Queer Representation in Children’s Media

When I was a little girl, one of my absolute favourite things in the whole wide world was Harry Potter. (Oh, who am I kidding? That’s still true today.) The books. The movies. Everything. I loved it. I ate it up like a proverbial fat kid eats cake.

Now, I don’t know how familiar you, the reader, are with Harry Potter. Maybe you’ve never seen the movies or read the books, and you just have a basic understanding of it being about wizards or some shit like that. Maybe you’re more like me, and have the entire text of the books tattooed onto your soul. But I’m just going to assume that you’re a little closer to the former, just for safety’s sake, because I want to draw your attention toward a brief, seemingly unimportant scene in the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which was released when I was nine years old. Trust me; that bit will become important later).

Near the end of this movie, two male characters are revealed to have a close friendship (if I’m spoiling anything for you here, too bad, the movie’s been out nearly fourteen years now). These characters in question are Remus Lupin, a werewolf, and Sirius Black, not a werewolf. At one point, shortly after a reunion scene between the two of them that involved close hugging, the moon comes out from behind a cloud, and Lupin begins to turn into a werewolf. At this point, Sirius grabs hold of Lupin and tries to get through to him, saying things like, “this heart is where you belong, this heart!” indicating Lupin’s own chest.

Now, what about any of this matters, you might be asking? This is just a meaningless, nothing little scene that establishes nothing besides the fact that Lupin is turning into a werewolf, right? Well… yes. Yes it is. But at the age of nine years old, when I first saw this scene, something got confused along the way in my head. I think it might have been something about Sirius screaming about hearts as he held Lupin close. What I’m trying to say is, when I was nine years old, I seriously, genuinely thought that Sirius and Lupin were a couple in the context of the movies. And I’m not talking about “shipping” them (for those of you who aren’t familiar with the lingo, that’s geek-talk for thinking that two characters would make an amazing couple, even if they are not actually romantically or sexually involved in the actual text). I mean that I actually believed that they were “together”.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either. In the Disney movie “Mulan” (which came out when I was three years old; I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw it, but it was probably around then), there is a character simply called “the Matchmaker”, and I was completely convinced that that character was a drag queen. Maybe it was the heavy make-up combined with the fact that she accidentally draws a goatee on herself later on in the movie. Maybe I just didn’t catch onto the fact that it was a goatee made of ink, not hair. I don’t know, for some reason, when I was a kid, I was simply convinced that children’s movies were much more progressive than they actually were.

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens did I discover that Lupin and Sirius are not actually a couple in the context of the story, they’re just good friends, or that the Matchmaker was actually intended to be interpreted as a cis-gendered woman.

Now, the reason why I interpreted these characters this way could be manifold. It could simply because my parents did not try to hide the existence of other sexualities and genders from me as a kid, and so it simply made sense to me that, if these people existed, they would exist in my media as well. Or maybe it all has something to do with the fact that I personally grew up to be bisexual; maybe whatever it is that has hardwired me to be queer automatically made me search for role models in my media as early as three years old. I don’t know what the reason is, all I know is that I can now make people laugh with the funny “I genuinely thought Lupin and Sirius were a couple” story now.

But, personally, I think that the fact that I thought this way as young as I did is important to a discussion that we have been having in our media lately: namely, is it okay for children to be exposed to queer characters in media?

Actual queer characters (not just the ones I’ve made up in my head) have been confirmed in some children’s media lately, possibly the most famous example being LeFou in Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Yet, LeFou sort of ended up being a disappointment to both sides of the argument. Parents who disagreed with queer representation in children’s media refused to take their children to this movie because they didn’t want them exposed to a message that they thought could potentially be harmful. Meanwhile, audience members who wanted to see explicit queer representation got little more than a split-second dance scene between two men, hardly confirming or denying anything (after all, even as a nine-year-old, I would have known that two men can dance together without being in love with each other).

