Manning conclusively announced her gender identity on Thursday. So why is the press ignoring her?
Chelsea Manning, the whistle-blower sentenced to 35 years in military prison for leaking classified documents, released a statement on Thursday to announce that she identifies as female and intends to begin hormone therapy as part of her gender transition. Manning also requested that the public refer to her by her chosen name, Chelsea, and adopt feminine pronouns to describe her.
But the media isn’t listening.
Manning released her statement to the “Today” show, but while covering the story the network had been granted exclusive rights to tell, host Savannah Guthrie referred to Manning as “her” and “him” interchangeably.
Manning’s gender identity had been bubbling beneath the surface of her trial beginning around 2010, when her lawyers introduced evidence, through emails and chats, that the young Army private had been struggling with her gender identity (“my problem,” as she called it in one email to a former supervisor), but reports on how Manning identified were conflicting and often inconclusive. Some outlets (including this one) described her as transgender, others identified her as gay, but mostly continued to use masculine pronouns when writing about her. This was in part due to a lack of concrete information regarding how Manning identified, but also because of the fact that the mainstream press is troublingly mystified by (and, more often than not, openly hostile to) transgender rights.
But after Thursday’s announcement, there is no excuse.
Manning has made her identity clear. She has made her request clear. To ignore these facts while reporting them is not just bad journalism — it’s utterly bigoted.
But these failures in reporting have not gone unchecked. There is a growing chorus of transgender rights advocates rallying for accountability from major news outlets. Formal complaints have been submitted to the BBC and the New York Times, and this conversation, probably the most mainstream discussion the press has had to date about transgender identity and the importance of respectful (and truthful) use of pronouns and chosen names, could very well set an important precedent for future coverage of transgender issues.
I remember hearing early on when this story began that Manning was transgender, but it always seemed like an afterthought and no details were presented. The media presentation was always of a man named Bradley Manning who leaked the documents, and there was no discussion about Manning’s gender apart from that.
Of course, her gender has nothing to do with the ethics or legality of her actions. But what we’re seeing now, apart from generalized antipathy to transgender people, is the media’s insistence on sticking to the “Bradley” narrative, rather than a new “Chelsea” narrative. In the former, Manning’s announcement is at most an interesting twist (good for ratings?) On the established story. But granting the reality of her claim changes the story and makes it more about human rights than about the legal issues in her case. They just don’t want to talk about that, because that might make them look like liberals or something.
Tumbling over the past year and a half has made me see the problems of gender roles that exist in media, but sometimes it gets to the point where I over analyze every single piece of television or film that I come across. (However this in no way means that I think feminist media criticism is wrong, or should be avoided!) Mostly I just over think everything.
This is awesome!
I’m always worried about this too.
On the importance of Magical Girl Heroines & Weaponized Femininity:
Let me start by saying that officially speaking, Sailor Moon is older than I am. I started watching while living in Singapore while I was four, so I definitely came in around the end of Sailor Moon R and watched Sailor Moon S despite the fact that it was played in Japanese with Chinese subtitles. When I moved back to the States, Sailor Moon started being released and aired in sub and dub form and being young and happy to actually hear a language I understood with a show I already liked, I watched the dubs. They’re not the shining star of any animated dub, but I went back several times as I got older, and rewatched the series, in dubs, in subs, all 200 episodes. I changed my self-identified scout, I understood what got cut out of the show, what was censored, I went back and relived my crush on Tuxedo Mask again…and again. In terms of “formative media” Sailor Moon is probably near the top of the list. I still have the sticker book I had when I was 5/6 that has a page dedicated to these magical girls, and they’ve been with me a lot longer than almost anything else, including Harry Potter, Avatar: the Last Airbender, and most other narratives, superhero, fantasy, or otherwise.
When I got the chance last year, I showed one of my girl cousins (who was twelve) the first episode of Sailor Moon. She came back to me about a week or so later and was maybe thirty episodes into the series, bursting with excitement over everything and every one.
I stopped to think about how much that meant to me. Then I thought a little harder. One of my best friends gave me an opportunity to cosplay as Sailor Scouts, and I leapt at the chance. I accidentally stumbled across the newer series Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and marathoned all twelve episodes. Then I made my best friend watch it.
