Search Results for: fuck

Fuck You, Death: Thoughts on Finishing My Friend’s Last Book

Longreads Pick

In a brief and beautiful essay, Anders Nilsen remembers his friend, the late cartoonist and musician Geneviève Castrée, and describes the difficult process of helping finish her final work.

Published: Jul 26, 2018
Length: 6 minutes (1,723 words)

A Farewell to Fuckboys in the Age of Consent Culture

Longreads Pick

In the second installment of her series on dating while woke, Minda Honey explores the long unraveling of a #MeToo moment in the wake of cultural upheaval.

Source: Longreads
Published: Apr 13, 2018
Length: 19 minutes (4,980 words)

A Farewell to Fuckboys in the Age of Consent Culture

Illustration by Janna Morton

Minda Honey | Longreads | April 2018 | 20 minutes (4,980 words)

 

Let’s start at 16-and-a-half, a half-a-lifetime ago. I was gone off this boy who lived around the corner from me. He was two grades ahead in school, a senior. We rode the bus together. His name sang with alliteration fit for a newscaster. Tall, Black, beautiful in that stony, delicate way only young men can be. Already toxic, poisoned by his father, knuckles split and scarred from fighting. One morning, on the ride to school, he showed me a picture of his girlfriend, his other hand in my lap, beneath my uniform skirt. “You should shave,” he said. I listened.

In the afternoon, on the walk to his house — I’d walk past mine and double back later, just to spend more time with him — the younger boys would crowd around, their white school shirts untucked, sneakers untied. They wanted to hear stories about his fights. They wanted to know if he’d play basketball with them. They were gone off him too. We knew something special when we saw it. When he smiled, his cheekbones rode high and his eyes stretched into slits as thin as pennies.

Once, when it was just the two of us, the younger boys elsewhere, he looked down at me walking alongside him. My backpack’s straps dug into my shoulders, the bag weighed down by AP textbooks. He said, “You’re going to be pretty one day when you get those braces off and stop hunching over like that.” I listened.

School out for the summer, I walked around the corner to the boy’s house and into his living room. I left without my virginity. It was all over before I’d even understood what we’d began. Afterward, he turned on BET and pointed out which girls in the music videos he thought were fine.

***

Back then, there wasn’t consent culture. There were just fast-tailed girls who let their hearts race places they didn’t belong. Girls who wanted it. I wanted it. But not yet. Not like that. Wanting is a welcome mat for danger. There is no safe place for PG-13 lust, for innocent desires. For girls there is “Just say ‘no.’” And for boys there is “Just the tip” — a coercive game that can give way to rape. Only we didn’t know that the first time around. And who would want to play a game like that more than once?

The next time, I say, “I don’t think we should …” The next time, there are no games, just rape. He didn’t listen to me.

He had a problem with taking things that didn’t belong to him. The last I heard of him, one of his friends told me he had a baby on the way and had been locked up for pulling a gun on a pizza delivery guy at his own apartment. It wasn’t hard for the police to figure out where to find him. Who knows if it’s true, but when I Google his newscaster name, a name he shares with many men, the only link relevant to him is a Florida mugshot from around the same time for an out-of-state felony charge.

In the photo, he doesn’t look stony, delicate, beautiful. He doesn’t look like anything to me. He’s wearing a white shirt, just like in the photo of him I have in the box full of high school keepsakes under my bed. It had been taken when he still looked like something special. I don’t ever look at it, but I’ve never been able to let it go.

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‘Fuck’-ing Around

Longreads Pick

The history of swearing is more than just an evolution of social mores — it’s also a politically charged narrative at the “intersection of anger and gaiety.”

Published: Jan 23, 2017
Length: 12 minutes (3,235 words)

Fuck Work

Longreads Pick

Economists believe in full employment. Americans think that work builds character. But what if jobs aren’t working anymore?

Source: Aeon
Published: Nov 25, 2016
Length: 12 minutes (3,021 words)

Motherfuckerland (Chapter 1)

Longreads Pick

[Fiction] A trip from the Jersey Shore to jail:

“My usual connection wasn’t by the pier on the beach. It started to rain, so I pulled my shirt over my head and ducked under the pier. It stank like hell under there, like fish guts and piss. Thunder boomed and the sky tore open. It couldn’t last, though. These summer showers only run about 10 minutes. I was squeezing out my shirt when a homeless guy came up to me from out of the back.

“‘Hey, you smoke pot?’ he asked. The man was hunched over and wasted. He looked like Keith Richards without a guitar.

“‘Why do you want to know?’ I asked.

“‘Some guy was here and he dropped a bag by accident.’

Author: Ed Lin
Source: Giant Robot
Published: Jan 20, 2012
Length: 8 minutes (2,059 words)

Judge a Book Not By its Gender

Illustration by Carolyn Wells

Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | May, 2021 | 29 minutes (7,916 words)

I blame Drew Barrymore for two things: the amount of money I have spent on celebrity memoirs and an unfortunate attempt to dye my hair platinum blonde in 1993, inspired by Drew’s locks in a Seventeen magazine Guess Jeans ad.

Little Girl Lost, Barrymore’s 1990 account of growing up as a child star in Hollywood, was my first celebrity autobiography. It ignited my love of celebrity memoirs, especially those by women. My dog-eared copy has survived numerous book purges and cross-country moves. I am not alone in my appreciation for it. The coming-of-age tale was a New York Times bestseller and although the book is now out of print, it has achieved cult-like status. It was even the subject of a 2018 New York Times Magazine Letter of Recommendation.

Barrymore was just 11 months old when she got her start in a television commercial for Puppy Chow. At 7 she starred as Gertie in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster 1982 film E.T. and that same year became the youngest person ever to host Saturday Night Live. Barrymore’s drug and alcohol use began shortly after E.T. phoned home. The first time she got drunk she was 9. Barrymore started smoking weed at 10 and by 12 had moved on to cocaine. The actress entered rehab at 13; during her second stint in rehab she completed Little Girl Lost, which was published when she was just 16.

Barrymore’s drug and alcohol use began shortly after E.T. phoned home.

Gossip and juicy stories about nightclubbing with Jack Nicholson definitely make for a good read, but what initially drew me to the book was that Barrymore wrote it to counter stories about herself in the National Enquirer. “[I]magining the godawful headlines — ‘Drew Barrymore Cocaine Addict at Twelve Years Old’ or ‘Barrymore Burns Out in Teens’ — and the impression people would get of me was all my worst possible fears come true. I would’ve been the last person on Earth to deny my problems, but I wanted to have the option of confessing them,” Barrymore writes in Little Girl Lost. She wanted to come clean on her own terms. Barrymore’s desire to control her own life story compelled me to read the book and has made me return to it over the years.

Barrymore wanted to redirect her life’s narrative and that’s a popular reason why celebrities embrace the genre, but it is not the only reason. Some stars write their book to revive a stalled career and return to the limelight. For others, memoirs extend their 15 minutes of fame. This is a popular motivation for reality show stars. (Will you accept this rose and this six-figure book deal?) Memoirs also settle old scores. In André Leon Talley’s The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, the fashion journalist and former Vogue creative director works through his issues with Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Memoirs can also promote the brand a star has built around their celebrity. Reese Witherspoon’s Whiskey in a Teacup, which markets the star’s Southern Lifestyle to y’all, or any book from one of Queer Eye’s Fab Five are great examples.

For readers, celebrity memoir appeal lies in the juicy gossip and name dropping, and the chance to peek inside and live, if only for 500 pages, the glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous. Social media, reality television, celebrity gossip blogs, and the popularity of TMZ-style tabloid journalism have created an insatiable desire to know more about our favorite celebrities. Celebrity memoirs help fulfill this desire. Sometimes, unfortunately, we learn a little too much about our favorite stars. After reading Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist, her third memoir, I am unable to watch Star Wars without thinking about all the coke Fisher said was consumed on set. I imagine the film’s stars hollowing out lightsabers to use like giant straws to blow rails with. (That’s not how the force works!)

While it’s easy to dismiss celebrity memoirs as guilty pleasure reads or unworthy of serious literary consideration, you cannot deny the genre’s popularity. One of the bestselling celebrity memoirs of all time, former first lady Michelle Obama’s 2018 release, Becoming, is still on the The New York Times bestsellers list and has sold more than 10 million copies. Recent months have seen new books from everyone from singer Mariah Carey to actor Matthew McConaughey to soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Celebrity memoirs are big business and we have Rolling Stones co-founder and guitarist Keith Richards to thank for that. His bestselling memoir Life was published in October 2010 and more celebrity autobiographies were published in the four years that followed than had been in the previous 15.

Life, for which Richards received a $7 million dollar advance, sold over one million copies in its first year. Following the success of Life, memoirs by male musicians from Duff McKagan to Steven Tyler were all bestsellers and it is not just men penning the hits. Remember when we all got together and decided women were funny after Bossypants came out? Tina Fey’s 2011 bestselling memoir preceded an onslaught of popular memoirs by funny ladies, including Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.

***

Since first reading Little Girl Lost at 20, I have devoured memoirs by female celebrities from punk singer Alice Bag’s Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story to Jersey Shore star Snooki’s Confessions of a Guidette. I’m interested in how women write their stories, what they leave out, what they focus on, and how much of what they reveal is a reaction to the image of them we have from watching their movies or listening to their music or seeing them stumbling out of nightclubs in Us Weekly.

“How do we edit our life into a decent story? That’s the rub with an autobiography or memoir. What to reveal, what to keep hidden, what to embellish, what to downplay, and what to ignore? How much of the inner and how much of the outer?” says punk icon and Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry in her 2019 memoir, Face It, of a process that is scrutinized and critiqued much more if, like Harry, you’re a woman.

I’m interested in how women write their stories, what they leave out, what they focus on, and how much of what they reveal is a reaction to the image of them we have from watching their movies or listening to their music or seeing them stumbling out of nightclubs in “Us Weekly.”

And while there is no shortage of male celebrities spilling their guts all over my poorly constructed Ikea bookshelf, the fact that they share shelf space with celebrity memoirs written by women is about all they have in common. When it comes to celebrity memoirs there’s a distinct gender bias in everything from how the books are marketed to the type of topics female celebrities are expected to write about and the amount of themselves they are expected to expose to sell books.

The gender divide bias becomes even more problematic, and downright depressing, when you read the reviews and see how critics and the press receive female celebrity memoirs. Rather than celebrate women and their amazing stories, reviewers revert to stereotypes and tired clichés and, in the process, miss the actual story. Women can spend chapters talking about their accomplishments, their awards, and their accolades and reviewers will still only focus on the sex, the scandal, and the bombshell reveals that are expected from female-penned celebrity memoirs if they want to actually sell books. From memoir titles to book blurbs, when it comes to celebrity memoirs by women, sadly, we haven’t come a long way baby.

 

***

Debbie Harry’s Face It was one of the most anticipated celebrity memoirs of the recent past. In the book, Harry chronicles everything from her adoption at only 3 months old, to her days in the hippie band Wind in the Willows and all-girl group the Stillettos, to forming both Blondie the band and Blondie the persona. For Harry, Blondie was very much a character she played, one inspired by the “Hey, Blondie!” catcalls she received from construction workers after bleaching her hair, as well as the 1930s Blondie comic strip character who was a “dumb blonde who turns out to be smarter than the rest of them.” Marilyn Monroe was also an inspiration; Harry describes Monroe as “the proverbial dumb blonde with the little-girl voice and big-girl body,” who despite her appearance has “a lot of smarts behind the act.”

Face It also covers Harry’s acting in films like Videodrome and Hairspray, her time training as a professional wrestler for a role in the Broadway play Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap, as well as her activism and philanthropy work. (Fun fact: She was almost Pris in Blade Runner, but her record company made her turn it down.) There is certainly no shortage of great material for reviewers to discuss. Unfortunately, they responded with the same tired sexist tropes that greet memoirs written by women.

“In her memoir, Debbie Harry proves she’s more than just a pretty blonde in tight pants,” read the headline on The Washington Post’s review of Face It. The headline was later changed to, “In her memoir, Debbie Harry gives an unvarnished look at her life in the punk scene” after social media responded less than kindly to the sexist headline choice. The Washington Post admitted they botched the headline and appreciated the feedback, but the headline was not the review’s only problem.

The review opens with: “Even if Debbie Harry, of the band Blondie, isn’t to your taste—her voice too smooth, her sexiness too blatant, her music too smooth—you can’t dismiss certain truths about her.” While this sentence is a great example of disdain, it is not a great review opening. I read Bruce Springsteen’s 2016 memoir Born to Run at the same time as Harry’s and tried to imagine the Post opening a review of Springsteen’s book in the same way. To be fair I do find his sexiness far, far too blatant.

So how does the Post open Springsteen’s memoir review? “Why, one might ask, would Bruce Springsteen need to write an autobiography? Haven’t we been listening to it for the past half century? Hasn’t he been telling us his story all along?” says Joe Heim in the review’s first paragraph. Springsteen, a talented songwriter, has already shared so much through his music, what more could he be required to give us? It is okay if you want to sit this one out Bruce, I have heard Atlantic City, and do not require any further emoting from you at this time.

The Post’s review of Face It just goes from bad to worse, with criticism that Harry “sometimes comes across as self-interested” to a focus on the more sensationalist aspects of her story like sex and drugs. (This is an autobiography, right? I didn’t see them complaining about the 79 chapters in Springsteen’s book.) “She had a hookup with an Andy Warhol protégé in a phone booth in Max’s Kansas City and began what she blithely calls ‘chipping and dipping’ in heroin,” reads the review. The Post points out that “Harry is quite explicit in her descriptions of her drug use and sex life,” which they seem to interpret as permission to exploit the more sensationalistic aspects of her life and use them as a focal point in their review.

The review also offers a great example of how media likes to promote and celebrate the idea of women as trailblazers, praising Harry for being candid about the realities of being a female musician (an “unvarnished look”), while also painfully reinforcing the realities of being a female musician by using a sexist, stereotypical headline that focuses only on Harry’s appearance and sex appeal.

Control is a central theme of Harry’s book, whether it be of her image, her band, or her art. Early in the book Harry recounts a record company promoting Blondie’s first album using posters with an image of her in a see-through blouse, despite early reassurances that the posters would only feature headshots and would include all band members. She was not happy with the marketing decision, saying, “Sex sells, that’s what they say, and I’m not stupid, I know that. But on my terms, not some executive’s.” And while doing things on her own terms is a source of pride for Harry, reviewers have a serious problem with it.

For Harry control empowers, for memoir reviewers it threatens. “You can’t control other people’s fantasies or the illusion they’re buying or selling,” says Harry early in Face It when talking about people having posters of her on their bedroom walls. While Harry resigns herself to her lack of control, reviews of her work never want to relinquish theirs. Harry’s insistence on doing things on her own terms is panned by reviewers who call her guarded and closed off.

Reviewers want to read a book by a female celebrity and have her completely figured out by the last page. “[W]hat’s a memoir for, if not to pull back the curtain and check out the lady who is pushing the buttons?” asks Harry in Face It. But when the curtain doesn’t pull back as much as reviewers want, they become resentful, sullen, and offended, reacting with “how dare you?” to any resistance on the part of the woman to give them everything they want, every piece of her. The Atlantic’s review reads almost like it’s giving Harry permission to tell her story on her own terms, saying “holding back is an understandable maneuver for someone who’s been stared at so much.”