Since then, we’ve had character after character in children’s media (including Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok and Yellow Ranger Trini from the Power Rangers movie) either hint at potential queerness, or be marketed to the audience as a queer character, while never actually coming right out and saying, “hello, yes, I am actual queer character, pleased to meet you!”

In other words, this media can bring in an audience that desperately wants to see actual, confirmed queer representation in mainstream, children’s media, while simultaneously appeasing the parents who don’t want their children exposed to that gross, gay stuff.

But, end of day, really, what’s wrong with exposing children to the existence of queer individuals?

I know that I’m probably not a convincing example of someone who grew up exposed to this in my media and turned out fine, considering the fact that one of the major fears of including these characters in these movies is that it will somehow turn their kids gay. But at the same time, to that, I say two things: 1) I don’t think that I “became bisexual” the moment that I heard Gary Oldman screaming “this heart is where you belong” to David Thewlis. I sort of think that being bisexual was somewhere in my genetic code long before that. And, 2) at the time, when I was a young, pre-pubescent nerd wearing a lightning bolt scar drawn onto my forehead with eyeliner, I actually didn’t think anything of this quote-unquote ‘relationship’. I didn’t think that it was weird that Sirius and Lupin “were a couple”. I mean, yeah, at the time I decided that they were my favourite couple in the series, but that was mostly because this was movie three and the only other couples that I had to choose from were all parents (which, to a nine year old girl, was gross).

You know those stories that you hear of a little kid asking, “what are gay people?” and the parents explains it calmly, to which the kid goes, “oh. Can I go play now?” Yeah, that was pretty much just my reaction to these movies. I didn’t linger on it. I didn’t hate it or think it was gross, or even really decide that I was going to grow up to be in a same-sex relationship, just like Lupin and Sirius. I just saw it, thought it was kind of romantic, the way that Sirius tried to pull Lupin back from being a monster just like some sort of Beauty and the Beast, and then I moved onto the awesome werewolf fight scene and the flying broomsticks and the supposed devil worship. Truth be told, if this wasn’t an argument that we were having now, and if I hadn’t been wrong in my interpretation of the film, I might never have thought about any of it ever again.

So when people nowadays discuss the potential “dangers” of including queer characters in children’s media, I always go back to that nine year old girl who thought nothing of the possibility that two wizards were also a couple, or that the Matchmaker was openly a drag queen in ancient China. None of this bothered me as a kid, none of it even phased me. Perhaps it would have if I had told the adults in my life how I had interpreted these characters and they had laughed at me or told me that I was wrong, but no one ever did that to me. No one ever told me that queer characters didn’t belong in my media, and so I simply assumed that queer people belonged everywhere. Being informed on these matters, being allowed to think about them and interpret them freely, made me more open-minded and accepting, not only of queer characters, but of queer people in real life, and eventually, of my own queerness as well.

It wasn’t until I grew up did I discover that others disagreed with me. And, to this day, I still don’t think I understand why.

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The Purpose of Breasts

Earlier today, I was reading an article about a teenage girl who was told that, because she has large breasts, she needs to be very careful about what clothes she wears to school, lest she become a distraction to the boys in her class.

Now, of course, there’s a lot to unpack in this sentence. I could focus on how harmful high school dress codes are, as they hold teenage girls accountable for their male peers being unable to do their work despite being in close proximity with female bodies. I could focus on the fact that girls with large breasts are sexualized to a ridiculous extent, as it doesn’t matter what shirt they wear – any shirt is considered a ‘distraction’ – merely because the girl has large breasts.’

But these are all issues that people has discussed before, and discussed frequently. So frequently, in fact, that these were many of the comments that were left on the article in question, as well as another comment, which is actually the one that I want to focus on right now:

“People need to stop sexualizing boobs; a woman’s breasts are for feeding children, not sex.”

