Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Spiral Road to Recovery

Six months ago, I broke my ankle while playing roller derby. Since then, I've retired from roller derby (with some amorphous hopes of returning as a ref after I finish my PhD) and started the challenging task of regaining my athleticism after the ankle break. I had the help of some great physical therapy, and my day-to-day actions are pretty much back to normal.

What I wasn't prepared for, though, was the mental work of recovery. I was dutiful in doing the stretches and walking through the pain. I focused so much on the physical challenge of regaining flexibility and rebuilding muscle that I didn't stop to fully recognize what a toll this break had taken on my psyche, especially as someone who had only recently felt comfortable calling herself an athlete.

Lately, I've been thinking about the many ways we could look at the word "recover." I hope that somewhere along that lexical journey, I'll find a way to make it all the way around this recursive loop of loss and gain.

(Re) cover- to hide, conceal, or protect (again)

 There is a literal concealment--under baggy clothes, long sweaters, stretchy pants. The muscles that I spent months building before the immobility took no time at all to vanish, and my weight has crept up. Does caring go against my mantra that fitness is more important than appearance? Or am I just frustrated that my current appearance acts as a constant reminder (to myself, if no one else) that the fitness is gone, dormant, slipped away?

(Re) cover- to go over, to study, to learn (again)

I walk into the gym and cross from one room onto the "other" side, the one where the women never seem to go, the one where the heavy weights live. Just a few months ago, I felt at ease here, but now the nervous glances in the mirror are back. Are they watching me? There's only 70 pounds on this bar. Are they judging? I feel the urge to scream "I broke my ankle. I'm working on it!" but no one is really watching me. No one cares. They've got their own confidences and insecurities to battle. They don't need to carry mine, too.

The confidence I had worked so hard to gain, though, is gone, and now I have to fake it until I make it . . . again. I step under the bar and try to look like I believe I belong. Maybe one day I will.

Recover- to get back or regain something lost or taken away

I registered for the half marathon before the ankle broke, and I was too stubborn to just let it go. The entire summer of training was wiped clean, and I was still limping a little when I walked for too long the day I nervously toed to the start line. "Just jog until you can't," I told myself, "then you can walk. It'll be fine. You can walk 10 miles." I jogged the first mile, alternated between walking and jogging the next four, and then I just walked.

As I walked, I watched people twice my age run past me with ease. Later, people would actually
walk past me. For a while, I tried to jog whenever the camera crew was visible, but then I gave up even that pretense. For the final two miles, every single step was a battle. "That was it," I'd say in my mind, "That was the last step I can possibly take." But then I'd take another. And another. And another.

When I got back to my car, I had to turn around backwards and throw myself in. My legs hurt too bad to lift.

Recover- to regain the strength, composure, or balance of oneself

In physical therapy, I stood on one foot on top of a pillow and threw a ball at a trampoline. Over and over and over and over again. Switch feet. Bounce. Catch. Bounce. Catch. Stumble. Rebalance. Bounce. Catch. Bounce. Catch. 

But the real balance that needed to be restored was the one between body and mind. On the way to the emergency room, I told myself "well, I needed some time to work on my dissertation. Now I'll have to slow down and really focus on it." But I didn't. I wrote nothing. Not a single word until I had a boot on my foot and could at least stagger around, but even then the writing was tortuous, slow, and stilted--just like me.

It wasn't until I was cleared to jog again, to go on long walks, to take in the sunshine and the wind that the words started to flow. I wrote forty pages in a week. I read two books in four days. When my body couldn't move, my mind couldn't either. It was the hardest realization.  
Recover- to regain a former and better state or condition

I will never be the person I was before my ankle broke, but I will also never be the person I was when I was ten years old or, for that matter, the person I was at 10 o'clock this morning. We can't recover our past selves because we've seen more than them; we've done more than them; we are new versions.

This will not be the last time I have to recover in my life. There will be other injuries, other setbacks, other failures. I will lose abilities and gain new ones. When I can stop comparing the person I am today against the one I thought I was yesterday, perhaps I will have truly recovered. Until then, I will continue to cycle through these various meanings of the word, hoping to come out on the other side in some way renewed.

Photo: Infomastern,

Monday, November 10, 2014

Unpopular Opinion: Do You REALLY Care About Thanksgiving Employees?

I've been seeing a lot of posts popping up in my social media feeds that are dividing companies into two realms: the money-hungry corporate thugs that would dare to make their poor employees work on Thanksgiving Day and the kind, loving companies who recognize the value of family and have given their employees the day off.

