Arnold Spirit Jr, the mildly disabled, perpetually bullied egghead of the Spokane Indian Reservation, gets fed up with the hopelessly outdated schools and transfers outside the Rez. He becomes an outsider both at his new school, where he’s the only Native American, and at home, where he’s seen as a traitor for leaving. The entire world seems out to get him, but it has made one serious miscalculation; he’s got a twisted sense of humor and absolutely nothing left to lose.
In some ways, this book is deeply empathetic. The first person narration immerses you deep within Jr’s point of view, and also invests time in unveiling the hidden reasons why those around him do what they do. In other ways, it’s faithful to the periodic other-person-blindness that infects all teenagers. Jr has enough to deal with; he doesn’t need to deeply empathize with every jerk who picks on him.
What makes this mixture work, though, is that the it’s not as simple as Jr empathizing with everyone who is nice to him and hating everyone who is mean to him. Sometimes that’s the case, but other times he understands why somebody is being mean to him. Sometimes he takes for granted somebody who is kind to him. As his relationships evolve, so does his level of empathy with the people around him.
Nobody is simple. Even as cultural differences between reservation Native Americans and small town white people are discussed, no individual’s actions can be boiled down to “they’re an X so they do Y.” Some characters start out enemies and become friends, or start out friends and become enemies, and sometimes they go back again. Everybody is made of conflicting pieces. Everyone is a human being.
Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
Jr. isn’t depressed so much as he has rocketed straight past depressed into “all out of fucks, bring this shit on.” That gives this book a tone not quite like anything else I’ve read. It’s raw and real, but at the same time, it constantly laughs at itself, and from that laughter comes strength, and from that strength comes Jr’s ability to take on the next challenge. He never really expects to win, and most of the time he’s right, but he is never willing to back down. It starts as cringe comedy but eventually becomes genuinely impressive.
Also, there’s this recurring theme of deep profound thoughts interrupted by bad, bad teenage boy jokes, and I am a hundred percent there for it.
Other Shiny Stuff
There’s a scene with a white schoolteacher on the Rez that, in so many other books, would turn out white saviory. But this book was written by an actual Native American, that wasn’t going to happen. The teacher has to earn his right to give good advice by first confessing all the racist shit he’s seen and been complicit in. In addition to being a truthful window into oppression and cultural genocide, it makes for a more compelling character in the teacher and a far more powerful scene overall.
All the main characters are great, but I’ve got to mention this coach who I thought was going to be a macho asshole but instead he’s really empowering and sweet. He gives a speech about how crying just proves you care and caring gives you strength, so if you feel like crying, do it and don’t be ashamed. He says the same thing later about being nervous. I loved him so much.
There’s another scene where Jr and his friend talk about books and reading and the inspiring awesomeness of learning, but it also has boner jokes, which in my opinion elevates the scene from good to fucking required reading. If you think boner jokes are funny.
The message here is real as shit. It’s not about working hard until your chance comes and then seizing that chance and then suddenly fame and fortune and the American Dream! Jr. doesn’t have a shot at an amazing prep school that will guarantee his admission to Harvard. He has a shot at a dinky rural high school where the books were printed sometime this decade. The point of this book is that, when you’ve got nothing left to lose, do something stupid and reckless and risky that makes you feel like you’ve got hope again. Doesn’t matter if it pays off or not. You die without hope, and it’s the shittiest kind of death; the kind where you go on living like a zombie for ages before you actually die. So hope, even if it might not work out. At least you’ll stay alive until you die for real.
The paper form comes with pictures of Jr’s cartoons and they’re hilarious. The audiobook is read by Sherman Alexie, who has a slightly nasal, awkward voice that works for Jr so well, I kept forgetting Jr wasn’t a real person. Both are perfect.
Tons of bullying, alcoholism and a few deaths.
Racist and ableist language, including some that is internalized by Jr. It’s an accurate look at how toxic attitudes around can seep into a person’s head, even if they know rationally that they are wrong. The book finds ways to show you Jr is an awesome kid, even when he’s calling himself names.
“I grabbed my book and opened it up. I wanted to smell it. Heck, I wanted to kiss it. Yes, kiss it. That’s right, I am a book kisser. Maybe that’s kind of perverted or maybe it’s just romantic and highly intelligent.”
“Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.”
“If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.”
I don’t know how to describe this without spoiling anything. When this book was recommended to me, it was recommended that I read it without any knowledge of what was to come, and I’m so glad I did. So I’ll give you details about some of the fun things to come in the sections below, but for plot I’ll just say, strap in and enjoy the ride.
The protagonist is richly developed, to the point that even when you think she’s doing something completely wrong and foolish you still want it to work out for her somehow. Her secrets make her somewhat isolated from the others, so you can’t get to know them as well, but they are still interesting, multifaceted and likable.
This story does not give you a straightforward villain. Antagonists, yes, as well as people who make decisions that are hard to condone. But the reasons they have make it difficult to judge them. I love books that can truly pull that off, and this one does.
Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
It’s like a Hitchcock movie; sheer, agonizing suspense that never sacrifices character for plot or resorts to cheap tricks to make you jump.
Other Shiny Stuff
A bio-engineered extraterrestrial colony that was well thought out and like nothing I’ve ever read before.
Brilliantly paced exposition. I was always curious but never frustrated or confused. So few writers can pull that off, and I’ve gotten used to forgiving some missteps, but Emma Newman did not have a single moment to apologize for.
Most of the main characters are POC. The protagonist is Black and a lesbian. Nobody in the colony thinks this is a big deal.
One of the most relatable descriptions of an anxiety disorder that I’ve ever read.
