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Friday, February 19, 2010

An open letter to Amanda Palmer

[TRIGGER WARNING. This post discusses child sexual abuse and child pornography.]

Amanda Palmer has a new record coming out soon, in which she and her collaborator Jason Webley appropriate the personas of conjoined twins Evelyn and Evelyn. Her blog post regarding this is here (and has been significantly edited; we’ll get to that).

Unsurprisingly, some people are not happy about this. Sady of Tiger Beatdown has an excellent post on the matter, as does Annaham of Feminists with Disabilities. Both Sady and Annaham point out the ableism going on here, and Palmer’s obliviousness on why this is a Really Bad Idea. I absolutely recommend that you go read those posts. Really. Do it now, then come back.

Hi! Welcome back.

So Sady and Annaham have excellent points regarding why Palmer dressing up in crip drag (the term used by the disabled community for able-bodied people pretending to be disabled, for purposes such as the selling of records) is ragingly inappropriate (think blackface; same thing, different Other).

Sady also touches on something that Palmer has since edited out of her post on Evelyn Evelyn. Part of the backstory of the “twins”? They were exploited in child pornography.

Yes, Palmer has opted to use child pornography as a plot coupon for indie cred. Apparently trivializing child sexual abuse is hip and edgy, in her mind. I’d tend to disagree. It would be one thing if her intent was to raise awareness of child sexual abuse and child pornography, and to provide information on how to help stop it. But that isn’t her intent. Her intent is to be shocking and deviant. (See her continued misuse of the word “rape” in interviews, and the simulated rape of a Katy Perry lookalike in her stage show. Suffice to say I’m not optimistic about her handling of this, simply based on her track record.)

Dear Amanda Palmer: These are real things that affect real people. Let’s hear from one of them.

[Seriously, TRIGGER WARNING.]

I quote here from the victim impact statement by “Amy”, the girl in the Misty Series of child porno videos.

There is a lot I don’t remember, but now I can’t forget because the disgusting images of what he did to me are still out there on the internet. For a long time I practiced putting the terrible memories away in my mind. Thinking about it is still really painful. Sometimes I just go into staring spells when I am caught thinking about what happened and not paying any attention to my surroundings.

Every day of my life I live in constant fear that someone will see my pictures and recognize me and that I will be humiliated allover again. It hurts me to know someone is looking at them—at me—when I was just a little girl being abused for the camera. I did not choose to be there, but now I am there forever in pictures that people are using to do sick things. I want it all erased. I want it all stopped. But I am powerless to stop it just like I was powerless to stop my uncle.

When they first discovered what my uncle did, I went to therapy and thought I was getting over this. I was very wrong. My full understanding of what happened to me has only gotten dearer as I have gotten older. My life and my feelings are worse now because the crime has never really stopped and will never really stop.

It is hard to describe what it feels like to know that at any moment, anywhere, someone is looking at pictures of me as a little girl being abused by my uncle and is getting some kind of sick enjoyment from it. It’s like I am being abused over and over and over again.

I find myself unable to do the simple things that other teenagers handle easily. I do not have a driver’s license. Every time I say I am going to do it, I don’t. I can’t plan well. My mind skips out on me when I think about moving forward with my life. I have been trying to get a job, but I just keep avoiding things. Forgetting is the thing I do best since I was forced as a little girl to live a double life and “forget” what was happening to me. Before I realize it, I miss interviews or other things that will help me get a job.

I am horrified by the thought that other children will probably be abused because of my pictures. Will someone show my pictures to other kids, like my uncle did to me, then tell them what to do? Will they see me and think it’s okay for them to do the same thing? Will some sick person see my picture and then get the idea to do the same thing to another little girl?

The article goes into far more detail. Read it if you have the stomach for it.

Dear Amanda Palmer: It is not okay for you to appropriate this voice just to enhance the backstory of your fictional band. It is not okay for you to disregard the actual effects of childhood sexual abuse and child pornography to use it as a marketing tool.

Palmer has posted a non-apology in which she at least half-acknowledges that her choice of words regarding disabled feminists was poor. But despite numerous comments on both of her blog posts asking her to address her trivialization and flippant use of child pornography, she has chosen not to address it, instead editing that part out of the original post. (In her followup, she actually calls herself “brave”.)

In her non-apology, she says this is art and art is controversial, and we just don’t understand, and - oh, look, I have bingo! Again, I disagree. This isn’t art, Ms. Palmer, it’s cynical, dismissive marketing. If it was art, you’d have the guts to actually examine the realities of the trauma you’re putting on like that conjoined-twins dress.

That might be worth watching.

As it is? When even your die-hard fans are telling you that you’re wrong on this one, perhaps you should listen.

“Amy” says:

I feel like I have always had to live a double life. First I had to lie about what my uncle was doing to me. Then I had to act like it didn’t, happen because it was too embarrassing. Now I always know that there is another “little me” being seen on the internet by other abusers. I don’t want to be there, but I am. I wish I could go back in time and stop my uncle from taking those pictures, but I can’t.

