Assistant Professor in Social Development Studies - Renison University College

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No Evil Shall Escape My Sight: Changing History and Acknowledging Change in DC Comics

By Joshua Goldschmidt

Archived stories allow readers to examine how narratives and values shift through time, even as heroes remain fixed. Through engagement with the work of philosopher Hannah Arendt, this paper examines how DC Comics shifted the history of their characters to erase anachronistic content and hide unpopular missteps of old writers. It then contrasts this method of changing history with a different style of storytelling, one which acknowledges previous failures. This will illuminate how DC Comic’s has started to change the way they recognize a character’s past. Finally, the paper examines other exhibitions of this dichotomy in pop culture and compares them to how DC Comics have changed their storytelling in the contemporary era.

Keywords: DC Comics; retconning; comic book histories; Arendt

Introduction Like an agricultural year, an industrial process, or an essay, some stories possess “a definite beginning and a predictable end” (Arendt 1961). They are “fabrications” attempting to mimic the way humans think of humanity; with clear divisions between eras and happily ever afters. But some stories have no clear beginning or end, they morph as society changes creating an “eventual outcome the actor is utterly incapable of knowing or controlling beforehand” (60). Mythologies and unwritten histories are replete with these stories because new members take the source material and apply to their own lives. But these stories have also entered pop culture through products like comic books. Companies in this business have stockpiled proprietary characters since the 1930s whose stories never seem to end despite their age. Modern-day storytellers are challenged to fit these old story arcs, characters, and organizations into their ever-expanding universe.

The stories we tell (even the fictional ones) create an artificial world of collective consciences which help us define right and wrong. But often these stories are too outdated to represent the shifting and morphing collective conscience of the present. What do we do when our stories do not match our values? Do mainstream audiences’ side with the future and erase these old stories from our collective memories? Do audiences choose to engage in past stories and ignore societal changes and contemporary values? Or is there perhaps a third way, in which both the audiences’ values and stories are acknowledged?

In her preface to Between Past and Future Hannah Arendt (1961) uses a “riddle of [Franz] Kafka” to describe the battle ground of time’s effect on the present:

He has two antagonists: the first presses him from behind, from the origin. The second blocks the road ahead. He gives battle to both. To be sure, the first supports him in his fight with the second, for he wants to push him forward, and in the same way the second supports him in his fight with the first, since he drives him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two antagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? His dream, though, is that // Popular Culture//Radical Imagination – An Undergraduate Journal for SDS 441R 1(1) 13 some time in an unguarded moment – and this would require a night darker than any night has ever been yet – he will jump out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience in fighting, to the position of umpire over his antagonists in their fight with each other (10).

Franz Kafka, she notes, describes the past and future as a unidirectional battle between two infinitely powerful forces, past and future. These forces do not simply influence the protagonist like “a burden man has to shoulder,” but “press forward” the protagonist driving them to side with one force or the other. The presence of this man, who is only known as “he,” causes the “forces [of past and future] to deflect … from their original direction,” changing his own history and future (11). Therefore, to retain pieces of his history he must side against his future, blocking the possibility of change. Similarly, to progress to his future, he must attack pieces of his past which ground him.

Kafka offers a second approach in the riddle. While “he” operates in the interval between past and future, convergently relying on one and fighting the other, he ultimately wants to remove himself from them. He ultimately wants to remove himself from them. By creating a safe point away from his attackers, he could express objective judgement. In this space he can acknowledge both his past and future and judge their worth.

Western comic books embody this struggle; past and future narratives struggle for dominance, pushing writers to engage in retconning. A retcon, short for retroactive continuity, is a practice which imposes altered information to the reader’s view of a story, changing facts while continuing to tell a story with the exact same characters. It is commonly used to erase previous stories which are deemed unpopular but can also affect future stories. By making relevant specific incarnations of a character, one can “augment collective memory” changing the direction of their story going forward (Plencner 2015: 9). Like the Kafkan protagonist, DC Comics chooses to side temporarily with either the past or future.

Writers in DC Comics possess two ways to tell stories. One avenue balances the character’s place in the collective conscience and extrapolates these beliefs into stories. Since the collective conscience is constantly undergoing changes, these stories would always be ahead of their time or behind them. Writers routinely erase the pasts of characters (Hal Jordan, Batgirl) or reflavour them (Snagglepuss, JLD, Batman) entirely. Alternatively, a writer could recognize the storied past of DC Comics and build stories that refused to hide the out-of-touch elements of DC’s older narrative (Deathstroke, JLoC), placing them outside the event horizon. Ultimately, the way we choose to tell stories, by changing their emphasis as society changes or by retaining the “dream” of which Kafka speaks, influences not only comics but news journalism, social media, and any place where stories never end.

Comics past and future; Moral centres for our collective consciousness

In 2018 James Tynion IV refashioned Kirk Langstrom, formerly the villain Man-Bat, as a flawed and unlikely super-hero in his series Justice League Dark. Langstrom, usually an antagonist of Batman, turned himself into a half-bat monster while researching echolocation. In Justice League Dark, Langstrom refers to his time spent as a villain but explains that was caused by a mistake in the serum he took to become Man-Bat. In doing so, Tynion uses retconning to change readers’ understanding of the character.

Tynion reflects on his ability to alter DC Comics’ history in “Tales from the Otherkind.” In the tale Langstrom is compelled to record sightings of the Otherkind, a mysterious group of aliens. Gradually he realizes that writing about these aliens makes them more real; thus by collecting stories about them, he changed the DC universe (Figure 1). Langstrom is a stand-in for all storytellers who face a very real challenge in writing the past, whether fictional or non-fictional; by emphasizing aspects of the past, one interacts with it and therein changes it. Langstrom and Tynion each change the DC Universe, Langstrom adds to its past with the Otherkind while Tynion reduces Langstrom’s villainy.

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Figure 1, Kirk Langstrom (Man-Bat) realized that writing down the past irreconcilably changed the DC Universe (Tynion, Fernández, and Martinez)

By changing a character’s past or their orientation to the future writers could make them immediately relevant to audiences. The capacity of a writer to change a character was only limited by the audience’s ability to recognize the character. Gail Simone, comic book critic and prolific comic book writer for all major comic book houses discussed the difficulty of changing a character’s history in an interview with Newsarama. Regarding her time on Batgirl: Simone remarked “I wanted to write by the improv credo ‘don’t negate,’ which means, even if you didn’t care for something, you try to make it work. You don’t say, ‘Oh, that … didn’t happen’” (Pantozzi 2011). So, while writers cannot disregard established facts of characters, they are able to manipulate the stories by changing their meanings, de-emphasizing the roll these stories played. In doing so, they alter the past or future.

