In Which Elle Talks a Lot About Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers

(So just FYI this one got kinda babble-y. I think it’s still good, just a bit meandering. If I were a better writer, I would edit it down before presenting it to you. But I’m a part-time blogger who does this for cheap therapy and has very little self-respect, so I’m just shoving it out there as-is. I still hope you enjoy.)

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing something that I normally don’t do; thinking a lot about Flat Earthers and Anti-Vaxxers. And not just thinking about them, but actually trying to understand them. (I know, I know. Hear me out.)

When I’m working, I keep a steady background hum of familiar YouTube videos. Because I am the particular mix of nerdiness and eccentricity that I am, for me that means that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend songs, leftist Youtube talking heads, cinema criticism, and a capella songs are on a pretty steady rotation. So Philosophy Tube’s “Flat Earth OR Why Do People Reject Science?” and Hbomberguy’s “Flat Earth: A Measured Response” (both attempts to examine the philosophy and “science” of Flat Earth theorists) were trading spots with “Don’t Be a Lawyer.” I ventured over to Netflix when I finally got tired of nice British men explaining things to me (it took a while, I’ll admit) and found the documentary Behind the Curve, which follows a few of the top figures in the Flat Earth movement and attempts to humanize them (without condoning them). I also happened to be reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and saw online articles about how Facebook moderators start to believe conspiracy theories, and watched testimony of an 18-year-old who defied his Anti-Vax mother. (I promise this all combines and makes sense in a second.) With these media influences tumbling in my head, and a very long road trip where even my audio books could not fully entertain me, my brain started to make connections. In a word—woah.

For basically the first time, I felt like I understood these two movements. Note that I did not believe either of these two theories; Flat Earth seems to be a “gateway drug” to other, more pernicious conspiracies and beliefs, including many beliefs that are racist, misogynist, transphobic, and anti-Semitic, and I don’t know if I have the time or the patience to explain all of the problems I have with the incredibly harmful Anti-Vax movement. The fact that Jenny McCarthy is on a TV show where she tries to guess what celebrity is singing inside of a costume, instead of facing a class-action lawsuit for all the harm she’s done, fills me with a rage so strong that I can only describe it as “fire-hate.”

But I think it’s worth pointing out that emphasizing all of studies in the world proving that vaccinations are safe and…. well… the 2000 years of established science that prove that the Earth is round…. seems to amount to diddly-squared-by-squat when it comes to trying to convince someone who is in the Anti-Vax or Flat Earth movements. I also haven’t managed to solve anything by staring at these people with my eyebrows raised and just muttering “why?” under my breath repeatedly. So to borrow a technique from Contrapoints, I think it’s time for me to try to meet these people where they live, and figure out what led them to this point. The best defense is not offense, it is prevention. And if we can figure out why this happens, then maybe we can prevent it from happening.

Cause 1: A Not-Unreasonable Fear and Distrust of Authority

When I say the words “medical experimentation,” you probably think of Nazis, or science fiction. But you don’t have to go that far in order to find horrific cases of medical experimentation, non-consensual medical procedures, and even just medical mistreatment.

The story of Henrietta Lacks, and of her family, is basically a case study in Doctors Not Giving Two Shits About Patient Consent. Whether it involved the taking of Henrietta’s cells, the failure to inform her family of the theft, the continued sampling of Lacks relatives in order to test them without clearly explaining what was going on, a failure to inform the Lacks family before Henrietta’s identity was revealed to the world, a failure to allow the Lacks family to receive any compensation from the repeated sale of Henrietta’s cells, the mistreatment of Henrietta’s daughter Elsie in a government institution…. It’s just… all bad.

Just… Google the phrase “icepick lobotomy.” Then think about the fact that one of the youngest patients to undergo one was 12. Then try to stop shuddering.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study started in 1932. Penicillin was discovered to be an effective treatment for syphilis in 1947. The study ended in 1972. (That’s about five years before the first Star Wars movie came out.) The men involved in the study were never told they had syphilis, never given penicillin, and actively prevented from accessing treatment elsewhere. The experiment only ended after 40 years because of whistleblowers.

The “father of gynecology,” James Marion Sims, developed most of his techniques by experimenting on slave women without the benefit of anesthesia.

Canadian doctors were performing forced or coerced sterilization procedures on indigenous women up until the far-distant year of… 2017. (writer’s note: Are you effing kidding me?)

And that’s not even taking into account more modern problems with medical science, ranging from the fact that the opioid crisis was driven by an unethical drug company owned by a single, reclusive family, to the fact that the prices of life saving drugs are going up by as much as 4000 percent, to the fact that all women, even famous, wealthy women like Selma Blair and Serena Williams, face years of pain and even near death because medical professionals don’t take their pain or experiences seriously.

Long story short, there are a lot of very good reasons to doubt the healthcare industry’s beliefs and practices, and to lack faith in their good intentions. The history of medical advancement is also a history of victimization, and the close relationship between healthcare and profit means that pretty much every patient has reason to believe that their doctor is not always acting in their best interests. It’s not completely unreasonable for patients, especially women and people of color, to distrust what the medical establishment calls “common practice.”

This story of exploitation, secrecy, and self-interest can be copy-and-pasted onto basically any authority that Flat Earthers believe contributes to the giant scam that is the “conspiracy” of the round earth, from the government, to religions, to scientific institutions, to major corporations. And we do, in fact, live in a world where high-ranking people are out to get us—or at least out to get our money and our allegiance. Those of us who are in the US are living under the official or unofficial rule of oligarchs and autocrats. They may not always be actively malicious, but they also wouldn’t exert themselves to extinguish the flames if we were on fire.

Cause 2: They Were Taught to Question Everything…. And Not Really How to Stop

One of the most telling moments in the Behind the Curve documentary is when one of the filmmakers asks a Flat Earther what authority or evidence she is willing to believe. Her immediate answer is “Myself.” And that is it. (Though it’s also kind-of a lie, since about five minutes earlier in the film she was showing off her collection of Flat Earth theory books. See my dedication to truthiness? I let you know things even when it kinda spoils my point.) Basically every generation since the baby boomers has been told with increasing frequency that we should distrust the world around us, constantly question the motives of people giving us information, and “do our own research” to figure out what is what.

Oliver Thorn of Philosophy Tube explains that many Flat Earthers are practicing something similar to what’s known as Direct Realism—we perceive the world, and what we perceive is the best evidence of what the world is. Obviously this runs into problems, when our perceptions have limitations, are subject to illusions, or are even warped by our biases. But only trusting ourselves also doesn’t seem like the worst option in the current media climate. We have fake news and “fake news,” foreign countries interfering, memes and jokes turning into viral scares (if one of you shares that fucking Momo thing one more time, I swear to God…) one of our most trusted sources of information is a website that literally anyone can edit, the best news and information is hidden behind paywalls, pay-to-play journals will publish pretty much any nonsense, and Google makes it possible to find something that backs up your opinion, no matter what your opinion is. How, exactly, are we meant to find “objective” truth? Obviously I believe there is such a thing—climate change is real, herd immunity is important, the Earth IS in fact round—but I can see how someone would quickly become overwhelmed, and decide that only their own beliefs can be trusted. When you’re taught to doubt everything…. when exactly are you supposed to stop doubting?

Cause 3: Anti-Intellectualism Plus Anti-Authoritarianism Equals Ugh

Raise your hand if you’ve heard any of the following: Ivory tower. Drain the Swamp. Those who can’t, teach. You can’t teach common sense.

For some good reasons and some very not good reasons, we’ve kinda grown to hate smart people. They’re elitist, they’re out of touch, etc. etc. Yeah, Hillary Clinton has tons of foreign policy experience, but is she likeable? Yeah, that astrophysicist is really smart, but will they crack jokes with John Oliver? Probably the only person we hate more than an authority figure is an authority figure who is an egghead. So when the people who are best suited to disabuse you of your theories have “MD” or “PhD” after their name AND are part of “The Establishment,” most people don’t have very strong instincts to trust them, let alone get warm fuzzies to hear them talk.

Cause 4: We Lack Media Literacy and Science Literacy

Any teacher who has ever had to explain to a student why they can’t cite a random blog in a paper will tell you that we have a serious problem in the US with media literacy, partly as an extension of the problem described above. We don’t do a great job of teaching people to separate fact from fiction, and our media itself is not really helping matters. If Fox News is proclaiming itself “Fair and Balanced,” “native advertising” means that advertisements can resemble news, and news agencies themselves often can’t be bothered to fact check, then proponents of media literacy face an uphill battle.

The same is true for science literacy. Our education system is…. not great. We can’t even decide if we should be teaching evolution and sex ed, let alone talking about neurodiversity and explaining the physics of the Earth. Hell, a lot of people still think that Columbus “discovered” that the Earth was round, even though people had known for hundreds of years (or longer) that the Earth was round, and even Columbus knew the Earth wasn’t flat. (He had a lot of other weird ideas about the Earth, but flatness wasn’t one of them.) Arthur C. Clarke said that an advanced enough level of science would resemble magic, and between AIs and gene editing, we’re basically at that point. People are taught to think that science is “scary” and above them. And as humans, we’re pretty good at hating what we fear, and going “oh yeah? Well uh, fuck you!” to anything that is seen as above us. So if people are sifting through likely-incorrect information about stuff they don’t understand anyway, then the chances that they are going to come away with a false conclusion is pretty high.

This lack of science literacy also doubles as a lack of medical literacy. We have serious stigmas about people on the autism spectrum, to the point that in the hypothetical (and false) dichotomy between “autism” and “measles,” a lot of parents are leaning towards “measles.” And that’s partly because we don’t understand measles. Most of us haven’t seen them in person. Or tetanus, or meningitis, or any of the things that we have vaccines for. Name one person besides FDR that you know of who had polio. And if, as we discussed above, “my own personal experience and knowledge” is the only source that people trust, then vaccine-preventable diseases seem far away and unimportant.

Cause 5: On the Other Hand, They’re Not Actually Totally Ignoring Evidence

This one seems a little counter-intuitive. But one weird connection between Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers is that they are actually both heavily invested in the concept of science. They’re just not using it in ways that are entirely correct, or that we would approve of. Anti-Vaxxers tend to rely on anecdotal evidence—“true” stories of children that were hurt or killed by vaccines. Flat Earthers turn to YouTube videos and self-designed experiments that “prove” the Earth is flat.

You will meet few people who are more dedicated to “research” than an Anti-Vaxxer who is determined to prove that vaccines are dangerous. They’ll join multiple message boards, start Facebook groups, look up the chemicals inside of vaccines (true story, I know the amount of mercury in vaccines is not dangerous, but I also didn’t even know that some vaccines had mercury in them until Anti-Vaxxers became a thing). They collect reams of “evidence” that vaccines are harmful, and can spit arguments at you on command.

The most endearing-yet-sad figures from the Behind the Curve documentary are two men who do multiple experiments in an attempt to prove the Earth is flat. Their experiments are actually interesting and fairly well-reasoned. But since they’re performing a twisted form of the Scientific Method (starting with an answer and then looking for proof via experiments, rather than starting with a question and using experiments to find an answer) the experiments are also doomed to fail, for these men’s definition of fail. At least two of the experiments that they design do, in fact, show that the Earth is round. They then have to scramble to find ways to dismiss their own results, or to “prove” that their original experiments were actually performed incorrectly.

Cause 6: They’ve Found a Community, and Are Terrified to Leave It

So what could cause two grown men to become so nervous that they would rather argue that they are idiots than to argue that their experiments were correct? Why, the fear of social ostracization, of course!

