Don’t Let Someone Else Live Your Life

There’s this issue in society that I’ve seen come up again and again, and I’ve seen it in multiple forms.

When I was in high school, I would always answer the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” with “I want to be a writer”, to which most teachers would respond, “oh, that’s not a practical job, you can’t make much money with that. Why don’t you do something else – you could be a teacher instead.”

The other day, when I was at the gym, I met a woman in her fifties who was enthusing over another woman’s bright red and orange dreadlocks, and she mentioned that she had recently gone to the hairdresser’s asking for a funky haircut herself, to which the hairdresser responded, “oh, you’re much too old for that, I wouldn’t do that to you.”

I recently read an article about a girl who described herself as ‘fat’, and she stated that when she went to the beach in her bikini, she was spotted by a woman who responded to her by saying, “you’re much too big for that bikini, I don’t want to see that. Why don’t you wear something that covers you up a bit more?”

And I very recently watched a video posted on Elle Magazine’s Facebook page discussing an eight year old boy who enjoyed dressing and performing as a drag queen, and in this video he mentioned that he knew other kids who would go to their parents saying that they wanted to be drag queens, to which their parents would respond “you’re too young to even know what that is”.

Now, there’s a lot going on in all of these examples, but the common theme that I notice, the thing that really gets under my skin, is this idea of telling other people what they can and can’t be, the acceptable ways of expressing themselves, based off of your limited understanding of who they are and what they are capable of.

And this happens so often, and in so many different ways. In the above mentioned examples, we see at least three different types of discrimination as well.

In the example of the woman in her fifties wanting to get a funky haircut, we see a prime example of ageism, or discrimination against someone based on their age. The woman was deemed to be too old to look good with a funky hairstyle, and so the hairdresser refused to give it to her, but when it really comes down to it – why? Why wouldn’t she look good with a funky hairstyle? And more than that, who is the hairdresser to judge if she would or would not? If the woman in question wants to express herself in that way, and if it would make her feel more comfortable in her own skin, then what is so wrong about it? But we as a society have a very basic understanding of what someone in that age group should be – they should be humble, quiet, non-offensive, ready to wind down and start taking things slow, and so when someone comes along to challenge all that, we don’t like it. We tell them that they can’t do that. Which is really unfair, because it limits the way that they get to express themselves and find comfort in their own skin.

In the example of the larger woman in a bikini, we see one of the most classic examples of fat shaming. I don’t know a whole lot about the woman in her bikini – I don’t know if she felt like she was rocking the bikini or if she was already a little bit self-conscious about it, but the one thing I do know is that she did not deserve to be told that she shouldn’t wear it. Because she should. If she wants to put her body in a bikini, then she should put that body in a bikini, and she should have the opportunity to go out and look fabulous and be her beautiful self. Her body and her bikini was not the problem here. The problem was the other woman’s limited idea of what beauty is. She decided (because she was told this by society) that only thin women look good in bikinis, and therefore, only thin women should wear bikinis. Larger women should spend their lives enrobed by the shame one-piece, forever going to the beach in frumpy tee shirts and acceptably covering shorts.

And lastly, in the example of the children who wanted to dress in drag, we see an example of sexism and/or homophobia. A lot of people see gender as a very two-way street: you are either male or female, and especially when it comes to children, a lot of parents fear that deviating from that two-way street will result in their children becoming ‘other’. Their sons will grow up gay, their daughters will grow up confused, cats will live with dogs, havoc will erupt upon the city, and dear god, will someone please think of the children! There are two major problems with this thinking: 1) we already force children who are LGBT+ to act straight and/or cis-gendered, but that doesn’t cause them to grow up to be straight and/or cis-gendered, and 2) this sort of thinking hinges on the belief that being LGBT+ is wrong and must therefore be avoided. Children must give a very limited, very prescribed performance of gender, or else they risk becoming queer, but even if they did, what would be wrong with that? And, almost worse, by telling children that they shouldn’t know what drag queens or anything similar to that are, you are indirectly telling them that being a drag queen or anything similar is wrong or dirty, which poses one of two risks: either they start treating their fellow LGBT+ children accordingly, or they internalize these opinions about themselves, that they are wrong and they are dirty, because they are LGBT+. We associate being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender-queer, drag queen, etc., as being an ‘adult thing’, but most everyone who falls under those categories as an adult can tell you that it started somewhere in their childhood, or that they knew it all along. So if this is the case, and if children most certainly can be something other than straight or cis-gendered, then why do we force them to act otherwise?

