Wow! Everyone should read this post, and indeed their entire blog! Although Mingus is speaking specifically to a Queer Korean-American audience, what she says here may be applied to other contexts too. Very powerful!
Wow! Everyone should read this post, and indeed their entire blog! Although Mingus is speaking specifically to a Queer Korean-American audience, what she says here may be applied to other contexts too. Very powerful!
So this past week-end was the 2018 Reclaiming Our Bodies And Minds conference that I’ve been looking forward to all year. And I have to say, this one was particularly awesome! I’m so glad I went! Mind you, I always am. But, as I said, this year especially rocked! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the events on the Friday night because of a very long, rather taxing meeting up at my university (more on that in future posts). Which I was bummed about, as it meant I missed the community fair and keynote! Damn! So I joined up on Saturday for that day’s sessions.
First of all, one of the awesome things about ROBAM is that it’s such a treat to be in a truly accessible space! They had the conference program in Braille and other alternative formats. But best of all, they had PSWs (Personal Support Workers) there who were able to assist me with finding the rooms where the sessions were, finding the washrooms, and finding the food. And accessing them went much more smoothly than last year! Or at least, it felt like it did. And that was such a relief, because it meant that I didn’t have to rely on wrangling random people for help like I usually do! So that meant I was really able to just relax and enjoy the conference rather than worry about how I was going to find the next session, the loo, or the lunch. And on that note, the lunch was delicious!
And then, the actual sessions themselves were some of the best I’ve heard at ROBAM in years! The day opened with a panel on thinking about how we can make spaces and events more truly accessible, shifting from a Disability rights framework to a justice framework, and thinking about accessibility as an intent to be inclusive rather than as a list of items to check off. Then we went into the first split sessions of the day.
The first one was a truly brilliant workshop on politicizing the experiences of loneliness of Mad and Disabled people. And Wow, it’s one I’m going to be thinking about for a long time to come! I went because it struck me as being super relevant to the work I do here with Phantom. But it ended up having relevances beyond that, too, in fact to my doctoral work. Because, much environmental activism these days centres on the idea of relocalizing – lives, communities, economies, etc, and much of the argument for this is that it will cure the epidemic of loneliness created by neoliberalism, or even by any form of capitalism depending on how radical the thinker you’re reading is. But it often seems to me that this desire to relocalize contains a lot of nostalgia, at times even fauxstalgia, that fails to take into account the kinds of loneliness that Queer, Mad and Disabled people experience – loneliness due to exclusions based on differences in communication style, body configurations, desire, cognition, sensory perception, and mental state. And these degrees of difference have, historically, required more than just belonging to close-knit communities with strong social ties to bridge. Indeed, historically, Queer, Mad and Disabled folks have often had to leave the communities they came from in order to find acceptance. But this workshop gave me a great deal to think about in terms of ways of possibly speaking back to this issue! I’ll write more about it in future posts.
Then in the afternoon, there were a couple of sessions on racism, displacement, sacred space, madness, and personal history. They were really excellent, and they also gave me a lot to think about! In particular, they gave me a lot to think about with regard to “unofficial” sacred spaces such as concerts or, for that matter, Phantom, and how these can be double-edged for Queer, Mad and Disabled folks. Because, they’re/we’re less excluded than they/we all too often are in official sacred spaces, but nevertheless there’s still an assumption of heteronormativity among the majority of users of these unofficial spaces that creates exclusions for them/us there too. So that was really interesting!
Then after dinner, there was a fabulous comedy night. Lots of wonderful Crip humour! And it was really great to do so much laughing after the sessions of the day. Because, although the panels and workshops were fabulous, they could be kind of heavy! They touched on a lot of tough issues. So it was great to have some good laughs after all that, and it was a great way to close off the conference! Sadly, there were no events on Sunday.
One of the coolest aspects of the week-end, though, was that I finally did something I’ve been wanting to experiment with for a while but never had the nerve before. But I figured that, if any space should be safe to try it, it should be ROBAM. And it was awesome to find that turned out to be the case! So normally I identify (as female?) and present as very femme. But for a while now, I’ve been strongly tempted every now and then to, as a friend put it, jump the gender fence – not necessarily permanently – LOL I’d miss my girly stuff too much, but every now and then. I’ve come to think of it as my alternate gender alter-ego – a guy called Erik (yes, named for the Phantom). But I’ve never actually presented as that alternate gender alter-ego before. At the conference this week-end, though, I finally decided Oh what the hell and did. And bless the conference folks for being super chill about it, LOL even though I didn’t actually get up my nerve till after I’d registered and so had to ask them to help me alter my name-tag! And it went really well, too. Nobody gave me any crap or weirdness about it! LOL Although, certain people I ran into who knew me kept going on auto-pilot and using my regular name later in the day. I’m not sure if they just weren’t reading my name-tag and going on their memories, or if putting brackets around my “real” name on the tag caused confusion. Pity, too, as the misgendering started just as I was getting comfortable presenting as Erik! So next time I’ll have to register that way from the beginning so that my name-tag’s clean and see if that helps. LOL Although, that’s when I’ll probably get the awkward questions from those particular folks. I ran into other friends, though, who were totally chill and awesome about it. And I really appreciate that! It really helped me get comfortable with how I was trying to present! So overall, it was a good and liberating experience! And it’s one I’ll try again, possibly at next year’s ROBAM, and in other safe spaces where I can find them. Because, it took me almost half the day on Saturday to stop feeling shy and self-conscious about presenting as a guy – LOL or trying to!
Anyway, it was a great week-end. And I’m really looking forward to next year’s conference! I can’t wait to see what their topic will be! And also, for next year I’m really going to try hard not to miss the call-out for papers/presentations (again). Because, I’d really love to present there as well! I don’t yet know what, though. So you’ll have to wait, and come to next year’s ROBAM to find out!
