Friday, January 1, 2016

The Selfish Resolution

Today we, as a society, resolve to improve ourselves. We promise to lose weight, quit smoking, travel more, write that novel, master that skill, become a better us. And on December 31, 2016, most of us will have failed. Because we will not be selfish.

For all but the first two weeks of a given year, we are conditioned to think of others. Put the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few. Parents tend to be more prone to this than the childfree, women moreso than men. Selfishness is wrong, it's bad for families, friendships, the very fabric of the modern world.

It's your best friend's birthday, so you should go out to the restaurant even though they don't serve anything on your new diet. Your son needs help with his math homework, put away your laptop and stop worrying about your characters. Put yourself and your desires at the bottom of every list, you'll get around to it when you have the time.

Except you will never have the time. It isn't money, that can be earned in exchange for effort, it is a finite source that diminishes every time we tuck ourselves into bed. Slowly we become less ourselves, we fit into the roles that we have filled so long that we have no identity outside our ability to fill them. Small wonder that adulthood is defined by exhaustion and the need for a drink.

If someone we loved were constantly putting aside their own health and happiness. There'd be interventions, loving advice, attempts to guide them towards a better lifestyle. But when it's ourselves, we degrade our own needs to the point of neglect if not outright abuse.

Our world is a fascinating place, and every time we seek out to make ourselves more a part of it, our lives become richer, deeper. We also enrich the lives of those around us, and inspire others to delve more into the world. Like the classic airplane safety demonstration, we have to put our own masks on first. Someone deadened to life's disappointments can only breed that same resignation in others. So this year, as you focus on what you want is the dawn of 2016, focus less on what you want and more on how to get it. Be selfish.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

How Jessica Knoll Wrote a Powerfully Subversive Feminist Work

Spoilers abound for The Luckiest Girl Alive

As 2015 winds down I'm taking a look back on the great media I was able to consume. Fierce, powerful, provocative stuff--feminism had a good year. Yet despite the powerful blogs, books, comics, music, and film/tv that showcased a plethora of intersectional women creating iconic moments, the one that my mind keeps wandering to was a fast-paced summer page turner that delved much deeper than the genre usually allows.

TifAni FaNelli, protagonist of The Luckiest Girl Alive (why, Ms. Knoll, why with that horrible spelling?) has drawn comparisons to the heroine of the runaway lit hit Gone Girl, and on the surface, the two would have a grudging respect that would approximate friendship if Amy Dunne were capable of such, but TifAni (or Ani, as she prefers to go by in adulthood) is a powerfully feminist figure in a world that doesn't want her to be.

On the surface Ani is the worst example of "White Feminism", a well-educated white woman with a powerful job and a self serving streak larger than her family-in-law's Nantucket property. She ruthlessly decimates anyone she perceives to be lower in status than she, while simultaneously flaunting her privilege and demanding the appropriate veneration of such.

Through flashbacks to her high school days in rarefied Main Line Philadelphia, the brittle shells of Ani's personality are peeled back. We learn she's a rape survivor, one who has the audacity to maintain contact with her attackers, drink like a fish, and most importantly, be a total bitch. In short, she's aggressively unlikable--as far a cry from the perfect victim as pop culture has. But the flashbacks climax in an even more traumatizing event--Ani survives a Columbine-esque school shooting perpetrated by her former friend. Further, she is instrumental in halting his attack in a breathlessly brutal scene.

