“A Chorus No Longer Silenced,” Giving a Voice to Survivors of Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence

This weekend, I took part in an important organization. Writing Wrongs brings together a group of student writers, photographers, designers, and social media coordinators to work with a group of people who are offering their stories to be written and published in a small book that is later published. This years focus was on survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. These subjects are incredibly important to me, so when my professor informed me of the program, I applied immediately. I was honored to be chosen as a writer.

The stories I encountered were heartbreaking, but also inspiring. These women and men faced true horrors in their lives, but refuse to let patriarchal violence rob the of their voice. Below is my article about a woman named Yessenia Blanco. To call her brave is an understatement. Her resilience in the face of violence is incredibly inspiring and the patience and candor she offered me was beyond humbling. It was my absolute pleasure to bring her story to the written page and I hope those who read her story can understand that our culture surrounding sexual and domestic violence needs to change. We wrote and published this book with a desire to bring this chorus of voices to the public eye and ear in hopes of shifting our cultural narratives surrounding survivors.

I implore you to listen to her story because her pain is our nation’s pain. Thank you.

“A Chorus No Longer Silenced”

By: Tyler James McMaster

Resilience is the word Yessenia Blanco uses to describe her story and experiences with domestic violence. She is calm and collected, initially expressing interest in Writing Wrongs and its goals for this year. Her inquiry shows the candor and gentleness of her overall demeanor. No one would expect from her smile the horrors that she has experienced in her life.

Blanco, 34, shares her story as a way to help others who have faced domestic violence. “Everybody has their own perceptions that are so far away from reality,” is how she begins the conversation, immediately staking her position in the conversation. She wants people to know that there is so much more to a survivor’s story. The systems and structures that exist and perpetuate violence between partners need to be challenged.

Within her first marriage, she felt as though there was a tension between “who I was and what he believed I was.” She wasn’t aware of the signs that would lead to eventual violent behavior; she just assumed it was how the relationship should work. While growing up in El Salvador, cultural narratives taught her the purpose of the wife was to serve the “macho man” husband, and while coming to America taught her that these ideas are not wholly acceptable, she feels that some things are just too hard to unlearn.

Events came to a head in their relationship when he one night flung a chair at her head, almost harming her daughter as well. This was when she knew she needed to get away. At the time, she had been working as a case manager for families in similar situations as hers, but she couldn’t see the red flags in her own relationship until the violence manifested. Shortly after the incident, she escaped from her husband but wasn’t entirely away from the situation.

“It will often take up to 10 times for the victim to leave,” a terrifying figure, but very true to many experiences. Blanco discusses the many factors that color this statistic: financial constraints, fear of violence, and safety. These factors often bring victims back to the danger.

She returned to her first husband a few times, but ultimately found solace in her second relationship many years later. He made her feel safe — as though she could fly — wrapped up in a euphoria that can trap survivors in another abusive situation. Within this relationship, the abuse was more subtle, far harder to pick up than physical violence. “It’s about control,” she says. The ultimate goal of the abuser is being in control of how their partner lives their life.

At this time, Blanco returned to law school, so she could help others more than the advocacy she previously participated in. Her job as a case manager was earning her a healthy amount of money, while her husband was having some trouble trying to find work. The couple ultimately decided to have her husband stay home and look after their daughters while she worked. It would turn out that this was not the best decision.

She began to notice that basic household chores were not being attended to. Upon arriving home, she would be expected to make dinner because “that’s what a wife does.” One day she decided to open up over the phone to her “church mother,” a woman who was always helpful to Blanco after leaving her first husband. Blanco felt as though she was complaining about her husband’s lack of help.

Her husband later confronted her, asking why she shared their issues with her friend. How could he have known they were speaking to one another? As it turns out, he had downloaded software on her phone that monitored her phone calls and text messages; this software was rather complex for 2011.

Naturally this news upset her, prompting Blanco to want to seek counseling. However, her husband felt as though he didn’t need any help, and there was nothing wrong with his wanting to keep tabs on his wife. She would not stand for this behavior and resolved to separate if he would not change. This fueled his rage and resentment more.

