more network television than men. And yet women are still in the minority – often in the overwhelming minority – when it comes to creating television. It’s an important reminder that institutions don’t primarily respond to the makeup of their audience. They respond to the patriarchy. Comic books are often sexist not because they are aimed towards men, but because they are part of the patriarchy. The movie industry is often sexist not because its products are aimed towards men, but because it is responding to the patriarchy. The solution is not just for more women to watch shows/read comics etc. The solution is to dismantle institutional sexism.
Is it easy? Nope.
Do I know how to do it (except by complaining online a lot and trying to raise awareness)? Nope
Is it worth doing? Absolutely.
Because this is just ridiculous.
(I miss Donna)
(also, as I mentioned, these statistics are super ad-hoc, so if you find errors, or if you want to add information, that would be very welcome! More info/getting a broader picture is always welcome)
(on the other hand, explaining why I am super-wrong and a bad statistics gatherer when I explain UPFRONT the problems with my methodology and *why* I didn’t have the capacity to do better is… not welcome. PRE-EMPTIVE WARNING)
[Note: This post started as an open letter to Melissa Harris-Perry, one of my favorite public commentators and host of The Melissa Harris-Perry Show. Realizing, of course, that Melissa Harris-Perry is highly unlikely to read this letter (since she has other shit to do), and that people on my blog ARE likely to read the letter, the letter evolved into a more general analysis of how we can discuss mental illness in mainstream spaces in a constructive and not-disablist way. My solutions don't go far beyond the glaringly obvious, but sadly, the current state of discourse is such that even the glaringly obvious would be a victory.]
[Not that I would complain if Melissa Harris-Perry DID read the letter, but I just wanted to cover all my bases]
Content note for disablism, mental illness, violence.
Hi! My name is CD.
Okay, actually, I’m writing to you from my pseudonymous blog, so my pseudonym is CD. My name is something completely different.
Now that we have that out of the way -
So, first of all: I’m a big fan of the Melissa Harris-Perry show. As a progressive, watching the mainstream news usually makes my head explode. If it’s not the all-white, all-male panelists discussing reproductive rights, it’s the casual sexism, or racism, or transphobia, or classism, or – there’s a whole list.
Watching your show, on the other hand, is… what’s the opposite of “head exploding from rage?”
Whatever that emotion is, that’s how I feel when I watch the show.
The Melissa Harris-Perry show examine issues that no one else is talking about – solitary confinement, the war on drugs, transphobia, poverty (to name just a few). And your panels are meaningfully diverse – I think you’re the only current affairs show I’ve ever seen where white men are consistently in the minority of your panelists.
There is, however, a more… pointed reason for my letter than fangirling over the wonderfulness, head-exploding-with-confetti-ness of the show.
I wanted to talk to you about the way your show has addressed mental illness.
In the wake of the Sandy Hooks massacre, many of your episodes have included segments on gun violence and gun control. For the most part, I’ve thought those panels were fantastic. You and your guests have a knack for refusing to allow unexamined assumptions to remain… well, unexamined.
Mental illness, however, is one assumption that I think has remained unexamined on your show (at least, so far).
It hasn’t been a big thing on the show, let me be clear. Neither your nor the panelists have talked at length about mental illness and its relationship to gun violence. But like clockwork, every time the issue of gun violence comes up, someone will say “Noun, verb, we need to talk about mental illness.”
And then the moment passes.
Let me give you some examples. On the December 15th show, a guest said we should not stigmatize socially awkward kids (this was in the wake of Adam Lanza being described as “socially awkward”) but we should make sure that their social awkwardness was not the result of a “personality disorder.”The assumption being, I suppose, that social awkwardness is not dangerous, but a personality disorder might be.
[That particular guest might be shocked to learn that 9% of Americans ages 18 and above have a personality disorder]
On the January 13th show, you said Americans are afraid “a madman” will enter a school and start shooting. Another guest explained that Americans support background checks to keep guns out of the hands of “criminals, convicted fellons, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill.”
Again, it’s just a moment. A passing mention.
But those passing mentions contain a giant truckload of assumptions about what mental illness is, who mentally ill people are, and how mental illness is connected to gun violence.
Here’s a final example. On January 12th, a guest said: “A lot of Americans don’t think [gun violence] is about gun control. They think this is about crazy people. So that’s why you see the President talking about mental health.”
That would be the moment I started arguing with my computer screen [I watch the show online].
Because I am a crazy person.
No, I don’t mean that hyperbolically. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I don’t mean that I’m eccentric or silly or ridiculous or bizarre.
I mean that, assuming your guest thinks “crazy people” are people with mental health issues, I am a crazy person.
Yes, I am a person with mental health issues. I have a mental illness. In fact, I have two! (Sadly, you don’t win any prizes for having more than one – I’ve checked)
So every time someone on a news show casually mentions that mentally ill people are dangerous, or every time an unnamed Governor (*cough* Andrew Cuomo *cough*) passes a law that limits access to guns by the mentally ill, because “People who have mental health issues should not have guns. They could hurt themselves, they could hurt other people” -
Every time, they are talking about me.
And I don’t like being talked about. I prefer to be involved in any discussion that concerns me. Hence my desire to talk back. To create a dialogue, if you will.
On the January 26th segment about Obama’s war and drone strikes, Melissa, you talked about how you think “drones” have become a progressive meme. As you explained, progressive don’t really know why they oppose drones, or what they actually think the problem is – but they will consistently say things like “I support Obama, except for his drone policy.”
I submit to you that mental health has become a similar meme. No one knows exactly why mental health is linked to gun violence, or even whether or not gun violence has anything to do with mental illness. No one’s seen the research, or talked to people with mental illnesses, or even really considered what they mean by “dangerously mentally ill” or “crazy” or “discussion about mental illness.”But everyone feels compelled to mention mentally illness whenever we have a conversation about guns.
So let’s look at the facts.
- First, and crucially: We don’t actually know whether or not Adam Lanza had a mental illness. We’re just assuming he had one, based on the fact that he shot and killed twenty six people.
His brother and some of his neighbors have reported that Adam Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or was on the Autism Spectrum. If this is true (and relying on second-hand information is not exactly great), we need to remember that Aspergers and Autism are not mental illnesses. They are developmental disabilities.
