Category Archives: media and pop culture
“I don’t have time for positive thinking. I spend all of that time thinking negatively.” –Kathy Griffin
I might as well come right out and say it: I highly dislike the whole positive thinking movement. I would say “I hate it,” but that might get me accused of being bitter, cynical, negative, and many other colorful things in the comments. I do not dispute that I am, at times, all of those things. However, the fact that so many people take the construct of “positive thinking” as the big-T Truth on how people other than themselves can (apparently) improve their own circumstances by thinking “positively” is something that I find very troubling and a little bit scary, and also a bit naive.
You’ve probably heard of positive thinking and its (supposed) benefits. You’ve also probably heard of things like The Secret, which is a self-help book and DVD (and they have other products, too, including a daily planner and something called an “affirmation journal”). For those of you who have had the good fortune to not have come into contact with The Secret, the basic premise is something that sounds pretty innocuous at first, if you don’t examine it too closely or think about it too hard: there is something called “the Law of Attraction,” which posits that the individual can attract their own good or bad circumstances in life just by thinking about them.
I want to stress the part about the “bad circumstances” here. If you swallow that bait–which, like most bait, conceals a dangerous trap–here is what you are buying into: I can attract good things by using my thoughts. If I think positively, I will attract good things.
However, the other side of such a dichotomy is–to put it mildly–really creepy, at least for those of us who have health issues and other problems beyond individual control. I will use myself as an example here: I have fibromyalgia. According to the dubious logic employed in The Secret, I have somehow attracted this. And, according to The Secret, I can think my way out of it. I can be CURED!
Oh, wait. My condition does not have a cure, and thinking one’s way out of a chronic condition is generally not recommended by certified medical professionals. However, according to the “Law of Attraction,” if I don’t think my way out of my condition, or can’t, then I basically deserve whatever happens to me. I brought it on myself, after all.
Therein lies the problem: This type of philosophy places an untoward emphasis on the individual: You control your reality. You control what happens to you. You control how much money you make. You deserve the best. Solving problems or helping others is beneath you, because it is all about you. You’ve got the world on a string, (sittin’ on a rainbow!) and it’s yours for the taking. Why help others, when you can just attract everything you want with your thoughts?
By now, you are probably starting to see exactly why this way of thinking is so troubling, particularly if you are a feminist, have a disability, are aware of social justice issues, or are not C. Montgomery Burns and therefore obsessed with your millions (and not much else).
What is so problematic about The Secret and many other self-help products is that they, however indirectly, make the status quo feel better about itself. People who buy into the “Law of Attraction” philosophy are not actually changing the world; no, that would take actual work. Instead, sayeth the Law, why not just think about changing the world, and let The Secret’s specious (and incorrect) use of quantum physics do the rest? See? Wasn’t that way easier than, ugh, going out and doing things?!
Telling someone to just “think positive” will not help her or him. I know that’s a rather harsh statement to make. I have had people “helpfully suggest” positive thinking (numerous times, I might add) in order to help with my illness. It is supremely frustrating, and it also makes me want to ignore whomever has offered that particular fool’s gold nugget o’wisdom. I get that people are scared of illness, disability, and death, and I understand why they are scared. But shaming people–particularly those with disabilities, chronic pain, mental health issues, and other chronic conditions–into silence by “helpfully” suggesting that they “think more positively”–and thereby shutting down the conversation or any room for the PWD to defend hirself–is not a solution. Rather, it just reinforces the it’s all about me claptrap that so much of the self-help industry traffics in; such “helpful suggestions,” oftentimes, are really meant to make the person who offers them feel better about hirself, and are not offered out of concern for the PWD or whomever else is unlucky enough to have been outed as a non-Positive Thinker.
After all, when someone offers those types of “helpful” suggestions to a non-Positive thinker–particularly PWDs or other people who have been marginalized by various cultural institutions–what she or he is saying starts to sound like, “I don’t take your experiences seriously. I care about expressing my opinions about your life and how you live it, so I can feel like I’m doing something and thus feel better about myself.” So, in effect, it really becomes all about them once again. And, in their minds, it is all about them, because the latest self-help craze told them so!
