Category Archives: representations

Where About Us But Without Us Leads

On 1 June 2010, E. Fuller Torrey MD wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times, “Make Kendra’s Law Permanent.” Dr Torrey is the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), a nonprofit group whose sole purpose is to lobby states for the passage of so-called assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) laws like Kendra’s Law in New York and Laura’s Law in California. The New York law is named after Kendra Webdale, who was killed by Andrew Goldstein in 1999.

Dr Torrey and TAC will tell you Mr Goldstein had untreated schizophrenia. They’ll tell you people like him are dangerous, they’ll tell you people like Mr Goldstein are often so sick they don’t understand they’re ill and need treatment, and they’ll tell you they know best. They won’t tell you that Mr Goldstein had been seeking treatment desperately and been turned away repeatedly.1 Continue reading Where About Us But Without Us Leads

Ableist Word Profile: Crazy (to describe political viewpoints or positions)

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

We just ran an ableist word profile on the word “crazy,” written by the lovely guest poster RMJ, who discussed how the term is used in a variety of contexts and situations. This follow up is sparked by what I’ve seen as a recent resurgence here in the United States in use of the term in a political context, to describe or characterize an individual with a particular set of political views. Every time I see it, it grates on me, and I thought it was worth a focused discussion here at FWD.

Before I begin, I should make clear that I personally identify as “crazy” sometimes. Not always, but when the depression gets overwhelming and I can tell my thoughts are getting tangled, or especially when I’m in the grips of a manic episode. (More accurately, I identify as a “crazy bitch,” but that’s neither here nor there.) I’ve also been consistently described by others as “crazy,” in contexts ranging from affectionate to outright hostile and dismissive. So when I see this term tossed around in the media, it feels personal to me.

And it’s been tossed around a whole lot lately, largely by traditionally liberal or progressive media outlets. I first started seeing it show up at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s blog that combines “breaking news, investigative reporting and smart analysis.” Marshall doesn’t mention it on the site, but it also contains a big heaping spoonful of ableism with that political analysis. Here are some recent examples:

This is just a sampling of the posts with headlines including the term “crazy” and is not at all comprehensive. Even within this sample, we can see that the term is used to describe viewpoints with which TPM does not agree (like revising history textbooks or arguing, like Gaffney, that the Pentagon logo indicates a secret plan to subject the United States to Shariah law) and thinks are biased, bigoted, racist, or otherwise offensive (such as the protests about Obama speaking to schoolchildren or the racial laws in Arizona).  None of the posts, though, engage or critique those viewpoints or speakers in a substantive way – simply describing them as “crazy” is seen as self-evident and no further discussion is needed to demonstrate these views or people should be excluded from reasonable political discussion.

There’s been an even more recent explosion of use of the term to describe Rand Paul and Paul’s views, after he won a Republican congressional primary in Kentucky.1 Paul favors the free market and freedom of private business, to the extent that he seems to believe that anti-discrimination laws are an unreasonable restriction on businesses. Now I am no fan of Mr. Paul – and wrote about my problems with him previously on FWD – but that doesn’t mean I approve of political cartoons like this:

A political cartoon portrays Rand Paul as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Added to the original Tenniel illustration are a 'Don't Tread on Me' flag, a Rand Paul button, and an I Heart BP button.
A political cartoon portrays Rand Paul as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Added to the original Tenniel illustration are a 'Don't Tread on Me' flag, a Rand Paul button, and an I Heart BP button.

To my mind, characterizing Rand as “mad” or “crazy” and not saying anything further is a lazy way to dismiss him and his ideology without actually having to engage with it. There is a lot to say about Rand’s ideas: how prioritizing private business over human rights preserves existing institutional structures that will continue to perpetuate racism, sexism, ableism, and other oppression if not checked by a larger force like the government; how the line between private and public realms is a lot fuzzier and less distinct than Paul implies it to be; that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and BP’s seemingly inadequate safety protections and near complete inability to effectively respond are strong indications that business will prioritize profits over public goods like environmental safety; how an attitude of business before anything else will influence Rand’s views on everything from the minimum wage to immigration policy to climate control to internet neutrality. Those are all important discussions to have, discussions where we can’t assume that everyone in the audience will come down on the same side, but calling him “crazy” or “mad” and leaving it at that elides all of those complicated issues. Even more strongly, it implies that those discussions are not even worth having because it is so evident that the views or person being dismissed are wrong and absurd and laughable.

