Friday, June 12, 2015

In a tizzy

My head has been spinning lately. I have absolutely been in a tizzy of thoughts that are kind of catching me up like a hurricane and throwing me about. For the most part I think all of the writing I’ve been doing has helped keep my brain in check, but when I’m not distracted with writing, Mass Effect 3, or Tom Hardy movies then I am caught up in the tizzy.

One big part of the tizzy is this: I hate it when people tell me I’m overthinking a movie/book/comic/whathaveyou, that the creator of said thing didn’t put this much thought into it, or otherwise try to say that what a piece of narrative media says doesn’t matter because it’s “only a movie/book/comic/whathaveyou.”

I HATE IT, YOU HEAR ME? Like, “Hulk smash!” hate it.

 "Interrupt me one more time you fetid douche!"
Image yoinked from DerekLaufman

Why do I “Hulk smash” hate it, you ask? Because in saying these things a person completely dismisses my education, my training, and my passion and hopefully some-day profession.

My degree is in comparative literature. I have been trained to analyze media forms of all varieties to root out what they mean, how they mean, and why they mean. Yes. I said how they mean. I said why they mean. These are legitimate concerns in comp lit: how does this piece of media construct meaning? Why does it do so? I have been trained to take into consideration the political nature of language—all language. Including images. I have been trained to approach everything that has been written, every image that has been created, with the assumption that its creation is a statement, and I have yet to see evidence this isn’t true. Some statements made are more important or noteworthy than others, yes, but that doesn’t mean that even the graffiti on a bathroom stall isn’t a statement of some asinine variety.

Nonetheless it’s not as though I go about analyzing and critiquing bathroom graffiti. I look at the media that people consume on a regular basis and I look for the patterns in our media which they represent. I try to dissect how individual media pieces fit into those patterns or break out of them, and I try to discern what this is communicating. I enjoy doing this, and I think it’s one valuable avenue of many valuable avenues toward understanding culture and society. The stories we tell ourselves are important and understanding what those stories say about us and the society we live in and why they say it is valuable. Analyzing our stories can reveal a lot about our values and beliefs.

So when you say “Chill out it’s just a movie/book/comic/whathaveyou” I want to smack you in the face and tell you to stop being an ignorant shit. I don’t do this because this is not how rational people who want to get a point across behave. Know that I will, however, go right ahead with assuming that you are saying this mostly because you don’t have any way to engage in this particular critical conversation with me because you don’t know what you’re talking about and you are now intimidated by the conversation and want to shut it down and dismiss it as quickly as possible. You’re not going to quiet me by saying things like this but you will make me think you’re incapable of engaging in dialogue with me and that you are incapable of learning from a dialogue with me, so good job with that.

And when you say I’m overthinking a thing because “even the creators didn’t put this much thought into it” you’re not only dismissing my entire field of study you’re insulting me, as a creator. When you spit words out try to keep in mind your audience. I am a writer. I don’t only analyze and critique writing I churn it out, so I have the additional perspective of experience in shaping a narrative. I am well familiar with how much thought and energy must go into putting out a creative project. This is the nature of creative work. Just like any other work, in order to do it you have to put thought and energy into it. In order to not botch it you have to put A HELL OF A LOT of thought and energy into it. But even bottom of the barrel works (which still require plenty of thought and attention) can be analyzed for where they failed—where lack of consideration potentially created a poisonous statement (i.e. romanticizing abuse *cough cough* Twilight).

But even these bottom of the barrel works are shaped by the values of their creators, and thus those values are replicated, reproduced, pushed out into the world and either embraced or rejected. This is why we get so excited when Mad Max: Fury Road does something as simple as taking into consideration the stories of women (and yes, it is actually that easy to tell a story that can be called “feminist”) or showing us a hero whose courage comes not from violence but from tenderness (no, not Max, I’m talking about Nux here. Give the guy some love). A shift in focus is noted, and given the nature of the representation of women in blockbuster movies this was absolutely something which was thought out, planned, and intentional. I recognize this because this is the shit I study in Comparative Literature, and this is the shit I think about when I’m writing my own stories.

I may be bad at math and only capable of maintaining a layman’s dedication to the sciences, and I may not know a lot about history, but I do know things. I know literature things (and in comp lit you can call almost any creative project or media item a “text”) so when I talk about this stuff I’m not making things up. I’m not talking out of my ass. I can point to textual evidence for what I’m saying and if I’m talking to you about it it’s because I think you are worthy of investing the time and energy into having a conversation with. When you dismiss my thoughts in any of the aforementioned ways you’re not just ending the conversation for whatever reason (I am still assuming it’s because you feel uncomfortable because you’re out of your depth and don’t like to admit it) you are actually insulting me and ultimately telling me that I was wrong in believing you to be worth of my time and energy. Clearly you don’t want it.