Today I saw Think Progress (a site I follow because they cover stories that align with my own politics very often) post "The Progressive Guide to Holiday Shopping." Other posts with similar themes abound, including calls to boycott Thanksgiving shopping or to boycott stores that open on Thanksgiving for the entire holiday season.

I'm going to try to approach this delicately because I think that my point can be easily misunderstood. First of all, I support everyone's right to boycott any place they don't like for pretty much any reason. You should spend your dollars in ways that align with your values. Boycotting is an important way to influence decisions higher up on the corporate food chain, and I don't want to diminish the power of that action. 

Secondly, I've been on many sides of the working-on-Thanksgiving perspective. For one, I worked at Wal-Mart throughout my undergraduate years. I worked Black Friday sales (because this was before Black Friday sales actually began on Thanksgiving evening), but I also worked on Thanksgiving Day because Wal-Mart has always been open on Thanksgiving. Yes, it's true that they didn't always promote the extreme sales on Thanksgiving Day, but we were a 24-hour store that only closed for Christmas Day (and I worked Christmas Eve, too). 

That was only a few years out of my life, though, and since then I have sat in a position of privilege that gives me pretty much every holiday off because I work in academia. Of course, I've spent many a holiday (as I will likely spend this year's) working at my own pace on academic projects, but that's not the same as being forced to stand in a retail store while customers punch each other over the last Elsa doll, and I won't pretend that it is. 

What has had a greater impact on my holiday traditions is the fact that my mom also works at Wal-Mart and has done so for over a decade. She works a lot of holidays and a lot of odd hours. We've always had to plan our family get togethers around her schedule, and it's not always fun, but you do what you've got to do. 

I tell you all of that to help shed some light on the fact that I'm not coming at this issue from a point removed. In fact, my family and I have been very much directly impacted by these decisions. I understand why people want stores to close for the holidays, and it is a position that I have very much felt myself. 

However, I have my suspicions that these boycotts and angry posts and litmus tests for "progressive" shoppers have less to do with the actual employees and more to do with the corporate encroachment on traditional values. 

For one, we are singling out a very specific type of employee experience at which to point our outrage. I know several people for whom it is tradition to go out to a movie on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I've got news for you: movie theaters aren't staffed by robots. That popcorn? Those tickets? The vacuum cleaners? They're all managed by human beings who have to work on their holiday to feed the consumer drive for holiday entertainment. 

I actually got into an argument about this around this time last year. The arguer said that was "different" because going to a movie was a family-centered event and shopping wasn't. 

I'll concede that going to a movie together may be a more family-centered event for the family going to the movie, but this outrage is allegedly about the employees, not the customers (who have a choice in the matter that the employees do not). 

If you go to the movies on the holidays or stop by a restaurant or even run to the grocery store when you realize you forgot a crucial ingredient to your famous Thanksgiving pie, you are part of the consumer culture that keeps retail employees on the clock during the holidays. If you do those things but get up in arms about those "poor employees" having to work during Black Friday sales, you're being dishonest (with yourself if nothing else). 

I suspect the actual issue is that those Black Friday sales are alluring. We live in a culture where the actions of others are more influential than ever since we see them all the time in our social media feeds. In fact, it's gotten so bad that we've coined a new disorder for it: FOMO--the Fear of Missing Out

A lot of people (and I am not one of them, as I'd rather walk across broken glass barefoot than go to a store on Black Friday) sincerely enjoy Black Friday shopping. They get a thrill from the deals and for many it is a social event that has its own family and friend traditions built around it.

When stores started creeping back their Black Friday sales times until they got earlier and earlier, though, people's habits were disrupted. When you have to line up at 3pm Thursday to get a Black "Friday" sale, you have to make a tough choice. If you don't want to feel the FOMO, you're going to have to give up your holiday. 

And if some of your family members make that choice while others do not, it can seriously disrupt the dinner table seating arrangement and make the charades teams uneven. Those stores really are disrupting the holiday by insisting that Black Friday start during Thanksgiving, but in order to get to the heart of it, we have to admit as a culture that we're making a conscious choice to continue shopping and let them disrupt it. 

