Why We Cannot Force Labels on Others

I have discussed why labels are important in the past, and regardless of anything that you are about to read here, I still believe that they are. We do not exist in a society that is beyond labelling yet – identifying as queer or transgender or black or Muslim still affects the way that you go about your day, the way that people treat you and the way that you are viewed by society.

But that being said, there is another trend that I have noticed when it comes to labelling individuals that I think needs to be addressed.

If you have been following following celebrity news lately, you might have noticed headlines such as, “Sam Smith Comes Out As Gender-Nonbinary” or “Sam Smith Reveals He Identifies As Gender Nonbinary“. Now, for those of you who might not be aware what non-binary identities are, what this would essentially mean is that Sam Smith identifies as neither male nor female, but rather, as a third gender that exists (as you might expect) outside the binary. Many non-binary people prefer to be referred to with pronouns that are neither masculine nor feminine – in other words, they do not wish to be called “she, her” or “he, him”, but as “them, their”.

This is not what Sam Smith actually said in his interview with the Sunday Time.

What Sam Smith said was that he’s “as much woman as he is a man“, and he then proceeded to explain how he enjoys dressing up in women’s clothing and heels. The closest that Sam Smith came to identifying his gender was when he stated that he “[didn’t] know what the title would be”. He did not actually use the words “I am non-binary” in the interview, and he did not ask to be referred to using gender-neutral pronouns; more than anything, he seemed to express a desire not to be labelled at all. And yet, despite this, Sam Smith has been labelled by People and Vogue as non-binary.

Something similar has been happening to singer P!nk for years now as well. All over the internet, you can find people arguing about P!nk’s sexual orientation, and some, such as Perez Hilton, have even identified her as bisexual. Yet, P!nk has never made any active attempt to label herself at all. In a 2012 interview, P!nk discussed what dating was like for her (before she was married to a man), stating, “I wasn’t gay, but all my girlfriends were. So no, it wasn’t a big deal for me, but when (a tabloid) comes out and says, I just said I was bisexual, it’s like what? That wasn’t my truth, and I like truth. I like absolute truth.” And yet, regardless of this, you can still find her identified with the label ‘bisexual’.

Now, on the one hand, I understand why some people might want to identify Sam Smith as non-binary and P!nk as bisexual; both of these identities are seriously underrepresented in the media. So, as a result, people who do identify with these labels want to be able to see themselves in others, particularly in celebrities who they look up to and admire. It’s a bit easier to do this when the celebrity in question actually identifies with your label, and lives with all the same stigmas and experiences that you do as a result. It’s easier to know that your identity exists and has value when you can see someone who is loved and respected and powerful identifying with it as well.

But the problem with these two specific instances is that neither individual has claimed the label that is being put on them.

Choosing what label you identify with, particularly when it comes to gender and sexual orientation, is a very personal matter; nobody else can choose it for you. You need to decide what feels most natural for you, what you think best reflects your experience. And if you do not feel comfortable adopting a label, even if it does reflect your experience just fine, then you should not feel forced to adopt it.

Perhaps Sam Smith is non-binary, or the way that we might think of non-binary anyway, but even if he is, he should not feel forced to accept that label just because others think that he should. He should be allowed to come to the conclusion himself, to decide what he feels best reflects his own experience without anyone else telling him how to feel or identify.

And, meanwhile, for those of us on the outside, we should not try to decide what someone else should or should not identify with. If someone tells us that they identify as bisexual, or non-binary, or as no label at all, then even if we do not agree with their choice, it is not up to us to tell them how they should identify themselves. That is their decision to make, based on how they feel and how they wish to be perceived and understood.

And at the end of the day, you need to make the decision of what you’re comfortable with. Live your truth, whatever that might be, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you are any more or less valid because of the word that you use to describe your experience. Because, as much as labels are a useful tool in helping us to sum up and explain our experiences, at the end of the day, they are just words, with all of the limitations that that implies.