In Newsweek, Conor Friesdorf made an interesting observation about the policies and people who are dismissed as “crazy”:

Forced to name the “craziest” policy favored by American politicians, I’d say the multibillion-dollar war on drugs, which no one thinks is winnable. Asked about the most “extreme,” I’d cite the invasion of Iraq, a war of choice that has cost many billions of dollars and countless innocent lives. The “kookiest” policy is arguably farm subsidies for corn, sugar, and tobacco—products that people ought to consume less, not more.

These are contentious judgments. I hardly expect the news media to denigrate the policies I’ve named, nor do I expect their Republican and Democratic supporters to be labeled crazy, kooky, or extreme. These disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong, whereas politicians who don’t fit the mainstream Democratic or Republican mode, such as libertarians, are mocked almost reflexively in these terms, if they are covered at all.

What I conclude from that is that the media doesn’t consistently use “crazy” and other ableist terms to refer to absurd policies or those that lack rational support, but instead reserves those terms for people outside of mainstream politics. Which in turn implies that the term is used primarily to further marginalize and dismiss people who don’t fit expectations of what a politician is or what are common or popular political arguments. To me, this is even more evidence that the implicit subtext of terming a person or policy “crazy” is “shut up and go away, or start blending in better.” Which, again, is exactly the message leveled at people with mental illness when they’re called “crazy” or “loony” or “unhinged” or any number of synonyms.

This selective usage is even more reason the term “crazy” shouldn’t be used in the political context – partly because it’s a lazy out for commentators who refuse to engage with the actual policy issues or political ideas being proposed on a substantive level, and partly because it fiercely underlines and reinforces marginalization and dismissal of people with mental illness. It reminds me that when people call me “crazy,” what they really mean is “stop existing in my consciousness – either disappear or become normal.” To see progressive writers and organizations rely on the marginalization of people with mental illness to score easy points against unpopular politicians is upsetting not only because of their perpetuation of ableism, but also because it puts me in the extremely uncomfortable position of defending people like Palin and Paul against this kind of criticism.

  1. An earlier version of this post had stated, in error, that Dr Paul won the Republican congressional primary in Virginia. Thanks, Katie, for the catch.

For Cereal, Internet?: I Has A Hotdog edition

I love looking at pictures of cute animals on the internet. Cats, dogs, monkeys, dolphins, turtles, otters – whatever. And I find that skimming through a few LOLcat macros during the workday can do wonders to perk up my mood or give me a smile before diving back into work. Which is part of why I get so annoyed when the LOLcat sites do something offensive or wrong – this is supposed to be my fun time, not my get-my-rage-on time! I have a whole other folder of RSS feeds for rage time!

So I got mighty cranky when I saw this at I Has a Hotdog, the spinoff site from I Can Haz Cheeseburger that has LOLdog macros:

A group of identical white pomeranians, with the caption "Multiple Personality Disorder: you're doin it right."
A group of identical white pomeranians, with the caption "Multiple Personality Disorder: you're doin it right."

Ok, FOR CEREAL??? This is not only offensive, it doesn’t even make sense. A person with Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), which is more commonly and more accurately termed Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), does not manifest in multiple identical bodies. The whole point is that there is one body/mind that manifests multiple, distinct identities or personalities, called alter egos. A person who could split themselves into multiple identical bodies, all with distinct identities, is not a person with MPD or DID, but instead is some kind of magical self-cloning person who should probably be off fighting crime in Gotham City.

This underlined for me how DID is a go-to joke, a punchline often used in contexts or situations that make absolutely no sense to anyone who actually understands what DID is. It’s a lazy way to make a joke about a “bizarre” or “outlandish” mental illness without even taking time to understand the diagnosis being thrown around so cavalierly. For me, it reads as a shorthand “hahaha saying the name of a mental illness is funny isn’t that funny??”

I can’t imagine how this use of DID as shorthand for “exotic and hilarious mental illness” must affect people who actually experience DID. Given that the second google link when I searched for “multiple personality disorder” is to a site discussing whether MPD or DID actually exist or whether they are made-up movie illnesses, I imagine there’s an extraordinary stigma experienced by people with DID and an overwhelming tendency to doubt and discount their experiences at best, and to mock and ridicule them at worst. These kind of “jokes” only add to those issues. And they should not be tolerated.

