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I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between history and fiction lately, or, I guess, how we combine the two. I mean, we seem to be obsessed with historical fiction whether we’re using it as the basis of science fiction, to imagine dystopias, or to escape into eras with frillier clothing (for both genders) and even more rules. But, oddly enough, I think our obsession with history sometimes makes us forget that it’s real–and I’m using present tense there for a reason. The whole thing reminds me of when people get so enmeshed in a debate over something like gay marriage that while they quote their policies, precedents, and other abstractions, they forget that they are essentially talking about real people who live real lives. Sometimes we start thinking about it too abstractly. Other times we forget that it actually happened.
I guess part of what brought this to the forefront was a fanfic I found when I was looking through a livejournal community called “badfic quotes” (don’t laugh–I like silly things too, okay?). Someone had written a fanfic for Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Inglorious Basterds. Now, I haven’t seen the movie, and so I’m going to refrain from judging it or even commenting on it. Nevertheless, I have to comment on this fanfic. As anyone who has dipped so much as a toe into the world of fandom knows that if an attractive actor appears in a big summer blockbuster, someone will write a fanfic with an original character, usually (loosely) based off the author, who enters a relationship with that character. It doesn’t matter if that character is sulky Snape or sadistic Rorschach; the original character will bring out his sensitive side. So I guess you could say I wasn’t surprised that a fanfic existed that centered around giving one of the Nazi characters a love interest.
Here’s what did surprise me: as a pretext for the relationship between the original character, Ada, and the Nazi, the author felt the need to make use of another common fanfic trope (in fact, my least favorite): the old “kidnap, rape, and torture the woman so that the man can comfort and heal her.” The surprise is that the torturers, in this case, were a group of Jews who somehow happened to survive, committing organized acts of violence, in the countryside of Nazi-occupied France. I’m going to pause here and let this entire concept sink in because I understand completely if it takes a moment.
My first reaction to reading this was anger–I could barely even make it through the review, which mocked the fanfic. The author’s “disclaimer” certainly didn’t help either: “If you are offended or angry, then I’ve done my job by provoking something.” I suppose she did provoke complete bewilderment. In any case, the anger soon stopped because I realized something about this fanfic author: the Holocaust was not real to her. I’m not saying that she’s a denier–I doubt that she’s even Anti-Semitic (her story though…). I think she wrote this fanfic as if she were writing about the 100 Years War or the Revolutionary War or even the Peloponnesian War. We all know that these wars happened, but we don’t think about what that means. We know people died during them, but it happened so long ago that the deaths mean nothing to us. Now, the allegory doesn’t quite work because the Holocaust was not a war between the Germans and the Jews (who were German. And French, and Polish, and…); it was an ethnic cleansing. But then, this writer doesn’t seem to be conscious of that either. (For the record, it is entirely possible to write a story from the perspective of the Nazis or Germans during WWII, but one of the major challenges in writing it is to keep it feeling real.)
This was a really jarring realization for me; the Holocaust may have been 70 years ago, but it’s still very real to most of the Jews I know (and many of the non-Jews I know.) I remember the moment when I first learned about it; I remember my dad being worried about whether reading Number the Stars would give me too many nightmares. It’s one thing if you’re reading about people who want to kill other people and another thing to realize that if your great-grandparents didn’t have the means to move when they did, you might not be sitting here, typing on a keyboard. I’m sure there were other moments in history when this could have happened, but 70 years is still too soon, too scary, and, actually, younger than my grandparents.
Apparently, seeing Inglorious Basterds apparently made the Holocaust even more fictional for this fanfic author, and that scares me. It pushed history farther into myth, into the past. Am I saying that it’s a terrible movie or evil because of this? No. I haven’t seen the movie, and I cannot judge it. Also, I’m pretty sure that not everyone is viewing the movie in the same way; my dad loved it because he saw it as a kind of revenge fantasy, a way of coping with history (and perhaps present fears of antisemitism, which considering the resent shooting at the Holocaust museum, is not paranoia.). At the same time, I do think that mythologizing certain parts of history or even, to invent a term, “historicizing” history, pretending that it no longer affects the way we live, does no one any favors. I’m not sure whether if we can assign blame in this case, but I know the effect is not good.
