Archive for the ‘stories’ Category
One: I’m clinging to my roommate’s arm, trying to (re)learn how to walk in heels.
Two: a friend sent me a pair of shoes.
One: I wore heels, once. I was in a choir, a choir that was a Really Big Deal, and the high school girls had to wear character shoes. I got the lowest possible heel, and I was okay, mostly.
I liked how they sounded on the floor, so sometimes I wore them in college, or to DD council meetings, or when I went to Washington. I think they had maybe a half-inch heel.
I lost my character shoes in the move. Two years went by. I tore all the muscles in my left ankle, every last one, and I couldn’t go to physical therapy.
I put on a new pair of heels, and I knew, instantly that I didn’t remember how to do this.
Two: my life looks very different from high school. I am connected now, in some pretty formal ways, to hundreds of disabled people all across the world. A couple of weeks ago, one of those people, a Facebook friend who has done a lot to show me what living with pride and joy in a disabled body looks like, posted that she had somehow wound up with a pair of mary janes that were far too big for her. Did any crip femmes she knew want them?
They were a size 11. I usually only have 1 pair of shoes at a time, and let me tell you, finding cute shoes in your size when you are over six feet tall is not easy. I said so. She sent me a picture, I noted they had heels, we worked out the logistics.
A few days ago, they arrived. I was having a bad hands day, so my roommate helped me open the box.
I did remember how to put them on by myself.
I am autistic. Just like the screenings warn, I walked on my toes when I was little, and until I hurt my ankle this summer, I still did. I can dance, kind of, not really. In my own way. I have a lot of trouble with conventional femininity: I wear long skirts and long hair after a religious upbringing, but I don’t have the motor skills or the patience or the social-cognitive something for most of the work required to do femme traditionally. I can’t put on my own makeup or paint my nails; I can’t fasten any clothes that a typical six year-old can’t. I used to be able to pin up my braids, but I lost that skill sometime last year after going too long without OT. The day you see me with my hair perfectly coiffed and my eyes carefully made up, in a coat that buttons and boots with no zippers, is the day you know I’ve either been married or placed on a Medicaid waiver.
Like a lot of disabled women hoping no one notices we’ve snuck into the professional world, I cling to the few scraps of traditional femininity I can hold on to with my teeth. My friend, another autistic woman in the workplace, calls it “femme-NOS.”
Being able to wear heels again would be a big deal.
“We’re gonna walk around the room,” my roommate says, and I nod and hang on for dear life.
“Why did you want these?” he asks.
“The gala,” I say, grimly. One of these days I am going to be dressed to kill.
“Okay,” he says. At the last gala, he helped ferry me from guest to guest, guiding me through the crowd and staving off meltdowns and making the loudest night of the year mildly enjoyable.
“We’ll have to practice a lot.”
One of my other friends runs a blog called CP Shoes, about disability and shoes and some other things. I know as soon as I volunteer to take the shoes that I am going to want to write a thing for her. I’m writing, again, because some things worked out and I have a little more energy, a tiny bit of space for words left in my brain on the weekends.
Some of my friends and I are starting to talk, in various places and various ways, about #DressingWhileDisabled. There are a lot of stories about disability out there, and not a lot of them look like our lives. We have to tell them ourselves. We have to tell them together.
I sit down, and there are two stories I can write.
One: I’m autistic, and there are things I have to learn and struggle with and overcome, like wearing heels.
Two: a friend sent me a pair of shoes, and on a night dedicated to celebrating disability and community and the way my brain and my body glitch at each other, I’m going to wear them.
I want to write a story about shoes and disability, about the connections disability community makes between people who are very short and people who are awkward crashing giants, about the ways my life has gotten so much bigger, about objects and ideas that get passed from person to person, about the ways that disabled women or crip femmes or we take care of each other when no one else will.
We’re taking it one step, one story, at a time. And these are the stories I want to see.
Buckle up kids, because this gets long and personal.
So, a long time (~7 months) ago, in a galaxy far, far away (rural New Hampshire,) there lived a sad little girl (or KICKASS ADULT,) named Julia who just so happened to have a friend named C. C and Julia had spent the past several months talking too much altogether about Glee, and C had begun to push for Julia to add a second show to her plate. Some brightly-colored sitcom about derelicts going to a community college.
