Get victimized

I’m going to suppress my instinctual reaction to the Taylor Swift trial on account of there’s a much more important implication lingering in the background which I’d prefer it if we could try to focus on. I mean, there’s nothing really interesting going on here otherwise; as though it’s at all impressive that one of the richest and most powerful people in the entertainment business was able to . . . er, no, right, I’m not doing that. Seriously, good for her. She was entirely in the right and she dealt with the whole thing as accurately and sincerely as possible. It was actually a just resolution of the situation, for once.

The problem is this:

This is exactly the opposite of what’s happening here. If Swift were really “refusing to be a victim,” she could do that very easily by simply ignoring the issue. From what I hear, she has some other stuff going on for her, so if she didn’t choose to make an issue out of this, it wouldn’t be an issue. (I’m aware that she was sued first, but she could have just let the lawyers wrap it up and it would have been washed away by the news cycle and completely forgotten in about 3 hours. I mean, that’s probably going to happen anyway, but now it’ll at least have a paragraph on her Wikipedia page.) On the contrary, by taking the stand and turning this into a media thing, she has made her status as a victim an indelible part of the public record. When she says things like this:

“I am critical of your client for sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass.”

“Gabe, this is a photo of him with his hand up my skirt — with his hand on my ass,” she said. “You can ask me a million questions — I’m never going to say anything different. I never have said anything different.”

“I am being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions and not mine.”

what she is saying is precisely, “I am a victim.” She’s saying that this happened to her without her consent and she was completely powerless to do anything about it. If this is “badass,” it’s badass because she’s accepting her victimhood.

Now, the original feminist aversion to the “victim” concept resulted from a laudable motivation. Part of the way sexism works is that the things that disadvantage women are blamed on the individual women themselves. Rape is an especially salient example, because not only are women portrayed as “asking for it,” but even blameless victims are still considered to have been “damaged” by the experience. (And of course it’s the other way around for the perpetrators: raping someone is just one of those things that men do sometimes, so there’s no sense in ruining someone’s life over it.) So the counter-tactic here was to assert that, rather than being “victims,” people who have undergone sexual assault are instead “survivors.” This turns the negative into a positive: rather than being a “victim” who will never be able to escape their experiences, a “survivor” is someone whose accomplishments are all the more admirable due to having been achieved despite duress.

So that’s all well and good, far be it from me to tell anyone how to understand their own experiences, but this approach stops working when you try to apply it as a general prescription. The fact of the matter is that rape really does harm people severely, and sometimes you don’t get over it. Some people literally don’t survive rape, and many more fall into trauma, give up on themselves, curtail their ambitions, or simply slog through the rest of their lives latched to a dull, throbbing weight that never really goes away. If these things were not the case, rape would not be a real issue. That’s kind of the whole thing about oppression: it creates an environment in which being casually restrained and put-upon is normal. Furthermore, the people most harmed by rape are the people who are most in need of help – they’re the people that our theory has to be centered around. If our conceptualization of the issue tacitly abandons them, we’re not doing feminism very well.

This is, of course, exactly what’s been happening. The modern mainstream conception of feminism is essentially a self-help program for rich white women based on a skin-deep conception of individual empowerfulmentness and manifested largely through bastardized pop-psych-sci-mythology and snake-oil saleswomanship. I mean, just so we’re clear, I’m not addressing what random Twitter morons are saying about this; I’m talking about the general conception of what feminism is right now. (Also, the real kind of feminism is still alive and well, it’s just that there are now two different things with the same name, and, as always, the bad one is more popular.) “Refusing to be a victim” is a perfect one-line description of this ideology: it’s an individual denialistic response to a society that is assumed to be unchangeable. Hence, among many examples, the current trend towards “advice” about how to properly mangle your own vocabulary to ensure that you aren’t saying anything that will “hold you back.” Rather than analyzing why it is that speech patterns characteristic of women are considered “flawed” in some way, or why we expect people to jump through ritualistic hoops unrelated to the actual work they’re doing in order to succeed (and certainly rather than suggesting that anything about men’s behavior ought to change), we simply assume all of that to be fixed and ask the only remaining question: how can each individual woman act so as to most effectively mitigate her own inherent disadvantages? It is in this sense that the correct response to sexual assault is understood to be “refusing to be a victim”: dealing with your specific personal complications on an individual level and ignoring any broader context.

There’s a reason things have turned out this way. Sexism has its own unique characteristics, but the general dynamic here is the same was what’s happening to everything. Our society has be de-politicized in general such that all problems are understood on the individual level. We see exactly the same dynamic when, for example, liberals respond to unemployment by advocating education and retraining. Rather than modifying society so that it works for everyone, we force each individual person to contort themselves into one of the few permissible shapes.

“Women’s issues” are at the heart of this problem, because the fundamental motivation for patriarchy is to force women into a limited set of socially necessary roles (child rearing, housework, emotional labor) so that these things can be assumed to be taken care of and men are free to do whatever else they want. (The fact that some men may very well want to do the things we’ve cordoned off for women is one of the reasons that patriarchy hurts men too.) As long as our society is organized on the basis of this dynamic, we will continue to see it replicated in different ways for different groups of people. We can’t solve this problem for anyone until we can solve it for women. This is among the many reasons that feminism is for everybody.

