[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.)
[Content note: flashing gifs, abusive relationships, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, violence against children, dating violence, misogynistic slurs, misogyny, racism]
Remember that time Grey’s Anatomy made physical and emotional abuse seem totally okay, as long as it was aimed towards disabled people?
Well, now comes part 2! (Huzzah). Yes, everyone, it’s time to sit down, gird our loins and talk about that time a show primarily aimed at kids turned physical abuse into a hilarious joke.
I am talking, of course, about the second season of the Legend of Korra, and the relationship between Bolin and Eska.
Now, there’s been a lot of really screwed-up stuff going on in the second season of Legend of Korra. A total lack of female characters, the disappearance of really cool characters like Katara and Lin Bei Fong, the return of the terrible love triangle ( NO ONE CARES), inconsistent characterization, nonsensical sexism, plots that make absolutely no sense etc. etc. etc.
But right up there in the Hall of Horror with the sexism and the bad writing is the way the show turned a physically and emotionally abusive relationship into a “funny” punch-line.
You may remember Bolin as one of Korra (the protagonist’s) best friends. In the first episode of season 2, Bolin becomes enamoured with Eska, Korra’s cousin. Eska decides Bolin’s cute, and hey presto, they’re dating.
Ah, young love. Sweet, adorable and…
Wait, what’s this?
… did Eska just use a wall of ice to physically drag Bolin away from Korra?
Did she seriously just physically prevent her boyfriend from touching one of his best friends?
DID THE SHOW JUST PLAY THAT MOMENT FOR LAUGHS?
Uh, not okay, Korra. What Eska did is the equivalent of physically grabbing and restraining Bolin. That. is. assault. It’s a pretty major red flag for abuse.
I wish I could say this moment in episode 2 was an isolated incident. Unfortunately, over the next few episodes, Eska becomes more and more abusive towards Bolin – and the show continues to portray the abuse as a joke.
In fact, given how the show has portrayed the relationship as *hilarious*, you may not even have realized all the gross, abusive shit that’s been happening!
Here’s a (shortened) recap:
A. Eska uses threats of violence and emotional abuse to force Bolin to stay in a relationship with her.
1. When Mako tells Bolin to”tell [Eska] you’re not into her anymore”, Bolin appears terrified, and says “”Oh no, no, no, I don’t think she’d like that.”
2. Then when Bolin takes Mako’s advice and tries to break up with Eska, she threatens to freeze him in a block of ice and feed him to dolphin piranhas. In case you think this is hyperbolic, let’s remember that this woman trapped Bolin in a block of ice when he hugged his friend.
3. The next time he tries to break up with her, she forces him to accept a marriage proposal and drags him away. The image makes it clear that Bolin is in pain as she pulls him.
4. When Bolin finally manages to get on a boat and escape the southern water tribe, Eska chases after him with on a massive water wave of doom, and it’s pretty clear that she’s prepared to use violence to get him back.
B. Eska consistently humiliates Bolin, and enjoys watching him in pain.
1. At the beginning of episode 3, we see Bolin forced to carry Desna and Eska in their cart. He’s very obviously unhappy about it. When Eska makes a joke, she orders Bolin to “laugh at my humerous quip!” and we see him look terrified and laugh.
I feel like I have to make this clear: forcing your boyfriend to pull you in a cart and then laugh at your jokes is pretty fucking gross. And, in most contexts (including this one) pretty abusive.
2. Later in the season, Eska tells Bolin: “Boyfriend! Bow to me before I exit!” Looking, again, terrified, Bolin throws himself on the ground. Eska grins: “You are so sweet when you grovel.”
HILARIOUS! THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE A HILARIOUS MOMENT! AS OPPOSED TO A “HOLY SHIT THIS RELATIONSHIP IS SO FUCKING ABUSIVE” MOMENT!
… sorry. I needed that.
3. When Eska forces Bolin to accept her marriage proposal, she does not even wait for him to say yes before she puts the betrothal necklace on his neck and drags him away, telling him he can “express his joy with tears.” Crying, Bolin says “[The necklace] is really tight”
And we’re expected to laugh at all of these scenes. We’re expected to laugh at someone being forced into a betrothal. We’re expected to laugh as their partner physically drags them away and they cry in pain. This is Legend of Korra‘s idea of a joke.
[There are, of course, relationships where physical violence and humiliation are okay: consensual BDSM relationships. But what’s happening between Bolin and Eska is pretty clearly nonconsensual]
To recap: Eska (non-consensually) humiliates Bolin and enjoys watching him in pain. She controls his actions and his emotions. He’s not even allowed to talk without asking for Eska’s permission first. And she uses fear and abuse in order to prevent him from leaving the relationship.
Yup! That’s abusive! Almost any of these moments, taken in isolation, would be a red flag for abuse. Together, they’re a Massive Abuse Warning Siren that screams: “BEWARE: HERE THERE BE REALLY GROSS ABUSE HAPPENING.”
Now, I don’t actually oppose showing abusive relationships in TV shows. Hell, I don’t even oppose showing abusive relationships in children’s TV shows. What I oppose is showing abusive relationships as lighthearted and funny.
Legend of Korra isn’t trying to make a point about how gross abusive relationships are. They’re trying to make a joke.
I know this because the Avatar Universe (of which Korra is a part) has a history of portraying abusive relationship with nuance and sensitivity. I know what it looks like when an Avatar show portrays abuse with nuance and sensitivity: it looks like Zuko’s relationship with Ozai, his father.
Ozai is a horrific parent. He forces his thirteen-year-old son to duel against him when Zuko speaks out of turn. After Zuko refuses to duel his own father, Ozai burns his son’s face, permanently scarring him, and then banishes him from the Fire Kingdom. Later, he tries to kill Zuko when his son turns against him.
Avatar: the Last Airbender never turned Ozai’s actions into comedy. And it never allowed us to forget that Ozai is a terrifying, violent and manipulative parent.
In Legend of Korra, on the other hand, the relationship between Bolin and Eska is a non-stop, unrelenting joke.
There are, I suspect, two forces at work in the “hilarity” of the Bolin/Eska relationship: first, the myth that men can’t be abused (which means that domestic violence against men isn’t “serious”), and second, the “bitches be crazy” corollary (which means that women acting violent against men isn’t “serious” either).
In other words, Eska’s abuse of Bolin is hilarious because she’s a woman abusing a man.
Let’s parse these problems separately.
First, it’s pretty clear that no character in the Korra universe thinks Bolin is being abused. In fact, they blame him for his treatment at Eska’s hands.