So I think that most of our outrage is a scapegoat. We're* pretending to be outraged on behalf of the poor overworked employees (who deserve outrage for a myriad of reasons including erratic scheduling, poor benefits, and a host of questionable year-round business practices) when what we're really outraged about is our own consumerist behavior. We looked in the mirror and didn't like what we saw, so we pointed to the employees we normally ignore under the guise of family values and concern for their well being. 

The bottom line is this: as long as people shop on Thanksgiving, there will be stores that will be open. The families impacted by that decision will build their holiday traditions around that reality. Yes, that is built out of greed and more than a little sad, but reducing those workers to a prop that's wielded while their plight is co-opted isn't really sincere--especially if it means we can pat ourselves on the back and ignore that same plight in, say, January through October. 

*-I realize this "we're" sounds all-inclusive and that there are many people who fight for workers' rights year round. You're excluded. But you have to admit that the movement has surged for the holidays in a way that it doesn't any other time. I don't think everyone's concern is genuine. 

Photo: Michael Holden

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links for the Week)

I've seriously neglected the weekly round-up post, but I've missed doing it because it gave me a good recap of what I'd been reading and I'd often go back through old link round-ups to find something I remembered reading but couldn't remember where. I could go on and on about why I've been so remiss (dissertation, kid, work, dissertation, being sad about losing all my running ability while my ankle was healing, did I mention a dissertation?), but I'd rather just get back to it. So here they are: the links I read that made me smile (the Good), cry (the Bad), and think (the Curious).

Please feel free to add anything you've been reading or writing in the comments.

The Good

Caitlin over at Fit and Feminist explains that she doesn't care if you think she looks pretty while she runs, so you really don't need to catcall her to let her know. Keep it to yourself:
Because here’s the shocking thing – and I know this will blow your hair back, so hold on to your butts – but not all of us care about looking pretty all the time. (A lot of us don’t even care at all!) Sometimes we just want to go out in public and do our thing and not have to be reminded that there is still a segment of society that looks at us primarily as decorative objects meant to pretty up the place.
This review of Amy Poehler's new book reminded me that I'm going to have to cheat on my dissertation writing day sometime soon and sneak in a tiny bit of pleasure reading.

The gay marriage ban in my state (Missouri) was knocked down today!

This woman ran a 10k in under 40 minutes. . . while pushing a stroller!

I know Halloween is over, but this lovely story about the teens who are too old to trick of treat is worth a read.

This cover song exists (and I'm really upset that I didn't know that until today):

The Bad

I thoroughly enjoyed the reviews on this sexy PhD costume, but the fact that it exists puts it squarely in "bad" territory.

These cops were caught on a dash cam joking about rape.

Colorlines explains that there was some selective race-based editing in that viral catcalling video.

The Curious 

Did you know a lot of those old fairy tales are based on real-life events? One of them includes a father who, upon learning that his daughter had converted to Christianity, "decapitated her but was killed by a lightning strike soon after." Happily ever after indeed!

My iPod broke, and I really, really miss having all my music mobile and in playlists, so I finally checked out Spotify (I know I'm late to the party). That then prompted me to wonder about the ethics of it, and I read a series of articles that didn't help clear it up at all. Here's one from NPR that basically concludes that you should ask the band how they feel about it themselves. This one from The Verge has some interesting discussion, including the stat that the average American only spends $17 a year  on music (at least I'm above average at something). 

This NPR article discusses the faith required to further scientific study, and I find it fascinating:
If supersymmetric particles are found then, great: We will enter a new epoch of high-energy physics. But what if they aren't? My prediction is that there will be a split in the community. While some will abandon the theory for lack of experimental support, others will hold on to it, readjusting the parameters so that supersymmetry becomes viable at energies well beyond our reach. The theory will then be untestable for the foreseeable future, maybe indefinitely. Belief in supersymmetry will then be an article of faith.
There's a Rutgers class based entirely on Beyonce. 

This article about professional marathoners and how they handle their pregnancies shines light on a work/life balance discussion we don't usually think about. 