Since conception, DC comics have dealt in morality with bannisters. Batman and Superman fight for what is right and good in our collective consciousness. But since morals change over time and comics have existed in the western world for close to 90 years many values have changed. Stories inevitably change too, to “buttress the narrative we find ourselves in” (Plencner 2015: 6). This means comics based on long-historied, popular characters (e.g. Batman, Green Lantern, Superman) must change their history to appeal to new narratives and values of the upcoming generation or grow out of favour.

Modernizing heroes

While Tynion retcons for narrative reasons, Hope Larson modernises Batgirl and Robin to appeal more broadly. Re-imagined as contemporary teenagers the duo tell a relatable teen love story. Using subtle retcons, like acknowledging their out-of-fashion names, the story clearly places the characters as modern teens. By modernizing the characters, Larson seeks to appeal to audiences today.

Hope Larson is not the sole writer adapting comics for anticipated audiences. When comic book critic Gail Simone began to write Batgirl in 2011, she retconned the controversial and heavily criticized Killing Joke (1988) story. In the original tale the Joker paralyzes Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) permanently which Simone changed to a technological implant and three years of physical therapy. In an interview with Newsarama, Simone cites three reasons for changing Gordon: “creative potential, newsworthiness, and sheer commercial reality” (Pantozzi 2011).

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Figure 2, The names of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) and Richard “Dick” Grayson (Robin) are retconned to be “old-fashioned” as part of the modernization of the Batgirl stories to appeal to broader audiences (Larson, Wildgoose Marzan, and Lopes).

This means that characters’ pasts are changed to seamlessly integrate with future audiences. This is most notable in long-absent characters whose changes cannot be as subtle as Larson’s. Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles by Mark Russel portrayed DC Comic’s Hannah Barbara property Snagglepuss as a gay screenwriter in New York City. Snagglepuss interacts with Arthur Miller, Joseph McCarthy, and the Stonewall raids as he is gradually outed for his sexuality. By changing the character’s past in the present, authors can alter the future direction of a character, changing the way audiences connect with them. By mirroring the culture of the present comic book properties seek to remain relevant and command moral authority over their audiences.

Modern heroes in Modern Societies

Retcons also extend to the way we see our environments. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Green Lantern series. In 1968, DC Comics handed Dennis O’Neil the series. The comic featured Hal Jordan; a hero O’Neil called “a cop; a crypto-fascist … the [type of] mind that sent American troops into Korea and Vietnam” (Moore 2003:264). Heavily influenced by the New Left, O’Neil created an America which reflected what he saw; gentrification, drug abuse, and racism, using the character of Hal Jordan to examine these circumstances and question “liberalism.”

In the 2002 Green Lantern storyline “Hate Crime” anti-gay violence took centre stage, while the synopsis promised Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) would be “forced to examine just how vicious human beings can be.” The story modernized the environment in which the Green Lantern found himself to reflect the anti-gay violence in America at the time. Tom King retold the 1980’s Omega Men in 2013-2014, featuring a Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner). Overwriting the black-and-white morality storyline of the 80’s, he told a nuanced story of political dissidents influenced by his time as a CIA agent, but also by the weltanschauung of contemporary American sentiments. In 2017, Captain Atom, once a stalwart member of the Justice League, is treated with suspicion and sobriety in The Fall and Rise of Captain Atom, impressing modern American sentiments of the nuclear arms race into the story. Building these environments requires creators to have a hand in both the past and future of the DC Comic Universe as they need to create heroes who can stand up for what the future collective conscience desires while remaining aware of the reality in which people live.

While these retcons to a character’s environment can seem minor at times, it places the characters within our social reality, and in doing so, places the moral authority of these heroes into the reader’s Figure 2, The names of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) and Richard “Dick” Grayson (Robin) are retconned to be “old-fashioned” as part of the modernization of the Batgirl stories to appeal to broader audiences (Larson, Wildgoose Marzan, and Lopes). // Popular Culture//Radical Imagination – An Undergraduate Journal for SDS 441R 1(1) 16 lives. Thus, by relating to these characters stories, their morals permeate and influence the values of its readers.

Modernizing environments while maintaining character origins

With the large amount of retconning underway, one may wonder what its purpose could be. Consider, for example, that many comics rose to prominence during a time where the American public were uncritically interested in stories that heroically portrayed American interventionism. While well-and-good for fighting Nazis, a super-hero’s intervention in foreign countries becomes more problematic as American wars and imperialism begin to lose popular support. Since “[a]ll political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power … they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them” (Arendt 1972: 140). New writers sweep older stories as they retcon to tell their own stories.Retelling these narratives in a different manner allows readers to forget parts of the story that make them uncomfortable and emphasizes those that make them proud. These “originary moments” when properties shift “from one [moral narrative] to the next” are when the origin myths are weakest and when the truth can be seen most clearly because the focus is still unassertive (Plencner 2015:5). For many writers, by peering through the cracked origin myths they can construct objective realities, like the Kafkan protagonist out of the firing line. These are stories wherein environments take on modern characteristics but the heroes are constructed in the way we imagine they have always been. At these points we see the “he” from the Kafkan riddle, the stand-in for the present, truly take his form as arbiter of time. Readers are forced to ask what they admire in these heroes.

Gene Luen Yang, writer of New Super-man and the Justice League of China, told the Washington Post that to be American, “we have to look at both the good and the bad and the pretty and the ugly of our history” (Betancourt 2019). This is illustrated by Christopher Priest and Pete Woods’s Justice League: Justice Lost (Figure 3). The 2018 storyline questions whether the Justice League has any right to interfere in national conflicts, dredging up the same black-and-white story which many writers try to avoid; Superman versus Nazis. Yet Priest distils Superman to an indecisive super-human, a vestige of apolitical modernity. He asks why audiences expect Superman to intervene in conflicts they themselves want no part in. By separating Superman from the social reality of the modern audience, Priest forces them to differentiate between what is ethical and what a super-hero would do.

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Figure 3. After crash-landing into an African tribal conflict, the Justice League is told not to interfere (Priest, Woods, and Schu).