And it is symptomatic of the state of the discourse about mental illness that very few people have bothered to make the distinction. Indeed, at this point we’re using “mental illness” as a catch-all term for everything from developmental disabilities to mood disorder and personality disorders to people who are neuroatypical. Only some of those things are actual mental illnesses.
- Second: Violence is not linked to mental illness
The reason public commentators – and many of your guests – keep bringing up mental illness, Melissa, is because they assume that mental illness causes violence. Yes, we don’t actually know if Adam Lanza had a mental illness, the thinking goes. But because he shot up a school, he must have one In other words: to pick up a gun and go shoot a group of strangers, you must be crazy.
(Interestingly, no one ever brings up the mental illness argument after a terrorist attack. Why aren’t we concerned about the mental health of terrorists? We don’t need drones in the middle east – we need more anti-depressants!)
And indeed, the research shows that most Americans believe people with mental illnesses “pose a threat for violence towards others and themselves” (source)
But that is not the reality.
Most of the people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. Repeated for emphasis: most of the people who are responsible for violent crimes – rape, domestic abuse, gun violence, assault, homicide etc. – do not have mental illnesses.
Moreover, the vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent. Indeed, according to nearly every study on the subject, “The absolute risk of violence among the mentally ill as a group is very small. . . only a small proportion of the violence in our society can be attributed to persons who are mentally ill (Mulvey, 1994).”
Moreover, it is a provable fact that mentally ill populations – including mentally ill people with illnesses that we most associate with violence (Schizophrenia, for example) – are in fact no more violent than the rest of the population.
Now, you might ask: “Okay, but Adam Lanza might have had autism. Are autism/aspergers/other developmental disabilities linked with violence?”
And the answer would, again, be “no.”
To quote Dr. Max Wizniter, a neurologist and autism expert, “Aggression and violence in the ASD population is reactive, not preplanned and deliberate” – exactly the opposite of Adam Lanza’s very carefully planned massacre.
These facts directly contradict the popular meme that mass violence is caused by “the mentally ill” and that if we just get more mental health care, or make sure to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illness, or create a national database of mentally ill people, gun violence will go down.
It is provably untrue that mental illness causes violence. I will repeat this until I am blue in the face, because people are just not hearing it: it is provably untrue that mental illness causes violence.
When public commentators put mental health care on the list of things we can do to stop gun violence, it makes just about as much sense as saying that more knitting classes will stop violence. Or people eating more tomatoes. Lack of tomatoes is not the problem. Lack of knitting classes is not the problem. And mental illness is not the problem.
This is not, of course, to argue that no mentally ill people are violent. Some mentally ill people are. But violence cannot be predicted by one’s mental health. Being mentally ill or neuroatypical makes you no more likely to commit acts of atrocity than anyone else.
Melissa, I am not just writing this to correct a popular misconception about mental illness. I am also writing because, as you know, discourse has consequences.
Indeed, talking about mental illness as the source of gun violence isn’t just factually incorrect. By talking about “the mentally ill” as though they’re all ticking timb-bombs, ready to explode into violence and aggression, we are further stigmatizing people with mental illness.
When Andrew Cuomo tells the world “People who have mental health issues should not have guns. They could hurt themselves, they could hurt other people,” he is furthering the stereotype that people with mental health issues have no self-control, that they are incapable of making good decisions and society needs to “take care of them.”
When one of your guests says: “A lot of Americans don’t think [gun violence] is about gun control. They think this is about crazy people. So that’s why you see the President talking about mental health” he is furthering the stereotype that “crazy people” are inherently violent.
And when Wayne LaPierre – I hate to bring him up, but he occupies a prominent role in the discourse – says that there are “genuine monsters” in American society, and then, in the same breath, tells us we should create a national registry of the mentally ill…
I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain that one, do I?
People with mental illness are not the hidden monsters of American society. They are not incompetent crazies who are incapable of making decisions for themselves. And they are not ticking-time-bombs of potential violence.
But that is what the discourse is making us out to be.
And discourse has consequences.
Hypothetically, do you think that knowing society thinks people with mental illness are violent and dangerous makes someone more or less likely to seek mental health care?
Do you think knowing your mental health professional might have to register you in a National Database makes you more or less likely to seek mental health care?
Do you think believing that mentally ill people are incompetent and incapable of good-decision making makes you more or less likely to seek mental health care?
Speaking about autism, Sara Reed, director of advocacy and family services for an autism resource center in Connecticut said: “We’re very concerned about families feeling stigmatized and being afraid to seek services for fear that their child will be seen as a possible monster.”
Stigma makes people less likely to seek help, not more.
I know this letter is getting a bit long (the bad news is that I write best at length. My professors love grading me), but trust me, this is where we get to the good part.
Initially, Melissa, I just planned to write a letter to you explaining why our current discourse around mental illness is harmful. But I’ve already talked about that in other contexts: specifically in a blog post I wrote right after Newtown.
So, I thought: is this just going to be another rant about disablism (social prejudice against people with disabilities)? Because rants are good! Rants are useful! But maybe – you could stretch a bit. Stretching is good.
Okay. You’re writing to a public commentator. You’re writing to a public commentator who you admire precisely because she’s so good at creating constructive, nuanced, non-oppressive dialogue on TV – a space where constructive dialogue is… very hard to find.
Why don’t you take a page from her book and try to address how we could have constructive, non-oppressive dialogue about mental illness in mainstream spaces?
You want better dialogue, CD? Explain what that looks like.
Since my brain tends to order me around, that’s what I’m doing here, in the second part of the letter.
I’m not saying this dialogue has to happen on the Melissa Harris-Perry show, by the way! Presumably, you have lots and lots and lots of other things to do. Like being a professor WHILE ALSO RUNNING A TV SHOW (how are you so awesome? Can you teach me your ways?)
Instead, I’m taking inspiration from the show and trying to imagine what we would need to have a constructive, non-oppressive dialogue about mental health. In mainstream spaces.
[The most obvious thing we need, of course, is to stop linking mental illness to gun violence, but I think I've addressed that issue pretty thoroughly above, and people are probably already getting bored.]
