October 22, 2020

The women are telling the truth: sexism and “The Princess Bride”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 6:30 pm by chavisory

I did not get to watch the Princess Bride virtual reunion recently; I was elbows deep in a copy editing situation on the night of the event, but I followed along a little bit on Twitter, and much like any number of sporting events I was not listening to but could pretty much tell what was happening from the enthusiastic noise of my neighbors, I could basically tell where in the script we were by the state of Twitter at any given moment throughout the evening. Like most people my age, I’ve seen that movie so many times I can more or less recite it from memory with very little prompting.

Though I have encountered assertions of the movie’s sexism before, I have tended not to entertain them seriously, and was a bit taken aback when one appeared in the course of the event.

And while I can entertain the possibility that like other works I loved in childhood whose faults were brought to my attention later, it’s possible to be so familiar and so in love with the Princess Bride as to have become oblivious to its deeper problems. On reflection, though, in this case, I don’t believe it’s the case here. While there are a lot of criticisms of his movie I think we can fairly make in this day and age, that it is sexist is, I thought, a one-dimensional or at least insufficient assessment.

People love this movie the way they love it for more than the exceptionally quippy dialogue, after all. And they didn’t turn out in the numbers they did to watch a table read, over Zoom, for a state-level Democratic Party fundraiser, 33 years after it came out, for a movie that’s just irredeemably sexist.

But I decided to examine the issue closely, at the end of which, not only did I not conclude that the Princess Bride is a sexist movie, but I wound up loving it even more deeply in ways I had never quite articulated to myself.

*

While I’ve never felt much commonality with Buttercup, I’ve never really felt, either, that she’s useless or just “silently beautiful,” and I think that’s because closer examination reveals it not to be true.

In fact, she does, more than once, try to effect her own escape. She doesn’t succeed, but she doesn’t simply wait for rescue, either, and I think what many people mistake for her passivity or inaction is actually her judiciousness in awaiting opportunities in which she even has a chance. She takes those when she has them, and when she doesn’t think they’ll only result in injury to someone else she cares about: when she first tries to jump off the stern of Vizzini’s boat and swim to freedom while his back is turned, and when she takes advantage of the Dread Pirate Roberts’s distraction with the approach of the Prince’s search party to just shove him down a hill.

Yes, Buttercup spends a lot of the movie being carried around by men. But then, on reflection, so does Westley.

Image is of Westley being propped up on a castle rampart by Inigo and Fezzik, too weak to support himself because he’s been mostly dead all day.

It is often noted that the few prominent female characters in this movie inhabit certain stereotypes about female characters: The beautiful but largely decorative princess in need of rescuing, the shrill and demanding wife, and the old hag.

Admittedly, this is not Buttercup’s action story. She is not an adventurer or a swordswoman or a particularly ambitious person. But that she is not those things doesn’t make the character or the movie sexist, and to understand what Buttercup is in this story, I think it actually helps to compare her to everyone else in the ensemble.

The Princess Bride looks like a fairy tale you think you know. It has all the familiar characters: Prince and princess, pirate, giant, scheming trickster, swordsman, magician. It goes through many of the same motions. But it is not telling the same story.

And the characters of the Princess Bride inhabit familiar tropes, but they do not accept helplessness within those tropes. All of them are resourceful, all of them make use of the knowledge, and the power, that they have access to.

In some cases, that is not a lot. These are not the people most valued or empowered within their society. Nineteenth-century Florin is a beautiful country, but it is not a progressive one.

A friend mentioned resenting Buttercup getting the Penelope treatment, and while on one hand I think that’s a very fair thing to be annoyed by, on the other, I also think it’s kind of implicit in what the movie is doing. The story of Odysseus and Penelope is one of the resonances being played with in this one. We’re supposed to resent it. Westley, for all his good-heartedness, doesn’t seem to grasp in certain ways that Buttercup doesn’t have a choice in the position she’s in. None of what’s happening is her fault, and we should be annoyed for her when Westley questions her faithfulness because he doesn’t 1000% understand how little power she really has in the situation, how vulnerable a woman of humble birth is in his own society. It is annoying, but I think it’s more a statement about sexism than it is an expression of it, even though it’s not explicitly called out in this moment.

Buttercup occupies a constrained social role within the world of Florin and Guilder, but that is no more the movie’s stance about her than it is about any of the male protagonists, as I think we’ll see.

What all of the protagonists say in some way is “This story does not have to go the way somebody else already decided it has to go for us.”

I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time recently (I was slightly too young for it when it first came out), having heard a friend say (interestingly enough, in a discussion of the depth of influence of Richard Matheson on American storytelling), that given the ludicrousness of the premise, it works because the funniest possible choice was made at every single opportunity. And the Princess Bride is now such an immensely familiar movie that I think it’s possible we’ve all lost sight of it—but it is the movie it is because at every single opportunity, somebody makes the most unexpected possible choice, which all turn out to carry vastly more power than the choice they were expected to make in the fairy tale we assume we’re in, and sometimes that the characters themselves assume they’re in.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

“I didn’t have to miss.”

“We’ll never survive.
Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”

What does Buttercup ever do that’s useful? Well, if she doesn’t stop Westley from dying for her right when she does, there’s no rest of this story. The first truly powerful thing Buttercup does isn’t an act of physical prowess, but it’s utterly in line with the actions of the male protagonists in this way. She fundamentally alters how we all assume a story like this is supposed to go. Including Humperdinck and Westley, to the extent that her interjection “Will you promise not to hurt him?” into their first confrontation prompts them both to exclaim “What was that?!”