By the time someone reaches the point that they are a hardcore Flat Earther or an Anti-Vaxxer, they have done a lot to alienate their pre-existing family and friends (or never really had a strong social safety net to start with). Behind the Curve emphasizes how most of the people in the Flat Earth community find companionship and acceptance in one another, and how little connection they still have to the outside world. Most of them have been rejected by family and friends, some of them have even had spouses leave them over their beliefs. And… well you can see why. I’m a pretty patient person (I’ve repeatedly stood at parties and nodded while repeating “uh huh” in a perky voice while a guy with worse grades than me tried to explain my major to me) but I’m pretty sure that if I had a close friend who was a Flat Earther, there would be a point that I could no longer bear to hang out with them because the conversation kept turning to a mysterious “they” who wanted us to think the Earth was flat for… reasons. And I just genuinely don’t think that I could hang out with an Anti-Vaxxer—I would be afraid of carrying an illness either to or from their unvaccinated child, and I would probably be constantly tempted to deliver lectures that heavily featured the words “immuno-compromised” and “fuck.”

So the Flat Earthers and Anti-Vaxxers, somewhat naturally, pull even closer to their own in-group. Their fellow conspiracy theorists are the only ones that “get” them. And the internet makes it possible to form close connections with people even if you never get to see them in person—you could be the only Flat‑Earther in Wyoming (I promise you there is more than one Flat-Earther in Wyoming) but as long as you had the internet, you could still reject your real-life social interactions in favor of the warm, weird embrace of online conspiracy theorists.

But if your entire social circle is made up of people whose major connecting thread is belief in the same fringe theory, it suddenly becomes very, very difficult to stop believing in the theory. It’s a lower-stakes version of what happens to people who leave the white nationalist movement. All of your white nationalist friends no longer want to associate with you, because you no longer believe that white people are The Best. But none of your pre-white nationalism friends want to spend time with you any more either because… well… you were a fucking Nazi for a while. And as anyone over the age of 20 who has moved to a new city can tell you, making new friends as an adult is HARD. The longer someone spends time embedded in these movements, the harder it becomes to leave them.

Cause 7. The World Is Scary, And We Want to Think We Can Explain It

The Laws of Thermodynamics dictate that the universe trends towards entropy. And that is a really, really difficult thing for our “chimpanzees on Four Loko” brains to handle. Our minds demand patterns, even when none exist. If the roulette wheel has stopped on red five times in a row, we’ll bet it all on black because it “has” to finally stop there, even though it still only has a 50/50 chance. We’re dismayed when our earphones are tangled as we pull them out of our pockets, even though there is only a 1 in (insert very high number that Elle did not look up because she is not getting paid for this stuff) chance that our headphones would emerge not tangled. We crave control. And in a weird way, conspiracy theories are all about control. Just not necessarily our control.

It’s helpful (for me at least) to compare most conspiracy theories to 9/11 conspiracy theories. I became an adult in the post-9/11 era, and a lot of people around me from my teenage years on would dabble in the occasional 9/11 theory, mostly revolving around the idea of a “false flag” attack where Bush and Cheney attacked their own people in order to pad the pockets of their corporate friends and bloat the military budget.

Under this theory of 9/11, the government is competent, cunning, ruthless, and coordinated, like an Ocean’s 35682 heist team. They’re capable of planting explosives in a building, hiring fake terrorists, hijacking planes, coordinating the response, framing foreign nationals, keeping a gigantic secret, etc. etc. And even though this version of our government is horrific, implying that they are capable of actively murdering planes and buildings-full of their own people (as opposed to the way that they normally passively kill their people by passing bills that deprive people of rights and resources) it’s also kinda…. comforting. Because it means that someone was in charge. Someone was pulling all the strings. Someone was keeping this from being random.

For a lot of people, the actually-horrifying option is the truth: that we were victims of a terrorist attack that we were woefully unprepared for. That our foreign policy has gained us enemies, that our attempts to mix liberty and security leave gigantic holes, that our leaders were a half-assed cowboy with Daddy Issues and a nasty troll man that my state is STILL apologizing for, and they were opportunists and capitalists and took advantage of the situation after tragedy had already occurred. The truth is that this happened because the world is chaotic and uncontrolled, and something on that scale can honestly probably happen again. Whenever. Wherever. Because seven point five billion people = chaos.

Flat Earthers have a hard time explaining WHY a shadow group of intellectuals and officials, an undisclosed “they,” would bother creating this elaborate myth that the Earth is round when it is really not. The best they usually manage is that this delusional belief is part of a vast web of conspiracies, and in its own way serves as a gateway drug to the sheeple—after all, what better way to test the gullibility of a populace than to mislead them about the shape of their home, the construction of their literal universe? But for many Flat Earthers, WHY someone would do this is not as important as the fact THAT someone is doing this. There is a shadow organization that is so powerful, it can mislead billions of people. It can dictate science, and education, and the space program, and our concepts of time and direction. It can mislead people about airline flights, photography, even gravity. Though they might have nefarious intentions, someone is behind the wheel of all of our major institutions.

You see the same thing with Anti-Vaxxers, who also have a hard time explaining why, exactly, anyone would be purposefully poisoning children with vaccines. (As opposed to purposefully poisoning children with lead-contaminated water…. Goddamnit we live in a pretty terrible society.) They usually point to a conspiracy involving Big Pharma and government control—Big Pharma actually wants us to get sick, so that we have to buy their medicine. The government wants children to “develop” neurodiversity because… something something, sheeple. And again, Anti-Vaxxers want this to happen because to them, the alternative is scarier: things can happen to their children that are outside of their control, and outside of their understanding. They see the commercials about the rates of autism going up, and think it is because autism itself is increasing, and not just our ability to correctly diagnose it. They would rather think that it is a new development than just something that has always been there but that we’ve been shitty about noticing. They see a timing link between vaccinations and the appearance of autism characteristics, and think that the vaccines cause autism, because they’d rather think doctors are purposefully altering children than to realize that their child is not necessarily going to grow into the type of child they always pictured (a neurotypical child) even though they’ve been keeping pace with their peers in their development to this point. They feel (wrongly) that they’ve been a victim of a bait-and-switch, that some evil entity pulled a “changeling” situation on them and left them with a child that is different from the one they had originally. They have a hard time accepting that no… this is just their kid, and their kid always had autism, and they shouldn’t love them any less. And also, maybe they should campaign to end stigmas against neurodiversity, instead of campaigns that let their kids get exposed to measles. You know. Just a thought.

So Uh…. Why Have You Babbled About All of This, Elle?

So. Wow. Okay, so if you’ve stayed with me thus far… well first of all you have far too much patience, but I appreciate you. Second of all, I promise this is all coming to a point. And the point is: I think we can fix this. Maybe not immediately (definitely not immediately) but we can address most of these causes with corresponding solutions.

Solution 1: Make Institutions… Suck Less?

So we’re starting out with one of the bigger and less-possible solutions right out of the gate. But one of the most obvious solutions is to make major organizations, especially the medical industry and the government, just… suck less. Make them less imposing, and less scary. Increase their transparency and their accountability. If we lived in a world where the medical community had a vested interest in us not being sick, as opposed to the current situation where “the longer we are sick the more money we will give them,” that would go a long way in disputing notions that pharmaceutical companies are getting us sick on purpose. If every branch of the medical community treated the Hippocratic Oath as if it were a law, instead of a wishy-washy guideline, more people would be able to believe in their good intentions.

If the scientific community was better at communicating and explaining things, instead of just dismissing anyone who can’t keep up with them, it would also help rehab their image. The same with the government—increased transparency about intentions, spending, etc. would dismiss a lot of fears that all of this was happening for murky reasons that involve fooling us.

Solution 2: While We’re at it, Increase Media Transparency

There should be consequences for knowingly spreading misinformation. There should be a strict division between “news” and “advertising.” There should be a sense of community responsibility to fund ethical, as-objective-as-possible journalism. Organizations and people that knowingly spread harmful misinformation should be de-platformed from social media and sites like YouTube. If we’re going to ask people to trust sources outside of themselves, we have to make sources outside of themselves trustworthy.

Solution 3: Make it Cool to be Smart, and Make Smart People Act Better

Why do we televise sports drafts, but we don’t televise university hires or research lab head hunting? Why aren’t there journalists breathlessly covering the action at the Modern Language Association conferences? Why do we act as if intelligence is purely inherent, instead of a developable skill like talent at painting or writing? Why do we make so many intelligent characters into alien-like assholes or chip-on-their-shoulder jerks? Why do we perpetuate the idea that academia is an ivory tower by making it an ivory tower. (True facts, I once saw Salman Rushdie get accused of living in an ivory tower and his pearl-clutching “Well I never!” response is what I think about whenever I hear some top-tier academic try to unconvincingly insist that that they are not disconnected from the common people.) We need to make intelligence accessible, interesting, and cool.

“The smartest guy in the room” trope is seen as negative because in most of our experiences, the smartest guy in the room will let you know, in excruciating detail, that he is the smartest guy in the room. We need to admire intelligence, but not idolize it. We need to share our knowledge, but not be paternalistic or condescending. Intelligence needs to be a tool, not a weapon. Anyone who has learned a cool fact and then excitedly shared it with a friend knows how good it feels to share knowledge in a helpful, enthusiastic way. Even when that knowledge is about bad stuff, sharing it with the intention to improve instead of destroy makes the act feel a lot less ill-intentioned. It may have made for a more boring show, but if Dr. House spent more time saying “You know that’s an interesting theory, let’s see how it compares against the data” instead of “You’re a moron,” then we probably would have gotten a better picture of the medical establishment.

Solution 4: Can We Please Fix Education for Goodness Sake?

No two ways about it, we need to do better with education. That means better funding (and not just redline-influenced property tax funding that ensures that white wealthy children get white wealthy schools, and children of color get textbooks that still say we have 48 states and call the Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression.”) We need to have better, less-partisan control over what makes it into textbooks. We need to start teaching children how to research and parse data from an even earlier age. We need smaller class sizes, more teachers with less burnout, better funding, and better resources. We need to stop stigmatizing neurodiversity, stop making science seem scary, and stop relying on simplistic, incorrect understandings of the world and of history.

Solution 5: We Need to Stop Writing Off Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers as if They Are Lost Causes, and Convince Them to Use Their Powers for Good

Be honest—if someone tells you that you are wrong, even when you are wrong, how likely are you to take that in good faith and adjust your behavior? How long does it take you to unruffle your feathers? How likely are you to double down on your wrong beliefs, because fuck you that’s why? Why do we act as if Anti-Vaxxers or Flat Earthers are some magical other species that will respond differently?

None of us like to be made to feel ignorant, even if we are being ignorant. And none of us like to be dismissed. So even though it is painful, and unfair, we have to be open to the idea of taking these people seriously. Not taking their ideas seriously—we don’t need an Anti-Vaxxer on a panel with a doctor, or a Flat Earther on a panel with an astrophysicist the way that we have panels with climate scientists and total randos who think that climate change isn’t real because they can make a snowball—but taking them seriously, as people who are capable of growth and change. Talk to them about their fears and concerns. What led them to feel this way? What types of evidence would they need to change their minds? Find a point of common scientific belief (the sky is blue, cars burn fuel, whatever) and work backwards from there to show how the same process that can prove that belief can disprove their own beliefs. Tell them that you admire their dedication to discovering truth and that you acknowledge that there are problems in this world, but that you’d like to see their skills put to better use.

Solution 6: …..Um…..

I’ll admit, this one is hard for me. I think that being asked to stay friends with someone who is psychologically or physically harmful is asking someone to participate in abuse. On a purely herd-immunity level, I think that Anti-Vaxxers and their unvaccinated children shouldn’t really be around… well, anyone. But I can also see how leaving these groups of people in total isolation is not actually helping the situation, unless we are actively hoping that Ant-Vaxxers and their unvaccinated-but-innocent children actually die out, which is just too gruesome to bear thinking about.

I don’t really know what to do. I think that one option is to try, in the safest way possible, to let people in these groups know that you will be there for them if they manage to walk away from these beliefs. I don’t have any Anti-Vaxxer friends (I don’t think…) but if I did, and if they saw the error of their ways and wanted to be friends again, I like to think that I would easily, if a bit warily, accept them back into the fold.