But the original impulse here is still valid: conceiving of patriarchy as a vast ineluctable darkness and woman as hopelessly downtrodden is equally fatalistic. Rewriting the script to give yourself a flashier role doesn’t change the fundamental problem, because the fundamental problem is the existence of the script. Creating a new model for how women are supposed to act will make women’s oppression look different while continuing to be oppression, and continuing to leave anyone who doesn’t fit the model out in the cold. “Refusing to be a victim” actually means buying in to the idea that victims have something wrong with them, that only by responding to a tragedy in the proper, socially-approved manner do you qualify as a human being. It is not incumbent upon oppressed people to respond to their oppression in a way that makes everyone else feel good about themselves. To insist on this is precisely to blame the victim. You have to accept how people feel and provide resources to help them regardless of whether they’re sassy sheroes or whether they’re useless losers. The society we want is a society that works for all women, one where even women who are complete stupid assholes are disadvantaged only by their own stupid assholeness and not by sexism. Making moral sympathy contingent on the ability to act in a way that makes other people feel good about themselves is deeply sick.

And it’s more than sick; it’s factually inaccurate. “Victories” make it seem like the current situation is okay, when of course the fact that these things happen at all unavoidably illustrates that it is not okay. Even someone like Taylor Swift, who is privileged enough to be immune to almost everything else, is not immune to the banal impulses of whatever rando she ends up standing next to. The significance of the case is not that Swift “won,” because she didn’t. She broke even: she took a bad thing that happened to her and fixed it (and she really didn’t even do that, because she still had to waste her time going to court and arguing with some asshole lawyer). The significance is that, hopefully, the next guy who gets it into his head to pull some shit will instead think twice. Victory isn’t winning a court case; victory is being treated like a person in the first place.

The state of being a victim is morally neutral. That is, the thing that happened was bad (meaning the state of being a victimizer is morally negative, obviously), but it can happen just as easily to a good person or an awful person, and the fact of it happening does not make the person any better or worse. What being a victim actually indicates is that someone else did something immoral. Not only does it not reflect badly on you, it doesn’t reflect on you at all; the whole point of the term is that the situation was outside of your control. If we accept this, we have to accept that how a victim responds to their victimization is absolutely irrelevant to the situation. It’s fine to prefer certain types of responses to others (especially since many possible responses are themselves immoral in different ways), and we might have advice about how to respond in a healthy manner, but none of that should have any effect on our evaluation of the initial violation. It’s either wrong or it’s not, and if it’s wrong, then we can’t excuse it in either direction: we can’t wave it away as “the way things are,” but we also can’t accept an “inspiring” resolution as a “happy ending.” Because it’s not an ending; the only ending will be when this actually ends, when the last page of the last book of the old order’s precepts is reduced to ashes and scattered to the four winds. Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, it’s not a fantasy that we can reasonably console ourselves with. We must accept that we are doomed and also accept our responsibility to fight for the sake of the true future. Our only option is to continue to live as victims.

Sadly, the current conception of things hasn’t really been forced on us. It’s certainly something that the ruling class has promoted to their own advantage, but it’s only worked because people have gone along with it, and the reason they’ve gone along with it is because it’s easy. It’s comforting to imagine that any problem can be resolved by simply finding the secret code that turns it off. Actually, it’s more than just comforting; acknowledging that there are vast historical forces arrayed against you but imagining that you can overcome them through nothing but your own cleverness and determination doesn’t just make things okay, it makes it so you’re the hero. And since this rarely works out in practice, we instead find the few people privileged enough to make it work and experience the fantasy vicariously through them.

Neither being a queen nor slaying is a good thing. It isn’t “badass” to pretend like you’re perfect and nothing affects you. It isn’t badass to only pick fights that you’re sure you can win effortlessly. It is badass to admit your weaknesses, to be honest about your history and your emotions, and to confront things that are scary. It’s badass to fight things that you’re probably not going to be able to defeat, to choose just struggle over shallow success.

What this means in practice is that we must, all of us, refuse to refuse to be victims. We must insist on our own victimhood, and on the validity of our cause regardless. We aren’t right because we’re the coolest people with the best hair and the sassiest comebacks. We’re right because we’re right. Victorious or defeated, we remain victims; together or alone, we remain united in the cause of justice.

This is the thing that we all have in common. We all have different situations, but each of us is vulnerable to something. Each of us has been, in some important way, failed by our society. We have all had our potential stifled, our opportunities curtailed, our selves denigrated, and our dreams deferred. We all bear the scars of irretrievable losses; we are all less than we could have been. We’ve all run into walls; we’ve all encountered painfully decisive evidence that we are not equal to the task before us, and we’re all going to keep trying anyway. We’re all broken robots play-acting at personhood. It is this realization, not the cheap glamour of hero-worship, that creates the foundation for real solidarity.