When Bolin tells Korra and Mako that Eska threatened to freeze him in a block of ice and feed him to dolphin piranhas, they both shrug it off, and act annoyed that he’s ruining their date. Neither Korra nor Mako – Bolin’s brother – seems the least bit worried that Eska told Bolin she would kill him if he tried to break up with her, even though they’ve already witnessed her being violent towards Bolin (when Eska traps him a block of ice to prevent him from hugging Korra)
Hey, what’s to worry about, am I right?
Bolin starts to hide in order to avoid Eska. His friend Asami tells him he should “stand up for himself” – and later, when she witnesses Eska ordering Bolin to bow, she says: “Don’t LET her treat you that way.”
Mako, Korra and Asami’s reactions put the blame for Eska’s abusive behavior squarely on Bolin. Bolin should have known better than to date Eska. Bolin should “stand up for himself.” Bolin is LETTING Eska treat him this way. It’s his fault his girlfriend is violent and abusive!
Not to put too fine a point on it, but those guys are the worst friends.
They’re also doing a superb job of reinforcing the idea that abuse just can’t happen to men. In this worldview, no matter how violent or how manipulative a man’s partner is, a man just cannot be abused. Their relationships are always under their own control – they can put an end to them at any time and “stand up for themselves” whenever they want to.
No wonder none of Bolin’s friends take his problems seriously. They know that what’s happening to him isn’t serious at all – after all, he’s a man!
It gets worse. When Eska forces Bolin to accept a marriage proposal, he rejoins his friends, wearing a traditional betrothal necklace.
Korra: “I’m pretty sure the guy is supposed to give the girl the betrothal necklace.”
It’s FUNNY because Eska has forced Bolin to take on a FEMALE role. HAHAHAHA… so gross. . It’s the other side to the “Men can’t be abused” coin: if men are abused, they are like women. They become feminized by their abuse.
And we could get into the misogyny that idea implies, but frankly, we have enough on our plate.
In most of the world – maleness is defined in opposition to victimhood. Men aren’t victims. They’re the aggressors, the winners. They’re strong, in control. Our definition of manhood, therefore, leaves no room for people who are victims, who are used and abused and wounded. After all, if you can’t protect yourself, you’re not a “real” man.
In this twisted logic, Bolin – and other men and boys in similar situations – aren’t experiencing abuse. And if they are, it is either because they choose to stay, or because they aren’t “real” men.
It’s pretty clear that the “joke” of Bolin’s abuse relies on the assumption that Bolin’s relationship with Eska is totally under his control. If he were only able to stand up for himself, the abuse would just magically go away. It’s also “hilarious” because Bolin’s inability to stand up to Eska shows how incompetent he is as a man (“the guy is supposed to give the GIRL a proposal necklace”)
Moreover, if you take a wide view of the season, you’ll see that Eska isn’t the only woman who physically abuses her partner. For example, when Korra and her boyfriend, Mako, have an argument, Korra earthbends his desk into a wall. Which is pretty fucking threatening, in my opinion. And if your partner is throwing things while you’re arguing? Massively abusive.
When Lin Bei Fong, Mako’s boss, walks in the room and notices the torn-up wall and the broken desk, she asks Mako what happened. Mako tells her he broke up with Korra, and Lin smiles: “You got off easy. You should have seen Air Temple Island when Tenzin broke up with me.”
Oh, yeah, hilarious.
In both cases, we have women physically destroying things at their boyfriends. And as someone who has experienced people breaking things at me, I can tell you right now, it’s terrifying. It’s an obvious threat. I’ve been in cars with someone who starts driving really erratically when they get angry at me, and oh god, it does not make you want to make them angry ever again, because I was terrified we were going to drive straight into a tree. Which is exactly the point. It’s behavior that’s supposed to teach you not to go “out of line” again – or you’ll be next.
(As a note, abusers who throw or hit objects in when arguing with you almost always escalate to violence eventually)
All of these moments – Eska’s violence towards Bolin, Korra’s violence towards Mako, and Lin Bei Fong’s violence towards Tenzin – are meant to be comedic. Korra and Lin Bei Fong are both characters we’re supposed to like – I highly doubt the show wants us to read them as abusive, even though that’s exactly what they are, at least in these moments with their partners. It’s supposed to be funny that Lin Bei Fong destroyed Tenzin’s home when he broke up with her.
So what is with this trend of comic portrayals of abusive women?
That’s the second half of the Bolin/Eska joke – the “bitches be crazy” corollary.
This season has had a plethora of the “women are so hysterical and crazy in relationships” trope. Korra’s behavior this season with Mako is a prime example – he can’t do anything without making her blow up. And that’s an incredibly misogynistic trope to begin with. But it also has really unpleasant consequences when you line it up with abuse, because it makes it seem like Korra, Eska and Lin’s violent behaviors are just “crazy” things women “naturally” do.
Because women, am I right? They’re just “crazy.” And men have to put up with it, because women, am I right?
This narrative transforms abuse from an aberration into something “natural” and comedic.
I think, moreover, that there’s something more than your average “bitches be crazy” trope going on in The Legend of Korra. I think the show is having a hard time coping with their female protagonist.
You would not thing a strong female protagonist would be a problem for the writers of Korra, given that the previoous series, Avatar, is full of strong, interesting women: Katara, the waterbending master, Toph, one of the greatest earthbenders to ever live, Azula, who… I mean, how do you even talk about the powerhouse that is Azula? And Mai, Tai-Lee and Suki, three non-benders who could stand toe-to-toe with any bender and come out on top.
But in Avatar, unlike in Korra, there was always one male character who was theoretically more powerful than any given woman: Aang, by virtue of being the Avatar. In Legend of Korra, however, the protagonist is female. Aang is dead and Korra is the new Avatar – the most powerful person in the entire show. Once she’s fully trained, nothing will be able to stand against her. There is no male character more powerful than Korra.
People have… problems with that kind of female power. A whole lot of writers just have no idea how to deal with it, especially in the context of western patriarchy and western-prescribed gender roles (most of the characters of Avatar are POC, and the areas they live in correspond to asian and first nations locations, but the writers of the show are mainly from north america). There aren’t a whole lot of creators with the kind of talent and chutzpah to deal with a world where women and men are on equal footing – and where a woman is the “savior” of the world.
Which is where you get weird stuff like the Korra abuse narrative. The writers are unable to separate the world of Korra from western ideas about gender and patriarchal structures. More specifically, they’re unable to conceive of a world where the strength of women doesn’t come at the expense of the strength of men. They’ve moved beyond the patriarchy by flipping it.