Priest is part of a growing number of creators who choose to focus on the forgotten aspects of origins. In Christopher Priest’s series Deathstroke, the titular character is haunted by his actions as a supervillain, whether that means infidelity, brainwashing, rape, child neglect, or murder. Priest refuses to shy away from Deathstroke’s sins even as the villain attempts to save the world and become a better person. Priest, himself a Baptist minister, uses the idea of an eternally damned villain to ask, “who does not deserve a seat at the table?” He dares readers to say that Deathstroke cannot be reconciled with the current iteration of DC Comics, knowing almost every legacy character has a similarly murky past.

In March 2019 DC Comics released their 1000th issue of Detective Comics, one of their longest running and most profitable series. O’Neil returned to write a simple yet morally ambiguous story, in which Batman is forced to reflect on his excessive use of force. Batman’s violent actions are only stopped by the horrified intervention of his childhood caretaker, a reminder to all readers that Batman is just a man in a costume and as easily lost as anyone (Figure 4).

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Figure 4 Leslie Thompkins tells Batman that his violent search for justice is merely “self-serving” and inexcusable.

Heroes and villains are not the only characters receiving exposure from this movement. Gene Luen Yang reintroduced Ching Lung, a villain created in 1938 who embodied the “Yellow Peril” culture of America. The character is a product of DC Comic’s Sinophobia; a fact which Yang aims to publicize. Lung’s racial overtones are near explicit in Figure 5.

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Figure 5 Ching Lung explains that he, as the embodiment of the Yellow Peril, is the catalyst for superheroes (Yang).

In the comic Lung tells a fellow villain that without him, “there would be no superheroes at all.” Yang, and by extension DC Comics, acknowledges the early role of racism in the formation of superhero comics and in a way this is an apology; while the story is set in modern-day Shanghai, no one could mistake the villain for anything but tacky xenophobia. Yang shows how, in DC Comic’s rush to retcon, they have left these characters with ugly yet important pasts by the wayside.

Conclusion

Stories carry with them “the changing self-interpretations of man throughout history, which, though may be quite irrelevant … are still the briefest and most succinct witnesses to the spirit of whole epochs” (Arendt 1961: 59). If society is a curve, then these stories carry with them the instantaneous rates of change through which we can see society. But some creators choose to loop back to their points of origin, not just in comics, but in similar forms of media too. In the 24-hour news cycle, it is easy to become confabulated as news stories update in real-time and delete errors. In social media, content providers can simply delete items that become passé or unpopular. In Canada, politicians constantly restart dialogues which are long overdue. It is important that failures are acknowledged because of what they represent; a reminder of a painful past, a marker in history and a place from which to begin healing.

Author:

Josh Goldschmidt (he/him) is in his final year at the University of Waterloo. He is in the Social Development Studies and Business program and is having a blast!


References

Arendt, Hannah (1961). Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Viking Press.

Arendt, Hannah (1972). Crises of the Republic. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Larson, Hope (w) Chris Wildgoose (a), Jose Marzan (a), Mat Lopes (a). (2017). Summer of Lies: Part Two. Batgirl, September 2017, DC Comics, 10.

Moore, Jesse T. (2003). The education of Green Lantern: culture and ideology. The Journal of American Culture 26(2): 263-278.

O’Neil, Denny (a), Steve Epting (a) Elizabeth Breitweisser (a). (2018). Return to Crime Alley. Detective Comics, March 2018, DC Comics, 46.

Palmer-Mehta, Valerie, and Kellie Hay. (2005). “A superhero for gays?: Gay masculinity and green lantern. The Journal of American Culture 28(4): 390-404.

Pantozzi, Jill. (2011). Gail, Jill and Babs: A Conversation about BATGIRL & ORACLE. Newsarama, Purch, June 9 2011. Retrieved from: www.newsarama.com/7777-gail-jill-and-babs-a-conversation-about-batgirloracle. html

Plencner, Joshua (2015). Four-Color Political Visions: Origin, Affect, and Assemblage in American Superhero Comic Books. Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Oregon.

Priest, Christopher (w), Pete Woods (a), Willie Schu (a). (2018) Justice Lost: Conclusion. Justice League, 43, May 2018, DC Comics, 2.

Rucka, Greg (w), Liam Sharp (a). (2016). The Lies: Part 5. Wonder Woman, 9, October 2016, DC Comics, 9, 10.

Tynion IV, James (w), Raúl Fernández (a), Alvaro Martinez (a). (2019). Tales from the Otherkind. Justice League Dark, 7, January 2019, DC Comics, 21.

Yang, Gene (w), Billy Tan (a). (2017). Training Day. New Super-Man, 8, February 2017, DC Comics, 22.

Lolita & Abuse Accessing the Wounded Inner Child’s Voice

By Vinny Neang

Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel is an American classic. However, popular culture has re-conceptualized its story and erased elements of incest and childhood sexual abuse that is prevalent within its original text. This paper explores the impact of this conceptualization on how we normalize rape culture and erase the voice of survivors by drawing on reviews of Lolita as well as the personal autobiographical accounts of the author. The paper then turns to examining Lolita’s popularity in mainstream society (including in popular music, aesthetics, and films) that depict promiscuity and lasciviousness of young women. The author argues that such a framing is produced by patriarchal society which reduces and silences the voices of sexual abuse survivors. This examination sheds light on the nature of sexual abuse as well as survivor-centered recovery.

Keywords: Lolita; Nabokov; Childhood sexual abuse; sexual grooming; rape culture; healing

Lolita (1955) is a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov which chronicles the romantic and sexual relationship between a middle-aged man (Humbert Humbert) and a 12-year-old girl (Dolores Haze). Critics and reviewers have called the novel a tragic love story, although this narrative dismisses the complexity of abuse and coercion that Lolita truly inhabits. I write this essay with concern about popular culture’s current conceptualization of Lolita as it ignores the implicit story of childhood sexual abuse which the titular character endures.

Lolita does not exist within a vacuum; it exists in a world where too many young women are already victims of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment. Internationally, girls and women are being raped, battered, sold, and slain (Durham 2008). An annual estimated two million children— most of them young girls—are sexually abused every year (Durham 2008). Children who have been sexually abused are three times more likely to experience major depressive episodes and four times as likely to abuse drugs as adults (Himmelstein 2018). After the wake of the #MeToo movement, stories of sexual abuse deserve a second glance. Statistics are no longer just numbers, they are personal accounts that we have finally decided require accountability. Most importantly, I write this essay because of my own experiences of childhood sexual abuse, particularly as it relates to the nature of the titular character’s abuse in Lolita.