And Julia was skeptical, but C was persistent, for she knew that if Julia liked the first two minutes, Julia would have a new favorite show. See, C knew something that Julia did not.
C knew that Abed Nadir existed.
Now, there are a couple of things you, gentle reader, must know about Julia in order to appreciate what happens next. First, you must understand that, ever since she had been born and maybe even before, Julia had been autistic. And second, you must understand that, because of this, Julia had spent her whole life watching and learning stories where she had no part, no point of entry, and no value. Julia was trained to imagine herself in stories as someone she was not and could never be, and to define the story of her own life in terms of how it failed to be reflected back to her. And sometimes, most of the times, Julia forgot that she was a person. Stories are important, and she didn’t have one. You are a mistake isn’t a story. It’s barely even a sentence.
I must warn you now that this is not a story of how C or Dan Harmon or Abed Nadir or even Julia herself saved or healed Julia. It’s in the script, but Julia wouldn’t have a voice in any of those stories, either. No, gentle readers and vicious tumblr-ers, this is a story of what it means to start a new story and see on your screen, for the first time, someone who moves like you.
Do you understand what that means?
It’s probably not something you’ve ever really had to think about. But how someone moves is the first thing telling you whether or not they might be able to be you, and you them. And for the first time in Julia’s life, she looked at a character on television and saw a yes.
Abed Nadir walked onto Julia’s laptop screen, and nothing and everything changed.
For the next seventh months, there was a lot of CAPSLOCKING IN GOOGLE CHAT at C about Community and Abed Nadir, but very few words elsewhere. Which was odd, because when Julia liked things, she tended to talk about them too much. This was one of many things she and Abed had in common.
Except, here’s the funny thing. Abed said “I just like liking things,” and it wasn’t just not-punished, it wasn’t just okay—either of which would have been remarkable and unbelievable—no. It was good.
And Julia, who had endless words for a great many small and unimportant things, couldn’t say anything more about Abed beyond he moves like me.
Abed Nadir, you see, is an autistic character.
There’s a difference between TV Autistics and autistic characters on television. TV Autistics—Bones, House, Sheldon, Sherlock—are caricatures, and, not coincidentally, all fan-diagnosed. They are socially awkward/anti-social/socially maladapted, eccentric geniuses free of any serious adaptive functioning limitations, motor issues, sensory sensitivities, or language differences, able to manage independently in all major areas of daily living, with a bonus side of savant skills and the empathic range of a rock. They’re awesome, but they’re a stock character, and they manage to simultaneously hint at the autistic experience without actually meaning it. It’s like that poster about gay subtext in popular that was going around a while ago
the irony being, of course, that for a show that is “so gay,” it’s actually not gay at all. The people in charge have found the perfect ratio of homoerotic subtext (all of it) to actual gay characters (none of them) to keep the fangirls creaming their pants and the money rolling in. No one involved has any intention of meaningful inclusion or exploration. You avoid any potentially unpleasant consequences, because the choice to have a gay character was never actually made.
It should be noted that autism isn’t the only reason Julia grew up without People Like Her on television, and it’s not even close to the only reason she has a Thing about stories. And that’s the curious thing about these TV Autistics—someone who’s watched one of them in action is much more predisposed to assume that since Julia is autistic, and since she’s got this extended metaphor (bonus points if you say perseveration) about stories going on, stories must be her Special Interest, the framework through which she filters the world, the poor half-human thing.
And they are, but that’s because Julia is, shockingly, a person at her core. And people need stories.
Which brings us back to Abed.
It’s entirely possible Julia over-identified with Abed, just a tad. Which struck her as first a bit odd—they’re nothing alike, Abed thinks The Breakfast Club had a plot and likes falafel and his mom had the decency to leave— and then as more than a bit precarious. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
(Somewhere, fiddling with her contacts, C arched an eyebrow and said “it wasn’t?” and Julia cyber-kicked her.)