Ani cleaves to her superficial displays of power, wealth, and status as her ultimate plan to wall herself off from the victimhood of her early years. More importantly, she is without any other resources. Left and right her family, faculty, and friends who should be supporting and guiding her to dealing with her trauma don't simply drop the ball--they hurl it with ferocity and aplomb. Ani deals with victim-blaming and patriarchal power structure every time she turns around, and Knoll shows without telling us how her selfishness and status seeking are the only tools she has to protect herself (although several scenes in the book had me wanting to tell her to join a BDSM community and find a Dom who could help her process some of the feelings that inevitably haunt her)

Throughout the novel we see signs that Ani is a better person than she wants to be. She shows greater compassion to her friends and classmates than the frigid bitch she's trying to be is capable of, she rightfully lambasts her Ken doll fiance for supporting the conservative right to protect his assets at the cost of women's health and rights, she even risks her carefully crafted image in a public dressing down of her in-laws' blatant homophobia. She even maintains her career against the pressure to become a corporate wife and is ferociously against the idea of motherhood, even against the desires of her blue blood family. Ultimately, she makes the choices she needs, even when she's pressured to conform.

More figures like Ani are needed in fiction as mainstream as Luckiest Girl. She's a truly strong female character in the hands of an equally strong female writer. Ani is a victim who refuses to be defined by what happens to her, even as her past haunts her. We don't like her, but we're fascinated. Her agenda isn't preachy, it's intrinsic to who she is. Hopefully more queer and poc characters get her level of exposure in 2016, but as the New Year approaches, it's time to salute Ani FaNelli, and toast to the sisters to come.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Rape of Thrones

Last night, Game of Thrones ended its most recent episode with Sansa Stark, oldest surviving child of the Stark family, reinstated in her family home by virtue of her marriage to Ramsey Bolton, the newly legitimized bastard son of Roose Bolton, the man who annihilated her family. Ramsey celebrated his marriage by raping his new wife (as you do), for no other reason than this is how he gets his jollies. He compounds the rape by forcing his manservant Reek to watch. Reek, for those who don't follow the show, is the alias bestowed by Ramsey on Theon Greyjoy, former ward turned traitor of the Stark family, who murders peasant children and passes them off as noble children in his spare time. This is just the latest in torture and mind games that Reek experiences at the hands of Ramsey, who is generally sadistic to all whose unlucky fate it is to cross paths with him.

Problematically, Game of Thrones frames Ramsey's rape of Sansa (tellingly not the most horrific thing Ramsey has done) as further evidence of how far Ramsey's mental assault of Reek extends. Sansa's horrified expression as she experiences assault from the man she was already loathe to marry pans out to a similar countenance of Reek's before the episode fades to black. Apparently the director/writer felt that the viewers would identify more with Reek's horror as he watches his former foster-sister's violation, than we would with Sansa herself, who has survived being a pawn in the political machinations of powerful men and women for her whole adolescence, only to have her agency stripped away again, in the deepest, most personal way. Notably, the writers and director for this episode were all men.

Rape as narrative device is deplorably overused in popular culture. Want to show a female character is strong? Rape her. Want to show she can be vulnerable? Rape her. Want to make sure she's not so above it all? Rape her. Want an innocent girl to take a level in badass? Rape her. What do Olivia Benson, Lisbeth Salander, Lucrezia Borgia and Veronica Mars have in common? Rape. Even self-declared feminist Joss Whedon proposed raping Inara Serra in his iconic space Western Firefly had the show gone beyond one season, as a way to consummate the unresolved sexual tension between her and main character Mal Reynolds.

Far from being a problem in culture as a whole, Game of Thrones is gregariously fond of this trope. The first season showed Daenaerys Targaryen brutally taken on her wedding night by her warlord husband Khal Drogo, and the penultimate season so far shows Cersei Lannister raped by her brother next to the corpse of their murdered son (no, you didn't read that wrong). Even more glaringly, in A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series that serves as the show's source material, both scenes were consensual (although still disgusting, in Cersei's case). Despite being one of the most popular and dynamically written shows on television, it's a sad commentary that as early as the first season, Game of Thrones' writers felt they couldn't maintain compelling drama based off a best-selling fantasy series without resorting to rape.

Even worse, it appears this most recent character rape will not be used to further Sansa's story, but rather the sordid saga of Reek, who, prior to Ramsey's introduction and with the exception of Joffrey, was the most despicable character on a show filled with them. If the writers are going to go back to the dried-up well of rape, it would behoove them to make Sansa's rape actually about Sansa.