1. Inclusion of People with Mental Illnesses
The first, and most important thing that we can do to create constructive dialogue about mental illness is to include and prioritize the voices of people with mental illnesses.
The Melissa Harris-Perry Show is, I think, probably the best show I’ve seen for this: when you talk about an oppression, most of your guests are members of that oppressed group. When you talked about trans* issues and cissexism, most of your panelists were trans*. When you talk about race, most of your panelists are people of color. When you discuss women, most of your panelists are women.
And that’s something I don’t think I’ve seen any show, any newspaper or any magazine in the mainstream do with regards to mental illness.
Can you imagine having a conversation about women’s reproductive rights without any female speakers?
… wait, this is the United States. Of course you can! In fact, it’s happened before. But when it happens, we are (rightfully) outraged. Yet the very same people who are horrified when conservatives discuss reproductive rights without including women have no problem with a conversation on mental health that does not include anyone with a mental illness.
[It is, I must say, quite frustrating to turn on the TV and hear people talking about me as if I were completely incapable of speaking for myself]
The mentally ill are people we talk about, not people we talk to. We aren’t interested in having a conversation with them, despite the fact that they’re the ones most affected by the issue. They’re some kind of nebulous other, voiceless and faceless.
But we are not a nebulous other. If you know more than four people, you probably know someone with a mental disorder. If you know more than twenty, you probably know someone with a major mental illness.
Approximately one fourth of all Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. 6% of people suffer from a serious mental illness like major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the US and Canada.
Personality disorders? Nine percent of Americans.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Three percent of Americans.
Schizophrenia? One percent of Americans.
Bipolar Disorder? Between two and three percent of Americans.
Mood disorders? Nine percent of Americans.
And when we talk about developmental disorders (when we can be bothered not to lump them in with mental illnesses), we should prioritize the voices of people who actually have developmental disorders. Which, incidentally, means I’m a total hypocrite, because I… have no developmental disorder.
Estimating the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders is difficult given the differences in the ways that cases are identified and defined (and the continually changing diagnostic criteria), but a recent CDC study estimated that the prevalence is around 1 in 110.
(all statistics from: National Institute of Mental Health)
My point, it is this: there are a whole lot of people with mental illnesses, neuroatypical people and people with developmental disabilities. If you know more than four people, you probably know someone with a mental disorder. If you know more than twenty, you probably know someone with a major mental illness.
If you want to talk to us, you can find us.
So, Step one to constructive dialogue: include and prioritize the opinions/voices of people with mental illness.
MOREOVER, to take a page from the Melissa Harris-Perry Show (again), we should make sure that the conversation is meaningfully intersectional. For example, when the Melissa Harris-Perry show has panels on reproductive rights, the guests aren’t all white, straight women. There are women of color, queer women etc. Similarly, conversations about mental illness should not be dominated by white, middle class, cisgendered, straight people with mental illness.
(Oh, hi, hypocrite award #2! I’m white, middle class and cisgendered)
Which leads to point #2 on creating constructive dialogue about mental illness
2. Talking about issues that actually affect people with mental illnesses in an intersectional manner.
Which, again, does not include talking about gun violence (except insofar as gun violence affects people with mental illness because, hey, we can get shot too! Also, many people who survive gun violence develop mental health issues)
So what are some of the issues that affect people with mental illnesses?
… whoa. That’s a, er, VERY BIG question.
When I think about the array of issues surrounding mental health and neurodiversity that we, as a society, need to tackle, I feel daunted. We need to work on accessibility. We need to work on accommodations in the workplace, in schools, and in society as a whole. We need to promote a wider understanding of what mental illnesses are (and are not). We need to realize that everyone has mental health needs, not just the people with diagnosed mental illnesses.
And we can’t do any of these things without first destigmatizing mental illnesses. It doesn’t matter if we have the best access and accomodations in the world, if people are too ashamed or scared of being considered “weak” and “crazy” and “dangerous” to use them. So we need to talk about destigmatization, and what that would look like, and how we get there.
Moreover, since mental illness is not a monolith, there will be no single solution, no one-size fits all. It’s possible to destigmatize depression without destigmatizing schizophrenia, for example. People with bipolar disorder, people with depression, people with schizophrenia, people with PTSD – all of them need very different things. When we consider that most people lump developmental disabilities or variances under “mental illness” (even though they expressedly are not) this becomes even more complicated – a policy to help people with autism probably won’t help people with depression.
Not to mention the fact that every individual person experiences illness in different ways.
All of these conversations, moreover, need to take place with a broad understanding of intersectionality. The issues that face a mentally ill person like me – white, middle class, cis, bisexual and female – will be vastly different from the experiences of a person of color, or a trans* person, or a poor person with mental illnesses. And a society that already believes people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses are violent is even less tolerant towards those bodies that are constantly coded as violent: for example, most of the the violence directed at people with mental illnesses is directed towards black men (girl janitor).
There are really important, HIGHLY under-discussed ways that disablism intersects with race, class, gender identity (and expression) and sexual orientation.
We want to have a conversation about mental health issues?
These are good places to start.
In my perfect fantasy world, of course, this conversation would actually happen on your show, Melissa. But you, I think, have a lot of other things on your plate. So instead, I hope (ambitiously, for a small blog) that this letter/blog post can serve as a starting point for people who want to have good-faith conversations about mental illness.
Thank you for showing that constructive conversations can happen on TV, Melissa. And keep being awesome.
p.s: if I could ask one favor, though, Melissa, I would really, really appreciate it if you steered your guests away from saying problematic things about mental illness. It… gets wearying.
p.p.s: For everyone who is interested, here are further resources about mental illness. They are also some of the the resources I used to write this post (so everyone can verify my research! Hey, I’m writing an open letter to a Professor. My research better be solid)
An Observation About Mental Illness (on how trauma, like that suffered by the students at Newtown, often causes mental health issues)
On Sitting With Fear (Analysis of why all the mass shooters have been white men)
Girl Janitor: Race and Mental Illness (if you are a white person with mental illnesses and you cite statistics on mentally ill people being shot by the police (Hi, I was one of you, once!) , YOU NEED TO READ THIS)
On Not Being Adam Lanza (shameless self-promotion)
Feel free to add onto this in the comments.