Abed Nadir walked around like a bird or a giraffe, and he couldn’t do thumbs-up and he talked too fast and knew too many things and he was sharp and suspicious and easy and trusting. He did things that were simultaneously uncanny/creepy and sweet/thoughtful, and he couldn’t do bills or read clocks but he could tell psychiatrists to fuck off and he could fight with his best friend when his best friend tried to take charge, and he was jealous and sharp with his crushes. He had friends and private worlds, and all the scars that come from growing up a mistake, and things were imperfect and messy and painful and visceral but he always emerged okay.
Abed Nadir said “please don’t do a special episode about me” and Jeff Winger promised he “wouldn’t dream of it.”
And then he told Abed to pick one reference, and Abed picked 16 Candles, so they sat on the counter and ate chicken.
(And Abed didn’t mind who he was kissing so long as he got to be Han Solo, and also he delivered several babies and got to be the good cop and the bad cop and used his diagnosis to get rid of an unfortunate lab partner and took advantage of a stranger in a bar’s patience so he could talk about Farscape.)
And stories are a scary and messy business, full of magic and demons, taunting possibilities and rules-that-aren’t, things we can’t have and altogether far too many opportunities for a sad little girl’s heart to be ripped out of her chest, and Julia kept watching, every week. And you must understand that asking Julia to pick one Abed moment is liking asking Abed to pick one reference.
You must understand that one story is infinitely bigger than zero, and it may still be very small and nowhere near enough, but it’s something.
And yes, her heart was eventually forcibly extracted when Dan Harmon broke his promise and Virtual Systems Analysis was the dreaded Special Episode. And Julia remembered how to breathe, and stitched herself back up, because she hadn’t really needed that heart, anyway. And when it turned out that someone else would be in charge of Abed next year, she remembered what she had always known to be true about happy endings and said goodbye, mourned more than she had for any corporeal person (which was still not very much,) and folded away that part of herself and went back to not existing.
But for seven months.
For seven months, she had.
“I’m in a wheelchair, but I’m still a guy.”
First, an awkwardly personal moment.
Several months ago, I was outed by another teacher to several speech pathologists at work. One of the women was completing her practicum, and her supervisor and instructor were observing her session with our pupil. I was there to keep him calm, as being watched by five or six teachers as you complete a speech exercise when you are working through selective mutism can be rather stressful. I wasn’t doing anything to draw attention to myself, just sitting nearby and redirecting or reassuring him when he needed it. I was dressed appropriately; I made sure to sit just like the women around me; I kept out of their conversation but smiled and nodded and was polite and quiet. I’m not sure exactly when it was that I made my fatal mistake. I kept my hands in my lap, but it might have been when I answered a question about his AAC device a little too knowledgeably or with a little too much enthusiasm. Perhaps it was when I noticed the tightening of his movements and suggested he have a quick break. Either way, eventually one of the women wanted to know what my job was, exactly. “Oh, she’s our intern,” the teacher said, and I smiled and nodded and then she kept talking. “She’s like our translator for half these kids. She has a really unique understanding–she’s also autistic, like them.”
And I was out.
It’s not the kind of outing you were expecting, was it?
Would you believe me that it was more terrifying, more humiliating, with worse consequences than when I was outed as a lesbian in that room earlier that year?
That’s one anecdote. Here’s another.
As a simultaneously queer and developmentally disabled fan, one of my great struggles last season was watching the ship wars between Brittana and Bartie fans. There weren’t a whole lot of Bartie fans in the first place, and I quickly figured out that, as a lesbian, I was supposed to ship Brittana. It was practically compulsory. Their relationship was groundbreaking and I was supposed to be excited and moved and relate to it and no, no one wanted to hear my thoughts or see my excitement on seeing a couple with disabilities navigating high school together. Who cared?
I wanted to know why only one story, one half of myself, counted. No one could explain.
A third story, and then to the point. Perhaps you can see it already.
I went to a college, for a while, infamous for its lesbians. I’m sure there’s a more decorous way to put it; I never cared to learn. It was a completely and utterly different world from the one I grew up in, and I loved every last queer second of it. Finally, being a lesbian wasn’t an issue!
