[Trigger warning for suicide ideation, depression, mental illness, stigmatization]
I am a proud member of Prozac nation.
I refuse to solve my problems and deal with unpleasant emotions. I don’t treat my depression with good ‘ol hard work and bootstraps. I take the easy way out. I medicate. My moods are chemical, my personality is a façade created by neurotransmitters.
Ah, manufactured happiness.
All jokes aside, I love it when I’m told that treating depression with medication is the “easy way out.” Nearly forty thousand people commit suicide every year in the United States, and approximately 60% of those people suffered from major depression. Moreover, 15% of the population will suffer from clinical depression at least once in their lifetime, and 30% of clinically depressed people attempt suicide.
I’m sorry, what, exactly, is the problem with using an “easy way out” of depression?
The idea that antidepressants are a lesser treatment is rooted in the narrative that depression is a personal failure rather than a disease. If depression is a personal failure, then you can correct it through hard work. Taking a pill to “solve” your mistake is a cheat, an unfair shortcut to redemption.
One of the consequences of ableism is our collective distaste for vulnerability, whether of the body or of the mind. We want to believe our bodies are under our own control. We especially want to believe that our minds are under our control. The idea that our brains could suddenly get sick, and we wouldn’t be able to switch them back to healthy is, frankly, terrifying.
So we lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves that depression doesn’t exist, that it’s an invented disease, that it’s just people complaining too much about bad moods, laziness or hard times. It’s easier than confronting the reality – than realizing that yeah, there are mental, and we can’t magically control them with the flip of a mental switch.
Unfortunately, the “make loud noises and hope the problem goes away” tactic isn’t exactly helping. In a 2011 study on why people with depression don’t seek treatment, sixteen percent said they perceived treatment as ineffective, while ten percent cited stigma. 21.2% of the people who drop out of treatment do so because of stigma, and 21.1% do it because of perceived ineffectiveness.
So yeah, when you start denying that antidepressants work at all, or when you say that depression is a made-up disease and the people who have it are weak… there are consequences to that.
This discussion isn’t theoretical for me. When I started taking antidepressants, I, like many people, didn’t believe they worked. I thought the “hard work” of therapy would fix my depression, not the “quick fix” of medication. Thus, when the antidepressants did nothing, I didn’t bother to alert my doctor.
It took a long courtship to reunite me with antidepressants. Our reunification took a the form of a classic, 19th century marriage plot: we had to go through misunderstandings, affronts, passions, separations and despair before we finally found each other.
1. Misunderstandings: Fluoxetine, part 1
It was my first year in college. I hadn’t wanted to go to my university – McGill – because I thought the school was too big and I would be isolated and alone.
And, since 17-year-old me was quite prescient, I was precisely right! I did feel isolated and alone.
I did have one small ray of light: I was in a play! Whooo! Unfortunately, the play had an end date. And on the aforementioned end date, I went back to my dorm, fell asleep, and didn’t come out for three months.
Okay, so I’m glossing over some details. I did leave to get food and go to the bathroom. But I didn’t go to class. I didn’t go outside. I stopped reading. I stopped contacting the outside world. I spent my days lying in bed, listening to music, and watching every single episode of America’s Next Top Model.
I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t filled with angst. I wasn’t even anxious – which, if you know me at all, is pretty rare. I was just numb. Numb, numb, numb, numb, numb. WHEEEEEEE, numb.
Sure, I was failing all my classes, ruining my academic career, spending my days in bed and doing absolutely nothing. But I wasn’t worried!
I wasn’t anything at all.
To me, nothing was wrong. I was just incredibly lazy. That was the problem. Any day now, I would snap out of my incredible laziness and start working again. Bootstraps! Yes sirree. (This strategy did not work)
Three months in, I finally told my mother that I might be a “little depressed.” Because my mother knows that I have an *incredible* gift for understatement, she interpreted this correctly as “I might be really really depressed, oh god help.”
The mental health clinic at my school had a three-week waiting list for an appointment, and my health care coverage in Quebec was crap, so my parents flew me back to the United States to see a doctor. I took the two-page test medical practitioners give you when they think you’re depressed (some of you know exactly what I’m talking about) and my doctor took one at it before he said: “Uh… yeah, you’re pretty fucking depressed.”
Except he didn’t use the word “fucking,” and he did use the phrase “major medical disorder.”
Then the Doctor recommended that I take a medical leave from school (before I failed allllll my classes) take antidepressants, and start therapy. I was worried that therapists wouldn’t think I was depressed enough to take a medical leave (remember, I still thought I was just a “little” depressed), but the two therapists I saw back home couldn’t sign the “This student should really take a medical leave of absence” sheet fast enough.
Meanwhile, my doctor put me on one of the most common antidepressants: Prozac, AKA Fluoxetine.
Fluoxetine is an SSRI – a Serotonin Selective Reuptake Inhibitor. The way SSRI’s work is by inhibiting the reuptake/ reabsorption of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Because your brain isn’t “reuptaking” the serotonin, there’s more of it around, which leads to more ‘happiness.’ At least, that’s the theory.
I took a medical leave from McGill. I came home. I took antidepressants. I started therapy. Therapy was good. Not being in school was good. Being home was good.
Fluoxetine… was not so good.
“It works pretty fast,” people told me. “It was pretty instant when I took it.”
Well… I wasn’t feeling anything. Not after two weeks. Not after six weeks. Not after two months. Therapy and lack-of-school were making me feel better, but I didn’t feel like the numbness – the nothingness – was gone.
Then again, I’d never taken antidepressants before – and frankly, I didn’t really think they “worked.” Maybe the effect was really subtle. So I never brought the “not working” part up to my doctor.
When I went back to McGill at the end of the summer, I fell straight back into depression.
So much for fluoxetine!
Told you. It’s a complicated courtship.
This time I made it through the semester – somehow. It was a pretty terrible semester.
During the winter break, I found a new, less stressful, living situation. I decided to take only classes I thought I’d enjoy. And I stopped taking fluoxetine. I did not consult a doctor – I was in Montreal, and I didn’t have any medical authority to turn to. I just knew that the fluoxetine wasn’t doing anything. So I stopped.
Things got better. I lived in a good place; I went to interesting classes; I started making friends. By the end of the semester, I was in recovery.
So hey! you might be thinking. Doesn’t this story prove that antidepressants don’t really work, while therapy and changing your life circumstances does? You took antidepressants and things got worse, you stopped them and things got better. Case closed, right?
Here’s the thing about depression: we haven’t quite figured out how the fuck it works. Some of it has to do with brain chemistry, but some of it is definitely due to environmental or psychological factors. And we’re not sure how those three interact, or which ones to “treat” first.
Let’s look at those factors in the case of my depression.
1. Environmental: I was in a university I hated. I had no support system. I had no community. I had no friends. There was nothing to be happy about.
2. Psychological: Without getting into a ridiculous amount of details, one of my parents was emotionally abusive (or, to quote my first therapist: “your parent is a real bully, huh?”), and the emotional abuse caused me to adopt some pretty maladaptive lines of thought. Like blaming everything on myself; thinking I was worthless, hating myself etc. The usual.
So these environmental and psychological factors were definitely fueling my depression. And then we get to:
3. Weird brain chemistry stuff.
We know that depression changes a person’s brain (see above). We think it might have something to do with the neurotransmitters that regulate mood, like serotonin and dopamine. It’s not entirely clear whether your brain chemistry gets weird, so you get depression, or whether you get depression, and then your brain chemistry becomes weird. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s different for different people. Probably it’s different for different people.
But right now, science is still a bit baffled. Yes, we’ve got antidepressants, but no one’s quite sure how they work, or why they work. We know they’re doing something, because they help a lot of people. But they’re also totally useless for a lot of other people. Some people respond terribly to one antidepressant, but do great on another one. And nobody’s sure why! But we’re dealing with a pretty terrible illness, and if a tool works, we’re going to use it, even if we’re not sure exactly what it’s doing.
(This is, obviously, a massive oversimplification of the current state of depression studies)
So, to recap: since environmental and psychological factors were a big part of my depression, changing them – finding a better living situation, going through talk therapy, surviving the hell of my second semester – made a big difference. Enough of a difference that I went into depression-recovery even though the meds I was taking to target my brain chemistry weren’t working.
Here’s the flip-side: it took me over a year-and-a-half for me to recover from my first depression without the help of medication. And it was not a fun year.
Still, you think: all the medication and neurotransmitter stuff I just talked about? That’s all theoretical. The proof is in the pudding. You got better without antidepressants!
Just wait. You’ll see: there’s more to this story.
Affronts – Fluoxetine, part 2:
The next two years went pretty well. I switched my major, fell back in love with school, made friends, participated in a play, found my community. When I had the time and resources, I went to therapy.
And then: the migraines.
My migraines have always been problem, but in my junior year at McGill, they became a plague. I got them almost every day: blinding pain in the back of my skull, accompanied by dizziness and aching muscles.
I decided that the solution to my migraines was to overhaul my diet. Protein, I thought, was the key. Cut out all those carbs and sugars, and eat miles of protein instead. Oh, and I should start an exercise program. An hour at the gym every day.
I told myself these changes – the diet, the exercise – were for my migraines. But deep inside, I knew the truth: convinced I was too fat, I wanted to lose weight.
The migraines got a lot worse. Shockingly worse. Before I started going to the gym, my migraines would always go away with a good night’s sleep. Now, I would come out of the gym and have migraines that lasted for days. Nothing made them budge – not medication, not sleep, nothing.
And even though I knew the exercise was causing the migraines, and the diet was making it worse… I kept going.
That’s when the shit hit the fan: my migraines became light-sensitive.
I would go to school feeling fine, and after an hour under fluorescent lights, I would have a migraine bad enough that I’d need to go home immediately. I couldn’t handle any light – I closed all my shades, turned off all the lights, switched my computer off – and spent the day in the dark. I couldn’t do anything. When I tried, the pain would be so bad that I would start throwing up.
Not surprisingly, these circumstances took a psychological toll. Combine the pain from the migraines with the fact that I couldn’t do anything and you’ve got a recipe for a very unhappy Suzanne. Before I even realized what was happening, I’d landed back in the middle of the town of Total Numbington.
Once I stopped going to the gym, started eating better and kept spending all my time in the dark the migraines got better subsided. My residency in the town of Numbington, however, was far more permanent.
In a repeat of my first depression, I spent most of my time in bed, reading piles upon piles of X-Men: First Class fanfic. Fortunately, this depression didn’t seem as severe as my first, so I was still able to go to class and do work. My grades held steady.
I did not see a doctor in Montreal.
When I finally came home to Wisconsin, my parent had switched health insurance plans, and I could not longer access my long-term therapist or doctor. My new doctor asked me almost no questions before diagnosing me with depression again. Then she asked me if fluoxetine had given me any side effects when I’d first taken it.
“None that I noticed.”
“And did it help?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t feel anything, but maybe it was subtle.”
She started me on fluoxetine again.….I am not a good advocate for myself in health situations. At all. Because I should have stopped her there and said “no, fluoxetine didn’t work, we need to try something else.” But since I still didn’t realize that you’re actually supposed to * feel * the effects of antidepressant, I just acquiesced to the fluoxetine. Again: telling people that antidepressants don’t work HAS CONSEQUENCES.
The doctor, of course, wins a gold medal in “wut” medicine for translating my “I’m not sure fluoxetine did anything” response into “let’s just throw more fluoxetine at the problem.” (In a shocking twist of events, fluoxetine did absolutely nothing. Who could have predicted that result, huh?)
Some good things did happen that summer. I found a great new therapist. I started a fairly effective migraine treatment. The lack of school-related stress from school also helped. I certainly wasn’t as depressed at the end of the summer as I was at the beginning.
Eventually, I saw another doctor. I brought up the fact that fluoxetine (still) wasn’t doing anything. She decided not to switch my medication since I was about to move back to Montreal.
“We don’t want too many changes at once.”
I was pretty much on the “FUCK ALL ANTIDEPRESSANTS FOREVER” train by this point.
Passion, or Wellbutrin Part 1
I returned to school, still on fluoxetine. Though the fluoxetine remained useless, my depression was under control.
It was a good semester. I found a low-cost therapist. I started dating the Feminist Philosopher. I worked on my honors thesis, I enjoyed my classes, I wrote some popular blog posts.
But even in those good moments, part of me was still stuck in Numbington. And I was sick of it.
The next time I went to Wisconsin, I made an appointment with a new doctor. This was the third primary care doctor I’d seen in less than a year, and I was not optimistic.
But this time, I did my research. I wrote a list of concerns. I found a website with lots of information about antidepressants (Crazy Meds), and I read the relevant information. I knew enough that I could advocate for myself.
And this time, the doctor actually listened to me. Our appointment was supposed to be fifteen minutes long, but she spent an hour with me. We went through my list of concerns, discussing the various things that could be contributing to my mood, making a plan. She asked my opinion on various medications.
I walk out with a list of concrete suggestions and a prescription for Wellbutrin.
Wellbutrin, otherwise known as Bupropion, is not an SSRI. And it’s not… entirely clear how it works (you may have noticed a trend here). Our best guess is that it inhibits the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that, like serotonin, work as mood regulators. Since I hadn’t responded well to an SSRI (fluoxetine), my doctor bet that targeting dopamine and norepinephrine would work better than moving on to another SSRI.
Wellbutrin works quite well with depression. It also has very few of antidepressants most infamous side effects: it doesn’t (usually) cause sexual dysfunction, weight gain or somnolence (feeling tired all the time). It occasionally leads to weight loss – which some people may feel is a plus, but which could be a problem for others.
Crucially, Wellbutrin works particularly well with people whose depression is coupled with social anxiety (*raises hand*) and people whose depression manifests through anhedonia – an inability to take pleasure from activities you usually enjoy (*raises hand*).
Wellbutrin, in other words, was an ideal antidepressant for me. It wasn’t an SSRI, it had few side effects, and it tended to work well for people whose depressions were similar to mine.
I felt so much better when I walked out of the doctor’s office, in large part because I wasn’t just taking a pill on faith. The doctor had explained her reasoning, and I felt that she was addressing my specific needs, rather than giving me a one-size-fits-all medication.
Thus, armed with a new antidepressant and a whole lot of hope, I returned to Montreal’s cold embrace.
Reader, Wellbutrin worked.
Two and a half weeks after I’d started the pills, I woke up at nine, lounged in bed for less than five minutes, got up and started making breakfast.
Wait. Pause. If there was something I’d never been able to do during my depressions, it was actually waking up. What the hell was going on?
It kept going. I started getting out of bed with energy in the morning. I was motivated to do things. I was procrastinating less. I’d finally started outlining my honors thesis. My appetite was back. My insomnia was gone. I planned for meals and sleep. And my anxiety, the electric beast perching on the back of my head day and night, seemed to have gone to sleep. I only felt occasional prickles.