“It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” (Robert Lipsyte, “Boys and Reading: Is there Any Hope?“)
(I hear you, Toph)
I like giving my younger brother (R) books. Correction: I really like giving my younger brother books. And he loves reading, so we’re quite compatible. Well played, universe!
Anyway. The last time I took R on a book-buying expedition, it took us three hours to narrow down the choices. By the end, we were down to two options: Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, which I described as “Jane Austen if all of Jane Austen’s characters were dragons! Tea time meets DRAGONS” and Malinda Lo’s Huntress, which I described as “Adventure! Fairies! Hunting! Lesbian romance! More adventure! HORSES!”
(My eloquence: admire it)
At some point in R’s difficult decision, I swooped in with big-sister wisdom: “You know, I’m worried you won’t enjoy Tooth and Claw as much. Don’t get me wrong – I love it. But it’s not really an adventure story. It’s basically a family story, and about people’s relationships and marriages. Except with dragons.”
My younger brother gave me a Look: “No, but that’s what I like.”
Brother: “Those are my favorite kinds of books! I like reading about families, and about how people relate to each other.”
This would be the moment I massively facepalmed.
I’m a feminist. I think about idiotic gender roles a lot. I try to avoid perpetuating sexism as much as I can. I especially try to avoid perpetuating stupid gender roles around my brother. And I have always believed that there is no such thing as a “girl” book and a “boy” book.
Yet I assumed my brother would like an adventure book more than he would a family-drama book.
Because he’s a thirteen-year-old-boy.
Me, to brother: “… just ignore me, I’m an idiot.”
Conclusion of the story: I ended up buying R. both books, because I am the best sister on the planet
(Yes! yes I am aware of how awesome I am! But more accolades are always welcome!).
He loved Huntress, like I thought he would. But he loved Tooth and Claw even more. He sent me an email from his vacation where he told me it was now “one of his favorite books.” And when I saw him again, he asked me if I could lend him my Jane Austen novels.
Because Tooth and Claw had inspired him to read Jane Austen.
(I really love Jane Austen, okay?)
This post is not about how gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn – although it could be, since that is a true and important topic. Gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn! Even for feminists! Tell your friends.
It is, as all my favorite posts are, about my brother. My brother read a lot. And as it happens, a fair number of the books he reads either a) are written by women b) have female protagonists, or c) center on “girl” issues like “family” and “relationships.”
This fact makes him the Miracle Boy Foretold By the Prophecy. Because boys can’t read girl books. Didn’t you get the memo?
[Note: In this post, I will use the term "girl" books to designate books that are USUALLY ASSOCIATED with women, either because they were written by women, have female protagonists, or tackle subjects that are coded as feminine (gossip! pink!). I don't mean to imply that there are actual "girl" books and "boy" books. Books are for everyone! I promise! They don't have cooties!]
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young boy who desires to read must be in want of a “boy” book. However little known the feelings or views of such a boy may be on his first entering a bookstore, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding adults that he is carefully kept away from any book with the slightest whiff of the feminine about it.”
Okay, that’s not the first line of Pride and Prejudice, BUT IT COULD BE.
One of the most frustrating myths floating around the world of reading is the “boys aren’t reading because there are too many girly books, and boys can’t read girly books because EVERYONE KNOWS boys can’t read girly books.”
And sadly, this narrative just keeps popping up out of the fertile internet ground every thirty seconds. Like zombies! Or DAISIES. or ZOMBIE DAISIES.
Robert Lipsyte’s self-congratulatory and entirely unimaginative article for The New York Times deplores the explosion of YA aimed towards girls because “while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” Meanwhile, YA author A. E. Rought called female protagonists a “trope” they hoped the publishing industry would get over. Then Sarah Mesle wrote an article for the LA Review of Books where she expresses concern at the proper lack of “male roles” for boys.
Hell, just yesterday, I was treated to an article that deplored the lack of male protagonists, because the author was sick of girls who only cared about gossip and instead wanted a boy protagonist who just wanted to put gas in his car.
SO MANY ZOMBIE DAISIES.
Okay, first off, I want to make sure our facts are straight. Because it is provably not true that there are no YA books “for boys.” In fact, there are still more male protagonists than female ones in YA. There are just about as many male authors as there are female ones. THESE ARE THE FACTS, PEOPLE (here is one study, among many). And it is depressing as hell that people look at women achieving parity in one field – ONE FIELD – and interpret it as men being blotted out.
By the time I was ten, I had a plan. I would make it a point to give him books with female protagonists. On his birthday, on Christmas, at random occasions – I would give him books with girls. I would give him books about girls. I would give him books by women. I would give him books about “girly” topics like family and gossip and clothes.
Not to mention books with kickass women being kickass!
I wouldn’t force him to read them. And I wouldn’t deprive him of books with male protagonists either. I would simply make sure he had lots of access to “girl” books.
It was a deviously simple plan.
And it worked.
Of the books my brother reads, I’d say somewhere near 50-60% have female protagonists. The first chapter book my brother ever read was Roald Dahl’s Mathilda. His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl” after Dianne Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle. He loves Lyra from The Golden Compass. He reads Tamora Pierce and Libba Bray and Meg Cabot and Diane Duane. He will talk for hours about Robin Mckinley and the Blue Sword novels. His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl.” Right now, his favorite authors include NK Jemisin, Jo Walton, Octavia Butler and Mira Grant.
Don’t get me wrong, the brother reads a lot of “boy” books too (one of his other favorite authors is China Mielville, and his favorite novel is Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk). But R. has never complained about a book with a female protagonist. To him, they’re just as normal as books with male protagonists. And it would never occur to him not to pick up a book because the author was female.
And now he’s even recommending books by female authors TO ME. It was my brother who first discovered Mira Grant, and who pestered me until I read her (and I never looked back).
THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT WORKED!
YES I AM THE EVIL FEMINIST ALL YOUR FRIENDS WARNED YOU ABOUT.
I can’t stress how easy this “experiment” was. I mean, it was easy because I started early, before all the societal sexism could sink in. But it’s not like my brother’s Y chromosome was allergic to “girl” cooties. So whenever I read a Robert Lipsyte, say, spouting the old ” teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters” line, I roll my eyes pretty hard.
You know what? I’ve got a teenage boy in my life, and he reads “girl” stuff just fine. My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.
