Creating More Accurate Media Representations of Stigmatized Identities

Greta recently wrote about Yes, We’re Open, a new indie film about a couple in an open relationship. She wrote:

A lot of why it was frustrating can be summed up in the question I asked the filmmakers in their post-film Q&A: “Given that the template of San Francisco poly culture is that it’s hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death… why did you choose to make the poly couple in this movie so skanky, and not particularly ethical?”

They clearly understood the question, and the context for it. They agreed about poly people, if anything, tending to be hyper-ethical to the point of relentlessly over-processing everything, and hyper-honest to the point of being TMI and never shutting up. In fact, one of the filmmakers is himself non-monogamous. But they were making a comedy, they said, and unethical people are just funnier. For a long-format story, anyway.

She later says:

I don’t want every poly character in every TV show or movie to be a perfect paragon of sensitivity and high-minded ethics. I’m okay with them being flawed and human. The need for role models isn’t a need for one perfect hero: it’s a need to see that you have options, other than the ones your culture is unfairly slotting you into. (Not to mention the need for the rest of the world to see that as well.) I don’t think every producer of pop culture has an obligation to single-handedly fill that entire gaping hole. And again, I don’t want propaganda. Propaganda is boring.

But given that there are so few poly characters in pop culture, and even fewer who don’t fall into the stereotype of unethical seducers and skanks with no self-control, I think producers of pop culture do have an obligation to not actively perpetuate that stereotype.

I left a comment there but subsequently realized I had way too many Thoughts for just a comment, so here we go.

It’s true that creators of pop culture are (and should be) primarily concerned with telling a good story, not teaching us morals or otherwise educating us. When the latter goals take priority, you end up with the insipid morality tales that comprise much of children’s media.

However, when media presents a false or misleading portrait or a group that is already stigmatized and misunderstood by the public, that’s a negative externality that should be dealt with. But how?

I think that one way the entertainment industry falters in presenting characters who have a stigmatized identity is by making their entire character all about that identity.

Sometimes they do this by having the character confirm a stereotype. In the film Greta wrote about (which, full disclosure, I haven’t seen), the poly characters are unethical and obsessed with sex. Another film might have, say, a flamboyant gay best friend or an uptight Asian student who’s obsessed with her grades. Even if that character also does a bunch of other stuff, the prevalent stereotypes keep the audience focused on the character’s polyness or gayness or race.

So that’s one way. It’s the most obvious way, so many people rightfully attack it these days. A less obvious way is making that character’s entire story arc–or, indeed, the entire film or show–all about that stigmatized identity. That’s what Yes, We’re Open is. It’s not a film that happens to have poly characters or that references polyamory in some way. It’s a film about polyamory.

Because of that, the central conflict of the film has to be about polyamory, too. And that means that the filmmakers have to exaggerate. After all, if you made a documentary about my open relationship or that of one of my best friends or all the other poly folks I know, it’d be boring as hell. Making it interesting requires making it unrealistic, and because most people don’t spend much time reminding themselves that entertainment is not reality, they’re going to watch the film and think, “Oh, so this is what polyamory is like.”

The same thing happens to a lesser extent with any film that’s primarily about relationships. Romcoms are unrealistic because their writers have to create an unrealistic amount of conflict in order for the film to be interesting and funny. So you see massive failures to communicate, glorification of abusive relationships, and other crap.

The most realistic portrayals of romance in film tend to be the stories that are mostly about something else. For instance, Eric and Tami’s marriage in the show Friday Night Lights has been praised for its realism. Eric and Tami love each other and their children and work to improve their relationship, but there’s still conflict in it. It’s just not enough conflict to base an entire show on, which works because the show is primarily about a small-town Texas football team, not about the relationship between two characters. That’s one of the reasons it’s realistic.

That’s why I believe that the best way to improve representations of stigmatized individuals and misunderstood identities in the media is actually to make the story about something other than those identities. Make a spy thriller where one of the main characters happens to have two partners. Make a sci-fi film in which the main character turns down a potential love interest because the main character happens to be asexual. Present these possibilities as just a part of life.

