Last week, we talked about the film, Avatar, and how it is essentially an intergalactic retelling of the indigenous genocide that has happened repeatedly in society's history. Midway through writing that post, I found myself off on a tangent about language. After a half-hour of writing, I realized the whole diatribe was a separate idea that deserved to be treated in its own post, so I clipped it and saved it for this week.
The point: The language we use to talk about people can serve either to bring us together or push us apart. This othering language is clear in Avatar, but it's also present in many other spaces. I probably wouldn't have known to frame it in this way if I hadn't recently read Brené Brown's post on dehumanizing language, but now that I've seen it I notice it everywhere.
Listen to how the Colonel describes the Na'vi in the film. He uses words like savages and blue monkeys, summarizing their customs by saying, "We tried to give them medicine, education, roads, but they like mud."
The purpose of using this kind of language is to dehumanize the enemy so you feel better about doing all the horrific things you're about to do to them. In the context of the film, the Colonel needs to other the native population in order to feel justified in forcing them out of the area, destroying the land they call home, and ultimately killing them. The more he separates the Na'vi from the humans, the more the rest of the team is encouraged to do the same, and the more easily they can convince themselves their mission is acceptable - nay, laudable.
But, of course, this tactic reaches much farther than a little film from twelve years ago.
Colonizers and enslavers consistently used this kind of dehumanizing language to view those they systematically murdered and forced out of their homes as less than human. If the "Indians" were "savages," if Africans were "primitive," if these people could be seen as animals incapable of reasoning rather than strong humans with a sophisticated religious and social structure (albeit different from what the Europeans were used to) then it would be easier to conquer them using otherwise unthinkable actions.
As Michelle Maiese (quoted by Brown in the above article) says, this has the effect of making others "seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment."
The colonizers died hundreds of years ago, but this kind of othering language and imagery extends in both directions.
From biblical interpretations that dehumanize members of the LGBTQIA+ community, to Nazi propaganda that showed Jews at rats, to our former president's use of words like "dog," "animal," and "infest" to describe his opponents or immigrants, to the language used by people in some online groups like "libtards" and "lemmings," we use this language either consciously or unconsciously to separate our targets from ourselves. And it's become ever easier to do this in the age of the internet, when we can sling insults back and forth without even having to look people in the face.
This type of shorthand only serves to drive further wedges between us and the people who don't share our beliefs. In these fraught times, particularly in the USA but also in many other parts of the globe, we are in real danger of shriveling into self-contained pods with no meaningful contact, each viewing the others as less than human - thus fueling a self-feeding cycle of dehumanization and misunderstanding.
How can we get out of this dilemma? The same way we got into it: Language.
Recognize when you or someone else is using words that serve to separate another group from yours. Change your framework. Consider that most people are doing the best they can, making the best decisions they know how, with the information they have.
Seek to understand people who are different from you, and help them understand you and the experiences that have shaped your beliefs. Even if you think you know what they're all about, and even if you are certain neither of your beliefs will change, it's likely that by asking and answering questions, you'll learn more about the wide range of experiences people in this world have. Chances are good that you'll both walk away with a more human view of the other.
And this is what we need more of in this ever-evolving, interconnected world. Not more hatred and alienation.
More understanding, please. More humanity. I promise, we'll all be better for it.
This is probably old news to some of you, and so I apologize in advance for being (*checks watch*) 12 years behind the times. Ahead of the upcoming sequel scheduled to be released in late 2022, though, many of you might consider rewatching the original Avatar film. If and when you do, you'll probably notice all the things I'm going to mention here, and more.
Avatar came out the year I moved from the Bay Area back to New England, and I'm positive I watched it. I had been working professionally for five years. I wasn't exactly a child. So I'm not sure what reason I have not to have noticed it the first time around:
This movie is basically just an interplanetary retelling of the systematic genocide of indigenous populations.
The film was long. Maybe I fell asleep. I don't remember much of it. It didn't affect me at the time.
But then, a decade later, I took my kids to Disney World. The Animal Kingdom theme park had recently opened Pandora, the world in which the movie Avatar takes place, and let me tell you - that place is magical. There are a couple really great rides based on the movie, but also there's just a sense of peace you get in Pandora that I want to bottle up and take with me. All the fictional plants from the film are represented, and the place is so immersive. I'm swooning just thinking about it.
When we got home, I decided to take another look at the film, and what I saw was a hauntingly familiar story.