Boys don’t read “girl” books because they’re taught, in a thousand small, subtle, insidious ways, that they’re not supposed to.
What if boys weren’t ashamed to read books that were coded “girly” because they didn’t think it was shameful to be a girl? (thanks, Iggy Pop!)
What if we taught them something else?
Think about it.
Quick story to wrap things up!
So, obviously I’m a feminist. And I read lots of feminist fiction. And since my brother steals all my books, he ends up reading quite a bit of feminist fiction himself.
On the other hand, I’ve never told my brother he *should* be a feminist, or that he needs to combat sexism or anything. Because I don’t want to tell him what to think.
One night at dinner a few years ago, my stepbrother started teasing my stepmother about the muscles in her arms. My father said: “Stepbrother! It’s rude to discuss women’s arm muscles.”
And I, the random feminist, replied: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with discussing women’s arm muscles, since there’s nothing wrong with women having arm muscles. But teasing people about their appearance isn’t okay.”
My brother: “Yeah, Dad. Because you know what me and Suzanne are into? FEMINIST SCIENCE FICTION. So if you say sexist stuff, we’re going to get super-mad!”
After I finished dying of laughter, I knew that giving my brother “girl” books to read had been worth it. MY EVIL FEMINIST PLANS HAD ALL COME TO FRUITION.
THE FEMINIST BORG HAD ASSIMILATED HIM.
[No, but in all seriousness, I was super-proud of him. I mean, once I stopped laughing]
Scary Feminist Out!
1. I should note that as I got older and more aware, I also made a conscious effort to steer my brother toward books with protagonists of color and queer protagonists. Which worked out quite well!
2. I want to be clear that just because this “experiment” (such as is) worked for me, it doesn’t mean it would work for everyone. There was a whole lot of privilege and luck that went into it! Like the fact that I started when the brother was super-young. And that he turned out to love reading. And that both he and I had lots of time and opportunities to read, and were both encouraged to do so. This is not supposed to be a how-to for how to get boys to read more. Nor is it meant to be a critique of people who can’t get the boys in their life to read more. If that doesn’t comes across, let me know, and I will fix it!
3. My brother has been fully aware of the “experiment” since he was seven or eight. I promise, I’m not manipulating him behind his back. We’ve had conversations about it, where I ask whether he’s okay if I keep giving him books by women/with female protagonists and he’s like “So… you’re asking if I’m okay with you giving me books? Is this some kind of evil trick?”
4. Hey, notice all the Avatar: The Last Airbender GIFs? The Feminist Philosopher introduced me to the show, and I just finished watching it. IT IS AWESOME, and full of awesome male and female characters AND YOU SHOULD ALL GO WATCH IT. NO, SERIOUSLY, DROP EVERYTHING YOU’RE DOING AND GO WATCH THE SHOW.
Thank you, Feminist Philosopher. I will forever blame you when I tear up at GIFs of Zuko and Uncle Iroh hugging.
[Content note for violence, violence against children, disablism]
Last week was not a good time for my happy levels. First, we had the Good Man Project (or,as I like to call it, the No Rapist Left Behind Project) debacle. Then a close friend of mine died unexpectedly. And on Friday, a gunman walked into Sandy Hooks Elementary School and killed twenty kids and seven adults.
I do not want to be writing this post.
Twenty eight people are dead. Twenty kid are dead, kids who are just a bit younger than my younger brother. I do not want to write about mental illness. It feels… wrong to use this as an excuse to talk about the rights of the mentally ill.
I was not planning on writing this post.
But then it started again. People diagnosing Adam Lanza over the internet, assuming he was mentally ill. An acquaintance saying “Evil is a mental illness.” Everyone, from politicians to newscasters to friends, talking about how we have a “mental health access” problem. There are very few spaces on the internet I can go where people aren’t talking about how we have a “mental illness problem” and how Adam Lanza was surely “mentally ill” and if we just had better access to mental health care this wouldn’t happen etc. Even my usually progressive and social-justice aware friends are falling into the pattern.
Now the Sandy Hooks massacre has everything to do with mental illness.
And now, even though I do not want to write this post, I need to write it.
I need to write it even though I know hundreds of other people will say the same things.
I need to write it especially because hundreds of smart bloggers and social justice crusaders and mental health advocates will say the same things. Because our voices are being out-shouted a thousand to one. We need to be heard if we’re even going to be allowed to participate in this farce of a conversation.
The Sandy Hooks massacre was not caused by mental illness. The mentally ill are not some mob of soon-to-be-violent, ticking time bombs. But damn it, if people are going to sit around and stigmatize the mentally ill as an excuse to avoid looking tragedy in the face? Then hell yeah, I’m going to talk about mental illness.
This is not a fun conversation for me to have. Those who follow the blog – or those who know me from Real Life – know I identify as mentally ill. I have a severe anxiety disorder and a major depressive disorder. Dealing with mental illness has defined my life for the past four or five years.
You’d think I’d be happy people are talking about mental illness. I, of all people, know how problematic it is for mental illness to be pushed under the rug, to be ignored and stigmatized.
Sadly, the conversation around Sandy Hooks embodies everything that is wrong with how we talk about mental illness:
1. Violence MUST be the product of.
Here’s the thing. As of this point, we don’t even know if Adam Lanza had a mental illness or disability of any kind. But strangely enough, we’re all talking about mental illness issues. It’s like we magically know Adam Lanza’s mental state.
But wait! We do! Because only mentally ill people would kill so many people. Ergo, Adam Lanza must be mentally ill.
Acting like violence is the product of mental illness – and ONLY the product of mental illness – is incredibly problematic. And saying that mental health access will solve gun violence is also incredible problematic. Both imply that mentally ill people are violent, dangerous and uncontrollable.
I’m sure some people are going “but they’re not talking about garden-variety depressives like you! They’re talking about the DANGEROUSLY mentally ill.”
Okay, first: *headdesk* again
Second: Yes, in fact, they’re talking about all of us mentally ill folk. The Rachel Maddow Show, for example, had a segment about how to prevent future shootings. The expert’s main recommendation? Adolescents should have a yearly screening for depression.
