It’s Friday and snowing and I am feeling oddly optimistic. This is a feeling that is unusual for me. I don’t trust optimism really and have always carried my pessimism around like a favorite toy. I’ve often been called and referred to, lovingly and at times for certain lovers angrily, by friends as a sarcastic twit. I’m writing a dissertation on loneliness, they say. I research and present work on queer suicide, they point out. I live alone and eat a lot of 711 meals, they laugh. I scour newspapers and social media sites and get angrified daily about the relentless inabilities of us all, they remind me. My panties are more often than not knotted with vagina-dentata-like fury. It wouldn’t take a jury long.
Ok, I get it. I am a tad sarcastic about the political moment I find myself surfing and, at times, sifting through. And here in the west there is a lot to be pessimistic about. Like, for instance, the fact that my city is being held together by duct tape and burger grease by a man who thinks Margaret Atwood is the name of a new, probably queer, STD. But my next set of blogs are going to be about what I see as a queer optimism slipping in and out of the tidy pessimistic spaces we inhabit. Why? Because I have been realizing over these months that pessimism is really easy and often legitimates inaction. What I mean by queer optimism will become clearer and more confusing in the posts to come but today I’ll get the conversation started. To do so, I’m going to talk about queer, teen suicide. Again. Way to be optimistic.
Friends of mine have been fantastic in making my various social media pages confirm the already lurking observation that I am the most pessimistic, cranky academic in my cohort. Daily, while other people get E-cards, or jokes about boobs and poo, I get posts and emails about queer suicide, murder, loneliness, queer oppression, depression, Margaret Wente speaking about anything (which causes me to seizure) and so on. And I cherish every post, every melancholic song, every terrifying study. Without my surrounding support I would know nothing about what is going on in the world. Because I am lonely, and never leave my house! Not true of course. The real reason is that I cannot negotiate the mass amounts of information out there on how loneliness is being taken up politically, culturally, economically, and socially, alone.
The most recent post from my friend Dingo that really affected me was the video diary of Jonah Mowry which has become a sensation on the internet. If you have yet to see this video, take time. If you have seen this video, watch it again. This youtube clip has gotten over 8 million hits, and has become the topic of discussion for countless people, including celebrities, politicians, teachers, parents, and other kids who related to young Jonah’s message about what is feels like to think about suicide daily, and how it feels to decide not to make that choice.
You name them Jonah found his way into their hearts.
World Wide people were eager to lend their sympathy and hope to this struggling kid. This video came out at a moment when we in the west have been mourning the recent suicides of so many queer teens including Chantal Dube, Jeanine Blanchette, and Jamie Hubley, whose deaths have sparked fears that suicide is fast becoming a contagious epidemic. Desperate to do something to stop the bleeding, hearing about Jonah Mowry, a kid who was still alive and suffering from homophobia, struck a nerve and an almost obsessive impetus to act right away.
Spearheading this campaign was, not surprisingly, Perez Hilton (and for those who have read my previous post on lesbian suicide, we all know what I think about that celeb). Following suit were twittering tweeters like Lady Gaga, Paula Abdul, Rosie O’Donnell, Nick Jonas, Ricky Martin and Zooey Deschanel who each felt compelled to get a message to Jonah that life was, indeed, worth living. That he was loved.
What interests me most about the video by this adorably attractive kid with bad spelling and sad eyes that could make the Grinch grow a real heart is not so much his message– sadly, I’m not surprised at all that a gay teen has been treated so cruelly by his fellow peers and by a society that is supposed to protect him. Rather, it is the extraordinary outrage from his viewing audience that surfaced after another video of Jonah was released months later. This second updated video (instead of showing a boy alone, wearing tears and headphones, holding cards with messages about how he has contemplated suicide up to a camera) shows a smiling, jokey, gum chewing boy with his best friend by his side. Jonah is boisterous and showy, a bit cocky, and incredibly optimistic about the new school he has entered that had terrified him so much months earlier.
The reaction from the public to this updated video is appalling.
Calling the 14-year-old boy a fake– a boy who got us all feeling terribly about queer teen suicide, got us all rethinking our own privilege, who gave us an immediate, temporal snap shot of what it feels like to be repeatedly bullied by heterosexist peers through the actual lens and bodily reactions of the bullied before it’s too late–seems ridiculous and disgusting. I ask here: what is wrong with us? What goes on in our heads that we in the west think we have the right, the entitlement, to give care to a struggling kid and then rip that care away the moment we feel betrayed or short-changed. Lied to.
Relationally, this is how we tend to treat people socially. This “I love you but…” can be seen circulating as a “normal” social response to let-down in families, school playgrounds, political meetings all over the west. The idea that I will care for you if, and only if, you give me something in return, and only while you continue to uphold my expectations from you is all too common. Jonah gave us hope, a second-chance to not ignore a bullied kid, and yet the second it appeared he was happier than we knew, that he got help or found strength in self-reflection, we freaked out.
I want to say this clearly: Jonah Mowry owes us nothing. He was not put on the earth to fulfill some desire we have, or to fill up a lack or a void we have in our own thinking. The notion that we believe relationships are meant to work in this investment, reciprocation way, is what is sick or fraudulent.
I will now turn to Oprah, whose extreme privilege and lack of responsibility for her privilege as an icon makes me gag. Do you remember a little memoir called A Million Little Pieces? I bet James Frey and Oprah do. The book about a recovered drug-addict who painstakingly explores, in gory detail, the life he lived through as a homeless man trying to get through life made Oprah weep. She loved the book and singlehandedly made it a huge success.