This approach won’t fix all of the problems. It also doesn’t have to be applied universally. There should be films out there are are about polyamory or homosexuality or whatever, although they need to be made by people who know what they’re talking about. These films can serve their own purpose.

But in order to really normalize a lifestyle or identity, you have to present it as realistically as possible, and that means presenting those characters as fully-formed individuals who are not defined by that particular identity. If the subject you’re addressing (polyamory, homosexuality, etc.) is the only source of conflict in the film, you’ll end up having to exaggerate that subject for the sake of entertainment.

When something like this happens in movies that address very common and accepted things–such as, in the case of romcoms, monogamous heterosexual dating–misrepresentation is still a bit of a problem, but at least people can draw on their personal experiences and those of friends and family, as well as on their knowledge of the dozens of other films and shows that address that experience, in order to evaluate whether or not the film is realistic.

But when it happens in movies that deal with unfamiliar and misunderstood experiences, like polyamory, the audience is much less likely to have other sources of information about that subject readily available. So they end up with glaringly inaccurate ideas about that subject.

LGBT Celebrities Do Not Owe Coming Out To Anyone

Everyone’s got an opinion on Jodie Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes last night. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a video with a transcript.

In the speech, Foster spoke affectionately of her ex-partner, with whom she raised children, and explained that she “already did [her] coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age” but values her privacy too much to make it a big spectacle.

That’s not a good enough excuse for one writer, though (watch out, it’s apparently Low-Hanging Fruit Day over here at Brute Reason):

I mean, is it 1996? Jodie’s defensive speech, in which she seemed to blame Honey Boo Boo and reality TV for supposedly creating a climate that forced her out of the closet, harkened back to a time when it was a big deal to proclaim your sexual orientation. Hello, it’s 2013! People are getting “gay married” and homos can be out in the military and stuff!

[…]Why am I so angry? Because I’m roughly the same age as Jodie, and yet I had the courage to come out exactly 20 years ago.

I honestly don’t see what is “defensive” about Foster’s speech and where exactly she “blames” current pop culture for “forcing” her out of the closet. She does joke about how celebrities are expected to live very publicly and have their own reality shows and fragrances and whatnot, but the part where she blames this for making her come out seems to be entirely in Baer’s imagination.

Baer goes on and calls Foster’s need for privacy “an excuse” and then offers this bizarre caveat:

A lot of people will criticize this piece and write angry, hateful comments saying that it was up to her when and where to come out, and they’re absolutely right, but that still doesn’t mean she wasn’t a coward, and it doesn’t change the fact that she could have helped millions of people by coming out years ago.

A bunch of things jump out at me:

1. This article seems to be more about the author than about Jodie Foster.

As in, it’s all about Baer and how courageous she was for having come out a long time ago. Even though she doesn’t dedicate that much of the article to talking about her own courage, that’s clearly the main theme–she was courageous and Foster was not.

Baer undoubtedly deserves respect for coming out so early (well, for coming out at all), but that doesn’t mean Foster is a “coward” for not being so public about her sexual orientation. As she explains in her speech, everyone that she wanted to know, knew. That may not be “out enough” for Baer, but it’s still out.

Whenever someone’s done something awesome–come out, for example, or recovered from a mental illness–there’s a certain tension in figuring out how to talk about the people who haven’t succeeded in doing that thing yet without being a total asshole about it. My reasoning is that you don’t know why they haven’t and it’s best not to assume. I suppose Foster could really be a coward, but personally I doubt it. It’s more likely that she had other reasons for not coming out publicly (assuming that the ways in which she has already come out don’t matter, which is what Baer seems to be assuming).

2. Considering Foster’s history, Baer is incredibly dismissive of her stated need for privacy.

Many celebrities guard their privacy carefully, and not all of them have any desire to be in tabloids all the time. But Foster has a unique story in that regard. In the 1980s, a fan of hers named John Hinckley, Jr. became obsessive and started sending her love letters. He then attempted to assassinate then-President Reagan, stating that he was trying to impress Foster. The resulting intrusion of her privacy by the media is something that she’s known to have had a lot of discomfort with.