Having disabilities still was.
I mean, how was anyone supposed to navigate a relationship with someone who didn’t like to talk, who sometimes couldn’t, who wore massive noise-blocking headphones at dinner and who couldn’t manage parties or groups of people or sometimes even just one person? What were the rules for that? Did that even happen? How do you flirt with someone who won’t make eye contact?
It’s important that I am very clear here. It’s not that my classmates were horrible people. It’s not that at all. With few exceptions they were nothing but kind–and that’s a loaded phrase, but there’s not time for it here–and universally they did know how to relate to someone who could geek out about the neuroscience (and cognitive science, and philosophy) of vision, who could help with their linguistics homework or sing along to Last Friday Night or mix screwdrivers with alchemical precision. They just didn’t know what to do when that person wore glasses because she’d damaged her eyes banging her head repeatedly against walls, or who sometimes needed to pause in the middle of a conversation and diagram a sentence so she could understand it, or who learned music so quickly with the same ears that also made her scream when she wasn’t warned for a fire drill. There weren’t any stories about girls who went to college already well-verses in mixing drinks because they’d gotten so good at mixing 125 mls of Zoloft into eight ounces of pineapple-orange juice every morning.
There weren’t any stories about people like me. I was not something to be conceived of, I was not expected. There were no scripts. I didn’t exist.
(So I didn’t count.)
Now, to the point.
I am a lesbian with disabilities. I am an autistic lesbian; I am a lesbian with bad brains.
Glee fandom has taught me that exactly half of this identity is acceptable.
I am sure I should be grateful for this. It is an improvement, after all–outside my bedroom door, I’m not allowed any of it. Being a lesbian is a good way to get myself raped or killed in my, in this, town. I know this. So I apologize for my ungratefulness, for my stubborn, bratty selfishness, when I point out…
…being half a person means that I’m still not actually a person at all.
Here’s the thing. I can’t actually turn my disability off. I can pass as less disabled, sure–not as non disabled, but less, of course, in some circumstances, if I’m prepped enough. Hey, did you catch that? I can pass. Passing is a concept that applies to ability too, not just sexuality or race? Did you know that?
Probably not, actually.
The Glee fandom, at least the parts I’m in where I encounter this problem, seems fairly knowledgeable and progressive and all those other nice, soothing words about a lot of things. People generally know what I mean if I say Kurt can’t pass or Blaine passes as white. It’s not perfect, of course, but I’m far more likely to be understood than if I say Artie can normalize himself or Brittany has become increasingly unable to pass.
Pass as what? She’s bi, everyone knows that, what else could she possibly be passing for?
(Well, actually, she’s written and played as disabled, the actress has said so.)
No she’s not. You’re giving the authors way too much credit. That must have been an accident. Sloppy characterization, bad writing, lol Glee…no. They wouldn’t write that. She’s not.
(And then this is where I finally, finally, get nasty.)
Am I an accident?
Am I sloppy?
Am I not supposed to exist?
Is my story worth telling?
It’s not supposed to be personal, except for all of the years I’ve known the answers to those questions. Yes, yes, no, no.
I think the casual impersonality of it is what makes me feel unsafe, actually. It rests on the assumption that people like that aren’t reading or participating in these discussions (how could they, they’re retarded) and that our stories don’t even exist to be told. I mean, do disabled people even have sex drives?
And yes, to be clear, I absolutely do mean it when I say I feel unsafe. I’m not sure how else I’m supposed to feel when I realize that I do not exist to large swaths of people.
A great deal of the time, passing means passing as nothing at all. I don’t exist. And you know, still, I automatically typed and that’s fine, that’s whatever after that last sentence, because you’re not supposed to make an issue of it. Not supposed to draw attention. I don’t exist.
I’m not in your stories. When I see myself, I’m wrong. I’m bad writing. I’m not in your stories, and I don’t get any stories of my own. I don’t exist to the greater world, and ultimately I’m not allowed to exist to myself.
But that’s fine, that’s whatever.
There’s a violence in invisibility, you know.