One way or another, the reviewers keep the sexist treatment coming when discussing Face It. The Guardian was also annoyed that Harry did not give enough of herself in the book. “It’s a shame that Harry passes up the chance to dig deeper into her experiences of objectification and the nature of fame, but more disappointing is that we learn so little about her interior life, and how she really thinks and feels.” I guess talking about being raped at knifepoint by a stranger is not enough for the reviewer. What’s with the heart of glass Debbie? Give us more of your pain! And on page five, not 105!

I guess talking about being raped at knifepoint by a stranger is not enough for the reviewer. What’s with the heart of glass Debbie? Give us more of your pain! And on page five, not 105!

The headline of Rolling Stone’s piece on Face It highlights how Harry’s book “looks back on what she learned from Andy Warhol and David Bowie.” The media loves to position women in relation to the men in their lives as if the only way we can understand work by women is in the context of the men who orbit them. Despite writing 368 pages about herself, according to Rolling Stone, the only interesting thing about Harry is the famous male company she kept.

The New York Times continues the tired pop culture gender bias with a review that manages to make it all the way to the fourth paragraph before it mentions her age. It also talks about the number of memoirs by female rockers being released at the same time as Harry’s book. (“[T]here’s a bit of a pileup of female rockers getting reflective this season.”) I smell a trend. Ladies, they be writing! The review mentions the fact that Harry’s “face is unlined” and talks about her “crisp red collared blouse with white polka dots and red leggings.” I think Bruce was wearing the exact same thing when they wrote their piece about him and Born to Run. How embarrassing.

Two weeks after Face It came out another musical icon released a memoir. Me by Elton John covers the singer’s childhood in the London suburb of Pinner, his early musical days in Los Angeles, his songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin, successful solo career, and marriage and family with husband David Furnish. Keen celebrity memoir readers might also be quick to point out that the title of John’s memoir is the same as that of actress Katharine Hepburn’s. Is there anything men will not just unapologetically lay claim to?

The review mentions the fact that Harry’s “face is unlined” and talks about her “crisp red collared blouse with white polka dots and red leggings.” I think Bruce was wearing the exact same thing when they wrote their piece about him and “Born to Run.” How embarrassing.

While Rolling Stone’s book review name-checked Harry’s famous male friends in the headline, not surprisingly, John’s does not. “Elton John’s Me Is A Uniquely Revealing Pop Star Autobiography. The long-awaited book covers his hard childhood, struggles with addiction and road to recovery.” It ends with “Elton has never been one to hold back difficult truths, and Me — while a little skimpy on revelations about his brilliant, ground breaking music — is essential reading for anyone who wants to know the difficult road that he walked while creating it.”

Entertainment Weekly’s description of Me is also glowing: “While Me is as colorful as you’d expect from an artist famous for his outlandish stage costumes and outsize temper tantrums, it is also so much more than simply a dishy sex, drugs and, rock ‘n roll tell-all.” The Entertainment Weekly review shows that when it comes to male celebrity memoirs there may be sex and drugs, but no review should reduce their work to just these scandalous and juicy elements.

Can you feel the love tonight? Not yet? Never fear, here comes The Guardian to continue the praise. Their review opens with, “Choosing one’s favourite Elton John story – like choosing one’s favourite Elton song – can feel like limiting oneself to a mere single grape from the horn of plenty.” Reading reviews of the book you have to wonder if John is still standing because he is unable to sit down from all the ass kissing. The Daily Mail calls it “the rock memoir of the decade” while for The Washington Post it is an “unsparing, extravagantly funny new memoir” and “bracingly honest.” It’s hard to find criticism and scrutiny in the reviews of John’s work because there is not much negativity. John’s book is not better than Harry’s; in fact, I think Harry’s is much stronger. She’s more self-aware and can deconstruct the misconceptions and preconceptions that fans, the media, and other musicians have of her.

Can you feel the love tonight? Not yet? Never fear, here comes “The Guardian” to continue the praise.

“You think you’re being difficult, my little sausage? Have I ever told you about the time I drank eight vodka martinis, took all my clothes off in front of a film crew, and then broke my manager’s nose?” he writes of being a father reacting to his son’s temper tantrums. There are plenty of stories about famous friends like Stevie Wonder, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Andy Warhol, and Neil Young. The anecdotes leave readers feeling like they never get to peek behind the shiny veneer of the celebrity that is Elton John. At times it’s all surface and that’s fine, but reviewers do not criticize him for it in the same way they would if he were a woman.

John’s book reviews do talk of his well-documented addiction to cocaine (“If you fancy living in a despondent world of unending, delusional bullshit, I really can’t recommend cocaine highly enough,” he writes), but they are quick to follow it up with redemption stories, which is a standard formula in memoirs written both by and about men.

“Now that he’s sober, there’s the more conservatively dressed, happily married elder statesman of British pop, a proper establishment figure,” writes The Guardian. Not only do they give him a redemption arc and treat his addiction very much like a phase, but they also give his addiction issues a free pass, writing “while his extraordinary talent justified his personal excesses, it is his self-awareness that has counterbalanced the narcissism and made him such a likable figure.”

***

Redemption comes up often in male celebrity memoir coverage, but examine the media’s reaction to another celebrity memoir and it becomes painfully clear that this narrative is strictly for the boys.

Actress, producer, and director Demi Moore’s memoir Inside Out was released a few weeks before John’s. Moore and her book were soon all over the media and it was not for her redemption story. Like John, Moore struggled with addiction, but unlike John the media never lets her forget it, along with other parts of her story.

“Demi Moore drops shocking revelations about Ashton Kutcher, sexual assault and sobriety,” reads the headline of an L.A. Times piece about the memoir. The story proceeds to break down Moore’s childhood pain, her miscarriage, Ashton Kutcher cheating on her, and her struggles with alcohol and drugs.

Unlike In Touch Weekly, they skipped the “Ashton and Bruce Are in Good Places Too” sidebar because like with Debbie Harry, we cannot talk about Moore without mentioning the famous men in her life. More than one review talks about how Willis and Kutcher must feel about Demi airing their dirty laundry. Was Bruce mad? What does Ashton really think? Dude, where’s my sound bite?

Entertainment Weekly’s piece ran with the headline, “Celebrities react to Demi Moore’s revealing memoir Inside Out. From Jon Cryer’s affectionate follow-up to Ashton Kutcher’s cryptic non-response.” They forgot to add “male” in front of “celebrities” though as all the celebrities quoted in the piece were men. Also, if one more reviewer mentions how great Moore looks for her age, I will make them watch that awful scene in St. Elmo’s Fire where Rob Lowe’s character passionately details the origin story of St. Elmo’s Fire while performing pyrotechnics with a can of aerosol hairspray and a lighter on repeat until they beg me for mercy.

Also, if one more reviewer mentions how great Moore looks for her age, I will make them watch that awful scene in “St. Elmo’s Fire” where Rob Lowe’s character passionately details the origin story of St. Elmo’s Fire while performing pyrotechnics with a can of aerosol hairspray and a lighter on repeat until they beg me for mercy.

Most of Moore’s memoir coverage focused on the tabloid aspects of it. Read the headlines to see if you can spot a trend and how many you can read before you want to just set shit on fire (you can borrow Rob’s aerosol can).

“7 Biggest Bombshells From Demi Moore’s Explosive Memoir” (accessonline.com)

“Demi Moore: 8 Biggest Bombshells From Her Memoir Inside Out” (popculture.com, also, take that accessonline.com)

“Demi Moore’s raw Inside Out reveals rape, why marriage to Ashton Kutcher crumbled” (USA Today)

“Demi Moore Gets Real About Her Painful Childhood, Drugs, Ashton Kutcher and Other Exes in New Book ‘Inside Out‘” (Stay classy, Us Weekly)

“Why Demi Moore Fulfilled Ashton Kutcher’s Threesome Fantasies” (E! Online)

The unfortunate thing about these headlines, which would be vastly different if they were referencing a man’s memoir, is that, like Harry, they reduce Moore’s story to only its most scandalous and juicy elements. Moore got her acting start in 1981 as Jackie Templeton on General Hospital (Luke and Laura forever!), the number one show on daytime television at the time. She followed that up with roles in films like the Brat Pack bonanzas St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night.

Then she got what many, including Moore, consider to be a turning point in her career. “This could be either an absolute disaster, or it could be amazing,” she writes of reading the script for Ghost, which ended up being a big hit in 1990, grossing over $500 million. It was nominated for five Oscars and four Golden Globes, including a Golden Globes best actress nomination for Moore.

Moore followed the success of Ghost with A Few Good Men, Indecent Proposal, and Striptease, a film for which she was offered over $12 million, an amount no other woman in Hollywood had ever received. Moore became the highest paid actress in Hollywood. “But instead of people seeing my big payday as a step in the right direction for women or calling me an inspiration, they came up with something else to call me: Gimmie Moore.” It is worth noting that at the time her husband Bruce Willis had just been paid $20 million for the third Die Hard movie. (Yippee ki yay indeed!)

“She became a movie star in this time where women didn’t naturally fit into the system,” said Gwyneth Paltrow, a friend of Moore’s, in the The New York Times piece on Inside Out. “She was really the first person who fought for pay equality and got it, and really suffered a backlash from it. We all certainly benefited from her,” says Paltrow.

And while it pains me greatly to side with someone who talks a lot about vagina steaming, Paltrow’s right. Moore is an inspiration and fighting for equal pay in Hollywood should be one of the things the media focuses on when they talk about Inside Out, but, sadly, it is not. It is unfortunate that when Moore is discussed it is in the context of Ashton Kutcher and threesomes, at the expense of the many other empowering and interesting parts of her life.

And while it pains me greatly to side with someone who talks a lot about vagina steaming, Paltrow’s right. Moore is an inspiration and fighting for equal pay in Hollywood should be one of the things the media focuses on when they talk about “Inside Out,” but, sadly, it is not.

Remember her iconic Vanity Fair cover? Shot in 1991 by Annie Leibovitz when Moore was seven months pregnant with her second daughter Scout, it’s considered one of the most influential magazine covers of all time. Legendary Esquire art director George Lois describes it as, “A brave image on the cover of a great magazine — a stunning work of art that conveyed a potent message that challenged a repressed society.” Let’s talk about that!

Or her intense training for her role in G.I. Jane, a 1997 film Moore both starred in and produced. “I was emotionally invested in the story, the message and the provocative questions it raised,” she says of the film. The film was panned by critics and Moore talks at length in Inside Out about her disappointment at the reception to a project that meant so much to her.

The parts of the book where Moore talks about Hollywood’s double standard, whether it be the pay gap or reactions to the age difference between her and Kutcher, are some of the best parts of the book. Unfortunately, they are the parts covered least.

The last line of Inside Out is, “we all suffer, and we all triumph, and we all get to choose how we hold both.” It is a great line for a memoir to end on, but in Moore’s case, while she may get to choose how she holds both, the media will only ever focus on the suffer part.

There is the emphasis on opening up, on fighting, on bravery, on revealing — “Demi Moore Lets Her Guard Down,” reads The New York Times headline. This is the way memoirs by women are positioned and even if it isn’t explicitly spelled out, it has become the expectation so much so that when female celebrities don’t expose themselves completely they are resented for it. The reception to Harry’ book Face It offers proof.

***

Jessica Simpson released her memoir Open Book in February 2020. It reached number one on The New York Times bestseller list, but like Moore’s, Simpson’s book soon became tabloid fodder. “Jessica’s Shocking Confessions,” reads the headline on Star’s piece on the book, which focuses on Simpson’s struggles with drug and alcohol abuse and her famous exes from Nick Lachey to John Mayer. Like Moore, Simpson is now sober.

Simpson was signed to Columbia Records in 1997 at 17 as the label’s answer to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and went on to release six bestselling records. She also starred in the MTV reality show Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, which featured Simpson and then husband and 98 Degrees singer Nick Lachey, who at the time was the more successful of the two. If you don’t remember Lachey from MTV you might know him from his recent gig hosting Netflix’s Love is Blind where he greets contestants with “Obviously, I’m Nick Lachey,” which seems to overestimate his place in both pop culture’s canon and our general consciousness.

Newlyweds, a ratings success, aired for two years and while it made the couple a household name, it was Simpson who stole the show with her ditzy, dumb blonde antics. Her confusion over whether Chicken of the Sea was chicken or tuna earned her a place in both reality television and pop culture history. The most interesting parts of Open Book are when Simpson talks about her reality television persona and the identity crisis it led to. “How was I supposed to live a real healthy life filtered through the lens of a reality show? If my personal life was my work, and my work required me to play a certain role, who even was I anymore?” she writes.

Open Book is Simpson’s attempt to distance herself from her Newlyweds role and change perceptions of her, a common reason people write memoirs. Some get it —“You Remember Jessica Simpson, Right? Wrong,” reads the headline on The New York Times piece about her memoir — but, unfortunately, most of the reviewers discussing her book don’t. Simpson has moved beyond her Newlyweds character. She’s built a billion-dollar fashion and licensing business and is a mom to three kids, but the media seem uncomfortable embracing Simpson in her new roles, preferring to keep her forever stuck in 2003, in her UGG boots and pink Juicy Couture tracksuit, confused about tuna.

Simpson has moved beyond her “Newlyweds” character. She’s built a billion-dollar fashion and licensing business and is a mom to three kids, but the media seem uncomfortable embracing Simpson in her new roles, preferring to keep her forever stuck in 2003, in her UGG Boots and pink Juicy Couture tracksuit, confused about tuna.

Simpson talks about the effect this identity crisis had on her and her struggles with her weight and body image, as well as her sexual abuse at age 6, and her addiction to alcohol and pills. She started to increasingly rely on alcohol during her relationship with Mayer in 2006, insecure that she wasn’t smart enough to date Mayer. My heart breaks when I think of Simpson wasting time worried about being the intellectual equal of the man who gave us the musical depth that is “Your Body is a Wonderland” and later referred to sex with Simpson as “sexual napalm.”

It is also troubling that after talking about how Mayer brought out her insecurities, the media thinks it is a good idea to focus on Mayer’s reaction to Open Book. I know you thought you were never good enough for this guy and that he was always judging you, so let’s get him to judge you some more by asking what he thought of your book!

***

Simpson’s attempts to challenge the dumb blonde perception of her are not the only example of a female celebrity going off script or off brand in their memoir and failing to give the media, and readers, what they want or expect. Singer and songwriter Liz Phair’s Horror Stories says “a memoir” on the front cover, but the book is more a collection of essays and stories by Phair than a straightforward linear memoir. Reviewers did not respond well to Phair’s artistic license with the storytelling form.

“It’s hard to tell the truth about ourselves. It opens us up to being judged and rejected,” Phair writes in Horror Stories and that may be one reason she chose to tell her story the way she did. Through stories about blizzards, blackouts (from lack of electricity, not drinking), marital infidelity, giving birth to her son, and getting dressed up to go to Trader Joe’s, Phair reveals a lot about herself and about identity, insecurity, fame, and regret. “In the stories that make up this book, I am trusting you with my deepest self,” she writes in the book’s prologue. Her deepest self just might be a bit harder to find for those fuck and run readers who are too busy complaining about the book’s nontraditional memoir style to actually read it.