Jenny McCarthy & Autism Part III: Spokesperson

This is the third and final part of my discussion about Jenny McCarthy. Part I was If We Shame Parents Enough Maybe Autism Can Be Cured, and Part II was Let’s All Be Normal (Acting).

Writing this last post has taken me a very long time, both because of my anger at the way autistics are talked about rather than talked to, or with, or given the opportunity to talk for themselves; and because I keep going over what I have to say here and wondering what makes me think I’m qualified to say it.

I’d like to go back for a moment to the article that started me on this: Jenny McCarthy says her son Evan never had autism.

Actually, let’s just go back to the final sentence: “And though her son may never have had autism, Jenny insists, “I’ll continue to be the voice” of the disorder.”

The way I see it, one of two things is true:

1. Jenny McCarthy cured her son of Autism.
2. Evan never had autism in the first place, but may have had another syndrome, or have been developmentally delayed and “caught up”.

In either case, Jenny McCarthy is not currently the mother of an autistic child.

Tell me – why is Jenny McCarthy the “spokesperson” for “the disorder”? According to her no one in her personal life has it.

Not even delving into the bit where it’s incredibly different to be speaking for and about those who live with autistics and those who actually are autistic, I’m not entire certain what insight McCarthy is offering anyone. The idea that autism is like your child’s soul going away? That the best metaphor for autism is a bus accident? She describes a diagnosis of autism as the worst thing that could happen, and she’s going around and doing the talk shows and is the “spokesperson for the disorder?” How does that even make any sense?

That’s why this post has taken me so long to finish. Every time I start it, I wonder why the hell I’m writing it, instead of pointing people towards the writing of actual autistics.

[Here is a tiny sample:

Just a tiny tiny sample. Each one has a blogroll. There are lots of autistic bloggers, including kaninchenzero and s.e. smith here at FWD. This tiny sample is just meant to be that. I encourage people to leave more links, including to their own blog, in the comments.]

The Times article argues that Jenny McCarthy peddles hope.

Well, here’s my hope: That in the future, autistics will be invited to speak for themselves.

Representations: Dr. Gabriel Fife on Private Practice

Here in the United States, there’s a depiction of disability that airs on network television every Thursday night, on the Shonda Rimes show Private Practice. Rimes is probably better known for Grey’s Anatomy, a show which has won a lot of accolades1, not least for the ethnic diversity of its cast, but Private Practice is worth the occasional peek, especially if you enjoy infuriating plot lines.

In season three, Private Practice introduced Dr. Gabriel Fife (Michael Patrick Thornton). Dr. Fife is a genetics specialist who works for the rival medical practice in the series, and he’s also a wheelchair user.

Several things are interesting about Dr. Fife. The first is that he’s played by an actor who is also a wheelchair user. And it shows. Thornton is comfortable with his chair and uses it like an extension of himself, illustrating that, yes, it does take practice and experience to learn to use a chair effectively. Since I’m always pleased to see disabled actors in disabled roles, I’m rather chuffed about this particular detail.

But there’s more to like about him. For one thing, he is specifically introduced as a love interest in the series. Perish the thought. Not just a wheelchair user, but a sexy wheelchair user! Yet, he’s not a character who is consumed by his disability or exoticized by it. Dr. Fife is arrogant, he’s pushy, he’s a fully realised and complex character. He just is.

Other characters sometimes struggle with how to relate to him, and he’s well aware of that, and I like that too. It’s not that Private Practice is erasing his disability or making it into a Big Production or patting themselves on the back for featuring him. On the contrary, they’re doing a really good job of showing that for his character, it’s just part of him, and for other characters, it’s something which makes them feel awkward and confused. Which I think is very true to life; a lot of people don’t know what to do around wheelchair users and it never occurs them to actually try interacting with the person in the chair.

This is an example of the kind of depiction of disability in pop culture I like. He’s a character who happens to be disabled. Sometimes he does things which really piss me off and I hurl popcorn at the screen, but these are things his character does; I’m not getting infuriated because of how he’s characterised, but because of who he is. Sometimes he makes great points, including points about disability and objectification, and I chortle with delight. His interactions with other characters within the context of the show speak to actual lived experiences. I don’t feel like he’s the embodiment of a trope; he’s just a person, like all the other people.