There isn’t a daring, romantic, against-all-odds sword fight right in this moment because Buttercup decides “You don’t die here like this.”

These characters always undermine how the story supposedly has to go for people like them, either because it’s what’s expected of them or because it’s what somebody more powerful decrees.

*

In truth, I felt a new respect and empathy for Buttercup when I rewatched the movie most recently. (Unbelievably, I think I hadn’t actually seen it for at least 16 years, since that’s how long it’s been since I last had access to a VCR at home.)

I never really knew how to identify with Buttercup. I wasn’t pretty growing up. I’m not now. Nobody was ever going to cross an ocean for my beauty, or even for my love.

Humperdinck, of course, doesn’t love Buttercup, but it turns out he doesn’t even desire her for her beauty. He’s holding her up as a symbol to Florin’s populace before he sacrifices her to his own political whims as leverage to go to war with Guilder.

And she as an individual has so little power in the face of Count Rugen and Humperdinck’s machinations, but it still matters that she makes use of what she has. She can’t free herself from Humperdinck, she can’t free Westley from Rugen, but that she refuses to let Westley die for her in the first place buys time until all the other threads of the story can come together. In that moment on the other side of the Fire Swamp, she personifies not destroying what you hate, but saving what you love. Westley will ultimately make the same choice. When he could kill Humperdinck, he instead leaves him impotently, comically, tied to a chair. (And in another interesting parallel, it’s Buttercup who forestalls an actual duel between Westley and Humperdinck near the beginning of the movie, and Westley who does it at the end–once again because he’s in a situation in which he cannot succeed with superior violence.)

We, like Buttercup, in this moment, are being abused by a regime of utter self-absorption and capriciousness for its own wealth and glory, which enjoys using the American people as a symbol and excuse for its abuses of power, but cares nothing, in actuality, for our lives or well-being. And there is so little that she, individually, can do about it, but she still does it, even when it’s only to call Humperdinck out for being exactly what he is—and even though she has no hope of succeeding on her own, it still matters that she does. It matters that her stalling helps buy time for Westley to get into the castle. Even when Humperdinck severely abridges the formalities of their wedding ceremony to attempt to effect their marriage without her consent, it matters in the end that she didn’t just go along and say the words—that she didn’t consent. It matters that the combined effects of her stalling and the friends’ assault on the castle force Humperdinck to dispense with even the appearance of legitimacy of their marriage.

“You didn’t say it, you didn’t do it,” Westley notes, somewhat redeeming himself from his earlier suspicion of Buttercup’s loyalty. She and Humperdinck aren’t married; she’s legally free to abscond with Westley if she can get out of the castle with him. She couldn’t free herself by herself but it mattered until the last minute that she would not provide her assent to what was happening.

“Many people outside the loop think that it’s too late to do anything, which, as premature despair always does, excuses us for doing nothing. Though there are diverse opinions quite a lot of insiders think that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best and worst case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark about continuing to act against climate change even when it seems already too late to prevent or reverse it entirely, because the difference between the worst case scenario and a merely bad one can be vast, and the future is not known. That continued resistance in the face of probable failure increases the chances for success of an eleventh-hour effort, or at least mitigation of damage or destruction.

*

The villains in this movie are all fakers: Vizzini fancies himself the cleverest man alive; he is far from it, as it quickly turns out. Though we know he doesn’t really love her, even Humperdinck’s desire for Buttercup’s beauty isn’t real. While he convincingly portrays himself as an upstanding ruler, he’s actually planning to plunge his nation into war. Count Rugen, while genuinely probably the cruelest character, only turns out to be unflinching as long as he’s facing a child or an incapacitated man.

The heroes, on the other hand, all inhabit duality in that while all of them are extraordinary or even freakish in some way, they succeed, actually, when they make choices in line with their humanity, their conscience, their ordinariness. Westley/the Dread Pirate Roberts, with a reputation as one of the most feared and murderous pirates on the high seas, is also just fundamentally decent enough not to kill two henchmen who aren’t actually the people he has a gripe with in his pursuit of Vizzini and Buttercup, and they turn out to be his salvation.

The men in particular, Fezzik and Inigo, who would be the sidekicks in any other movie but to whom the bulk of action in this movie belongs, specifically undermine typical expectations of male heroes grounded in toxic masculinity. We love them for their vulnerabilities, their humor, kindness, sense of fairness, and open affection for each other much more than for their physical strength or skill with a sword or capacity for violence.

And what are the women in this scheme?

All of the prominent women in this story—Buttercup, Valerie, the old hag—are the truth-tellers. And moreover, they tell the truth about who the other characters are.

Buttercup doesn’t hesitate to name the Dread Pirate Roberts for who he is when she realizes, though he’s known as one of the most dangerous and deadly pirates of the seas. Once she realizes that Humperdinck has lied to her about looking for Westley, she calls him out unsparingly for the exactly the cowardly slimeball he is. She doesn’t even realize she’s probably saving her own life here; she has no real reason to think she’s in mortal personal danger from Humperdinck himself, as opposed to him just being a possessive, entitled coward (indeed, she’s very openly planning her suicide). For all she knows, it would be safer to remain beautifully quiet. She doesn’t.

Valerie gets Westley’s life saved by refusing to tolerate Max’s dissembling and avoidance of the situation at hand and by telling the truth about what Humperdink did to Max.

