The Story is a Spell. The Story is a Curse.
I wrote this essay early last year. I still like it—I’m republishing it on medium unchanged, because I reference it all the time, and it’s never not relevant when talking about “representation” when it feels like sometimes people would do literally anything rather than allow us to tell our own stories. I think it’s quite clear at this point that representation is being co-opted as a marketing bullet point, so I think it is worth remembering what the difference is between that and something honest, and why it matters. Calling for representation without challenging how the right to tell the story is monopolized and who gets to monopolize it is a conversation about how we can be marketed to. It is not a conversation about represenation. That’s why I’m against it.
It matters who writes us. There’s a book with some problems that I still like a lot called The Ticking Is The Bomb. The author likes to jump around and tell tiny little vignettes about his life or just talk about songs and stories and TV shows while zooming in on the one scene or lyric that means something profound and personal to him. I want creation to come from criticism, and this nonfiction book about fictional stories by a poet is a rare cross-genre embodiment of that. I like how he’s aware the narrative he’s made for himself is this patchwork of literature and pop culture and he’s not snobbish about where it comes from. He’s kind of an ass of a man but he’s made a world for himself in a wonderful way and everyone deserves that and I kind of believe he earns it.
So anyways there’s a part of the book where he says “sometimes the story we tell about ourselves can be a type of spell.” Stories can bridge the gap between who we are and who we aren’t yet. Narratives allow us to exist not just here and now and in this flesh but in that possibility space as well; it’s the spell that can change us. You can’t change if you don’t know the magic; how can’t exist if you don’t know how. You can feel the need in your gut so strongly it hurts every minute of your life, but all you know is the absence until the story shows you the way. When the possibility is named, when the story is told, it becomes possible for it to one day be real.
If this is true, that stories about ourselves can be a type of spell, then maybe it’s also true the stories others tell about us can become a type of curse. Stories are the boundaries of possibility, which means that they can also be the rules of reality, or the perceived rules, which are as strong as the laws of physics if you can’t imagine any other possibility. Who get to tell the story? Whose stories are celebrated? Whose are the most true? Stories can lift up the powerful and restrain the oppressed. As insidious as the story that denies our existence is the story that allows us conditional existence. Here are the terms of womanhood. Here, for you, are different, stricter terms of womanhood, and harsher penalties for breaking them. Here are the terms our narratives have taught the rest of the world to expect from you, what is allowed, entitled, and permitted to take from you. And so on.
That was abstract, so I’m going to talk about watching anime and being a transsexual. I write about this on twitter sometimes, but I think it’s important that in a world so saturated with pop culture that it is impossible to avoid getting your brain fucked up on it, we have to learn how to make sure that it doesn’t actually kill us. You cannot exist outside of culture, so rather than ludicrously proposing you somehow try to be above it or live outside it, I want to talk about how to live through it and understand it and make it ours.
An issue that’s distinct and separate from the art itself (in theory but, maybe, rarely in practice) is the author of the work. Theoretically, and this is what is taught often uncritically in academia and creative writing classes, is that what matters is the craft of the work, not the identity or history of the person who wrote it. You’ll find a lot of references to Roland Barthes and the death of the author here. I’m going to put this aside to deal with specifically in just a moment, because I want to make it clear that entirely separate from the relationship of the author and her identity to her work is the fact of the author existing in the world. This is a different kind of representation, but I think it’s often more important for marginalized people to be celebrated for telling stories than for stories about marginalized people to be celebrated. Putting aside the quality of the work, the existence of these folx is its own story: the story that we exist and we can tell stories. We deserve to tell stories, and we deserve to be known and maybe even get paid for them! In a world where majority people can get famous and rich telling the stories of marginalized folx and the majority loves casually touring the narratives of the oppressed, we don’t get to depoliticize this reality. There is an incredibly long history of this (ask african american studies about it sometime, we trans folx didn’t invent anything new (except gender)).
