[Content note: racism, white supremacy, misogyny, ableism, disablism, elimination of disabled people, whitewashing, anti-semitism, holocaust, genocide, homophobia]
Seen this comic recently?
Probably you have. It’s been making the rounds on tumblr/literally everywhere else. I’ve seen it on my dash a couple dozen times. And it makes me super-uncomfortable.
Until yesterday, though, I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t quite articulate why I didn’t like it, and once I figured it out… well, I had other shit to do. A lot of social-justice type people were reblogging it, and I really didn’t want to get in an argument. Despite popular belief, I don’t look for fights.
A few days ago, I dipped my toe in the water. I saw the comic on my dash, and I reblogged it with a note saying: “Yes, but why does smashing the nazi ideal have to involve a white dude?”
Immediate response: “^ Go back and read the comic this time.”
Ah, the internet.
A couple more reblogs, and I got this explanation:
“The Nazi ideal of the perfect man is a white man. Sure, having a black man be Captain America would be awesome, (Or hell, a native american/Indian) But the problem of having a POC Captain America fighting Nazis is the fact that the Aryan master race consider […] POCs to be racially inferior to them. A POC Captain America to Third Reich wouldn’t inspire fear, just the belief they could defeat him…not that could ever happen.
But by having a white, blonde, blue-eyed Captain America? The Nazis are doubting themselves. Here is a man going through and destroying your war machines, and he’s the perfect description that Hitler enforced that should be a soldier on their side. White Captain America is a middle-finger to the Nazis.” (the entire tumblr exchange here)
In the past couple days, I’ve gotten four people pushing back on my point that Captain America’s whiteness does not make him perfect. This doesn’t sound like a lot – but on my tumblr? – it’s a lot. My significant other, who was reblogging my Captain America posts (with added commentary) got his second anon message ever… from someone insisting that Captain America must be white.
I think there’s something going on here.
(Note: I am aware that there have been non-white Captain Americas. But this comic is pretty clearly talking about the Steve Rogers’ Captain America, and that’s what I’ll be addressing here!)
Look, I like Captain America. I like Captain America a lot. The Winter Soldier is still my favorite post-Avengers movie in the Marvel franchise, and I want ten more Captain America/the Falcon romantic-action-comedies right now (THEY BELONG TOGETHER).I think white, blond, Chris Evans is great as Captain America. I like Captain America, and if you do too, that’s great.
But this comic arguing that Captain America’s race makes him “perfect” (to quote the title “Why Captain America is Perfect”) is pretty fucked up.
And there’s a reason we like it so much. There’s a reason it’s got nearly 50,000 notes on tumblr. We just love the idea that Captain America’s Aryan-ness, his whiteness, his massive well of privilege, are progressive. We love the idea of unproblematic whiteness. We will twist ourselves in knots to try to explain why he must be white, why he is PERFECT because he is white.
(Let’s not forget that the name of this comic is “Why Captain America is Perfect”)
Diversity in comics is a big time problem. A lot of progressive/ social justice oriented folks are very aware of this issue. Even people who aren’t progressive are aware. And when you’re someone who cares a lot about representation (or feels like you *should* care about representation), and one of your favorite things is superhero narratives… that can feel pretty uncomfortable. It’s hard to just *enjoy* the medium. You have to ask yourself tough questions about why you love the heroes you love.
Then a comic like this comes along, and BAM. It erases all those tough questions. It puts a bandaid on the problem. Captain America isn’t a problematic figure. He’s a progressive one. And in fact, all of his privileges make him *more* progressive, not less.
It’s the surface explanation that provides the answer we most want – this thing you like is entirely good.
It’s the easy answer. And you can be comfortable again.
And I’ll say it again: no one is a bad person for liking Captain America. I like Captain America! I don’t even necessarily have a problem with him being the Big White Superhero, except inasmuch as I have a problem with the fact that *so many* superheroes are white, cis, straight dudes (especially the superheroes who get movies. Where is my goddamn black widow movie?).
I’m just saying, generally, the moment when something with the veneer of social justice makes you feel comfortable with privilege? That’s the moment you should run screaming for the woods.
So let’s debunk this notion of Captain America as “the most perfectly conceived” superhero, shall we?
The implication of the comic above is that Captain America’s creators deliberately made him a white, extra-aryan dude with blond hair and blue eyes so he could be the perfect nazi ideal. This whole thing would be super-ironic and super-progressive, since it would show that Aryans don’t have to be nazis.
His whiteness, his Aryanness were all, in the comic’s worldview, “perfectly conceived” – a deliberate choice on the part of the creators. Which makes it sound like all the creators sat around the table, trying to think of the perfect rejoinder to Naziism. Ethiopian jew? No. Disabled woman? No. Queer, effeminate man? Nope! White man. That’s the one.
I don’t have a time machine, but trust me on this: the creators of Captain America did not sit down and go “jeez, we’d love to have a black woman as Captain America, but we really need someone who will scare Hitler. It’s gotta be a white blond dude.”
Captain America was not invented five minutes ago. It was the 1940s (1941, to be precise). It was mainstream comics. The creators were not surveying a bevvy of options and picking the Best One. He was a white dude because That Is What You Did.
Shall we be even more precise? Let’s take a look at the mainstream superheroes created in the 1930s and 1940s: Doctor Occult (white man), Superman (white man), Zatara (white man), Namor (white man), Batman (white man), Blue Beatle (white dude), the Human Torch (white man), the Flash (white dude), Hawkman (white dude), Johnny Thunder (white dude), The Spectre (white man), Hourman (white guy), Captain Marvel (white guy), Black Marvel (a white man with native american powers… wow), Catwoman – hey, a white woman!, Black Canary (white woman), Aquaman (white dude), Mister Terrific (white dude), Superboy (white dude), the Shield (white dude), Fighting Yank (white dude), Green Arrow (white dude).
Oh, hey, look at all those white people. It’s almost like… all…the…superheroes…were…white.
Even better: Shield (white dude), Fighting Yank (white dude) and Captain America were ALL characters created during WWII. They were all patriotic american fighters who fought nazis. And they were all white men.
Wow, it’s almost like Captain America was less the “perfectly conceived” opponent for the Nazis so much as he was literally everyone’s default idea of what an American hero looked like.
To make the point even further: Captain America was created nearly THIRTY YEARS before mainstream comics would even *touch* a black superhero (1966: Black Panther). Let me express some skepticism at the idea that a white Captain America was some kind of grandiose choice, as opposed to the default.
So let’s all SIT THE FUCK DOWN and stop acting like this was a decision made in a vacuum. Let’s all SIT. DOWN. and stop thinking Captain America: The White Dude was a brilliant progressive choice as opposed to what literally everyone working in mainstream comics was doing.
Now, let’s address this weird-ass idea that Steve Rogers HAS to be a white aryan, because white aryans are the only people Nazis respect/ are afraid of.
Okay, first off: why are we catering to what Nazis respect? Because I feel like that never ends well.
“The Nazi ideal of the perfect man is a white man. Sure, having a black man be Captain America would be awesome, (Or hell, a native american/Indian) But the problem of having a POC Captain America fighting Nazis is the fact that the Aryan master race consider […] POCs to be racially inferior to them. A POC Captain America to Third Reich wouldn’t inspire fear, just the belief they could defeat him…not that could ever happen.
But by having a white, blonde, blue-eyed Captain America? The Nazis are doubting themselves. Here is a man going through and destroying your war machines, and he’s the perfect description that Hitler enforced that should be a soldier on their side. White Captain America is a middle-finger to the Nazis.”
Distinguished readers, apparently there were no white, blond, blue-eyed aryans fighting against the nazis. At all. Because if there had been – if the people destroying the nazis were white, blond, blue-eyed aryans – the nazis would have been doubting themselves.
Excuse me whilst the many, many, many white aryans in France, England and the United States sob with laughter.
Uh, yeah, a WHOLE LOT of aryans who were the “perfect description that Hitler enforced” opposed the Nazis. And the Nazis were well aware of that fact. For some reason, the idea that Not All Aryans agreed with them did not shake the nazis to their core.
Look at the real world for a millisecond. Do the thousands of white anti-racist activists scare the KKK? Do they make the KKK reconsider their motives? Are white supremacists shaken to their core by the fact that lots of white people hate them? Do the thousands of straight people who support queer rights scare the Westboro Baptist Church? Did the confederates lay down their arms when they realized white people opposed slavery?
Trust me on this, Nazis were not that scared of white people.
Now, you know who Nazis WERE scared of? Jews.
Hitler: “The struggle for world domination will be fought entirely between us, between Germans and Jews. All else is facade and illusion. Behind England stands Israel, and behind France, and behind the United States. Even when we have driven the Jew out of Germany, he remains our world enemy.”
“Unless we expel the Jewish people soon, they will have judaized our people within a very short time.”
Disabled people, who Hitler (and the Nazis) thought were a drain on the economy, and would destroy the Aryan race: “is not only the decline in population which is a cause for serious concern but equally the increasingly evident genetic composition of our people. Whereas the hereditarily healthy families have for the most part adopted a policy of having only one or two children, countless numbers of inferiors and those suffering from hereditary conditions are reproducing unrestrainedly while their sick and asocial offspring burden the community.”