So I meant to post this for VAlentine’s Day, but I got running behind! I wanted to go ahead and post it anyway, though, as it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now. It began, as the title of this post suggests, as a response to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts’ – Disability After Dark’s (see my links page) – episode on Disability and dating. Because, while I agreed with what was said, I also felt that there was another, important way to think about the issue that often gets overlooked.
The podcast episode focussed around the question “would you date a person with a disability”, because that was what came up when Andrew (the podcast host) Googled “disability and dating” in order to see what was out there on the subject. It is a question which many Disabled people, Andrew included, find deeply offensive because of the ways in which it conjures up and draws on really bad stereotypes of Disabled people as “difficult” partners – as extra needy, as burdens, and therefore as requiring extra-special, saintly courage and compassion to date or be a partner to. As Andrew points out, these stereotypes assume that the giving in the relationship goes all in one direction – from the able-bodied partner to the disabled dependent, and that the able partner receives nothing in return but the satisfaction of “doing good”. And he and other activists are absolutely right to call out these ideas! They are really problematic, and frankly insulting to both Disabled people and our partners.
I want to suggest, however, that there is a way in which dating/being a partner to some one with a Disability or Deformity does, in fact, require courage that usually gets overlooked in discussion of the issue. And that is that to date/partner a Disabled/Deformed person is, I would argue, an inherently political act. In choosing to date/partner a Disabled/Deformed person when you yourself are able-bodied, you are choosing to violate a social norm. You are choosing to do something society actively does not want you to do. Mainstream society prefers to see Disabled/Deformed people as asexual/aromantic – as perpetual children, or as hyper-sexual monsters. So by choosing to have a relationship with a Disabled/Deformed person as you would with anyone else, you are refusing both of these narratives (unless either one is your kink, in which case you are choosing to consciously and consensually embrace them for your own purposes). You are choosing to recognize that person as an adult, with an adult’s desires, who is fully capable of consenting to a relationship. And because you are choosing to defy deeply held beliefs and social norms, you will catch flack for it – very much in the way that interracial couples did in my Mom’s generation, or that the first generations of Queer and Trans folks to come out of the closet did! Mainstream society will use all the tools of shame and pressure in its arsenal to try to get you to fall back in line. You will watch your partner face inaccessible spaces, and you will have to choose whether to make a fuss in solidarity with them or keep silent. You will have to choose whether to put your foot down and refuse to go to inaccessible events that your friends invite you to because your partner can’t come too, risking being isolated by them for being such a “kill-joy”. You will have to see your partner be stared at, and you may find yourself stared at pityingly too. You will have people offering you their unsolicited sympathy for your partner’s plight, and for your plight in being stuck with them (though people will rarely phrase it with such overt rudeness). You will have people praising you for your saintly love/patience/forbearance – for your courage in taking on and sticking with such a burden, thus both insulting your partner and (not so subtly) implying that you “could do so much better”. In fact, you may even have some people come out and tell you that you could do so much better, and that it’s a shame to see you throw your life away like this. And they may further imply that you are doing so because you yourself have self-esteem issues.
(Note: all the examples referenced above are things that actually happen to partners of Disabled people, or that I have extrapolated from things my Mom remembers actually being said to or about interracial couples when she was younger, especially to White women dating Black men.)
As awesome Disability scholar and activist Loree Erickson points out in her essay “Revealing Femmegimp” (see my On-Going Annotated Bibliography page for citation info), shame is not merely a private emotion, but a political process. And all the instances described above that the partner of a Disabled person will face, though they occur at a personal level and come from a place of people’s deep personal beliefs, are part of this broader social/political process. They are part of defining who is desirable and who is not, and what kinds of relationships are acceptable. The purpose of these instances of shaming, then, is to get you to dump your Disabled/Deformed date/partner and re/ascent to the mainstream narratives about body-minds like theirs. And it does take great courage, love and commitment to stand up to and withstand that kind of pressure! It takes great courage, love and commitment to look society in the eye, as it were, and say “yes, I know you’ve declared this out of bounds, but I choose it anyway”, and to keep saying that. Indeed, I suspect that the reason so many people do end up dumping their Disabled partners is because they entered into the relationship initially without having thought through the political implications of the choice they were making, and were then surprised by and unprepared for the flack. They entered into the relationship without having really thought through whether they are willing to defy society and leave behind the safety of normalcy, and then found once into it that they were not.
Indeed, one of the things I’ve always found compelling as a Phantom Phan is that this, it’s always struck me, is the very choice Christine faces. This is not set out explicitly in either the original Leroux or the ALW musical. Rather, the story is portrayed, on its surface at least, as a straight-forward love-triangle. Yet to me anyway, the choice described above has always been strongly implicit. And this is one of the reasons why Phantom is at its most awesomely provocative when Christine is played as having genuine, deep feelings for and attractions to both men – feelings that could turn either way depending on the path she herself chooses. There is Raoul, who, though it would be frowned upon socially because of their class difference, is the safe option because there are, at least, cultural narrative precedents for such a choice (Cinderella, not to mention the many opera dancers to whom Leroux makes reference who married quite high aristocrats). Christine and he fit the “Prince Charming” myth. For her to choose the Phantom, however, would mean stepping into his outsider status, and foregoing all the familiar comforts of “normal”. In her time, there were no narrative precedents for the fair maiden choosing the beast that didn’t involve him being instantly and magically transformed into Prince Charming, and there are few such even today. And since he would not be so transformed, were Christine to choose the Phantom, her choice would be met, not merely with disapproval, but with revulsion and pathologization. And she knows this instinctively, because she has internalized these values herself. And in the end, when the Phantom releases her and Raoul, she does indeed go off with the “safe option”. But I’ve always felt that the story, especially as told in the original ALW stage-version, asks those who experience it to think about what choice they/we would make – what choice they/we will make? And it asks us/them to consider that making the riskier choice, the more defiant and daring choice, might, ultimately, be the path with the greater reward. But to make that choice, like any profound act of resistance, does indeed require courage! And as I’ve said elsewhere here, Phantom has always seemed to me to challenge, indeed to dare its viewer to have/find that courage.