I’m sorry, how am I not supposed to interpret that as making a causal connection between depression and violence? Did the expert temporarily forget what he was talking about? Was he about to say “gun control laws” but then got his notes mixed up and started talking depression instead?
Nope. What he was saying was that if we do a better job catching depressives, we’ll have fewer school shootings.
Which implies that depression leads to violence.
[everyone better keep the butter knives away from me, I'M JUST SAYING]
The more people talk about how mental illnesses are linked to this type of violence, the more we assume mental illness means violence. And the more and more mental illness becomes stigmatized.
Ironically, stigmatizing mental illness tends to limit access to mental health care, not expand it. How many people do you honestly think are going to say “whoa, I’ve got a mental disability, I’d better get that checked out” after hearing about how mentally ill people are dangerous child killers? Not a whole lot. More people will avoid getting a diagnosis, aware that their condition could get them labeled as dangerous and violent.
Here’s the crucial thing, the thing people are ignoring completely: Violence isn’t linked to mental illness. This is a provable fact. Mentally ill populations – including populations with mental illnesses that we traditionally associate with violence (like schizophrenia) – are no more violent than everyone else.
Most mentally ill people are not violent. Most violent acts are committed by people who do not have mental illnesses. So the whole “Whoa, someone did something terrible! They must be CRAZY”?
To add insult to injury, people with mental illnesses are more likely than the rest of the population to be victims of violence. 3% of the general population experience violent crimes, while TWENTY FIVE percent of those with mental illnesses do.
Welcome to the upside-down world of public discourse on mental illnesses. In real life, most mentally ill people aren’t violent, and in fact are more likely to experience violence than the general population. In public discourse, however, mental illness is responsible for all the Terrible Violence, and no one is ever interested in talking about how people with mental illnesses are victimized and abused by violent crime [we'll come back to that point later]
2. Dehumanization of People with Mental Illnesses
In this national “conversation” about mental illness, you’ll notice something interesting: no one seems terribly interested in talking with mentally ill people.
The mentally ill are people we talk about, not people we talk to. We aren’t interested in having a conversation with them, despite the fact that they’re the ones most affected by the issue. We love telling horror stories about what happens to mentally ill people who don’t have access to mental health services, but we never ask people with mental illnesses what they think of the issue.
Could you imagine having a conversation about, say, women’s reproductive rights, and not inviting women speakers?
[... oh, wait, this is the United States I'm talking about. OF COURSE I could imagine a conversation about women's reproductive rights with absolutely no women involved. In fact, I've seen it happen! Bad example.]
By excluding people with mental illnesses from the conversation, and privileging the voices of those who see mental illness as something terrifying, we are dehumanizing people with mental illnesses. They are not even worth trying to understand. They’re just a problem to be solved, a fear to be controlled.
The most problematic entry in this category is the now-viral post “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” In the article, the writer discusses her fears that her mentally ill son could turn into an Adam Lanza, due to lack of access to adequate mental health care. .
[Initially, I linked to the original article, but since one of my critiques of "I am Adam Lanza's Mother" is that it violates her son's privacy, I decided that linking it would contribute to the problem. But if you want to read it, google!]
I want to be clear that I have a lot of sympathy for the author. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to protect and care for her children, especially given how much stigma there is around mental illness, and how little support there is for children with mental illnesses. I am not disputing the legitimacy of her grievance, or of her pain. And I, like her, desperately want us to find better solutions for children with mental illnesses.
The article, however, is incredibly problematic. Not just because it appropriates a national tragedy. Not just because it appropriates Nancy Lanza’s experiences, or tries to express a solidarity with her that may not have existed.
But because it appropriates the son’s experiences.
There is a reason this went viral. And the fact that it was written by a “sane” person talking about a mentally ill person, rather than a person with mental illnesses talking about their own experiences? A big part of that reason.
The author – and the commenters – do not acknowledge that the son has his own experiences and ideas. They seem to have no interest in having a discussion with him, or with people like him. Instead, the son is portrayed solely as a problem, a terrifying child that no one can understand, an evil, calculating, rage-filled monster.
Would a post by a person with a mental illness speaking about their own experiences have the same impact?
This would not bother me nearly as much if this wasn’t usually the way it worked in conversations about mental health. When the broader community wants to “learn” about mental health issues, they do not go to people with mental illnesses. They go to their “sane” relatives, or their “sane” allies. In support groups for mental illnesses, for example, the voices of parents are far more privileged than are the voices of their mentally ill children.
I don’t think the perspective of family members or friends of people with mental illnesses are unimportant. But the reality is, those voices usually erase the voices of those with actual mental illnesses. The conversation is dominated by people who are “impacted” by mental illnesses because someone they know suffers from them, or because they have some sort of objective expertise. Meanwhile, those most impacted are shut out of the discussion entirely.
I cannot speak to the experiences of the author’s son. My various disorders are certainly nowhere near what he seems to be manifesting. But I know the frustration of people talking about your problems as if you weren’t in the room. It isn’t just that people don’t acknowledge that the mentally ill should be included in these conversations. It’s that they seem to forget we have a perspective at all.
Which is all kinds of ironic. If people were serious about addressing mental health issues, they would want to talk with people who suffer from mental illnesses. Those are valuable and important perspectives. In fact, they’re the most important and most valid perspectives.
Unfortunately, we’re just problems to be solved.
This, of course, adds to our sense that people with mental illnesses are unable to speak or advocate for themselves. That they have nothing valuable to contribute. That they’re so addled and deranged that they can’t possibly voice their own experiences.
I’m also deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the families or parents of people with mental illnesses are the best advocates for mental health issues.
Often, families will have agendas that are quite problematic, or that are at total odds with what people with mental illnesses actually want. And since the families/parents are the “sane” voices, their experiences are privileged. Moreover, our assumption that parents are best suited to advocate for their kids in these types of situations is based on the premise that parents always act in the best interest of their child. That, sadly, is not always true.
On The Rachel Maddow Show, the expert mentioned that although depressed kids want help, they almost never go to their parents. What he didn’t talk about is the reality that some of those kids won’t talk to their parents because it would not be safe for them to go to their parents. I’ve known people whose parents teased them for their mental illnesses, or who ignored their mental health problems, or who pressured them to go off medication before they were ready, or who denied them access to mental health care, or who told them their mental illnesses were just “character flaws” and they needed to “get over it.”