Then, reader, I had to have a bit of a sit-down. Because if a medication could make my depression better so quickly and so radically, then maybe I wasn’t the problem.
Maybe I actually did have fucked-up brain chemistry.
You think I would have figured this out earlier. But even though I believed that depression was a disease, not a personal failure, and even though I knew the mechanics of depression, and even though I knew I couldn’t just “snap out of it – subconsciously? I was pretty sure it was my fault. I bought into the “depression as personal failure” model.
Wellbutrin knocked a couple legs off that theory.
Part 4: Separation, or Wellbutrin, part 2
A few weeks after Wellbutrin started working, I started fainting. Plus, I had a noxious combination of dizziness, nausea, constant-never-ending hunger and hypoglycemia.
… side effects.
I was in Canada, and I had no way to pop down to my doctor’s office in Wisconsin to figure out if Wellbutrin was indeed causing these symptoms. They weren’t on the list of common side-effects, but there weren’t a lot of competing explanations. At some point, my doctor stopped responding to my emails. I was cut off of medical advice. Any doctor I could have seen in Canada would have cost a whole lot of money, and would have zero knowledge of my medical history.
And meanwhile, I was dizzy/fainting/hungry/nauseated/ freaking out.
I stopped taking Wellbutrin. Cold turkey, no titrating. It seemed like the best option at the time.
I stopped fainting. The dizziness went away. And the depression, temporarily banished to the outer atmosphere, fell straight back home. With a vengeance.
Going from “doing good!” to “severely depressed” in a week was viciously painfulI spent a lot of the month of February and March curled up in bed, watching Elementary and drawing pictures of naked women (don’t ask).
But I did return to functionality. Depressed functionality, true, but functionality. All of my assignments got turned in on time. I missed minimal classes. I finished my honors thesis with time to spare. I graduated with first class honors. I made some big life decisions; I moved apartments; I dealt with bed bugs. I started playing video games.
I was depressed, but I was okay.
Part 5: Despair
Then I stopped being okay.
It was summer. I was no longer in school. I was facing a really massive change in my life: the end of college, the beginning of my adult life, a move to a terrifying new city etc. etc. etc.
And I was now entering year two of an untreated depression.
My depressions were usually characterized by numbness, exhaustion and lack of interest in the world. I did have moments of overwhelming sadness, but they were moments. They lasted twenty minutes to an hour at the most.
Now they lasted days. My numbness now translated into constant sadness and despair. I took frequent breaks during the day to lie in bed and cry. I cried myself to sleep most nights.
And then, for the first time in my near-five years of experience with depression, I experienced suicide ideation.
Feeling suicidal is Not Fun. Especially when it’s happening 2-3 times a week, and you’re too terrified by the feeling to tell anyone. I’d always been able to handle my depression. I didn’t know how to handle this. I didn’t know how to handle the overwhelming sadness and shame and guilt that made me want to die. I’d always felt like a burden; now I felt like so much of a burden that I just wanted to disappear, to make everyone’s life easier.
Yes, I wanted to live; I wanted to live desperately. I had so much to live for. But I also wanted desperately not to feel, to stop the pain of living, to end my constant guilt. In those moments, I felt trapped – I couldn’t see a stopping point to the pain. I didn’t believe there would be a stopping point. I just wanted it to end.
It never got bad enough that I started planning, or even considering options. But the “not bad enough” was more than bad enough for me.
I was so scared.
A friend and I were talking over facebook around this point, and she said, “I don’t understand. You have the Feminist Philosopher. You two seem so happy together. And you’re moving to NYC, and there’ll be lots of opportunities there. Why are you depressed?”
See, that’s what’s so terrifying about depression. It’s not necessarily a response to something. It can be caused by psychological and environmental factors, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s an illness.
It doesn’t need to be caused by anything.
Which, when you’re lying in bed thinking about death, is horrifying. Because if it isn’t caused by anything, how are you going to make it go away?
Reunification, or Paxil
To cut a long story short: I found a way to get back to Wisconsin (for a ridiculous amount of money). I saw my doctor and left her office with a prescription for a new antidepressant: Paxil, AKA Paroxetine
Even today, I have zero idea why I was prescribed Paxil. It’s one of the more prescribed antidepressants, but it’s not one of the most effective ones – in a lot of trials, it’s not even as effective as fluoxetine, which we’d established didn’t work for me at all. It’s also one of the worst, if not the worst, antidepressant for side effects – especially for sexual side effects.
I… was not happy about that. I really like sex. Sex was one of the things that remained wonderful despite the depression.
And, on top of the horrible side effects, Paxil has a notorious discontinuation syndrome. If Paxil didn’t work, not only would I have to find a new antidepressant, I might also have to deal with withdrawal.
At the same time… Wellbutrin was supposed to work great and cause zero side effects. But it didn’t. So maybe I wouldn’t know how Paxil would work for me until I tried it.
So I tried it! Very unhappily, but I did!
I really wasn’t expecting much.
But taking Paxil, my friends, was a good life choice, because two-and-a-half weeks later, the fog just – lifted.
I know this whole “fog-lifting” thing sounds like a figure of speech, but it did not feel that way at the time. It was as though every color in my brain had reset to a brighter setting. Two weeks.
I stopped feeling suicidal. I haven’t had a single episode of suicide ideation since I started taking Paxil. All my random crying jags ended. I mean, I still cry, but there’s always a reason – I’ve had a bad day, I’ve dropped a stack of books on my foot, I’m watching Catching Fire and I can’t handle the flashbacks to RUUUUUEEEE.
My moods made sense. I wasn’t randomly desperate or unhappy or mad. If I was sad, it was because something sad had happened. And my default was no longer “numb/sad,” it was “fairly happy.”
Yeah, when antidepressants work, they can really work.
A few weeks later, I moved to a new city – New York City, in fact. Unlike my first major move (to Montreal), this one did not provoke a new depression. In fact, I was pretty thrilled. I found a great job. I found a second job as a freelance book reviewer (!!!). I made friends. I explored the city. I spent lots of time with my boyfriend.
When people say that antidepressants squash creativity, I laugh and laugh. Sometimes I can stop laughing before they start talking about calming drinks.
Prior to Paxil, I was basically incapable of reading, much less writing. When I got to New York, I started writing again. I managed to publish a few blog posts – those had essentially disappeared during the Major Depressive Summer. I began writing fiction again for the first time in years. I taught myself how to spin yarn using a drop spindle. I started painting my nails. I took the GREs, I applied to graduate school, I got a 750 on the GRE in Literature. The three people who have taken that test are now suitably impressed.
I started volunteering.
… yeah, I’m pretty sure the antidepressants aren’t destroying my personality.
Okay, let’s talk about the bad news – the side effects.
I’ve got a couple. The usual vivid dreams – serotonin is notorious for this one – but vivid dreams don’t really bother me. I’m sleepier, although I can’t tell whether this comes from the paxil, or from all the migraines I’ve been getting. I now shake my leg when I’m working at my desk – again, I can’t tell if this is a side effect from paxil, or if I’ve just picked it up in the last few months.
I haven’t had any sexual side effects, which is BLOODY FANTASTIC. My sex life is great, thanks for asking!
I have gained a lot of weight. Side-effect fatty over here! Obviously, it is possible that this is an unrelated weight-gain, but the evidence seems to indicate that it stems from the Paxil. I’ve also been eating less and exercising more since I started Paxil (it’s amazing how not being depressed can help you get out of the house/cook food). And I gained weight on my other SSRI, fluoxetine, which I lost it when I stopped taking the drug.
I think I’ve gone up a couple dress sizes. Am I super-happy about this? Nope!
I am a product of our society, and although intellectually, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being fat(ter), I struggle with a shit-ton of body issues. Plus, you know, having to buy new clothes sucks.
At the same time, I’d rather be bigger and happier than thinner and depressed. At least when I’m in recovery, I have the emotional resources to deal with body-image issues. When I’m depressed and thinner, I still hate my body, but I have no capacity to deal with it.
So. On balance, I’m quite pleased with Paxil. It took three medications, but I’ve finally found one that puts me in recovery, and where the side effect are tolerable.
Part 7: The end of the courtship
Having been through the whole courtship and marriage plot shindig, let me tell you, I’ve learned a lot about antidepressants. I know how to make a relationship with serotonin and other neurotransmitters work.
Let me share my secrets.
1. If you don’t feel antidepressants working, they’re not working
I wasted an incredible amount of time taking fluoxetine because I thought it might be working even though I didn’t feel any different. Now I know better: if you don’t feel an antidepressant working within six weeks, it’s not doing anything.
You definitely want to give it six weeks (although many doctors will want you to check in after three weeks to see if they should up the dose) because some antidepressants take time to work. But if you’re not feeling anything, or if what you’re feeling is so subtle that it’s meaningless, you have the right to bring it up. There’s nothing wrong with you because a treatment didn’t work. And you are not obliged to keep quiet about it to make the doctors feel better or to avoid inconveniencing anyone.
Moreover, just because one dosage of one antidepressant doesn’t work does not mean that antidepressants are wrong for you, full stop. After using fluoxetine, I was pretty sure antidepressants did nothing for me. Five years later, I can say with certainty that some antidepressants do a whole lot for me.
Is it a pain in the ass to deal with the trial-and-error of finding the right medication? Absolutely. Just like it’s a pain in the ass to do the trial-and-error of finding a new therapist.
But one experience with antidepressants does not seal your fate with psychiatric medications.
2. Doing your own research is a good idea.
Understanding how antidepressants work and having my own internal database of medications, their side effects and their efficacity went a long way to reconciling me to the idea of psychiatric medications after my bad experience with fluoxetine.
Obviously, it’s important to remember that what you find in your research doesn’t determine how you’ll react to any given antidepressant. See: my experience with Paxil. But it can help demystify the process and allow you to advocate for yourself in the doctor’s office.
You can also get an idea of what side effects are unacceptable to you. Heightened anxiety? Cognitive problems? Somnolence? Loss of libido? If you give doctors an idea of what you don’t want, they can try to tailor their prescription.
At the very least, if you’ve done your research, when your doctor says something you know is false, you can run.
(I’m personally a big fan of the irreverent and comprehensive website Crazymeds. It’s got a ridiculous amount of information on various psychiatric medications (not just antidepressants). It’s also run by crazy people, for crazy people, which I find reassuring))
3. Advocating for yourself is important, but is also paradoxically the hardest thing to do while depressed.
Finding the right antidepressant involved a whole of lot of me standing up for myself, demanding that doctors help me and refusing to believe that it was all my fault.
In other words, it took a lot of investing in myself.
But there’s a reason it took me five years to get to that point. Because when you’re depressed, you have nothing to invest in yourself. Your resources are gone.
And depression, meanwhile, is actively convincing you that there’s no problem at all… except you. You’re the problem. You’re not sick, you’re just lazy/stupid/etc.
Which is why:
4. Getting good treatment involves supportive, continuous healthcare.
You know when I started getting good treatment? When my doctor started listening to me. That’s how I got prescribed Wellbutrin. That’s how I got prescribed Paxil. Before then, I’d been through two separate doctors who either hadn’t listened to my problems, or hadn’t inquired further about my experience with antidepressants when I said they weren’t doing much. That… was not okay.
Mental illnesses are a chronic problem, and they need continuous care. A prescription is not the end. Often, problems will arise, the dosage will need to be adjusted, side effects will appear, or the medication won’t work at all. Healthcare here needs to be seen as a long-term process, both by the patients, and by the doctors. My biggest problem with recovery has been my lack of continuous healthcare. Even when I found medications that worked for me, I couldn’t go see my doctor for a regular check-in, because I was in Canada and she… wasn’t. I probably would have found the right antidepressant a whole lot faster if I were able to access healthcare more often.
But unfortunately, access to healthcare was geographically and economically impossible for much of my college life. (It’s still economically impossible for me at this point, which… is great! (not))
5. Who gives a shit if Antidepressants Are the Easy Way Out?
So, are antidepressants the easy way out?
Time for a rant: The idea that antidepressants are an “easy solution” to depression is such bullshit. The flip side of that coin – that therapy, exercise, diet change etc. and tackling the “root psychological problem” – are the “correct” way to solve depression is also pure BS.
Both these ideas are rooted in the narrative that depression is a personal failure, a mistake you can “correct.” Some people choose the “easy” way out and just take pills, which means they never “correct” their personal failures. Others pull themselves up by their own bootstraps by doing therapy and running 30 miles a day. Those people are actually “correcting” their personal failure by doing the hard work of personal redemption.
Yo, depression isn’t a tragic flaw in a shakespearian tragedy. It’s a disease that fundamentally changes the way your brain works. You do not “deserve” to be depressed. You aren’t depressed because you took the wrong path in childhood. You aren’t depressed because you’re lazy. You aren’t depressed because you’re weak. You’re depressed because you have an illness.
And since depression is an illness, not a character flaw, it responds to treatments like an illness. Which means that everyone’s depression will respond differently to therapies and treatments. No treatment is inherently better or worse than another. If therapy helps you, that’s great. If antidepressants help you, that’s great. If a combination of the two is an optimal solution, that’s fantastic.
Important side note: since depression is an illness that no one really understands, you won’t know what works for your depression until you’ve found it. There’s no great way to guess what’ll work for someone, which is why we shouldn’t assume that one treatment is better than another for any particular person (unless, obviously, there are allergies/side effect issues/other health factors).
Finally: Who the fuck cares about whether something is “easy” or not when you’re severely depressed? Seriously, this is life we’re dealing with, not an endurance contest. There is no prize at the end for the person who Worked The Hardest To Solve Their Brain Chemistry Problems.
Disclaimer: This was my long, long, long post about my personal experience with antidepressants. As a reminder, it’s… my experience, not anyone else’s. And there are a shit-ton of problems with antidepressants beyond the fake issues people invent. Hey, it’s harder for people of color to get correctly diagnosed! Doctors make all kinds of terrible mistakes based on stigma! We don’t have the healthcare structure necessary to make sure that people who need treatment *get* continuous treatment!
Tons of problems.
Antidepressants being “easy” isn’t one of them.
OH HAI EVERYONE. I’m back! After writing my senior thesis and then *dying* for a few weeks. I SHOULD BE BACK MORE REGULARLY. I will tell you all about my journey with Tiptree, Russ and Butler soon. Maybe. Feminist Science Fiction, yay!
(can you tell I’m still exhausted from the end of the semester?)
Anyways. Back to your regularly scheduled yelling and rants and statistics!
[Content Note: GIFs, misogyny, racism]
Whenever I explain about why I prefer television to movies, I throw one random line in: “Television is more friendly to women.”