I haven't known what to think about the Lena Dunham controversy (having not read the book myself and seeing extremely different reactions from people I really respect), but I think this post from Love, Joy, Feminism brings up really good points about boundaries, consent, and labeling that are getting glossed over in the discussions I've seen:
Yes, children experiment sexually, and yes, children are curious about each other’s stuff. But that doesn’t mean that childhood sexual exploration is always and of necessity harmless and okay. We need to be able to draw lines between childhood sexual exploration that is harmless and okay, and childhood sexual exploration that is exploitative and coercive. Part of the problem may be the way we draw lines. You either are a sexual predator, or you are not. That is too all-or-nothing to describe reality; it forces us to label people as all good or all bad, and people are rarely so simple. Most would be loath to put the little boy who pressured me into showing him my bottom in the sexual predator box, but what he did was nevertheless not okay. It was exploitative and coercive, and it left me feeling dirty and used.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why I Caved on the Elsa Costume

I had a plan. When I first asked my three-year-old daughter what she wanted to be for Halloween, she--of course--screamed "ELSA!" at the top of her lungs. I cringed, all my own rants about princess culture as a feminist motherhood blogger bouncing around in my head and with my friend Rebecca Hains' great book about "the princess problem" looming over it all. So I wheedled and pleaded until I got her to choose another costume: Harmony the Care Bear. I breathed a sigh of relief.

So I started looking for Care Bear costumes, but of course she's watching old re-runs on Netflix and Care Bears are not exactly a hot item this year. I found a few, but none for Harmony and all with creepy giant heads that looked like sports team mascots (and that I knew would never make it twenty minutes into the night).

I, being empowered by Pinterest and all, took to the web to find an alternative. I found this adorable tutorial and thought I was in the clear. All I needed to do was find a dark purple hoodie with matching sweat pants and the rest would be a breeze. Except there were no plain dark purple hoodies. Not at Target. Not at Baby Gap. Not at Kohl's. Not at Carter's. Not at Wal-Mart. Not even on Amazon. Everything I found was branded with words across the chest. Everything.

Pictured above: a bunch of things I've never used.
Plus my time was running short. Between working, writing a dissertation, and trying to keep the household together, the days of being able to quickly whip together a cute costume were dwindling.

So to the costume store we went. They'll have something she'll like, I reasoned. It's fine.

We walked into the store, and she was awed by the aisles and aisles of shiny wigs, feathery boas, and yards of tulle. Then we got to the back where the preschooler-sized costumes lived. Immediately, she was drawn to a front-and-center display of Elsa and Anna costumes. "Oh Mommy! I can be Elsa!"

Diversion, I thought. Diversion is the key.

"Look at this!" I shouted with perhaps too much enthusiasm. "A velociraptor! You love velociraptors." This is true, by the way. She does love velociraptors.

"I don't want to be a velociraptor," she says, raising an eyebrow as if she's a little worried about me.

"What about this? It's a beautiful butterfly." She holds the Elsa costume in her arms, tightening her grip in defense.

"Or . . .what's this?" I pull a costume covered in some of that shiny tulle from the shelf and hold it out while reading the label "a . . um. . .a polka dot witch! Don't you want to be a polka dot witch?!"

I can't blame her for shaking her head and walking away from me. I don't even know what "polka dot witch" means.

"A construction worker?" I call after her. "A ladybug? A firefighter? A candy corn witch?" How many kinds of witches are there?

At one point, she literally knelt on the floor, cradling the Elsa costume in her arms and begged. "Please, please, please, please, please, Mommy! Let me be Elsa! It is the only thing I want in the whole world!"

Shit. Why didn't they just make plain dark purple hoodies in a 4T?!

So there I am. The terrible mother in the middle of the costume store using her feminist ideals to block my wonderful daughter from the only thing she wants in the whole world. I sigh deeply, "Okay."

Her whole face lights up as she springs to her feet and starts dancing around me.

Later, I ask her why she wants to be Elsa so badly. "Because her dress is so pretty!" she exclaims. Of course. Sigh.

"Anything else?" I ask, hopefully.

"Because she can sing! Because she has powers! Because she loves her sister!" Harmony the Care Bear, too, loves to sing, so I'm seeing a pattern here that I missed before. And my daughter is an only child, so the draw of a sister has been particularly powerful for her lately. And, really, who can argue that being able to turn things to ice isn't cool?

Yes, it is my feminist principles that make me worry about the choice of Elsa as a Halloween costume. I do not want her, as explained in this article, "up against a multibillion-dollar industry that has a mission to sell our child a particular type of fantasy." But it is those same feminist principles that tell me my daughter needs to learn bodily autonomy, including (within reason) what she wears and how she presents herself to the world.

I care deeply about the media she consumes and am careful about what "princess" shows I let her watch. We talk about what we see on the screen, and I'm trying to teach her media literacy as she grows. So, yes, I caved. She will put on her Disney-branded costume to trek the streets with the hordes of identically-clad Elsas all across the city on Friday, and I will stand next to her, hopeful that she can make future choices about what she likes and how she expresses that as confidently and happily as she made this one.