And unfortunately, sometimes, parents may be the reason why a child develops a mental illness (if, for example, the parent is emotionally or physically abusive).
Even when parents and families do have the best of intentions, they can make horrible, damaging mistakes. Unfortunately, the author of “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” made one of those in writing her article under her real name. Now her child’s entire mental health history is available on the internet for anyone to read. No matter how horrible her child is, he has the right to privacy, and the right for the media and the internet not to know everything about him without his permission.
[I do think Lisa Long's decision not to use a pseudonym was an honest mistake, since I'm assuming she didn't anticipate her article would go viral. It is still an incredibly damaging mistake for her son and her other children.]
I’m not saying this because I think the author of “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” article is a bad parent, or is responsible for her child’s mental health issues, or has anything but her child’s best interests in mind. I’m trying to explain how problematic to privilege the voices of parents or relatives in discussions of mentally ill kids.
You cannot have a constructive conversation about mental health care without including – and, yes, privileging – the voices of people with mental illnesses.
And you’re not going to get people with mental illnesses to join the conversation if you dehumanize them, act like they are the problem, or stigmatize them as violent. Which makes me suspect that this “conversation” is not actually about helping people with mental illnesses, but is about giving people an easy target to scapegoat.
3. Mental illness is only important when we think people with mental illness could be violent.
Somewhere around one fourth of all Americans will suffer from mental illnesses at least once in their lives. Most do not have access to adequate mental health resources. Mental illnesses are stigmatized and framed as “character flaws” rather than legitimate illnesses, which makes it even more difficult for people to access help. People with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence. They struggle with getting proper job accommodations and with social stigma. Their voices are ignored and erased from conversations.
Mental illness, and mental health in this country, is an enormous problem.
Yet strangely enough, the only time when anyone seems interested in addressing this problem is when we’re (incorrectly) blaming the mentally ill for violence.
It reminds me of conversations around school bullying, where people argue that we need to curb bullying because the victims might become “troubled” and “violent” later.
Really? That’s why? That’s the problem with bullying?
And the real problem with mental illness is that people might turn violent? Really? Nothing else problematic about mental illness?
First, this whole “more mental health access = less gun violence” plan doesn’t compute. Since most mentally ill people aren’t violent, and most violent people aren’t mentally ill, increasing access to mental health care won’t solve our problem with mass violence.
Second: if you want me to have better mental health care access because you’re afraid I might get violent (as opposed to believing that everyone deserves access to mental health care because good mental health is valuable in-and-of-itself ) then you don’t give much of a shit about me. Or about anyone with mental health issues.
Here’s another way of looking at it: there’s a good chance some of the kids at Sandy Hook will develop mental health problems because of their experiences. Do they deserve mental health care because we want to help them? Or do they need mental health care because they might become “troubled” and “violent”?
Ironically, the people who stigmatize the mentally ill so they can protect the children? May be hurting the very kids they supposedly want to protect.
You know who needs mental health care? Everyone. Low-income families. Communities of color. Rural communities. Non-native English speakers. Children. We need to destigmatize mental illness so that it’s seen as a normal thing people go through, not as a character flaw. But that’s not a conversation anyone seems interested in having.
Instead, we want to look at acts of evil and say: that person is not like me. And if he is not like me, he must be mentally ill.
It’s a distancing technique. And it allows us to abdicate real responsibility for what happened.
I got in an argument on facebook with someone who claimed that “evil” is a mental illness. This attitude, sadly, is a trend. When we don’t understand something – or when we don’t WANT to understand something – we label it as crazy. But in a society that glorifies violence, that allows almost anyone access to assault weapons, a society that celebrates toxic masculinity and aggression, is Sandy Hook really that shocking?
To me, it seems like the logical – if horrifying – conclusion of our gun laws and our obsession with violence and aggression.
Instead of taking on the hard job of actually standing up to the NRA and the politicians and the pro-gun lobby, however, we would rather stigmatize an already marginalized community (and one that had nothing to do with the Sandy Hooks tragedy). After all, it’s so much easier to blame everything on mental illness than to come to a consensus that ASSAULT WEAPONS should not be available to anyone with a photo ID.
We live in a society where we can’t even manage to get stricter gun control after twenty kids are killed. But people with mental illnesses are the dangerous ones.
… yeah, no.
We desperately need to have a conversation about mental illness. We need to talk about access. We need to talk about how we routinely ignore certain segments of the population (especially the poor, the non-white and the non-american) when it comes to access. We need to change the discussion so that mental illness is seen as a legitimate problem, and not as a character flaw. We need to privilege the voices of people with mental illnesses, and acknowledge that they are the experts on their own experiences.
That, sadly, is not the conversation that is happening right now. Because people aren’t that interested in mental illness. They’re interested in easy (and incorrect) answers. They’re interested in blaming easy targets. And they’re interested in distancing themselves from the tragedy.
Like I said at the top of the post, I do not want to have a conversation about mental illness in the wake of the Sandy Hooks tragedy. But if people are going to stigmatize mental illness as a way to avoid looking at reality in the face?
Then yeah, I’m going to talk about it.
* Much thanks to my various friends who let me rant – and ranted with me – yesterday.
** Comments section will be moderated with the Iron Fist of the Feminist Batwoman. Priority for comments section is keeping them a safe space for me and for any other people with mental illnesses who may be reading. Personal attacks or arguments in bad faith would violate that safe space. Remember to use “I” words. And don’t police feelings.
Last year, an acquaintance of mine informed me that although he was pro-choice, he thought other pro-choicers (like me) often steamrolled over the very real tragedy of abortion (the baby-killing) in their eagerness to talk about “abstract right”
And then, dear Reader, I shot him.
… okay, I didn’t shoot him. But I entertained the notion. I also blew up at him, which is something I wasn’t doing that often back in 2011 (blogging has made me such a better, more publicly pissed-off human being).
What I said, as I recall, was “ABSTRACT RIGHTS FOR WHOM, YOU PRIVILEGED DIPSHIT? THE RIGHT TO CONTROL MY BODY IS NOT AN ABSTRACT RIGHT TO ME.”
And then I went on a long rant about how not-abstract the right to have an abortion was.
