March 4, 2022

What feeling represented feels like

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:09 pm by chavisory

I actually wrote this a few years ago, and for a long time I thought it was the bones of something else, before realizing it actually was what it was. I’m posting it between the occasions of this year’s coming release of season 4 of Stranger Things, and the recent death of author Gary Paulsen (1939-2021).

*

One day in 2017 I spend a rainy day off watching Stranger Things, and immediately afterwards start obsessively reading reviews and commentary. And I know by now I shouldn’t feel the wind knocked out of me when I read someone say things like “Sometimes she seems like a real person…at others she’s little more than a plot device,” or even “the ultimate in lazy sexist tropification,” but I still do. It happens every time. If I really, really love and identify with a character, and go looking for what other people have said about her.

Like I feel like I should just be used to the fact, by now, that every time I strongly and viscerally identify with a female character, she will be declared nothing like a real girl, and I can’t help but suspect that has some relationship to the frequency with which, growing up, I was told in effect that I had to be mistaken about what I was experiencing, because that’s not how things really are for people. That real people don’t work like that.

But Eleven disguised, in that ill-fitting dress and blond wig, looks the way I felt every time, when I was her age, that someone made me dress up kind of like their idea of a real girl.

I hated the way I looked like a boy in an uncomfortable girl suit with a tight collar, told to keep my hair out of my face.

She looks the way that felt.

And how everyone blames her for not being able to explain what she knows.

And only really value her for what she can do.

The way no one really thinks about what anything costs her.

The way they expect her to know things she couldn’t possibly, and the way she just says “no” to demands she knows she can’t meet.

*

At some point a popular blog publishes an honor roll of books containing examples of good representation of disabled people. It doesn’t make me want to read any of them.

The protagonists all sound like solutions to math problems, and I just don’t care.

*

Eleven has a back story that no one would believe even if she could tell it.

Treadway Blake can’t say “I’m sorry” in words, only in anonymously mailed sheet music and elaborate secret murder plots.

Amy Pond and Olivia Dunham both know what it feels like to exist in two different whole sets of memories.  I feel myself being re-embodied back into the world I belong to as Peter and Olivia do the same—Peter keeps defiantly being a person in a version of the universe he was erased from, Olivia learning how to live with memories of a whole life she wasn’t supposed to have had.

*

There were two books I had to read in 5th grade for the lunchtime book club. One was called On My Honor, and it was by far the more critically acclaimed, and one was There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, and that was the one I loved.

The main character was a boy who was nothing like me in a lot of ways, who was actually more like some of the real-life classmates I found incredibly grating. But he felt like he couldn’t get anything right, and he talked to his stuffed animals.

My mother asked which one I liked more and I told her, and she said “No, really?”  I don’t remember what I said when she tried to make me explain why. Probably “I don’t know.” I had too much alexithymia and not enough abstract language to say something like Bradley behaves in ways other people find immature and aggravating because he feels unheard and alienated by the social expectations of his peers.

“I just did.”

The American Girl dolls and books had become a huge hit around the same time that I had developed an obsession with 19th-century pioneer life. But whenever I got bought any American Girl things, they were Samantha’s.

Kirsten felt shabby and insufficient and alone in her new world, where she struggled to make herself understood or valued in an unfamiliar language.

Samantha was elegant, articulate, polished, at home in her own skin, and seemed to have the world handed to her again and again in a way I found baffling. People listened to her. Adults believed her. She looked more like me, with her dark bangs, but I couldn’t figure out why, otherwise, I was supposed to like her more, why I was supposed to be more like her.

When I first read The Lacuna, I didn’t even like the writing that much right away, but—and I couldn’t put my finger on why at first—Harrison Shepherd felt more like a real person to me than like a character. I actually thought, “I don’t like the writing that much but I like this kid.” I still feel guilty analyzing details of his characterization as if he’s a literary creation; it feels like betraying his privacy. He feels like a person.

And yes, he’s a multiply marginalized person, and yes, that’s significant, but that’s not why.

It’s the way he compares the tactile experiences of mixing plaster and making pastry dough.

“Mrs. Brown,” he says later, “I have an odd impairment.”

*

I’ve been thinking lately about how a lot of the social justice movement often treats people like collections of identities, and not actually like…people. I think those can look like the same thing, but they’re not.

*

I see these lists go around about how to write an autistic character or how to write a disabled character, and I’ve contributed to some, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about them, or where they miss the mark, even when I mostly agree with them.

Almost without exception, they start with “Say their diagnosis.” But we still live in a time when that isn’t the life that a whole lot of us have lived. A lot of our actual lives are going to fail those checklists and I don’t understand why I’m supposed to feel more represented by characters written as if experiences that broadly resemble mine are off-limits, or should be.

I read this list of books being honored for their representation of disabled characters and I can barely make it through some of the synopses.

