The Difference a Mutant Makes

—Ramzi Fawaz

[This piece originally appeared on Avidly.]

Like any good origin story, I’ve told this one a thousand times: The first comic book I ever read was X-Men #80, the 35th Anniversary issue of America’s most popular comic book series, which, for over three decades, had narrated the lives, loves, and losses of a band of mutant outcasts gifted with extraordinary abilities because of an evolution in their genetic makeup. It was 1998. I was thirteen years old and the cover of this single comic book issue was a young gay boy’s dream: a shiny pink hologram with a tower of dazzling disco-attired superheroes exploding before one’s eyes.

Growing up in a queer family, sibling to a gay brother, and bullied to tears on a daily basis for my own exuberant gayness, the words “A team reunited…a dream reborn” emblazoned on that cover spoke to me of the promise and possibility of queer kinship and solidarity in the face of all odds. Above all, what struck me about that cover was the sheer variety of characters depicted—how could a man of made of steel, an intangible woman, a white haired weather goddess, a butch teen girl ith bones sticking out of her skin, and a teleporting blue elf be any kind of team? Who were these people, I wondered, and what kind of dream did they share?

tumblr_n7bmdkqKUU1sqltzeo1_500Like so many readers of the X-Men over the decades, no character drew me in more than the weather goddess Storm, a Kenyan immigrant to the U.S., the first black woman superhero in a mainstream comic book, and by the 1990s, the X-Men’s team leader. In that same anniversary issue, at a low point in the team’s battle with an imposter group of X-Men, Storm rallies her bruised and beaten comrades by reminding them that what defines their bond is a set of shared values, a chosen kinship maintained through mutual love and respect, not by force or expectation. With my budding left-wing consciousness on one side, and my attachment to queer family on the other, I fell in love with this fictional mutant goddess and her team: this was the kind of community I longed for. How did it come to be that a thirteen year old Lebanese-American, suburban gay boy found common cause with an orphaned, Kenyan, mutant, immigrant X-Man?

If one were to try and explain this question by turning to recent public debates about superhero comics, we might put forward the answer: “diversity.” Yet this term and its shifting meanings—variety, difference, or representational equality—would have rung false to my thirteen year old ears. It was not simply the fact of Storm’s “diverse” background as Kenyan, immigrant, woman, or mutant that drew me to her, but rather her ethical orientation towards those around her, her response to human and mutant differences, and her familial bond with her fellow X-Men. These were qualities significantly shaped by her distinct differences, but not identical to them. This was not any traditional idea of diversity then, understood as the mere fact that different kinds of people exist. Rather what Storm and the X-Men embodied was true heterogeneity: not merely the fact of many kinds of people but what those people do in relation to their differences. As I became a dedicated comic book fan, I realized that every issue of the X-Men was both an extended meditation on the fact that people are different from one another, and that this reality requires each and every person to forge substantive, meaningful, intelligent responses to those differences.

As a teenage reader, I simply took this fact for granted as part of the pleasures of reading superhero comics. As a scholar years later, I came to realize that the ability to respond to differences and forge meaningful relationships across them was a capacity, a super-power if you will, that comics could train their readers to exercise, an imaginative skill fit for a truly heterogeneous world. It was this realization that led me to write The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics, in which I ask the question: what is it about the visual and narrative capacities of the comic book medium, and the figure of the mutant, cyborg, or “freak” superhero in particular, that has allowed so many readers to develop identification with characters across race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and cultural origin?

Recent public dialogue about the rapidly diversifying ranks of superhero comic books have overwhelmingly celebrated the increased racial, gender, sexual, and religious variety of America’s greatest fictional heroes. Yet every time a news outlet lauds the major comics companies for introducing a gay superhero, or a Pakistani superhero, or a classically male superhero replaced by a powerful woman, the historian in me thinks, “but comics were doing that in 1972, so what’s the big deal now?”

Certainly, one potentially distinct element of today’s push for diversity is the range of “real-world” or identifiable differences comics are willing to name and represent on the comic book page. But in writing The New Mutants, I came to the conclusion that without an underlying democratic ethos or worldview, such real-world differences have little meaning. In The New Mutants, I argue that cultivating egalitarian and democratic responses to differences became the sin qua none of American superhero comics from the 1960s through the early 1990s.

justice leagueI call this vision a “comic book cosmopolitics,” an ethos of reciprocal, mutually transformative encounters across difference that infused the visual and narrative content of comics for nearly three decades. In the 1960s and 1970s comic book series like the Justice League of America, theFantastic Four, and the X-Men provided readers an exceptionally diverse range of new characters and creative worlds, but most importantly, modeled what it might look like for those characters to bridge divides of race, species, kin and kind for their mutual flourishing and the good of the world. What “doing good for the world” meant or could mean was the question that motivated these characters to engage one another, forge bonds, disagree, and take collective action. Today’s celebratory proclamations about the internal diversity of American comics ignores the fact that by 1984 Marvel Comics alone had Kenyan, Vietnamese, Native American, Russian, American working-class, Jewish, and Catholic superheroes, and even a Pagan Demon sorceress at the helm of one of its main titles.