Horror Stories does not talk a lot about her music, including Phair’s critically acclaimed, influential 1993 album Exile in Guyville. A song-by-song reply to the 1972 Rolling Stones album Exile on Main St., it was the number one album in year-end lists from Spin and The Village Voice and was rated the fifth best album of the 1990s by Pitchfork. “At the time, it was a landmark of foul-mouthed, comprised intimacy, a tortured confessional, a workout in female braggadocio, and a wellspring of penetrating self-analysis and audacity,” reads The New Yorker’s piece on the 20th anniversary of Exile in Guyville’s release.

“Frankness is Liz Phair’s brand. Her 1993 breakthrough album, the brilliant and profane Exile in Guyville, chronicled her post-college experiences in Chicago’s male-dominated music scene. Phair’s new memoir Horror Stories makes little mention of the album or her artistic life,” reads The Washington Post’s review. Remember how the Post thought that Bruce Springsteen did not need to write Born to Run because he had already revealed so much in his songs already? Why doesn’t Phair get the same consideration?

“Though there are anecdotes about flopping on live television and scrapping a record after learning of a collaborator’s abuse, the absence of concrete stories about Exile in Guyville is palpable,” writes Pitchfork. Just give us the hits, Liz! “Her relationship to music seems to have been the longest and maybe the most demanding love of her life, the one for which she has been willing to get lost, to fail, and to try again over and over for decades. Call me a selfish fan, but I have to say that is one story in all its horror and passion I would love to hear,” reads the review in The New York Times.

Reviewers spend so much time focused on what’s missing from Horror Stories that they miss what’s there. Well, maybe not all of what’s there. In chapter 14 of Horror Stories, called “Hashtag,” Phair writes about waking up one morning to headlines about the rock star who was supposed to produce her next album. Multiple women had come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and emotional abuse. The FBI was also investigating him for exchanging sexually explicit communications with an underage fan.

Phair never specifically names Ryan Adams, but, in February 2019, seven months before Horror Stories was released, The New York Times broke the story about multiple women, including his ex-wife Mandy Moore, coming forward to accuse Adams of manipulative behavior, sexual misconduct, emotional and verbal abuse, and harassment.

In the chapter, Phair talks about her own experiences with sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalkers, and the sexism she experienced in the music industry. She writes about being instructed by a record label president to let radio programmers “feel her up a little” because it would help boost her career or about being told that she would never work again if she didn’t go along with sexy photo shoots. But her personal stories are not what the press focused on when she was promoting Horror Stories.

Phair was frequently asked about Adams and her experience working with him. “I don’t want every headline about this book that is so important to me to be about Ryan Adams,” she tells Entertainment Weekly. She becomes understandably annoyed with a male reporter from New York Magazine who asks her several questions about Adams, including one about his process as a producer. (I know when I hear about a man accused of sexual misconduct the first thing I wonder about is his artistic process.) “Out of everything in the book, why is the Ryan Adams thing such an interesting topic?” Phair asks him. “You’re not the only one singling out Ryan Adams as a hot talking point, and it’s sad. It does need to be talked about, but so do the larger issues.”

It’s unfortunate that Phair shares intimate details about herself, and her own experiences with sexual harassment and assault, and the media takeaway from that is that they don’t like the format of her book and would rather talk about the famous man in her life. Congrats on your book Liz, did Ryan ever send you inappropriate texts?

***

While Phair is criticized for not talking about what is expected of her in her memoir, men who follow the same course do not hear “how dare you?” The reaction to Acid for the Children, the 2019 memoir by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea (aka Michael Balzary), proves that.

Acid for the Children details Flea’s childhood growing up in Australia, his relationship with his older sister Karyn, his family’s move to the U.S. when he was 4, his first crush, how Kurt Vonnegut Jr. changed his life, and his love of basketball and the Sony Walkman. He talks about meeting Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis in 1976 at Fairfax High School, about learning to play bass, about his first band Anthym, about shooting coke and taking speed, his time in the California punk band FEAR, and about acting in the 1983 movie Suburbia. There are also lists of the concerts that changed his life, books that blew his mind, and movies that grew him. Lots of great material, right? You know what’s missing? Anything about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the bestselling, Grammy-winning, Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Fame-inducted band he founded, plays bass in, and is most strongly associated with.

Flea’s book ends just as Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem, what would later become the Red Hot Chili Peppers, play their first show at the Grandia Room in Los Angeles to 27 people in February 1983. This performance comes up on page 375 of the 385-page book. There’s no mention of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, his movie roles beyond Suburbia (My Own Private Idaho being one of his most famous), his role as a father of two girls, how he founded the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, or his work with other musicians from Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace to Alanis Morissette. (Flea played bass on “You Oughta Know,” her hit single from 1995’s Jagged Little Pill.)

The book is about Flea’s journey to the band, rather than with it. Surely, reviewers were as outraged by this omission, as they were when Phair failed to talk about Exile in Guyville in Horror Stories. It will not surprise you to know they were not bothered at all. Rather than focus on what was missing from Acid for the Children, the coverage focuses on what’s there and praise for it. Reviews focus on Flea’s gift and skill as a writer and fail to mention that if you want to dream of Californication, you will have to do that somewhere else. Reviewers can see, and appreciate, Flea as something other than just the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. There is a very distinct set of rules female celebrities writing their memoirs must follow. The more tell all, the more trauma and the more tabloid, the better. They are not free to write about what they want. They must bare it all, page after page. Men like Flea have the freedom to operate by a very different set of rules. He can leave his scar tissue out and reviewers have no problem with it. Book coverage focuses on Flea the writer, rather than Flea the bassist. This same courtesy, and basic level of respect, is never extended to women telling their stories. Female celebrities like Debbie and Demi are never just human beings writing about their lives. Reviewers are unable to abandon their preconceived notions, their ideas of who these women are, their celebrity personas and just see them as people who should be allowed to tell their stories their way.

“[H]e’s actually a lovely writer, with a particular gift for the free-floating and reverberant. He writes in Beat Generation bursts and epiphanies, lifting toward the kind of virtuosic vulnerability and self-exposure associated with the great jazz players,” reads the review in The Atlantic.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly Flea said that his goal with Acid for the Children was that “it could be a book that could live beyond being a celebrity book or a rock star book and just stand on its own as a piece of literature.” I can only imagine the outrage if Debbie Harry wrote Face It and the book ended with, “And then I started this band Blondie. See you later!” Or if Demi Moore ended Inside Out with, “Then I got the part in this movie St. Elmo’s Fire. The end.” Or if Courtney Love wrote her memoir (please do this, Courtney) and the last page read, “And then I met this guy Kurt, but I have to go be the girl with the most cake now. Peace out.” The fact that Love and her accomplishments are forever tied to her husband is a whole other gender bias problem all together.

The book is about Flea’s journey to the band, rather than with it. Surely, reviewers were as outraged by this omission, as they were when Phair failed to talk about “Exile in Guyville” in “Horror Stories.” It will not surprise you to know they were not bothered at all.

Of course, Flea is not the first Red Hot Chili Pepper to give it away in a celebrity memoir. In 2004, lead singer Anthony Kiedis wrote Scar Tissue, a New York Times bestseller about his life, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and his time in and out of rehab, as well as in and out of various women. If you have ever thought, “I bet Anthony Kiedis does well with the ladies but would really like to get a better sense of his success rate,” then this is the book for you. In his memoir Kiedis gets away with writing about debauchery, depravity, and drug abuse in a way that reads like a Behind the Music episode on steroids. (See any book by a current or past member of Mötley Crüe or Guns N’ Roses for a further look at this style.) A woman would never get away with writing about drugs like Kiedis does.

When women write about their addiction there’s an apologetic, self-aware tone male memoirs don’t have: “I know I am a drug addict, and I keep messing up, but I’m really sorry, and please stick with me cause I am gonna sort this out.” (See How To Murder Your Life by fashion and beauty journalist Cat Marnell and More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction from Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, who passed away in 2020, for great examples of this.) Also, I would like to point out the blurbs on the backs of Scar Tissue by Kiedis and How To Murder Your Life by Marnell in case you still doubt there’s a gender bias when it comes to how celebrity memoirs are received.

“Hot Bukowski” —Rolling Stone on Marnell

“A frank, unsparing, meticulous account of a life lived entirely on impulse, for pleasure, and for kicks” —Time on Kiedis

Oh, and, if you’re reading this and in charge of greenlighting Red Hot Chili Pepper memoirs can you please get John Frusciante working on his? Frusciante is known for talking at length about both his connection to spirits (he might already have a ghostwriter!) and different dimensions and worlds. If there’s a book by a band member to be written this is the one.

It is also impossible to talk about Flea’s book without mentioning the title, which comes from the song by a band called Too Free Stooges. A man can get away with calling his memoir Acid for the Children, while a woman certainly cannot. I would like to see Demi Moore title her memoir Whippets for the Wee Ones and see how far she gets. If I look at memoir titles by women on my bookshelves there is Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, by Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, The Girl in the Back by 1970s drummer Laura Davis-Chanin, Girl in a Band by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and Not That Kind of Girl by actress and Girls creator Lena Dunham.

A man can get away with calling his memoir “Acid for the Children,” while a woman certainly cannot. I would like to see Demi Moore title her memoir “Whippets for the Wee Ones” and see how far she gets.

All the titles mention “girl” as if there is a need to announce that early on and get it out of the way, before the book has even been opened. Let us compare these with titles of the celebrity memoirs by dudes that I own. There’s Life by Keith Richards, Slash by Slash, The Heroin Diaries by Nikki Sixx, and In the Pleasure Groove by John Taylor. I do not know what the pleasure groove is, but I do hope it is also the name of the kick-ass yacht in Duran Duran’s “Rio” video.

***

Acid for the Children is not the only recent celebrity memoir by a man to resist the traditional memoir style and not receive criticism for it, although in the case of singer and songwriter Prince’s The Beautiful Ones, named for the song from Purple Rain, it’s understandable why it lacks the typical style of a life story given that its subject died just one month after the book’s publication was announced.

“He wanted to write the biggest music book in the world, one that would serve as a how-to-guide for creatives, a primer on African American entrepreneurship and a ‘handbook for the brilliant community,’” he told Dan Piepenbring, an editor at The Paris Review, who was writing the book with Prince. Notoriously private, to the point that reporters were not allowed to record their interviews, many were surprised Prince would want to write his life story at all. He wanted his book contract to state he could pull it from shelves if he felt the work no longer reflected him, which just seems like a very Prince thing to do.

Prince had completed just 30 handwritten pages before he died of an accidental fentanyl overdose on April 21, 2016. The pages detailed his childhood and his early days as a musician. Piepenbring returned to Prince’s Paisley Park compound months after the singer’s death to find additional material that could be used in the book. This material includes personal photos, drawings, song lyrics, and a handwritten synopsis of Purple Rain, Prince’s 1984 film that marked his acting debut. The addition of personal artifacts to round out the story means The Beautiful Ones is more scrapbook than memoir. “The Beautiful Ones does not offer a clear-eyed view of who Prince really was — he would have hated that, but it illuminates more than it conceals,” reads The Washington Post’s piece on the memoir.

Reading reviews of The Beautiful Ones, I wondered if the book would have even been finished and released if Prince were a woman or would it have been indefinitely shelved because of the death of its star. Maybe it would have focused on the singer’s drug use, final days, death, and the reaction to his death. The media has a way of making a female celebrity’s story about her death, not her life, which was noticeably lacking when the media talked about Prince and The Beautiful Ones.“It’s up to us to take what’s there and make something out of it for ourselves, creating, just as Prince wanted,” said NPR in their piece on the memoir. Prince’s life ended with respect and a beautiful tribute in book form, and glowing reviews for it. This respect is definitely missing when we pay tribute to female celebrities who have died. Their deaths provide another opportunity for the media to pick them apart and let their scandals overshadow their contributions. Following Prince’s death there were no pieces like the gossip-heavy Vanity Fair piece from 2012 on the late singer and actress Whitney Houston, “The Devils in the Diva,” which “investigates Houston’s final days: the prayers and the parties, the Hollywood con artist on the scene, and the message she left behind.” Or the, at times, less-than-respectful movies made about female celebrities after their deaths that focus more on their personal lives and troubles than they do on their art. Even in death, women like Houston and Amy Winehouse are still expected to bare all even though they are no longer with us.

This year will give us new memoirs from actresses Sharon Stone, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianna Margulies, as well as singers Brandi Carlile and Billie Eilish. We are also getting a Stanley Tucci memoir and I think we can all agree he is the sexiest bald man (sorry, Prince William). Women are not just turning to books to tell their truths, with recent documentaries from the likes of Paris Hilton and Demi Lovato giving female celebrities the opportunity to tell their truths, clear up misconceptions, and control the narratives around their lives. We can only hope the way these stories are received starts to change, and that women can be free to tell their stories the way they want to (embrace your inner Flea, ladies!) without fear of negative reviews, sexist reviews, or questions about Ryan Adams’ artistic process. And please, no one ask John Mayer for his opinion.

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Lisa Whittington-Hill is the publisher of This Magazine. Her writing about arts, pop culture, feminism, mental health, and why we should all be nicer to Lindsay Lohan has appeared in a variety of magazines.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Queens of Infamy: Boudicca

Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | May 2021 | 18 minutes (4,866 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on world-historical women of centuries past.

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She was tall — terrifyingly large, in fact. Her tawny hair fell in a “great mass” to her hips. She was dressed in a colorful tunic and cloak, her outfit completed by a giant fuck-off gold torc. Her voice was harsh, unfeminine. She had spent the last weeks murdering and maiming her way across the British countryside, and now she led a force of hundreds of thousands of Britons in a standoff against the occupying Romans. She had a rabbit hidden in her skirt for occult purposes. She was a bloodthirsty barbarian, devoted to a ghoulish religion, out to destroy the social order of the known world. At least, this is how historian Cassius Dio described Boudicca, a British tribal queen, over one hundred years after her death — every civilized man’s worst nightmare.

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But before we dive into the revolt that literally burned London to the ground, we need some context. The Romans had first cast their eyes toward Britain back in the good old days before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and got himself murdered. Caesar, who had been conquesting his way through Gaul for a few years, decided to take a break in 55 BC and invade Britain as a little treat, although “invasion” is probably a stretch since he didn’t do much more than visit Kent and then turn back. But it must have been a fun caper, because he returned the next year, this time managing to cross the Thames and score a few victories against the Britons. After that Caesar had to put a pin in it due to other pressing business; he had a republic to bring down, after all, and a back that needed stabbing. In the chaos that ensued, Rome more or less ignored Britain for the next hundred years until the Emperor Claudius decided to invade again in 43 AD.

