In this blog’s two-and-a-half year existence, one post has gotten more views than all my other posts combined. One post has brought me traffic every single day. One post has gotten me the most amazing search terms like “female athletes boobs?” and “nude basketball PuSsy” and “suzann pettersen lesbian”. One post has gotten me quoted – and basically plagiarized – on feministing (thanks for quoting me, guys. Not so much for the “acting like we’d magically come to the same conclusion at the same time,” though). ONE POST has ranked above them all: The naked athletes post. Otherwise known as: “The Bodies We Want: Female Athletes in ESPN’s Body Issue” . I should write more about naked people, is the conclusion I draw from that post’s popularity.
ESPN’s Body Issue is ESPN Magazine’s “annual exploration and celebration of the athletic form” through the medium of lots and lots and lot of naked athletes. So many naked athletes. To quote ESPN.com editor in chief Chad Millman, the Body Issue “showcases an array of sports and body types. It inhabits our mission to pay tribute to these athletes’ bodies and all they are capable of.” Back in the day – lo, in those innocent years of 2012 – I reviewed the 2012 Body Issue, concluding that: “The shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful. And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful.” And my conclusions about the Body Issue’s gender problems are still occasionally linked to/quoted – mostly recently when NCWTV quoted me in a piece about ESPN’s *current* body issue – the 2014 version. But: those are conclusions I drew from the 2012 body issue. They’re specific to that magazine, to that year, to those athletes and those photos. Looking at NCWTV’s pull-quote, I wasn’t sure I felt the same way about the 2014 Body Issue. In a lot of ways, I felt like the 2014 edition had gotten *better*. I wasn’t unhappy about being quoted – links are always nice! But I did think my initial conclusions deserved some updating. After all, two whole years have gone by. Had ESPN’s Body Issue gotten better? Would I get to say the phrase “male gaze” at least a billion times? (probably) So I jumped once more into the realm of naked photos.
WRONG NAKED PICTURES, GODDAMN IT
All right, enough with the cracks. (… I couldn’t help myself)
Okay, yes, HELLO MR. PRINCE FIELDER. Exhibit A for why I like 2014’s issue much more than 2012’s. Two years ago, I said I wanted to see fat athletes in ESPN’s Body Issue, and THEY HAVE DONE IT. (Not because of me, obviously. BUT STILL) This is a fat athlete we’re seeing, in all his naked glory. We see his muscles, his face, his stomach, his arms – his fat is not covered up, hidden, or minimized. Better still, Prince Fielder looks straight at the viewers: there is no shame in his face, no bashfulness, no apology. He’s not unhappy about the condition of his body, not abashed. He’s proud. Moreover, the shoot portrays him in motion, playing his sport. This is crucial – the Body Issue has an tendency to show athletes with non-normative bodies just standing there, used for shock value: Look How Brave We Are To Photograph A Naked Fat Man. Here, Fielder is portrayed as an athlete. We see his fat, athletic body moving. Fat and athletic are not opposed in these pictures; they are intwined. His body is both fat and functional. And they gave him a cover. He’s not buried in the back of the issue. ESPN’s Body Issue is also called “The Bodies We Want,” and it’s a beautiful and radical thing to put a fat man up as an example of a “Body We Want.” Y Predictably, some fatphobic assholes are grossed out by Prince Fielder’s photos, because fat people are terrifying. Predictably, I don’t care. As Melissa McEwan points out, “It’s not about finding [Fielder] beautiful; beautiful is beyond the point. No one need agree that he is beautiful to understand that he is a human being with a right to be free from judgment and hatred on the basis of his appearance. The conflation of those two—asking to be found beautiful and asking to be seen—is the shortest (and most mendacious) way that conversations about body acceptance get shut down.” To use McEwan’s wording, I’d add that no one needs to find Prince Fielder beautiful to understand that he’s a gifted, hard-working athlete at the top of his field. Conflating those two – asking to be found beautiful, and asking that one’s skills be acknowledged – is one of the more frustrating ways conversations about body acceptance get shut down. Fielder is a gifted athlete whether or not you think he’s attractive. Indeed, ESPN’s Body Issue is NOT about showing off conventionally attractive people – at least, that’s not it’s mission statement. It IS about showing off athletes’ bodies – to: “admire the vast potential of the human form. To unapologetically stand in awe of the athletes who’ve pushed their physiques to profound frontiers. To imagine how it would feel to inhabit those bodies, to leap and punch and throw like a god.” And if that is the Body Issue’s mission, then Prince Fielder belongs in its pages as much as any other athlete. Because fat people are athletes, and