What I do know is this: writing historical fiction doesn’t have to turn history into myth. Toni Morrison wrote in her afterward to The Bluest Eye that she didn’t simply want to “touch people,” but she wanted to make sure that “they were moved.” I’m not sure if the wording is correct–I don’t have my copy with me, but this standard that Morrison strives for in all of her fiction has stayed with me whenever I think about political and historical fiction. What does it mean to touch someone and how is it different from moving them? For me, the answer . When you hear a touching story, the meaning stays within a story. You might feel sad for the characters and the situation they’re in, but it doesn’t change your understanding of the real world.
And a moving story?
In my senior seminar on Toni Morrison, during a discussion on Song of Solomon, we started discussing The Seven Days. In the novel, The Seven Days were a group of black men in the who killed a random white person for every senseless random act of violence committed against black people. The group was entirely fictional, but it launched quite a conversation. By the end of class, many of us were on the verge of tears, and the discussion had strayed into Morrison’s other novels, the Civil Rights Movement, and the then-current issue of the Jenna Six. We actually had a real, honest discussion about race. Amazing. It was not comfortable, but I think that’s a given considering that it was a good discussion about race relations. Song of Solomon is a story that moves.
This is one of the amazing thing to me about Toni Morrison: In her novels, the past is alive and well, still changing how we live, love, and treat others. She forces us to own it. Imagine how it would profoundly change US culture if we saw slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement as events that still actively influenced how Americans live.
Before I stop, I want to stick on one more example of this mythologizing phenomenon, a case in which a tv show historicized a current event. There’s a show my brother loves called “Deadliest Warrior.” For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a bit of a combination of a Street Fighter video game, the History Channel, and “Mythbusters.” The show takes two famous warriors from “history” and pits them against each other based on imputing data on the weapons they would have used into a computer: Viking vs. Samurai, William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu, Pirate vs. Knight, etc. In these cases the contenders existed so far in the past that they have already become myth. However, the show’s season finale featured a showdown between the IRA and the Taliban. Yes, the IRA and the Taliban. I needed a moment to let this sink in, and so I’m giving you one too.
Now, I’m assuming the show specifies which incarnation of the IRA it’s talking about, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m actually more interested in the inclusion of the Taliban at all. Looking at warriors using fighting styles no longer practiced for war, and admiring their weapons is one thing. Now whether we should glorify war or violence at all is a very complicated question that I cannot answer and cannot even begin to address in a way that comes even close to being interesting in this post. But there seems to be something fundamentally different in looking at a gladiator or samurai, types of warriors who no longer practice, and looking people who right now are committing human rights atrocities. Abstracting a member of the Taliban and glorifying their fighting style historicizes them, places them in the past.
I’m not saying that the makers of the show think the Taliban are no longer a threat. I would argue, though, that to come up with this idea, on some level what the members of the Taliban do are not real to them. They know logically that the Taliban commit atrocities, but the reality of what that means hasn’t hit home to them. I’m not saying this makes them bad people; there are plenty of atrocious things in this world that are not 100% real to me, at least all the time. If I constantly thought about the reality of every single tragedy, murder, or human rights violation, I would not be able to get out of bed. This does not mean that it’s okay to examine these atrocities in the same way we might look at Spartan troops, the likes of which no longer exist.
Other than that particular episode of “The Deadliest Warrior,” I’m afraid I don’t have a strong moral pronouncement on any of this. When does it become okay for history to become myth? When it stops effecting us? How do we decide that? These are complicated questions. I’m not even saying that creating works of historical fiction that are not as life-changing as Toni Morrison’s novels is necessarily dangerous. As I noted before, sticking a dose of fiction into a horrible reality can be a coping mechanism. Also, if we taught history better, maybe seeing Inglorious Basterds would not have contributed to the mythologizing of the Holocaust or slavery would not just be “that thing that happened to the blacks a long time ago, but then they had exciting escape adventures, and Martin Luther King happened, and now Obama’s president–Post-Racial America Yayz!”
At the same time, we cannot do ourselves the disservice of pretending that an event’s consequences end when it does. That’s like saying that American culture in the 1960’s promptly changed on January 1st, 1970 at 12:00 AM. It’s like saying that we already know how Bush’s presidency will change our country or that 9/11 no longer affects us. History has a long half-life, it decays slowly, seeping into the landscape of culture. It’s too powerful and too dangerous to treat any other way.
Also, Toni Morrison is brilliant, but that’s another story.
(This post is dedicated to my flatmate, Taylor, because it was inspired by a conversation we had. Also, he brought up the example from our Toni Morrison seminar in conjunction with this issue.)