People show up in an unfamiliar land. They find some valuable natural resources there. Only problem is, there is an entire civilization living atop those natural resources. So what do they do?
They study the inhabitants, the Na'vi. They send a few emissaries to build relationships. The job of these emissaries is to convince the Na'vi to leave the only home they've ever known. And when the Na'vi refuse to move, the people decide to go full scorched earth, destroying the world and taking what they want anyway.
Reminds me of the "explorers" who decided anything they found during their explorations belonged to them. Land, where indigenous people had lived for generations, taken in the name of a country with an entirely different view of humans' place in the world. Men judging the behaviors of people they didn't understand, convincing themselves they were superior so they could justify murdering the indigenous population, destroying their home and sacred artifacts, and (in the case of colonizers here on earth) enslaving them.
If the colonizers were ignorant (and I don't believe they were) the humans in Avatar knew exactly what they were doing. As Giovanni Ribisi's character, Parker Selfridge, put it, "Killing the indigenous looks bad, but there's one things shareholders hate more than bad press and that's a bad quarterly statement."
In other words, the murder of an entire civilization and destruction of their homeland is justified as long as someone else gets rich. The parallels just don't stop.
I'm going to admit something here. I was always horrible at reading tests in school. Part of the reason is that I never understood the difference between theme and main idea. Only after becoming a writer, writing a bunch of stuff, and then having to rewrite it so it collected logically around a theme, did I come to understand what a theme is and why it's important. And now I can't unsee them - in books and movies, but also in real life.
Themes of oppressing others to get yourself rich seem to be recurring quite literally everywhere these days. Right there alongside the repetition of history that celebrates individualism above all else, creating a world where people view happiness and prosperity like pie: If my neighbor gets a piece of it, there's not as much left for me.
It's greed, pure and simple. And it makes me wonder what allegory the sequel will bring.
Have you seen any movies lately that are allegories for things that have really happened? How have they helped you understand the world?
Oh, do I have a treat for you today. One of my favorite authors is joining us for a Q&A session!
Meg Elison is a multiple award-winning novelist, essayist, and badass woman. Some of my favorite works of hers are Hysteria (for obvious reasons, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time) and The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (affiliate link). Find her on on Twitter and Instagram (her feed is gorgeous and worth following), and at her website.
It was amazing chatting with Meg. I found myself nodding along to so many of her answers, as she has a way of putting to words things I think but don't know how to say.
I'm going to hand it over to Meg. Enjoy!
Q: Who are you? If you're meeting people for the first time, how do you introduce yourself? What can people tell by just being in the room with you?
I always say I'm a writer, and I always tell people to call me Meg. I'm Ms. Elison to nobody. Being in the room with me, people know I'm very fat and very fashionable. I'm highly social and shockingly verbal. I talk fast, make jokes, and I love getting people to tell me their stories.
Q: We already know you're a fantastic writer. What else do you enjoy doing?
I love dancing! I take dance breaks when I'm writing. I also sing-- catch me at karaoke at almost any convention. I love museums; I would totally run away to the Met like those kids in that book. I'm a mean cook and I make drinks that'll knock you on your ass. I go to a lot of literary events, when there isn't a plague on. I love readings and poetry and panel talks. I get to four or five every month.
Q: What comes to you first when you begin a writing project? Is it a specific character? A world? A mood?
I think of a new story like a tent. What I have first are the poles that hold it up: the big points, the turn, usually the ending. The expanse of fabric between them can come slowly, as long as I get those posts set first. I focus on events first, and from there character is very intuitive. I arrive in a moment and I look around to see what kind of folks are there. Then it's drape and stretch until we can't see the stars anymore.
Q: Your award-winning novel and series, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (The Road to Nowhere), is not a zombie story, but it did explore some of the same themes as The Walking Dead. Was this a conscious influence? What other work has influenced the kinds of writing you do?
I was influenced by The Walking Dead, for sure. We were at the height of the zombie craze when I started working, and I remember watching 28 Days Later over and over, as well. I don't find zombies compelling, but I find the struggle of people to survive in their own ruins very compelling indeed. I also couldn't get over how the actresses in these perilous places had perfect eyebrows and somehow shaved their legs. That seemed awfully telling to me.
Q: You write science fiction as well as feminist / cultural criticism essays. To some people, these might seem far apart, but I've come to see how connected they can be. How did you come to this orientation in your writing?