But near the beginning of Zodiac, I watch Jake Gyllenhaal’s character walk into a conference room of fellow journalists who all act like they can’t hear him speak, and this character wasn’t created to make me feel represented (indeed, he is actually based on a real person), but I have never, ever, ever seen this experience—one of the earliest memories I have, one of the core constants of my whole life—represented on screen from the point of view of the person being targeted by it.

If there is a common thread to my experience of fiction, it’s probably that I fail to identify with the characters I’m supposed to, and do with the ones I’m not.

And sometimes these listicles about how to write an autistic character that I’m supposed to identify with just make my heart sink, because my life doesn’t add up right in this checklist, either.

In a way, it feels like yet another way in which disabled people are held to standards that non-disabled people aren’t in order to be considered good or real.

*

Part of why I think, even with so much guidance that now exists about how to write an autistic character, that I still usually find coded- or accidentally-autistic characters better-written than explicitly-identified ones, is that, when you can’t lean on clinical language or community-approved terminology lists to do your work for you, at all, you have to actually just write the experience. You have to show and not tell. You have to really be in your character’s head, and I’m afraid that a lot of the guidance I see on writing good representation, rather than helping in that regard, is actually just leading writers to believe that they can’t, that they shouldn’t, deeply and viscerally identify with their characters in certain ways if they don’t share a facet of their identity. And, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that prohibition serves either artistry or empathy.

“Write about us, but don’t write our stories.”

Well, I don’t want to read about a character if I’m not reading some facet of their story. What is the point?

*

If I’m thankful in one way for growing up not knowing the word for what I was, it’s that I never really had occasion to ask “What does this have to do with me?” when faced with the stories of people purportedly not like me in fiction or history. Any story might give me some vital clue about how to identify or understand my own experience. I had no basis on which to be picky about who was or wasn’t similar enough to me in some arbitrary way to warrant my attention, especially since a lot of characters with lives that looked like mine didn’t actually make any sense to me. I grew up surrounded by people who looked like me. But nobody was like me.

Attractive and graceful upper-middle class white girls with tight-knit friend groups and lives that added up and adults who were a dependable source of support just didn’t say anything for me. Those weren’t reliable signals.

So there was no real barrier to perceiving something important to me in the stories of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, or a boy stranded alone in the woods in a plane crash, or an Inuit girl who leaves a home where she’s not welcome to live with a pack of wolves, or the kind and humble daughter of an African king.

I don’t identify with characters because they look like me. I do when they feel like me.

When Jodie Whittaker becomes the 13th Doctor, I read the status of an immensely well-intentioned male friend, who says “Listen guys, for 54 years, we’ve always been able to see ourselves in the Doctor. And now it’s the other half of the population’s turn.”

And don’t get me wrong, I loved the casting choice. I love Jodie Whitaker’s work. I was happy, and I thought it was exciting, and right.

But the other thing is that I’ve never not been able to see myself in the Doctor just because he was a man. (Except, really, he’s a two-hearted humanoid alien masquerading as our preconception of a “man,” but, details.) I’m confused by and then I resent the implication that I never got to see myself in the Doctor when I did.

I agree that it’s ridiculous the way so many men insisted they wouldn’t be able to empathize with a female Doctor. Why is it not absurd to assume that people like me could never have empathized or identified ourselves with a male one?

I love the casting of a woman partly because I think male Whovians should get a chance to have that experience.

But I wasn’t not having it all along.

December 15, 2021

Dana Scully and the trauma of unanswerable questions

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 12:32 pm by chavisory

[This post contains major spoilers for season 5 and beyond of The X-Files!]

The inspiration for this post was, of all things, a silly X-Files quiz I was taking at work that inspired a Twitter discussion of a badly written question.

The question in question was “How many children has Dana Scully had?”*

And, well, the tricky thing is that there are a few different possible ways to determine the answer to this question.

Are we counting only the child that she gave birth to by choice? Then the answer is one: William.

Are we counting the children who we actually met as characters in the course of the run of the show? Then the answer is two: William and Emily.

Are we presuming that by now she has had the child we find out she’s pregnant with in the series finale? Then the answer is three. Her known, living children? We’re back to either one or two (William and the as-yet-unnamed baby), depending on the time frame we’re looking at.

But if we really want to count the number of children who might exist or have existed, who might be genetically hers?

We don’t know, and neither does she.

And I don’t think that the quiz writer meant to provoke any such debate or serious consideration of this subject. I don’t think the intent was to write a question requiring this level of interpretation. Honestly it seemed like the whole thing was written by someone who was barely familiar with the show but went through a guidebook or something for material. Because anyone intimately familiar with the story would know that that’s a virtually unanswerable question without specifying some additional conditions or boundaries. You can make some assumptions about what the test is looking for and make an educated guess based on those assumptions. (I went with “how many did we meet as characters within the broadcast run of the show,” and got counted right.)

