awareness

An Open Letter To Downton Abbey

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TRIGGER WARNING and SPOILER ALERT
 (season 4, episode 2)

Dear Downton Abbey,

First, let me make one thing very clear: I adore you. I’m coming from a place of love. My favorite bag for the longest time was my canvas tote screen-printed with “What is a weekend?” (I carried my books to the library in it on Saturday mornings.) I firmly believe that Dame Maggie Smith is a god in human form. And I’ve been shipping Sybil and Branson for longer than was reasonable, especially as I continue to do so long after Sybil’s death. So I’m not writing this out of spite, or any deep-seated dislike of English period dramas. (My friends and family can attest to this.)

No, what I’m trying to do is speak to you like I would any friend who has made a terrible, disappointing choice that caused me to seethe in anger for longer than ten minutes. Keeping aggression inside is not healthy or helpful. Consider this my constructive criticism.

Why, why, why did you have to end the second episode of your new season with a melodramatic, completely pointless, vicious and gratuitous rape scene?

No really, why. I want to hear your reason.

It certainly wasn’t to drive forward an existing storyline. The rapist, one Mr. Green, the valet of a passing houseguest, was completely phoned in for this episode. He appears out of nowhere. He doesn’t even get a first name as best as I can remember, and if there’s a less distinct name than “Mr. Green,” please let me know. He seems to have no other purpose other than to seduce Anna and then rape her when she refuses his advances. After which he promptly disappears into the night. He was created to fill the role of Visiting Rapist. So clearly, writing a rape scene for its own sake was your goal.

It also wasn’t to pick up a dragging storyline and spur things along. You have no shortage of drama. You have Edith and Gregson’s (slightly unrealistic, but I’ll go for it) divorce-clandestine-not-secret-romance, you have Lord Grantham’s total inability to cope with anything that happens around him (I could rant about his character too, but that’s not the point), you have Mrs. Crawley’s mourning and you have Thomas Barrow, an enigma unto himself. But none of these have the sensationalism factor of a rape. Sex sells, and violence sells, and when you bring them together you know you’re going to get people talking. There’s a reason I’m not writing a blog post about Branson’s class standing and existential crisis.

Although I would like to. Because that’s my favorite part of the whole show. #TeamBranson.

You might argue, and not without reason, that you’ve leaned towards the dramatic and the violent before. You’ve almost given Mrs. Hughes breast cancer, you’ve had Matthew crash his car into a tree (though really I’m told that was a casting issue with Dan Stevens, so I’ll let it slide), you’ve killed Sybil. You killed my Sybil. But I let that go, because you had narrative work to do there. You were able to humanize Mrs. Hughes in a way that might have been difficult otherwise, and to look into Edwardian and Georgian medical practices, which the dork in me liked. You were able to deal with the issues of primogeniture and patriarchy in the estate system while having Mary navigate the aftermath of Matthew’s death. You gave me this tragic and beautiful storyline with Tom Branson holding a baby he loves while trying to fit into a world that is not his. Go you. All these things are great.

What has Anna’s rape done for the story, except sensationalize the reality of sexual violence that happens to someone in the United States once every two minutes, or an estimated total of 237,868 people per year?  What has it done except force her pain and suffering and abuse into the limelight, glamorizing and dramatizing the very real pain of sexual assault and violence that an estimated 35% of women in the world have gone through?

Don’t tell me that you’re trying to raise awareness. The only possible constructive message to be taken from this scene is that rape is “a thing that happens.” Women are already very aware. 

You’re trying to get people to talk. You’re appealing to an audience you think you have that glories in violence and sex and rape and murder and torture and vulgarity and violence and nudity, because that’s what modern culture tells you people are into these days.

Here’s a hint: maybe that’s what people watch because that’s what they’re given.

I can’t even think of a show within the past five years that hasn’t featured murder, death, assault, or sexual violence of some kind. Some of these are dealt with tastefully, some of these are not. But this isn’t ancient Rome, and I don’t need to watch somebody be fed to the lions to be entertained.

No. Actually, I'm not.

No. Actually, I’m not.

I think it’s possible to make a show where the drama comes from the human interactions on-screen. And so far, Downton, you’ve done a great job with this. If you want to have cruelty and underhand manipulation, do it like you’ve been doing it with Thomas Barrow. He’s my secret second-favorite character, which I realize is weird, but you know why? Because he’s a villain and he does evil, seemingly purposeless things, but they’re not exploitative or sensationalized or gut-wrenchingly awful, and his motivations are there and waiting for me to parse them. I think of him as an Edmund figure from King Lear (please humor me, non-English-literature-people): I can’t justify anything he does, but I can see why he would behave that way. And it’s just soul-wrenching enough that I can sympathize with him, and I want things to work out for him in the end. Treat your villains as people and your victims as people, not as mindless rapists and plot devices. It’s just offensive to everyone involved.

