October 21, 2018

The lost children of the X-Files

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 7:40 pm by chavisory

I meant to write this post months ago but in truth I’ve been thinking about it this whole time. (Note: This post should be considered to contain massive spoilers, mainly for seasons 5, 9, 10, and 11.)

I tended to give season 11 of the X-Files higher marks than most other viewers I knew. I found the episodes high-quality, the characterizations of an older Mulder and Scully believable and the chemistry between them still undeniable. Although the author of this post managed to capture in one line, more concisely than anything else I’ve read, why I felt the revival failed to ever quite find its footing in a very changed political climate “when power refuses to go through the motions of concealing its most brutal machinations,” I found the standalone episodes as strong and often stronger than in the original series, and in general felt season 11 struggled less than season 10. But there is one regard in which the season 11 finale left me feeling betrayed and hollow and I’m still struggling a little with it.

And my complaint isn’t with the decision to leave Scully (miraculously) pregnant (again) with a child that she knows for sure is hers and Mulder’s. That is only theirs, together, not the consequence of any experiment or alien intervention, indisputably and without any suspicion otherwise.

Unlike a lot of other fans, I wasn’t particularly turned off by the decision to characterize Jackson as not a very nice or good person, either. I think that choice could’ve provided a lot of opportunity for interesting character development and tension, if Jackson weren’t going to be so terribly shortchanged by the story in virtually every other regard.

It’s that the way the finale dispatched with Jackson was not only abrupt and callous, but illuminated certain troubling trends throughout the series.

Inter-relatedly, I found it a grave mistake and a baffling one on virtually everyone’s part to take at face value CSM’s claim that he was Jackson’s true father. CSM has never been a reliable narrator. Even when telling the truth, he is always seeking his own self-aggrandizement. DNA TESTING EXISTS. There is no reason for Skinner to just believe him because he says this. There is no reason for Scully to just believe this because Skinner says CSM told him so. Scully knows more about reproductive biology than Skinner does and would seek independent verification of this assertion, unless she were to decide, understandably, that she’d rather not know, and in that case, that’s an emotional arc I would wish to see. That Carter himself has apparently decided CSM’s claim to be true, within the dreadfully constrained storytelling time he had available this season, put his characters in the indefensible position of acting not only out of character but out of all consideration for their own history and everything that both they and we know.

It’s a betrayal of too much.

But then, Chris Carter himself has notably not always been a reliable narrator with regard to the truth of his own creations. And that may seem a remarkably arrogant statement from a fan, but consider the span of time during which Carter swore up, down, and sideways that Mulder and Scully would never be together romantically.

beyond the sea

[Yeah, this looks like an entirely normal professional interaction between two people who have worked together for a low single-digit number of months, but sure. Okay.]

Much of the background trajectory of this story has involved Mulder and Scully both devastatingly and relentlessly losing their entire families, beginning with the inciting incident of the whole story arc in the abduction of Samantha. Over the ensuing 25 years, we’re witness to the near-complete decimation of both characters’ families (with the exception of Scully having two living brothers, though I’m not left with the impression that she has much of a relationship left with either of them. Charlie she describes as estranged from the family, and her relationship with Bill seems strained at best the last time we hear from him) and it feels right to me that, at the end of it all, they have this chance to start again. To have a family entirely their own again.

And yet.

On one hand, I appreciate Chris Carter’s determination that the X-Files not turn into a domestic drama, that that was not the kind of show he was interested in making or most of us in watching.

On the other, this story is strewn with abandoned and forgotten children and it doesn’t entirely sit right.

I’m largely leaving aside children who were centrally involved in “monster of the week” cases to draw attention to those who seem to have been created entirely for the sake of advancing the mythology, but little to no further thought given to them as people or even as characters.

1. The Samantha and Kurt* clones. There were a lot of them. And in contrast to Jeremiah Smith’s assertion that they were nothing but drones, we see several of their adult iterations in multiple episodes (“Colony,” “End Game,” “Memento Mori”), and they act not only with consciousness and agency, but with conscience.

(There’s a small detail in “Herrenvolk” which touched me when I caught it while rewatching, which is that somebody, at the house where the cloned worker children live, somebody has—again, despite Jeremiah Smith’s characterization of them as drones without language—bothered to paint labels on objects around the house. The doorbell has clumsily been labeled “bell” in white paint with an arrow. Somebody is or was around who thinks at least slightly more of them than Smith portrays to Mulder.)

herrenvolk2

2. What about the other experimental hybrid children of Emily’s generation? The children, technically, of Penny Northern and the other women abducted and subjected to the same experiments as Scully. Did they all sicken and die in toddlerhood the way Emily did? Maybe, but… the nature of Emily’s illness was bizarre and dangerous in a way that threatened to attract a lot of attention. Is the horrible truth that most or all of them wound up back in the clutches of the Syndicate and the hybridization experiment, the fate that Scully allowed Emily to die to save her from?

3. Where’s Gibson?

I can buy that Gibson’s resentment of Scully’s ultimate failure to protect him might’ve been too much for him. But it has never felt okay that a kid who Scully cared so much about basically fell off the face of the earth to her.

(Edited to add: I got reminded that in the season 9 finale, it turned out that Mulder had been in hiding with Gibson in the Southwest during most of that year, and as both Mulder and Scully go underground, Reyes and Doggett promise to try to keep him safe. But…Reyes apparently shortly wound up in the employ of the CSM. And Doggett…we don’t really hear from again. So my concern for Gibson’s fate being dropped as an issue remains pretty much intact.)

And then there are parallels it’s nearly impossible not to draw between the way that Scully’s dialogue treats Emily and Jackson. That more than once, the children Scully is most apt to describe as “not meant to be” are her own. Who she fights for relentlessly, until the moment she doesn’t, with remarkably similar words.

Although I find myself more sympathetic now for Scully’s decision at the end of “Emily” than I was when the episode first aired. It’s not just that saving Emily would likely be difficult and painful, or that she would always require complicated medical care in order to keep alive. It was that, every moment she remained alive, especially if Scully failed in seeking custody, she risked recapture by the Syndicate and subjugation to God knows what.

Is it the same with Jackson, at the end? That she says these nearly indefensible words not in order to write him off but in an attempt to protect him from further torment? Is this the only way she knows how?

*

It’s hard to reconcile the person who so recently agonized over the autopsies of two children only a couple episodes ago (“Familiar”), one of whom was named Emily (which, if that choice wasn’t calculated to remind us right then of Scully’s other doomed child, was literally the dumbest character naming oversight I have ever seen) with the one who is so ready to give Jackson up as dead and get over him after learning, supposedly, that he was an experiment and not Mulder’s. After 17 years of pining. After the monologue we heard her give to Jackson in “Ghouli.”

It doesn’t add up.

Only, if it were intended to be true to Scully’s character and not simply that Chris Carter needed both Emily and Jackson out of the story, then I begin to see why CSM would even remotely think that upon learning Jackson was his and not Mulder’s, that Scully would go with him and not Mulder.

And I want to be sympathetic that Chris Carter was working with an extremely constrained amount of screen time in these last two seasons, but it still feels like a deeply discordant conclusion for a character who has always, always, been on the side of the vulnerable and especially on the side of threatened children in this story, even when she’s failed.

For a show so thematically occupied with what kind of a future we’re making, it seems to consider the trail of children it’s created remarkably narratively disposable. And I don’t actually believe that is Scully’s belief with regard to Jackson, but the words she’s given to speak make it unsettling close to being indistinguishable from it.

