In Defense of Finn/Poe

[Star Wars spoilers ahead]

Having now seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens four times in eight days, I’m thoroughly obsessed with the movie and have become fascinated by the growing ranks of Finn/Poe shippers: fans, many of them queer, who create art and fiction depicting the film’s two male protagonists as partners, and who hope that Episode VIII might make the pairing canonical.

It’s about time for a Star Wars film to have queer protagonists, just like it was about time for it to have non-white/non-male protagonists (and in this it succeeded, splendidly).

However, I’ve seen a lot of negative responses to this idea, such as “But it’s OBVIOUS they’re just friends” and “Why do you [gays] have to insert sex into everything” and “Why can’t you just let them be friends?”

Alright.

First of all, it’s worth noting that while queer shippers are always catching flak online for “reading too much into” presumably platonic same-sex situations or “making it all about sex” when it “clearly” isn’t, straight people rarely get criticized for doing the same thing–not just when interacting with fictional worlds, but in the real one, too. If you’ve ever heard a straight person go “OooOOOOOooo is that your boyfriend?” to an 8-year-old girl playing with an 8-year-old boy from the house next door, or “He’s going to be such a ladies’ man!” about an infant boy making cooing sounds at a few baby girls, you know what I’m talking about. How’s that for reading too much into things?

Beyond that, though, straight people–and to some extent queer people, since we get socialized the same way–tend to expect heterosexual pairings in fictional stories whether the signs are necessarily there or not. And they often are, because the people who create those stories also expect those pairings to be there, and they expect that the presence of those pairings will make the stories sell better. That’s why you rarely encounter a movie that does not include any heterosexual sex or romance, whether that movie is about aliens, robots, spies, superheroes, 18th century England, 21st century New York City, or what have you.

The constant ridicule and derision of queer shippers online neatly parallels real-world claims that queer people are “pushing their sexuality” on others. “I’m fine with gay people, but why do they have to shove it in my face?” is a common complaint when queer people do anything other than be silent and invisible. Online and off, good little queers don’t make any mention of same-sex romance or eroticism, and they certainly don’t hope out loud that two characters in a popular film turn out to be queer.

Second, a lot of straight people don’t realize that the beginnings of romance or sexual attraction between two queer people often do look like “just friendship,” because it’s often not safe for us to express ourselves any other way. Being obvious about our interest exposes us to outing, ridicule, bullying, and even physical violence (especially for men, people of color, and trans people). If queer people don’t occasionally read “more” into otherwise-platonic gestures and expressions, we’d probably never find any partners. If you want to know more about this and how complicated it can be, read this Autostraddle article.

So, queer people are constantly in a double-bind. If we avoid trying to read between the lines and always interpret others’ friendly behavior towards us as merely platonic, we’ll pretty much be forever alone. If we do read more into it, we risk ridicule and worse. That’s why it comes across as more than a little insulting and irrelevant when straight people criticize queer people for “reading too much into things.”

(I just want to state for the record that at this point, some queer person over the age of 30 usually shows up and belittles me because they’ve got this figured out and it’s “obviously” so simple, but rest assured that for most of us, especially when we’re still young, surrounded by straight people, and/or newly out, it’s really not simple or easy at all. But guess what, queer people are not a monolith.)

A great example of this in action is the eventual pairing of Korra and Asami from The Legend of Korra. Plenty of queer women saw the signs, but most straight people seemed to be totally shocked when the relationship was confirmed as canon. Some even reacted angrily and accused the creators of pandering to the queer community with this unrealistic development. Yet to us, it didn’t feel unrealistic at all.

Aside from rare examples like Korrasami, queer people are very aware, thank you, that we don’t get any representation in most fictional works (and that when we do, it’s usually marginal and/or negative). A lot of the folks enthusiastically shipping Poe and Finn do not really believe that the pairing will ever be canonical, but for them, it’s a fun sort of escapism anyway. Do you have any idea how condescending you sound when you interrupt with “Come on, they’re obviously just friends”? You might as well burst into the theater on opening night shouting “BUT YOU GUYS, JEDIS AND LIGHTSABERS AREN’T ACTUALLY REAL.” Thanks, Captain Obvious of the Imperial Star Destroyer Ruining Everyone’s Fun Forever.

(Yet, a universe in which people with mind-control powers can shoot lightning out of their fingers and use laser-swords made out of magical crystals to block laser blasts is easier for some people to grok than the idea that queer people might exist in it.)

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So, sure, based on the material in The Force Awakens, Finn and Poe might be headed towards a romantic relationship (or a one-sided crush, maybe on Poe’s end) or they might be headed towards a deep platonic bond. Poe might be sexually attracted to Finn or he might just admire his bravery, ability, and sense of right and wrong (as well as being pretty grateful to him for saving him from the First Order). Finn might be falling for Poe or he might be starting to love him as a friend, the first friend he ever had, the first person to ever look at him as a human being and not as a programmed killer, the first person to give him a real name. Poe might have given Finn his jacket to keep because Finn looks sexy in it, or because he’s grateful and wants Finn to feel like a part of the Resistance.