That when Frey said he was in jail for months, he actually was only in jail for hours. That when he said he had his teeth pulled with no anesthetic, he actually meant he had laughing gas and nothing else. Oprah got very angry with these discrepancies. After all, she had endorsed the book as a thing of beauty because it was a true story, and when she found out there were bits and peices, of the million little, that were not play by plays she felt she had given the “gift” of millions of readers to Frey blindly: ”I feel really duped” she explained on air when she brought Frey on to explain himself, to hold himself into account. “I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”
She, like her viewers, demanded to know if Frey saw himself as “the man who conned Oprah.” As viewer, Marie, stated: “I can’t help but to feel completely deceived.”
I don’t care that Oprah was saddened or miffed by the realization that memoir, which is what this book is, remains opaque in its claims to authenticity. That’s a discussion for another day. What troubles me, however, is the fact that Oprah decided to have a temper tantrum about her hurt pride on air. And because Oprah got all aflutter on air, in front of her millions of viewers, her millions of viewers (and their friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, dogs, unborn children) got angry too, putting Frey, and the book that actually did the job of changing people’s lives in very positive ways, on the hot seat, almost ruining the man’s career.
Returning to Jonah Mowry I am worried by reactions to his second video–his healthy and happy kid video. So enraged have viewers of this later video been that there have been hate campaigns created against Jonah chastising his joy. Accusations that he lied about being bullied and being afraid of being openly queer have prompted some people to call him a “fame whore” who “trolled” the public for money. His video has even spawned parody videos that are generalizing and kinda pathetic, not in their attempts to poke fun at the plights of bullied teens– “because only unhappy people get a lot of attention” as Serge does in his youtube video– but because these videos further evidence the increasing entitlement to homophobia people seem to harbor. One video upload in particular by Hai Dair evidences this hatred most effectively. Good luck reading these comments without pulling your own hair out.
Now, to be fair, the heterosexist and homophobic responses were appalling but predicable. It doesn’t take much for homophobes to come out of their holes. Here are a few reactions to Jonah just to get your blood boiling:
ZEPIfriedchicken said: “You talk like a fucking homo.”
TheRogersRangers spewed: “why the fuck are you here faglet? go do something useful and have yourself chemically sterilized, that would do the whole world a favor.”
narutoninja2007 commented: ”Any who was gullible enough to believe the first video deserves to feel deceived after this, none the less this guy is scum.”
But it is the reactions from a public who knows better, is smarter, that bothers me most even though they too are predictable.
Commenter, Jackdanielsmoorman, reviled Jonah for performing affect. For selling him a story about sadness and then, after Jackdanielmoorman bought it, for changing the story. JDMM states:
“You think this is some sort of joke, don’t you? I feel very bad for you, the fact that you can smile at something like this that you dare poke at something as sacred as this. Have you no shame? As for the girl beside you saying “I’ve seen them they’re real” I’m sorry I don’t trust children because they tend to lie when they want something, in this case attention. I hope you can live a decent life despite you needing to pose as somebody that’s been hurt. You are a terrible actor too take lessons.”
It’s as though Jonah becomes a public failure because of his emotional success. That JDMM is so invested in their own feelings and pride that helping someone else feel ok is only fruitful if a good return on their investment comes forth.
Robert Muñoz piped-up right away with his pessimism about the public reaction to Jonah saying, “and it begins, the public crucifixion of a human being for not meeting their preconceptions.” Mowry’s mother Peggy Sue Mowry (who just barely learned her son was gay, and learned it from the actual video) had to go on ABC news and explain her son’s video to people, ensuring them that it was not at “fraud” and pleading for leniency. She exclaims, softly, like a deer caught in headlights: “[Jonah] is sick over all the horrible posts and so are we.” Even Anne Rice, yep the vampire author!, felt compelled to defend Jonah to the public, blogging: “He doesn’t say he lied at all. He’s obviously a kid wrestling with the overwhelming problems that face all adolescents, trying to sort out his emotions and the responses he got to his earlier video. His earlier video deserves the attention it is getting.” Jonah Mowry himself responded to his critics and to our obnoxious demand that he do so. His letter to the public is lovely and well thought out, but for me that’s not the point. The reality that we required that type of response from him in the first place is brutal.
My concern is our public expectation of both teens and their affects. What I see running throughout these narratives is a desire for “true” feelings that are dependable, expendable, and unwavering. And to be honest, calls of authenticity that require a purist, all or nothing understanding of emotion scare me. I wonder though what this says about the way we do affect? What does it mean when a tragically bullied gay teen takes time to let people “out there” know what he is feeling “in here,” risking further persecution or ridicule, further feelings of worthlessness or shame, and we, the sympathetic public embrace this child only to throw him to the waste side when we find out, months later, that he is actually feeling better? Are we really into punishing children for being fluid and playful with their emotions? In their reactions to life-situations? What is it that we want from one another’s affects? What is it that we require or need to occur in order to be affected enough that we do something about the ways in which we are treating one another? And is our affect so tenuous and fickle that our feelings of compassion can be deterred or shut-down when we see that a boy like Jonah can, while experiencing pain, suffering and alienation, also, simultaneously, experience joy, comfort and care?
Correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t the entire It Gets Better Project (a project I have had hard times with but at least recognize was put in place to try and help suicidal queer kids) trying to convey the message that life gets better? So what exactly are we thinking, as a society, when we get upset with Jonah Mowry when he feels better?
In my next post I’m going to continue looking at these questions through the lens of the politics of optimism. Trust me!