Offended

When applied to discrimination, the word “offended” is a bit of joke, isn’t it?

If you’re white and try to dissuade my colleague from playing hip hop that uses the n-word, he’ll jump on the opportunity to comment that he’s offended that you’re offended. The retort comes too easily, and you find yourself fumbling for a way to defend your point. There’s a wobbliness to “offended”. You need to say it very fast and move on, else a questioning mind pokes it and sends it crashing down.

My better half pointed this out the other night, as I was once again describing some pop culture representation as “offensive”. He noted on the uncontested and widespread use of the word in the context of social justice, when it is in fact completely inadequate to the topic. Stereotypes and negative representations are forms of violence that beget more violence; as a reaction to them, “offended” falls really short. Worse, it doesn’t apply.

So it’s no wonder that your female friend is not offended by the latest Game of Thrones rape scene, or that your trans friend is not offended by the Angelique character in Penny Dreadful. Offense is a different feeling entirely. “Offended” is here for your benefit only, summing up your benign discomfort while keeping any real pain at bay. You suspect the feeling is a lot deeper and more complex for the people affected, but you can’t be bothered to face it. Too complicated. Too disturbing. So you wield “offended”, convincing yourself you’re speaking for them when you’re only speaking for yourself. And it doesn’t matter in the end, does it? “Offended” will make you sound sympathetic and righteous anyway.

It’s time to stop being offended. If you suspect a representation you see or a comment you hear is fuelled by prejudice, then let the people affected by it do the feeling and the talking. Don’t allow yourself to feel for them and then transcribe something that has nothing to do with their experience.

And once you have listened and learned to empathize, I suspect you’ll forget about offense, and learn about anger. Pain. Injustice. Passion. The kind that can’t be described by a single mundane word.

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9 thoughts on “Offended

  1. Hi there! Sorry It took me so long to answer; I wanted to take the time to give you a proper, thought-out response.

    All this stuff about gender in art is really fascinating, thanks for sharing. I find it very interesting that there seems to be a back and forth throughout Antiquity as to which biological sex was considered the most important. In the Archaic era, the vagina was the ultimate fertility symbol, but in the Classical and Hellenistic era, it’s the penis that trumps all (unless I’m oversimplifying again?) Was there a point at which all genitalia was celebrated on equal terms?

    But back to the Victorian Scooby Gang. You are right, Dorian is highly objectified, but that doesn’t justify the objectification of Angelique. Similarly, the fact that LilyexRose has overpowering strength doesn’t justify her oversexualisation. In other words, the fact that a character of a certain gender is assigned the stereotypes of another gender doesn’t really constitute progress as far as I’m concerned. Progress would be to get rid of said stereotypes entirely.

    I completely agree with you regarding Angelique, and the fact that she shouldn’t have to conform to cis norms. I guess what I’m trying to say is that trans people should represent trans people, whether it is in casting, writing, directing, producing, or whatever else. Among the trans characters I have seen on TV recently, only one (that’s Sophia in OITNB) is represented by a trans person. What’s with that? The trans community is a nothing but a trend for Hollywood. It doesn’t feel like there a real concern to give trans people a voice.

    To conclude on Penny Dreadful, I’d say it’s a show I enjoy because I find it deliciously cheesy (see: the gallons of blood splattering the walls every five minutes, the sex montage, the representation of the werewolf…), but I find that it relies way too much on stereotypes. Women are sexual objects, men are studs, transgender people are sad (that’s what I meant by tragic) and black people are servants who sacrifice themselves for their masters. I mean, seriously.

    I am watching Sense8 now, as a matter of fact. I’m only 2 episodes in so I can’t really give you an informed opinion, but I like it a lot so far. The characters are all really human.

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    • It’s me again! 🙂 The short answer to the question regarding Antiquity and genitalia is that everything gets mixed up in the Hellenistic era. There is a huge surge of hermaphrodite statues, which are regarded as extremely sacred as well as beautiful. The Pergamon Hermaphrodite, an over life size sculpture of the god Hermaphroditos, finds a place in the Acropolis of the now extremely powerful Pergamene state. In this era women gain a new kind of visibility, love marriages become common, and races mix much more freely. Traditionally the Hellenistic era is seen as inferior artistically and politically to Classical times, but I find it really interesting for all the reasons above.

      I agree with your summary of the Victorian Scooby Gang and also the Hollywood and indeed generally insincere press fad re trans issues. I don’t think men come out of it any better, either. People also assume that you’ll have internalised those kinds of attitudes just because you’re a guy. I’d be interested to read any analysis you might write on Sense8. I haven’t continued to watch OITNB either, I don’t seem to be able to stick with shows anymore. A bad fan!

      What are your thoughts around sports and fandom, btw? I guess that’s another topic really, but issues such as representation are pertinent in this arena, too, as is media which plays such a central role now.

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  2. Not boring at all! I’m enjoying this discussion and learning from your view point.

    In terms of the anasyromenos posture things are again not that clear cut. The hermaphrodite was considered male, because of the penis. He is commonly identified as Hermaphroditos, the son of Aphrodite and Hermes. The penis trumps all in this case and it is still academic convention to refer to him as he, even though we have a more nuanced articulation of sex and gender now. In the Classical and Hellenistic eras males, including the hermaphrodite, showed their genitals, whereas females covered them up. (e.g Crouching Aphrodite sculptures). The “borrowing” of the anasyromenos posture from female figures happened before the Classical era. We would have to go back to early Archaic for females to display this kind of nudity, which was when the vagina was considered the ultimate fertility symbol. So, the hermaphrodite and males in general showed their genitals and females did not. In fact, only goddesses were shown naked, women in general were covered up. A different kind of objectification.