There are little speech patterns that creep in when we talk about Brittany, sometimes. About who deserves her, as if she has no agency, as if she can’t know her own mind.
(Do I? Do I get agency? Or do I just need to be grateful for whatever affection and attention I do get? Should I find the boys from ninth grade again and apologize to my abusers for kneeing one of them in the balls? Should I have known it wouldn’t get better?)
There’s a violence I still can’t talk about, in the end.
Let me take the focus off me. I’ve been debating whether or not to leave that sentence in. Let me take the focus off me, because this is not how you stay invisible. But…but keep the focus on me, because isn’t that the point? Isn’t that what this show, or at least this essay, is about? Keep the focus on me, because there are so many different ways to be invisible.
Quinn. Quinn and her slow, silent breakdown all last season. Quinn and Lucy. Blaine. Blaine and looking back and realizing that some needy, broken sophomore was trying to mentor an older, stronger kid, because he can be however you want him to be. Mercedes, swallowing a crush she knows goes beyond all reason, but reason never had much to do with it. Mercedes, good old reliable Mercedes, realizing that the moment she’s not so reliable, the moment she wants more, the moment she’s visible, is the moment she’s no longer wanted.
I’ve been all of those kids. I’ve lived all of those stories. So, so many of us had.
And when we hear that these stories don’t exist? That they’re just bad writing? Just lazy plotting, poorly executed versions of better, real, worthy stories? That they’re not worth telling on their own merits, that no one wants to see that?
We don’t argue, usually. How are you supposed to argue when apparently a story you’ve lived is just some hackneyed, inferior attempt at something worth attention?
We don’t argue, because our stories are judged unacceptable and by extension so are we, and that’s a conversation we don’t actually need to have again. Glee tells a lot of stories, and they aren’t usually the ones the real people want, and of course, we already established this, we aren’t allowed our own stories. No, of course not, and should they somehow be written and acted and shot anyways, they can still be grabbed and labeled as something different entirely, graded against an entirely different narrative, and thus still easily found wanting, derided, and thrown out.
And that’s fine, that’s whatever. That’s how it works. I just want to know…
I just want to know…who decides whose stories get told?
Who decides which are worth telling?
And why aren’t mine on that list?
Sometimes I think the greatest crime in television is caring.
Giving a damn is already practically illegal anyways, so it makes sense. A lot of the time, in fact, giving a damn is actually more of a punishable offense than anything actually offensive. I get yelled at for organizing books too efficiently, for Chrissakes. It doesn’t even stand imagining, what happens when we say stop it, don’t call them that, you’re talking about another person, do you mean to, do you understand, you can’t do that. When I ask someone to please don’t say “retarded,” it hits me, you’re working in a fucking special ed classroom for crying out loud, your student is three feet away, what are you thinking, it is agreed that the problem is that I can’t take a joke.
I cried for ten minutes when they said “the ayes have it” last night and New York got marriage equality, and Dad told me to quiet down, he was trying to sleep. I didn’t know what was worse—not being able to tell anyone about the results, not being able to tell anyone about the newest cut that barely even stings anymore, or being so fucking grateful that at least I wasn’t called dyke, because we know how that one goes.
(My brother gave me a sarcastic thumbs-up, and my sister told me that she’d known it would pass, and she’d give the rest of the country ten years. I wanted to congratulate her on being so blithe, I wanted to ask if she knows how long a wait ten years is, I wanted to remind her that at least mom would go to her wedding, I wanted to ask her if she’s ever watched people vote on her right to make a family and if she’s ever seen them vote it down. But that’s not funny or neat or easy and thus allowed, that’s messy and hurt and I would mean it, and so I kept quiet.)
I was at the White House conference on bullying in March, which framed violence, in all forms—physical, sexual, emotional, verbal—against students as a civil rights issue. In a group discussion, some immigrant students from the Chicago public school system told us, in excruciating detail, about the physical, racially-based violence they experienced every day. They said that, whenever they tried to report this violence to a teacher or administrator, the same response would come back:
“Why are you telling me this? You’re making me upset. You’re hurting my feelings.”