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The Love of Monsters

As Halloween approaches, everyone is getting prepared in the fairly typical ways. We’re all fine-tuning our costumes, decorating our houses, and, if you’re anything like me, watching a lot of horror or monster movies.

Personally speaking, I’ve always been drawn to horror movies – or, really anything with a monster in it. And, more than that, I’ve always been drawn to the monsters themselves. I didn’t just love vampires and witches and shape-shifters – growing up, I wanted to be one. My whole life, I’ve been obsessed with these stock characters of film and literature, but it’s only really been recently that I’ve found myself questioning – why? What is it about these characters that draws me – or, more generally, that draws us to them? I mean, there must be something, considering we have a whole day (or, for some, a whole month) dedicated to them.

The stock-answer that many have come up with is simply that we as a species enjoy being scared. Being scared produces adrenaline, which leaves us with a nice “whew-I-totally-escaped-that-killer-even-though-there-was-no-actual-danger” feeling afterwards. But, truth be told, in my case at least, I don’t think that fully grasps where my obsession with these characters comes from. I mean, sure, if I actually met up with a vampire in real life, I’d probably be crumbling to my knees and begging for my life (seriously, it wouldn’t be very pretty), but I’m well aware that the chances of that actually happening are pretty slim. And yet, that doesn’t stop me from turning on Lost Boys or Interview With The Vampire – and not just in October either. I’m talking about a year-round obsession here. A year-round obsession with something that, supposedly, is intended to scare me, but by my 111th-viewing of Lost Boys, it’s sort of lost its initial edge.

So why do we keep going back to these figures?

Well, the next answer that I could think of for this would be that monsters often symbolize for us the forbidden, but I’d even take that a step further – monsters symbolize transgression.

Ever since childhood, the monsters were the only characters that I saw on screen that were allowed to transgress.

Witches, for example, are often represented, not only as strong women, but as unashamedly strong women. Women who keep only female company (interpret that how you will), and who don’t worship the Christian God, and who forego the act of having children. Women who are learned and down-to-earth and free with their bodies and their sexuality. There’s a reason why many feminists identify strongly with witches.

Vampires are often associated with sexuality, due to that whole penetration-exchange-of-fluids thing. Sometimes, such as in Bram Stocker’s Dracula, this sexuality is merely supposed to be interpreted as deviant-outside-of-wedlock-not-for-the-purposes-of-conception-sexuality. Sometimes, such as in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, this sexuality is supposed to be interpreted as same-sex-sexuality. Either way, vampires are usually allowed to operate under rules that society restricts humans from, and these rules are often sexual in nature, or at the very least carefree and fun, rarely producing any serious consequences (unless you count getting staked through the heart as a serious consequence).

And even for the monsters that are a little bit less fun to imagine yourself as, they still force us to operate by rules that society restricts us from. Stories of possession force the possessed to reveal sides of themselves they never would have. Zombie stories quite literally force us to imagine what we would do if there was no society to restrict us. And good, old-fashioned werewolf stories are, as we all know, supposed to explore the more animalistic side of humanity.

Growing up and watching these movies, the heroes were all pretty much one-note: strong, tough, fearless, quick-witted, white, heterosexual, able-bodied men or emotional, nurturing, white, heterosexual, able-bodied women. They weren’t really allowed to stray much in their character from story-to-story. The monster, however, could be anything. And now that I’m older, I know that the reason why the monster could be anything is because the monster is supposed to be disgusting and terrifying, and through their transgression, they have earned their punishment. But nonetheless, along my journey into becoming an unashamedly feminist, bisexual woman with mental illness, I had these monster movies to identify with.

And, I mean, yes, it’s a shame that Nancy gets hospitalized at the end of The Craft, but isn’t she just so badass before she does?

And, yes, it’s always sad to read about Carmilla being murdered at the end of Carmilla, but until then, she’s fucking awesome!