Fans of the Dresden Dolls and frequenters of the feminist blog-o-sphere will already be familiar with the
clash between Amanda Palmer and Roadrunner records. Actually, I’m not too fond of the term “clash” in this situation because that would imply two parties on the same level disagreeing over a point, but it’ll do in a pinch. For those of you unfamiliar, after releasing a music video for her new single Leeds United (link goes to youtube), which features her bare belly, the Roadrunner Records executives told Amanda that “there were certain shots that they wanted to either cut completely or digitally alter to ‘be more flattering'” (source: Amanda Palmer’s official blog). Fortunately for us, not only has Amanda Palmer herself taken a stand against this, but also a group of her fans have started The Rebellyion. In protest against Roadrunner’s idiocy, the hundreds of fans who joined the Rebellyion have submitted photos of their bare bellies in all of their un-edited glory. I’m not focusing on the Rebellyion in this post, but I’ve got to give them a nod here. I’m glad that something so positive has come out of this.
But I think there’s even more to discuss here. The record company’s decision itself, though it bothered me, didn’t necessarily shock me. There are plenty of horror stories about artists on major record labels from Kenna (who, despite the acclaim of fellow artists and producers, had to fight to get any radio play because his work was difficult to categorize) to Sara Bareilles (whose hit single “Love Song” came out of being frustrated with Epic Records demand that she write another love song for her album) constantly having to fight to keep their artistic visions alive while very conservative record executives panic over what will sell. Though this pushes the line even there and reveals how truly fat-phobic our culture is, what really shocked and disgusted me were some of the other comments that Palmer revealed on her blog:
“I’m a guy, Amanda. I understand what people like.”
And, at a later meeting:
He said he thought it was a shame that someone as smart and talented as me could not make a commercial record that they could sell. And he thinks that someday I’ll see the light and write some better songs.
The comment, “I’m a guy. I know what people like,” is the most revealing piece of this entire dialogue. It gets at so much of the struggle that female artists have to deal with just to get our work out there. As I like to put it, it’s the problem of being told that people actually mean humankind when they say mankind when a lot of the time they don’t. There is this ever-pervasive idea that if you write for women, you are not writing something commercially viable. Men write for everyone, women for women (I mused a little about this in my Wordstock Reflections post, if you’re interested in reading more about this point.). Thus, men are expected to have more commercial knowledge.
I support the rebellyion wholeheartedly (yay!), but, in the end, this goes beyond the belly. I agree that it is disgusting that our society has such a distorted view of beauty that an unedited belly has apparently become disgusting for the masses, but there’s a part of me that is concerned that the record company’s marketing even has to reach Amanda’s belly. This goes into the state of our culture’s reception of female artists. For cis-men, it is far easier to leave their bodies behind and become voices, words, and brush strokes, or, if they don’t entirely lose their bodies in the process, they can at least move fluidly between sex object and artist (I guess maybe there can be some argument in the cases of heartthrobs such as John Barrowman, David Duchovny, or the whole slew of 90’s boy bands, but that’s neither here nor there, and I’d need an entire separate post to analyze them.). Women, according to our culture, are always attached to their bodies in some way. It brings back memories of sitting in high school English classes and having to hear the harsh commentary the boys would make about Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton’s appearances. In Spanish class, they acted like Frida Kahlo’s unibrow was an affront against their eyes and their hormones. It’s enough to make any girl despair not only about her body image, but what would happen if she dared tried to write or paint; especially if her work brought up her body at all.
I always think about it like dressing for a job interview. When my (male) flatmate dresses for a job interview, he focuses on looking neat and polished. He worries about whether he is over or under-dressed. When I dress for a job interview, I start by worrying about these same things, but then I get to my chest. I always spend a good chunk of time staring in the mirror wondering if the shirt I am wearing is modest enough or if it is so modest that I look frumpy and unapproachable. Women have to work not to be taken sexually, and, a lot of the time, if you’re being taken sexually, you (unfairly) run the risk of not being taken seriously.