Don’t ask me where I first got that idea. It’s one of those unexamined assumptions floating around my brain. But I’m not the only one who thinks this way. It seems like a broadly accepted truth that television is some kind of haven for women. Movies are aimed towards men. Videogames are aimed towards men. But more women watch television. Waaaay more women watch television. Network prime time television has 65-70% female viewership. Some stations, like the CW, go up to 70-75%.
With those kinds of numbers, television as a medium must be female friendly, right? It must have lots of female creators and female characters and female-friendly stories, right?
See, this is why I should always examine my unexamined assumptions.
Sure, women watch more TV. But according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, only 38.9% of characters in prime-time programs are women (compared to a 60%-65% female viewership). Only 22% of prime time shows feature girls and women in roughly half of all speaking parts. And 20% of shows cast men or boys in 75% or more of speaking roles.
TV! The Land of
Women Mostly Men!
(also, I swear to claude, if anyone responds “but there are more men on TV because women WANT to see more men because all women are attracted to men and only want to see men men men men and they hate women” I will throw things. LOTS OF THINGS)
So that’s what’s happening on-screen. But what about off-screen? Who is creating these shows? Who produces them, directs them, writes them?
Every year when the Oscars come around, feminists (including me) complain about how few female writers and directors are recognized by the academy. Movie directing and writing is still very much a boys-club.Given the high female viewership, would it be different for TV? Do female creators thrive in television?
(probably not, tho)
Two months ago – right before the hell of writing my honors thesis hit – I decided to find out. Given my interest in SF/F – and the time necessary to gather the stats (the numbers for one TV show takes about 15 minutes, which sounds fine… until you realize there are hundreds of prime-time shows) – I decided to concentrate on female creators in SF/F television. Plus, in SF/F fandom, we often talk about the number – and visibility – of female creators in books, in comics and in movies. The television stats, I thought, would make an interesting addition to the discussion, especially given how many big, influential SF/F shows there are on TV today.
The following statistics are very ad-hoc. Very ad-hoc. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t interesting, or that they don’t speak to the general state of female creators in SF/F television. But they were done by one overwhelmed blogger with a weird methodology. They are not supposed to be the be-all, end-all of a discussion.
Thus: I made a list of as many SF/F shows that appeared in North America in 2012 and 2013 and that I could think of/find on the internet. I was pretty loose about the definition of SF/F, which is why you’ll see shows like Elementary and Drop Dead Diva (she is a GHOST) on the list. I only looked at one season of each show: for those shows that had more than one season, I chose whichever season was most current. So for Supernatural, I looked at Season 8 (the 2012-2013 season) as opposed to Season 7 (the 2011-2012 season), while for Eureka, I looked at the 2012 season (because that was the show’s last season).
The twenty six shows I covered are: Lost Girl, Eureka, Beauty and the Beast, Being Human (US), Alcatraz, Arrow, Touch, Fringe, The Neighbors, Last Resort, Revolution, Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Once Upon A Time, Person of Interest, Drop Dead Diva, The Walking Dead, Alphas, Warehouse 13, Supernatural, Game of Thrones, Elementary, Grimm, Falling Skies, Teen Wolf and Doctor Who.
I only took stats on episodes that had already aired, which would have been a great idea if I hadn’t let two months go by between gathering the stats and writing up this post. This is why, for example, I looked at Game of Thrones season 2, instead of Game of Thrones season 3 – season 3 hadn’t started when I gathered the stats. Like I said: this stats gathering is wonky. WONKY. I thought about redoing the stats for shows that aired more episodes, but it took me twelve hours of work to gather stats the first time and I’m lazy. So, fair warning.
(Fun experiment: if you were really dedicated, you could use these stats to figure out the exact date when All The Shit Hit The Fan and I had to abandon my blog for three months)
Once I had the 26 shows, I calculated the gender breakdown for
1. The Executive Producers (colloquially known as the showrunners)
2. The episode directors
3. The episode writers
4. How many episodes were written by men v. women. As I quickly realized, sometimes a show can have a fair number of female writers… while most of the episodes are still written by men.
The results were… interesting. And by interesting, I mean “depressing.”
In 77% percent of SF/F shows, less than half the writers were female. 77%. Twenty out of twenty six.
Twenty three percent of shows – 6 shows – had 50% or more female writers. Out of those 6 shows, only three had a majority of female writers (three shows were exactly gender-balanced). So basically, 77% of shows are majority-male written, 11.5% are majority-female written, and 11.5% are perfectly gender-balanced.
On average, 68.2% of writers for SF/F shows were men, while 31.5% of them were women.
I want to go deeper in those numbers, because there might be an instinct to go “well, there are some shows where men dominate, and some shows where women dominate, and it all evens out.” Which: no.There are 77% of shows where men dominate, and 11.5% of shows where women dominate, so it’s clearly NOT evening out. But even in those shows where women “dominate,” they don’t dominate in the same ways men do. Numbers, please!
The highest percentage of female writers on a show is 57%. The highest percentage of male writers is 100% (in fact, there are two shows – Doctor Who and Teen Wolf – where all the writers are male). The lowest percentage of male writers is 43%. The lowest percentage of female writers is 0%. In other words, while there are shows with no female writers, there are no shows that do not have male writers. There is always male representation, and the lowest male representation is 43%… for two out of twenty six shows.
In 31% of SF/F shows, less than one fourth of the writers were female. Most shows – 46% – employ between 25% and 49% percent female writers. 11.5% employ exactly the same number of men and women, and 11.5% employ a higher number of women (between 51-57%).
Do women thrive as SF/F television writers? I don’t know about you, but I would not call that “thriving.”
If you think the numbers for female writers are depressing, you might want to take a second before we move on to the statistics for female directors. Trust me, we haven’t even gotten to the
best worst part.
Out of twenty six shows, absolutely NONE had 50% or more female directors. Zero. Zip. Nada.
Ten of the twenty six shows – Thirty eight percent – had ZERO female directors. A whooping 96% of the shows had 75% or more male directors.
Let me rephrase that: in twenty five out of twenty six SF/F shows, less than one fourth of the directors were female. Only one show had more than 25% female directors.
On average, 89.9% of directors for SF/F shows were men, while 10.9% of them were women. Men aren’t just a majority of directors. They’re an overwhelming majority. Women barely have any presence at all.
So that’s the cursory overview state of women in the marvelously female-friendly land of television.
Unexamined assumptions, huh? Really worth examining.
Here’s the complete breakdown for writers, directors and executive producers for all twenty six shows. I put them in order of highest-to-lowest percentage of female writers (which yields results both obvious – Game of Thrones is #21 – and surprising: Elementary is #22).
1. Lost Girl (Season 3)
Executive Producers: 3 (2 men, 1 woman) 33% women, 67% men
Director: 6 (5 men, 1 woman) 16% women, 84% men
Writers: 7 (3 men, 4 women) 57% women, 43% men
-episodes written only by women: 4 (57%)
-episodes written only by men: 3 (43%)
2. Eureka (season 5)
Executive producers: 2 (1 woman, 2 men) 33% women, 67% men
Directors: 8 (3 women, 5 men) 37.5% women, 62.5% men
Writers: 14 (8 women, 6 men) 57% women, 43% men
– Episodes written only by men: 3 (23%)
– Episodes written only by women: 4 (30%)
– Episodes written by both: 6 (46%)
3. Beauty and the Beast (Season 1)
Executive producers: 11 (3 men, 8 women) 27% women, 73% men
Director: 12 (11 men, 1 woman) 8% women, 92% men
Writer: 11 (6 women, 5 man) 54% women, 46% men
– written only by men: 4 (28.5%)
– written only by women: 6 (43%)
– written by both: 4 (28.5%)
4. Being Human (season 3)
Executive producers: 2 (1 man, 1 woman) 50% men, 50% women
Directors: 4 (3 men, 1 woman) 75% men, 25% women
Writers: 8 (4 men, 4 women) 50% men, 50% women
– Episodes written only by men: 3 (43%)
– Episodes written only by women: 3 (43%)
– Episodes written by both: 1 (14%)
5. Alcatraz (season 1)
Executive Producers: 5 (4 men, 1 woman) 20% women, 80% men
Directors: 8 – all men (100% men)
Writers: 10 (5 men, 5 women) (50% women, 50% men)
– Episodes written only by men: 4 (31%)
– Episodes written only by women: 4 (31%)
– Episodes written by both: 5 (38%)
6. Arrow (Season 1)
Executive Producers: 4 (all men) 100%
Directors: 13 (12 men, 1 woman) 8% women, 92% men
Writer: 10 (5 men, 5 women) 50% men, 50% women
– Episodes written only by men: 7 (44%)
– Episodes written only by women: 3 (19%)
– Episodes written by both: 6 (37%)
7. Touch (season 2)
Executive producers: 7 (3 women, 4 men) 43% women, 57% men
Directors: 4 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 5 (2 women, 3 men) 40% women, 60% men
– episodes written only by men: 3 (60%)
– episodes written only by women: 2 (40%)
– episode written by both: 0
8. Fringe (Season 5)
Episodes : 13
Executive producers: 1 man (100% male)
Directors: 12, all men (100% male)
Writers: 5 (3 men, 2 women) 40% women, 60% men
– 9 episodes written by only men (69%)
– 4 episodes written by only women (31%)
– 0 written by both
9. The Neighbors (season 1)
Executive producers: 4 (all men) 100% men
Directors: 7 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 10 (4 women, 6 men) 40% women, 60% men
– Episodes written only by men: 9 (50%)
– Episodes written only by women: 4 (22%)
– Episodes written by both: 5 (27%)
10. Last Resort (season 3)
Executive Producers: 4, all men 100% men
Directors: 10 (8 men, 2 women) (20% women, 80% men)
Writers: 11 (3 women, 8 men) (37.5% women, 62.5% men )
– Episodes written only by men: 9 (70%)
– Episodes written only by women: 4 (30%)
– Episodes written by both: 0 (0%)
11. Revolution (season 1)
Executive Producers: 3 (all men) 100% men
Directors: 8 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 8 (3 women, 5 men) 37.5% women, 62.5% men
– Episodes written only by men: 6 (60%)
– Episodes written only by women: 2 (20%)
– Episodes written by both: 2 (20%)
12. Vampire Diaries (season four)
Executive Producers: 4 (2 men, 2 women ) – 50% men, 50% women
Directors: 12 (11 men, 1 woman) - 91% men, 9% women
Writers: 11 (4 women, 7 men) – 36% women, 64% men
– 6 episodes written only by men (40%)
– 5 episodes written only by women (34%)
– 4 episodes written by both (26%)
13. True Blood (Season 5)
Executive producer: 2 (both men) 100% men
Directors: 9 (8 men, 1 woman) 11% women, 89% women
Writers: 6 (2 women, 4 men) 33% women, 67% men
– Episodes written only by men: 8 (67%)
– Episodes written only by women: 4 (37%)
– Both: 0 (0%)
14. Once Upon a Time (Season 2)
Executive Producers: 2 (both men) 100% men
Directors: 10 (9 men, 1 woman) 90% men, 10% women
Writers: 10 (3 women, 7 men) 70% men, 30% women
-10 episodes written by only men (67%)
– 4 episode written by only women (27%)
– 1 episode written by both (6%)
15. Person of Interest (season 2)
Executive Producers: 5, all men (100% male)
Directors: 11 (10 men, 1 woman) 9% women, 91% men
Writers: 13 (4 women, 9 men) 30% women, 70% men
– 9 episodes written only by men (60%)
– 3 episodes written only by women (15%)
– 3 episodes written by both (15%)
16. Drop Dead Diva (Season 4)
Executive Producers: 5 (all men) 100% men
Directors: 9 (8 men, 1 woman) 11% women, 89% men
Writers: 11 (3 women, 8 men) 27% women, 73% men
– Episodes written only by men: 9 (69%)
– Episodes written only by women: 1 (8%)
– Episodes written by both: 3 (27%)
17. The Walking Dead (Season 3)
Executive producers: 2 (both men) 100%
Directors: 9 (2 women, 7 men) 22% women, 78% men
Writers: 8 (2 women, 6 men) 25% women, 75% men
– Episodes written only by men: 8 (67%)
– Episodes written only by women: 4 (33%)
– Episodes written by both: 0 (0%)
18. Alphas (season 2)
Executive Producers: 6 (all men) 100% men
Directors: 8 (6 men, 2 women) 25% women, 75% men
Writers: 11 (8 men, 3 women) 27% women, 73% men
– Episodes written only by men: 9 (69%)
– Episodes written only by women: 1 (8%)
– Episodes written by both: 3 (27%)
19. Warehouse 13 (season 4)
Executive Producers; 3 (all men) 100% men
Directors: 6 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 9 (2 women, 7 men) (22% women, 78% men)
– Episodes written only by men: 6 (60%)
– Episodes written only by women: 4 (40%)
– Episodes written by both: 0
20. Supernatural (season 8)
Executive Producers: 1 (male)
Directors: 14 (14 men) 100% men
Writers: 9 (7 men, 2 women) – 22% women, 78% men
– 12 episodes written only by men (81%)
– 1 episode written only by women (6%)
– 3 episodes written by both (13%)
21. Game of Thrones (season 2)
Executive producers: 2 (both men) 100% men
Directors: 5 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 5 (4 men, 1 woman) 20% women, 80% men
– episodes written by only men: 8 (80%)
– episodes written by only women: 2 (20%)
– episodes written by both: 0
22. Elementary (Season 1)
Executive producers: 4 (3 male, 1 female) – 25% women, 75% men
Directors: 14 (11 male, 3 female) - 20% women, 80% men
Writers: 12 (2 women, 10 men) – 16% women, 84% men
– 13 episodes written only by men: 76%
– 2 episodes written only by women: 12%
– 2 episodes written by both: 12%
23. Grimm (season 2)
Executive Producers: 5 (all men) 100%
Directors: 12 (2 women, 10 men) 17% women, 83% men
Writers: 10 (1 woman, 9 men) 10% women, 90% men
– Episodes written only by men: 9 (90%)
– Episodes written only by women: 1 (10%)
– Episodes written by both: 0
24. Falling Skies (season 2)
Executive Producer: 1 (male) 100% men
Directors: 7 (6 men, 1 woman) 14% women, 86% men
Writers :7 (6 men, 1 woman) 14% women, 86% men
– episodes written only by men: 8 (80%)
– episodes written only by women: 2 (20%)
25. Teen Wolf (Season 2)
Executive Producers: 6 (5 men, 1 woman) 16% women, 84% men
Directors: 2 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 6 (all men) 100% men
26. Doctor Who (series 7)
Executive Producers: 1 (man) 100% men
Directors: 4 (all men) 100% men
Writers: 3 (all men) 100% men
(note: the executive producer stats are BY FAR the most fuzzy. With some shows, it’s really hard to tell WHO the showrunner is. So take those stats with a MASSIVE grain of salt, and correct me if I’m wrong)
A few weeks after I took these statistics, articles began to pop up about Steven Moffat, Doctor Who’s showrunner. Apparently, people figured out that he hadn’t had a female writer on the show during his entire tenure as showrunner.