do play sports at a high level – whether you’re personally okay with that or not. [Like McEwan, I’m not linking to any of the more disgusting things people have said about Fielder, but you can find them if you look] *** I do think it’s interesting that ESPN chose a fat man, rather than a fat woman, to be the first fat athlete in the Body Issue. Indeed, while the Body Issue has always pushed the visual boundaries of our idea of athleticism, it’s always done so in a deeply gendered fashion. Looking back across the past several issues, ESPN has featured three groups of people who don’t fit our visual idea of “athlete”: visibly disabled athletes, fat athletes and old athletes. (While many of the athletes in the Body Issue may have invisible disabilities – chronic illnesses, mental health problems, injuries etc. – those disabilities remain invisible to the viewer because of the Body Issue’s visual emphasis)
Do you see it? All of the old athletes and the fat athletes are men. All of the visibly disabled athletes are thin, conventionally attractive white women. Most of whom are blonde. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but in the pictures of disabled athletes, there’s a sense of… trying to reassure the audience, almost. Yes, the magazine seems to be saying, sometimes women lose limbs, sometimes they’re confined to wheelchairs, but they’re still *women*. They’re still beautiful, feminine, thin, fuckable. You would still be attracted to them if they wore a swimsuit. They’re disabled, but they’re not ugly – that line women must not cross. It’s telling that except for their visible disabilities, they are the pinnacle of female attractiveness: white, thin, long-haired, conventionally attractive, usually in graceful, feminine poses, almost always smiling at the camera. They’re inviting, not defiant. Obviously, disabilities don’t *actually* make people more passive – but I think there’s a reason we as a society tend to react differently to disabled men v. disabled women. I think there’s a reason ESPN is much more comfortable portraying visibly disabled women than they are portraying visibly disabled men in the Body Issue (to the point where they have not done so at all) . Visible disabilities reinforce women’s passivity, while they destroy the image of male strength. A visibly disabled woman can still appeal to the male gaze, while a visibly disabled man disturbs that gaze. While the Body Issue won’t portray visibly disabled men, they will portray men who are old or fat. Fat and age aren’t inherently unattractive, but they’re coded as such in media. And the Body Issue does not shy away from portraying fat men, or old men. en, in other words, can be shown as unattractive, at least according to societal standards. Their skin can be wrinkled; we can see their fat; we can see the sagging. Unattractive men aren’t disturbing – as long as they’re still able-bodied. In ESPN’s body issue, women can be disabled as long as they’re still attractive, and men can be unattractive as long as they’re visibly able-bodied. Women in the Body Issue can push the visual boundaries of “athleticism”, but they can’t be unattractive – they have to be thin and young, even if they’re disabled, or muscular, or otherwise break the “athletic woman” mold. Men in the Body issue can push the visual boundaries of athleticism, but they can’t be disabled – they must be able-bodied. The core of the athletic woman is still her attractiveness; the core of the athletic man, his strength.This is a theme that comes up in the Body Issue again and again, even when we’re not talking about disability, age and fat. *** The other way in which ESPN’s Body Issue tends to be gendered is in how the athletes are portrayed visually in terms of their movement. Waaaay back in 2012 (THE DARK AGES), I concluded that male athletes were far more likely to be portrayed in active, impressive poses, playing their sport, showing off their moves, while female athletes were mostly portrayed in passive poses that had little, if anything, to do with their athletic talents and abilities. To repeat myself: “The shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful.And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful. But most women in the shoot are not portrayed as powerful, talented athletes. They’re portrayed as hot chicks.” Does this visual divide still hold true in 2014? Are men still portrayed as active and strong, while women stay coy and beautiful? LET’S FIND OUT WITH SOME STATISTICS! … I am way too excited about this. So, first, clarification of terms. An active pose is where the athlete is moving, and is doing something related to sport (note that I did not say “something related to THEIR sport” – we’ll come back to that part) Example of an active pose:
A passive pose, on the other hand, is one where the athlete is not moving, and is not doing anything related to sport. Example of a passive pose:
Now that we’re clear on terms, let’s look at the breakdown from 2012:
Individual Male Athletes in the Shoot: 11 Individual Female Athletes in the Shoot: 17
Photographs of Men: 19 Photographs of Women: 17
