Posts tagged #writing

On Glamorizing Depression

Author Jim C. Hines wrote an excellent post about depression on Tuesday. Unfortunately, while most of the comments are good, some of them are textbook examples of obnoxious things people say about depression ('be at peace with yourself?' What does that even mean?).

Hines took some time today to talk about unsolicited medical advice and why it's a problem, but I want to take a sec to talk about a different comment on the original post:

Depression can also be a catalyst for change. Many major changes in a persons life are accompanied with some depression. Depression can be an indicator of problems with society. Depression can inspire creativity. The glass is half full…
— Jeff, on Hines's "Depression."

While I'm doing pretty well these days, I've dealt with depression in the past. It's likely that I'll deal with it again. I've spent time medicated. I've spent time essentially non-functional. I've spent time going through the motions of normalcy even though it required an exhausting amount of willpower, only to have my exhaustion held up as a sign of my weak moral character.

Jeff's language about "major changes in a person's life" make it sound like he's talking about situational depression. While situational depression is real and difficult, it's a very different animal than chronic depression. Chronic depression tends to come in cycles. It can be beaten back, but never fully 'cured.' Advising people to see it as a 'catalyst for change' is, at best, insensitive.

What's actually bothering me about this comment, though, is the suggestion that depression can inspire creativity. People with depression hear this a lot. Tortured artists are part of our cultural zeitgeist. And while I'm sure that many of the people who trot out this line mean well, I want to take a moment to unpack why it's problematic.

First, we don't actually have a lot of evidence that depression 'inspires creativity.' We know that a small subset of people with depression have produced skillful and moving works of art. It does not automatically follow, however, that depression 'inspired' their art. It could be that they created in spite of their depression.

Even when people use art to help work through their personal demons, it still doesn't necessarily follow that their depression made them better artists. We don't know what they would have created if they weren't depressed.

Some people with cancer create incredible works of art, but most people know better than to tell them the 'glass is half full.' Rather, we appreciate what they're able to create in the face of their devastating disease, and mourn their deaths if their disease proves fatal.

Depression is also a potentially fatal disease, and glamorizing depression in artists trivializes that. It reduces artists who suffer from depression to martyrs for the cause of artistic greatness, as if their suffering is some kind of gift to the universe.

People with depression don't owe us their pain. They don't owe us their exhaustion, their anxiety, their boredom, or their anger. They certainly don't owe us art.

If they're able to find comfort or pleasure in artistic endeavors, good for them. If they're able to use creative work to process and heal, all the better. If their depression makes creating more difficult but they do it anyway because that's how they put food on the table, we should respect that work without romanticizing their struggles. And if they need to spend time focusing on their own health and not making anything, then good on them for taking care of themselves, and they should get to do so without bystanders telling them 'the glass is half full.'

Artists with depression are whole people whose struggles and triumphs do not belong to the rest of us. They deserve to be recognized for their hard work and talent without having their accomplishments reduced to a symptom of their disease.

Posted on March 27, 2015 .

All comments are subject to my Comment Policy.

Malinda Lo's Ash

Ash by Malinda LoRemixing fairy tales is deceptively hard to do well. Especially when the fairy tale in question features a fairy god mother, and evil stepsister, and magic slippers. As much as I love Cinderella, I'm pretty cynical when someone tells me that this or that retelling actually brings something new to the story for real this time*. Basically, if you can't do better than the Rogers & Hammerstein musical (specifically, the 90s version with the multiracial cast and the regrettable costumes), you're probably not going to impress me.

Malinda Lo impressed me.

I'm sorry I waited so long to read ASH.

It's not just that she's written a version that affirms Lesbian and Bisexual teens. It's great that she did; I always appreciate seeing myself represented in fiction, and I really wish there had been more stories like this out there when I was a teen: stories with queer heroines who get to do all the things straight heroines get to do, rather than having their entire story and all their struggles revolve around discrimination.

But just like I want to read about people like me who get to do what other heroes do, I also want to read like non-marginalized people do. Straight white men don't have  to cleave to every science fiction and fantasy novel that pays even the faintest lip-service to the idea that they're multidimensional people with their own stories, and I refuse to swoon over their table scraps.

So my actual favorite thing about ASH is that the traditional elements of Cinderella's story--the fairy benefactor helping her attend the ball, the prince dazzled by her beauty, the magic slippers, the jealous stepsister, the clock striking twelve--are little more than a backdrop to a completely original story about a young woman struggling past her grief to shape her own destiny and happiness.