*

The only way I can manage to justify that dialogue is as an attempt by Scully to pre-empt her own grief for a child who she always knew, in the end, she’d never be able to keep. Who she’d already lost twice and mourned as dead once. That she’s just moments ago, “lost” more figuratively in terms of what she thought she knew about his very existence.

That at that moment, she just couldn’t let herself go through it again.

Or that what she’s trying to justify to Mulder is to let Jackson go because he desperately doesn’t want to or can’t cope with being found. (She would, after all, know very shortly or even perhaps already does that Jackson survives.) The Cigarette-Smoking Man is dead, but who else may not be or may still be in pursuit of what Jackson represents is still, in this moment, unknown.

I don’t know about anyone else, but personally, I find support for this interpretation in looking at her face rather than listening to her words in the final scene of “My Struggle IV.”

my struggle iv pic

This isn’t a loss to which she’s reconciled. She knows that this isn’t a happy ending. I don’t believe she believes her own words. These are not people at peace with Jackson’s loss here.

But I don’t believe in my heart that Chris Carter actually did any of that emotional calculus, as opposed to simply needing to exit from the story yet another kid that he doesn’t actually know what to do with. This is not any variety of a resolution as it seems we’re expected to accept; it’s a continuation of the very same ongoing tragedy.

 

*Digressive footnote: Where and who, by the way, is or was the original Kurt Crawford? I realize this is not an issue integral to the story or a “plot hole,” it’s just information we don’t have, but I’ve always wondered. One of the other children of Syndicate members taken with Samantha? Just another abductee like Max Fennig or the women of the MUFON group? We see a lot of him for someone whose very essence of character remains a complete cipher, and he’s a weird, weird foil in that regard to Samantha, whose existence and therefore absence was so very central to the character formation of Fox Mulder and the motivating force for his entire quest. We do see the real Samantha Mulder, if only in flashback and eventually in spirit; we have a sense of who she was, if not her point of view. We never see the real Kurt Crawford. He exists in the narrative not even in flashback but only as an echo, and yet he’s pervasive in it. I’m not sure that’s the case for any other character, and it places him among the very weirdest ghosts in the X-Files to me.

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June 9, 2018

Review of HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 9:57 pm by chavisory

This post should be considered to contain significant spoilers for book, movie, and play versions of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

I reread Fahrenheit 451 last year in the fall, trying in some small way to refresh the sense of courage and urgency of living life in the world that I got from the book when it had first become one of my favorites when I was barely a teenager. It felt important to do as the prospects of very real and not only literary authoritarianism seemed to draw ever closer.

I wondered whether what made it feel so important in my memory held up. It did, and in some surprisingly chilling ways and not only the ones I thought I remembered. So obviously I greeted the announcement earlier this year of HBO’s forthcoming film production of Fahrenheit 451 with a mixture of delight and trepidation.

fahrenheit 451

I wasn’t disappointed by my reread, and I wasn’t disappointed by the newly released movie, though I will say at the outset that the movie departs in some significant ways from the plot of the novel. But on the whole I found it a worthy and important adaptation of the story for our present, and I hazard to say that I think Ray Bradbury would be pleased with it.

Clarisse is the character probably furthest from her characterization in the book, and I enjoyed her adaptation a lot, though it was not what I anticipated at all. She’s both more active in the story and more dangerous than in the book, more morally compromised but better adapted to the world she actually inhabits. She is not the somewhat naïve idealist of the book, but the movie preserves something essentially tender about her and the way that it draws Montag.

It also struck me later that the Clarisse we see in the movie is a character who could plausibly be the future of the Clarisse we know from the novel, after she and her family abruptly disappear from the story. Montag hears a rumor that she may’ve been struck by a car and killed, but we never truly know what happens to her. An earlier stage production has Montag finding her again among the book people, which is also where she winds up, older, in the movie, having long-since lost her parents as a teenager.

The ubiquitous household assistant Yuxie, reminiscent not only of our present-day electronic companions Siri and Alexa but also 2001: A Space Odyssey’s traitorous Hal, serves as an alarmingly timely minor nemesis as I watched the movie during a week in which we first learned of an Echo Dot secretly recording a private conversation without prompting and e-mailing it to a random third party from among its owner’s contacts. It brings to mind the characterizations of Totalitarianism by writers like Hannah Arendt and Timothy Snyder as “not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life.” It isn’t simply that an oppressive government is constantly surveilling all we do or say; it’s that there is no such thing as a private citizen anymore. Everyone is living out their lives on computer screens in full view of all of their neighbors, all the time, driven by the exhortation to “Stay Vivid,” and the offending screens aren’t simply wall to wall installations in every home, but are literally projected across the public square.

“Could he have the Omnis? Stay Vivid to find out,” a disembodied newscaster intones as Montag is pursued by the fire department. All of reality has become a reality show.

I actually laughed out loud at the irony of Beatty’s order “Keep looking for that Omnis!” The Natives are a society utterly reliant on the “Nine,” an amorphous and completely pervasive information stream like a hybrid between our present incarnation of the internet and the Cloud, and yet the authorities don’t conceive that the Omnis may not be a discrete, tangible object.

It’s almost as if the thing they fear the most is the only threat they can imagine. (In the film version of Guy Montag’s world, not only books but virtually all analog media is banned.)

Something the movie does a great deal of that I was glad for is that even where entire characters, tropes, or plot points are omitted or radically altered, a kind of sense memory of the source material is evoked. So while the crime scene horror of the Mechanical Hound is replaced by a device used as summary punishment that obliterates a victim’s fingerprints, Beatty at one point says to Montag, “You’re still the same dog I raised, barking at someone else’s command.” Clifford’s barn of books recalls an image that occurs only in Montag’s own fantasies late in the novel. The book-memorizing collective isn’t a band of railroad-traveling hobos as they are in the novel, but we get a lovely little scene of Clarisse teaching Montag to play the harmonica. The seashell in-ear radios aren’t a thing in the film (the invasive nature of technology in this world having advanced far beyond earbuds), but the climax turns on Montag’s theft of a tiny radio transponder that fulfills the story trajectory in a slightly different manner. It’s a pattern that suffuses the film with a sense of deep respect and affection for Bradbury’s original text, and made me feel like I was seeing an alternate refraction of the story rather than a betrayal of the spirit of the book.

Probably the omission that I regretted the most was that of Faber, although to an extent, the functions of his paranoia and desperate optimism are preserved in Clarisse in this version of the story.

I’m still struggling with how I feel about a scene, not present in the book, in which the book people test Montag’s commitment by demanding he kill a hooded captive who they say is a captured fellow fireman. He’s stopped the instant before he does it in a tableau inescapably resonant of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, but clearly recalls the moment only slightly later when he does actually kill a former colleague, although this time in actual self-preservation. Days later I’m still not sure how I feel about it, and I’m not totally sure we’re supposed to be, rather than asking some difficult questions about how far we would be willing to go in pursuit of what we believe, versus when the lengths to which we’re willing to go become betrayal of that which we claim to defend, and under what circumstances those actions may be justified.

The original book-burners of this story, after all, as Beatty relates, were trying to protect safety and happiness for all. When they determined they had a right to impose their versions of those goals at any and all costs, including the emotional autonomy of fellow citizens, they became the psychic violence they claimed to abhor. The regime of censorship wasn’t ushered in by predictable bad guys, but by people with good intentions, claiming to act on behalf of the vulnerable.