Photographs of Men in active poses: 15 (78%) Photographs of Men in passive poses: 4 (22%)
Photographs of Women in active poses: 9 (52%) Photographs of Women in passive poses: 8 (48%)
And now, let’s see if 2014 changed anything:
Number of Female Athletes: 10 Number of Male Athletes: 10
Photographs of Women: 29 Photographs of Men: 28
# of Active Male Poses: 23 (82%) # of Passive Male Poses: 5 (18%)
# of Active Female Poses: 17 (59%) # of Passive Female Poses: 12 (41%)
IMPROVEMENT! Very obvious, if small improvement. 59% of the photographs of women in 2014 have them doing active, athletic poses, versus 52% in 2012. And although men are still portrayed as far more active, the gap between the number of active male poses and active female poses has lessened from a 28% difference to a 23% difference. Now, good news aside, there’s still a giant gap between the number of women portrayed as active athletes, and the number of men portrayed as active athletes. Almost all the photographs of men – eighty two percent – have them doing something impressive, active, athletic. Only 59% of the photographs of women have them doing the same thing. It’s more than half, yes, but barely. Men are still *far* more likely to be depicted as talented and powerful. Let’s take this a step further. How many athletes had at least *one* photograph in their shoot where they were in an active pose? And how many athletes had at least *one* photograph in their shoot where they were in a passive pose? 2012:
Individual Male athletes: 11 Male athletes with at least ONE active pose in the slideshow: 10 (90%) Male athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 1 (10%)
Male Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in the slideshow: 3 (28%) Male Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 8 (72%)
Individual Female athletes: 17 Female Athletes with at least ONE active pose in the slideshow: 7 (46%) Female Athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 8 (54%)
Female Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in the slideshow: 15 (88%) Female Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 3 (12%)
Individual Male Athletes: 10 Male Athletes with at least ONE active pose in their shoot: 10 (100%) Male Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 5 (50%) Male Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in their shoot: 5 (50%) Male Athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 0 (0%)
Individual Female Athletes: 10 Female Athletes with at least ONE active pose: 8 (80%) Female Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 3 (30%) Female Athletes with at least ONE passive pose: 7 (70%) Female Athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 2 (20%)
Here, I think the improvement is even more visible. While only 46% of female athletes had at least 1 active pose in 2012, a 80% of them have an active pose in 2014 – an almost 40% jump. A whopping 54% of female athletes were ALWAYS portrayed as passive in 2012, but that percentage drops to 20 in 2014. More and more women athletes are being portrayed as talented, powerful and strong at least ONCE in their photoshoot. Again, though, there’s still a big gap between the portrayal of men and women. ALL the male athletes had at least one active pose in their shoot. None of the men were always passive, and 50% of them were always active – while 70% of women had at least one passive pose. ESPN continues to feel far more comfortable portraying men as active athletes. It still feels the need to tone down, say, Hilary Knight’s amazing, dynamic hockey picture:
with a picture of her sitting and smiling, a soft expression on her face:
70% of the female athletes’ shoots have at least one of these passive, calm pictures. In fact, there seems to be a tradition in the magazine whereupon ESPN will portray a woman as incredibly powerful and gifted in her sport – and then follow it up with a very male-gaze focused picture. Women are strong, the magazine tells us – but don’t worry! They’re still attractive. They’re still traditionally feminine. We have preserved the core of their womanliness. Even when ESPN portrays a male athlete in both passive and active poses, the passive poses aren’t geared towards the male gaze – they’re geared towards showing off the male athlete’s strength. Looking at Nigel Sylvester’s shoot, for example:
One pose is more passive than the other, but both are very much geared towards highlighting the strength and power of Sylvester’s body. It’s not like Nigel Sylvester’s passive pose involves him sitting down, smiling coyly at us while he touches his body (more’s the pity). If you contrast his pictures with say, Hillary Knight’s or Coco Ho’s: Unlike with Sylvester, only *one* of the pictures is about highlighting the athletes’ talent, strength and ability. The other is very much geared towards showing off the women’s femininity and sexiness. Now, before we move on to other subjects, let’s take a look at the two women who are portrayed solely in passive poses: Jamie Anderson and Venus Williams. Notice anything interesting about them?