Photo: hine, AForestFrolic

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: More Modern Than We Wanna Be--Facebook's Rhetorical Identity Construction

Susan Cox has an excellent article over at Salon that examines how Facebook's real-name policy (and Mark Zuckerberg's insistence that we only have one identity in general) undermine the promised complexity of cyberfeminism, which Cox explains envisioned using the internet as "a new frontier beyond the oppressive bodily boundaries of race and gender where new understandings of identity could take root."

Zuckerberg wrote in his 2010 book that "You have one identity... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." He further explained that "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly."

His "real-name policy," then, is presented as a measure of safety and security, a way to ensure that the people you are interacting with are practicing integrity. Only someone who has something to hide, the logic goes, would want to use something other than their "real" names, and the only reason someone would have something to hide is if they are ashamed of some part of themselves. 

Many, many people took Zuckerberg's stance to task to demonstrate legitimate reasons that someone might want to present themselves with a name other than the one on their birth certificate. As people pointed out that drag queens and people trying to escape abusive situations have very good reasons for wanting to "hide" their real names, Facebook caved. 

As Cox explains: 
Facebook apologized for conflating legal names with “real names” and conceded that a legitimate identity may not be constituted by the name you were given at birth. Although Facebook failed to directly apologize to the members of the LGBTQ community disproportionately affected by the incident, Facebook’s concession is, in a sense, a deployment of Trans politics. The conceptual implications of their policy change are: somewhere, somehow, over the course of life, you go through a process of becoming, and your true identity may be something more elusive than what can be verified by a government document.
But in that model, you are still supposed to "find" your "true" self and then present that identity to the whole world. It still does not leave room for the fact that you may need to present different identities as different times, that you might, indeed, be more than one person to the world without nefarious plans in mind.

Caitlin Dewey explores two sides of the real name debate in this Washington Post article, and she situates the question over one of responsibility:
Whenever we talk about real names online, we’re really talking about personal identity. More than that, we’re talking about personal responsibility: Should you be held accountable for what you say and do online … or not? And who is holding you “accountable,” quote-unquote, for the collective breadcrumbs you drop online — your IRL friends? The government? The advertisers who pay dearly for every dribble of information about your “real,” money-spending self?
Accountability for your actions matters. Many of the blogs and news sites that I read have moved to authenticated log-in for commenters because we've learned time and time again that anonymity brings out some of the worst in human behavior. Making someone use their Facebook account to comment doesn't guarantee that they won't abuse and spew death threats, but it does seem to at least reduce the frequency of these posts.

While all of these questions about what's at stake in the real name debate are valid and certainly part of the equation, I think we're missing a more fundamentally rooted cause for this controversy. The debate over whether we have more than one identity and what's at stake in presenting that (or those) identity (or identities) is nothing less than a schism between modern and postmodern thought rearing its head in the midst of our everyday, popular culture.

The idea that we can "find" our "true" selves is one rooted in the modernist, positivist notion that there is one empirical truth waiting to be discovered. The idea that we have a "true" self (one that I took to task in a post about Knocked Up and explored again through Richard Sherman's rant) is a deeply troubling one because it doesn't allow for experience to shape us. If we have an "authentic" self hidden somewhere that we have to find, our experiences can be "right" or "wrong" in that they either lead us closer to our "real" selves or further away and into someone we were never "meant" to be. There are a lot of ironic quotation marks in that paragraph, but I think that we really need to question how easily terms like "real," "meant," and "authentic" roll off our tongues in this discussion. We have internalized a lot of modernistic assumptions about what it means to exist without even thinking about it. For many of us, the idea that we need to find our "true" selves is taken for granted. 

In Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, Wayne Booth explains that "[w]e are what we have consumed; we take in whatever takes us in, and we are forever altered." Every piece of art you view, every book you read, every movie you watch, and every interaction you have becomes a part of you, shapes who you are. He goes on to say that "[i]f man is essentially a rhetorical animal, his essential human act is that of making himself into a self, in symbolic communion with his fellows; that is, each of us makes himself or herself by assenting to and incorporating whoever and whatever represents life at its most immediate and persuasive. Our negatives are learned as we discover violations of our affirmings." 

In other words, the alteration that occurs from interacting with the world is not--as it is often presented--an unfortunate distraction from the real work of finding our "true" selves. It is, instead, the very work of being human. 