    On that point, Dorian is highly objectified himself, virtually every camera angle makes him a pinup boy. That’s what he is, an object of beauty, and he uses sex to get everything he wants. He even briefly manages to manipulate Miss Ives this way, and Woolfie is certainly not immune. LilyexRose is enormously strong and has a huge axe to grind with men in general. She may use sex to lure them, but she then overpowers them through brute strength.

    I think it is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t with Angelique. I agree with you that a transwoman or a ciswoman could have played her without it being unbelievable. I’ve seen some good examples of this. (I can’t remember the exact instances right now, but I’m sure they’ll come back to me). However, this is also open to the criticism of trans characters having to conform to cisnorms to be acceptable. Angelique is only tragic because she dies (Dorian chooses a stereotypical female way of killing her). I would have liked to see her continue on the show, though. And now they have killed off “the black guy”, too 😦 Although, I have to admit that I have been quite into this show, because it’s one of the few where they don’t spin everything out like a soap opera. (That and erhm cough cough… Eva Green).

    One final thing – have you seen Sense8? Could it be the only show that doesn’t fall into all the stereotyping traps and uses superpowers to develop humans psychologically instead of just dicking around?

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  3. How interesting about anasyromenos…and especially the fact that two different kinds of non-male figures (hermaphrodite and female) were expected to reveal their genitals.

    I’d say Angelique’s nude scene means to shock in a cheap way; the show is once again true to its name and gives us the kind of shock we can roll our eyes at: oh look, a penis! On a woman no less! The lack of real shock comes from the lack of surprise at what we see- we already know Angelique is trans, because her part is played by a cis man (to me, this stems from a misconception and misrepresentation of transgenderism as easy to “spot”. Angelique could have been played by a trans or cis woman. While I doubt gender-affirming surgery and hormone treatments were available in the Victorian era, a trans woman with feminine features is not exactly any less realistic than a guy who turns into a wolf at full moon). In other words, the scene is gratuitous. The director/writer/whoever decided to show a naked trans character for the sake of it. Objectification in its purest form.

    Of course, you need secondary characters to help define the main ones. What’s more, if their role is to get killed off to illustrate the cruelty of a protagonist, they need to be lovable. But you don’t need to rely on objectification and stereotypes to make your audience care. Angelique didn’t need to be objectified, or to be tragic. We could have fallen for her personality, good deeds, sense of humour…Even if you decide she needs to be objectified because Dorian is all about objectification, you could make her fight the objectification he imposes on her. The possibilities are endless.

    Oh dear, don’t get me started on Miss No-Longer-Rose. I could bore you to tears xD In my book, this is another fine example of stereotyping. If you’re trying to demonstrate that power corrupts, why reduce the woman character’s power to sexuality? Because that’s all she has. Caliban has her strength, and both he and Dorian have her immortality. The only thing she has on them is sexual manipulation (Dorian fucks his way around life, but he doesn’t use sex to manipulate).

    Dude, you do get me going! 😀 hope I didn’t bore you.

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  4. Hey there 😀 aha, I’m sorry, I misunderstood the office example. Now I’m completely with you, that’s exactly how I’ve understood that situation, too. I don’t think I’ll bother with more GoT, so you can go ahead and spoil it 🙂 I’m not surprised by the sound of this either. In terms of Angelique, this is more complex. By objectifying her as a woman, despite the male biology of her visible sex characteristics, she is being gendered female. I also wonder if the makers are aware that this type of gesture, opening or lifting the garment to reveal the genitals, is a very old one (called anasyromenos) and common to ancient hermaphrodite sculpture. (Which originally borrowed this from purely female sculpture). On the other hand, yes it is definitively there to shock. Yet, Dorian is not shocked (nor are we, really) – so perhaps more tipping the hat to Victorian society? And her sad fate, of course, falls back on stereotype, but on the other hand it had to be her, because we care so much about her and she is the brightest and most vulnerable of Dorian’s pursuits. Dorian is all about objectification, he has made himself into the objectification of youth. Yet, the turn of events with Lily (I keep wanting to call her Rose, why does Piper always have flower names?), tips the power balance again and at the same time shows that whoever holds the power is ultimately corrupted by it (unless you are a hobbit, and even then you can’t escape, but at least it takes a very long time) 😀

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  5. Hello again 😉

    Yes, GoT is pretty gratuitous, and this is probably for this reason that there was such an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the most recent rape scene. As far as violence against women goes, this scene is definitely not the worst of the show, but I think it was the last straw for a lot of people (I won’t tell you what the scene actually is not to spoil it for you, only that it involved a regular character).
    Angelique: I agree with you to the extent that we definitely witness her struggle. On the other hand, I can’t forget the fact that we see her naked on her very first episode, in a context that is meant to shock. She is objectified, and even by Dorian, who is currently showing her off as a big middle finger to London society. Angelique is only here as an accessory to Dorian.
    Re my colleague’s music: no, it has no racist motivation, and that’s the point. Nothing about his music (or his consumption of the music) is racist, and yet there is always someone -usually someone white- to complain about it, when they have no clue what they’re talking about. Which is why he cannot always listen to it, depending on who’s in the office.
    And I’m loving the constant questioning 😉 Thanks again!

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  6. This is such a well written opinion piece! I’m not sure I understand a couple of your examples, but I think you’re right that we have a lot of formulaic phrases we trot out instead of actually engaging, and “offended” is probably one of the most tired ones.

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      • I have to admit I fell off the Game of Thrones band wagon a while ago, so I have no idea about that scene, but the whole show is pretty gratuitous. Angelique seems such a sympathetic character to me, so here I’m a bit lost. Also, I can’t see that your colleague’s n-word music has a racist motivation. Hopefully you don’t feel offended or harassed by my constant questioning 🙂

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