Solution 7: Solve the Things We Can Actually Solve, Otherwise, Embrace the Suck

Hbomberguy points out that Flat Earthers are not wrong when they believe that things in the world are wrong. We’re in what’s commonly referred to as “late stage” capitalism, and the world is literally and metaphorically on fire. As I suggest in Solution 1, there are some things we can do to make this be less the case. But… well we can’t fix all of it. And to a certain point, we have to try to get to a point where we are okay with uncertainty. We can control a certain number of things to try and make things safer and more secure, but then we have to just keep existing in this world. Earphones are going to get tangled. The roulette wheel is going to land on red for a sixth time, and it’s going to seem really wrong. We have to find a way to accept that some things will be forever outside of our personal control, and even outside of our collective control. Not to say that we should stop fighting to make things better, but to say that sometimes we just have to acknowledge that entropy exists.

In Conclusion…

So…. This is what has been haunting my brain for the last couple of weeks. I guess now it can haunt yours. In a weird way, it has made me hopeful—up until this point, I admittedly thought that “reaching” Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers was a pipe dream. As two of the groups who seem to most vehemently reject reality and science, I was afraid they were a lost cause. And now I know they are not.

That, at least, gives us a chance.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is six views of the Earth from space, taken from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Flickr account. They’re in the public domain because our tax dollars paid for them.

Elle’s Guide to Surviving the Election Season (and Hopefully Electing a Democrat)

As of writing this, 12 Democrats, or Independents-running-as-Democrats, have filed to run for president or at least formed exploratory committees. More are expected to do so *cough* Joe Biden is expected to run *cough*. Bill Weld is exploring the possibility of taking part in a primary against Trump (I will pay money and buy popcorn to see this happen) and that Starbucks guy is… doing whatever that Starbucks guy is doing that will probably manage to hurt the Democratic party.

The election is over a year away. The election is almost two years away. And I am already very, very tired.

My Facebook feed is wild, and Twitter is basically on fire. Posts for and against candidates are everywhere, and pretty much all of my friends have already taken different corners. My two most liberal friends have nearly opposite opinions on Bernie Sanders. Posts for and against a candidate can be next to each other on my feed. Litmus tests are being established. Think pieces are being written.

I am thiiiiis close to trying to use cryogenics, or at least a good snow storm, to freeze myself and wake up in January, 2021. (Depending on what the world looks like when I wake up, I may decide to go back under.)

So for the sake of my sanity, and for (hopefully) an election that avoids some of the pitfalls of the last election, I put together this handy dandy guide/plea for my fellow leftists. Enjoy.

Don’t Do the Republicans’ Work for Them/Focus on Constructive Criticism

I remember a fair few elections, and I don’t remember any Democratic primary as vicious as the last one. This is a situation where there really were good and bad people on both sides, and both sides did their fair share of harm. Hillary and the DNC screwed the pooch by pretending the situation was set up fairly when it clearly wasn’t, Bernie made it clear he was only pretending to be a Democrat for the sake of the election, and neither side did a good job of reining in their followers or their attacks. I’ve never had to unfollow fellow Democrats before, but 2016 was weird. The Republicans barely had to do anything to tear us apart because we were already doing it to ourselves. Some things that the left gets criticism for, and that I think we are guilty of to an extent, are purity tests, call-out culture, and gatekeeping. If a candidate doesn’t check all of our boxes, we hate them. We’re going to decry anyone who doesn’t meet our standards. And woe betide the person who tries to join in that doesn’t fit the bill, because we’ll happily excommunicate anyone who we think has failed.

This isn’t all of us. I don’t even know if it is most of us. But I know it’s enough of us that we have serious trouble with candidate in-fighting, while any opponent with an R next to their name gets the Republican vote. We have the right to be idealistic, but we should also think about being pragmatic, and going for inclusion instead of exclusion.

That isn’t to say that we can’t, or shouldn’t, critique candidates. The purpose of a primary is to try and winnow things down to the best possible candidate, and that means taking a serious look at each candidate. But we need to critique politicians the same way a teacher critiques an essay—with the intention of improvement, rather than destruction. What could this candidate do to improve? What can we do to improve the candidate? What concerns do you have, and how can they be assuaged? What are our absolute lines in the sand, and how realistic are they?

Whenever we critique a candidate, we have to keep in the back of our mind, “This person could wind up being the candidate.” What would happen if we spent all of our time tearing a candidate down, and then they were the candidate going against Trump? How damaged will they already be from the primary? What portion of the electorate will abandon ship instead of voting for them, like that weird cross‑section of Bernie supporters who voted for The Orange One? Or the usually-Democrats who decided they hated Hillary more than they worried about the fact that Gary Johnson couldn’t name any foreign countries? We want the candidate that we wind up with to be the best of the best, not the last, shell-shocked survivor of the Hunger Games.

Try to Support the Candidate We End Up With/Remember the Stakes

Look, I know that it isn’t fair that we repeatedly get asked to pick the lesser of two evils. I’m aware. And there are certainly some lines in the sand that I would probably not be able to cross for a candidate. But life is not fair the vast majority of the time, and I’m doing my best to deal with that. And we have to ask ourselves how much holding tight to every single one of our principles will keep us warm when Hell is actually freezing over.

I still owe my dad a nickel, because after Trump won the primary I thought that we had won, and I bet my dad a nickel that Trump wouldn’t be elected. I was certain that Trump was too awful for anyone to actually elect. I thought that if even Ted Cruz didn’t like him, no one else in the Republican party would. But a lot of the Republicans held their noses (and probably their breath) and voted for someone they hated, because he was the Republican candidate. (And a lot of them were honestly just totally fine with a racist, ableist, misogynist sexual abuser. I mean, it takes all kinds.)

We have been through two years of hell. But now we have at least two sexual abusers on the Supreme Court, and poor RBG can’t hold out forever. Roe v. Wade teeters on the brink of being overturned. LGBTQ protections are being rolled back. Diseases that we thought we had eradicated are coming back. We can’t seem to go a month without a mass shooting. Our education system is under-funded, unbelievably segregated, and not actually really working. A good portion of US citizens couldn’t overcome a sudden emergency that requires a few hundred dollars. Disability rights activists are dying because their insurance won’t pay for certain medicines. We’re facing an opioid crisis that was brought about by the very same pharmaceutical industry that has immense lobbying power and keeps jacking up prices on life-saving medications. We are keeping children in cages, and sexually abusing them when we’re not letting them die of dehydration. We’re building a stupid fucking wall that is going to disrupt crucial animal habitats and drain funding from other parts of the government while simultaneously Not Doing the Thing it is Supposed to Do. We spend a small fortune on military equipment we don’t need. We’re rolling out the red carpet for Russia to overtake us as superpower. We’re alienating basically all of our allies. Wealth is being increasingly amassed by the 1%, and we’re forming super-monopolies. The internet is becoming more and more pay-to-play, and we’re censoring female sexuality and LGBTQ activism instead of, you know, the Nazis. Oh yeah, we have actual fucking Nazis. And that’s all bad enough, without the looming threat of irreversible climate change. We are literally and metaphorically on fire.

I will be honest—I would vote for a turnip before staying home from the polls or voting third party if it means defeating Trump. As it stands now, there are no Democratic candidates who are so violently against my principles that I couldn’t manage to vote for them. There are some I like better than others, and some whose policies I don’t entirely approve of, but all of them have this very fantastic quality of Not Being Goddamn Trump. I don’t expect everyone to be me, so again. I’m not going to tell you to do something that is absolutely against your conscience. But do give some serious thought to the stakes.

Do Your Part/Seriously Did You See the Part Where We’re On Fire?

I know you’re tired. I’m tired. We’re all tired. But you know who aren’t as tired? The Republicans who have been riding the Bigotry Carousel for the last two years. They just can’t wait to take a ride on the Oligarchy Express between 2020 and 2024. Guess how tired we’ll be by 2024? So to the best of our abilities, we have to do what we can to make this happen.

Donate to campaigns. Volunteer for campaigns. Hold fundraisers. Write letters. Make phone calls. Write articles. Harass your friends and loved ones. Knock on doors. Make petitions. Help your neighbors register to vote.

Get engaged in local politics. The presidential race makes everything a lot more intense and gets most of the attention, but your local city council, county commissioner, House, and Senate all need good people in them, too. It’s really important to have a Democrat in the White House, but it’s also really important to have a Democrat on the school board so that we don’t bring abstinence-only education back. Think about running yourself—you can do it! We are the grownups now. I know, right? It’s fucking wild.

So… that’s my guide. Or my begging, whichever way you want to think about it. Most of all, what I’m going to beg you all to do is just this: be good to each other. We are all hanging on by a very fragile thread. We need to stay a community, and we need to keep looking out for each other. Because on top of all the upcoming election craziness, Trump is going to still be president. Think about how bad 2016 was, and then add “Trump actually being president” on top of that. Because he is going to be president during this. We have to stop praying for an impeachment, or a smoking gun, or anything else that is going to save us. We should have stopped doing any of that after the whole “the electoral college may rebel!” thing died a pathetic death. But we’re overly optimistic sometimes. Really, I think if we’ve learned nothing else from the Cohen hearing, we’ve learned that the currently-sitting Republicans are craven cowards who would rather stay in power than actually have a democracy. Diane Feinstein is negging children (and yes I saw the uncut video). Black Representatives are taking time out of hearings to reassure white racist Representatives that the white racists aren’t white racists. We can’t expect that anything resembling “doing the right thing” is going to come from most of the government right now. Not everyone can be AOC or Stacy Abrams. We have to buckle down, and we have to be there for each other. Please.

In the words of Spike Lee: let’s do the right thing.

Signed: Feminist Fury

***

Featured image is an 80s “laser text” meme reading “2020”.

A Girl Like You Doesn’t Have Time for this Nonsense

Because self-parody is a thing, y’all.

A comedy musician (musical comedian? I don’t know how people identify sometimes) changed the way I listen to love songs. Seriously. Bo Burnham’s song “Repeat Stuff”  points out how vague love songs are, so that multiple girls can see themselves in the song:


Oh, girl, I hope you don’t think that I’m rude
When I tell you that I love you, boo
I also hope that you don’t see through
This cleverly constructed ruse
Designed by a marketing team
Cashing in on puberty and low self-esteem
And girls’ desperate need to feel loved…

I love my baby and you know I couldn’t live without her
But now I need to make every girl think this song’s about her
Just to make sure that they spread it like the plague
So, I describe my dream girl as really really vague,
Like…


I love your hands ’cause your fingerprints are like no other.
I love your eyes and their blueish brownish greenish color.
I love it when you smile, that you smile wide.
And I love how your torso has an arm on either side
.

After I first heard this song, I started paying way more attention to other love songs. What do the songs actually say about their loved one or ideal partner? And I found that Burnham was right—almost every song keeps it very vague. But this was just a “huh, interesting” type of thing until I found Maroon 5’s “Girl Like You.”

“Girl Like You” is “Repeat Stuff,” only it is taking itself seriously. And doing so many more things wrong besides that.

“Girl Like You” is the vaguest, most half-assed song I have heard in my whole life. And I’m counting the really bad songs that I wrote in my teen years. This is worse than 15-year-old Moody Elle. (and I’m just counting the Maroon 5 parts. The version with Cardi B is technically a remix, and since Cardi B is talking about herself, it’s actually quite specific. Also, Cardi. What are you doing? Do not help out these sad little white boys. Stop.)

So here is what I know about the girl that Maroon 5 is singing about by the end of the song:

She maybe smokes a cigar/marijuana combo called a Backwood, she may or may not be sick of Adam Levine’s shit, she “loves fun,” and she may or may not be a better DD than Adam Levine. That is it. The song is called “Girl Like You” and the listener learns next to nothing about what the said girl is like.

