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.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Feminist Men Rock

WARNING: THERE WILL BE SHAMELESS SHILLING AND FANGIRLING IN THIS POST. YOU'VE BEEN WARNED. PROCEED WITH WHATEVER CAUTION YOU DEEM NECESSARY.

I don't often take the time to discuss celebrities I like, but Friday night at the Trocadero theater in Philadelphia convinced me to make an exception. I was there to see Gerard Way, a fantastic solo musician who was the founder and lead singer of My Chemical Romance as well as the brilliant mind behind some truly great comics like The Umbrella Academy and The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. It was a fantastic show and if you have the chance to check him out on this or any future tours, I highly recommend you do.

But this is not a review or a critique of his artistry. However much I enjoy criticizing art in private, I don't feel like it's my place to do so on a public forum, as well as the fact that whatever flaws Gerard Way may have, I'm blind to, because I've adored him since I was 19.

However, the ways he uses his power as a public figure, that's worth discussing. It should be noted that at the tender age of 28, I skew significantly older than most of Gerard Way's fanbase. He had a captive audience of teenagers, mostly young women, who adore him, follow him on social media, and would respond to whatever he chose to say, and it was this: (paraphrasing)

"I've been on the internet and seen a lot of the shit that women, young women, get thrown at them, and I just wanna say ladies, it's coming from old, white dudes with power who are afraid of you!"

"Never, ever, ever give up control for free!"

"Things are changing and I'm loving it. I'm not scared of this generation being in charge at all. Stay strong, ladies!"

In a world where the Millennial generation is constantly under attack from the previous generations (i.e. the ones who raised them) for their perceived laziness, their lack of ambition, their addiction to their phones and their general crappiness, having a Gen X'er who's also a major pop culture figure tell them not only that he's not afraid of them, but that they're awesome, is incalculably huge. People respond to how they're treated, but being treated well by adults when you're a teen is so rare it could qualify as a superpower, and we consistently wonder why teenagers are so sullen. Maybe it's because we tell them almost constantly that we implicitly hate everything they think, like, do, are?

In true patriarchal fashion, women seem to bear a stronger brunt of this than men. Not only in pop culture, but politics, women are told that they are nothing more than the sum total of their sex organs, and that those body parts are public property. For every amazing woman who stands up for herself and her sisters, there's an oppressive body of men--and even more disheartening, other women--who want to shout her down. And yet, here's Gerard Way, pushing 40 (I know you don't believe me, so here), white, and a guy, benefitting from the current power structure no matter which way you spin it, and he's encouraging young women to change the world, showing he's not afraid because their power and strength is something to be celebrated instead of loathed.

They say young women need role models, and it's fucking true, but feminism is about celebrating everyone, and in the changing world young men need to see that better opportunities for women =/= worsening or fewer opportunities for them. Too often, young men are told that feminism is not for them, that it wants to take from them, and that's why men like Gerard Way are so important as public figures. He's married, has a child, beat the odds in overcoming alcoholism and in earning his living making the art he wants to make. He's surrounded by adoring fans and is successful in every measurable way. And he's a feminist.

The only real problem with Gerard Way is his singularity. For every him, for every Wil Wheaton, for every Joss Whedon, for every George R. R. Martin, for every man with a public audience who steps up for equality and improvement, who shares instead of hordes, popular culture will respond with a thousand different ways to shut them up, to put us all back in our boxes, keep us chugging along in a system where the current winners are the only winners, and everyone else suffers through. So take some inspiration. Learn by example.

Say something.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Tragedy of Maleficent

Spoilers abound for anyone who has yet to bear witness to the festering bed sore that is Disney's latest abomination,

Once upon a time, humans lived among the fair folk. They were allowed to live as they liked, so long as they paid the fey their due respect. Some fairies responded with obeisance, others with reward, and still others with disinterest, so long as the humans observed the appropriate rights.

As it happened, one king and queen allowed the power they had over their fellow humans to go to their heads, and upon the birth of their daughter, publicly spurned an unpopular but vastly powerful fey named Maleficent by expressly not inviting her to the christening. In equal parts retribution to the royal upstarts as well as a reminder to those to follow of the foolishness of incurring her wrath, Maleficent cursed the newborn princess. She bore the babe no ill will, the child was merely collateral damage in the political chess game that the royal family had instigated. Sadly, Maleficent's quest for justice was thwarted by lesser fairies and the entitled entourage of the human royals, and she died a martyr to her own brand of retribution.

