My provocation is this: utopia is not the place to go looking for freedom. At least not the right kind of freedom. Ironically, I think, we should examine that which is so often associated with oppression, submission, and silence—dystopia.
The idea for this paper came to me a year ago while watching an episode of Caprica, a spin-off of Battlestar Galactica. Here, Tad (gamertag: Hercules) turns to Tamara and says:
“Look, I know this must seem really random to you, but this game—it really does mean something to me. It actually allows me to be something.”
Without pausing she fires back:
“Maybe if you weren’t in here playing this game you could be something out there, too.”
I think this exchange points to an interesting way in which the relationship between youth and the world is often cast: youth are dreamers and cultivate their online selves at the expense of their real lives. But I think that this distinction between virtual and real is growing false and that the development of youth’s relationship with the intangible has everything to do with their relationship to the real.
Truth be told, this is actually my favorite episode of the series and it takes its name from a poem, “There Is Another Sky”:
There is another sky
Ever serene and fair
And there is another sunshine
Though it be darkness there
Never mind faded forests, Austin
Never mind silent fields
Here is a little forest
Whose leaf is evergreen
Here is a brighter garden
Where not a frost has been
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum
Prithee, my brother
Into my garden come!
All of this from a woman who would never see the garden for herself.
But that’s sort of exactly the point, right? I mean, Dickinson and Tad are my people—they are the ones who are mired in the dark and they are the ones searching for a light, something more, something better. Something like a utopia.
And what is Dickinson’s garden, really, other than a form of utopia? Hearing those words, we picture a pastoral safe haven that is admittedly different from the technological utopias that we’ve been discussing in class but definitely a vision for a world that is better.
The trouble is that our utopias rarely come alone: utopias are born out of dystopias, slide into dystopia, and maintain a healthy tension by threatening to turn into dystopias. As I’ve thought about this over the course of the semester, I have come to wonder if all utopias are in fact false for one person’s utopia is easily another’s dystopia. So we have this back and forth that is, as we have seen, instructive, but I’m most interested in the scenarios like those in Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Brave New World wherein an established utopia sets the scene for what has become a dystopian nightmare.
Somewhat like the life of a teenager. Tyler Clementi was perhaps the most high-profile case in a string of gay teen suicides that occurred in the fall of last year. At the time, I can remember being incredibly upset—not at Dharun, Clementi’s roommate—but at myself and my colleagues. “This death is, in part, on all of us,” I remember telling my peers for these are the kids that we are supposed to be advocating for and we’ve failed to change the culture that causes these things to happen. We’ve known about bullying in schools for a long time and we can make steps to alter that but we can also work to make youth more resilient.
Looking to do just that, columnist Dan Savage started a project called “It Gets Better” that attempted to convince gay youth to stick around because, well, “it gets better.” Once the initial goodwill wore off, I began to get increasingly upset at the project—not because the intent was unworthy but rather because the project showed a certain lack of understanding and compassion for those it was actually trying to help.
Telling a teenager that things will get better somehow, someday is like telling him that things will get better in an eternity because every day is like a million years. Telling a teenager your story means that you are not listening to theirs. And what about all those youth who don’t feel like they can tough it out until they can leave? They feel like failures. What you’re really after with this whole thing is hope, but I think that the efforts are misguided.
I was frustrated because this position caused youth to be passive bystanders in their own lives—that one day, they’d wake up or go off to college and things would magically get better. There might be some truth to that but what about all of the challenges that youth have yet to face? Life is hard—for everyone—and it’ll kick you while you’re down; but we need to teach our youth not to be afraid to get back up because the wrong lesson to learn from all of this is to become closed off and cynical.
So what are some of the ways that we can take a look at young adult culture and reexamine the activities that youth are already engaged in, in order to tell young people that they are valued just as they are?