Why does Mahou Shoujo stick with us? The show I loved when I was six is something I love when I’m twenty, and something my cousin who is a tween also loves. For that matter, Puella Magi is, essentially, an update of the classic Magical Girl story, with some genre subversions thrown in. What makes magical girls so important?
It clicked, today, and I think I’m stating the obvious here, when I say I didn’t get a whole hell of a lot of Female Coming of Age narratives in school, in the media, or otherwise. The word bildungsroman is practically synonymous with “story about a young boy who grows up”. It’s not that I can’t relate to those narratives - I can - it’s just that they’re not about me.
The Magical Girl genre is essentially a genre which explores the female Heroine’s arc, the female coming of age story, and the womanhood narrative with varying degrees of success or failure — but it gets explored. I’d be hard pressed to name a whole lot of series that allow women to play every single archetypal role in the heroic book the way say, Sailor Moon does. Because Usagi Tsukino is a regular girl who is sort of clumsy and a bit of a bad student, but kind and loving and sweet. She is the “regular young girl” who begins a journey into becoming a powerful woman. She might initially play at being the virginal Princess type, but let’s face it — her future child drops out of the sky, and there’s never any sort of real play at insinuating she’s a bad person because she grows up. Usagi is a Warrior, a Queen, a Mother, a Lover, a Friend, a Sister - the Heroine of the story. She saves her own boyfriend/consort’s ass regularly from the bad guys. Essentially, she’s the hero, and the story is about her.
It’s more complex than that, of course. Her weapons are pink and shiny and come in the form of compacts and wands with heart and moon shapes. She wears a sailor fuku, she’s got long flowing hair, she’s feminine, beautiful, and when she doesn’t trip first, she’s going to kick your ass in the name of the moon (and love and justice). Being a girl is her weapon. Being feminine and a woman is her weapon. Some of the other Scouts have other presentations of themselves and their genders, but that’s just it - womanhood and girlhood, and gender, and sexuality, and so on — has a spectrum. It’s all there.
Now look at Puella Magi. At only twelve episodes it packs a hard punch, and it’s so easy to claim that Kyubey represents the devil, with a contract waiting to be made to essentially use your soul to fight witches. This claim that the narrative is Faustian isn’t wholly wrong, but I’d argue it’s not all there is either.
Kyubey isn’t the devil. Kyubey is the society we live in, which takes up and preys on young girls at vulnerable times in their lives, and asks them to be perfect. Society asks girls to fight against evil, the icky, awful, and impure, and it keeps asking until we say yes. Yes to being beautiful, and perfect, and good, and pure, and sweet, yes to being a nice young lady, yes to fighting everything that is bad and evil and dangerous - to fighting the things that threaten us and our friends.
Except there’s a catch. We’re fighting ourselves. What they don’t tell you, society, or Kyubey in this metaphor, is that there is no way to prevent yourself from becoming what you started out fighting. You lose, in this scenario, every time. At some point, a young, “emotionally volatile” girl grows up and becomes a woman. One day, you hit puberty, or maybe you haven’t yet, and someone leers at you, or looks at you wrong, or calls after you and you are suddenly made aware of the fact that being a woman is dangerous. Growing up means something incredibly different for girls than it does boys.
And this is something Kyubey himself says, and the implications of it are astounding. Girls become women. Magical girls become witches. There’s no stopping it, the process happens whether you want it to or not. You grow up, sure, but there’s a reason for it. Sayaka Miki fights relentlessly against the evils she sees in the world, but she becomes obsessed with her imperfections and failures, she berates herself for falling short of her own standards, and for standards thrust upon her, and she literally can not win. The standards are always changing, they can’t be met, they’re meant to keep you fighting, but only in a certain way, only the way society wants you to. Sayaka loses her cool, she overhears some men say awful, horribly misogynistic and sexist things about their ‘girlfriends’ on a train, and she loses it. Sayaka reacts to the endless stream of hatred and misogyny set up in a patriarchal society that has been asking her to fight against women who failed to met society’s expectations and while we don’t see the results of her losing her cool on the train directly, we can all imagine that she could have beaten these men up, or she could have killed them. In the end, the result doesn’t matter. The losing her temper does.
You become a witch or a bitch the day you fight back. And even if you don’t fight back, you’re going to become a witch or a bitch eventually. That’s the unfortunate truth of growing up female — sooner or later, society will betray you. And while you might not become Walpurgisnacht, it can be as simple as a hiss in your ear, or a seething message in your inbox. You’re an emotionally out of control girl, you’re evil, you’re bad, you’re a slut, a whore, or a bitch, or hysterical, or over reacting. You become a woman in a society that hates women. And if and when you react, you get tossed straight into the bin of evil terrible things.