One of our societies many problems is that we are constantly limiting one another. We see each other in very basic, very simple ways, and then we act accordingly: a person is either fat, thin, young, old, child, woman, man, this, or that, and when they start to step outside of those lines, to challenge our ways of seeing them, we tell them, “oh, no, no, don’t you do that – get back into that line where you belong!”

But that isn’t how things works. People are more than the labels we give them, and they should be allowed to express themselves in any way that they see fit.

So if you are a fifty, sixty, ninety year old woman who wants to get a bright green mohawk, do it! If you’re four hundred pounds of pure awesome and you want to wear your stylish new bikini to the beach, then please be the most beautiful, most confident person there! If you want to dress in drag, or express your gender in a way that is sort of unconventional, then you will look all the better for it because you will be expressing who you truly are, and nothing is more beautiful than that!

And to go back to the example of my wanting to be a writer – if you have a dream that other people tell you is unrealistic, but you still need to pursue it, then pursue it for all it’s worth. Trust me, it will make your life so much more fulfilling.

Don’t ever let someone else live your life for you. You are amazing, and you are so incredibly strong and capable. So even if you do face the occasional doubter or nay-sayer, just remember that they’re speaking from a very limited understanding and that they don’t know you. You know you, and at the end of the day, you are the only person who has to be satisfied with your life.

Why We Should Talk About Free the Nipple

Hey guys; I don’t know if you noticed, but we’re nearing the end of July now. And maybe this isn’t exactly something that I have the best experience with, seeing as I spend my days in my dark and dank, cavern-like basement with only my computer screen for light, but I hear tell of the myth of summer, this time when the world gets very, very hot, forcing people to strip down and wear fewer clothing.

And, okay, maybe I’m not entirely familiar with the concept of sun or beaches or swimming or going outside, but I am familiar with the strange sort of controversy that exists around this concept of wearing fewer clothing – a controversy that really exists every day of the year, thanks to women who insist on breastfeeding their baby (as though that was what boobs were meant for or something), but which gets more and more prevalent during the hotter months of the year.

And one of the main reasons why I’m aware of this controversy from my cavern-like basement is because of the Free the Nipple campaign.

Started in 2012 after a few incidences where women in the United States were charged with indecent exposure and public indecency for appearing topless in public (including in states like New York, where such things are supposed to be legal), the Free the Nipple campaign describes itself as centred around the idea of gender equality. Perhaps most notably, the equality that they take a special interest in is a woman’s right to take her shirt off and walk around with her tatas out.

And, I mean, sure. Why not? I mean, summers get hot, and ever since the 1930’s, men have had the right to walk around and make us all feel like we’re seeing way too much of their torso, so why can’t women have the same right? In fact, it might even make more sense for women to have the right to be publicly topless than men, because (as I briefly touched on before), women with babies often need to breastfeed them, and this involves exposing a boob or two. I mean, what else are we going to do with those breastfeeding mothers? Make tired, stressed-out women who have already pushed a human being out of their vagina hide away in the Bathroom of Shame while all of their lucky friends without children just go on with their lives? I mean, what sort of sense would that make?

So, yeah, let’s make this legal! Let’s fight for police to recognize our right to bare the boobs!

Except, this is already legal in many places in North America.

Despite this campaign’s beginnings in legality, you’d be surprised by the amount of places where it’s technically legal for women to walk around topless. In the United States, individual states have the right to dictate the legalities around female toplessness, and though these laws change frequently, you’d be surprised by the amount of states where boobs are actually legal. And then we have my country, Canada, wherein it’s actually legal for women to walk around topless almost everywhere – including and almost especially in my own province, Ontario.

Look, I know I just said that I don’t really get out much, but if this was the case, then you’d think I would have at least seen one public boob. But I haven’t. In fact, if I didn’t know that female toplessness was legal where I live, I wouldn’t have even guessed it.

I still see women covering up their boobs, all throughout the hot summers. I still hear about mothers who shock and gasp at a woman breastfeeding in public because “think of the children! What if my little Timmy sees a boob! A boob!!!!” And in fact, although I’ve never actually seen this mythological creature known as the publicly topless women, I’ve still heard people make snide comments about them when they see pictures – comments like, that’s disgraceful, and that’s so weird, and why doesn’t she respect herself and put some clothes on, and, at their most dangerous, she’s just asking for something to happen.

So if, legally and technically speaking, female toplessness is the same as male toplessness, why isn’t it treated the same?

Well, it’s because, societally speaking, female toplessness isn’t the same as male toplessness.