Questions about the intersections of religion and science that were organic to the plot, dodged every cliche and managed hit that sweet spot between frustratingly vague and boringly preachy.
There is no shortage of anxiety involved when reading this, but I can’t think of anything specifically graphic or commonly triggering.
“I think “majority” is one of my least favorite words. It’s so often used to justify bad decisions.”
“That scared me more than anything, sometimes; the noise of my thoughts, the sense that even the space inside myself wasn’t safe.”
“That was the second major lie I told that week. It gets easier, in some ways; now I lie without expending any effort. But I think each one has its own weight. One alone may barely register, like a grain of sand in the palm of one’s hand. But soon enough there’s more than can be held and they start to slip through our grasp if we are not careful.”
I should start by explaining that my parents never let us believe in Santa Claus. They were afraid that when they told us he wasn’t real, it would make us wondering if other mythological-sounding ideas might be questioned, like the entire Christian religion. It was a Nativity-only household. In retrospect, I still experienced the same story as my Santa-believer friends. We were both taught about a man who comes to bring wonderful gifts, but only if you’re very good and believe in him. Disbelief meant you were cynical and coldly logical, incapable of true joy and goodwill toward men. Disbelieving people like that are the whole reason the world sucks. If you don’t believe, it’s your own fault. Jesus/Santa loves you, and the fact that he won’t prove his existence but still will punish you for not living up to his standards in no way contradicts that.
Of course, the difference is that Santa is bringing toys that you want, but can live without, and kids aren’t actually expected to believe in Santa past early childhood. Still, I can’t shake the association. The parallels run too deep, and I have no nostalgia to fall back on. The first (and last) time I watched The Santa Clause with my boyfriend I think I ended up crying.
My other issue with Santa Claus movies is that the moral is usually that life is meaningless and depressing if fairy tales aren’t true. Unfortunately, once the credits roll we return to a world where they aren’t. The ultimate message of such stories is that if we aren’t delusional, we are nihilists.
The only Santa movie I can appreciate is The Miracle on 34th Street, because at least that way I can pretend there is no magic and Kris Kringle is just a high-functioning schizophrenic. Wait, wait, bear with me. That’s not as awful as it sounds.
For those who haven’t seen it (and you really should), Miracle on 34th Street is about a kindly old man, an old man, Kris Kringle, is hired as a last minute replacement to be Macy’s Santa Claus. He turns out to believe he really is Santa, Father Christmas, Sinterclaas, Saint Nicholas, the whole mythology wrapped into one person. The movie opens with Kris discovering that the man hired to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is intoxicated. He immediately finds the organizer, Doris Walker, informs her of the problem, and despite his reluctance is talked into being the replacement. In his words, “the children mustn’t be disappointed.” This establishes him as a kindly, responsible person; if you have a soul, he’s nigh impossible to dislike.
When that same organizer offers him a job being a full-time mall Santa, he can’t resist the opportunity to, as he says, combat some of the commercialism that has taken over Christmas. While on his throne, instead of recommending nothing but Macy’s toys, he informs customers of other chains that can provide what they really want. Oh, he’ll shill Macy’s when they’ve really got the product the kids want, but if he knows a better deal can be found somewhere else, nothing can convince him to hide that fact.
His employers are upset by this, for all of about ten seconds. Then they realize the kind of publicity their new Santa is bringing them, and suddenly he’s their most valuable employee. This becomes a problem when Doris discovers Kris’ delusion.
Doris is a very nuanced character. She is a single mother in the 40s who, contrary to what you might expect of that era, is portrayed as both a professional employee and an attentive, caring mother. Her only flaw is that she insists her daughter Susan be raised in an entirely practical way. This means not only no Santa Claus, but no fairy tales, tooth fairies or fantasies of any kind. Doris’ reasons are sympathetic. What happened to Susan’s father is never explained, but it seems he abandoned the family in some traumatic way, and that Doris blames fairy tales for giving her an unrealistic image of the knight in shining armor. She’s trying to protect her daughter from that. Instead of letting us assume that of course Doris is wrong, despite her good intentions, the movie bothers to show us the effects of this on Susan. She’s a very nice, intelligent girl, but her social life is stunted because she doesn’t know how to engage in imaginative play, even at a developmentally appropriate level. This means she’s missing out on creative and social skills that will be important later on in her life.
In addition to changing things at Macy’s Kris has another mission. He wants to teach Doris and Susan to open up. Doris is wounded by her loss of faith in people, and Susan is learning a reflexively cynical attitude from her. The interesting thing is that while he insists he is Santa Claus, he also doesn’t seem to care too much whether or not other people believe him. If other people believe in him, that’s a nice bonus, but its more important that they believe in what he stands for. His interventions with Susan aren’t centered around proving his reality, but on giving her imagination lessons. The scene where he teaches her to pretend to be a monkey is one of the most delightful things I’ve ever seen.
While Kris is trying to spread joy, optimism, childish creativity and the giving spirit, the department store psychologist is trying to get him committed as a lunatic. This movie has a remarkably nuanced approach to psychology. Unlike some movies, where the medical professionals would be creatures of unadulterated evil for daring to convince children that they shouldn’t believe in fantasies past when it’s developmentally appropriate (the nerve of them!), this film has two doctors. One, Dr. Sawyer, has clearly entered the profession because it gives him license to see the worst in everyone, which distracts him from his own small, petty character. A bit of an exaggeration, but we’ve all met people like this.