For me, Young Adult fiction provides a great space in which to talk about themes of utopia/dystopia, depression, and bullying. So much more than Twilight, there was recently a discussion over this past summer on Twitter with participants employing the hash tag #YASaves. The topic was sparked in response to claims that the material in Young Adult fiction was too dark. Case in point, The Hunger Games centers on an event wherein 24 teenagers fight to the death in an arena. And I say this with the caveat that I am not a parent but I get that position—I really do. Years of interacting with parents and their children in the arena of college admission has convinced me that many parents want the best for their kids—they want to protect them from harm—but simply approach the process in a way that I do not find helpful.
Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States. And these sound like good things, right? But here those dystopias born out of utopias are instructive for they show us what happens when “freedom from” collapses. Like “It Gets Better” which forwards its own vision of a life free from bullying, the dream rots because “freedom from” leads to a utopia—a space that, by its very nature, has no exit plan.
But, to be fair, perhaps “freedom to” has a stigma, one that Dan Savage is likely familiar with.
I imagine that there is a certain amount of disillusionment with this for “Free to Be…You and Me” has not really altered the perception that boys can have dolls or that it’s okay to cry. We are not yet truly free to be. But I would argue that it is not the concept of “freedom to” that is the issue here, it is the way in which it is defined—according to the song, it is a land where children and rivers run free in the green country.
In short, a utopia.
What if we applied what we learned from this course and instead of a place, recast utopia as a process of becoming? A dream of perpetual motion, if you will. What if we taught youth to think about how “freedom from” mirrors the language of colonialism and instead suggested that the more pertinent issue is that of freedom to? Not just freedom from censorship but freedom to protest, freedom to information and access to it, freedom to be visible, freedom to be anonymous, freedom to wonder, freedom to dream, and freedom to become. We are quickly seeing that virtual spaces are becoming hotbeds for these sorts of fights and the results of those skirmishes have a very real impact on the everyday lives of young adults. If there are teens who view high school as a war zone shouldn’t we arm them with better tactics? What if utopian described not a place but a type of person? Someone who fought accepted notions of the future and did not just wait for it to get better but challenged it, and us, to be better. Just maybe someone like a poet.
I opened with Emily Dickinson and I will return to her to close.
We’d never know how high we are
Until we’re called to rise
And then, if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies
Take what you’ve learned from this class and encourage youth to struggle with these notions of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Help them rise.
There are times, I think, when all of this just seems overwhelming. With a new section each week, we are asking each of you to grapple with things that you may not have encountered before and I completely understand that this may not be easy.
But, then again, who said it was going to be?
Although you have to find the balance with this, some part of me believes that, as investigators, we should be a little overwhelmed for it is in this moment that we begin to grasp just how large the problem really is. What was once so clear becomes infinitely murky and we struggle to find a foothold. The issues that Asians Americans face are complex and seemingly never-ending. How do I go about dismantling the myriad problems that we encounter every day? Will I even make a difference? Should I even try?
It’s taken me a few years to get to where I am now but I have to come to believe that the answer is a resounding “Yes.” I get called out for being impractical because I’m not as interested in deliverables, action items, and long-range plans; instead, I’m interested in the transformation that occurs on an individual level when one decides that he or she is capable of making a difference.
And the thing that they never tell you in school is that you don’t have to change the world in a grand way on your first go. Making a difference isn’t about spectacle and scale so much as it is about intent and meaning. There a million ways in which one can change the world on an everyday basis that have profound and lasting implications and it is these sorts of actions that I often think about when we come to issues of sexuality and gender in CIRCLE.
By now, all of you have gone through the exercise where we attempted to place ourselves in the mindset of someone who does not identify as straight. Although our session exhibited moments of laughter and sympathy, I hope that the exercise also went beyond this to generate a feeling of empathy. I get that it’s a bit heavy to think about some of these things on a night when you are coming off of class and looking forward to homework, but I would challenge my session to think about how they would react if they couldn’t just go home after all was said and done. How might you feel if you really had to tear off the corners of your star?
The thing that we strive to teach our students in CIRCLE is that all of these issues are linked (and, yes, messy) but that you can also apply what you’ve learned from one week to another. What if you thought about sexuality like you think about ethnicity? Students in our session can’t just stop being Asian American—just like other students can’t stop being GLBTIQ. How can you map your need to justify your worth as an Asian onto things like gender or sexuality?