Thus, in Korra, gender equality doesn’t mean that relationships will become healthier and more equitable. No – a gain in power by women must mean a loss in power by men, since we’re still stuck in gender hierarchies. Thus, if women are the “strong” ones – if women are captains of industry (Asami), police chiefs (Lin Bei Fong), Avatars (Korra) and incredibly powerful waterbenders (Eska) – then the men must be the “weak” ones. Thus, we get all the heterosexual relationships where the women are abusive and the men are passive.
Which, I should note, tells you a whole lot about how the writers conceive traditional male-female relationships. And a whole lot about how the writers conceive “strength.” They seem unable to conceive of a woman with stereotypically male attributes – like Korra, who is very physically strong, who acts first and think later, who is competitive and impulsive – without also making her borderline abusive. I don’t know if it’s because the writer’s vision of masculinity is so entwined with strength-as-abuse, or if it’s because they can’t help but see a character like Korra as an aberration, and thus infuse her with “bad” qualities. Whatever it is, it’s disturbing.
It’s also a pretty disturbing message about female strength. Women are only strong and in control, the narrative goes, because men have ceded the place to them. If men *wanted* to be in charge again, they could.
The other explanation for the woman-as-abuser and man-as-passively-accepting-abuse trope in Korra is the narrative of men being “whipped” by their girlfriends. In a sentence: men allow women to walk all over them because they love/admire/desire the women so much – or because they’re just too lazy/stupid to exercise their male control over the relationship. This brings us straight back to the victim-blaming: Bolin and Mako are abused because they “let” the women abuse them. Moreover, it makes it seem like abuse is the price you pay for a woman’s love. Being in a relationship and having access to women’s bodies is worth the emotional and physical abuse – a storyline that plays directly into the stereotype of men being voracious, mindless, sex-pursuing velociraptors.
(okay, so I made that part about the velociraptors up).
Oh yeah. There’s a whole shitload of toxic stuff wrapped up in the “joke” of Eska abusing Bolin.
Let’s be clear, finally, and explain exactly why the victim-blaming, misogyny and toxic masculinity at the root of the “comedy” of abuse is so disturbing:
Because abuse is a thing that happens in the real world.
And abuse is a thing that happens – in spite of the myths – to men. Often it happens to them exactly how it happened to Bolin. And often, people will react exactly the way Bolin’s friends reacted to him – with laughter, with victim-blaming, with a complete lack of support.
According to the latest study by the CDC, approximately one in seven men have experienced some form of domestic violence (compared to one in four women). 1.4% of men have been raped, while 6% have experienced some form of sexual coercion. One in nineteen men have been stalked. One in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner.
Abuse happens to men. Abuse happens to men a lot. And just as it’s socially unacceptable for women to talk about their experiences with rape, sexual violence, harassment and domestic violence, it’s also socially unacceptable for men to admit to being the victims of rape, harassment and domestic violence. Because we see those stories as funny.
Yes, men are threatened, stalked, hurt and emotionally manipulated, just as Bolin was on the show. It’s not funny when it happens to them. And it’s not funny when it happened to Bolin.
The abuse-as-comedy trope is particularly harmful because Korra is aimed at children and young adults. And guess who is most at risk of abuse?
That’s right! Kids.
More than one in four male victims of rape experience their first rape when they are ten years or younger. Of the men who have experienced stalking, 1/3 have been stalked before the age of 25. 53% of male victims of domestic violence experience their first incident before the age of 21.
Of the men who have experienced rape, stalking or physical abuse by an intimate partner, 15% had their first experience when they were between the ages of 11 and 17. 38.6% of them had their first experience between the ages of 18 to 24.
So when you turn abuse into a joke in a kid’s show, you’re basically teaching the most vulnerable male demographic (children and young adults) that abuse is funny, not serious, and to be expected in romantic relationships. Right as they’re entering their first dating years – and the years where they’re most likely to experience abuse.
Great job, guys. No, seriously.
Here’s another important fact: Bolin is a man of color (as are Mako, Tenzin, and every other male character on Korra). Which is great! But dismissing the abuse of men of color as “funny” carries particularly damaging connotations, since men of color are much more likely to experience rape, stalking and domestic violence than white men. Approximately 1/5 of white men reported experiencing sexual violence, rape or domestic violence. In comparison, one third of multiracial men, one fourth of latino men, forty percent of black men and 43.5% of american native and alaskan native men reported experiencing rape, physical violence and/or stalking in their lifetimes.
To put it bluntly: men of color are more likely to experience rape, sexual violence and/or stalking. So turning a man of color’s abuse into a joke? Is really not okay.
(this is not to say that 20% of white men experiencing abuse is in *any* way okay – it’s just that men of color experience higher rates of abuse)
Is this the lesson we want to teach the young audience of Korra? For that matter, is this the lesson we want to teach the older audience of Korra? That abuse is acceptable? That abuse is funny? That abuse is the victim’s fault? That men can’t be abused? That abuse is to be expected in a romantic relationship? That abuse is a fair trade for romance, love and sex? That men should fear female strength because it leads to emotional and domestic abuse?
What a toxic message.
And what a disappointing narrative from Korra, a show that follows in the footsteps of the wonderfully progressive Avatar: the Last Airbender, where abuse was treated seriously, and gender hierarchies were ignored in favor of good storytelling.
Sure, it’s just a show. But if the writers of Korra didn’t want to shoulder the responsibility of treating abuse with nuance and sensitivity, they shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. Because it’s not “just” abuse, not when it’s happening to one in seven men.
Since I started writing this post, the show has gotten, if possible, worse on abuse. Bolin has turned from abuse-victim into rape-culture perpetrator, when he kissed his co-star, Ginger, against her will, and then told her “I think you liked it too.”Ginger eventually goes out with Bolin, because he’s rich and famous – and women don’t mind sexual assault as long as it comes from a rich and famous dude! This, again, is played for laughs, because if there’s anything funnier than abuse, it’s sexual violence.
Then Eska and Bolin reunite, and it’s clear that Bolin still harbors feelings for Eska. Which I don’t have a problem with in and of itself (often, abuse victims remain emotionally attached to their abusers). But since the show keeps pretending Eska hasn’t abused Bolin, I have no reason to believe they’ll treat the romantic subplot with any kind of nuance or sensitivity. The writers have turned what used to be a joke subplot into an actual romantic subplot. With both narratives, they’ve ignored Eska’s abusive behavior.