There are a lot of problems with Private Practice, and I am thinking particularly about how the show deals with mental health and the plotlines surrounding children and motherhood here, but this is one thing which I think the show has going for it.

I recently heard an interview with Thornton where he was talking about disabled actors, and he said some things that, well, we’ve been saying here, but it’s nice to hear them airing on National Public Radio [transcript at link]:

“Do they consider us equally for parts?” Thornton says, “Obviously no, because disabled actors are so underrepresented on stage and screen.”

…His ideal acting job would be one in which “nobody ever mentions the chair.” It would be just a feature, in other words, like having red hair or being pregnant — part of who the character is, but not the sum total.

In the season finale, which just aired in the US, there was some interesting stuff going on with disability which I don’t want to talk about in detail in case there are readers who haven’t seen it yet (feel free to discuss the finale in comments, though), and it was…interesting to see how that played out. Two rolls forward, one roll backwards, it seems.

  1. Our Lauredhel recently wrote about some problematic stuff that occurred on last week’s episode, pointing out that all is not sunny in Grey’s land.

Psychiatric Hospitals and Music Videos: Part 2

People seemed to like the first edition of this series! So here are some more music videos set in psychiatric hospitals! In the last post, all of the videos used the mental hospital setting as a visual demonstration of the depth and intensity of love, depicting institutionalization as a result of loving someone a whole lot. These videos do not do that.

One video that especially doesn’t do that is Green Day’s ‘Basket Case’

Visually, the video seems similar to the previous ones. The band plays in the common room of a mental hospital in which they are patients. There is no padded room, but several people are being wheeled around passively as if they are catatonic or sedated. Later in the video, both staff and patients appear wearing masks from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. So what is different? The song itself (lyrics here), which is about lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. So while in the same setting, instead of declaring his love for someone, he is saying:

Sometimes I give myself the creeps
Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me
It all keeps adding up
I think I’m cracking up
Am I just paranoid?
Am I just stoned?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Eminem with the video for “The Real Slim Shady.”

There’s a lot going on in this video and I really don’t want to describe or discuss very much of it at all, because it is offensive up and down and across and diagonally in 17 different ways. (Wikipedia has a very detailed description of the video and an explanation of all the references and insults in the lyrics and the video.) Let’s focus just on the portions set in the mental hospital, where Eminem and other patients, in scrubs or hospital gowns, fidget and wander in a waiting room while Kathy Griffin and another nurse try to control them and hand out their medications. It is just as cliched as the other videos’ portrayals of hospitals, but seems to be played for laughs. And the message of the song and the video are that Eminem is so much better than other celebrities and musicians, so much more clever and original and “real,” that he’s been institutionalized to control him for speaking truth to power. This message could be read as a good reminder of the use of institutions to control and punish people both with and without disabilities for being political and advocating for their rights! Like happened just recently! However, the whole rest of the song and the video is so puerile and hateful that the comparison itself is offensive.

Ugh. I dislike Eminem very much.

Let’s move on and look at a video that is utterly ridiculous and is a tie-in to a movie that is also utterly ridiculous – Limp Bizkit and ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’ from the Halle Berry movie Gothika:

I have a really hard time doing any kind of critical analysis of this video due to the aforementioned ridiculousness factor. The song (lyrics here), which was originally written and performed by The Who, can be read as expressing the lived experience of mental illness? Maybe? But the video – which starts with Limp Bizkit lead singer Fred Durst as a patient in a phsyciatric hospital and Halle Berry as a doctor, and then they kiss, and then they have magically switched bodies? souls? something? So now Berry is the patient and Durst is the doctor! Gothika the movie featured Berry as a doctor in a psychiatric institution who became possessed by a ghost and murdered her husband and then was a patient in the institution but only because of ghostly possession, not because she had a mental illness or anything. But even putting all of that ridiculousness aside – and that is a boatload of incomprehensible creative choices – Fred Durst’s efforts to engage in “acting” when he becomes the doctor and leaves Berry in her padded cell make me laugh so hard it’s impossible for me to focus on anything else in the video.

I have a few more videos for a part 3, but if you know of any I’ve missed, please let me know in comments!