What distinguished these earlier figures from their contemporary counterparts are the seemingly endless dialogues and struggles they engaged to negotiate, respond to, rethink, and do somethingwith their differences as a matter of changing the world. It was this negotiation within the context of characters’ actual diversity that allowed readers like me, and thousands more, to identify with a vast range of people who were, at least on the surface, radically unlike us.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, “That Oxymoron, The Asian Comic Superhero,” columnist Umapagan Ampikaipakan makes the counterintuitive claim that the push for racial diversity in contemporary superhero characters, rather than reflect the progressive evolution of the superhero, might actually “dilute” the fundamental purpose of the figure to function as a universal fantasy of belonging. The more specific or particular the superhero gets, he suggests, the less the character speaks to all kinds of readers.

As a child growing up in Kuala Lampur, Ampikaipakan explains that even thousands of miles away from U.S. culture, he found himself identifying with the misfit and freak Spider-Man. It didn’t matter that Spider-Man and so many of the superheroes in the Marvel Universe were white. Rather it was the message these comics carried about the value of being a freak or an outcast that translated across both actual and virtual distance.

In the face of much public celebration of comic book diversity, Ampikaipakan’s argument is compelling because it refuses a reductive understanding of identity politics, namely that seeing oneself or one’s own particular identity reflected back in any given character is the only possible way that one can feel invested in a them or their creative world. This argument is both undoubtedly correct, yet severely misguided.

The mistake Ampikaipakan makes is not to claim that readers have the capacity to identify with a range of characters regardless of their social identity, but in his failure to stress thatit is difference and distinction itself that has made the superhero such a durable fantasy to so many readers globally, not the figure’s empty universality or the flexibility of whiteness to accommodate a variety of identifications. The fact that superheroes highlight (rather than overlook) the social, cultural, and biological differences that shape humankind, that makes identifying with them possible—this is why one superhero is never enough. Superheroes proliferate because no matter how many there are, they can never quite capture the true heterogeneity of everyday life. The attempt to do so is what keeps us reading.

We should not settle for the mere representation of more diverse characters, as though the very existence of a female Pakistani Ms. Marvel alone were an act of anti-racism, or anti-sexism; these latter categories describe not a representation or image, but an ethos, a worldview and way of life—this ethos is what Ampikaipakan was drawn to in reading Spider-Man. It was an underlying ideal of celebrating outcasts, misfits, and freaks—a democratic investment in all who did not fit into the model of “normal” American citizenship—that defined Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 1970s, and that shaped readers’ relationship to characters like Spider-Man and his universe of mutant, alien, and superhuman friends, all of whom we grew to love because of their particularities, differences, and distinctions, not their imagined universality. As readers, we must demand that the depiction of more diverse characters be motivated by an ethos attentive to human heterogeneity, its problems and possibilities; these character must be placed into dynamic exchange with the world around them, rather than merely making us feel good that some more of us are now included every once in a while.

X-Men Move to San FranciscoTake for example the dramatic creative decision by writer Matt Fraction to relocate the X-Men from their long-standing home at the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning in Westchester, Massachusetts, to San Francisco in 2008. With this momentous move to one of America’s most recognized gay holy lands, it seemed as though the X-Men series had finally made explicit its long-standing symbolic association between mutation as a fictional category of difference, and gayness, as a lived form of minority identity; and yet, in the handful of years that the X-Men resided in San Francisco between 2008 and 2012—where they lived as billionaire jet-setters buying property in the Marin headlands at the height of a national recession no less—never once did they address the city’s massive housing crisis, increasing rates of violence towards the city’s queer and minority populations, or the shifting status of HIV. Did the X-Men even deign to go to a gay club in their five years in the Golden Gate city? Did the team’s one putatively “out” character Northstar claim any solidarity with the city’s queer community? I’m afraid not.

The series capitalized on its symbolic gesture of solidarity with minorities, queers, and misfits, but it jettisoned its earlier substantive engagement with the problem of difference: back in 1979, when Storm visited the slums of Harlem and witnessed the reality of youth homelessness and drug abuse, she was forced to contend with the realities of inner-city African American life from the perspective of a Kenyan immigrant who experiences blackness differently than African Americans and the working poor; and in the early 1990s, with the invention of the fictional mutant disease the Legacy Virus, the X-Men series used fantasy to address the AIDS crisis by thinking through the kinds of solidarities mutants and humans would have to develop to respond to a genetic disease ravaging the mutant population.

Storm Visits Harlem 1979

In today’s comic book pages, is there a single X-Man with HIV? Now that Iceman is out of the closet, will he go on PrEP, the HIV prophylactic? And as a former lady’s man, will his sexual health be an issue at stake in the series? The likelihood that Bobby Drake’s gayness will either be treated substantively, or have a meaningful effect on the social fabric of the Marvel Universe seems very low in today’s creative environment, where the mere “outing” of characters as exceptionally diverse in their identities is presupposed as an act of social benevolence on the part of writers and artists.

My point here, is not that superhero comics need greater realism in their storytelling or should be more “true to life.” Rather, superhero comics are one place where fantasy and creative worldmaking can run up against the specificities of our everyday lives, so that “real life” is presented to us anew or opened up to other possibilities. Mutation and gayness, for instance, are not the same thing. But they resonate in surprising ways.

