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August 2015

A Penchant for Nutcases

During my degree I was assigned to read Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight; for those that don’t know it, it is about a woman named Sacha, and her struggle with social rejection and loneliness. Reading this in the week when I, also Sacha, was going through a break up, wasn’t ideal. Turns out it’s never nice to attend a lecture pinpointing why your namesake is unloveable, exactly when you yourself are feeling so.

This experience was a wake up call for me. I’ve always read avariciously, but never before considered myself an ‘escapist’ reader. But, clearly, reading a book that’s a little too close to home isn’t an entirely satisfying pursuit.

I wondered if it was this sense of escape and difference that has always drawn me to books written from the voice of someone totally mentally unstable. My two longstanding favourites are Nabokov’s Lolita and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, narrated by a Paedophile and a gratuitously violent criminal respectively. Yet, rather than abhor me, these two lead characters totally won me over and sent my moral compass into a deeply concerning whirlwind. I would find myself agreeing that the eponymous Lolita was indeed a little bitch and so she kind of had it coming. Without realising I was being manipulated, I had drifted over to the narrator’s own dark side.

Quite differently, A Clockwork Orange draws the reader in by sharing a new language. Without any lessons, I learnt to understand the voice inside the book, thus feeling included in a secret club; this was the literary equivalent of the iconic secret handshake in The Parent Trap. Or, failing that, Burgess’s language enables one to become so engulfed in this alternate universe that it ceases to matter how words are spoken, which way is up or the difference between right and wrong. Beyond this, Burgess welcomes his reader to his side by setting up the establishment as the mutual enemy. The injustice is palpable; that’s one moral code that remains untwisted.

Unfortunately it seems that I’m now of a less impressionable age, or maybe I’ve analysed too many books and become hardened and cynical. I have found myself of late unable to be won over by my formerly favourite villains-come-narrators. Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, voiced by the somewhat autistic Francis and his psychopathic tendencies, left me cold (aside from the black comedy to be drawn from his totally deranged mindset.) Ironically, the mental state of the narrator which drew me to the book, also rendered that same character unable to open up any further than meticulously narrating the minutiae of plotted events. I found the same of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden; the dysfunctional narrators oppose outsiders so deeply within the novella, that their rejection of others extends beyond the confines of the page. Perhaps short novels simply don’t allow the growth necessary to convincingly alter a reader’s psyche. You can’t just be thrown in at the deep end of a fucked-up brain and immediately accept it!

Now that these books failed to offer me my alternate mode of thinking, I began to wonder what it was that we ever seek to gain from them to begin with. Is a reader’s desire to walk a mile in someone’s shoes intended to gain empathy? Or, should we accept this shorter, more shocking novels as fantastical, escapist freakshows?

Maybe, what began to trouble my self-confessed control-freakery, is the possibility that we, as readers, subconsciously really just want to be moulded and manipulated to see where we end up.

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A Colourful Commentary

“God must be a painter; why else would he have so many colours?”- A Beautiful Mind.

Just as, for many centuries, black people were stigmatised and alienated as an abnormal ‘other’, we see obvious separatism between disabled people and us.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s infamous patients wear ‘greens’ and have wild red hair, whilst the staff members are pristinely monochromatic- white uniforms, against white walls, with black skin. This version of “coloured” people may inhabit an entirely different spectrum, but they are stigmatised just the same as their black counterparts were (/are) in their struggle for equality.

If we look beyond the all consuming blackness of depression and past the, perhaps ironically coloured, Blue Badge (inappropriate due to the colour’s associations with masculinity, tranquility and stability, unlike the stereotypically unstable, turbulently distressed woman), we see the full rainbow spectrum of disability: the charity awareness ribbon.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 14.48.55

But, how far does wearing a coloured ribbon raise awareness or show ones support for a certain minority? Do the colours actually mean anything? Should we demarcate a single colour for each condition? Or it this just an arbitrary means of classification, leading ultimately to a juvenile society akin to the colour-coded teams on sports day? And if racism is so widely condemned in our modern society, then why are we still colour-coding?!

When asked, a selection of people, between the ages of 20 and 60, were almost unanimously oblivious to what a list of coloured ribbons stood for. That is not to say they were entirely ignorant of charitable associations; many had a pretty good idea of charity logos, emblazoned on their memory by billboards and TV ads alike. What’s more, several of those surveyed donate to charity on a regular basis and even more of the group have experienced at least one of the associated conditions on a personal or familial basis. The issue (perhaps a loaded word in this context) seemed to be rather that several stars on the Hollywood Boulevard of charities outshone the humble lapel ribbons. How could an orange piece of fabric worn for those with ADHD possibly stand up against Channel 4’s recent celeb-studded, big-budget, iPad-flashing ‘Stand up to Cancer’ telethon?

The problem begins with a lack of organisation: there is no central registry for charities or causes to bagsy a colour for their own set of ribbons. As such, no two websites are in complete agreement on what the colours stand for, thus undermining their usefulness as an awareness mechanism.