What’s the Big Deal With Pop Culture? (And Why Do You Keep Talking About it?)

Content note: This post is the result of a collaboration between a group of FWD contributors, abby jean, Annaham, Anna, and s.e. smith, which is why it is credited to ‘Staff.’ This is part two in a two part series.

What happens when you, as a blogger, delve into pop culture? A lot of unpleasant things, as it turns out.

Annaham got rape threats. s.e. has been called a ‘stupid fat bitch’ for daring to critique Joss Whedon (‘rarely has one person gotten something so wrong, so verbosely’ is s.e.’s current favourite review from a fellow Whedon fan). Anna’s received anonymous comments calling her r#tarded.

Such intense levels of vitriol obviously come from a very personal place. What’s curious is that while the critique also comes from a personal place, it’s not an attack on people—the fans or those who create pop culture. It’s a discussion of structures and tropes, a conversation about narratives, which is read by people who don’t agree as an attack levied at them personally. Some of these people seem to feel that they need to defend the creators of pop culture from the mean disabled feminists, while others seem to genuinely feel that they are being accused of being bad people for missing the problematic aspects of the work they enjoy so much, or choosing to like work even though it has problematic components—so they lash out.

Often, this is done with ‘it’s just pop culture’ and ‘you are reading too much into it‘ and ‘why can’t you just relax and enjoy it’ and ‘you’re just looking for something to get offended about’ and ‘you’re thinking too much‘ and ‘watch your tone‘ and, of course, the ‘I disagree with your reading, so obviously you are wrong’ arguments. These arguments act to trivialise pop culture itself, ignoring the profound impact pop culture has on society, and to silence the critic. Some people seem to want to have it both ways and simultaneously insist that pop culture has a profound impact on society while dismissing critiques based on pop culture’s social impact; they want us to celebrate ‘feminist auteurs,’ for example, without ever talking about the things those people do which are not feminist, or the fact that they can’t even be bothered to create a main character who identifies as feminist.

This is also paired with ‘don’t you have more important things to do?’ Because, obviously, you can only do one thing or explore one set of issues at once. So while you’re writing that post about Glee in California, disabled children are being tipped from wheelchairs in Berlin, and you are somehow personally responsible for that. Why aren’t you writing about that? Don’t you have something more important to do?

Because this argument comes up so much, it’s worth briefly addressing. Starting with here at FWD, where you can see numerous examples of other things we write about and have written about. And on our personal websites, where we write about much more. And in our personal lives, off the Internet, where we are engaged in all sorts of activities, a lot of which you don’t read about because we don’t write about everything we do. So, if the question is ‘don’t you have something more important to do,’ maybe you should check and see if your target is doing anything else first.

For those who manage not to tell us that we have something more important to do, there’s the ‘well why are you upset about this, and not that?’ argument. We’ve noted that some folks who stop in on a drive-by because we’ve attacked their favourite pop culture icon seem to have trouble grasping the fact that we have site archives. When a particularly controversial pop culture post goes up, people demand to know why we haven’t written about [this] or [that]. Often, we have and it’s in our archives, it’s on one of our personal sites, or it’s on another site we’ve written for. Sometimes we even link to it in the very post under discussion!

We are simultaneously expected to address every single instance of pop culture ever, while also doing more important things, while also not writing about pop culture at all ever because it’s just pop culture why do you have to go dragging your FEMINISM into it, while also being reminded that if we don’t like every single aspect of something we just shouldn’t watch it or engage with it (because why would you be so ANGRY about it if you liked it?!), while also just shutting up really because no one likes to hear us talk or cares about what we have to say.

Pop culture writing is accessible because there’s a common frame of reference. Structural critiques appear to be less so because that frame of reference is not present. Yet, it goes beyond this. Discussions about issues like disability, race, and gender in pop culture sometimes evoke very violent responses, including concerted attempts to drive the critiquer off the Internet. Sometimes even the creators of the pop culture become involved in the attack, raising some serious questions about power dynamics. When a noted and well-loved artist is encouraging fans to attack someone, how can that person, lacking a dedicated fan base of thousands, hope to respond?

