Thursday, May 22, 2014

Real Fiction

A long-time reader, lsn, left a comment on my recent post, The Hour That the Ship Comes In that reminded me of a recent conversation on Tumblr. 

First, lsn’s comment:

OK... there's fan fic about reality TV?!?

Oh Lord.
I honestly had no idea... I kind of get the reasoning behind fanfic about fictional characters, but writing it about actual human beings who are not in fact fictional characters no matter how much the editing does kind of is a bit... well, icky to me.

Now the Tumblr conversation. The first commenter has extensive interests (and over 1,000 followers) including WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, an admittedly scripted form of wrestling in which the wrestlers, while real athletes, play characters. Grandma D would have been a huge fan.) I’m not familiar with the second person, but she seems to be another wrestling fan.

Person A:….are wrestlers fictional characters?

Person B:i’d say yes, generally. though it’s a question i find very interesting.the distinction is easier to make with some wrestlers than others. the undertaker, bray wyatt, and other similar characters are obviously fictional. at the other…

Person A:It always trips me up. Like, calling an Actor their characters is kinda rude and just plain weird. But then if you call a wrestler their birth name, that’s disrespectful.It’s kinda like you read my mind and put my thoughts in a post. Lol.

My response, which I suspect neither of them noticed, was as follows:

I don’t think real-fictional is a binary; I think that there is a continuum from real to fiction and that we all position ourselves at different points along it depending on who we interact with. So an actor playing a role is further along the continuum toward fiction than the wrestler is, but even the actor is calling on some of his/her real self in playing the part. (Shoot, some actors play themselves over and over.) I was present at a reading that Attica Locke (fantastic author, BTW) gave and she began by saying, “I’m going to be real”, and I thought “no, you’re not”, not because I thought she was lying, but because simply using the phrase reflects an awareness that we present ourselves in different ways in different situations, so she had to pull up “real” from the pool of potential personas, and how real is that, when you think about it? 

We all have ways of presenting ourselves that involve some to a lot of artifice, and we all recognize that other people have ways of presenting themselves that involve some to a lot of artifice.

So let’s take that idea further in dealing with lsn’s point, the ickiness of writing about “actual human beings who are not fictional characters.”  Actual human beings have been known to Google their own names and can easily find said fanfic, and might be a bit nonplussed to discover that their significant others have been vanished down a rabbit hole, their sexual orientations have undergone wholesale revisions, or that they are now either pregnant or about to be fathers.

We present ourselves with various degrees of reality/unreality, but we also see other people the same way.  To me, being able to see other people as being as real as ourselves, as the stars of their own lives and not bit players in our own, is the biggest task of growing up. I think we have all had the experience of working or going to school with or living next to someone that we see purely as a PITA, and then one day get that one glimpse or one bit of information that makes their behavior make sense from their point of view. I remember one summer working with two other therapists in a social skills group for teens. One particular young lady was causing me a lot of frustration with her constant talking and inability to stay on topic. Finally one of the other therapists told me that the young lady had recently been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and placed on medication, and was only now starting to talk in social situations at all. Oh! So the training wheels had just come off the bike and she was naturally still a little wobbly. I could deal with that. After all,  that was my role in the group in the first place, teaching conversational rules.

Sometimes our only way of knowing particular people is through them being presented to us as entertainment. We see them on television in reality shows that are carefully contrived and we read about them in magazines that are designed to entertain. So what we get is fiction, not complete fiction, but somewhere along that continuum between fiction and reality. The distinction between the person I call Mikhail and Jane Austin's Mr. Darcy is blurrier than the distinction between Mr. Darcy and the young man in the next seat in English class, or the teacher presenting the lesson. It’s one small step from fanfiction about Mr. Darcy to fanfiction about Mikhail.

And unless teen girls have changed even more than I think between my days in high school and now, one more small step from fanfiction about Mikhail to fiction probably not published on the internet about the young man in the next seat in English class, or maybe even about the teacher presenting the lesson. A girl can dream after all.

A girl can dream, and then write about it.

Monday, May 19, 2014


In my reading recently I came across this post, Patriarchy in Homeschool Culture by Samantha Fields, in which I found a quote from the book Beautiful Girlhood. Beautiful Girlhood was originally written by Mabel Hale and published in 1922, and has been more recently revised by Karen Andreola and republished.

The section that Samantha quoted went as follows:

One day a handsome young gentleman alighted from a train … As he paced the platform, he soon attracted the attention of a young girl. She watched him flirtatiously out of the corner of her eye, coughed a little, and laughed merrily and a bit loudly with a group of her acquaintances; but at first he paid no attention …
At last he noticed, turned, and came directly to her, while her foolish little heart was all in a flutter at her success …
“My dear girl, he said, tipping his hat, “have you a mother at home?”
“Why, yes,” the girl stammered.
“Then go to her and tell you to keep you with her until you learn how you ought to behave in a public place,” and saying this he turned and left her in confusion and shame. It was a hard rebuke; but this man had told her only what every pure-minded man and woman was thinking. Girls can hardly afford to call down upon themselves such severe criticism. (130-31)

This is where a wide reading of true mid-nineteenth century literature comes in handy for a girl. Let me tell you the rest of the story, without the flowery prose (okay, maybe a little flowery prose).