So since the show won’t say it, let me, once again, emphatically explain: What Eska did to Bolin is abuse. It is physical and emotional abuse. What Korra, Mako and Asami did to Bolin is victim-blaming.
And none of it is fucking funny.
1. Do not try to explain that Eska’s behavior is not abusive. It is.
2. Do not victim-blame Bolin (or any other victim of domestic violence)
3. Please don’t start blaming abuse on misandry.
If you engage in any of these three activities, I may just delete your comment, because LOL, I am not playing the “but physically dragging people around isn’t ABUSE” game.
1. CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: Executive Summary
2. CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: Full Report
3. Domestic violence red flags: one, two, three, four, five (includes red flags specific to men experiencing domestic violence)
4. One in Six: A group that helps male survivors of child sexual abuse
5. Male Survivor: Group for male survivors of abuse
1. Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women: 1-888-7HELPLINE
2. Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project: 1-800-832-1901
3. National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline: 1-866-331-9474
4. National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
5. National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
[Content note: GIFS, mentions of racism]
Meet Nina Davuluri. Nina Davuluri just won the Miss America contest, and is now Miss America 2014. And she’s pretty fucking awesome.
1. Her platform was “celebrating diversity through cultural competency.” When I first heard that, I had *no idea* what it meant. But once you look it up, it turns out it’s fucking awesome. Cultural competency means developing an awareness of your own cultural viewpoint, and then learning to understand, communicate with, and interact with people from all kinds of different cultures and socio/ethnic backgrounds.
Uh… amazing, right? Social justice-y, right?
2. She’s the first Indian-American – and Asian-American – Miss America. And yeah, there have been some racist motherfuckers who’ve been oppressive assholes about this, but that doesn’t take away from Nina Davuluri’s very real accomplishment. Nina Davuluri is damn cool. And talented. And smart.
And she knew she was making history. When Nina Davuluri was one of the last two women standing, alongside Miss California’s Crystal Lee – also an Asian-American woman – she said: “We’re both so proud. We’re making history right here, standing here as Asian-Americans.”
3. She makes terrible jokes.
Damn it, she’s got my favorite sense of humor. AND she’s got an adorable embarrassed smile!
4. Her talent was really fucking amazing – a fusion piece that combined bollywood dance with classical indian training.
Apparently, she chose her talent against the advice of her team, who thought it was “too foreign” for american judges. To which Nina Davuluri was like “Fuck you” and won the WHOLE DAMN THING.
Ugh, I want to be her when I grow up. Ridiculously talented and super-brave.
5. She’s a nerd.
[Okay, so, apparently, this picture is photoshopped. And I am terrible and can’t detecting photoshopping. *headdesk*, Which basically means that… this particular photo is photoshopped. But everything else in the post stands – she’s still a fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, she’s still a nerd etc.
Also, who photoshopped this? Was it her? Because that would be adorable. Was it fans? Was it peopel who liked her? I don’t even know!]
She cosplays. She loves Star Trek, Star Wars and anything Science Fiction. And she knows R2-D2 (don’t disillusion me. THAT IS R2-D2 IN THIS PICTURE AND NINA DAVULURI IS HIS BEST FRIEND)
She has a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science. She wants to be a doctor. She’s going into traditionally male fields and she’s a geek and a girl, and she’s fucking awesome.
I wonder what kind of SF books she loves. Maybe I’ll see her at a convention sometime!
And Nina Davuluri isn’t the only awesome nerdy WOC in the Miss America Pageant. The first runner-up, Crystal Lee, is Chinese-American. She graduated with a BA and an MA from Stanford in FOUR years. Her platform is women in STEM fields (awesome). She’s interned for DropBox, and she wants to start her own tech company. Her talent is Ballet-en-pointe, because HOLY SHIT.
It’s easy to focus on the disgusting racism that’s been happening around Nina Davuluri’s coronation. But don’t just talk about the racists. Talk about the awesome women they’re trying to erase through their racism. Don’t let their voices dominate the conversation.
The top two women at the Miss America pageant this year were both WOC. They were both hard-core nerds who study STEM, They care about women and cultural diversity in tech fields. They like Star Wars and cosplaying. They’re going to start tech companies and promote diversity. They’re remarkable women. And it’s a remarkable thing, to look at the Miss America pageant, and see exactly who’s winning – STEM women! Nerds! Women of Color!
As a fellow nerd, ladies – I salute you!
And I’m inspired by you. You’re Big Damn Heroes.
(Hey, geeks of america – could we wrangle a con invitation for Nina Davuluri or Crystal Lee? Wouldn’t that be awesome? I think it would be awesome)
Full credit goes to
Thinkspeakstress on tumblr
Arturo R. Garcia at Racialicious
Lakshmi Gandhi at The Aerogram
for making me check my white privilege, waking me the fuck up and reminding me to stop focusing so much on the racists and start focusing on the people they were actively erasing. I really appreciate the call-out. Thank you.
Note: I realize there are a shit-ton of problems with Miss America. I am aware. It’s never been my favorite institution either. But this post is not a place to complain about how terrible Miss America is. It’s to celebrate the accomplishments of the amazing women who’ve been erased by racists – and people talking about racists. So please don’t comment about the problems with the pageant *on this particular post*.
[Content note: misogyny, racism, whitewashing, transmisogyny, heterosexism, bad faith, flashing GIFS)]
Okay. Let’s talk about Doctor Who, shall we?
(artist/writer: ponyscribbles on tumblr)
A month ago, the BBC announced that Peter Capaldi will play the Doctor in Doctor Who after Matt Smith steps down. He’ll be the twelfth regeneration of the doctor. And the twelfth white man to play the role.
I think most fans were pleased. Peter Capaldi apparently has quite a following in Great Britain (as an American, of course, the only time I’ve seen him was in the Doctor Who episode “The Fires of Pompeii”). He seems like a great actor, and a lovely person.
A large group of fans, however, were quite disappointed. I was among them. We’d hoped – against all odds – that this would be the regeneration where the Doctor was finally played by a POC and/or a woman. This was our chance. We’d been discussing it for years, but now – maybe now – it could finally happen. The BBC even put up a poll asking whether the 12th Doctor would be a man or a woman, thus acknowledging the possibility of a female Doctor.
[note: I use “we” a lot in this post. I use “we” not because we all share the same oppressions and marginalizations, but because we’ve all been erased by, and ignored by, Doctor Who (and other media). But I don’t mean to conflate my identity with those of other marginalized people: as a white cisgendered woman, I’m relatively privileged, even when it comes to media representation]
We knew there wasn’t much of a chance.
But we hoped.