I started off as a journalist, which is a fine place for a writer to begin. You have to get in the middle of things and ask questions to be good at it; you have to be a talented observer and a transparent eyeball. That background disposed me to writing essays in opinion and arts, of course. The columns are longer and you get to spread out a bit. All writers have opinions about the world they inhabit and the art they consume. Some of us can keep quiet about it, but I rarely can.
Q: We've both written about artificial wombs becoming commercially available. What do you think the barriers would be to us achieving this sort of reproductive evolution as a society? What about the benefits and drawbacks?
The barriers to this kind of technology are fascinating and a total self-own. Gynecology and obstetrics are primitive medical sciences and research into the kinds of bodies that can get pregnant has always been low priority-- we didn't even have a full model of the clitoris until 2005. It's left off many medical diagrams of the vulva. We are decades or centuries away from being able to develop the artificial womb, because we don't know shit about the one we started with. The benefits could be amazing, allowing people without a uterus or with a disorder or who simply do not want to carry a pregnancy to do it with an adaptive aid. It could also help us decouple the idea of 'woman' and 'pregnancy,' not to mention taking a big bite of the gender binary as we go. If people regardless of gender can gestate a baby in a closet, if we stop defining childbearing as a gendered trait, how might we see ourselves? Would people seeking hysterectomy or oophorectomy have an easier time? Would birth control become less contentious, or abortion? The possibilities are endless. But we're gonna be on Mars before we have an artificial womb. Just look at how we treat those two things in research and the answer is clear.
Q: I've been focusing on designer babies and nursery wombs for 3 years, and I truly think some version of these will exist in the next hundred years. What other directions do you see human reproduction going?
I've been thinking that we're going to see more outsourcing of pregnancy and birth to the global underclass. This used to be something only the very wealthy did, but as agencies and private actors reach out into countries where surrogacy can be achieved at a fraction of the cost, it's becoming more accessible to the American middle class. Imagine if rich people never had to have their own babies. Many people have an intrinsic drive and won't be dissuaded from carrying their own, but many will opt to miss out on the risks, the permanent changes to the body, and of course the setback in career trajectory. Historically, feminized labor trickles down every time white women with money gain a little more power. This is the ultimate feminized labor, and I'm betting it goes the same way.
Q: As I observe the world, I've come to think dystopia is in the eye of the oppressed. Do you see any dystopian elements in today's society, and what do you think we can do about them, knowing there's a large group of people benefiting from maintaining the status quo?
Hell yeah we're already living in a dystopia. In several, in fact. Disabled people lose reproductive autonomy all the time and it's all sanctioned in our courts. People in two dozen states have no meaningful access to abortion care. Crisis pregnancy centers exist-- that's a whole Dick novel right there. People have been sterilized against their will and sometimes without even their knowledge by our state and other states, mostly for reasons of racism and eugenics. This stuff has all happened in our lifetimes, all happening right now. What can we do? We have to fight all the time. Every day. We have to fight to vote and keep the vote. We have to march in the street when nothing else gets us heard. We have to cough up money and volunteer time to escort people at Planned Parenthood. We have to stand up for the rights of trans and queer people, in person and in policy. We have to call our reps and demand they do better, vote them out and choke off their donors when they don't do better. We have to write books that make people think about this shit, and see it in the here and now. Look at how the repopularization of The Handmaid's Tale has opened the way for us to talk about all this. It opened up doors for women of color to point out that everything depicted in that story is old news to them; it radicalized white women to look at the churches and structures built on their backs and think about standing up. Art is part of the fight, too.
Q: Tell us about your favorite thing you've ever written.
This is hard-- I'm not the kind of writer who hates and cringes over their catalog. I like most of my work, and I'm very proud of most of it. For ease of access, I'll say it's this Shimmer story I wrote about a heaven for writers. It's elegiac and indulgent and makes RPF of some of my favorite writers. Come for history's first novelist (a woman) and stay for the polyamorous queers of English literature.
Q: How about your favorite thing you've ever read?
This is also hard, bordering on impossible. I read "The Fifth Sacred Thing" at exactly the right moment in my life. It showed me who I wanted to be: where I should live, what fight I should be fighting, what kind of people I wanted to surround myself. It's also radically nonviolent in a way that I want to believe can be real. I still hold this book close to my core, even as I become disillusioned in every way.