The old hag of Buttercup’s dream (or “the Ancient Booer,” as she’s credited) is a more difficult case. She isn’t real, for one. She doesn’t turn out to be a powerful fairy, evil queen, or trickster goddess as in other familiar incarnations of such a character in other tales. She’s Buttercup’s nightmare, and she isn’t actually right. She is what Buttercup fears about her true character and her motivations.

But what she does accurately is call out the ugliness and corruption underneath a seemingly beautiful public façade. She’s not right about Buttercup but she’s honest. And Buttercup does go to the Prince, tell the truth about her feelings for Westley, and try to call off the wedding, if not for which she never would’ve detected Humperdinck’s lie about having returned Westley to his ship, or having sent the four fastest ships in his armada to retrieve him.

The women are all telling the truth about who other characters are and about the corruption of a situation that no one else is willing to acknowledge or deal with. It is such a consistent pattern that while the spoken thesis statement of the movie is “Death cannot stop true love,” the unspoken one could virtually be “The women are telling the truth.”

And I am forced to think about Christine Blassey Ford, Stormy Daniels, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren, whose testimony mattered when they told the truth about the character of a man, even when they couldn’t stop what was happening from happening anyway. Although in at least one case it did:

And if “The women are telling the goddamned truth” isn’t a sufficient message for a progressive movie in the 21st century, it seems to be one we could still stand to learn.

*

I also feel the need to return to an issue I noted before, in considering the alleged ableism of The Shape of Water: The character espousing the views often attributed in criticism to the movie is in fact the villain. Strickland, who devalues Elisa because of her disability, femaleness, lack of beauty, and poverty, who sees her and the Amphibian Man as monstrosities who don’t belong to this world—is the bad guy.

Prince Humperdinck, likewise, is the bad guy in this movie. His views are the ones that we are supposed to challenge, not accept. And he is he one who believes that Buttercup is nothing but a pretty but passive and empty-headed girl who won’t raise a finger in her own defense. We’re not supposed to.

Humperdinck also discounts the possibility that she’s important enough to anyone else that they might come after her and spoil his plans. After all, there’s not that much special about her aside from her beauty.

That’s part of the point. Again, all of these characters are coveted by someone else because of how they’re extraordinary. They become important to each other in the ways that they aren’t, and not merely as a means to an end.

And Westley loves Buttercup, and that’s enough that he would go to the ends of the earth to rescue her.

*

I didn’t realize initially just how appropriate and timely the choice of a reading of the Princess Bride specifically was to this present political situation, as opposed to just being fun, nostalgic, and also guaranteed to draw an outpouring of enthusiasm and support from people of a certain age who otherwise are not the most enthralled with the Democratic Party or Joe Biden as a candidate. But it’s the story of a very imperfect collection of faulted people coming together to defeat a cruel and petty despot because of their willingness to help each other reach an intertwined set of goals.

“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Joe Biden told Donald Trump in this past week’s first presidential debate, as is the sham and failure of Humperdinck’s rule because of who he is, and in a sublime and subversively beautiful way, the happy ending of the Princess Bride is what it is because its central characters are exactly who they are.

The stubborn and the stupid can work the weirdest miracles if we just don’t think too much.

And while in many ways it is not a particularly groundbreaking or innovative story as far as its portrayal of women, but neither does it consider them inferior or helpless, rather than central to the conscience and thesis of the film, and so, in my estimation, anyway, I have a hard time considering it fundamentally sexist.

And on that note, given the season, I’ll just leave you with this sentiment.

September 8, 2020

The internet is not forever

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 8:00 pm by chavisory

“A few of the younger Symphony members…remembered the stories they’d been told about WiFi and the impossible-to-imagine Cloud, wondered if the internet might still be out there somehow, invisible pinpricks of light suspended in the air around them.” -Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

A few years ago now, I was up very late, sipping bourbon, listening to the Cubs’ World Series-winning game, and trying to resurrect autistic community history from the dim corners of the internet.

And it was a frustrating and grueling experience. It was Autistic History Month, so founded by Maxfield Sparrow in 2013, and I think people had been realizing for a while that our community collective memory only went back about five years and that it was starting to be a serious vulnerability. (Honestly it still is.)

On one hand, it was certainly a good thing that so many people were being newly diagnosed as young adults, and sometimes as older ones, and deciding to be openly autistic online. On the other, there was no obvious way to direct this huge influx of people starving for community to the resources and information that did already exist, and so there was a whole lot of reinvention of the wheel going on. Neurodiversity.com, which had served that function for many of us who entered the community in the very early 2000’s, was already an inactive archive by that point, and while the references it contained were progressive for the time in which it was founded, many were out of date even just a decade later.

Twice I queried social media for people’s favorite “older” autistic blog or writing, defining “older” as being from before 2010.

Both times, nobody could name a source that wasn’t Neurodiversity.com, Ballastexistenz, or something by Jim Sinclair. And not to denigrate the importance of those voices, but there was so much more than that.

A friend posted a list of a dozen important autistic writers and activists from the early days after the neurodiversity movement moved online in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and asked how many of them other people recognized. I knew who six were.

Multiple, currently prominent activists knew of none of them.

I’m using the autistic community as an example a lot in this post, but this isn’t exclusively about autism or the autistic community; that’s just where I’ve been consistently involved enough to notice and be affected by long-term dynamics. I suspect similar issues may be at play in other internet-centric communities.

*

One thing I feel has happened—and this may well be the subject of a whole other post—is that many people, especially if they’re relatively new to the community, are under the impression that autistic Twitter is effectively the online autistic community. And it’s not. Not only is it not, even now, but before Twitter was anywhere near as big a platform, before it was a thing at all, the character of the online autistic community was entirely different.