So I feel that I ought to come clean about this, because I’ve been living a lie for a long time. Oh I’m “really” Disabled. That’s not the falsehood. I truly am Blind, truly do have CP, and truly do have other issues as well. The lie is that I’ve ever been truly independent – that I’ve ever truly grown up. I don’t mean learned how not to need help with certain aspects of dayly life. I mean that I’ve never taken charge myself of organizing how those needs were going to be met, even while having some very grand ambitions for what I want to achieve in life.
Now, granted, I’ll give myself that there are some valid reasons for this lack of taking charge of my own needs. I have a lot of very early trauma from medicalization. And this was later compounded by ableist bullying, which I experienced from peers, even some teachers (especially the “special” teachers who worked with me in primary school), and from some of the teachers and residence staff at the school for the Blind I eventually went to. So I’ll be the first to admit that, by my teens, I was really messed up! Getting therapy in highschool helped, especially since I was particularly blesffed in my shrink. No offense to my later therapists, but she was the best I’ve ever had! Even so, though, it’s only recently, through the work I’ve been doing in Critical Disability theory and politics that I’ve really begun to get to grips with that stuff and it’s effects. At the same time, though, there were some bad reasons for my lack of independence. Thanks to my Mom’s academic background I had the resources to at least know as much as that my attitudes, actions and behaviours were being effected by the trauma I’d experienced, even if the exact mechanisms by which it did so would take longer to tease out. And yet, even with this ammo, I didn’t struggle against the effects of my trauma as hard as I could have and should have. If anything, I kind of wallowed in them!
The result was that, for all of my teens and twenties, andfor much of my thirties, I’ve basically lived some of the worst disability stereotypes. I was lazy. Yes, lazy. And worse, I regularly used my disabilities to get away with it. Others could do things faster and more efficiently, so I let them. Oh I’d “to sometimes make a half-hearted offer to help out, but I didn’t mean it, and was perfectly happy when it was declined. In fact, I usually didn’t get around to even making such offers until whatever work was already well under way, by which time it was basically done so there really was nothing left for me to do. And I did this both out in the world and at home. As a result, my Mom, a single mom no less, ended up literally being the servant – doing all the housework, and making breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, even when she had to work outside the home as well. And I had a sense of personal entitlement that let me feel that it was perfectly OK for me to exploit Mom’s labour this way.
In addition to my total lack of initiative in starting to pick up the housework, though, that sense of entitlement allowed me to feel totally justified in refusing to in any way push my comfort-zone, my very narrow comfort-zone, in order to get the help I needed in other areas. I didn’t trust “helping” agencies because of my experiences of custodialization at the school for the blind. But, instead of going to them anyway because I needed the help, and, if their was crap, getting involved in political struggles to change it, I simply refused to have anything to do with them. i was uncomfortable asking for help from my peers because, when I made half-assed, disorganized efforts at doing so, it seemed to put me in the “little kid charity-case” category rather than that of potential friend material. So, instead of trying harder to ask for help in an organized manner that would come across as competent and mature, I simply refused, once again falling back on Mom’s labour. So, every time I needed or wanted something read, I got Mom to read it (I had a scanner and OCR software, but it read so poorly in those days that I often simply didn’t bother with it). Likewise, every time I needed to travel a route I didn’t know, Mom would “have” to take me. And this became an increasing problem as, as I dropped sight and my other impairments became more noticeable, way-finding became increasingly difficult. And, instead of finding ways to break out of the social isolation I was experiencing, even if it meant getting involved in programs at CNIB or other Disability organizations because I was having so much trouble making friends among my sighted and able-bodied peers, I simply let Mom take care of all my needs for company – so much so that, at one point, she calculated that we were spending approximately 45 hours together a week.
As a result, Mom has hardly had any life other than being my full-time care-giver since I stopped attending the school for the blind and came home to attend the school for the arts, that is, since I was 14. She has not been able to have a social life of her own, or to get her own enterprises up and going, even though both of us badly needed her to be able to in order to get out of poverty. As bad or worse, though, has been that her often hidden labour has allowed me to present an illusion of independence and competence to the outside world. I have looked like I was getting out there and building a life, when, in fact, I wasn’t. I continue to rely on Mom for my logistical needs (grocery-shopping, other shopping, travel, reading, etc,) andfor my social needs, even a decade after ostensibly moving out on my own – to the point where, when Mom would come to “visit”, in addition to quality family-time, she would once again cook all the meals, do all the house-cleaning I’d neglected, shepherd me around to whatever events I wanted or want to go to, and fill in my social needs too. And these “visits” would be every week-end when she lived in town (even when she lived across town from me and travel was really difficult for her because she doesn’t drive), and they’ve turned into three, four or more week extended ?hotel-stays” in which she gets to be the hotel staff for me since she’s moved further away. And it’s wearing Mom out. Over the years, she has literally begged me, if I’m going to need that much of her help and support, to live with or near her so she can provide it to me without it totally wiping her out. But, once again, I’ve always refused, wanting to cling to the illusion that I’m managing independently. But I’ve also always refused to transform that illusion into reality either, the other way I could stop exhausting her.