The imagined category of mutation sheds light on the workings of a real-world social identity like gayness, or blackness, but it also reveals the limits of analogy because all of these categories are never quite identical. The ability to distinguish between the places where differences overlap and where they don’t is a political skill that fantasy can help us develop. It demands we not only see where solidarity can be forged, but also figure out what to do when sameness no longer holds true, or our differences overwhelm the ability to forge meaningful bonds.

What I was doing that summer day when I read my first issue of the X-Men was figuring something out not only about myself, but about my relationship to the world around me as someone who fundamentally understood that I was different, but didn’t yet know how to respond to being different. This is the true gift that superhero comics have given to American culture in the 20th century, but it is a creative offering increasingly taken from our grasp.

When Marvel Comics reached a creative level of near maximum mutant heterogeneity in the X-Men series around 2005—a moment of incredible promise when mutants no longer appeared as minorities but a significant portion of the human population—Marvel spun out a barrage of storylines from “E is for Extinction” to “House of M” that depicted the mass slaughter of the majority of the world’s mutants by members of their own kind. The X-Men have been living in the shadow of genocide ever since: shot down by ever-more efficient mutant killing robots, murdered and harvested for their organs, nearly eliminated from history by time-traveling mutant hunters, and now subject to M-Pox, another genetic disease threatening to wipe out the mutant race. In a sense, Marvel could not face the complexities of the world it had created, and decided to obliterate it instead: in so doing, fantasy truly became a reflection of our violent post-9/11 reality.

uncanny-x-men-1-marvel-nowContrast the exuberant, bubble-gum pink cover of the first X-Men comic book I ever read, with the most recent issue I picked up: in the renumbered Uncanny X-Men #1 (2013) written by Brian Michael Bendis, the cover presents us a picture of mutants at war. There is a revolution afoot, but it is lead by a single male figure, the famed character Cyclops reaching out to the reader from the center of the page with his army of followers, merely black and white outlines in the background. That army is composed of some of the most complex characters to ever grace the pages of the X-Men series, yet here they have been flattened to ghosts haunting the background of the X-Men’s former dream.

The X-Men now appear as a leather-clad, armored military unit, not a high-flying, exuberant, queer menagerie. At the center, Cyclops’ hand reaches out to us not in a gesture of solidarity but as a claw, perhaps ready to grip our throats. In this new chapter of the X-Men’s history, mutants are presented as divided over the right path towards the preservation of the mutant race. But instead of rich, textured disagreements the characters appear merely as ideologues spouting flat and rigid political manifestos. There is no space for genuine debate, or loyalty amidst disagreement, or even the notion that more than one dream could exist side by side among companions. As Alex Segade has recently argued in a brilliant Art Forum article on theX-Men’s decades long mutant mythology, the recent introduction of increasingly “diverse” cast members to the series has come at extraordinary costs, including the mass deaths of entire swathes of mutants round the world.

In the X-Men, fantasy—that realm meant to transport us to a different world—has become the ground for narrating the collapse of all visions of hope, social transformation, or egalitarian action: in Bendis’ epic narrative the original five teenage members of the X-Men are teleported to the present only to see that their youthful dreams of peaceful relations between human and mutant kind have resulted in death, destruction, and seemingly endless violence.

When I recently caught up on Bendis’ X-Men plot about time traveling mutant teenagers, it made me wonder what my thirteen year old self would have thought about his future had these been the comic book issues he first encountered in the summer of 1998. But I’m lucky they weren’t. In the face of the kinds of violence and death-dealing that recent comics present, I remember that there are other uses for fantasy, because it was the X-Men series itself that first showed me it was possible. Today, as years of reading, thinking, and writing about superhero comics come together with the publication of The New Mutants, I look back at that first cover image of X-Men #80 with a mix of longing and hope: I wonder now how a team can be reunited, and how new dreams can be born.

Ramzi Fawaz is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (NYU Press, 2016).

Hollywood Gossip Columnist Hedda Hopper Returns to the Screen in Trumbo

Famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played by actress Helen Mirren, is starring in the new movie Trumbo. Directed by Jay Roach and starring Bryan Cranston, the film is about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and the blacklist in Hollywood during the Cold War. Hopper is featured in the film as Trumbo’s political nemesis, as indeed she was. Rather than dismissing the conservative, anticommunist Hopper as “a crank” who engaged in “pinko purges”—as did earlier portrayals—the film takes her formidable role in mid-20th century American popular and political culture seriously.

Whether known as the “duchess of dish” or a “gargoyle of gossip,” Hedda Hopper was a powerhouse of Hollywood’s golden age. For 27 years, beginning in 1938, she wrote her movie gossip column. Her mass media gossip—or as she put it “snooping and scooping”—drew over 30 million readers to her column at its height in the 1950s. As a gossip, she publicized information about private lives. She focused mostly on the big stars, their movies and marriages, their secrets and scandals. But what made Hopper most stand out from the crowd of celebrity journalists—apart from her famous, flamboyant hats—was her political coverage and political conservatism.

