So there’s a big bruhaha (brou-ha-ha? brew-haha? whatever) blowing up in the feminist and indie-arts blogospheres about Amanda Palmer’s latest project with Jason Webley, promoted as Evelyn Evelyn (or the Neville Sisters). You can read the history of Evelyn Evelyn here, followed by the recap and Amanda’s response to the big dramz here. Basically though, in a nutshell, Evelyn Evelyn is Amanda and Jason, in costume, playing music. They present themselves as conjoined-twin sisters with an apparently disturbing past (I say “apparently” because the backstory content was edited out of Amanda’s blog before I could read it – the full backstory, according to Amanda and Jason, will be revealed on the album that EE is releasing 3/30, and judging by the comments I’ve read today, the EE history includes exploitation and child pornography). The feminist reaction to the project, specifically the disabled feminist reaction, is that Amanda and Jason are insensitive, ableist, and awful, basically. There is a lot of discussion and debate taking place on Amanda’s and Jason’s blogs as well as the feminist blogs about why EE is offensive, about art vs. identity, about misappropriation and misrepresentation of disability, and a lot more. It’s pretty complicated, honestly, despite the feminist insistence that it’s not.
A good round of up the feminist blogstuff here.
With all that’s being said about this topic already, I seriously considered just STFUing about it. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s important for me to post about it – even if it’s only important to me. One of the ways my blog has served me well for the past six years is to provide a good sense of where I have been at any particular moment in time – I’ve been able to follow my progress from a fairly traditionalist, conservative wife to an uber-liberal partner in a lesbian relationship. So if for no other reason, I’m blogging this to draw a line in the sand for myself. But I digress.
In the interest of full disclosure, I identify as all of the following things: feminist, artist (poet), able-bodied, white, cis-gendered, bisexual, Amanda Palmer fan. More as it becomes relevant, I’m sure. (If you don’t know what any of those terms mean, remember that Google is your friend.) I can safely be accused of being some sort of -ist, and I will likely own it too. I know I have a significant amount of privilege, and I also know that I have a credible sense of otherness.
Lots of things about this intricate debate bother me, but I’m going to say right up front that I’m not particularly interested in refuting or supporting any specific examples of the feminist argument. I want to make it clear that for possibly the first time in my recent uber-liberal-awakened life, the artist in me has overwhelmed the feminist in me, and I’m choosing – after thinking it through pretty thoroughly – to “side” (if you will) with the artist. I just want to touch on a few ideas that I’ve seen floating around the blogs:
Comparing victimology / otherness is an appropriate way to talk about this situation.
I’m seeing a lot of comments (from both sides of the debate) that liken Amanda’s and Jason’s portrayal of Evelyn Evelyn to alternate forms of otherness and the portrayal of otherness – drag queens, blackface, gender, sexuality, different kinds of disability and survivor identity. While I entirely understand the importance of being able to draw on like experiences and to draw parallels for the sake of conversation, my observation is that’s not what’s actually happening here. In the quest to either defend or revile the character of Amanda and Jason, I think people are rushing to come up with examples that they see as most closely supportive of their particular perspective. I’m not convinced that it’s ever appropriate to compare victimology/otherness in such a way. For example: some of the comments in this thread talk about the concept of blackface, and how this particular art project is just as offensive as blackface. I disagree with that perspective for a couple of reasons, one of which is the next point I want to discuss. I think, too, that people are choosing to see certain things about Amanda and Jason (more specifically Amanda, though, it appears) in order to have her public persona more closely aligned with their particular opinion of her. Again, it’s happening on both sides of the debate, and on both sides, it’s just as nauseating.
Intention is irrelevant.
This is something I hear a lot in the feminist world (and in the HR world, actually) – it doesn’t matter if a person had good intentions, it doesn’t matter if they didn’t realize what they were doing was offensive, they need to be punished for perpetrating some offensive behavior. To a certain extent, I understand this – it is, without doubt, very important to consider the perspective of those people who are exploited, insulted or offended. However, I think intention is absolutely relevant to any situation – especially when it comes to meting out punishment. I believe there is a truly significant difference between a well-intentioned attempt to create some significant conversation through controversial art, and an ill-intentioned, malicious attempt to seek personal gain through the exploitation of someone else’s life. I really believe that Amanda and Jason were attempting the former, not the latter – and it looks to me, in light of all the postings, like they have succeeded to some extent in creating that conversation.
I think, too, it’s important to show that people who are conscious of otherness are honestly interested in a universal understanding of the nuances of any particular otherness. Of course, this in itself is a complicated idea; it’s tiring for people who are disabled, or feminist, or trans, or gay, to constantly feel obligated to educate anyone who doesn’t already know the dynamics and politics of these specific identities. Too, I think there’s a peculiar kind of entitlement that comes with being able to claim an identity of otherness. I think it’s born of defensiveness in a lot of cases, and many people who have this particular kind of entitlement either don’t realize it, or refuse to acknowledge it, perhaps because they fear it will somehow negate their experience of discrimination. The problem here is that this sense of entitlement (which can really be called another kind of privilege, actually) is just as likely to turn people off as “regular” privilege is to turn off people who are aware of otherness.