It’s different for both better and worse. The easily discoverable hashtags #ActuallyAutistic and #AskingAutistics make it incredibly easy for newbies to find other autistic people on Twitter and where to ask questions. It used to be harder, or you had to be extraordinarily lucky, to stumble upon the blogs that served as cornerstones of the community. Even while there are a lot of things I don’t like about it as much, the character and quality of conversations on Twitter are probably more accessible for some people. (And less so for others.)

The point, though, is that it’s fundamentally different.

*

I’m an Oregon Trail generation kid. Almost anyone my age or younger has almost certainly been lectured ad infinitum about how “The internet is forever” in well-intended warnings about being cautious in what we say and do online.

But the older I get, the more I find the internet is actually surprisingly vulnerable to human frailty.

There is so much writing that is just gone. So much community, so many of the best, most constructive and compassionate conversations happened in the comments sections of blogs that have been taken down or locked by their owners. Not just the content of those blogs, but the entire culture of the way people formed relationships around them, is gone or radically altered.

Servers are gone. People stopped being able to pay for web hosting. Or got tied up in life, illness, parenting, or more offline activism or scholarship and don’t have time to maintain archives and keep links updated. Neurodiversity.com is still there as an archive, but about half its links are broken. (I’m not saying this to blame Kathleen. Life happens.)

People died. Friendships imploded. People got burned out and simply disappeared off the internet, and unless there was an active effort to preserve and archive it, their work often followed a few years after, if only because they stopped paying for their web domain.

Some of that world made it into the Wayback Machine if you know exactly how to look for it, but a lot of it didn’t.

*

For a couple of years before I started this blog, I was a frequent commenter at Salon.com. I was doing a lot of temp work at the time and it was a way to pass the 9-hour days stuck at a reception desk. Debates in which every single comment was a worthwhile essay unto itself, frequently superior to the original article, would wind on for days. I easily spent hundreds of thousands of words there and God alone knows how many hours of my life. And I don’t regret it; I learned a lot about the kind of blogging I wanted to do there. But I had pretty significantly curtailed the time I spent there by midway through 2010, partly because I had just grown not to enjoy what the culture there had become, partly because I was deliberately spending my time here instead, having realized that with the amount of effortful writing I did there, I could have something of my own to show for it. But at some point Salon revamped their account and comment section structures. I didn’t sign up for a new account or I might’ve tried but found it onerous and before long I was locked out of my old one. And I lost access to all of it.

Then WordPress itself a few years ago either suffered a glitch or changed a setting—I never succeeded in getting an answer—and users lost all of the data about how many times posts had been shared on other platforms like Facebook.

One post of mine had been shared over 20,000 times. The counters were eventually reset, and that post logged another 8,000 shares or so before the counter disappeared again and stayed gone this time.

I have no idea whether WordPress lost the data, or still has it but decided to stop providing it to users without premium accounts.

More recently, Tumblr attempted to purge its platform of adult content [Content note: Linked story contains discussion of sexually explicit material, including child pornography] in an event popularly known as the “Tiddy Ban.” Many erotica-focused blogs were removed entirely, others were allowed to remain but were made unsearchable and dashboard-accessible only. And countless other users had individual offending posts removed from our blog archives utterly without recourse. Over the ensuing months, many of the confiscated posts were restored upon appeal, having been judged to have been wrongfully snared by deeply faulted screening algorithms.

But one of my posts, to which I have never been able to regain access (despite several other much sexier posts having been returned), was a long and multi-layered discussion of executive dysfunction and diagnostic disparities among autistic women and the politics of self-diagnosis.

Whether because the author of the article I linked to works as a stripper and said so in her bio, or because the preview image for the article depicts the bare knee of a young woman sitting on a bed, I’ll probably never know. I’ve protested multiple times to Tumblr staff, but at this point don’t hold out much hope of getting it back. It had over 1,000 notes in multiple reblog threads.

People who’ve lost work in previous fandom purges have similar and far, far worse stories.

*

I’ve been rewatching the X-Files over the past couple of years. And it’s a different experience than it was during the original run. At least partly because, watching with subtitles turned on, I catch at least 50% more information from dialogue than I did then. But also because watching episodes in close time proximity instead of spaced out week by week, or multiple weeks during holidays and production breaks, or months during the summer, or years, like between the end of the original series and the second movie and the revival, brings out whole different sets of resonances and parallels and sneakily revealed information than what was obvious the first time through.

And I have so many questions about whether anyone else has noticed them, or wants more back story about the same things I do, and while there are XF communities on Tumblr and Twitter now, they’re hugely dominated by younger, newer viewers and overwhelmingly MSR-obsessed (which is not a sin, obviously, and I’m also starting to find exceptions to this) and gifset-driven. There’s not a ton of in-depth discussion of other issues. I was a dedicated lurker of the AOL message boards circa 1994-1998, and what I’d really like is to go back to some of the boards I didn’t follow then and see if these were in fact things that people were talking about at the time even if they weren’t the things I was seeking out discussion about then. Those boards are lost to history, though, or at least to anyone without deep access to AOL’s servers and archives.

To some extent you can tell from the fanfic of the time what other fans were preoccupied by—Gossamer and a couple other archives of long-form fic are still there. But as far as speculation about any subject that didn’t make it into a lot of fanfic, those discussions, if any, have been made completely inaccessible to any average present-day fan.

I can’t tell you the number of posts or comments important to me that I thought were safe in my bookmarks, only to try to go back and find a blog taken down or locked or a domain abandoned.