And truth be told, I think this touches on the reason why many of us enjoy monsters stories: because many of us relate to the monster. Even if it’s just some small part of us, no one feels like they completely fit in, and no one feels universally beloved and valued. Therefore, when we see a character that is literally hunted down for who they are, we can relate. Because many of us have at least felt as though we are expected to shave off parts of ourselves to fit into society’s mould.

Therefore, we take one of two approaches to the monster: we are saddened by their ultimate downfall, or we take comfort from the knowledge that they had to be destroyed for society’s own good, just like those parts of ourselves that we rejected.

But, for me, these monsters will always hold a special place in my heart because of that sense of identity, that shared feeling of being hunted down and hated by society. And I mean, sure, I understand that they went a little too far when they went to the lengths of murder, and I understand that they earn their punishments because of that, but still, it’s all a fantasy, right? It’s still fun to pretend, just for a little bit, that you do exist in the media.

And that isn’t to say that representation isn’t improving in the media. It is, especially as we continue talking about it. And hopefully, in the future, young, feminist, bisexual girls with budding mental illness will be able to see themselves in the media without that exact character being punished for who they are. Hopefully, we will reach a place in society where the hero is allowed to transgress just as much as the monster is.

But until then, the approach of Halloween gives me an excuse to settle down with a good book or turn on the TV, and catch up with my old friends.

The Objectification of Men

Recently, Suistudio launched the campaign #NOTDRESSINGMEN in order to advertise their line of business suits created for women. The images that have been released for this campaign are, in some ways, fairly standard for this sort of product: two people, one dressed head-to-toe in a suit and standing in a position of power and domination, the other posed provocatively, their identity meaningless, their body completely on display. Now, this is an image that we have seen before – many, many times, in fact. Yet, there is one thing about this campaign that not only makes it different, but has caused plenty of controversy, and that is the fact that a woman is placed in a position of power, while a male model is the one being sexualized and objectified.

There are many who have taken to social media to show their disagreement with this campaign, despite the fact that these images are not entirely new. In fact, it is nearly common for us to see the genders reversed. In many advertisements, women are depicted as sexual objects, to the point where we barely even think about it anymore. We’re used to the images of big-breasted women with their heads tipped back and their lips parted. All the time, we see men standing squarely facing the camera, their stances strong, their jaws locked, their power confirmed. This is the language of our media, and we speak it fluently.

But at the same time, the majority of comments that I have seen disagreeing with the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign have not been upset with it because it dares to reverse the gender roles; rather, they disagree with it because they know that this is an injustice that society already does to women all the time, and they don’t think that it’s right to spread this injustice to men as well.

As one Instagram commenter said, “If it was the other way around with the woman on the couch and man above her, feminist groups would jump and criticise. This double standard needs to end.”

Some people have accused this campaign of “making feminism look bad”, turning it into a movement of women who merely want to dominate and control men, rather than being about equal rights. And is this what the campaign is doing? Are these images trying to destroy the patriarchy and replace it with a matriarchy?

Well, the way I see it, my opinion on this campaign rests heavily on the campaign’s intent.

On the one hand, it is very possible that the commenters are correct, and the purpose of this campaign is not necessarily to challenge anything, but rather, to use the accepted language of our media to convey the age-old message, but with the genders swapped. And, in fact, many of the images do seem to be indicating that.

The reason why we often see men standing firm and square-jawed, staring directly at the camera, is because the image is very clearly trying to convey a message, and that message is very connected with gender: he is strong. He is capable. He can do whatever he needs to do, and he can do it without wrinkling his suit or breaking an expression. It just so happens, all of these tend to be masculine traits, and I don’t think that’s incidental. Similarly, when we see women lounging out over objects without much of anything on, that too is meant to convey a message: she is passive, but sexually available. When we see women compared to or used in place of objects, then that is the ultimate passivity: she isn’t even a person, she’s just a thing, waiting around to be used by whoever shows up and wants her.