Puella Magi is a story about young teenager girls who, while exploring who they are as people, their sexualities, their lives, their desires, hopes, wants, wishes, and dreams — find out that society is going to see them as shitty monstrous plagues upon the world sooner or later. And you can try to stop it, or take it back, or hold out hope, or you can lose your unholy shit and hit back. You can say the idea of witches is complete and utter bullshit, and women and girls don’t deserve that fate. You can fight against it, you can be Madoka Kaname, or Usagi Tsukino and you can fight against people who prey on other girls and women for having anything special or bright about them and try to make it something terrible or wrong.
Magical Girl stories are stories about growing up and becoming a woman, and protecting other women, saving other women, following desires and dreams and wishes and then kicking the bad guys in the face with your high heeled boots. The weapon is womanhood and girlhood and your sexuality because that’s the weapon society gave you and told you you were going to hurt yourself with it. Except the thing is, you don’t have to hurt yourself. You can protect yourself, and your friends, and your ideas, and feelings, and some days, yes, you fall down on your knees and sob messily because you can’t defeat every bad guy on your own, or ever, or alone - but goddamnit you have the ability to take power in your agency and who you are. Society doesn’t OFTEN tell girls that. We don’t often get the message that who we are is okay, acceptable, powerful, or amazing, much less that it’s also okay if we don’t succeed every single time. We know the fight is a part of our lives, but survival is the minimum. Getting stories about winning beyond that is amazing.
This is why I cringe when people complain loudly that there aren’t “Magical Boy” series for them to watch. To start with, there are already several series that involve young boys transforming with magical powers and skirts/wands/sparkles/etc. There’s also an abundance of already available fantasy male heroes who start off on Hero’s journeys that describe the process of growing up and becoming a “man” in society. Magical Girls are a genre that rely on a female narrative, on becoming a woman, on relative experiences of love and sex and dreams and wishes that are influenced by the treatment of women in society. That doesn’t mean men can enjoy these stories, or relate to them, or that people who don’t fall in the binary gender spectrum can’t relate to them (on the contrary, there’s a lot of reliability in not “fitting” gender roles or expectations in the series I’ve just mentioned), it just means that this genre is built on something very specific to a narrative that is not male dominated, that isn’t a male narrative. There’s, uh, a reason why Mamoru Chiba is the major male love interest, and why PMMM features one male love interest who ends up with someone else. The ability to find WOC and QWOC in Magical girl series is also a big part of the genre, and pushes the majority of the focus on female pleasure rather than the dudes. Yes, the Male Gaze exists in much of the genre, but… Tuxedo Mask is also clearly a young girl’s dream man. So is Sailor Uranus. The crushes and loves are often more fluid than they would be elsewhere, and equally important, they’re not in the perspective of Prize/Not prize and give an active role to the women in the relationships.
Magical Girls are important to real girls because they tell us stories about ourselves and our powers, and we need them, because girls need to see themselves as heroes and saviors too.
Why is a movie (or book, or tv show) free of all blame if you hate it or feel bad because of it, but worthy of infinite praise if it makes you feel better?
I follow waltdisneyconfessions, which is an amusing blog for Disney fans, but there are occasionally confessions that twist me the wrong way, and they are generally the ones directed at fellow ‘confessors’. In a broader sense, several confessors say things like: “[disney character] makes me feel better about my race/hair colour/forehead size/whatever” or “the lack of disney characters of my race/body size/hair colour/style makes me feel worse”. To the first one, most people are positive. Those negative tend to say something like “you shouldn’t need a movie/tv show to validate some aspect of your personality or appearance”, but they are generally the minority and are generally received with mixed response (though there are a fair few who seem to see nothing wrong with every princess being white, skinny, blonde, and perfect - problematic in itself, but not the topic of my unpopular opinion).
It’s the latter’s response that bothers me. Well, it’s the same response. You don’t need a movie to validate X, Y, Z, blah, blah, blah. But it’s the response to those that seems problematic. To take a recent example from waltdisneyconfessions, this post from a fat person confesses that they find the beauty of the disney princesses to be a reflection of their inner beauty, and they are fond of that, and it makes them sad that some people (other posters who are upset at the lack of a fat princess, presumably) don’t get that same message. The response has mostly been “fucking finally! someone smart! someone who doesn’t blame the media for how they perceive themselves!”