That’s ri-ight! They’re the two female cover models. And here, the contrast is pretty fucking obvious. All the men are doing something active, something related to their sport. They’re also all looking AWAY from the viewer, and towards whatever they’re doing – while Jamie Anderson is smiling at us, and Venus Williams is, if not looking towards us, at least looking far closer towards us than the men are. The male athletes are focused on their sport; the female athletes are focused on us. The fact that Venus Williams and Jamie Anderson are both disconnected from their sport, and are instead portrayed in a feminine, passive, male-gaze-oriented ways, is… telling (I really love the word “telling.” Is it obvious?). Because this is the way that the Body Issue advertises itself – through its cover. And when it comes to its cover, the Body Issue casts women and men into deeply gendered roles. The male athletes are talented, powerful, active. The female ones are passive, beautiful, alluring. It’s, again, reassuring to a male gaze: if you buy this magazine, you’ll see some tough, amazing male bodies, and some lovely, sexy female ones. Now, once you get *inside* the magazine, there’s a lot less passivity on the part of the female athletes. But you wouldn’t know that just looking at the covers, would you? ESPN may be making progress in terms of its gendered aesthetic, but it doesn’t advertise it. So yeah, women are getting a whole lot more active in The Bodies We Want. But they’re still not on par with the men – and, more importantly, ESPN is still very invested in “reassuring” the viewers that, while its female athletes are gifted, powerful sportswomen, they’re still feminine, feminized, submissive. *** Remember how earlier, I defined “active” as “where the athlete is moving, and doing something related to sport (note that I did not say “something related to THEIR sport)” Yeah, there was a reason for that. As I was tallying up all the active female poses of 2014, I noticed something. A lot of the women were being active… but they weren’t actually playing their sport. At all. Quick, what sport does Amy Purdy play?
What about Lyn-Z Pastrana? What sport does she play? NO GOOGLE!
I mean, Megan Rapinoe at least gets a ball, but still:
Amy Purdy, for the record, is a snowboarder. She also came in second on the latest edition of Dancing With The Stars. Whatever she’s doing in that picture, it’s neither dancing nor snowboarding.
Lyn-Z Pastrana is a pro-skateboarder (the dude on the bike is Travis Pastrana, her husband, a RallyCross racer)
Megan Rapinoe plays soccer.
Now, I’m not morally opposed to showing athletes bodies’ doing something *other* than the sport they’re famous for. I just think it’s… interesting… when you look at the gender breakdown:
# of men shown playing their sport: 10 (100%) # of men not shown playing their sport: 0 (0%) # of women shown playing their sport: 6 (55%) # of women not shown playing their sport: 5 (45%)
Men always get shown playing their sport. Always. They’re always portrayed as athletes first. They’re not just in the magazine to show off their bodies – they’re in the magazine to show off their SKILLS. But even though Megan Rapinoe, Lyn-Z Pastrana, Amy Purdy, Venus Williams and Jaime Anderson were presumably invited to appear in the issue on the basis of their talents in their chosen sports, none of them are allowed to show off that skill. Venus Williams gets to stare at a desert.
Jaime Anderson is draped over a chairlift.
Lyn-Z Pastrana is on the back of her husband’s motorcycle. Amy Purdy gets to do various acrobatic things – which seem to be more about “look, she can do awesome things with her artificial legs” than about “look at the awesome things she can do in her SPORT.”
And Megan Rapinoe is literally doing a pilates move.
Just for context, here’s what the OTHER soccer player in the magazine is doing:
There’s something disturbing about the way these shoots distance women from the sports they play. While we are asked to admire the men for their athletic skills, we are asked to admire the women’s bodies as athletic *objects* – not as active agents within the sport they play. We as viewers aren’t invited to admire their abilities, their talent, their command of the sport. We’re often just invited to admire them as bodies, full stop. Men’s athletic bodies are functional. Women’s athletic bodies are sexual. There’s much more power – not to mention personal agency – in a photoshoot that demands the viewer look at what she’s doing with her athletic body, rather than a photoshoot that asks you to look at her athletic body. Plus, it makes for a much more dynamic image. Which is more interesting – picture #1:
Or Picture #2:
We see this division in real life too. Women are invited to play sports so that they can look good, while men are invited to play sports so that they can be good at sports. Again: Men’s athletic bodies are functional. Women’s athletic bodies are sexual. Now, I’m already guessing there are going to be a few complaints about this point. Mainly, people will say: “BUT IT’S HARDER TO SHOOT WOMEN PLAYING THEIR SPORT/ BEING ACTIVE BECAUSE BOOBS.” THINK OF THE CHILDREN. We have to hide the Lady Boobs. National priority here. To which I say: 1. If ESPN wants to be truly radical, it could take the revolutionary step of not treating women’s breasts as sex objects. Then we could just see breasts, and it would not be a problem. (Yeah, I know, not likely, but a girl can dream.) 2. If you can hide balls, you can hide breasts.