The concept of horrible things happening to women in fiction to further the story of male characters is so ubiquitous it's spawned not only a website, but it's own entry on TV Tropes. Mary Jane Watson from the Spiderman franchise exists simply for her misfortunes to carry Peter Parker's story arc. Yet she is somehow less problematic than Sansa's rape informing Reek's narrative. Game of Thrones has featured an array of main and supporting female characters who boast an array of flaws, strengths, quirks, and adventures. Some are loved characters, some are hated, most fall in a spectrum between, leaving room for those one loves to hate. They are as young as nine, as old as 80 plus, butch, femme, smart, stupid, and beautifully diverse (although they are mostly white, but that's a rant for another time). In short, viewers can appreciate in Game of Thrones the same range in female characters that has been default for male characters since the concept of modern storytelling.

Game of Thrones has the potential to be a masterpiece of feminist storytelling, and has come tantalizingly close, so using the ever-lazy conceit of the rape narrative is comparable to Monet nearing the completion of Water Lilies, and deciding to enhance the beauty of the flowers by painting in a dog turd.

Using a woman's rape to further the arc of a male character is the equivalent of painting the turd with actual shit.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Loving is Losing

Yesterday I wrote a post about how good things are in my future because I am accomplished and hard working in the present, even though that mindset is hard to maintain when good things happen to the people close to you. It can be difficult to be happy for someone when their good opportunities show up while yours are still on the way.

But it can be even harder to be happy for someone when their good opportunity costs you their presence.

I am not someone who makes friends easily. I can like a person, but rarely do I love them. If relationships can be compared to sex, I keep most of my friends and loved ones stalled at emotional second base. It's not intentional--opening myself up to another person just takes a lot of time for me to feel comfortable with it. I have always been the type to have one or two close friends instead of a tier of besties.

Everything changed when I started working in mental health. For those of you who want to experience moments of pure pride and satisfaction in your life's work, I suggest working on an acute mental health unit at some point in your life. When it's good, it's the highest high you can achieve.

However, the lows are just as dramatic, and every high costs about twenty lows. That level of intensity, combined with the implicit trust you place in your co-workers (and they in you) for both personal and patient safety, yields a deep and dramatic connection that it usually takes years of friendship to forge. There are days when my co-workers are the singular reason I push through the exhaustion and stress long enough to show up and work a shift.

I'm not saying the entire place is hearts and handholding, but the friends I've made there, I love like family.

Yet time, odiously, insidiously, marches on, and when opportunities arise, smart people (like my friends) take them. And while I know that a friendship that's involved literal blood, sweat, and tears cannot be torn asunder by anything as mere as occupation, the knowledge that I won't be seeing some of these people every day breaks my heart.

There's no conclusion, no panacea for loss or grief to offer. Moving on sucks, and this is merely an acknowledgement of such. As a child, I thought only death was worth mourning, but in reality anything that can be lost is cause for grief, and it's impossible to tell which experiences will end up being the most cherished once they're memories. I merely know that love is worth the pain.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Am a Success--Sometimes

Last week a close friend left our shared job to be a full-time EMT, tomorrow another will leave to join a clinical research team, and today a third returned from a leave of absence to announce that he will leave for an internship in two months. It's a pretty bitter pill to swallow, not only because we have a high intensity job made easier by both each others' competence and camaraderie, but also because great things are happening in their lives, while mine feels like it's at a standstill.

For the record, over the summer, my remaining two good work friends initiated a romantic relationship. So, here I am, working at the same place I was at two years ago, single, staring down the barrel of another year and a half of nursing school, and not feeling the forward momentum that seems to be gracing the lives of my friends. If I were the person I aspire to be, I'd see great inspiration in their hard work and great opportunities. But instead I'm the person I am, and I wonder why I bother buying into the routine at all, while great things happen around, but never to, me.