Gay people: “Homosexuality was classed as a “degenerate form of behaviour” in Nazi Germany that threatened the nation’s “disciplined masculinity” (…) ‘The Amendment to the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases”defined homosexuals as “asocial” and a threat to the moral purity of the Third Reich.”
NON-Aryans were much scarier to the Nazis than Aryans. NON-Aryans – Jews, people of color, homosexuals, disabled people – were the real enemies, the one who could take down the third reich just by existing.
So the idea that Captain America has to be white in order to “intimidate” the Nazis?
Moreover – and there’s no way this can be said enough – these are FICTIONAL nazis were talking about. Captain America is a work. of. fiction. The Nazis could be intimidated by whomever the writers goddamn wanted them to be intimidated by. Unicorns! Kangaroos! Little girls in green dresses! THIS IS FICTION.
One of the other objections to my argument that Captain America/Steve Rogers does not NEED to be white to be “perfect” was that Captain America must be white, because white americans in the 1940s were bigots.
Steinpratt’s response to this anon was pretty much perfect:
there’s also something else I should’ve pushed back on: This assumption that the most important thing in a story about a SUPER-SOLDIER who PUNCHES HITLER IN THE FACE is that bigotry is accurately represented. Why is it okay to have fantastical stories about a hero, but not okay to imagine that that hero could be black, or gay, or Roma? Why can’t the hero America looks up to be someone OTHER than a white man?
Which isn’t to say that there’s no place for honest examination of bigotry in stories… but that’s not what Steve Rogers being white does. It’s not a commentary on American racism. It’s never really addressed at all. So claiming that Steve Rogers had to be white so people could look up to him is doubly cheap, because you’re at once relying on the fact of American bigotry to justify your boring choices AND refusing to actually display that bigotry on the page. You want it to just be an unspoken assumption. That’s messed up. (my bolded)
(full disclosure: Steinpratt is the Aforementioned Significant Other)
FICTION, people. It’s not written in stone.
Why do we cling so hard to the idea that Steve Rogers as Captain America *must* be a white guy? Why is it so important to us that his whiteness be “perfect”? Why do so many socially aware, progressive-type people love that comic?
One part of it is definitely fauxgressive guilt, the relief of being able to enjoy deeply privileged hero who has “progressive” rather than oppressive privilege. White supremacy is a hell of a drug.
And people – some progressive, some not – like to be able to counter discussions of diversity in comics with arguments like “well, but Captain America HAS TO be white.” It’s an easy way to shut down a discussion. And even when you believe in that discussion – even when you believe that diversity in comics is important (as most of the people who messaged me did) – that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily ready to engage in that conversation and all the discomfort and examination it entails.Unproblematic whiteness is a hell of a drug, even for those of us who should know better.
We like the easy solution.
Also? Fighting oppression is always extra special when a white dude does it.
This comic falls right in line with the thinking that white able-bodied men are the most important allies, because they’re the most respected outside social justice spaces.
It falls right in line with lionizing white dudes who “get it” because it’s sooooo much harder for white dudes to get it, because they’re not oppressed.
It falls right in line with the idea that white men are the most *objective* social justice activists, because they have the least stake in activism.
Progressivism is always more special when a white guy is doing it.
And we will fight people who try to point out how problematic that is. We will fight anything that points out we’re just reaffirming the same gendered, racialized hierarchies that social justice is supposed to be fighting *against*. Who cares if we’re saying Captain America is perfect because he’s a white aryan dude?
Yeah, just say that to yourself a couple times. Doesn’t sound that great, does it?
This comic lets us lionize a white dude FOR BEING WHITE – and lets us feel good about it. Because it’s progressive.
And that’s fucked up.
You want to lionize a hyper-privileged white dude? Fine, but don’t act like his whiteness is some kind of progressive triumph.
You want to like Captain America? Go for it. You can like Captain America. You can think he’s great. I certainly do. And I don’t have any interest in changing Steve Rogers’ race or gender at this point.
But don’t try to justify Captain America’s white male aryanness as some kind of progressive coup. It’s not a progressive coup. It’s not social justice-y. It’s not spitting in the face of naziism. It is the product of white male supremacy, both in the 1940s and today.
Trust me, white men already dominate the superhero roster. They don’t also need us to come up with bullshit reasons to justify their dominance as being “progressive” or “perfect.”
In this blog’s two-and-a-half year existence, one post has gotten more views than all my other posts combined. One post has brought me traffic every single day. One post has gotten me the most amazing search terms like “female athletes boobs?” and “nude basketball PuSsy” and “suzann pettersen lesbian”. One post has gotten me quoted – and basically plagiarized – on feministing (thanks for quoting me, guys. Not so much for the “acting like we’d magically come to the same conclusion at the same time,” though). ONE POST has ranked above them all: The naked athletes post. Otherwise known as: “The Bodies We Want: Female Athletes in ESPN’s Body Issue” . I should write more about naked people, is the conclusion I draw from that post’s popularity.
ESPN’s Body Issue is ESPN Magazine’s “annual exploration and celebration of the athletic form” through the medium of lots and lots and lot of naked athletes. So many naked athletes. To quote ESPN.com editor in chief Chad Millman, the Body Issue “showcases an array of sports and body types. It inhabits our mission to pay tribute to these athletes’ bodies and all they are capable of.” Back in the day – lo, in those innocent years of 2012 – I reviewed the 2012 Body Issue, concluding that: “The shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful. And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful.” And my conclusions about the Body Issue’s gender problems are still occasionally linked to/quoted – mostly recently when NCWTV quoted me in a piece about ESPN’s *current* body issue – the 2014 version. But: those are conclusions I drew from the 2012 body issue. They’re specific to that magazine, to that year, to those athletes and those photos. Looking at NCWTV’s pull-quote, I wasn’t sure I felt the same way about the 2014 Body Issue. In a lot of ways, I felt like the 2014 edition had gotten *better*. I wasn’t unhappy about being quoted – links are always nice! But I did think my initial conclusions deserved some updating. After all, two whole years have gone by. Had ESPN’s Body Issue gotten better? Would I get to say the phrase “male gaze” at least a billion times? (probably) So I jumped once more into the realm of naked photos.
WRONG NAKED PICTURES, GODDAMN IT
All right, enough with the cracks. (… I couldn’t help myself)
Okay, yes, HELLO MR. PRINCE FIELDER. Exhibit A for why I like 2014’s issue much more than 2012’s. Two years ago, I said I wanted to see fat athletes in ESPN’s Body Issue, and THEY HAVE DONE IT. (Not because of me, obviously. BUT STILL) This is a fat athlete we’re seeing, in all his naked glory. We see his muscles, his face, his stomach, his arms – his fat is not covered up, hidden, or minimized. Better still, Prince Fielder looks straight at the viewers: there is no shame in his face, no bashfulness, no apology. He’s not unhappy about the condition of his body, not abashed. He’s proud. Moreover, the shoot portrays him in motion, playing his sport. This is crucial – the Body Issue has an tendency to show athletes with non-normative bodies just standing there, used for shock value: Look How Brave We Are To Photograph A Naked Fat Man. Here, Fielder is portrayed as an athlete. We see his fat, athletic body moving. Fat and athletic are not opposed in these pictures; they are intwined. His body is both fat and functional. And they gave him a cover. He’s not buried in the back of the issue. ESPN’s Body Issue is also called “The Bodies We Want,” and it’s a beautiful and radical thing to put a fat man up as an example of a “Body We Want.” Y Predictably, some fatphobic assholes are grossed out by Prince Fielder’s photos, because fat people are terrifying. Predictably, I don’t care. As Melissa McEwan points out, “It’s not about finding [Fielder] beautiful; beautiful is beyond the point. No one need agree that he is beautiful to understand that he is a human being with a right to be free from judgment and hatred on the basis of his appearance. The conflation of those two—asking to be found beautiful and asking to be seen—is the shortest (and most mendacious) way that conversations about body acceptance get shut down.” To use McEwan’s wording, I’d add that no one needs to find Prince Fielder beautiful to understand that he’s a gifted, hard-working athlete at the top of his field. Conflating those two – asking to be found beautiful, and asking that one’s skills be acknowledged – is one of the more frustrating ways conversations about body acceptance get shut down. Fielder is a gifted athlete whether or not you think he’s attractive. Indeed, ESPN’s Body Issue is NOT about showing off conventionally attractive people – at least, that’s not it’s mission statement. It IS about showing off athletes’ bodies – to: “admire the vast potential of the human form. To unapologetically stand in awe of the athletes who’ve pushed their physiques to profound frontiers. To imagine how it would feel to inhabit those bodies, to leap and punch and throw like a god.” And if that is the Body Issue’s mission, then Prince Fielder belongs in its pages as much as any other athlete. Because fat people are athletes, and do play sports at a high level – whether you’re personally okay with that or not. [Like McEwan, I’m not linking to any of the more disgusting things people have said about Fielder, but you can find them if you look] *** I do think it’s interesting that ESPN chose a fat man, rather than a fat woman, to be the first fat athlete in the Body Issue. Indeed, while the Body Issue has always pushed the visual boundaries of our idea of athleticism, it’s always done so in a deeply gendered fashion. Looking back across the past several issues, ESPN has featured three groups of people who don’t fit our visual idea of “athlete”: visibly disabled athletes, fat athletes and old athletes. (While many of the athletes in the Body Issue may have invisible disabilities – chronic illnesses, mental health problems, injuries etc. – those disabilities remain invisible to the viewer because of the Body Issue’s visual emphasis)