Given this, one would think that Foster could get away with needing privacy a bit more than the average celebrity, but in rushing to condemn her, Baer misses these nuances.

As Foster said in the speech:

But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.

3. It’s not Foster’s job to “help millions of people” by coming out.

It’s not anyone’s job, actually. Foster’s job is to make movies. Baer’s job is to write articles about the entertainment industry. All of us should probably try to be decent people and to help others when they need it, but not at the cost of our own well-being. Chastising someone for failing to “help millions of people” just seems odd to me because it presumes that Foster is somehow failing live up to her responsibilities as a person.

It’s undoubtedly true that many people would’ve been happy had Foster come out (or, again, come out more publicly in the way that Baer apparently wanted her to). Perhaps she would’ve been an inspiration for a lot of LGBT kids. But that doesn’t make coming out an imperative. I would probably inspire lots of people if I won a marathon or donated all of my worldly possessions to charity, but that doesn’t make it a moral imperative for me to do so.

4. Baer’s reaction shows an incredible amount of entitlement.

We consider ourselves entitled to a lot from celebrities. They must be Good Role Models. They must always be grateful for their fame, even if they never asked for it and even if it often causes them enormous personal difficulties. (Consider the never-ending excoriation of Kristen Stewart for failing to appear cheerful and grateful enough.) If they’re queer, they must always come out and be willing to serve as advocates for LGBT causes.

You could argue that it’s not healthy or “right” for any queer person to live in the closet (though in my opinion you’d still be wrong). But that’s not what Foster was doing. Given that she had already come out to everyone who matters to her and has lived her life as a gay woman–for instance, by dating another woman and raising children with her–Baer’s presumption that Foster owes us anything more than that is predicated on the fact that she’s a celebrity.

Like many others, Baer assumes that celebrities’ lives exist for her consumption and that celebrities who happen to be queer exist solely to validate her and other LGBT folks. But Foster is a human being. She is a human being who happens to be a famous actress and who also happens to be gay.

5. Baer is shockingly dismissive of the negative consequences that coming out can have for celebrities.

She writes:

Nobody was asking Jodie to be president of the gays. Ellen [Degeneres] is a great example of someone who came out, had no interest in being the poster child and is just living her life honestly and openly. Though she occasionally fights publicly for LGBT causes, being a lesbian doesn’t define her. But here’s the amazing thing that happened to Ellen. At first her big announcement seemed to derail her career. She disappeared for a while and almost gave up on show business because she was “mired in depression.” After some dark days, which a lot of newly out people experience, Ellen ultimately was rewarded for being her true self. Today, because of her talk show, she’s arguably one of the most beloved stars on the planet, adored by millions, gay and straight alike (except for a handful of moms who now refuse to shop at JCPenney, but c’mon, they’re dumb).

First of all, I’m not sure why Baer thinks that Ellen isn’t a “poster child” when such a great deal of media coverage about her has to do with the fact that she’s a lesbian. But second, notice how Baer just skims right over the part where Ellen suffered from depression and nearly quit her career as a result of coming out. As though that doesn’t even matter because she gets to be “her true self” now. As though the bullying from One Million Moms is just a crappy little side effect.

What if that sort of public opprobrium and the depression that can result from it wasn’t something Foster felt capable of dealing with?

Nobody should have to suffer through bullying, depression, and possible career loss for coming out as gay or trans*. I think we can all agree on that here, and many of us advocate in various ways to make coming out easier and safer. But blaming an individual for not being willing to put themselves through this is unconscionable.

I don’t know what private struggles Foster has gone through with regard to her sexuality, and neither does Baer. It’s none of our business. That’s why calling her a coward for not doing what others have done is wrong.

Who Is To Blame For A Suicide?

Yesterday I was driving around in my hometown and listening to the radio. The DJs did a segment on the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse in a hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated, who was pranked by some radio DJs and tricked into giving out Middleton’s medical information.

The DJs on my hometown station put a caller through and asked for her opinion. She said that it’s not at all the DJs’ fault that Saldhana clearly had issues and that they shouldn’t have lost their jobs because of what happened. Furthermore, it was “irresponsible” of Saldhana to kill herself and leave this whole mess behind.