I’m just saying, there has to be tape/photoshop involved in some of these shots of the men. #3. ESPN has shot female athletes in dynamic poses before. Yes, even in soccer. Yes, even in snowboarding. They can handle it. SNOWBOARDING
They are capable of taking an active picture of women with NO BOOBS flying around. Okay, you say. Fair enough. BUT! There are two soccer players in this issue. Maybe they just wanted Omar Gonzales and Megan Rapinoe to have different *types* of shoots. That’s a perfectly reasonable point. But. Why is it always the chick who has to do the Pilates? Why isn’t Omar Gonzales doing the Pilates? Why isn’t Travis Pastrana holding onto his WIFE as she skateboards down a half – pipe? Why aren’t more random male athletes doing yoga poses, or draping themselves artfully around hula-hoops and curtains? Why aren’t more men lying in the snow, laughing? Why aren’t more of them lying on exercise equipment and smiling coyly at the viewers? Morgan Maassen, who photographed surfer Coco Ho for this issue, had this to say: “”The ESPN Body Issue exists to both celebrate top athlete’s bodies as well as show that they can be sexy too. Juggling that combination, we took to the water to shoot Coco doing what she does best.” That’s all I really want: for the female athletes to be shown doing what they do best. Not pilates. (Unless they’re a pilates champion) (In which case: PILATES AWAY) *** Another major difference between male athletes and female athletes in the Body Issue is the amount of smiling. Guess who smiles more? That’s right! It’s the ladies.
Of the ten male athletes, one is shown smiling (10%) Of the ten female athletes, five are shown smiling (50%)
When men are in passive poses, they’re far more likely to be giving proud, defiant, strong looks to the camera:
And some women get the same edit:
But a lot of women, when in these passive poses, aren’t shown confronting the viewer . They’re shown smiling at us.
If you compare the photos of Jamie Anderson and Angel McCoughtry, it’s pretty clear that one of them is *much* more viewer-oriented. Jamie Anderson is leaning towards us, smiling at us, inviting us in. Angel McCoughtry is just looking at us. There’s nothing particularly inviting about her look, or her stance – she just is. She’s not being presented as an object for consumption. This goes back to the theme of “reassuring” readers. Female athletes are allowed in the “elite athletes” club – but only if we keep emphasizing how attractive and feminine they are. They can dunk basketballs and win olympic gold, but they’re still pretty. They can win fights, and they can still pose for the male gaze. Male athletes, on the other hand, can be as strong, confrontational and proud as they want without intimidating readers. Female athletes must be friendly. Male athletes must be fierce. All these things are true – but. But. There’s an added twist.
Female athletes (with Lyn-Z Pastrana): 11 Black female athletes: 3 (27%) White female athletes: 8 (73%)
Black female athletes who smile at some point in their shoot: 1 (33%) White female athletes who smile at some point in their shoot: 6 (75%). Aha. I don’t think I would have noticed this distinction before reading the work of Trudy at Gradient Lair on the portrayal of black athletes. In her post “7 Predictable Ways That The Media Portrays Black Olympic Athletes,” Trudy points out that black athletes are portrayed as innately physical “versus as ones who also work hard and use the mental acumen of focus and strategy to contribute to their performances and competitive spirit (…) the “natural” physicality (and objectification in relation musculature and size) of Blackness is central to any sports commentary. Rarely is Serena’s mental game that contributes to her success mentioned (as the obsession is ALWAYS about her physical power/size), yet it is always mentioned for White tennis players.” Black female athletes are, in particular: “de-sexualized, “masculine” and aggressive. John McEnroe made a disgusting comparison of Misty May Treanor and Kerry Walsh to Serena and Venus Williams, saying that the former “out classes” the latter (…) The hyper-feminization of the volleyball stars because of their Whiteness conforming to Eurocentric ideals of beauty juxtaposed to the consistently negative racialized sexist perceptions that are hoisted on to the Williams sisters is a part of a consistent theme in sports (…) The Williams’ aren’t the only ones to be portrayed this way. It’s common outside of the Olympics with Black women athletes.” (my italics) The phenomenon Trudy discusses reappears on the pages of ESPN’s Body Issue. While the white female athletes are consistently sexualized (Jamie Anderson), and shown as soft and passive, almost all the black female athletes are portrayed in the same way as their masculine counterparts – desexualized and aggressive. White female athletes are portrayed to appeal to the male gaze. Black female athletes are not. Here, the Body Issue firmly adheres to white, eurocentric beauty standards: white women CAN be portrayed as appealing towards the male gaze – black women, not so much. Context matters here. Without an analysis of misogynoir, it seems great that Aja Evans and Angel McCoughtry are portrayed as just as tough, active and aggressive as the male athletes in the shoot. But once you realize that black female athletes are *overwhelmingly* portrayed this way, while white female athletes get to be feminine, sexy, inviting… you realize there’s something gross going on. To quote Victoria Carthy in “Textual Portrayals of Female Athletes: Liberation or Nuanced Forms of Patriarchy?” : “black women are seen as more athletic than white women, so their femininity is discounted as irrelevant (…) they have never been fully included in the stringent ideals of femininity and heterosexuality to begin with.” (140). Black female athletes, in other words, just aren’t *good enough* for the white supremacist heteropatriarchy to find them attractive. So when we see athletes like Aja Evans and Angel McCouhtry being portrayed as aggressive and masculine (while white women are feminine and sexy), we shouldn’t just read that as them being treated like male athletes – we should also read it as black women being denied their femininity. As my boyfriend put it: white women may be stuck in the foyer of forced sexualization, but black women aren’t even allowed through the door. Thus, while two years ago, I might have viewed Venus Williams’ shoot in The Body Issue in a solely negative light – here, we have a strong, talented female athlete who only gets to look pretty and smile at the viewers – my understanding of racialized misogyny forces me to re-examine my assumptions. Instead of being portrayed as “masculine,” “overwhelming,” “pummeling,” “aggressive,” or “predator” (common ways the media describes Venus Williams) here Venus gets to be feminine – something that media usually does not allow her to be. Since she’s often denied that facet of her character, the fact that this photoshoot allows her to be feminine, sexy, vulnerable is… progressive. Black female athletes being portrayed as feminine has a very different context from white female athletes being portrayed as feminine. Oppression is complicated as fuck. It gets even more complicated when you look at the racial breakdown of the male athletes. While the female athletes in the Body Issue are overwhelmingly white, the male athletes are overwhelmingly black.
Male athletes: 11 (counting Travis Pastrana) Black male athletes: 6 (55%) Latino male athletes: 1 (10%) White male athletes: 4 (36%)
Which, again, reinforces the idea that black people are *inherently* athletic. So male athletes tend to be black hypermasculinized, aggressive and active, while female athletes tend to be white, passive feminine and feminized. Male athletes are a power fantasy – an extreme version of maleness – while female athletes tend to cater to the male gaze. Most of the female athletes are at the pinnacle of female attractiveness: young, thin, white, passive, feminine, smiling. Those women who *don’t* fit into that narrow box (i.e: black women) tend to be portrayed like their male counterparts. And again, I think this is very much about reassuring a male gaze.Most of the female athletes aren’t portrayed pushing the boundaries of femininity, but rather, reinforcing them. Sure, women will be athletes, but they’ll be the kind of athletes we can still be *attracted* to. You get to have your cake and eat it too – acknowledge women are athletes while still keeping most of them as objects of consumption (see what I did there with the cake metaphor? And objects of consumption? HAHAHAHAHAHA, I crack myself up). It’s interesting how ESPN’s Body Issue can push the visual boundaries of what we consider “athletic,” all while reinforcing a bunch of narratives about who is an athlete, and how they’re allowed to express their athleticism. *** One of the biggest criticisms of my previous post was: “but what if the female athletes WANT to be portrayed that way?” What if Jaime Anderson didn’t *want* to snowboard? What if Megan Rapinoe really wanted to show off her pilates prowess? What if Lyn-Z Pastrana wants to be on the back of her husband’s motorcycle instead of starring in her own shoot? First: maybe they do want to be portrayed this way. But if they do isn’t that also worth examining? If all these women want to be portrayed as particularly feminine/sexy/passive – while all the men want to be portrayed as active/strong/confrontational – there’s something going on there. Why do men feel more comfortable being active? Why do women feel more comfortable being passive? Do female athletes feel pressure to *prove* their femininity? Three of the female athletes in ESPN’s Body issue specifically mention their femininity – clearly, it’s something they think about a lot. Conversely, do male athletes feel pressured to prove their masculinity? Would male athletes like to lounge around on the sand and show off their softer side (I mean, no pressure, gentlemen, but