But even if that’s a bit too heavy for you, I do want to mention something that I brought up at the conclusion of our session. Issues of gender and sexuality figure heavily into what I do, along with my experiences in college admission and psychology. I spend a lot of time thinking about self-harm/mutilation, eating disorders, depression, restlessness and projects like It Gets Better (which I can happily discuss the faults of). I spend a good deal of my time trying to think about ways to change educational policy to help students to recognize and feel of worth; I think about bullying in schools but also bullying on Perez Hilton, TMZ, and even by Dan Savage.
One of the things that I have learned in my years of college admission is that an increasing number of students are suffering from something that I call “floating duck syndrome”—on the surface, students are serene and perfect but, underneath the water, their legs are churning. Needless to say, students have some issues. I don’t mean to imply that students will not be able to overcome these things, but I must admit that I was shocked to learn about what they were dealing with.
However, I should also mention that I am incredibly hopeful for the generation of students that is following in my footsteps. I am hopeful that students will learn to brave the dark places of themselves, secure in the knowledge that friends and family will always be there to draw them back. I am hopeful that students will come to understand who they are and accept themselves for that. And, I am hopeful that students will learn to step outside of themselves in order to offer their help to those in need. I am lucky to be in a situation where I can empower future students to realize that, although occasionally overwhelmed by adversity, they are all survivors in some respect: any person who has ever been teased, ridiculed, outcast, or made to simply feel less than is a survivor and can embrace that. And, because you are a survivor, you have been imbued with the power to tell your story to others in similar situations in order to pull them through. Ultimately, I am also hopeful because I have learned that young people are incredibly resilient and innovative—you can accomplish some amazing things if given half a chance.
And one of those amazing things is to realize just how much power you have. As I mentioned before, you don’t have to change the world overnight but I challenge you to realize that, just by being yourself, you possessed an incredible amount of agency: each and every one of you has the power to keep at least one point of that star intact. If they so choose, the you have the power to potentially save a life—and how amazing is that?
This week you were all given stars, but the thing that you need to realize—as cliché as it might sound—is that you are all, in your own way, stars. Go out there and burn bright. Shine like you’ve never had any doubt.
As an admission officer, you have to be quick on your feet. More often than not, you’re on your own in front of an audience who is scrutinizing your every move. What you say, how you say it, what you don’t say—these are all things that are examined for hidden meanings. Grace, poise, enthusiasm (not unlike a beauty pageant contestant?) are attributes that the job demands, especially when you are trying to put out fires without breaking a sweat.
One of the most challenging experiences I ever had took place at USC’s satellite campus in Orange County. Current USC undergraduates were on hand to give local college counselors a taste of life at USC and were performing admirably until I heard those words float across the room:
“It was great to come to USC because you really got to see how the other half lives.”
I will fully admit that I hadn’t been entirely focused on the conversation, but, with that, my attention snapped back into focus. How do you fix something like that without drawing overt attention to it? Do you just hope that people didn’t notice? Is it worse that they didn’t? How do you come back from that?
Eventually everything worked out all right and, in the long run, that moment was much more instructive for me than it was damaging: it’s something that I’ve carried with me throughout my career and something that I think about when we come to the topic of ethnography.
It’s easy, I think, to claim that you are interested in understanding the mindset of others but it is another thing entirely to be open to such a practice. Even if we momentarily ignore issues of assimilation and the fear of losing oneself in or to a project (as if self identity was ever something that was static), it is still incredibly difficult to work against a process that automatically filters perceptions through layers of developed experiences. Despite our stated intent, it may take us longer than we expected to truly begin to understand those we wish to study.
I’m looking at you, Tyra Banks.