Or…it could be all of the above.

Because here’s the truth that all of this ultimately reveals: even for straight people, romance and friendship are not all that different. They are not mutually exclusive categories. The hints and signs of one may be the hints and signs of the other. One may grow out of the other, and although it more often goes in one direction than the other, a passionate romance can, in fact, transform into a deep platonic connection. It has happened to me. It’s probably happened to more people than you think.

When you look at it that way, Finn/Rey–the “obvious” romantic pairing that people always use to try to disprove the possibility of a Finn/Poe pairing–is neither so obvious nor so inevitable. If Finn and Rey were of the same gender, or if we lived in a backwards world in which queerness was the norm and straightness was the weird anomaly, we would find plenty of ways to read their relationship as purely platonic. (Just like we currently find ways to read two women making out or fucking as “just gals being pals.”) Finn asking Rey if she has a “cute boyfriend” would be an obvious sign of jealousy–not of her boyfriend, but of her. Finn grabbing Rey’s hand would “obviously” be because he’s trying to help her run away and that’s how people always help each other run away in the holovids he grew up watching. Rey’s horror and fury when she thinks that Kylo has killed Finn? Well, obviously, they’re close friends and anyone would be horrified and furious if someone murdered their close friend. Hell, she even calls him “my friend” in the last scene she has with him, where he’s lying unconscious at the Resistance base. “My friend”! How much more obvious can you get?

Finn’s behavior towards Rey might also be familiar to any queer person who has ever tried to convince themselves (consciously or otherwise) that they’re actually straight, any queer person who took a while to figure out that they’re queer. Think about it: Finn grew up brainwashed by an evil, violent regime that demanded complete conformity. I doubt he saw many queer male role models there. He sees a beautiful girl (yes, queer people are able to notice and appreciate beauty in people of genders they’re not into) and thinks, “This is how a man behaves with a beautiful woman.” As we’ve seen, Finn is not at all immune to some (adorable) macho posturing now and then.

Again, that’s just one reading. Another is that Finn is bisexual. Maybe he’ll end up interested in both Rey and Poe, and there will be a painful love triangle. Or maybe they’ll be poly and there won’t be. Maybe Rey is a lesbian. Maybe Finn is a sappy romantic asexual. Who knows? Isn’t it fascinating?

 

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The reason it’s so ambiguous right now isn’t (just) because the film’s creators want to build tension and curiosity for the next film. It’s also because the line between romance and friendship is itself ambiguous. True, in many movies–especially ones centered on more on romance and less on space battles–it’s made very blatant and obvious, because that creates drama and is more interesting for (some) moviegoers. People like to see the sexy [person of their preferred gender(s)] who clearly and obviously comes on to someone who could be them. People like the black-and-whiteness, the reassurance that romance always looks this particular way and you can’t miss it. It’s a fantasy as much as Jedis and lightsabers are; we’re just lulled into thinking it isn’t because the characters look like us (especially if we are white and conventionally attractive) and the settings look like places we’ve seen or heard about.

But back here in the real world, romance and sexual attraction don’t always announce themselves like stormtroopers raiding a village on Jakku. (Thankfully.) Sometimes it looks exactly like Finn and Poe in that movie, whatever the gender combination. Other times it looks more like Finn and Rey, or Han and Leia, or, hell, R2D2 and C-3PO. (I think, though, we can all agree that it almost never looks like Anakin and Padme.)

And back here in the real world, romance and sexual attraction can be very much not-obvious, especially when it happens in ways that are stigmatized and erased all the time. Yes, you can go years without realizing that your best friend is in love with you. You can, in fact, go years without realizing that you’re in love with your best friend. (Been there.) You can convince yourself that you’re not attracted to them, you’re just admiring them for their “objective” beauty. (Been there too.) You can tell yourself you’re jealous of their new partner because you miss spending that much time with them, not because you want to be their new partner. 

You can also choose not to act on feelings that you have. Two people can want to fuck each other and yet not fuck. Two people can be in love and yet not date. And this can be okay, and they can be happy with the friendship that they have without always regretting not having “given it a chance.” Sex and romance are not as inevitable and unstoppable as the movies make them seem, and for many people, they aren’t even the primary focus of their interpersonal lives.

Even if Finn and Poe don’t end up together in those ways, even if the rest of their on-screen relationship continues to look only like cinema’s most adorable bromance, that doesn’t actually mean they’re not sexually attracted to each other and/or in love. Or maybe it does. Who knows?