So the first thing that we need to call in question is that there is a "true" self in the first place. This is particularly troubling in my line of work (a composition instructor) where the way that we speak and write become an extension of our representations of self. Students who write in nonstandard dialects are often told they are using "improper" English and need to learn the "right" way in order to express themselves "properly." What this amounts to, essentially, is telling a student that the language (and thus the identity) from their home is not good enough and one that they need to get rid of in order to get ahead. If there is only one "authentic" self, then a student struggling with this is forced to make a choice between the identity they have in their home life or a more "proper" (if sterile and intimidating) academic version of themselves. 

It's also troubling in my personal life. I'm not a member of one of those groups who protested most forcefully against Facebook's "real name" policy (though several of my roller derby friends were none too thrilled). But I still think that I exist in many different personas and that I have the right to claim them all equally if not simultaneously. I am no more or less my "real" self when playing lumps in the bed with my daughter than I am when sitting in a coffee shop, stern faced and writing a dissertation. I am no more or less authentic when I'm quoting Snakes on a Plane and laughing with my husband than I am when I stand in front of my students and talk about the lessons of failure. I am all of those things and each one of them, and there is an important distinction between having to own them all simultaneously (something I think is impossible) and being able to slip in and out of them as the circumstances call them forward. 

Think about it this way: would you speak the same way to your grandma as you do to your best friend? Would you speak the same way to a three year old as you would to your boss? Would you speak the same way to your spouse/partner as you would to a client? If the answer is "no," then you are part of Zuckerberg's perceived "lack of integrity." (And if your answer is "yes," then I have some rhetoric lessons I need to give you.)

We adapt to the people around us because we are shaped by them and they are shaped by us. It is not only natural to switch your persona depending on who you're around; it's also the thoughtful thing to do. 

We have accepted many postmodern influences over our contemporary culture. The acceptance that there is no absolute truth is largely responsible for our shifting views on religion. (The number of religiously unaffiliated adults and atheists are both on the rise). Postmodern thought has definitely been in a reciprocal relationship with media as we see mashups and multi-platform texts splinter and reconnect in unexpected ways. 

Postmodern notions have also slammed into economic struggles to produce a workforce of young people who don't stay in positions long and who see interdisciplinary studies as the norm

Looking at all this flow of bits and pieces of culture that get blended, remixed, and repurposed, we might be tempted to think that modernist thought and the positivist drive for an empirical truth have gone the way of the pay phone. But the Facebook name debate (and the unsatisfactory nature of its "solution") demonstrate that we're really more modern than we pretend to be. At the very core of who we are, there is still an insistence for a stable center that does not, has not, and cannot exist, but we will continue to try to force one because it is much easier to look at a world where identities stand still. 

Photos: wolfgangfoto, Jason Wesley Upton, timoni west

Friday, October 24, 2014

Freak Shows and Shifting Lines

In this week's episode of American Horror Story, bearded lady Ethel (played by the amazingly talented Kathy Bates) is confronted by a literal ghost that makes her revisit a figurative one. Through her interaction with hell bound spirit Edward Mordrake, she recounts her most shameful secret: the circumstances surrounding the birth of her son, "Lobster Boy" Jimmy (Evan Peters).

In the scene, we see her laboring in a field against a tree as midwives hover nearby. The father of her baby and then-lover sells tickets and guides customers to gawk at her as she bears down and gives birth to her son. As soon as the father sees that the son, too, is a "freak" (his fingers are fused into "lobster hands"), he tries to capitalize on an even more lucrative endeavor and sell chances to hold the newborn baby (before his mother even gets a chance). Ethel's voice cracks as she tells Mordrake that her son's known nothing but exploitation since the moment he was born.

Ethel is clearly appalled by what they did, and we're supposed to be appalled, too. But I think the most interesting part of this scene is the recoil of the audience when they get the chance to hold the child for just a few more cents. They shudder and shrink back in horror. They are here to see, not to feel. As deplorable as the father's character is (in this and other scenes throughout the show so far), I can't help but think that this misjudgment of the audience's desire to hold his "freak" son belies an unexpected naivety. He sees the profit in his strongman act, his son's lobster hands, his new girlfriend's triple breasts, but he hasn't fully considered what the revulsion that drives that profit means. Those people are paying to observe the spectacle of isolation so that they don't have to feel it.