Boudicca appears in the narrative about 17 years after Claudius’ invasion. Her husband, Prasutagus, was the ruler of the Iceni, a British tribe whose territory included modern-day Norfolk and parts of Suffolk. The historian Tacitus, who gives us a near-contemporary account of Boudicca’s uprising, wrote that she was of royal blood, but beyond that we don’t know much about her. Did she come from Iceni nobility or was she a princess from another tribe who had married Prasutagus as part of an alliance? Was Boudicca her given name, or since it’s believed to come from a Proto-Celtic root word meaning victory, was it a title she adopted? We don’t even know how old she was in 60 AD — she had two daughters by Prasutagus who were probably in their tweens or early teens, and if those were her first and only children, she could have been as young as 30. Then again, if there had been other children who had died or if, for some reason, she’d married later or hadn’t been able to conceive right away, she could have been in her 40s or even 50s. All we know about her life are the scraps that Tacitus and Dio left us, and those are the highly biased Roman accounts describing an enemy they considered to be primitive and sub-human.

BOUDICCA: I mean, the Romans barely consider their own women to be people

BOUDICCA: even the ones they allegedly like

BOUDICCA: you know, the ones who’ve mastered the skills of shutting up and spinning wool

BOUDICCA: neither of which are exactly my forte

The Iceni had allied themselves with Rome and been allowed to live fairly autonomously with Prasutagus as their client king in the standard Roman model. They were apparently quite wealthy and prosperous, even as neighboring regions were gutted by invading forces. As long as the Iceni kept bootlicking paying their taxes, everything was going to be fine. Or at least that’s what they believed right up until Prasutagus died and all hell broke loose.

BOUDICCA: my husband had a will, as all responsible adults should

BOUDICCA: if you don’t have one yet, close this tab and go make one right now!

BOUDICCA: anyway, he split his assets between our daughters and the Emperor Nero

BOUDICCA: the Romans, being always fair and just, honored that agreement

BOUDICCA: oh my god, I’m sorry, I can’t even say that with a straight face

BOUDICCA: of course they didn’t honor it

BOUDICCA: but seriously, you need a will if you don’t have one already

The fact that Boudicca was not named as one of Prasutagus’ heirs, even though she was his wife and the mother of his children and was going to rule as regent until they came of age, might be a clue as to what kind of person she was. Some historians speculate that she might have had strong anti-Roman sentiments even before shit went sideways — that perhaps her family of origin may have been involved in some of the earlier revolts against the Empire. Maybe Prasutagus had strategically left her out of his will as a way of reassuring Rome that he was on their side. After all, nothing was guaranteed to stir up ire like naming a possible insurrectionist as your successor. But, as it turned out, the Romans’ ire was going to be stirred no matter what. Prasutagus’ death was the perfect opportunity for a land grab, and the Romans were going to use whatever excuse they could to make it look legitimate.

All we know about her life are the scraps that Tacitus and Dio left us, and those are the highly biased Roman accounts describing an enemy they considered to be primitive and sub-human.

The Romans claimed that Prasutagus’ agreement with the Emperor Claudius was now null and void as both parties were dead. Since there existed no contract between Boudicca and Claudius’ successor, Nero (yes, that Nero), they were under no obligation to honor Prasutagus’ will. When Boudicca pushed back, the Romans turned violent. Their army plundered Prasutagus’ lands and enslaved various members of his family. They stripped the most powerful Iceni men of their land and possessions. Worst of all, they publicly flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. This last act was not only meant to terrorize the girls both physically and psychologically, but, from a Roman perspective, the soldiers were also marking them as damaged goods. One of the foundational myths of Rome involves a noblewoman killing herself to escape the perceived dishonour of having been raped — that was the only way she could restore her lost virtue. The assault on Boudicca’s unnamed daughters was a way to harm not only their present but also their future prospects as wives, mothers, or even just respectable women. And considering that the girls were the heirs of the King of the Iceni, it may even be seen as an attempt to curtail the future of the tribe itself.

BOUDICCA: I guess they thought they could break me

BOUDICCA: beat me into submission, that kind of thing

BOUDICCA: they weren’t used to women who fight back

BOUDICCA: or women who fight at all, full stop

BOUDICCA: which is why they failed to notice or care when I started rallying my own troops

BOUDICCA: told my daughters to get in the chariot, because we are going to burn this fucker DOWN

PASSING ROMAN SOLDIER: awww, it’s cute that a little lady thinks she has troops!

BOUDICCA: you see what I mean

Part of the reason the Romans were less than attentive to Boudicca’s casual fomenting was that they were distracted by a different British problem. Suetonius, the governor of Britannia, was tired of the turbulent British priests — the Druids — and decided to stamp them out. His official reasons? The Druids were sheltering anti-Roman political refugees on the Isle of Mona (modern-day Anglesey) and it was alleged they practiced human sacrifice. It’s honestly kind of rich that the Romans — who had only stopped ritually sacrificing people about 150 years before and who loved to, you know, watch gladiators fight each other to the death — were so hung up on the sanctity of life or whatever, but people can rationalize anything. Anyway, the real reason that Suetonius and his peers wanted to take out the Druids was because they held an uncomfortable sway over the British population and refused to be assimilated. Basically, the Romans were worried that they would stir up rebellion, and also they just found them kind of spooky.

Worst of all, they publicly flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. This last act was not only meant to terrorize the girls both physically and psychologically, but, from a Roman perspective, the soldiers were also marking them as damaged goods.

When Suetonius and his men arrived at Mona, they could see the Druids raising their arms and chanting, while a bunch of messy-haired women in black swung burning sticks around. Tacitus would later compare these women to the Furies, which might explain why the Roman soldiers were so uncharacteristically unnerved.

SUETONIUS: it was just, you know, so uncivilized

SUETONIUS: I had to … god, this is embarrassing

SUETONIUS: I had to remind my men that women aren’t worth being afraid of

SUETONIUS: anyway, we pulverized their sacred groves

SUETONIUS: we pulverized them GOOD

SUETONIUS: Druids delenda est and all that

It’s hard to overstate the level of desecration at Mona. It wasn’t just that the island was an important place of worship; in the belief system of the Celtic Britons, every river, every lake, every grove had its own individual god. By destroying the groves, the Romans quite literally killed British gods. The tribes were already primed for revolt, and as the news about Mona reached them, it must have added fuel to their fire.

Another result of Suetonius’ decision to take on the Druids at Mona — which was on the opposite side of Britain from the Iceni territory — was that the Roman governor was conveniently out of the way when Boudicca and the Iceni set off on their tear.

Boudicca found an ally in another local tribe, the Trinovantes. Like the Iceni, the Trinovantes had an axe to grind with the Romans, namely the colonia they had established in Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester), and the rebels chose that as their first target. But before we go deeper into that story, we need to take a brief detour.

One of the Empire’s grifts was that legionaries who fulfilled their enlistment terms received a small parcel of land. So if you were an enlisted nobody from a poor family, you could pull yourself up in the world by serving the required 25 years and getting your own land grant (assuming you lived that long; plenty of legionaries didn’t). The problem, of course, was that land is a finite resource, and these land grants typically stayed in families for generations. This meant that to fulfill their promise to their veterans, the Empire had to keep expanding outward into the ether, annexing more and more territory. Of course, the Emperors had their own reasons for wanting to broaden the Empire’s boundaries! But a side benefit to all that growth was that it meant more available land for veterans — once they’d cleared out those pesky native inhabitants, of course.


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Anyway, back in the pre-Roman times, Camulodunum had been one of the most important settlements in Britain, serving at one point as the capital of the Trinovantes tribe. Naturally the Romans thought it would be the perfect spot for them to settle down. In doing so, not only did the Romans drive the Britons out, but archeological evidence shows that they forced the displaced people to live and work in brutal conditions while re-building the town to Roman specifications. According to Tacitus, the soldiers posted encouraged this abuse of the Britons, even though it went against Roman policy (this was, after all, supposed to be a peaceful settlement, not a battlefield); he noted that those soldiers saw their future selves in the retired veterans and hoped they too would be allowed to treat native populations however the fuck they wanted someday.

BOUDICCA: you can’t spell colonialism without colonia!

BOUDICCA: yes, I know that’s the point

BOUDICCA: I understand how language fundamentally works

BOUDICCA: root words, et cetera

BOUDICCA: but since my husband’s death I’ve had to take up the mantle of dad jokes in our family

As Boudicca travelled across the country, her following grew. Those joining her cause weren’t just warrior-type men from the Iceni and the Trinovantes, they were people of all genders and ages. Farmers abandoned their fields and women loaded their children into carts to join the throng. With every British settlement they passed, the mass of people bearing down on Camulodunum increased in size; according to Dio, by the time they reached the city, they were 120,000 strong. The Britons were done hedging their bets — they were either going to solve the Roman problem once and for all, or they were going to go down in a blaze of glory.

Meanwhile, in Camulodunum, strange things were happening. A statue of Victory fell over, apparently for no reason. Women went into a frenzy, speaking in tongues and making frightening prophecies. South of the city, at the Thames Estuary, people saw visions of drowned houses in the water and the North Sea seemed to turn the color of blood. But even with all these portents and the news of Boudicca’s approach, the leaders told the townspeople not to worry. It was just a rag-tag group of women, after all — and not just any women, but primitive, uncivilized British women. No big deal. There was time to evacuate, but why bother? The procurator of Roman Britain, Catus Decianus, ordered an extra two hundred men to Camulodunum and figured the problem was solved.

BOUDICCA: obviously misogyny sucks

BOUDICCA: and no one likes to be underestimated

BOUDICCA: but sometimes that kind discrimination is a gift

BOUDICCA: a gift called the element of surprise even though they saw you coming

Boudicca’s army did not just attack Camulodunum, they razed it. They slaughtered every Roman they could find, even children and the elderly. They defaced graveyards and set buildings ablaze. The head of a statue of Emperor Claudius was crudely hacked off and thrown in a river. Some townspeople barricaded themselves in a temple, but even that couldn’t save them — after two days’ siege, the Britons stormed it and killed everyone inside. The destruction was so intense and so fiery that the layer of soil from that period is a strange orange-red.

BOUDICCA: some people use the term “scorched earth” metaphorically

BOUDICCA: but I’d say I’m more of a literalist

BOUDICCA: some women just want to watch the Roman world burn, I guess

BOUDICCA: again, not in a figurative sense

One curious thing about Boudicca’s sacking of Camulodunum is that it seems to have left no bodies behind. There’s plenty of archeological evidence to show that the city was gutted, but there are no mass graves or deposits of human remains, even though everyone agrees that the Queen of the Iceni authorized wanton mass-murder. Some historians theorize that the Romans later came back and cremated the dead, while some wonder if the high death toll was a bit of exaggeration. Still others have suggested that Boudicca and her people removed the bodies to a nearby oak grove for darker purposes, perhaps some kind of religious rite to Andraste, a local goddess of victory. While Celts of all stripes did enjoy dismembering those they had conquered in battle — they would apparently embalm their heads and put them on display in their homes as trophies — this last theory is probably a little too far-fetched to be true. Then again, given some of the allegations Dio would later make against Boudicca, maybe not.

The destruction was so intense and so fiery that the layer of soil from that period is a strange orange-red.

After Camulodunum, Boudicca turned her gaze toward Londinium. Although it wasn’t a particularly big or important city, Londinium made sense as her next target because, unlike many of the other towns in Roman Britain, Londinium had likely never been a British settlement — it was a Roman enterprise, a trade outpost whose location was chosen because the river there was narrow enough for a bridge but deep enough to accommodate Roman seagoing vessels. By the time Boudicca went on her tear, the young city had already become a bustling centre of commerce, with goods from such distant locations as Spain, Greece, and Syria later uncovered in archeological digs. To strike at Londinium would, in Boudicca’s mind, have been like striking at the heart of the Roman occupation itself.

The Romans had, of course, by now figured out that this was more than a throw-two-hundred-men-at-it-and-call-it-a-day kind of problem. The IXth legion (or, at least, part of it) was dispatched to deal with the unpleasantness at Camulodunum, but they were routed by Britons just north of the colonia. Meanwhile, Suetonius himself, having finished butchering those old harpies on Mona, rushed to Londinium. He somehow made it there before Boudicca, even though he had to cross the breadth of the country and the Britons only had to saunter down the coast. That’s one of the benefits of travelling without children, I guess!

Suetonius had, at least according to Tacitus, initially hoped Londinium could be used as a military stronghold against the Britons. He quickly realized that Londinium was not fortified and was in no way capable of withstanding the type of attack that Camulodunum had suffered. He immediately abandoned the city to its fate.

SUETONIUS: look, I’m a real-talk kind of guy

SUETONIUS: I tell hard truths, and some people think that makes me an asshole

SUETONIUS: but I think it just makes me honest

SUETONIUS: so I honestly told them they were honestly fucked

SUETONIUS: I’m not a magician, I can’t make defences appear from nowhere!

SUETONIUS: so I told them I was going to make a last stand somewhere else

SUETONIUS: and I invited all the able-bodied men to join me

SUETONIUS: which I feel was very generous

It’s not known how many people took Suetonius up on his offer; it’s not even known how large the population of Londinium was at the time, although some estimates place it around 30,000. The residents there were Suetonius’ own people, they were Romans, they were the ones he was supposed to be protecting. But what are a few civilians — women, children, the elderly or disabled — worth when it comes to protecting the Empire? Not much, as it turned out.

Boudicca did to Londinium what she’d done in Camulodunum, but worse. Her brief presence there is also marked by a red layer of soil, about 13 feet below the surface. It’s full of smashed treasures, ruined food stuffs, and debris from the cataclysmic fires that swept through Londinium, which archeological evidence shows burned in excess of 1,000 degrees Celcius. The Britons continued to show no mercy, and slaughtered everyone they could find, sometimes in exquisitely cruel ways.

Boudicca did to Londinium what she’d done in Camulodunum, but worse. Her brief presence there is also marked by a red layer of soil, about 13 feet below the surface.

After Londinium, Boudicca and her forces descended on the settlement of Verulamium, which might seem like a curious choice, since it was neither a settlement full of veterans like Camulodunum or a Roman merchant town like Londinium. In fact, it was a town populated by Britons — specifically, Britons who were friendly to the Roman cause. Although Verulamium suffered the same fiery fate as the two cities that had been sacked before it, excavations of the red layer there show far less debris from personal possessions, which suggests that the inhabitants had time to gather up what was precious to them and flee. Still, according to Tacitus, Boudicca’s tear across the country had left 70,000 dead (although, again, many modern historians agree this figure is likely inflated).

The Britons didn’t just kill citizens of the cities they razed — according to Dio, they often tortured them first. The Roman historian vividly describes the gruesome acts the Britons were alleged to have committed: stripping the “noblest and most distinguished women” naked, cutting off their breasts and sewing them into their mouths, then “impal[ing] the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body.”

Was this another Roman hyperbole meant to paint the Britons in a savage light, or is there some truth to it? Again, dismemberment or disfigurement of enemies was not outside the realm of Celtic practices. If it is true, Boudicca might have found a certain poetic justice in the act of defiling Roman women’s bodies after the violence their men had inflicted on her and her daughters. Sure, these Roman women were innocent civilians, but to the Britons they were still the enemy — interlopers, invaders, colonizers. Hadn’t the British tribes been pushed off their own lands, defrauded, and even killed so that these women could live in peace? A passive beneficiary to violence is still, in some ways, an abettor of it.