So yeah, a lot of us were majorly disappointed when it was another white guy.
And then, in the midst of my frustration, I saw the above comic. And lo, I saw the error of my ways, and stopped complaining about Peter Capaldi’s casting.
Sorry about that. No, this is not going to be a post about how I finally learned to stop complaining and love oppression. And my sarcasm is probably also making poor Peter Capaldi cry. Sorry, Mr. Capaldi. You actually do seem lovely.
This comic isn’t some giant exception to the rule. Everywhere on the internet, you’ll find this idea that we’re being mean or unfair to Peter Capaldi by criticizing his casting.
So let’s talk about it, okay? *Really* talk about it.
I’m going to establish a few things upfront: I think I will really enjoy Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. I’m betting he will be a great Doctor. He seems, from everything I’ve seen of him on the interwebs in the past two weeks, to be a great actor. I’m also glad an older actor is playing the Doctor – it will make a nice change from Matt Smith and David Tennant.
I also love Doctor Who. I think it’s a great, beautiful, ridiculous, wonderful show. I would not bother to argue about it as much as I do if I did not love it. I would not keep watching it if I did not truly believe in its promise and its potential. I would not be a fan if I did not believe it had a place for people like me.
We’ve gotten those things clear? Good.
Here’s the rub, my friendly readers: I’m also disappointed as fuck in Capaldi’s casting. I know! It’s so shocking. But it is, in fact, possible for me to feel more than one emotion about an event. I am a human being, and I can grasp complexity. I can be excited and disappointed at the same time.
Yes, I wanted the Doctor not to be a white man.
One of the most wonderful things about the Doctor is his (1) capacity for change. He constantly regenerates into completely different bodies. He is never static, never singular, always chaotic. He is simultaneously one and many. Everything about him is changeable, and changing.
So can you blame fans who want the Doctor’s various incarnations to reflect of the diversity of the world around him? To change races, genders, gender identities, ages, shapes, ability levels, sexualities, etc? In fact, it doesn’t make any sense for the Doctor to *not* change things like race and gender. To convince yourself that the Doctor should *always* be a white man, you’re ignoring the central tenant of his identity: nothing about him is unchangeable.
Except that some things are.
We’ve now had twelve doctors – with a recently revealed thirteenth (John Hurt) (2)- and they’ve all been white cisgendered men. Everything about the Doctor can change, apparently, except his race, gender and gender identity.
I cannot stress how incredibly depressing it is for people who are already erased, ignored and marginalized by the media to see a show like Doctor Who – which has a built-in excuse for being as diverse and inclusive as possible in their casting – just keep casting white men. It’s almost deliberately cruel. “We could include you, but we choose not to. Let them eat the kyriarchy!”
So yeah, I’m pissed that Peter Capaldi was cast as the twelfth Doctor.
I’m pissed because there is absolutely zero evidence that showrunner Steven Moffat even considered casting anyone but a white man. Because, as Moffat put it, he had a shortlist of one: Peter Capaldi.
To everyone who has said: “Well, Capaldi was probably just the best actor for the part.” Really? How would Moffat even know that if he never bothered to audition anyone else? I mean, this isn’t a case of a white male actor legitimately beating out a bunch of actors of color and/or female actors through a stringent audition process. This is a case of a white man just being chosen, without anyone else getting a shot.
(If nothing else, it shows a shocking lack of imagination from Stephen Moffat. “I could only think of one person! So I cast him!”)
I’m pissed because Moffat has had three chances to cast a Doctor – Matt Smith, John Hurt and Peter Capaldi – and *all* of them have been thin white men. All of them. I have given up any notion that he gives a shit about inclusion. He’s had more chances than any modern Doctor Who showrunner to make the show more diverse, and he’s refused all of those chances.
I’m pissed because Moffat denigrated the very idea of a female Doctor. When asked about Helen Mirren’s call for a female Doctor, Moffat joked that the Queen should be played by a man next time.
Which… wow. This simultaneously brings in transmisogyny (because there’s nothing more hilarious than drag queens and men who dress up as women, am I right?), a false equivalence, and stunning amount of bad faith. Having a woman play a traditionally male role is not the same as having a man playing a traditionally female role. Women are underrepresented in the media, so giving a woman a traditionally male role is being inclusive. Men are *already* well-represented in the media, so giving a man a traditionally female role only exacerbates the lack of inclusion.
And also: bad faith. Queen Elizabeth should be played by a woman because the Queen is an actual historical figure who is female. The Doctor is not an actual historical figure. Moreover, the Doctor is a person whose identity constantly changes. Are you actually saying that being male is a constant part of the Doctor’s identity? That he can be anything – except that he must always be a man?
I’m pissed because of the message Moffat sends – and the show sends – by constantly casting white men. I’m pissed, because it it implies that gender and race are so *essential* to a person’s identity that they are the one thing an ever-changing alien can never change. It implies that those two things are so fucking fundamental that changing them would ruin the character.
Which is not at all a racist or sexist notion, no. Gender and racial essentialism, everyone!
I’m pissed because this casting is part of a long trend of the showrunners being oppressive and awful. Doctor Who hasn’t had a female writer in three seasons. It hasn’t had a female director in two. It hasn’t had a writer or director of color in at least three seasons (3). It’s female characters get the wonderful privilege of participating in misogynistic storylines, including the mystical pregnancy trope, the “mothers are the most powerful people in the world because uteruses” trope, the “stalking is super romantic” trope and the “silly women and their obsession with their looks” trope. I’d be upset over the storylines surrounding major POC characters, but the truth is… there really haven’t been a lot of major characters of color in the past three years. And the ones I remember all die (like Rita in “The God Complex”). Moffat himself explains that he doesn’t bother with bisexual representation on Doctor Who because bisexuals are having “FAR TOO MUCH FUN. You probably don’t even watch because you’re so busy.” Asexual representation? Don’t even think about it – Moffat thinks asexuality is boring.
I’m pissed because I see no signs that this is going to change anytime soon.
I’m pissed because whenever we bring this up, we’re being mean.
We’re being mean. We’ve been systematically ignored and erased on the show. People like us are denied representation, made fun of and stereotyped. We’ve gone through thirteen Doctors with no sign that we’re ever going to get representation – even though the show’s own rules mean it makes *no sense* for the Doctor to keep being white and male. We don’t have representation in the writer’s room or the director’s chair.
Peter Capaldi and Stephen Moffat are powerful people. They have nice big salaries. They’re media creators. One of them is the head of one of the most successful franchises in the world, the other is about to be one of the most famous actors on the planet.
But we’re making them feel bad.