It's in these instances that I'm forced to remind myself that a negative attitude is self-perpetuating, that if I expect nothing to change, I won't do anything to propel myself toward it, and so a cycle of misery is initiated.

I am also the only person on earth who has achieved what I've achieved with the resources and hurdles I've had throughout my life--and my friends are similarly unique. I have some insight into the effort they put in to getting their opportunities and I can assure anyone who asks that what they've accomplished was hard-won. It's easy to feel unaccomplished next to them, especially in an industry where we get so few external tokens of achievement, but I'm not. I excel at lesson plans, I've taught kids to grow on academic and social levels, I'm a great baker, highly intelligent, creative, a good writer, I give good advice, and I can connect with troubled kids and relate to them on their level without being condescending, and I'm rocking my nursing pre-reqs. None of this is small or un-noteworthy. Sometimes I need to enumerate what I've already done in order to push myself to do more. In the words of Martha Jones, I am good.

It's so easy to feel unaccomplished in a society that accentuates the negative, so when something good happens to others, we almost automatically contrast their positive with our negatives, and we disregard the bigger picture. It's important to remember what we've achieved, but the most essential thing to remember is that it's not a competition. Good things happening to one of us don't take away from the rest, and we are interdependent creatures. We can choose to be a part of each others' successes, and we can draw inspiration from others to fuel our own. Support creates a success of all of us.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gender Bending on the Spectrum

I've worked with kids on the autism spectrum for closing in on a decade. Autism is a spectrum of conditions with an abundance of misinformation, so for brevity's sake I'll only state that it can affect cognitive development, social perception, sensory processing, and motor control to varying degrees in each affected individual. As a disclaimer, it should also be noted that autism is not caused by vaccinations nor can it be cured by abstinence from gluten.

Part of autism education is assisting kids in learning social cues. Most people on the spectrum cannot easily understand nonverbal social cues, which can lead to gaffes in etiquette that make initiating friendships difficult and even hold them back professionally. Among other things, we teach them what certain facial expressions and body motions indicate, what is and isn't appropriate to discuss with someone based on your relationship to them, how to dress in given situations, and the basics of hygiene and grooming.

What I've witnessed and find myself having to debate with other professionals over, are practices that teach conformation to gender heteronormativity. While girls are told that they are expected to remove leg and armpit hair, boys are explicitly told that they may not wear dresses, high heels, makeup, or nail polish. Social stories contain stock phrases such as "Girls do __________." "Boys like _____________." and we are educating a slew of young people that these norms are mandatory in order to be successful in society.

I won't discuss the inherent logical flaw in pushing the idea that gender norms, which are as capricious as fashion trends, are absolute and unchanging (blue and pink signifying the opposite genders they currently do less than a century ago, for example), when there is a far greater ethical dilemma at stake.

What neurotypical people comprehend and autistic people are struggling to understand, is that there are repercussions in society for not subscribing to the mores of one's prescribed gender. What we are teaching however, is that there are no repercussions because there is no choice. Whether someone chooses to disavow certain aspects of gender normativity, like eschewing a razor or adopting Rimmel's London Look, should be entirely their prerogative.

There's also the idea fixed in the minds of the general public that autism is sole defining characteristic of anyone who has the condition, when it is, like any other trait, merely one facet of a whole, complex human being. Autistic people are as likely as neurotypical people to be transgender, and in enforcing the ideal that their gender identity must conform to their biological sex, we're not only robbing them of choice, for trans autistic kids, we are denying an essential aspect of their selfhood.

Morally, we are obligated to impress upon these kids the possible repercussions of how they choose to express themselves in society. When neurotypical kids choose the extent to which they will or will not conform to social mores, whether they are cis or transgender, queer or straight, they do so making an informed choice, and their autistic peers deserve no less. But education is all about choice, forming ideas and plans from the most accurate information available, and educators have an ethical, moral impetus to encourage their students to make the best choices for themselves.