I feel remiss not to delve more deeply into Michael B. Jordan’s acting, but the truth is that he disappears so completely into a relatable, melancholy execution of Guy Montag, who is not the natural-born social media hero he sometimes pretends to be even to himself, but an understated, haunted everyman often making clumsy decisions about whether he can remain complicit with what he’s finding out about the world, that I’m not quite sure what else to say. If you enjoyed him in Black Panther, this role is definitely a demonstration of his emotional versatility. He also served as an executive producer on the film and I’m excited to see what kind of material he might take on next.

March 30, 2018

Things I never knew I desperately needed there to be a movie about until now

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 9:49 am by chavisory

This is just a short list of things that have been blowing my mind lately.  I cannot believe we never learned about some of this stuff in school…

1. The fascinating life of King Michael of Norway.

2. In a Twitter conversation about ASL and The Shape of Water, I learned there were secret/underground Deaf clubs in the 1960’s.

3. The heavily female workforce of the early days of Atari.  (Well, I can believe we never learned this in school.)

4. The completely bonkers story of the making of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.  (And this, I guess, though I did take a history of Rock and Roll class in college.)

5. Lost submarines considered to be “Still On Patrol.”

March 11, 2018

The Shape of Love: Cupid and Psyche and other considerations of monstrosity in “The Shape of Water”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:35 pm by chavisory

The truth is that I wasn’t going to write about the Shape of Water at all. I wasn’t going to see the Shape of Water at all.

The truth is that I can still sometimes fall prey to the mental trap of feeling compelled to avoid engagement with a work, either out of fear that it cannot possibly live up to an artist’s beloved earlier work (which in terms of Guillermo del Toro’s work is Pan’s Labyrinth for me), to preemptively protect myself from disappointment or out of fear that it will be too good, too fraught, will touch me too closely in ways I don’t know how to handle or will set off a new obsession that I don’t have time for.

Also, frankly, movie tickets are $16.50 here.

But then something happened, which was that, similarly to when it became apparent that I needed to see Mad Max: Fury Road, despite it not really being my genre at all, just because it was making MRA’s so mad that I had to see what it was about, I was starting to see a particularly enraging bit of criticism crop up on social media, even well before the movie’s release:

That it was just awful that the protagonist of the Shape of Water would be a woman who was “literally silent.”

Because it was evidently unimaginable that women with communication disabilities…exist?  Or count as women?  Or should get stories. Let alone be heroines. I saw the movie with a friend from work and we practiced our ASL while we waited through the commercials.

Prepared to defend the film against further charges that portrayal of a non-speaking woman constituted irredeemable misogyny (it’s a topic well beyond the scope of this post, but mainstream feminism has something of a troubled history when it comes to its regard of disabled women), I was honestly unprepared for the heatedness of some of the condemnations that have subsequently emerged from the disability community itself for yet other reasons.

“I found that really unfortunate because it sort of reproduces the stereotype that non-verbal people can’t express themselves in a way that’s actually comfortable or natural for them. And then also it reproduces the stereotype that disability is like a cage,” says Aimee Louw in an article at CBC Radio.

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry writes, “I wanted to feel included in the human world. Instead, the film reinforced the narrative that I belong below the surface, to be put on display when it suits the narrative.”

I just hadn’t felt that way at all.

It’s not common to see a non-speaking woman as a protagonist with control over her own life, with work, with friends, with sexual agency, in a blockbuster movie, or anywhere, really. It was nice. I loved that her power, her worth, her fulfillment as a character, weren’t made to be dependent on her “finding her voice,” as someone for whom speech did not come easily and never will and who has often felt, especially as a child, that people wanted my speech more than they really wanted almost anything else about me. I don’t really look to movies to be “empowering,” but I found it a resonant, meaningful experience, personally, as well as beautifully designed. It’s also one of very few films that very explicitly centers women’s strength and relationships that I didn’t find myself intensely alienated by.

People can, of course, have sincerely different interpretations of a work, but I was curious about the sheer intensity of the disconnect between the way I felt about it and the way that other viewers have.

One of the first things I wondered was whether there was simply a generational difference at play. Guillermo del Toro, after all, is closer to my father’s age than my own or most of my peers who are likely to see the movie. Whether it was possible that disabled and autistic people, or even just those who felt intensely different, who grew up in a different time, who might’ve been far less likely to be diagnosed or identified with a distinct label at all, might be more likely to identify with fairy tales or story book monsters than people who grew up with an available narrative of disability, even if it wasn’t a particularly good one, to work with or push back against.

Whereas many of us who didn’t have those explanations available at all, filled in the blanks in our minds in some interesting ways, including various iterations of not feeling completely human. (I distinctly remember identifying most with the dragon in a beautifully illustrated version of “Saint George and the Dragon” that was read to me as a small child.)

While I don’t ultimately think that age of viewership presents a consistent factor in interpretation or opinion of the film—I didn’t conduct a formal poll, but in asking and looking around a bit, I did encounter people both older and younger than me who loved it, and people with both more readily identifiable disabilities and those that are often called “invisible” who hated it—I did find something curious to me as I started thinking about the Shape of Water in relation to the work of other authors I know and love who write roughly in the genre of adapted fairy tale or who adopt the frameworks of fairy tales or fables.

Guillermo del Toro was born in 1964.

Neil Gaiman (author of so many things, but I think most relevantly for purposes of comparison here, The Ocean at the End of the Lane) was born in 1960.

Keith Donohue (author of The Stolen Child, Angels of Destruction, The Boy Who Drew Monsters, The Motion of Puppets) was born in 1959.

Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked; Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister; Mirror Mirror; and After Alice, among others) was born in 1954.

That is, tales like this seem to me to be being told particularly by men of a certain generation, frequently involving girls and women in central roles in somewhat magical circumstances, and including girls and women with disabilities at a non-trivial rate, possibly to navigate experiences involving vulnerability, social marginalization, perhaps issues of gender and sexuality, that could not be openly articulated or acknowledged in a certain time and place. So my first conjecture is that the Shape of Water resides well within a storytelling tradition of using fairy tale and fantasy to navigate experiences of outsider-hood, vulnerability, and difference.

(And yes, I am interested at the absence of women from that author list of mine. I don’t know whether women of that generation weren’t writing nearly as much in that genre, or whether they simply haven’t come to my attention. It certainly isn’t that there’s a general lack of female authors in my reading list in general, so I’m curious.)

And while it is not a mode of narrative that everyone has to, or does, like or identify with, I find myself failing to feel that it is categorically demeaning or objectifying of disabled people, rather than a fairly common expression of emotional experiences of many of what it is to feel oneself othered or devalued by dominant social strictures regarding who is acceptable. Who is fully human. What is normal.

“It was not considered normal,” del Toro has said regarding his childhood pre-occupation with monsters. “At one point I was taken to a psychologist, who gave me a bunch of clay and said make something. I made a skeleton. I don’t think I passed that test.”

Ultimately, these stories can help give us a vocabulary with which to hijack and undermine those strictures.

*

There are ways in which identification with the monstrous can be protective, defiant, or represent a stand for personal integrity. “FINE, then I’ll BE A MONSTER,” if I will always be a monster to you anyway, or a broken, failed attempt at what your conception of human is, it seems to me creators who align their heroes with the monstrous are saying. “Maybe I am what you say I am. And would that actually be so bad?”

As I had this some of this discussion on Twitter, I was also reminded of Huck Finn’s declaration in the musical adaption of his story, Big River. “ALRIGHT, I’ll GO TO HELL,” he screams as he decides to do what is actually the right and redeeming thing, though not in the view of his society. “I’ll take up wickedness again, which is my line, being brought up to it. And for starters, I’ll steal Jim out of slavery again. And if I can think of something worse, I’ll do that, too.”