I will end with a quote from disability scholar Susan Wendell:
[T]he idea that the mind is controlling the body is employed even when physical causes of a patient’s symptoms are identified clearly…The thought that ‘she could be cured if only she wanted to get well’ is comforting…to those who feel the need to assign a cause and cannot find another, and to those who want to believe that they will avoid a similar disaster because they have healthier, or at least different, psyches. (The Rejected Body, 1998)
I am a pop-culture junkie. If you have been playing along at home long enough this is common knowledge. I have been a big fan of House, M.D. since it’s poorly lit pilot. I am simultaneously appalled and amused by his crass behavior. Even the best feminist in me laughs and fairly inappropriate moments.
I have seen and read plenty of critques concerning Dr. House and his manner. I have chewed out my share of doctors for acting like him as if it makes them seem clever. He is a character that is worth critiquing on many levels and for many reasons from many points of view.
What I haven’t seen is a lot of criticism of the characters assembled around House. From Dr. Wilson, or Dr. Cuddy, or the myriad staff members he has had around him (yes, even Dr. Cameron-Chase) I have watched for nigh on five seasons now as all of the people who claim to care about him have done little more than chastise and concern troll his life. Most notably, his addiction to Vicodin as his chosen method of pain management.
A repeated theme throughout the series has been watching person after person in House’s life try to trick or otherwise convince him that he should quit taking Vicodin and learn how to deal with his pain. They constantly badger him about his addiction, and will go to great lengths to get him to quit taking his pain medication.
Only a person who has never experienced chronic pain would dare criticize a person for their pain management.
Because, like it or not, Dr. Gregory House is managing his pain. Sure, he is an addict. There is little argument there. The character admits it freely. In his own words he says that he takes a lot of pills because he is in a lot of pain. Whatever your feelings on narcotic medication it is a proven method for making intense and chronic pain manageable, and a down side to that is that narcotic drugs can in fact be dependency and/or addiction forming. The presence of an addiction does not take away the fact that the pain beneath it is real. When a doctor and a patient together decide to pursue pain management via narcotics such as Vicodin they will weigh the pros and cons of such treatment. One of the cons that is weighed is the fact that a person can develop an addiction to a drug and a tolerance that will probably mean their intake will increase over time. As with any course of treatment the costs must be weighed with the benefits.
House is able to function as a result of the Vicodin to which he has become addicted. He is able to be independent in moving and living, not housebound (no pun intended) by his pain. He is able to hold down his job and do it with the skill through which he receives his notoriety. His course of pain management gives him a life and independance that many of us living with pain or other disabilities are hoping to achieve. It might not make him a happy ray of sunshine all the time, but neither does living in agonizing pain all of the time.
It is very condescending for a person who is not living in pain to assume that they know better than that person how to manager hir pain. The way that I see House’s collegues and the people who could pass for his friends treat him over his addiction and the way he manages his pain strikes too close to the way I feel most doctors and friends of those of us living in chronic pain will treat us.
Criticize the way he behaves to his subordinates. Criticize the way he treats those closest to him. But if you don’t know what it is like to live with chronic pain, don’t criticize his decisions as to how he manages his pain. If it’s not your body, frankly, it’s not your business.
Originally posted at random babble…
Tera lives in the American Midwest with her mother, five cats, two
parakeets and several imaginary friends. She is neurologically
atypical, a lover of cartoons and scary movies (equally), asexual, and
a gamer dork. Her Pokemon army is probably more awesome than yours.
Tera regularly blogs at Sweet Perdition.
WARNING: Major spoilers for the movie Orphan, including the twist.
Let’s play a game:
A little girl–five years old, maybe six–rushes out of a building. The sign above it says: “School for the Deaf.” She hugs her mother, who greets her in American Sign Language (“Hello, Max!”) They sign cheerfully about Max’s day; at bedtime, Max wants her mother to read her a story. It’s a picture book about a child whose baby sister “went to Heaven” before coming home from the hospital. (Max’s baby sister, Jessica, also went to Heaven before coming home from the hospital; her mother doesn’t want to read this story, but Max insists). Story finished, Max removes her hearing aid, turns off the light, and goes to sleep.