Having said that, over 90% knew the answer to breast cancer pink. Perhaps this is thanks to a basic lateral thinking puzzle: pink means girls, girls have breasts, pink means breast cancer. Is awareness therefore just a case of being selective with the colour they choose? But I’m not sure Dulux sells an easily recognisable “cerebal palsy” or “spina bifida” alongside ‘sumptuous plum’ and ‘proud peacock’. And, by that logic, why did no one recognise that asthma is exacerbated by smoke, smoke is grey, therefore a grey ribbon supports asthma? Can it really be a simple case of the association game? In which case, which crayon would you select to draw a picture of mental health?

Perhaps just as surprising as those few and far between respondents who didn’t recognise the causal association of pink, was the vast number of people who didn’t immediately associate the red ribbon with AIDS awareness and support. After all, the AIDS ribbon came first, creating the very genre of charity ribbons. The World AIDS Day association gives itself a good pat on the back for no longer needing to provide an accompanying explanation when distributing their ribbons, as the symbol is so widely known. Unfortunately, or according to my research at least, this celebration of their celebrity status seems horribly premature.

They also claim that red was chosen to represent their cause as it is ‘bold and visible’- understandable reasons when trying to make a statement- and because it symbolises ‘passion, a heart and love’- which relates to AIDS because? By this logic, red ought to be the colour for all charitable causes, because giving to charity obviously means you have a heart, and because without passion, what will these causes achieve?

I wonder, therefore, if there is something to be said about the immediate associations with colours and whether or not that will effect how we view a certain charity or cause?

Many of the colours gleaned positive, even ridiculous, responses: Barney the Dinosaur, Elmer the Elephant and the tongue-in-cheek character Ron Burgundy (immortalised by Will Ferrell in Anchorman) were repeatedly apparent. Should we really align Alzheimer’s, autism and brain aneurisms respectively with these comical characters? This could be a way of ameliorating the difficult topic of disability, making it as easy and non-threatening to discuss as children’s television. Or does it tread the line of non-PC unacceptability, by trivialising life-altering and life-threatening conditions? Colours obviously hold so many varied associations with different people that it is perhaps too volatile a medium with which to handle the sensitive subject of disability and difference; one person’s ‘vomit’ is another’s ‘Jackson Pollock’. Suddenly colour-coding isn’t so arbitrary, nor is it the same binary it was during the civil rights movement; it is too heavily loaded. Most notably, colour affiliations with ‘the fucking Tories’, ‘fucking UKIP’ and ‘the fucking Liberals’ could alienate people from wearing a certain ribbon; better not to raise awareness for cystic fibrosis than risk being labelled one of Farage’s loyal followers.

A response which seemed particularly, albeit subconsciously, telling was that which guessed the multicoloured puzzle ribbon for Autism awareness was associated with MENSA. Under this definition the ribbon becomes a rosette, to be worn with pride rather than sympathy. What’s more, this answer doesn’t appear to be a complete stab in the dark, after all, MENSA is not altogether divorced from the savant branch of the autism spectrum. But if you saw someone walking along the street displaying a sign of their supreme intelligence, you’d be more likely to mutter something under your breath about being a snob, than to extend your congratulations. We only want difference to be apparent if we remain superior, in the privileged position to sympathise and help.

The most common response to the multi-coloured ribbon was the association of the Gay Pride rainbow flag; a ribbon which is worn as a celebration of difference. However, surely I’m not the only one uncomfortable with gay people having a ribbon at all? Are we really aligning sexuality with physical diseases and mental disorders; the DSM no longer considers it deviant, so why should we?

LGBT causes do have a rainbow ribbon of their own, but it looks like they are unfairly encroaching upon Autism’s turf. The fact that ‘gay pride’ was a relatively common answer, much like the pink ribbon being general knowledge, stands as a testament to successful PR. Perhaps it’s not a case of how relevant your ribbon colour is, it’s simply a matter of who you saw wearing it. In our celebrity driven culture even deciding NOT to wear a red poppy in the run up to Remembrance day is considered newsworthy; so when a group of good looking, famous women tell you to wear pink, you do.

So, after all this; what really is the point?!

Are we participating in an illiterate interpretation of forcing disabled people to wear demarcating signs: “I have *insert disability here*” Sounds familiar…

jewish-star-holocaust

What do these ribbons really mean? Are they raising awareness, acting as a conversation starter, like a grown up version of the ubiquitous ratty wristband that provokes “What festivals have you been at this summer then?” Are we wearing them in a stance of self-congratulations? Screaming to the world “I know all about this disease you’ve never even heard of and, what’s more, I care!” Or, embodying our finest patronising selves, are we daring to pronounce “I empathise”?!

Maybe we’ve simply outgrown charity ribbons. In a society where a #nomakeupselfie campaign can raise £8million for Cancer Research UK in just six days; where Facebook can be completely consumed by people dousing themselves in ice water for the, until then widely unpublicised, ALS/MND foundation, perhaps ribbons need to go virtual, or preferably viral. It’s far easier to capture the world’s attention online than on your lapel.