So why am I writing all this? I’m doing so because I felt it was important for me to finally stop hiding my wrongs, stop hiding my lack of real independence behind Mom’s hidden labour, and come clean with my communities. As those of you who know me know, I’ve long been an ardent supporter of the rights and aspirations of people with Disabilities. Indeed, I consider myself a Disability activist, although, given what I’ve confessed here, I’m not sure I deserve that honoured label. Because, I’ve been engaging from a place of hipocracy. I’ve been attending the rallies and events and spouting the rhetoric while taking the easy way out with regard to my own independence. And worse, I’ve supported Disability and Feminist ideals while knowingly exploiting another’s labour. And I’ve always been afraid my Disability communities would discover how much I’ve relied on Mom’s labour, and either think me incompetent for not having figured out how to do better by now, and or recognize me for an ass-hole who confirms every bad disability stereotype they’ve been trying so hard to disprove and fight against. So I thought it was time to finally out myself! Because, I’m trying to stop being that ass-hole
– to really grapple with how to get my needs met, and how to live really independently instead of just the facade of it. And it seemed to me that it was important to begin that process by a little long over-due honesty.
So a while back, I was re-reading (well, re-listening to actually, since I experience it through audiobook) my original Leroux Phantom, and I noticed something I hadn’t before. Actually, it surprises me that I hadn’t till now! Because, when I think about it, it’s likely been a key reason why I’ve always gravitated more toward the stage-version than the Leroux novel. LOL Sorry Leroux purists! And don’t get me wrong. Of course I recognize Leroux as the source of it all – the original, and I love it for that as well as for its own particular way of telling the story. But it’s always been the stage-version that’s most powerfully fired my love of Phantom, and, as I said, I think I now know a key reason, which as to do with the way the two versions handle the issue of “normalcy”.
In the Leroux novel, Erik (the Phantom) expresses a strong desire for normalcy. He expresses the wish to “live like everyone else” (chapters 22, 23 and Epilogue of Damatos translation) – to have “a nice, quiet little flat with ordinary doors and windows like everyone else, and a wife inside whom I could love and take out on Sundays and keep amused on week-days” (chapter 23). And indeed, the house on the lake, the furnishings of which are frequently described as bourgeois common-place, seems to be trying to replicate a “normal” man’s house as much as possible (chapters 12 and 26 of Damatos translation). The only unorthodox spaces described as being in Erik’s house are his own room, which is done up like “a mortuary chamber” (chapter 12), and the “torture chamber” (chapters 22 through 25). But these spaces seem to come less out of a defiance of “normalcy” than from a desire to punish himself by living like the corpse he has always been told he looks like (chapter 12), and to punish and discourage intruders (chapters 22 through 25). It is also expressed in his work on a mask that will make him look “like anyone”, i.e. with a “normal” face (chapter 22).
In the stage-version, however, this desire for “normalcy” is downplayed if not dropped. The Phantom here certainly expresses a desire for love and compassion, and a wish to be lead and saved from his solitude (Act I scene 6, Act II scenes 8 and 9). But he does not express the desire to be “like everyone else” that the Leroux Phantom does. Moreover, his lair in this version (in the original staging at any rate) is not an attempt to mimic a “normal” home, but rather a temple to “the Music of the Night”. And indeed, in the lyrics to that song, he puts forward an alternative to the harsh, daylight visual standards of physical beauty that have excluded and marginalized him, offering instead an aesthetic where sound is paramount, and where visual assessments are softened by candle-light. True, he wants acceptance. He wants some one “to see, to find, the man behind the monster” (Act I scene 6). But he wants this at least somewhat on his own terms. Thus, the stage-version Phantom can be read as being OK with not being “normal” as long as he’s not alone in it – as long as he’s not driven into maddening isolation by exclusion and marginalization.
And now that I think about it, I begin to suspect that this shift in the approach to “normalcy” is a key reason why the ALW stage-version was the version of Phantom to be the one to spark Phandom to life, not just in me, but in so many others born since the 1970s. Many of us were othered, especially in the education system. We were bullied or just plain excluded, either by our peers, our teachers or both, for having a Disability/being Queer/being Trans/being “weird”/etc. But, in us, that didn’t inspire us to want to conform and be “normal”. Because, in the people who othered us, especially the authority-figures, we saw, up close and personal, what society calls “normal”. And we didn’t like what we saw! It looked to us like what J. K. Rowling would later call being a muggle – rigid conformity (to dress-codes, to codes of behaviour based on able bodies and minds, to racism, to soul-destroying work environments, to consumerism, to sexism and what we would now call the gender binary) and a deadened imagination. And unlike our parents, we were the generations born post civil rights, post Black power, post Stonewall, post second-wave Feminism, post the beginning of the Disability rights movement. And while we weren’t exposed directly to these movements yet (that wouldn’t come till we escaped, er, I mean, graduated from highschool because, back then, we didn’t have the internet to easily and safely, i.e. privately, seek those movements out ourselves), we got their echoes. And those echoes told us it was the “normal” mongers that were wrong, not us.
Thus, when Phantom first opened back in 1986, it resonated powerfully with those of us engaged in these struggles, especially since it found many of us just as we were heading into our teens. Indeed, for many of us, the ALW Phantom provided the symbolic language with which we expressed and waged these struggles. We related to the Phantom’s experience of being excluded for his differences. But, like him as portrayed in the stage-version, we want/ed to be accepted for who we were/are – to offer alternative ways of being and find people to share them with, not to solve our exclusion by burying or excising parts of ourselves in order to be “normal”.