If what society considers good is to return a man to slavery, and to attempt to forestall that event is wicked, then I will not be good, says Huck.

If it is human to countenance the torture and destruction of a sentient, complex being for human political convenience, then we are called on not to identify with that characterization of what it is to be human, or with what those who uphold those power structures tell us is human.

“If this is wrong, then I don’t want to be right,” these characters declare. If it’s wrong to be embodied differently, to communicate differently, to love differently. If it’s wrong to empathize beyond the bounds of who your society says is a person worthy of it. If it’s wrong to value the freedom and dignity of those unlike yourself.

If the way that characters like Strickland say is the only right way to be human…

Then you can take your “humanity” and shove it.

*

Though much has been said about Elisa’s monologue in ASL to Giles about her conviction that they must rescue the Amphibian Man, just as revealing of the film’s theme, I believe, is a line spoken by Strickland:

“You may think that thing looks human — stands on two legs — but we’re created in the Lord’s image. And you don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?”

…which makes explicit the tension between god, monster, and human present in most stories derived from the myth of Cupid and Psyche, of which the Shape of Water is one (as well as “Beauty and the Beast” tales, and, I’d be willing to make a strong argument, Shrek.) That the plot of the Shape of Water is so resonant with the Cupid and Psyche tale is very informative of how both Elisa and the Amphibian Man are positioned in the story.

The Cupid and Psyche story has been important to me since I first read it, and I’m not even sure I could fully articulate why.

(The name of Giles’s ill-fated cat, Pandora, also points us gently in the direction of making associations with Greek mythology.)

In the myth, after the human princess Psyche is called more beautiful than Venus, Venus decrees Psyche be punished for the supposed crime of arrogantly imagining herself above her station by being induced to fall in love with “some low, mean, unworthy being.” (Cupid, of course, takes pity and wounds himself instead of Psyche, causing himself to fall in love with her.) To appease the gods, her parents prepare to sacrifice Psyche on a mountaintop, imagining her fated husband to be “a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”

The monster, however, turns out to be a god. Cupid, the god of Love himself.

Jealous, Psyche’s sisters insist that her unseen husband is in fact a terrible monster who intends, eventually, to devour her, and persuade her to betray his trust and view his true form by lamplight. In commanding the heroine’s loyalty to the realm of the “human,” these characters are also attempting to enforce their own value judgments about what constitutes personhood, as Gaston and the townspeople do in the animated version of Beauty and the Beast most of us are probably familiar with, as Beauty’s sisters impel her to do in other incarnations of the tale (while Belle in the Disney version was the only daughter of an eccentric tinkerer, in older versions of the story, she is the third daughter of a prosperous merchant), as Giles briefly does when he tries to discourage Elisa from her determination to save the Amphibian Man, declaring “he’s not even human.”

In resisting or rejecting those commands (which Psyche initially does not, to her own suffering), the heroine rejects the antagonist’s values and those of a repressive, unjust society.

In repeatedly calling her a “princess” in his own retelling, Giles identifies her with Psyche, Beauty, and other women of royalty and status who usually fulfill this role in the Cupid and Psyche tale. Del Toro, too, is making a statement by paralleling a frightful (even if god-like, and in his way, beneficent) amphibian creature with Love, and a scarred, disabled, lowly-regarded and awkward woman with Beauty.

Love is not only for the pretty, typically abled, socially valued, or heterosexual. Beauty is not only what the convention of the majority considers desirable.

As Psyche is given ambrosia to drink and becomes immortal herself at the conclusion of her trials, Elisa is transformed into the same kind of being as the Amphibian Man—a god. Whereas most of society’s preferred disability narrative is that we become more fully human in becoming less disabled (or at least trying to look like it), Elisa doesn’t do that. She becomes more wholly herself in becoming more, not less, of what conventional human society deems broken or undesirable about her.

*

I also didn’t find The Shape of Water particularly off-putting from a disability perspective for other reasons.

Primarily, the problem of the story isn’t Elisa’s disability, or the Amphibian Man’s monstrosity. Just like it isn’t Giles’s gayness or Zelda’s blackness, though we see the cruelty and injustice that both are subjected to for those characteristics. That these two characters are the people most closely allied with the romantic duo is not an accident or coincidence.

The problem is society’s relegation of people like them to less than wholly human status. The problem is the unchallenged ability of elements like Strickland within that society to exercise authoritarian, even deadly, control over the bodies, the freedom, the fates, of those whose being they deem inferior or abominable.

That, the movie says, is wrong. And that is a concept that powerful factions of our society still struggle with or reject entirely.

Another prominent criticism centers on Elisa’s dream sequence in which she sings, imagining herself the star of a movie musical, as unrealistic or portraying disability itself as a cage from which she can only wish to be free. I did cringe during this segment of the movie, not because I felt that way about it, but because I knew that it would elicit a great deal of the kind of condemnation which it did. Though I experienced it not that way at all, but rather as a variety of fantasy very familiar to my own experience, that things would be better if it were easier to say what I wanted. If I were graceful in a way that I’m not. Is it overused? Yes. Is it an experience that I’m remotely interested in making unspeakable? No. We have a right to full range of human emotional experiences, including wishful thinking and politically imperfect personal fantasies. I won’t denigrate the way that anyone else felt about this sequence.  It was difficult to watch.  But we also have a right to ambivalence.

But there’s an argument to be made that when Elisa dreams herself in the movie scene, what she’s really wishing for is not to be speaking, or non-disabled, but to experience herself in the same kinds of romantic situations that fill the movies she herself so loves. And again, the reason she cannot have that in the world she actually lives in is not the fault of her disability, but of the ways in which her society isolates and makes invisible people like her. (Where are other humans of her “own kind” in her world in this time and place? Well, a lot of them are institutionalized.)

“You don’t have to be marginalized in some way to be swept up in its beauty and romance,” Sarah Kurchak writes of the movie in her review. “But if you happen to have had a long-term unrequited relationship with the cinema, there’s a certain joyful rush that comes from having the object of your affections finally turn around and notice that you’ve been there all along.”  And in Elisa herself, that is what del Toro has given to many of us.

Not only in that Elisa Esposito, the character, is disabled. Sally Hawkins is weird-looking. She isn’t conventionally pretty. She isn’t what most people probably expect a leading lady to look like. (For the same reasons, I’ve enjoyed watching Eddie Redmayne’s career ascension to leading man. How often do we see men who look like him portrayed as romantic heroes?  Not that his movies have always been un-problematic, but I do think that’s important.) And as someone who never will meet mainstream expectations of feminine beauty, I appreciated it.

*

While I am by far not the first to observe this, I find myself compelled to agree that any consideration of del Toro’s storytelling is incomplete without attention to his Catholicism.

Del Toro himself says, “Catholicism is a big influence. For me, it cemented virtue and pain in a single emotion — that in order to achieve goodness you have to suffer. Of course, it is also a faith full of ghosts and gore and gargoyles… And the side effect was, I ended up thinking that monsters are sort of the patron saints of imperfection. I try to celebrate imperfection in my movies; the really scary characters are always the ones who insist everything has to be perfect.”

Christianity (at its best) and Christ himself concern themselves with the dignity and value of the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the powerless. Those, fittingly, who are the heroes of this film.