I’d like that)? What kind of cultural pressures are women under to prove that they’re still sexy and feminine even when they do traditionally masculine things? What kind of cultural pressures are *men* under to prove that they’re never vulnerable? It’s entirely possible to examine those issues without saying “women are wrong for wanting to be feminine.” Moreover, the intent of the athlete doesn’t change the message of the shoot. Whether the athletes personally chose everything in their poses or not, viewers will still get the impression that a female athletic bodies are sexual, while male athletic ones are functional. Death of the author and all that jazz. But second… I really don’t buy that these shoots are the result of what the female athletes want. Because that’s just not how professional photoshoots work. The photographer, the set, the costumes, the props – these are all chosen without the athletes’ input. If Megan Rapinoe had shown up at her shoot and said “whoa, I was hoping to shoot at a soccer field, just like Omar Gonzales,” would the photographers/lighting tech/makeup artists etc. pack up and go find her a new location? Probably not. These very basic decisions – set the shoot on location, or in a studio? Use a snowboard or use a hula hoop? – are probably made very early in the process, long before the athletes are actually consulted. It’s ESPN’s photoshoot and the athletes are their models. The ESPN editorial team will have very specific ideas about the kinds of locations, moods and themes they want. And that’s understandable. Shoots cost thousands of dollars; they want to make sure they’re going to get a good return on their investment. Once the athlete comes on set, most decisions are too far gone to change. Was Amy Purdy really going to walk into the studio where they’d set up a hula hoop and a weird curtain and say that she wanted a snowboard instead? She’s not paying for the shoot – ESPN is. Photographers, meanwhile, control the flow of the shoot. They’re the ones telling the athletes how to move, how to pose, where to look, when to smile. Yes, this can be a collaborative effort, with the photographer and athlete working together to get the shot – but the photographer is ultimately in charge of how the athlete will look. And even if the athlete does a lot of active poses, and the photographer takes an amazing series of photos, neither of them are the ones who CHOSE the photos that run in the magazine. The editorial board does that. They’re ultimately the ones who decide how an athlete will be portrayed. In Morgan Maassen’s interview, for example, he talks about wanting to take pictures of Coco Ho that show her doing what she does best “bending and contorting at surfing’s behest.” When you look at the magazine itself, however, only one of the pictures really shows Coco Ho surfing. Given Maassen’s remarks, I’m pretty sure this was an editorial decision. Maassen probably took a lot of pictures of Ho surfing, but the team putting together the magazine just didn’t choose a lot of pictures where Ho was particularly active.
And no, for the record, I don’t think the magazine editors were cackling maniacally while going “AH YES, WE SHALL REDUCE THESE PUNY FEMALES TO MERE PASSIVITY MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA WE ARE THE PATRIARCHY.” I bet they weren’t even thinking about it. That’s what’s so disturbing about institutional oppression. You’re not thinking about it. So yeah, maybe female athletes *want* to be portrayed in a particular way. But they’re not the ones who are in charge of those decisions. If anything, they’re the smallest cog in a very big production machine. *** Wrapping it all up. Looking back at my conclusions from 2012 “The shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful.And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful. But most women in the shoot are not portrayed as powerful, talented athletes. They’re portrayed as hot chicks,” I’d say yeah, that’s still true in a lot of ways. But it’s more complicated than that. The Body Issue is getting better. It’s pushing the visual boundaries of what we consider “athletic,” who we consider “athletes,” and how we think these “athletes” should act. And all while pushing some boundaries, the Body Issue continues to leave others firmly in place. I’m looking forward to the day when athletes don’t to be “reassuring” to a male gaze to become part of the Body Issue. We’re getting there. But we’re not there yet. *** To finish off, here are some amazing athletes who *don’t* fit our typical definition of athletic. Maybe ESPN will consider asking them to appear in the Body Issue. (note: I am aware that a few of these athletes would be unlikely to say yes for religious reason)
Anyone else you’d add to the list? (Note: googling “fat athlete” will get you a WHOLE LOT of fatshaming. Learn from my mistakes, my ducks. Learn from my mistakes.)
[Content note 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.
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.