The question is, why does pop culture get all the attention? How come no one leaps forward to defend the government of California when abby jean criticises the administration of In Home Support Services? Why is it that Anna’s posts about accessibility issues at universities are not read as personal attacks on those institutions? When s.e. writes about occupational health and safety, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of outrage about workers who are injured, disabled, and killed on the job. Annaham’s discussion of sit/lie laws in San Francisco didn’t attract enraged San Franciscans to FWD. Yet, all of these posts were about very important social and policy issues.

Why is it that many of the detailed and highly focused structural critiques we do are ignored in favour of pop culture posts? A post with a promotional still from Glee will get far more attention than a heavily researched and sourced post on disability in Haiti. Both posts are important and both posts serve a function, but people only choose to engage with one.

Is it just that people feel more comfortable in the pop culture zone than anywhere else, and that they feel personally about the critiques they encounter? And that structural things can be abstracted, so criticizing structural issues is not read in the same way that critiquing pop culture is? Or are they bothered about the critiquer coming in to ruin their fun?

Racialicious recently put up a post discussing some of the challenges involved in curating a space specifically for people of colour to discuss race and pop culture. The pushback we experience as people with disabilities talking about pop culture is similar to that documented in the Racialicious post; some people really do not like to see people critiquing pop culture from a social justice perspective and carving out spaces to do that. People don’t just feel challenged by such critiques, they feel personally threatened by them and they resist the very idea of spaces dedicated to these kinds of discussions.

FWD isn’t a pop culture blog, although we do discuss pop culture frequently. And it’s the pop culture which attracts the most attention, the most outrage, and the most ire, so it’s not surprising that people sometimes think we are a pop culture site. It’s the pop culture which sometimes makes some of us want to turn comments off and hide on a remote island somewhere far, far away.

But it’s also the pop culture which serves as an introduction to social justice issues for so many people. People who feel like they ‘aren’t qualified’ to understand structural critiques or who think that they need to read a bookshelf worth of theory to talk about feminism can and do engage with pop culture discussions and not a week goes by that one of us doesn’t get at least one email from someone reading along the lines of: ‘I never thought about this issue until you brought it up in the context of [show] and now I’m really interested and exploring theory and thank you!’

And that’s probably the most important reason to keep writing about it, and to keep creating and maintaining spaces to have conversations about pop culture from a social justice perspective.

An Open Letter to Ms Magazine Blog

Dear Ms Magazine Blog:

My name is Anna. I’m what some people in North America would call a person with a disability, and some people in the UK would call a disabled person. My husband, many of my friends, all of my co-bloggers, and a large number of our commenters are also people with disabilities/disabled people.

Your blogger, Carol King, would instead refer to us as “the disabled”, and as pawns of the religious right. In her blog post Kevorkian and the Right to Choose , she wrote:

The “right-to-lifers” enlisted the disabled in their cause when they cautioned that allowing people to choose to die would soon become their “duty to die.”

I’m pretty angry about that. Not offended, Ms Magazine, angry. You see, I’m really tired of “the disabled” being treated like we’re unthinking masses. I’m especially tired of the feminist movement – you know, one that allegedly wants equal rights for all people, including women with disabilities – doing this. It makes me angry because I’m a feminist as well as a woman as well as a person with a disability as well as someone who is not the pawn of anyone, thank you very much.

Some people with disabilities support the right to die. Others do not. Others do in some cases and not in others. Each of us has come to the conclusions we have because we are reasoning individuals. Gosh, some of us are even feminists who use a feminist lens to come to our decisions, regardless of which of the many places on that particular spectrum of opinion we find ourselves.

People with disabilities deserve better treatment than you have given them. We are not a throw-away line so you can score some sort of points. We are people, and I’m appalled that a feminist blog like Ms would publish something that would treat us as otherwise.

Frankly, I am so fucking tired of this shit. I’m tired of smiling while feminist organisations treat people with disabilities like they’re afterthoughts and problems to be solved. Like we’re just pawns in politics, like we need to be appeased but never spoken to or considered, like we’re too angry or not angry enough, like we have to push this fucking rock of dis/ableism uphill while you – our “sisters” – stand by and politely look away.