You’re a victim. Admit it.


This whole saga with Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments is entirely bizarre, but it’s bizarre for the opposite reason that everyone been saying it’s bizarre. We already knew that Trump was a casual white supremacist. I know people have short memories these days, but we saw this exact scenario play out in exactly the same way during the campaign. When David Duke endorsed him, Trump initially acted like it wasn’t any kind of deal, and was eventually pressured into making a formulaic and entirely unconvincing disavowal. The clear implication is that Trump doesn’t see his being supported by white supremacists as anything particularly notable. It’s true that he had a meltdown this time, presumably because his new job is forcing him to miss naptime and he’s getting cranky, but all that did was reconfirm what we already knew (for like the twelfth time). And this is all aside from the fact that his entire political appeal in the first place was a paean to “traditional” white identity. (This includes the whole globalization/economic anxiety angle. The anxiety is over the fact that white people are no longer guaranteed comfortable middle-class existences at the expense of everyone else. This is neither an either/or nor a both/and argument; they’re the same thing.) So what’s bizarre isn’t the fact that Trump sympathized with Nazis; what’s bizarre is the fact that anyone thought there was any possibility of him doing anything else.

The difference, of course, is that Trump is technically president right now, so he’s expected to “act presidential.” This is a con. It was obviously a con that first time he gave a “normal” policy speech and hack columnists started falling all over themselves to declare that he had “become president,” and it would be just as much of a con now, if he were competent enough to execute it. So it’s bizarre for someone opposed to Trump’s agenda to want him to make the “right” kind of statement here, because the only actual function of that would be to provide that agenda with political cover. This is exactly what’s happening with the rest of the Republican establishment: they are competent enough to recognize that neo-Nazis qualify as Official Bad Guys and that there is therefore no downside to denouncing them. By doing this, they are successfully distancing themselves from Trump and the alt-right, which is a bad thing, because a) the alt-right is a natural outgrowth of standard Republican politicking and b) mainstream Republicans have the power and savvy to actually execute policy (well, sometimes. I’m not crediting anyone around here with any real talent or anything). The Republican establishment has done far, far more to advance the cause of white supremacy than Trump will ever be able to. He would never have been able to get anywhere had white resentment not already been established as one of America’s primary vectors for political sentiment. He’s not creative enough to come up with something like that on his own. The fact that Trump has clarified this, has made what previously required decoding legible in plain text, is the one and only positive function he has ever performed in his life (and of course it’s entirely unintentional and the opposite of what he thinks he’s going for. He’s a bit dim, if you hadn’t noticed). You can’t have it both ways. You can either have a shallow patina of formal dignity camouflaging calamity or you can have honesty. I prefer honesty.

There’s also a tactical aspect at work, which is that, regardless of either policy or personality, the mere fact of the person who happens to be The President of The United States sympathizing with racists promotes racism. White supremacists have been pretty clear about the fact that they see Trump as “their guy” and that they consider his presence in the White House official validation of their beliefs, and they’re not wrong. This cuts both ways, though. The fact that he’s there at all indicates that those forces were already at work. It wouldn’t have been possible for any of this to happen in a genuinely anti-racist society. So there’s still the question of why anyone really gives a shit about what Donald Trump has to say. Specifically, Trump’s opponents don’t consider him a legitimate president for a variety of reasons, and they’re nominally on guard against “normalizing” his behavior. But that’s exactly what would happen if Trump were to cease acting like a stupid asshole: he would turn into a normal president. In order to make real progress, we need to make use of what’s happening here: now that it has become nauseatingly clear that the president does not speak for the nation, we should stop pretending like such a thing was ever the case. The tactical countermeasure to the potential harm of presidential statements is to stop imbuing them with undue significance.

So the whole “normality” angle is a huge problem, because it both implies that racism isn’t normal and states explicitly that the solution is for “abnormal” things to stop happening. Liberals don’t actually want to confront racism. The Obama years, when America was still a white supremacist country but we had a “respectable” person making “thoughtful” statements that made us feel like everything was okay when it manifestly was not, was the true liberal goal. The reason they got complacent in the middle of a crisis was because what little they had what was what they actually wanted. They wanted Daddy to give them life lessons and chase away the monsters under the bed and pat them on the head and tell them they’re good little boys and girls, and their primary objection to Trump is the fact that he doesn’t do this. He makes a scary world seem like it’s actually scary, he makes intractable problems look like they really don’t have solutions, and he makes a godless universe look like one where there really is no force of justice pushing things in the right direction and no one looking out for us. He makes us feel like we’re on our own.

This isn’t a good thing, though, because Trump is trying to have his second scoop of ice cream and eat it too. He wants to be a big important man, but he doesn’t want any of the concomitant responsibilities. His entire life has been devoted to promoting the image of himself as a Big Important Man, without any achievements that might make such an image qualify as an accurate representation. All of his projects were empty advertising campaigns with his name plastered all over them and all of his news coverage was sleazy tabloid trash. This gambit has proven entirely successful. Not only was he treated like an important person his whole life, but the only reason he was able to present himself as a credible presidential candidate in the first place was becasue our conception of the presidency is precisely that of a Big Important Man. Trump’s “lack of experience” and “temperament” were always entirely beside the point: the role he actually inhabited, the fake one, was the only one that ever mattered. The image is what people actually want.

