Contagious Emotions and Branding the Bully

And again.

After being away for so friggin long I wondered if I could find my way back to this blog and, harder for me, writing it without finding every reason not to: needing a shower, walking a dog I don’t actually own, buying a dog, making muffins, eating said muffins, skating off the muffins I made and then ate… get it. But on this, the eve of a set of workshops on finding agency I’m delivering for the OCIC across the province I have found a voice again.

But where to begin? Well, as always, I turn to the man who infuriates me as much as he challenges me to do everyday things to make life worth loving: Dan Savage. Douche bag that he can be.Image

I’ve been noticing, as I read the paper and avoid my dissertation like the plague in heat, the media’s obsessive circulation of the following three terms: loneliness, bullying and suicide.

Also, after a few beers and a shot or six of scotch I’ve also noted these words’ odd association with mystery, queerness, and abnormality. It’s intriguing to me how when us queers are the victims of violence against us, our own loneliness is blamed, as though loneliness, wearing a mask and holding a sword, swooped in and knocked us on our arse and shoved us into a locker, not the homophobic slur, or the mean girls at school with names like Whitney, Brittany, and Tittney.

The effect of these stories that get told is that loneliness, rather than being considered an everyday feeling that we all share, gay or ungay, becomes seen as the opposite to this: it is understood to sever all connection with others.Image

And queerness has become inherently connected to loneliness.

I remember the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a sweet, beautiful kid beaten and killed by two students (Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson) because he was gay. Much was made of loneliness then. Shepard was described as a boy left “beaten and tied to a lonely fence post” by two men who delighted in leading Shepard down a “lonely Wyoming road.”

To be sure, Simon Watney may very well be right when he states, “there can be few so privately lonely in the modern world as the homosexual child.” And social media has helped queer children find a voice and a space for them to be.

And I do think social media recognizes that there is a great deal of loneliness in peoples’ lived experiences and that this loneliness effects how we relate to others. I’ll give us points for that and eat another muffin. But what media sources do not seem to know is what to do with this loneliness.

Although we all shares loneliness, experience it, and recognize it in some way,we are told day in and out by the media darlings we run to that it is something that is very threatening to us all. I’m thinking that this conceptualization that makes loneliness the boogieman, or Saw 34, gives loneliness too much credit, branding it a unique negativity, a condition that must “get better.”Image

Here’s lookin at you Dan Savage.

Along with social media, the Science industry too has been paramount to turning loneliness into a horrifying pathology and contagion. The idea that emotions are contagious has been used as a plot device in numerous political and cultural narratives throughout the days. For example, in the 2002 British horror film 28 Days Later rage is contagious and turns the average, healthy person into a murderous, zombie filled with hateful anger and a cannibalistic drive to devour all others. Yummy.

Spreading through bodily fluids, blood and saliva, rage’s effect is devastating to the social sphere, reducing the whole of Britain to a militant, contact zone, rife with surveillance, death, and collateral damage. Families are destroyed and the economy collapses, as even the country’s children lose all sense of innocence.

This fear of emotional contagion has also infected political and public perceptions as well. The belief that there is such a thing as “emotional pollution” has led people like Psychologist Steven Stosny to claim emotions are so contagious that they can trigger the “paranoia” of “serial killers” and entice “mob justice, lynching, riots, and looting.Image

We live in a world that is obsessed with smiling. We shop, eat, read, sex, love, hate, judge, make muffins in a cultural industry that reveres happiness so much it promotes it through self-help gurus, yogis, motivational speakers such as Tony Robbins, and socio-economic and spiritual guidebooks about finding one’s happy fortune through the power of positive thinking. Have you ever read Chicken Soup for the Soul or The Secret?  I plead the fifth on this one. 

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided:  How Positive Thinking is Undermining America explores this cultural trend toward what she calls the“‘virus’ of positive thinking.” Ehrenreich argues that the constant bombardment of claims to the power of optimism at any cost has become, for America, a means by which to hide their grievances behind a falsity of happy feelings.

Smile or die seems to be the tattoo of the moment.Image

Unlike complacency, where at least there might be a recognition that something is wrong with the ways in which we here in the west are treating others, a happy refusal to think about negative things brings about an actual blindness to seeing  the error of our assholeish ways. The result? A bizarre belief that refusing to think about (let alone do anything about) unhappy thoughts—wars, violence, classist, gendered, sexual, and/or racial oppression—is the only way to be happy.

Here, optimism takes on some sort of “mysterious” quality, as though thinking in any way, or about topics that might be considered not happy, or shitty, can do nothing but screw us over.

So, those who are worthy, are considered happy. Those who are not worthy, are unhappy, or lonely.

So returning to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project I can’t help but frown. The idyllic fantasy narrative woven by he and his husband is romantically Arthurian and Darwinian in its message. It’s like watching Sleeping Beauty on crack.

Weaving a world where young, attractive, showtune heroes must suffer plights of “despair” and homophobic violence on their quest to find a life where all “gets better” through adaptation and survival is a message continued throughout the entire campaign.

The videos vary in length; however, the step-by-step narrative structure of each video clips is predictably present.

If you haven’t sat down and watched 500 videos with couples in them as I have stupidly and sappily, trust me, here’s the structure of most of them in a nutshell:

Both lovers introduce themselves

Both lovers out the amount of time they have been together

Both lovers tell their individual stories of experiences with bullies in high school

Both lovers explain how they have found, through raw survival, and adapting to their environment that life gets better only when you grow older.

The clips end with the couples professing their undying love to one another.