The other works at the nursing home where Kris lived previously. Dr. Pierce also believes Kris is delusional, but he doesn’t think Kris should be locked up. As he explains, mental illnesses don’t make someone inherently dangerous. Kris is gentle, intelligent, and his whole psychosis is centered around a desire to help people. All he needs is someone to keep an eye on him in case he takes a bad turn, and otherwise he should be treated just like anyone else. This is completely accurate. Mental health is complex, and the real world has many people whose situation is similar to Kris’s. Dr. Pierce’s reaction is not only humanitarian, but practical, especially in a world just prior to the invention of effective antipsychotic medication. An asylum couldn’t do much for him, so why not let him have the best quality of life that he can?
I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a delightfully happy one… and also lacks convincing proof that Kris really is Santa Claus. There’s a minor miracle, but one that has potential mundane explanations. Many of the good characters end up believing in him, but not all, and several seem to be at a point of agnosticism, or tell him they believe he is Santa Claus but seem to mean that metaphorically. The real lesson of the film is in the triumph of optimism and kindness over cynical self-interest, and whether characters end up believing in Santa as fact or as a metaphor for the Christmas spirit is not really important. The standard interpretation, that Kris Kringle was Santa all along, is fine if you prefer that, but it is based more in genre conventions than anything else.
So why don’t I find the interpretation that Kris Kringle is mentally ill depressing? Because even if he is, it means he’s a mentally ill person who still leads a fulfilling, happy life surrounded by people who care about him. It means that even in a world without magic, pragmatists and capitalists can see the value of kindness, cynics can rediscover hope, mean spirited trolls can lose and love can win. It means that even without fairy tales being real, imagination and joy can triumph.
Good writers do not cast stories entirely with xeroxed copies of themselves, mostly because that would be no fun. If you’re wondering whether I mean no fun to read or no fun to write, the answer is yes. Imagining you aren’t you is fun, and imagining you are you isn’t imagining at all. Writers are generally the kind of people who never stopped playing make-believe, so by the time they start publishing, they are pretty good at feigning the perspective of somebody who is different from them.
However, when those differences cross into the land of privilege and oppression, writers get scared. They get nervous about writing someone of another gender, race, orientation, religion, or with a disability.
On the one hand, it is strange that the same writers who will happily write a medieval knight, a cold-blooded alien or the monster under your bed can react with panic at the idea of writing a regular human being with somewhat darker skin. And yes, I’m laughing a bit at myself when I point that out. Just because I recognize the absurdity, that doesn’t mean I can’t experience it.
At the same time, there is something reasonable about the fear. The monster under my bed isn’t ever going to criticize me for misrepresenting it. It doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of all the misconceptions I’ve just reinforced, or subtle elements of racism I’ve unintentionally introduced into my own story. It doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t care. If I’m wasn’t more worried about writing a black character than a nighttime bogeyman, that would be a sign of very skewed priorities.
Of course, because the monster doesn’t exist, it also doesn’t have any reason to care if I choose not to write about it at all. It doesn’t need to be better represented in the media. Somewhere between the crippling paranoia and blase carelessness is a kind of sensible caution that should motivate writers to write underrepresented characters, and do that writing extra well.
I have a system for thinking about real world characterization traits. First, I imagine three concentric circles. The innermost one is for personal experiences. Everything I have done, every word I could use to describe myself, everything that I am goes into this circle. Then, just outside is vicarious experiences. Into this goes things that I am not, but that I have experienced indirectly through listening carefully to people who have chosen to open up to me. When my Mom tells me a story about her nursing job, when I read somebody’s autobiography, when a Korean-American friend invites me to their home and I pay attention to the differences and similarities between their family and mine, I can put all those things under vicarious experiences. In the third, outermost circle go things I can only research remotely, through dry articles and research papers and without any direct experience to temper them.
The research done in the outermost circle can be useful. Even when it comes to things I’ve experienced personally, some fact checking can expand my understanding. However, if I try to characterize somebody based mostly on traits I can only study remotely, I will end up with a flat, bland, stereotyped character. That kind of information comes in averages and generalities, and it cannot convey the flavor or sense of a culture. The middle circle of vicarious experience is more useful for that, but must be used carefully. I cannot expect to know everything about Korean culture from one family dinner. I might be able to pick out some details, useful for a scene at a Korean character’s house. More useful are the vicarious experiences I have repeated. A lifetime of my Mom’s stories has given me a good sense of what it’s like to work in a hospital, but one conversation with a Muslim about what they believe can’t guarantee I can write a convincing Muslim. Most useful for writing realistically, of course, are the traits in my innermost circle, the things I have personally experienced.
Here’s where the illusions begin.
People are never just one thing. They are hundreds of things piled up on each other and interweaving. They go through stages of being one thing and then another, they find one part of their identity more important than another, and they find other people react more strongly to some sides of who they are than another. The trick of writing convincingly is tearing apart everything in these circles, the parts you’ve experienced, the parts your friends have experienced and the parts you know intellectually, then weaving the parts back together, keeping the things you are familiar with dominant over the ones where your experience is limited. I can’t claim any personal experience of blackness, and my vicarious experience, though I’m working to improve it, is still sparser than I’d like it to be. That’s all right. I can still write about a man who grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, works as a vet and identifies most strongly as a cosplaying nerd, and sometimes has the experience of walking down a street at night and seeing a woman shuffle away clutching their purses, quickly but not too quickly because, after all, she doesn’t want to look racist.