When liberals lament that Trump is degrading our national discourse, or making us look bad in front of the cool countries, or act like he’s going to end the world with a tweet, they are buying in to that image. Assuming he can do those things is what gives him the power to do them. Inflating his importance covers for him by masking the fact that he has no substance. Even his support for white supremacy does not actually rise to the level of political conviction. He lives in a country where white people are in charge, and he assumes that this is how it’s supposed to be simply on the basis of that very fact. He’s done any of the reflection or investigation necessary to form an opinion on the matter. All he has is the raw, unprocessed background ideology of his society.

The problem with attacking Trump for making a bad statement is that it implies that the Big Important Man role is in fact the role that matters, and that the correct thing for him to do is to play it according to the script. You’ll note that this doesn’t just apply to the current variety of extremely unhinged statements: whenever someone doesn’t respond to something soon enough, or when they say something that doesn’t emphasize exactly the right points, we get all outraged and demand an “apology” or whatever. (Actually, the “public apology” concept is a whole other level of bizarreness, but one thing at a time here.) We throw a tantrum becasue Daddy isn’t reading us our bedtime story on time.

The thing that we ought to be attacking is the script, not the actor. There are actually two completely different things that we refer to as the “president.” There is the managerial role of running the executive branch of the United States government, and there is the person on the TV who makes speeches and gets his (it’s still “his”) name attached to official actions and policy statements (recall how much Trump loves making a big show of signing things, regardless of whether they have any real effect). Assuming for now that the former role is necessary, it doesn’t necessitate the latter. That role is an artifact of the fact that the human brain is only really good at understanding the world through individual figures and personalities, and we’re ready to evolve beyond it. People complain about elections being reality TV shows, but as long as we continue to understand the world in this way, that’s the only possibility. If you’re electing a figurehead, then the election is going to be a contest over who’s the better figurehead. Again, this is the only reason why Trump, whose only ability is being a figurehead, was able to get anywhere near the process. It isn’t the president that’s the problem; it’s the presidency.

Regarding the initial instigatory issue of removing statues of Confederates, then, the implied approach is pretty straightforward: don’t fucking make statues of people. Trump had one of his rare moments of accidentally stumbling into the right angle from the wrong direction when he said that, by the same logic that says that statues of slaveholders should be taken down, statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would also have to go. Obviously this is a shallow equivalency – there’s a pretty clear moral line between people who held slaves while doing other worthwhile stuff and people who are only historically notable becasue they fought directly for the cause of slavery – but the fact that people like Washington and Jefferson did a bunch of evil shit actually does mean that they should not be idolized. Moreover, the fact that pretty much nobody lives a blameless life logically implies that nobody should be idolized, so the concept of idolization is simply a bad concept. Specific achievements can be honored and specific evils denounced without crossing the line into judging historical figures as “good” or “bad” people. (Judging living people is a different matter, as there exists the possibility of changing their behavior.) Seeing as they’re dead, there’s no sense in which their moral status as individuals matters (or exists at all), but the things they actually accomplished, both positive and negative, still live on and affect the world we currently live in. And we really do have to remember the history of American slavery (not just the Confederacy; again, almost all of the “good guys” were also active supporters of the institution): we have to remember that it was one of the worst things that has ever happened, that it ranks among the greatest crimes in all of human history, and that we have not come even close to redeeming ourselves for it.

So, practically speaking, the thing to do is to have monuments to notable historical events rather than statues of notable people. Even for morally unimpeachable figures (if any; even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a womanizer), having a statue of them puts the focus on who they were, which no longer matters, rather than on what they did, which is the part that’s still important. And focusing on events allows you to address morally ambiguous and even incomprehensibly horrible history without collapsing into shallow judgementalism. Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial shows the promise of such an approach. Recognizing the inadequacy of mere information to convey the necessary enormity, the memorial instead creates an abstract experience that living people can walk into and feel. (I’ve never been, but my sister reports it to be deeply unsettling.) Names and dates are for textbooks; the value of memorials is that they collect the intangible mist of the past and turn it into something solid, something real that exists in the present and affects people. This is how you actually preserve history.

[Addendum: For more examples, here’s a pretty great collection of slavery memorials. Note that the ones representing individual personages are boring, while the ones with metaphorical content are actually affective. There’s even some in the U.S., so it’s not like this is beyond our abilities.]