Hopper excelled at a style and practice of journalism that blurred public and private, politics and entertainment and set the context for our current era. By combining and wielding gossip about the worlds of both entertainment and politics, Hopper inserted celebrity into her coverage of politics and politics into her coverage of celebrities. Her insertions took the form of today’s sound bites—simple morsels for immediate consumption. But making information entertaining simplifies the political debate and obscures the political issues. Hopper would have been very comfortable with our historical moment where politicians and celebrities are interchangeable, and personal attacks and character assassinations are a regular part of political discourse.

Hopper used her journalistic platform to promote her conservative politics and traditional values. She attacked members of the film industry who departed from her political views and moral standards, and mobilized her readers into letter-writing campaigns and movie boycotts. Always a proud member of the Republican Party, she sought to build opposition to the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern manners and morals. Her highest priority, however, was fighting against Communism at home and abroad. For decades, Hopper busied herself with “exposing Reds in the name of patriotism.” By publicizing the Communist beliefs of members of the film industry, she violated their civil liberties and the right to keep their political affiliations private. But private information was her currency in the gossip trade.

One of her most prominent targets was Dalton Trumbo. She could not understand why a successful screenwriter like Trumbo, one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, “could be a Commie.” Once the blacklist was established in late 1947, with Trumbo on it, Hopper felt it was not enough and demanded further blacklisting. In 1950, Hopper accused MGM of continuing to employ Trumbo under a pseudonym, a warning to other studios to maintain the blacklist. Hopper continued to monitor Trumbo’s career and put pressure on those protecting him. When Trumbo received screen credit for Spartacus (1960), effectively breaking the blacklist, Hopper strongly objected. “The script was written by a Commie,” she wrote, “so don’t go to see it.”

The establishment of the Hollywood blacklist in late 1947 signaled the stifling of social criticism and political dissent in Cold War America. As the new movie Trumbo makes clear, Hedda Hopper helped make this so.

Jennifer Frost is Associate Professor of History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is the author of Hedda Hopper’s Holywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism (NYU Press, 2011) and An Interracial Movement of the Poor Community Organizing and the New Left in the 1960s (NYU Press, 2005).

My trigger-warning disaster: “9 1/2 Weeks,” “The Wire” and how coddled young radicals got discomfort all wrong

—Rani Neutill

About a year ago I was asked to teach a class about the evolution of the representation of sex throughout American Cinema. I started with the silent film (The Cheat) and ended with Spike Jonze’s disembodied sex in Her. Along the way, I showed a number of sexually graphic films that caused a great deal of controversy.

At the time I was teaching the course, I was also figuring out a life outside of academia. I had been a wandering postdoc for a long time and was tired. A friend of mine had recently been violently sexually assaulted. I was a witness. The trauma she suffered, from the assault and the long, drawn-out trial of her assailants, led me to volunteer at my local rape crisis center. Working directly with folks who have experienced trauma, I entered the course believing in trigger warnings and gave them throughout the class, even though it seemed as though the title of the course was a trigger warning in and of itself. Regardless, I gave them for almost every film I showed. I even gave them for films that really shouldn’t have needed them (i.e., Psycho).

Midway through the semester, because of my work in sexual assault prevention, I was asked to fill in for the Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services at the university. The Director had to take a short leave so I was there to fill in temporarily. In accepting the position, I took on a dual role. First, I was an activist against sexual violence, supporting survivors on campus, but I was also an educator who believed that learning is about shaking up one’s world and worldview. I didn’t realize that occupying both roles at once would be impossible; failure was inevitable.

The first  “uh-oh” moment came when was when I taught Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Rock Hudson plays the role of a womanizer (the irony of all this, of course, is that he was closeted). When he gets women into his home there are a series of “booby traps” meant for getting it on (who says that anymore? me). One seemed like a literal trap–the door locks itself shut. I suggested that this might be a predatory act. The class was suddenly divided–there were the ones who vehemently believed that Hudson’s character was a rapist, and those who vehemently argued that he was not. This divide would get deeper and uglier throughout the semester, with me caught irrevocably in the middle. 

Next, I assigned a reading by Linda Williams, a chapter from her book, Screening Sex.It looked in intimate detail at the first blaxploitation film ever made– Melvin Van Peebles’, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (SSBAS). The chapter outlined (with pictures), the plot of the movie and all the sexual acts that were in the film. Williams’ argument is that Blaxploitation and SSBAS arose from a reclamation of masculinity by black men who were historically emasculated and castrated (think of the killing of Emmett Till).

I assumed everyone had done the reading. I showed one of the scenes that Williams’ writes about in detail. Before I screened it, I gave a warning, indicating that it was one of the disturbing scenes to which Williams refers. The scene shows a young Sweetback (played by the director’s son Melvin Van Peebles) having sex with a 30-year old woman. She finds him irresistible and thus starts the hyper-sexual evolution of Sweetback–every woman on earth wants to fuck him, including a whole bunch of white women. This, of course, is statutory rape.  When the lights went on and the scene was over, two students left the room in tears. I was perplexed. I started to ask questions about Williams’ reading, how it felt to read about and then watch the scene, what questions of race and masculinity it provoked. Crickets man, crickets. Clearly no one had done the reading.