Do you remember Beijing, Ms Magazine? You’ve talked about it a lot lately. You know what I know about Beijing? I know the accessibility tent was inaccessible to people with disabilities. [transcript follows]

“We will achieve our rights and the respect we deserve as women with disabilities.” “Because the issues of women with disabilities have often been excluded, the goal this year was to make sure the concerns of disabled women were addressed.” Oh, hell, just watch the whole damned thing – it’s subtitled – and see the commitment feminists made to women with disabilities. Ask yourself, seriously, Ms Magazine, why your new blog has decided not to talk much about women with disabilities. “No woman who attends this conference should be able to leave Beijing without thinking about the rights of women with disabilities.” Do you?

You know what? If that’s something you can’t do, let me sum it up:

Nothing about us without us.

You wanna talk “about” “the disabled”? How about talking to us? How about letting us talk for ourselves?

How about treating us – people with disabilities – the way you would like women like yourselves to be treated? As though we have some understanding of our own experiences, our own opinions, our own thoughts. As though our thoughts do not belong to anyone but ourselves?

As though we are thinking beings?

Again, my name is Anna. I, like you, am a woman, and I am also a person with a disability. And we deserve better from you.

Sincerely,

Anna.

Please note: This thread is meant to be about the continued marginalization of people with disabilities in the Feminist Movement. I won’t be approving any comments about Kevorkian or related discussions.
Continue reading An Open Letter to Ms Magazine Blog

What’s The Big Deal With Pop Culture?

Content note: This post is the result of a collaboration between a group of FWD contributors, abby jean, Annaham, Anna, and s.e. smith, which is why it is credited to ‘Staff.’ This is part one in a two part series.

One thing has been clearly established: Something guaranteed to attract absurd amounts of traffic is a post on pop culture. Whether you’re writing about Evelyn Evelyn, Glee, Lost, Lady Gaga, Harry Potter…people pay attention. If you think your bandwidth limit might not be in danger of being exceeded this month, pop up a post about the representations of disability in some book, or show, or song, and fear no more!

People pay more attention to pop culture critique than anything else on this site, and it’s something that puzzles us. We certainly enjoy critiquing pop culture and think that it is an important part of our work, but we also enjoy the structural critiques, the stories that we tell, features on art by disabled artists, curating Recommend Reading, trashing bad advice columns, and the myriad other things we do here.

So, what’s the big deal with pop culture? What is so compelling about pop culture posts that they attract extreme levels of ire which sometimes cross the line into outright abuse? And not just here at FWD, but elsewhere on the Internet; commentaries on pop culture attract the most scrutiny and the most violent responses whether they are written by anti-racist pop culture bloggers, feminists exploring the feminist implications of pop culture, or trans women examining transphobia and transmisogyny in pop culture.

One theory is that pop culture is something which everyone has opinions about. As consumers of pop culture, many of us also feel that we are authorities on it, which makes it comfortable ground for discussion. Fewer people have opinions on structural issues which do not immediately affect them because they are not engaging with them on a personal level. Or they feel that they are unqualified because of social attitudes about who is allowed to speak in structural settings.

Pop culture is,  by nature, something which is supposed to be accessible to the masses, and thus, the masses respond to it. There are some interesting social attitudes bound up in this, along with ideas about what makes ‘art’ distinct from ‘pop’ and where these concepts intersect, and who gets to talk about it. We feel like we own pop culture in a way that we don’t own things like policy and other structures that contribute to the world around us.

Pop culture also builds and creates communities. Communities of fans are rich and complex organisms, just like the feminist blogging community, the political blogging community, and so forth. Communities sometimes grow defensive about discussions and critiques which they perceive as coming from outsiders; even though some of us here at FWD are actually quite active fans of the work we talk about and often explicitly say so, our writings here are still perceived as coming from the outside because of where they are being published. When communities feel threatened, they tend to become defensive, and sometimes that manifests in extreme ugliness.

Pop culture is also something which many people feel very strongly about. We are, in a word, attached to our stories. Anna is an ardent Doctor Who fan. Annaham has a soft spot for musician Jesse Sykes. s.e. eagerly awaits every new episode of Lost, while woe betide the person who interrupts abby jean while she’s watching 90210.

We feel an intense and personal attachment to these things. They speak to us and to our experiences. When someone views something from a different perspective and a different experience, it’s sometimes jarring and unsettling. The first response is often defensive and angry, because the critique is a form of challenge.