The young girl immediately got the attention of the conductor and pointed to the offender saying, “Excuse me, sir, but that person, while unacquainted with me, presumed to come up to me and address me with words that insulted both my mother and myself. I trust I can rely on your protection from any further advances on his part.”

I mean, seriously? Let's look at the sequence of events as presented, shorn of any editorial content designed to influence our views of who is at fault here. A young man alights from the train, sees a bevy of attractive young ladies, and begins to pace around the platform. Why is he pacing? Whether he is waiting for another train, or a cab, or his valet to come and get him, the wait won't be made any shorter by him walking up and down. He sees a group of acquaintances, including one particular young lady, and attracts her attention.  Is this the purpose of his pacing? It would seem so to an observer not inclined to blame the woman in any interaction between a woman and a man.

But then, what does the young lady do? She laughs merrily at something that one of her acquaintances says. Obviously she's a strumpet, or wait, here's another thought. Maybe the group has noticed the young man's efforts to get her attention and one of them has said something amusing about him. And now she's laughing at him! So he does what he can to preserve his pride: make it seem like she's the one trying to attract his attention, and insult her for it.

I mean, otherwise we'd have to believe that this paragon of male virtue presumed to approach and address a young lady without a proper introduction just to correct her manners. He’d be lucky not to be horsewhipped. Young Victorian ladies suffered from a lot of disadvantages, true, but a lack of ways to deal with insults from young popinjays was not one of them.

As the authors would have known if they had bothered to read good literature instead of writing the bad kind.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Going into the final on Dancing With the Stars, there are two Olympic athletes left among the four finalists, ice dancer Meryl Davis and Paralympic Team snowboarder Amy Purdy. Amy is a double amputee, having had to have both legs amputated below the knee due to a bacterial infection she acquired at age 19. Her accomplishments to date as an athlete, actress, and activist for people with disablities would be impressive for anyone, amputee or not.

Something that bothers me about people’s reactions to Amy, though,  is that I keep hearing variants of “If she can do it, anybody can,” for instance, in the way that guest judge Abby Lee Miller used Purdy as a model for her students:

Amy Purdy and Derek Hough performed a breathtaking, creative, precise Argentine tango using a bar stool as a prop. The judges struggled to put into words how impressed they were with both the execution and the effort. Miller said to her girls in the audience, “I better never hear ‘I’m too tired, I’m hungry, I have homework.” Judge Bruno Tonioli said it had power, control, precision, and immersion into the character. It also had a perfect score of 40.

No matter how well Purdy danced, people (including Purdy, who has been showing a good bit of stress in some of her video rehearsal packages) get hungry, they get tired, and if they are in school, they get homework. I don’t like it when people who don’t belong to a particular group pick a person who is an outlier in that group and then hold that person up as a model. First of all, it is unrealistic, and second of all, it detracts from that particular person’s accomplishments. Not every amputee can become an Olympic snowboarder, any more than every person can become an Olympian. And amputees who struggle more than Purdy does deserve empathy and help, not to have one person’s experience held up to them as the norm. What Amy Purdy has accomplished represents not only a great deal of work and determination, but also a great deal of talent, talent that did not disappear when her legs did. So while I admire her tremendously, and understand why people are inspired by her, I am not about to point her out as an example of how anybody can succeed by putting their mind to it. She is not just anybody. That’s the point of having competitions.

Then there is the whole problem of  using Amy as inspiration. The word in its many forms comes up over and over again in the judges comments on her dancing: you’re so inspiring. You are such an inspiration. I’m sure people are inspired by her, but I see a difference between “I’m inspired by you” and “You’re such an inspiration” in that to me, the latter objectifies Amy. It’s one thing to derive life lessons from watching how other people cope with hardship. But Amy Purdy is a unique person. She’s the star of her own life, not a bit player in someone else’s. To reduce her from the woman who has been honest about her fears and struggles as well as her pride in her performance to an object lesson for others is to reduce her to just that: an object. 

Of course, I am writing this as a person who is not an amputee and doesn’t have other orthopedic disabilities. Sure, I’m getting older and have Meniere’s disease and arthritis, but if you were going to draw a line between “able-bodied” (to use an older term) and not, I’d fall on the “able-bodied” side of the line. So it is quite possible that my take on this is far, far from what I would think if I were an amputee, or had Cerebral Palsy or MS or Parkinson’s Disease. Maybe if I did, I’d be happy to be an inspiration to somebody, although my hunch is, if it were me, my conduct would be far from inspiring. If anyone who does have experience with these conditions is reading this and has a completely different take on it, feel free to chime in in the comments. You won’t hurt my feelings, unless maybe you begin a comment with “Listen, you idiot.” (OTOH, I’ve heard worse.)

Until then, my take on it is going to be that Amy Purdy is an athlete who can do a lot of things the majority of us cannot do. I admire her, but I’m not going to run right out and take up snowboarding because of her example, and not just because I live where it doesn’t snow.

And when it comes to dancing? I’m sorry, but Meryl Davis can dance rings around her, and I don’t think it’s just because of the legs. So while I admire Amy Purdy, I am pulling (and voting) for Davis. Sometimes, despite drive and hard work and determination, it does come down to a matter of talent.

ETA, on June 14, 2014: I found out today, via a Facebook link from a friend, that Stella Young, a comedian and disability activist, doesn't like to be referred to as an inspiration, as her use of the term inspiration porn makes clear in this video. She makes the same point about objectification as I do, only a lot clearer and better.