Of course the Church has often, and spectacularly, failed to uphold those very values. Throughout its history it has often been all too ready to protect the privileged and powerful at the expense of its avowed duties to the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the weak. The portrayal of Strickland’s superficially picture-perfect family life—nuclear, hetero-normative, male-headed and religiously-sanctioned, yet also harboring deep pathologies and abuses of power—juxtaposed with the more genuine, equal, yet highly stigmatized and legally unprotected intimacies of both sexual love and friendship between the four main protagonists, is intended to draw attention to this very hypocrisy.

The difference between the Church’s promises, and some of its realities, is what’s on display in Strickland’s family unit.

And of course the parallel with Christ in the trope of resurrection of the wounded god is unavoidable; Amphibian Man and Elisa both die for the sins of a less understanding and compassionate world. The sin, that which separates us from divinity (from full humanity, from existing in the image of God), is cruelty towards that which we fear or seek to control. Not embodied difference, not disability, not imperfection. Not wish fulfillment fantasies or loving that which society considers strange or unacceptable.

 

Just another brief note on del Toro’s body of work in general: I haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth in a long time, but I did wind up re-watching the trailer this week, and it becomes apparent to me that the theme of “princess reborn from a secret magical land” (underground in Pan’s Labyrinth, underwater in The Shape of Water) occupies a larger place in the world of his filmography than I can probably address solely with regard to the Shape of Water.

I don’t think I know yet what it means in his personal mythology; I don’t know enough to know whether I like it or not. But it definitely is a larger trope in his work in which he has involved both a disabled and a non-disabled female protagonist, so I am very hesitant to try to discern any statement about his views of the proper place of disabled people in society from its occurrence in the Shape of Water.

Likewise, Elisa’s disability is not the problem solved by her death and resurrection. Elisa, like Ofelia, the heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth, dies in the act of attempting to protect another from authoritarian violence. She dies not because of what she is but because somebody kills her. Somebody who could not tolerate the challenge that her innate strength and her allegiance to her own conscience posed to his power and presumption of righteousness. Not because people like her simply don’t belong in the world. That’s the viewpoint of the film’s unambiguous villain.

*

Far from leading me to feel unwanted in the world, I believe Del Toro has woven together elements from a tradition in fiction of women and girls as capable protagonists in fairy tale settings, myth, and a Christianity populated by the weird and wonderful to tell a story that openly repudiates the values of those who would say that certain kinds of people don’t belong in the world.

Ultimately, however, I do very much want to see a far broader range of types of roles and stories unquestionably open to disabled characters and performers alike. What I do not want to see is for us to renounce traditions of storytelling in which those of us who find ourselves alienated again and again by the stories that society tries to tell us about ourselves, who cannot use that language, have been able to find another one in the realms of the numinous. In which we can find a certain freedom in embracing and finding power in what society says is our brokenness or monstrousness. In saying “Maybe I am.”

“I think what we need,” comments Kit Mead, “is, shockingly enough, a range of disability stories and representation…. like…. ones that show the otherness we feel, and ones that don’t, and ones that are somewhere in between.”

I want us all to expand the repertoire of stories that we know how to tell about disabled and marginalized experience, not constrict our ability to tell ones like this. An emotional and metaphoric landscape with as rich a history and as luminous with possibility as fairy tale is not one I’m willing to give up.

October 5, 2017

Invisible history

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 2:00 pm by chavisory

I started watching Westworld last week. In a scene in the first episode, one of the android characters, a “host” in the immersive Wild West-themed amusement park, has found a photograph in his field, discarded by a guest, depicting a woman in modern clothing standing in Times Square at night. Disturbed and confused, he shows it to his daughter, Dolores, but she’s not similarly affected (at least, not yet).

Lacking any possible context or way to make sense of what she sees, she can only say over and over again, “It doesn’t look like anything to me.”

She can’t process the possible existence of a whole reality that she has no framework at all in which to understand.

 

With the premieres recently of both Atypical and The Good Doctor, I was having a conversation about fictional representation of autistic characters–what we wish we saw more of, what we find intolerable.

And one of the things I have managed to put my finger on that unsettles me consistently, that leaves me unable to connect with a lot of the portrayals I see, is the tendency for autistic adults or near-adults to be portrayed as baffled, bumbling, almost complete naïfs about the non-autistic social world and its expectations and the realities of how things work.

As if, at the age of 18 or even older, they walked out their front door and encountered an overwhelming and often hostile world for the first time yesterday.

When, in reality, and unless we have been terribly, inappropriately isolated or sheltered (though often even then, often especially then), we’re actually well-acquainted with the fact of a world that doesn’t work terribly well for us, and we’ve been navigating it for a long time.

We aren’t dropped into our world for the first time in the opening teaser of a television episode.

A lot of writers and actors seem to be able to get their heads around what autism basically is, in terms of language, sensory, and social communication difficulties. But then it’s as if they don’t know, or can’t extrapolate to, the full range of experiences that autistic people actually live. That things have happened to us, and things have happened in certain ways for us all our lives, and those things have had consequences for who we become and who we are.

So, for instance, by the time we’re adults, we have made a lot of social mistakes and had to deal with the fallout.

We’ve often had to be responsible for ourselves in ways that other people our age haven’t, because adults haven’t been reliable sources of support. We’ve had to teach ourselves things that everyone else seems to just know.

We’ve had to be careful in ways that other people don’t and problem-solve for ourselves in ways most people haven’t.

We have to know things that most people don’t about navigating the non-autistic world. And we know more about what we don’t know than most people even realize there is to know.

We have to anticipate being mistreated or misunderstood almost constantly.

We have dealt with a lot of abuse, ostracism, isolation, loneliness, being disbelieved about our experiences and perceptions, and violation of our autonomy.

We’ve had to work harder to not just fall through the cracks of the world. We’ve also experienced uniquely intense beauty and joy, as well as many of the common experiences and challenges of growing up that most adolescents and young adults experience.

All of those things have impacts, besides that people learn and grow and are affected by their histories as they age. People become competent at dealing with the circumstances of their own lives.

 

And without that grounding in personal history, you’re left trying to construct a character’s personality around a diagnostic checklist, and you wind up with characters who are basically walking autism in some kind of imaginary pure state—without patterns of experience, without memory, resilience, or emotional connective tissue—who therefore have the social navigation skills of 6-year-olds no matter how long they’ve supposedly actually lived on this earth.

 

The more I thought about it, the more I started to suspect that this is actually what people are talking about when they say things like “But you don’t seem autistic.”

It’s not just that we don’t behave like children or that we don’t have the same “kind” of autism as a character they’re familiar with or don’t seem to occupy the same place on the spectrum as their own or someone else’s child.

It’s that the autistic characters they are used to seeing have no depth of experience.

They are people without history.

A growing number of people know children diagnosed with autism. But autistic adults are still overwhelmingly likely to be undiagnosed, or closeted, or both—if they’re not isolated from their communities in group homes or institutions or segregated workplaces, and many still are. So many people don’t really know autistic adults, or at least don’t know that they do. Their knowledge base of autistic people is still being drawn from children, or from fictional representations based on clinical knowledge of children.

And that leaves the reality of our life experiences, both positive and negative, and their impact kind of invisible. So if autistic people change or grow as people, or pick up skills we weren’t expected to, it must be because we overcame or outgrew autism, or “must be very high-functioning” in the first place…and not because we are capable of learning from our own experiences and the demands of our environment.