Within this personal, social, and cultural context I have difficulty viewing Nabokov’s Lolita as a beautiful, tragic love story as popular culture conceptualizes it. Using personal anecdotes as well as literature reviews of Lolita throughout this essay, I try to unpack why Lolita has been overwhelmingly lauded despite its normalization of abuse. It is my belief that when a society ignores and reinforces narratives that seek to dismiss sexual abuse and the dynamics which creates this abuse, it does a disservice to all those subjected to such abuse. It becomes important, then, to shine light on the abused child’s voice and allow them to speak.

Lolita is narrated from the perspective of the step-father, Humbert Humbert. Humbert is manipulative and emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive. He is a child predator and (as the plot contends) supposedly, a “man madly in love” with his 12-year old step-daughter, Dolores “Dolly” Haze. Much of Dolly’s emotions, thoughts, and judgements are unknown to us throughout the novel. This dichotomous relationship where one narrative is emphasized over the other reflects how difficult the recovery process can be for sexually abused women and young girls. Even as we grow up and are no longer living inside the state of trauma, a piece of us is always attached to those memories.

To investigate Dolly’s possible position, I will use a theory about the inner child from Dr. Arlene Drake’s book, “Carefrontation” to help explain the complexity in the healing process for childhood abuse. Without recognition of the wounded inner child who was abused, none of us who have been sexually abused can heal. That is why it is important to examine this wound and the source of its pain despite how uncomfortable and emotional the process may be. Oftentimes, discussions about childhood sexual abuse is not talked about in public discourse, nor in private (Drake 2017). Survivors are then left to believe that their experiences are isolated, abnormal, and shameful. It is my hope by writing this that other survivors can recognize the possibility of healing despite how difficult the journey may be. Having an abused child’s voice become silenced or otherwise unexplored is an injustice to that child’s recovery and healing process. So, let us explore that inner child’s voice.

We exist within a patriarchal society. The narrative of the man, or the father—and those that sexually abuse women and girls—are given more power over other narratives. Indeed, “father-daughter incest represents an exaggeration of patriarchal norms, not a departure from them” (Shelton 1999: 276). By sympathizing with father-incest narratives like Humbert’s readers, consciously or unconsciously, do so at the detriment of the abused child (Dolly) (Meek 2017). Dolly, the subject of the abuse, is silenced and denied agency or a voice. Within a patriarchal society, male pleasure also comes at the expense of female pain in incestuous narratives and relationships. There is a long passage in Lolita that Humbert describes achieving climax through frottage with Dolly as the unknowing participant. Frottage is the act of non-consensually rubbing against the body of another person for sexual pleasure and gratification. Reading this passage about frottage in Lolita made me feel completely sick to my stomach. The scene reflected the same trauma I had experienced with my father at seven-years-old. However, the experience was written through the ecstatic and pleasurable perspective of the adult male. As Humbert ejaculates it is unclear to us what Dolly feels during this time. When I had heard my dad moan as he came, I remember feeling fear, terror, and confusion pour out of me. Later, after taking the flight up the stairs into my bedroom, I felt my heart racing. Why did he allow me to sit on him while he was aroused? How do I forgive my father for doing such a thing to me? “Pleasure that comes at the expense of trauma to a girl child […] derives from a culture that violates and punishes women, that denies, trivializes, and fragments the female personal—especially trauma—while hegemonically advancing the male personal—especially pleasure” (Meek 2017: 154). Having Lolita’s narrative focus strictly on the father’s pleasure comes at the expense of the female child who is traumatized during this process.

There are also two distinct and separate readings of Lolita. One is aesthetic and the other is moral. A popular reading of Lolita often praises its aesthetic but does so without addressing the context of incest and abuse. In the process of praising the aesthetic, the story of incest easily becomes erased (Shelton 1999). It is also within this aesthetic reading that Humbert is given permission to control and manipulate the narrative for both his relationship with Lolita as well as Dolly’s life (Shelton 1999). Often lost in the aesthetic reader’s analysis of Lolita are Dolly’s “weeping and stony silences” which convey her lack of consent in the novel (Meek 2017). Throughout Lolita we are often reminded of Dolly’s weeping “every night, every night” (Nabokov 1955: 176). When examining this weeping, we recognize that it signifies Dolly’s loneliness and grief from the violence which Humbert inflicts on her (Meek 2017). While Humbert exercises the control of the narrative as an adult man in a patriarchal context, Dolly’s voice cannot be silenced entirely.

Since Lolita is written within a social and cultural context in which women and young girls are disproportionately sexually harassed and abused, Dolly’s experiences are not completely erased or unknown. I was able to recognize Dolly’s pain since her pain is similar to mine. Ignoring such a voice may be the more comfortable route, but it comes at the expense of that child’s pain. Reading about Humbert’s “love” towards his Lolita should be sickening to all of us. Although it is eloquently written, Lolita still depicts childhood sexual abuse that many young girls experience in real life. It is difficult for me to separate the personal context in which I exist when analyzing Lolita, especially knowing that I am not the only one who has experienced child sexual abuse. These small snippets of Dolly’s weeping and unhappiness are intricately linked to my own. Dolly’s trauma parallels my own inner child’s trauma. The people who were supposed to love me and care for me the most have also caused me the greatest harm. Indeed, Dolly states, “you […] broke my life” (Nabokov 1955).

When male perspectives are overemphasized in popular culture, abuse narratives can be warped to mean something else entirely. Popular culture’s usage of Lolita excludes narratives of incest and abuse despite the reality of such abuse existing within our culture. For example, Lana Del Rey’s song “Lolita” explores the novel’s aestheticism and focuses on romantic and sensual elements. Her lyrics include “I know what the boys want”, “kissing my fruit punch lips, and “I want to have fun and be in love with you” (Del Rey 2012). This is in stark contrast to the unbalanced power relationship that is at the heart of the sexual abuse and incest committed by Humbert against Dolly in Lolita.

We must also examine the structural relationship between Humbert and Dolly, as this structural level helps to illuminate the power and control Humbert exercises over the preadolescent girl. These implicit power dynamics are often glossed over in the mainstream conceptualization of Lolita. Dolly is only twelve-years old when the two first have sexual intercourse and Humbert desperately tries to keep his “Lolita” under his control by threatening Dolly with foster care, institutionalization, physical and emotional abuse. He also bribes her with fashion and money to control her behaviour.

