Up today at Jacobin, my take on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and how we can dismantle the non-profit industrial complex.
Leonel Messi. Benedict Cumberbatch. Lebron James. Who wouldn’t want to see them in wet t-shirts?
For a few weeks, the world has been feasting its eyes on celebrities standing awkwardly in front of a camera before a bucket of ice water is dumped on their heads. These viral clips are just a small sample of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge archive. While presidents and puppets have all made appearances, legions of ordinary social media users have also taken the challenge, supplanting cat videos on newsfeeds everywhere.
The rules of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge are surprisingly hard to pin down considering how many people have taken the plunge, but it boils down to a simple dare: either donate $100 for ALS research or have a bucket of ice water dumped on your head. As the campaign has grown to global proportions, the rules have morphed such that most people are both donating and getting wet, then encouraging three friends to do the same.
As marketing, it’s a brilliant use of social media — new iterations, hacks, and interpretations are already on us, and are likely to proliferate for some time. The ALS Association reported that August donations were up more than $75 million over August of last year, and included gifts from over 600,000 new donors. In the straightjacket of American philanthropy, this is unabashed success. Let us not be so vulgar as to ignore the accomplishment of rousing so many people to donate money toward an important goal.
Troll the annals of news analysis too long, and opinions morph into conventional wisdom. Especially in light of the 2013 and 2014 Supreme Court sessions, two such reigning orthodoxies hold that the gays are winning and unions are losing. Gay marriage is sweeping the country, President Obama has pledged to protect federal workers from discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender, and our parade is sponsored by Diet Coke. Meanwhile, union membership is dwindling, the fastest growing pool of workers have been dubbed “partial public employees” exempt from dues, and protections for workers are so abysmal that even the neighborhood barber has to sign a non-compete agreement. These stories aren’t unfounded, but they have been churned through the media with such frequency that to challenge them would border on heresy.
Enter Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America, a surprising new book by Miriam Frank. Starting roughly in the 1970s and ending close to the present day, Frank chronicles a history of LGBT unionists transforming the labor movement by demanding union policies and then labor contracts that protected queer and trans workers from discrimination and substantially improved their material conditions. She draws on an impressive oral history archive to portray the vibrant internal dynamics of the labor movement as queer and trans members and leaders forced it to grapple with their rights and needs. Most crucially, Frank notes that in many places a union contract is the only thing protecting LGBT workers from discrimination, given the lack of federal legal protections and court silence on the issue.
Shirley Jackson famously wrote that "no live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality." But that's exactly what Ruth Graham wants us to do, according to her harangue against adults reading Young Adult fiction in Slate this week. "Fellow grown-ups," says Graham, "at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this." As evidence she cites the fact that she wasn't personally brought to tears by The Fault in Our Stars, and that young people might not aspire to read grown-up novels anymore. At first glance it's not much more than typical elitism, wrapped in cultural critique.
But buried amid the scolding is her real argument: that unlike grown-up fiction, "the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia." She writes,
"YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults...
"Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering."
In essence, she thinks adults should reject YA because we know better. We know that the oceans are rising, guns kill people, and you're unlikely to find true (heterosexual! monogamous forevah!) love at sixteen. Unless it accurately accounts for the deep cynicism necessary to keep trucking as an adult, we shouldn't be reading it.
Graham has it backwards. As one of the wretched adult readers of YA, I can tell you it's precisely because we know what's out there that adults are turning to these novels. More to the point, it’s the decidedly feminist content that keeps us coming back for more YA. In a country where a woman is beaten every nine seconds, of course we find refuge in a genre full of badass female protagonists, and the Bechdel-test-busting megamovies they spawn. We want to be where the feminists are, and if that’s in fiction aimed at teenagers, then so be it. The prose may not sparkle, and the plots may be bumpy, but the women speak to one another about something other than a man, and sometimes that’s all we need.
Feminist adults can feel like the moments of inspiration and joy are few and far between. To paraphrase Reina Gossett, fiction is one of the few places where we can escape the constant outrage mill, to open up our imaginations to the possibilities of a better world. If we were to take Graham at her word, we’d have to abandon not only YA but also Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler for daring to allow readers an escape to places where sex and gender operate differently.
Graham’s second charge, that YA is lazy nostalgia for adults, also fails the feminist test. When I read about Katniss suspending romantic concerns to fight dictatorship, I’m not filled with nostalgia for my own teenage years, but excitement, call it a nostalgic hope, that today’s teenage girls might have something brighter to imagine than I did at their age. It’s the same impulse that has me reading Tavi Gevinson’s wonderful Rookie Magazine, explicitly by and for teenage girls. Even if I had been a savvy teen, which I wasn’t, I was too young to have read Sassy or been a Riot Grrl. Of course in my adult life I don’t think stickers or glitter are “literally the best thing ever”, but I read Rookie or watch Frozen because I’m curious about the sound advice, humor and yes, feminist confidence that teenage girls can now access. Just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean I can’t get pleasure out of it, something Graham seems not to grasp.
Graham remarks that over half of YA is bought and read by people between the ages of 30 and 44. Some of this is certainly adults indulging fantasy, but it’s also adults reading along with young people. A happy biproduct could be that holy grail, a new way to talk about sexism, a challenge to the socialization that creates such stifling gender-based expectations. In recent days there has been an explosion of forceful feminist prose insisting that we recognize the pervasive and toxic grip misogyny has on our culture. Feminist YA provides a remarkably easy way to translate that dialogue off of twitter and into conversations with the teenagers in our lives. If anything, today’s YA should be required reading.