Do you see it? All of the old athletes and the fat athletes are men. All of the visibly disabled athletes are thin, conventionally attractive white women. Most of whom are blonde. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but in the pictures of disabled athletes, there’s a sense of… trying to reassure the audience, almost. Yes, the magazine seems to be saying, sometimes women lose limbs, sometimes they’re confined to wheelchairs, but they’re still *women*. They’re still beautiful, feminine, thin, fuckable. You would still be attracted to them if they wore a swimsuit. They’re disabled, but they’re not ugly – that line women must not cross. It’s telling that except for their visible disabilities, they are the pinnacle of female attractiveness: white, thin, long-haired, conventionally attractive, usually in graceful, feminine poses, almost always smiling at the camera. They’re inviting, not defiant. Obviously, disabilities don’t *actually* make people more passive – but I think there’s a reason we as a society tend to react differently to disabled men v. disabled women. I think there’s a reason ESPN is much more comfortable portraying visibly disabled women than they are portraying visibly disabled men in the Body Issue (to the point where they have not done so at all) . Visible disabilities reinforce women’s passivity, while they destroy the image of male strength. A visibly disabled woman can still appeal to the male gaze, while a visibly disabled man disturbs that gaze. While the Body Issue won’t portray visibly disabled men, they will portray men who are old or fat. Fat and age aren’t inherently unattractive, but they’re coded as such in media. And the Body Issue does not shy away from portraying fat men, or old men. en, in other words, can be shown as unattractive, at least according to societal standards. Their skin can be wrinkled; we can see their fat; we can see the sagging. Unattractive men aren’t disturbing – as long as they’re still able-bodied. In ESPN’s body issue, women can be disabled as long as they’re still attractive, and men can be unattractive as long as they’re visibly able-bodied. Women in the Body Issue can push the visual boundaries of “athleticism”, but they can’t be unattractive – they have to be thin and young, even if they’re disabled, or muscular, or otherwise break the “athletic woman” mold. Men in the Body issue can push the visual boundaries of athleticism, but they can’t be disabled – they must be able-bodied. The core of the athletic woman is still her attractiveness; the core of the athletic man, his strength.This is a theme that comes up in the Body Issue again and again, even when we’re not talking about disability, age and fat. *** The other way in which ESPN’s Body Issue tends to be gendered is in how the athletes are portrayed visually in terms of their movement. Waaaay back in 2012 (THE DARK AGES), I concluded that male athletes were far more likely to be portrayed in active, impressive poses, playing their sport, showing off their moves, while female athletes were mostly portrayed in passive poses that had little, if anything, to do with their athletic talents and abilities. To repeat myself: “The shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful.And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful. But most women in the shoot are not portrayed as powerful, talented athletes. They’re portrayed as hot chicks.” Does this visual divide still hold true in 2014? Are men still portrayed as active and strong, while women stay coy and beautiful? LET’S FIND OUT WITH SOME STATISTICS! … I am way too excited about this. So, first, clarification of terms. An active pose is where the athlete is moving, and is doing something related to sport (note that I did not say “something related to THEIR sport” – we’ll come back to that part) Example of an active pose:
A passive pose, on the other hand, is one where the athlete is not moving, and is not doing anything related to sport. Example of a passive pose:
Now that we’re clear on terms, let’s look at the breakdown from 2012:
Individual Male Athletes in the Shoot: 11 Individual Female Athletes in the Shoot: 17
Photographs of Men: 19 Photographs of Women: 17
Photographs of Men in active poses: 15 (78%) Photographs of Men in passive poses: 4 (22%)
Photographs of Women in active poses: 9 (52%) Photographs of Women in passive poses: 8 (48%)
And now, let’s see if 2014 changed anything:
Number of Female Athletes: 10 Number of Male Athletes: 10
Photographs of Women: 29 Photographs of Men: 28
# of Active Male Poses: 23 (82%) # of Passive Male Poses: 5 (18%)
# of Active Female Poses: 17 (59%) # of Passive Female Poses: 12 (41%)
IMPROVEMENT! Very obvious, if small improvement. 59% of the photographs of women in 2014 have them doing active, athletic poses, versus 52% in 2012. And although men are still portrayed as far more active, the gap between the number of active male poses and active female poses has lessened from a 28% difference to a 23% difference. Now, good news aside, there’s still a giant gap between the number of women portrayed as active athletes, and the number of men portrayed as active athletes. Almost all the photographs of men – eighty two percent – have them doing something impressive, active, athletic. Only 59% of the photographs of women have them doing the same thing. It’s more than half, yes, but barely. Men are still *far* more likely to be depicted as talented and powerful. Let’s take this a step further. How many athletes had at least *one* photograph in their shoot where they were in an active pose? And how many athletes had at least *one* photograph in their shoot where they were in a passive pose? 2012:
Individual Male athletes: 11 Male athletes with at least ONE active pose in the slideshow: 10 (90%) Male athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 1 (10%)
Male Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in the slideshow: 3 (28%) Male Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 8 (72%)
Individual Female athletes: 17 Female Athletes with at least ONE active pose in the slideshow: 7 (46%) Female Athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 8 (54%)
Female Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in the slideshow: 15 (88%) Female Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 3 (12%)
Individual Male Athletes: 10 Male Athletes with at least ONE active pose in their shoot: 10 (100%) Male Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 5 (50%) Male Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in their shoot: 5 (50%) Male Athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 0 (0%)
Individual Female Athletes: 10 Female Athletes with at least ONE active pose: 8 (80%) Female Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 3 (30%) Female Athletes with at least ONE passive pose: 7 (70%) Female Athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 2 (20%)
Here, I think the improvement is even more visible. While only 46% of female athletes had at least 1 active pose in 2012, a 80% of them have an active pose in 2014 – an almost 40% jump. A whopping 54% of female athletes were ALWAYS portrayed as passive in 2012, but that percentage drops to 20 in 2014. More and more women athletes are being portrayed as talented, powerful and strong at least ONCE in their photoshoot. Again, though, there’s still a big gap between the portrayal of men and women. ALL the male athletes had at least one active pose in their shoot. None of the men were always passive, and 50% of them were always active – while 70% of women had at least one passive pose. ESPN continues to feel far more comfortable portraying men as active athletes. It still feels the need to tone down, say, Hilary Knight’s amazing, dynamic hockey picture:
with a picture of her sitting and smiling, a soft expression on her face:
70% of the female athletes’ shoots have at least one of these passive, calm pictures. In fact, there seems to be a tradition in the magazine whereupon ESPN will portray a woman as incredibly powerful and gifted in her sport – and then follow it up with a very male-gaze focused picture. Women are strong, the magazine tells us – but don’t worry! They’re still attractive. They’re still traditionally feminine. We have preserved the core of their womanliness. Even when ESPN portrays a male athlete in both passive and active poses, the passive poses aren’t geared towards the male gaze – they’re geared towards showing off the male athlete’s strength. Looking at Nigel Sylvester’s shoot, for example:
One pose is more passive than the other, but both are very much geared towards highlighting the strength and power of Sylvester’s body. It’s not like Nigel Sylvester’s passive pose involves him sitting down, smiling coyly at us while he touches his body (more’s the pity). If you contrast his pictures with say, Hillary Knight’s or Coco Ho’s: Unlike with Sylvester, only *one* of the pictures is about highlighting the athletes’ talent, strength and ability. The other is very much geared towards showing off the women’s femininity and sexiness. Now, before we move on to other subjects, let’s take a look at the two women who are portrayed solely in passive poses: Jamie Anderson and Venus Williams. Notice anything interesting about them?
That’s ri-ight! They’re the two female cover models. And here, the contrast is pretty fucking obvious. All the men are doing something active, something related to their sport. They’re also all looking AWAY from the viewer, and towards whatever they’re doing – while Jamie Anderson is smiling at us, and Venus Williams is, if not looking towards us, at least looking far closer towards us than the men are. The male athletes are focused on their sport; the female athletes are focused on us. The fact that Venus Williams and Jamie Anderson are both disconnected from their sport, and are instead portrayed in a feminine, passive, male-gaze-oriented ways, is… telling (I really love the word “telling.” Is it obvious?). Because this is the way that the Body Issue advertises itself – through its cover. And when it comes to its cover, the Body Issue casts women and men into deeply gendered roles. The male athletes are talented, powerful, active. The female ones are passive, beautiful, alluring. It’s, again, reassuring to a male gaze: if you buy this magazine, you’ll see some tough, amazing male bodies, and some lovely, sexy female ones. Now, once you get *inside* the magazine, there’s a lot less passivity on the part of the female athletes. But you wouldn’t know that just looking at the covers, would you? ESPN may be making progress in terms of its gendered aesthetic, but it doesn’t advertise it. So yeah, women are getting a whole lot more active in The Bodies We Want. But they’re still not on par with the men – and, more importantly, ESPN is still very invested in “reassuring” the viewers that, while its female athletes are gifted, powerful sportswomen, they’re still feminine, feminized, submissive. *** Remember how earlier, I defined “active” as “where the athlete is moving, and doing something related to sport (note that I did not say “something related to THEIR sport)” Yeah, there was a reason for that. As I was tallying up all the active female poses of 2014, I noticed something. A lot of the women were being active… but they weren’t actually playing their sport. At all. Quick, what sport does Amy Purdy play?