A lot of this comes down to the way that we tend to think about women and women’s bodies. Women’s bodies are often viewed as sexual objects in a way that men’s bodies aren’t. Technically speaking, breasts are just another part of the body – about as sexual as hands are, but the difference is that hands occur on every body, whereas breasts tend to grow most commonly on people who are assigned female at birth, and therefore, as a female body part, they are viewed as inherently sexual. It doesn’t matter that they can function also as food for babies, or as odd bags of fat that cling to your chest; they’re female body parts, which makes them sexual, which makes them bad, which means that you have to cover them up, no ifs, ands, or buts about it!

When a man appears shirtless in public, it can be for a lot of reasons. Maybe he’s hot (temperature-wise, I mean), or maybe he got his shirt dirty, or maybe he doesn’t own a shirt; who knows, really? When a woman appears shirtless in public, people will automatically assume that it is for only one reason: sex. She is ‘inviting attention’. She is ‘opening herself up’ to being leered at, to being flirted with, to being assaulted; if any of that happens to her, then she may not even be viewed as the victim, but as the cause. She has a female body that she isn’t ashamed of, which immediately means that she’s promiscuous, that she’s a ‘whore’, that she has no self-respect (and by the way, why would being promiscuous necessarily mean that you have no self-respect anyway?).

Except they’re just boobs. They are not inherently sexual. They’re body parts and little else, they say nothing about us and mean nothing.

If you want proof that boobs are sexualized to a ridiculous extent in our society, as well, then look at some of the responses to the Free the Nipple campaign, which include certain men claiming that boobs ‘belong in pornography’, and that if a woman earns the right to walk around with her tits out, then he should have the right to walk around with his dick out. In our society, a woman’s nipples are so intensely sexualized, that some men do not even see them as being the same as the nipples that they have on their own chests, but rather equate them to being the exact same thing as genitals. In our society, female nipples are deemed less of a body part, and more of a tool used in pornography to get men off.

And if Free the Nipple proves anything, it’s that this needs to change.

That’s the beautiful thing about all of this being societal too; this can change. Right now, it isn’t common or, in some cases, even safe for women to walk around topless, but that might not always be the case. With campaigns like Free the Nipple, we can keep talking about this, keep supporting women who want to go shirtless, keep pointing out how ridiculous it sounds to claim that female nipples belong in pornography and male nipples belong at the beach. And the more that we do, the more that people will begin to change their minds, and the more that society will change as a result.

So even if you aren’t comfortable baring your breasts this summer (and trust me, I get it if you aren’t), don’t forget about the women who are, and the women who are trying to be. Support those women, and talk about those women. Make those women normal, because someday, they might just be.

 

Should LGBT+ Characters Be in Children’s Films?

In 2012, an animated children’s film called ParaNorman featured an openly gay character – a stereotypical jock character named Mitch Downe, who reveals his orientation at the end of the film when he says “You’re gonna love my boyfriend. He’s like a total chick-flick nut!” Also in 2012, an animated children’s television series called The Legend of Korra featured as its titular character and hero, Korra, a bisexual woman who shares a romance with another woman named Asami. And more recently, in 2017, the live action Disney film Beauty and the Beast featured an openly gay character in Lefou, the villain’s sidekick.

Slowly but surely, LGBT+ characters are making their appearance in children’s media, and people are fairly divided on the matter. On the one hand, we have those who support the idea, saying that children need to see LGBT+ people represented in media because LGBT+ people exist. Maybe the child in question will grow up to belong to the LGBT+ community, and if they do, then the process of coming to terms with themselves will be that much smoother if they have grown up feeling like they are valid and like they are allowed to exist. As a bisexual woman myself, I grew up seeing bisexual people in the media, but they were always represented as morally inferior, dirty, and incapable of fully loving or being loved, and so these were the ideas of bisexuality that I grew up with, and the ideas that I applied to myself when I began to realize what I was. Perhaps the process would have been a little bit easier for me if I had grown up watching The Legend of Korra. And if a child does not grow up to belong to the LGBT+ community, this type of media continues to be of use to them, because chances are, they are going to meet an LGBT+ person at some point in their lives, and this media normalizes this community for them. A gay boy is not “weird” or “effeminate”; he’s just like Lefou.

But then again, on the other hand, we have the people who are opposed to LGBT+ people appearing in children’s media, and this is the perspective that I want to speak to. For the most part, the argument that I hear to support this perspective is that, if children are surrounded from a young age by LGBT+ people, then this will lead them to become LGBT+ when they grow up.