Shortly after this event, Blanco attended a work party to welcome some levity from their issues. She allowed herself to drink and have some fun but received a rather worrisome text message from her husband when she hadn’t answered his calls. A co-worker drove her home. Almost immediately following her return, her husband took her keys and phone, and his fist met her cheek. Then it came again and again and again. “He must have planned it all out,” she recalls, not realizing how he cornered her for his attack. He threw her against furniture and beat her to the point of death, threatening to kill her if she screamed.

When she awoke, she was surrounded by paramedics. The damage to her body was substantial, but how his violence affected her brain is the true horror. She needed a doctor for every part of her body, including speech therapists, dental professionals, orthopedic surgeons, and even neurologists. Her church mother would drive her to appointments and errands because she could barely get around on her own. Confined to walkers and other aids, Blanco was realizing that her life would never be the same again. While her husband had not killed her spirit, she would never be the same person again.

Her memory is the biggest worry. While doctors had recommended that she rest her brain to prevent further damage from taking place, she had no choice but to work. She is now a single mother trying to keep her family financially stable. Though she was warned that overstimulation would cause her to lose large portions of her memory, she has had little choice because there aren’t many resources for survivors of domestic violence.

Despite these issues, her faith and resilience have kept her fighting for her “new normal.” She has utilized her work experiences to seek out activism and social work in the state of Pennsylvania to help other survivors. She cited organizations like the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Lancaster County Domestic Violence Service, and the Office of Victim Advocacy, to name a few. These are all organizations that offer resources of all kinds to help survivors, as well as victims, to try and distance them from the danger.

When asked what words she may want to share with other survivors and victims, she immediately stated “There is always a way out. There are always people who are willing to help; whether it is a church or local shelter, people will always help you.” Blanco’s story joins a chorus of women who are affected by domestic violence, but she will not allow herself to be silenced.

 

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Queering Comics: Tee Franklin, “Bingo Love,” and the Need for Representation in Contemporary Comic Books

Fun fact about me: I freaking love comic books and graphic novels. They are the perfect marriage of image and word and it makes me super warm inside. Comics have proved to be an important tool for young readers as well, especially those who struggle with reading or comprehension. Throughout my life, comics have been an intimate tether to the world for me. Spider-Man was there to help me contextualize childhood traumas and Calvin & Hobbes expanded my vocabulary as well as my empathy when I sought more from the world around me. When I returned to comics in 2012, it was through the graphic novel Blankets, by Craig Thompson. It showed me there was a far more expansive and emotional world of comics. Since then, I have read so many incredible works by vastly talented creators, my childhood love became an adult passion.

Within the vast universe of comics, my deepest passion is that of diversity and inclusion, both through characters and their creators. While comics have had a very white, cis, and male history, readers—specifically those not represented in current stories—are growing tired of the same experiences and ideas thrust upon them. Representation has become a major topic in comics, with people becoming increasingly vocal of how they see themselves in books and who is allowed to tell those stories if their voices aren’t represented. On this front, there has been both triumph and upset, with publications of groundbreaking characters of color, LGBTQA+ expression, and even characters with varying disabilities. Despite an ever growing appetite for diversity, many larger companies are canceling series that feature these forms of diversity. Marvel has canceled the America Chavez series and lumped her in with a larger team, as well as the characters of Squirrel Girl, Kate Bishop (Hawkeye), Gwenpool, and many more.

“Diversity doesn’t sell,” was the abysmal answer that executives and fans alike were doling out. It’s a disturbingly elitist and misogynistic thing to say, especially since male heroes are still receiving renewals of their ongoing stories. They never need to worry about being canceled, because they are the enduring standard. Even a newer series like The Radioactive Spider-Gwen, which was reissued several times since its release, announced it was ending this year. This is a much deeper issue than I can get into right now, but thankfully fans and creators are not taking this lying down.