What about Lyn-Z Pastrana? What sport does she play? NO GOOGLE!
I mean, Megan Rapinoe at least gets a ball, but still:
Amy Purdy, for the record, is a snowboarder. She also came in second on the latest edition of Dancing With The Stars. Whatever she’s doing in that picture, it’s neither dancing nor snowboarding.
Lyn-Z Pastrana is a pro-skateboarder (the dude on the bike is Travis Pastrana, her husband, a RallyCross racer)
Megan Rapinoe plays soccer.
Now, I’m not morally opposed to showing athletes bodies’ doing something *other* than the sport they’re famous for. I just think it’s… interesting… when you look at the gender breakdown:
# of men shown playing their sport: 10 (100%) # of men not shown playing their sport: 0 (0%) # of women shown playing their sport: 6 (55%) # of women not shown playing their sport: 5 (45%)
Men always get shown playing their sport. Always. They’re always portrayed as athletes first. They’re not just in the magazine to show off their bodies – they’re in the magazine to show off their SKILLS. But even though Megan Rapinoe, Lyn-Z Pastrana, Amy Purdy, Venus Williams and Jaime Anderson were presumably invited to appear in the issue on the basis of their talents in their chosen sports, none of them are allowed to show off that skill. Venus Williams gets to stare at a desert.
Jaime Anderson is draped over a chairlift.
Lyn-Z Pastrana is on the back of her husband’s motorcycle. Amy Purdy gets to do various acrobatic things – which seem to be more about “look, she can do awesome things with her artificial legs” than about “look at the awesome things she can do in her SPORT.”
And Megan Rapinoe is literally doing a pilates move.
Just for context, here’s what the OTHER soccer player in the magazine is doing:
There’s something disturbing about the way these shoots distance women from the sports they play. While we are asked to admire the men for their athletic skills, we are asked to admire the women’s bodies as athletic *objects* – not as active agents within the sport they play. We as viewers aren’t invited to admire their abilities, their talent, their command of the sport. We’re often just invited to admire them as bodies, full stop. Men’s athletic bodies are functional. Women’s athletic bodies are sexual. There’s much more power – not to mention personal agency – in a photoshoot that demands the viewer look at what she’s doing with her athletic body, rather than a photoshoot that asks you to look at her athletic body. Plus, it makes for a much more dynamic image. Which is more interesting – picture #1:
Or Picture #2:
We see this division in real life too. Women are invited to play sports so that they can look good, while men are invited to play sports so that they can be good at sports. Again: Men’s athletic bodies are functional. Women’s athletic bodies are sexual. Now, I’m already guessing there are going to be a few complaints about this point. Mainly, people will say: “BUT IT’S HARDER TO SHOOT WOMEN PLAYING THEIR SPORT/ BEING ACTIVE BECAUSE BOOBS.” THINK OF THE CHILDREN. We have to hide the Lady Boobs. National priority here. To which I say: 1. If ESPN wants to be truly radical, it could take the revolutionary step of not treating women’s breasts as sex objects. Then we could just see breasts, and it would not be a problem. (Yeah, I know, not likely, but a girl can dream.) 2. If you can hide balls, you can hide breasts.
I’m just saying, there has to be tape/photoshop involved in some of these shots of the men. #3. ESPN has shot female athletes in dynamic poses before. Yes, even in soccer. Yes, even in snowboarding. They can handle it. SNOWBOARDING
They are capable of taking an active picture of women with NO BOOBS flying around. Okay, you say. Fair enough. BUT! There are two soccer players in this issue. Maybe they just wanted Omar Gonzales and Megan Rapinoe to have different *types* of shoots. That’s a perfectly reasonable point. But. Why is it always the chick who has to do the Pilates? Why isn’t Omar Gonzales doing the Pilates? Why isn’t Travis Pastrana holding onto his WIFE as she skateboards down a half – pipe? Why aren’t more random male athletes doing yoga poses, or draping themselves artfully around hula-hoops and curtains? Why aren’t more men lying in the snow, laughing? Why aren’t more of them lying on exercise equipment and smiling coyly at the viewers? Morgan Maassen, who photographed surfer Coco Ho for this issue, had this to say: “”The ESPN Body Issue exists to both celebrate top athlete’s bodies as well as show that they can be sexy too. Juggling that combination, we took to the water to shoot Coco doing what she does best.” That’s all I really want: for the female athletes to be shown doing what they do best. Not pilates. (Unless they’re a pilates champion) (In which case: PILATES AWAY) *** Another major difference between male athletes and female athletes in the Body Issue is the amount of smiling. Guess who smiles more? That’s right! It’s the ladies.
Of the ten male athletes, one is shown smiling (10%) Of the ten female athletes, five are shown smiling (50%)
When men are in passive poses, they’re far more likely to be giving proud, defiant, strong looks to the camera:
And some women get the same edit:
But a lot of women, when in these passive poses, aren’t shown confronting the viewer . They’re shown smiling at us.
If you compare the photos of Jamie Anderson and Angel McCoughtry, it’s pretty clear that one of them is *much* more viewer-oriented. Jamie Anderson is leaning towards us, smiling at us, inviting us in. Angel McCoughtry is just looking at us. There’s nothing particularly inviting about her look, or her stance – she just is. She’s not being presented as an object for consumption. This goes back to the theme of “reassuring” readers. Female athletes are allowed in the “elite athletes” club – but only if we keep emphasizing how attractive and feminine they are. They can dunk basketballs and win olympic gold, but they’re still pretty. They can win fights, and they can still pose for the male gaze. Male athletes, on the other hand, can be as strong, confrontational and proud as they want without intimidating readers. Female athletes must be friendly. Male athletes must be fierce. All these things are true – but. But. There’s an added twist.
Female athletes (with Lyn-Z Pastrana): 11 Black female athletes: 3 (27%) White female athletes: 8 (73%)
Black female athletes who smile at some point in their shoot: 1 (33%) White female athletes who smile at some point in their shoot: 6 (75%). Aha. I don’t think I would have noticed this distinction before reading the work of Trudy at Gradient Lair on the portrayal of black athletes. In her post “7 Predictable Ways That The Media Portrays Black Olympic Athletes,” Trudy points out that black athletes are portrayed as innately physical “versus as ones who also work hard and use the mental acumen of focus and strategy to contribute to their performances and competitive spirit (…) the “natural” physicality (and objectification in relation musculature and size) of Blackness is central to any sports commentary. Rarely is Serena’s mental game that contributes to her success mentioned (as the obsession is ALWAYS about her physical power/size), yet it is always mentioned for White tennis players.” Black female athletes are, in particular: “de-sexualized, “masculine” and aggressive. John McEnroe made a disgusting comparison of Misty May Treanor and Kerry Walsh to Serena and Venus Williams, saying that the former “out classes” the latter (…) The hyper-feminization of the volleyball stars because of their Whiteness conforming to Eurocentric ideals of beauty juxtaposed to the consistently negative racialized sexist perceptions that are hoisted on to the Williams sisters is a part of a consistent theme in sports (…) The Williams’ aren’t the only ones to be portrayed this way. It’s common outside of the Olympics with Black women athletes.” (my italics) The phenomenon Trudy discusses reappears on the pages of ESPN’s Body Issue. While the white female athletes are consistently sexualized (Jamie Anderson), and shown as soft and passive, almost all the black female athletes are portrayed in the same way as their masculine counterparts – desexualized and aggressive. White female athletes are portrayed to appeal to the male gaze. Black female athletes are not. Here, the Body Issue firmly adheres to white, eurocentric beauty standards: white women CAN be portrayed as appealing towards the male gaze – black women, not so much. Context matters here. Without an analysis of misogynoir, it seems great that Aja Evans and Angel McCoughtry are portrayed as just as tough, active and aggressive as the male athletes in the shoot. But once you realize that black female athletes are *overwhelmingly* portrayed this way, while white female athletes get to be feminine, sexy, inviting… you realize there’s something gross going on. To quote Victoria Carthy in “Textual Portrayals of Female Athletes: Liberation or Nuanced Forms of Patriarchy?” : “black women are seen as more athletic than white women, so their femininity is discounted as irrelevant (…) they have never been fully included in the stringent ideals of femininity and heterosexuality to begin with.” (140). Black female athletes, in other words, just aren’t *good enough* for the white supremacist heteropatriarchy to find them attractive. So when we see athletes like Aja Evans and Angel McCouhtry being portrayed as aggressive and masculine (while white women are feminine and sexy), we shouldn’t just read that as them being treated like male athletes – we should also read it as black women being denied their femininity. As my boyfriend put it: white women may be stuck in the foyer of forced sexualization, but black women aren’t even allowed through the door. Thus, while two years ago, I might have viewed Venus Williams’ shoot in The Body Issue in a solely negative light – here, we have a strong, talented female athlete who only gets to look pretty and smile at the viewers – my understanding of racialized misogyny forces me to re-examine my assumptions. Instead of being portrayed as “masculine,” “overwhelming,” “pummeling,” “aggressive,” or “predator” (common ways the media describes Venus Williams) here Venus gets to be feminine – something that media usually does not allow her to be. Since she’s often denied that facet of her character, the fact that this photoshoot allows her to be feminine, sexy, vulnerable is… progressive. Black female athletes being portrayed as feminine has a very different context from white female athletes being portrayed as feminine. Oppression is complicated as fuck. It gets even more complicated when you look at the racial breakdown of the male athletes. While the female athletes in the Body Issue are overwhelmingly white, the male athletes are overwhelmingly black.