Children are in a vulnerable position in relations to the adults entrusted to care for them as they normally do not possess the financial independence to sever the relationship. Nor do they have the cultural, cognitive, social, or economic knowledge that adults possess. Dolly’s position in the hierarchy of age means that she “lacks legal majority and the capacity to forcefully or intellectually resist Humbert’s abuse” (Laing 2018:17). In this subservient hierarchical positioning, a child engaging in sexual relationships with adults cannot wield the same power that would be afforded to an adult-adult sexual relationship. Furthermore, a child cannot truly consent to a sexual relationship with an adult in this context. Why? The child has not fully developed in all their capacities to recognize the social, psychological, emotional, or cultural repercussions of such an act. In fact, Humbert mentions that Dolly’s kisses are more like “an innocent game on her part” or an “imitation of some simulacrum of fake romance” (Nabokov 1955: 113). It is the responsibility of the adult and the more powerful individual to do what will cause the least harm. Humbert fails to do such a thing, and this results in Dolly’s weeping and trauma throughout Lolita.

Children who have been abused often do not understand the complete context of their trauma until later into adulthood; the abuse is normalized in their mind because they simply do not know any better. I did not have the full capacity of understanding the context of what my abusers were enacting upon me at the age I was abused. However, as an adult, this context is reframed in my newfound knowledge of implicit power dynamics and structural relationships that sexual abuse occurs in. Popular culture’s common conceptualizations of Lolita often excludes this structural analysis as female voices are often silenced within our culture and the allure of a “forbidden love” is romanticized to the point where sexual abuse is glossed over.

Durham (2008) notes that within popular culture, Lolita now signifies a favourite metaphor for a child vixen; a knowing coquette; an out-of-control young girl’s libido; and a baby nymphomaniac. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Lolita as “a precociously seductive girl.” All such definitions of this re-interpretation of Lolita are a myth. Eroticizing the abuse of young girls in the media furthers rape culture by regularly sexualizing girls and then assigning blame to them for their desirability (Savage 2015). This myth also creates a blame-the-victim mentality that appears prevalently in our culture (Savage 2015). Survivors who then hear and see these messages in the media internalize this damaging content which can disrupt their recovery process from sexual abuse.

Popular culture has also taken certain elements of Nabokov’s Lolita and commodified it. This commodification is a trend that comes at the expense of female sexuality, their sexual well-being, and their sexual health. Interestingly, Nabokov’s initial stance on the cover art for Lolita was oppositional to any kind of representation of a little girl (Laing 2018; Savage 2015). However, decades later, cover art for Lolita often depicts representations of young girls or their various body parts to market the book as an erotic novel (Savage 2015). Similarly, cinematic adaptations of the novel have also focused the aesthetic elements of the book such as female beauty and youth. The sexual and aesthetic emphasis on the young girl (i.e., Dolly) rather than the older gentleman (i.e., Humbert) leads to the erasure of abuse and incest in Lolita with the tacit complicity of the viewing public (Savage 2015). Indeed, the eroticized girl has become a naturalized element of female sexuality in popular culture (Savage 2015).

Such sexualization of young girls is detrimental to their social development, for their self-esteem; for developing healthy sexual relationships with others; for their understanding of desirability; and for their understanding of sexual consent. For much of the aftermath of the sexual abuse I experienced in my late teens, I assigned self-blame. There were also intense feelings of guilt and shame. Writing about these experiences in this essay brought up many painful memories that were often difficult, unhelpful, and unbearable to remember. Other survivor accounts of sexual abuse are similar to mine.

Our society is riddled with gender-based violence against women as well as shaming women for their sexuality. When these personal accounts of violence crop up in popular discourses, victim-blaming mentality seek to shut victims up. Examining the myth of the child seducer is imperative to rectify these internalized messages that survivors are consuming (Durham 2008). I did not possess the voice to tell my mother about what her brother did to me when I was first abused as a child. Similarly, Dolly could not voice her abuse in any meaningful way in Lolita. However, writing this essay is a way in which the often-silenced voices in our culture can speak. In this sense, I hope to bring about a process of validation, recovery, and healing for other survivors reading this. Although I cannot change what has happened to me in my past—nor could I have stopped Dolly’s abuse from happening—I can look to the present and the future for hope and betterment. Let Lolita be a more nuanced and complex story than the sexually precocious nymphet of Humbert’s “loving” adoration.

Author:

Vinny Neang (she/he/they) is in their final year of Social Development Studies at Renison University College/University of Waterloo, graduating in October 2019!

 


REFERENCES

Drake, A. (2017). Carefrontation. New York: Regan Arts.

Del Rey, L. (2012). Lolita. Born to Die [CD]. New York: Interscope Records.

Durham, M., G. (2008). The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It. New York: The Overlook Press.

Himmelstein, D. (2018). After #MeToo, teaching consent: Strategies for educating students about boundaries, safety, and sexual assault. School Library Journal. Retrieved from: https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=after-metoo-educators-seek-strategies-to-teach-students-about-consent.

Laing, M. (2018). Rewriting Lolita in fashion photography: Candy, consumption, and dying flowers. Sexualities, 0(0): 1-22.

Lolita. (2011). Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Lolita.

Meek, M. (2017). Lolita speaks: Disrupting “aesthetic bliss.” Girlhood Studies, 10: 152-167.

Nabokov, V. (1955). Lolita. New York: Random House Inc.

Savage, S., L. (2015). Lolita: Geneology of a cover girl. Studies in Art Education, 56(2): 156-167.

Shelton, J. (1999). ‘The word is incest’: Sexual and linguistic coercion in Lolita. Textual Practice, 13(2): 273-294.

The Season that Sparked Change: The Radical Imagination in ABC Spark’s The Fosters

By Katelyn Tolentino

ABC Spark’s television show The Fosters revolves around the unique life of the members of the Foster family. The family consists of two moms of different races with a mix of biological, adopted, and foster children along with the different extended families of each child. In the fifth season the primary focus of the show is on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) children, immigration, and deportation. Coming at a relevant time, the show sought to raise awareness about the lived realities of migrant children and to spark political action. The storyline aired soon after Donald Trump announced his intentions to separate undocumented immigrants and their children. This is a great example of how radical political struggles can weave their way into mainstream television and how television shows can equally spark political action. I argue that by focusing on this storyline the show took advantage of the opportunity to reach an audience that could have been unaware of this social issue, informing and inspiring them to relate to and perhaps support people living in this reality. Through a review of the fifth season and analysis of articles on The Fosters and its impact on viewers, I analyze why and how the show’s producers created a narrative that sought to move their audience to action in support of migrant justice.