I will not lie! My initial reaction was: “Damn, they got the drop on me. This is why you publish blog posts EARLY, girl.”
Anyways – people were understandably mad at Stephen Moffat. Doctor Who is a very popular Sci-Fi show – more importantly, it’s a show that is very popular with women. Steven Moffat has had thirty two episodes to work with. You’re telling me he can’t find one female writer he wants on the show? Over thirty two episodes? Not a single one?
Yeah, it’s pretty terrible.
It’s also worth noting that Steven Moffat has had zero female directors and zero female writers on the other show he runs, Sherlock. And he hasn’t had a female director on Doctor Who in two series (twenty four episodes). So it’s a pretty obvious pattern.
But here’s the thing. Steven Moffat is not a glaring exception from the norm. Steven Moffat is the norm. A slightly more extreme version, yes. But only slightly.
And listen, I do not like Steven Moffat. At all. My boyfriend and I recently watched all of Doctor Who, and it’s pretty striking how quickly our attitude went from “yay, another Doctor Who episode to watch!” to “… I guess we should watch the next episode of Doctor Who, huh? Blurrrgh” when Moffat took over as showrunner.
(Aside from anything else, he’s not a good writer. Example: WHY THE FUCK DID THE TARDIS BLOW UP? Are we ever going to find out? WHY DID THE SILENCE NEED RIVER SONG IN THE FIRST PLACE, if the spacesuit was CONTROLLING THE PERSON INSIDE IT?) Plus Steven Moffat is terrible to female characters. Like, painfully terrible. I have so many rants stored up about his treatment of Amy Pond, River Song and Clara Oswin.
… sorry, that rant was supposed to be shorter. Point being: I do not like Steven Moffat. I do not want to defend Steven Moffat. But he is not alone in his show’s lack of female creators. So if we’re going to call him out for his lack of female writers, we should also call out all the other shows with few – or zero – female writers and directors.
And that’s basically all of them.
Put it this way: I’m worried we’re turning Steven Moffat into the bogeyman. He’s terrible to female characters! He’s terrible to female creators! He says the most despicable shit in interviews (as a bisexual woman, I particularly enjoyed his comment that he doesn’t put bisexuals on his shows because “[bisexuals] are too busy having fun” to care about representation. Thanks. No, seriously). So we (correctly) get outraged and yell at him a lot, and call him out etc.
But meanwhile, we don’t even notice that, say, Elementary’s writers are 80% male, and its directors are 84% male. Elementary is a great show for female representation. It’s a great show for POC representation. It includes all kinds of feminist concepts like boundaries, consent, good treatment of abuse victims, gaslighting etc. But behind the scenes? It’s only a tiny bit better than Doctor Who.
How about Once Upon A Time, a show where the hero, the villain and a whole lot of the main supporting characters are all female? Where there are a lot of kick-ass, interesting, complex women? Where women are portrayed in a variety of ways (not just the Strong Female Character TM?) Ninety percent of their directors are men. Seventy percent of their writers are men.
(and it’s a show that tends to fail pretty hard on female characters of color).
So why does it matter? If a show is doing well in terms of female representation, why should we care if their writing staff and directorial pool is filled with men?
That argument – the “good representation in one area negates bad representation in another” argument – is, I submit to you, poppycock.
Having more women writing, producing and directing TV shows is good in and of itself. Not just because it might bring about better female representation – as we’ve seen, men are capable of writing good female characters, and of avoiding sexist narratives. Better female representation might be a side effect of more female writers, producers and directors, but it’s not the only reason to push for it.
Both Elementary and Once Upon A Time do a better job with female characters than Doctor Who. A way better job. Hell, I would go so far as to say that even Game of Thrones does a better job with female characters (when it’s not busy adding more sexism to the source material). But it’s not just how you write the female characters in your show. It’s not just how you incorporate feminist concepts into your script. It’s also who you think is good enough to CREATE that show. To create those worlds. To tell those stories.
For most SF/F shows, the people they think are good enough to create those shows and tell those stories are – men. Sure, there are a few women thrown in there. But mostly, it’s men.
And not having good representation of female creators isn’t just an implicit commentary on who you think is good enough to create a show. It also has economic consequences.
Having more female creators on TV shows is important because it means women are getting paid. I don’t know how to spell it out more clearly: these are jobs. These are jobs for which people are getting paid. And women are not getting paid to do these jobs, because women are not getting these jobs. It’s part of the reason I thought the sexism on American Idol in the last two seasons was particularly terrible – by denying women a chance to compete in the higher ranks of Idol, you’re denying them a higher paycheck. And that matters. On a basic, fundamental level, this is about money and jobs. Money and jobs that women cannot get, even on shows that are supposed to be catering to women (like the Vampire Diaries or True Blood). We need to support women economically just as much as we need to support women creatively.
And yes, representation offscreen is also important because it’s about supporting women creatively. As the stats show, women are not allowed to write, create, or direct their own stories. Even in shows that are ostensibly about women (Once Upon A Time, True Blood etc.) and that are ostensibly aimed towards a female audience, men are the ones creating, crafting and writing women’s stories. We don’t get control over our own narratives. Which is problematic because women are a marginalized group. The right to self-definition is one we rarely have – we are the other, not the self. The Self – men – get to define us. And part of breaking down oppression and marginalization is gaining the ability to define ourselves – to write ourselves, to tell our own stories.
(This is not an argument that no man should ever write about women. It’s an institutional problem, not an individual one, which we can change by getting *more* women into the industry. Nor is it an argument that women are obligated to write about women – it’s important women be able to write about men, particularly since many people still think women are restricted to writing about their own experiences)
Moreover, most showrunners – the people who create those new shows, new mythologies, new characters, new stories – start off as TV directors or TV writers. If we want more showrunners to be women, we need to give them access to writing and directing jobs.
In other words, when we think about women in the television industry, we need to remember that both women’s representation onscreen and women’s representation offscreen matters. We shouldn’t write off bad representation behind the scenes just because a show has good female characters onscreen; a show can do well in one respect and fail in the other. And both sorts of representation (or lack of representation) have consequences.
For example, consider a girl who loves Doctor Who. She loves Amy Pond (one of the Doctor’s recent companions) so much that she decides to become a writer, just like Amy. And since she enjoys SF/F TV so much, she decides to become a television writer. Maybe she’ll even get a job on Doctor Who!
The problem is, given the current state of SF/F television (and Doctor Who) – she would probably have a really hard time getting work.
There are consequences to not promoting female creators offscreen.
These statistics, unfortunately, are fundamentally flawed. They only look at one axis of marginalization (sexism), and they do so with no real intersectionality. It is undoubtably the case that women of color have an even harder time getting jobs writing or directing SF/F TV shows. It’s almost certainly true that there are very few POC (men or women) writing or directing network television. That I didn’t look at these statistics means that my conclusions are inherently flawed – I can tell you that women are less likely to be hired, but I can’t tell you if certain kinds of women (white women, straight women, abled women) have an easier time, or if women are more likely to be hired than POC. Partially, these flaws come from the fact that it’s much easier to tell how many women v. men write a show – you can just count names (ah, the convenience of gendered names). I also tried to figure out number of POC writing for certain shows, and felt really gross, as a white woman, trying to guess who was a POC and who wasn’t from pictures (when I couldn’t find any self-identification).
But I do think the information I didn’t gather – information on race etc. – is crucial to understanding who exactly is allowed to create SF/F television.
For example, in taking a second look at Elementary, I realized that even if Elementary doesn’t do a great job with female writers and directors, it does do a pretty good job in terms of Directors of Color. They had at least two WOC and three MOC directing episodes (out of twenty four episodes). Which isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than most shows. While that doesn’t negate Elementary’s lack of women, it does provide an extra dimension to consider (and gives me hope that they’re *trying*)
Here are some broad, if incomplete, statistics to add to my numbers. According to the Writers Guild of America West, 87.3% of television screenwriters are white (while only 63.7% of the US population is non-hispanic white/european American). And 55 shows in the 2011-2012 television year hired no writers of color. Those shows include Game of Thrones and Once Upon A Time.
I mean, again: even shows that are good about representation onscreen can be terrible about representation behind the scenes (not that either Game of Thrones or Once Upon A Time is good about POC representation onscreen). And it’s important to document and publicize those aspects of representation.
On a final note, these statistics are important because they belie the idea that creators and narratives respond to the audience – as opposed to the patriarchy. One of the most common (misogynistic) arguments you’ll hear when you talk about lack of female creators in literature or in movies or in comic books is that the audience for those mediums is mostly male. Therefore, the creators are mostly male, because they’re best suited to respond to male desires. So it’s not misogyny! It’s just Reflecting the Audience.
This is a bullshit, victim-blaming argument to begin with, but it’s pretty much completely disproven if you look at the television statistics. Women watch way more television than men. Women watch way more network television than men. And yet women are still in the minority – often in the overwhelming minority – when it comes to creating television. It’s an important reminder that institutions don’t primarily respond to the makeup of their audience. They respond to the patriarchy. Comic books are often sexist not because they are aimed towards men, but because they are part of the patriarchy. The movie industry is often sexist not because its products are aimed towards men, but because it is responding to the patriarchy. The solution is not just for more women to watch shows/read comics etc. The solution is to dismantle institutional sexism.
Is it easy? Nope.
Do I know how to do it (except by complaining online a lot and trying to raise awareness)? Nope
Is it worth doing? Absolutely.
Because this is just ridiculous.
(I miss Donna)
(also, as I mentioned, these statistics are super ad-hoc, so if you find errors, or if you want to add information, that would be very welcome! More info/getting a broader picture is always welcome)
(on the other hand, explaining why I am super-wrong and a bad statistics gatherer when I explain UPFRONT the problems with my methodology and *why* I didn’t have the capacity to do better is… not welcome. PRE-EMPTIVE WARNING)
[Content note for violence, violence against children, disablism]
Last week was not a good time for my happy levels. First, we had the Good Man Project (or,as I like to call it, the No Rapist Left Behind Project) debacle. Then a close friend of mine died unexpectedly. And on Friday, a gunman walked into Sandy Hooks Elementary School and killed twenty kids and seven adults.
I do not want to be writing this post.
Twenty eight people are dead. Twenty kid are dead, kids who are just a bit younger than my younger brother. I do not want to write about mental illness. It feels… wrong to use this as an excuse to talk about the rights of the mentally ill.
I was not planning on writing this post.
But then it started again. People diagnosing Adam Lanza over the internet, assuming he was mentally ill. An acquaintance saying “Evil is a mental illness.” Everyone, from politicians to newscasters to friends, talking about how we have a “mental health access” problem. There are very few spaces on the internet I can go where people aren’t talking about how we have a “mental illness problem” and how Adam Lanza was surely “mentally ill” and if we just had better access to mental health care this wouldn’t happen etc. Even my usually progressive and social-justice aware friends are falling into the pattern.
Now the Sandy Hooks massacre has everything to do with mental illness.
And now, even though I do not want to write this post, I need to write it.
I need to write it even though I know hundreds of other people will say the same things.
I need to write it especially because hundreds of smart bloggers and social justice crusaders and mental health advocates will say the same things. Because our voices are being out-shouted a thousand to one. We need to be heard if we’re even going to be allowed to participate in this farce of a conversation.
The Sandy Hooks massacre was not caused by mental illness. The mentally ill are not some mob of soon-to-be-violent, ticking time bombs. But damn it, if people are going to sit around and stigmatize the mentally ill as an excuse to avoid looking tragedy in the face? Then hell yeah, I’m going to talk about mental illness.
This is not a fun conversation for me to have. Those who follow the blog – or those who know me from Real Life – know I identify as mentally ill. I have a severe anxiety disorder and a major depressive disorder. Dealing with mental illness has defined my life for the past four or five years.
You’d think I’d be happy people are talking about mental illness. I, of all people, know how problematic it is for mental illness to be pushed under the rug, to be ignored and stigmatized.
Sadly, the conversation around Sandy Hooks embodies everything that is wrong with how we talk about mental illness:
1. Violence MUST be the product of.
Here’s the thing. As of this point, we don’t even know if Adam Lanza had a mental illness or disability of any kind. But strangely enough, we’re all talking about mental illness issues. It’s like we magically know Adam Lanza’s mental state.
But wait! We do! Because only mentally ill people would kill so many people. Ergo, Adam Lanza must be mentally ill.
Acting like violence is the product of mental illness – and ONLY the product of mental illness – is incredibly problematic. And saying that mental health access will solve gun violence is also incredible problematic. Both imply that mentally ill people are violent, dangerous and uncontrollable.
I’m sure some people are going “but they’re not talking about garden-variety depressives like you! They’re talking about the DANGEROUSLY mentally ill.”
Okay, first: *headdesk* again
Second: Yes, in fact, they’re talking about all of us mentally ill folk. The Rachel Maddow Show, for example, had a segment about how to prevent future shootings. The expert’s main recommendation? Adolescents should have a yearly screening for depression.
I’m sorry, how am I not supposed to interpret that as making a causal connection between depression and violence? Did the expert temporarily forget what he was talking about? Was he about to say “gun control laws” but then got his notes mixed up and started talking depression instead?
Nope. What he was saying was that if we do a better job catching depressives, we’ll have fewer school shootings.
Which implies that depression leads to violence.
[everyone better keep the butter knives away from me, I’M JUST SAYING]
The more people talk about how mental illnesses are linked to this type of violence, the more we assume mental illness means violence. And the more and more mental illness becomes stigmatized.
Ironically, stigmatizing mental illness tends to limit access to mental health care, not expand it. How many people do you honestly think are going to say “whoa, I’ve got a mental disability, I’d better get that checked out” after hearing about how mentally ill people are dangerous child killers? Not a whole lot. More people will avoid getting a diagnosis, aware that their condition could get them labeled as dangerous and violent.
Here’s the crucial thing, the thing people are ignoring completely: Violence isn’t linked to mental illness. This is a provable fact. Mentally ill populations – including populations with mental illnesses that we traditionally associate with violence (like schizophrenia) – are no more violent than everyone else.
Most mentally ill people are not violent. Most violent acts are committed by people who do not have mental illnesses. So the whole “Whoa, someone did something terrible! They must be CRAZY”?
To add insult to injury, people with mental illnesses are more likely than the rest of the population to be victims of violence. 3% of the general population experience violent crimes, while TWENTY FIVE percent of those with mental illnesses do.