The red layer of soil in present-day London has the same curious problem as that in Camulodunum, namely that it isn’t filled with human remains. According to Dio, the Britons followed up each round of sacking with visits to groves dedicated to Andraste and other “sacred places.” There, they held sacrifices and banquets and indulged in “wanton behavior.” It’s possible that the events he’s describing — if they happened at all — were little more than boozy victory celebrations, distorted to fit Dio’s agenda. At this point, who knows? What does seem clear is that Boudicca’s spiritual beliefs seemed just as fervent and uncanny to the Romans as those of the Druids on Mona.

Speaking of the Romans, what were they up to while Boudicca was slashing and burning her way across the country? They were making plans, of course. The Britons had numbers on their side — Dio writes that by the time of the final battle, Boudicca’s army had swollen to 230,000 strong. The Romans only had a tiny fraction of that, but they had the benefit of intensive training and organization, something their enemy sorely lacked.

In fact, the Britons’ whole escapade was a bit haphazard from beginning to end. They seemed more interested in killing and plundering than they were in actually engaging the Roman forces. They’d missed several key chances to attack Suetonius while he was travelling to and from London. Why hadn’t they set an ambush for him the way they had for the IXth Legion back at Camulodunum? Maybe, drunk on their successes (and, no doubt, actual alcohol), they believed themselves to be invincible, or maybe they genuinely didn’t realize that the absolute worst thing they could do was give the Romans more time. Maybe they just thought their uprising was just too big to fail. Whatever their reasoning, it’s possible that victory may have been within the Britons’ grasp and they fucked it up.

No one is quite sure where the final battle took place, although many historians think it was somewhere in the West Midlands. According to Tacitus, Suetonius chose a spot with a forest on one side and open fields on the other, and then positioned his troops so that they weren’t vulnerable to British ambushes. Tacitus also tells us that Suetonius had 10,000 men with him, which means that even if there were only half as many Britons as Dio says, their forces were still more than ten times bigger than that of the Romans. As the two sides arranged themselves on the field, more than one Roman soldier must have wondered if this was going to be a battle or a bloodbath.

Both Tacitus and Dio have Boudicca addressing her troops before the battle; this is where Dio’s description of her as a large, be-necklaced woman with a bossy voice comes from. He has her finish the speech by calling out an invocation to Andraste and then releasing a hare from underneath her skirts (the direction it ran was supposed to predict who would win the battle). In Tacitus’ version, she speaks from her chariot, riding up and down her lines with her daughters on either side of her, telling those assembled that “it was indeed usual for Britons to fight under the leadership of women.” Both versions of the speech give off a noble savage sort of vibe: together, the Britons would throw off the shackles of Rome! Their ways were superior and more natural than those of their invaders! It would be better to follow the ways of their ancestors in impoverished freedom than to live as slaves with Roman wealth! Of course, there’s almost no chance that either of these speeches could be accurate — Boudicca would not have been speaking Latin to her people, and the Romans who were present would not have understood the British language. The words that Dio and Tacitus put in Boudicca’s mouth say more about them and how they wanted to portray the Britons than they do about anything else.

BOUDICCA: I mean, my people don’t need me to explain to them that we don’t mind women leaders

BOUDICCA: especially not when I’m literally in front of them?

BOUDICCA: but I guess Tacitus’ audience needed to hear it

BOUDICCA: at least he didn’t say my voice was ugly, unlike some historians I could name

The battle was an absolute shitshow for the Britons. They might have been numerous, but they weren’t seasoned warriors like their opponents — don’t forget that Boudicca’s following was largely made up of random men, women, and children who had joined her ranks as she marched across the country. They were far more likely to be farmers than trained soldiers, and they lacked the weaponry and armour of the Romans. Not only that, but the Britons had stationed their wagons — packed with their animals and children — in a ring around the back of the battlefield, which meant that when the Romans started pushing forward, the Britons were effectively trapped by their own people. And push forward the Romans did, killing everything in their path — even the women and “beasts of burden,” according to Tacitus. He also reported that 80,000 Britons died, as compared to only 400 Romans.

The words that Dio and Tacitus put in Boudicca’s mouth say more about them and how they wanted to portray the Britons than they do about anything else.

Boudicca died too, although not in battle; Tacitus says she drank poison, while Dio merely tells us that she “fell sick and died.” It’s possible that the Romans had her killed — Tacitus never specifies exactly who administered the poison — but that wouldn’t have been their style. They were more a “dress our conquered enemies up in golden chains and publicly humiliate them in the streets of Rome” type of people. Then again, it’s possible that Suetonius knew that parading a defeated Boudicca around might not have the effect he hoped for. There would have been little glory in having bested a woman on the battlefield, and in showing off Boudicca to a home audience, there was a good chance that he was the one who would have been humiliated. What kind of man nearly has his territory wrested from him by a lady, and a barbarian to boot? This is why the size of the British horde had to be exaggerated, why Dio had to go out of his way to describe Boudicca as large and hyper-masculine — to have struggled so hard against a smaller number of backwoods savages led by a woman would have been emasculating in the extreme. That being said, suicide is the more likely option. Boudicca had seen first-hand what the Romans did to British women who disagreed with them. Like Cleopatra before her and, possibly, Zenobia after her, she might have felt that self-inflicted death was the least painful course of action.

What kind of man nearly has his territory wrested from him by a lady, and a barbarian to boot?

What about her daughters, the two girls who helped spark the rebellion? Neither Dio nor Tacitus says what happened to them, so we can only speculate. Maybe they died in the battle. Maybe Boudicca slipped them a dose of poison. Maybe the Romans captured them. Maybe they escaped, went into hiding, lived out the rest of their lives as farmer’s wives who, on cold nights, would spin tales for their children about watching Londinium burn.

It’s frustrating that so little concrete information about Boudicca exists, not just because it would be satisfying to fill the gaps in her story, but because the existing records reduce her to this one, brief period in her life. What was her life like back before she entered recorded history as a bloodthirsty warrior queen? I try to imagine her in quiet moments of bliss — on her wedding night, or touching her daughters’ hair as they sleep, or hurtling alone in a chariot down a track. I hope that even in her last days she had times when she felt happy, or at least powerful. I hope she enjoyed every second of those debauched victory feasts.

There is no record of where Boudicca was buried. Several theories have sprung up over the years, including one that says her remains are somewhere under Platform 8 at King’s Cross Station. English writer Jane Holland published a collection of poems called Boudicca & Co. in 2006, the final poem closes with the lines “The end/was confused. Some screaming, vomit./It hurt, I know that much./Nothing else. Just good British dirt/and closing my mouth on it.”

This is how I like to imagine Boudicca: somewhere deep in the rich, dark, earth, nothing but nourishment now. She is reborn again and again, in the stories that we tell, in the fires in our bellies, in every fight against injustice, even the ones that feel unwinnable. She is the opposite of those dead red layers of earth that mark her passing. She is nothing but life now.

LONG LIVE THE FUCKING QUEEN

* * *

Previously:

* * *

Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer whose bylines can be found all over the internet, including at the Guardian, the London Review of Books and, obviously, Longreads. She truly believes that your favourite Tudor wife says more about you than your astrological sign. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. You can find her on Twitter @anne_theriault.

Editor: Krista Stevens Fact Checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy

You Robbie, You Baka

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Brian Trapp| Longreads | April 2021 | 26 minutes (7,917 words)

 

At the request of the families involved, some names in this essay have been changed to protect privacy. It includes depictions of bullying and cruelty and contains language that some people may find upsetting.

***

When I first saw him, I thought for a second that it was my twin brother sitting in his wheelchair. It was the beginning of sixth grade, and I was on the dirty gym floor trying not to hyperventilate. I had just moved from a small Catholic school in Baltimore with a class of 25 gentle Christians to a large public school outside Cleveland, and our whole class was crammed into the gym for orientation. 

I spent the summer of 1994 studying MTV with my older sister, taking precise notes on how to be cool, and came that first day armed with a binder covered in band names written in black Sharpie: Mazzy Star, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Belly, Nirvana, The Crash Test Dummies. Never mind that I was thigh-chafingly fat and had boats for feet, wore surfing shirts hundreds of miles from any kind of ocean, and covered my bedroom in puppy centerfolds cut out from Dog Fancy magazine — I knew the names of cool bands, as if I could just walk up to a kid with a skateboard, whisper “Green Day,” and get invited to his house. 

Then, across the gym, I saw him sitting up high in his wheelchair, his wrists curved down like a praying mantis, his body stiff with cerebral palsy. He was skinny with choppy brown hair, his mouth pinched into a nervous grimace with an occasional smile. Just like my twin.

I’d hoped in the move that Danny and I could finally go to the same school, that I could give him wheelies down the halls, slip him high fives in between classes, use his dimpled smile to attract girls, and listen to him laugh when someone got in trouble. We could ride the bus together and play our call-and-response, where my brother heckled me with his version of my name and I gave it right back: “I-an! Danny! I-an! Danny!” I knew twins sometimes switched places and went to each other’s classes, waiting to see who’d notice the difference. With his severe cerebral palsy and bone-thin frame, no one would ever mistake Danny for me, though it would’ve been fun to try. I at least wanted my twin to be in the same building instead of an absence I always had to explain. But Danny — who in addition to CP had intellectual disabilities, was legally blind, and could only say 12 words — was deemed too disabled to be accommodated at my school, and was bused to a larger special ed program 30 minutes away.

So perhaps, in the gym, I was missing my twin and shocked to see this stranger where I wanted my brother to be. His name was Robbie Baka. I introduced myself and said “hi” to him a few times in the halls. Maybe I didn’t need the bands. Maybe, through my brother, I had found my first friend.

***

Initially, I thought Robbie was like my brother but upgraded. While their bodies shared a similar spastic choreography, Robbie could fully control his head, which he used to nimbly toggle his power chair around corners and down ramps, dodging classmates and desks as he navigated the middle school. While my brother was limited to “eh” for “yes,” “eh-eh” for “no,” and several people’s names, Robbie was fully verbal, and spoke with a squeaky voice grounded in his sinuses. My brother was almost all vowels, but Robbie could fit his mouth around every consonant, every “ch,” “sh,” “f.” My brother revealed his intelligence through the jokes he would laugh at or a well-timed “eh-eh!” but couldn’t, for instance, read a sentence or solve a math problem. Meanwhile, Robbie was in mainstream classes — he needed his aide to write and take notes, but he completed the same book reports and took the same tests as I did.

But I quickly learned Robbie was not cool. In the hallways, he sang Disney songs at the top of his lungs, belting out in his gratingly high voice “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. He lapsed into revelry with The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata.” If he got started on The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea,” he would not stop. Then he’d somehow raise that voice an octave higher, and imitate his hero: “Whoo-hoo! Hey guys. It’s me, Mickey Mouse! Whoo-hoo!” If all that wasn’t awful enough, he was also a narc. He told on kids for saying bad words and throwing pencils into the ceiling. In his annoying nasal voice, he’d say, “Mrs. Schoffer, Nate threw a pencil!” Or he’d whisper to his aide, who passed up the intel to the teacher, a game of narc telephone. In the hallways, he drove recklessly, and would run over people’s feet without so much as a “sorry.” In choir, he shout-sang every song, ruining whatever harmony we had. And in history class, he’d derail the lesson to ask stupid questions: “Are there a lot of forests in China?” Sometimes his aide would raise her hand, and he wouldn’t even ask a question, saying, “Oh. Um. I forgot.” Only later did I realize that he was playing the heel, that he knew people like me thought he was annoying, and he wanted to annoy us even more. He wanted to run over our feet.

Robbie was one of the few physically diverse students at our school. In our grade of 130, there was one Egyptian, one Asian, and two Hispanics. Our only Black kid was adopted and swore he was Sicilian. Otherwise, it was an able-bodied white-out. Did I like thinking that the only visibly disabled kid in my school was insufferable? No. I wanted him to be as charming and funny as my brother but with all the words, to be one of the cool and witty crips you see on television nowadays: Speechless’ J.J., Special’s Ryan, or even that wheezy best friend from Malcolm in the Middle. But back then, they were not on television, and every time Robbie opened his mouth, I gritted my teeth.

Part of me hated Robbie for his abilities. What my brother could do with those functioning eyes, that coordinated mouth, that agile head. I rarely wished I had a “normal” brother. What I wanted were more opportunities for my actual brother to express himself: to drive his wheelchair where he wanted, to say, “Hey asshole. Shut up.” If Danny were like Robbie, he would just be more of himself. But what did Robbie do with his abilities? He was a rolling advertisement for Walt Disney. 

And part of me hated Robbie because I was terrified about my own social status. I barely talked that first year. A girl in my class nicknamed me “the silent dude.” If I was his friend, I would have to eat lunch with him and the kid who reeked, the boy who talked to himself and still played with Power Rangers, or the girl who got bit in the face by a horse. He was a dark star of unpopularity, drawing losers into his orbit. Contact with Robbie risked revealing the real me: the Brian with puppy centerfolds.

But no matter how much I hated Robbie, the cool kids hated him even more. Mostly, they ignored him, as if to say, Are you still here? Though sometimes the boys mocked him behind his back, strangling their vocal cords into high-pitched imitations and chopping their hands spastically against their chests. When he was alone on the bus, they bounced erasers and spitballs off his face. They wondered aloud whether, in addition to helping him urinate, his aide also helped him whack off.

At my Catholic grade school, when my friend said “retard,” I told him to stop. I told my mother, who told his mother, and then my friend called me sobbing to apologize. But here, “retard” was everywhere: “Why are you such a retard?” “God, are you retarded?” “You retarded retard.” “You el-retardo.” My generation loved the word “retarded,” using it as a catch-all for anything bad. It was the bottom. It was the worst thing you could be. And it was so fun to say. Maybe we liked how it rolled off the tongue: Curve back and then three quick taps on the roof of your mouth —  re-tar-ded. You could cut it up, remix it: Tarded. Tard. Re-re. Fuck-tard. At my new school, they said it so much that I got tired. I let it happen. I was the silent dude.

But here, “retard” was also Robbie. They made it personal. They said to each other: “You stupid Robbie. You’re such a fucking Baka.” In a twist of the penis game, they’d have competitions to see who could yell “Baka!” the loudest in a crowded room. “Baka! Robbie Baka!!!” In the end, I was relieved my brother wasn’t here. I didn’t want to find out what they’d do with his name. 

“Stop,” I said. “Don’t.” I defended Robbie from the worst of the bullying, but I would not beat up Jim for a thrown eraser or punch Phil for saying “you fucking Baka” every other sentence. I would not fight for him. Because even I found him annoying. If he were my brother, I reasoned, I would make them stop. If he were my brother, I would kill these kids. But he was not my brother.

***

In seventh grade, I brought a Sunny Delight bottle to lunch half-filled with vodka and finally made some friends. They were into cool bands, were in cool bands. We took guitar lessons together. We shared CDs. We smoked cigarettes. We smoked pot cut with pine needles. We slept over at each other’s houses and skimmed our parents’ hard liquor into foul brown tinctures we sipped from Schweppes bottles. 

If he were my brother, I reasoned, I would make them stop. If he were my brother, I would kill these kids. But he was not my brother.