And while there will always be a canonical Finn and a canonical Poe, fans still get to do whatever they want with those characters in their own art and fiction. “Canon” doesn’t mean “real” because none of these characters or stories are real. People made them up. Other people are free to make them up in different ways, to have gay Poe and bi Finn and lesbian Rey and Han who didn’t actually die (sobbing) and Kylo who comes back to the Light Side (or doesn’t) and Captain Phasma who meets and falls in love with General Organa but doesn’t want to desert her cause (or does).

That’s why I’ve got no beef with anyone who simply says, “I see Poe and Finn as just friends.” (And I can’t complain about a movie centered in part on a close friendship between two men of color.) By all means, see them however you like!  But don’t act like seeing them as lovers or partners is somehow ridiculous or empirically inaccurate. Guys, it’s a story. We threw out any notion of empirical accuracy the moment the famous blue words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

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Keeping Others Happy At All Costs Is Manipulative

[spoilers for Orange is the New Black]

For a long time, and to a much lesser extent now, I have struggled with feeling like I have to keep everyone happy at all times and at all costs. I’m sure this is a common experience for many people, women especially.

When I facilitated a workshop about setting and respecting boundaries last week, I asked the participants what makes setting boundaries difficult at times. The most common response I got was that people are afraid of upsetting others by setting boundaries with them.

Being afraid of upsetting others is what leads me to “consent” to sex or other interactions that I don’t actually want. It leads me to carefully manage my public persona in ways that aren’t designed just to ensure my own safety and comfort, but also to avoid hurting others’ feelings. In some ways, this is good–it means I try to avoid doing things that are rude or mean, for instance–but in other ways, it stifles my self-expression and causes me to take much more responsibility for others’ feelings than I ought to. For instance, I shouldn’t be worrying that merely allowing a conservative or religious friend to see my Facebook posts will hurt their feelings. Yet I worry about that constantly.

I’ve tried all sorts of things to get myself to stop being such a people pleaser. As you might expect, reminding myself that It Doesn’t Matter What Others Think wasn’t necessarily helpful. Neither was getting shamed for it by others (often men, who don’t face the same pressures I do). You can’t always rationalize your feelings away.

The thing that helped the most was having this realization:

It is manipulative to try to keep the people around you happy at all times.

It can be difficult to think of yourself as someone who does something manipulative, but we all do in one way or another, so bear with me for a bit.

When we take responsibility for other people’s emotions and try to keep them happy at all costs, we’re manipulating their emotions. Sometimes, we’re even manipulating their reality: at its extremes, this sort of approach leads people to lie to others, sometimes about major things, in order to keep them from being upset. (Of course, sometimes lying to keep someone from being upset is necessary to keep yourself safe–that’s an abusive situation and not the sort of thing I’m discussing here.)

We often rationalize this sort of behavior by claiming that it’s “for their own good” and that we “just want them to be happy.” More often, though, it’s more for our own good: making people unhappy or upset is painful, and many of us have been taught that if we ever make anyone unhappy or upset, that makes us Bad People. Keeping others happy becomes a way of keeping ourselves happy, or at least keeping that self-hatred under control.

It took interacting with other people like this–other people like me–to realize that it’s manipulative. When people would admit to not being fully honest with me even when I asked for the truth because they worried that it would hurt my feelings, I felt manipulated–why didn’t they let me deal with my own feelings? Coming from men, it felt patronizing, like I’m some sort of fragile flower that needs to be protected from the force of my own emotions. Coming from neurotypical people, it felt ableist, like they thought that just because I have a mental illness, I can’t be trusted to handle my own emotional responses. Over and over, I heard “I didn’t want to tell you about my new partner because I thought you’d be upset” or “I didn’t want to tell you that I was exhausted of listening because you were just so sad” or “I didn’t want you to have to worry about yet another thing so I just arranged this whole situation that involves you without consulting you about it.” It was well-intentioned, but it was manipulative all the same.

Unfortunately, the impulse that many of us feel to keep others happy doesn’t come from nowhere. Sometimes people really do act like they think their emotions are our responsibility, and this realization that I had isn’t necessarily helpful for those situations. But it’s helpful for situations in which people really haven’t asked me to help manage their emotions for them.

In the new season of Orange is the New Black, there were some scenes that illustrated this vividly. In Episode 2, Red finally confronts Piper for lying to her about her family store, which Piper claimed to have visited on her furlough but which has actually been closed for ages:

Piper: Red, you’re back and you’re not talking to me. Now what did I do?

Red: My post-slock resolution was to stop giving liars second chances.

P: When did I lie to you?

R: “Business is booming. There’s a line out the door.” You were much more convincing than my husband, but you were just as stupid. You could have said you didn’t make your way there. Instead, you said you ate my vatrushkis.

P: I’m sorry. I–I thought that I was doing the right thing.

R: By lying? We read different children’s books.