And we're really not so different. Sure, we've recognized the problematic exploitation inherent in freak shows, but we've simply shifted our exploitation of those who are othered and identified as freaks into different, sleeker, less visceral mediums. Why risk going into the show where the freak might touch you (or ask you to hold his infant son) when you can get the same thrill and reassurance that you are normal from the sanitized glare of your TV screen?

Toddlers and Tiaras (which I've written about before when I made the mistake of trying to watch an episode) may have a 1.8/10 rating on IMDb, but people are still watching. Its spin-off show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was just cancelled because of the star's mother's romantic involvement with a child molester. TLC, in particular, is dominated by shows that hinge around difference and disability under the guise of showcasing diversity but often simply give the viewing public the chance to feel more secure in their own normalcy. Just go look at their show lineup and tell me that it isn't the modern-day equivalent of those posters featured above.

That isn't to say that the relationship between spectatorship and exploitation is a clear one. As this AV Club article explores, many "freaks" did not feel they had been exploited. One of the actors from American Horror Story (Mat Fraser, who plays Paul the Illustrated Seal) is interviewed in the article and explains his views:
Fraser—who, in addition to his work as a performer, has spent years researching performers with disabilities and their shows—says he simply couldn’t find any credible cases of non-mentally impaired, adult performers being taken advantage of by sideshow producers.
Many of the performers felt grateful for the opportunity to make a living from their perceived difference:
Fraser cites one of his idols, Stanislaus Berent a.k.a. Sealo The Seal Boy, as one such success story. “He worked at the sideshow from 1929 to the late ’70s and was proud of the fact that he kept his family clothed, housed, and fed throughout his entire career.”
One might like to think that such dire circumstances (someone with a physical disability having such a limited range of career opportunities) would have been eliminated through our cultural shifts and social changes, but--at least for actors--that's not always the case. As Fraser goes on to explain:
While it may still seem shocking or exploitive to some viewers, he says, the presence of people with disabilities (“apart from Peter Dinklage”) on highly rated shows is minuscule; the work by Fraser and others on AHS may serve as a jumping off point for the next phase of discussion and inclusion. “We’re not used to people with radically outsider bodies like myself in entertainment,” he explains, “so arguments about the tone and the politics must come after some visibility.” Plus, who better to play freaks and outsiders than people who fully understand all the implications of what those designations truly mean? “If we can’t even play ourselves in the history of our own showbiz lineage, then I think we’re in a pretty bad place,” Fraser says.
Indeed, a look at Fraser's other acting credits demonstrate that his difference has often been the central function of his performance. He's worked on the show Cast Offs, the film Inbred, and Kung Fu Flid, which comes adorned with the tagline "Unarmed but dangerous."

So maybe the chance to, as Fraser put it, "play ourselves in the history of our own showbiz lineage" is indeed a step in the right direction when it comes to visibility and ownership, but what about the children?

I've seen a collapsing of questions surrounding exploitation and children around me this week that keep bouncing off that scene of Ethel giving birth to Jimmy. She is ashamed of having given him a lineage of exploitation by making even his birth a moment of profit and spectacle.

But there are a lot of moments in parenting that can be exploitative. While there are certainly some examples that seem clearly over the line (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, I'm looking at you), the gradations between them get slippery as we move along. If we can agree that Honey Boo Boo is exploitative (a position that I'd stand behind), then what about its predecessor Toddlers and Tiaras? I'm still going to vote that it is, especially because of the way that the editing and focus is drawn in  to clearly play up the exploitative angels. If we can agree on that, though, what about beauty pageants in general? If you think the big, national shows are a problem, what about the talent shows held locally and with a more friendly tone? If those are a problem, what about the "baby contests" held at small town picnics? (I remember seeing a trophy I received from such an endeavor at some point in my pre-walking days).

If I was exploited by being shown off in front of neighbors in the park and then given an award for it, I certainly don't think that was my mother's intention (or the intention of the spectators, for that matter). Still, the idea of judging a baby's "beauty" and declaring a "winner" is a little creepy. If we think that's exploitative, what about showing off your newborn at all? Are we dooming children to a life of exploitation the moment we put that first picture on Facebook (or even just send it to an out-of-town relative)?

For me, that's an example of slippery slope argument. I don't think it's exploitative to put a picture of your newborn up on Facebook, but the exact place that the act crosses the line in that progression isn't clear to me. Is it somewhere between pageant and Toddlers and Tiaras? Somewhere between beauty contest and local talent show? Can we draw the line in different places?