(The students are being beaten, are failing classes because of chanted racial slurs whenever they sit down, are afraid to come to school. The teachers feel bad because the students are implying that perhaps, if they are not safe at school, the teachers are not doing their jobs properly. The teachers’ feelings are hurt. So the students, the victims, get punished again.)
It’s not a racial thing. It’s not an issue of Teh Gay, or of cripples and madmen and fools. Strip away the aesthetic revulsion, the fear and the ignorance, the complicated socio-economic histories and the familial scars, and people still like to treat other as disposable objects, good for entertainment and not much else. We’re each other’s toys, and if we don’t amuse sufficiently then we probably need to be whacked a few times, the way you hit a CD-player when it skips. Maybe we need new batteries. Probably it’s easier to just throw us away.
(Some people say we evolved the way we did because we’re so good at killing, and we certainly killed off our preceding species quickly enough. It’s a quick hop-skip-jump from amusement to mascot to mystery to menace, and broken human playthings seem to implicitly threaten that we’ll steal, or at least break, all the other toys too. Loss and sacrifice and discomfort and fear we might be next can all trigger our kill-switches, apparently.)
Perhaps I’ve lived an exceptionally awful life, but I find that hard to believe when I watch flocks of smiling, popular people being silently unhappy together. There are reasons people lie about and keep secret how they feel and what they think, and I’ve seen one too many terrified college girls fighting and drinking and cutting all their hair off and then going to class the next morning with bright, store-bought smiles to believe that it’s just me.
True, I get furious, sometimes, when I tell someone about being mistreated because of my autism and they respond with a tale of their own frustration at the hands of some cruel peer or unnecessarily draconian teacher or boss. One of these things is not like the other, and the whole thing never reads as anything other than the familiar “that never happened, that story isn’s allowed, let me show you the script, let me show you the acceptable ways to be and get hurt, too bad they’ll never apply to you.”
Sometimes, though, these things are almost exactly the same in all the ways that viscerally matter. I’m abused because I’m a not-person. To hurt someone without using your fists you just make them feel like a not-person, or, at the very least, a not-okay-person, and you can do that to anyone. Everyone suffers because, as humans, we’re just naturally very good at hurting each other.
Which is not to say that we aren’t also very good at making each other feel incredible, or at least happy, or even just warm and safe for an hour, and that can be enough. We have families and stories, and these are not only terrifying weapons, but also powerful things that can create a lot of good—and when they don’t, we can make new ones. There’s joy and beauty in the world, and sometimes another human seems to hold it all in the spaces between their joints.
Maybe that’s why we hurt each other so very well.
It’s all very stark and dramatic, and that’s a useful way to make a point, but life doesn’t come with points. Life comes kind of blurry and murky and bled-together and wonderful, and maybe looking back you can scoop some of it into a coherent narrative, but the words are never quite sufficient. After all, they said I could get married means something bright and happy, but there’s also something angry and resentful and undefined, because they never asked if their marriage offended me. And then we have to think about all the things marriage means and represents, and what it means for the couples who, watching the votes be counted, whisper that they’ll still love each other just as much if it doesn’t pass. Life is just too big for the words we have and the stories we learn, except for when it’s the other way around.
Most of us don’t go around slaying dragons and going on quests of many miles. Happily-ever-afters are unsettlingly complicated, and the problem with slaying one Evil Overlord is that another always pops up. Curiously, Evil Overlords like to disguise themselves as people we rely on and must be polite to, and quests of many miles tend to consist of driving oblivious children to and from soccer practice, piano lessons, and gymnastics every day for ten years and never driving over and off the bridge.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation is a truism, but no one ever asks why, and if maybe it’s because we think we missed the train to something spectacular years ago and there’s no honor in what we have left, and so we don’t claim the words and stories we were taught to dream as our own. We grow up, and we stop reading children’s literature and picture books, and we’re told that archetypes and mythos are something besides history and biography, and we lose our sense of importance and solidity and any sense of ownership of our own story or right to any words which might mean anything.
Stealing a person’s words, their ability to look clearly at something and see it and know that they do, is the smallest and easiest way to kill someone.