I think this is part of why so many old-school stage-version Phans like myself have such a strong negative reaction to the Gerik (the 2004/5 film adaptation of the Lloyd Webber musical). As I’ve argued elsewhere, the changes it makes in the story shift it’s message from that of the stage-version. Instead of calling out society for excluding and othering the Phantom on account of his not being “normal”, the Gerik criticizes the Phantom, and Mme. Giry who helped him make his home in the opera house, for his “failure” to have been “properly socialized”. It argues that what the Phantom needed was, not to be accepted for himself, facial difference, “madness” and all, but to learn to fit himself into “normal” society as best he could, and find there whatever place it would grant him. But Phans of my generation know that argument way too well. We got it from our teachers, guidance counsellors, our peers, the medical and other “helping” professions, and even, in some cases (though I’m thankful mine wasn’t one of them) from our parents. Many of us have tried that route, too, in response to their pressure. We’ve tried contorting ourselves into the shapes and appearances society wanted in order to be accepted. Many of us tried it for years or even decades before giving it up because, A, it doesn’t work – you’re never fully accepted because you can never be your whole self – never let your guard down lest your “abnormalities” show. And B, some part/s of yourself always have to remain disavowed and suppressed, hated because they keep you from fully fulfilling the societal ideal and, as you think, being fully accepted. Oh yes, we know well the mental, spiritual, psychic, and sometimes even (though, again, I’m grateful that not in my case) physical violence of that path. And it really, really pisses us off to see our beloved Phantom, the story and character that saved so many of us by inspiring us to begin to fight for our own liberation, turned into, A, eye-candy, and B, an apology for the “normal” mongers! That is not the message of the Phantom so many of us fell in love with on stage and in recordings. His was and is a song of resistance!
So a week or so ago, while reading through my Twitter feed, I came across the following tweet from the official Phantom twitter, @PhantomOpera, which represents the show worldwide (although the London, Broadway and U.S. tour productions do all have their own). And I really wanted to respond, because I found it really disturbing coming from an official voice for the musical! But I knew I couldn’t possibly condense why into 140 characters. I really wanted to say something, though, because I didn’t think this should be left without a response! It was part of a discussion on why the Phantom comes out for curtain-call in his full costume, including the hat and mask, when both have been removed during the Final Lair. And @PhantomOpera’s answer was that they wanted to end the show with his “iconic” look rather than his “broken” look, to which another discussant asked if they thought the Phantom is broken. To which @PhantomOpera replied, and this is what I find problematic:
“A little bit. I think the character behaves less refined when he doesn’t have the wig & mask & that’s not a good image to end the show with”
You can (I hope, if I’ve done this right) find the tweet in question here, and you should be able to call up the rest of the discussion from there.
What I find so problematic about this tweet is that it, in fact the whole discussion at least as far as I saw, equates the Phantom’s revealed “deformity” with his being “broken” as though there were some inherent correlation between the two. It makes this correlation by suggesting that he is less “broken” when he conceals his deformity in order to appear more “refined”. And this is classic ableism! Yes, the Phantom is broken, and, yes, he does have low self-esteem (see further tweets in the discussion which describe the wig and mask as props to bolster the Phantom’s low self-image). But this is not “just” because his face is “deformed”. That’s how ableism operates, though. It locates brokenness in the individual body of the person with the bodily/mental/cognitive difference, and, therefore, treats depression, self-esteem issues, feelings of isolation, etc, simply as part of their “condition”. It treats those feelings/psychological states as part of the person’s individual set of problems rooted in their bodily “deficiency” rather than as legitimate responses to the way society treats them. Thus, the “cure” is understood to be to make the person as “normal” as possible so that they can love themself and fit in, not to change society at large to one that can accept them. This is because, to put it baldly, ableism believes that it is the person’s body that is wrong, not society’s inability to embrace them. And therefore, it maintains that to change society would be neither possible nor, in fact, desirable. Thus, in the case of this tweet-discussion, then, it seems to be suggesting that the Phantom’s self-loathing and depression derive from his having a facial “deformity” rather than from society’s exclusion of him – an inevitable, if tragic, reality (Christine’s ultimate acceptance of him being a one-off, miraculous exception) which, if he were “sane”/”well adjusted”, he would have learned to accept. And the phrasing that he “behaves more refined” when hiding his “deformity” implies that his doing so is a good thing – a step toward “normalcy” even if he is, ultimately, too “broken” to achieve it fully.
As I said, I find the above really disturbing, especially from an official voice for the show! Because, to me, Phantom is and should be about countering and resisting ableism. Yes, the Phantom is broken, but not by his face. He is broken by a lifetime of marginalization and exclusion by a society that’s decided his face is too different to be accepted. He is depressed, yes, but because of a lifetime of being told he’s unloveable because of his “deformity”. He behaves in a deranged and violent manner because he can’t take it any more – because Christine’s fear and seeming rejection, coming on top of this lifetime of experience, were the straws that broke the camel’s back. This doesn’t excuse his behaviour or make it OK. But it does put it into its social and, yes, political context. His problems do not inhere in him. They do not inhere in his face. They were created in him by a society which ranks people’s worth – which ranks people’s very right to exist and survive – according to their ability to measure up to a standard based on the young, White, able, “healthy”, cisgendered, preferably “beautiful” body.