Now, this statement was made frequently, and it comes a well-intentioned place, I know. All that this statement is supposed to mean is that breasts should be more commonly accepted. Girls and women alike should be allowed to have breasts, to show their cleavage, to be shirtless in public, and it shouldn’t be a big deal because breasts are not inherently sexual organs. And I agree with all of this.

What I don’t agree with is the idea that the entire purpose behind a woman’s breasts is to feed children.

I mean, sure, breasts can be used to feed children. That is certainly a thing that they are capable of, and it is a thing that no woman should be ashamed of or have to do alone, tucked away in the shame corner (also known as the bathroom). It is a thing that we should be allowed to talk about comfortably. I mean, even if you haven’t pushed a human being out of your vagina, chances are you’ve heard people talk about the benefits of breastfeeding, so it’s understandable why people would suggest that that is the purpose for breasts in the first place.

But what about mothers who decide not to breastfeed, whether for economic reasons or health issues or personal preference? I mean, these sort of mothers are becoming a bit of a minority as breastfeeding is pushed more and more in our society, but they most certainly do exist, and are they not valid? Are they not using their breasts properly? Do they have breasts for no reason at all?

What about women who are infertile, and cannot conceive a child, let alone give birth to and nurse them? In the United States, it is estimated that 10 percent of women aged fifteen to forty-four have difficulty getting or staying pregnant – and this is not a small amount of women. But these women may never use their breasts to feed a baby, so are their breasts wasted? Do they fail to serve their purpose, because their bodies are not capable of creating life?

What about women like me, women who do not want to conceive a child of their own? In the past, this might not have even been considered an option for women, but more and more are coming forth nowadays and saying “I don’t want kids!” and that’s fine. There are many reasons to decide that you don’t want kids – whether it be because you are dealing with a mental illness that you don’t want to pass down, you don’t want to deal with the absolute living hell that is pregnancy, or you simply don’t see it as a priority and there are other things you want to focus on – this is a valid choice nowadays. But if you don’t get pregnant, then your breasts won’t fill with milk, and you won’t be able to feed any children. So does that mean that, again, you fail in your service as a person with breasts?

What about transgender women who choose to receive breasts surgically? What purpose do these breasts serve? I mean, they can’t feed children (not unless modern day plastic surgery has advanced much more than I realized). And yet, despite the fact that they don’t serve their apparent purpose, transgender women continue to want them and get them, and is this without a point? Are they spending all this money and going under the knife for no reason at all? Are their breasts, again, wasted?

The way that I see it, breasts are the only body part that people will argue about their purpose. You don’t see people demanding that hands be covered up because they can and do get used during sex, while another group argues that hands are perfectly fine and should be accepted because they can be used to tickle children as well. The truth is, breasts are just breasts. They are a body part, and their purpose is to be bags of fat that hang off your chest. I know that that sounds much less romantic than the alternative, but it’s true.

And as I might have hinted at before, their use changes depending on the woman and depending on the circumstance. Sometimes, breasts are a symbol of femininity that make women feel more comfortable in their gender identity. Sometimes, breasts are an annoyance that flop around awkwardly while you run. Sometimes, breasts are used in sexual acts. Sometimes, breasts are used to feed children. Breasts have uses, but they don’t really have a sole, defining purpose.

And the way I see it, it is dismissive and unfair to say that the purpose of breasts is to feed children, just because, for years, we as a society considered the purpose of women to be bearing children, when that just isn’t reality anymore. Women have options. We can choose to conceive our own children, we can choose to adopt our own children, or we can choose to forego the whole business and raise dogs or cats. We cannot consider the sole purpose of our bodies to be creating and sustaining children, because when we do that, we imply that, by not creating and sustaining children, we are failing at something. But that isn’t the case. Your body is not one, big reproductive organ; you are a person, filled with thoughts and feelings and emotions and passions, and the purpose of your body is to carry all of that. I think that society sometimes makes it too easy for us to forget that, with the sort of language that it uses toward women.