So, Downton Abbey, the ball’s in your court. I realize that Season 4 is already done filming, and that it’s already aired in the UK, and that you’ve probably already set the script for Season 5. And I will continue cheering from the comfortable sidelines of #TeamBranson, but it’s my responsibility to hold the things I love accountable.

As Dame Maggie Smith would put it, if she had access to the internet: “I’m a media-literate feminist, Mary, I can be as contrary as I choose.”

All I’m saying: just think about it. It didn’t work.

Until next Downton Day,

-Allison

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Recovery and Performance Art – Speaking/Writing Our Truth

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So I write a lot. I keep a recovery blog, I write and content edit for a body-positivity website, I’m one semester away from an honors degree in creative writing, which requires me to more or less finish a novel by April. I’ve learned from personal experience that the Microsoft Word word count widget ceases to function after you pass 100,000.

You know what I do way less? Speak.

I didn’t think it was going to be that different. I mean, everybody who reads this blog, whether I’ve ever met you or not in real life, knows that I’m in recovery from an eating disorder. I make absolutely no attempt to hide that. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: there shouldn’t be any stigma around mental illness and eating disorders, because it only makes it that much more difficult to seek treatment and pursue recovery. If we’re struggling with deeply personal problems, the last thing we should be doing is shaming those problems and driving them farther underground. Which is why I write about my journey, and why I’m open about answering questions and having conversations with others about anorexia, depression, and recovery.

But you know what? It actually is different.

It’s really freaking different.

This February, I’ll be participating in a spoken-word performance on my campus called The Body Monologues. Modeled after Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, there will be about twenty of us standing on stage in about six weeks, telling our stories and our truth through prose, poetry, rants, and music. I’m a creative writing major, like I said, so I’m doing a bit of slam poetry that makes ample use of some of my favorite swear words. We had our first meeting yesterday evening.

It was my turn to do a reading of my piece in front of the group, to get feedback and work through consecutive drafts. And you know what was the most surprising part of the whole ordeal?

From the moment I walked into that room, I was scared shitless.

Why? I thought I had broken down the stigma in my head around talking about my ED. For God’s sake, the amount of time I spend writing and reading and editing other people’s writing about it is staggering. I’m currently organizing a Twitter event to break down that stigma even farther by encouraging open and honest discussion. I sound right now like a tape-recorded message for eating disorder awareness and support. Why was I so nervous about telling my story, when I’m so comfortable writing this post?

There’s a huge difference, I’m learning, between writing to a nameless, faceless audience and speaking to a room full of people who will respond to you immediately, and who will see you again in real life. It’s why I post some of the pieces from this blog onto Facebook, but not all of them. It’s why I still hesitate sometimes when talking face-to-face with someone who’s said something problematic about someone else’s weight, size, or mental illness. It’s because, deep down, though I’ve made tons of progress and am working through my own recovery through words on a regular basis, I’m still scared shitless that someone will look at me differently, once they know.

I shouldn’t be. I don’t want to be. If I’m around someone who judges me negatively or looks at me askance because I’ve been fighting a gladiator-style battle with anorexia since I was sixteen, I don’t want to be around this person anymore. But there’s still that fear of rejection, of judgment, of people looking at me and saying, “You? You don’t look like someone who’s had an eating disorder. Your thighs don’t touch. You do well in school. You eat stuff. You’re too smart for that. Only stupid self-absorbed rich white girls have eating disorders, and it’s because they’re too dumb to diet.” It’s scary as hell.

Put aside that I get a little nervous reading poetry in front of anybody anyway. Make it about my body and my mind, and it’s amazing that I didn’t get up and run out that door.

But I didn’t. And I didn’t just read my piece, I slammed it. I don’t know how it’ll work when I can’t do it staring at the page, when I’m supposed to have it memorized and I don’t have that white piece of computer paper to hold onto like a life preserver anymore. But I’m glad I’m doing this, and I’m glad I’m challenging myself.

And the stunning part was, of the twenty people in that room who shared their stories… You’d be stunned how many had stories similar to mine.

I was touched by their words, by their experiences, and by how much their words reminded me of how far we all, individually, had come, and how far we all, individually and as a society, have to go. But that might be the force that helps me to get on that stage on February 4 and  not die of nerves beneath the spotlight.

The knowledge that no matter how scary it is, no matter how absolutely goddamn fucking terrifying it is, I’m not alone.

None of us are ever alone.

And that’s what sharing our stories is all about.

Five Ways To Talk To People Against Body Acceptance Without Making Enemies

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Hey, all! After a fantastic trip to Northern Ireland, I’m back in my home base, catching up on sleep and wondering why driving on the right side of the road has suddenly become so difficult. On the plus side, this means that I’ll be able to get back into my more typical schedule of posting. Exciting times!

Today’s topic is a little more abstract and general than usual, but I still think it’s really important to think about.

How do you respond to people who disagree with you about body positivity?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to repeat the same three or four arguments in favor of self-love and health at every size. Even in the past two weeks, I need more than the fingers on both hands. While body positivity is a very personal journey, many people have a hard time understanding what it’s all about, or why it’s really not any of their business how I feel about my body.