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With all that being said, I’d like to gush over a graphic novel I recently read called Bingo Love by Tee Franklin. Issued by Image Comics, this adorable product of love features a blossoming romance between two women of color, Hazel and Mari. Hazel tells their story chronologically, starting in 1963, leading up to the girls reunion as older women in present day, and even into their future in 2032. Artist’s Jenn St-Onge and Joy San provided intensely passionate and expressive illustrations for Franklin’s words, creating an atmosphere so beautifully warm, it feels like being wrapped in a blanket burrito made of the softest material. Affection and empathy pour from the pages of this book, creating a story that is equal parts uplifting and heartbreaking. In the words of Birds of Prey author Gail Simone, it’s “A towering emotional achievement. BINGO LOVE is the graphic novel I didn’t know I couldn’t live without.”

Tee Franklin is an astounding woman. I don’t even say that as someone writing a rather positive piece about her book, I say it as a brand new fan and observer of her online presence. In interviews, she is brimming with smiles and animated expression. On social media she is encouraging and intersectional, always working to bring more diversity to comics by sharing work and Kickstarter projects from other creators. Bingo Love was a project first proposed to Kickstarter with a pledge of $19,999. Not only did it reach its goal within five days of launch, it wound up raising over 57,000 dollars by the end. HALF OF A MILLION DOLLARS. Not only had Franklin received donations from all manner of worldwide patrons, other creators were taking notice as well. Writers and authors such as Gail Simone, Scott Snyder, and Marguerite Bennett, were donating money and bringing awareness to the project. Those are some huge names in comics right now. “They all donated tiers where they were going to do Skype sessions,” Franklin stated in an interview with CBR.com, “and Al Ewing and Kieron Gillen donated script reviews. I had massive help from a told of creators.” But this doesn’t make any sense. I thought people didn’t care about diverse stories in comic books??

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Credit to Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, Joy San

The success of this book, let alone the money it crowdfunded, is a great big middle-finger to companies like Marvel and their insistence that diversity can’t pull in revenue or audiences. Franklin has been steadfastly vocal with criticism aimed at Marvel, which was partially what prompted her to start the BlackComicsMonth hashtag. Created in 2015, Franklin used this hashtag, and eventual website, to host and amplify the creations of all manner of black writers, illustrators, etc. While she did decide to take a break from #BlackComicsMonth in February of 2017, she vehemently encouraged followers to continue to amplify voices and creations from black artists: “I created BCM to spotlight Black comic creators and promote their books. I wanted (still do) my people to be noticed, I wanted to show that there are talented comic creators in the Black community. We deserve to have a spotlight shone on us at all times.” Franklin is proud to be Black, queer, and disabled and does valiant work to not only share her experiences, but also shine light on others as well, showing just how powerful a diverse collective of writers and creators is/can be.

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Credit to Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, Joy San

The inception of Bingo Love’s concept was inspired by a TV commercial, as the author has stated in many interviews. In the ad, there are two older black women calling after an older man that walks past them on the other side of the street. “Oh my god, this is so cute! I wonder, how about if that was a woman?” And from there, Hazel and Mari’s story was born. When Tee Franklin was first getting back into comics, she was aware that there wasn’t a lot of representation for black women in comics, let alone on the covers of them. She sought to write a story that genuinely expressed a loving relationship between two queer women of color that defies age, continuing to prove that “love is love is love.” However, in doing so, that means depicting the uglier challenges and struggles facing same-sex love as well. Especially when such a relationship is growing in the 60’s.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is how well Franklin explores the agency of her characters. Earlier in the story, Hazel and Mari are forced to enter unfulfilling marriages when their families learn of their relationship. Mari is sent down south to marry a preacher’s son otherwise her family will disown her. It is revealed later that her husband is dedicated to his business and is hardly around for her or the kids. Mari’s form of agency is in the desire to divorce her husband and fully embrace her true love for Hazel. While this may seem like a fairytale, Mari is perfectly within her power to choose the conditions of her happiness.