And this isn’t just an aesthetic issue; turning all issues into referenda on individuals carries heavy practical consequences. A concrete and also terrifying example is the nuclear situation. There’s been a lot of talk about the dangers of having a madman with his finger on the big red button, but disturbingly little about why that button is there at all. From what I understand, it’s basically a Cold War relic; the worry was that a Soviet first strike could take out our chain of command and remove our ability to retaliate, so the “solution” was that a formal order to launch basically gets carried out immediately with no oversight. In other words, our priority as a society is to preserve above all our ability to destroy the world at a moment’s notice. Recall, for example, the furor raised when Jeremy Corbyn said there was no situation in which he’d push the button. How dare he refuse to commit genocide in order to make white people feel safe. Clearly we can’t have someone like that in charge. It would just be irresponsible. The fact that we’ve made and continue to make this choice about our priorities as a society is far scarier than any bogeyman Trump can conjure up. Having a “rational” finger on the trigger should not comfort us – the truly disturbing part is the existence of the trigger. Insisting on electing someone “responsible” to administer this vile function is suicidally short-sighted. The correct thing to do here is to make it so decisions of such overwhelming consequence are not made by one person. I mean, the correct thing to do here is to not have this decision be available at all, because jesus christ, but in general, the point of designing a system is so that it’s not subject to these sorts of arbitrary whims. Nothing should ever come down to one person being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Unfortunately, people like it that way. They don’t want to make decisions and hold responsibilities, they just want to have the Right Person in charge taking care of that for them. Conservatives think a tough-minded businessman is going to lay down the law and single-handedly reverse worldwide economic trends, and liberals pine for Obama’s ability to lull them to sleep with friendly smiles and full sentences.

The good news is that this half of the dynamic is under our control. We have very little influence over the specific machinations of the government, but the culture we live in is something we all create together, continuously. It’s a precept of American mythology that the country was based on the idea of not having a “king” and instead having a government “of the people,” but this is total horseshit. We act like we’re all enlightened becasue we have a “president” instead of a “king,” but then we go ahead and treat the president exactly like a king anyway. Furthermore, Americans use “king” is a general-purpose positive metaphor (the semantics of “queen” is a whole other story): we look to suit-wearing leaders and official statements to understand anything, we consistently privilege the perspectives of the charismatic, wealthy, and well-connected over everything else, and we’re thirsty as fuck for celebrity gossip. Americans fucking love worshipping people who they perceive as superior. In fact, as the rise of microcelebrity demonstrates, we actually create the perception of superiority just so we can have something to worship. Lacking a god to fill the role, we just start worshipping every stupid thing we run into. And, more relevant to our present purposes, demonization works the same way: we inflate an enemy into a larger-than-life figure so that we can safely rail at it in the abstract and feel like we’re doing the right thing, even as we avoid engaging with the material conditions that that have real causative power.

We can solve the problem by ceasing to do these things. We can stop making up fake form and start understanding real function. And it’s the nature of the issue that we – meaning you – are going to have to do this while the rest of the culture goes on babbling about mission statements and Twitter beefs and thought leaders and red carpet dresses and, yes, presidential speeches. That stuff is going to keep happening as long as you keep validating it. This is your fault, and you have the power to make it stop.

Certainly, the importance of someone like Trump is not illusory, but it’s not illusory in either direction: it’s not phantasmic, but it’s also not fantastic. There are certain things that he’s capable of doing and certain things that he’s not. He’s not capable of dominating the discourse without our consent. And regarding the things he is capable of doing, we need to seriously consider whether anyone ought to be capable of them. If we’re really that scared of what he might do, the only real solution is to design a society where nobody can do those types of things. I know it’s hard to get past just being disgusted by all of this, I’ll be as glad to have it off my mind as anybody, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have a job to do. Cleaning up the pus and bile after this is over won’t resolve anything. We have to carve into ourselves and excise the beliefs that make things like this possible. Let the head that wears the crown mouth off as it pleases; our mission is to destroy the throne.

No more heroines

Shirley Manson:

“[Debbie Harry and I] are some of the few women left who do what we do in the way that we do it. We’re getting rarer and rarer. I think people understand that this breed is dying.”

This is right for the wrong reason. There are no female rock stars right now, but that’s becasue there are no rock stars right now. Rock isn’t mainstream anymore. The garage-rock boom of the early ’00s died out, and that was it. All of the top-billed, headline-making music right now is either hip-hop, R&B, electronica, or spectacle pop. Hell, even country’s made a comeback. The only exceptions are legacy acts like Radiohead and minor celebrities like Jack White. Looking for a Shirley Manson figure in this context is like looking for water on Mars.

However, the notion that women who “write their own music and aren’t chasing pop success,” constitute a “thinning bloodline” is as horrendously wrong as anything can possibly be. It’s important to make this distinction because the progress of this half of the dynamic has been overwhelmingly positive. Female rock stars may be a dying breed, but female rockers are almost literally everywhere. We’re getting shockingly close to the point where women being in rock bands is fully normal behavior – it would honestly be difficult for me to avoid them were I trying. Even when I go to see a typical boy-punk band like Wavves1 it’s a near guarantee that there will be women writing songs and playing instruments in the openers. I’m the last person who’s ever going to argue that “things are okay,” but even an inveterate hater like me has to admit that this is a hell of a lot better than it used to be. If Bikini Kill were around today, they wouldn’t be getting alternately harassed and patronized. They would seem like a normal rock band with normal politics. Again, this is not to minimize any of the very real shit that’s still happening, but the fact is this battle has largely been won. Women playing rock music is normal now. Deal with it.

