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 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 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.

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.

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