But I think it’s actually significant to some of the central tragedy of the show and its depiction of ongoing trauma—one of those things being told around the edges without ever actually being articulated or drawing our attention directly to it—that we don’t really know. That there are some incredibly basic questions about her own life that Dana Scully cannot answer.

Like where she was for three months of her life. And how many children she has.

“The answers are there,” she says in the pilot episode. “You just have to know where to look.”

But she doesn’t. In regard to a couple of issues of central to her life, she doesn’t really know where to look (or might not want to), and there may not be an answer. (We learn in “Emily” that the Syndicate might not have been keeping astonishingly good track of the children it created in the course of the hybridization experiments. Mulder and Frohike manage to trace a handful of birth records, but it seems like a lot of these children were just kind of abandoned to the social services system.) Even after all this time, there aren’t any straightforward answers, not just to some of the biggest questions in her life—but to some of even the barest facts.

And the thing is that that exacts a toll on you. It takes a toll on your ability to function in the world, to not be able to fill out things like forms or surveys or screening questionnaires. It takes a toll on your ability to form normal relationships when you can’t answer basic or casual questions in straightforward ways. To in effect always be lying by omission, either to yourself or someone else.

Even if the underlying story isn’t inherently traumatic, which Scully’s is. Even if the answers do exist and you do know what they are, they just don’t translate into checkboxes, forms, applications, or casual conversation. When they are none of the available answers to the multiple choice questions. When normal, innocent inquiries force you to lie, evade, or say “Where do I even begin.” When this is a constant fact of your life.

Scully has to lie in some way, shape or form, to virtually every possible question about her children. The two she didn’t get to raise for differently terrible reasons. The unknown names or even number of who knows how many others.

It’s interesting to me that we see at least a couple of instances in which Mulder has to give an evasive answer to a question that should be easy but isn’t.

“Do you have a significant other?”
“Um, not in the widely understood definition of that term.”

“Do you have kids, Agent Mulder?”
“Uh, well, I have son, who’s… he’s grown, though.”

But I don’t think we ever really see Scully have to navigate such a conversation, although she must. (We do see a couple in which she just doesn’t answer an accusation that she doesn’t know what it means to be a mother, or to be abducted.)

It’s in and of itself a form of trauma we see perpetuated on both Mulder and Scully into the revival, that after everything they’ve been through, who can they even talk to about it? (Besides each other, and that seems to carry its own share of problems.)

And I know we love to pillory the writers for leaving Scully with so few female friends or close colleagues by the end of the show that we didn’t even know a single one of the women at her baby shower. But really? I have no doubt that this plays a role in the seemingly inexorable departure of pretty much every female acquaintance from Scully’s life, even aside from the ones we see die. The writers didn’t miss the mark all that badly at the end of the day. It is hard to maintain intimacy or equal footing in relationships with people who you have little ability to share everyday details of your life with because they just have no possible frame of reference.

It sucks. When the facts of your life don’t fit into the way the world works for anyone else. When even trying to explain is exhausting and only makes you a constant object of ridicule or fascination or just incomprehension.

I’ve been talking a little bit recently about illegibility in the lives of autistic people—how so often even well-meaning researchers and professionals don’t succeed at asking questions in a way that lets us give true or useful answers, because so few people really know what our lives look like. I can’t even tell you how many surveys or web forms I’ve just had to stop and give up on because of a question to which I had no possible true answer but also couldn’t skip or go around. About the need to allow for multiple answers and complicated answers and answers that don’t fall into any category you might have anticipated needing to identify, especially in the realms of gender and sexuality, relationships, living arrangement, and employment. I’ve had four meetings with my ACA navigator this year alone, largely for help in constructing the elaborate web of half-truths that will let me exchange data about my life for affordable health insurance, because the state of New York doesn’t know how to ask questions about those things that would let me just tell them the truth.

To say nothing of the things that I mostly just don’t tell people.

And it takes such a toll, to never be able to say true things about your life. Not just in terms of, say, getting healthcare providers or tax professionals or social services or educational institutions to understand what you need, but in your ability to feel known, feel counted, feel like what’s happened to you does count.

That you can be accounted for.

*Interestingly, when I went back to the quiz to make sure I’d remembered the wording right, the question had been changed to a more answerable version: “How many children does Dana Scully know she’s had?” Which is still tragic in its implications, but more possible to come up with a straight answer to. So it’s possible that more people than a handful of fans on Twitter said something…

December 11, 2021

Beacon Broadside’s Top Ten!

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 1:32 pm by chavisory

Hi all! I’m working on getting a couple of real posts up pretty soon, but in the meantime, I was recently thrilled to be notified that my column, “Dear Parents: ‘Autistic’ Isn’t a Bad Word” was one of Beacon Press’s top ten blog posts in the Beacon Broadside this year!