But the answer to that is not to conceal the brokenness. It is not to mask oneself to try to measure up to the very standard that excluded you! As the Final Lair itself suggests, it is to recognize the social, psychological and spiritual harm done when we marginalize and other those who do not measure up to that narrow ideal, and begin to make reparation. That is why that line “Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known? God give me courage to show you you are not alone!” (Act II scene 9) is so powerful! Admittedly, the gendering can be way problematic – a discussion I’ll definitely have here at some point because it’s absolutely necessary. But, even so, it is the moment when Christine recognizes that it is society that has done this to the Phantom, not his own inner nature. And it can, as I have argued elsewhere, be read almost as an apology on the part of her whole society and an attempt at reparation! And this is also what makes the Phantom’s choice to then let her and Raoul go free so powerful too – not because he has refused that reparation out of some recognition that it’s really all his own psychological fault or problem. But, rather, exactly because he has accepted her reparation. He has recognized and accepted her compassion and, with the strength that has given him, taken at least a small step toward refusing to buy in any more to society’s dehumanization of him. He has finally understood that Christine simply loves the other guy, and that her not loving him romantically truly has nothing to do with his face. And that understanding, combined with her compassion for and comprehension of how he has been marginalized, gives him the strength to stop behaving in a dehumanized way – to stop passing on to her and Raoul the violence he himself has endured.
Considered this way, then, I would argue that the Phantom with his “deformity” and brokenness, yes, but also re-found dignity revealed is exactly the image with which to end the show! And I wonder how audiences would respond, given this, to him coming out for curtain-call unmasked and without the wig, or perhaps to re-unmask while taking his bows? Because, I suspect that audiences would get it, and that that could actually be really powerful! At the very least, though, I’d like for those who represent the show – actors, crew, media spokespeople, etc., – to understand the Phantom’s actions and behaviour in their proper context, and to please not use ableist tropes to present the character as exotically tragic or tragically exotic. Don’t re-marginalize, either the Phantom, or those of us for whom his story resonates as our own!
Note: I’ve put the words “deformed” and “deformity” in quotes to indicate that these are socially constructed concepts that derive from the belief that there’s only one “correct” way for a face to look. Recently, however, I have seen a number of activists reclaiming the word “disfigured” and using it to make the same argument with regard to both congenital and acquired facial differences. Because, as they point out, both are othered for their differences in appearance, and in both cases that stems from the idea that there is only one proper and pleasing human figure. And I totally cheer on these activists’ awesome and courageous work! Indeed, I recently heard the term “facial equality” coined by one such person, which I absolutely love! I use the language of “deformity”, however, because that is the term used in the show (Act 1 scene 10, Act II scene 2) and which, therefore, has tended to be used in the Phandom.
Note 2: The above might, perhaps, make it sound as though I am arguing that the Phantom is better unmasked because that is the “truth”. But that is not quite what I mean to convey. Indeed, I love the Phantom in his full regalia and, in fact, find it smoking hot, especially when played by an actor with the right voice and stage-charisma! But, to me, though I suspect to other Phans as well, the power of his “iconic” look does not come from the fact that it hides his “deformity” and makes him more “normal”. Because, in fact, it does neither. It neither makes his mind and heart less broken by the exclusion he has suffered, nor does it allow him to successfully “pass”. However, and this is something I’ll discuss more in future posts, because it is an attempt to claim dignity even without being able to successfully pass, the Phantom’s Phantom persona and, therefore, regalia can be understood as a form of resistance. And that, for me, is what makes it so potent.
So now onto some of the current stuff. And I know this is way over-due! But, believe me, although it’s taken me a long time to get around to posting about it, I haven’t been oblivious! I’ve mostly been following through Democracy Now‘s superb coverage and on Twitter. But I really felt I had/have to post something too!
What’s been happening at Standing Rock is unbelievable in the twenty-first century! We should be way beyond sending cops armed with military-grade and military style vehicles and weapons to brutally repress and displace people who are only trying to defend their land, their water – not to mention the water-source of several million other people, and the burial grounds where their people have been laid to rest. I mean, how would you feel if some corporation barged into your community and basically said “we
re going to do this project whether you like it or not, and we don’t care if it endangers your drinking water, and by the way we’re going to bulldoze your cemetery, too, because it’s in the way”? But then, that doesn’t happen in White, middle/upper-class communities. Does it? And the fact that it’s happening anywhere should be unbelievable in 2016, except that we should be way past where cops can just shoot people for traffic “violations”, too. But we’re not! And when people get rightly pissed about it, what do we do? We send in the cops with armoured vehicles and rifles! We should be way past this shit by this time, but, sadly, we’re not! Racism and colonialism are alive and well! And what’s happening at Standing Rock is a classic instance of both, with environmental racism on top.
And it’s not just Standing Rock either. We have similar struggles here in Canada too! Although, so far, things haven’t been escalated by the “authorities” to quite such a degree yet. I hope? If I’m wrong in that, then please correct me! Though, I hope to God not! But, here, too, we have extraction projects being pushed through the lands of Indigenous people who’ve said a loud and resounding “no” – TransMountain, Northern Gateway, Kinder-Morgan, Line 9, Energy East, and, of course, the tarsands themselves. Not to mention the Site C dam! And the government is still trying to persuade/arm-twist communities in the paths of these projects to accept them, in spite of Justin Trudeau’s promises to respect Indigenous rights. In many ways – not only this, but on Bill C51 and electoral reform too – he’s behaving very much like his predecessor, all the while trying to conceal it behind his good looks and affability.
The good thing is that the folks at Standing Rock and all these other sites of struggle have world-wide support. They’re most definitely not facing this shit alone! Protests in support of Standing Rock in my home city have been large, loud and powerful! And they’ve made a point of making the connection/s between Standing Rock and those other struggles, and, indeed, to the struggles of other marginalized people for justice and dignity – Black Lives Matter, the struggles of migrants/undocumented people, the struggles of Queer and Trans people, especially Queer and Trans people of colour. So efforts at “divide and conquer” aren’t working thank God!