Sadly, this is not the story that Disney chose to tell with their re-imagining of one of their most beloved villains. In the trio of films that would go on to anchor the Disney princess franchise, Maleficent was a larger than life powerhouse among the vain, aging queen and the social-climbing, sycophantic stepmother. While Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora are all equally innocent victims, Sleeping Beauty was the first film to depict a villain who was provoked before lashing out. Aurora, the titular beauty, is merely the catalyst for the events of the film, but it has always been Maleficent's story.

The live-action adaptation starring Angelina Jolie is, at best, a subpar Lifetime movie about a good woman done wrong by a bad man, and oh look, sparkles.

Maleficent starts out as a sunshine-vomiting fairy who epitomizes the Dark is Not Evil trope, and right away that's a major flaw in the film. Maleficent IS evil, deliciously evil, her very name is a portmanteau of mal (French: bad) and magnificent. Her malevolence is just a manifestation of her nature, and nothing, nothing that happens from here on out will convince any moviegoer that the 2014 Maleficent is capable of becoming the 1959 Maleficent.

As the film progresses, with a helping of trite and redundant narration, Maleficent falls in love with a sweet but ambitious boy named Stefan, whose human kingdom fears and loathes the neighboring fairies. In a quest to prove himself worthy of the throne, Stefan cuts off Maleficent's wings to prove to his warmongering king that he has slain the fairy, and so marries the milquetoast princess and becomes king.

Heartbroken and stung by betrayal, Maleficent uses her magic to curse her former lover's newborn in an almost word for word recitation of the animated film's iconic scene. She mentions the lack of invitation, but she's merely mocking the king--make no mistake, this is a classic example of woman scorned. Three fairies take Aurora off to raise her as a commoner, but while this is a cunning plan in the original,  the fairies are so bafflingly stupid that Maleficent herself is forced to keep watch over the child so she can live long enough to enact the curse. Over the next sixteen years, in various sickeningly sweet scenes, Maleficent predictably falls in love with the child and seeks to undo her own curse, which, failing to do so, she unwittingly breaks it with True Love's kiss in a "twist" that Disney property Once Upon A Time has done much better. Twice.

No one fears the bite of a de-fanged cobra, and no one will find anything to fear in the vacillating cream puff that purports to be one of animation's most terrifying villains. Maleficent was introduced as a badass, and the creators of this latest film should be ashamed for what they've done to her.

It's hard not to see Maleficent's stolen wings as a huge and disturbing rape metaphor. The first king makes war on her lands because he fears her power. Stefan drugs her, and then takes what is rightfully hers without her permission. Notable at this point is that Maleficent is the guardian of her moor, friend to all fairies, with long brown hair and a dress to match, the virtuous embodiment of "good" womanhood. Following her "rape", the film justifies Stefan's victimization of Maleficent by turning her into a "bad" woman who kills babies while the crowning glory of her femininity is bound under tight, uncomfortable looking black leather. She finds her way back to "goodness" by forming a maternal bond (the pinnacle of womanhood) to the child she swore vengeance upon. You can tell her redemption is complete by the end of the film because she once again has long hair flowing around her face, and the moor sparkles in her presence.

Following the USCB shootings, this is an especially disturbing parallel to our view of rape victims. Rape turns victims into "bad" people, continuously accused of lying, of asking for it, as being damaged goods. Stefan, for most of the film, gets away with his actions, even achieving his ambitions as a direct result of what he did to Maleficent. Even as he spends the majority of the film in a downward spiral of insanity, it's due to his fear of retribution, not guilt.

Maleficent started out as one of the greatest characters in film canon. She was conceived as evil, she died evil, and from beginning to end she terrified the audience with a drama and flair that female characters 55 years after her debut would kill to possess. The tragedy is we've used this strongly defined villain to paint an ugly portrait of how our society sees women, and splattered it across screens to show girls everywhere what we do to those who don't fit our molds.