Max’s sister, Esther, is nine years old; the family adopted her just recently. Esther says she is “different.” She’s from Russia, but speaks perfect English with a slight accent. She cuts her food perfectly–so perfectly that brother Danny thinks it is “weird.” At school she wears gorgeous, old-fashioned dresses when other girls are wearing jeans and tee-shirts. She paints like a gifted adult. While taking baths, she sings a song that’s way before her time: “That’s the story of, that’s the glory of looooove!” She understands the word “fuck” as more than just a naughty word that adults say sometimes (“That’s what grownups do. They fuck.”), expertly loads a gun, puts on a black dress and make-up and tries to seduce her adoptive father. (“What are you doing, Esther!?”)
What is Max’s impairment? What is Esther’s? And why can we recognize Max’s within five seconds of meeting her, while it takes us nearly two hours to learn–pardon the phrase–what is “wrong with” Esther?
This post is part of a series about representations of disability in movies, television shows, and books. They contain spoilers.
If you haven’t seen Torchwood, I’m not entirely sure how to describe it. It’s a Doctor Who spinoff where Captain Jack Harkness and his band of misfits battle to keep the Earth safe from aliens arriving in Cardiff, Wales. There is a Rift in Time and Space that is the Plot Device when needed – aliens pop out of it and, sometimes, people get sucked into it.
It’s also a show where sex and flirtation are part of the plot. Episodes have revolved entirely around sex, such as the one with “sex pollen”, but sexuality, flirtations, and explicit sexual relationships – both same sex and opposite sex – have all been main or side plots. One throw-away line that’s often quoted ’round the fandom is recurring guest star (and ex-lover of Jack’s) Captain John Hart’s comments about how attractive he finds a poodle.
But of course no one in Torchwood would ever flirt with someone with a disability. They’ve never had the chance – no one with a visible disability has ever been on the show.
Oh wait! I tell a lie! Of course someone who has a disability and is deformed has been on the show! I totally forgot. Let me tell you about it.
In Adrift, an episode in late Season 2, Gwen Cooper realises that several people have gone missing in Cardiff, and slowly starts to piece together that they’ve been “taken by the Rift”. The episode focuses on the story of one mother, Nikki Bevan, whose son had gone missing seven months earlier. It shows her grief, and her obsession with finding out what happened to her son. She’s loving and emotionally invested in the search, in contrast to the growing hardness of viewer-standin Gwen.
[Author’s note: I’d been meaning to submit this piece somewhere since earlier this year, but never got around to it. I know we’re almost finished with 2009–so focusing on a charity calendar may seem a bit old meme, at least in internet time–but some of the issues that this campaign raises are, as they say, timeless.]
When the words “chronic pain condition” come to mind, not many people can name a charitable project that is trying to raise awareness while also dovetailing nicely with current mainstream standards of beauty. British former model Bianca Embley has set out to change this, at least in the UK. After a work-related accident that resulted in a diagnosis of severe fibromyalgia, Embley was left unable to work. According to her website, Embley “aim[s] to raise awareness of Fibromyalgia, specifically in the press and media, but also by supporting awareness campaigns through UK Fibromyalgia charities and organizations” with the rather risqué Polka Dot Gals 2009 Calendar [NSFW]—a 12-month compendium of artistic nude and nearly-nude portraits of female models, including one who, the website crows, has posed for such illustrious publications as Maxim and Playboy. All of the photographs make use of the organization’s official colors (black polka dots on a yellow background) in various creative ways. The calendar and its photos have garnered a fair amount of press coverage in Great Britain, in addition to quite a few celebrity endorsements. While this project’s goal is certainly one that means well, the project also brings questions of conventional female beauty, its marketability, and intended audience to the fore.
The Polka Dot Gals project seems to have an almost-exclusive focus on a very specific type of beauty that’s almost a Feminism 101 cliché: the young, white, thin, fully made-up and free of body hair paragon of femininity that is so overexposed in modern consumer culture, advertising and—dare I say it—pornography. As many a feminist activist has warned us, this type of “beauty” sells; at the same time, it is this sort of representation of female beauty that feminists have decried since the 1970s.