Q: What are you working on right now that really excites you?
I am working on a horror novel about evil dentists, and I am incredibly into it. I've been thumbing my own memories of dental horror and asking for people to tell me theirs. It's a deep well of bloody water.
Q. How did you get into writing and what was your first piece?
I won an Arbor Day poetry contest in fourth grade. I got published and my poem was read aloud to the student body. I felt like King Kong on cocaine and I have been chasing that feeling ever since.
Q. How do you see your own character arc and growth as a writer?
This one I'm saving for my memoir-- it's a whopper.
Q: Vampires or werewolves?
Vampires all the way. I like the aesthetic and an adherence to blood having its way with us all more than I like inconvenient dogs.
Q. Do you have any advice for writers on staying motivated at all parts of the process, from drafting to editing to querying and publication?
The thing that has always motivated me is reading the mediocre say-nothing horseshit that gets published all the time. The thing that cranks my motor is looking at stuff that got a deal, that made money, and knowing that I can do better. Spite keeps a writer alive.
Q. How would you fare in a zombie apocalypse?
I'm a planner and I tend to see the writing on the wall before it goes up in ink. I know how to get to an island not too far away, and I'm a good shot. I won't die in the first wave. However, if my survival ever depends on running a mile in less than ten minutes or climbing a rope, I'm zombie snacks.
You can probably see why I thoroughly enjoyed this interview. In addition to being enamored by her writing, I've really enjoyed getting to know Meg as a person.
How about you? Would you be zombie meat? Would you use an artificial womb? How do you beat the disillusionment that beats us over the head on the daily? Who would you like to hear from next? Tell us below and don't forget to join the club for extras and exclusives!
As I walk up the shoreline with my son, I catch myself stealing glimpses at the other women. As if I should be taking a cue from them . As if anything good could come from measuring myself against someone whose story I don't know.
I know better, yet I can't help seeing the others as somehow more worthy than I.
My bathing suit is a two-piece, but it’s the kind with a tank top. Surely bikinis and navel rings belong on only the smoothest and the flattest of bodies. Not one like mine, all doughy and shredded up and down by stretch marks. I wouldn't want to offend anyone.
But it's so hot.
The sun, high in the sky and unobstructed, caresses my arms; my legs; my chest. The salty spray blows past me, cooling me off. The rest of my skin craves this connection.
I break my gaze from everyone else, look down at myself for a change. Surgical scars run down the length of each big toe and stop just short of my flip-flop tan. My calf is home to a varicose vein that ruptured when I was 40 weeks pregnant with my youngest daughter, leaving me with a baseball-sized bruise until long after she was born. My knees are dotted with a series of neat arthroscopic crosses. My thighs rub together as I walk. I can't remember the last time I shaved my legs. The pads of fat between my armpits and my chest peek out from the straps of my top. I roll my arms from side to side, revealing the burns I’ve accumulated over years of careless cooking.
All these small details combine to make my body my own. I've never considered covering my feet, or my forearms, or the mole at my throat.
So why would I cover the evidence that my body did the most amazing thing it's ever done?
My tummy is pillowy and carved into an intricate lacework of stretch marks — symbols of the three best things about me. And it deserves to see the light of day just as much as my arm or my leg or my chest.
I roll up my tank top and tuck it in under my breasts, leaving my back and belly to drink up the rays.
I look around once more. Are they staring at me? Shaking their heads? Whispering?
I search for some confirmation that I’ve got no right to be walking around like this.
I find none.
Instead, my view widens and I see what I couldn’t before. Bellies and chests and legs and feet and faces of all kinds dot the landscape: tattooed and pristine; cushiony and muscular; hairy and smooth.
They wear bikinis and one-pieces and Speedos and swim trunks, following no obvious pattern. To me, they all just look like normal human bodies. If they’re preoccupied with the way their skin shifts when they lean over to pick up something from the ground, I can’t tell. And it doesn't seem like any of them have noticed me, either. To them, my body is just one of a thousand out here on the beach. Nothing remarkable and nothing to be ashamed of.
I bend down and pick up a crab's carapace from the surf, not bothering to hide the rolls that form when I bend over and flatten out when I stand. I hand the shell to my little boy and he shrieks with glee before scampering along to find more of them.
I realize I'm smiling. I breathe in, allowing the warmth from the sky to seep into my skin - stretch marks and all. And, just for a moment, I am free.