Welcome to the upside-down world of public discourse on mental illnesses. In real life, most mentally ill people aren’t violent, and in fact are more likely to experience violence than the general population. In public discourse, however, mental illness is responsible for all the Terrible Violence, and no one is ever interested in talking about how people with mental illnesses are victimized and abused by violent crime [we’ll come back to that point later]
2. Dehumanization of People with Mental Illnesses
In this national “conversation” about mental illness, you’ll notice something interesting: no one seems terribly interested in talking with mentally ill people.
The mentally ill are people we talk about, not people we talk to. We aren’t interested in having a conversation with them, despite the fact that they’re the ones most affected by the issue. We love telling horror stories about what happens to mentally ill people who don’t have access to mental health services, but we never ask people with mental illnesses what they think of the issue.
Could you imagine having a conversation about, say, women’s reproductive rights, and not inviting women speakers?
[… oh, wait, this is the United States I’m talking about. OF COURSE I could imagine a conversation about women’s reproductive rights with absolutely no women involved. In fact, I’ve seen it happen! Bad example.]
By excluding people with mental illnesses from the conversation, and privileging the voices of those who see mental illness as something terrifying, we are dehumanizing people with mental illnesses. They are not even worth trying to understand. They’re just a problem to be solved, a fear to be controlled.
The most problematic entry in this category is the now-viral post “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” In the article, the writer discusses her fears that her mentally ill son could turn into an Adam Lanza, due to lack of access to adequate mental health care. .
[Initially, I linked to the original article, but since one of my critiques of “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” is that it violates her son’s privacy, I decided that linking it would contribute to the problem. But if you want to read it, google!]
I want to be clear that I have a lot of sympathy for the author. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to protect and care for her children, especially given how much stigma there is around mental illness, and how little support there is for children with mental illnesses. I am not disputing the legitimacy of her grievance, or of her pain. And I, like her, desperately want us to find better solutions for children with mental illnesses.
The article, however, is incredibly problematic. Not just because it appropriates a national tragedy. Not just because it appropriates Nancy Lanza’s experiences, or tries to express a solidarity with her that may not have existed.
But because it appropriates the son’s experiences.
There is a reason this went viral. And the fact that it was written by a “sane” person talking about a mentally ill person, rather than a person with mental illnesses talking about their own experiences? A big part of that reason.
The author – and the commenters – do not acknowledge that the son has his own experiences and ideas. They seem to have no interest in having a discussion with him, or with people like him. Instead, the son is portrayed solely as a problem, a terrifying child that no one can understand, an evil, calculating, rage-filled monster.
Would a post by a person with a mental illness speaking about their own experiences have the same impact?
This would not bother me nearly as much if this wasn’t usually the way it worked in conversations about mental health. When the broader community wants to “learn” about mental health issues, they do not go to people with mental illnesses. They go to their “sane” relatives, or their “sane” allies. In support groups for mental illnesses, for example, the voices of parents are far more privileged than are the voices of their mentally ill children.
I don’t think the perspective of family members or friends of people with mental illnesses are unimportant. But the reality is, those voices usually erase the voices of those with actual mental illnesses. The conversation is dominated by people who are “impacted” by mental illnesses because someone they know suffers from them, or because they have some sort of objective expertise. Meanwhile, those most impacted are shut out of the discussion entirely.
I cannot speak to the experiences of the author’s son. My various disorders are certainly nowhere near what he seems to be manifesting. But I know the frustration of people talking about your problems as if you weren’t in the room. It isn’t just that people don’t acknowledge that the mentally ill should be included in these conversations. It’s that they seem to forget we have a perspective at all.
Which is all kinds of ironic. If people were serious about addressing mental health issues, they would want to talk with people who suffer from mental illnesses. Those are valuable and important perspectives. In fact, they’re the most important and most valid perspectives.
Unfortunately, we’re just problems to be solved.
This, of course, adds to our sense that people with mental illnesses are unable to speak or advocate for themselves. That they have nothing valuable to contribute. That they’re so addled and deranged that they can’t possibly voice their own experiences.
I’m also deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the families or parents of people with mental illnesses are the best advocates for mental health issues.
Often, families will have agendas that are quite problematic, or that are at total odds with what people with mental illnesses actually want. And since the families/parents are the “sane” voices, their experiences are privileged. Moreover, our assumption that parents are best suited to advocate for their kids in these types of situations is based on the premise that parents always act in the best interest of their child. That, sadly, is not always true.
On The Rachel Maddow Show, the expert mentioned that although depressed kids want help, they almost never go to their parents. What he didn’t talk about is the reality that some of those kids won’t talk to their parents because it would not be safe for them to go to their parents. I’ve known people whose parents teased them for their mental illnesses, or who ignored their mental health problems, or who pressured them to go off medication before they were ready, or who denied them access to mental health care, or who told them their mental illnesses were just “character flaws” and they needed to “get over it.”
And unfortunately, sometimes, parents may be the reason why a child develops a mental illness (if, for example, the parent is emotionally or physically abusive).
Even when parents and families do have the best of intentions, they can make horrible, damaging mistakes. Unfortunately, the author of “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” made one of those in writing her article under her real name. Now her child’s entire mental health history is available on the internet for anyone to read. No matter how horrible her child is, he has the right to privacy, and the right for the media and the internet not to know everything about him without his permission.
[I do think Lisa Long’s decision not to use a pseudonym was an honest mistake, since I’m assuming she didn’t anticipate her article would go viral. It is still an incredibly damaging mistake for her son and her other children.]
I’m not saying this because I think the author of “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” article is a bad parent, or is responsible for her child’s mental health issues, or has anything but her child’s best interests in mind. I’m trying to explain how problematic to privilege the voices of parents or relatives in discussions of mentally ill kids.
You cannot have a constructive conversation about mental health care without including – and, yes, privileging – the voices of people with mental illnesses.
And you’re not going to get people with mental illnesses to join the conversation if you dehumanize them, act like they are the problem, or stigmatize them as violent. Which makes me suspect that this “conversation” is not actually about helping people with mental illnesses, but is about giving people an easy target to scapegoat.
3. Mental illness is only important when we think people with mental illness could be violent.
Somewhere around one fourth of all Americans will suffer from mental illnesses at least once in their lives. Most do not have access to adequate mental health resources. Mental illnesses are stigmatized and framed as “character flaws” rather than legitimate illnesses, which makes it even more difficult for people to access help. People with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence. They struggle with getting proper job accommodations and with social stigma. Their voices are ignored and erased from conversations.
Mental illness, and mental health in this country, is an enormous problem.
Yet strangely enough, the only time when anyone seems interested in addressing this problem is when we’re (incorrectly) blaming the mentally ill for violence.
It reminds me of conversations around school bullying, where people argue that we need to curb bullying because the victims might become “troubled” and “violent” later.
Really? That’s why? That’s the problem with bullying?
And the real problem with mental illness is that people might turn violent? Really? Nothing else problematic about mental illness?
First, this whole “more mental health access = less gun violence” plan doesn’t compute. Since most mentally ill people aren’t violent, and most violent people aren’t mentally ill, increasing access to mental health care won’t solve our problem with mass violence.
Second: if you want me to have better mental health care access because you’re afraid I might get violent (as opposed to believing that everyone deserves access to mental health care because good mental health is valuable in-and-of-itself ) then you don’t give much of a shit about me. Or about anyone with mental health issues.
Here’s another way of looking at it: there’s a good chance some of the kids at Sandy Hook will develop mental health problems because of their experiences. Do they deserve mental health care because we want to help them? Or do they need mental health care because they might become “troubled” and “violent”?
Ironically, the people who stigmatize the mentally ill so they can protect the children? May be hurting the very kids they supposedly want to protect.
You know who needs mental health care? Everyone. Low-income families. Communities of color. Rural communities. Non-native English speakers. Children. We need to destigmatize mental illness so that it’s seen as a normal thing people go through, not as a character flaw. But that’s not a conversation anyone seems interested in having.
Instead, we want to look at acts of evil and say: that person is not like me. And if he is not like me, he must be mentally ill.
It’s a distancing technique. And it allows us to abdicate real responsibility for what happened.
I got in an argument on facebook with someone who claimed that “evil” is a mental illness. This attitude, sadly, is a trend. When we don’t understand something – or when we don’t WANT to understand something – we label it as crazy. But in a society that glorifies violence, that allows almost anyone access to assault weapons, a society that celebrates toxic masculinity and aggression, is Sandy Hook really that shocking?
To me, it seems like the logical – if horrifying – conclusion of our gun laws and our obsession with violence and aggression.
Instead of taking on the hard job of actually standing up to the NRA and the politicians and the pro-gun lobby, however, we would rather stigmatize an already marginalized community (and one that had nothing to do with the Sandy Hooks tragedy). After all, it’s so much easier to blame everything on mental illness than to come to a consensus that ASSAULT WEAPONS should not be available to anyone with a photo ID.
We live in a society where we can’t even manage to get stricter gun control after twenty kids are killed. But people with mental illnesses are the dangerous ones.
… yeah, no.
We desperately need to have a conversation about mental illness. We need to talk about access. We need to talk about how we routinely ignore certain segments of the population (especially the poor, the non-white and the non-american) when it comes to access. We need to change the discussion so that mental illness is seen as a legitimate problem, and not as a character flaw. We need to privilege the voices of people with mental illnesses, and acknowledge that they are the experts on their own experiences.
That, sadly, is not the conversation that is happening right now. Because people aren’t that interested in mental illness. They’re interested in easy (and incorrect) answers. They’re interested in blaming easy targets. And they’re interested in distancing themselves from the tragedy.
Like I said at the top of the post, I do not want to have a conversation about mental illness in the wake of the Sandy Hooks tragedy. But if people are going to stigmatize mental illness as a way to avoid looking at reality in the face?
Then yeah, I’m going to talk about it.
* Much thanks to my various friends who let me rant – and ranted with me – yesterday.
** Comments section will be moderated with the Iron Fist of the Feminist Batwoman. Priority for comments section is keeping them a safe space for me and for any other people with mental illnesses who may be reading. Personal attacks or arguments in bad faith would violate that safe space. Remember to use “I” words. And don’t police feelings.
Last year, an acquaintance of mine informed me that although he was pro-choice, he thought other pro-choicers (like me) often steamrolled over the very real tragedy of abortion (the baby-killing) in their eagerness to talk about “abstract right”
And then, dear Reader, I shot him.
… okay, I didn’t shoot him. But I entertained the notion. I also blew up at him, which is something I wasn’t doing that often back in 2011 (blogging has made me such a better, more publicly pissed-off human being).
What I said, as I recall, was “ABSTRACT RIGHTS FOR WHOM, YOU PRIVILEGED DIPSHIT? THE RIGHT TO CONTROL MY BODY IS NOT AN ABSTRACT RIGHT TO ME.”
And then I went on a long rant about how not-abstract the right to have an abortion was.
My acquaintance never responded, which I took as a victory.
I mention this incident not because it was unusual – I’ve gotten into lots of fights about abortion – but because of the argument led me to an epiphany. As I, filled with rage, typed up my response, I finally hit on why, exactly, abortion was such an important issue to me.
So why? Why do I care so much?
Because abortion isn’t just about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her pregnancy. It also symbolizes a woman’s right to control her own body FULL STOP. A woman has a right to abortion because her body is her own – not the government’s, not her partners, not her relatives, not the doctors.
There are very few things less “abstract’ than our ability to control our own bodies.
And, crucially, the right to bodily autonomy is not just about abortion. It’s not even just about contraception, or reproductive rights, or consent.
Not surprisingly, I have a story to explain my point.
So, random fact: I actually first started thinking about broader issues of bodily autonomy when I realized that November was pancreatic cancer month. Yes, I know, that seems random. But there is a reason to the random, I promise.
Pancreatic cancer is arguably the deadliest of all cancers in terms of survival rate. The one-year survival rate for all stages is 25%. The five-year survival is 5%. The median survival rate for metastasized or locally advanced cases (which account for 80% of all diagnoses) is 6 to 10 months. Pancreatic cancer kills almost as many people as breast and prostate cancer, yet receives less than 1% of the funds for cancer research – possibly because very few people survive the cancer long enough to become advocates.
A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is basically a death sentence.
When my maternal grandmother was in her early forties, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She turned out to be somewhat of a miracle case, surviving almost ten years before the disease metastasized to her liver and killed her.
Here’s where this story gets back to bodily autonomy. My grandmother never knew she was a miracle case because she never knew she had cancer at all.
Wait! You say. She was diagnosed! How could she not know? Did the doctor give her the wrong diagnosis by accident, or something?
Oh, ha-ha, I wish. In fact, my grandmother’s husband (my… step-grandfather?) and her (male) doctor thought that my grandmother would be devastated if she found out she had cancer.
So they decided not to tell her. At all.
She was horribly sick for ten years without ever knowing why. And she died without ever knowing why.
I realize there may be people reading this who will think my grandmother’s doctor and husband did her a favor by sparing her pain and grief. My father is one of those people – when we talked about my maternal grandmother recently, he said he “could not find fault” in her husband’s decision to lie.
My grandmother was so afraid of death, after all. It was better for her not to know.
Welcome to paternalism.
You know what? Maybe my grandmother was happier overall than she would have been knowing her real diagnosis. But that was not her husband OR her doctor’s choice to make. It was not their body. It was not their life. It was not their choice.
It was her body, her life, her right to know.
But these men thought they knew what my grandmother needed better than she did. They thought they had the right – nay, the obligation – to control her life.
Let’s think about the very real consequences of their decision, shall we?
My grandmother could not make choices about her own medical care, since she did not know what her actual medical conditions were. Certain procedures must have been unavailable to her, since they would have forced doctors to reveal the secret (there aren’t a lot of reasons to get chemotherapy except cancer).
My grandmother could not make informed choices about how to live her life, since she did not know crucial facts ABOUT her life. She did not know she was living with a deadly illness. She did not know that her prognosis was severe; that doctors thought she would survive a few months or a year, at most. Maybe my grandmother would have made different choices. Maybe there were things she would have wanted to do. But she did not have the information necessary to make those choices. Tragically, she could not even decide how to prepare (or not prepare) her youngest daughter, who was a very young child when my grandmother was diagnosed.
And, although she did not know it, the lie made my grandmother utterly dependent on her husband and her doctor. They were now in complete control of her medical future. They could have chosen not to treat her. They could have chosen to use highly experimental drugs. Her husband could have withheld medication. He could have used his knowledge to manipulate her into making big financial decisions that she would not have made knowing her prognosis.
As far as I know – and I do not know a lot – the doctors and her husband did not abuse their power. I mean, except for the part where they lied to my grandmother for TEN YEARS. Other than that.
But they could have. From the time her doctor and her husband decided to lie to her, to the time she died, my grandmother did not have bodily autonomy. She could not control her own life, or her own body. Other people had that control.
My grandmother died of pancreatic and liver cancer two days before I was born.