P: You know many cultures value a person’s dignity over the truth. In Korea, they actually call it kibun. I heard that on The World with Marco Werman.

R: In Russia, we call it “bullshit.”

P: Look, there was nothing you could do about it, and I thought that I was saving you some pain.

R: You thought if you didn’t bring me bad news, I won’t kill the messenger.

P: I said what I said because I am a nice person and it felt right.

R: Nice is for cowards and Democrats. You’re a selfish little person. You wanted me to like you. Now I like you less.

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Red confronts Piper in Season 3, Episode 2 of Orange is the New Black.

I don’t mean to imply that everyone who lies or twists the truth in order to keep others happy is quite on the level of Piper (who is many folks’ least favorite OITNB character for a variety of reasons), but something about Red’s anger is very familiar to me. Red sees right through Piper’s excuses about being “nice” and “doing the right thing” and “saving you some pain,” and calls it what it really is: trying to get Red to like her, and failing spectacularly.

That, I think, is ultimately what’s so manipulative about it. Refusing to be honest with someone in order to keep them from disliking you is a way of saying, “I know you would probably want this information, but I’m going to withhold it from you because what’s more important to me is that you like me.”

There are subtler forms of dishonesty than what Piper did, to be sure. When I shy away from setting boundaries with someone even though I know they would want to know what my boundaries are, I’m lying by omission.

I totally, 100% get–because I’m living this myself right now–that a lot of this feels like an act of self-preservation. Especially for folks who have survived abuse, it might never feel safe to set boundaries, to be honest, and to allow people to dislike you. We feel that if we don’t keep everyone around us happy, we’ll never be safe. If you’re still living in a context like this, you know your situation best. Not everyone is able to set boundaries and be honest safely, and, as with everything else interpersonal, power and privilege play a role.

But if not, I think there’s a point at which our (understandable) fear of being disliked–even hated–becomes an excuse to avoid saying what needs to be said. I’m writing this as much for myself as for anyone else, because I’m getting exhausted of managing others’ emotions and I desperately need to be able to stop. Realizing that what I’m doing is actually manipulative has been very helpful. I can’t stand it when people try to withhold information from me in order to keep me happy, so I’m doing my best to stop doing it to them.

The advice Red finally gives Piper at the end of the episode resonated with me, and not only because Red and I share a heritage. She says, “Awaken your inner Russian. No more bullshit. Na zdorovie [to your health].”

Na zdorovie is what Russians say when we make a toast, but it’s applicable literally, too: my (mental) health can’t handle the stress of keeping everyone happy at all times, at all costs. Moreover, nobody asked me to manage their emotions for them. Let them deal with their own emotions, just like I deal with my own every day.

And now, since this is such a difficult topic, here’s an actual dog I visited today:

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It is important, though beyond the scope of this post, to address the distinction between “not taking responsibility for others’ emotions” and “being a huge raging asshole and then claiming that it’s not your responsibility if people are hurt.” Nooooope. No.

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Sexual Desire and Sexual Objectification are Not the Same Thing

I came across a fascinating forum post on the gaming site Polygon in which the poster complains that Polygon seems to take a hypocritical stance about sex and women in video games. On the one hand, the website’s writers seem to condemn the objectification of women in video games, but on the other hand, they seem to support the idea of women going out and having sex with whomever they want, however much they want:

It’s extremely obvious that Polygon wants to have their cake and eat it too, women who have lots of sex with multiple partners or are otherwise promiscuous are empowered females, games that reflect characters that have lots of sex or otherwise promiscuous and titillatory? Completely wrong.

The poster, Flower193, goes on in the comments to make some troubling assertions about sex, such as, “a woman who has sex with a lot of guys and lots of it is basically treating herself like a sex toy for men.” In response to a commenter who asks, “Could you be conflating objectification with a normal sexual desire?”, they respond, “That’s exactly what I’m doing, because they’re exactly the same thing.”

I think there are two main ideas that Flower193 is missing here. One is that discussing a character in the context of a story is separate from discussing the artistic/editorial decisions that went into the creation of that character. I could say that Black Widow is a fantastic badass whose fearlessness and selflessness when it comes to taking care of Bruce Banner is sweet and admirable. I could also say that I disagree with the decision to have the only female lead in that film be the one who can calm Hulk down, because of what it implies about women and their role in helping men control their anger and violent impulses*. There’s nothing contradictory here.

Analogously, even if it’s totally okay and positive and great for women to have a lot of casual sex, it’s still bad when they’re almost exclusively represented that way in video games, because that prevents us from telling the stories of women who don’t feel or act that way and gives the people who play those games a very skewed impression of what real women are actually like.

People are critiquing video games that present women as nothing but conventionally attractive sexbots because they want to see alternate representations of women too, not because there’s anything actually wrong with choosing to present yourself in that way. But, of course, video game characters don’t choose anything. They are made that way, and the way game designers choose to make characters says something. It’s not a random accident; it’s intentional. Someone had to draw that and code it, and they did so deliberately, in order to present their own vision of what’s appealing/fun/beautiful/worthwhile.