Hazel marries an air force pilot named James, whose physical intimacy is only present when he wants to conceive children. Despite this, Hazel holds on to her agency, turning down his advances the more she realizes that her current purpose is to act as a vessel. Even when James yells and screams at Hazel upon learning the truth of her feelings for Mari, Hazel does not back down or give in to his aggression. She waits for civil conversation, attempting to deescalate the situations. This puts her in a position to hold her own power, and it is through this problem solving that it is realized James harbored his own secrets and finding it is ultimately better for them to separate.

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Credit to Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, Joy San

Understanding and communication are healing factors throughout Bingo Love. The focus is truly on how important love and connection are to a relationship. While the ideologies of the 60’s are vehemently against any form of desire that isn’t patriarchal, Hazel is reminded constantly that love isn’t necessarily gendered in the ways our culture expects. Same sex love is still very much demonized under heterosexual and patriarchal ideology, but our culture has become far more open about the boundaries of love. For so long, heterosexuality was a bedfellow to patriarchy in ways it encouraged control over women enacted by the husbands. Hazel and Mari’s love feels like a fairytale to modern readers because they aren’t used to a truly loving relationship. This love transcends gender, race, age, appearance. It defies everything that our current culture defines as integral to romantic love. Love should be the main focus of this book because it is proving that love is never only for cis, heterosexual white people and people are tired of reading it in that way.

Another perfect indicator of our culture’s desire for representation came with this years Eisner Awards. The Eisner is like the Grammy’s, but for comics and this year brought significant wins for women and creators of color. Marjorie Liu won Best Writer and Best Ongoing Series for Monstress, a dark fantasy with an endearing female lead. Jillian Tamaki won Best Graphic Album-Reprint for Boundless, which explores gender and our very human connection to technology. Author Roxane Gay took home the Best Limited Series award for Black Panther: World of Wakanda, which was one of the series that met the chopping block in Marvel’s canceling frenzy. The series featured a relationship between two of the title character’s Dora Milaje guards, but hey, diversity doesn’t bring in an audience. What truly made my heart soar was queer artist Tankea Stott’s victory with Best Anthology for Elements: Fire, a collection featuring an ensemble of creators of color. Elements was also a Kickstarter project that received more than it projected.

Diversity doesn’t sell? Bullshit. Audiences are starving for representation and publishers are only denying themselves money and readership if they continue to recycle characters and stories. Image approached Tee Franklin about publishing and releasing Bingo Love. They remain one of the few publishers pushing for diversity in comics and it looks like they’re finally trying to put their money where their mouths are. Some of my current favorites are published by them and their partner company, Shadowline. It’s time that comics let go of its supremacy and listen to the readers. We as a collective want to see ourselves reflected in the characters and stories we read; that’s not limited to white people and it sure as hell isn’t limited to straight white people.

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Credit to Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, Joy San

Bingo Love is a massive lungful of fresh air, as well as a clarion call for change and difference. I received more from a 92 page graphic novel about two queer grannies than I ever have from a romantic film like The Notebook. I don’t want to spoil anything else about the book, but I will say that it tells a somewhat similar story as The Notebook, but with more care and empathy and less manipulation and patriarchy. Please support Tee Franklin and Bingo Love. It is by far one of the best books I have read in a long time. It’s message is crystal clear and important.

You can follow Tee Franklin @MizTeeFranklin, Jenn St-Onge @princess_jem4, and Joy San @sexytuna.

The Future of Comedy is Empathy: Hannah Gadsby, Cameron Esposito, and the Stand-Up Specials That Took The World By Storm

“Anger is never constructive.”

This was one of hundreds of quotes that hit me like an eighteen-wheeler when I first streamed Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special, Nanette. My wonderful girlfriend gushed about it upon her first viewing. “You of all people will adore it,” she frantically texted me. I had seen advertisements for it and watched the trailer and was very much intrigued, so finally, after a night of trudging through online school homework, I fired up Netflix and strapped in.