Later that day, I had a white female student come to my office hours crying. Between picking up tissues and blowing her nose she said, “I’m doing a minor in African American Studies. How could your first images of black people be that horrible?” I told her that I understood her concerns. I went on to explain how the class was a historical look at sex on screen and as the reading for the class articulated, it was one of the first film’s to show black people having sex and was important to film history. She still didn’t get it. She said I had to show some positive images, otherwise it was unfair, that the other students weren’t African American Studies minors so they didn’t understand race politics as she did. I told her that I would bring a positive image to the next class to address her concerns. Finally, she smiled.

That night I went home and thought about it, hard. Isn’t confronting difficult issues what learning is about? My classes were about race, gender, and sexuality. These are inherently uncomfortable topics that force students to think critically about their privilege and their place in the hierarchy of this world.

It’s not fun to talk about inequality. It’s not fun to talk about slavery. It’s not fun to talk about the complexity of sexual desire. It’s terribly, terribly, uncomfortable. But it was my job as their teacher to navigate through this discomfort. I felt like I handled the class poorly. I had kowtowed too much, so I went to class the next day prepared to break this shit down.

I also thought about a positive image of black sexuality and sex. I decided to show a clip from The Wire that shows Omar in bed with his boyfriend just after having sex, a tender moment where they kiss. Omar’s character, a black, gay dude who steals from drug dealers, is a revolutionary representation of black masculinity that stands in stark contrast to SSBAS.  I was excited to show it. I mean, it’s The Wire: who doesn’t want to talk about The Wire?

I began class by talking briefly about learning through discomfort. The students were silent. I turned to them for questions about moments of feeling uncomfortable and how we could read these as productive. The student who came to my office raised her hand and asked, “Are we gonna talk about SSBAS.”

“Yes,” I said, “but I want us to talk about any of the films that made people uncomfortable. Let’s discuss the discomfort.” Her face fell. She started crying and ran out of the room. Her friend followed her. Right after she left I showed the scene with Omar. Later that day, she came to my office again, sobbing.

For the rest of the semester, I gave trigger warnings before every scene I screened. Every. Single. One. This wasn’t enough. A student came to me and asked that I start sending emails before class outlining exactly which disturbing scenes I would be showing so that I wouldn’t “out” survivors if they had to walk out of class when hearing what I was about to show. This took all the free form and off the cuff ability to teach. It stifled the teaching process. There would never be a moment for me to educate them by confronting them with the unknown, by helping them become aware of their own biases by making them feel uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, I did it. Each night I sent a meticulous email detailing which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included. My role as a sexual assault prevention services specialist and survivor advocate eclipsed my role as a professor as I tried to accommodate students over and over again.

The next film to piss them all off was 9 1/2 Weeks. The film is about a S&M relationship between a character played by Micky Rourke and one played by Kim Basinger.  At first Basinger’s character is drawn to Rourke and they begin an S&M style consensual relationship. As the film goes on, Rourke becomes abusive and the sex becomes non-consensual, but the beauty of the film is that Basinger is eventually able to let go and take something from the relationship–a heightened sense of her sexuality and desires. There’s an infamous scene with Rourke feeding Basinger a number of food items while she’s blindfolded. It’s basically a series of soft core money shots. It is a consensual scene. When conversation began in class, a white male student started talking about the scene as one of consent. Four hands shot up. One said, “no—it is clearly not consensual.” Other students concurred. They argued that if someone is in an abusive relationship, they can never consent to sex because they are being manipulated.

This triggered me. I was furious.

Sexual assault survivor support is about empowerment. The model says, “Hey! It’s not for you to tell the survivor what happened to them; that’s their story, they know, don’t fucking label it.” What these students were essentially doing was stripping every person in an abusive relationship of all their agency. They were telling every survivor that they were raped, even when the survivor may have wanted to have sex with their abuser. They were claiming god like knowledge of every sexual encounter. And they were only 20. If that. Their frontal lobes haven’t even fully developed. 

I was done with it. I was drained. I was anxious. I was tired. I was fed up.  But I didn’t want to be. I had been teaching for ten years with passion.

I went to get advice from a colleague in the department. He listened and said that during that time of the semester, students tended to get testy. He thought it was seasonal. I asked him if he ever had such a hard time with his students and he said, “No, I am an old white dude, I really think that as a young woman of color they probably just aren’t afraid of you, they see you as a peer.” For the record, I’m not that young but he may have been right. And here’s the irony, all of the students who were upset were the feminists, the activists, and there they were, treating a woman of color professor like she wasn’t an authority while treating old white dudes like they are.

There has been a lot written about triggering and trigger warnings, discussions about how triggers are often not explicit references to one’s traumatic experiences. Smells, tastes, different objects, they can all be triggering. Think of Proust’s madeleine and the surge of memories about his mother. Memory, emotional trauma, grief and healing are complicated and unique to an individual’s experience. Blanket trigger warnings treat them as impersonal predictable entities. The current movement of calling for trigger warnings prioritizes the shielding of students from the traumatic, whereas, ironically, so many other therapeutic models focus on talking through and confronting trauma as a mode of healing.