If you missed it the first time around, you can find a link to the original post as well as to the Beacon Broadside’s other nine top posts for the year here!

November 10, 2021

The vampire isn’t an angel just because it’s scary.

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 1:08 am by chavisory

This is adapted from a recent Facebook post, since I decided not to antagonize this person on Twitter, which I judged would be a poor use of both of our days.

[Tweet by a person whose name and image I’ve pixelated reads “I think what a lot of folx don’t quite understand is social justice isn’t meant to make you feel comfortable. It’s quite the opposite really. It’s meant to make you confront the injustices in this world which is inherently an uncomfortable process. /1”]

But I think it’s worth talking about why this tweet actually encapsulates, really concisely and eloquently, part of why I have always found the social justice movement as we presently know it so profoundly alienating.

(The other part involves its incredibly close resemblance to the dynamics of evangelical Christianity, but that’ll have to remain another soapbox for another day right now.)

When I first started getting into activism, I believed, perhaps naively, that the point was to see justice done. And sometimes that does involve changing a lot of people’s core beliefs and opinions.

And that takes time. It takes different approaches for different people and different situations. People mainly change their essential worldviews over long periods of time, for personal and complicated reasons, not because the right person yelled at them, berated them or made fun of them.

And sometimes it means getting shit done regardless of what other people think about it.

Sometimes it is inevitably going to be uncomfortable. Sometimes you’re going to learn things you wish couldn’t be true or that you didn’t want to know. Learning and growing can be painful. Confronting your own cognitive dissonance or the failures of your worldview can be uncomfortable. Pain and discomfort can be necessary to growth. People seriously interested in confronting their prejudices should be ready for that. You’re not always going to be reassured that you are good and right or that what you’re trying to do is the best possible thing.

That’s life.

But I believe the inversion—not just that confronting injustice is likely to be uncomfortable, but this thinly-veiled (and sometimes not-at-all-veiled) “the point is making people uncomfortable,” “the point is to make you do things that are going to make you uncomfortable” rhetoric that has become such an article of faith in social justice advocacy—is too much of an open door to deciding that whatever you need to do to make the right people uncomfortable is justified, to the point of open mistreatment and upsetting people for the sake of it.

You’re making someone else uncomfortable, so that must mean you’re doing the right thing, right? That’s just what it takes, right?

That must mean they needed to be made uncomfortable, right?

I mean, that’s the logical extension of the directive that “if you’re defensive, that means you’re wrong, so just own up to it and apologize.” So if you’ve made someone defensive, it’s because you were right to. That’s just what confronting injustice means, right?

It’s a mistake I’ve seen in a lot of social justice rhetoric over the years now—that if you’re making someone uncomfortable that means you’re doing it right. Regardless of what, if any, other effect on the issue at hand you’re actually having.

And as someone who, for various reasons, lots of people over the course of my life have decided that I needed to be made uncomfortable and that it was their moral imperative to do it…I can tell you that that is not ever going to go the way you hope it will.

While I think it probably wasn’t the intentional primary thesis of the show, events at one point in the recent Netflix series Midnight Mass vividly illustrate the horrible potentialities of the inversion.

[Major spoilers for Midnight Mass from here on out!]

[Not kidding! If you have not watched Midnight Mass but you do intend to do so, do not read!]

When Father Paul reveals the vampire to his parishioners at the midnight Easter Mass, he first attempts to reassure them in their understandable alarm by reminding them that angels have almost always had to announce their presence by saying “Be not afraid.” Because the normal reaction of a human to the sight of an angel is terror.

“And remember, brothers and sisters! Have faith, that in the Bible, every time they mention an angel, when an angel appears to we humans, we are afraid!”

And it’s true—the Bible describes angels as terrifying and bizarre, and the messages they bring to humanity as usually disruptive and uncomfortable.

What that doesn’t mean is that anything terrifying is an angel.

Vampires are scary. Angels are scary.

But the vampire isn’t an angel because it’s scary, and being scary, in and of itself, isn’t proof of something being an angel.

Sometimes things that are ultimately good are terrifying. Sometimes good news is scary. But not everything terrifying is actually good. And not everything “uncomfortable” is actually justified, or even true. Sometimes the reason you’re uncomfortable or defensive is because you are being treated badly. Sometimes the reason you’re being told to ignore your instincts or your values is because it is in the interests of abusers for you to do so. Sometimes your cognitive dissonance is because what you’re being told is right and necessary is wrong and messed up.

Sometimes the thing you’re being told is an angel looks like a vampire because it is one.

And sometimes the rat poison you’re being served as a sacrament is actually just rat poison.

The bridges you burn may light your way. Or they might strand you on a burning island full of vampires.