Anyway, my thoughts/prayers/good energies/etc, are most definitely with the land and water protectors right now. I’m in absolute awe of their courage and determination! And I hope, for all our sakes, that they succeed! Because, not only would DAPL contribute to the worsening of the climate crisis by allowing for the expansion of fossil-fuel production, which is absolutely the last thing we need right now, but, as the defenders point out, if that pipeline breaks, which is a “when” not an “if” given the track-record of these kinds of projects when it comes to safety, it would contaminate the water-supply for 17 million people. And for what? So already rich people can get richer? Because the fracked oil that it will carry is not for local use. It’s all for export (they’re still desperately hoping there’s a market for it in Europe or Asia)! And the same is true for the pipelines here in Canada too. They’re all meant to carry oil to ports for shipping over-seas. And meanwhile, Indigenous and other marginalized communities’ lands and waters get polluted and wrecked, disrupting subsistence ways of life, and causing major health impacts. In the words of a song by one of my favourite hiphop groups, WTF?!!!
But the land and water defenders have said they’ll keep defending as long as they have to to stop this evil – this totally unnecessary destruction. And thank God for their devotion and dedication, and may God/Spirit give them what they need to do it! And we, their allies, will continue to support them in whatever ways we can too. because, we’re all in this together! In the words of another song by that same group:
“Protect Mother Earth don’t settle for less!
This is Turtle Island don’t you ever forget!
Resist till the colonizers settle the debt.
This is Turtle Island don’t you ever forget!
We got one planet let’s protect what’s left.
This is Turtle Island don’t you ever forget!
So I know that, once again, I’ve been away from posting for a really long time! Really sorry about that! It’s been a really busy couple of months with school and, of course, extra-curricular political activities. But I’ve been meaning to get back here for ages! It’s just taken me a while to have the time and the spoons.
Anyway, before going on to all the current stuff, I wanted to finish my “coverage” of the World Social Forum from back in August. Because, I definitely didn’t cover everything before! Warning, though, that might make this post a bit long. Sorry about that, but there’s a lot to pack in!
So we did actually make the workshop on Friday morning that we wanted to, which was the one from earlier in the week that got rescheduled on “The Fight for the Global City”. And boy was it awesome! There were three panelists – two from Latin America, and one from India. And they talked about various struggles for social justice in their cities, but also about various initiatives to make their cities more just and sustainable. Unfortunately, it’s been such a long time since the workshop that I can’t remember the details. But I’ll look them up as soon as I can, and post links if possible!
The most interesting idea to come from that workshop, though, and the one that’s really stayed with me as something to think about, is the idea of struggling against and resisting what they called “urban extractivism”. They suggested that, under the current neoliberal capitalist economic system, cities are looked at, not as places where people live and have community, but as resource-deposits from which profit can be extracted. So, for example they talked about real-estate markets as a form of extractivism in which land and housing are viewed as resources to be “mined” (not the exact wording, but a similar analogy). Similarly, they talked about how, in this paradigm, urban populations are looked at as a resource to be extracted – as labour, as advertising recipients, as statistical data, as heads to be paid by the number of (as in hospitals and prisons where funding as allocated according to number of patients/inmates, so more bodies = more money). It was a really interesting way to think about those processes! We tend to think of extractivism as something that happens “out there” – in mines and oil and gas extraction sites, but not as something that happens in cities. If anything, we tend to think of cities as the beneficiaries of extractivism. So I thought it was really interesting how these speakers showed how it’s not that simple! And, of course, they noted that this urban extractivism is applied differently to different urban populations, falling hardest on the urban poor.
Then, in the evening (LOL if there was an afternoon workshop I don’t remember what it was), we went to the last of what they called the “Grand Conferences”, which were basically panels of speakers on various issues that had been focussed on throughout the forum. We’d already heard one on neoliberalism and health, which was interesting if depressing, and one on LGBTQ+ struggles around the world which was really cool!
The Friday night’s, though, was on ableism. And it was fantastic! The first chap who spoke did an absolutely brilliant run-down of what ableism is, and of the difference between ableism as individual prejudice and what might be called structural ableism. I really hope his talk was YouTubed, as it’d make a great “ableism 101”! I’ll try to find it and post a link. In fact, I’ll try to do that with as many of the talks as I can, as they were all fantastic!
Then, my friend Laurence, who’s a colleague from way back when I was doing my MA, gave a really great talk on Disabled struggles in the Francophone world. She spoke about the struggle to find a way to define the issue in French without simply borrowing either the English terminology or that coming out of the academy in France, as it may not translate well since different words, with slightly different connotations, are used in different French-speaking regions. For example, she talked about how slightly different terminology is used in France vs in Quebec. And the point is, as has been done so effectively in English with the word “ableism”, to find a term that takes the presumed natural superiority of the able-body and turns it on its head to show how it actually supports a hierarchy. So it was a really interesting talk!
Then the final panelist signed about the emergence of Deaf culture and Deaf arts, and her own emergence as a Deaf poet. Again, really interesting! And I was really thrilled to hear the issue of ableism given such a prominent spot in the WSF. Because, as the title of the panel pointed out, it’s the one system of prejudice that’s all too often forgotten, even among those who are trying to organize for justice and change! So it was good, and refreshing, to have that recognized and an attempt made to do differently. Granted, the attempt could have been more successful. Sure! But, A, at least it was there, and B, that just means there’s more to work on. And the logistical challenges – of making an event like that accessible with all volunteers, a minimal budget, and an organizational structure that tries to be as horizontal as possible – are formidable! So I certainly didn’t get the sense that the access failures that there were, and there were, came from lack of trying. And they certainly seem to be open to learning how they can do stuff better in the future!