In a couple of cases, authors have been kind enough to send me files to keep for myself of work they decided to take offline. But I’ve started just downloading or printing out hard copies of anything particularly important to me before it disappears in the first place.

Growing up when the internet was a brand new and barely understood resource to most families, we were told “The internet is forever” in caution against revealing personal information online by elders who mostly didn’t understand it very well or how it would change over time, and now we’re the ones telling parents, and especially parents of disabled kids, the same thing when it comes to putting photos or information about their children online.

And I don’t want to undermine the seriousness of the risk of just how unpredictable and wide-ranging the impact of personal information or depictions of children in private and vulnerable moments released on the internet can be. I deeply believe that parents should think twice about this.

But the irony is that in too earnestly believing certain warnings about the internet, we’ve grown to trust it too much. In some ways, the internet, far from being forever, has actually proven a remarkably poor medium for preserving cultural memory.

It turns out that the cultural resources and internet communities we value and want preserved don’t just last without attention and work and love.

June 16, 2020

Reminders of joy

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 2:02 pm by chavisory

I know I haven’t talked much about this in a while, but just as a reminder, I also run a small side blog, Reckoning of Joy, which I started shortly after the 2016 election and pledged to keep running for the duration of the Trump presidency (and maybe longer, who knows), the purpose of which is to keep track of the progressive and civil rights victories achieved in spite of the current administration. For keeping our collective spirits up, but also for educating each other about how and why these things are and can be achieved, even now. And we’ve seen victories happen thanks to activism and advocacy on every scale from local school board resolutions Supreme Court decisions.

Particularly as the repercussions of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery continue to snowball, I would love to hear about it if your cities or states have instituted reforms that maybe haven’t made national news yet. The blog itself has a submit button, or you can e-mail me at the address for this blog in the About section.

I hope everyone is keeping as safe and well as possible!

May 15, 2020

Television culture and temporal connectedness in social isolation

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 11:11 pm by chavisory

There’s something I’ve noticed, and didn’t expect at all, since the start of the pandemic and my city’s quarantine/social isolation orders, and I’m curious as to whether other people are sensing it, too.

But it feels like there has been a subtle but meaningful return to a media culture around needing to be in a particular place to either be online or turn on the television at a particular time for a show or event, compared to the last several years in which more and more of our media consumption has moved to on-demand streaming formats that allow us to watch programs whenever is convenient for us and not only at their scheduled air time.

I first realized it when I was out walking in the park late one evening, and looking at my phone realized I had about 20 minutes to get home to get home, get food, use the bathroom, and get situated so I didn’t miss the start of an event I was looking forward to after a couple of weeks of limited social contact, that it felt like the old days of faithfully planning to be home by 8:00 on Friday nights to watch the X-Files.

Between musicians doing live performances from their living rooms, online worship services, Zoom meetups, and also just chat dates with friends, it seems like there are more online events that we have to plan to be available for because they won’t be archived or readily available to catch up on later than I’ve been used to, and it’s a substantial shift back in time in how I interact with media.

And I realize these things did exist before this, and I rarely partook of them since I was working at live events most evenings; I do also wonder whether I’m just noticing it more now that these things comprise the entirety of everyone’s social life. There are no work conflicts, no going out to see a show and knowing you can catch up later on whatever you missed. It’s happening when it’s happening. And the fact that those things happen when they happen, and won’t just always be there, being a recurring fact that helps structure the time of a day or a week.

Before March of this year, I actually do not know for sure when the last time was that I had planned to be home, or in a particular location, in order to watch a scheduled program on television at a particular time. I think it might have been for a Game of Thrones season premiere in the summer of 2017, with the rest of the production staff of the summer theater festival where I was working at the time.

Before that, the last game of the 2015 World Series?

And before that, I have no idea. I actually haven’t owned a television since I graduated from college. Virtually everything that I watch now, I access through Netflix or other on-demand streaming services where I can access whatever I need days or weeks or years after its release.

Even during the final season of Game of Thrones, when I was tuning in to the latest episode on Sunday nights so I could discuss it with coworkers Monday morning, there was no pressure to do so at 9:00 PM EST on the dot or else I was going to miss the beginning of the episode; I could take my time making dinner and sit down to watch whenever I felt like it without being in danger of missing any vital information.

Whereas, when I was a teenager, before DVR (which we never had at home), before on-demand streaming, before I learned how to program a VCR to avoid that kind of stress after several high-anxiety close calls, if you missed an episode of something during its air time, at best you got to watch it several months later during summer reruns.

And as much as I will not miss so much about this period of time, I kind of like it? Even as I hate the audiovisual mess that marks so much group interaction on Zoom and can’t wait to get to go to church for real again, I like the sense that a media event is meaningful because it is happening right in this moment, and won’t be there later, and a bunch of people have shown up on time to experience it together. There’s a sense of temporal connectedness about it that I haven’t felt in pop culture in a long time and hadn’t realized I was feeling the loss of. I suspect it’s one of the things making me feel a little bit more grounded in time than I have been, and certainly more than I expected to feel while I’ve had no work schedule for an extended period of time.

I wouldn’t mind if we kept a little bit more of it after all of this.

April 28, 2020

The beautiful and tragic world of “Tales from the Loop”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:10 pm by chavisory

When I was in creative writing class in high school, whenever we were stumped for a writing prompt or idea, we would be sent to Chris Van Allsburg’s book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a picture book composed of haunting and richly detailed, but disconnected, pencil drawings.