Recent work by Greg Lukainoff and Jonathan Haidt looks in depth at this phenomenon, the call for safe spaces and trigger warnings. Their tone could be read as condescending to people who are survivors of trauma, but I do think they raise a number of important points.  Similarly, the work of Laura Kipnis on trigger warnings is crucial and illuminating, but in an unfortunate and sometimes typical academic fashion, it can be snobbish and dismissive (Jack Halberstam is also in this camp). Here lies the problem. Taking a tone like that just pisses students off even more. I’m not saying that if we said these things nicely, students would suddenly get it; they won’t. I am living proof of that. I’m just pointing out the fact that putting on an academic face of elite speak isn’t helping either. Maybe pointing out the horrifying political stance these students are making would be more effective.

When a Duke Student refuses to read a book because it has lesbian sex in it and students who are liberal, who are activists, also refuse to read and watch things because they see it as triggering, we see the collusion of the right and left wing. When I get an evaluation from this course that says, “as a white male heterosexual I felt unsafe in this course,” and another that reads, “as a survivor this course was traumatizing,” we are at a moment that needs some radical re-thinking. Do students of a radical nature think that if they are seeing eye to eye with the most extreme conservative element of the population that they are doing something right? Fighting for something positive? Participating in something different?

I don’t have the answers. Hell, I gave up on the whole thing. This was the last straw for me. I didn’t know the answers but I knew this was a crisis. Colleges are the new helicopter parents, places where the quest for emotional safety and psychic healing leads not to learning, but regression.

I don’t know about trigger warnings outside classes that deal with race, gender and sexuality, but I do know that if you promote trigger warnings in subjects that are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, you’re basically promoting a culture of extreme privilege, cause I’m pretty sure that the trans women who are being murdered weekly, the black men who are victims of police brutality daily, and the neighborhoods in America that are plagued by everyday violence, aren’t given any trigger warnings. Let’s be honest: life is a trigger.

Rani Neutill is a Student at The Startup Institute; Server at the Miracle of Science; Volunteer at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center; Writer, recovering academic, surviving feminist, and Baltimore City lover. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

[This piece originally appeared in Salon.]

Michael Bérubé on Humans, Superheroes, Mutants, and People with Disabilities at TEDxPSU

Click here for more from TEDxPSU.

Michael Bérubé is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State University. In 2012, he served as the President of the Modern Language Association. He is the author of several books, including The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies (NYU Press, 1997), The Left at War (NYU Press, 2009), What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education (2006), and Life as We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child (1996). The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read will be published in February 2016 by NYU Press.

Yelp for Peeple and the Right to be Forgotten

—Meg Leta Jones

A few weeks ago the Internet became very upset about Peeple, or “Yelp for people.” Co-founder Julia Cordray explained to the Washington Post, “People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions. Why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of life?”

Why not do the same kind of research that we do on cars on people?

Peeple’s future is not looking bright, but assume that Yelp for humans develops in one form another in the future. Should people be able to edit others’ entries? Yelp would be entirely useless if companies could edit user comments, though reliability is certainly questionable. It would be strange if car manufacturers were able to edit the Kelley Blue Book rating?

People find it offensive to be equated to cars. So offensive that we have laws that distinguish the treatment of people from the treatment of cars. For instance, you will get in less trouble for kicking a car than a person. But, should the law distinguish between people and cars online, where it is all just bits?

More and more countries are extending special treatment to humans as they exist online through data protection rights like the right to be forgotten. The U.S. is not one of them, a distinction that is part of a growing rift between America and Europe. In Ctrl+Z, the nitty gritty details of this ongoing, complicated debate are hashed out, organized, and analyzed in a global context.

Meg Leta Jones is an assistant professor in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology department where she researches and teaches in the area of technology law and policy. Her book, Ctrl+Z: The Right to be Forgotten, will be published in May 2016 by NYU Press.

Working it at Fashion Week

—Elizabeth Wissinger

It’s New York Fashion week and the Kardashian sisters have been here in force. Yesterday, after juggling interviews, runway walks, and Uber filled traffic jams, all five managed to descend upon the Apple store to promote their new apps, which, according to The Cut blog of New York Magazine, featured “videos, photos, and musings from the girls about their lives and projects.” A reporter taking in the scene was struck when Kim, in full audience view, checked her hair in her iPhone camera, carefully smoothing a wayward strand. “Did she forget that we can see her?” Not hardly. In a brilliant moment of “casual authenticity,” Kim reminded us that she does exactly what so many of us would do, to ensure we are perfect for our close-up. No matter that, for the rest of us, a close up of that caliber rarely occurs. The KKs are brilliant at popularizing a way of being in the world that prior to the Instagram age was reserved for a rare breed of insiders engaged in specialized practices that were not for you and me.

There was a time when only fashion models had to “put on that show, 24 hours a day,” as one model I talked to in the pre-dawn of social media put it. Now it seems that every young girl who considers herself somewhat in the know about fashion and style feels the urge to constantly document her grooming, outfits, and exploits. During this fashion week more than ever before, the streets have become runways in the world of Insta-girls populating our feeds. While everyone has always tried to stand out from the scrum of fashionistas milling about between shows, it is striking how many were named by name in the various news outlets’ now obligatory ‘street fashion’ slide shows. Editors, bloggers, and models all were carefully documented, with only the occasional anonymous shot of a fantastic peacock, a courageous unknown in a sea of bold facers. It seems the adorable fashion students who used to hang around the tents, hoping to soak it all up by osmosis, are now jockeying for position with the self branding fashion bloggers, already, or about to be, well known. Being always ready to be photographed has become a profession of sorts, and it didn’t start with the Kardashians.