… somehow, I kind of doubt it.
Comics like the one above are a silencing mechanism. They’re meant to make us feel bad for voicing our reality. For talking about the very real misogyny, heterosexism, transmisogyny and racism displayed by Doctor Who and its showrunners. They’re meant to make it seem like *we’re* the ones who haven’t been inclusive, even though we’re the ones who have been systematically marginalized by the show and the showrunners. But we’re not inclusive. Because inclusive means no one ever feels bad. Especially not the poor, powerful white men who keep getting roles and jobs and representation.
Comics like the one above rewrite the narrative of Doctor Who. They rewrite our very real grievances, transforming marginalized people into a bunch of complainers who are trying to make Peter Capaldi and the Doctor feel bad.
Why isn’t our sadness ever depicted? Why is it always about the feelings of the most powerful people in the Doctor Who world? Why isn’t it ever about our feelings of exclusion, our feelings of marginalization, our anger at being erased and ignored? Why – even in a comic that is supposed to be about *us* complaining – why is it about Peter Capaldi?
Why aren’t we ever the protagonists of these stories?
… you know, on one level, this cartoon perfectly encapsulates the problem. Powerful white men in the Doctor Who world give other white men influence – as writers, directors and actors – while systematically ignoring the criticisms of those who feel excluded from the show. White men keep all the power for themselves, while making the people they’ve marginalized feel bad for complaining about it. White men take the issue of system oppression and make it all about them.
Stephen Moffat hands the screwdriver over to Peter Capaldi, and then, when people point out they’ve never had a chance at that screwdriver, he berates them for making the new Doctor feel bad.
Frankly, everyone, I appreciate your concern for the Doctor, but seriously: the Doctor is a fictional character, and I can’t make him feel bad. So I’m not terribly worried about it. I’m not even worried about making Peter Capaldi feel bad: he’s got the job now, and he’s probably surrounded by wonderful people cheering his casting. And good for him! I don’t *want* him to feel bad. I don’t want him to feel bad, because it’s not his fault. He’s just the manifestation of a larger phenomenon.
The truth is, I don’t even think the comic writer above – and all the fans and creators who are trying to shut down complaints – care that much about Peter Capaldi’s feelings.
I think they want us to stop hurting *their* feelings. I think they want fans with legitimate grievances with the show to shut up.
Shut up, and let us enjoy Capaldi’s casting. Shut up and let us enjoy the show. Shut up and don’t remind us that some of this stuff is problematic. Shut up – I don’t want to feel guilty for enjoying the party. Shut up – I don’t want to think about the racism and the sexism while I’m watching my favorite show.
Please stop hurting my feelings. I don’t want to know about your problems.
I just want to enjoy the party. Why can’t you let me enjoy the party?
And I’m sorry to those people. I’m sorry that we’re making it harder for you to enjoy the Doctor Who party. But we’ve been left out of the party entirely, and we’d really like to come in. I’m sorry that when we press our noses up against the windows of the Doctor Who party, you feel bad. I’m sorry that we’re taking away from the glamour and excitement of the occasion, all bedraggled and locked-out as we are. But no one seems to be coming towards the door to let us in. And we’d really like to come in.
It’s not just that we’ve been locked out. We’re supposed to shut up about it. We’re simultaneously supposed to accept our outsider position – the constant attacks on our right to be fans of the show, and our right to see people like us represented in the show – while never complaining about it. The show can lock us out, and we should never ever complain about it. Because we’re the problem. The walls and the lock and the people who hold the key aren’t the problem. We’re the problem.
We’re always the problem.
I love the show. I’d love to come into the party and enjoy it with you. But I can’t.
It’s adorable that you think people like me have the power to bar Peter Capaldi from the party. But while he’s inside enjoying the celebration, most of us are still waiting for our invite.
It’s great if you can unreservedly enjoy the entrance of Capaldi into the canon. Hey – it’s also great if you’re part of a marginalized group and you can *still* enjoy the entrance of Capaldi without reservation.
But stop telling those of us who see it as the shutting of another door, the turning of another lock, the erection of a new barrier that we don’t get to talk about it. Remember that you can be a fan of problematic things. That liking something problematic doesn’t make you a bad person – but pretending something *isn’t* problematic does. Don’t silence the people who want an oppressive show to change. Don’t silence us.
Don’t watch the show bar the doors on its marginalized fans, and then accuse those same fans of not being inclusive enough.
Don’t lock us out of the party and then get angry when we make noise about it.
And maybe – just maybe – consider letting us in to party with you.
(1) I’m using male gender pronouns to refer to the Doctor because he’s only ever presented as male, and his latest incarnation is male
(2) It is unclear where John Hurt figures in continuity, or even whether he’s the Doctor. All we know is that he’s one of the Doctor’s regenerations.
(3) I went through each director and writer for the past three seasons and checked their race and gender. Obviously, this is a subjective process, since I’m one person, and there aren’t a billion pictures of all the writers. But I’m 95% sure that there have been no directors or writers of color in the past three seasons.
Commenting Policy: I’m going to make this explicit: this is a space to discuss the feelings and needs of marginalized fans of Doctor Who. It’s not a space for privileged fans to come in and say “well, this is what *I* want” or “I’m white and male, and I’m okay with the Doctor always being a white man!” That is welcome in almost every discussion on the internet. Not here.
Furthermore, if you want to argue that the Doctor should stay a white man, you’d better have a better argument than “because I like him that way.”
Because when the argument is “The Doctor’s static race and gender contributes to oppression and actively hurts already-marginalized people”
and your counterargument is “But I like him being a man!”
You sound like a fucking douchecanoe.
Again: This is a space to discuss the feelings and needs of marginalized fans of Doctor Who. Talking about the ways Doctor Who is oppressive is fine! Talking about general issues of oppression is fine! Talking about liking the show despite its problems is also okay! But this is a space that centers the needs of marginalized fans. Not privileged ones.
Content Note: Spoilers for Batwoman, discussions of homophobia, heterosexism, Bury Your Gays
I just moved into a new place (Stressful! Fun! Exciting! Terrifying!), and I’m trying to be more organized. Instead of putting ALL the books on my desk, most of them are going on a bookshelf. Radical, I know!
I’ve decided that only my most important reference books should live on my desk.
Oh, and I also put two comic books on my desk, to accompany the big serious boys of literary criticism, gender studies and racial deconstruction.
They were expensive – twenty dollars apiece. I bought them as gifts to myself.