People often misinterpret criticism of sexualized women in films/games as saying, “This representation of women is bad because it shows them having lots of casual sex and having lots of casual sex is bad.” But that’s not what anyone besides certain conservative critics actually says. We’re saying, “Having women there just as eye candy is bad.” Or “Having women there just to fulfill men’s sexual desires is bad.” Or “Only presenting women as being desirable insofar as they fit a certain ideal of beauty is bad.” Or “Failing to fully develop a female character as a person with her own complicated feelings, beliefs, experiences, desires, and hopes–just as a male character would be developed–is bad.”

The second idea is that that Flower193 misses is that objectification and desire are not the same thing

This ties back in with the first and helps explain Flower193’s understanding of Polygon’s critiques. They (Flower193) think that Polygon celebrates women who have lots of casual sex while also critiquing their portrayal as such in video games, which I guess really would be kind of bizarre. But although I haven’t read the specific reviews to which they refer (because they don’t link to them in the post), my understanding is that that’s not the criticism. The criticism isn’t “you shouldn’t have all these badass confident casual-sex-having women in your video games”; but rather “you shouldn’t present women as sexual objects for men to take or win as rewards.” And Flower193 has already demonstrated that they think these are the same thing.

Objectification and desire are not the same thing. For starters, objectification isn’t necessarily sexual. It’s embedded in the way service sector workers are treated by both employers and customers, for instance–essentially as machines who must perform friendliness and cheerfulness despite often-extreme mistreatment. We objectify service sector employees when we expect robotic perfection from them while treating them poorly and paying them terribly. (I’m not saying, by the way, that not objectifying service sector workers requires having a five-minute conversation with them about their kids and the weather today. It does require paying them fairly, speaking to them as courteously as we would to anyone else, and allowing for the fact that sometimes the customer is, in fact, wrong.)

We objectify people when we believe and behave as though their only purpose is to satisfy our needs and desires. Catcalling someone on the street objectifies them because it implies that they exist for the catcaller’s viewing pleasure. Expecting your spouse to always be sexually available objectifies them because it implies that they exist for your sexual satisfaction. Having a one night stand in which you focus entirely on getting yourself off and never bother to ask your partner if they’re enjoying themselves or what they would like objectifies them because it implies that only your sexual pleasure is important, not theirs.

In contrast, there’s nothing inherently objectifying about noticing that someone is attractive and thinking about that. For many people, feelings of attraction just arise as we go about our lives, and they’re value-neutral. What matters is what we do with them.

Another feature of objectification is a lack of agency. If I’m walking down the street and someone makes a crude sexual remark to me, I didn’t have any agency in that. If I walk into the bedroom wearing my new lingerie and ask my partner what they think, and they respond, “Daaaaamn!”, I do have agency. I chose to wear the lingerie in front of my partner and ask for their opinion. Although they may be looking at me very sexually in that moment, I’m not being objectified, especially if this is a healthy relationship in which I’m not otherwise treated like a sexual object.

Flower193 says that a woman who has lots of casual sex with guys is “treating herself like a sex toy for men.” Not necessarily. Those men may see her as a full and equal partner in the context of those encounters. They may ask her what she likes, respect her boundaries, and make sure that she gets what she wants out of those hookups. Just because the relationship may only last that one night doesn’t mean that it involves objectification.

But even supposing those partners really don’t care about her pleasure and just “use” her body to get themselves off, the key part is actually right there in Flower193’s comment: “treating herself.” Maybe she wants to be a sex toy. Maybe she wants some casual sex to fill the time or take her mind off of things, and she doesn’t care how those men see her. She’s still making the choice.

Of course, we can talk about how choices are constrained by culture and society, especially for marginalized people. If she has internalized the idea that her only value is in her ability to please men, that may be driving these choices. Variables like class and race play into this too. Maybe she doesn’t truly believe that she deserves the sex and relationships that she wants, so she “settles” for these encounters. Maybe these encounters are exactly what she wants. That’s for her to figure out and decide, not for us to pass judgment on.

The conflation of sex (especially casual sex) and objectification is a common one, and it’s one made even by some feminists and progressives. It’s pervasive within the Older Women Tsk-Tsking At Young Women And Their Silly Hookups genre, and you hear it when people say things like “those girls are objectifying themselves” or “dressing revealingly means you don’t respect yourself.” No. Objectification is something others do to you, not something you do to yourself. What do with my body is separate from what others project onto me and my body in response, and only one of those is my responsibility.

As I see it, Polygon isn’t trying to “have its cake and eat it too,” and neither are any other video game reviewers who engage in this sort of critique. Women (and people in general) deserve to be able to make their own sexual choices and not be shamed for them, and many of us would like to see video games that show women making a variety of choices, not just the ones that (some) straight male designers happen to find the most sexy.