Keywords: Migrant justice, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), The Fosters, television, political action

“It’s not where you come from/ It’s where you belong/ Nothing I would trade/ I wouldn’t have it any other way/ You’re surrounded/ By love and you’re wanted/ So never feel alone/ You are home with me/ Right where you belong”

-Kari Kimmel, 2013

To any teenage television show aficionado or even just an average young adult on the cusp of millennials and Generation Z this song lyric may spark a sense of familiarity. This may be due to the fact that these are lyrics in the title sequence to an ABC Spark show called The Fosters, that ran from June 2013 to its finale last year in 2018 (Freeman 2014). The show is a rarity in the TV drama world, as it holds no qualms tackling specific social issues regardless of the controversy attached to them. In particular, The Fosters’ last season explored the social turmoil caused by U.S. President Donald Trump’s positions on DACA, DREAMers, and America’s immigration policies, as well as the movements that resisted his policies. It is one of the pioneering examples of mainstream television mirroring real-world issues into relatable and personable storylines with the desire to inform and inspire its viewers around issues of social justice.

The Fosters which premiered in June of 2013 was written by Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg and their executive producer was Jennifer Lopez (Freeman 2014). According to an interview by Freeman with Paige, the show emerged to address a lack of diverse family dramas with alternative family forms dealing with real and complex issues (2014). Specifically, it wanted to give a spotlight to lesbian mothers, and the problems of the US foster system that the 400,000 children in care face (Freeman 2014).

The show revolves around the unique family members in the Foster family, consisting of two moms of different races with a mix of biological, adopted, and foster children along with the different and varied extended families of each child. The show centres around the latest and newest member of the Foster family named Callie, whose years of experience in the foster care system made her feel as though she had no worth. During the season, she begins to learn that this once strongly held belief is untrue with the help of her loving foster family, the Fosters, who later become her forever family (Bennett 2018). Throughout the series, each family member goes through trials and tribulations that comes with having a multi-racial, non-heteronormative, non-biological family form, and their interweaving issues with the foster care system, consent, gun control, addiction, eating disorders, immigration etc. (Gunderson et al. 2018). At the core of this family melodrama is the idea of family being what you make it. What makes it resonate with its audience is the way it effortlessly emphasizes the universal message of accepting people’s differences and promoting the feeling of belonging (Brunton 2017).

The creators of The Fosters never shy away from touchy topics and its fifth and final season was no different. What made it stand apart from the rest of the series, however, is the storyline coincided perfectly with the current political climate and responded by way of its episodes titled: Prom, Sanctuary, Invisible, #IWasMadeInAmerica, and Line in the Sand (Paige & Bredeweg 2013). Those five episodes follow the subplot of Callie’s friend Ximena whose expired DACA status became known through a broadcasted protest, which led to ICE taking action against her family before her status renewal had the opportunity to get approved. The five-episode stint starts off with ICE showing up at prom intending to detain Ximena, who escapes with Callie to claim sanctuary in an open church (Netflix, 2017, ep. 9).

The storyline continues in the church with the Fosters helping Ximena’s family, the Sinfuegos, with their status while fostering her younger sister who was born in the United States (Netflix, 2018, ep. 10). While hiding out in the church with Ximena, Callie decides to post her story on social media to gain traction, attention, and support from people online (Netflix 2018, ep. 11). In the next episode, the girls attempt to pressure ICE at an anti-immigration protest with a counter protest, to give Ximena a special hearing in order to leave the church without fear of ICE attempting to detain her like her parents (Netflix 2018, ep 12). This storyline ends with Ximena’s family being granted a stay without deportation while her DACA status is pending to be approved (Netflix 2018, ep. 13).

It is not certain whether the timing of the season was a coincidence or if it was purposeful, but the airing of the first episode with Ximena’s storyline coincided with Donald Trump’s announcement of his intentions to end DACA (Bennett, 2018). DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and supports nearly 800,000 young people by allowing them two-year permits for either school or work without the threat of deportation (Colvin & Gurman 2017). Many of the recipients of DACA were brought in as young children and only know America as home. In an article assessing the effects of DACA status on latinx students, it mentions how there was a liminality of being neither here nor there, and it was remedied with the DACA status as the feeling of belonging was felt once again (Benuto et al. 2018). The same sense of belonging that The Fosters tried to create in the series through subplots like Ximena’s.

This sense of belonging to DACA recipients is the one Trump was moving to end. According to Colvin & Gurman (2017), the Trump administration saw the implementation of DACA as an “act of abuse” by Obama, and it sought to preserve the “well-being” of born and bred Americans. Similarly, the government was to begin deporting DREAMers (those who benefit from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors act) six months after the original announcement and the air date of the episode titled Prom (Bennett 2018).

This notion of protecting the born and bred American is a problematic mindset in and of itself. Why are there such negative attitudes towards immigration as a whole? Chacón & Davis’ (2006) book, No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, explains how historically people were always on the move and how in today’s day and age we see immigration as a result of wanting more in life. Somewhere along the line there was a shift in the way we view those who move also known as immigrants. In Walia’s (2013), Undoing Border Imperialism, it points to colonialism as the root cause of displacement, through the shifting of the concept of land as belonging to no one to becoming one’s private property. Walia argues the immigrant, or the one who travels, is deemed as a person who no longer belongs, and that the only place you can truly call home is the area you were physically born in. This completely disregards the definition of home many have come to operationalize. Home is not simply the location of where one was brought into the world. More precisely, home is the place in which they feel they belong. Trump and the current government, however, are clinging to a narrow and xenophobic definition of home and although the courts have decided against the end of DACA, it does not mean it will not be rescinded or at least attempted to by the Trump Administration later down the road (Kendall 2018).

The Fosters did a great job in displaying the very real fears DACA students have because of the threat of having their protections and safeguards ripped away from them, especially when they are a person of colour and/or a person who is part of the LGBTQ+ community. Cadenas et al (2018) examine how race and ethnicity affects one’s DACA status and argue that racialized students are most likely to be impacted if DACA ends. In The Fosters, the centrality of the DACA subplot was intentional and strategic in spurring the audience to consider the realities faced by DACA students.

Notably, this topic was briefly touched upon in the first season with the deportation of a friend of the adopted twins in the family, but the writers wanted to address the political climate more clearly in the final season. The rumours of Trump wanting to end DACA and deport DREAMers was proven to be more than a simple rumour. The reward that the writers of The Fosters experienced was well worth the risk as their show reflected the political climate in a poignant way. One of the writer’s family members was detained because of ICE and the writer was shortly detained herself soon after. It was an issue that was close to the writers of The Fosters and they wanted to make sure it reverberated with its audience in a personal sense (Turchiano 2017). The fact that the show and its writers had the courage to speak out and to take a political stance through the show was well received and it seems to speak volumes as to how successful it was in its reach. In a mission statement that the show likes to go by it states:

Families raising children and youth of different races, cultures, and ethnicities must have resources available for helping them to understand those differences, and to help their children and youth to learn about, embrace, and thrive with a strong sense of who they are… (Children’s Voice, Magazine, 2013).