I think once we’ve decided that making people comfortable or uncomfortable is the point of our activism, once we’ve decided how other people are supposed to feel and that our moral prerogative is to make them, we’ve already lost our way.

May 28, 2021

Fiction does affect reality. That’s good.

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 6:09 pm by chavisory

Only in the last couple of years, after a couple of decades of being too busy with work and other things, have I started to reconnect with online fan culture.

And it’s not that I expected everything to have just stayed the same since I was in college. I had entirely missed some major events in internet fandom like Strikethrough and Boldthrough and the subsequent establishment of Archive of Our Own.

I was surprised, however, by the emergence of a faction of fans, who seem to be primarily younger and socially left-leaning, sometimes called the “antis” (short for “anti-shippers”), noted for their opposition to the depiction of certain kinds of romantic or sexual relationships and other problematic elements, especially in fanfiction accessible to minors, based on their conviction that “fiction affects reality.”

It isn’t that this position didn’t exist in the 1990’s, or far earlier, or that I’d never encountered it before. But it primarily existed among the socially conservative political right, who believed that access to certain video games risked turning teenagers into murderers and carjackers, that Marilyn Manson’s music was responsible for the Columbine massacre, and that people my age couldn’t be trusted with the books I was assigned to read for AP English, and attempted to legally restrict the distribution of what they considered indecent media on the internet in draconian (and ultimately unconstitutional) ways.

Its prevalence among young, nominally progressive readers feels new and alarming. (And I’m tempted to connect it to illiberal trends in current left-wing activism more generally, but that might be beyond the scope of this post.)

And it’s not that I don’t believe that fiction has the power to affect reality, and to deeply impact people, but it has started to seem to me that even in our defense of problematic and difficult media, there has been a tendency to refute the notion that fiction affects reality in ways as simplistic as these people claim, without challenging the premise that the primary effects of media on reality are dangerous and bad.

Image description: Tumblr post with the name of original poster blurried reads “People really need to realize that “media can affect real life” doesn’t mean “this character does bad things so people will read that and start doing bad things” and actually means “ideas in fiction especially stereotypes about minority groups can affect how the reader views those groups, an authors implicit prejudices can be passed on to readers”

When we talk about how fiction affects reality, I don’t think we should just be talking about how media’s potential for negative or morally insidious impact on our beliefs is nowhere near as one-dimensional as the antis’ and “fiction affects reality” alarmists would have us believe. I think we also need to be unafraid to talk about how fiction affects reality in complex and subtle ways for the better, and not only in ways that are differently or more subtly bad. And I think we need to talk about mental autonomy and how we are not simply automatons of the media we consume, but have the ability and the right to reflect critically on what we read and watch.

One of the things that fiction enables me to do, for instance, when I see a character I like or identify with in some way making what I’d consider to be immoral choices, is to consider the thought process by which they arrived at those decisions, and how even good qualities in a person can become moral weaknesses, and proactively consider how I might do better or differently when faced with a similar situation.

Fiction teaches that you can empathize with someone as a person but not necessarily condone what they do.

Fiction can ask us to consider the value and validity of lives very different from our own. Fiction can further entrench harmful stereotypes of minorities, but it can also challenge those stereotypes and prejudices in readers.

Fiction can show us admirable characters who we can look to as examples of the kind of people we want to be and the kind of behavior we want to emulate.

Fiction inculcates empathy and identification with others to such an extent that I’ve heard it said before that the rise of the novel as a literary form may’ve contributed to the decline in popularity of public executions as family entertainment.

Fiction can ask us to imagine the ways in which the world could be better, and how we might choose to live differently.

Fiction can warn us of dangerous ideologies and the impact of things like fundamentalism and authoritarianism on people in the real world. There is a reason that authority figures bent on control and repression of others’ freedom of conscience, personal autonomy, sexuality and LGBTQ+ acceptance, for instance, so often attempt to restrict children’s access to literature about oppression and about the experiences of marginalized and persecuted people.

Fiction has the power to tell people that they aren’t alone in the world in whatever they’re going through, and to give people ways to articulate their experiences to others, to themselves, and to seek support, clarity, and greater control over their own lives.

It isn’t just that the power of fiction and media isn’t that bad; it’s that it has the capacity to be a powerful force for good—for compassion, self-knowledge, and freedom. And this isn’t only true of works written to be uplifting, un-problematic, or comforting. I think storytelling like that absolutely has its place, but the best of what literature and media can do for us can be equally true of works that are brutally dark or morally complicated, in which people do and believe and experience terrible things.

When I was a teenager, we broadly opposed those who wanted to take access to art and literature away from us. We defended our abilities to watch and read difficult media. We saw and read a lot of things that we were probably too young for, that depicted horrifying things. I honestly think we’re better off for it.