Needless to say, Tyra Banks going “undercover” as a homeless person for a day is not a form of ethnography (although I do not think that Tyra herself would ever employ such a word). Being made up to look homeless for a day undoubtedly fails to convey the sense of hopelessness that some homeless feel or, for that matter, even a very real sense of the pervasiveness of the issue. In fact, at its worst, Tyra’s undercover episodes are a form of stunt journalism that seeks to profit off of the very groups that she is purporting to help; entering with all of the trappings of privilege, it is her duty and her prerogative to expose injustice, wrongdoing, and prejudice. This is, of course, not to suggest that the objects of her inquiry (e.g., strippers, homelessness, sexism) do not deserve inquiry but the danger lies in individuals like Tyra believing that their investigative experiences are more meaningful than they actually are. Spanning across instances as varied as Tyra’s episodes, colonialist literature, and It Gets Better, we see a common theme: the story of the investigators is elevated above the tale(s) of the community.
Here we understand an opportunity for ethnography to redress the situation as it reasserts the relationship of the observer to those that he or she would study. Rather than striving to remove all traces of the observer (which is probably impossible anyway), I think that good ethnography acknowledges the impact of the observer and clearly outlines ways in which the observer’s presence might alter outcomes and how the observer’s perception of events is framed by personal history.
So as I sat in an after-school tutoring session, I found myself racing to take four sets of notes: observations, possible meanings of what I saw, implications of those actions, and a running account that attempted to explain why I perceived things in the way that I did. In essence, I made a series of passes, adding additional layers of information each time I revisited my notes. Although this process would have ideally been aided by audio/visual recording, I think my mini-ethnography was quite instructive as I began to think about what things were worth recording (and which I had to let go because I just couldn’t keep up) and also how to rapidly shift between different layers of analysis. After three hours I found myself exhausted but with an interesting record of how the students in this center interacted with one another and their tutors; in my hands I held a formal record of what educators learn to do instinctively as they evaluate and assess each of their students (and themselves). Some students were easily distracted but amazing when focused, some were great motivators but not great leaders, some were bored when working with tutors but animated when teaching their peers, and some just seemed to feel uncomfortable in larger groups. To their credit, tutors seemed to have picked up on many of these traits (and undoubtedly more that I couldn’t even begin to see) and adjusted their mannerisms as they moved back and forth between students: to some they were kind, others stern, still others saw a stern exterior interrupted with sly smiles. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to interview the tutors after I observed them, I wondered how much of this process was automatic for them. Did they consciously consider how to best handle a student or did they just seem to “know” what to do? Had they, as teachers, done an exercise like this before? Did this sort of self-reflexivity make them better teachers? How had these volunteers grown into their jobs as educators? Did the skills exhibited in the tutoring center translate to a classroom?
I suppose there’s always next time…
I fully admit that this is not mine, but I think it raises many good points about the nature of the project and its dialogue. While I certainly don’t think that the project comes from a place of ill will, it may be somewhat misguided. Or, more accurately, I think that the scope of what this whole thing is trying to do is limited and the project is unable to recognize its own bounds.
queerwatch: “Why I don’t like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project as a response to bullying”
“Why I don’t like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project as a response to bullying
(Ten Points, in order of appearance)
1. The video promotes metro-centric and anti-religious sentiment. By aligning their bullying with the religiosity and “small-town mentality,” Dan and Terry tacitly reinforce the belief (especially rampant in queer communities) that the religious and the rural are more bigoted.
2. The message is wrong. Sometimes it gets better– but a lot of times it doesn’t get any better. Emphasizing that things will improve upon graduation is misleading both to young folks struggling and also to people with privilege who are looking on (or looking away).
3. Telling people that they have to wait for their life to get amazing–to tough it out so that they can be around when life gets amazing– is a violent reassignment of guilt. Dan Savage telling kids that if they don’t survive their teenage years they’re depriving themselves? What kind of ageist garbage is that? This quietly but forcefully suggests that if you don’t survive, if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault. It blames the queer for not being strong enough to get to the rosy, privileged, fantasy.
4. Stories of how your mom finally came around, over-write the present realities of youth. Arguing that in the future, the parts that hurt will be fixed, not only suggests that folks shouldn’t actually inhabit their own suffering but it also suggests that the future is more important. For a lot of folks, it doesn’t matter if your mother might come to love you and your spouse. It matters that right now she does not love you at all.