They did not make fun of Robbie. They just felt bad for him. When they met my brother, I was terrified about what they’d think. Would they concentrate on his crossed eyes, his tight and wispy arms, his bony knees, his pastel dog-paw bib, the cavernous gape of his mouth, the string of drool rappelling down his chin? Would they think: Retard. Re-tar-ded. Or would they wait to discover the person in there who laughed when you burped or said the word “bathroom,” who flirted with their mothers, who heckled me with his version of my name: “I-an!”

They were nervous. “Hi,” they said. “Does he shake hands?” They picked up his stiff fist as if it would break. 

My brother, shy at first, flashed them a smile. They smiled back. “Yeah,” they said, breathy with relief. “What’s up, Danny?”

When we were alone in the basement, they asked me questions: What happened to him? Will he ever get better? Can he not talk at all? How much does he understand? How does he go to the bathroom? Do you have to change his diapers? 

With our pool table and my mother’s apple cake, my house became the preferred sleepover destination, and their curiosity developed into acceptance. I’d carry my brother down into the basement, where he’d lie on the couch and listen to us make fun of each other. When they’d catch him laughing, they’d say, “See, even Danny thinks you’re a little bitch.” 

They’d use him to rib me: “Danny, how can you stand your little brother?” and Danny would respond, “I-an!” like I have no idea.

“Oh shit,” they’d say. “He’s making fun of you.” 

We’d play with his adaptive equipment. We took turns torturing each other in his electric hospital bed, jacking up both head and feet, folding our victims into pretzels. We put each other in his Hoyer lift, the small portable crane my parents used to lift him, which held us six feet aloft in its netting and made us vulnerable to kidney shots from below. We convinced one of our friends that Danny’s Hoyer could understand English and would move up for “yes” and down for “no,” hiding the switch behind our backs. The Hoyer moved up and agreed. It thought our friend was a “fag.” When one of us bragged that he could escape from anything, we duct-taped him to Danny’s wheelchair and parked Houdini screaming in the middle of the road. Through it all, Danny smiled and laughed.

They did not treat him like Robbie. They said, “What’s up, Danny? You player. You pimp. You ladies’ man. Dan, you’re the man. Dan the man.” I felt proud to be his twin brother.


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***

While my friends seemed to accept Danny, my other classmates still called each other “retard” and “Baka.” I pretended it didn’t bother me but I held so much anger inside my body. I started taking kung fu lessons. I replaced the puppy centerfolds with pictures of bald and fierce Shaolin monks crouched with spears. I bought a heavy bag and punched the skin off my knuckles. In kung fu class, my classmates said, “It’s like you want to kill somebody.”

They were right. While training after school in my basement, this was my recurrent fantasy: I am pushing my brother at a high school football game, and we walk where the middle schoolers cluster and gossip below the bleachers. I push my brother past the boys who torment Robbie and they say the usual: “You fucking Baka.” But this time, they say it to my brother. 

Cue the violins. “What did you say?” I drawl, readying my fighting stance, tightening my grip on Danny’s wheelchair handles. I’m a pudgy David Carradine. “Say it again,” I say. “See what happens.” 

They surround us, and they say it: “You retards. You fucking Bakas.”

Techno music. My opening salvo: Launch a flying double-side kick from Danny’s wheelchair handles, followed by tipping his chair back for a “footrest of fury.” Then I step out from behind Danny’s wheelchair to snap-kick their knees, to upper-cut their ribs, to crescent-kick their temples, to dragon strike their faces (palm smashing nose into the brain, fingers raking eyes).

When they’re rolling on the ground, writhing in pain, when they know they’ve lost, the last one standing lunges for my brother, and I stop him with a flying kick to the solar plexus and grind my foot into the back of his neck until I hear his bones click. If they survive, they won’t even be mainstreamed like Robbie. They’ll be bused out with my brother, and somewhere in the back of their brain-damaged minds, they’ll be sorry. 

Then I’d come upstairs covered in sweat and chug a glass of milk, my real brother safe in his wheelchair with no idea how many classmates I’d just murdered for him.

***

In eighth grade, my friends and I started a band, with me as the lead singer. My voice was too high and I got kicked out. No hard feelings. We traded copies of Penthouse and porno tapes, wishing that actual girls would let us touch them. We smoked better pot without pine needles. We got older siblings to buy us beer with fake IDs. We snorted Ritalin in the library. We wore hemp necklaces and cargo shorts. We played hacky sack in the middle of town, where we spat and smoked and slouched. We participated in zero extracurricular activities and declared so many things “gay.” When we grew tired of being cool, we escaped into my basement and pretended to be Jedi knights with pool-stick lightsabers.

When my friends slept over on the weekends, they marveled at Danny’s new augmentative communication device, which looked like a chunky proto-iPad. A small speaker on his headrest whispered phrases into his ear and he chose his option by clicking a switch with his wrist. The computer announced in a scary robot voice: “My bro-ther Bri-an is an id-i-ot.” My friends cheered.

But sometimes at school, my violence would squeak out. Once, in the gym, I watched sixth graders pour through the doorway as Robbie and his aide waited for someone to let them outside for recess. “Excuse us,” the aide said. “Please.” No one would stop. 

“Wait,” I said. “Wait!” And still they streamed through. Finally, I stepped into the doorway and hockey-checked a boy onto the ground. The line halted. He stared up at me with tears welling in his eyes. “Why?” he asked. “Asshole!”

Robbie’s aide shook her head. “You didn’t have to do that,” she said.

Yes, I did.

One day at lunch, at the beginning of ninth grade, my friends stared across the cafeteria at Robbie eating Mexican pizza. They watched as Robbie’s aide fed him cut-up bites with a fork, Robbie’s mouth clumsily masticating as the pizza fell onto the napkin stuffed into his shirt. They watched Robbie as he coughed, as his face bloomed red and he struggled to breathe, as he took long swigs from his giant water bottle. 

“Ugh,” one of them said. “Can you imagine what it’s like to be Robbie?”

“I know. You can’t even hold your dick to piss.”

“To never whack off?” said another. “Or touch a girl?”

I got quiet and still. Another friend shook his head: “Dude, I can’t imagine.”

“Someone has to take you to the bathroom? You can’t even wipe your own ass. I mean, look at her feeding him. Fuck.”

“Yeah, I can’t imagine,” said another friend. They all shook their heads, united in this not imagining. My fist clenched. My stomach knotted. But I was silent.

“If I was like that,” my friend said, “I’d kill myself. I’d blow my fucking brains out.”

They all shook their heads in agreement. It was only now that I slammed my fist on the table. “Stop,” I said. “Shut up.”

I stood. “You say that about him, you say that about my brother.”

“Come on,” they said. “We’re not talking about Danny. Don’t be so dramatic.”

These boys didn’t yell “Robbie” in a crowded room. They were my best friends, kids who’d slept over my house every other weekend, who called my twin “Dan the man” and made him smile by whispering in his ear that his brother was a “pussy.” They stayed for dinner and watched my mother feed my brother the exact same way Robbie’s aide was feeding him now, and when my brother coughed food into their faces, they’d yell, “Dan, you got me!” while my brother laughed. They’d watched with curiosity as I changed his diaper and fed him ground-up pills suspended in a cloud of apple sauce. They’d sat in the soft foam of his wheelchair, tried it out on their own bodies, and competed to see who could do the longest wheelie. I thought these were moments of play, of joy, but now I knew what they were really thinking: If I were like you, I’d kill myself.

Standing there, I wanted to flip over their lunch trays and bash in their heads. I wanted to punch their throats, rake their eyes, break their necks. But most of all, I wanted to run away and cry in the bathroom, to find new friends who wouldn’t say such awful things, who wouldn’t even imagine them.

“You are,” I choked out. “You’re talking about my brother.”

Their faces softened. They looked down into the tortured landscapes of their Mexican pizzas. “Alright,” they said. “Sorry. Now sit down.”

What did I think would happen if I walked away? If I went to sit with Robbie? What kind of adolescent hell did I imagine for myself? It is so difficult at that age to picture yourself cast out from the group. You cling so desperately to that “we” no matter what it costs. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be back in that silent year, that lonely and singular “I” on that dirty gym floor, awkward and alone with my binder of cool bands.

So I sat down. I wasn’t dramatic. We moved on. The next time someone said “retard,” I didn’t even flinch. I said it myself.

You retard. You Robbie. You Baka. You brother. You twin.

***

The rest of high school was both better and worse for Robbie. His bullies grew less cruel or more sophisticated in their cruelty: They mostly just ignored him. But if kids no longer yelled “Baka!” or threw spitballs at his head, he also grew more isolated. His middle school friends matriculated to the more diversified subcultures of high school: the goths, the freaks, the math nerds. His parents stopped throwing him birthday parties after freshman year when only three kids showed up. Sometimes the only person sitting with Robbie at lunch was his aide. And Robbie struggled with the more advanced classes and needed increased accommodations, doing subjects like math entirely in the resource room with the special ed teacher. While no genius myself, I was on the pre-college track. We rarely had a class together.

He still loved to sing, but had trouble with the increased rigor of high school choir. He struggled to learn and pronounce the songs sung in Latin and Italian, though when they started to practice “Candle on the Water” from Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, he already knew every word by heart. The more serious singers resented Robbie for his off-key voice, how he seemed to shout-squawk the lyrics, how in their beautiful wall of sound there was always the crack of his voice. He held them back. When they traveled to state-wide competitions, they were thankful that Robbie stayed home.

They’d sat in the soft foam of his wheelchair, tried it out on their own bodies, and competed to see who could do the longest wheelie. I thought these were moments of play, of joy, but now I knew what they were really thinking: If I were like you, I’d kill myself.

One class I did have with him was 11th-grade drama, where I saw a different side of Robbie. There was a lip-synching assignment, which Robbie refused to fake. He sang “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees, his body exuberant as he spun and writhed around the stage to the beat. For the monologue assignment, he inhabited Hamlet in the famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, which he performed in a low strangled rasp that gave the words a doomed weight: “Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered … .” During improv scenes, he couldn’t stop laughing. He seemed so happy to be performing. On stage, he was comfortable with himself in a way that I envied. Didn’t he know what people might think?

He once told a friend that he loved choir and theater because he liked to express himself; he liked pretending to be someone else for a while. Sure. But I suspect Robbie also liked inviting the audience’s eyes onto his body. When so many people either ignored him or stared at him against his will, up on stage he sanctioned that stare. Elevated and under lights, he was impossible to ignore. He invited us to look and listen, translating the characters into his own choreography. In the able-bodied white-out of our small town, here was his disabled body inhabiting our heroes. Here was the song in his mouth, no matter how much he mangled it, and no, mean girl, he would not shut up.

***

Our senior year, I got my wish. My twin brother finally came to school with me. For the past three years, he’d attended Rosemary Center, a specialized school in Cleveland for severely disabled students, but his teachers worried he wasn’t getting enough opportunities to work on his social skills. So for the first two periods of the day, he’d come to my high school for commons and choir, and then they’d bus him back to Rosemary Center in time for lunch. 

I developed spidey-sense. When he was in the building and I wasn’t with him, I tingled. I was a tuning fork for danger. I wondered: As his aide pushed him through the hallway, would the high schoolers whisper: Retard. Re-tar-ded. Would they imitate his moan? Would they chop their hands against their chests? Would they call each other, “You Danny. You fucking Trapp”? Would they take one look at him and think: If I were like you, I’d kill myself. I knew what my classmates had said about Robbie, and how easily their words could ricochet off his body and onto my brother’s, though I don’t think my brother threatened them the way Robbie did. Robbie was too close to normal — he dared to occupy their same space.

The tingle lessened when Danny was with me in commons, the free period in the cafeteria dedicated to socializing and homework. Robbie was also there but mostly sat in the front of the room, parked with his aide who loved to gossip with other teachers. He would always cheerfully greet my brother: “Hello, Mister Trapp. How are you this morning?” He was so nice and upbeat. He spouted inspirational quotes: “You can do it if you try!” At age 18, he still loved Disney, singing The Lion King songs and imitating Mickey Mouse, if a little less often. He told the kind of jokes found on popsicle sticks. I no longer thought Robbie was annoying. He just seemed immature.

We’d talk for a moment. My brother must have known Robbie was like him; he must’ve heard the spastic warble of his voice, saw with his limited vision the blurry outline of Robbie’s wheelchair. And Danny was the only student in a wheelchair Robbie would see all day. What would’ve happened if I’d let my brother linger? Would Robbie have become his friend? Maybe my brother would’ve liked Robbie’s popsicle stick jokes. Maybe the jokes were just an act, Robbie’s warm-up before he got to the dirtier ones, which Danny would’ve certainly liked. Maybe Danny would’ve called him “Eddie,” the name he gave to all his good male friends.

I didn’t give them a chance. Instead, I pushed Danny past him, into the senior lounge where we’d hang out with my friends in a carpeted corner with couches. Danny brought his Dynavox, his upgraded augmentative communication device. Like the old one, it scanned pre-programmed options across a plastic screen, but when Danny clicked, instead of the scary robot voice, it was me. Technology had improved so much that I could record his options into his computer, giving him my voice.

We asked, “Where’s the party at?”

We sang blues lyrics: “I want one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer.” 

We said, “Shit.”

My classmates gathered around, astonished at my foul-mouthed voice coming from his machine, my brother smiling from his wheelchair with his wrist cocked and ready to click another. 

From the computer, we said, “What’s up, bitches?” 

We said, “Hey girl, can I get your number?” 

We said, “Hey Thompson, you’re a fuck-face.” 

They howled with laughter. Even Ben Stanley, who had loved yelling “Baka” in a crowded room four years before, smiled at Danny. “That’s so bomb,” he said to my brother, and then to me: “You are such a badass.”

“Me?” I asked. “Why? My brother said it.”

“Right,” he said and winked.

But one day we got too close to Robbie and his aide, and my brother clicked, “Steve Cooper sucks balls.” 

Robbie rocked with laughter and said, “Mister Trapp, did you just say what I think you said?”

His aide shook her head. “Come on,” she said to me. “That’s not appropriate.”

“What?” I said. “Danny said it.”

She smiled at my gambit. “I see what you’re doing there.”

My brother laughed, knowing we were getting away with something. We were in trouble at school together like true twins.

But eventually, Danny’s speech therapist discovered our page, and we were busted. Our mother made us erase the most explicit options. From then on, she would monitor my additions. A year later, they erased me completely.

At 17, I had literally given my brother a voice, imagining what he would want to say. I knew my brother mostly through translation. Read his body language, listen to the tone of his “I-an,” analyze the context, and guess what he was thinking as “eh” or “eh-eh” options: “Do you want a milkshake? Are you mad at me? Are you sick of this song? Eh or eh-eh?” Through his Dynavox, I could finally lay down the tracks of his personality, and all he had to do was click himself into existence. 

And what did I do with this awesome power? I made Danny into a crude, potty-mouthed cartoon of a teenager, a mirror of my own ID. I programmed his computer to say “bitch” and “fag” without thinking about their relationship to the word “retard.” I’m not even sure my brother always knew what he was saying through the machine, though he certainly enjoyed his audience’s reactions. 

I knew what my classmates had said about Robbie, and how easily their words could ricochet off his body and onto my brother’s, though I don’t think my brother threatened them the way Robbie did. Robbie was too close to normal — he dared to occupy their same space.