May 5, 2021

“Coming of Age” interview

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 3:08 pm by chavisory

“For me, anyway, the irony is that a lot of the strengths of autism have to be spent on navigating or compensating for the ways in which our society is still very hostile toward autistic people. And I think a lot about the kinds of things we might be able to create or accomplish if we all had the support that we need or weren’t required to expend a lot of our energy and cognitive bandwidth having to look out for ourselves in ways that non-autistic and non-disabled people don’t, if we didn’t have to leverage our strengths so hard just to survive.”

Photo credit: Charlie Stern

I had a great time doing this interview with with Beacon Press editorial intern Evangelyn Beltran, which is out in the Beacon Broadside this week! In addition to discussing autistic identity, I talk about growing up undiagnosed in the 1980’s, and stage managing while autistic.

It’s the third part of a series, “Coming of Age and Living Authentically on the Autism Spectrum,” with my co-editors Sharon daVanport and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu! Sharon’s interview is here and Morénike’s is here!

April 26, 2021

Dear Parents: On the importance of community language for autistic people

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 2:31 am by chavisory

I keep forgetting to post this here, but in connection with the publication of Sincerely, Your Autistic Child, I have an op-ed published in the Beacon Broadside about the importance to kids and families of having access to language to talk about autistic identity and our disability communities.

“There’s nothing shameful about being autistic. Nothing about knowing and understanding our linguistic history detracts from your child’s individuality or personhood. And there’s nothing trivial or strange about having discussions about autistic identity.”

You can read the rest of “Dear Parents: ‘Autistic’ Isn’t a Bad Word” here!

March 29, 2021

Sincerely, Your Autistic Child

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:07 pm by chavisory

Well, I’ve got a happy announcement about how I’ve been spending my time this pandemic, in addition to doing a little bit of hiking, and harassing our building management into fixing our apartment, while I wait for my industry to get back on its feet…

A few years ago, the organization I volunteered for, AWN, self-published our first anthology, What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew, of seventeen essays by autistic people writing directly to parents about what we wanted them to know as people who had been autistic girls, particularly because at the time, so little information for parents from other autism organizations had much to say about the unique and specific experiences and needs of autistic girls.

Since that time, our name has changed to the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, and our mission and goals have expanded to more fully include people of all gender minorities and not just women and girls, and then last spring we learned that Beacon Press had chosen that book for republication. And so over the last eight months, my co-editors Sharon and Morénike and I have been hard at work with our team at Beacon on giving the book an expansion and update, including a new Letter from the Editors, chapters by six new contributors, new cover design, and perhaps most noticeably, a new title! We’re so happy about how it’s turned out, and that our little book will once again be available, just in time for Autism Acceptance Month this year, this time as Sincerely, Your Autistic Child: What People on the Autism Spectrum Wish Their Parents Knew About Growing Up, Acceptance, and Identity.

Pre-orders are open now, and it will be available everywhere including Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or from the Beacon Press website on March 31! We hope you’ll check it out or share it with the family of an autistic kid in your life!

January 11, 2021

The great and underused characters of the X-Files

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 5:10 pm by chavisory

Image is of two identical strawberry-blond young men in lab coats, who are actually alien-human hybrid clones.

[For anyone reading who might be working through the series for the first time, this post should be considered to contain significant spoilers for seasons 1-4, and minor ones for seasons 6 and 10.]

The more time I spend re-watching the X-Files, the more I come to believe that something I found intensely frustrating about it as a kid during the original run is, in fact, a huge strength of the show, which is that a great deal of story is actually taking place off-screen, or in ways that we’re just not being explicitly told. I think it’s easy to call it a lack of continuity, and many people do, but the older I get, the more appreciation I have for how much story it’s actually possible to perceive just out of our direct line of sight as viewers, and that the show makes you work for it a little bit.

Generally, I feel it’s a strength of the show’s narrative construction that it leaves you wanting more.

Nevertheless, there are a handful of characters who I continue to feel were under-used for what they were to the story, even if only marginally—for whom my frustration at what we didn’t get to see outweighs my enjoyment of that frustration.

And for me, this set of choices is distinct from what my list would be simply of favorite secondary characters who I nonetheless think we saw the correct amount of (Skinner, Krycek, Mr. X, Chuck Burks), great characters who just got a raw deal (Melissa, Pendrell, or the Lone Gunmen), or whose total and conspicuous absence feels calculated to say something all its own (Charles Scully).

Of course any number of different and valid choices could have been made for any number of characters in a show with such a large cast of supporting characters as the X-Files, but these are the ones who, to me, feel more like underutilized opportunities for the story as a whole.