5. The rhetoric about being accepted by family, encourages folks to come out– even when coming out isn’t a safe idea. There is no infrastructure to catch you when your family reacts poorly. There is no truly benevolent queer family, waiting to catch you, ready to sacrifice so you can thrive. For a lot of folks, coming out doesn’t only mean that your parents will promise to hate your lovers– it means violence, homelessness, abuse.
6. Bar story: vomit. It’s no coincidence that this is the first place where Dan and Terry mention queer space. Codified queer-space, restricted to 21+, w alcohol? Try again.
7. We shouldn’t be talking, we should be listening. Telling our own stories from our incredibly privileged positions, overwrites youth experience.
8. Stories of over-coming adversity: no thank you. Narratives of how life was hard and but now is good, belittle lived pain, imply that a good ending is inevitable, and also undermine the joy and happiness in even bullied kids’ lives.
9. There is actually no path to change in this vision. Promoting the illusion that things just “get better,” enables privileged folks to do nothing and just rely on the imaginary mechanics of the American Dream to fix the world. Fuck that. How can you tell kids it gets better without having the guts to say how.
10. Then we get a baby and go to Paris? WTF? This is a video for rich kids for whom the only violent part of their life is high school. It’s a video for classist, privileged gay folks who think that telling their stories is the best way to help others. Telling folks that their suffering is normal doesn’t reassure them– it homogenizes their experience. It doesn’t make them feel like part of a bigger community, it makes them feel irrelevant.
Plus three (with a little help from my friends)
1. When we treat campaigns like this like they’re revolutionary, they undermine all the really amazing work that the youth already does for itself. Too often in the LGBT world, we are asked to thank our brave queer activist ancestors who made the world safe for us. That does have its place. But queer youth take care of themselves. They nurture and organize and love in order to save themselves and each other. Making famous messages legible as THE messages makes youth-work look minor, haphazard, or unofficial.
2. Campaigns like this lump everyone together. It doesn’t honor or respect the individuals. It turns them into icons. It sends confusing messages that we only attend to folks when their dead– when giving care doesn’t actually take anything out of us.
3. Broadcasting your story into the world, or congratulating others for broadcasting theirs is an anesthetized, misguided approach to connecting. We should help folks feel seen— by trying our hardest to see them.
It has been my experience that people are ashamed to help the folks they see as destitute. They are willing to let someone crash on their sofa for a night if they know that they have a back-up bed, somewhere else. They are happy to provide dinner, so long as they know you would be eating even without their generosity. It seems that if you’ve never been homeless or lost or hungry, if you don’t know what that feels like, is too embarrassing to give things to people who might die without them– it is humiliating to hand someone the only food they’ve had all week.
No one is skittish about giving things up so that others can live comfortably. But they are unspeakably afraid of giving away something so someone can merely live. Campaigns like this exacerbate these realities by dehumanizing the people they address, turning them into a depressing mass, ready to be farmed for beautiful tragedies, and transformed into class-passing, successful adults.
How about instead of hope: change. Even if it’s really small change. Even if it doesn’t inspire anyone and no one is grateful and no one even notices. How about doing the kind of work that makes differences in peoples lives without holding them responsible—without turning them into an icon of suffering or of hope, without using their story for a soundbyte, without using their life as your proof of goodness, or of how the world is so liberal, or how it’s great to be gay. I mean money. I mean listening. I mean time. I mean giving people space that we respect and don’t enter. I mean listening to needs and finding ways to fill them.
How about instead of honoring the bravery of youth and the sadness of our times: respecting queer youth for all the incredible work they do– despite the fact that it is so rarely recognized as work, or as adequate work.
Instead of jettisoning our religion, our upbringing, our origins: a cohesive self.
Instead of narratives of suffering and then, finally, success: a celebration of the pain and pleasure throughout.
And listening– way more listening. Because telling your personal story of adversity from a place of privilege, might have a lot of applications, might be asked of you perpetually, might seem alluring because it’s so often milked from us. But it’s not the way. Saying, “I know how you feel, because I used to feel that way, and let me tell you, I don’t feel that way anymore,” doesn’t help, it hurts. You’re dwelling in the present. Don’t insist that those in pain relocate themselves to the future.”