So the next time that you want to say, “it’s ridiculous that we tell girls that they need to cover up their breasts when they aren’t even sexual organs”, say that instead. Because there are too many experiences out there that we ignore and belittle by assigning breasts with a singular purpose.

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.

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.

Life’s Simple Narrative

When I was around twelve or thirteen years old and planning out what my future was going to look like, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want children to fit into it.

No real special reason. It’s not that I hated kids or anything like that. I just couldn’t see myself as a parent. It was one of those roles that I couldn’t realistically imagine myself in, the way that I could never imagine myself realistically becoming an astronaut. It’s not that I don’t respect them, and yeah, I suppose I could do it, but I just didn’t have the drive or interest to really pursue it.

And, besides, kids are a huge commitment, and I started to realize that around the time that I started planning out my life. The things that I really wanted, after all, were things that required a lot of time and money. I wanted to travel and I wanted to write – those were the two most important things that I needed to do, and both of those things were difficult to balance with two-point-five mouths to feed and brains to develop. So the answer, to my twelve-or-thirteen-year-old-brain, was simple – I couldn’t have everything, so something needed to be sacrificed. And fulfilling my womanly role of repopulating the human race just wasn’t that important to me.

The reaction that I got from this decision was varied. On the one hand, I had my peers, and none of them really cared all that much. Nobody questioned me extensively, nobody thought it was weird. As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that a lot of people from my generation have decided to forego parenthood, in fact, and I’m not actually that unique for coming to that conclusion. We’re the generation that grew up struggling financially, after all, the generation that was told repeatedly that the world’s overpopulated enough and we don’t need any more people. And we’re also the generation that, from what I can tell, has started questioning the roles that society expects of us more openly.

Then, way over there on the very opposite hand, I had the reactions of much older relatives of mine.

Once, I told an older, paternal figure in my family that I didn’t plan on having children, and he got so angry at me that he wouldn’t talk to me for a few minutes – and he was one of the better reactions. At least he actually took me seriously for a moment or two! For the most part, my claims were completely dismissed by people.

“Ciara doesn’t plan on having any children,” I remember my mother telling my great-aunt once, to which my great-aunt responded with a very easy, very brief, “oh, that’ll change.” And after that, people would just continue acting as though the claim hadn’t been made at all. Even after I announced my plans against parenthood, older family members would still speak to me as though my future was set in stone, reminding me whenever I brought up writing that I might have to give that up someday so I could care for my two-point-five sacks of poop and drool. As though my becoming a parent was more important than my being satisfied within my own life.

There was a period of time in my teens where I didn’t just not want children – I was actively against the idea, because the thought of procreating felt like playing into the simple narrative that they all expected of me. I was to grow up with these big dreams, and then throw them away because some handsome person with a penis came along and my biological clock was ticking. I didn’t have a choice in the matter, and the fact that I thought I did would change because that’s just how life is. No freedom. No choice. Just shut up, play your role, and be happy.

I’m twenty-two years old now, and less bitter about the whole ordeal – but mostly because I’ve embraced the fact that I do, in fact, have choice. We as a society tend to think that there are only so many acceptable ways to live your life, but that’s a lie. The world is endless, and people are varied, and we can do with our lives as we wish. And so long as it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone, no way of living your life is wrong.

As of now, I still can’t see myself in the role of the parent, but who knows what the future will bring? I’m not saying that my mind will change because I have a biological clock to maintain here, but I am saying that I’m very young and I have a whole life ahead of me. Maybe I will marry a man, and have two-point-five screaming kids with him. Maybe I’ll marry a woman, and have children with her. Maybe I’ll marry someone who escapes the gender binary completely and have no children at all. Maybe I won’t get married, and just spend my life writing and travelling. No matter what, they’re all equally valid options. All we have to do is choose the option that makes us happiest, and anyone who dismisses or disagrees with your choice doesn’t have to live with it anyway.