Even though I am scared that I will be abused or hurt again because I am making this victim impact statement, I want the court and judge to know about me and what I have suffered and what my life is like. What happened to me hasn’t gone away. It will never go away. I am a real victim of child pornography and it effects me every day and everywhere I go.

Dear Amanda Palmer: This is not your voice. And if you’re not going to address the reality of this? Don’t pretend to speak in it.

You don’t speak for us. We speak for ourselves. Not to gain indie cred or to sell albums, but to seek justice, and to heal. To effect social change. To end violence. Because this isn’t a fun, shocking bit of our backstory. It is an enormous, life-changing thing. And if you’re not willing to speak to how that shapes a person, if you’re not willing to acknowledge it as more than a mock-shocking blip on the radar? Don’t use it.

“Amy” says, The truth is, I am being exploited and used every day and every night somewhere in the world by someone. How can I ever get over this when the crime that is happening to me will never end? How can I get over this when the shameful abuse I suffered is out there forever and being enjoyed by sick people?

Never forget that this is real.

Posted by Shira on 02/19 at 10:22 AM

Comments

Thank you for speaking up like this. I've been really fond of AP's music for a bit (leaving out the F, since nicknames should only be used with affection and I'm not feeling it right now). The idea of this Evelyn Evelyn project *really* didn't sit well with me from the start, and the child pornography angle made me want to throw up when I heard about it. Not just a minstrel show. A minstrel show hinting at forced incest in a way that's supposed, I think, to be "edgy" and sorry, "edgy" is just hipster for "cute" and "haha". Barf.

Thank you, Shira.
Posted by Citizen Taqueau  on  02/19  at  12:02 PM
*nods* The flippant and cutesy handling of it is what makes it so problematic. It's not that these things should never be spoken of - it's just that they should be treated with respect.
Posted by Shira  on  02/19  at  12:41 PM
Thank you for posting this. It's brilliantly written, and Amy's words brought tears to my eyes.

It's not okay for Amanda Palmer to use or trivialize that kind of pain if she hasn't lived it, and it's not okay for her to be obstinate and unapologetic when she's called on it. I'm glad to see people talking about it - I know there are some who say that's what Amanda Palmer WANTS and we shouldn't give it to her, but the world isn't so simple. Things don't go away just because we ignore them, and discussion affects more than just the person being discussed. So thank you.
Posted by wavesandmoon  on  02/19  at  01:42 PM
The beef I have with this, aside from all that Shira has already written - how does this actually CONTRIBUTE to the music itself? I can get behind artists making concept albums and creating alter-egos to explore new types of music; hell, Ziggy Stardust is one of my favorite albums of all time. But how does adding child sexual abuse to this alter-ego make this music more meaningful? Especially if the content of the album itself isn't about healing, sexual trauma, or the like, it means that Palmer thinks that rape is edgy enough to be a characteristic, like eye color or height, and uses it only for indie-cred. Disappointing.
Posted by Dave  on  02/19  at  01:46 PM
Let me preface this by saying that I am not an Amanda Palmer fan. Not because I dislike or object to her music per se, but because my music taste was honed in the aerobics classes and roller skating rinks of 1980-90s upstate NY, and thus I cannot comment on her oeuvre and where or whether this fits. So I won't, and now that's off the table.

I think there are a few main issues here.

One: does Amanda Palmer have a responsibility as an artist, and one who has styled herself as empowering herself and her fans, to do better with this issue? Is the rage that I'm seeing in the comments sections of these blogs, from her fans and from her critics, happening because people expected something better from her? Maybe.

Sidebar: The tone of AP's response to the criticism reminds me a lot of Kafka's "A Hunger Artist." Discuss.

Two: Let me echo the point that Amanda Palmer is in a position to highlight, nurture, and otherwise develop unseen talent. Not unseen because it's happening in small-town Washington, but unseen because that's what we tend to do to folks in the disability community: not see them. I bet there are some pretty awesome disabled musicians that you or I have never heard. And, because of the astronomically high rates of sexual violence against people with disabilities, I would hazard a guess that many of them have experienced trauma, whether they choose to make that a public part of their identity or musical influence, or not. I would love to hear their sound. Lamentably, this isn't that venue.

Maybe the audience is supposed to be the dupe, for not acknowledging and unpacking our fascination with something so "other" as Evelyn Evelyn, but I would contend that when the joke is that abstract or that highly context-specific, there's doubtful utility in making sexual violence survivors and disabled folks have to be the workhorses of getting everyone else to a higher level of consciousness. Except, it's something we do as a culture all the time. Those of us who do not, as Shira put it, speak in those languages should start taking some responsibility for our own awareness at some point.