But of course, these methods are not without their problems. Why should it be considered a statement for a woman to be seen in the public domain without make up on? This, once again, plays up to gender stereotypes: pink means girls, girls wear make up. It seems that, as a society, we can’t find a way to discuss illness and disability without drawing trite, maybe even borderline offensive, links to popular culture. We want to pride ourselves on tolerance and inclusivity, but can’t help ourselves when it comes to drawing distinct lines of definition, segregating one subset of society from another. Colour-coding is deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche.

Perhaps the answer is to create a single, all encompassing colour: the Pangea of charity ribbons, that says “We are all united in our difference- no one is abnormal.” But, in the interest of saving fabric, if everyone simply didn’t wear a ribbon, the effect would be much the same.

I don’t intend to heartlessly reject charitable giving, merely to point out that, clearly, awareness ribbons don’t achieve their primary purpose of raising awareness! And, if they fail to do that, they merely stand for segregation and a culture of pointing out: “Look, they’re different from me.”


(All quotes and stats from my own anonymised surveys, conducted for this assignment during my BA)

Setting the record straight

Who am I? According to the internet

Let’s face it, we all love to give ourselves a good google.

Let us hark back to 2001, a simpler time, of dial up tones and ‘please can I use the internet mum?’ ’no, I’m on the phone’; I was nearly 7. This is a landmark year, solely because it was when I first became, what I liked to think of as, ‘google famous’. For the first time, when I was googled, the links weren’t all just people who coincidentally shared my name; rather the first link was something I actually contributed to the world wide web.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/funny_old_game/1216217.stm

I drew a picture. Not a good picture, but a picture nonetheless.

And there I was, brandished on the internet for all eternity.

Since then, the internet has gained a far more common, daily (if not minutely) presence in my life. And, as such, I have further left my stamp on it.

But, if someone were to track me down online, what presentation would they have of me? Am I much more than an extension of a search for Sacha Baron Cohen?

Who am I, according to the internet?

First stop: Google.

‘Sacha Crowther’ gleans an altogether underwhelming 61,200 entries on the ubiquitous search engine (I’m even less popular on Bing, accruing just 16,000)

Naturally (as it is taking over the world) Twitter comes up first. Whilst I don’t have a Twitter account myself, I guess this is technically my profile.

Bored of being unable to bond, stalk and tag me via this medium, my flatmates during our first term at uni made me a profile. It has my name, a picture of me, and some uninspiring/ ridiculing tweets. The creator has since forgotten the password and the account sits stagnant, at a pathetic 6 tweets, 20 following and 12 followers.

The third link down offers some of my more academic musings, as featured on a university blog site. This is something I am happy for the world to see and to judge me by. Enjoy:

http://arts.leeds.ac.uk/sas/2015/01/03/sacha-crowther-writes-about-her-first-students-as-scholars-event/

http://arts.leeds.ac.uk/sas/2015/03/02/esther-and-sacha-discuss-the-two-hours-traffic-of-our-stage-time-for-shakespeare/

Something slightly more concerning (other than the mortifying Myspace photos of my youth on the google image search) is that I have an entry on 192.com.

Listed is my address (thankfully an outdated one) along with the full names and linked details of all my housemates and everyone else who has formerly lived there.

This is when the internet starts to get creepy; hence a shift in searching tactics:

Second stop: social media.

Apparently I do still have a Myspace account. However, in accordance with the newfangled upgrades to the site, the profile which I spent an obscene amount of time and HTML-writing on, is nowhere to be seen. The personalised background, welcome music and general pazazz of the page is gone. RIP.

Along with Myspace, my youthful revelling in newfound broadband created a plethora of freewebs and piczo sites. Each as intricately personalised as my Myspace account, all similarly dead and buried; six feet under in cyber space.

So, onto Facebook; a much more up to date and all-encompassing view of me as a person. As, after all, if something isn’t on Facebook, it didn’t happen.

At first glance, both my alias ‘Dirty Dingus McGee’ and cover photo suggest an all too deep knowledge of The Simpsons. Pretty accurate.

On further inspection, I apparently have five family members… This is somewhat less precise. My “sister” is not my sister, my “uncle” not officially my uncle. In fact, of the 30 odd family members I do have on Facebook, very few feature prominently in this section. (To clarify, I also don’t study ‘Studies in Top Banter’ at university.)

Aside from the most basic information, most of what features on my Facebook profile is comprised of jokes I, or someone near me, once considered funny and probably can’t remember why anymore.

In fact, my Facebook is mostly just a forum for sharing photos (4631 photos of myself to be precise, amongst thousands of other people too.) Edit, pinch and filter as I might, these albums are probably the most accurate presentation of my life. But sadly I’m pulling a silly face in most of them… so what does that really say about me?!

As far as I’m aware, my privacy settings are in order, but the ‘other’ inbox full of charming propositions (and the occasional dick pic) suggests that I’m not all that private after all.

So, if I’m destined to be part of the cyber-generation, I thought I should actively attempt to adjust my internet-self. Thus, here’s a blog; I hope it paints me in a better light than all that came before.

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