So when we see the same poses used but the genders reversed, the messages don’t really change, although the gender roles might be challenged. But, still, the photographer is relying on a specific language, one that the viewer will undeniably be familiar with, to convey a message. And the message really isn’t okay. End of day, whether it’s a man or a woman being objectified, the message is that they aren’t really a person. They’re a sexy object, a thing that can be used and disposed of. And not only that, but in both cases, a specific language is being used to convey the message of ‘sexy’ as well; only one body type is displayed, because the viewer will automatically connect that body type to sex appeal. And when that happens, then that dismisses all other body types as being even potentially accepted by society.

So, essentially, if the intent behind this campaign was to rely upon a harmful language that feminism is, in fact, trying to combat, all so that they could convey to their presumably female audience that this company’s suits will make them powerful and alluring to men, then that is not okay.

But there is one other possible intent that this campaign might have, one that I am more comfortable with accepting: the intent to challenge the majority of media.

As I have mentioned, advertisers have made use of sexualizing and objectifying women for decades in order to make their product look somehow superior, and one thing that I think many commenters are forgetting when they show their distaste for the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is that it is only one campaign. It is not an entire industry, meaning that women are not quite at the precipice of taking over the world quite yet. And, more than that, campaigns that rely on switching societal roles are released all the time with the intent of showing just how unfair our society really is.

For example, in 2004, the Disability Rights Commission released a short film called “Talk”, which follows an able-bodied man who suddenly wakes up in a world designed for the new majority, people with disabilities. Another short film, entitled “Love Is All You Need”, takes place in a world where homosexuality is the norm, and heterosexuality is looked down upon as “weird” and “unnatural”.

There are many issues in our society that are sometimes difficult for us to wrap our heads around – not because we never experience them, but because we experience them everyday. They are normal to us, so we don’t even second-guess them. And the purpose of media like “Talk” and “Love Is All You Need” is to try to point out just how wrong our society is. It forces able-bodied people to imagine, not what it would be like to be disabled, but what it would be like to live with the stigma of disability. It forces heterosexual people to imagine what it would be like if they couldn’t safely take their partners home to meet their parents, or hold hands with them in public.

And, maybe, the intent behind the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is not to create a new norm, but rather, to force us to question the old one, to make us realize that the over-sexualizing and objectification of women is wrong by forcing us to see it from a new perspective. And, I mean, while I said that there was plenty of evidence in the photographs to suggest the other intention, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest this as well. The photographs, after all, are overly sexual, and overly objectifying, even going so far as to intentionally remove the man’s face from the images, as though to completely remove his identity and force the viewer to look at him only as an object – a body without a soul.

Now, what the company’s actual intent was is difficult to decipher. They have not made any attempt to comment either way, although Suistudio has confessed to intending controversy. Besides that, I suppose that the viewer can merely take what they want from the campaign: are they a frightening image of a new sort of objectification, or an isolated incident intending only to make us question our past and present?

The Importance of Freedom of Speech

Personally speaking, I take a lot of issue with the way that the American military is run – and there are a lot of problems with it. This “stand behind our troops or feel free to stand in front of them”, “you’re either with us or against us” mentality that people have that creates no room for question or discussion. The fact that sexual assault is a rampant problem in the military that people are, quite frankly, not doing enough to address. The fact that military recruiters target and take advantage of uneducated and poor children. Yet, whenever I would mention these concerns, and there was someone nearby who wanted to convince me to overlook these problems and regard the American military as an overwhelmingly positive force, the same comment would frequently be made: “these are men and women who are fighting for your rights. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t even be able to say that you disagree with them. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t have the freedom of speech.” And I won’t deny that; for years, the American military has been filled with men and women who fought, suffered, and died so that their fellows would be allowed to say things that would get you killed or imprisoned in some other countries.

Freedom of speech is a right that gets discussed frequently, and, it seems, especially lately. Growing up, I always took it for granted that freedom of speech was always a good thing.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

Right?