I speculated once (apparently in a comment now lost to the depths of the internet, sorry) that the myth of autism as developmental stagnation or eternal childhood, and a lot of “not like my child” rhetoric directed at autistic adults, stems largely from this inscrutability of what the passage from childhood to adulthood looks like for autistic people.

“They’re taught to overlook our humanity, and a lot of what happens to us is hidden from them,” writes Rabbi Ruti Regan.

Most people just don’t have a framework of knowledge about the substance of our lived experience.

So it doesn’t look like anything.

 

A lot of the time, when autistic people complain that autistic characters are unrealistic, it’s presumed to be an issue of a character not representing the traits or experiences of a certain faction of the autistic community, and we get responses like “But one character can never represent all autistic people.”

But that isn’t the problem. It’s not that they’re not exactly like ourselves; it’s that they have no depth or complexity because they have no lived experience, because their creators didn’t know how to give them one.

Well-meaning non-autistic people frequently protest that “You aren’t only autism!” but it usually isn’t we who seem to think that we are only autism and not an intricate amalgam of our innate character traits, our strengths and weaknesses, our personal histories, our thoughts and desires and fears and embodied experiences of the world.

And yes, autism pervades all of that. But it doesn’t comprise our personalities in a vacuum.

Just because we’re new to many non-autistic people’s conception of the world, doesn’t mean we’re actually new to the world. We have histories, and we are affected, like all people, by those histories.

September 12, 2017

Disappointment

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 9:37 pm by chavisory

A friend of mine not long ago strongly recommended the television show True Detective to me (and I’d acquired HBONow recently for purposes of playing Game of Thrones catch-up), and that is how I came to be watching it one evening last week, as it happened, right when I learned from Twitter that Matthew McConaughey had partnered with Autism Speaks and Kiehl’s on a new autism awareness campaign.

It was an especially bitter moment of irony, but sadly not an unfamiliar one.

One of the hard things about learning to let yourself love things unreservedly again when you’ve quashed that instinct in yourself for much of your life—beyond the fear that it’ll be too much, that an obsession will consume you in a way you can’t sustain, that it’ll be off-putting to other people if you let it show, or that you’ll burn out your capacity for that kind of love—is that, with a not-insignificant frequency, an artist you really, really like and respect turns out to think people like you shouldn’t really be here.

It’s a difficult risk to contend with, when you’ve only just relatively recently learned to let go and let yourself fall in love again after so long, that every now and then, you’re going to be really into something or really intensely identify with a body of work (when that’s kind of a rare experience for us to begin with), and then wake up one morning to find that that creator thinks the world would be better off without you.

It makes it hard to let yourself enjoy something wholeheartedly, when you know you have to guard your heart against this possibility.

It affects what and how much I can let a thing mean to me once I know.

And it most definitely negatively affects my willingness to pay to see that artist’s work in the future.

Even beyond the fact of channeling huge amounts of money to an organization that’s been pretty useless at best and actively dangerous, at worst, to the very community it claims to speak for, this is the harm that it does to us, individually. We’re people built for overwhelming, obsessive joy, but it’s vulnerable to put yourself at the mercy of that passion and then have your trust in it smashed like that every now and then.

Maybe it seems like a small thing, comparatively, held up against all the things we struggle with. But it happens over and over and over again, and it takes a psychic toll over time. When you always have to be a little bit paranoid that this is how your enjoyment will be answered.

I don’t expect artists to be perfect people with wholly unproblematic views any more than I expect that from anyone else, and it’s not that I think autistic people uniquely should (or, realistically, could) be shielded from disappointment by public figures and celebrities, or that basically decent people can’t sincerely have different opinions about ethical matters. But, man…I really wish that more of them would do their research and search their own hearts and maybe, maybe, not put us in this position so damn often when choosing causes or charities to conspicuously support.

That’s all.

September 4, 2017

Fix your hearts or die

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 8:39 pm by chavisory

This post contains SPOILERS for episode 18 of Twin Peaks: The Return.

It occurred to me, as I was looking for a RedBubble artist who might put this motto on a t-shirt or sticker for me, that, to the extent that this show could be said to have a thesis or a moral in any coherent sense, this might well be it.

“Fix your hearts or die,” we’re initially told is what FBI Director Gordon Cole said to his skeptical colleagues upon Agent Denise Bryson’s decision to live openly as a transgender woman, but throughout this season of Twin Peaks:  The Return, we see this warning play out in the lives of other characters and in the world of Twin Peaks as a whole.

Nadine fixed her heart, deciding she was capable of finding joy apart from maintaining her control of Ed and giving Ed and Norma their freedom to pursue true happiness together.

Ben Horne has fixed his heart.  We last see him at the end of season 2 bemoaning that he’s only ever wanted to do good, to be good, and at long last he seems to have mostly figured it out, though it clearly hasn’t been an easy endeavor for him.

Bobby Briggs has fixed his heart.  We’ve seen him capable of such impulsive malevolence and recklessness in his younger days, and such goodness, joy, competence, and responsibility more recently.  Bobby has individually embodied many of the dualities of Twin Peaks that most of its characters seem to sit on one side or the other of.  It hasn’t been easy on him, either.  He knows what it is to do both good and evil, more than maybe any other character in this world.

Whereas many of the characters who’ve met nasty ends, or seem to be hurtling towards them, or who cause the destruction of others, are those who would not fix their hearts.  Steven.  Richard.  Ray.  The “truck you” guy.

Becky is learning, maybe, that you can’t fix the hearts of others.  Only your own.

We can’t undo the catastrophic vulnerability, the moral damage to the fabric of the world itself done by something like the advent of the atomic bomb.  But we can work to fix the corruption of our own hearts, the juxtaposition of the overwhelming scale of the sin of Trinity and Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the more pedestrian struggles of the characters to make their own lives bearable seems to say.  We can’t always help what happens to us, what is done to us, but we have a choice about whether to follow that darkness into the future.

Will Sarah Palmer be able to fix her broken heart, or will the darkness we saw behind her face consume her totally?  Is there damage to the human heart that can’t be fixed?

I wrote a lot of this before I watched last night’s two-part finale–and as I watched Cooper find Laura in the forest and take her hand, I felt not relief or hope, but a mounting dread.  It mounted as Coop and Diane drove over the dimensional border, down that dark highway, and into Odessa.  This wasn’t Bad Cooper, but previously, I think we’ve only seen Bad Cooper driving into darkness this way.

dark road

He was choosing wrong.  Everything about the recurring visual language here tells us that Coop is making a horrible mistake, even in his determination to do good.  He’s trying to undo what has been done, to turn back the consequences of undeniable evil, rather than to carry those lessons into the future.

I do think it’s interesting that I’ve felt differently about other stories involving timeline revision before, and I don’t know what to say exactly other than that the worlds of Doctor Who and Twin Peaks are not the same and don’t work in exactly the same way.  Amy’s story isn’t Laura’s, Audrey’s, or Cooper’s.  In this one, a timeline can only be healed by reckoning fully with grief and guilt.  And the characters we’ve seen turn out for the better are the ones–notably Bobby–who have done that within their own stories.

Looking back, appropriately enough, it was Bobby who back in the very first season took the entire town of Twin Peaks to task at Laura’s funeral for its denizens’ complicity in her death, for refusing to acknowledge what was going on in front of their eyes all along.  “Everybody knew she was in trouble, but we didn’t do anything.  All you good people.  You want to know who killed Laura?  We all did.”

Laura can’t simply not die, and everyone involved not have to fix their hearts.

(Furthermore, if the events of seasons 1 and 2 catalyzed by Laura’s death didn’t play out, then BOB is still loose in the world, not banished back to the Black Lodge.)