… That’s a lie. I bought them as protection, not as gifts. I bought them the day after Amanda Todd, a victim of cyberbullying and slut-shaming, committed suicide. I’d just spent an hour on the internet, reading the horrible things people said about her both before and after her death, and I was devastated. Just – devastated. That Amanda Todd had to grow up in this world, where people treat women so despicably. That so many people would say such vile things to, and about, a child. That Todd was just one of many girls who experience this level of cruelty and bullying.
I needed something – someone – to remind that there is hope, and power, and possibility .
So I bought Batwoman.
Last week, Batwoman co-writers J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman announced that, due to DC’s editorial interferences, they would be leaving the comic after issue 26. J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman are largely responsible for Batwoman’s success over the last two years (with Greg Rucka, who wrote the initial Elegy storyline, and whose departure I still mourn). J. H. Williams III’s art defines Batwoman – he’s been with the comic since the beginning, and his work is so superb and distinct that I still find myself flipping through my trade books to look at the art. His artistic vision of Kate Kane made her an instant superhero.
Williams and Blackman cite several instances where DC overruled long-outlined plot events at the eleventh hour. But the one that is receiving the most attention – and that angered Williams and Blackman the most – was DC’s edict that Kate Kane (Batwoman) could never marry her fiancee Maggie Sawyer.
Batwoman is a lesbian superhero. She’s the only one in the DC or Marvel universe, as far as I know, to have her own book. She was kicked out of the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, she’s had several girlfriends (including my favorite, Renee Montoya), and she’s now engaged to marry a woman.
DC and Williams/Blackman all say that the marriage prohibition was due to creative reasons, not to Kate Kane’s sexual orientation. And I believe them – I think Dan Didio and the higher-ups at DC honestly didn’t want one of their superheroes to be married. They have a bizarre anti-marriage policy for their protagonists.
But creative decisions cannot be separated from their cultural context. And preventing a queer couple from getting married has a very different context from preventing a straight couple from getting married. As Susana Polo from The Mary Sue explains, gay characters have “a history of being disproportionately depicted in either no relationships, failed relationships, prematurely ended relationships, or terrible relationships.” Moreover, queer people in comics, movies and literature are rarely allowed to have happy endings – think Ennis/Jack from Brokeback Mountain, Willow/Tara from Buffy and Jack/Ianto from Torchwood.
Hell, DC made the original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, gay – and then promptly killed off Alan’s boyfriend WHILE ALAN WAS PROPOSING.
The “Bury Your Gays” trope isn’t an old narrative we’ve all outgrown. It’s well and alive. And harmful.
Yes, it sucks when straight couples can’t get married in the DC Universe. And yes, in my opinion, it’s shitty storytelling. But straight people can look out into a world where their relationships are validated, are legitimized and are common. They can go to literally any medium and find straight couples living happy lives and getting married. They will not find a whole pile of narratives where straight people die because of their sexuality.
Queer people, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. They don’t get to shrug off the Batwoman marriage ban and say “okay, well, we’ve got so many other examples of happy queer couples in real life and in fiction, we’ll be fine.”
And it’s a fucked-up, oppressive and harmful trope. It makes queer people believe they have no chance at happiness – that their sexuality dooms them to failed relationships and death. It reinforces the idea that queerness is fundamentally tragic: it’s not something you want for your children, or your friends, or yourself.
There are many places in the USA where you can be fired for your sexual orientation (29 states, in fact). There are few places where you can get married to a same-sex partner. Yes, the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned this summer. But the end of DOMA didn’t magically solve the marriage problem. Charlie Morgan, an officer in the National Guard, died of breast cancer before she could see DOMA overturned. Her wife and daughter will not receive the federal benefits to which military spouses and children are entitled. Charlie Morgan spent the last few years of her life fighting to make sure her wife and child were recognized as her family. She had to fight – while dying of breast cancer – for that basic right. And she lost.
She’s not alone.
Queer children – and children who “seem” queer – are bullied, sometimes to death (MASSIVE trigger warning for that link – the stories of bullying are horrific). Some states have tried to pass anti-bullying laws, only to see them vetoed by conservative governors. Because apparently, children killing themselves due to bullying isn’t problem. Sometimes, teachers are barred by law from helping gay kids or talking about gay issues. Kids at my brother’s school still throw around the word “gay” as an insult. His gay friends are afraid to come out in Madison, one of the more progressive cities in the USA. In Russia, same-sex couples are facing a law that could take their children away from them. Their children could get taken away because of their sexuality.
So that’s the context in which Dan Didio and the DC executives decided that Kate Kane couldn’t marry her girlfriend.
That’s… not a neutral context. And that’s not a neutral choice. Even if it was well-intentioned. You can’t avoid playing into anti-queer tropes when you bar the queer protagonist of the only queer-headlined book in DC from getting married.
You just can’t avoid playing straight into those tropes. Your intentions do not matter. The tropes you are playing into reinforce the oppression that queer people have to navigate on a daily basis. I do not care about your intentions. You are now part of a long and proud tradition of grossness. Congratulations.
Now would be a good time to explain why Batwoman is the only trade I’ve ever bought. And why it’s the only piece of fiction on my desk. And why my computer background is a picture of Batwoman. And why this blog’s icon is Batwoman.
About a year ago, I announced on this blog that I would start a new project: I would read as many comics as I could so I could find some that were non-oppressive and female-friendly. My friend immediately recommended Batwoman: Elegy. And since I trusted her. I immediately ordered it from the library.
That summer we had a massive heatwave in Wisconsin. No rain at all, and sweltering temperatures every day – it was pretty miserable. And I’d volunteered to take care of my family friends’ garden, which was enormous and intricate and required an extraordinary amount of water. So I had to bike there every day around five (when it started to cool down), water for about three or four hours, and then bike home. In epic heat.
By the time I got home, I very rarely had energy to read. So I kept putting Batwoman off.
One night, I brought all the comics I’d ordered from the library with me to the garden. As the sun dropped slowly towards the west, I listened to Adele and and watered the roses, the tomato plants, the lilies. I put the sprinkler on, sat on the porch and pulled out Batwoman. The garden was lit with the orange-pink light of sunset.
I read for a long time.
I’m a fast reader – a trade comic usually takes me twenty minutes to read.
But I was in that garden for at least two hours.
I read until it was dark, and I had to turn the floodlights on – and then I kept reading. And reading. And reading.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had an experience with comics as absorbing as I did that night with Batwoman. I read pages over and over again, looking carefully at JH Williams’ artwork, flipping pages back to check relevant bits of dialogue, marveling at Kate Kane’s character and admiring Batwoman’s costume.