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*For my favorite-ever piece about Black Widow and representation, see here.

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Why Madonna Should’ve Asked Drake for Consent

[Content note: sexual assault]

My latest Daily Dot piece is about Madonna and Drake’s kiss at Coachella.

When Madonna took Drake by surprise with a kiss during their Coachellaperformance, the pop singer made waves on the Internet, provoking discomfort and disgust. Some of it was because Madonna is “old,” while others argued Drake’s reaction suggested a lack of consent.

However, on Tuesday, the Canadian rapper responded on his Instagram, clarifying that he had no problem with what happened and thanking Madonna for the impromptu make-out session:

Stop Telling Jessica Williams What To Do

In a Daily Dot piece, I wrote about why people (looking at you especially, white feminists) need to stop telling Jessica Williams what to do and diagnosing her with things.

For many fans of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, disappointment at the news that Jon Stewart will soon be stepping down as host was overshadowed almost immediately by excitement at the idea that 25-year-old Jessica Williams, the show’s youngest-ever correspondent, might take over. A Change.org petition asking Comedy Central to hire her as hostquickly gathered over 14,000 signatures.

Williams responded graciously, thanking her fans for their support but letting them know that she will not be hosting the program:

At that point, everyone collectively said “Aw, too bad, can’t wait to see more of your work!” and left Williams alone. I’m joking, obviously. That’s not what happened, because if there’s anything we love to do in our society, it’s telling women—especially women of color—what to do. Bonus points if we demand that they perform for us the way we want them to. Instead, Ester Bloom wrote a piece for the Billfold in which she armchair-diagnosed Williams with “impostor syndrome,” what Bloom describes as “a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves ‘unqualified.'” Bloom argued that Williams was displaying “clear symptoms” of the syndrome and that she should get to “the best Lean In group of all time.” Williams responded on Twitter:

To her credit, Bloom then apologized, adding to her post:

I wanted to state officially and for the record, as I have on Twitter, that I was wrong. I was offensive and presumptuous; I messed up, and I’m sorry. Williams should not have had to deal with this shit: my calling her a “victim” of anything, my acting like I know better and could diagnose her with anything, all of it.

So what happened here? How did Bloom go so self-admittedly wrong?

Read the rest here.

Should We Forgive Stephen Collins?

[Content note: child sexual abuse]

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about actor Stephen Collins, who had admitted to sexually abusing three girls several decades ago.

After actor Stephen Collins released a statement to People last week about his past molestation of three underage girls, Rosie O’Donnell, once his friend, responded with a poem eviscerating the former 7th Heaven star and describing her own experiences of abuse. In the poem, she wrote, “in case u wonder / what ur man sized penis – / ur abuse of power / ur lack of impulse control did to that kid / i will tell u a bit about me / sex is not fun / not now / not ever / it is married to a lingering terror.”

Others take an entirely different view of Collins’ confession. Writing in Psychology Today, Deborah King responds:

When someone is this sincere in his efforts to address his shortcomings, and has twenty years of clean personal behavior behind him, shouldn’t we support him…and forgive him? He has been in personal hell for decades over this; there is no need for further punishment. He has handled everything in the right way, including not apologizing directly to two of his victims, which could reopen old wounds for them. Clearly, 20 years of restraint and no repetition of his inappropriate sexual behavior shows that he is holding himself accountable.

In a number of ways, the Stephen Collins‘ case is different from most other cases of famous men harassing, assaulting, or abusing women. First of all, it came to light not because Collins was caught or accused by someone else, but because he admitted it—at least, initially. Second, unlike many sex offenders, Collins has not been denying any wrongdoing, but rather working to address the roots of his behavior in therapy. Third, Collins then shared his own story of being victimized by an adult as a child. While it’s not uncommon for abusers to have been abused themselves, few of them speak out about it—perhaps because they do not realize that they were abused and, therefore, do not understand that their own actions constitute abuse as well.

In discussing the woman who repeatedly exposed herself to him, Collins shows a high degree of self-knowledge. He states that he’s not “blaming” the woman or using her as an “excuse,” but rather attempting to show how his attitudes and beliefs developed in such a way that led him to perpetuate sexual abuse against others. In an interview this past Friday, Collins said:

That [experience] distorted my perception in such a way that some part of me felt—I never felt like I was molested. That word never crossed my mind as a 10 to 15-year-old boy. It was a very intense experience—I think somewhere in my brain I got the equation that, ‘Well, this isn’t so terrible. This person who I trust is doing it.’… I think that’s an aspect that went into my own distorted thinking as a young man.