Here are the lyrics that get repeated over and over:

Cause girls like you

Run around with guys like me

‘Til sundown, when I come through

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

Girls like you

Love fun, yeah me too

What I want when I come through

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

The word “yeah” is more common than information about the supposed main subject of the song. Somehow a song called “Girl Like You” still manages to be all about Adam Levine and his own self-hatred. And probably his dick. I’m suspecting at least part of this song is about his dick. This song is basically everything that Bo Burnham is talking about—everything is carefully selected so that any “girl” listening can imagine herself in the title role, and can imagine herself being the one to somewhat “save” the self-effacing Adam Levine from his shitty life choices. He’s a lot more specific about himself and his own type of character (“guys like me”) so that the person that this unknown girl wants is a lot more clearly delineated.

Also, most of these lyrics repeat about 15 times, and by the time the song ends, you never want to hear the word “yeah” again in your life.

And if Maroon 5 had been willing to leave things at the level of just having a vague, crappy song, I probably wouldn’t have cared enough to write this post. But then they did the Video.

I’ve talked before about what Doree Shafrir calls “fempowerment,” the lip service that companies pay to feminism and feminist ideals because it is trendy and commercially profitable. Peter Coffin and his wife, Ashley, also have a few videos in their “Adversaries” series that also address it quite well.  (They call it “empowertizing” but I like “femmpowerment” better). As I’ve said before, I’m begrudgingly accepting of “fempowerment,” because it at least means that feminism has gotten enough public acceptance that it is now more profitable to support feminism than to condemn it.

And this music video is “Fempowerment: The Music Video.”

It features multiple actresses, activists, and athletes, many of whom are having a particular cultural moment right now (Gal Gadot, Aly Raisman, Ilhan Omar, Millie Bobby Brown, etc.). At first they are standing behind Levine, one at a time, while the camera rotates and they dance and mouth the words to the song. They rarely interact with Levine himself, except for when Raisman briefly takes his hand. Then it starts focusing mostly on the women—the camera rotation starts showing us woman after woman in turn, before the “spoken breakdown” moment happens and it’s just Levine again, before Cardi B comes in for her verse and gets all the camera’s attention. Then we’re back to the one-by-one women and the turning stuff, ending with his own partner and their child, whom Levine hugs, before all of the band members disappear and all of the women are featured in two circles.

When the song came out, it made the media rounds as “OMG sooooo empowering, Love This!” fodder. And to its credit, the people that are featured in the video are a pretty wide array of backgrounds, ages, and races. In their own lives a lot of them are doing a lot of work for feminist causes and other activist causes. But this is not really empowerment. This, my friends, is Peak Fempowerment. The women who are shown in this song are all amazing, awesome, and deserving of attention. And with the exception of Cardi B, they are also all basically just set dressing for a dude, which they spend most of the video literally standing behind.

Now, it can be really hard, not to mention hypocritical, to criticize women for the ways that they decide to engage with culture, attention, fame, etc. I’m sure that each of these women received a boost to their public profile, and in at least a couple of cases, their causes. (Mostly when their causes were literally displayed on their t-shirts.) And it is hard to criticize any of these women for the choice to participate in this video when it gave them an opportunity to bring more awareness to their personal brands or causes. But as I’ve said before, choices don’t happen in a vacuum. And it is fair to ask what these women are accomplishing, or not accomplishing, by their participation in this video, and in particular, the way they are participating.  

Again, the women are frequently literally behind Adam Levine. They’re mouthing Levine’s words, dancing, and not even really interacting with the singer or other members of the band. (Name one member of Maroon 5 that isn’t Adam Levine. I dare you.) They aren’t getting to use their own voice, or even take a really active role in the action of the video. This isn’t a “story” type of video, where these individuals could be playing a role—it’s obvious that they are meant to be themselves. Which would suggest that they are supposed to be related to the song itself, and that their role in it is to fit in with some theme of female empowerment.

But the song isn’t really about female empowerment. And with the exception of Levine’s own partner (and Cardi’s verse about herself), the women aren’t thematically connected to the song itself, either. I really doubt that Adam Levine is calling Ilhan Omar at 6:45 to whine about himself (or maybe he does, that sounds like something he would do) or that Olympic-tier athlete Aly Raisman is rolling Backwoods. I sincerely doubt that Ellen Degeneres would “spend the weekend” making things right with Adam Levine. And since Millie Bobby Brown isn’t old enough for her learner’s permit, I doubt that it would be a better idea for her to drive.

So the women in this video aren’t there to take part in the story. They aren’t there to link to the song. They aren’t even there to interact with the band. Which means that they are mostly there to lend their own social cachet to Maroon 5, and prove how “woke” they are. They may be getting something out of this, whether it’s awareness for their campaign, a namedrop during discussions of the song, or hell, even just appearing in a music video. (That seems like a cool thing on its own. I’ve never been part of a music video.) But it is pretty clear, to me at least, that they are giving more than they are getting, and that is not particularly empowering.

The danger of “fempowerment” is similar to the danger of a vague love song—something that seems appealing on the surface is revealed to be at the best, hollow, and at the worst, harmful to its supposed subject.

Signed: Feminist Fury

***

Featured image is a digitally-altered photograph of Adam Levine with his arm around a white cut-out with the words “Your Face Here” written on it.

I Sometimes Hate When I’m Right

With friends like these… [incoherent screaming]

So remember last week, when I said that I wasn’t going to critique Marie Kondo in particular, because critiques of her have a lot of weird sexist and racist undertones? So…. Yeah. I was right about that. And now I have to be sad about the world again. (This post is going to involve a lot of GIFs, because the way I am dealing with my depression and anger at the world is by using a lot of GIFs.)

Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, and Elaine Showalter are all writers who I’ve respected for a long time. When I was teaching, I used pieces from both Ehrenreich and Pollitt. I’ve cited Showalter in my own work, because I apparently can’t stop talking about the concept of hysteria. All of them have, at one time or another, (and to one degree or another) written really insightfully about gender, culture, and class. And when I first saw these comments, I was just gobsmacked. Because these three women that I respected had just done the intellectual equivalent of shouting “PSYCH!” in my face while lighting The Feminine Mystique on fire and tearing pages out of Orientalism.

Orientalism is actually something that I somehow haven’t talked about very much, which means I probably lost a game of SJW bingo somewhere. Orientalism, as discussed by Edward Said in his excellent book by the same name, refers to the stereotypical attitudes people in the “West” have about people from the “East” (most notably the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia). These attitudes are typically both patronizing and sexualized, depicting Eastern cultures as exotic, erotic, and uncivilized. One aspect of Orientalism that is highly relevant to these godawful tweets is the concept of the sexualized, submissive Asian woman. Asian women are often depicted as diminutive, modest, and secretly sexual. She’s often either/all an “exotic” version of the manic pixie dream girl, a submissive wife, and a sexual object. It’s the kind of thing I expect from certain anime and porn, not three well-respected female authors.

Let’s look at the different aspects of Orientalism, often also imbued with sexism, that these three women present. Most of these tweets have this idea of a strict difference between the “East” and the “West,” with the explicit idea that the United States as part of the West is supposed to be superior, but something about the influence of the East has diminished us. (Also, most of these authors use the terminology of “America,” but I’m making a concerted effort to use the phrase “United States” because it is pretty damn presumptive for us to steal a moniker that is applied to two different continents, so I’m going to accurately quote the authors but then use the term “United States” in my discussion of their tweets.) And then there’s all kinds of objectification, but I don’t want to give too many spoilers.

First we have Ehrenreich’s first tweet:

Which… wow.

First of all, the United States is definitely in a decline. I could go outside and point, and I will probably land on evidence that the United States is in decline. But one thing that is definitely not a sign of our decline is that Marie Kondo does not speak English. Does Ehrenreich think that all people who visit the United States should speak English? Because United States citizens definitely don’t follow that logic when we visit other places. Does she think that we should only be influenced by people who should speak English? Because that’s not a really great standpoint, either. There are all kinds of amazing, thoughtful people in the world whose ideas should influence us. And not all of them are going to learn English because we are too lazy to be multi-lingual.

It’s worth noting that Ehrenreich deleted this tweet, and then replaced it with the tweet that I’m about to discuss, because it shows that she’s self-aware enough to know that the way she phrased this was Not Good, but not self-aware enough to know that she just shouldn’t be letting this idea into the wild in any form.

In her second tweet she writes, “I confess: I hate Marie Kondo because, aesthetically speaking, I’m on the side of clutter. As for her language: It’s OK with me that she doesn’t speak English to her huge American audience but it does suggest that America is in decline as a superpower.”

…Ok. So. First of all—as I pointed out in my own post (seriously I do this for funsies and cheap therapy, how am I better at articulating this than a woman with actual publishing deals) the issue is not with Kondo herself, it is with minimalism. Kondo is not breaking into your house and burning all of your clutter. She is saying that you should take a look at your clutter and see how much happiness it is giving you. If the aesthetics of clutter give you joy? Great! Clutter sparked joy. Watch Brooklyn 99 instead of her show.

Second. It is obviously not ok with you that she doesn’t speak English. If it was ok with you, you wouldn’t be fucking saying these things. You are implying that the size of her United States audience should have some influence over the language that Kondo speaks. You know… you know that’s why interpreters and translators exist, right? Like no one made JK Rowling learn Mandarin just because Harry Potter got translated into 60 different languages and there are a ton of Harry Potter fans in China. They have translators for that. (Yes, I did a Google search to make my point. That’s how pissed I am.) It is not incumbent upon Kondo to learn an entirely new language just because a bunch of people in the United States like her work. Second, and I cannot repeat this enough, it is in no way a sign that the United States is declining as a superpower. And honestly, the implications of that thought are suuuuper imperialist and scary. What Ehrenreich is basically saying is that Kondo should have felt pressured to learn English in order to appease the powerful and judgmental people in the United States, who are at the top of the global food chain and thus have no need to do something as petty as “read subtitles” or “listen to an interpreter” or “acknowledge that other languages exist.”

Then Ehrenreich tried to “fix” things in the worst way possible: saying that she was just joking.

…it is the reaction of basically every racist/sexist/etc. to say “I was just kidding!” when they say something upsetting. (Also, they don’t actually decide that they are joking until they determine if their audience is reacting positively or negatively. Then if it’s negative, they were definitely joking.) It’s the reaction of every racist/sexist who is also an asshole for separate reasons to imply within this defense that the audience just “didn’t get the joke.” According to Ehrenreich, she was trying for “subtle humor.” What about her tweet could even generously be described as either subtle or humorous? She is owning exactly none of her own behavior in this tweet.

Moving on to Katha Pollitt’s reply, where we get to move further into the personal Orientalism:

“I think her speaking Japanese adds to her fairy-like delicacy and charm. It exaggerates the diff between herself and her lumpish, clueless American clients. She’s the decluttering equivalent of Queer Eye. Outsider helps insider who’s doing it all wrong.”

Pollitt basically manages to be dreadful to everyone in this sentence. She is dreadful to Kondo, who she turns from a person into a mythical creature while trying to basically say, “Kondo speaking her own language is a feature, not a bug!” Like…. What? Calling Kondo “fairy-like,” “delica[te]” and “charm[ing]” aren’t the compliments that she thinks they are. She is forcefully Othering Kondo, especially when she compares her to her audience. Pollitt is dreadful to people in the United States, who become “lumpish” and “clueless.” I know I was just badmouthing the US a little while ago, but… lumpish and clueless? According to imdb, some of the people that Kondo helps are: a widow, a couple expecting their first child, a retired couple, and some pet owners. They sound like… people? Pretty normal people. She’s also dreadful to the guys from Queer Eye by basically paring down their appeal to an “insider/outsider” dichotomy. I am just so, so done.

Pollitt, unlike Ehrenreich, seems to make at least a half-hearted attempt at actually accepting criticism.


So she starts off kinda bad, basically saying “I wasn’t trying to be racist to allll Japanese women. I was only trying to be racist to this specific Japanese woman,” and then describes Kondo’s experience and demeanor as if this is going to make things better. But she at least acknowledges that she made people angry, and promises to consider the criticism she’s gotten.