There are two things that I want to state toward this: first of all, being surrounded by a particular sexual orientation at a young age does not influence your future sexual orientation. Both of my parents identify as straight, most of the couples that I saw in movies and television  were straight, all of my friends’ parents growing up were straight, and I still wound up being bisexual, and I imagine that this is the case for most LGBT+ people. The majority of people identify as heterosexual, and more than that, the heterosexual narrative is the one that is most focused on in our society. So why would a child who would identify as straight have their orientation changed because there was a queer couple in their favourite movie growing up?

But even saying that, I’m going to continue on to make a somewhat contradictory statement here: maybe it will influence them a little bit, and maybe that’s okay. I’m not saying that a child who would have otherwise grown up to be a completely heterosexual, totally masculine cis-gendered manly man will now be a homosexual drag queen because he grew up watching ParaNorman (I mean, if he did, that would be awesome too), but maybe he’ll grow up to be a little bit more open, a bit more fluid with his identity. Maybe he’ll question gender roles a little bit. Maybe, if he does feel even the slightest crush on someone of his own gender, he won’t be ashamed to pursue it, even experiment if he wants to. Or at the very least, maybe he will support LGBT+ people, when he could have hurt and bullied them otherwise. And what’s wrong with any of that?

To say that you don’t want children watching media with LGBT+ characters in it because it might make them grow up to become LGBT+ implies that there is something wrong with that. It makes it sound like growing up to become LGBT+ is a) a choice that people make at some point in their development and b) a wrong choice. It is a mistake that must be avoided, and that just isn’t true. There is nothing wrong with growing up to enter into the LGBT+ community, and there is nothing wrong with learning more about the world around you, and there is nothing wrong with experimenting with and questioning your identity. And although I say this, I know that there are people who are going to disagree with me, and there are going to be people who continue to keep their children at home when the newest animated film comes to theatres featuring an LGBT+ character, but personally, I think that’s a shame, and specifically, it’s a shame for the children in question. Films that are willing to tell the stories of LGBT+ characters are offering children a gift: the gift of understanding and open-mindedness, the gift of questioning and learning about the world around them and the identity within them. This is a gift that should continue to be given, and it is a gift that I wish everyone could experience.

Free Speech Used to Disguise Hate

I believe in free speech. I really do; as a writer, I think that it is one of the most fundamental and important things that our society should uphold.

I believe that any society that stifles and controls speech is limited.

I believe that the only way for new and better ways of thinking to be formed is if they have the chance to be talked about and explored freely.

And considering all of that, I have a very hard time when it comes to people who openly and blatantly make harmful comments and claim that it should be protected under the idea of ‘free speech’.

“I’m just saying,” one person recently said on my Facebook feed, “I don’t think transgender people actually exist. I think they’re all just extremely mentally ill and gender confused.” When someone pointed out to them that their opinion was a hateful one, that same person replied with, “I’m entitled to my opinions, you can’t shame me for them!”

But what about the transgender teenager on your Facebook feed that saw that comment? And sure, you can say that you don’t have any transgender teenagers on your Facebook feed, but how do you know that? How do you know that your niece, nephew, cousin, child to a long-lost friend, whoever it might be didn’t stumble upon that status and feel a sudden sinking feeling in their gut, paired soon afterward with a sense of self-loathing? How do you know that your status won’t come to mind later on in their life, when they’re thinking about the fact that there are people who don’t believe that they exist? When they start to wonder if they do exist? How do you know that your comment won’t someday contribute to the reason why they never express themselves for who they are, or the reason why they develop a life-altering, perhaps crippling depression? How do you know that your opinion isn’t the reason why someone someday kills themselves?

And I know, this is a difficult field to enter into altogether. On the one hand, people can’t live their lives constantly monitoring everything they say to ensure that it isn’t offensive, and even the best of us slip up now and then. And we do happen to live in a society where people can internalize harmful ideas, so it isn’t unheard of for good people to believe in bad things. But that isn’t the issue that I have here. The issue that I have is the use of free speech as an attempt to excuse hate.

Think about if someone were to make a harmful comment that wasn’t targeting a specific group of people, but rather one person in particular. Imagine someone walked right up to another person and said, “you’re a stupid, worthless waste of human life.” How would you react? Well, hopefully, you’d point out that that’s a cruel thing to say, and if the bully in this scenario responded with, “I’m entitled to my opinions, you can’t shame me for them!” you’d roll your eyes just a little bit, wouldn’t you? Because, yes, people are entitled to their opinions, but that doesn’t change the fact that they can be harmful and that they do have consequences.