A more expansive look into these videos reveals beautiful people (the majority being handsome, young, ablebodied, white men) promising over and over again that survival of the fittest leads to a thriving future.

The setting for these videos is most often a living room, where a couple sits snuggly next to one another while calm lights, candles, and soft colors create a happy and domestic feel. You can almost hear the birds chirping and smell the Starbucks coffee. We, the viewer, are being granted an extraordinary rare glimpse inside of the window of a real-life gay-home: a private place where intimacies are made public and secrets are told.

Each lover speaks to the camera, offering themselves up as examples of what life will look like when you survive high school and everything “gets better.” And each video promises that a happy life can be achieved through a successful job, a monogamous relationship, a family (whether that be children or pets or porn), travel, and financial stability. And in the land of Disney Dan this idealistic lifestyle is magically accessible to everyone even though, upon close inspection, the video projects clearly cater to and are crafted by white, middleclass, men.

Love, marriage, money, babies, and a partridge in a pear tree……

A lot of presumptions are advanced throughout the videos in the IGB project. Importantly, there is the assumption that youth today can be understood by adults who experienced bullying in their own past—that the everyday lives of youth are made coherent only through adult lenses. But to be fair, the It Gets Better Project does do some great work. Even cranky me can’t deny its importance and so I certainly thank Dan Savage for that. But now that he has started this trend of public compassion, we need voices that speak to the ways in which happiness is not something we can buy or simply become better enough to find. We need to make tangible changes to the political spaces we are made unhappy by and in.

In contrast to the IGB project I bring you the little known web series The Slope: Superficial, Homophobic Lesbians. Written, produced by, and starring the lesbian couple Desiree Akhavan and Ingrid Jungerman this series Uses irony and humor to critique the ways in which stereotypes of unhappy lesbians have been popularized by social media.Image

Providing audiences with a very mundane, ordinary couple who does boring, everyday activities—shopping, dating, sleeping, drinking—Desiree and Ingrid comically present the tensions between cultural perceptions of lesbianism alongside the everydayness of their actual lives. You won’t find hot, boobied blondes kissing one another on a dance floor to Katy Perry music in front of a bunch of dudes drinking keggers.  

Instead the lack of coherency in Ingrid and Desiree’s message, and the ridiculous crappiness of their advice for struggling gay teens in high school is hilarious. And telling.

Following the IGB Project’s storytelling structure, in one episode The Slope couple makes their own It Gets Better Project video and Ingrid begins it by giving a shout out to all “LGBTQQ” teens.  Desiree, confused, asks: “what does QQ mean?”

Ingrid smiles, embarrassed for her girlfriend’s stupidity, and tells her, “Queer and Questioning,” and Desiree happily responds: “Oh, I don’t care about the ones that are questioning [. . . ] [they’re] just having a bi-curious Katy Perry moment.” Shocked, Ingrid says that Desiree can’t simply exclude people because she doesn’t think their identities count, calling attention to the ways the queer community splinters and separates over issues of trans and bisexual exclusion. But Desiree assures her she certainly can do just that. She’s Desiree. For her, lesbian means lesbian, whatever that means.

Desiree is positive she is right about her notions of what queer is and what it isn’t. She is arrogant, narcissistic, and egocentric in her declarations. Smiling a lot, she is permitted these indulgences. She is happy, and that’s all that matters. After all this is exactly the stance of Dan Savage who has been criticized openly for his biphobia and transphobia though Savage would never admit to his exclusions.

Ingrid and Desiree’s advice seems ludicrous and shallow, ignorant and homophobic. Still, when you get over your anger and actually take each point that Ingrid and Desiree are offering, you can glean two facts: a lot of their advice is sadly true in a capitalist society that values appearances, material wealth, and cultural capital over all else. And the IGB project’s advice to queer teens is as ridiculous. Telling gay teens, as Desiree does, to just “be hot” and get a “catch phrase” to survive high school is as ludicrous as telling gay teens that the only way to handle loneliness due to homophobia in high school is to “survive it” until you can “go to college” and move to the “big city,” as Savage does. Image

Ingrid and Desiree perfectly model adult versions of capitalist teens who have not grown up into nice, compassionate adults who were made “better” for being bullied as youth. Instead they remain a caricature of the bullies one might still see in high school. Their video, although politically incorrect, speaks to the actuality of the western high school setting that has been permitted to become a nexus of homophobia and oppression because of our continued investments in middleclass normalcy and purity. It is in this way that The Slope’s humor lets us all know that homophobia is to be expected because we create the spaces for it.


The It Gets Better project legitimates homophobia as a necessary part of being queer. By rewarding melodrama and the spectacularization and valorization of bullying—providing bullies an entire online site dedicated to their ignorance and violence while suggesting they are a necessary step to growing up—Savage’s project also validates the stereotype that queers are “special” people with extraordinary feelings, a suggestion that undermines the notion that queers feel ordinary affects, and live everyday lives.

But unlike the videos in the IGB project, Ingrid and Desiree are not there to thank Dan Savage. They are there to give “real advice” to the kids that need it in an everyday moment that requires it. Their honesty, even if harsh, about what the promise of happiness actually requires comes off as blunt and funny, and yet the joke is actually on all of us.

About newdaynewmood

A Lonely lesbian trying to write about everyday life and everyday ways to negotiate the tough political issues therein.
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3 Responses to Contagious Emotions and Branding the Bully

  1. Ilya Parkins says:

    Really lovely post, Melissa! It was nice to read your writing again!

    Hope you are doing well,


  2. Really enjoyed reading this. A Very thought provoking read 🙂

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