I really relate to the critical commentary on the It Gets Better project. I feel like my rural upbringing was in many ways a product of the gay rights movement settling down in urban areas and abandoning the rest of the country, without safe spaces, without infrastructure, and had this attitude of a binary—be closeted and rural or run away to the city and the university to have rights, be happy, and function. When we don’t return to our origins, to the communities we come from, we deprive those we leave behind of such richness of diversity and wisdom that come from experience and moreover, they fail to see the beautiful possibility of queer and trans rural youth who live, survive, and thrive, and make themselves ignorantly blessed to the continual struggles of these populations who deal with even more barriers and bigotry.
My town is a three-hour drive from San Francisco. I read the following on Wikipedia under the entry for Trannyshack, a SF-based drag venue regarding a tour they took: “Trannyshack also holds the annual Trannyshack Reno bus trip. Hosted by Trannyshack veteran Peaches Christ and held over Easter Weekend, participants are encouraged to dress and act as outrageously and/or provocatively as possible and imbibe alcohol heartily over the course of the weekend. During the ride from San Francisco to Reno, ***the tour bus makes several pit stops in relatively conservative places such as Placerville and Donner Pass, designed partially to get a rise out of small-town locals and unsuspecting travelers, all in real life scenes reminiscent of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert***. The culmination of the event is a special Trannyshack show at a Reno nightclub, followed by Easter Sunday brunch the next day at a local casino.”
I was so sad that I had missed this group of fabulous queens and kings…but also frustrated that they only came by my rural town of Placerville, in order to “get a rise” out of the ‘conservative’ population—what about actually networking with the rural town’s queer, trans, and allied populations, WHO EXIST, and are generally without resources and lack fabulously queer entertainment??? I would have loved them to perform for us, to have the opportunity to speak with them. To show them that queers exist beyond the city limits.
Beyond this note, I think that the argument that Dan Savage and crew are making about how queer life improves linearly with time ignores the experiences, past and present, of queer and trans elders/seniors, whose needs are not part of the mainstream gay rights movement’s agenda—are they really “better off” because they are no longer queer youth???
And for all the awesome power of the online video platform he uses, the self-replicating-ness of the video testimonial doesn’t really do much beyond go in a circle like a dog chasing it’s tail—what kind of policy change, structural change, cultural shift is he advocating? How do Dan Savage’s friends from similarly privileged backgrounds telling a similar story mobilize and organize the viewers to act?
Looking back, it would have seemed quite obvious: although I’ve now grown into someone studying for a graduate degree in Communication, I have always been enthralled by the power of narrative. As a child, mythology was my go-to, with stories of ancient cultures giving me—a kid with a short cultural history in America—a sense of place. I’ve since grown into someone who has embraced storytelling as a means of information transmission, learning to see identity as a complicated real-time narrative infused with performance. I think about the world in terms of stories being written, by ourselves as well as by others.
And perhaps this is why I tend to take issue with It Gets Better. Although a valuable message, the project has always sort of rubbed me the wrong way as it seems to suggest that others will write the story of your life for you. Things will get better, it says, somewhere and someday (that’s not here). Things will get better, but you will not. My gut is always to flip that and say that things will get better because you will make them better. You get to write the story of your life and, in so doing, learn the hard lesson that the story is never about you. Well, not just you, anyway. Your story intersects with millions of others and while you are the center of your story, you are a bit character in many others. You learn humility, but also that your presence makes a difference. Given my affinity for storytelling, it makes sense, then, that projects like PostSecret and To Write Love on Her Arms hit home for me.
I am particularly in love with TWLOHA’s newest project that asks people to define their greatest fear and hope. In so many ways, this is exactly what I hope to accomplish by studying horror—although the two aren’t always directly connected, I do believe that they stem from the core of our beings. Articulating both of those concepts is the first step on a journey that can lead to nothing but goodness. Articulating both of those is how you become a fighter, an activist, and a healer.
The video puts forth a series of statements:
This world needs you.
Your family needs you.
Your friends need you.
Your children—maybe someday, maybe now—need you.
But, to that, I would add: You need you.