Now, the reason to keep the traits you know best in the foreground goes deeper than just accuracy. It’s also about respect. It is fundamentally disrespectful to speak for someone who isn’t you, unless you’ve earned serious trust from them. It’s hard enough to do this with individuals, and essentially impossible to do it with an entire demographic. If I may switch from the perspective of the privileged writer trying to represent other groups, to the marginalized person who other people are trying to represent, I hate it when somebody tells me about this movie about a trans person, and just from reading the IMDB page I can already tell that A. the cisgender writer was trying to tell The Ultimate Story of What It Means to be Trans, and B. they got it wrong. That’s not the story that anybody cis gets to tell. Write about being a delightfully quirky Irish foundling trying to find her mother and make it on her own, while also happening to be trans. I love that movie. Or, you know, about an identity thief who happens to be trans. That works too.
That’s the real point of the three circles. Recognize that your ability to write a human being and speak for a demographic are two totally different things. Recognize that people’s experiences are multidimensional, yours included, and that you can expand your repertoire, but not instantaneously. One of my favorite research resources is the NaNoWriMo reference desk forum. It’s a good way to get obscure questions answered by an expert, but on every page you will get somebody asking, “so I want to write about this deaf person, and their entire reason for living is to find a way to regain their hearing and finally become whole, obviously, so I need to know how that can happen, and also I don’t know anything about being deaf-mute, so could you tell me what that’s like please?” Then you get a couple people saying “here’s what I found out on Wikipedia” before somebody finally says, “sigh… I’m a CODA/interpreter/actual Deaf person, and everything you wrote is already wrong.” Nobody can become an expert in a whole different way to perceive the world overnight.
In conclusion; think about what you know. Recombine that to create new and different people. Work on expanding what you know, and be patient with the process.
I have noticed a pattern in my own blogging; I don’t tend to jump on issues that are currently major controversies. Striking while the iron is hot is hard for me to do when everyone else is trying to hammer away at the same lump. I don’t like the chaos of a lot of other voices, and I’m wary of the way my own prejudices towards or against the people arguing might obscure my ability to make up my own mind. One of my greatest fears is falling into the trap of believing what I believe because it conforms to the beliefs of people I like. I would rather wait until the iron has cooled, after the other smiths have wandered away, and examine what remains. If I think there’s some work left to be done, then I’ll reheat the iron myself and see if I can hammer out something in peace. It might not be the right thing, but at least I feel like I have space to think while I’m working.
Now that I have entirely exhausted that metaphor, let me resurrect a controversy from a year ago; the DSM’s continuing classification of transsexuality as a medical disorder in the DSM-5, albeit with the new name Gender Dysphoria and a new description of the diagnosis. This article by the Huffington Post covers it well, but in brief, the new diagnosis is almost universally regarded as an improvement, but the mere presence of transsexuality in a medical text is resented. At this time nobody is fighting too hard to entirely remove it, because without it trans people could not get insurance coverage, leaving transition out of the reach of the majority of trans people. Still, it is tolerated with a good deal of grumbling.
The association of being trans and being disordered goes back to the days when homosexuality was also considered a mental illness. Being transgender was considered an extension of homosexuality; the misconception that there is no difference between an extremely effeminate gay man or extremely butch lesbian still exists. It naturally follows, then that once the L, G, and B were no longer considered medical issues, the T should also cease to be a diagnosable condition.
Or does it? For one thing, as I just argued, the whole association between being gay and being trans was flawed to begin with. I identify as a man, but I am also attracted to men. My place in that acronym as a G is independent of my place as a T. Therefore, just because homosexuality is no longer a medical condition, that does not necessarily mean gender dysphoria needs to be removed from the DSM. Furthermore, there is a reason that homosexuality has been removed from the DSM while transsexuality hasn’t. Gay and bisexual people don’t need any therapy to live a productive, fulfilling life. They just need social acceptance. If society fully accepted trans people, if I no longer felt that I needed medical assistance to pass as male to protect myself in bathrooms and on the streets, would I still want hormones and surgery? Yes. Even concealed by binders, my chest bothers me. Surgery will heal me of that. Having taken testosterone makes me feel good when I look in a mirror. I used to feel dissociated from the person I saw. Now I actually see myself. Quite apart from any social issues, having a body that misaligned with my feelings about my identity caused me daily stress. Having a body that feels more like mine gives me daily relief. Medicine objectively helped me.
Now, I can think of three different problems with considering trans people disabled. First, many trans people love their bodies, love their place in the queer community, and don’t want to be pathologized. Second, having a disability is highly stigmatized, and trans people have enough irrational prejudices to deal with without adding ableism to the mix. Third, there’s a fear that consenting to be labelled with a diagnosis will ultimately take power away from trans people to determine their own medication. Not every surgery or hormone is the best choice for every trans person, and worse, there’s the fear that someday, someone might invent a drug to stop trans people from being trans, a pill that would make every trans person’s mental gender align with the gender they were assigned based on their biology. These are all legitimate issues, but I have come to believe they are not sufficient to justify a crusade to remove transsexuality from the DSM.
The first is a case of personal identification. Many trans people don’t feel remotely disabled. Some don’t even desire any medical alteration, either because they identify outside of the gender binary entirely, or because, for whatever reason, they feel male or female enough without the intervention of hormones or surgeries. That is completely fine. If I have learned anything from the social justice community, it’s that there is no battle more doomed to failure than the fight to make people identify as something that that doesn’t feel right to them, just because the identity they currently have is inconvenient for your particular social mission. It’s also a cruel battle. I want a world where everybody respects everybody’s identity, provided that identity is not motivating them to violate somebody else’s safety or consent (I only bring this up in anticipation of an asshole who says, “what if somebody identifies as a serial killer or a rapist?” Go fuck yourself, hypothetical troll).