The same thing applies to beliefs that are harmful towards specific groups of people. You can hold onto ideas that are transphobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever, but at the end of the day, you should understand that these are people who deserve rights and respect. They shouldn’t be invalidated, they have just as much of a right to take up space and be themselves as you do, and if you do make an active attempt to undermine their existence, then you should expect a response, just like you should expect a response if you actively walked up to someone and insulted them. In a society where free speech is allowed, you are free to hate as much as you want, but you should also expect to have it pointed out to you that what you are saying is hate, and you should respect their perspective just as much as you want your own to be.

The Value of Uncomfortable Art

As a writer, one question that I frequently find myself questioning is what, exactly, can and should be put into fiction.

And as consumers of media, I think this is a question that comes up often, as well. For years, people have made the claim that violence in fiction is dangerous, because it teaches impressionable people to act violently, and therefore, it should be avoided at all costs.

I’ve had people – particularly very spiritually-inclined people – tell me that I should avoid violent or negative media, like horror films, because they create negative energy in the consumers, that then turns into negative feelings, uncontrollable anger, bouts of depression – things like that.

And as someone who is very concerned about women’s rights, I’ve been told repeatedly not to watch this movie or that movie or support the interest in this character and their story arch because it’s sexist, or it promotes harmful stereotypes, or it delivers a message that ultimately oppresses women.

And I understand all of that. I totally support you if you personally do not want to partake in this movie or that genre, or if you are offended by the message that you read into this narrative. But does that mean that the story should not have been written in the first place? Just because somebody says that this narrative is (quote-unquote) ‘bad’ – or, hell, just because the majority of people say it’s bad – does that necessarily mean that it is wrong?

This isn’t a question that can necessarily be answered in only one way, because there is no right or wrong answer. There are only opinions. And while one person might say that a story shouldn’t be written if it includes violence or if it demeans a particular group of people or if it supports immoral behaviour, I personally disagree.

Personally, I believe that anything and everything should be used if a story if the author wishes it to be so.

Let’s use the example of violence here (because it’s the example that I think will get me in the least amount of trouble). Violence exists in our world, and it has long before the invention of film or visual media. That is just a simple fact, proven by the very existence of war and history textbooks. And while I don’t want to get into any factual discussions about the correlation between rates of violence and rates of violence in the media, I will say that art reflects life. Violence exists in fiction because violence exists in reality, and it works the same way with everything else that we see as a negative in art.

We tell sexist or racist stories because we are a sexist and racist culture.

Some stories support immorality because some people support immorality.

Whether we like it or not, it’s there, and leaving it completely unexplored and ignored is as good as shutting our eyes and covering our ears and going ‘la-la-la, it’s not happening’. That’s not to say that you need to immerse yourself in it. If you’re uncomfortable watching a horror movie, then good – don’t watch horror movies. But at the same time, you cannot deny that there is some value to what they do.

Because, in my personal opinion, the negative aspects of society need to be confronted and explored if anything is ever going to be done about them, and art is one of our safest (and, let’s face it – more fun) vehicles of being able to do that.

I’m going to use a specific narrative as an example – the storyline of Harley Quinn in DC Comics, and her abusive relationship with the Joker. As a feminist, I have two choices when approaching this storyline – I can either look away because watching a woman being physically and emotionally abused by a man makes me uncomfortable, or I can keep watching and use it as an excuse to better understand this issue without actually going out and putting myself in an abusive situation. I’m not saying that either choice is a bad one, I’m just saying that there is an opportunity to take this narrative – one that reflects a very uncomfortable part of our society – and learn something from it. Something that you can then take into the real world and use to help or better understand someone who is actually dealing with domestic violence.

Uncomfortable art has value. It raises questions, makes you think, forces you to think about things from another perspective. Maybe it doesn’t always do this – there are most certainly some films or books or music that uses violence or sexuality or controversy for the simple sake of being shocking or appealing to a certain crowd. Some horror films hold up the violence against certain people as nothing more than something to take pleasure in. But even that has its place, even if its place is nothing more than simple, barbaric enjoyment, and if we say that that form of uncomfortable art shouldn’t exist, then what’s to stop us from saying that the uncomfortable art that we can learn something from shouldn’t exist either? Where do we draw the line, and how can we say which forms of uncomfortable art can or cannot teach someone a valuable lesson?

So if you are personally offended by a particular piece of art, for whatever reason, and you don’t want to take part in it, then don’t. But don’t deny that it has value. Uncomfortable art exists because life is uncomfortable, and if we’re ever going to learn to deal with that, then we need to open our minds to other perspectives.