However, what makes this criticism more complicated is that Embley herself posed for the calendar, and though she may appear able-bodied in these images, she is not. The photographs that feature Embley have her posed [link goes to an article that appeared in The Sun; NSFW] in ways that suggest that she is able-bodied, at least in part; in one shot, she stands fully nude, her back to the camera, as she clutches a martini glass in one hand and her cane in the other. Taken out of context, this pose does not seem to allude to her condition in an obvious way—and the photograph, in fact, looks strikingly similar to many soft-core images that have come before it. The message seems to be twofold: 1) Women with chronic illnesses can still be sexy, albeit in ways that are approved and encouraged by the culturally sanctioned gold standard of sexualized, “feminine” display; and 2) This sexiness can be channeled into photographs for public display and consumption, so long as the goal is to “raise awareness” of chronic illness and disability.
A few of the poses struck by these ostensibly well-meaning calendar girls don’t seem to have much to do with the condition, or with disability, at all: former Playboy model Danni Wells, in her photo, wears both a coquettish smirk and a yellow and black polka-dot ribbon that (just barely) covers her naked body. Were it not connected with Embley’s campaign, the image could plausibly be a banner ad for a porn website. Wells’s personal stake in the campaign stems from the fact that her grandmother lives with fibromyalgia. (One might wonder how Wells’s grandmother feels about her granddaughter’s participation in the project, especially given the nature of the images that make up the calendar.)
Such images bring to mind the question of intended audience; according to the website, a “portion of the profits” will go toward raising awareness of the condition in the UK, which begs the question of who, exactly, might purchase this calendar. The fact that the calendar is full of photographs that, by and large, seem designed to appeal to a heterosexual and possibly able-bodied male audience, is obviously problematic in a feminist sense. Given that fibromyalgia is a very gender-skewed condition (the ratio of females to males with the condition—at least within the US—is nearly 10 to 1), it appears that projects which aim to raise awareness of the condition in new and interesting ways have been a long time coming. The goals of the Polka Dot Gals are admirable, and the calendar may bring some much-needed attention to a condition that lacks a public face, but the project’s uncritical reproduction of the white, attractive and (seemingly) able-bodied female body as body-on-permanent-display—no matter if the body in question is wrought with constant pain and fatigue—is still troubling.
abby jean’s post, “How Do We Understand This Experience?,” spun my brain off on a tangent about how disability issues are framed in the media and pop culture. Specifically, I read her post and then picked up a book I was in the process of reading and I came across the line “I couldn’t breathe. My heart skipped a beat.” And I thought about the fact that the author was using this line to convey a sense of tension and shock, and probably didn’t mean it literally.
Because I actually have had the experience of being unable to breathe. Of having my heart skip a beat. And my experience of that situation certainly is not like the experience described in this book. The author was using the phrase to convey a sense of numbness in response to an overwhelming situation. As a reader who has been unable to breathe, though, I just found the line slightly puzzling, and very inappropriate for a description of what the character was experiencing, since she obviously could breathe and her heart was working, or she wouldn’t be able to take the course of action she embarks on right after that line.
Here’s the thing about your heart and lungs: They’re a critical part of you, but you don’t realize it until they aren’t working. You don’t realize how noisy they are until there’s a sudden silence. And you don’t realize how important they are until suddenly they aren’t there. Then, they become the most important thing in the world, your all-consuming focus, and your priority is dealing with it, not thinking about anything else happening around you. Until, of course, you lose consciousness.
What happens when you can’t breathe is that you panic. Your panic makes the situation even worse. You are most certainly not numb, you are fighting with every fiber of your being to find air. You want to rip your chest open and shovel air into it. You are gasping like a fish out of water. You can feel your airways stubbornly remaining closed despite the fact that you are pleading with them to open. There is bubbling and creaking and hissing. You start to feel lightheaded. A rush of adrenaline surges through you, depleting your body’s oxygen resources even more quickly. Spots appear in your vision.
If you’re lucky, your rescue inhaler works.
And when your heart skips a beat? It is terrifying. You are waiting and hoping that your heart will pick up at the next beat, that the rhythm will be normal again. If you’re lucky, it does. If you’re unlucky, a cascading series of reactions is going to happen to you, and you have to hope that the people around you will know what to do, and will do it right. And will do it fast. Because, if they don’t, you die.