This doesn’t mean that you can’t tell the stories of peoples you don’t belong to, just that you need to be aware of your position relative to them, and how your privilege lets you talk over them and even over their own experiences. You have this power, regardless of whether you want it or not, and I have seen so many creators exercise it in response to feeling criticized or attacked for folx disagreeing with them. It’s hard to not do this, but doing this is also the bare minimum of your personal responsibility. I often get a lot of people with privilege expressing to me that they’re now scared and nervous because I made them aware of this and to that I say: good, exactly the point. You don’t actually have to write about us, and it’s not like you’re extending some magnanimous offer by deigning to write about us at all. It’s your choice, so take responsibility. We are more than capable of telling our own stories, and the ways we fit into mainstream narratives are already so disgusting and warped there are unlimited examples of stories that actively harm us, regardless of their supposed intentions. A lot of people love trans women when they’re pretty and fragile and self-conscious and need approval, and they write narratives where it shows. I am pretty and fragile and self-conscious, but I am also ugly and angry and arrogant, and I still deserve to exist. Stories that infantilize are just as much a curse.
This is just the context and culture around narrative creation, so let’s talk about narratives themselves. Firstly, I will say that while in theory you can do research to understand marginalized folx, it’s possible to demonstrate a stunning lack of awareness of what their lives and experiences are actually like. I will say that I can more or less tell whether or not a narrative was written by a trans person, but what I actually mean is that I can tell how aware they are of our experiences, how gender actually functions in culture, the social and physical subtleties of transition, and all of the little details that make up our actual lives. And I should specify that this is frequently centering on the experiences of white western trans folx as well: our rules and carefully crafted ideas of theory aren’t even widely prevalent in our own culture, and they’re often fundamentally different outside it.
It’s for these reasons that I have expressed a strong disagreement with reading narratives that are clearly created under fundamentally different frameworks and ideas of gender and identity under the ones we’ve commonly accepted. This applies equally to narratives from cultures that understand gender very differently than white westerners as it does to cis people who are fascinated by us, even though they’re not remotely the same (I’m focusing on how to read narratives by ignorant/transphobic western voices though, as they’re the ones I’m qualified to understand and unpack). How do you talk about a trans woman in a story directed by a cis man who fundamentally thinks of trans women as men? How do you talk about an androgynous gender-nonconforming character who the author repeatedly refers to by birth assignment, even though the character hits almost every tally mark that would fit our labels of genderqueer? How do we apply labels the author didn’t even imagine to characters who might be drawn with such cartoonish transphobia they bear no resemblance to any human being?
The short answer is “very carefully” and here is the distinction I want to draw: between seeing ourselves or our possible selves in a narrative to weave a spell and identifying and dismantling narratives to break a curse. The first is creative, the second is critical. Drawing the distinction is important because we need to exist on our own terms. It’s certainly often frustrating to demand recognition from people who seem interested in touching on our experiences but not honoring us, but it’s also dangerous to think of fighting for representation solely in terms of asking to be seen. Work to make the deadly constant wave of pop culture less toxic is great, but it’s not a substitute for narratives that are truly ours. It’s also important because it lets us understand and use and find things to love in narratives without giving an inch on criticizing their problems. With so much criticism set on totalizing work (this IS feminist, this ISN’T feminist) the goal becomes morally defending one’s media consumption rather than understanding the nuance in a work. It’s as important to, for example, see the gender expression of a fictional character as possibility for one’s personal embodiment of trans womanhood as it is to also understand the ways the narrative that character exists in might reinforce transphobia in other ways. We can hold both of these things at once. We can identify the ways in which a narrative doesn’t understand or acknowledge us while still finding parts we identify with. We can do this without shaming each other or creating for hegemony within criticism or expression of queer and trans narratives. We can honor what’s meaningful to others and the value of that in and of itself while still not relenting when it comes to pointing out flaws. This is how we create the world.