Three: I've seen it written various places that since Amanda Palmer has in the past identified herself as a survivor of sexual violence, that she is entitled to use that in whatever way she wishes, and we're poor sports (or worse) for trying to silence her, as an artist and as a survivor, if what she's doing doesn't harmonize with our own point of view. Here's the thing: I'm not going to get on board with tearing down the way other people choose to voice their experiences of trauma, if that is indeed what Evelyn Evelyn is. What I will get on board with, is saying that trauma is bad all the way around, and it's OK to feel hurt, or pissed off, or any of the things you could think of to feel. But. But but but but but. Part of prevention is boundaries. You cannot directly hurt or cause hurt or allow hurt or excuse hurt to other people because of your own.

So. That's where I am with this issue.
Posted by Meg  on  02/19  at  02:12 PM
Just as a point of discussion. This implies that artists overall should not be allowed to delve into the minds of people beyond their limited worldview. How is art, which in my opinion exists to deconstruct and examine the human condition, ever going to do that if people don't experiment, or make mistakes, or work from beyond a very individualized life's experience?

Does this also imply that actors who are not gay should not be allowed to play characters who are, because of the fact that they may not have experienced the pain of living in a predominantly homophobic world? For a risk of offending someone, somewhere (which I know at least many portrayals of gay people have done), that seem to be a pretty limiting idea.

I'm not saying that the way she's approached it so far has been completely infallible, because she's human and she made some mistakes. But are the ideals that she explained in her blog that have fed the project ideals that we should completely dismiss because she's introduced this project in a mistakenly clumsy, somewhat upsetting way? I don't think so.

I think it's worth a look, or a listen, when the album comes out, to see exactly what she plans to do with this. She's a smart woman, and I can't help but have faith as a fan that she might make an effect here that not all are expecting.

A favorite actress of mine, when in a discussion about working with playwright Sarah Ruhl, said to me, "I love her, because so many other people hate her. I think that's the best kind of artist to be, because if you make everyone happy then you're lying to someone." I think in many ways that's the case at stake here. You didn't mention much about the fact that Amanda herself is candid and open about her own survival of sexual abuse. Because she may choose to handle it differently than some, does that negate her mechanisms of coping? I don't think so, because the animal of the human brain and the animal of making art are incredibly subjective things. She may cause extreme hurt to some people, and for that she has said it was never her intent. But what's the chance that for someone in this world, Amanda's current project might be "truth" enough for them that it causes them to open up about their own issues? I think it's fairly large.
Posted by Sam  on  02/20  at  04:00 AM
Sam says: "This implies that artists overall should not be allowed to delve into the minds of people beyond their limited worldview."

Oh, definitely not! Just that experiences like this need to be treated with respect, when used. Which is definitely not the tone of this project.

"You didn
Posted by Shira  on  02/20  at  07:39 PM
Sam, it angers me when people use words like "artists not be allowed", who is to stop her? Really? This is the whole point of discussing marginalized vs privileged. Privileged people are quite free to walk all over marginalized people and do anything they want without any regard to who they harm. But...marginalized people are allowed to speak out and protest this. That is what people are doing.
Posted by Donna  on  02/22  at  05:29 PM
"For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture"

-- Ray Bradbury
( Coda to Fahrenheit 451 (The 50th Anniversary Edition), page 178)
Posted by David  on  02/28  at  11:50 PM
You people really do not understand the music. try listening to the album. it's beautiful. No shock value whatsoever
Posted by Zaq  on  05/10  at  12:28 PM
Hey David, is that some sort of Scientology excuse for acting like a dick?

Amanda Palmer is awful. Ugly naked twitter photos covered in swear words and disgusting pictures of herself dead stuffed into toilets and shopping carts? Amanda Palmer is a crap musician who can't sing or write, so she tries to be shocking. Her message seems to be that woman are disposable objects.

Amanda Palmer has nothing worthwhile to say, she's gross and embarrassing.

People are offended by Amanda Palmer because she is a mediocre performer who by her own admission can't write a song or play an instrument. Instead of learning her craft she makes a spectacle of herself. Drawing on herself isn't the problem, it's the fact that her message is so worthless. Amanda Palmer is a vulgar human being who wastes everyone's time with her narcissistic self indulgence. She is nothing more than pure ambition. Having nothing worthwhile to contribute won't stop her... she will subject the world to every detail of her existence from her menstruation to the length of her bowl movement because she is so damaged she doesn't exist without an audience. Palmer is drawing the same reaction a circus geek draws when he/she bites the head off a chicken.... meh. gross. Turn the channel.
Posted by Sick of Palmer  on  07/16  at  06:03 PM
Very interesting post. Thank you for sharing.
Posted by Shawn Bertinetti  on  09/06  at  07:12 AM
"This implies that artists overall should not be allowed to delve into the minds of people beyond their limited worldview."

Oh, definitely not! Just that experiences like this need to be treated with respect, when used. Which is definitely not the tone of this project.
Posted by Theo  on  12/28  at  05:53 AM

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