Amanda, as a performing artist, is proud of her body (and she should be!). I’m not arguing that it would be better if we had no idea if she looked like, if she just sang from behind a curtain. I don’t think she’d enjoy that anyhow. She sings about relationships, sexuality, masturbation; her body is an important part of her music in a very positive and empowering way. The problem here is the record company’s inability to see her as more than her body (or, if they do, as more than her body and a money making machine.). So many of female artists who are in the mainstream–I’m using a very simple definition of “mainstream” that has nothing to do with people arguing about selling out or who is or isn’t indie (aka-I’m not talking Tori Amos, Sarah McLaughlin, or anyone like that)–are designed simply to be only the sum of their bodies. Think of The Pussycat Dolls; their name and, as far as I can tell, all their songs are designed to make you focus on their bodies. Their physical form is more important than what they’re singing. If you want to sell a ton of records in a brief burst, I guess they are who you want. This, of course, has nothing to do with art, which shouldn’t surprise anyone by now, but that’s just the way it is (note that whenever I say, “That’s just how things are,” I don’t mean it as the conclusion of an argument nor as a preclusion of much-needed change. Maybe this is how things are, but that doesn’t mean it’s the way things have to be.). So, from what we can see here, aside from a misogynistic fear of women who make angry music, part of what makes Amanda Palmer’s songs “difficult to sell” in the minds of the record company is her refusal to use her body how they see fit. I even wonder if they would mind her anger if she allowed the record company to airbrush her image (probably not, but I’m angry now, and so I’m going to speculate in ways that are not particularly kind to the record company.).
Roadrunner Records is not only perpetuating horrible body-image issues and suggesting that a very attractive woman is unfit to perform un-airbrushed, but they are also denying the worth of Amanda Palmer as an artist outside of the confines of her body and the worth of her fanbase as a commercial market. I know, I know, music is art, art shouldn’t be judged on marketability, but it is a little insulting that the very loyal fans of the Dresden Dolls/Amanda Palmer (I don’t know much about it, but I do know they have a very active fanbase) are considered unimportant from the record company’s point of view. And it is even more insulting that Amanda’s song-writing skills mean nothing in comparison to her having a round belly.
Let me tell you a little coming of age story. When I started high school, George W. Bush was elected into office; he was re-elected my Freshman year of college. Those were important years for me. Looking back, it’s strange to think that during the eight years which have shaped my adult self (though what kind of adult that may be is still fluid), we’ve had a president who represented so many things that I despised. My liberal peers (those born around 1986) and I began to form our political consciousnesses under a president we were ashamed of.
Naturally, most of us had political opinions before high school. In eighth grade, we dutifully wasted time in my American history and civics class talking about the Starr Reports. In sixth grade, another teacher tried to explain to the boys in my class, who were high on their new surges of testosterone, why bombing Iraq was not a matter to be taken lightly. But in those years, we still relied on adults to explain the hard things to us. We still saw the world in black and white.
My high school was a conservative oddity in Northern California–a sort of black hole in the midst of all the college professors and Silicon Valley tycoons. Those of us who were liberal were called “pussies” (their term, not mine.) or overly emotional thinkers who didn’t really understand the economy. Even our civics teacher laughed at us when another student and I said that we’d be comfortable going to the principal and asking to start a gay-straight alliance. I spent high school very angry.
I was angrier still when the quirk of my mid-November birthday prevented me from voting in the 2004 election. I think being on a college campus, particularly a very liberal one, made it sting even more. As a college freshman, not only did I feel like an adult (or at least, old enough to have the privileges of one), but I was also surrounded by such political fervor that I felt alienated from. So I took action: I registered voters in Minnesota at an Ani DiFranco concert. I marched in a peaceful rally around town with other students and town residents out of frustration at the two weak candidates and Bush’s triumph. I’ll never forget the day after election 2004: students walked around college in stunned silence. In empathy, my observational drawing professor told his class of moping freshmen of his disappointment following the first election he could vote in, the Nixon/McGovern race.
I’m telling you this so that you understand how I (and others of my age-group) grew politically. We took refuge in “The Daily Show” because laughing was easier than anger. Whenever a friend of mine went on a study abroad program, they would joke in the months before they left about pretending to be Canadian, and one of the questions they would inevitably have to answer upon their return was “How did people react toward you as an American?” I felt completely cynical towards this government whom I did not elect, who did not respect women, who believed many of my closest friends–for reasons of race, religion, or sexuality–were second class citizens, who called the most patriotic people I knew traitors, who made fun of the things that were important to me: literacy, science, education, intellectual pursuits. They did not take us, the “youth vote” who failed to save Kerry in 2004, seriously. I’m not saying we suffered or were marginalized like so many other groups in America; I’m just explaining where some of us came from.