Another confession recently said something similar to that response: people who get depressed because of Disney movies, feel worse about themselves because of Disney movies, etc., etc. are petty, or take things too seriously. That getting a strong negative reaction from media is something dumb, something to blame the confessor for and something that they should just be able to ‘get over’. But if somebody feels better for themselves because of Disney, is made happier because of Disney, these people are to be lauded, hugged, appreciated. Disney is a hero!
This is broader than Disney of course, I merely use the example because of its prominence on the aforementioned tumblr. Media, in general. It’s okay for a movie to be something you love passionately, something that changed your life for the better, something that made you appreciate yourself, your body, your culture, whatever it may be. Something touching. But if somebody viscerally hates something, with all the passion of a hardcore fan, or if somebody feels worse about themselves because of a movie, people will tell them: “it’s just a movie, get over it.”
This idea that anyone who hates on media, feels bad because of media, becomes depressed because of media is a sad, pathetic individual while anyone who gets an equally strong, positive reaction from it is proof of the fantasticness of the media and worthy of fandom affection just genuinely bothers me. It’s going to sound harsh, but if you think that anybody who felt seriously depressed or god-forbid suicidal as a result of a book or a film is ‘sad’ or ‘pathetic’, then anyone who changed their lives, kept themselves from committing suicide, etc. as a result of a book or film is just as ‘sad’ or ‘pathetic’. I don’t think either group is. I think media is an important and often times omnipresent part of our lives. But to hold positivity on a pedestal and negativity under your boot with their face in the mud is just… it’s disgusting. It’s cruel to those people who have equally valid feelings about The Little Mermaid or whatever it is you don’t want to think of in a bad light.
I don’t know, I just read a lot of these confessions blogs and I hate this attitude.
Been thinking a lot about media portrayals of asexual characters. I suppose even that is a stretch. Are there any openly asexual characters in any mainstream television show, movie, book, comic? I can’t think of any. There might be one, from Big Bang was it? I can’t say I’ve ever watched the show, but I’m struggling to find other examples.
There are two, provided to us by the BBC, that stand out as popular online with asexuals. The Doctor (particularly his most recent form) and Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock, of course, has a history extending back before the recent television show, but I’ll focus on this interpretation of the character.
Sherlock. At risk of sounding a bit ableist, he is… not exactly of the same state of mind as most men. He claims high-functioning sociopath, others might just say obsessive compulsive, hyper-aware, and hyper-intelligent. But he clearly functions on a different level from you or I. Though certainly he seems uninterested in romantic or sexual relations, I’m not confident that this isn’t a willing choice on his part. It’s not his orientation so much as it is how he oriented himself. He chose to displace or dispose of his sexual desires and romantic inclinations for the sake of bettering his abilities as a detective.
To me, this makes him more celibate than asexual.
We also have The Doctor. Some of the actors who have portrayed him definitely were not aiming for asexual, let’s be straight. But, we’ll stick with the 11th Doctor, as he is the ace favourite. The obvious issue I have with this one is that the Doctor is not human. He is a timelord, a member of an alien race. We have no reason to believe he would desire relations with a human. And he is a good man. It would be cruel to take one of his companions up on their feelings, knowing that they would only be hurt more by it, knowing it couldn’t last, knowing he’d have to leave them when the time was right, and knowing how much it would hurt to leave one behind. Maybe in some distant past he did have companions who were more than just friends, and he’s felt that pain. Not interested in a repeat experience. Maybe timelords are, in a more biological sense, asexual. All well and good, but not of much interest to me.
I just don’t feel like either of them are really… asexual. Celibate, not in relationships, not interested in relationships. But not asexual, not in the way I mean when I talk about my (non-)sexuality. And that’s fine. They’re great characters, and I like their relationships or lack thereof as they are. But I really don’t like them being hailed as the great exceptions to the rule of ace erasure in media. Because when I’m being represented by an alien and a sociopath, I don’t feel represented at all.
(It’s Big Bang Theory.)
(But I agree, overall. Maybe not on Sherlock, but definitely on The Doctor.)
(And we definitely need more aces in the media!)