Paternalism did not kill my grandmother. Cancer did. But paternalism took away my grandmother’s ability to make informed choices about her body and her life.
And this isn’t just a random horror story. It’s the dominant narrative of our past. Women and other minorities have not traditionally been allowed to control their own bodies. Their male relatives did. Their doctors did. The government did. Their owners did, in many cases. The US government sterilized mentally ill women and native women. Hospitals forced – and continue to force – women to undergo dangerous medical procedures without informing them, or seeking their consent. Hell, for over 30o years, black peoples in the United States were considered property.
It’s not just a historical horror story either. In Kansas, a law passed this year that allows doctors to lie to women about their pregnancies if they believe that the information might lead the woman to choose abortion.
Doctors can lie to their patients to stop them from getting abortions.
Bodily autonomy is not just about abortion. But there’s a reason people get so mad when our right to choose is threatened. We know that abortion is just the tip of the iceberg. We know bodily autonomy is not some kind of contingent thing where you can say “you control your body up to the uterus, but after that, it’s in the government hands.” We know what happened to us when our bodies were not under our control. And we’re not interested in going back.
I’m not particularly angry at my step-grandfather, or my grandmother’s doctors. I think what they did was disgusting and unethical, yes. And I’m rather grateful that I don’t have to interact with my step-grandfather. But I’m not that angry at them. I’m angry at the system that made it okay and normal for them to lie to my grandmother. I’m angry at a system that told them it was okay for them to take control of this woman’s body and life. And I’m angry that that system still exists. That we’re still fighting for the basic right to bodily autonomy today. In 2012.
People are allowed to control their own bodies. Women very often are not.
Rebecca West once said: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. It’s a surprisingly radical notion.
Any comments that justify the decision to hide my grandmother’s illness from her will be mocked or banned. So will any that engage in victim-blaming by arguing that my grandmother “must” have figured it out. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. That’s not the point. Of any comments that talk about how difficult it must have been for her husband to hide the truth from her will? Yeah, it was probably hard. You know what would have made it easier? TELLING HER THE TRUTH.
Comment with care
Psst! You! Readers! is CD around?
No? Oh, FANTASTIC. I’m just going to let myself in, then! You guys don’t mind if I take over blogging duties for the day, right? Right!
Yes, yes, it’s me. The Feminist Batwoman. Champion of Intersectional Feminism and Enemy of Restrictive Gender Roles!
I know. Very exciting. I keep meaning to drop in and blog, but C.D. is kinda paranoid, and she doesn’t want me around. Something about the police putting her in jail for
being harboring a vigilante blah blah blah.
Also, she’s convinced that people think SHE’S the Feminist Batwoman. Which is obviously not true. CD and I have actually never met! How can we be the same person if we’ve never met!
Anyway. I think the problem with C.D. is that she just doesn’t have trust. I mean, I love that woman, but… seriously. You guys aren’t going to turn me in, right? I’m the Feminist Batwoman! I fight for Intersectional Feminism and Gender Equality Throughout the Shadows of the Interwebs.
AND I have a fabulous mask. Why would anyone turn me in?
See what I mean about the fabulous mask?
So now that we’ve established that you aren’t going to turn me in, let’s turn back to CD.
Have you guys noticed that she’s a bit… off, recently? She keeps writing about all this UBER-depressing stuff, and going on long rants and freakouts. Now, as the Feminist Batwoman, I fully support long rants and freakouts, but…
I’m worried that CD has lost her joy.
I mean – did you SEE what happened two weeks ago? The American Election? SHE SHOULD BE OVER THE MOON ABOUT THAT! She should be blogging kitten GIFs and celebratory confetti and explosions ALL THE TIME.
The activist joy should be EVERYWHERE!
So, you know. I thought I would cheer up CD (and bring on the return of the Kitten GIFS!) by reminding her of all of our Great Victories this month.
Maybe if CD remembers all the happy things that happened, she’ll be happier! Can’t hurt, right?
Let’s start at the top:
#1: Mitt Romney, oppressive douchebag and plutocrat supreme… Defeated!
I will not have to spend the next four years tracking down and defeating his Legion of Anti-Roe judges! I will not have to fight his attempts to turn over Obamacare and get us in more wars and cut the budget for food stamps and medicare and medicaid and social security and education. And hey, we won’t have to deal with his racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and classicism and general… barfiness.
My costume is already SUFFICIENTLY covered in the Barf of Oppression just from fighting to defeat Mitt Romney’s campaign. I’ve had to go to the dry cleaners ten times this election cycle. They’re giving me REALLY weird looks.
Imagine what I would look like if he were president. *shudder*
2. President Obama (a somewhat too-conservative-for-my-taste but generally pretty-decent- president) won. And President Obama is someone I can work with. He’s the man who brought us Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and Obamacare and who ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and who passed the mini-dream act. He saved the economy and made insurance companies cover contraceptives and signed the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay law. He passed a bill that made it a hate-crime to commit an assault on someone based on their sexual orientation; he extended employment benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees and he became the FIRST SITTING US PRESIDENT to come out in favor of marriage equality. Oh, and he extended health insurance to four million uninsured kids (why, in the name of the Holy Batmobile, do we have FOUR MILLION uninsured kids in the richest country in the world? QUESTIONS).
Like I said. I can work with this guy.
All good news so far, right? All news that should make CD happy, right?
It gets better.
3. In Maryland, Maine and Washington, people voted to legalize same-sex marriage. YES THEY DID. We broke the 32-state losing streak (including a loss in my – I MEAN CD’s – home state of Wisconsin) with a three state victory! We finally got a popular victory for same-sex marriage!
(although I object to people’s fundamental human rights being put on the ballot, but if they’re going to be put on the ballot, this is the desired outcome)
Moreover, Minnesota had an amendment on the ballot that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman. You know what happened? Voters said NO. AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME
I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate my fellow Anti-Oppression Superhero Alliance member, The Queer Question (also known as Renee Montoya), who led the charge in the fight for same-sex marriage. The Question knows how to stop the Forces of Oppression, y’all.
Has CD cheered up by now? If she hasn’t, I have even MORE good news for her (because this election is just the gift that keeps on giving).
4. The next American congress will have the highest number of female senators in recorded history: twenty
(which: it is super-gross that 20 is a HIGH number of women in the senate. But we’re getting better).
And let’s talk about those women! Because it’s not just that we’ve got more women senators and representatives – it’s that the ones we’ve got are incredible.
Elizabeth Warren won a senate seat in Massachusetts. I’m quite fond of that woman. She scares Wall Street half-to-death, and is already fighting the Forces of Economic Oppression. Go Warren!
Tammy Baldwin WON A SENATE SEAT in Wisconsin! Tammy Baldwin is now Wisconsin’s first female senator – and the first openly gay member of the senate in US HISTORY.
I’m a huge fan of Tammy Baldwin’s. She’s been
my CD’s representative for years (since I’m CD is from Madison). Her work in the House was incredible; and I fully expect great things in the Senate.
CD, of course, was terrified that Tammy Baldwin – an openly gay woman from the hellmouth of hippie-liberalville (Madison) would have no chance of being elected in Wisconsin. And I do like proving CD wrong.
Claire McCaskill defeated Todd Akin (aka: “Mr. Legitimate Rape”). She won the Mississippi Senate seat – one that almost NO ONE thought a democrat could hang onto – by fourteen points. Because she is an incredible campaigner and she knew how to let Todd Akin hang himself by his own rope.
And to cap off our list of amazing women senators, Mazie Hirono won Hawaii’s open senate seat, thus making history as the USA’S first Asian American female senator. Whoo!
My good friend and fellow Anti-Oppression Superhero, the Anti-Racist Black Bat (Cassandra Cain) (who happens to be one of the few Asian members of the DC Universe) is REALLY excited about Mazi Hirono’s election.
Cassandra is also rather pissed that it took until 2012 for an Asian-American woman to be elected to the Senate.
The fun doesn’t even stop with senators! The great state of Illinois elected Tammy Duckworth to the House of Representatives. Duckworth served in the Iraq war, where she lost both legs. She is the first female war veteran with disabilities elected to the US House of Representatives.
You will not be surprised to know that Disability Rights Oracle (Barbara Gordon) was thoroughly pleased by Duckworth’s election!
And the great State of Hawaii elected Tulsi Gabbard, another female war veteran – AND the first Hindu member of the US House of Representatives.
But the best part of this election – and yes, we haven’t even gotten to the best part yet – wasn’t just that a League of Awesome Women were elected.
5. It was that the League of Awesome Women (in conjunction with the Anti-Oppression Superheroes) defeated the Evil Alliance of Rape Apologists.
Senate candidate Richard “Rape Babies are a Gift From God” Mourdock? DEFEATED.
Senate candidate Todd “If It’s A Legitimate Rape, the Female Body has ways to Shut That Whole Thing Down” Akin? DEFEATED!
House candidate John “The Rape thing” Koster? DEFEATED.
House candidate Joe “‘there is no such exception as life of the mother” Walsh? DEFEATED. By the way, Mr. Walsh, if pregnancy can’t actually kill women, what happened to Savita Halappanavar?
Vice Presidential Candidate Paul “Rape is just another method of conception” Ryan? DEFEATED.
All congratulations are due to The Consent Culture Batgirl (Stephanie Brown) who took point in the Anti-Oppression Superhero Alliance’s battle with the Evil League of Rape Apologists. I think we can agree she did a pretty fabulous job, no?
So, overall, I think the forces of Anti-Oppression did pretty well this election cycle, no?
We defeated the forces of oppression and darkness and plutocracy! We brought down the Evil Alliance of Rape Apologists! We elected a swath of Awesome Women!
Its definitely party time at the Anti-Oppression Superhero Alliance Headquarters, if you know what I mean!
(No, I don’t mean an orgy. Get your minds out of the gutter).
Party! Party! Party!
And I totally think CD should join us in this great party of activist joy, don’t you? Now that she’s undoubtedly been cheered up by all our good news!
I mean, come on. We won! Time to stop moping and stop ranting and smell the Victory Flowers, no? Or else CD is going to go all Batman, and be angsty 99% of the time, and no one wants that, do they?
It’s time to bring the joy to CD, ANTI-OPPRESSION PARTY STYLE!
I’m just going to check CD’s agenda book and see when she’s got a free slot for the party, shall I? Then we can all persuade her to go.
Huh. Can’t find CD.’s agenda, but… there’s this blog post draft on CD’s computer. I’ll just go ahead and read it (Hey, I’M not Consent Culture Batgirl. Privacy is not my only priority. Also, CD and I are
the same person friends!)
Well, this blog post is disturbing.
And by disturbing, I mean:
Montana voters passed a state ballot measure that puts in place a parental notification law: any person under the age of 16 who seeks an abortion needs to notify their parents. A PARENTAL NOTIFICATION LAW?
Well, HOW COULD THAT POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
OH GREAT, and IT KEEPS GOING.
After helping to pass Texas’ abortion sonogram law, Texas State Senator Dan Patrick is trying to cut off Rural Texans’ access to abortion. Because there’s nothing Dan Patrick cares about more than controlling women’s personal medical decisions!
The head of the Maine Republican party thinks there was voter fraud, because “dozens’ of black people showed up to vote, and no one in rural Maine knows any black people! Mitt Romney says Obama won because he gave “gifts” to women, young people, Latinos etc. Paul Ryan blames the urban vote (*cough* people of color *cough*).
Okay, I know I was complaining that CD seems really pissed off these days? BUT THIS? THIS IS PISSING ME OFF ALL OVER AGAIN.
Scott Walker is trying to end same-day registration in Wisconsin, because the best way to follow up an election full of voter suppression is MORE voter suppression.
In Kansas, the city of Selina passed a proposition that overturns the city’s protections from discrimination for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The City of Hutchinson also overturned their city’s discrimination protections.
Proposition 35 passed in California. It raises the penalty for those convicted of sex trafficking to as high as life in prison, which SOUNDS great, until you figure out that survivor groups were against the proposition. Why? Because the bill conflates sex trafficking and sex work, which means that both sex workers and sex trafficking survivors could be penalized, put in jail, put on sex offender registries etc. The bill will probably have a much worse effect on sex workers and victims than it will on actual bad guys. Melissa Gira Grant wrote a smarter and longer analysis of the problems with Proposition 35.
… And Oklahoma passed a constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action practices in state government hiring, education and contracting. But that’s okay, because apparently they weren’t using affirmative action anyway! And it’s not like there’s institutional racism or sexism in the USA, because, as everyone knows, we live in a post-racist and sexist society.
… yeah, okay. Maybe there’s a reason CD is still angry. Hell, I’M ANGRY.
You know what? Victory party canceled. We can have a victory party later. I can use the streamers to tie up some misogynists. Kyriarchy-Blasting Wonder Woman can use the helium from the balloons to power her invisible jet. We can throw the confetti in the eyes of the racists.
CD’s right. Our activism isn’t over, not even after this victory. People are still being oppressive asshats. A woman’s ability to choose is still under fire. People of color are still being targetted. Homophobia is still ruining lives. Misogyny is still rampant.
Time to get back to work.
ANTI-OPPRESSION SUPERHERO ALLIANCE, ASSEMBLE!
Oh, uh – before I leave to go fight oppression, could you guys do me a favor?
Could you NOT tell CD that I was here?
Like, keep it all hush-hush?
Also, you really don’t have to mention that I changed my mind and actually, we can’t celebrate yet because there are so many other things wrong in the world we need to deal with.
She doesn’t need to know she was right. That woman is not a gracious winner.
Just keep it… quiet, is my point. Okay? Okay!
Great! I’ll be back soon, faithful readers! In the meantime, I will go forth into the Shadowy Corners of the Interwebs and Fight Against Restrictive Gender Roles and All the Other Forces of Oppression!
Until next time.
- Your Friendly Interweb Feminist Batwoman.
CD HERE. WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO WITH MY BLOG, FEMINIST BATWOMAN?
… oh, fuck. I knew I shouldn’t have
had that half-glass of beer and put on the mask left my computer unattended. The Feminist Batwoman is devious. Super-devious. And in no way related to me. Ignore the shot of my shoulder in the last picture. That’s not my shoulder. I’m not the Feminist Batwoman. Yeah. I had nothing to do with this.
I need to change my passwords. AGAIN.
Anyway. Sorry about that, everyone. I’ll try to
stay away from the mask keep a better eye on my computer in the future.
Although I do agree with the Feminist Batwoman’s point. We did win a big victory this November, and we should celebrate. But we should remember that there’s still a war on. It’s not time to lay down our weapons yet.
As Consent Culture Batgirl always says:
- I’m not ready for this to be the end of the fight. There’s so much ground to cover still. More misogyny and racism and homophobia and ableism and transphobia and oppression to uncover and stop. A new, better society to build.