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Once the hour of cheering, laughing, sobbing, enthusiastic screaming, and clapping concluded, I immediately took to Facebook and Twitter urging everyone I knew to watch the special. I was blown away by Gadsby’s strength and earnest. The bravery required to stand in front of at least 2,000 people at the Sydney Opera House and brilliantly deconstruct an entire genre of entertainment is immeasurable, and I remain in awe of her wisdom.

Nanette is not simply a comedy special. It is a baptism. It challenges a culture of performers reliant on trauma and tension to sell laughs to adoring crowds. Gadsby’s words are a rally cry of reformation within a system dependent on silencing contrary opinions and experiences. I settled into this special looking to receive some good laughs and insightful social commentary. I left the special wanting to riot in the streets and set fire to fragile patriarchal masculinity.

Gadsby has been fairly popular in Australia for years, performing many different hours and segments of stand-up comedy, as well as making appearances on television shows. Her semi-fictional character named Hannah on Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me was a huge success with audiences. Gadsby’s character struggled with depression and sexual identity. “I’m not acting when I act. I played a fat, depressed lesbian called Hannah,” she said on The Comedian’s Comedian podcast in 2017. This quip was meant as a joke, but as anyone who has seen Nanette could probably attest, we often joke to mask the true traumas of our lives.

After the therapeutic rollercoaster of Hannah Gadsby, I was compelled to watch another important stand-up special that was released around the same time. Rape Jokes, which is the newest hour from comedienne Cameron Esposito, can be streamed for free on her website. Part relentless critique and part memoir, Rape Jokes finds Esposito sharing her own experience with sexual assault, while also brainstorming ways we can shift the culture.

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Esposito is a prominent face in LGBTQ+ comedy. She and her partner, Rhea Butcher, created the show Take My Wife, perform stand-up together, and host the podcast Put Your Hands Together. Esposito’s other incredibly popular podcast is her groundbreaking Queery, where she sits down with all manner of queer creators, business owners, activists, etc. and discusses their stories and experiences. As an avid listener, I can attest the positive impact that these conversations have on listeners. She makes sure to be as intersectional and open as possible, bringing on a wide array of guests.

Rape Jokes is, in many ways, like Nanette, but when tackling these similar social issues, they convey different feelings. Something particularly fascinating about Esposito’s special is the way it harnesses classic stand-up delivery to constructively confront sexual assault and the toxic elements of rape culture. Esposito challenges society in a way that’s perhaps more traditional than Gadsby’s radical approach. For the rest of this post, I want to focus on specific aspects and topics from both specials and discuss how intrinsically their messages serve one another, as well as their respective audience. I assert that these specials should be watched and discussed together—not only for the content of their writing, but for the differing ways each performer hones their craft to deliver their messages.

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That being said, I’ll begin by talking about the importance of delivery in both specials. Hannah Gadsby is all about timing. Part of her charm is in her laid-back wit. “I identify as…tired,” is a fantastic quip that is delivered with precise pause. Even during her appearances on Please Like Me, Hannah’s lines are delivered with a gentle poise. It’s incredibly endearing and offers a comfort to the audience. This is why it’s jostling when the material of Nanette starts getting serious. It’s as though that comfort is suddenly ripped away like a tablecloth. “This tension is yours,” she yells, “I am not helping you anymore!” Some may view this shift as a “woman getting angry,” but it is so much more.

Nanette is a meditation of the craft of stand-up comedy. She is criticizing the way comics—especially male—have utilized the form of stand-up to “artificially inseminate” tension into a room. Gadsby wants the audience, and even the world, to understand that stand-up is ultimately a construction. It isn’t quite as genuine as many people would like to think. I often wrestle with this when watching specials from my favorite comics. I’ll use Pete Holmes as an example. Pete Holmes is a lovable performer whose delivery feels as warm and genuine as his smiling face. He often describes himself as a “silly-silly-fun-boy” and it shows. As someone who listens to his podcast, I guarantee that most of that warmth is not an act. He does seem like a very genuine, down-to-earth person, but that does not mean that his set is not finely tuned.