My argument against the first issue is not that trans people as individuals can’t have legitimate reasons for feeling they don’t belong into the category “disabled.” My argument is that in the world of disability activism, there is precedent for that. Much of my experience with disability comes from studying ASL for four years to work as an interpreter. This education focused on the culture as well as the language, and I had many d/Deaf friends, and even dated a deaf guy for a little while. The whole reason for that funny lowercase/uppercase split I did is that some people consider themselves disabled (like the guy I dated, who was lowercase deaf), and some people consider themselves part of a linguistic minority (and capitalize Deaf to show their pride in their identification). For those who live in predominately signing communities, the objective reality is that their experience is more like that of a linguistic minority than that of a disabled person. I don’t see why the trans community can’t accommodate the same sort of variable identification. For some individuals, “has gender dysphoria” describes how they feel about their bodies and their place in society; they are men or women who had to overcome a physical problem to live the lives they needed to. For others, an identification as queer works best, and many combine both.
The second one has a pragmatic logic, but on a moral level it bothers me. The argument is ultimately is at best accommodating ableism, and at worst actively ableist. Look at this quote I found on Yahoo answers, by someone who was delivering a Trans 101 that was otherwise very balanced and well informed;
“However, many (most?) folks who qualify for this diagnosis [Gender Identity Disorder] dislike the term. That is because being born transsexual or being transgender is NOT a disorder, they are natural variants. However, because of the stigma applied in the past it was labelled as such. Modern research over the last 25 years has more or less proven that people are in fact born this way.”
She is saying that trans people are unlike disabled people because they are natural and born that way. Well, many if not most disabled people are born that way, and in what objective sense are they unnatural? Disabilities often arise from genetic inheritance or mutations, which are entirely natural processes. And, once again, we are not different in the sense that we don’t sometimes need medical intervention to live our lives. She isn’t using natural in any objective sense, but in the same sense that a cultivated rose is “natural” but a two-headed snake is “unnatural.” She’s really just saying that being transgender is good and nice and fine but being disabled is bad and yucky. I’m not okay with that.
The third issue is actually one where disabled and transgendered people are actually natural allies. Whether it’s cochlear implants for d/Deafness or Ritalin for ADHD or SSRIs or prosthetics vs wheelchairs, disabled people are constantly faced with the issue of people believing that a particular cure is either something every person with condition X must have, or that it’s something unnatural and if you take it you are betraying the great movement of condition X positivity. The reality, for practically every cure that does not actually prevent premature death, is that there are pros and cons, side effects and new opportunities, and what is a good choice for one person may be a poor choice for another with the same condition. In nearly every disability 101 I have encountered, a key issue has been the right to self-determine treatment based on your individual needs. The sentiment that certain cures would take something away from who you are as a person is not uncommon. Deaf people, people with autism, some artists with manageable mood disorders are just a few examples, and again for every example there is someone else who would give anything to have been born without their disability. Similarly, some trans people would jump at the chance to be cis, while others, like myself, feel like being trans is part of who they are, and that losing it wouldn’t be an improvement, just changing who they are to make other people comfortable.
This is a massive article because I am trying to condense so many complex issues into one piece. As it is I feel I will need follow-ups and clarifications, and on that note if you have some objection to what I have said please leave a comment, so I can clarify or educate myself as needed. Ultimately, my point is this; the aim of trans activism is to convince people to accept our rights to self-determine our identities and our bodies, without scorn or alienation from people who find us distasteful for bigoted reasons that have nothing to do with our own well-being. This is a primary goal of many disabled activists as well; for non-life threatening conditions that have treatment options, this is often the primary goal. So rather than alienate ourselves from them, why not ally ourselves with them?
Hi, I’m Lane William Brown. I have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. I am really okay with that.
I’ve written twice so far about the problematic villains of the new Spider-Man franchise. I wrote about the disturbing side of Dr. Connors’ motivations and viewpoint, and my own alternate interpretation of Max Dillon’s whole character. So I suppose this is the conclusion to an impromptu trilogy on why these villains aren’t working.
There’s a pattern to the way the villains of this new series have been written. First, the character is given a medical condition. Dr. Connors was missing an arm, Max had some sort of mental problem, and Harry has retroviral hyperplasia. The disability provides the one and only motivation the character will have for the entire movie. Dr. Connors sought physical perfection, Max is lonely and obsessed with Spider-Man and Harry was looking for a cure. None of them come across as bad people when you first meet them, but the disabilities have laid the groundwork for their villainy. Then they get hit with Applied Phlebotinum and are transformed into monsters, both mentally and physically. Their initial, disability inspired motivation will still inform what they do, but they will never again be anything but scenery chewing villains.
I want to talk more about the writerly issues with this than the political issues, but please understand that’s not because I’m not bothered by the implications. One disabled villain might or might not have bothered me, depending on how well that character was written and whether there were any other disabled characters. Three in a row is a problem, especially when all of them are, one way or another, motivated towards evil by their disability. The reason I’m not talking about that is because many others have talked about the need to be cautious when portraying minorities, particularly when that minority is stigmatized and the character can potentially reinforce the stigma. I think it’s a worthwhile issue to talk about, and the only reason I’m not saying anything about that right now is because I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said before. But don’t mistake that for my thinking that the biggest problem here is that they weren’t artistically satisfying. It’s only that this is the problem that I have something at least somewhat new to say about.
From a writer’s perspective, giving a villain a disability is not in and of itself bad writing. Erik from Phantom of the Opera is a villain with a medical condition. He’s disfigured. Because he lives in the era of superstition and circus sideshows, and not the era of plastic surgery, he has been caged, beaten, put on display like an object, and finally hidden away from all society by the one person who took a moment to see the world from his point of view. Everybody who likes the play loves Erik. He’s the one who brings the audience to their feet at curtain call, because he’s interesting. He terrifies the audience, but also evokes their sympathy. He’s a tragic, poetic figure. And frankly, I don’t think many people come away from Phantom of the Opera thinking, “damn, better stay away from those disabled people, because they are creepy.” They come away thinking about how horribly and unfairly Erik the person has been treated.