Freedom of speech has been used to defend what are, in my mind, some pretty atrocious things. A homophobic baker refuses to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, but he claims that he is only practicing his freedom of speech. White supremacists protest publicly against removing a statue of a Confederate soldier, but they are allowed to be there because that is their freedom of speech. In both of these cases, a message is very clearly being sent to a specific group of people: you are not respected and you do not belong here, your existence will not be tolerated. And this message is awful, and I apologize to everyone who has had to endure it.

And when these instances arise, there are people who say things like, “I don’t believe in freedom of speech if this is what freedom of speech is”, and I understand that. It hurts my heart to think that there are people out there who have to endure messages like these daily. So sometimes, it’s easier to think that we could just shut these people up and be done with it.

But we can’t.

Because we have a flip-side to all of this too. Freedom of speech is not only being put under question when it comes to hate speech lately, but American president Donald Trump has sort of put all freedom of speech into question.

The first time that I became aware of this was when he began his attacks against the media, referring to any news station that spoke poorly of him as “fake news”. Trump has even issued a press ban, refusing to allow certain organizations from attending press briefings at the white house.

But the thing that everyone is talking about now, the issue on every tongue, is the fact that Trump took to Twitter and actively supported the American people punishing NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem.

With this single act, Trump has issued a very clear message: freedom of speech will not be tolerated, so long as it is something he disagrees with.

And yes, Trump has supported free speech in the past, such as when he defended Jack Phillips, the aforementioned homophobic baker, claiming that he had every right to refuse the same-sex couple who came to him for a wedding cake. Which makes it very interesting that this is where he chooses to draw the line when it comes to free speech.

Because in this particular instance, the NFL players in question are actually supporting something that I agree with. While the act of kneeling has since become synonymous with rebelling against Trump’s stance on freedom of speech, this is not where the act began. Initially, kneeling during the national anthem was started with Colin Kaepernick, who explained his reasoning by saying that he refused to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” This is where the issues stems from: a very real, very constant problem in American culture. This is an issue that needs to be addressed, and by kneeling, Kaepernick hoped to draw attention to it.

And yet, by kneeling, Kaepernick and the other NFL players who later joined in unintentionally began a conversation around free speech, for they have not only been told that the workplace is not a place for freedom of speech (unless they’re a homophobic baker, for some reason), but they have had their own president attempt to punish them for doing so.

And, yes, I am aware that the reason why so many people are offended at NFL players kneeling for the national anthem is because, in their opinion, the flag and the national anthem deserve more respect than that. And I could talk all day about how odd it is that these people seem to be more offended by a black man kneeling during the national anthem than a black man getting shot in the street by the police, but I don’t know if I’d get anywhere with that argument, and the point is, these men have a concern that needs to be addressed. And shutting them up won’t get rid of that concern. Shutting them up won’t save black lives, and it most certainly will not increase their love or respect for the country that made them do it.

And that’s why freedom of speech is so important, in every way that it exists: because when someone says something, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it, it still means something. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away; addressing it will. And maybe addressing it makes us uncomfortable, but at least it makes us talk and develop and grow and change.

And, end of day, who gets to decide who is worthy to speak and who isn’t? I mean, Donald Trump is trying to assume the role of decider, but all this has done for him is create a divided country, neither side of which truly feels like their voice is being heard.

My whole life, I have always heard freedom of speech revered as this amazing force that needed to be respect. I have been told that it is a right that people have fought and died for, that is a rare privilege to be enjoyed by everyone who has access to it. And I still believe all this. I believe that, if you have a problem, speak it, because there’s no other way to address it. And maybe this does mean that, if we have freedom of speech, then everyone has freedom of speech – even those who are hateful and who we disagree with down to our very core, and maybe this does mean that people get emotionally hurt along the way. Life isn’t perfect, and even a system like this will have its casualties.

But just because someone says something rude and hateful and awful, that doesn’t mean that I have to tolerate it. That is me practicing my freedom of speech.

Why Do We Bother Fighting?