Historically, models worked for the camera in the studio, at the fashion show, or on the runway. They carefully protected their image; a 1950s Ford model who had sashayed about in crinolines, carrying her model-signature hatbox, recalled ducking into movie theaters to make herself scarce between calls. Superstar model of that time Jean Patchett similarly didn’t want to overexpose herself, believing that “the more you are seen, the less you are wanted.”

Careful management to avoid over exposure now seems quaint, but the mid century titan of model makers, John Robert Powers, would have had no truck with the I-just-woke-up-this-way, #nofilter, mentality. He managed his ‘girls’ within an inch of their lives, carefully staging photo ops for the press, where his carefully coiffed models went about their anything but normal lives. He observed:

“If Mrs. Smith cooks and keeps house for her husband it is of interest to no-one but Mrs. Smith. But when a model has domestic tastes, she is photographed buying groceries, basting a roast, taking her baby out in his carriage.”

Socality-BarbieSounds a lot like everyone’s Instagram or Facebook feed, but before the image onslaught of the digital age, regular people weren’t staging their lives as if they were on a movie set. It was a model’s job to “epitomize romance for the average person, to represent the story-book heroine in real life, to live more colorfully than other people.” Fast forward to the Instagram age, and it seems that everyone feels the pressure to live more colorfully, beautifully, to be the hero of their own show, engaging in what I call “glamour labor,” the work to look like your tightly edited, highly filtered image in the flesh. In a perfect send up of these kinds of pressures, a fictitious Instagram account depicts a hipster Barbie doll’s golden idyll of sunny hikes, coffee dates, and rugged boyfriends. While completely contrived, it nonetheless rang true with thousands, going viral in a matter of days. “Socality Barbie” shows quite literally how “plastic” Instagram, and those of us who feel the need to feed it, have become. In the endless chase for the perfect image, Hipster Barbie might just have us beat.

Elizabeth Wissinger is an Associate Professor of Sociology at BMCC/City University of New York and Associate Professor of Fashion Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour (NYU Press, 2015).

Chubby Guy Swag

—Jason Whitesel

There appears to be endless chatter among bloggers about fat women’s fashion, though less so when it comes to fat men. It seems that the fashion industry has continued to overlook big men in this regard. I must say, however, that as a scholar of queer and fat studies in a thin-privileged (white) body, who has written about middle-aged big gay men, I am encouraged to see the emergence of a couple of sites that are attempting to provide fashion inspiration for bigger guys, garnering visibility for them. One of these sites, Chubstr, slates itself as a style destination for men of size. It directs people to resources for them to find clothes they might love. It also alerts users to deals on clothing in extended sizes. I spent some time perusing another blogging community, Chubby Guy Swag (a.k.a. “CGS”), cofounded in 2010 by Zach Eser and Abigail Spooner in response to the lack of body-positive “fatshion” for plus-size males. From my rudimentary content analysis, I gather that this community has international reach providing a safe space for big men who don’t fit the mass media’s image of the “ideal” body type, but aspire toward becoming fashionable, and who therefore appreciate the information and wisdom users share on this site. In fact, several users submit selfies in their favorite outfit. I looked through many posts and photos by men of size who are queer, disabled, people of color, and/or “just plain broke,” most of whom are young adults who are underrepresented in the main.

The CGS website provides a judgement-free zone, as reflected by the compliments made to people who post pictures. Its message is clear: everyone is entitled to fashion, regardless of size. I am most impressed by the queer-positive, anti-racist, and anti-ableist environment that this fat-positive community has engendered. For example, one trans person wrote, “this blog is such a relief to find, since I am fat and trans [non-binary] and looking for fashion inspiration.” For another fat trans person, the blog is a fantastic resource – “nice to see some people shaped like me (even though I’m much shorter than many of the guys on here).” Yet a third gender-queer person says: “I wear almost exclusively women’s bottoms. (Gendered freedom!)” This comment implies the comfortable inclusion of gender nonconformists on the CGS site. It is also interesting that this loosely male-identified space allows for female inclusion, such as women who admire fat men. One of them says she loves everything about the blog, because “it fuels [her] love for men’s fashion AND [her] damn near obsession with cubby men.” Another woman, who is engaged to a big man, apparently follows the blog to look for ways to impart some body-positivity to her fiancé who “hates looking in the mirror.” Many women visit the site on behalf of their ample male partners who feel defeated by the exclusionary fashion industry and need to get their chubby-guy swag back. In fact, even a mother came to the site on behalf of her self-conscious “chubby boy.” Last, but not least, the CGS site is inclusive of persons with disabilities. For example, one person posts about how people with Down’s are built differently and “often lack access to well-fitting clothes, furthering negative perceptions of [DS] people . . . and increasing the condition’s social stigma.” To this post, one of the co-moderators has responded sensitively saying how it is indeed a “struggle to find clothing that fits in a society with misconstrued body standards. Everyone deserves to be happy and comfortable in their body!”