This not only pertains to what the creators of The Fosters hope to convey in their show, but it also can be attributed to their proximity to those affected by the rescinding of DACA and the deportation of DREAMers. They see how the US immigration system is tearing families apart and urge viewers to advocate for the passing and the permanence of the DREAM Act (Heurto 2018). The Fosters develops a heartwarming and engaging story line while linking it to socio-political issues that racialized, adopted, and blended families have to face daily. I believe that the final season in particular seeks to inspire viewers to emulate Callie in her passion for doing what is right while also, “finding a balance between being socially responsible and socially engaged” (Bautze 2017).

By centering the storyline of immigration, The Fosters, took advantage of the opportunity to reach an audience that could have been unaware of this social issue and sought to inform and inspire them. These five episodes were the centre of many praising articles, tweets, and pins of the show.

The convenient hash-tagged titles provided good taglines for articles and tweets to start trending. People were talking about the show and discussing the issues they addressed in these episodes and this can inspire social change. It sparked a conversation that was unlikely to have happened on its own. Viewers who might have been unaware of the depth and reality of immigration issues now were made aware and perhaps started staying on top of the news related to immigration which made the difficulties of DREAMers and DACA children more known. The Fosters, in this respect, went beyond just the TV or laptop screens in people’s homes. While viewers came for the drama, they stayed for the family, and were confronted with the boldness and unapologetic way in which The Fosters approaches politically charged issues. Incorporating real, relevant, and relatable storylines into mainstream television has already proved to make waves in terms of social justice and The Fosters demonstrates it nicely with this particular subplot.

Author:

Katelyn Tolentino (she/her) is a 4th year student in Social Development Studies at Renison University College (University of Waterloo), specializing in Education with a minor in both Psychology and French. You can normally find her trying out the newest bubble tea place or catching the latest movie release at a theatre with friends. It’s a shock that she is where she is academically with the amount of her day she fills streaming shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime.


REFERENCES

Bautze, A. (2017). The Fosters Finale Hit Home in a Huge Way on the Fight to Save DACA. The Mary Sue, September 28, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.themarysue.com/the-fosters-finale-daca/

Bennett, A. (2018). RIP “The Fosters,” One Of The Most Politically Relevant Shows On TV. BuzzFeed, May 31, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/alannabennett/the-fosters-ending-immigration-daca-lgbtrepresentation

Benuto, L. T., Casas, J. B., Cummings, C., & Newlands, R. (2018). Undocumented, to DACAmented, to DACAlimited: Narratives of Latino Students With DACA Status. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 40(3): 259-278.

Brunton, J. (2017). Melodrama, Masochism, and Biopolitical Encounters in The Fosters. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 34(7): 650-663.

Cadenas, G. A., Bernstein, B. L., & Tracey, T. J. (2018). Critical consciousness and intent to persist through college in DACA and U.S. citizen students: The role of immigration status, race, and ethnicity. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 24(4): 564-575.

Chacón, J. A. & Davis, M. (2006). No one is illegal: Fighting racism and state violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Children’s Voice Magazine (2013). “The fosters” premieres on ABC family. Children’s Voice Magazine, 22(1), January 1, 2013. Retrieved from: http://link.galegroup.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/apps/doc/A345694525/AONE?u=uniwater&sid=AONE&xid= 69613500

Colvin, J., & Gurman, S. (2017). Trump Rescinding DACA Program. Halifax Chronicle-Herald, September 6, 2017.

Freeman, C. (2014). Peter Paige and the making of the fosters. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 21(3). Retrieved from: http://link.galegroup.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/apps/doc/A371284227/AONE?u=uniwater&sid=AONE&xid= 02f0ff7d

Gunderson, A., Amatangelo, A., Weddle, A., Vorel, J., Ferguson, L., Martin, C., (2018). The 25 Best Teen TV Shows on Netflix. Paste Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2018/11/best-highschool- tv-shows-on-netflix.html

Heurto, A. (2018). “The Fosters” Season Premiere Shows How You Can Support Immigrant Families. National Immigration Law Center, January 9, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.nilc.org/2018/01/09/the-fostersseason- premier/

Kimmel, K. (2013). “Where You Belong”, The Fosters Theme. Kendall, B. (2018). Court rules against trump on DACA. Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2018. Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/docview/2131095722?accountid=14906

Paige, P. & Bredeweg, B.(2013). The Fosters. Blazing Elm Entertainment. [Netflix]. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com/search?q=the%20fosters&jbv=70281526&jbp=0&jbr=0

Paige, P. & Bredeweg, B. (2018). “Invisible.” The Fosters, season 5, episode 11, ABC Spark, 16 January 2018, Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/title/70281526

Paige, P. & Bredeweg, B. (2018). “#IWasMadeInAmerica.” The Fosters, season 5, episode 12, ABC Spark, 23 January 2018, Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/title/70281526

Paige, P. & Bredeweg, B. (2018). “Line in the Sand.” The Fosters, season 5, episode 13, ABC Spark, 30 January 2018, Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/title/70281526

Paige, P. & Bredeweg, B. (2018). “Prom.” The Fosters, season 5, episode 9, ABC Spark, 5 September 2017, Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/title/70281526

Paige, P. & Bredeweg, B. (2018). “Sanctuary.” The Fosters, season 5, episode 10, ABC Spark, 9 January 2018, Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/title/70281526

Turchiano, D. (2017). ‘The Fosters’ Season Finale Tackles Trump’s Anti-Immigration Policies. Variety, September 23, 2017. Retrieved from: https://variety.com/2017/tv/news/the-fosters-season-5-summer-finale-spoilers- 1202542937/

Walia, H. (2013). Undoing Border Imperialism. Oakland: AK Press.