My acquaintance never responded, which I took as a victory.
I mention this incident not because it was unusual – I’ve gotten into lots of fights about abortion – but because of the argument led me to an epiphany. As I, filled with rage, typed up my response, I finally hit on why, exactly, abortion was such an important issue to me.
So why? Why do I care so much?
Because abortion isn’t just about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her pregnancy. It also symbolizes a woman’s right to control her own body FULL STOP. A woman has a right to abortion because her body is her own – not the government’s, not her partners, not her relatives, not the doctors.
There are very few things less “abstract’ than our ability to control our own bodies.
And, crucially, the right to bodily autonomy is not just about abortion. It’s not even just about contraception, or reproductive rights, or consent.
Not surprisingly, I have a story to explain my point.
So, random fact: I actually first started thinking about broader issues of bodily autonomy when I realized that November was pancreatic cancer month. Yes, I know, that seems random. But there is a reason to the random, I promise.
Pancreatic cancer is arguably the deadliest of all cancers in terms of survival rate. The one-year survival rate for all stages is 25%. The five-year survival is 5%. The median survival rate for metastasized or locally advanced cases (which account for 80% of all diagnoses) is 6 to 10 months. Pancreatic cancer kills almost as many people as breast and prostate cancer, yet receives less than 1% of the funds for cancer research – possibly because very few people survive the cancer long enough to become advocates.
A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is basically a death sentence.
When my maternal grandmother was in her early forties, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She turned out to be somewhat of a miracle case, surviving almost ten years before the disease metastasized to her liver and killed her.
Here’s where this story gets back to bodily autonomy. My grandmother never knew she was a miracle case because she never knew she had cancer at all.
Wait! You say. She was diagnosed! How could she not know? Did the doctor give her the wrong diagnosis by accident, or something?
Oh, ha-ha, I wish. In fact, my grandmother’s husband (my… step-grandfather?) and her (male) doctor thought that my grandmother would be devastated if she found out she had cancer.
So they decided not to tell her. At all.
She was horribly sick for ten years without ever knowing why. And she died without ever knowing why.
I realize there may be people reading this who will think my grandmother’s doctor and husband did her a favor by sparing her pain and grief. My father is one of those people – when we talked about my maternal grandmother recently, he said he “could not find fault” in her husband’s decision to lie.
My grandmother was so afraid of death, after all. It was better for her not to know.
Welcome to paternalism.
You know what? Maybe my grandmother was happier overall than she would have been knowing her real diagnosis. But that was not her husband OR her doctor’s choice to make. It was not their body. It was not their life. It was not their choice.
It was her body, her life, her right to know.
But these men thought they knew what my grandmother needed better than she did. They thought they had the right – nay, the obligation – to control her life.
Let’s think about the very real consequences of their decision, shall we?
My grandmother could not make choices about her own medical care, since she did not know what her actual medical conditions were. Certain procedures must have been unavailable to her, since they would have forced doctors to reveal the secret (there aren’t a lot of reasons to get chemotherapy except cancer).
My grandmother could not make informed choices about how to live her life, since she did not know crucial facts ABOUT her life. She did not know she was living with a deadly illness. She did not know that her prognosis was severe; that doctors thought she would survive a few months or a year, at most. Maybe my grandmother would have made different choices. Maybe there were things she would have wanted to do. But she did not have the information necessary to make those choices. Tragically, she could not even decide how to prepare (or not prepare) her youngest daughter, who was a very young child when my grandmother was diagnosed.
And, although she did not know it, the lie made my grandmother utterly dependent on her husband and her doctor. They were now in complete control of her medical future. They could have chosen not to treat her. They could have chosen to use highly experimental drugs. Her husband could have withheld medication. He could have used his knowledge to manipulate her into making big financial decisions that she would not have made knowing her prognosis.
As far as I know – and I do not know a lot – the doctors and her husband did not abuse their power. I mean, except for the part where they lied to my grandmother for TEN YEARS. Other than that.
But they could have. From the time her doctor and her husband decided to lie to her, to the time she died, my grandmother did not have bodily autonomy. She could not control her own life, or her own body. Other people had that control.
My grandmother died of pancreatic and liver cancer two days before I was born.
Paternalism did not kill my grandmother. Cancer did. But paternalism took away my grandmother’s ability to make informed choices about her body and her life.
And this isn’t just a random horror story. It’s the dominant narrative of our past. Women and other minorities have not traditionally been allowed to control their own bodies. Their male relatives did. Their doctors did. The government did. Their owners did, in many cases. The US government sterilized mentally ill women and native women. Hospitals forced – and continue to force – women to undergo dangerous medical procedures without informing them, or seeking their consent. Hell, for over 30o years, black peoples in the United States were considered property.
It’s not just a historical horror story either. In Kansas, a law passed this year that allows doctors to lie to women about their pregnancies if they believe that the information might lead the woman to choose abortion.
Doctors can lie to their patients to stop them from getting abortions.
Bodily autonomy is not just about abortion. But there’s a reason people get so mad when our right to choose is threatened. We know that abortion is just the tip of the iceberg. We know bodily autonomy is not some kind of contingent thing where you can say “you control your body up to the uterus, but after that, it’s in the government hands.” We know what happened to us when our bodies were not under our control. And we’re not interested in going back.
I’m not particularly angry at my step-grandfather, or my grandmother’s doctors. I think what they did was disgusting and unethical, yes. And I’m rather grateful that I don’t have to interact with my step-grandfather. But I’m not that angry at them. I’m angry at the system that made it okay and normal for them to lie to my grandmother. I’m angry at a system that told them it was okay for them to take control of this woman’s body and life. And I’m angry that that system still exists. That we’re still fighting for the basic right to bodily autonomy today. In 2012.
People are allowed to control their own bodies. Women very often are not.
Rebecca West once said: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. It’s a surprisingly radical notion.
Any comments that justify the decision to hide my grandmother’s illness from her will be mocked or banned. So will any that engage in victim-blaming by arguing that my grandmother “must” have figured it out. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. That’s not the point. Of any comments that talk about how difficult it must have been for her husband to hide the truth from her will? Yeah, it was probably hard. You know what would have made it easier? TELLING HER THE TRUTH.
Comment with care