For years, I’ve regretted that I treated giving my twin brother a voice as just another joke. But now I see what I did as a reaction to Robbie. I wanted Danny to be a counterbalance against Robbie’s cheerful Pollyanna personality, his squeaky-clean Disney songs, and his Mickey Mouse impressions. I wanted Danny to be funny and subversive. I wanted him to shock those who would pity him. I wanted my classmates to hear a disabled person say “fuck” and “shit” and “shut up, asshole.” I wanted him to make fun of them. And no matter what Danny really wanted to say, he obliged me. He clicked my version of himself out into the world.

In the end, we played the twin trick. We traded places and waited for them to notice. But to this day, I’m not quite sure if they mistook me for him or him for me.

And yet, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t keep Robbie and Danny apart. After commons, Danny joined Robbie in choir without me, adding his moans to Robbie’s squawks. Together they sang a duet against that beautiful wall of sound. 

***

After we graduated, I lost track of Robbie. I assumed he’d follow the path of most people at our high school: off to college, someplace like Wright State, an accessible campus with ramps and lifts, elevators and attendants where Ohio funneled its disabled students. I expected him to at least continue down the mainstream, for him to find gainful employment someplace with that agile head and coordinated mouth, where his coworkers would enjoy his cheerful presence but secretly wish he’d cool it with the Mickey Mouse impressions. I expected him to have a very different future than my brother, who aged out of the school system and moved on to a day program for people with disabilities at United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) in downtown Cleveland. 

On Christmas break my senior year of college, I went to UCP to visit my brother. In the workroom, among the line of people in wheelchairs, there was Robbie. He was still skinny but now had a buzz cut and stubble on his chin. “Well, hello there, Mr. Trapp!” His body seized in excitement, his arms clenching down. His voice was still grounded in his sinuses but it seemed a bit lower. He had become a man, just as I had. On a long white table were scraps of wood, plastic boxes with nails, screws, and containers of glue. There was a stack of square boards, each with a hole in the middle. They were packaging boxes for birdhouses. 

My mother had mentioned that Robbie was at UCP with my brother, that they actually rode together on the bus, but it was hard to believe. Wasn’t there something more he could do? They were both part of UCP’s sheltered workshop. They did “piece-work,” an absurd parody of work. Instead of earning a set wage, workers are paid “by the piece,” a salary commensurate with their productivity when compared to a “normal worker.” My brother, for instance, would click a hand switch that activated a paper shredder. At the end of the month, they’d mail him a check for 45 cents — negative 90 cents when you factor in the cost of postage and mileage for driving to the bank to cash the check. My mother asked UCP, “Can’t you just keep it?” They could not. 

Certainly, Robbie could make a better living somewhere in the community. Certainly, he could make minimum wage. He had been in the same classes as I was. What did he learn — why endure all the mocking and isolation — if he was just going to end up in the same place as my brother? Surely our high school had prepared Robbie for a different kind of life.

No, my mother said. Robbie had significant learning disabilities. He had health problems — asthma and gastrological issues — so here he was packaging birdhouses with my brother.

Robbie said he liked it here. “They treat me pretty good. Everyone is super nice.”

“I wouldn’t go that far, Robbie Rob!” someone else said from his wheelchair, and they all laughed.

Robbie squealed and said, “Don’t start!” He turned back to me. “And your brother has become a good friend.”

“That’s great, man,” I said. “I’m glad you’re doing well, Rob.” I shook his hand and went to the next room to visit Danny.

***

That spring, to save money, UCP contracted with a cheaper bus company. The bus was late. The bus broke down on the highway. The new bus driver barely talked to Danny or Robbie. A mouth breather, my mother said. He often called in sick, and then they’d send a substitute driver who breathed even more from his mouth. When the bus got a hole in its roof, they didn’t fix it. Once, when it was raining, my mother opened the door of the bus to find Robbie with a tarp draped over his head like he was a piece of furniture. Robbie was good-natured about it, but my mother complained: “You’ve got to be kidding me. Here’s a kid with health problems and you put a tarp over him?” They fixed the bus but not the drivers.

I wanted my classmates to hear a disabled person say “fuck” and “shit” and “shut up, asshole.” I wanted him to make fun of them. And no matter what Danny really wanted to say, he obliged me. He clicked my version of himself out into the world.

I was three hours away on the other side of the state, in my last term of college. If I felt the twin tingle, if I sensed my brother was in danger that afternoon, I mistook it for an overdose of caffeine.

The bus driver pulled into the UCP parking lot to take my brother and Robbie home. I know almost nothing about this man, just what my mother told me: that he was skinny and quiet and in his forties. I know he was polite to her but wouldn’t talk to my brother. I know he worked for a company that paid him the least it possibly could. 

When I imagine him that day, I see him drive into the UCP parking lot, past the brick columns at the front of the building. He’s wearing the bus company polo shirt, the insignia that his friends make fun of at the bar after his shifts, before his shifts. His life has not gone the way he wanted. Like all of us, he was once a child and briefly beautiful but now finds himself driving this bus, making chicken scratch working for the only company that would hire him, so bored with loading the cripples on-and-off, on-and-off, while their mothers eye him suspiciously from the lawns of their nice houses. Maybe on his good days, he makes the best of it: He has a picture of his favorite niece dangling from the rearview mirror; he blasts Fleetwood Mac from the blown-out speakers and taps out beats on the steering wheel; he sometimes turns to classical and practices deep breathing.

But today is not a good day. How much does he drink before he picks them up? He gets blitzed in the neighborhood on his buddy’s porch, passing a bottle back and forth as the bus idles on the curb. Or he drinks in a corner bar, trading stories and shots of whiskey and cheap tall-boys. Wherever he is, he stands up and is drunker than he meant to get but cannot be late again. Maybe he’s battled addiction his whole life and cannot have just one even though he’d like to be a responsible custodian of these vulnerable people. Or maybe he thinks: I don’t have to be sober for this. Look who I’m driving? If we get in an accident, it would be a mercy. If I was like that, I’d … .

He stops the bus in front of the one in the power chair, who is running his mouth, as usual, talking to the other one, who stares blankly into space. They have that pretty aide behind them. He puts the bus in park. As he makes his way to the back, the aide opens the side door, and he stares at her through the metal grate of the lift platform. He feels like he’s in a cage. The hydraulic motor whirs as the platform lowers down perpendicular to his feet. No more hiding. He steadies himself. She won’t notice. “How you doing, sweet thing?” he asks. He has never called her that before. Too far? Or not far enough? She glares at him and pretends not to hear. “Damn. No offense,” he says and laughs. 

The platform lowers down to the blacktop, its lip curling flat, and the boy with the big head and the powerchair loads first, backing himself onto the platform. Robbie Rob, they call him. The aide buckles the belt, and clicks the switch to raise him to the bus floor. He shoves the chair into its space, fetches the Q-tie-downs, and straps him in. God, he hopes the kid doesn’t start singing those Disney songs. It’s too much for a man to listen to for 35 minutes. The kid continues talking endlessly to the other one, who, as far as the driver has seen, is like talking to a pile of meat. But sometimes when he glances back in the rearview, they look like twins.

The aide eyes him suspiciously like those mothers on their lawns. OK. On his best behavior. He’s not that drunk. He stands up straight. The quiet one with the bitch of a mom who got him in trouble for the tarp is already on the lift, waiting. He walks to the boy and pulls him in. “Come on, buddy,” he says. It’s easier today. It’s easier like this.

After he straps the boy to the floor, he climbs down the front steps to sign the pickup sheet. Maybe it’s here where he stumbles. Maybe his eyes are too heavy, his cheeks too flushed. Or maybe the aide has seen the signs this whole time: the swaying in the doorway, taking too long to strap in her clients, the “sweet thing” come-on and jovial laughing, the tell-tale slur. Before this, she’d worked as a bartender and knows what to look for in a drunk. She knows how to defuse his demands for another, how to call him a cab, but she’s at a loss on what to do when he wants to drive her two disabled clients half an hour into the suburbs. Now that he is ground-level, she gets a good look and is sure. She can smell it. “You’re drunk,” she says.

He laughs. “What’re you talking about?”

“You’re drunk,” she says again. “Wait right there.” She turns and runs inside the building to get help.

It’s easier today. He climbs back in the bus, slides the door shut, and fires up the engine. She comes back out and screams “Stop! Call the police!” He hits the gas and guns it out of the parking lot, the wheels screeching as he lurches right onto 101st Street. But it’s only a block to the stoplight on Euclid where the cars stream past one-way, and in the rear view he sees UCP staff members sprinting down the sidewalk, closing in. He lays on the horn and nudges the bus out into the lane. An SUV swerves and honks, nearly clipping his bumper, but the cars behind it brake and beep as he pulls the bus into the lane. There. Thank God. He drives straight, his hands at ten-and-two. He watches the UCP polo shirts grow tiny. He’s done it. He’s gotten away. Easy.

Except Robbie Rob, the one in the power chair, will not shut up. He’s been screaming since they left the parking lot. “Stop! You heard her! Stop! Pull over!”

“Quiet back there,” he barks.

“I heard her. You’re drunk! You’re drunk and you’re driving us! You’re drunk driving! Pull this bus over right now!”

The kid is thrashing in his chair, his face turning red. And now the other one starts, his teeth gnashing: “Ehhhh-ahhh-ehhhh.”

“Shhhh,” he tells them both. “That’s enough.”

He stops at the next light. He acts like everything is normal. He’s pointed the wrong way, going deeper into the city, at 95th Street, down in numbers, not up. He’ll have to turn around. He’ll drive the cripples home and pretend it was just a misunderstanding. He will nod to their mothers. They’ll have no idea. 

The light turns green and he hits the gas. “I’m taking you home, fellas. Relax. That woman was crazy.” He looks in the rearview mirror. Robbie Rob isn’t buying it.

“You think we’re idiots? Fuck you! Pull this bus over right now!” 

So the Disney kid can curse. He didn’t think he had it in him. He calls back, “You want to go home, don’t you?” He feels bad about the veiled threat, but that shuts the kid right up. He turns down a side street and goes east down Carnegie Road, finally in the right direction. “Don’t worry, gentlemen,” he says. “I got you.” He’s feeling good again. It’s easy. But then he swerves a little too much into the left lane and the cars honk. He needs to concentrate.

“You bastard!” the one in the powerchair yells. “Pull over right now, you bastard! Let us off!” The driver grits his teeth. That voice. How can one kid be so annoying? “Stop! Ahhhh!” the kid yells. He will not shut up. He will not give the driver a break.

The kid is yelling so loud that the driver doesn’t notice the sirens. But as Robbie pauses to take a breath, the driver hears the whoop whoop, sees the red and blue flashing in his rear view. “Fuck,” he says. It’s hospital security, the Cleveland Clinic police. They’re not real cops, right? He needs time to think. He could run the lights and speed through the intersections. He could barrel down side streets and ditch the bus in an empty parking lot. He could disappear into the city. And yes, there is a chance he could wreck the bus, that he could smash into another car and end up dead or maimed, not to mention what could happen to his passengers strapped to the floor. Their wheelchairs would not do well with the g-force, their skulls rattling against their headrests. If he overturned the bus, they’d hang from the ceiling like bats.

It could also be so easy. All he needs is to concentrate. All he needs is a little silence. If it was just the other one, the quiet one, he could do it. He could get away.

But the loud one will not shut up. The siren seems to make him worse and he’s thrashing more than ever, practically foaming at the mouth, and now the other one is moaning and for Christ’s sake they will not shut up. That Robbie Rob seizes with rage as he screams: “You bastard! My dad is gonna sue your ass, you bastard!”

And suddenly the driver wakes up to his own life: He is running from the cops in a short bus. He’s very drunk, and he’s kidnapped two disabled men in wheelchairs. And Robbie Rob, so annoying with that nasal voice, is right: He is a bastard. This is what a bastard does, and he is not a bastard. So he slows the bus and pulls off into a side street. He puts the bus in park, raises his hands, and waits.

When the cop opens the door, Robbie is still screaming: “You bastard! You fucking bastard!”

My whole life, I dreamed of protecting my brother. I would be there to put my body in between. I would be there to fight for Danny, to save him. But when my twin brother’s life was truly threatened, when a drunk man was speeding a bus down a Cleveland street with my brother in the back, it was Robbie, not me, who protected him. I cringe to think what would’ve happened if it had been just my moaning brother in the back, with the driver unable to interpret his sounds: What’s happening? Please stop. I’m scared. But there was Robbie being so annoying, yelling in that grating voice grounded in his sinuses, refusing to shut up. It was Robbie who fought for him. It was Robbie who may have saved my twin’s life.

***

When Robbie died five years later, I was away again, this time at grad school. My mother and brother went to his funeral. He’d passed away in his sleep. It felt incomprehensible that Robbie would die before Danny. With those functioning eyes, that coordinated mouth, that agile head, he seemed set up for one long life. But there he was, ashes in an urn. My brother was having his own health problems and my mother felt like she was attending a dress rehearsal for the death of her own son. She was right: My brother would last two more years, until the age of 28, one more year than Robbie’s 27. Now they’re both gone, twins in death, riding that bus together into the unknown.

I wonder, on those long rides home from Cleveland, if my brother ever called him “Eddie,” if he used it to heckle him when Robbie would light into his fourth Disney song that trip, or gush about their cute coworker with the long red hair, or for the second time that week ask him, “How can you tell a vampire has a cold? He starts coffin.” Maybe when I wasn’t watching, Danny learned to fit his mouth around the “r” and the “b” and added another word into his repertoire. I wonder if they passed each other’s names back and forth: Rob-bie. Danny. Rob-bie. Danny.

***

When giving directions, I have heard that instead of saying “hang a right,” the boys who tormented Robbie, now almost middle-aged men, sometimes say, “hang a Robbie,” a cruel artifact from their childhoods, an almost affectionate tribute to their tormentee, who by that time had been dead for almost a decade. After 25 years, his name was still a thrill to say out loud, to map the world with, to drive in its direction.

As I work on this essay, I write Danny’s name. I write Robbie’s too. As I approach the end, I feel terrified, like I’m that lonely and singular “I” again on the dirty gym floor, but instead of my binder of cool bands, I have this essay with their names. I want to retreat into silence again. I wonder what audience I’m writing for, if I’m still holding onto that “we” no matter what it costs. When you read their names, do you pity them? Do you secretly think: Retard. Re-tar-ded. Do you laugh along with my scenes of joy, of play, but really think: “If I was like that, I’d … .” Or can you imagine? Do you have a brother like mine? Do you look like my brother?

You Robbie. You Baka. You Brother. You Twin.

***
Brian Trapp is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer who has published work in the Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Narrative, Brevity, and Ninth Letter, among other places. He teaches at the University of Oregon, and will be a 2021-2022 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University.

Editor: Carolyn Wells 

Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk

Sensitivity reader: Ian Markauskas

Deconstructing Disney: Queer Coding and Masculinity in Pocahontas

Illustration by Carolyn Wells

Jeanna Kadlec| Longreads | April 2021 | 2,936 words (11 minutes)

Disney often codes their villains as queer: This is widely known and accepted. First noticed by scholars during the Disney Renaissance of the late ‘80s through the ‘90s, critical observations about characters like Scar (The Lion King) have since disseminated into pithy, viral tweets and TikToks. A quick Google search of “gay Disney villains” will turn up dozens of articles, all repeating the same litany of facts: That The Little Mermaid’s Ursula is based on the iconic drag queen Divine, that Hollywood often uses British accents and effeminate mannerisms in men like Robin Hood’s King John to signal moral decrepitude.