Which is, you know, not the same thing as being shocked by an event and feeling momentarily thrown. At all. “I couldn’t breathe. My heart skipped a beat.” is a classical rhetorical tactic used in books all over the world; it’s a shorthand which people are supposed to understand because it’s so widely used, but, in fact, for people who have lived through that, it’s a pretty poor shorthand. Would it be possible for authors to perhaps come up with a more accurate depiction of the response to surprise, stress, tension, shock, horror, etc?
In August the wife and I saw Adam, a romance featuring a person with Asperger’s Syndrome and a neurotypical. And it was really rather good, especially measured against other portrayals of autistic persons in popular culture. It is always astonishing how much of myself I see in depictions of people with AS, even when the wife isn’t nudging me and whispering “You so do that.”
It’s true, I do. I’m older than Adam and my (admittedly self-diagnosed but dude it really fits) version of the autism is a bit different than his. But we still share a lot of traits. Tinnitus, check. Visual distortions? Yup. Difficulty with officials and paperwork? Yes. Socially inappropriate questions? Oh deep fried shit on a stick yes. Rage?
HULK MOIRA SMASH!
Of course, when I was a wee bairn, Asperger’s Syndrome as a diagnosis hadn’t made it to the U.S. yet and wouldn’t until 1992. Autism, then, meant you didn’t talk and I talked like anything. I didn’t talk like a kid. My family still tells these things as cute baby stories: I taught myself to read by the time I was three and read compulsively. If there was a cereal box on the table I had to read everything on it. I would grab my crossed ankles and rock on my back for hours at a time. The day I found out what penises were I went around the neighborhood asking everyone if they had one. I did not know how to make friends. I sort of wanted to, but I was most comfortable in structured settings like Scouts or, later, role-playing games. It was (and remains) difficult for me to look people in the eye and to touch them and I was constantly being told to do that and to shake hands firmly. I needed to look more like I was paying attention in class. I actually was paying attention as was demonstrated every time a teacher asked me a question and I answered it correctly; I just didn’t look like I was paying attention and that made them angry.
When I am very upset I stop being able to talk. I pick compulsively at my skin. I don’t interview well — I’ve never gotten a job by applying and interviewing for it. Every job I’ve ever had I’ve gotten because I started as a temp and they kept me. I’m not good with figurative speech or most kinds of humor. If I get something in my head I want to say it will come out.
So, Adam. His is the version that has more externally-directed rage. (Mine is turned mainly on myself, hence the scars and the hospitals and becoming a veritable sommellier of psych meds.) It’s done very well. Hugh Dancy spends a lot of time with reddened, tearful eyes, but he has suffered a series of very large life-changing events. He does a pretty good job portraying a person with AS without making Adam a straight-up freak. It’s clear that Beth (Rose Byrne) loves him at least partly because of (and also in spite of–I know I’ve been difficult to live with at times) the way his brain works. Adam-the-character is rather luckier than most of us; he grew up upper-middle-class in Manhattan, inherited a fair amount when his father passed (before the movie even starts, it’s not a spoiler), he gets lots of interview coaching and gets his well-paid dream job.
It’s not exactly the median experience. It can and does happen, but many more of us work a series of low-end, low-paying jobs until our social difficulties get us asked to move on (which has happened to me, though it was also tangled up with transgender issues). My résumé is a very model of stability by AS standards despite the occasional long gaps in it.
Sorry. It’s hard to talk about the movie without talking about AS in general and about me. It’s a sweet movie. It’s nice to see someone like me as something other than a socially crippled freak or the larval stage of a serial killer. It’s just the movie version of an autistic person’s life: charmed and ultimately successful (socially, financially, romantically) despite occasional setbacks.
Of course I consider my life moderately successful and I’m looking at not working at all soon. I have a family. I’m loved. I’m still poor.
There’s one thing I’d change about Adam-the-movie: After Adam-the-character’s father dies, a guy named Harlan (Frankie Faison) fills in as father figure. The role edges into Magical Negro territory. It didn’t have to be this way. Harlan, you see, is a locksmith. He drives a beat-up green van and wears a gimme cap. He is the only working class character with a significant role in the film and the only person of color with a significant role in the film. I suspect that since Adam was given a folded flag at his father’s funeral (again, not a spoiler, it’s the first scene), Harlan knew Adam’s dad in some sort of uniformed service and stayed in touch after despite Harlan being a black locksmith and Adam’s dad being a white professor at Julliard.