Quite often, I write and I talk about issues surrounding social justice. And, as you might have guessed, that’s because I care about these issues. I care to see women receive the same rights that men take for granted. I care to see people of colour enjoy the privileges that many white people aren’t even aware that they have. I care that anyone at all, be they gay or bisexual, transgender, disabled, neurodivergent, or whatever the case may be, is able to exist within this society feeling safe and loved and accepted. All of this matters to me.

But because I talk about these issues often enough, I’ve come across a person or two who offers me this question: Why? Do I really think that I’m going to make a difference? Is pointing out that a specific train of thought is sexist really going to stop people from thinking that way? All of these issues that I fight to bring light to – racism, sexism, homophobia, heteronormativity, ableism, etc. – are all so deeply ingrained in our culture that I can’t even really expect it to change. So why bother, right?

Shouldn’t we just give up? Shouldn’t we just accept that the world is flawed and move on with our lives? Wouldn’t that make things easier for everybody?

Well, speaking from personal experience, I have to say – no, it wouldn’t make things any easier. In fact, it only makes things worse.

My problem is that I can’t not be aware of these things. I can’t help but notice that they are not only present but prevalent, in everything that we think, do, watch, say. It exists in the politicians that we choose to elect, in the celebrities that we choose to look up to, in the fictional characters that we choose to relate to. It exists in our personal relationships, in the ways that we talk to different people, in the things that we expect from them. I have seen sexism destroy families, and I have seen homophobia kill children. Some people can go their whole lives without noticing any of this, but I can’t – partly because I live it, as a bisexual woman, but also because I’ve gone out of my way to try and educate myself on these matters.

As I said, these issues are important to me. I need to talk about them. And I know I’m not the only person who feels this way.

But even ignoring all of that for a moment – let’s say we as a society could stop talking about these issues. Let’s say that we just dropped every social justice movement tomorrow, because from the logic of those who ask the question to begin with, you’d think that what would happen would be – nothing. The world just wouldn’t change – it would remain the way that it is right now, forever.

And maybe it would.

Maybe women would continue to be told that it was their fault, that they should have dressed or acted differently to avoid being raped.

Maybe black people in America would continue to get shot in the streets by white cops who get off punishment-free.

Maybe gay, bisexual, or transgender children would continue to kill themselves before they even reach adulthood, because they don’t see any possibility that they will ever get to be themselves.

Or maybe all of this would get worse over time, because no one is talking about these issues. No one is making sure that these people know that they aren’t alone, that someone cares and is truly trying to make a difference for them.

And if that’s all you do by talking about these issues – just let someone know that they aren’t alone, and that if they just keep fighting, things might just get better – then isn’t that a worthwhile fight in its own right? Isn’t hope, at least, worthwhile?

Maybe things won’t get any better, I don’t know. Maybe this truly is as good as it’s going to get. But maybe it’s not. Maybe things will get better. They already have, after all. We reach new and exciting milestones all the time – in 2015, the United States legalized same-sex marriage because people cared enough to talk about it. In 2014, Laverne Cox became the first transgender woman to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, accompanying the claim that we as a society were at “the tipping point” for discussing transgender issues. And, no, things aren’t perfect; we still have a long way to go, but little by little, we are winning battles. And we are doing this because we refuse to give up. Because we know that these issues are worth talking about, and so we talk about them.

We fight, not because there is any guarantee that we’ll win, but because we know that it’s a worthy fight nonetheless.

So if you can say that you feel that same way – maybe not specifically about a social justice movement, but about anything at all – if you feel that it is worth defending, and worth believing in, and worth fighting for if you have to, then by all means, fight. Maybe you won’t win, but at least there will be someone fighting. At least people will see that this is something that people care about, something that matters. And maybe not everyone will agree with you. Maybe not enough people will, anyway. But that isn’t the important part. What’s important is that, end of day, you can rest easy with yourself knowing that you did everything you could in your attempts to make the world a better place.

And that, after all, is what we all want to accomplish in our time here on earth, isn’t it?