I also really loved the dimension she brought to the traditional story's characters. Unlike the fairytale, Lo's version doesn't skip over Cinderella's grief at the loss of her parents or the change in her circumstances. This isn't Disney's long-suffering and eternally patient princess. Her reaction to her mistreatment is human and whole. The fairy benefactor has also been rounded out; appearing as a fleshed-out character with motivations and desires completely separate from helping Cinderella catch Charming's eye.

To my mind, though, Lo's neatest trick was the wicked stepmother. She's no more sympathetic in ASH than she is in the traditional fairytale, but in this version, she's mistreating Cinderella for her own reasons, and not just because the story needs a villain.

Lo's newest book, ADAPTATION, is the first half of a science fiction duology, and it's fresh off the presses. I'm definitely snapping up a copy.

----------

*I actually took a crack at retelling Cinderella with the fairies in the foreground, back when I was a teen. It involved the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Irish legend of Deirdre and Naoise. It was not very good.

Posted on September 30, 2012 and filed under Books I Love.

All comments are subject to my Comment Policy.

What Passage Means

Angela and Brennan discuss Brennan's mother on  Bones .

Angela and Brennan discuss Brennan's mother on Bones.

When it comes to the Bechdel Test, a lot of people miss what I see as its biggest strength.

The Bechdel Test is not about the stereotype that women always talk about men. I've seen folks, both pro-woman and not, bend the test into a pretzel to show how the story they're testing does or does not support that stereotype.

On the side of folks who want to see more well-rounded women in popular media, that looks like what gamers call hardcore rules lawyering: construing "two women must talk to each other about something other than a man" to mean "two named women must talk to each other and must not discuss men at all," or at least "must have at least one conversation in which men are not discussed, no matter how many other topics are covered." This raises a lot of questions, which then require corallaries: What counts as 'named?' Do they have to be called by name on screen, or is it sufficient for the character to be named in the credits? What counts as the start and end of a conversation, for the purposes of excluding conversations where men are discussed? Etc etc etc.

On the other side, apologists for media that doesn't pass will insist that stories can have strong women characters without passing. One author who was called out for failing the test suggested that any test that would criticize a police procedural about women taking down a male crime boss while praising a comedy where two women discuss shoes is not a test he wants to concern himself with passing. That author was missing the point by as wide a margin as the rules-lawyers.

Stories aren't like real life. They're groups of interwoven narratives. They glaze over the unimportant bits so they can focus on the parts that further the plot and the characterization of the most significant people. This is especially true for movies--which, let's not forget, is the medium for which the Bechdel test was created. Movies have to cover a lot of ground in a very short span of time, so they have to be ruthless about leaving out things that don't serve the narrative.

In that context, the Bechdel Test's real strength is its ability to measure how important women are to the narratives of a given story.

A story in which two women are talking to each other about shoes is a story about those women, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to shoes. That might seem like a boring story to you, but it's their story.

By contrast, if a story about two women taking down a male crime boss fails the test because they only ever discuss the crime boss, then the story is not about them. It's about the crime boss.

Whether a story can have a strong woman in it without passing the Bechdel test is not the point. The point is that if a story fails, that's a pretty good indication that the women in it--however strong, brave, smart, worthy, etc--are not there to tell their own stories. They're there to help tell a story about men.

And let's be realistic: we've seen stories about women detectives. Cagney and Lacey. Rizzoli & Isles. Bones. They don't have any trouble passing the Bechdel test, because the characters don't just talk about the criminals they're taking down. They talk about ordering takeout, how their work is affecting them, who's car to take to a crime scene, what they did over the weekend, how they like their coffee, and--yes--shoes. When the story is actually about the women, those conversations get included, because the narrative they support--the narrative about the women themselves, their relationships to each other, their inner lives outside of crime-boss hunting--are deemed important to the story.

Which is why the test works for other marginalized groups as well: conversations between people of color about something other than a white person indicate that at least one of the story's narratives is about people of color (and their lives outside of their relationship to white folks). The same can be said about conversations between disabled characters, LBGT characters, and characters who are marginalized in other ways.

The point isn't the stereotype that women always talk about men. The point is that stereotype exists in the first place because our culture is more interested in men's narratives than ours. The overwhelming majority of films leave our narratives out. Passing the Bechdel test means that at least in some small way, the passing work is telling a story about women, rather than just with them.

Posted on September 7, 2012 .

All comments are subject to my Comment Policy.