July 21, 2022

The strange loneliness of liking too much

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:53 pm by chavisory

A Facebook memory from about four years ago popped up in my timeline recently; I’d been looking for someone, anyone, else to talk to who’d been listening to both the Rabbits and Point Mystic podcasts. Rabbits was another podcast by the creators of TANIS, a mystery involving a missing woman and something that might be an elaborate role-playing game or might be something much darker or might be all in the imagination of the narrator. Point Mystic in its early days was kind of like if Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman had teamed up to write a family-friendly horror podcast for old Millennials (and if that sounds like something you’d be into, well, I highly recommend it).

Two friends had heard Rabbits. None had heard Point Mystic, and so obviously none had heard both, and I was just helplessly desperate to find someone to talk about common themes and symbols between them with, and I was completely out of luck.

To the best of my knowledge, I still am.

Or I saw a slightly older horror movie a few years ago called YellowBrickRoad, and wanted someone to talk to about its parallels to both LOST and Limetown, and there was just…no one. Or no one interested enough, anyway. Even though Limetown had been hugely popular at the time, and the movie had come out the same year LOST had ended, it was an indie release that just not enough people had seen, I guess. Or they did, but no one saw what I saw.

Lately I’m really into the relationship between ghosts and time travel, and that’s a hard one, even though it seems like it shouldn’t be. I was reading a book called Ghostly Matters by Avery F. Gordon last summer and I’d love to see someone discuss Twin Peaks in light of that work, and it seems so obvious to me, like they were written for each other, but no one really has, as far as I can tell.

I was also stewing about this in relation to question about what the things are that you feel are chronically under-appreciated. And the problem for me isn’t quite that, although those things do exist for me, being autistic and all. I do have a lot of favorite media that not very many people are familiar with, but the people who are love it a lot, even if they’re few and far between.

But the thing that really gets me, that leaves me feeling alone in what I love so often, is seeing relationships and parallels between my niche interests—or sometimes even between things that aren’t really niche phenomena but that just don’t tend to share a common audience—and the combination of uncommon interests and uncommon pattern recognition is what will really leave you without anyone to talk to, going “I can’t be the only person who’s seeing this, right?”

Take for instance Amazon’s Outer Range, which, with its initial appearance of being more of a Western family drama, seems somehow to have captured an audience that overwhelmingly doesn’t watch any other fairly popular television sci-fi. Reviews mentioned superficial resemblances to Stranger Things occasionally, but there should’ve been people yelling about the ways it was invoking tropes from the X-Files, Fringe, and Doctor Who.

And I half suspect that the rise of binge watching (and the production of much shorter seasons more suited to binge watching) might actually be accelerating the phenomenon. (A recent Tumblr post confirms that at least I’m not the only person perceiving this to be the case.) Where even shows that become massive smash hits are a flash in the pan as far as how long they really stick in the popular consciousness, as opposed to building a presence in the public awareness over time, so that a story’s language becomes our language. Instead, a show that’s a year or two old, let alone five or seven, seems to just have no grip on public memory anymore. And things don’t build followings by word of mouth over time, so that there are fans in various different stages of engagement. Everybody saw something when it came out a year ago, and now nobody has any sense of its connection or relationship to anything else.

I think there’s an aspect of age to it, too. When I was a teenager, you couldn’t really be too sincerely enthusiastic about much. Now you can, a whole lot more, but younger people watching the same things as you just don’t have the same background knowledge. So I watched the first season of Good Omens a couple of years ago, just constantly going “So we’re really not going to talk about the whole dialogue with the Screwtape Letters happening here? We’re really not going to talk about that at all?”

Anyone?

Bueller?

And I feel like there’s an inclination lately to ask whether an experience like this is ~an autism thing~ but I hesitate about that, because I don’t think it’s something just intrinsic to that or something other people aren’t capable of experiencing. Although I think it’s probably more likely to be a corollary of having a fairly broad range of somewhat niche interests, a stronger than average attention to detail, and a much longer than average memory.

There’s a loneliness to having too narrow a range of interests, to being in love with something that nobody else is, or that’s very displaced in time compared to the rest of your social circle (being obsessively in love with the music of Buddy Holly when you’re eight, or the Moody Blues when you’re 13 will not get you any conversation partners). There’s another kind, ironically, in having too broad a range of enthusiasms.

I want to talk about Radical Face’s “Family Tree” album cycle and Ray Bradbury and “The Nevers.” And Ray Bradbury and Tales from the Loop. And even though JK Rowling is totally canceled, I want to talk about all the X-Files easter eggs in Harry Potter. I want to read about time travel and trauma, about time and memory and the precise relationship between the Austin and Murry O’Keefe families. Sometimes I go searching fanfic archives, sometimes academia.edu or JSTOR for the kind of meta-discussion I want to be reading, though rarely to much satisfaction. Lately I really want to talk to somebody about Josh Ritter’s The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All and also Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.

I know entirely too well that what a lot of people would say is “Well, you could write about all of that!” That you have to write the things you want to exist in the world if no one else is going to do it. I am borderline afraid that this is what finally drives me into grad school, just for the opportunity to pick a topic no one else is ever going to and spend several years writing 200 pages about it.

But I could spend the rest of my life writing essays about this stuff just to placate my own restless brain, and it’s still not the same as getting interpretive feedback with people who can also see what you see. As getting to have a conversation.

“Is this something no one else has noticed and that’s why no one is talking about it?” I spend a lot of time wondering. “Or is it actually so obvious it doesn’t bear mentioning?”

In most cases, it’s a question I never get an answer to.

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…

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.

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.

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.

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.

August 16, 2019

Betrayed on Sesame Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was too afraid to find out.

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

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

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

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

Julia’s echolalia worked just like mine.

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

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

And I had never, ever seen that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 21, 2018

The lost children of the X-Files

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a betrayal of too much.

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

beyond the sea

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

herrenvolk2

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

3. Where’s Gibson?

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

It doesn’t add up.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

my struggle iv pic

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

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

 

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

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