Prescribing their choices based on our own mores and prejudices is not only unfair, but blatantly wrong.

Monday, October 20, 2014

My Failures as a Feminist

Yesterday, after reading my piece on Gerard Way, a dear friend of mine congratulated me on it and told me he tried to live his life by those guidelines ever since he met me. Since his equality-minded nature is one of the reasons we became friends, I asked him why not before. He said that he's always been a feminist, but not always gone about it the right way.

Who among us has?

Ever since I knew the basic definition I've considered myself a feminist. Ask my father's permission to date/marry/whatever me? Fuck off. Equal pay? Damn right I want it. Try to tell me when and how I'll become a mother? Them's fighting words.

Yet, I haven't always been a "good" feminist. I've made mistakes and I believe that anyone who's part of any movement has unknowingly worked against it at some point. So here are the most unfeminist things I've ever done or said, in hopes that I can learn from my mistakes, and perhaps so can others.

1. I mocked the girly girls
Somehow I got it into my head that women who enjoyed that which was pink, sparkly, or flowery were "stupid" and "fueling the fire of the enemy" (I went through a dramatic stage. It isn't over yet).
That somehow being themselves while simultaneously not being like me, those women were somehow undervaluing our whole gender because they liked "girly" things like romance novels and unicorns. I credited myself with (undue) depth and substance because I was above such tired tropes of femininity. I was important and they were stupid.

2. I undervalued the housewifely arts
Along with criticizing pink, I also felt that, due in no small part to an overconsumption of pop culture and mainstream Hollywood tripe, a truly successful woman cannot cook, clean up after herself, or mend her clothing. After all, the patriarchy had pigeonholed women into the housewifely role, and its abandonment was our salvation. Somehow I failed to take into consideration that the ability to feed myself, clean up after myself, and maintain a respectable appearance--especially when I realized that only 1% of the world gets to disavow such niceties because they have staff to take care of it for them--were essential to success.

3. I placed greater value on the feminist issues that affected me
Feminism can be deeply personal, and the passion that feminists bring to their activism comes from their own experiences, but at its core the movement is about everyone, especially those that are marginalized by the patriarchy. We should have a solidarity about us--what happens to my sister happens to me, even if she's trans and I'm cis, even if she's queer and I'm straight, even when her skin color brought her a different experience than mine did me, even if the she in question is my brother, a man who's been just as marginalized by the way things work as I have.

4. I've been guilty of slut-shaming
I've never judged a woman for how much sex she's had, but I've definitely been guilty of judging a woman for how much sex she looks like she's having. If you were showing what I deemed to be too much skin, talking too much about blow jobs, or just advocating a sexual more that I didn't agree with, I judged you for it, and I'm sorry. And while I'm at it, I prude-shamed too, allowing myself to think that women who chose abstinence or advocated prudence were enemies of sexual freedom that has been so hard won, when in truth they were expressing themselves within that freedom.

5. I conflated "men" with "patriarchy"
The patriarchal construct has rigid views of masculinity, femininity, sexuality, race, and nearly every other intrinsic part of personhood that makes each of our experiences unique. Only those who are at the top in this system will stay at the top, and at the cost to those beneath them. Only straight, white, cisgender men get to be fully represented and even they must adhere to the structure laid out for them, to the detriment of their health and happiness. Despite the gendered nouns that the movements have, patriarchy is not for men, nor feminism for women. Patriarchy is simply a way to maintain the status quo, while feminism is a way to lift us up.

The ultimate point is, the only real mistake I made as a young feminist is that I turned feminism into a competition. Everything that I did was done under the guise that I was in competition with those around me, but feminism is a means to an end, and the end is equality--not sameness, not homogeny, but the basic idea that everyone has the right to be themselves without suffering a loss of opportunity or safety. In equality, there is no competition, and the belief that there is is just a myth perpetuated to sidetrack us from what's really important--slowly, surely, confidently changing the world.