What I mean is, I say child abuse, and people think of my student, caged and beaten and raped and made to eat out of the garbage for nine years. Well, yes and no—yes, because if anyone deserves those words, it’s him, and no, because things are rarely so harsh and vivid and obvious. There’s a reason children like him are so rare and his situation comes up in textbooks as a Worse Case Scenario, one of the Worst in the History Of Our State. Life is a game of ripples and things adding up and subtle variations.
My student will never be the same because he never got to be not-afraid for his first nine years, until eventually he just couldn’t feel fear anymore. I will never be the same because they made me take my clothes off in the car once because I’d drooled all over them, and because I only had to be hit a couple of times before a raised voice was enough to have me looping those experiences and hitting my self, all on my own. His father hit him in places no one could see. I wished someone would just hit me one more time, now that I knew what I could do, so someone might believe me and maybe it would stop. One of those experiences is stark and dramatic and mercifully rare; one is quiet and common and so easy to justify, overlook, pass over. People see my student’s misshapen collarbones and fall silent in horror; no one notices that after a lifetime of being slapped and grabbed for flapping I can’t raise my arms from my side, because the whole point was to make me unnoticeable.
Our situations are different, and so it gets decided that one of them doesn’t count. Similarly, people who have never had the horror of growing up in a community where you get taken away if you’re not good enough declare that since my student’s institutionalization was stopped at the eleventh hour, it doesn’t count. (Just like, if you run away fast enough from the homophobes on the street corner, somehow magically nothing could have happened. Just like if you never say no, you must mean yes. Just like, if they don’t put a gag in your mouth or knock you out, you should be able to fight them off.) I’m glad the world is so very tidy and convenient and adjustable that knowing you were supposed to spend the rest of your life somewhere unspeakably horrible because you just aren’t good enough has no effect on a thirteen-year-old boy. I mean, clearly someone needs to tell him this, as he for some reason feels otherwise. Someone should also probably tell his classmates, who now know—and who always knew, but now it’s reconfirmed and a little more fresh in their minds—exactly how unsafe they are.
It doesn’t count because he doesn’t (we, they, you, don’t) count.
There aren’t any stories about that.
I have this niggling suspicion, though, that there are an awful lot of people in the world who have been told that they don’t count, don’t get to be in the stories, things were never quite bad enough, or maybe they were too bad to be real. I have this feeling that there are an awful lot of us, and that if we just stopped keeping ourselves a secret, we might blow that lie out of the water.
This is where Glee comes in.
Glee tells you, right in the pilot episode, that it’s about not-people discovering that they’re people. Oh sure, there are layers and complications and distractions and other features and a million different ways to say the same thing, but it really does come down to that. It always surprises me, because since when is that a story I see on my TV?
We consume media in a context of constant, casual violence against some and dismissal of everyone else. We expect to be entertained in the middle of an environment in which no one, no matter how skinny or blonde or popular or perfect, can expect to be safe and happy for long. If our television program is going to do anything besides lie to us about following our hearts and happy endings, we’d rather it at least didn’t mean it.
So Glee gets sneaky about it. They give us Bryan Ryan, a Special Guest Character who gets an entire episode devoted to what it is to be a closeted gay American without every actually showing any icky attraction to men. They delve down into layers of nuance and complicated human relationships and the terrible compromises we make and they talk outright about being closeted and cutting yourself off without ever pulling a visceral homophobic reaction from the audience because Neil Patrick Harris (and can we talk about that casting choice?) kissed a guy.
That same episode we have Artie, our wheelchair-using character, learning how to tell people that he doesn’t care about his legs, he doesn’t need to be fixed, he’s got other things he’s worried about. Difference is, he’s not some sort of coded metaphor. You see his chair before you see him. And so all the other characters (and the audience) see is a poor, suffering boy (in a wheelchair, just a cripple bound to his chair) miserable because he can never achieve his dream of being a dancer. Artie spends the entire episode negotiating what all of that means, and how to make himself heard and believed through all the other noise, while, yes, getting a little sad that he can’t just get out of chair and make the entire problem go away. But the episode is called Dream On, and being able to walk doesn’t change the people around you.