Male athletes: 11 (counting Travis Pastrana) Black male athletes: 6 (55%) Latino male athletes: 1 (10%) White male athletes: 4 (36%)
Which, again, reinforces the idea that black people are *inherently* athletic. So male athletes tend to be black hypermasculinized, aggressive and active, while female athletes tend to be white, passive feminine and feminized. Male athletes are a power fantasy – an extreme version of maleness – while female athletes tend to cater to the male gaze. Most of the female athletes are at the pinnacle of female attractiveness: young, thin, white, passive, feminine, smiling. Those women who *don’t* fit into that narrow box (i.e: black women) tend to be portrayed like their male counterparts. And again, I think this is very much about reassuring a male gaze.Most of the female athletes aren’t portrayed pushing the boundaries of femininity, but rather, reinforcing them. Sure, women will be athletes, but they’ll be the kind of athletes we can still be *attracted* to. You get to have your cake and eat it too – acknowledge women are athletes while still keeping most of them as objects of consumption (see what I did there with the cake metaphor? And objects of consumption? HAHAHAHAHAHA, I crack myself up). It’s interesting how ESPN’s Body Issue can push the visual boundaries of what we consider “athletic,” all while reinforcing a bunch of narratives about who is an athlete, and how they’re allowed to express their athleticism. *** One of the biggest criticisms of my previous post was: “but what if the female athletes WANT to be portrayed that way?” What if Jaime Anderson didn’t *want* to snowboard? What if Megan Rapinoe really wanted to show off her pilates prowess? What if Lyn-Z Pastrana wants to be on the back of her husband’s motorcycle instead of starring in her own shoot? First: maybe they do want to be portrayed this way. But if they do isn’t that also worth examining? If all these women want to be portrayed as particularly feminine/sexy/passive – while all the men want to be portrayed as active/strong/confrontational – there’s something going on there. Why do men feel more comfortable being active? Why do women feel more comfortable being passive? Do female athletes feel pressure to *prove* their femininity? Three of the female athletes in ESPN’s Body issue specifically mention their femininity – clearly, it’s something they think about a lot. Conversely, do male athletes feel pressured to prove their masculinity? Would male athletes like to lounge around on the sand and show off their softer side (I mean, no pressure, gentlemen, but I’d like that)? What kind of cultural pressures are women under to prove that they’re still sexy and feminine even when they do traditionally masculine things? What kind of cultural pressures are *men* under to prove that they’re never vulnerable? It’s entirely possible to examine those issues without saying “women are wrong for wanting to be feminine.” Moreover, the intent of the athlete doesn’t change the message of the shoot. Whether the athletes personally chose everything in their poses or not, viewers will still get the impression that a female athletic bodies are sexual, while male athletic ones are functional. Death of the author and all that jazz. But second… I really don’t buy that these shoots are the result of what the female athletes want. Because that’s just not how professional photoshoots work. The photographer, the set, the costumes, the props – these are all chosen without the athletes’ input. If Megan Rapinoe had shown up at her shoot and said “whoa, I was hoping to shoot at a soccer field, just like Omar Gonzales,” would the photographers/lighting tech/makeup artists etc. pack up and go find her a new location? Probably not. These very basic decisions – set the shoot on location, or in a studio? Use a snowboard or use a hula hoop? – are probably made very early in the process, long before the athletes are actually consulted. It’s ESPN’s photoshoot and the athletes are their models. The ESPN editorial team will have very specific ideas about the kinds of locations, moods and themes they want. And that’s understandable. Shoots cost thousands of dollars; they want to make sure they’re going to get a good return on their investment. Once the athlete comes on set, most decisions are too far gone to change. Was Amy Purdy really going to walk into the studio where they’d set up a hula hoop and a weird curtain and say that she wanted a snowboard instead? She’s not paying for the shoot – ESPN is. Photographers, meanwhile, control the flow of the shoot. They’re the ones telling the athletes how to move, how to pose, where to look, when to smile. Yes, this can be a collaborative effort, with the photographer and athlete working together to get the shot – but the photographer is ultimately in charge of how the athlete will look. And even if the athlete does a lot of active poses, and the photographer takes an amazing series of photos, neither of them are the ones who CHOSE the photos that run in the magazine. The editorial board does that. They’re ultimately the ones who decide how an athlete will be portrayed. In Morgan Maassen’s interview, for example, he talks about wanting to take pictures of Coco Ho that show her doing what she does best “bending and contorting at surfing’s behest.” When you look at the magazine itself, however, only one of the pictures really shows Coco Ho surfing. Given Maassen’s remarks, I’m pretty sure this was an editorial decision. Maassen probably took a lot of pictures of Ho surfing, but the team putting together the magazine just didn’t choose a lot of pictures where Ho was particularly active.
And no, for the record, I don’t think the magazine editors were cackling maniacally while going “AH YES, WE SHALL REDUCE THESE PUNY FEMALES TO MERE PASSIVITY MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA WE ARE THE PATRIARCHY.” I bet they weren’t even thinking about it. That’s what’s so disturbing about institutional oppression. You’re not thinking about it. So yeah, maybe female athletes *want* to be portrayed in a particular way. But they’re not the ones who are in charge of those decisions. If anything, they’re the smallest cog in a very big production machine. *** Wrapping it all up. Looking back at my conclusions from 2012 “The shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful.And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful. But most women in the shoot are not portrayed as powerful, talented athletes. They’re portrayed as hot chicks,” I’d say yeah, that’s still true in a lot of ways. But it’s more complicated than that. The Body Issue is getting better. It’s pushing the visual boundaries of what we consider “athletic,” who we consider “athletes,” and how we think these “athletes” should act. And all while pushing some boundaries, the Body Issue continues to leave others firmly in place. I’m looking forward to the day when athletes don’t to be “reassuring” to a male gaze to become part of the Body Issue. We’re getting there. But we’re not there yet. *** To finish off, here are some amazing athletes who *don’t* fit our typical definition of athletic. Maybe ESPN will consider asking them to appear in the Body Issue. (note: I am aware that a few of these athletes would be unlikely to say yes for religious reason)
Anyone else you’d add to the list? (Note: googling “fat athlete” will get you a WHOLE LOT of fatshaming. Learn from my mistakes, my ducks. Learn from my mistakes.)
[Trigger warning for suicide ideation, depression, mental illness, stigmatization]
I am a proud member of Prozac nation.
I refuse to solve my problems and deal with unpleasant emotions. I don’t treat my depression with good ‘ol hard work and bootstraps. I take the easy way out. I medicate. My moods are chemical, my personality is a façade created by neurotransmitters.
Ah, manufactured happiness.
All jokes aside, I love it when I’m told that treating depression with medication is the “easy way out.” Nearly forty thousand people commit suicide every year in the United States, and approximately 60% of those people suffered from major depression. Moreover, 15% of the population will suffer from clinical depression at least once in their lifetime, and 30% of clinically depressed people attempt suicide.
I’m sorry, what, exactly, is the problem with using an “easy way out” of depression?
The idea that antidepressants are a lesser treatment is rooted in the narrative that depression is a personal failure rather than a disease. If depression is a personal failure, then you can correct it through hard work. Taking a pill to “solve” your mistake is a cheat, an unfair shortcut to redemption.
One of the consequences of ableism is our collective distaste for vulnerability, whether of the body or of the mind. We want to believe our bodies are under our own control. We especially want to believe that our minds are under our control. The idea that our brains could suddenly get sick, and we wouldn’t be able to switch them back to healthy is, frankly, terrifying.
So we lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves that depression doesn’t exist, that it’s an invented disease, that it’s just people complaining too much about bad moods, laziness or hard times. It’s easier than confronting the reality – than realizing that yeah, there are mental, and we can’t magically control them with the flip of a mental switch.
Unfortunately, the “make loud noises and hope the problem goes away” tactic isn’t exactly helping. In a 2011 study on why people with depression don’t seek treatment, sixteen percent said they perceived treatment as ineffective, while ten percent cited stigma. 21.2% of the people who drop out of treatment do so because of stigma, and 21.1% do it because of perceived ineffectiveness.