Even before I knew that the new sci-fi series on Amazon Prime, Tales from the Loop, was actually based on a different series of paintings (those of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, with whom I was not familiar before), it reminded me of what it would feel like if somebody had created something like a coherent narrative encompassing all of the images of Van Allsburg’s book.

Tales from the Loop tells the interwoven stories of several families who live in a town, never named, above an underground experimental facility working with advanced, quasi-metaphysical technology, and the repercussions on all of their lives of their interaction with the cast-off detritus of the research station. Episodes can be understood as standalone stories, and there’s an obvious comparison to be made to shows like the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits (which many of the more negative reviews have accused it of being a rip-off of), but what it feels more like to me is if Ray Bradbury and Stephen King teamed up to write Lake Woebegone Days, with the emotional tenor of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Others have called it a “gentler” take on sci-fi, and while that’s not quite right, either, it does do something I haven’t quite seen before, which is to plunge us into a world of strange and advanced technology, and then not engage with or explicate the theoretical science of it almost at all, in favor of dedicating the storytelling almost entirely to the emotional fallout of characters’ decision-making about it. The result is often anything but gentle, though it is relentlessly humanistic and emotionally immediate.

One aspect of the storytelling I particularly appreciated is that there is no sense whatsoever, at any point, that anything has to work out right in the end.

Because the thing is, that is not actually a rule in the real world. Things can be fucked up and stay fucked up, beyond the end of an episode, or a season, or forever. Things can go wrong that can never truly be made right.

Even much grimmer and darker shows like the Walking Dead maintain a sense, which ebbs and flows like a tide, that eventually, inevitably, something has to go right for these characters. But this show just has none of that, a lack which allows it to maintain an outrageous degree of suspense for a show so emotionally- and character-driven, and occasionally makes it one of the most terrifying and devastating things I’ve ever seen on television. But the terror comes not from threats posed by disruptive technology or supernatural, external evil or civilization-ending catastrophe, but just from the small and selfish ways in which humans fail each other.

And that’s not to say that nothing good or beautiful ever happens in this story; it does. But every time it does, it’s the consequence of a character proactively, and sometimes painfully, choosing right. Nothing ever feels inevitable about it, and for that, it’s all the more wondrous.

Most of the characters find themselves in trouble not only when they fumble around with mysterious technology they don’t understand (although definitely that, too), but when they attempt to use that technology as a shortcut or escape hatch from being honest with each other or themselves. The thesis of the show isn’t anti-technology, but things go badly when characters try to use technology to evade the fundamental problems of being human. When they manage to make things better for each other is when they face their own deepest hearts and vulnerabilities.

March 26, 2020

On the surreal experience of reading an out-of-date Smithsonian magazine in November of 2019

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 4:47 pm by chavisory

Every year for Christmas, for years and years, my grandmother gave me a subscription to Smithsonian Magazine rather than a more conventional present, and being a nerd with very little storage space, I appreciated this.

Being a nerd who also doesn’t have a lot of spare time, this gift also accumulated into quite the backlog of unread issues.

The last several months I’ve been attempting to commit to taking more mental downtime for myself, and also working on getting through my stack of unread Smithsonians, and so often while I’m cooking or waiting for water to boil, I’ll just choose one at random.

And that is how I came to be reading one night, standing in my kitchen, about NASA’s Journey to Mars project, whose first test flight would launch an unmanned capsule called the Orion beyond the moon and back, in the year 2018.

And for a second, it felt very seriously as if I had fallen through a wormhole or slipped into some kind of alternate timeline, or fallen asleep for too long and woken up in an unfamiliar future.

Because I remembered nothing, no media coverage or publicity whatsoever, about a test flight of an impending mission to Mars having been flown in the year 2018.

I checked the date on the cover: May of 2016.

So as late as the spring of 2016, we were roughly on track to be executing an eventually manned mission to Mars, in the foreseeable future.

It felt kind of like reading a sci-fi novel written decades ago, about all the stuff that was supposed to have been invented or accomplished by the year in which you’re currently reading the novel and laughing because that’s not what happened, only more unnerving and much less funny.

I wondered if it had still happened. Or whether NASA had had its budgets for things like this slashed, positions eliminated, development of the necessary science set back by decades?

Surely, if it had happened, it would have been bigger news? We’d all be talking about this, right?

Then again, maybe not. Given the situation.

Or maybe it was delayed not by budget cuts or political meddling, but just by normal engineering problems, and in the face of everything else, that was just never going to make the news and the whole thing slipped quietly out of collective consciousness, waiting for a better time.

The last couple of years virtually everyone I know has been walking around with this sense that time is broken. Too much is happening too fast to keep up with. We’re dealing with assimilating a volume of information basically unprecedented in human history, ecological events of inhuman proportion occurring on human timescales. We don’t know what day it is. We don’t know what happened this morning as opposed to last week. It feels like time is fractured, like something has gone very badly wrong on a fundamental level, but we could never prove it, only keep telling each other, “No, it didn’t used to be like this.”

Holding that magazine felt like holding hard evidence. Like having found a newspaper clipping from in alternate future.

Like a light left on, shining under the door back to the right one.

I wonder if that future is still there somehow.

If we could still get back.

*

(I did actually look up what’s going on right now with the Journey to Mars project, and while it’s not quite on schedule as laid out in the 2016 article, it is still progressing! In the summer of 2019, a second successful test of the Orion capsule’s Launch Abort system was completed, with the next milestone being to return astronauts to the moon!