With that…

5. Agent Henderson, handwriting expert
One of the things that sticks out to me in re-watching season 1 is that even though he had already become known as “Spooky” Mulder and deemed himself “the FBI’s most unwanted,” Mulder actually used to have good working relationships with other agents. He didn’t start out as the social outcast of the Bureau. We see him at the very least have amiable relationships with Reggie Purdue, with the never seen but ever-appreciated Danny Valadeo, and that his leadership is respected in the situation room in “Lazarus” as the plan to recover Scully from Jack and Lila unfolds. And it makes Mulder and Scully’s growing sense of isolation as the show wears on even more striking and tragic, particularly in the wake of the deaths of Agents Purdue, Willis, and Jerry Lamana. We also learn in “Young at Heart” that Mulder felt responsible for the death of Agent Steve Wallenberg, though we don’t know how well-acquainted they actually were.

One of these early associations of Mulder’s is with a handwriting analyst, Agent Henderson, who he consults in “Young at Heart,” and from the playfulness and comfort of their banter and her clear pleasure at showing off to him, evidently not for the first time.

There was a Twitter discussion at one point of whether anyone thought Mulder and Henderson had a “thing,” and I don’t think that’s it, although they certainly had a rapport, and I think Henderson had a little bit of a crush on Mulder. I think they both found each other refreshingly brash.

I do understand the need to use the screen time available to establish Mulder and Scully’s relationship with each other. I do not understand resisting the temptation to give at least one more scene to the woman who spoke the line, “Ten minutes may be enough time for you, Mulder. Of course I wouldn’t know that from personal experience.”

4. Miller and Einstein
While I get that there was a lot to hate about “Babylon,” one of the things that I didn’t was the introduction of Agents Kyd Miller and Elizabeth Einstein. I hoped it would mark the start of a reversal of the process by which we saw Mulder and Scully’s world become more and more isolated, lonely, and devoid of support. By this point in the series, we’ve seen Mulder and Scully lose their relationships with basically everyone but Skinner, and their trust in him is on shaky ground. Mulder has lost his entire family. Scully has lost both her parents, her sister, one child to death and another to adoption, and seems to barely have a relationship with her surviving brothers or nephews. Deep Throat, the Lone Gunmen, and Pendrell are dead. Mulder’s alienated from Senator Matheson. Doggett and Reyes are nowhere to be seen at this point. We haven’t seen Scully have any ties of friendship to another woman in years. (We see that she has female colleagues at Our Lady of Sorrows in I Want to Believe, but it doesn’t seem like she has great relationships with them.) I so wanted to see them start to regain all they’ve lost, starting with restoring friendships or good professional relationships again.

I liked the way “Babylon” was structured as a geometric expansion of older episodes like “Field Trip,” “Folie a Deux,” or “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” the theses of which were that Mulder and Scully both actually need each other’s worldviews to survive, only this time it was all four of these people, deeply at odds with each other’s methods and beliefs, who had to accept that they all needed each other’s insights to succeed and ultimately to save others’ lives. We see Mulder and Scully, in deciding to ask the assistance of their younger opposites, kind of induct Miller and Einstein into the bond formed by seeking knowledge and putting trust in a point of view other than one’s own.

And notwithstanding that most of “My Struggle II” turned out to be Scully’s seizure-induced hallucination, I think one of the revelatory things about it was that she does actually like and trust Einstein, who initially doesn’t seem to have a lot of respect for her—that when she saw herself problem-solving her way to defeat of a global pandemic with someone, it was her.

I thought the characters had a lot of potential to grow deeper than the slightly comic doppleganger versions of Mulder and Scully they were introduced to us as, and I wanted Einstein especially to have some experience to lead her to a deeper understanding of why Scully has stayed with Mulder all these years (because obviously being in love with him wasn’t enough in the end) and the value of the X-Files.

And it’s possible that this was actually envisioned for the conclusion of the season 12 Chris Carter has said he’d assumed he would get to write, but I would have loved to see the series end with a shot of Miller and Einstein taking over the X-files office to pick up from wherever Mulder and Scully finally decide to conclude their own journey.

3. Duane Barry
I admit that though I’ve been entranced and frustrated by this particular subplot of the myth-arc for years, I am somewhat torn in this choice. Because on the one hand, he was such a compelling character, but I think it would also have been very easy to err on the side of over-relying on him to tell myth-arc backstory. And because there’s incredible power in just how earthshattering his single appearance in the narrative was, how much it’s actually possible to infer given how very little we really learn about him, even in how reluctant Mulder is to even talk about him ever again.

He’s kind of a third rail of the mythology of the X-Files in that it’s very difficult to overestimate just how much of a linchpin he is to the subsequent narrative, and pretty much no one in the story wants to openly address that. Even the fandom alludes to it so seldom that sometimes I have a hard time telling whether it’s actually so obvious as to be considered not worth mentioning, or whether it was established a bit too underhandedly.