Tonight, my flatmate and I went over to a friend’s house for an election night party. Just as we arrived, McCain began his concession speech. We were shocked. For the first time in eight years, the election was decided by 8PM pacific time. No hanging chads, no staring at Ohio with bated breath. It ended quietly, gracefully. And there in the tv room we were giddy, clapping and screaming along with the crowd on the television.
You see, we realized how much Obama’s election has changed everything we’d come to accept for the past eight years. As we watched a re-run of the Daily Show election special, I was struck by how little I needed John Stewart (though it was still entertaining). I’m not saying Obama’s perfect, but I do believe he’s a president who has the ability to do this country proud. And I genuinely appreciate that he, or his persona if you’d rather, does not talk down to the American people or affect stupidity for the sake of “Joe six-pack.” For the first time in eight years, I feel genuinely hopeful about my country. Truly, it’s a very strange feeling.
But my election post would not be complete without me expressing my utter dismay over Prop. 8. Though I refuse to call it until the very last vote is counted–we knew going into this that it would be a very close race–I cannot believe that so many people would vote for a proposition that should not have even been an issue in the first place. If Prop. 8 passes, it’ll be an ugly blotch on our state and this country. I have no more words for it.
EDIT- I was debating editing that last paragraph there, but I think I’ll keep it. I still had hope then, and I’ll keep this post hopeful. As for now, I’m crushed. I feel so sad for my friends who will no longer be able to marry the people they love; I feel so sad for the people I do not know who will no longer be able to marry the people they love; and I feel ashamed on behalf of other straight people who do not have the sense to feel ashamed of what they have done.
For Write to Marry Day:
When the courts shot down San Francisco’s bold move to legalize gay marriage nearly five years ago, I wrote a post on an Ani DiFranco livejournal community telling a simple story from my childhood. Now that gay marriage has been legalized, and people would like to take it away from those I consider my friends (so of them such precious friends that I consider them my family), I want to tell it again because I think it’s a poignant image of what No on Prop. 8 means to me.
Picture two little girls. One of them is me; the other is one of my two best friends. We must be about twelve as this story begins. She and I had met in the fourth grade and had been inseparable ever since. We went to dance class together. We did each other’s hair. She introduced me to Billie Holiday, and I introduced her to Donna Jo Napoli. We had always been at once precocious and ridiculous–upon hearing that Silly Putty had been invented in an attempt to find a substitute for rubber, we bought some and experimented upon it with lemon juice and vinegar, hoping to take it that one extra chemical reaction step and save the planet. Together we read the feminist puberty books our mothers had given us, giggling about the idea of sex. Classic girlfriends.
In any case, this one day, which has stayed in my memory ever since, we passed by a shop that had wedding dresses in the window. I pointed one out, admiring its simplicity. She had a different favorite; she wanted a froofier dress. As we walked along, we described our dream dresses, our dream weddings. We fantasized about honeymoons in Venice or Capri. Of course, you could argue that we were two young girls brainwashed with the idea that marriage was the key to some kind of ultimate fulfillment, but ignoring that, it was a pretty cute scene of two twelve-year-olds acting, well, twelve. Marriage at the time was something very intangible, something that ended most movies. Though even then we knew that marriage was not about a dress, the dress was a symbol of something beautiful.
Years later, my friend came out of the closet. Nothing changed. But for some reason, people don’t seem to realize that the woman who’s been in a very committed, loving relationship with another woman for the past six years is the exact same person as the little girl who wanted a glittery wedding gown and dreamed of taking a honeymoon ride on a gondola through enchanted canals in the moonlight. It’s a sad image, really: a girl dreams of a wedding, and then grows up to realize that it can never be hers because the law sees her love for her girlfriend as somehow degenerate.
It’s so strange; we were such similar little girls, and now, in many ways, similar women, and yet, there are people who would consider our marriage dreams to be very different. Because I am straight and she is not, there are people who would consider mine to be “cute” and hers the prelude to perversion. Could you have guessed who was who just by looking at us at the time? Could you have guessed who was who just by hearing the dreams?
When I think about prop. 8, first and foremost I think of my friends and then I think of this story. I think of people telling perfectly normal individuals that they are somehow abnormal, that their desire to fall in love and get married is disgusting. I know this story perhaps does not offer compelling legal reasons–it’s a story from my past, one that holds personal significance for me. However, for me prop. 8 is a personal attack. It is an affront against some of my closest friends and beloved relatives. For me, this is both about general human rights and people I love very dearly.
This is not about abstract ideas; this is about real people. VOTE NO ON PROP. 8.