Some of us are able to engage with these differing perspectives, to look at critiques of works we love and say ‘ah, you know, you have something there,’ or ‘I’ve kind of been thinking that too, you are articulating this very well,’ or ‘well, actually, I kind of disagree, and here’s why,’ or even ‘I don’t really care what you have to say, I’m too busy having my own thoughts.’ We approach this from a place of mutual fandom; we are talking about these things because we love them, and we are excited about them, and we want to explore them more. Connecting with other fans is a huge part of the excitement of consuming pop culture.

Some of us are…not. Some people respond to critiques of pop culture in a way which is meant to invalidate the critiquer. The critique is disliked, these words are unpleasant to hear, so obviously the thing to do is to shut the critiquer in a box so that the actual points made do not have to be addressed.

Part two of this series delves into some of the ways in which  backlash against pop culture critiques manifests, and why we keep talking about it anyway.

Psychiatric Hospitals and Music Videos: Part 1

After reading Anna’s recent post on Janelle Monae’s ‘Tightrope’ video and how it “is a great example of how not to completely screw up representation(s) of disability,” I started remembering other music videos set in psychiatric hospitals. And then I started watching all these music videos!

One of the earliest I remember is Melissa Etheridge’s ‘Come to My Window.’

In the video (lyrics here), Juliette Lewis is in a bare room with a cot-like bed and a barred window. She wears a white tank top and white srub pants and has a white bandage around her left wrist. She paces, climbs, cries, scrawls on the walls and the floor. Intercut are shots of Etheridge, singing with an acoustic guitar and an old fashioned microphone. At times, the song stops and Lewis speaks/screams the lyrics in the bare room. At the end of the video the bandage comes off Lewis’ wrist and there is no cut or scar.

I feel kind of neutral about that one – I think the ending can be read either as “she was never crazy the whole time!” or as “she’s healing and going to be ok!” and both are somewhat problematic. But neither is it overtly offensive. For that, you have to look for N’Sync’s video for “I Drive Myself Crazy” (I bet you can guess where they’re going with this…)

The video (lyrics here) has segments of each of the band members with their girlfriends and then breaking up with them – inter cut with scenes of them in a psychiatric hospital, acting as stereotypically “crazy” as is possible. (Although wearing satin pajamas, inexplicably.) Clearly meant by the band to be a lighthearted and humorous video, the “joke” is that losing the girlfriend has been so traumatic that the band members have been rendered “crazy.”

Another video featuring psychiatric commitment as a result of losing a romantic partner is Missy Elliot’s “Teary Eyed.”

In the video (lyrics here), Missy Elliot breaks up with a boyfriend, follows him to a building where he is with a new girlfriend, and slashes the tires on his car, causing a horrible accident that kills him. She is sentenced in a court and goes to jail and then presumably to an institution for the “criminally insane.” There are several scenes in a stereotypical padded room, where Missy and sometimes backup dancers wear and dance in straitjackets. While this video certainly brings more seriousness to the subject, it’s hard to argue that it’s portrayal of people with mental illness was any more positive or accurate.

A video I have much more mixed emotions about is Bjork’s video for Violently Happy:

The song (lyrics here) is about the wild and overwhelming emotional exuberance that can go along with love and has long been a favorite of mine. But the video – featuring Bjork and other dancers shown individually in a stark padded room – seems to depict that emotion through the imagery of a psych hospital. I’m not entirely sure how to read this video – is it mocking or endorsing equating of the flush of love with psychiatric disorder? Why is everyone cutting or shaving their hair? – but overall it leaves me with a vaguely icky feeling. (Precise language, I know.)

I had to take a little break after watching those four. All of which depicted almost cartoonishly stereotypical “mental institutions,” with bare cots, padded rooms, and straitjackets. All of them drew parallels between psychiatric hospitalization and jail – the room in Ethridge’s video was bare like a jail cell with bars on the wall, the N’Sync boys were kept in line by guards, and both Bjork and Missy Elliot were straitjacketed in padded cells, Elliot having been sentenced there for her crimes. But none of this directly relates to any actual mental illnesses or disabilities. Instead, the videos co-opt the symbols and accessories to illustrate the extremity and depth of the singer’s emotions. And in all the videos it’s the same emotion being felt so extremely and deeply – love.

Thus concludes Part 1 of Psychiatric Hospitals and Music Videos! Check out Part 2 to see if these patterns continue!