- What are you still fighting for?
- ETA 2: Okay, FINE, ONE CELEBRATORY KITTEN GIF. But only because of the marriage victories in Maryland, Maine and Washington and Minnesota. And because of Tammy Duckworth and Tammy Baldwin and Claire McCaskill and Elizabeth Warren and Maizie Hirono and Tulsi Gabbard.
Question: Let’s say your wife doesn’t want to get in the shower. So you grab her, pick her up, and shove her into the shower while she screams and yells for you to let go. For good measure, you pin her to the wall while she keeps screaming.
Is that abuse?
Not on Grey’s Anatomy, it isn’t!
[no, but seriously, it is abuse]
[It’s also domestic violence]
I, uh – I can’t really believe I’m writing this post. Because, I mean, Grey’s Anatomy has done a lot of stupid stuff over the years but – surely – SURELY – they didn’t just portray domestic violence in a positive light? Surely that didn’t happen. Surely I was imagining it.
… No, wait, I didn’t. It actually happened.
The fuck is wrong with you, Grey’s Anatomy?
And yes, I know, I just admitted to watching Grey’s Anatomy. In my defense, I kind of gave up on it after the Ghost Sex season. Yes, I rewatched the first two seasons during my finals – but only because it reminded me that my life, though stressful, could be a lot worse.
It could be scripted by Shonda Rhimes.
But then this fall, my Romantic Interest (hereafter known as the Feminist Philosopher) got me to watch Grey’s Anatomy with him on a regular basis. And I will admit I’ve been enjoying it. Mostly in a “let’s point out how terrible this plot is” way. Or a “oh, that dialogue was just terrible” way. And sometimes in a “Cristina Yang is my spiritual guru and I will do whatever she tells me to do” way.
Intermingled with my love for Cristina Yang and my enjoyment of the terrible dialogue, however, is a slow-simmering outrage over the show’s treatment of the newly-disabled characters.
Quick recap: at the end of last season, a bunch of the doctors were in an airplane crash. Two of the principal characters – Lexie and Mark – died. Arizona Robbins’ leg was crushed, and later amputated against her wishes. Cristina Yang was diagnosed with reactive psychosis.
The way Grey’s Anatomy is dealing with Cristina and Arizona is killing me. KILLING me. It’s like they’ve got a bingo card of how NOT to write about disability, and they’re trying to check off EVERY SINGLE BOX.
For a while, I held it in. It was just a slow-simmering outrage, and a couple of rants. But Episode 3 (“Love the One You’re With”) officially pushed me over the top. The scene where Callie abuses her wife, Arizona and NO ONE CALLED IT OUT?
And it wasn’t a gross moment? It was a big “Oh, finally, Arizona will realize that her disability makes Callie unhappy too!” moment.
Yeah, that was the end of Ms. Nice Feminist.
NO MORE MS. NICE FEMINIST.
CALLIE ABUSED HER WIFE AND YOU MADE IT SEEM JUSTIFIED.
FUCK YOU GREY’S ANATOMY.
Okay. I’m calm. I’m totally calm. I can write this in a calm and mature manner.
Before we get to the problem of Arizona Robbins (who, let me remind you, was ASSAULTED BY HER WIFE), let’s start with the Case of My Spiritual Guru, Cristina Yang.
After the rescuers finally show up and save everyone, Cristina lapses into a catatonic state, punctuated with brief moments of rage and violence. Her doctors diagnose her with reactive psychosis.
Now, in a perfect world, Cristina’s friends and family would be like “Oh, yeah, she’s got a mental illness because she was in a plane crash and survived for a week with no food/water/medical help and she was keeping all these other people alive. Not super surprising. Let’s let her get the care she needs!
… And if you think that’s how things actually went down, I have a piece of the True Cross I’d like to sell you.
Here’s what actually happened. Cristina Yang is diagnosed with reactive psychosis, and then…
Cue scene where Owen (Cristina’s estranged husband) yells to the psych ward chief that he won’t let them take Cristina to the psyche ward. Cue scene where Owen – the chief of surgery – essentially prevents his wife from getting adequate medical care because he doesn’t want her to go to the psych ward. Cue scene where Meredith, Cristina’s best friend, grabs her by the shoulders and tells her to “snap out of it” because if Cristina doesn’t “snap out of it,” she’ll be put in the psych ward and “pumped full of anti-psychotics.’ Which is apparently the worst thing ever, since anti-psychotics will strip Cristina’s identity away (#NotActuallyHowAntiPsychoticsWorkMeredith) (#SeriouslyYouWentThroughMedSchoolAndYouDontKnowThis?)
Meredith and Owen fight tooth and claw to keep Cristina from going to the psych ward and getting psych treatment. Do you think they would fight to keep her out of the hospital if she’d gotten pneumonia? Would they be screaming at her and telling her if she didn’t “snap out of it,” she’d be pumped full of antibiotics and her personality would be totally changed?
Of course not.
This is gross on so many levels, I can’t even. As usual, mental illnesses are treated as if they’re The Worst Thing Ever, as opposed to, you know, just another set of illnesses. And Grey’s Anatomy acts like Cristina getting psychosis is the Worst Thing Ever.
Psychosis is the Worst Thing Ever, y’all! THE WORST THING EVER.
And going to the psych ward is the other Worst Thing Ever.
Meredith and Owen’s behavior reinforces the stigmatization of mental illness. PSYCHOSIS, OOOGA BOOOGA. Whereas Owen and Meredith would recognize that pneumonia is an illness, that catching pneumonia is not a person’s fault, and that a person with pneumonia needs TREATMENT, they act like mental illnesses are a character flaw. Psychosis is a stigma, a brand to be avoided at any cost. Cristina can just “snap out of it.” And if she goes to the psych ward and received proper, adequate treatment for her “condition,” she’ll officially be a “psychotic person” and that would be the Worst Thing Ever. Because mental illnesses are the worst thing ever blah blah blah.
Someone shoot me.
Mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. Like all other illnesses, they require treatment. And honestly, to deprive Cristina of treatment tailored to her illness because you don’t want her to go to the “psych ward” (OOOGA BOOOGA) and you don’t want her to take “anti-psychotics” is tantamount to medical abuse.
Grey’s Anatomy always makes a huge deal about ultra-religious parents who refuse to allow their child to get proper medical care. Don’t they realize they’re doing the same thing with Cristina?
(Well, of course not, because Mental Illnesses are different, and Cristina can’t be Psychotic GRAB THE FAINTING COUCH).
As a person with several mental illnesses, let me be the first to say “FUCK YOU, GREY’S ANATOMY.” You know what? I’ve been pretty close to catatonic in the super-severe phases of my depressions. I’ve never been put on anti-psychotics, but they were on the table, and they still are (some of them can be very helpful to managing depression. Who knew?). I’ve never been to a psych ward, but if things got bad enough, I would hope that the psych ward stigma wouldn’t be enough to keep me away.
The attitude the show – and Owen and Meredith – display towards mental illnesses is precisely the reason it took me twenty five minutes to type up the previous paragraph: because it is so fucking scary to come out as a person with mental illnesses. The attitude of “mental illnesses are the Worst Things Ever” and “mental illnesses mean you’re Crazy” do hurt people with actual mental illnesses. That attitude is part of the reason I was pushed by certain members of my family to keep my depression a secret and to get off anti-depressants as fast as possible (as opposed to when I was ready).
So yeah, FUCK YOU, GREY’S ANATOMY.Th
The show’s treatment of Cristina gets even worse in the scene where Owen (her estranged husband) takes her home and bathes her.
Ick. Ick, ick, ick, ick, ick.
Because Cristina and Owen were more or less estranged before the plane crash. So Cristina’s estranged husband managing her entire life, bathing her, controlling her, while Cristina herself is still catatonic and unable to give consent? Cristina’s estranged husband discussing, in vivid detail, how the rest of Cristina’s life will go? Cristina’s estranged husband deciding what kind of medical treatment she’ll get (or won’t get)?
Cristina and Owen are no longer in a relationship where there’s some kind of consent implied for these big, major medical decisions. She never gave consent for him to take care of her, and she can’t do it now, since she can’t talk. So yeah, in this context, it is really gross that Owen basically takes control of her entire life.
The worst part is that the bathing scene is meant to be romantic and loving. Oooh, look at Owen, standing by his catatonic woman, taking care of her, isn’t he the Bestest?
No… he’s not. Bodily autonomy and consent is a thing. You don’t lose it when you go through mental or physical illnesses.
And also, using a person’s illness and/or disability to prove how generous and self-sacrificing YOU are is suuuuuper-gross. Don’t do it. Ever.
Which, fittingly, brings me to the case of Arizona Robbins.
Reminder of Arizona’s condition: her leg was amputated shortly after she was rescued from the plane crash. Although Arizona did not want her leg amputated, at some point she started dying and was unable to give consent for medical procedures, so her wife (and doctor) Callie gave consent to an amputation.
(Question one: why is Callie, Arizona’s WIFE, her doctor? Oh, never mind, this is Grey’s Anatomy where that sort of thing is TOTALLY okay)
Post-amputation, Arizona is super-pissed at Callie for deciding to go ahead with the surgery without Arizona’s condition. She’s also unhappy and depressed and generally in a state of rage over losing her leg.
Now, I will gladly admit that Arizona has not been a particularly pleasant person in the wake of the crash and losing her leg. I would also like to point out that there’s no “right” way to react to severe trauma, and Arizona is not a bad person for not being all smiles and rainbows post-amputation. You cannot control the way you feel.
Hell, I don’t even think there’s anything wrong with Callie being upset and angry and sad at Arizona. You can’t control the way you feel; Callie is not a bad person for having normal human emotions.
But if you can’t control the way you feel, you can, however, control how you ACT on your feelings.
Cue the end of Episode 3. Callie comes home to find Arizona has left her wheelchair. Arizona apparently tried to go to the bathroom without help, but collapsed and urinated on herself.
Callie orders Arizona to take a shower. Arizona refuses.
Okay, yes, Arizona is being a bit silly. Then again, Arizona has just discovered, for what must be the 90th time, that she can’t do even the simplest tasks on her own anymore. And she’s coming to terms with the fact that she’s going to go through a long, hard process of rehabilitation and relearning her body. That’s not something “easy” to go through. It’s not something most people can just “get over.”
But you know what? Even if Arizona’s behavior had been completely unjustified, there is still NO EXCUSE for what Callie did next.
Arizona refuses to take the shower.
Callie picks her up and shoves her into the shower. Arizona screams for Callie to let her go, and get out; Callie slams Arizona against the shower wall and holds her there while Arizona keeps screaming.
DOMESTIC ABUSE. DOMESTIC ABUSE. DOMESTIC ABUSE.
And yes, Callie is super-emotional and crying. And yes, Callie yells “There’s nowhere for me to go; this is my life now too!”
BUT IT’S STILL DOMESTIC ABUSE.
Least you think I’m exaggerating about the violence of the scene, see for yourself. And this, by the way, is AFTER the grabbing and shoving:
Sadly, because I am female and I grew up in the USA, I only believed my own conclusions about the Super-Gross-Abuse-Scene-Of-Doom AFTER a person of the male gender independently came to the same conclusion. Fortunately, I happened to have a person of the male gender sitting right next to me when the Super-Gross scene happened:
The Feminist Philosopher paused the video and turned to me.
Feminist Philosopher: Well. That just happened.”
Me: “Uh, yeah. You saw the same thing I did.”
Feminist Philosopher: “Callie assaulting Arizona? Yup. Suuuper gross.
So yeah, it’s not just Team Culturally Disoriented Seeing Things over here. Hell, I don’t understand why anyone – anyone – would look at this scene and not go “Jesus H. Christ, what the hell is going on here.”
Hey, I’ll tell you what the hell is going on:
CALLIE ABUSED ARIZONA.
And no one has called it. Not on the show, not – as far as I can tell – in the world of the internet.
So I’m calling it now: Callie Torres physically abused Arizona Robbins. It happened. It is domestic violence.
This is not a “normal” couples argument. This is not okay. This is abuse.
Okay, I can hear the critics now. What does this scene – gross as it was – have to do with disability? Callie’s treatment of Arizona is abuse regardless of Arizona’s condition, right?
If we unpack the scene a bit more, however, it’s pretty clear that Callie’s actions are intimately connected to the show’s attitude towards disability.
There’s a reason why this scene isn’t played as domestic violence. There’s a reason it’s framed to make Callie seem “justified.”
Indeed, from the first episode of the new season, Arizona’s disability has been framed in terms of its effect on Callie’s life. It’s about Callie’s feelings. Callie’s sadness. Callie’s struggles. Callie’s torment. Callie’s guilt. Hell, we don’t even SEE Arizona in the first episode – until we discover she’s lost her leg.
And we don’t see her much in the next few episodes – except when she’s interacting with Callie.
Then we get this beautifully revolting scene in Episode 2, where Callie tells Owen that “the person in that bed” isn’t Arizona, but just a shell of a person with all of Arizona removed. Callie says she thinks that if Arizona loses her leg, Callie will never get Arizona back again.
And Owen then says he doesn’t think he’ll ever get Cristina – his still-catatonic wife – back.
Let’s just back up and look at how Owen and Callie have taken their significant others’ Huge Illnesses and made it All About Them.
We need to save Arizona’s leg so Callie gets her back. We need to make Cristina un-psychotic so Owen gets her back.
Wow, I never realized that when people suffer through traumatic illnesses and injuries, their experiences don’t matter at all! It’s All About The People Around Them!
I’m learning so many new things from this show.
Look, being the partner/friend/significant other/family of a disabled or chronically ill person is not easy. And those people deserve support and help and sympathy. My problem isn’t that Grey’s Anatomy showcases Owen and Callie’s emotional meltdowns. My problem is that the show does it AT THE EXPENSE of Arizona and Cristina.
Despite the fact that Arizona and Cristina are the ones actually dealing with trauma and disabilities, their stories are secondary. Their emotions are far less important than those of Callie and Owen’s. The show centers on Callie and Owen’s sadness at their wives’ illnesses/disability, and on how generous Callie/Owen are to stick with them.
Arizona is relegated to the role of a symbol. She’s not important for herself, but for what she represents – Callie’s tragedy, Callie’s sacrifice, Callie’s generosity, Callie’s emotional struggles.
Hell, Arizona isn’t even able to define herself anymore – it’s Callie who decides that Arizona is “not her wife” anymore, but just a person with all the Arizona scraped out. How Arizona feels, we don’t know.
The show’s writers took Arizona’s voice away and made her silent in her own tragedy.
And what does Callie yell to her wife as she’s pushing her into the shower? Why does she think it’s okay for her to abuse Arizona?
“This is my life now too!”
This is my life now too.
