The Less Perfect Victim
I am listening to Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” on repeat. It’s not my usual habit of listening endlessly when I really dig something, but rather that the song annoys me on a base level. It’s a half-hearted bop but what it’s really trying to do is paint Tay as this cultivated survivor, cunning and smarter than the people who hurt her. When it was revealed upon the lukewarm debut that she in fact is the aggressor in this situation (I didn’t lose any sleep over this), the lyrics sat even more like sour milk in my stomach.
This is why it digs so much under my skin — Taylor is lightly threading the sort of things that survivors use to puff themselves up in her words but instead it being comforting, they ring hollow. The sentiment is empty when you’re rich and powerful, a bully using the cover of a target. She betrays the heart of the matter when she says, “Look what you made me do”, which is something my friend Gita pointed out as often being what abusers say.
The rub of this one particular Taylor Swift song hooks into a larger issue I’ve seen in media and how it relates to my own life. I remember a conversation I had with my friend Bee, in her car speeding up the highway. She was describing the show Longmire to me. We were talking about one of the characters in the fourth season, a Native woman named Gabriella who shoots one of the group of men who raped her. The conversation spun off into how media portrays victimization and the use of violence by victims and survivors towards their aggressors. Both of us spoke with an unusual candor, being alone in the car, about how cathartic it feels to see rapist or abuser revenge plots in media. There’s something powerful in viewing media that allows us to vicariously experience the thrill of retribution, meted out for those who so often escape justice in real life. There’s something emotionally exciting about it being violent, eye-for-an-eye, without those pesky moral questions. It isn’t in the same vein as being the one who decides the moral value of “bad people” but rather the oppressed turning back to their oppressor with murder with their hearts.
It’s not Batman, it’s Harley Quinn.
The rarity of these things in modern media, versus exploiting the tragedy of the victim for a largely unaffected audience is why Taylor’s song dances on my nerves. As someone who has suffered a lot of trauma in my life, how we codify and represent victimization and survivorhood (a very rare thing) can do a lot for those of us who are all too numerous. It helps us to see people getting better, escaping their harm, but even then we still need those moments of release. The tepid inspidness of “I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined” is revealed when you rarely are afforded that anger, in either fiction or your actual life. This was the knowing undercurrent of the conversation with my friend — the restrained dream of violence that lives in our bodies, submerged. We chain it up, this impolite, terrifying desire to hurt someone else who has stolen joy from our lives.
And yet it’s so important to indulge in those feelings outside of yourself for even a handful of hours. I remember how forbidden of a thrill it felt when I watched Carrie (1976), after having read the book as a tiny, bullied teen. The book made me feel less alone but by the time I got around to seeing the movie, the significance of her anger was even more real to me. Power fantasies are intense, especially for the powerless, but we don’t really know what they look like unless we are in that position. Abuse, sexual violence, systemic oppression do so much to wear you down at points, that the idea of being an untouchable, unfeeling monster is escapism.
It’s rarely acknowledged in the media we consume because it’s the flipside of trauma we don’t want to think about. The last few weeks have been a slow trickle of #MeToo, sexual harassment allegations and the like, framed for victims and survivors in such a way that they can only be quiet, sad. We like to look for a second and then quickly away and never to talk about what happens after that. We don’t talk about, even among ourselves, what trauma looks like, what it can do to our mental states. We give victims and survivors acceptable states to live in: strong and positive, or meek and trampled. But what about anger? What about numbness?
When I was in the worst place of my life mentally, after bottling up years of abuse, sexual violence and then being stalked, it was due to decades of unacknowledged anger. From my teen years onward, my daydreams would frequently revolve around getting to break dishes or hitting windows with bats and stepped up in tenor until I was thinking about backing over my stalker with a car or shooting him with a gun. I would imagine being a vigilante that kills rapists, or child abusers. When we twist our hands over whether violence against structural oppression is okay or not, I secretly tuck these feelings back behind moral notions of greater evils. But I’m okay admitting that even though I’ve learned how to constructively deal with my anger in the day-to-day, there’s a part of me that gets that thrill thinking about it.
That’s why I keep coming back to that Taylor song. The idea of trusting no one feels so normal to me at this point. We don’t talk about how normal it is, though. We don’t think about how hypervigilance makes you scarily good at reading people and how good you get at manipulating others because it means you can keep people’s anger turned away from you. We don’t bring it up because it’s a side of abuse and trauma that makes us scarier people inside, to the outside world. We look less like people in need of sympathy this way, and that’s the only way we meet survivors where they stand, with pity, and never a complete acknowledge of what pain does to you over time.
Trauma feels like having your organs ripped out of your body, and being left to figure out how to put them back in. You learn quickly that if you want to keep being seen as a member of society, you corset yourself with Saran Wrap around the wound and keep it moving. The wound is gaping and you struggle with it, and sometimes with it comes the dark feelings, gallows humor, the guilt about the complicated parts of yourself you cannot explain to others. The face you present to other people and the part of you that exists inside shrinks and recedes, like glue underneath cheap wallpaper. You sometimes gain an incredible hunger for horror, for shock, for anything that lets you feel anything, feel less isolated with this darkness. We don’t discuss this because we know it makes us less sympathetic creatures. It is presented always as the hallmarks of villains, manipulators, and in a lot of discourse, abusers.
There’s such a galaxy of reactions and on-going personality traits that go unacknowledged in our society when it comes to people who suffer immense violence towards themselves, and it goes well beyond things like trigger warnings, but given our reluctance to have empathy for even that, it isn’t surprising to me. This is why so many of us seek out media that speaks to us on levels: happy endings where everyone lives, slasher films that let us take our hair down for a moment, TV shows where the bad guys are always caught. We so rarely are given a peek into our own selves, so rarely humanized despite being humans. If that’s my wish for something I could see in the things I watch or read, even moreso than a rapist being stabbed, is the idea that trauma is complicated, that being a survivor makes you a different person sometimes, but still a person who gets up and keeps on being alive.
It’s not really a fixed representation issue like so many other things we talk about in media, but it’s hard to present your narrative when so many of the people who hurt you are the ones making the decisions, and when we as the audience do so little to sympathize after the moment of unspooling what was done to us is over.
This is why I get so mad at a silly song. Borrowing the thoughts of revenge, of haughty coldness, for some faux-edginess just ties so deeply into the kinds of bedtime stories I have built up for myself over the years, the fictions that stitch me together. They keep that viscera I’ve had bird-pecked on the inside, the wound never fully healed. It allows me to wander the world as a mostly-complete human being, and never reveal that my smile is sometimes pasted on. I’ll survive another day because of this, keep my brain quiet because of this. I got smarter and harder in the nick of time, as Taylor would say.
The dreams of blood have gone below the waves where they belong and have been replaced with a better, more whole sense of me.
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