And then…. Showalter.

“She is certainly a pretty little pixie, & I am keen on decluttering but I am immune to Tinkerbell teaching me how to fold my socks.”

I just… I mean… how do you get things this wrong? First of all, if you actually don’t mind decluttering, then why the hell are you wading in on this? Just happily continue being ok with decluttering, and don’t say anything about this. Second…. “pretty little pixie?” “Tinkerbell?”

Tinkerbell does not approve of your shit, Elaine Showalter. Showalter is best known as a feminist theorist. She, of all people, should understand the harm in objectifying women based on their appearance, using dehumanizing language, and essentially scolding women for taking part in domestic-sphere type activities. I just….

Even worse, as far as I can tell Showalter is the only one to not even attempt to apologize for her words. I gues she’s just hoping we all… forget? Move on to the next crisis?

Marie Kondo is a person. Not a pixie, not a fairy godmother, not a sign of the decline of the United States. A person. A person who is enjoying a cultural moment right now, and a person who deserves to be critiqued if there are things to be critiqued about her, but these “things” do not include her appearance, her demeanor, or her language skills.

I really can’t fully express how disappointed I am in these three women. It is hard enough right now with all of the alt-right or just generally conservative assholes doing their best to drag women down, suppress our voice, and take us out of the public sphere. When self-professed feminists and leftists (instead of apologizing for being an asshat, Showalter has spent most of the last few days retweeting criticism of Trump and his administration) take part in those activities, it is deeply disappointing. We can’t fight the enemy in front of us when we’re worried about getting stabbed in the back. We are living in dangerous times, and we do not have time for this shit. Everyone who is left-leaning needs to get with the goddamn program, because we are moving forward, with or without them.

Signed: Feminist Fury (with extra fury today)

***

Featured image is of one of the tweets in question with a bunch of “no” written all over it by the generally horrified editor of this post.

Millenials, Minimalism, and Stuff

Why the current fad for minimalism does not “bring me joy.”

NOTE: Before I get started, I want to be upfront with the fact that I have not watched Marie Kondo’s show, or read her book. And I think a lot of the criticism that is directed her way has some weird racist and sexist overtones, and I really don’t want to add to that. And from what I understand, she’s not really a minimalist, minimalists just really dig her. My beef is not with Kondo, who I think seems to genuinely want to help people, but with the entire dialogue around minimalism. Also I’m gonna make some pretty sweeping generalizations in the following work, and I am aware of that. So please don’t @ me with “Not all of the 80s!” and “Not all millennials.” I’m aware. Chill.

Let’s tell a story together. Let’s say that we’re millennials (which at this point is an infantilizing term that means that we were born in the early 80s to the mid-90s, which means that we’re in our early 20s to late 30s at this point.) We were born into… interesting… times. The 80s weaponized conspicuous consumption, and valorized greed. A loosening of broadcast legislation meant that television for children could basically be a 25-minute ad, interspersed with smaller, 30-second ads. We were encouraged to identify with glorified commercials, because that would mean we wanted more Stuff. The watchword was “more.” More TV stations, more stores in the mall, more Stuff.  He Who Had the Most Stuff was the Best Person. Trickle down economics was totally going to work, and didn’t we want to take regulations off so that “job creators” could fix things? That was (after all) the best way to get us more Stuff.

If you were a kid in the 90s, you grew up in a world that seemed to be endlessly expanding, endlessly consuming, and endlessly competing. We got “participation trophies,” not because we wanted them (we knew that they were “thanks for entering, but you sucked” prizes. We weren’t oblivious.) but because our parents couldn’t stand to think that their progeny wasn’t special. That their own parenting wasn’t reflected in an object that could be held and taken home, that could be placed on a mantel and shown to others. How could our parents know that we were good children if we didn’t have Stuff to show for it?

We lived through, and participated in, multiple crazes that focused around two things: gathering lots of Stuff and keeping it forever. We were told that Beanie Babies, Furbies, Pokémon cards, and variant comic book covers were things that We Had to Have. We had to be the person with the most, and the best. And we should hold onto these things for years and years, because they would only grow in value over time.

We were pushed in carts around giant shrines to Stuff—bulk-buying stores were trumpeted as the smartest choice in shopping. Why buy a jar of mayonnaise when you could buy a quart? Why buy a pack of toilet paper when you could buy a crate of it? It would be cheaper, overall, to buy more of the Stuff at once, and again, keep it for a long time.

Behind the scenes, economic changes were happening that we were unaware of. Globalization and trade meant that the market was flooded with more and cheaper Stuff. Sure, a lot of that Stuff was really shitty, but it was cheap, which meant we could get more of it. The economy forcibly moved away from ideas like “repair” and “reuse.” Why repair your vacuum, when it is cheaper to get a new one? And why build a vacuum that will work for many years, when you know that your customer is just going to buy a new one? Planned obsolescence was much better than quality for all of those “job creators.” People wouldn’t complain (too much) about their jeans wearing out after just a year when it was fairly cheap to buy new jeans.

The increased monopolization of various industries meant that what appeared to be different products really, really weren’t, and price was no longer a good indication of value. Those $200 boots were made in the same factory as those $20 boots, and fall apart about as fast. There was no good way to determine how much “bang” you were actually getting for your buck.

We were told that we absolutely had to go to college if we wanted to succeed at life. Coincidentally, Sallie Mae was privatized in the 1990s, encouraging students to take loans that they couldn’t afford, all in the name of profit. Kids who weren’t old enough to buy cigarettes or drink were encouraged to take on loans they couldn’t possibly pay off, and subsequent decades of lobbying ensured that these loans couldn’t be erased like other types of loan, or even dissolved in bankruptcy.

The minimum wage stayed stagnant, even as inflation ballooned. Gas prices rose. 9/11 happened, and the War on Terror seemed to hurt rather than help the economy. But we should still keep buying Stuff, we were told. Buying Stuff would help.

And we did what we were told. We took out loans, we bought Stuff, we went to college, and we waited for the Success to happen to us. The Success that happened to everyone before us. And then the economy tanked. And most millennials still haven’t recovered, and never will recover.

We were raised in a culture that idealized Stuff, and related consumption to success. We have been encouraged our entire lives to purchase and keep things. Our minimum wage is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it’s a better option for us to buy multiple cheap things than try to buy one more expensive thing, because we have no guarantee that the expensive thing will be better. We can’t repair things when they break, either because either it’s too expensive, there’s no one able to repair it, or some multi-billion corporation will void our warranty if we try to fix our own objects. We’re struggling to find jobs, crushed under loans, and doing our best to get by.

We have closets full of cheap clothing, because we know that it is going to wear out but we can’t afford to do laundry at the laundromat too often, and we don’t want to take the chance of spending a day’s paycheck on a single shirt that is still going to fall apart. We hold on to old shoes, computers, and furniture, because we don’t know if the current stuff we have is going to break worse than the old stuff we’re keeping around, and we might need the old thing to replace the new thing at any point. We have shelves full of college books because we weren’t going to get anything near what we paid for them if we tried to sell them back. We buy in bulk whenever we can, because we were taught to, and because it will hopefully ultimately be cheaper for us.

And into this enters minimalism. Getting rid of as much as you can, living “simply,” and de-cluttering your life.

Let me make something clear: there are two ways that you can live “minimally.” You can either (a) be too poor to buy enough things to have clutter (in which case your minimalism is probably not an active choice) or (b) you are rich enough that you don’t have to worry. You don’t have to worry about things like buying replacements when something breaks or wears out, or buying in bulk to save money. It means you have the time, energy, and money to find fewer objects of obvious quality instead of many cheap objects.

Minimalism is either a punishment or a privilege.

And it wouldn’t upset me so much, if it weren’t for the fact that minimalism is going the way of veganism, Paleo diets, natural birth, organic food, breastfeeding, and yoga—in that a lot of people are totally capable of doing the thing without making it a moral judgment about everyone around them, and a different lot of people Are Seriously Not Able to Do The Thing Without Being an Asshole. Minimalism is becoming a purity cult, where enacting minimalism is associated with personal goodness and moral virtue. Which is bullshit.

We were raised to worship Stuff. We entered an economy where we had no choice but to cling to Stuff. And then a lot of the same people who raised us that way, who messed up the economy that way, are now telling us that we’re not good people unless we can live in a minimalist lifestyle. Which is a lot like a bully telling their victim to stop hitting themselves.

This does not bring me joy.

Signed: Feminist Fury.

***

Featured image is of the aisle of a Dollar Store and is released under a CC-BY 2.0 license by Random Retail.

A Billion Dollars Is So Much More Than You Think

It’s been a while since I posted on here, and mostly that’s because I haven’t had the headspace for anything longer than a Twitter rant (you can, of course, go follow me over at @schadenford for those). But with Howard Schulz potentially running for president in the most entitled way humanly imaginable, I wanted to share a few of my favourite descriptions of just how much money a billionaire has.

Most people think of a million dollars as a lot of money, and it is. With a million dollars, you can retire in most parts of America today, regardless of your age. If you invest only in index funds—nothing fancy, nothing high risk—you can live a comfortable, middle class life off the interest alone (which would, by the way, be a lot more than I’ve ever made in a year). A million dollars is what you save up if you put away roughly $1200 every month for thirty years and average a very healthy 5% rate of compound interest on every cent. That’s $14,400 that you earn but do not spend for thirty years, over and above the cost of: rent (or a mortgage if you’re lucky), food, utilities, fun, servicing student debt, paying off student debt, taking on more debt if you have kids, and so on. A million dollars is a lot of money.

The mistake, when people consider a billion dollars, is that they think in linear scales. They (roughly) think a billion is as much more than a million as a million is more than they have. And while that’s relatively true—if you’ve got $1000—it’s not the way we think about it. A billion is proportionately more than a million the way a million is proportionately more than a thousand. But the way your brain thinks about it is different. Honestly, you probably feel like a million dollars is a million more than you have, and a billion dollars is that much again. When you imagine a billion dollars, you’re probably imagining something a lot closer to two million dollars than a thousand million dollars.

So here to explain are some of my favourite thought exercises to understand just how much a billion dollars really is.

Exhibit A: A billion is so, so much more than a million. A million seconds is roughly twelve days. A billion seconds is 31.7 years. Imagine not having something you like for twelve days. Chocolate maybe. Your favourite ramen. Beer. Democracy. Now imagine the difference between that, and not having it for thirty one point seven years. Getting the picture?

Exhibit B: A billion dollars is more than you can spend in a lifetime. If you have a billion dollars, and you never earn a single cent of interest (ha!), you’ll still be able to spend $30,000 every single day of your life without running out of money. That’s just shy of the $31,000 and change that’s the US median yearly income every single day for ninety years.

Exhibit C: A billion dollars is more than enough to continue to be rich by every definition for every generation since Jesus of Nazareth purportedly walked the Earth. If you had a billion dollars on The Day Jesus Was Born™, and you spent $1350 every. single. day. since then, you would still have almost six million dollars today. Two thousand and nineteen years later. To save that up over thirty years you’d need to be putting away $86,400 every year (at 5% monthly compounded interest). You’d need to be saving almost three times the US median yearly income for thirty years just to save up as much pocket change as you’d have left after spending $1350 every day (over $490,000 a year!) for over two thousand years.

Exhibit D: It is literally impossible to save up a billion dollars. Remember how I said if you saved up $14,400 a year for thirty years you’d have a million dollars (if you manage 5% compound interest)? If you saved up $50,000 a year (without interest) you’d have a million after twenty years. At that rate it would only take you twenty thousand years to save up a billion dollars. For reference, that’s four times longer than all of recorded history. That’s over eighty three times longer than the US dollar has even EXISTED.