The conflict of the episode “Duane Barry” is framed largely around the question of whether he’s a reliable narrator of his own abduction experiences, with Kazdin assuming he is not and Mulder assuming he is (until Scully enters the scene with information about the nature of his prior brain injury). But the vastly more important piece of information he possesses, though he can barely speak coherently about it by that point, is the existence of a “secret corporation” in league with the military and alien conspiracy. Something Skinner, Mulder, and we the audience don’t learn is actually true until almost three years later (in “Redux II”).

I had also misremembered him speaking the line “There were men” in that same conversation with Mulder, but he actually says “There’s a man,” by which I have a hard time believing he doesn’t mean CSM.

And the show never really circles back around to have Mulder and Scully, or, I suspect, much of the audience, put those pieces together: that he knew, possibly before anyone, what was going on with Roush.

And that, I think it fairly safely follows, the approximate chances that his shooting was really an accident rather than a botched assassination attempt, are pretty close to zero.

And that would actually explain a lot about how the Syndicate and its cronies in the FBI deal with the problem Mulder presents, going to elaborate lengths to keep him contained, discouraged, and discredited rather than kill him outright.

Because the last time they tried to just have an inconvenient FBI agent murdered, it went really, really badly.

(And I know it’s a readily available explanation that CSM is reluctant to kill Mulder because he’s his son, but I really wonder how far that goes. He shot his son Jeffrey in the face himself the moment he was no longer expedient.)

The more I re-watch the series the more I want to know about Barry’s short and tragic FBI career and how he found out what he found out. He knew at least roughly who CSM was and the basic outline of the whole conspiracy long before anyone else puts it together, what happens to him as a result is a complete horror (in ways that we see echoes of in what happens to both Mulder and Scully over and over and over again throughout the rest of the series), and I think the show could’ve brought those threads full-circle and reconnected them to the mythology in a way that could’ve been far more cathartic.

2. Kurt Crawford
I’m conflicted about this choice, too, but slightly less.

I’ve always found it strange how little Kurt Crawford is remarked on given that he, or the clones choosing to bear his name, is one of the most eerie and pervasive presences throughout the whole first half of the original run of the show. We meet him only ever as an echo, having no information at all about who he was before, and yet in a way, we see him grow up, from the boys we first see floating in tanks in the “Erlenmeyer Flask” to the child versions being used as worker drones on the bee farm in “Herrenvolk,” to the adults we finally meet in “Memento Mori,” and then never see again.

What’s his back story? If it’s anything like Samantha’s, he could’ve been a family member of a Syndicate member, handed over to the alien colonists as a hostage, and yet we don’t see anyone fitting his description in the scene in “One Son” when we see that happen.

He could kind of be anyone.

And the clones of this person are engaged in one of the most stupidly brazen, morally courageous acts of subterfuge we see in the series, working to try to undermine the Project and find a way to save the dying women who have been its victims (and their mothers) from within its own labs.

How did they come together in their conviction to try this? Do the women of the Allentown MUFON group know who or what their contact Kurt Crawford really is? Did Betsy Hagopian? Or as a multiple abductee since her teen years (as Penny Northern tells us), did she possibly know his original? Did he know Samantha?

Is he still alive?

These are the things that make his possible back story so rich and yet so wide-open for speculation and interpretation that I’ve always been baffled that fanfic writers aren’t all over it. And while there’s a powerful, simple elegance in the arc of horrible snapshots of his story we were allowed to see, I also think that like one more scene of character arc or origin story for him could’ve turned this character from intriguing to beloved.

1. Poorboy
Not even a little conflicted about this.

The little blond boy who we meet in “The Unnatural,” both as a fan of Josh Exley and the Grays in the 1940’s, and as an errand boy for the former Officer Dales in the 1990’s, wearing the same old-fashioned clothes and snarking about Mulder being “a regular Rockefeller” in a strangely sophisticated manner, is strongly implied to be an alien shapeshifter himself.

This would make him at least one of if not the longest-surviving defector from the colonization project. What has he seen over the course of five decades spent evading detection as a little blond urchin this way? What does he know? While I think it was probably the right decision to leave this character’s history largely in a state of mystery, I also think he represents a lost opportunity to connect dots or deliver exposition. And I realize that since David Duchovny wrote this episode, this is a character who Chris Carter likely never envisioned carrying forward in any way. But we’ve got a character who’s a nearly complete blank slate, who’s just been…around…for 50 years or so, who could’ve been anywhere, doing anything for a lot of that time. Virtually any message that needed carrying, any one piece of information that needed to make its way from the 1940’s to the 1990’s or any points in between, between virtually any two other characters, could’ve been transmitted by Poorboy.

It’s uncommon for me to argue that a character needed to be more of a plot device, but Poorboy and what was implied about him represented an almost limitless opportunity to increase intrigue and connection between characters and disparate threads of the mythology, while also leaving us with even more questions.

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 after having 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 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 Humperdinck 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 the 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.

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