“In effect, NASA successfully demonstrated that the Orion spacecraft’s LAS can outrun a rocket and pull its astronaut crew to safety in case something goes wrong during launch. As Kirasich indicated, the test is another milestone in the agency’s preparation for returning to the Moon and making the ‘Journey to Mars.'”)

March 6, 2020

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 1:16 pm by chavisory

There’s been a dynamic this primary season, and this is adapted from a Facebook post that I made yesterday minutes before Elizabeth Warren had officially announced the end of her campaign, but it’s something I feel the need to say something about.

And I don’t have numbers or statistics to throw out here, this is my personal, anecdotal experience; however, it has been …rather notable to me.

Throughout this long primary campaign, and especially in the last couple of days, I have heard, repeatedly, from various people and from only slightly different groups of people, that Elizabeth Warren supporters needed to drop our vote for her and support Bernie if we wanted a real progressive candidate, or to drop our vote for her and vote Biden if we really wanted to win in the general election, but either way, to “stop splitting the vote.”

I have never, not once, not one single time, heard a Warren supporter or campaign volunteer arguing that supporters of any other candidate had any kind of an obligation to drop support for their candidate and get behind ours instead for whatever reason we said.

And that’s not why I decided to support her in the first place, but God, did I appreciate it.

I think that there is something that people making these arguments about our obligation to fall in line for a candidate do not maybe understand, which is just how much girls like me hear stuff like this, and just how tired we are of it.

Like, however many times growing up you think I got told that my duty was to just go along with what somebody else wanted of me, that I needed to stop being inconvenient and make things easier on other people, that I just needed to understand that other people didn’t think like me, that I needed to be “realistic” and not fight for what I really wanted… multiply it by about ten.

No, really. However often you think it was, it was more.

(And, incidentally, if you were or are a person doing this? You have never been the only one. Other people were, and are, doing it, too. I was getting this everywhere. If you thought you were the first person ever to tell a stubborn little girl some hard “truths” about how the world worked, that it would never change for people like me? Guess what. You weren’t. You’re not. You’re just one more. In all likelihood, you are not some brave truth-teller in that girl’s life. You’re just a bully.

I want you to know that.)

I am completely immune to it, in terms of my decision-making. I have been hearing it for so long, you don’t even understand.

But it hasn’t stopped making me so. angry. And it will not make me view your candidate in a more favorable light.

Elizabeth Warren suspended her campaign this week. I am sad. I am disappointed. But I was never not ready for this news, I was never not thinking about how I would vote and who I’d support if she didn’t win the nomination. “Loving Elizabeth Warren means planning for America to break your heart,” as Monica Hesse put it in the Washington Post. Because, again, there is almost nothing I’m more used to than the fact that what is obvious to me is not what’s obvious to most people. That’s the water I’ve been breathing since the day I was born.

There is nothing I need to be told again less than “You have to understand that most people aren’t like you, Emily.”

I know. Trust me, I know.

And I can handle that, I can handle losing honestly, if that’s what happened. If it was just that too many people disagreed with me about who the strongest and most prepared candidate was, and not that they fell victim to some sneering, defeatist, self-fulfilling prophecy about how she could never win anyway, so why bother trying?

If that’s what it was, I’m not sure I can handle it.

Bernie Sanders is most likely my second choice. I never even took my Birdie sticker off of my laptop after the 2016 primaries, because I was not embarrassed of having supported Bernie or the reasons why I did. I am not going to have be sold very hard on voting for him again. But I am going to do so on the strength of his long Senate service, of his being right about the Iraq war when a lot of other basically decent people were wrong, on the trust that constituents from his home state testify to having in his integrity, and what I hear is a really, really good disability policy.

It will not be because of anyone who told me I needed to give up and fall in line because they said so.

January 15, 2020

Institutionalization and Daryl Hannah and autistic people like me

Posted in Marginalization, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 6:20 pm by chavisory

[This post is slightly expanded from a recent Facebook comment]

A friend posted this article about Daryl Hannah this week, which is a few years old, and which I enjoyed very much despite the totally melodramatic and unnecessarily stigmatizing headline (which she probably had no role in choosing).

And though the fact of Hannah’s autism, and the fact that autistic people can and do succeed at counter-intuitive, high-visibility careers like acting, is old news by now (and Sense8 has sadly reached the end of its run), I think it’s especially worth drawing attention to one aspect of the article, because it bears on an issue that is still very much under discussion in the autism community.

In particular, the childhood history Hannah relates really highlights how the gulf between autistic people whose parents and professionals say need to be in institutions because of the severity of their autism, and those of us who they say are “mildly affected” and just can’t understand, is just not what they assume it is.

Daryl Hannah is someone who could well have been institutionalized, had her parents believed the doctors who recommended it. And then anything that happened to her there, any deterioration of her condition, any given set of skills or knowledge she failed to acquire as a result of institutionalization, would have been used as evidence that she belonged there and not as evidence of injury by institutionalization. She’s probably right that she’d still be there today.

And today, she’d be being held up as an example of someone whose condition was so severe, whose daily living skills and ability to exercise autonomy was so lacking, that it was clearly understandable to institutionalize her, rather than someone who’s so outrageously successful her autism obviously can’t be that serious. Or that even if she is, she shouldn’t talk about it or use that label for herself because it takes attention away from autistic people with more intensive support needs.

When really the only difference is in the kind of chances she was given.

I know I’ve quoted my high school math teacher before, who said “A lot of times kids will ask me, ‘When am I going to use this?’ And the answer is, ‘Probably never.’ But if you don’t learn it, you definitely won’t.”