Compare Erik to any of the Spider-Man villains. The story takes to the time to let us get to know Erik. We see where he lives, we see flashbacks to his childhood, and we hear how people talk about him. We also know things about him that have nothing to do with his disability, like the fact that he loves theater and has excellent taste, and is highly intelligent, all of which play into his role in the story. He shows us anger, jealousy, sorrow, depression, hope, love, lust and even tenderness. I don’t know much about Dr. Connors as a person. I just know he is missing an arm and feels rather bummed about that. I’ve imagined a lot about who Max Dillon might be, but really as he’s portrayed in the movie he’s just a nutcase with a Spidey fetish and some skill with electronics. Harry Osborn gets more characterization, but ultimately it doesn’t come to much. His early bantering with Peter tells us a bit about his life, but nothing established there is really used later on. His vengeful attitude towards Spider-Man is not foreshadowed; he is not shown to be a vengeful character until he is suddenly required by the plot to be so. Furthermore, he becomes determined to discover a cure immediately for a disease that apparently took decades to kill his father, and I don’t recall seeing any indication that it’s likely to kill him any faster. It’s illogical and broke my suspension of disbelief.
Which brings me to a rather strange problem. Not only do we not learn much about any of these characters besides that they are disabled, but we don’t even know much about that. We see specific examples of how Erik’s disfigurement affects his life, and the mask he wears is a nice, iconic detail that fits in with the rest of his character. He’s inventive and artistic, so he found a way to make a mask that covers exactly what he wanted to hide. It always bothered me that someone as troubled by his lack of an arm as Dr. Connors, and with as much access to state of the art technology, he never bothered to get a prosthetic. Add it to the fact that we never see him use any other sort of assistive device, we never see him harassed for his condition, we never see the handy technique he developed for opening doors when he’s got an armful of paperwork, it looks like the writers didn’t think it was important to research or develop the one trait that defined their character.
This pattern continues for the other two villains. My personal headcanon aside, I have no idea what Max Dillon has. I don’t think you could make schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or any other diagnosis fit him without at least as much imagination and reinterpretation as my autism diagnosis did. It seems they just gave him stereotypical “crazy person” traits and called it a day. Instead of being put into his head, so we can understand what he is doing and why, we are pushed out it with a hand wave of “yeah, sure, whatever. He’s insane. What more could you possibly want to know?” With Harry, we finally get a name for his condition, and it’s real. I looked it up. His lethal condition only occurs in walleye pike. Also it’s not lethal. I suspect they strung together a bunch of medical sounding syllables and then nobody bothered to do a Google search.
The point is, these villains have barely even been written. Villains are not bit parts. The second most important character, after the protagonist, is not the love interest or best friend or wise old mentor, it’s the villain. Without the villain, there would be no obstacle and thus no story. A villain can even get away with being more engaging than the protagonist, and not infrequently they are. When the villains are poorly constructed, they drag the whole story along with them. The hero’s struggle won’t be as engaging if it’s against somebody the audience cares little about. The conflict becomes at worst unconvincing and at best unoriginal and boring.
The writers of the new Spider-Man series are not bad writers. Peter and Gwen are both excellent characters. Many of the scenes, subplots and side characters in both films were great. So why, why why why, did these writers say, “our villain has a disability; our work here is done”? Why did they not research what they were getting into, think about life from a disabled person’s point of view, or give some thought as to who these characters were as people, aside from any medical condition?
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had the textbook example of a mixed response. The music was unpopular, as was the way they blended the dark, realistic tone of Nolan’s Batman with the more cartoonish style of the Avengers franchise. There were numerous subplots that some people felt were too convoluted, and just like in the first movie, a lot of people disliked the villain. I personally liked the movie, though. The music didn’t bother me, I liked all the subplots and I felt the tone was just right; bittersweet with some funny moments. I even liked the villain, but then I’m partial to autistic characters.
Granted, they never said he was autistic, but he fits both of the diagnostic criteria, according to the current DSM, for autism. First, he exhibits the classic narrow focus of interests, with a passion for systemizing. His walls are covered with Spidey paraphernalia, while his knowledge of electronic systems is so deep that when his apartment has a blackout he can immediately identify which circuit has the problem. Second, his social skills are seriously impaired, in a way that is consistent with autism. Despite clearly desiring companionship, he shows a mind-blindness that stops him from interacting with people in a natural way. This is what really says autism to me. Autism is essentially a dyslexia for social skills. Autistic people need to work much harder than the rest of us to pick up on the rules of social behavior, not because they are shy or mean or narcissistic or careless, but simply because they’re wired a little differently.
There’s a scene early on that demonstrates this mind-blindness. He’s in an elevator at Oscorp and holds the door open for Gwen. They start chatting, and while he is nothing but friendly, as the scene goes on his oddness comes out. He starts out talking appropriately about his birthday, but ends up giving her an uncomfortable amount of information about his make-believe party, and ends up explaining that he would invite her, but the guest list is closed. He might be making up the excuse because he’s afraid she’ll discover he’s lying, but I like to think he’s also a little concerned that Gwen will feel left out. He’s cognizant of those issues, but missing the big, obvious fact that as someone who met him three seconds ago in an elevator won’t expect to be invited to his party, and would actually feel quite awkward if he did invite her. That sort of reasoning is autism in a nutshell. It was so familiar to me, so reminiscent of my kids, it made me smile.