So yeah, when you start denying that antidepressants work at all, or when you say that depression is a made-up disease and the people who have it are weak… there are consequences to that.
This discussion isn’t theoretical for me. When I started taking antidepressants, I, like many people, didn’t believe they worked. I thought the “hard work” of therapy would fix my depression, not the “quick fix” of medication. Thus, when the antidepressants did nothing, I didn’t bother to alert my doctor.
It took a long courtship to reunite me with antidepressants. Our reunification took a the form of a classic, 19th century marriage plot: we had to go through misunderstandings, affronts, passions, separations and despair before we finally found each other.
1. Misunderstandings: Fluoxetine, part 1
It was my first year in college. I hadn’t wanted to go to my university – McGill – because I thought the school was too big and I would be isolated and alone.
And, since 17-year-old me was quite prescient, I was precisely right! I did feel isolated and alone.
I did have one small ray of light: I was in a play! Whooo! Unfortunately, the play had an end date. And on the aforementioned end date, I went back to my dorm, fell asleep, and didn’t come out for three months.
Okay, so I’m glossing over some details. I did leave to get food and go to the bathroom. But I didn’t go to class. I didn’t go outside. I stopped reading. I stopped contacting the outside world. I spent my days lying in bed, listening to music, and watching every single episode of America’s Next Top Model.
I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t filled with angst. I wasn’t even anxious – which, if you know me at all, is pretty rare. I was just numb. Numb, numb, numb, numb, numb. WHEEEEEEE, numb.
Sure, I was failing all my classes, ruining my academic career, spending my days in bed and doing absolutely nothing. But I wasn’t worried!
I wasn’t anything at all.
To me, nothing was wrong. I was just incredibly lazy. That was the problem. Any day now, I would snap out of my incredible laziness and start working again. Bootstraps! Yes sirree. (This strategy did not work)
Three months in, I finally told my mother that I might be a “little depressed.” Because my mother knows that I have an *incredible* gift for understatement, she interpreted this correctly as “I might be really really depressed, oh god help.”
The mental health clinic at my school had a three-week waiting list for an appointment, and my health care coverage in Quebec was crap, so my parents flew me back to the United States to see a doctor. I took the two-page test medical practitioners give you when they think you’re depressed (some of you know exactly what I’m talking about) and my doctor took one at it before he said: “Uh… yeah, you’re pretty fucking depressed.”
Except he didn’t use the word “fucking,” and he did use the phrase “major medical disorder.”
Then the Doctor recommended that I take a medical leave from school (before I failed allllll my classes) take antidepressants, and start therapy. I was worried that therapists wouldn’t think I was depressed enough to take a medical leave (remember, I still thought I was just a “little” depressed), but the two therapists I saw back home couldn’t sign the “This student should really take a medical leave of absence” sheet fast enough.
Meanwhile, my doctor put me on one of the most common antidepressants: Prozac, AKA Fluoxetine.
Fluoxetine is an SSRI – a Serotonin Selective Reuptake Inhibitor. The way SSRI’s work is by inhibiting the reuptake/ reabsorption of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Because your brain isn’t “reuptaking” the serotonin, there’s more of it around, which leads to more ‘happiness.’ At least, that’s the theory.
I took a medical leave from McGill. I came home. I took antidepressants. I started therapy. Therapy was good. Not being in school was good. Being home was good.
Fluoxetine… was not so good.
“It works pretty fast,” people told me. “It was pretty instant when I took it.”
Well… I wasn’t feeling anything. Not after two weeks. Not after six weeks. Not after two months. Therapy and lack-of-school were making me feel better, but I didn’t feel like the numbness – the nothingness – was gone.
Then again, I’d never taken antidepressants before – and frankly, I didn’t really think they “worked.” Maybe the effect was really subtle. So I never brought the “not working” part up to my doctor.
When I went back to McGill at the end of the summer, I fell straight back into depression.
So much for fluoxetine!
Told you. It’s a complicated courtship.
This time I made it through the semester – somehow. It was a pretty terrible semester.
During the winter break, I found a new, less stressful, living situation. I decided to take only classes I thought I’d enjoy. And I stopped taking fluoxetine. I did not consult a doctor – I was in Montreal, and I didn’t have any medical authority to turn to. I just knew that the fluoxetine wasn’t doing anything. So I stopped.
Things got better. I lived in a good place; I went to interesting classes; I started making friends. By the end of the semester, I was in recovery.
So hey! you might be thinking. Doesn’t this story prove that antidepressants don’t really work, while therapy and changing your life circumstances does? You took antidepressants and things got worse, you stopped them and things got better. Case closed, right?
Here’s the thing about depression: we haven’t quite figured out how the fuck it works. Some of it has to do with brain chemistry, but some of it is definitely due to environmental or psychological factors. And we’re not sure how those three interact, or which ones to “treat” first.
Let’s look at those factors in the case of my depression.
1. Environmental: I was in a university I hated. I had no support system. I had no community. I had no friends. There was nothing to be happy about.
2. Psychological: Without getting into a ridiculous amount of details, one of my parents was emotionally abusive (or, to quote my first therapist: “your parent is a real bully, huh?”), and the emotional abuse caused me to adopt some pretty maladaptive lines of thought. Like blaming everything on myself; thinking I was worthless, hating myself etc. The usual.
So these environmental and psychological factors were definitely fueling my depression. And then we get to:
3. Weird brain chemistry stuff.
We know that depression changes a person’s brain (see above). We think it might have something to do with the neurotransmitters that regulate mood, like serotonin and dopamine. It’s not entirely clear whether your brain chemistry gets weird, so you get depression, or whether you get depression, and then your brain chemistry becomes weird. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s different for different people. Probably it’s different for different people.
But right now, science is still a bit baffled. Yes, we’ve got antidepressants, but no one’s quite sure how they work, or why they work. We know they’re doing something, because they help a lot of people. But they’re also totally useless for a lot of other people. Some people respond terribly to one antidepressant, but do great on another one. And nobody’s sure why! But we’re dealing with a pretty terrible illness, and if a tool works, we’re going to use it, even if we’re not sure exactly what it’s doing.
(This is, obviously, a massive oversimplification of the current state of depression studies)
So, to recap: since environmental and psychological factors were a big part of my depression, changing them – finding a better living situation, going through talk therapy, surviving the hell of my second semester – made a big difference. Enough of a difference that I went into depression-recovery even though the meds I was taking to target my brain chemistry weren’t working.
Here’s the flip-side: it took me over a year-and-a-half for me to recover from my first depression without the help of medication. And it was not a fun year.
Still, you think: all the medication and neurotransmitter stuff I just talked about? That’s all theoretical. The proof is in the pudding. You got better without antidepressants!
Just wait. You’ll see: there’s more to this story.
Affronts – Fluoxetine, part 2:
The next two years went pretty well. I switched my major, fell back in love with school, made friends, participated in a play, found my community. When I had the time and resources, I went to therapy.
And then: the migraines.
My migraines have always been problem, but in my junior year at McGill, they became a plague. I got them almost every day: blinding pain in the back of my skull, accompanied by dizziness and aching muscles.
I decided that the solution to my migraines was to overhaul my diet. Protein, I thought, was the key. Cut out all those carbs and sugars, and eat miles of protein instead. Oh, and I should start an exercise program. An hour at the gym every day.
I told myself these changes – the diet, the exercise – were for my migraines. But deep inside, I knew the truth: convinced I was too fat, I wanted to lose weight.
The migraines got a lot worse. Shockingly worse. Before I started going to the gym, my migraines would always go away with a good night’s sleep. Now, I would come out of the gym and have migraines that lasted for days. Nothing made them budge – not medication, not sleep, nothing.
And even though I knew the exercise was causing the migraines, and the diet was making it worse… I kept going.
That’s when the shit hit the fan: my migraines became light-sensitive.
I would go to school feeling fine, and after an hour under fluorescent lights, I would have a migraine bad enough that I’d need to go home immediately. I couldn’t handle any light – I closed all my shades, turned off all the lights, switched my computer off – and spent the day in the dark. I couldn’t do anything. When I tried, the pain would be so bad that I would start throwing up.
Not surprisingly, these circumstances took a psychological toll. Combine the pain from the migraines with the fact that I couldn’t do anything and you’ve got a recipe for a very unhappy Suzanne. Before I even realized what was happening, I’d landed back in the middle of the town of Total Numbington.
Once I stopped going to the gym, started eating better and kept spending all my time in the dark the migraines got better subsided. My residency in the town of Numbington, however, was far more permanent.
In a repeat of my first depression, I spent most of my time in bed, reading piles upon piles of X-Men: First Class fanfic. Fortunately, this depression didn’t seem as severe as my first, so I was still able to go to class and do work. My grades held steady.
I did not see a doctor in Montreal.
When I finally came home to Wisconsin, my parent had switched health insurance plans, and I could not longer access my long-term therapist or doctor. My new doctor asked me almost no questions before diagnosing me with depression again. Then she asked me if fluoxetine had given me any side effects when I’d first taken it.
“None that I noticed.”
“And did it help?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t feel anything, but maybe it was subtle.”
