(Note: A lot of well-intentioned people will tell disabled people that the solution to their problems is some form of self-advocacy. Go to the Office of Students with Disabilities, and they’ll get you the accommodation you need! Go to your doctor, and they’ll get you the medication you need! Talk to your boss! On the face of it, this seems like good advice. But.)
The reason why I disagree with the statement “self-advocacy is an important skill to learn, particularly for [people] with disabilities” is because it makes individuals responsible for an institutional problem.
And because it doesn’t work.
When you hit roadblock after roadblock
when you’re humiliated again and again
when you have to choose between your privacy and your ability to get an accommodation
when you have to choose between your mental health and your ability to get an accommodation
when you have to choose an adversarial relationship with the professor who is grading you, or your accommodation
when you tell people over and over that this thing they’re doing is hurting you, and they tell you you’re exaggerating
when you lose friendships for asking people to make accommodations
when you can barely sustain the friendships you have because of your accommodations
when your parents disapprove of your therapy/meds
when your family yells at you for taking care of yourself
when you have to choose between your job and getting an accommodation
when you have to choose between getting along with your boss and getting your accommodation
when you have to choose between having money and bringing suit against the people who discriminated against you
when people write nasty notes on your windshield for using the handicap permit to which you are entitled
when people are encouraged to film you so they can prove you don’t have the disability you say you do
when you’re forced to leave your school for disclosing your mental illness
when your school refuses to give you counseling because you aren’t mentally ill enough
when people accuse you of cheating for using accommodations
when doctors lie to you about the medications to which you are entitled
when doctors refuse to believe you have the symptoms you say you have
when nurses lie to you about your right to get your medical information
when you come back with a printed copy of the law saying you have a right to that information and they blow you off
when you need time, money, and energy to pursue your rights (none of which you have)
when disclosing your disability to get an accommodation means you will be barred from certain jobs
when disclosing your disability to get medication means you will ostracized from your community
when people refuse to believe your disability even exists
when your therapist gaslights you
when people yell at you, laugh at you, stare at you, for doing the things that help you
when you’re constantly told that you’re expecting “too much” for wanting things you love to be accessible
when you’re constantly told that you’re expecting “too much” for wanting things you NEED to be accessible
when disclosing your disability means everyone will immediately tell you how to “fix” it
(and trust me, you’ve heard it all before)
when disclosing your disability means people you respect will look at you like you’ve grown a third head
And you decide that this time, you’re not going to enter the hellpit that is “self advocacy” in a deeply ableist world
Then people will tell you it’s your fault for not speaking up.
(nb: this list comes nowhere close to cataloguing all the ways people have been burned when they’ve tried to access accommodations)
Last Saturday, I went clinic escorting, as I often do. It was an *interesting* morning, especially since it was the day before Mother’s day. You have not lived until you’ve seen grown men screaming “Mommy, Mommy, I want to wish you a happy mother’s day, but you’re going to kill me.”
I’d just finished walking a client in, when one of the regular anti-choicers started yelling at me.
Anti-choicer: “All you care about is money!” (this is because most of the antis are convinced we’re being paid, which LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL) “Plus, you’re a feminist! You hate men!”
Anti-choicer: *starts to walk away*
Anti-choicer: “And look at what you’re wearing!”
Me: *looks down at my clothes*
Me: “What’s wrong with my clothes?”
At this point, I genuinely thought she just didn’t like my fashion sense, which: fair enough. Not everyone grooves to the black-grey theme.
Fellow escort: “Don’t listen to her. You look adorable.”
This, apparently, was too much for the anti-choicer to handle.
Anti-choicer: “You’re dressed like a HARLOT.”
Me: *bursts out laughing*
Anti-choicer: “Like a SLUT.”
Me: *starts crying with laughter*
Other escorts: “WHAT THE FUCK?”
Me: *walks away before I fall on the ground from laughing*
I COULD NOT MAKE THIS SHIT UP IF I TRIED.
Now, I will admit, I was not wearing my usual clinic escort garb, so maybe I deserved it. Winter had finally let up in NYC. I didn’t need to wear approximately a billion layers to survive the cold.
Instead, I wore more provocative garb:
I know, I’ve shocked you.
MAKING IT WORSE: you have to imagine that instead of the red coat, I’m wearing an oversized white lab-coat that basically hits the bottom of my skirt. That enhances the sluttiness of the outfit even more.
In retrospect, I don’t even know how the anti-choicers managed to stick around the whole four hours while in the presence of so much harlot-ness.
Let’s get a close-up on the cleavage:
IT IS PRETTY CLEAR FROM THIS PICTURE THAT I HAVE BREASTS.
All jokes aside, it’s never appropriate to call anyone a slut. Ever. Full stop. Whatever they’re wearing (or not wearing!) It’s not appropriate to call someone a harlot either.
…Although I have to admit, until this Saturday, being called a harlot was not something I worried about very much. Except on the off-chance that I went on a wacky time-traveling adventure and was dropped off in Tudor England.
Still, I do think it’s worth it to realize just how extreme this particular anti was. You can see my knees and my collarbone. This is an outfit that would pass muster in most catholic churches. If I’m a slut and a harlot, how does this anti see most women in NYC? For a group of people who claim they “love women,” I’m not seeing much basic respect.
I had two more equally hilarious interactions with this anti-choicer.
One: I pass by her a few minutes later, still tickled by my newfound identity as the Harlot of Deathscorts.
Me: “Hey, if I hate all men, why do I dress like a slut? Shouldn’t I be trying to avoid their attentions?”
Her: “You just don’t know any better.”
Me: *chokes on my own spit*
Me: *beats a hasty retreat before I laugh in her face*
Two: One of my fellow escorts comes to see me, cackling.
Escort: “So, the Anti? She came up to us after you left, and said “You know, I really shouldn’t have called her a slut. I’m here to preach the gospel, and not to be judgmental.””
Me: “Oh, wow.”
Escort: “So, we were like: “Well, why don’t you apologize to her instead of talking to us?” And you know what she said?”
Me: *braces self*
Escort: “She was like “Oh, well, I’m not saying she’s NOT a slut, I’m just saying I shouldn’t have CALLED her one.”
Me: *starts crying of laughter*
Me: *tries to breath, fails*
Escort: “Are you okay? ‘
Me: “Can’t breathe.”
Me: “Too slutty.”
I am writing from beyond the grave with this important message:
Kids, never let anyone tell you that reproductive justice isn’t fucking hilarious.
p.s: In a show of solidarity, every escort decided to wear a skirt next week. Because my fellow escorts are fucking awesome.
We’re hoping for a “trollop” next week. Maybe “strumpet.” Let’s not get our hopes up, though.
p.p.s: I did have another proud moment at the clinic today when I recommended Dragon Age: Origins to the entire pro-life nation (or whatever small segment of pro-life creepers watch videos of escorts) . We were being filmed by the pastor all morning, and at some point, I just decided to make random recommendations to the camera every time I passed him. Because the way I figure, if you’re an anti-choicer sifting through thirty hours of watching bored people waiting around, you might want occasional recommendations! It’s lively and fun!
So I started with Dragon Age: Origins. The pastor did not really appreciate my recommendations (I also recommended Crest as the best dental brand), and asked me two times what the relevance was.
DRAGON AGE ORIGINS DOES NOT NEED TO BE RELEVANT.
Geeky Harlot of the Deathscort Squad, that’s me!
(For a more serious description of my escorting experiences, see this post.)
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.”