Lesson one: never listen to the radio in Dayton, Ohio.

Lesson two: people have a lot of trouble with grey areas and blurry lines.

(Of course, I mostly knew both of these things already.)

It seems to be very difficult for people to form an opinion on this tragedy that isn’t extreme. Some say that the DJs were just doing their jobs, the prank was completely harmless, just a bit of fun, and Saldanha was messed up and crazy. Others say that the DJs are terrible people and should be blamed for Saldanha’s suicide. The latter seems to be the minority opinion.

I don’t think that the truth always lies between two extremes. In this case, though, I feel that it does.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon and the suffering that causes it–and that is caused by it–makes it even more difficult to comprehend. A particularly painful fact that the friends and families of people who kill themselves sometimes have to face is the fact that suicide often has a trigger. Sometimes, that trigger is other people.

I remember reading a young adult novel called Thirteen Reasons Why a few years ago. The novel is very serious for a YA book, and the premise of it is that a teenage girl, Hannah, has killed herself and left behind a set of audio recordings in which she explains to every person who was implicated in her mental troubles what it was that they did.

One was addressed to a guy who found a poem she wrote and spread it all over the school. Another was to a guy who took photos of her through her bedroom window. By the end of the book you get a picture of a girl who was just completely used and marginalized by almost everyone she interacted with.

And yet–this is the part that some readers, judging from the reviews, didn’t get–Hannah is not supposed to be a wholly sympathetic character. You’re meant to feel sorry for her, but her actions are meant to make you uncomfortable. The tapes she leaves behind seem a bit vindictive. And at the end you learn that two of the major triggers for her suicide were that she failed to stop a rape at a party and that she allowed her friend to drive drunk–and hit and kill someone.

So, who’s to blame for Hannah’s suicide? Her classmates were cruel, yes. But they didn’t know what she was going through. And she could’ve saved herself a lot of guilt had she intervened and stopped the rape and the car accident, but can you really expect a terrified teenage girl to do that?

The point of the book, to me, is this: you can’t blame anyone. It’s comforting to think that you can, but you just can’t.

Similarly, the Australian DJs who pranked Saldanha could not have known what would happen. In fact, even now we don’t really understand. Although she reportedly left a suicide note, we don’t know what it says, and we don’t know what kinds of personal struggles she might’ve had leading up to her death. To their credit, the DJs have said that they’re heartbroken and sorry.

But blaming Saldanha is sick and cruel.

And while I don’t blame the DJs for her death, I still think they shouldn’t have done it.

The thing is, we live in a world that presumes that everyone is “strong” and mentally healthy and capable of dealing with whatever life throws at them without falling apart. This is why people like Saldanha are blamed and exhorted to “just work on their issues,” even after they’ve died.

We assume that people are always capable, for instance, of refusing repeated sexual advances, ignoring social coercion and proselytism, dealing with mental health issues without ever being taught how, overcoming pervasive racial inequality, facing the humiliation (and, sometimes, terror) of street harassment, suffering through targeted online hate campaigns, refusing to believe it when magazines tell them they must be thin, and so much more. We expect them to do all this without anger, because anger is “counterproductive.” So, of course, is mental illness.

We expect people to conform to an ideal that includes emotional strength, confidence, and resilience, and we refuse to concede that few people are able to live up to this ideal all of the time. How much do we expect a person to bravely, stoically handle? I’m not sure there is a limit.

The DJs assumed, whether consciously or not, that Saldanha would either see through the prank or be able to deal with the international attention she would receive for falling victim to it. As it turned out, she was not.

At The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz writes:

With the recent focus on bullying sparked by suicides of young people who were hectored as outcasts, a new or newly articulated risk factor for suicide has gained currency: humiliation. Though certainly related to hopelessness and to real or threatened financial embarrassment, humiliation is its own very private experience, with its own equally private triggers. How and why certain events might brutally transgress honor and dignity in one person yet the same events barely touch the next, remains inscrutable. In this particular tragedy, it seems a sense that she was being publicly ridiculed—humiliated—somehow pushed Ms. Saldanha over the edge, an edge previously defined and maintained by her tremendous pride in her work.