She started me on fluoxetine again.….I am not a good advocate for myself in health situations. At all. Because I should have stopped her there and said “no, fluoxetine didn’t work, we need to try something else.” But since I still didn’t realize that you’re actually supposed to * feel * the effects of antidepressant, I just acquiesced to the fluoxetine. Again: telling people that antidepressants don’t work HAS CONSEQUENCES.
The doctor, of course, wins a gold medal in “wut” medicine for translating my “I’m not sure fluoxetine did anything” response into “let’s just throw more fluoxetine at the problem.” (In a shocking twist of events, fluoxetine did absolutely nothing. Who could have predicted that result, huh?)
Some good things did happen that summer. I found a great new therapist. I started a fairly effective migraine treatment. The lack of school-related stress from school also helped. I certainly wasn’t as depressed at the end of the summer as I was at the beginning.
Eventually, I saw another doctor. I brought up the fact that fluoxetine (still) wasn’t doing anything. She decided not to switch my medication since I was about to move back to Montreal.
“We don’t want too many changes at once.”
I was pretty much on the “FUCK ALL ANTIDEPRESSANTS FOREVER” train by this point.
Passion, or Wellbutrin Part 1
I returned to school, still on fluoxetine. Though the fluoxetine remained useless, my depression was under control.
It was a good semester. I found a low-cost therapist. I started dating the Feminist Philosopher. I worked on my honors thesis, I enjoyed my classes, I wrote some popular blog posts.
But even in those good moments, part of me was still stuck in Numbington. And I was sick of it.
The next time I went to Wisconsin, I made an appointment with a new doctor. This was the third primary care doctor I’d seen in less than a year, and I was not optimistic.
But this time, I did my research. I wrote a list of concerns. I found a website with lots of information about antidepressants (Crazy Meds), and I read the relevant information. I knew enough that I could advocate for myself.
And this time, the doctor actually listened to me. Our appointment was supposed to be fifteen minutes long, but she spent an hour with me. We went through my list of concerns, discussing the various things that could be contributing to my mood, making a plan. She asked my opinion on various medications.
I walk out with a list of concrete suggestions and a prescription for Wellbutrin.
Wellbutrin, otherwise known as Bupropion, is not an SSRI. And it’s not… entirely clear how it works (you may have noticed a trend here). Our best guess is that it inhibits the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that, like serotonin, work as mood regulators. Since I hadn’t responded well to an SSRI (fluoxetine), my doctor bet that targeting dopamine and norepinephrine would work better than moving on to another SSRI.
Wellbutrin works quite well with depression. It also has very few of antidepressants most infamous side effects: it doesn’t (usually) cause sexual dysfunction, weight gain or somnolence (feeling tired all the time). It occasionally leads to weight loss – which some people may feel is a plus, but which could be a problem for others.
Crucially, Wellbutrin works particularly well with people whose depression is coupled with social anxiety (*raises hand*) and people whose depression manifests through anhedonia – an inability to take pleasure from activities you usually enjoy (*raises hand*).
Wellbutrin, in other words, was an ideal antidepressant for me. It wasn’t an SSRI, it had few side effects, and it tended to work well for people whose depressions were similar to mine.
I felt so much better when I walked out of the doctor’s office, in large part because I wasn’t just taking a pill on faith. The doctor had explained her reasoning, and I felt that she was addressing my specific needs, rather than giving me a one-size-fits-all medication.
Thus, armed with a new antidepressant and a whole lot of hope, I returned to Montreal’s cold embrace.
Reader, Wellbutrin worked.
Two and a half weeks after I’d started the pills, I woke up at nine, lounged in bed for less than five minutes, got up and started making breakfast.
Wait. Pause. If there was something I’d never been able to do during my depressions, it was actually waking up. What the hell was going on?
It kept going. I started getting out of bed with energy in the morning. I was motivated to do things. I was procrastinating less. I’d finally started outlining my honors thesis. My appetite was back. My insomnia was gone. I planned for meals and sleep. And my anxiety, the electric beast perching on the back of my head day and night, seemed to have gone to sleep. I only felt occasional prickles.
Then, reader, I had to have a bit of a sit-down. Because if a medication could make my depression better so quickly and so radically, then maybe I wasn’t the problem.
Maybe I actually did have fucked-up brain chemistry.
You think I would have figured this out earlier. But even though I believed that depression was a disease, not a personal failure, and even though I knew the mechanics of depression, and even though I knew I couldn’t just “snap out of it – subconsciously? I was pretty sure it was my fault. I bought into the “depression as personal failure” model.
Wellbutrin knocked a couple legs off that theory.
Part 4: Separation, or Wellbutrin, part 2
A few weeks after Wellbutrin started working, I started fainting. Plus, I had a noxious combination of dizziness, nausea, constant-never-ending hunger and hypoglycemia.
… side effects.
I was in Canada, and I had no way to pop down to my doctor’s office in Wisconsin to figure out if Wellbutrin was indeed causing these symptoms. They weren’t on the list of common side-effects, but there weren’t a lot of competing explanations. At some point, my doctor stopped responding to my emails. I was cut off of medical advice. Any doctor I could have seen in Canada would have cost a whole lot of money, and would have zero knowledge of my medical history.
And meanwhile, I was dizzy/fainting/hungry/nauseated/ freaking out.
I stopped taking Wellbutrin. Cold turkey, no titrating. It seemed like the best option at the time.
I stopped fainting. The dizziness went away. And the depression, temporarily banished to the outer atmosphere, fell straight back home. With a vengeance.
Going from “doing good!” to “severely depressed” in a week was viciously painfulI spent a lot of the month of February and March curled up in bed, watching Elementary and drawing pictures of naked women (don’t ask).
But I did return to functionality. Depressed functionality, true, but functionality. All of my assignments got turned in on time. I missed minimal classes. I finished my honors thesis with time to spare. I graduated with first class honors. I made some big life decisions; I moved apartments; I dealt with bed bugs. I started playing video games.
I was depressed, but I was okay.
Part 5: Despair
Then I stopped being okay.
It was summer. I was no longer in school. I was facing a really massive change in my life: the end of college, the beginning of my adult life, a move to a terrifying new city etc. etc. etc.
And I was now entering year two of an untreated depression.
My depressions were usually characterized by numbness, exhaustion and lack of interest in the world. I did have moments of overwhelming sadness, but they were moments. They lasted twenty minutes to an hour at the most.
Now they lasted days. My numbness now translated into constant sadness and despair. I took frequent breaks during the day to lie in bed and cry. I cried myself to sleep most nights.
And then, for the first time in my near-five years of experience with depression, I experienced suicide ideation.
Feeling suicidal is Not Fun. Especially when it’s happening 2-3 times a week, and you’re too terrified by the feeling to tell anyone. I’d always been able to handle my depression. I didn’t know how to handle this. I didn’t know how to handle the overwhelming sadness and shame and guilt that made me want to die. I’d always felt like a burden; now I felt like so much of a burden that I just wanted to disappear, to make everyone’s life easier.
Yes, I wanted to live; I wanted to live desperately. I had so much to live for. But I also wanted desperately not to feel, to stop the pain of living, to end my constant guilt. In those moments, I felt trapped – I couldn’t see a stopping point to the pain. I didn’t believe there would be a stopping point. I just wanted it to end.
It never got bad enough that I started planning, or even considering options. But the “not bad enough” was more than bad enough for me.
I was so scared.
A friend and I were talking over facebook around this point, and she said, “I don’t understand. You have the Feminist Philosopher. You two seem so happy together. And you’re moving to NYC, and there’ll be lots of opportunities there. Why are you depressed?”
See, that’s what’s so terrifying about depression. It’s not necessarily a response to something. It can be caused by psychological and environmental factors, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s an illness.
It doesn’t need to be caused by anything.
Which, when you’re lying in bed thinking about death, is horrifying. Because if it isn’t caused by anything, how are you going to make it go away?
Reunification, or Paxil
To cut a long story short: I found a way to get back to Wisconsin (for a ridiculous amount of money). I saw my doctor and left her office with a prescription for a new antidepressant: Paxil, AKA Paroxetine
Even today, I have zero idea why I was prescribed Paxil. It’s one of the more prescribed antidepressants, but it’s not one of the most effective ones – in a lot of trials, it’s not even as effective as fluoxetine, which we’d established didn’t work for me at all. It’s also one of the worst, if not the worst, antidepressant for side effects – especially for sexual side effects.
I… was not happy about that. I really like sex. Sex was one of the things that remained wonderful despite the depression.
And, on top of the horrible side effects, Paxil has a notorious discontinuation syndrome. If Paxil didn’t work, not only would I have to find a new antidepressant, I might also have to deal with withdrawal.
At the same time… Wellbutrin was supposed to work great and cause zero side effects. But it didn’t. So maybe I wouldn’t know how Paxil would work for me until I tried it.
So I tried it! Very unhappily, but I did!
I really wasn’t expecting much.
But taking Paxil, my friends, was a good life choice, because two-and-a-half weeks later, the fog just – lifted.