But those are observations without analysis, which is to say: pointing out the obvious without asking why or how. The subtext of these clickbait articles and listicles is often: Disney codes villains as queer because Disney thinks being gay is bad. Which is one way to read it.

However, simply saying “Disney is bigoted” has never sat entirely well with me for one reason: In spite of what the Supreme Court of the United States may rule, Disney is not a person. Disney is a corporation that wields the power of a nation-state, and, consequently, has one central obsession — the preservation and expansion of that power, a theme that is prevalent and evident in every story they allow their employees and contractors to tell. 

If queerness is consistently coded a certain way, it has something to do with how Disney wants power to function — who can wield it, and how. 

***

Millennials are the generation whose childhoods were shaped by the stories of the Disney Renaissance, a period generally considered to have begun with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and concluded with 1999’s Tarzan. It includes favorites like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Mulan — which, incidentally, are at the heart of the corporation’s “live-action” remake strategy, intended to further monetize a now-grown generation’s nostalgia for the stories that formed us, stories we can share with our own children (or group texts). 

The Disney Renaissance was birthed after a decade of HIV/AIDS ravaging queer communities; its height marked by political milestones such as President Clinton’s signing of the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) and the institution of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for LGBTQ+ members of the military. Divergent, non-normative sexuality was purportedly a threat to society, and Disney, ever the quiet institutional soldier, answered by providing a veritable stable of queer-coded villains who were ill-suited to lead or assume power. 

Indeed, there were so many queer-coded villains in this period that it’s hard to remember them all — let alone the different lessons they taught us. To wit, you probably remember Scar, Jafar, and Ursula, but you have probably forgotten Governor Ratcliffe from 1995’s Pocahontas: the fashion-conscious, social-climbing, crown-appointed governor in charge of the colonizing “mission” to the “New World.”

Pocahontas has one of the top-five highest-grossing Disney soundtracks of all time, but that’s generally where any lingering nostalgia dies. To say that the film itself is problematic is an understatement. While the screenshot of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas’ father, saying “these white men are dangerous” has found a rich afterlife on social media, the film’s historical inaccuracy and deliberate whitewashing of colonization and its aftermath have cycled it out of many a millennial’s “comfort film” rotation, something that has generally gone unaddressed by the corporation. (The fact that Mel Gibson voiced John Smith hasn’t helped, either.) 

Pocahontas may seem like a strange vehicle for discussing queer villainy. But that’s the thing: Disney gets inventive when they need to circumvent white people’s historical responsibility for genocidal atrocities, and what better way to do that than to displace the heart of the film’s conflict onto contemporary cultural anxiety: queerness and its incumbent specter, masculinity. 

Divergent, non-normative sexuality was purportedly a threat to society, and Disney, ever the quiet institutional soldier, answered by providing a veritable stable of queer-coded villains who were ill-suited to lead or assume power.

Disney’s attitudes toward colonization and queer coding are, it turns out, inextricably linked. By using a queer-coded villain, the corporation entirely elides white responsibility in retelling a historical tragedy, letting the cowboy-type colonizers off the hook for any wrongdoing and, instead, reframing them as the heroes of the story. In Pocahontas, Disney pulls off the magic trick of telling a story about colonization and genocide where the only thing that’s actually punished is the “wrong” kind of masculinity. 

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Governor Ratcliffe is not set up as the villain because he is a colonizer, or even because he is in charge of the mission to invade the Powhatan nation — or, as Disney has framed it, dig for gold. To criticize him for these positions would implicate and damage the purported “heroism” of every other white character on screen. 

Something else, then, must indicate his villainy, and Ratcliffe violates Disney’s favorite American norms — individualism, hard work, modesty — immediately. He wears bows in his hair and a literal feather in his cap. His twinky manservant, Wiggins, helps dress him, and is even in charge of bathing his dog … and let’s take a moment to discuss the dog. Unless fighting, Ratcliffe is rarely seen not carrying his white pug, Percy, who is always adorned in a collar that is fancier than anything the crew are wearing. Disney villains’ animal familiars tell us something about their personality, and Percy’s taste for luxury speaks volumes about Ratcliffe’s lifestyle. 

Ratcliffe prefers to delegate rather than do physical labor himself, a standard managerial practice, but not something heroes do. He belittles his workers when things don’t go well, seeing his crew as a means to an end and insulting them as “witless peasants” behind closed doors.

The narrative works to align the audience’s viewpoint with that of the other colonizers: in the words of one of the laborers, “Look at us! No gold, no food, while Ratcliffe sits in his tent all day, happy as a clam.” The audience is clearly meant to sympathize with the worker instead of Ratcliffe, the villainous manager, even if that worker is also occupying stolen land and explicitly fantasizing about killing Indigenous people. (What “audience,” exactly, is this for? You already know the answer.) 


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However, it isn’t just that Ratcliffe is a bullying, well-dressed boss in an environment where no one is impressed by designer wares. He’s deeply insecure and concerned about what other people think, as opposed to the naturally popular, carefree everyman that is the Captain of the ship (and Pocahontas’ eventual love interest) John Smith. In fact, we learn that this mission is something of a last-ditch effort to salvage Ratcliffe’s reputation with the king. For him, success means falling in line, trying to do right by the crown, to reap the reward. When he says “it’s not that I’m bitter,” we understand that he is, in fact, deeply bitter.

Ratcliffe’s real fantasy is power — bringing his enemies at court to heel, being so celebrated that “My dear friend King Jimmy will probably build me a shrine” — precisely because he feels so ironically powerless.

This is not the kind of chaotic, burn-it-all-down villain who has been canonized by drag shows. 

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A casual Google search reveals that Ratcliffe does not even show up on most “Gay Disney Villain” lists. Something about him elides memory and decisive categorization as other, encouraging a certain slippage. 

He isn’t as easy to pin down as the Queer Villains of Excess: the Scars and Ursulas who you can spot by their muchness, their refusal to conform to rigid social structures, their wild desire to usurp the throne. Excess is the singular quality that usually drives queer-coded villains to crave power at all costs, their appetites monstrous and unnatural. 

Ironically, even the most chaotic queer-coded villains are rarely bent on creating their own power structures — they only ever desire the kingdom and, seemingly, the lives of their straight-coded, heroic counterparts. Jafar wants to be sultan, but has no conception of what to do with that power once obtained, to the point he cannot strategize enough to realize that the genie is beholden to others. Scar believes himself to be the rightful ruler of the Pride Lands, only to drive the kingdom into a barren wasteland: The queer failure of reproduction, on which society so purportedly rests, made manifest. “Fuck the social order and the child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized,” queer theorist Lee Edelman writes in No Future — the anthem of Disney villains everywhere. 

Disney gets inventive when they need to circumvent white people’s historical responsibility for genocidal atrocities, and what better way to do that than to displace the heart of the film’s conflict onto contemporary cultural anxiety: queerness and its incumbent specter, masculinity.

The opposite of excess is moderation, and restraining oneself to fit into the boxes society has prescribed — well, this is assimilation. 

Assimilation is when a group of people assumes the values, behaviors, and beliefs of another group — when something core and essential to one’s culture and sense of self and identity is lost in the interest of resembling the social majority. In the U.S., this has had many iterations around the suppression of non-English languages, the forced Christianization of Indigenous peoples, and more. For the LGBTQ+ community, it looks like our communities having been largely underground until the last 50 or so years, because social legibility meant imprisonment, exile, or death 

In many ways, for many people, various forms of assimilation are pure survival in a white, heteronormative, and otherwise profoundly difficult world. But assimilation used against one’s own community, assimilation used to turn the target off your own back and toward communities with less cultural power than yours, becomes an alliance with the oppressor. 

Ratcliffe is a queer-coded villain whose trademark is assimilation, not excess. This is why he slips and slides through millennial memory — hard to remember, hard to pin down. He isn’t an outsider, an icon to queer children everywhere, an individualist who has chosen himself at all costs, someone who we grew up both terrified of and wanting to become. No. He is trying desperately to fit in, to use the white supremacist system to his own benefit. But working for the system always comes with a price. 

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There is a queer anxiety to Ratcliffe, because he knows his attempts to fit in are pretense. This is, as he says himself, “my last chance for glory.” Does he exile himself from the crew of colonizers because he thinks he’s better than them, or because he thinks they’ll see through him? Or both? Captain John Smith can have a beer with the guys. Ratcliffe, not so much.

Holding the title of “governor” in a servile bureaucracy doesn’t guarantee respect. Rugged masculinity and physicality — the kind Smith has — does. On a certain level, Ratcliffe both understands and resents this: “The men like Smith, don’t they?” he asks his manservant Wiggins. Even their voices tell the story: Ratcliffe is the villainous bureaucrat, complete with an English accent. Smith is the heroic adventurer — with Mel Gibson’s American accent intact and unfettered. 

John Smith has swagger — and a reputation that precedes him. “You can’t fight Indians without John Smith!” one of the colonizers declares in his introductory scene, as Smith literally rides a cannon onto the ship. Depicted as a natural leader, he’s respected by his men for his physical prowess and bravery that borders on stupidity. Smith has a martyr-like willingness to put himself in harm’s way for his men that, while not explicitly labeled as Christian, is certainly coded as such. “You’d do the same for me,” Smith says jokingly to his companions, after leaping into the ocean during a storm to save a man who fell overboard. He is, in essence, exactly the kind of leading man that Mel Gibson, the actor who voices him, spent a career playing — the mythic American cowboy and ideal leading man of Hollywood cinema. (Complete with the domestic abuse and antisemitism bona fides.) 

Queer-coded Ratcliffe is trying to earn a place in the system by being its most traditional guardian, but he also represents a kind of masculinity that has long since gone indoors to the Royal Court, concerned with accumulation through relationship and intellect. Americans recognize this as the masculinity of the educated, high-born (or aspirational) cultural aesthete, anxieties about which would soon manifest in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s under the term “metrosexual.” John Smith, conversely, represents the rugged, individualist masculinity that defines itself not by social status but by a cowboy mentality, by connection with God, family, and the land.  

In many ways, Pocahontas is structured like a Western, and John Smith may as well be John Wayne. John Smith saves the man who fell overboard; Ratcliffe is the government lackey in a suit who hunkers down in his cabin and only emerges once the danger has passed, clutching his pug while his manservant shields him with an umbrella. Government intervention is often a primary conflict in Westerns, resented by white colonizers played by actors like Wayne, who have gone west and figured out a way to live (with varying levels of hostility to the local Indigenous community) outside of federal oversight. The men in suits have effeminate mannerisms, a lot of education, and virtually no physical strength (coded as natural, God-given virility), with very little idea on how to practically connect to the world around them. Set aside for a moment the well-documented historical phenomenon of white, Black, and Latino gay cowboys throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and apply the genre of American Westerns and their ideology of masculinity, expansion, and, consequently, who gets to have what in Pocahontas

What do the colonizers want, respectively, in Pocahontas? (Obvious question, but stay with me.) In Ratcliffe’s villain anthem, “Mine, Mine, Mine” — which is, and I cannot stress this enough, a duet with John Smith — Ratcliffe is singing about the gold allowing him to accumulate wealth and reputation and status, delegating the digging to the crew. Smith is the one actually singing about the land while climbing trees and waterfalls, activities which seem unnecessarily strenuous. But don’t they want the same thing: to take whatever land they land on in the interest of colonial expansion? Haven’t Smith and Ratcliffe already been shown to be very much on the same page about the murder and displacement of Indigenous peoples? But Disney’s edit would have you think otherwise. 

John Smith has swagger — and a reputation that precedes him. “You can’t fight Indians without John Smith!” one of the colonizers declares in his introductory scene, as Smith literally rides a cannon onto the ship.

Beneath the surface, anxieties about all-too-contemporary masculinity and what constitutes manhood are relocated to the center of the driving conflict of Pocahontas — one that allows a corporation to elide reckoning with the violent historical subject matter of the actual plot. 

And therein is the issue: Ratcliffe becomes the villain because Smith, his fellow colonizer, cannot be. 

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In the end, Ratcliffe’s men turn on him. At first glance, it might seem like they are doing so out of sympathy for Pocahontas and her people, as Ratcliffe had been trying to assassinate her father, Chief Powhatan. But this is not it — the other white men don’t try to stop him when he first aims his gun, not until he accidentally shoots John Smith, who is shown taking a bullet for the chief (which is, please note, a fictional event that did not happen). 

“You shot him!” one accuses. “Smith was right all along!” another cries hypocritically, as all of them had been worked up in a racist war song (“Savages”), fantasizing about genocide only the night before. The white colonizers mutiny in favor of the preferred masculine archetype: The Cowboy. Ratcliffe is tied up, gagged, and set to be tried upon return to England. 

It is deeply satisfying to see the avowedly racist Ratcliffe in chains. But is the colonizing and racist rhetoric what he’s being punished for? No. The other colonizers are still walking free, many of them staying behind to continue to build up their Jamestown settlement. 

Colonizing isn’t worthy of punishment in this film, nor is racism, otherwise every white character — John Smith included — would be in chains. The reality is that Ratcliffe is punished for failing to assimilate within the crew successfully, for not embodying the right kind of masculinity, for not reading the room, and attacking the much-respected cowboy-esque leader who the men ultimately mutiny for. This is his crime: not trying to assassinate Chief Powhatan, but wounding one of his own. Meanwhile, Thomas, a colonizer who explicitly murders an Indigenous warrior, Kocoum, is given … a redemption arc, complete with Pocahontas’ forgiveness. 

How tenuous the conditions of acceptance for white gays doing the bidding of white supremacy. 

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Ratcliffe is, simply put, a Corporate Gay, a Log Cabin Republican, a Cyrus Bean, the Disney equivalent of (allegedly) that one senator from South Carolina. Ratcliffe has bought into the idea that serving the system will benefit him, and that if only he does its bidding, things will ultimately work out. But queerness renders you automatically suspect within any system of power, even white supremacy. What Ratcliffe, and other white gays like him, fail to realize is that assimilation is not acceptance; it is merely borrowed time. 

There is a savvy to the Queer Villains of Excess like Scar and Ursula, who understand that there is no utility in trying to fit in, who know that there is no box possibly small enough to cram your queer ass into. But, truth be told, even these villains have boundaries they won’t cross, only ever wanting to kill the king and usurp his throne — but never outright abolish abusive systems of power. 

There is no queer revolution amongst Disney villains, see. There is no abolition, no truly radical liberation within the fairy tales that ultimately serve to codify what “happily ever after” means, and for who. In Disney, queerness is only ever an imitation of the hetero original, never a full expression of itself. Gay villains are depicted as the dog who caught the car: Once they get it, what do they even do?

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Jeanna Kadlec is a culture writer living in NYC. Her writing has appeared in ELLE, O the Oprah Magazine, LitHub, NYLON, Allure, and more.

Editor: Carolyn Wells