Someone never genuinely given a chance to live and grow in their own community, never will.

Daryl Hannah narrowly avoided institutionalization. And for all that some factions of parents and autism professionals will say that this isn’t really about autistic people like me or Daryl Hannah, for as different as they say I am from autistic people who they insist really do need to live in institutions, frankly, if it could’ve happened to Daryl Hannah, it could’ve happened to me.

I don’t think somebody else’s kid really does belong in an institution because their support needs really are greater than Daryl Hannah’s, or mine. I think they deserve to live in their communities as much as she or I do.

I think the rest of us would be as fortunate to have a chance to know them and have them in our lives as much as we are for the pleasure of having Daryl Hannah’s art in the world instead of having her locked in an institution while we’re told why she really belongs there.

August 16, 2019

Betrayed on Sesame Street

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 2:37 pm by chavisory

I wrote this story down intending it to be part of a different post entirely, about a particular set of musical experiences. I didn’t really want to be telling it for this, but here we are.

A few years ago, shortly after Sesame Street came under fire from the autistic community for its participation in Autism Speaks’ annual Light It Up Blue campaign, I was one of many people, invited through various organizations, to give feedback on development of the “See Amazing” web materials, centered on the character of a 4-year-old autistic girl.

I didn’t have any illusions that our feedback would all be incorporated or that the end result would be everything we wanted, but it was a chance worth taking that some of it would be, that we could affect on a really basic level what American children learn about autism.

And what might be some of the earliest representation of themselves that autistic children ever see.

I got very busy, and when the campaign was finally released to the public, amid a flurry of mixed reviews from the autistic and parent communities, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to engage with any of it. But some of the criticism was confusing to me based on the initial materials I’d seen, which had been deeply imperfect, but also far from being anywhere as offensive as many mainstream depictions of autistic children or characters. There were fallacies that I hoped would’ve been corrected; there were places where I hoped the focus or language would be shifted, but for a curriculum set aimed at preschool-aged children, it had had a lot of good potential. Of course different people can have sincerely different reactions to the same thing, but it made me wonder whether the final product had somehow gotten much worse than it had started.

I was too afraid to find out.

Spring of 2017 came and, once again during a week when I just didn’t have spoons to spare, the announcement that Julia would become a real muppet, and not only a web character, and another wave of commentary that I didn’t feel I could usefully engage with until I had my own opinion of the results. But I hadn’t watched any of it. I just didn’t have it in me. Although assertions like “obviously they didn’t talk to autistic adults” made me furious, as I knew that they had. I didn’t know what the impact of our contributions had been, or if it had been disregarded entirely.

Finally one morning I knew it was past time that I caught up with Julia, and clicked on a video, of Abby Cadabby and Julia singing the Sesame Street theme song together. It started with Julia alone with her bunny, humming to herself, before Abby joins her. I assumed I knew how the skit would go. Abby would join in and sing along, Julia would keep humming, and they’d finish the song together, each in her own way. Cute. Mostly harmless.

But then after Abby sang a line, Julia started singing, too, and my jaw hit the floor.

I couldn’t figure out how they’d come up with it; I had never told anyone about this yet. I had never seen this portrayed or described anywhere.

Julia’s echolalia worked just like mine.

And the message wasn’t “See? She can be included too, even though she has autism!” She just was. It was that her echolalia was just like mine, and it was just …okay.

I have seen a lot of autistic characters portrayed in media. I’ve felt genuine kinship with some of them.

And I had never, ever seen that.

And yes, the portrayal of the character and the way her story was told was imperfect in many ways, but that mattered, and it was something I wanted four-year-old autistic kids, and four-year-old non-autistic kids, and their parents and families, to see

That the way we do things can actually just be allowed to be okay.

I went back to the notes that I’d submitted to see if I could figure out if I’d said anything that could have caused this, but I hadn’t really. It was extreme serendipity, or something someone else had suggested, or that the alchemy of all of our input together had made such an extrapolation or leap of understanding possible, I guess.

Research even showed that exposure to the program measurably increased parental feelings of competence, acceptance, and hope for their autistic children’s potential to be included in the their communities.

And it made what happened next all the more a betrayal of our input and good faith.

This week ASAN announced the end of its partnership with Sesame Street and the “See Amazing” program, after the show leadership declined to reverse course from its decision to use Julia to advertise Autism Speaks’ 100 Days kit, notoriously full of stigma against autistic children and poor-quality information.

A friend asked whether any of us are truly surprised by this development, and the answer, I guess, is no, not really. But it still hurts, like so many things that happen to us again and again and again and yet still hurt, every time. Like so many things that you see and hear when you’re an autistic person at all engaged with a popular media that presumes people like you aren’t watching or listening.

But God, there was so much reason to hope this time.

I really think Sesame Street owes the autistic community, and every family for whom Julia’s inclusion had been a positive development, an explanation for this.

April 14, 2019

Discovering the Disintegration Loops: Read the comments

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 3:02 pm by chavisory

We’ve been dealing with a big data entry project at work and so I’ve been doing a lot of podcast listening while I slog through it. A recent Radiolab episode contained a short feature on this piece, and I was so smitten I went and looked it up and found the whole thing.

In a break from standard Internet survival protocol, I really think everyone kind of owes it to themselves to go read all the comments on the YouTube link, but by some serendipitous happenstance of comment ranking, these were the first two, in this order, when I first went to listen to the entire piece.

distintegration loop comments

Anyway, I feel like this is probably one of those pieces of music that finds people when they need it to find them. So if that’s you today, well, I hope it did.

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