Independent experience > art.
A very common theme here is that artistic expression is not as valuable or as valid as individual experience. The way it comes out, mostly, is to say things like “Stop saying ‘it’s just art,’ because that’s not a good reason for us not to be offended.” I think many people who feel offended about a scenario are unable (and feel they shouldn’t be required) to remember that there is another side to the story. People automatically want to validate an individual experience or perception without considering the perspective of the artist. While I understand the urge to validate the individual, I really believe – especially in this instance – that it’s not so black and white. Artistic expression is a valid way of living, something that non-artists often have a difficult time understanding. For a lot of artists (myself included), the creative urge is difficult to ignore and/or control – for me, it’s a compelling drive inside me that tends to consume most of my thoughts until I satisfy the urge. It’s a different method of experiencing and exploring life, and it seems arrogant to me to say that any one person’s experience is more valid than another person’s. The arrogant part is the implication that any one person can speak for or decide what is the best course of action for any other one person – and that’s exactly what’s happening here, when we say, “Calling it ‘art’ is not good enough, that doesn’t make it ok.” I think it does make it ok to a certain extent, because each person places a different value on each individual experience, and how that experience is talked about, relived, or expressed.
If it’s offensive to me, then it’s absolutely wrong.
What a nice segue, really, because that arrogance leads right into this kind of perspective. One of the things people so often seem to forget is that not everyone has the same sensor – some members of the disabled community, for instance, are offended by the EE project, and others are not. Just as some rape survivors are offended by Amanda’s song “Oasis,” and some are not. Just as some people are offended by Sarah Silverman and some are not, and so on down the line: Katy Perry and “I Kissed A Girl,” the movie Chasing Amy, Sally Mann and Immediate Family. But there’s such a strong tendency to make generalizing statements, to declare that one particular perspective is right and all others are faulty. In the course of debate, it seems people really forget to recognize that others are absolutely entitled to hold a different perspective, and it doesn’t make them bad people.
Because you are famous, I get to comment on your personal life.
I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that there’s so much of this going on, but I was a bit shocked. I’ve seen comments purporting to understand the intention and meaning behind EE from people who clearly don’t know Amanda or Jason at all (again, on both sides of the debate), as well as commentary on the relationship between Neil and Amanda, what this means about each of them as individuals, and how their public and private personas affect their own and each other’s art in a negative or positive way. What’s really clear through all of this is the fact that people feel very entitled to pass judgment about the situation based on their experiences as fans, and they forget that Amanda and Neil and Jason are actual, live people who only show you what they want to.
Side note: as I am typing this paragraph, my twitter feed popped up tweets from Amanda’s assistant, Beth. The tweets read as follows:
if you write to a celebrity threatening to show up to confront them about something in person, you’ve crossed the line. no matter how righteous you feel your anger is, you’ve now ensured that a weary assistant will spend her AM sorting extra security.
If this is not the most perfect, amazing example of what I was just trying to explain, I don’t know what is. You don’t get to invade someone’s privacy simply because that someone performs, in some way, for the public. You do not own celebrities, and therefore it is entirely inappropriate to purport that you a) know what’s best for them, b) can make them do/say anything to acknowledge that, or c) can have access to them physically just because you say so. WTF, people?!
Amanda Palmer owes the disabled community an apology and/or some evidence that she’s learned something from this.
This seems to be a pretty common thought. But guess what? Amanda owes you nothing. She owes me nothing. She makes art, which she chooses to share with the public – and we choose to consume it or not. She has already done more than most artists by engaging directly with the public over this issue, via her blog, email, twitter feed, and her staff. It seems that there is a significant outcry for Amanda to demonstrate that she “learned” something about the experience of being disabled and how to address it through this EE debate. But really, she owes nothing to anyone.
We, as the public, don’t get to dictate the behavior of celebrities. We try so hard, though – and here, I think Amanda in particular is being held to an incredibly high standard of behavior. Not only is she expected to not insult people, but when she does, she is expected to immediately stop what she’s doing and shift course. She is expected to demonstrate a new level of comprehension and clarity of mind around the insult delivered, and no regard is given to what this actually means for her as a person.
I wasn’t sure why exactly this whole thing touched such a nerve with me – often I can see both sides of the debate. Here, though, I really feel the artist is getting unnecessarily punished. I don’t expect everyone will agree with me, and that’s totally fine, of course. If you’re going to comment, just remember: although I consider myself a feminist, this is not a feminist-centric blog. I don’t claim to represent anyone in particular, or to share the views of anyone in particular. Also, I don’t believe in censorship – so I’ll let whatever comments come in here stand, though I will only respond to the ones that move me to do so.