Can You Respect the Work of People You Don’t Respect

The other day, I read something that essentially said that modern writers shouldn’t try to emulate H.P. Lovecraft (or, for those who aren’t familiar with his work, the guy who invented Cthulhu), because in real life, the dude was a massive racist.

Now, I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of Lovecraft, but I respect his work. I find that his greatest writing weakness (from a contemporary standpoint) is also his greatest writing strength, which is that he has inspired so many later writers, such as Stephen King and Robert Bloch. At this point, his work feels a little bit predictable, but that’s only because he created so many of the conventions that we see in modern horror and fantasy. In fact, it’s almost a little difficult to write in those genres without drawing a little bit of influence from Lovecraft.

So perhaps that’s part of the reason why I find this statement interesting (after all, how do you contribute to a genre that has roots that you might have a genuine reason to disagree with). But, more than that, this just seems to be part of a larger discussion that we have been having lately.

In 2017, a librarian at Cambridgeport School refused to accept Melania Trump’s gift of Dr. Seuss books, stating that Dr. Seuss was a racist and that his illustrations are “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes”. This response drew both support and criticism, the latter coming from people who called Dr. Seuss a “product of his time” and claimed that his racism does not necessarily come across in the texts themselves.

And, personally, I have read countless stories from authors that were incredibly racist. Sometimes this came across in the texts themselves (Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” is literally about evil black people) and sometimes they didn’t (if you only read L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz”, you might not even know that he wrote anti-Native editorials as well).

Even today, problematic people still produce highly respected works. Orson Scott Card’s “Enders Game” is considered a modern sci-fi classic, even spawning a movie adaption in 2013, and yet his homophobia and political views have been a subject of great debate amongst confused readers for years now.

So, what do we do with this information? Can we continue to respect the works of people who might not necessarily deserve respect themselves?

Now, keep in mind, from hereon out, I am merely going to be stating my personal opinion. This is not a definitive answer; all I am trying to do is facilitate discussion.

And, personally, I believe that it is possible to respect the work, even if you don’t respect the artist.

Now, obviously, there are circumstances that make this issue a little bit more complicated. For example, I will go out and spend money on a work from H.P. Lovecraft, but I won’t do the same for Orson Scott Card, primarily because as a consumer, I do not want my money going toward someone who I know is still alive and still actively spreading a message that I do not agree with. Lovecraft, Poe, Baum, Dr. Seuss – all of these men are dead and of a different time period, which doesn’t excuse their beliefs and doesn’t make it okay, but it does put a little bit of distance between me and their political views.

The works that I have mentioned here are all highly influential, and I don’t necessarily think that that should be ignored. Many of these are artists who changed the genre they were working in – that changed storytelling, to a certain extent. I think that that is something that is worthy of respect, even if their political views weren’t.

But even as I say this, there is another layer that needs to be added – their political views shouldn’t be erased or ignored either.

These writers are not heroes. They did not transcend humanity, and they were not above hatred. We need to remember that. We need to respect the people that they hurt with their hate speech. And if we don’t talk about the ways that they failed, just as much as we talk about the ways that they succeeded, then we run the risk of forgetting it. We privilege the good that they did over the bad that they did.

As a result, I don’t think that this is an all-or-nothing scenario. We can’t forget the impact that these writers had on literature, so I disagree when their books are banned from spaces on principal. But we also can’t forget the impact that these writers on society, so I disagree when people take a very “get over it” attitude to the matter.

End of day, I think that the choice to read these works or emulate these writers should come down to the informed individual. It is possible to respect the writing that they produced, but not the person themselves. But if the writer and their political views turns the reader off too much, then that is totally understandable.

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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 Still Need Labels

I have a lot of labels to go by.

I am a woman. I’m bisexual, I’m white, I’m cis gendered. I’m able-bodied, but I am not completely neurotypical, as I have dealt with anxiety and depression.

And, admittedly, some of these labels get exhausting to live with sometimes. Just today, I thought about sitting down and writing something feminist, to which some part of my brain responded with an endless groan and the question, “do I have to be a woman today? Can’t I just be a person, without any concern about rape culture or objectification or whatever the topic of the day is?”

And I don’t think I’m the only person who has felt this way either. You see this opinion pop up constantly on the internet, though perhaps not always from the specific group of people being referred to.

For example, whenever a movie studio makes a big deal about outing a character as gay, you tend to see a plethora of reactions, and one that always makes its appearance is the question, “why does this matter? As long as the character is good, who cares who he sleeps with?” And although I am not trying to condemn the people who say this, I do want to point out that the majority of people who hold this opinion are straight people who have not experienced what it is like to be LGBT+.

Another example of this that I’ve seen is the internet’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. Many people (and primarily not black people) saw this movement and felt offended by the name, offering up the question, “don’t all lives matter?”

When questions like this are asked, I feel that it comes from a very similar place as my own internal grumbling about writing something feminist: they’re tired of dealing with it. They’re tired of people segregating themselves under different labels, of feeling as though one person is different from the other because of their race or their sexual orientation or whatever the case might be. They just want all that to end and for people to just be people already, not a label.

And trust me, I get it. I do. The fact that all these different labels exist in our world is exhausting. But there is one glaring problem that arises when you suggest that we should just label everyone as people and move on with our lives: society doesn’t work that way. We are still living with huge imbalances between people that will not get fixed if we don’t address them.

Yes, all lives matter, but Black Lives Matter was created for a very specific purpose – to address the fact that black people in America are killed by the police at an alarmingly high rate, and that needs to stop. The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to bring attention to something that specifically affects black people, and if we are ever going to find equality, we need to talk about that. If we continue to ignore that issue, then cops are going to continue to brutalize and kill black people because no one is telling them that it’s wrong.

Yes, at the end of the day, who cares who that character in the movie wants to sleep with – he’s a fictional character and none of us are sleeping with him anyway. But at the same time, it matters that he’s gay – especially if it’s in a genre that doesn’t typically feature LGBT+ characters or if he’s the lead in a mainstream movie. It matters because gay characters are too rarely seen in mainstream films, or if they are seen, they’re sometimes delegated to minor characters or stereotypes. It matters because the invisibility of LGBT+ characters in mainstream media leads to a generation of LGBT+ people who have internalized that there is something wrong with them, that they shouldn’t be seen, or even in some cases, that they don’t exist. And if we don’t make a big deal out of the fact that this character is gay, if we don’t celebrate and encourage it, then Hollywood is not going to get the message that we want to see more LGBT+ people represented in our media, and thus, nothing is going to change for LGBT+ youth who need to have their existence validated.

And as much as it might get exhausting from time to time for me to talk about feminism, it’s still something that I need to do, because if I don’t, then I’m part of the problem. I’m sitting back and allowing these injustices to my gender to continue on.

Don’t get me wrong – I am in full support of getting rid of labels someday and forming a society that does not even notice our differences, but the key word there is someday. We just aren’t there yet. Systemic sexism still exists, systemic racism still exists, systemic homophobia still exists, etc., etc., and if we are ever going to actually end it and form a society where we can all just be people, we need to address that. Because until we end these issues, we are not treated as just people – our lives and experiences are still determined by the labels that we have no choice but to live under.