I think many viewers misread him as being in some way psychotic. He’s certainly overestimating the extent of his relationship with Spidey, in a way that seems delusional. Before he becomes Electro, he calls in to a radio station and says, “he saved my life once and we sorta became best friends.” While he’s in his apartment on his birthday, he rambles on about how Spider-Man is totally coming to his birthday party and baked a cake for him. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people assumed he was hallucinating in that scene.
I interpret those scenes very differently. Max is at least in his mid forties, meaning he grew up in the seventies, when the identification of autism was far less common, particularly for verbal children. Odds are he was never diagnosed. To teachers and peers, coworkers and maybe even family, he has been seen as a creepy, weird guy, not a well-meaning guy with a disability that made it hard for him to pick up social skills. If someone had intervened and tried to teach him the skills he was missing, he might have friends today, but instead he has grown up completely isolated because he doesn’t know how to turn off that creepy vibe. As a result, Max doesn’t know how to correctly categorize different kinds of niceness. We see this in the elevator with Gwen; he doesn’t know the difference between “I like you enough to chat” and “I like you enough that my feelings will be hurt if you don’t invite me to my parties.” His social skills are low enough that he doesn’t know the difference between “friend” and “acquaintance.” So when a guy in red spandex saves his life, he assumes they are good friends, partly because he doesn’t have the experience to read a relationship accurately, and partly because he is so desperate for it to be true.
As for the one-sided dialog he has in his apartment, he’s not actually delusional there. He knows Spider-Man isn’t here and didn’t make a cake. He’s doing this thing that every lonely person does. It’s called “fantasizing.” To support this, I’d like to point out that there is no other scene where he talks or otherwise reacts to things that aren’t there. He misinterprets situations, yes, but again those misinterpretations tend to come down to misunderstanding another person’s intentions or state of mind, consistent with autism.
Once he gains his powers, he is frightening and legitimately dangerous, but up until the end, there’s a noteworthy lack of bad intentions to his actions. His first fight scene is caused by a massive misunderstanding. He never says a word about world domination or wealth and power or any of the other classic supervillain motivations. He’s just lonely and confused. When he is talking to Dr. Kafka at Ravencroft, he says he wants to turn out all the lights in the city, so people will know what it’s like to be him. Then, when Harry comes to him, the thing that convinces Max to help Harry is that Harry says “I need him.” I love the look on his face when he hears those words. He is so bright, so hopeful, still a little afraid and hesitant to trust but so beguiled by the idea that somebody values him that he can’t resist. Max feels discarded and unloved because he has been discarded and unloved, and he is hurting. Like everybody else, he has a breaking point, and when he hits it he lashes out.
Now, I’m being a little deliberately obtuse here. I’m pretending to argue that he’s a great, complex, understandable character, but what I really mean is that if you make the same assumptions I do, he’s at the very least interesting. I don’t believe for a moment that the writers intended for me to watch him and think “autism.” Even if they did, I’m not understanding his autism based on how he was portrayed, but based on the experiences and training I’ve had for my job. Oh, and then there’s this whole other can of worms, which is the point that for the second time their villain has been disabled, and if you count Harry’s medical condition we have three disabled villains and zero non-villainous disabled characters in two movies, which is troubling. Just because I watched the movie with a subjective interpretation that worked for me doesn’t mean they actually wrote this well. I’m actually writing this because I think in order to understand how massively they fumbled this character, you need to see Max the way I see him.
On other words, fair readers, this is the calm before the ranty, ranty storm. Stay tuned…
Disclaimer; I do not have a physical disability. What I wrote below was based on experience working with various disabled communities (ASL interpretation and special education), relationships with people who have disabilities (such as my father and ex-boyfriend) and reading the writings of people about their experiences with disability. Take with appropriate quantities of salt.
After my second viewing of The Amazing Spider-man, I decided its main problem was the weakness of its villain. This is not an uncommon opinion. Even those who liked it thought he needed work. However, there is no consensus on what is wrong with him. Theories range from superficial special effects problems to deep rooted character problems. He’s struck a wrong note with almost everyone who watched, but most people can’t explain exactly what that wrong note was. For my part, what stood out was the moment where Dr. Connors went from a disabled scientist who just wanted a cure to a lizard monster intent on turning everyone else into lizard monsters. It was, shall we say, less than coherent. It felt less like a tragic fall of a good man, and more like two characters from different stories superglued together, possibly by a four year old.
The most simple explanation is that the serum he took altered his mind and turned him evil. I believe some events in the sequel support this, although I’d have to watch it again to be sure. In any case, this disturbs me, because from a storytelling perspective it strips the character of all autonomy and reduces him to a diabolus ex machina, while from an activist’s perspective it seems to be equating mental illness with evil. The serum makes you crazy, therefore the serum makes you evil. I think the story also leaves room for a secondary interpretation; the serum doesn’t make you crazy or evil. It makes you impulsive, obsessive and potentially aggressive, but how that manifests depends on who you are as a person. I think it is more than fair to judge the story on that assumption; it’s plausible, it paints the story in a better light than either of the other options I’ve considered, and frankly if there’s a third conclusion I’m missing I think the writers should exposited it more clearly.
My assumption takes us back to the original problem. First Dr. Connors is nice and humanitarian, and then he is suddenly bent on inflicting every human in New York City with a terrifying transformation, just because he has arbitrarily decided we are better off with the body he likes. What on earth was there in his character to foreshadow this shift?