While I understand why people are hearing this as an attempt to excuse away Collins’ behavior, I hear it differently. Explaining why someone has done a bad thing isn’t the same thing as saying that it was OK for them to do, or that it was someone else’s fault that they did it. We do not grow and act in a vacuum, and although it is our responsibility to reevaluate the wrong and sometimes dangerous beliefs we are taught as children, we must also stop such things from being taught to children to begin with. Understanding how someone develops the belief that these actions are not abuse is important if we are to prevent others from developing it in the future, and it’s rare that we get to hear such an insightful and self-aware explanation of how someone comes to abuse others. Perhaps Collins has therapy to thank for that.

Read the rest here.

Why You Should Believe Shia LaBeouf

My latest Daily Dot piece is about (male) actor/performance artist Shia LaBeouf’s claim that he was raped during an art piece.

What’s the worst thing that could happen if you believe that Shia LaBeouf was raped?

I ask because plenty of people seem entirely unwilling to entertain that idea. For example:

It’s unclear how exactly believing a survivor “demeans” other survivors. There is not a limited amount of empathy and concern in the world. You can care about survivors like LaBeouf and you can care about survivors who look and act like whatever you think survivors should look and act like.

Some people have said that they can’t believe LaBeouf because he’s an “unreliable narrator.” I was initially tempted to look up and comment briefly on the actor’s apparent history of twisting the truth, but then I realized that it absolutely doesn’t matter. Everyone lies, albeit to varying extents, and lying about rape in particular is so rare that I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt even if he has lied about other things before.

At the Guardian, Daily Dot contributor Lindy West writes:

A victim doesn’t have to be relatable or reliable or likable or ‘normal’–or even a good person–for you to believe them. You can be utterly baffled by someone’s every move and still take their victimization seriously. LaBeouf’s bizarre behavior and his sexual violation are in no way mutually exclusive, nor are the latter and his gender. ‘He was asking for it.’ ‘Why didn’t he fight back?’ ‘Why didn’t he say ‘no’?’ ‘He must have wanted it.’ ‘He seems crazy.’ These are flat-out unacceptable things to say to a person of any gender.

Others have pointed out that LaBeouf did not resist the alleged rape. Some of them acknowledge that survivors often “freeze” and are physically unable to resist, but claim that because LaBeouf has stated that for him the reason was that he did not want to compromise his performance art piece, then it’s not “really” rape.

I will grant that this may seem confusing. After all, if he was ableto stop the rape but didn’t, how is it still rape? If he allowed it to happen “for art’s sake,” isn’t that the same as wanting it to happen?

It’s pretty simple, and thinking of rape in terms of affirmative consent may help. Did LaBeouf make it absolutely clear that he wanted this woman to have sex with him? Did he verbally or nonverbally indicate that in a way that would be unmistakable?

No, he didn’t.

Read the rest here.

Four Better Ways To Prevent Sexual Assault Than Blaming Victims

My newest Daily Dot piece is up. It’s about Don Lemon’s inappropriate remarks to Joan Tarshis about her allegations against Bill Cosby, and how we can do better.

As allegations that Bill Cosby raped 15 different women continue to ripple through the Internet and the entertainment world—spurred, perhaps, by the fact that a man finally signal-boosted them—controversial CNN news anchor Don Lemon wants to know: Why didn’t accuser Joan Tarshis simply bite Cosby’s penis to avoid being coerced into giving him oral sex?

This, apparently, was the question on Lemon’s mind as he listened to Tarshis’s story.

Lemon later apologized, stating that he “never want[ed] to suggest that any victim could have prevented a rape.” While this is notable, unfortunately, that’s exactly what was suggested.

While Lemon’s question, which he claimed that he “had to ask,” stands out in its graphic inappropriateness, it’s a common practice to ask survivors of sexual assault why they didn’t “just” this or “simply” that. Whether it comes from prurient interest or supposed concern, many people who try to discuss sexual assault with survivors get caught up in the details of what the survivor could have theoretically, in a perfect universe, if they had thought of it in time rather than experiencing (as many victims do) too much fear or shock, done to prevent the assault.

First of all, it is not the responsibility of people targeted by sexual assault to prevent said assault. The fact that this still needs to be repeated, over and over, is disgraceful.

Second, there are many more survivors than there are rapists, and rapists get away with it because they are rarely held responsible for their actions.

Throughout history, the responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been placed on the shoulders of its potential victims. People like Don Lemon have probably been giving women these “tips” for millennia. Yet it hasn’t seemed to do any good. Isn’t it about time to try something else?

Maybe Lemon should be giving us some tips on how to hold powerful men accountable instead. Here’s a start.

1) Recognize celebrities have power.

In general, people seem to be pretty bad at thinking of social dynamics in terms of power. Many have trouble understanding the fact that white people and men have excess power in our society, for instance.

So do celebrities of any gender, and male celebrities especially. People who are so widely and strongly admired and valued wield a tremendous amount of influence without even intending to. When they do intend to, it gets even stronger.