Anyway, the next day was the closing events – a sort of wrap-up conference to summarize and assemble everything that had been decided through the week in terms of actions going forward, and then a big closing concert. Mom and I didn’t go to that stuff, though, because, by then, we were both pretty exhausted! LOL We did try to go to the concert, but got seriously rained out! It was a great week, though. I’m really glad we went, and so’s Mom (LOL kind of in spite of herself)! And I very much hope I’ll have the chance to go to another WSF in the future now that I have a better sense of how the whole thing works. I think I’d get much more out of it next time, and be much better able to contribute! We’ll have to see, though. But I hope that might be possible, as, for all that it was incredibly exhausting, I had a really awesome time!
So the next workshop we went to at the World Social Forum was on Thursday afternoon (Aug. 12). LOL Again, we meant to go to one in the morning too, but sleep intervened! But we made the afternoon workshop we wanted to get to, and, again, were really glad we did. It was another great one! Though, at first, I wasn’t sure it would be. But it turned out very effective and productive!
So the workshop was on building what it called “cosmopolitan solidarities”. And the way they were using this language was to mean building solidarities between groups who do not necessarily share the same agenda, goals, or even underlying beliefs/political orientations. We seemed to focus on building solidarity and, ultimately, allyship among diverse groups and people. And it’s an extremely important topic! Because, if you want a broad-based movement, you need to build that kind of solidarity. And it hasn’t always been easy!
What was great, though, was that many folks in the workshop had a lot of on-the-ground, hands-on experience with doing that kind of organizing, so they were able to share a lot of wisdom. One guy in particular had some fantastic stories from the collective he had been part of! And another woman had a lot of insight from her days as part of the collective running a Feminist paper. And the woman who facilitated the workshop had a lot of experience, too, organizing with refugees and around the refugee crisis in Germany where she’s from, and where she’s, in fact, doing her doctorate on this very issue. So it was really great!
In the end, what we arrived at was not a set of best practices, because the one thing that really came through loud and clear was that there is no “one size fits all”, but rather a set of best attitudes or best mindsets. And I hope I can remember all the “ingredients” we came up with! Because, we ended up thinking of it as kind of like a soup – a recipe that could be blended differently depending on the needs of the situation. But we decided that the basic ingredients were: respect, flexibility, real listening, humility – being willing to admit that you don’t have all the answers, awareness of and responsiveness to the needs of the situation and the particular people in the group, reliability, but also awareness that people have to contribute according to their abilities, a sense of humour and an ability to have fun, creativity, and an ability and willingness to adapt. If anyone else who was there reads this, have I missed anything?
Anyway, although the above definitely isn’t news or anything Earth-shattering, it was still a really great, productive workshop. It was really fantastic to hear about everyone’s experiences in actual organizing so that it wasn’t just a theoretical discussion! And I really liked the list of best approaches we came up with. I thought it really useful as something to think with going forward into future work!
So the first session we actually made it to at the World Social Forum was on Wednesday afternoon. We meant to go to one in the morning too, LOL but it got moved to Friday morning amidst a great deal of confusion! At least we made the afternoon one, though. And I’m so glad we did, as it was really fantastic!
The workshop we attended, then, was called “Decolonizing Our Faiths”. It was presented by the Community of Living Traditions, which is an intentional community living just outside New York City. They are a community of Jews, Christians and Muslims working to live together in peace and fellowship while staying true to their faiths, and also while working for peace and justice in the wider world. It sounds like an amazing community, and the people I heard speak from it were awesome! I went because interfaith organizing is something I’ve been interested in for a very long time. I practice as a Christian, although I would definitely describe myself as a “cafeteria Anglican” LOL. And I know for myself what an important role my faiths, both as a Christian and as a Phantom Phan, play in informing my work for justice and peace! And I know, too, that that’s so for many others around the world. Yet, of course, I also know that one faith alone doesn’t have all the answers and can’t do it alone. So having different faiths work together for change is incredibly important! But it can also be incredibly hard because of all the histories of war, forcing conversion and other imperialist crap that has gone along with the institutions of our faiths for so many centuries, and which has built up a shit-load of mistrust, especially of Christianity because of its historic role of providing the ideological and theological justifications for Europe’s colonization and exploitation of the rest of the world. And this workshop was about exactly that – how faith communities can become aware of their histories of privilege and oppression, and how we can begin to work against them in our own traditions and beyond. It was really inspiring! The Community of Living Traditions are doing great work in that struggle!
So we talked about what decolonization meant, and how it plays/might play out in each of our traditions. We talked about the importance of recognizing the role that economic exploitation plays in driving inter-religious conflict, and, therefore, of being involved as people of faith in struggles for economic justice. We talked about traditions, not as dead continuations of history, but as living processes in the present – that it’s important to respect our traditions, but also to give them room to evolve. And we talked, which was cool, about how other things besides faiths can be living traditions! For example, we talked about how social movements, such as those of and for Black liberation, can also be living traditions, and how important it is to recognize and honour this. And we talked about the importance of having the really tough but necessary conversations, both within our own faith-communities and between them – the conversations about race, Zionism, gender, white privilege, Christian privilege, economic privilege, etc, – and of sticking with those conversations, but in a loving, respectful and supportive way. And we also talked about the importance of communities like the Community of Living Traditions as incubators for new ways of living together, which struck me as a really awesome idea!
For me, one of the most useful and powerful things to come out of the workshop was the concept, not of safe space, but of courageous space. I heard that and went “Wow!”. Because it’s true that, while we need to create spaces where people feel safe to speak their truths knowing that they will be respected, loved and supported, those spaces can’t be so safe that one is never challenged. Those spaces also have to be ones where we are able to have/find the courage to have those tough, uncomfortable conversations referenced above, and to have our comfort-zones pushed toward greater justice and inclusion. So that’s one I’m going to be thinking about a lot – how we create and nurture such courageous spaces!