All of this is just to say the following: a billion dollars is an utterly unimaginable sum of money. At the rates at which we value labour, a human being cannot earn a billion dollars. They cannot accumulate a billion dollars through any amount of hard work, because if you get $60,000 a year for the very hard work of teaching, or $35,000 for the very hard work of collecting garbage 40 hours a week, or you get $60,000 for the very hard work of building the infrastructure we all use and live in, that’s the value of hard work, somewhere in that ballpark. You literally cannot work more or harder or better enough to earn the difference between that and a billion dollars through work, you can only extract it from the economy at the expense of undervalued labour.

The very existence of billionaires is proof positive that something is deeply broken in the way our society assigns value to things.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some work to do.

Signed: The Remixologist.

Serving Misogyny

To find out that menstruation is apparently the one aspect of femininity that is “too far” is disappointing on both a personal and an artistic level, because it shows the multiple ways in which Drag Race is not willing to expand boundaries as far as we thought.

 

I’m a big Drag Race fan, though I’ve missed a few seasons due to my lack of cable. (Damn my millennial spirit.) But I try to somewhat keep up with things via blogs and fansites, so I was pleased to hear that one of my all-time faves, Manila Luzon, was going to be on the All Stars series. And then my love grew so large that it nearly actually strangled me when I learned that she had planned to wear this outfit on the show:

 

 

Look at this. Look at it. This is goddamn fantastic. It acknowledges and normalizes periods at the same time it looks amazing. I freaking adore this look.

But you may have noticed that I wrote “planned to.” Manila Luzon did not actually get to wear this outfit on national television, because, as she explained in an Instagram post, RuPaul and the producers thought the look was in “bad taste.”

Now, for completely unrelated reasons, I’m going to show you a few of the looks that have been allowed on Drag Race over the years:

 

For those of you playing WTF bingo, that is, in order: nearly-naked Ziggy Stardust, naked with cardboard censoring bars, gagged BDSM, a “Carrie getting covered in pig’s blood” costume, some kind of nose-job and lip-job costume (?), an outfit with an accessorized oxygen tank (??), a “tribute” to the “Indian” from the Village People (???), pregnancy as a costume (?!), and a horror show I can only assume was meant to be a rotting corpse costume (?!!).

So to be clear, RuPaul and the producers are okay with nudity or near nudity (to the point that pixelation has to be involved,) allusions to BDSM, cultural appropriation, pregnancy and unhealthy beauty standards. They’re even really okay with fake blood in other contexts. And I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with those things (except for the unhealthy beauty standards and cultural appropriation. Please do not waist train, everyone. It is bad for you. Cultural appropriation is also bad for you and should not happen.) So it’s pretty clear that the show has a fairly high bar for “bad taste,” and in other contexts is totally okay with both blood and cisgender female bodily functions, like pregnancy. But a really gorgeous look that normalizes menstruation while still being amazing is too far?

I’ve talked before on the old blog about the stigma against menstruation. (I actually talked about it a lot).

Long story short, as a society we seem to be almost completely incapable of discussing menstruation in a healthy way, avoid punishing girls or women for having periods, or even show blood or say the word “period” in a commercial for menstrual products. (If your menstrual blood is ever blue, please double check that your uterus has not been filled with antifreeze or windshield fluid.) At the same time that young women are sexualized and seen as breeding objects, we stigmatize this biological corollary to puberty and fertility.

Manila also mentions this stigma in her post about the look. In her post she explains, “I was really looking forward to wearing this gown that I think celebrates a perfectly normal human experience! Many of my fans are young women who may feel pressured by society to be embarrassed by periods. It’s empowering to teach young women about their bodies, encourage them to celebrate them AND to question people who tell them not to. My goal with this look was to normalize menstruation by looking sick’ning even if I was on my period!”

 

 

Fellow Drag Race alum Willam showed support for Manila and also advocated for the normalization of menstruation, while at the same time calling herself out for doing things on the show in worse taste than a menstruation dress. Willam might be my id.

This incident is really upsetting and saddening, partly because one of the things I like best about Drag Race is the ways that it discusses and expands concepts of “femininity.” A lot of the cultural advances that we’ve made in dance, fashion, and makeup come from the world of drag. (The Kardashians can thank drag queens for their contouring. Is it kontouring if a Kardashian does it? These are the questions that keep me up at night.) Drag can be a reflection of many cisgender women’s experiences, or a funhouse mirror that exaggerates these experiences. And for many women, menstruation is one of those experiences. To find out that menstruation is apparently the one aspect of femininity that is “too far” is disappointing on both a personal and an artistic level, because it shows the multiple ways in which Drag Race is not willing to expand boundaries as far as we thought.

Signed: Feminist Fury.

***

Featured image is of Manila Luzon in a dress featuring a stylized used menstrual pad on the front.

Please Stop Saying that Thanos was Right

The snapture was objectively ridiculous.

 

Spoilers ahoy for Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Avengers: Infinity Wars

When the current fad for redeeming or exploring villains started, I was pretty ecstatic. This is because I am a Villain Sympathy hipster; I was doing it before I was cool. Likely because I was pretty badly bullied for most of my youth, and because for various reasons I’ve been made to feel monstrous at different points in my life, I always instinctively looked to the villains, and thought about their circumstances. Why exactly was Ursula banished from the kingdom, and would she have been so evil if she hadn’t been forced to live in a creepy cave? Why was she the only one to take Ariel’s desires seriously? And if God was omnipotent and had personally created all of the angels, didn’t that mean that Lucifer was basically destined to rebel? Was he the ultimate fall guy? Of course this sympathy hit limits—Claude Frollo is a creepy asshole, and probably my first exposure to someone giving off some “rapey” vibes. Hitler and Nazis are just always bad, no matter what Fox News and YouTube tell you.

So I was excited when we first started to dip our toes into the antihero/villain pool. Dexter, Wicked, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Maleficent… all of these started an interesting trend of making villains more complex, of making heroes more villainous, and making media more varied. But then it kind of didn’t… stop. The media, and the public, never got to that point where sympathy hit its limit. Fans started to hate Skyler White for the crime of being a woman who told her murderous, drug-dealing husband that he should stop being a murderous drug dealer. We wound up with oodles and oodles of Hannibal fanfiction. Don Draper has an entire redemption arc before showing that he’s going to go right into bad patterns in the finale, and we’re supposed to think of this as a happy ending. And then we just went in for it wholesale, and started saying things like “Thanos was right!” and I was like, “Holy shit, what have we done?”

Now, I’m not claiming to not have any problematic faves of my own. I’m pretty much always going to be a fangirl of Spike from Buffy and Loki from the Thor movies. But I am also not going to claim that either one was “right” in their villainy. Spike almost rapes Buffy, a narrative move that I still think was clumsily done by the writers, but one that definitely exists in canon. Plus there’s, you know, the centuries of being a murderous vampire. Not a good look. And while Loki has plenty of emotional damage, and Daddy issues out the wazoo, he also genocided a planet. And even though his actions are actually a good example of the end result of a warrior culture that insists on the monstrosity of an enemy, he still genocided a planet. I’m not going to be standing on any soapboxes proclaiming that he was “right” to do so.

Before we get to Thanos, I’m actually going to backtrack a little bit to the first Kingsman movie, because I think the Thanos Problem actually has a lot in common with the villain from the first Kingsman, Richmond Valentine. Because it’s not just about fan response (though we’ll get to that); it’s also about movies and media forgetting to show that their villains are wrong. Oh sure, they’ll show that their villains are evil, and that they pursue their goals in socially unacceptable ways, but they won’t necessarily take the time to show that the goal itself is a terrible goal.

Richmond Valentine actually has a very similar outlook to Thanos: he thinks that there are too many motherfucking people on his motherfucking planet. (Sorry, I had to.) In the film he ascribes to something called “Gaia Theory,” a misreading of an actual theory called the Gaia Hypothesis. In the film, the Gaia Theory essentially says that the Earth is a body, and people are a virus, and global warming is the fever response to our “infecting” of the planet. Because there are too many people doing vague Bad Things to the environment, we are going to either cause the “fever” of global warming to kill all people (the virus) or we are going to manage to kill the Earth (the body). He has a couple throwaway lines about how he has tried other methods of environmentalism to no effect, so now he’s decided on his supervillain plan: give out free phone cards that will cause a signal to go off that incites listeners into intense violence, while keeping an inner cabal of important political, business, and cultural figures safe in various bunkers. (These people, for some reason, include Iggy Azalea. I can’t explain that.) So the violence inducing wave will cause people to kill each other for X amount of time, and at the end the population will be greatly reduced, and all the Best People can re-emerge into a drastically less populated world.

Now, obviously, the good guys are like “hey, wait… don’t kill all those people.” But at no point in the film does anyone stop and say, “Hey wait, literally all of the things about this are wrong.” His premise, that climate change is the result of overpopulation and individuals being awful, is taken at face value. His plan is objected to for its violence, not its… well, object. But we know that 100 companies are responsible for a staggering 71% of emissions. While individuals are certainly contributing to global problems, we are not even close to that number. So ostensibly, after half of the population kills the other half, these 100 companies would look around, say, “Oooh, 50% fewer environmental protesters. Sweet!” and then merrily continue polluting. Even if the individual CEOs of the companies died in the purge (though let’s be real, they’re probably all chilling in Valentine’s bunker) that would only be a temporary stopgap. And Valentine is shown in the film to have what can actually stop climate change: money and political capital. He manages to convince various heads of state, including Obama and the British royal family, to buy into his argument and agree to a plan that violently kills a large portion of their citizens. I would think if he is that powerful and convincing, it would be a cakewalk to get legislation passed that caps emissions, forces investment into alternative energy, etc.

On top of that, his plan has the potential to lead to horrific environmental consequences. The violence signal that his phones emit are completely non-discriminatory—anyone who hears it goes into a rage. So what happens if there is a tech at a nuclear plant who is playing Candy Crush? What happens if one of the 50 people on a plane who didn’t actually listen to the flight attendant and put their phone in airplane mode is sitting in the front, near the pilot? What if a mechanic who is working on an oil pipe is blasting Spotify? Not to mention the environmental crisis of just having 4 billion dead bodies lying around. That would be… ick.

Thanos has a surprisingly similar outlook. He thinks that there are just too many beings in the universe. He thinks the universe will get full. Just… think about that for a second. And because he once genocided half a planet, and then the planet recovered and thrived, he thinks that all planets are overcrowded, and that he has to kill half of all living beings in the entire universe. Which is obviously horrific, and there were many heart-string tugging moments of favorite characters turning into dust. But again—no one addresses his main point. At least when it comes to Earth, we already know that a lot of problems that are ascribed to overpopulation are actually problems of inequitable over-consumption, poor distribution, and capitalist impulses that mean that grocery stores would rather destroy food than go through the effort of donating it. Most discussions of overpopulation are fairly… eugenics-y. (Peter Coffin has a good video on it if you’re interested.) And no one in the film really bothers going, “Hey… not only is this a ridiculous plan, but also if you have gems of infinite power that can seemingly break the laws of physics, why don’t you just… create more resources for people?” If you have gems of infinite power and a desire to fix problems with resources and overpopulation, your first response isn’t gonna be genocide unless you already wanted to do some genocide.

And like Valentine’s plan, the very thing that Thanos explains as a feature is actually a bug. Thanos thinks his plan is “fair” because it is indiscriminate—the 50% of beings who die are randomly chosen. (It’s not clear if this is 50% per planet, or 50% of the universe, total. So one planet might hit the lottery and have everyone survive, but another planet is fucked). But these deaths could cause a chain reaction that not only leads to more deaths but also destroys planets beyond the ability for people to live on them. On Earth, the same points about nuclear attendants, pilots, and oil workers applies. The 50% of people could take with them the person who was just at that moment directing a drone strike that instead takes out a major city, leading to rioting, and… you get the picture. Or even the scientist that was about to cure AIDS or cancer, leading to more inadvertent deaths down the line. Not to mention, Thanos himself has already kind of gone beyond the point of his quest. He’s killed basically every Asgardian except for Thor and Valkyrie, and from his own statements completely wiped out Xandar. How does that fit into his little equation?