The CGS site offers its users a great confidence boost. To give just one example among many, one visitor to the site describes the big men as the “hottest, cutest, classiest, and the swaggiest guys.” This writer and others give us a sense of the more positive self-image some users celebrate. They check in to the site to see guys of a similar size to themselves pull off “awesome” styles. One recent urban fashion trend appears to be male jumpsuits. As one user reports, the site gives him confidence to pull off the sexy plumber look. Another user displays the catchphrase of the D-list celebrity, Latrice Royale, the plus-sized African-American drag performer: “Chunky yet Funky,” which resonates with the esprit de corps of this online community. Interestingly, even a big man who works with modeling agencies and designers reports on the site that he is constantly confronted by the reality that he does not “fit in” within his own industry.

Users also give and take advice on where to go for affordable, custom-tailored clothes in extended sizes. Such advice ranges from a biker – who shares contact info of a tailor on eBay who sews leather jackets without charging “an arm and a leg” – to users – who warn others of stores that size down (so that an XL is really L). Occasionally, a fashion industry specialist, who is well versed in the small field of fat men’s fashion, will post an editorial where he styled plus-sized menswear. In addition, one big man reported on having met with a free personal stylist he came across at a particular store, who was fat-friendly, had plus-sizing expertise, and was eager to work with him.

Bigger guys, just like everybody else, certainly deserve to have access to style references if they so choose. Given our society’s hyperconsciousness about appearance (which is another story in itself), when big men are denied the latest clothing trends, they miss out on yet another opportunity to be like their peers and differentiate themselves through fashion. Sites like Chubstr and Chubby Guy Swag allow fat men to resist the belief that others can deny them full citizenship because of their weight and size. As one user exclaims, “For big men right now—it’s truly a case of trial and error – we’re kind of on our own.” Voices like his, however, find reassurance: “It’s out there; we just have to look a little harder!” As one user suggests, the democratization of fashion may mean going retro or DIY: “Men’s fashion is evolving… shifting back to our vintage roots and creating, from our lack of options, our own styles and looks.” Users are further reassured that they can find both low-end and high-end options. One user who is operating on a budget posts about his outfit-of-the-day: “I’m a big guy, and I definitely think I have some sense of fashion. I also am a huge bargain shopper, so I’ll be posting what I’m wearing, where I got it, and how much it costs!” On the flip, some people post ensembles worn by fat male actors with the full breakdown of brands, prices, and where to get the same great styles big guys in the media are wearing. The majority of users sound comfortable with their bodies and fashion sense to declare feeling “glamourous,” “chubby,” and “proud.”

Jason Whitesel is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University. He is the author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014).

The Right to Be Forgotten

—Meg Leta Jones

“Worse than Orwell” is a pretty serious insult in the privacy policy arena, but that is the way the new United Nations rapporteur on privacy, Joseph Cannataci, expressed his dismay with British (not American) surveillance practices and weak data protection. As reported in the Guardian, Cannataci is particularly upset about the use of CCTV systems, which may be because he doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter.

His dig brings the UN into a conversation it has not been relevant to for some time. In 1968, on the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Conference on Human Rights in Teheran addressed the tyranny of computers. UN General Assembly Resolution 2450 (XXIII) specifically directs study into the problem of “the uses of electronics which may affect the rights of the person and the limits which should be placed on such uses in a democratic society” two years before the German state of Hesse passed the first data protection law. Even still the UN has not been considered a major player in data protection or privacy issues.

The UN Human Rights Council’s mandate to nominate a Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy touches on two of the most pressing technology policy issues of this decade: who should be in charge and whose rules should apply? As platforms like Google and Facebook make internal policies to address hate speech and revenge porn, questions about the role of law in digital content disputes have introduced another layer of complexity. Should users, platforms, local authorities, national government, or global entities make these rules? How should rulemaking on technology issues occur in each? Do we even need new rules?

The answer to the first question, regarding who should be in charge, dictates a level of homogeneity for the second. If we all need to have the same rules in a global information system, how can radically different governments and legal systems get on the same page when democracies as similar as those in America and Europe can’t seem to agree? If you think that national legal systems should make their own rules, when do users and companies outside those nations have to adhere to those rules and why?

These are the challenges currently plaguing with the development and refinement of the right to be forgotten. Not only do we have to determine whether and under what circumstances individuals should be able to edit their digital pasts, we must also decide whether and how to enforce other determinations on the same subject. In 1988, a General Comment from the Human Rights Committee on Article 17 (the right to privacy) in the 1966 Covenant on Civil & Political Rights explains that when “files contain incorrect personal data or have been collected or processed contrary to the provisions of the law, every individual should have the right to request rectification or elimination.”

It will be interesting to see how the UN enters this global debate and navigates issues of human rights and pluralism in the Digital Age, particularly with Cannataci’s candor and apparent distaste for heavily relied upon American technologies.

Meg Leta Jones is an assistant professor in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology department where she researches and teaches in the area of technology law and policy. Her book, Ctrl+Z: The Right to be Forgotten, will be published in the spring of 2016 by NYU Press.