When I got home, I reread the entire comic.
I loved Batwoman. I love Batwoman. The art is incredible. The storytelling is engrossing and powerful and painful. Greg Rucka gives us information exactly when we least expect it, complicating our understandings of the characters and their motivations. When we feel like we can’t handle anymore, he pushes again, shattering our impressions and forcing us to reconsider everything we believed. Meanwhile, Williams’ artwork is such a perfect interpretation of Rucka’s plot: it’s arresting and beautiful and thematically resonant and disturbing all at once.
Batwoman: Elegy is a stunning, superb piece of work. I love it for many reasons, and I re-read it for many reasons.
But there’s one sequence that kept drawing me in. At this point in the story, Kate Kane is a military cadet at West Point. She’s called into her Colonel’s office and told that she’s been accused her of homosexual conduct. The Colonel tells her that if she apologizes – if she says it’s a mistake, a joke – she’ll face a disciplinary action, but she’ll stay in the army. The Colonel believes she’ll make a great officer, so he’s willing to bend the rules a little and let her stay on.
The next few panels are worth seeing in their entirety:
[Transcript: Kate Kane, a white woman wearing a cadet’s uniform, stands in the Colonel’s office. He’s a white man wearing a military uniform.
Kate: “Sir, all I’ve ever wanted since my mother and sister were murdered is to serve.”
Colonel: “Then it seems to me your choice is clear. You know what I need you to say.”
Kate: “A cadet shall not lie, cheat or steal, or suffer others to do so. I’m sorry sir, I can’t.”
Kate: “I’m gay.”
Kate removes her cadet’s ring and places it on the Colonel’s table.]
That sequence, for me, was Batwoman. Honor. Integrity. And a desire to serve without having to compromise herself.
That’s what Kate Kane achieved when she remade herself into Batwoman after being barred from military service. She could still serve, even if her country did not want her service. She could still protect her city and her people, even if her sexuality kept her out of the military. She could serve by her own code.
It was a message I needed to hear.
For the next few days, I was in turmoil. Was I living by my own code? Was I being honest about myself? Was I even being honest to myself?
I’d identified as straight for my entire life. My only relationship was with a man. I talked about crushes on boys all the time, and I certainly never mentioned crushes on girls. Sure, I always said I wasn’t 100% positive about my sexuality. Anything could change, and it was entirely possible that I could also be attracted to women. But I wasn’t attracted to women now. And I hadn’t been at any point in the past.
I acted like I wasn’t hiding anything.
But I was. I was lying, even to myself. I was deeply attracted to women. I’d had crushes on women – only I didn’t *call* them crushes, even in my mind, even when I thought about what it would be like to kiss them, to touch the and to hold their hands. I’d flirted with women. I’d wanted women.
Those crushes were so vivid in my mind. The incredible actress I met in high school. A friend I admired. Another friend I admired. A girl who flirted with me. I remembered them all perfectly, remembered the way they’d made me feel, the way I stared at them, and desired them. And the way I didn’t think of it as attraction at all.
The longest crush I ever had was on a woman.
And the most instant attraction I’ve ever had was to a woman. I sat down next to her in class, glanced over at her face, and it hit me right in the gut. My lips and my fingertips were tingling
I sat next to her all that semester. We became friends. My crush dissipated when she talked about her boyfriend, though my attraction never did.
But these weren’t crushes, even though I’d had them for just as long as I’d had crushes to men. This wasn’t attraction. I was still straight, to everyone else, and to myself.
I was scared to admit my desire towards women. Scared, because yes, queerness is dangerous. Scared of how my friends would react and what my family would think. And what it would mean for me to identify as queer, to openly admit to liking women. But I was also hopeful. I saw something in that comic – in Kate Kane’s strength, in her honesty, in the normalcy of her life as a gay woman and a gay superhero. The strength of my reaction to Batwoman – the way I kept reading and rereading it, the emotional force with which it gripped me – made me reconsider my identity. I questioned myself, questioned those memories, questioned my feelings.
A few days after reading Batwoman, I came out on my social networks as bisexual.
I told my brother when we took a trip to New Orleans. “Oh, cool,” he said, and we started talking about Octavia Butler. I’ve never really told my parents, although I’ve mentioned it on the blog, and at least one of them reads it. But even if I haven’t formally “come out” to everyone, I’ve exited that strange place of dissonance where I could be attracted to women on one level, and completely straight on the other.
And I feel… better. Much better. Much happier, and more comfortable with myself.
There’s a reason Batwoman is my avatar, and my icon.
There’s a reason the Feminist Batwoman lives on this blog.
Batwoman means a lot ot me. And part of the reason she means so much to me is because of the way she – and her writers – handle her sexuality. With honesty, integrity and simplicity.
Even though I’m a Renee/Kate shipper, I was excited for Kate’s marriage to Maggie. I knew it was a major milestone. It meant something to me, a bisexual woman, to see a queer relationship treated with so much respect. To see that Kate’s sexuality was still an integral part of her storyline , without the writers ever turning it into a token social justice commentary.
Kate Kane’s creators respected her.
I respected her.
Now we’ve got the DC executives nixing storylines at the last minute. We have them kicking off the creative team two issues earlier than they planned to go (JH Williams and W. Haden Blackman both planned to stay until Issue 26, but DC’s decided to put the book under new management starting on Issue 24). You have Dan Didio saying the company stands behind the character – while calling her Kathy Kane the whole time.
Hint, Mr. Didio: Kathy Kane is a totally different character. And Kate *never* goes by Kathy, which you would know if you’d read Batwoman: Elegy.
And the execs are acting like nixing Kate’s marriage isn’t problematic. At all.
Which shows how little they understand about their own creations.
This is not respect.
Batwoman inspired me to be honest about my sexual orientation. Her bravery gave me courage. Her relationships with women filled me with joy. I felt safe within the pages of those comics. I felt hopeful within the pages of those comics.
I will keep my Batwoman trades on my desk.
But I will not be buying any Batwoman comics after Issue 24.
I asked the Feminist Batwoman, who sometimes takes over my blog, what she thought of DC’s handling of Batwoman.
This was her response:
Not very mature, but what are you going to do? She’s a vigilante who sometimes steals my computer to write on my blog. She’s not exactly polite.
Second Note: DC is also responsible for the Harley Quinn debacle, which combines stereotyping of mental illness, casual use of suicide, mental illness/suicide as a pinup etc. DC comics is doing GREAT right now.
Comment note: please do not try to defend DC’s stance as “neutral” or non-oppressive towards queer people.
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.”