Why do we expect people to deal with public humiliation for our own entertainment?

I would hope that rather than limiting the discussion to what these particular DJs should or should not have done, we expand it to talk about the exploitation and degradation that modern media thrives on. That these DJs would even think to go through such trouble to obtain someone’s private medical information is ridiculous. That there is a market for that information is ridiculous. I’ve long believed that celebrity gossip is unethical, but when it sets off a chain of events that ends in a suicide, that becomes even more apparent to me.

Not only is it impossible to blame any individual person in this awful story, but to do so would be to miss the point. Something in our culture–in the ways we relate to each other and in the ways we expect each other to be strong–is broken.

If I absolutely had to lay blame on something, it would be that.

Why I Don't Like "How I Met Your Mother"

Everybody seems to be obsessed with the CBS show How I Met Your Mother, so I decided to give it a try. I watched a few episodes, which I enjoyed to some extent. However, I soon found myself completely unwilling to keep going.

The reason for my premature abandonment of the show is one of the main characters, Barney Stinson. Widely considered the star of the show and the reason for its popularity, Barney is the consummate womanizer (or douchebag, for those who prefer the vernacular). His entire raison d’être seems to be to sleep with as many attractive women as possible, forgetting their names afterward.

Despite his superficiality, Barney isn’t a flat character, and he does have many other traits–many of which I can appreciate much more than the womanizing. But there’s a huge part of me that simply cannot be amused by a guy who treats women like shit. It’s just not funny to me.

Maybe in another century or two, the idea of a man who tricks women into sleeping with them only to discard them at the earliest opportunity will truly be hilarious, because our cultural scripts for dating and sex will have evolved. People who only want casual sex will be able to openly pursue it without being labeled “sluts” or “players,” and people who want serious relationships will be able to simply avoid getting involved with those who don’t.

In such a society, Barney’s ludicrous schemes to get women into bed with him might seem like a charming relic of another time. But today, I don’t see what’s so funny. People who lie, deceit, or otherwise pressure others for sex are all too common, and my own life has been affected by them, as have the lives of virtually all of my female friends. Barney’s stories might be several orders of magnitude more ridiculous than anything you’d hear in real life (see this for examples), but they’re still based on the idea that lying for sex is okay.

Barney’s character has been so successful that he’s even “authored” two books, The Bro Code and The Playbook, that regurgitate the same type of humor that the show does. Of course, I don’t believe that anybody would actually take these books seriously (although I might be wrong). The problem isn’t that people take this seriously; it’s that they find tired stereotypes about men and women so funny.

Indeed, Barney’s victims/partners are usually portrayed as helpless, dumb girls who are so mesmerized by an attractive, well-off man in a suit that they buy all of his bullshit. But in the real world, of which HIMYM‘s creators are certainly aware, women are rarely so one-dimensional.

Now, I’m sure that there are nevertheless many great things about HIMYM, so I’m not going to condemn the show in general. There’s a reason I titled this post “Why I Don’t Like HIMYM,” and not why you shouldn’t either. But I do think that the question of why we think it’s so fucking hilarious when men manipulate and exploit women* is one that you should ask yourself if you enjoy the show.

I don’t necessarily think that any womanizing male character ruins a television show. For instance, Community‘s Jeff Winger is also known for manipulating women (and people in general). However, Jeff is a much more complex character than Barney is, and he starts to change from the very first few episodes. Barney, on the other hand, seems to remain essentially the same throughout the show’s seven-and-counting seasons, despite a few attempts at actual relationships. Notably, even when he wants something serious with a woman, he still sees no problem with tricking her in order to get it.

No matter how unrealistic and ridiculous these situations are, I just can’t laugh at them. Maybe someday when I’m happily married, I’ll be able to. But not while I’m still surrounded by metaphorical Barneys.

*I am quite aware that women are most certainly capable of and often do exploit men as well. However, since this show is about a (male) womanizer, I’m confining this discussion to that.