On the other hand, if you just tell me that you want to be done with the conversation, you can expect me to ask you why, but you can also expect me to more or less retain my level of respect for you. Unless of course you go on to be a total douche nozzle about it, in which case you can actually go fuck yourself.

Why has this been on my brain lately? Because I have been having these kinds of conversations lately and, though most of the people I have these conversations with don’t dismiss me as such, it happens frequently enough that I’m super over it. From here on out, people who say these things to me can expect to be extensively questioned about why they feel the need to put an end to the conversation and why they feel the need to go about it in this way. I’ll full on revert to psychology student Tahni and get to analyzing them instead, since they’ve made it so abundantly clear that they think my studies and work in literature are so frivolous.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

In a society which values sameness, being true to you can be heroic.

Those of us who live in western society live in a society which proclaims to value diversity. On the other hand, actions speak louder than words, and in America a look at the representation of minorities in our media says a lot about how much diversity is actually valued: not all that much. People with disabilities are rarely represented in the media, and media depictions of people with mental illnesses are often problematic. We’re only now moving into an era where mainstream media is beginning to approach the stories of the LGBT community with anything even resembling respect, and it wasn’t until the last few years that transgender characters, actors, and other celebrities began to be noticed.

Why is this important? Because the media we consume shapes our perceptions of the world and of what constitutes “normal” and acceptable. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our world and our place in it shape the way we interact with the world, and the way we interact with the world shapes the world. The stories our society tells us about itself shapes our understanding of it—once again it shapes our perceptions, and thus how we go forth into the world; how we see and understand (or look through and misunderstand) each other. That is why it is important to pay attention to the kinds of stories that are being produced and consumed. These stories are a huge part of the production of hegemony—of the ideals which we hold near and dear, of our conceptions of what is good and bad, right and wrong, normal and abnormal, acceptable and deplorable.

Returning to those stats on how minorities are represented in the media (that is, poorly) and taking into consideration how that media can and does—collectively and together with influences from family, peers, school, etc. etc.—shape our world view and by extension our actual world itself, maybe we can see how that media functions to produce and reinforce sameness. Certainly it reveals that we prefer to produce and consume narratives which represent sameness, which do not represent the diversity which we claim to value, at the very least. And as we continue to consume media which shows us only a very limited scope of humanity, we come to accept that this limited scope represents “normal.” This is what we want to see. All else is deviation—and deviation is deviant. All else is “other.” “Other” is bad.*

Of course that is a very extreme outlook on it, and most people won’t start frothing at the mouth at slight deviations from the predictable patterns in popular narratives (though some people do). Nonetheless, that effect is present in our society, and in our media. And that effect can make it very difficult for people who feel they do not fit into this narrow scope of “normal” to be true to themselves. Which is why, though Caitlyn Jenner is not a hero to me personally, I do recognize how Caitlyn Jenner might be a hero to others.
You go, girl.

As a transwoman Caitlyn Jenner belongs to one of those groups which our media so often fails to represent. This is why it is so exciting that she came out as trans—not only is she a public figure, she is renowned and respected. Trans role models** are few and far between in the public sphere, let alone a record setting athlete. Of course this is exciting to people. Of course this is exciting to the LGBT community. Of course people who have been afraid to come out as trans in a society which values sameness in the form of cis heterosexuality would call her a hero. Coming out as trans in our society is not only intimidating but potentially dangerous. (As a cis woman I want to acknowledge that I can’t say I know these things through lived experiences, but through the stories I’ve heard and the reports I’ve read.)

It can be dangerous to be different in a society where sameness is valued over diversity. Which is why I think that being true to yourself in such a society can be heroic. It may not be saving a group of school children from a shooter or going to the aid of a victim of a crime or rescuing people off their roofs during a flood. But there are many, many ways to be a hero. Standing up and showing others who may be afraid to do so that it is not only possible but freeing and good to be true to yourself, especially in the face of hatred and discrimination…why not call that heroic? Why not let people say that Caitlyn Jenner is a hero for doing so?

Let them have their heroes. We all need our own heroes to demonstrate human potential in the face of great difficulty. There’s nothing wrong with that.

*While a lot of people recognize the potentially damaging effects of not having a rounded representation of minorities in the media, it has been contested by others that seeking diversity shouldn't be the point, and some interesting and, I think, valid points have been made on this front. In some ways I agree--seeking diversity shouldn't have to be the point. It would be nice if it would just happen naturally.

**Whether or not Caitlyn Jenner actually wants to be a role model, of course, I have no idea. It seems both unfair to put that burden/assumption on her and also, somewhat uncomfortably, inevitable.