The point these two intertwined storylines make is that it doesn’t matter how badly you want people to hear your own voice, they much prefer the dream they have of you in their heads. It’s an entire episode, on the heels (and a continuation) of the similarly-themed Laryngitis, devoted to showcasing that on every level, from casting to costumes to musical numbers to the actual lines delivered, Glee plays around with metaphors and story-telling and scale and variations on an idea and performance versus experience to look at how humans negotiate the space around each other.
(There’s very little joy in the Glee Club, sometimes, if that gives you an idea of what they mean.)
We start out with the writers taking a complicated, unjust experience, stripping away the salient, fundamentally other part of it, and delving waaaaay down into it and all its complexity and nuance. It becomes a story about the fucked-up ways people treat each other, and the fucked-up consequences that has. The audience, to some degree, gets it, and likes it, because it’s not ANGRY, it’s not about TEH GAY, it’s not scary and divisive and other. We don’t have to change the way we treat whole classes of people because of this now, do we?
(I think the point being made is that yes, we do, but it’s entertainment so if you don’t want to hear that, you won’t.)
Probably the most frustrating part of Glee is that the show focuses on universal problems of human relation, but it’s aired in a world where only a few characters out of the oversized cast are universally regarded as human. The only two characters played and seen straight-away as human, right from the start, are Finn and Will. Besides being straight white middle class males, they have two other very important, tightly-linked things in common:
- They’re allowed to rage.
- They don’t hurt people on purpose.
Kurt (gay) snarls in his songs, Quinn (teenage pregnancy) yells that she’s furious, Puck (juvenile delinquent and Lima Loser) explodes and punches people and gets sent to juvvie, and those are all Bad Things. Finn kicks over a chair, Will terrifies his wife, and those things are fine. Those things are natural, healthy, human reactions to the (not-) people around them being awful. Kurt and Quinn and Puck learn to be angry quietly, to smile through their teeth, to take names and social security numbers and sometimes just to wait. Finn and Will are allowed to feel, and show, their hurt.
Their rage is safe and predictable and about socially sanctioned things and won’t ever shake anything up. Kurt, Quinn, Puck? They might hurt someone’s feelings.
They might make someone uncomfortable.
They might ask someone to risk something.
Kurt and Quinn and Puck can hurt people just by breathing, just by being there, and it will always, always, be deliberate. Finn and Will only ever hurt people by accident, and that’s the catch. Finn and Will are people. Good people. Good people don’t, can’t hurt anyone, and since Will and Finn are Good, and since they didn’t mean it to hurt, didn’t even know it could, it doesn’t.
(They’re not like my student’s father, so obviously intent on destroying people, and so their actions have no consequences. They’re good, and if we feel hurt by them, then that’s our fault, and if we argue, then we’re bad, bad people, trying to sully their goodness. That’s just not who they are.)
Isn’t that a cool trick?
(That is the real reason my phobia of lifting my arms, and my student’s near-institutionalization, and so many other things, Don’t Count—what was done was never meant to hurt, and the people who did it don’t hurt, that’s just not who they are, the whole thing is really just better off forgotten, it doesn’t ever need to feature, it doesn’t (we don’t) count.)
But what Glee does such an uncannily good job at showcasing is just how, exactly, anyone can make anyone else Not Count, and what that does to all involved. Simultaneously, it fleshes out people we see first through Will and Finn’s eyes—because we can’t see not-people through their own eyes—and turns them from cheap and easy stereotypes into painfully real, immediate, people. The process is messy and long—two seasons in and it’s still not quite complete—and it’s complicated by the fact that it happens with an audience going through the same process. People laughed at Bryan Ryan’s quips and cried at Artie’s tears and didn’t quite put the pieces together. The cast donned shirts stamped with their shame and sang about baby I was born to survive, and it wasn’t quite obvious enough to change everything.
(It’s entertainment, it’s not supposed to mean anything, and it has to be packaged such that people can ignore the real parts if they don’t want to see them. It’s not allowed to count.)
But a few of us get our words and our stories back, and if they were any more obvious about it, it wouldn’t work at all.
It’s (we’re) all the same, you see.