I've been thinking about that a lot as I read the controversy surrounding the now-viral "F-bombs for Feminism" in which a swarm of little girls dressed like princesses say "fuck" a lot as they explain the problems with our gender norms. The video is a product (in all senses of the word) from FCKH8, a company that sells t-shirts featuring socially conscious slogans that has faced criticism for its tone-deafness and appropriative, overly simplistic style.

For the F-bombs video, they've faced some harsh and meaningful criticism from those who see the video as exploiting little girls to help FCKH8 sell more t-shirts. Rebecca Hains explains that:
This video was scripted and slickly produced by a t-shirt company that evidently has no qualms about exploiting girls who are too young to understand the implications of the script they’re bringing to life.
The Belle Jar takes a similar stance:
The video then has the sweet, princessified little girls tackle a bunch of feminist issues, namely the pay gap, violence against women, and sexual assault – all while swearing up a storm, of course. What FCKH8 wants you to take away from this is that society feels more uncomfortable about cute little girls saying the word fuck than it does about the very real issues faced by women on a daily basis. Instead, what I see is a video that relies on the shock value of girls in princess costumes cussing and talking about rape in order to increase its shareability.
I agree with both of these analyses of the video, but I have to admit that it made me squirm a little to come to that realization. The first thing that came to my mind was the viral video from a few years ago of little girl Riley giving a similar (if less profane) rant about the treatment of gender norms in the toy aisle:

You can hear Riley being coached by the videographer (presumably her father) during the video. She's also reciting lines that she probably didn't create on her own; some adult has shaped her perspective on this issue and many people (including some of my friends) grew angry at what they read as exploitation. They saw a video where parents used their little girl as the cuter mouthpiece for their own political and cultural stances. They saw it as an act of "brainwashing."

I stood (and still stand) in defense of Riley's rant. Sure, her parents were likely the real creators of most of her ideas, but parents are the real creators for many of our kids' ideas--that's sort of what this parenting gig is all about: giving kids the tools for how to see and interact with the world. The parents likely saw her cute rendition as a more shareable version, but I don't think they were "selling" her the same way FCKH8 is selling the girls in their video.

I'll admit, though, that the line between exploitation and teaching, between giving a kid of voice of their own and using them as your mouthpiece, between a local talent show and a beauty pageant is not always an easy one to discern.

Ethel was certainly complicit in the exploitation of her son as she leaned against that tree to give birth, but when held up against the acts we make every day, I don't think her sin is as uncommon as we might like to believe.

Image: stumptownpanda, Snap

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Tell Me You Don't Love Me Because"

My daughter (almost four) is currently going through a thing where she likes to stage elaborate dramatic enactments in her head and then draw me in to participation. A typical ride home from school goes something like this:
"Mommy, first I am going to whisper something and then you say, 'I can't hear you.' Okay?"
She whispers something.
"I can't hear you!"
Then she cuts out of the moment like a little dictatorial director whose vision has been squandered. "No. No. No. You say it like this: 'I can't hear you.' Okay?"
She whispers something.
"I can't hear you!"
She cuts out of character again. "Good. Now you're going to say. . ."

This can go on for quite some time.

The other day, we were having a serious discussion on the ride home because she had gotten a bad report from school. As we went through the reasons we can't use hitting hands and why we need to be still during nap time, she said from the back seat with the same tone as she always requests my cooperation, "Mommy, you say, 'I don't love you because you were bad at school.'"

"No. I won't say that."
"Why not?"
"Because I love you all the time."
She sighs loudly, once more upset that I'm destroying her theatrical vision. "Just say it!"
"No. I love you all the time, and I will love you all the time."
She gets quiet for a few seconds before replying brightly, "Okay."

For some reason that little exchange has stuck with me. She tells me she doesn't love me pretty often. It usually happens when she puts on her didactic voice, the one that she uses to teach me something that she just can't believe I haven't learned yet about the world. She's not shouting or screaming, just  declaring decidedly "I don't love you because you won't let me watch Care Bears." "I don't love you because you are making me go to bed." It's as if to say, "I really want to love you, but you just make it so hard."

My response is always the same, "That's okay. I still love you."

I can't figure out what's going on in her mind as she plays out these mundane dramas about daily exchanges, but I hope I'm showing her that some unhappy endings just aren't in the script.

Photo: Our Hero