I’d have made Harlan one of Adam’s dad’s colleagues from Julliard. A piano instructor or something. Put him on an equal footing with regards to social and economic class with the white people, instead of the working stiff they did. I can’t tell you how many books and movies I’ve seen the same damn thing in. Hey! Creative people of America! There are rich black people! They go to college! They teach at college! Put them in movies and TV shows and books already, you crypto-racist falsely-inclusive jerks
Everyone, please welcome our first guest poster, Arwyn of Raising My Boychick. Arwyn lives in the United States’ Pacific Northwest with The Man, the Boychick, bipolar type 2, and migraines. When the intersection of her neurology and the kyriarchal society she lives in allows, she writes feminist thoughts inspired by parenting a presumably-straight white probably-male at Raising My Boychick.
When I heard Friday night that Saturday October 10 was World Mental Health Day, I was excited: another day like Celebrate Bisexuality Day, but for us crazy folk?? Sign me up! When I Googled it, however, this is what I found:
Mental, neurological and behavioural disorders are common in all countries around the world, causing immense suffering and staggering economic and social costs. People with disorders are often subjected to social isolation, poor quality of life and higher death rates.
Bellevision Global (a parish in the United Arab Emirates — particularly look at the pictures on this site, if you are able):
Mental illness such as anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, if not properly diagnosed and treated would lead to poor work performance, family disruption, and contribute greatly to the global burden of disease.
[United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon] states, “Mental disorders contribute to more disease burden and disability in developing countries than any other category of non-communicable disease, yet only a small minority of people with mental disorders in these countries have access to mental health services.”
Well ain’t that just fucking cheery. Thanks ever so much for the pathologization folks; there can never be enough support for the “those crazies = horrible miserable burden on society!!1!” meme.
To be fair, there was some good coverage as well. From the World Federation for Mental Health:
“Today, we call on all governments and partners to include measures for mental health in efforts to achieve human development and respond to humanitarian crises,” Ms. Obaid said. “Mental health is central to human dignity.”
See the difference there? How the first three talk about how those people (that’s me, gentle reader!) affect the rest of us (that’s all you normal, sane, not-crazy people; you know, the ones that matter)? How they say the reason “mental illness” needs awareness is because they (still me!) are a burden, a drag, a fiscal drain? And then how the last one is based on the radical idea that, gee, we are actually people and we matter too? Tiny difference there, don’tcha think?
If you’ve been following along, you know that I’m not in the greatest head space right now — to say the least. And yet, silly me, I still expect that when a group (or a day) purports to be helping me, to be bringing awareness to my needs, I not be dehumanized, pathologized, Other-ized, and victimized once again. I expect that it be recognized that my dis-ease, my dis-ability, arises from the intersection of my being and the kyriarchal society I live in. I expect to not be confronted with still more language and images that portray me and mine as miserable, sick, taunted, shunned, hated, and ignored. (Are we those things? Yes, in this fucked up kyriarchy, we are. But we’re also joyful, healthy, embraced, befriended, loved, and celebrated, and we damn well should be portrayed that way too. The constant portrayal of us as stigmatized contributes to our stigmatization.)
So no, I did not celebrate World Mental Health Day, because it was just World Fuck Over the “Mentally Ill” Day, which makes it different from the other 364 days a year… not at all.
Wake me up when it’s World Mad Pride Day. That, I think I can get behind.
This post is being moderated by the FWD staff.
This post is part of a series about representations of disability in movies, television shows, and books. They contain spoilers.
Don and I started watching Joan of Arcadia this week.
Basically, it’s a story about a teen, Joan, who starts to get missions and messages from God, for some mysterious purpose. She’s the middle child of three, with a younger brother, Luke, who is very smart and ignored by his parents, and an older brother, Kevin. Kevin was the golden child, destined to go to uni on a baseball scholarship, before a car accident left him paraplegic 18 months before the show’s start.
Unlike every other show we’ve rented and mainlined, we’re watching this show very slowly because the family dynamics around Kevin’s disability ring painfully true to life.
Read more: Television & Disability: Joan of Arcadia