Baseball is a Team Sport Played by Individuals or An Open Letter to Kevin Pillar

Kevin_Pillar_September_30,_2015

By Craig Fortier

Two weeks ago, I attended a Blue Jays game at SkyDome with my sister and brother-law and some of their friends.  We were seated in the first level near left field.  We could see Ezekiel Carrera’s terrible fielding up close, but it was also a great vantage point for us to watch Kevin Pillar be Superman. There is likely nothing more beautiful and elegant in all of baseball than watching a gifted, hard working, centerfielder track a ball in full stride and then leave the ground to float in the air in dramatic fashion to make a spectacular catch.  And Kevin Pillar, more than any other Blue Jay has gifted us with this.  I own a Kevin Pillar jersey – partly because of my sincere appreciation for his determination to emerge as a star defensive centerfielder after being drafted in the 32nd round who was given very little chance of making the big leagues.  Kevin Pillar has known struggle against adversity and long odds in his life.  I also own a Kevin Pillar jersey because of the strange coincidence that we bare somewhat of a likeness to each other (though admittedly I’m more like his shorter huskier older brother than his doppelgänger). 

And so it was to my disappointment that as a ball was hit to deep centre field, a large drunk white bro holding a small expensive looking purse about a dozen rows ahead of us decided it was time to stand up to encourage people in my section to do “the wave”. As a student of the game I have an irrational hate for the wave, but it is especially grating in times where a climactic moment in the game is about to take place. And as Pillar drifted deep in the outfield to make a great (not necessarily signature diving) play,  another large drunk white bro seated a couple rows behind me got up and screamed at the wave starter, “Sit down! Nice purse bro!” And…then in a more hushed tone that kind of tailed off… “Fag”.  I’m very sure that the wave bro never heard that last part, I’m clearly certain that neither Pillar nor Carrera heard it on the field. I don’t know that my sister or her friends heard it. And now I sit here typing this and can’t be sure if I even heard it…But I did hear it…and I slowly turned back and tried to identify the person who spoke those words in order to at least give a glare of disapproval.

The comment brought me back to all the times in little league that the word was used as the go-to pejorative on the field. Each time it would be spoken I would squirm and cringe from my position in centre field hoping that my gay father and his partner who were always seated up the baseline and away from the other parents at the game (they were the most likely to yell these homophobic slurs in the first place) didn’t hear it. I’m certain that they almost always did. And so it is with significant disappointment that I saw Kevin Pillar mouth that three letter word during a game with the Atlanta baseball team last night.  Let’s be clear, it was hard to hear what Pillar actually said with the continued racist “tomahawk chop” blaring from the speakers in the background as the predominantly white crowd (in a majority Black city) casually and deliberatively went through the hand chopping motion while singing a mockery of an Indigenous war chant.  But as this thoughtful column by Toronto-based baseball blogger Andrew Stoeten explained, Pillar’s post-game comments point to an admission of what he said and a knowledge that it was wrong, though perhaps, as Stoeten succinctly argues not necessarily an understanding of why it was wrong.

And herein lies the conundrum. Baseball is a team game played by individuals.  We succeed at baseball because we prioritize performing our individual roles to the best of our abilities (something that Pillar should be commended for) in order to support the greater team outcome.  That’s why my friend Umar is always preaching the virtues of small ball to me.  Bunting runners over, double steals, sacrifice flies may not always be statistically the best move to make, but these are plays that build the team-like environment that pushes all the players (and the fans cheering them on) to (in the spirit of 2016) #cometogether. But we also lose as a team and so when an incident takes place like the one last night, it’s perhaps just as important to reflect on our collective failures rather than any one individual’s egregious error.

So while Pillar’s transgression is an individual error that requires reflection, apology, and accountability and perhaps with last night’s post-game apology he’s at least on the way there,  we need to look at the use of the homophobic slur in terms of the culture of the game itself.  Baseball at the professional and recreational level continues to be a cesspool of toxic masculinity despite the significant work and progress made by feminist, queer, and trans* movements within sports.  So we need to certainly put Pillar’s use of the word “fag” in conversation with John Gibbon’s claim a couple seasons ago about ball players being forced to “wear dresses” or Yunel Escobar’s eye black that read in Spanish “Tu ere maricon”.  But we must also situate PIllar’s choice of insults in the stands of baseball stadiums. In the Major Leagues, minor leagues, recreational leagues, and little leagues fans use of racist, sexist, homophobic/transphobic insults are poured onto the field as frequently as beers are poured into their cups. But that’s still not enough. We also have to situate Pillar’s words on the fields of our recreational softball leagues where homophobic taunts are still prevalent, outfielders encroach onto the infield when someone read as women or femme comes up to bat or when teams are made fun of for having more than the minimum number of women on a team or having a team that includes trans* and gender non-binary folks. This was the experience of our recreational softball team, the Uncertainty, for 10 years in Toronto’s mainstream softball leagues.  And so after significant amount of work challenging these individual transgression in a culture of toxic masculinity, we decided it was time to form a league of our own. 

But let’s get back to Pillar for a moment.  Yes, we should ask that Pillar continue to do work to be held to account for the problematic nature of his statement.  We should reject the inevitable pushes from the mainstream media and MLB that will try to force this player to take the fall for something that is endemic and systemic not only on the field but in the media booth as well!  We should push back against the narrative that these words were “offensive” – that’s not the important thing here – these words were the toxic masculine heteronormative and patriarchal underbelly of baseball culture made visible.  The problem is why the word “fag” was on the tip of Pillar’s tongue in a moment of anger and frustration in the first place.  Yes, it was a hurtful thing said by a single person and addressed to a specific target (Atlanta pitcher Jason Motte) and Pillar did the right thing in apologizing to him.  But this is a cultural issue in baseball that because of this transgression Pillar is now in a position to actively challenge.  Adam Jones has been at the forefront of doing this work against the racist culture in baseball and perhaps Kevin Pillar can use this incident as a moment of action as well.  But we fans and rec players don’t have to wait on Pillar to be Superman for us here! We can start the work of challenging this culture ourselves.  All it takes is building the environments in our little leagues, our rec leagues, in the stands, and in the media that identifies and seeks to move beyond the cesspool of toxic masculinity. It requires some humility on the part of folks who have admittedly themselves used such pejoratives in the past – to be accountable and work for change. To transform a culture that pushes people out of sport, a culture that makes people feel like they can never develop the proper mechanics to throw a ball because they are genetically deficient, a culture that says that you can’t steal a base wearing a skirt.  In our new league, we can show you that none of these things are true.

So let’s leave this as an open invitation to Kevin Pillar or any other MLB player that you are welcome to come out to play in our queer/non gender binary recreational softball league.  We can’t guarantee you 95 mph fast balls, but we can offer it as a learning experience. Let’s also leave this as a notice to everyone else in baseball culture that we are organizing to change shit and y’all need to step up or cede space…because a revolution is brewing on the backfields of Toronto.

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