I sometimes have a difficult time not flying off the handle when confronted by people who are completely against all the principles of positive body image that I work for. I find myself tempted to build a soapbox out of whatever materials I happen to have at hand, climb up on it, and wave my hands around while shouting for about a quarter of an hour. But this won’t accomplish anything.

And that’s why I’m compiling this list: Five Ways To Talk To People Against Body Acceptance Without Making Enemies. It’s not the catchiest name you’ve ever read, but it’s still a useful list to have on hand when someone confronts you about your beliefs. Because if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s probably only a matter of time.

1. Keep It Civil

This is one of the most important elements, and the one that’s the hardest to stick to. When someone is telling you that fat people are the reason they pay more taxes and so should pay higher health care costs, or that eating disorders are first-world problems for spoiled rich kids, it’s tough not to get angry. But no one’s mind has ever been changed by an exchange like this:

Person A: “Oh my God, how can you believe something like that? You’re so stupid!”

Person B: “You’re right! I am stupid! How did I never notice that before? Thanks for pointing it out!”

Often, the only reason someone is so vehemently against you is that society pushes the opposite message of the body-positive community. It’s not fair to target others because they haven’t been exposed to the viewpoints that we’re dealing with.

If they’re willing to listen to you and hear your reasoning behind your beliefs, that’s great. But think about it this way: you have someone in front of you that can potentially be persuaded to change their perception of the body-positive community and respect people of any size, shape, color, or what have you. Don’t throw that opportunity away by going off on a rant.

2. Ask Questions

A recent conversation I had with a total stranger (that’s what happens when you put me on an eight-hour flight, I get into discussions about body positivity with my seatmate) evolved into the motivating factor for compiling this list. He shared his distaste for dating women he deemed “overweight,” because living a healthy lifestyle was important to him, and he was worried that dating a heavier woman would compromise his goals.

There were plenty of things I wanted to tell the man in 26F, not least of all that weight and health are not the same thing, or that what a woman does with her body does not need to impact what he does with his. But lecturing him would get me nowhere, and would make me look like a jerk.

“I mean, can you really tell what kind of lifestyle habits I have by what I look like?” I asked him. “Can you tell I’m not a chain smoker and an alcoholic?”

I’m neither, by the way, but by looking at my weight alone, it’s tough to tell.

The best part of questions is that they force the audience to think for themselves without making them feel attacked. It’s the same as the old “I-feel” statements: you’re allowed to express how you feel without ganging up on your conversation partner. Which I’m sure they appreciate.

3. Have Facts And Resources Ready

Too many arguments get derailed because they descend into finger-pointing and name-calling. Calling each other rude names isn’t going to convince anyone that body positivity is a good thing for society.

But you know what might? Facts.

Too often, the “War On Obesity” or the Sedentary Age of America gets blown up into emotional appeals and exaggerations. When obesity has become not only a disease but an epidemic, it’s tough to get people to take a step back and think critically about what they’ve been told.

If you have facts and scientific studies that show that BMI is not a reliable indicator of health, or that fad diets are more harmful than helpful, or that being severely underweight can be more damaging to your health than being overweight, this hard data will go ten times as far as your simply repeating, “you’re wrong.”

Debate Team 101: it’s easier to be persuasive with facts rather than opinions.

4. Meet People Where They Are

This tactic appears all over the consciousness-raising sphere, from educating people about sexism, racism, homophobia, or what have you. If you’re talking to someone who’s never considered the idea that fat discrimination or society’s pressures on our bodies and our health habits are serious problems, leaping into a discussion of complicated particulars on the subject is not going to be helpful.

Everyone has been exposed to some kind of body pressure, whether or not they think they have. Been teased for being the scrawny kid who got picked last for dodgeball? Anxious because you’re shorter than your girlfriend? Feeling uncomfortable because your significant other expects you to look like either David Beckham or Kate Moss? You’ve experienced body pressure. How did it make you feel? Trust me, you’re not the only one who feels that way.

5. Know When To Walk Away

It would be great to think that with enough reasonable conversation and awareness about the serious problems around body image, social pressures, and body type discrimination, we could change everybody’s mind in the whole world.

It would also be great to have a pony and a billion dollars.

There are some people who disagree with you simply to get a rise out of you. Sometimes it’s patronizing, sometimes it’s rude, sometimes there’s a “it’s for your own good!” note to it.

Either way, know that there are some battles you’re not going to win.

This is a big issue, and it will take more than one conversation to change everybody else’s mind. There’s no call to expose yourself to verbal abuse when it’s clear you’re making no progress.

That’s what the “block” function on blogs is for.

And that’s what legs are for: to walk away.

What do you think? Are there any other suggestions you’d give to people trying to explain their body-positive position to others? Anything I’ve suggested that you don’t think will work? Let me know!