It’s still valid to ask whether we’re missing something by not having heroes, though, because heroes serve different functions than regular artists. Actually, it kind of seems like the functions heroes serve are the only ones that matter. That is, if you’re already into music or you’re reading radical theory or whatever, you don’t need a lot of help. You’re in a position where you can figure things out for yourself; you know where you can look for answers. The person who does need help is the proverbial queer kid in a small religious town – someone who’s too far away from the truth to be reached by conventional means. The value of heroes is that they have this kind of reach. If you’re in a position where you actually need to be saved, a hero is the only option.

The problem with this is that it’s a coincidence. If society were generally just, the people with reach would be the people whose touch matters. This is not the case. In fact, it’s worse than just being a coincidence. The actual situation is fairly chaotic, but as a general rule, it’s more accurate to say that we live in a society that suppresses things that are worthwhile and promotes things that are useless, and indeed often actively harmful. The people with the means to do the talking are usually those with the least to say. For every one Garbage screaming out the truth, there are ten Limp Bizkits stinking up the airwaves and hundreds more Bratmobiles languishing in the shadows.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that Garbage had a positive effect on people through being on MTV. I mean, I can vouch for this personally. Garbage was the only good band I liked before I liked music. And because I was a stupid kid back then, I never would have heard of them if they hadn’t been on MTV. They didn’t save me or anything, but I’d probably be worse off otherwise. They helped me, and they’ve helped millions of others even more. To the extent that they had to get popular in order to do this, their popularity was a good thing. But they didn’t get big because they had something worthwhile to say; if anything, they got big in spite of it. Which means that any “stardom” effect in play is ultimately just a matter of luck.

It’s important to draw a distinction here between popularity, the general concept describing a situation where lots of people like something, and fame, the specific thing that happens when popularity Ouroboroses itself. While they can occur together, they don’t have to, and the difference is not just a matter of numbers. Someone can have a large number of fans while remaining unknown outside that group and therefore not properly famous; this is what we refer to as a “cult following.” And we’re all familiar with the situation in which someone is famous without there being anything they’re actually known for doing; this can happen even when relatively few people are paying attention to them.

So what we can understand here is that fame is strictly bad: the specific thing it means is that lots of people are paying attention to you without caring about what you’re doing. Fame discriminates improperly. Bad things get famous just as easily as (or more easily than) good things, and fame occupies cultural breathing room that could otherwise be filled with more things that matter. There can’t be a good version of the Grammys; any awards show necessarily resolves itself into red carpet bullshit. Popularity, by contrast, is the enthusiasm without the awards. So it’s actually a good thing, but in the sense that heart surgery is a good thing. You don’t want it for its own sake, and if you can get along without it you’re probably better off. But in some situations it can help you do the thing that you actually want to do. I’d like to emphasize that this is neither an obscurantist nor an apologetic argument; things aren’t better or worse for being more or less popular. Being popular increases your chances of reaching people, but what’s important is the reaching, not the numbers. In fact, the problem with popularity is precisely that it leads to fame; it increases the chances that your bandwidth will start to get clogged up with people who don’t actually care.

The difference between a “rocker” and a “rock star” – and, more generally, the difference between an “artist” and a “hero” – is the difference between popularity and fame. Ergo, heroes are bad. This is kind of a hard point to focus on, because talking about “heroes” makes you think of your own heroes, who are obviously good, but it remains the case that the concept of heroes is bad, and the act of having heroes is bad. It’s natural to want to hype someone who does something that’s important to you, but promotion is different from idolization. You can’t idolize someone you actually know, because what idolization is is the filling in of the gaps you don’t know about with positive-valence generica. It’s taking one important thing and improperly extrapolating from it that someone is important in general, which no one actually is.

So, functionally, what hero worship does is not to shine a spotlight on worthwhile achievements. Worthwhile achievements are worthwhile on their own; they justify themselves simply by existing. That’s what it means for something to be worthwhile. Rather, what the spotlight of heroism brings into view is everything else, the things that don’t actually matter. Again, this seems harmless when the other things turn out to be good. It’s certainly nice that the person who happens to be Beyoncé happens to be a feminist, but that isn’t something you can rely on. In fact, people have made exactly this complaint about Taylor Swift: she’s supposedly “not political enough” and therefore not fulfilling her role as a hero. But the question isn’t why Taylor Swift isn’t political, the question is why do you care? Why do you have the expectation that someone who writes songs (or doesn’t) that go on the radio is going to share your personally favored political viewpoint? Are you not capable of making your own arguments? Do you really think progress can’t happen without the say-so of some rando pop star?