We cannot go back on what we’ve done without compounding destruction and chaos.  Only forward, if we dare to fix our hearts.

January 26, 2017

Distraction

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 2:16 am by chavisory

In the aftermath of Mike Pence’s attendance of Hamilton at which the cast delivered a harsh but courteous address to him personally, Trump unleashed a series of tweets bemoaning that the theater should be a “safe and special place” that attracted a storm of media and social networking attention.

The same week, Trump settled the fraud case against Trump University for $25 million.

“It’s just a distraction!” people yelled about the Hamilton debacle.

And though it may have been intended that way, the then president-elect’s tweets actually conveyed an entirely real message about how he views the proper role of the performing arts, free speech, and dissent in American society, and it was not benign or trivial at all.

On the day that we celebrated the collapse of Republican efforts to undermine the Office of Congressional Ethics, Merrick Garland’s chances of being confirmed to the Supreme Court were rapidly running out, and, lacking any evidence whatsoever that those events were connected or that the attempt to hobble the OCE was anything but a rushed, arrogant, disorganized power play, I saw another Facebook denizen declare:

“I knew it!  This was just planned to distract us.”

(Never mind that Merrick Garland’s nomination had languished for most of a year; it was not news.  It was not unexpected at all that it was going to expire without action from Congress.)

A few Republican legislators dared to rebuke Trump for his tweets mocking John Lewis; I note this is an interesting piece of information regarding who in the GOP might be more willing to openly oppose him on other matters.  I’m told “pay attention if you want, but know that it’s just a distraction.”

 

I’m just gonna throw this out there:

There are a lot of bad things happening all at once right now. Some of them are really big deals and some of them are less so. That doesn’t necessarily make any one of them a “distraction” from any of the others.

We’re also going to have things go right, and just because something goes right in the midst of other things going wrong, doesn’t make it a distraction.

We might not be able to control very much right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t meaningfully influence outcomes, and when we manage to do that, even if our victory was relatively minor in scale, does not make it a distraction. It makes it a lesson in what we did right and how much further we should reach.

Seizing on the issues that we can influence strongly and immediately does not mean that we were “distracted” from something that meant more. Sometimes that may be true, but it’s not just automatically true that if we saw a chance and took it, that we were “distracted.”

There’s no shortage of things that need doing right now.  There’s no shortage of things that need attention.  Very few of them are inconsequential. Sometimes we’re going to benefit from unity of purpose and sometimes from diversity. I’m not saying not to be conscious of how we’re using energy, but just because something isn’t everything, doesn’t make it nothing.

That bad things will keep happening doesn’t make good ones not count.

 

One of the ironies is just how distracted they really are.

Trump is not on the same page with his Secretary of Defense about the value and legacy of NATO.

Trump is not on the same page with his Republican congress about the actual content of the ACA’s supposed eventual replacement.

The Republican congress was not on the same page with Trump or their constituents about the OCE.

Trump has to have his television time restricted like an impulsive child.

Trump is distracted by the hijinks of National Parks Service employees on Twitter.

Trump is distracted by dissent over the size of his fandom.

Trump is upset that protests and marches have disturbed his ability to “enjoy” the White House in the way he feels he should be able to.

We are not distracted.  There are 63 million of us and one of him.  Our resulting ability to pay attention to more than one bad thing at a time is not distraction.

Let’s not give undue time or energy to Twitter drama, but the fact that there are people paying attention to the content and implications of what he says directly to the American public on a media platform used by millions, is not distraction.

There was a time not that long ago at all when I thought that he was frighteningly good at derailment and distraction, but I’m not so sure of that anymore.

He is distracted.

I say keep him that way.

 

February 10, 2016

When did ‘The X-Files’ get this cool?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 2:01 pm by chavisory

This is a screen capture of the top headlines from the New York Times Television section one day last month.

The_New_York_Times_-_Breaking_News__World_News___Multimedia

[Image description: Under the section heading “Television” on the New York Times online home page, featured headlines are “How Well Do You Know Your ‘X-Files’ Monsters?” “The X-Files Season 10 Premiere: A Crazier Mulder Than Usual,” and “A Word With: William B. Davis: The Cigarette Smoking Man of The X-Files Resurfaces.” Accompanying photograph is of actor Doug Hutchison as Eugene Victor Tooms, with glowing yellow eyes.]

It is a little bit hard to get words around my bafflement at this state of affairs. People are gushing with happiness all over my Facebook news feed. People who I never knew previously were huge X-Files fans. People who I don’t remember as being similarly obsessed when the show was last on the air.  (Some people who I just didn’t know yet, and I’m thankful that I do now, and not only for the purposes of squealing about The X-Files.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy about this. That I can flail about The X-Files pretty visibly these days; everyone else is, too.  Maybe it just seems that way.

That somehow, between when I was 11, or 21, and now, it’s become perfectly acceptable, if not normal, to be openly obsessed with The X-Files.

It’s a weird thing to feel a little betrayed and befuddled over.

When I was a kid, when I was in college even, and got on about The X-Files, other people tended to get quiet and move away. People who had professed their mutual love of it just moments before. My adoration of this show was mostly something vaguely embarrassing, tolerated, indulged. Over the years I had a couple of friends who shared my interest to a limited extent…I was really excited when I met one other girl at camp who was into it, too. But we didn’t get close.  For a short span of time, I had the AOL message boards, but I was too young to have really great conversations there…and then AOL itself became more grief than it was worth, and I didn’t anymore.

A lot of teenagers would say they liked it, but then would shy away from actually talking about it. Were they saying they did just to make small talk? To placate me? Because that was the thing to do, when someone said they liked something, was to say you liked it, too, regardless of how clueless you actually were, because to admit you didn’t understand something that someone else did was the cardinal sin? (That would explain a lot, actually. Though I feel like I tried that a couple of times and it didn’t work out well.) Did they really, but it was too uncool to admit how much they did, especially to someone like me?

Was it the aliens?

My dedication remained no less steadfast over the years of the show, but it was something I got more and more embarrassed of, and in the later years of the show even fellow serious fans started dropping away. I know, I know, I missed Mulder, too. (If you watch some of those season 8-9 episodes now, they’re actually good—even I had no memory of some of them and was surprised at how good they were upon re-watch—but everyone was so disillusioned by Mulder’s departure that they just gave up.) But stuff just doesn’t let go of me that easily. And it became one of those loves that left me more and more alone over time instead of less.

I kind of just packed it away in my heart after the end of the show. I had a load-in the night of the series finale, which I made peace with videotaping for later. It was time to move on. The second movie got uniformly bad reviews; I continue to maintain its release was mishandled.  But I didn’t even get to go with anyone to the theater to see it.

A decade later I got onto Tumblr and was stunned to find a trove of loving, thoughtful, incisive commentary on the show, by people who were too young to have even watched it in its original run.

And now we’re at this point.

What happened? What changed?

Granted, for one thing, I have more neurodivergent female friends now. Dana Scully turns out to have been a cultural touchstone for a lot of girls who felt chronically weird and out of place. But that isn’t all; a lot of it isn’t coming from those people.

Did pervasive mistrust of the government come to seem less silly and paranoid in the post-9/11 Bush years?

Did everyone just get sick and tired of the culture that required we be aloof, indifferent, and uncaring?…of constantly swallowing their enthusiasm and sincerity and hiding what they loved?