Yet despite these obvious flaws, I still logged onto the internet the day after I saw the film and saw a ton of “THANOS WAS RIGHT” and “THANOS IS A HOT GRAPE DADDY” posts. The latter is disturbing, but the first one is worse. Because while the film itself doesn’t do a good job of proving Thanos wrong, that doesn’t mean that viewers entirely lose their sense of logic. Every viewer could go through the same thought process I just walked us through. But instead of thinking through that process, everyone is just stanning him instead.

This is where we get back to my point about the over-identification with villains. We have gone a full loop from “sympathy for villains” to “identification with villains,” to the point that we’re now blaming heroes with bad plans for the actions of villains. Poe Dameron gets a lot of flack for his (admittedly stupid and toxic-masculinity-fueled) plan in The Last Jedi, but he isn’t the First Order. The First Order killed people, not Dameron’s plan. In the same way, Peter Quill gets blamed for Thanos’ actions—if he hadn’t gotten over-emotional over Gamora’s death, the logic goes, Thanos could have been stopped. But again, Thanos is the one killing everyone. Failing to stop something bad does not have the same moral culpability as doing something bad. And somehow yelling at a doofus with barely concealed emotional trauma and abandonment issues seems more fitting to vast swathes of the movie-going public than yelling at the genocidal monster.

Now, under a lot of circumstances I could let this over-identification with villains go. Stans are gonna stan. But we are living in an era where actual villains are getting too much sympathy, and I can’t help but draw a connection between what is happening in fiction and what is happening in reality. Our president says that there are good people on “both sides” of a debate where one side is fascists, and one side is anti-fascist. Also the fascist side rammed a car into a crowd and killed and maimed people. Journalists are getting imprisoned and murdered, and we’re still gushing over the leaders that harmed them. Supposedly objective or even supposedly liberal media publications are writing rosy pieces about Neo-Nazis and how they like to go grocery shopping, too. (Neo-Nazis—they’re just like us!) Sexual abusers are embarking on comeback tours barely a year after they were exposed as sexual abusers. And just like in the media, the people who are ineffectual at stopping the bad stuff are often given more blame and responsibility than the people doing the bad stuff. Women should have come forward with their abuse sooner. People of color should stop… breathing? Doing whatever it is they supposedly do that pisses off police enough to shoot them. Children should learn how to do active shooter drills. Democrats lost the election because we didn’t sympathize enough with racists. We’re in a topsy-turvy world that seems to exist on the age-old playground principle of “Stop hitting yourself.”

I think it is helpful, and even good, to show villains as being complex and interesting. We don’t live a world where evil is simple, and our fiction shouldn’t have such worlds, either. But there is a difference between making a villain complex and purposefully or accidentally presenting the villain as “right.”

Signed: Feminist Fury

***

Featured image is a meme depicting Thanos looking confused with math symbols flashing in front of his face.

Baby, It’s a Changing (Cultural) Climate Outside

Because we *do* need to talk about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” every now and then.

 

Based on the current status of my Facebook feed, it is time to have a conversation that I have somehow managed to not have in my four years as a feminist blogger: the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” conversation. We get to address the backlash to the backlash to the song, and along the way, talk about authorial intent, reception theory, and other stuff that I went to school to learn. (Wooo, take that student loans, I’m doing something useful with my degree.)

So there are two figures/groups that can be held as the most important when it comes to determining the meaning of a work—the author, and the audience. People who adhere closely to authorial intention say that the most important way of interpreting what a work means is by following what the author says that the work means or says that they intended it to mean. Someone who adheres closely to reception theory says that it is the audience that actually determines the meaning of the work—that how the work is received (aka its reception) is more important than what the author meant.

JK Rowling presents a really good case study as a microcosm of the “authorial intention” vs. “reception theory” argument, and how both sides can be correct at the same time. Rowling is able to state that she wrote the character of Dumbledore with the understanding that he was gay. It’s totally fair for her to say that when she was writing the work, this intention affected how she wrote Dumbledore, and for readers to decide that this means Dumbledore is canonically gay. But it’s also totally fair for the audience to say, “Pics or it didn’t happen.” Few readers automatically understood Dumbledore to be a queer character, and they are justified in saying that however Rowling intended the character, he doesn’t come across with that intention clearly actualized.

Personally, I do find authorial intention to be important, and I’m always interested to hear what an author says about their own work. But I’m more closely aligned to reception theory, partly as a matter of pragmatism. It is very easy for an author’s intentions to be overwhelmed, and very easy for an audience to take a creation and do something new with it, for good or for ill. At this stage it is nearly pointless to huffily declare “Frankenstein isn’t the name of the monster, it is the name of the Doctor!” because in the cultural zeitgeist, Frankenstein is interchangeably used for both figures. No matter what Mary Shelley originally intended, her work has been reinterpreted and re-understood by people to the point that when you hear the name “Frankenstein,” your thoughts are more likely to flash to Boris Karloff than Colin Clive.  In a much more depressing example, the creator of Pepe the Frog killed off his character and had a “funeral” for him after the character was co-opted by the Alt-Right movement. Matt Furie certainly never intended for his creation to be adopted as the mascot for neo-Nazis, but his desires (his intentions) are also nowhere near enough for the character to be reclaimed. Unfortunately, the character will now probably be permanently associated with this movement. And to return to Rowling, announcing post-series that Dumbledore was gay the whole time is a really convenient way to get brownie points for being progressive whilst not losing any of that sweet, sweet homophobe cash when the books were in their heyday.

I give this introduction because I think it’s an important primer for understanding the various levels of the argument over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”  So now, some facts:

  • The song was first written in 1944, and became very popular after it was featured in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughterit even won the Academy Award that year.
  • The original writer conceived of it as a husband-and-wife duet, meant to be performed at parties—the composer, Frank Loesser, performed it with his wife, Lynn Garland.
  • On the score of the song, the traditionally-female character is referred to as “Mouse,” and the traditionally-male character is referred to as “Wolf.” (We are presumably supposed to not make any judgment of the relationship between the characters based on this description… None.)
  • In Neptune’s Daughter, the song is first sung with Ricardo Montalbán as the Wolf figure and Esther Williams as the Mouse figure, and then by Betty Garrett as the Wolf figure and Red Skelton as the Mouse figure.
  • The song has been covered by basically everyone ever.
  • There are two main camps in the argument—one which I associate strongly with authorial intent, and one that I associate very strongly with reception theory.

So the side that frequently defends the song usually puts forward something along the following argument (fairly well articulated in this blog post):

The song has to be understood as a product of its time. The phrase “Hey what’s in this drink?” was a common saying that was basically someone implying that they were doing or saying something that they normally wouldn’t, and joking that it was the effect of an overly-strong drink. It also stands as a good cover for a woman who wants to do something outside of the cultural norm. “I’m an alcoholic” is way more socially acceptable in some circles than “I’m a loose woman.” In this reading, the Mouse figure in the song actually does want to stay (and you know, have sex) but is thinking about the social acceptability of the action—all of her objections refer to what others might think of her. The Wolf figure understands that she wants to stay, and is essentially giving her excuses/helping her build a story that gives an innocent explanation as to why she stayed.

The side that is opposed to the song usually puts forward something along the lines of the following argument:

The song is pretty rapey. Or if not rapey, at least a great example of someone not understanding boundaries and consent. The Wolf figure is the poster child for not being able to take no for an answer. The Mouse figure is trying to make her position clear without hurting the Wolf figure or making him angry at the Mouse by stating her intentions and then basically name dropping all of the people that are looking out for her/would be upset if something happened to her/stand in as excuses for why she needs to leave that won’t injure his pride or masculinity. And at this point the whole “What’s in this drink” line is just creepy as hell.

My take: I really do understand the “pro-song” side (and to be honest, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” used to be one of my favorite Christmas songs). It was certainly written with no ill-will, and I think it is a perfectly justified reading of the song lyrics, within the context of the era in which they were written, to see it as a coy back-and-forth between lovers who have a clear understanding of the social mores of their time and the double-speak they have to engage in if they want to have a good time but not leave her with a ruined reputation.

However.

I think that at this point, it takes an (almost overly) generous reading of the song, and understanding of reactions to it, to hold fast to that understanding of the song. Even in the film that made it famous, it’s already kinda iffy. While the characters who are playing the Mouse figure in the song are definitely sending some mixed signals, and both eventually seem happy to stay out of the cold, they also both undergo some pretty troubling things. The characters played by Esther Williams and Red Skelton are both repeatedly, physically prevented from leaving by their Wolf figure counterparts. And even with the mixed signals, just look at that side eye and glaring from Esther Williams. That is a woman who is not super happy to be continually manhandled and redirected.

And at this point, regardless of how it was intended, it sounds a whole lot like a guy pressuring a girl, refusing to take no for an answer, and belittling her concerns. It’s the “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” of Christmas songs. It doesn’t take an easily-triggered “cuck” or an overly-sensitive feminist to see that there’s something pretty messed up about repeatedly telling someone that you want to leave and having them respond by telling you how “delicious” your lips look. This song becomes another entry in a long, long line of media that tells guys that if a woman says no, all you have to do is keep harassing her until she changes her mind just to get you to shut up. There are already a lot of entries in that line, and I don’t know if yet another one also needs to moonlight as a popular Christmas carol that unfortunate retail workers will have to hear roughly two billion times in December. And let’s be real: in the wake of the Cosby trial, I don’t know when, if ever, “hey what’s in this drink” will be taken as an “innocent” joke again.

In my own, humble opinion, I think that the reception theory interpretation is (at least for now) the winner. I just genuinely don’t think that in the current era, we can ignore the implications of a song in which a man repeatedly insists that a woman stay the night and bulldozes over all of her objections. Women already face an uphill battle to have their autonomy and decisions taken seriously, since pretty much all media is against them. Phrases and ideas like “Her lips say no but her eyes say yes,” “She’s playing hard to get,” “Methinks the lady protests too much,” etc. run rampant in popular media. We’re told that if a woman rejects you, you just have to TRY HARDER because eventually you will wear her down, because she secretly always wanted to be worn down. Even when it’s played for laughs or is part of a light-hearted Christmas standard, it sends a dangerous message about ignoring it when a woman tells you no. And that message, the “If at first she won’t fuck you, try, try again” message, is a much more dominant narrative than any potential “It’s secretly empowering to engage in word play with your lover so that you can have sex while still being respectable” message.

Now, despite being an overly sensitive feminist (I don’t think I’m easily-triggered cuck…), I want to make it clear that this is not to say that I fully support a ban on the song, or think that no one should like it, or am secretly judging everyone who hums it, or anything like that. But I do think that it is worth having a conversation, or multiple conversations, about the unintentional messages in the media we consume as well as the intentional ones. And I do think that the situation is more complicated than just rolling your eyes at supposed “snowflakes” who don’t like the song. (Also, in the context of a Christmas song, shouldn’t being a “snowflake” be a good thing? I may be overthinking this.)

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image depicts a snowflake up close. It is by maf04 and is used under a create commons, attribution share-alike 2.0 license.

Ellements of Film: Dracula Untold

Because sometimes you see a movie in the $7-or-less bin and ask: why?

 

As you may have noticed, there haven’t been posts for a couple of weeks. That’s partly because I’ve been very busy with Life Stuff, but it is also because I’ve recently hit one of my (thankfully infrequent) periods of serious writer burnout. I have half a dozen half-finished articles on everything from JK Rowling trying to bring Orientalist tropes back into style to the absolute pearl clutching that happened when DC attempted to show some thematically-appropriate Batman penis. (I’m not linking you to either of those things, y’all can Google that your own selves.) But I’ve been unable to finish what I’ve started. I’ve been listlessly trawling through feminist news sites, trying to find something that fits the right balance of “makes me angry enough to write” and “doesn’t make me so depressed I can’t stand it,” or the even rarer beast, “thing that makes me happy.” And no dice. (Believe me, I was really tempted to write posts this week about the trashfires that are Tumblr and Lena Dunham, and I couldn’t even manage that.)