It’s not Arizona’s life anymore. It’s Callie’s. By virtue of Arizona’s disability, she has become less of a person. She’s been relegated to the symbolic.
You know what? This is not Callie’s life. It’s not. Arizona’s life is Arizona’s life. Arizona’s body is her body.
If Callie can’t handle Arizona’s behavior, she can try to have an honest conversation with her. She can go to therapy. You know what? If it’s too much for Callie to deal with, CALLIE CAN LEAVE ARIZONA. She can divorce her. Callie has somewhere else to go. She has a choice. She’s choosing to stay with Arizona.
Arizona, on the other hand, really does have nowhere else to go. She can’t just “leave’ her body when she gets sick of it. This is her reality. This is her life. This is her body.
It’s not Callie’s.
I don’t mean to diminish Callie’s very real pain, or Arizona’s very real vitriol over the past few episodes. But I’m sick of illness and disability being portrayed as “harder” on the family/friends/whatever than on the person experiencing them. I’m sick of shows using disability as a way to show OTHER characters’ emotional struggles and generosity.
I’m sick of narratives that tell us that people with disabilities are less-than-human, that they’re just a broken version of a more perfect person. I’m sick of narratives where Meredith get to say that treatment for a mental illness will strip your identity away. Where Callie gets to say that her wife’s accident has made her “not-Arizona.”
Hell, I’m not even sure why I’m so surprised by this. Grey’s Anatomy has always treated illness and disability as symbols. In the show, the disabled body is nothing more than a shiny toy for doctors to have fun with. People with disabilities are only important insofar as they are symbols. They’re not people.
People with disabilities are not broken. We are not symbols. We are people.
Screw you, Grey’s Anatomy.
The worst part of the abuse – and yes, we have only just now gotten to the worst part – is that its for Arizona’s own good. Supposedly.
In Callie’s Super-Important Surgical Case (right before the Shower Scene), her underage patient wants to run off and complete a sailing competition even though it’ll mean losing her leg. Callie tells the patient’s parents that they need to stop her. They need to be her parents. They need to be “the bad guy” so they can save their daughter.
And, of course, because this is Grey’s Anatomy and Grey’s Anatomy has the subtlety of a GIANT SLEDGEHAMMER, Callie’s case is a metaphor for her personal life, and how she needs to be the “bad guy” with Arizona.
In this little equation, Arizona has been transformed into a child. A child. And Callie is her PARENT.
The whole “people with disabilities are just like children” meme has been well-overplayed. Don’t think I didn’t notice the infantilization of Arizona. Don’t think I didn’t notice that she peed on herself (childhood!) and had to be cleaned by her wife/parent (infantilizing!). Don’t think I didn’t notice that you did exactly the same thing with Cristina in the scene where she’s being bathed by Owen (infantalizing!)
Disabled people are not children. We’re not, thank you very much.
And Arizona is not a child. Arizona is a grown-ass woman. Losing her leg does not mean she lost her right to control her own life. Her body is hers. Her life is hers. You do not get to choose what she does with them, even if you think she’s hurting herself.
You cannot control adults’ lives for their own good. You cannot shove your wife into a shower for her own good (you can’t do that to your kid either, actually, because that too is abuse). You cannot take your estranged wife back to your house without her permission and give her a bath (yes, I’m back to Cristina). You cannot choose your estranged wife’s psychological treatment.
That is abuse.
Look, I get it. You see sick people, hurt people, you want to help them. They say no. You say “it’s for your own good.”
But that’s NOT OKAY. You cannot help people without their consent. You cannot force people to do things “for their own good.”
Not after they’re 18 anyway.
Look, this isn’t some kind of fringe issue. People with disabilities are up to four times more likely than abled people to be abused by partners or caretakers. Four times. And part of the reason they’re more likely to be abused – and less likely to seek help (or to get it when they go to the authorities) – is because of stupid narratives like these.
Narratives that emphasize the pain and the generosity of the caregivers and the partners at the expense of the actual people with disabilities. Narratives that portray people with disabilities as children. Narratives that portray abuse as something done for the person’s own good.
Who would ever believe that a woman so generous and selfless that she would stay married to a cripple would commit an act of domestic violence? It wasn’t abuse! It was for Arizona’s own good.
Fuck you very much, Grey’s Anatomy.
Callie abused Arizona.
You showed it as something good and romantic and cathartic.
Fuck you, Grey’s Anatomy.
Arizona and Cristina are not symbols. They’re not tragic parts of other peoples’ lives. They’re not children. They’re not broken. They’re people with real pain and real lives and real stories. So please start treating them that way.
And please don’t give me any Arizona/Callie scenes for another few weeks. I honestly can’t look at Callie without wanting to call the Seattle cops. SHE ABUSED HER WIFE. Send her to therapy.
As a final note: CALLIE ABUSED HER WIFE.
Just say that over and over to yourself until it sinks in.
*In order to thank the Feminist Philosopher, who re-introduced me to Grey’s Anatomy AND who was kind enough to let me rant at him for a REALLY long time without ever telling me that I was exaggerating or that I should calm down… I will finish this blog by saying: FUCK YOU, DAVID BROOKS.
**ALSO, if you are in the Montreal area, you should go see the play Inherit the Wind, which is going up at McGill Player’s Theater, November 14-17 & 21-24, 8:00 PM. GO SEE IT. I saw it last night, and my reaction was something like this:
It was pretty damn near perfection. And I’m not just saying that because I know a lot of the people in it and I baked cookies for their bake sale (if I hated it, I would just NOT TALK ABOUT IT on the blog).
GO SEE IT.
oh, here’s a review.
Before I begin this blog post, I need a moment for prayer.
Please, please, Cylon Jesus, please let this be the last blog post I ever publish about Mitt Romney. Please let this be the last blog post I ever have to write about Mitt Romney, Cylon Jesus. In other words, please make sure Mitt Romney loses the American election and I never ever hear about him again.
Please Cylon Jesus.
It’s my birthday soon, Cylon Jesus. Very soon. You wanna give me a present?
No more Mitt Romney.
That’s all I want, Cylon Jesus.
Well, that and a pony.
(take care of the Romney problem first, Cylon Jesus, okay, though? #IHavePriorities)
Okay, back to Mitt Romney.
A couple weeks ago, I got in a facebook argument on a friend’s wall. My Awesome Friend had posted an article explaining that Mitt Romney’s 47% speech included a racist dog-whistle (or ninety).
Another facebook dweller (henceforth known as of Acquaintance) was not convinced that Romney’s remarks had elements of racism. We had a nice productive facebook argument about that, and at some point, Acquaintance concedes that yes, Romney’s remarks were probably racist.
So far so good, right?
BUT THEN, Acquaintance goes (and I’m grossly paraphrasing) “Well, okay, maybe it’s racist, but we don’t need to call out the racism. Critiques of Romney’s remarks based on classism are sufficient.”
To be fair to Acquaintance, he’s not the only person guilty of such argumentative doltishness. I’m sure you’ve heard variations of this theme before.
It’s the “yes, okay, Republicans are attacking gay rights, and that’s terrifically sad, but we can’t talk about that, because it’s divisive! And we don’t want to alienate any of our supporters.” argument. Or the argument of: “well, yes, all those anti-welfare advertisements Romney’s campaign is running are highly racist. BUT it only helps Romney if we accuse him of being racist, because then they’ll say we’re playing the race card.”
Or: “Sure, Republicans are talking about taking away a woman’s right to birth control/abortion/her own body. But that’s controversial, so we can’t talk about it.”
So. With a little less than a week left before the election, let’s clear things up.
You know why you should call Romney out for being a racist? Or a sexist? or a homophobe? Or a terribly oppressive douchecanoe?
Because when Romney’s a racist, or a sexist, or a homophobe, he’s attacking PEOPLE. PEOPLE. REAL PEOPLE.
POC and women and queer peoples are PEOPLE. They’re PEOPLE. And when they’re getting thrown under the motherfucking bus by a bunch of asswipe politicians, you STAND UP.
For crying out loud.
When you say racism isn’t important enough to call out, you’re tacitly saying that POC aren’t important enough to defend.
When you refuse to call out the war on women’s bodily autonomy, you’re basically saying that women aren’t important enough to stand up for.
When you let Karl Rove and his minions play the “Ooooh, scary gay people” game without saying anything back, you’re throwing queer people overboard and letting them swim with the sharks by themselves.
I’m white. I have white privilege. I don’t honestly know what it’s like to be a POC and to hear Romney’s racist dog-whistles. And I don’t want to appropriate that conversation. You should read these awesome links instead (they’re a great starting point for understanding the DEGREE to which racist rhetoric has invaded Romney’s speech)
I am a woman, however, and I do know what it’s like to hear politicians talking about taking away my birth control; my right to an abortion. I do know what it’s like to hear men – men who control our country’s policy – say things like “legitimate rape” and “forcible rape.” I know what it’s like hearing that a pregnancy resulting from rape is a “gift from God.”
This is my body they’re talking about. My right to control my own body.
Fuck, it’s terrifying.
I can’t imagine it’s any easier to be a POC listening to Romney’s racist rhetoric.
My point, here it is: This isn’t dinner theater. These are people’s LIVES.
Racism, misogyny, homophobia (to name the big three) kill people. Yes, in the United States. Yes, in Canada. And when they don’t kill you, they still force you to live a life full of micro-aggressions and oppression.
Or they just make you live a life of misery and terror. [ask me about living a life full of misery and terror! I am a woman living in rape culture. I’m a fucking expert!]
When politicians use racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or any kind of oppression in order to gain political points, they’re basically saying that oppressed peoples matter so little that politicians can use their lives as political footballs.
Women’s rights to their bodies are not a political football. The right of POC to be treated with respect and without bigotry is not a political football.
It’s not a game.
And when we don’t call them out, we’re tacitly agreeing. it’s okay if women/POC/queers/minorities are batted around like catnip in front of a kitten! It just doesn’t matter that much.
No, it matters.
And it’s not about Romney. I get that people are like “well, he’s a gross asshole in nearly every way, so we really don’t need to list every horrible thing he does.” I get people who say “well, no matter what we say, he’s never going to stop being an oppressive douchecanoe.”
(which: Fair. I don’t think there’s much that’ll make Romney stop being an oppressive douchecanoe)
But it’s not about Romney. It’s about the people he’s attacking in his attempt to win the Presidency.
You don’t call Romney out because you think Romney will magically learn not to be an oppressive douchecanoe. You call him out because you think the rights of oppressed minorities are worth standing up for. You call him out because you don’t believe in leaving people out in the shark-infested water, getting attacked by a bunch of cynical politicians.
You call him out because it matters to me, damn it, as one of those people being attacked, to hear others supporting my rights. To know that I’m not alone. That someone will fight alongside me.
It’s not about Romney.
And it’s not just about douchebags like Romney either. I think most people who read this blog are progressive or liberal (or else you’d already be sending me hate mail), and it’s pretty easy for progressive, liberal people to go “Oh, yeah, Romney, that racist asshat, I can call him out!”
It’s a lot harder when it’s your heroes. It’s a lot harder when it’s your allies.
I’m thinking of Bill Maher, misogynist supreme, and comedic hero of much of the left. We can’t call him out! He’s on our side!
(no, you really can call him out. And you should)
I’m thinking of Hugo Schwyer, feminist hero. A man who has admitted to having raped a woman and tried to kill his girlfriend. A man who has harassed and dismissed women of color in the feminist movement. A man that many Big Name Feminist still defend. We can’t call him out! He’s a male feminist! Also, calling him out is divisive to the feminist community!
(no, you really can call him out. Also, you should SHUN HIM).
I’m thinking of feminists who ignore women of color, or who act like WOC’s concerns are something to take care of “later.” Or who are blatantly racist and who STILL don’t get called out, because the feminist movement is often REALLY SHITTY about the rights and issues of anyone who isn’t a middle-class western cisgendered straight white woman.
Yes, I love feminism. Yes, it’s one of the great axis around which my life turns.
But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t call feminist out when they exclude women of color, or when they’re racist. No, I should.
Hell, I’m even thinking of myself. I’m a huge bundle of privilege, and I’m still very much in the “screwing up” stage of anti-oppression work. And you know what? If I say oppressive stuff, or write oppressive stuff, or blog oppressive stuff, or if I’m being problematic?
I would take it as a MASSIVE favor if you would call me out. Sure, I’ll feel defensive for 30 seconds, and then I’ll get my head on straight. Other peoples’ right not to be oppressed is more important than my ability to feel comfortable in my discourse.
Now, look. There are good and valid reasons not to call people out.
First, calling people out takes a fuckmetric ton of energy (Fuckmetric tons: scientific measurement right there). It’s not easy. And a lot of times, it’s not safe either.
There are many circumstances where I don’t feel safe calling people out. One easy example: I don’t feel safe yelling at street harassers.
What if they turned on me? What if they hurt me?
There are also circumstances where I’m just too tired to call people out, especially when it’s about something that personally affects me (sexism, stigmatization of mental health issues etc). It’s emotionally exhausting, having to argue for your right to exist, and to be treated with respect.
Sometimes, I just can’t handle it.
So I pick my battles.
The other major reason not to call people out is when you might be appropriating someone else’s fight or adding to oppression. This especially applies to allies.
Be aware of the fact that in many spaces, your voice may be more privileged just by dint of the body you inhabit. Men have more privileged voices than women. White people have more privileged voices than people of color. You want to be sure that your calling people out isn’t, by dint of your privilege, excluding or disempowering the people you want to support.
(random example of me screwing this one up: this weekend, I got in another facebook argument, this time about the importance of Andrew Ti. I waded in to support my friend, who is a woman of color (I’m white). The white dude in the argument dismissed my friend as childish and hysterical. On the other hand, he listened to me and CHANGED HIS MIND. Least you ask, my friend and I were making almost exactly THE SAME ARGUMENT. Word for fucking word. So yeah, my attempt to support a friend turned into another instance of “let’s disempower the woman of color.” Yeah, I screwed that one up)
[also, if you’re not already reading Yo is This Racist? You should be.]
So yes, absolutely, there are good reasons not to call people out. But if you’re safe and secure and you know you’re not disempowering other people (except the racists – I fully believe in disempowering racists)?
And you choose not to do it, because of you just can’t be bothered?
Then dude, you suck.
Now, I’m not saying your suckiness is a permanent state. Let us note that I’ve been pretty damn terrible in my life at calling people out.
Yes, I suck!
But I’m working on it.
Call people out, everyone. NOT JUST MITT ROMNEY EITHER.
(Also, Cylon Jesus, if it isn’t too much to ask, I’d love to have my birthday night free of homework and stuff. No? Not possible? Okay, thanks for trying).
(hey, do you guys like the new blog design? I’m obsessed. Now with 100% more rose-red pink! And more feminist Batwoman!)