(Even when I was too young to really get a lot of what the show was about, I think that may’ve been a huge factor in what attracted me to it. Mulder and Scully just cared so damn much, when all the grownups in my life always seemed to be telling me to care less.

Care less about the environment. Care less that school was an unfair, mean, and stupid waste of my time. Care less about being home by 8:00 on Friday night.)

It’s really great. It’s more than a little incredible to me. It feels in a way kind of like I just stumbled into the world the way it always should’ve been.

But I also can’t help but wonder, where was all this when I was 12, when it could’ve meant everything?

October 13, 2015

Achieving better autistic representation on stage

Posted in Marginalization tagged , , , , , at 2:53 am by chavisory

Months and months ago now, I saw an early preview performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime on Broadway.

There were things I liked a lot about the show (most of the design, most of the acting), and things I didn’t like (the conclusion of a plot line involving abuse by a parent).  I found the show not un-problematic, but powerful and well-executed in many ways.  I was looking forward to discussing things like how well-rendered Christopher’s internal life and thought and emotional processes were, or whether the sensory intensity of the design was effective in conveying the experience of an autistic person to a largely non-autistic audience.

But I didn’t get to have a lot of those conversations, because most of the autistic community was occupied primarily not with critiquing the show or its protagonist’s portrayal, but with protesting the casting of the actor who portrayed Christopher, Alex Sharp, specifically with the criticism that an openly autistic actor should have been cast to play the role, and that going forward, theatrical productions should commit to having openly autistic actors play autistic characters.

I profoundly disagree with this stance for several reasons.

1. It has every potentiality to hurt and not help the situation.

Almost every argument I have seen for imposing an expectation that autistic characters be played only by autistic performers is equally applicable to argue that only non-autistic or non-disabled actors can play non-autistic or non-disabled characters.

Arguments that having life experience as a disabled person is the only way that an actor could realistically portray disability, or that physical, first-hand experience of autism is necessary to accurately “embody” an autistic character on stage, are perfectly reversible to argue that since people disabled from birth have no life experience of being non-disabled, their ability to represent non-disabled characters is necessarily inferior. Or that since autistic people have no first-hand, innate experience of being non-autistic, then how could they have the capacity to portray non-autistic characters?

If non-autistic actors can’t realistically portray autistic characters because of their lack of life experience, then how can autistic actors realistically portray non-autistic characters, when they don’t have that life experience?

This framing of the issue stands every likelihood of enshrining a bias that autistic actors are only capable of playing autistic roles.

2. It’s not the source of the problem.

The writing is, usually.

Of all the stage and screen portrayals of autistic characters I’ve ever seen, ranging from very bad to so good they took my breath away, and all played by actors who are non-autistic as far as I know, I have practically never thought that the problem was the actor. It’s almost always the writing—the attitude of the writer and of the other characters towards an autistic character. Are they positioned in the narrative as an object or a plot device or as a fully-fledged character central to their own story?

The writers of the Big Bang Theory, for instance, very clearly see Sheldon as an entirely appropriate target for the derision and mockery of the other characters. The screenwriter of Napoleon Dynamite positions Napoleon as an acceptable object of the patronizing amusement of the audience, not of true empathy or identification.

If a playwright is writing an autistic character with the attitude that they don’t need to be as fully developed and central to their own narrative arc as any other character, or based on largely inaccurate common knowledge about autism, then that is the core of the problem and is only going to be able to be partially mitigated by hiring an autistic actor to fight with the writing.

If a playwright and the rest of the creative team of a problematic work is convinced of the rightness of their portrayal because of what they think they know about autism, then putting an autistic actor into that role for the purpose of battling those misperceptions…frankly, that just sounds like an unbearable working environment.

And if actors are relying on media stereotypes or previous stage convention in order to animate their autistic characters, then what you are seeing is bad and lazy acting, not merely a result of the wrong kind of person playing a role.  But most actors in my experience care about and want to empathize with their characters.

What’s the supposition about how this would work, anyway? That if productions buy into an expectation that autistic actors play autistic roles, and they can’t find an autistic actor to fill an objectionable role, then the play won’t get done? That won’t happen. Productions get done when their producers care about them getting done and think they will sell tickets. If producers are unable to find an autistic actor willing to play a problematic role, they will find a non-autistic actor who will. There is no shortage there that’s going to keep a production from getting done.

3. It’s ethically dubious at best.

I have yet to figure out, or have anyone explain, how it’s possible to require that autistic characters be played by autistic actors without requiring that an actor disclose their disability in order to be considered for employment. And nothing about that sits well with me. I’m unclear how it would be legal under the ADA, either.

It’s also requiring that an actor out themselves into a professional world in which most people, including most people in positions of hiring power, still hold conventional beliefs about autistic people including that we’re incapable of things like reciprocity, emotional expression, empathy, and seeing things from points of view other than our own. In other words, the core requirements of acting. We don’t get to dictate that somebody take that risk with their career, or that a producer demand it.

I’ve had people ask why someone who didn’t want to out themselves would even answer a casting call…and it’s that acting roles are jobs. For Actors’ Equity members, they are how we earn our health insurance eligibility, pensions, and sometimes a living wage.

I don’t think we get to hold those things hostage to someone being willing or able to take a public stance about their own disability. That’s not an intrinsic requirement of what acting is. I don’t think it’s a good or fair idea to establish a double standard under which the expectation of openness to public scrutiny about one’s personal life, identity, and medical or psychiatric diagnoses is higher for disabled actors than non-disabled actors, or actors playing disabled roles vs. non-disabled roles. That doesn’t sound to me like the fairness or equality I think we’re seeking.

Absolutely none of this is to say that I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to change the situation or that we have to just accept poor representation.

1. Some Equity agreements and codes already require that producers “actively solicit” minority, female, and disabled performers to participate or audition.  More should, and maybe all of them should.

2. The responsibilities of producing companies to ensure the rights and accommodations of disabled performers needs to be strongly stated, posted at auditions, included in the information to be posted on call boards, etc…. including that if you disclose a disability or diagnosis to your employer, your privacy will be protected to the greatest extent possible.  Our unions need to strongly assure disabled performers that they will back them up in asserting their rights in the workplace, and how.

3.  There is a phenomenon in which non-disabled kids get to have hobbies/interests/activities because those things are considered good and constructive for their own sake, but autistic kids get everything good in their lives turned into therapy of some sort.  That’s wrong.  Theater education is, in and of itself, skill-building in the best ways.  Turning something that someone enjoys into just another avenue for therapy, for someone trying to fix you, is a huge turn-off.

We need to keep on combating stereotypes that suggest that autistic people can’t excel in the arts or humanities–that we lack empathy or imagination, for instance, or are mainly good for low-level, ultra-repetitive tech sector jobs.

And for the love of all that is good, stop telling kids that work in the arts isn’t realistic.  Parents, teachers, counselors, job coaches–stop it.  People work in the arts.  If a student is interested in pursuing the performing arts, help them connect with real opportunities for training and experience.

4.  Autistic people and allies–attend and critique productions involving autistic characters.  Companies should be taken to task for putting bad portrayals on stage, and should know that any time they are talking about autistic people, we are watching and listening.

I want more autistic and disabled actors playing autistic and disabled characters.  I want more autistic and disabled actors playing traditionally non-autistic and non-disabled characters.  I want autistic actors to be considered equally capable across the board of playing any character.  And I want non-autistic actors to gain a deeper and more realistic understanding of autism and disability in their work.  I don’t think that declaring that that work should be off-limits to non-autistic actors serves the causes of either empathy or artistry.

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