This is especially true when a celebrity has something a non-celebrity wants—like fame, access, and opportunities. Many (if not all) of the women who have accused Bill Cosby of rape were young aspiring entertainers to whom Cosby offered mentorship. When people dismiss their allegations because some of them took a long time to come forward, ask yourself—what would it take to get you to destroy what might be your only shot at the career you want? Would accusing a famous, beloved man of sexual assault—and probably being dismissed, harassed, or even threatened as a result—really seem worthwhile?

Men like Cosby know this. They know that they have the power to make or break these young women’s chances in the industry. They know that they will be allowed to get away with it. And so they keep doing it.

Read the rest here.

Did Lena Dunham Sexually Abuse Her Sister?

[Content note: child sexual abuse]*

My Daily Dot piece about Lena Dunham went up yesterday, but I was out walking 14 miles of Manhattan so I didn’t have time to link it here. This was published before Dunham released her statement, which partially (but not nearly entirely) addresses some of my concerns.

Lena Dunham’s recently released memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, has stirred up a lot of controversy, and probably not the controversy that Dunham hoped to stir up.

Several passages in the book detail the Girls creator and actress’ childhood sexual experimentation with her sister, Grace, who is six years younger. After a conservative writer quoted the passages and accused Dunham of sexual abuse, the internet exploded.

The passages describe Lena Dunham playing with her sister’s vagina when Dunham was seven and her sister was one year old. She also writes about bribing her sister with candy so that she could kiss her on the lips and masturbating in bed next to her. Their mother was aware of at least some of the behavior, but apparently didn’t think much of it. “My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina,” she writes. “This was within the spectrum of things I did.”

Not all of Dunham’s critics have been conservative columnists, however. Many women, especially women of color, have been active on Twitter, discussing the passages and how they exemplify the abuse that others have faced in childhood. These critics have started a hashtag called #DropDunham, calling on Planned Parenthood to end its partnership with her:

Meanwhile, others think there’s nothing wrong with Dunham’s actions:

 

[…]Did Lena Dunham abuse her sister? That depends on a lot of things, some of which we may not know without getting more information. However, there are a number of things about Dunham’s behavior as she describes it herself that bring up red flags.

Read the rest here.

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*Although I personally avoided definitively labeling Lena Dunham’s actions as child sexual abuse, I included this content note out of respect for those who consider it such and find it triggering.

Before You Speculate About Amanda Bynes’ Mental State

[Content note: mental illness, ableism]

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about the gleeful speculations about Amanda Bynes’ supposed mental illness.

Former child star Amanda Bynes hasn’t been having a good month. After being arrested for DUI in California, Bynes left her family and made her way to New York City, where she’s attempted to shoplift clothing twice, which she claims was a “misunderstanding.”

Bynes also gave an interview to In Touch magazine in which she apparently said that she believes there’s a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts. She later made a series of tweets claiming that the interview was fake and that she will sue the magazine for calling her “insane.” Celebrity gossip websites have, of course, taken this story and run with it, speculating about Bynes’ mental health and diagnoses and treating the situation like a spectator sport.

Even if Bynes really did tell In Touch that she believes she has a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to call her “insane” or “crazy,” and I’m not surprised she’s angry about it. Words like that don’t just mean “displaying symptoms of a mental illness.” They connote ridicule, ignorance, and sometimes even hate.

They also place people with mental illnesses in a category apart from the rest of us, the ones who aren’t “crazy.” In fact, mental illnesses exist on a spectrum. Some people have a a few hallucinations or delusions during a time of extreme stress (or perhaps sleep deprivation). For others, psychotic symptoms are a struggle they must manage for their entire lives.

Are all of these people “crazy?” Is everyone who has ever had a random and totally irrational thought “crazy?” Is everyone who takes medication for anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder “crazy?” Words like “crazy” and “insane” do not refer to any specific set or level of symptoms. They refer to someone we wish to hurt, ostracize, or laugh at.

How do you report a story like Bynes’ without perpetuating the stigma that people with mental illnesses face?

For starters, recognize that some things are newsworthy whether the person who did them is a celebrity or not; others are newsworthy only when they’re done by someone we’re already paying attention to—or used to pay attention to. People get DUIs and shoplift all the time, but when a famous person does it, that suddenly becomes a reason to write an entire news story. Someone having delusions is also not in and of itself interesting to the public—although, in a way, I wish it were, because maybe then people would know more about it and stigmatize those who struggle with it less.

Obviously, journalists have to make money. Sometimes that means writing stuff that sells, whether or not you personally think that this information is important to collect and provide to the public. However, oftentimes journalists—especially those who cover celeb news—shrug off all responsibility for choosing their subject matter by claiming that it’s “just what sells” or “what the people want.”

Read the rest here.