I know this whole “fog-lifting” thing sounds like a figure of speech, but it did not feel that way at the time. It was as though every color in my brain had reset to a brighter setting. Two weeks.
I stopped feeling suicidal. I haven’t had a single episode of suicide ideation since I started taking Paxil. All my random crying jags ended. I mean, I still cry, but there’s always a reason – I’ve had a bad day, I’ve dropped a stack of books on my foot, I’m watching Catching Fire and I can’t handle the flashbacks to RUUUUUEEEE.
My moods made sense. I wasn’t randomly desperate or unhappy or mad. If I was sad, it was because something sad had happened. And my default was no longer “numb/sad,” it was “fairly happy.”
Yeah, when antidepressants work, they can really work.
A few weeks later, I moved to a new city – New York City, in fact. Unlike my first major move (to Montreal), this one did not provoke a new depression. In fact, I was pretty thrilled. I found a great job. I found a second job as a freelance book reviewer (!!!). I made friends. I explored the city. I spent lots of time with my boyfriend.
When people say that antidepressants squash creativity, I laugh and laugh. Sometimes I can stop laughing before they start talking about calming drinks.
Prior to Paxil, I was basically incapable of reading, much less writing. When I got to New York, I started writing again. I managed to publish a few blog posts – those had essentially disappeared during the Major Depressive Summer. I began writing fiction again for the first time in years. I taught myself how to spin yarn using a drop spindle. I started painting my nails. I took the GREs, I applied to graduate school, I got a 750 on the GRE in Literature. The three people who have taken that test are now suitably impressed.
I started volunteering.
… yeah, I’m pretty sure the antidepressants aren’t destroying my personality.
Okay, let’s talk about the bad news – the side effects.
I’ve got a couple. The usual vivid dreams – serotonin is notorious for this one – but vivid dreams don’t really bother me. I’m sleepier, although I can’t tell whether this comes from the paxil, or from all the migraines I’ve been getting. I now shake my leg when I’m working at my desk – again, I can’t tell if this is a side effect from paxil, or if I’ve just picked it up in the last few months.
I haven’t had any sexual side effects, which is BLOODY FANTASTIC. My sex life is great, thanks for asking!
I have gained a lot of weight. Side-effect fatty over here! Obviously, it is possible that this is an unrelated weight-gain, but the evidence seems to indicate that it stems from the Paxil. I’ve also been eating less and exercising more since I started Paxil (it’s amazing how not being depressed can help you get out of the house/cook food). And I gained weight on my other SSRI, fluoxetine, which I lost it when I stopped taking the drug.
I think I’ve gone up a couple dress sizes. Am I super-happy about this? Nope!
I am a product of our society, and although intellectually, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being fat(ter), I struggle with a shit-ton of body issues. Plus, you know, having to buy new clothes sucks.
At the same time, I’d rather be bigger and happier than thinner and depressed. At least when I’m in recovery, I have the emotional resources to deal with body-image issues. When I’m depressed and thinner, I still hate my body, but I have no capacity to deal with it.
So. On balance, I’m quite pleased with Paxil. It took three medications, but I’ve finally found one that puts me in recovery, and where the side effect are tolerable.
Part 7: The end of the courtship
Having been through the whole courtship and marriage plot shindig, let me tell you, I’ve learned a lot about antidepressants. I know how to make a relationship with serotonin and other neurotransmitters work.
Let me share my secrets.
1. If you don’t feel antidepressants working, they’re not working
I wasted an incredible amount of time taking fluoxetine because I thought it might be working even though I didn’t feel any different. Now I know better: if you don’t feel an antidepressant working within six weeks, it’s not doing anything.
You definitely want to give it six weeks (although many doctors will want you to check in after three weeks to see if they should up the dose) because some antidepressants take time to work. But if you’re not feeling anything, or if what you’re feeling is so subtle that it’s meaningless, you have the right to bring it up. There’s nothing wrong with you because a treatment didn’t work. And you are not obliged to keep quiet about it to make the doctors feel better or to avoid inconveniencing anyone.
Moreover, just because one dosage of one antidepressant doesn’t work does not mean that antidepressants are wrong for you, full stop. After using fluoxetine, I was pretty sure antidepressants did nothing for me. Five years later, I can say with certainty that some antidepressants do a whole lot for me.
Is it a pain in the ass to deal with the trial-and-error of finding the right medication? Absolutely. Just like it’s a pain in the ass to do the trial-and-error of finding a new therapist.
But one experience with antidepressants does not seal your fate with psychiatric medications.
2. Doing your own research is a good idea.
Understanding how antidepressants work and having my own internal database of medications, their side effects and their efficacity went a long way to reconciling me to the idea of psychiatric medications after my bad experience with fluoxetine.
Obviously, it’s important to remember that what you find in your research doesn’t determine how you’ll react to any given antidepressant. See: my experience with Paxil. But it can help demystify the process and allow you to advocate for yourself in the doctor’s office.
You can also get an idea of what side effects are unacceptable to you. Heightened anxiety? Cognitive problems? Somnolence? Loss of libido? If you give doctors an idea of what you don’t want, they can try to tailor their prescription.
At the very least, if you’ve done your research, when your doctor says something you know is false, you can run.
(I’m personally a big fan of the irreverent and comprehensive website Crazymeds. It’s got a ridiculous amount of information on various psychiatric medications (not just antidepressants). It’s also run by crazy people, for crazy people, which I find reassuring))
3. Advocating for yourself is important, but is also paradoxically the hardest thing to do while depressed.
Finding the right antidepressant involved a whole of lot of me standing up for myself, demanding that doctors help me and refusing to believe that it was all my fault.
In other words, it took a lot of investing in myself.
But there’s a reason it took me five years to get to that point. Because when you’re depressed, you have nothing to invest in yourself. Your resources are gone.
And depression, meanwhile, is actively convincing you that there’s no problem at all… except you. You’re the problem. You’re not sick, you’re just lazy/stupid/etc.
Which is why:
4. Getting good treatment involves supportive, continuous healthcare.
You know when I started getting good treatment? When my doctor started listening to me. That’s how I got prescribed Wellbutrin. That’s how I got prescribed Paxil. Before then, I’d been through two separate doctors who either hadn’t listened to my problems, or hadn’t inquired further about my experience with antidepressants when I said they weren’t doing much. That… was not okay.
Mental illnesses are a chronic problem, and they need continuous care. A prescription is not the end. Often, problems will arise, the dosage will need to be adjusted, side effects will appear, or the medication won’t work at all. Healthcare here needs to be seen as a long-term process, both by the patients, and by the doctors. My biggest problem with recovery has been my lack of continuous healthcare. Even when I found medications that worked for me, I couldn’t go see my doctor for a regular check-in, because I was in Canada and she… wasn’t. I probably would have found the right antidepressant a whole lot faster if I were able to access healthcare more often.
But unfortunately, access to healthcare was geographically and economically impossible for much of my college life. (It’s still economically impossible for me at this point, which… is great! (not))
5. Who gives a shit if Antidepressants Are the Easy Way Out?
So, are antidepressants the easy way out?
Time for a rant: The idea that antidepressants are an “easy solution” to depression is such bullshit. The flip side of that coin – that therapy, exercise, diet change etc. and tackling the “root psychological problem” – are the “correct” way to solve depression is also pure BS.
Both these ideas are rooted in the narrative that depression is a personal failure, a mistake you can “correct.” Some people choose the “easy” way out and just take pills, which means they never “correct” their personal failures. Others pull themselves up by their own bootstraps by doing therapy and running 30 miles a day. Those people are actually “correcting” their personal failure by doing the hard work of personal redemption.
Yo, depression isn’t a tragic flaw in a shakespearian tragedy. It’s a disease that fundamentally changes the way your brain works. You do not “deserve” to be depressed. You aren’t depressed because you took the wrong path in childhood. You aren’t depressed because you’re lazy. You aren’t depressed because you’re weak. You’re depressed because you have an illness.
And since depression is an illness, not a character flaw, it responds to treatments like an illness. Which means that everyone’s depression will respond differently to therapies and treatments. No treatment is inherently better or worse than another. If therapy helps you, that’s great. If antidepressants help you, that’s great. If a combination of the two is an optimal solution, that’s fantastic.
Important side note: since depression is an illness that no one really understands, you won’t know what works for your depression until you’ve found it. There’s no great way to guess what’ll work for someone, which is why we shouldn’t assume that one treatment is better than another for any particular person (unless, obviously, there are allergies/side effect issues/other health factors).
Finally: Who the fuck cares about whether something is “easy” or not when you’re severely depressed? Seriously, this is life we’re dealing with, not an endurance contest. There is no prize at the end for the person who Worked The Hardest To Solve Their Brain Chemistry Problems.
Disclaimer: This was my long, long, long post about my personal experience with antidepressants. As a reminder, it’s… my experience, not anyone else’s. And there are a shit-ton of problems with antidepressants beyond the fake issues people invent. Hey, it’s harder for people of color to get correctly diagnosed! Doctors make all kinds of terrible mistakes based on stigma! We don’t have the healthcare structure necessary to make sure that people who need treatment *get* continuous treatment!
Tons of problems.
Antidepressants being “easy” isn’t one of them.