Worse, heroes generally “happen” to be more like, oh, I don’t know, Bill Cosby. The function of heroism is to make people like Cosby look good, and to make people like Dave Chappelle apologize for them. To be clear, Chappelle doesn’t deny Cosby’s rapism, but because he idolizes Cosby, he’s compelled to argue that it’s “not that simple,” and so he comes up with extenuating factors that aren’t actually true. And it isn’t just that Cosby doesn’t deserve the favor, it’s that it doesn’t matter. His work still exists on its own; whatever value it has is still there. And his crimes also exist on their own. The only reason to conflate2 them is if you feel some need to decide whether Cosby is a “good person” in general, which you shouldn’t, because “being a good person” is not a sensible concept when divorced from specific actions. Heroism attempts to square this circle, to draw bright lines of “good” and “bad”3 that paint over the actual facts on the ground.

There is a specifically feminist point to be made here. First of all, there’s a good reason why feminists are particularly susceptible to heroineism. One of the primary mechanics through which patriarchy operates is the casting of men as agents and women as assistants. Typically masculine roles are those such as the warrior, the lone genius, the statesman, or the explorer – people who do things, who are the source of their own achievements. Typically feminine roles are those such as the wife, the maid, the mother, or the muse – people who support or maintain things, who are factors in other people’s achievements.4 The way that these role-sets and their interactions work to promote male dominance is pretty straightforward. So the natural counter here is to point out situations in which women are undeniable creative forces in their own right. When you get wildly original artists like Patti Smith5 or Björk, women who can’t possibly be understood other than as self-possessed agents and originators, it is severely temping to turn them into heroes. Like, if Patti Smith gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then that’s real official proof that women are just as good as men, right?

The problem with this is that exceptions, as a rule, don’t disprove rules. You can just as well interpret the same situation the other way around: women have to be exceptional in order to qualify as creators. There’s nothing stopping anyone from recognizing the achievements of some particular handful of women and then remaining sexist about everything else. That’s exactly how it’s been throughout literally all of history, because there are always, in any context, going to be people who are exceptional in one way or another. You’re always going to see the occasional Queen Elizabeth, Commander Artemisia, or Hypatia of Alexandria – as well as the occasional Margaret Thatcher, Aileen Wuornos, or Leni Riefenstahl. By the same token, though, the overwhelming majority of women are just going to be normal people with normally-valuable abilities. We don’t need more exceptions; we need to start valuing ordinary women, to remove the requirement of exceptionality. Treating a tiny selection of women like superhumans (/”queens”/”goddesses”) does not absolve us of not treating normal women like normal humans. Women having to be exceptional in order to be considered on par with men is the exact thing that sexism is. The measure of progress in music, then, is not whether we have female superstars. That’s always been the case. It’s whether people of average talent and ordinary appeal are being given their fair shake. The glass ceiling that matters is not the highest one, but the lowest.

In short, it’s a trap. Idolization is how patriarchy handles the unavoidable existence of exceptional women while maintaining existing sexist structures. A social system that didn’t account for exceptions would be brittle; it would crack under pressure. The systems that become pervasive are the ones that are flexible, that can adapt themselves to whatever the conditions on the ground happen to be, that resolve problematic happenstances. They’re the ones that cause you to take a genuine feminist influence like Shirley Manson, call her a “grunge goddess” (which is an oxymoron all by itself), and portray her and a bunch of other important female creators as generic representatives of something called “women in rock.”

As you’ll recall, though, the catch is that heroism serves valuable functions, so the real question is: can we make do without it? Even if the concept sucks, it might act as a Wittgensteinian Ladder: we might need it now because things are fucked, even though we’re going to want to throw it away later. While I can’t speak for the past, I submit that, even if this is the case, the time has come. Instead of inflating heroes to shadow over everything, it is within our power to make smaller, more direct connections, where they’re needed.

Obviously, the internet is a big deal here. I’m sure I don’t have to explain the effect it’s had on music distribution. But this isn’t a technological problem. After all, the internet has had just as strong of an effect in the opposite direction. The vast majority of people use the internet to pay more attention to the things that are already the most popular.6 This has nothing to do with the technology itself; the problem is what people want. If you’re trying to connect things with the people who need them, you can find some way to do that at any level of technology. Back in the day there were things like zines and mail-order catalogs and good old fashioned word of mouth. The internet is potentially a huge help – rather, it has been, and it can be an even bigger help – but it can’t help you do anything until you want to do it.

The fundamental problem is that people want heroes. They prefer stars shining from afar to real people existing unglamorously in front of them.7 They aren’t comfortable valuing things on their own; they want to be told that the things they care about are “really” important, that they’re “right” to care. They want to outsource their humanity to someone else. But this can only ever be a lie, because importance comes from the personal interactions you have with something. Other people can acknowledge that those interactions happened, but they only ever belong to you. It’s simply factual to say that Garbage has had a strong influence on a lot of people, but that doesn’t merely add up to “stardom”; each influence retains its individual content, content that can’t simply be exchanged with that of any other equivalent “star,” precisely as those influenced by Garbage describe:

Screaming Females’ guitarist Marissa Paternoster, whose band went on tour with Garbage in 2013, agreed. “Shirley was the most honest in her darkness. Gwen Stefani was a great inspiration for me but she didn’t have that sharp edge that I was looking for. That’s what attracted me to Garbage: Shirley’s transparency and vulnerability.”