So I’m hoping to cure some of my writing fatigue with a new side project of my Ellements of Film Series. Welcome to “Ellements of Film: What Are You Doing in This Bin/Movie?!”

I should explain.

I’m an absolute sucker for the cheap movie bins at places like Wal-Mart, Target, TJ Maxx, etc. If there is a giant tub of $7-or-less movies, you can bet your ass that I’m diving into that tub. It’s like a much spottier, slightly more expensive Redbox. (Or slightly less expensive, given how much trouble I have remembering to return Redbox movies.) One of my best friends is constantly aghast at my DVD collection, because these $5 treasures will pile up, still wrapped in plastic, as I wait for the right time to translate the initial rush of “got something I kind of wanted for really cheap” into the ennui that leads to me actually, you know… watching the movies. (She periodically unwraps all of them so that she doesn’t have to be ashamed of me anymore.) Sometimes the things I scoop up are absolute treasures. Sometimes they are absolute duds. Sometimes I am aghast that such a lovely movie has been denigrated so as to be slumming it in the Bin of Shame. Sometimes they make me question the existence of a single, solitary braincell amongst the entire crew of a movie. Whatever the case, the movie is an Experience. And one that I would like to share with all of you!

So I came up with a formalized system to share my explorations, the aforementioned “Ellements of Film: What Are You Doing in This Bin/Movie?!”

There are a few rules:

  1. There must be at least one actor whose name I recognize, and whom I know to have been in at least one (1) movie that was either good, high-budget, or very popular. So no “this was my film school thesis project” atrocities.
  2. I must not have seen the movie before, or it must be at least three years since I’ve seen the film. If it’s been long enough that I’ve either willfully deleted the film from my memory banks or it has blended into half of the things I’ve seen on TNT, it’s pretty safe to think that the film will be a fairly new experience for me.
  3. I must have at least some genuine desire to see the film, and not just of the “watching a car crash” kind. In order to give each movie a fair shake, I need to have at least some buy-in with it, which means no cheating and going straight for things that will be obviously horrible. There has to be at least some redeeming factor about the film that makes me want to watch it.

The intention of this exercise is to harvest some of these discount movies and then separate the wheat from the chaff and deliver an ultimate opinion. Am I shocked and appalled that a fantastic movie has joined the gutter with all of the Finding Nemo rip-offs? Or am I wondering who owed massive enough gambling debts that they accepted money in exchange for having their name permanently associated with dreck?

And so we begin.

First up, Dracula Untold. It fits the rules in the following ways:

  1. It stars Luke Evans, who seems to have made something of a career out of starring in somewhat-despised versions of beloved intellectual properties. He’s Bard in The Hobbit movies, Gaston in the live-action Beauty and the Beast, and Aramis in the 2011 version of The Three Musketeers, a movie so bad that you all probably didn’t even remember that there was a 2011 version of The Three Musketeers. He’s also That Guy You Kind of Recognize along with That Other Guy You Kinda Recognize and That Girl You Kinda Recognize, Wasn’t She a Child Actress? on the show The Alienist. And while I would challenge most people who would ascribe the label of “good” to most of his film work, there is no doubt that he has snagged roles in multiple films that are high-budget and/or popular.
  2. I have never seen this movie before.
  3. I was actually kinda interested in this film when it came out. There was that whole weird period where everyone decided that telling the cool, mostly-medieval and grimdark!origin stories of monsters was in, and we’re still in the period where making villains somewhat-to-mostly heroic is in, and this film fit neatly into the Venn diagram space between those two things. I love monster movies and I’m intrigued to see what people do with public domain or very familiar stories. That being said, I could tell pretty much immediately that the film was going to be bad, so I was definitely not willing to spend money to actually leave my house, buy popcorn, and subject myself to it in public.

So, now our favorite things, Elle belatedly liveblogging and then summing up movies. (It’s probably not your favorite thing. It’s one of my favorite things.)

  • Okay so we’re starting with Turkish sultans enslaving and whipping Transylvanian child slaves. So that’s… a choice.
  • We’re also apparently in bullet time?
  • Or maybe we’re playing with toys?
  • Vlad the Impaler, Son of the Dragon, is apparently now a reformed former child soldier who was enslaved by the Turks and now is returning to Transylvania and praying very hard in front of all of the people he impaled. I am already so lost by the tone of this film.
  • Luke Evans is making no attempt to have a Transylvanian accent. This is also a choice.
  • I AM THE RULER AND I AM HUNTING DOWN THE BAD GUYS PERSONALLY BECAUSE THIS IS SOUND POLICY. I see no way in which this will end poorly. No way.
  • And the bat jump scare is coming in 3…2.. oh look there it is
  • OH no! The CGI from Diablo 2 is going to get them!
  • That was a half-assed vampire, I swear to God.
  • Oh God now we have religious anatomy texts. And etymology. And churches? HOW IS THIS INFORMATION SO READILY AVAILABLE YET NO ONE KNOWS THIS SHIT?
  • Of course the monk is going to guard the secret, he fucking knows vampires exist and this is the first time you’re finding out about it.
  • Genuinely could not tell for about 30 seconds if the blonde girl was his wife, daughter, or hot nanny. Apparently, hot wife who looks young enough to be the hot nanny.
  • Making a Clothed Person Get In The Tub With You Because It Is So Silly! Trope.
  • Okay I kinda want their furry smoking jackets.
  • Does no one ever knock? How did these people get in? This is terrible security.
  • The maker of this movie has seen 300.
  • Did Vlad the Impaler give tribute to the Turks? I’m getting so confused about history.
  • Well isn’t this convenient reasoning to make a Noble Prince sell his soul to a demon.
  • Wait, they are not seriously making Howard Stark the Turkish Emperor, are they? You can’t be serious. It’s serious. Oh my God.
  • Okay, “What is one son? If you are virile, you’ll make plenty more.” Is a pretty good dictator burn.
  • “What kind of man crawls into his own grave looking for hope?” is one of those things that sounds really wise and actually doesn’t mean anything.
  • So he’s just like, this insane killing machine that is also remorseful.
  • MONSTER SYMBOLISM TIME.
  • This filmmaker has also seen Batman. And…. Maybe Alien.
  • Wait, now we’re Little Mermaid-ing it? If he can avoid drinking blood for three days he won’t turn evil. I feel like he’s going to lose that bet.
  • And now he has Daredevil senses. Or Sentinel senses? I’m not sure who he’s ripping off here.
  • Oooh and Predator eyes. That’s a good addition.
  • And he can see… through… clouds?
  • Also turn into bats. Multiple bats. So many bats.
  • Well that defense didn’t last too long. For being such a good warrior king, you did not teach your people so good, sir.
  • Get yourself a man that looks at you like Dracula’s second in command looks at Dracula.
  • Also get yourself Dracula’s pretty hair.
  • Okay so at this point, Dracula has seen one vampire kill like, two dudes. And he heard a spider be cool. And now he just automatically thinks he can take on a whole army? I don’t know why we’re watching all of this in a rearview mirror made out of a sword.
  • Dude this isn’t Fight Club, your people are gonna wonder what’s going on.
  • Yeah, go to that monastery where all the monks had a vision of the monastery being attacked. That’s a great idea.
  • Okay this movie is officially the CGI Beowulf, because it’s an unnecessary retelling of a classic tale and the only good part is the sidekick.
  • Oh no, my husband, what is wrong? Let me kiss you, with my dress hanging attractively off of one shoulder and just happening to expose my lovely, pale neck. It’s totally fine, because you are definitely not a vampire.
  • And this, children, is called Dracula getting his freak on.
  • Dracula has Performance Issues.
  • Is this dude supposed to be his Renfield? It’s the 1400s, why the hell would he have a Renfield?
  • Well that secret lasted a whole like, 16 hours.
  • Mirena is bad at lying. Good at birth control, bad at lying.
  • Did they decide to do a Dracula movie so that they could film all the fight scenes at night and not have to make them good?
  • Get you someone who looks at you like Dracula looks at Dimitru. And Dimitru’s blood.
  • Bad Guy You Thought Was Dead in Fall Was Not Actually Dead From Fall Trope.
  • ….is he blindfolding his army? Like for serious?
  • Everything about this is the stupidest thing. I miss Dimitru. Dimitru was the only good part of this.
  • Suspicious Dracula Acts Suspicious.
  • Okay, yeah, there’s a little bit of light coming from those windows but only like, a little. You purposely burned yourself on light just a little while ago.
  • I like how in most religions, “repenting” and “dying” are the same thing.
  • Yeah, kill the monster that just saved all of your lives.
  • Okay so we’re in Frankenstein now.
  • I don’t like knockoff Alan Rickman.
  • Okay not buying the “This is not who you are” speech. They keep talking about how he’s a barely repressed killing machine, even before the vampire thing. I feel like if you try to burn a barely repressed killing machine alive, he’s gonna be pretty pissed.
  • So much boredom. So many bats.
  • WHY CAN GUARDS NEVER STOP THIS SHIT?
  • How do you LOSE a sultan?
  • Mirena is fridged.
  • But she is dying so gracefully, and with so little flailing. That’s good and artistic.
  • Oooh, and he’s wearing black and she’s wearing white, how symbolic.
  • Oh, she had one of those good falls from a 100 foot tower, where she’s definitely going to die but she’s not a total pancake so she can have a dramatic last discussion with her husband and sacrifice her life so he can become Dracula. That makes sense.
  • …okay if he makes a vampire army out of villagers, this story might suddenly become cool.
  • How does the sultan know about the silver weakness? Dracula has been Dracula for like three days, and he learned about vampires the day before that. Did the sultan just conveniently know about vampires?
  • Dude if Dracula gets taken out by coinage this is gonna be so goddamn lame.
  • Belatedly, if he’s turning dying people left and right to make his army, why didn’t he just turn Mirena?
  • Okay I know they wanted “My name is Dracula. Son of the Devil.” To come off cool, but it just really, really didn’t.
  • And of course Dracula is the only vampire who somehow didn’t turn totally evil by becoming a vampire.
  • Dracula’s son is gonna need so much goddamn therapy.
  • ARE YOU LITERALLY LOOKING AT THE SKY TO TALK TO YOUR DEAD WIFE?
  • WHY DIDN’T YOU OPEN THE HEAVENS TO KILL ALL THE VAMPIRES A SECOND AGO WHEN THEY WERE THREATENING YOUR SON?
  • The creators of this movie have also seen 30 Days of Night.
  • Okay showing the son’s feet not touching the floor on the throne is actually a pretty good image.
  • Oh look, he lived through the modern day, the creator of this film has also seen… every film where this happened.
  • Don’t be creepy with random reincarnated ladies in the market, Vlad. It’s creepy.
  • And of course the master vampire is around. Wasn’t he supposed to already unleash a reign of terror? Did we miss the reign of terror? I think I would have preferred a movie about the reign of terror.

VERDICT: What are you doing in this movie?

Luke Evans isn’t my favorite actor in the world, but he’s just about got to be better than this. And Dominic Cooper is definitely better than this. It’s not even so much that it’s bad as that it’s just…. Not good. It’s boring. And movies about ancient warlords becoming demons should never be boring. This movie would have actually been better if they’d let Vlad the Impaler stay… Vlad the Impaler. They keep talking about this bloodlust and urge to fight that he has, but he basically never really shows any of that. This would have been a cooler movie if it was “already bad guy makes a deal with the devil to become even worse guy” instead of “martyred yet somehow dangerous bad guy makes a deal with the devil to save his family.” Like just don’t try to “redeem” Dracula. Francis Ford Coppola tried to do that, and we wound up with Keanu Reeves with a terrible British accent. Is that what you want, Keanu Reeves with a terrible British accent? Of course not. For a film all about blood, this movie was bloodless.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image shows the words “Ellements of Film” superimposed over a photo of the latest “Dracula” from the movie poster.