Well, quite a lot actually. The first words he speaks are “I am not a cripple, I’m a scientist.” To many people, that probably sounded like a powerful, confident statement, but if you look under the surface, it’s actually self-devaluing and fairly creepy, because it’s inaccurate. He is both. He is missing one arm, and he’s also a brilliant, successful scientist; clearly the two are not incompatible. I’ve never heard a famous, successful person with a disability talk about themselves that way. Can you imagine Marlee Matlin saying, “I’m not deaf, I’m an actress,” or Peter Dinklage or David Beckham talking like that about their conditions? You could argue that Dr. Connors doesn’t mean he’s not disabled, he’s only rejecting a label that stigmatizes his medical condition. I don’t buy it. Everything else he says suggests he has a mentality where a disability is not a medical condition that makes one or more aspects of life difficult, but a stain on a person’s value as a person. One of his catchphrases is “everyone is equal,” but he never says it in a way that implies he thinks that is already the case. It’s always in conjunction with dreaming about a world where every ailment is cured, “a world without weakness,” and the outcome of that better world is that “everyone is equal.” As if they aren’t already. As if Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman’s relative value to the world can be judged based on which of them uses a wheelchair. He never actually says disability, which is a frank but clinical and neutral word, and instead favors actively stigmatizing language like “crippled,” “weakness,” and “deformity.” By rejecting his disability so adamantly he is actually suggesting that his real feelings are the reverse. He feels that his disability takes something away from who he is as a scientist, and that he has to push away the one in order to get full credit for the other.
This is not an abstract problem, but a real life, dangerous perception that people with disabilities have to deal with all the time. They are constantly judged, not for what they can do but for what they can’t, not as a gestalt of their goals and fears and strengths and flaws and actions and thoughts and personality, but simply for the sum of their parts. People in wheelchairs are talked to like they are children, even if they are mentally average or above average. Family members try to avoid diagnosing or even discussing a condition because they let fear of the stigma of disability outweigh the need to cope with and overcome it. It is called ableism, and it compounds the difficulties of the lives of people with disabilities every day.
So Dr. Connors, as he is portrayed, comes across as a self-hatingableist. This stretches plausibility a bit, but it’s a potentially interesting characterization, and it lends some coherence to his actions. All along, he was someone who judges human beings and their worth based on their physical ability. Naturally, when exposed to a serum that made him feel physically superior to humanity, he decides the whole human race must partake of it, with no acknowledgement of the rights they have to make decisions about their own bodies. A dehumanizing view of people with disabilities lead to a dehumanizing view of all non-lizard people. However, I don’t think that’s the point we are supposed to get. I think this for two reasons. One is that this movie is not subtle about good guy/bad guy lighting or cuing the villains with scary chords. Dr. Connors is always given good guy music and good guy lighting, until he becomes the Lizard. The second is that nobody ever dissects or challenges his view of disability. They just nod sagely and compassionately. We aren’t supposed to think there’s something wrong with his attitude towards disability.
So we are back to the same old problem. He’s portrayed as a nice guy who suddenly turns evil for no reason, and there’s an added problem of his holding deeply prejudiced views that are never challenged in-story. This leads into another strange thing I noticed about his portrayal. Pre-transformation, two things are missing; scenes where he doesn’t talk about his disability, and scenes where his disability is shown to impact his life in any negative way. The first is a problem because we never learn about anything beyond “disabled scientist”, the second is a problem because we never learn anything about what his disability is like for him. We can safely assume that it impacts his life, but we never understand how his life with his disability is uniquely his. I assure you, we can’t pretend to begin to know what his life is like just from knowing what his condition is. My Dad’s experience with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis was not like that of the teacher I worked with or my classmate in ASL class. My ex-boyfriend’s deafness was not like my favorite teacher’s Deafness. Tommie’s autism is fairly classic autism, and it’s still not like the autism of any other kid I have worked with. So how am I supposed to understand why Dr. Connors is so preoccupied with his disability if I never see who accepts him and who rejects him, how he copes and in which areas of his life he fails to cope?
In short, Dr. Connors can’t escape being judged as clumsily written, no matter how close you look for inner depth and motivations, and close examination not only fails to turn him into a coherent character, but reveals some indications that his writers probably are more than a little ableist themselves. If they can write him with such a dehumanizing mentality without ever suggesting he’s wrong, maybe it’s because they actually think he’s right. If they make him behave as if the disability is the only important aspect of his life, and then tell us nothing else about that life, it suggests that they tend to assume the only important thing about a disabled person’s life is that they are disabled. What’s interesting to me is that this characterization didn’t just strike a wrong note with me, the person who has received a pretty good education of what disability is and what ableism looks like. In the many reviews I’ve read, nobody liked him. Some hated him, some just thought he was bland, but to everyone he felt off. Ableist mentalities bred a terrible character, and anybody could recognize it.
There are many people trying to pressure Hollywood to do a better job representing women and minorities, to counter stereotypes and increase public understanding and empathy and all that. The main tool used to convince them is the stick. The activists say, “if you write in an ableist, sexist, racist, classist or otherwise prejudiced way, we won’t like you very much. We will think angry thoughts and write stern letters and maybe not even go see your movie.” The whole issue is treated as a tug of war between the pressure to remain politically correct and the desire to write without that pressure. What I think a lot of people on both sides of the tug of war don’t realize is that there’s a carrot here, as well as a stick. Well written characters are entertaining. They do a great job selling a movie. Who is better written, Dr. Connors or Professor X.? Who brings people to the theaters? Who do you think activists like more? There’s a reason the answer to all three is Professor X, and that is that he is a human being, with hopes and flaws and strengths and struggles and a personality. Social justice, at its best, is ultimately about seeing people as people; not as members of homogenous groups or stereotypes or as if one trait can define their whole life, but as people. Good writing is no different.