What’s really important is not just that this suffices, but that it’s better. I can also vouch for this personally, because, as ideologically disinclined as I am to admit this, I actually was saved. It’s really none of your fucking business, but the important thing is that I wasn’t saved by a hero; I was saved by a person. In my case, this was also luck, but it didn’t have to be. This is the part that’s fixable. It’s not fixable by finding the “right” heroes; it’s fixable by ceasing to lean on the crutch. As soon as you start caring about popularity, as soon as you go looking for “heroes,” you’re putting your finger on the scale and fucking up the balance. But even when something worthwhile gets famous – rather, when it gets popular, because fame is the part of popularity that isn’t justified – we can’t simply accept that as a fortunate coincidence. We have to move away from fame and towards meaning; we have to topple the statue in order to free the spirit inside. This is what it means to kill yr idols.

When I see a fancy photo shoot in a magazine, that makes me feel like whatever’s being talked about has nothing to do with me, like it’s taking place on another planet. When I see someone five feet in front of me plugging in a guitar and tuning up, that makes me feel like I can do things, like it’s possible for me to exist in this world. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think it is. Even when people engage in hero-worship, they aren’t really responding to the lights and the dresses. If they were, heroes would be completely interchangeable. But it’s the opposite: people cling only to their heroes, because they’ve found something specific there that has mattered to them. People like glitz because it makes the things they care about seem more important, more “real.” But this is mere reassurance, and it’s false reassurance. It’s cowardice, and we should be brave enough to reject it. We should accept the smallness of the truth. Shirley Manson is not a representative of some kind of general “women in music” category; she is a musician, which is better.8 There are specific things that people found in Garbage’s music and kept with them, and that’s the only thing that matters. The rest ought to be silence. Correspondingly, the answer to the question “who is there for little girls to look up to now?” is everyone. We just have to show them where to look.

This is, of course, a more challenging pursuit. It’s not as easy as getting a couple of good videos on MTV. You have to explore, you have to focus, you have to figure out how to get the right things to the right people. The task is harder now; it’s a little more involved. It requires more of us as individuals. We have to think more personally about the things that are important to us, and also think more broadly about how our actions contribute to creating the kind of world we’re going to have to live in. This is called “progress.” It gets us closer to, one day, maybe, getting things right. And what’s important to remember that progress isn’t natural. It’ll be just as easy to fuck this up, to go back to looking for heroes, create a new circumscribed, media-friendly class of “female rock stars,” and re-erect the wall that so much effort has been put into tearing down. I’m really not interested in letting this happen.

It is better to be a person than to be a hero. Even accounting for the fact that some people are going to accomplish a lot more than others, everyone can be valued for their contributions without anyone being turned to stone and stuck on a pedestal. (Recall the feminist insight that putting someone on a pedestal is a means of preventing them from moving.) This is also a more accurate depiction of reality; it prevents us from being bamboozled by people like Cosby. The real world is not narrow, and no one bestrides it like a Colossus. In truth, no one is any larger than life – or any smaller. Everyone is exactly the same size as life.


  1. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Actually, credit where it’s due: when I saw them recently Nathan Williams made a pretty serious comment about not groping the female crowdsurfers, so a lot of men have actually been doing a decent job of getting on the ball here. 
  2. Note that conflation is different from reassessing in the light of new evidence. But if you find something new as a result of this, it will be something that was there all along. 
  3. Villainy is the same thing as heroism, just in the opposite direction. 
  4. Note that the role of the “father” is primarily understood as a provider and a rule-maker, so it’s still a “doer” role. Similarly, female artists are often understood as mystics or “conduits of the spirits” or whatever, which recasts their creativity as passive midwifery of an external, agentive force. Consider further such dichotomies as doctor/nurse, playboy/slut, priest/nun, etc. It’s pretty much everywhere. Also, this goes all the way down to the level of basic biology. People used to have the idea that a sperm was an entire fully-formed person and the womb was basically just a big empty hole where it hung out and grew on its own. 
  5. Patti Smith is a fascinatingly ironic example here, like there’s seriously a book to be written about this, as she is herself an unabashed hero-worshipper with some pretty traditionally sexist ideas about men being creative geniuses and women being muses. As recounted in Just Kids, she originally tried to get Sam Shepard to save rock and roll before reluctantly accepting the fact that she was going to have to do it herself. 
  6. Note that the huge amount of social media noise during the 2016 election, which supposedly destroyed all sources of authority and turned politics into a mess of untethered subjectivity, did not make third parties any more viable, or indeed do anything at all to broaden the scope of debate beyond the usual popularity-contest bullshit – which is exactly how the person whose only ability is competing in popularity contests won. In fact, social media increased this effect: the election might otherwise not have been enough of a popularity contest to make the difference. 
  7. Believe it or not, Adam Smith has a pretty good bit about this: “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.” 
  8. Just in case it’s not clear, I’m very much not saying that gender doesn’t matter. It matters the same way everything else does. Being a feminist means neither reifying nor ignoring gender; it means accepting it as a subject of serious study.