There is an illusion that comes with comedy, and I notice it within music as well. Performers are delivering the same set or same material to every state or country they visit. Sure, audiences may receive a few specific jokes or stories concerning their home state, but it’s essentially the same hits every single time. In December, I went to see John Mulaney on the Kid Gorgeous tour. It was hilarious and relatable. It was John Mulaney. His delivery was everything I expected and the stories and bits were irreverent and whacky, but when it came time to experience it again on Netflix, I felt this strange numbness. It was the exact set I saw in Philadelphia, just minus a story about being lost in the city. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but it did break the spell for me. Much of comedy is a constructed system that is built to elicit the same responses every time.

Hannah’s awareness of this constructed format allows her to harness the craft while ultimately disassembling it. She has a very firm understanding of how comedy works and is “very good” at her job, as she says. This is why the special does such an impeccable job at being both a stand-up special and a meta-takedown lecture all in one. Because of her deep understanding of the craft, she can teach a thousand viewers why this construct can be destructive. But, we will get there. For now, let’s move on to Cameron Esposito’s delivery, because it’s fairly similar to Gadsby’s but harnessed in a different way.

One day, as I was perusing comedy videos on YouTube, I came across some Conan videos of a comedian I would come to love named Cameron Esposito. As I was watching one of her sets on Conan’s show, I saw a video in the related column called “The Greatest Period Joke Of All Time #CHUNKS.” Naturally I was curious, and my love for this brilliant comic became cemented forever. Her delivery is energized and invigorating. When people ask me to compare her to other comics, I often liken her performance to Jim Carrey but add “funnier and with more social commentary.” That is not necessarily meant to discredit some of Carrey’s more engaging work, but Esposito does it way better. She shouts when she needs to, uses funny voices, employs uncomfortably descriptive language; in other words, she’s fantastic.

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What’s engaging about Rape Jokes is that her energy appears at an all-time high throughout the hour set. There’s an urgency evident in her delivery and movements. Its introduction is explosive, showing that the performer is holding back none of her punches: “I FEEL, this is just me, that every moment of the current administration is a living nightmare!” This smoothly leads into her focus of sexual assault as Esposito unloads on Trump’s misgivings using her charming wit. While Gadsby discusses self-depreciative humor in her special, highlighting the danger of constantly tearing yourself down at the expense of humor, Cameron Esposito is quite the opposite. Part of what makes her so loveable is the confidence that she carries in her performances: “I’m not an omniscient god, despite how you worship me.” She knows her strengths and weaknesses, and instead of capitalizing on said weaknesses, Esposito reveals them as a tool to help endear herself to the crowd.

Hannah Gadsby uses self-depreciation to prove a larger point that in deconstructing ourselves in such a way, further trauma can manifest:

“Do you understand what self-depreciation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore—not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.”

Think about any form of public speaking you have done, or dates you’ve been on, or maybe even within a job interview; when we are uncomfortable, or want to make ourselves out to be humbler, we often tear ourselves down as a people. We see it as a tool of endearment, but it rather often comes off as humiliation. Instead of laughter, we insight pity, and that’s not necessarily our aim. In a recent interview with HuffPost Editor-In-Chief, Lydia Polgreen, Gadsby highlights the different gendered reactions to self-depreciative humor: “The difference between Louis C.K. and I is we can both say we’re losers and for me the world says, ‘yeah, you are a bit,’ and when Louis does it, they go, ‘you’re a genius.’ And that’s what pissed me off.” Rightly so, Hannah.

It is through these nuanced performances that both comics tackle the legacy of stand-up comedy. Hannah Gadsby has built herself quite the career as a comic in Australia, but with her first global hit, she announces that she’s “quitting comedy.” Needless to say, my ears perked up as I heard this while streaming Nanette. I had just discovered her work; how could she quit comedy? Yet as the show progresses, it becomes more and more evident as to why this deeply empathic person may not “feel comfortable” within the medium anymore.

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One of the best aspects of the special is when she breaks down the idea of comedy into basic ingredients. Within stand-up, there is often tension and then the laughter that breaks the tension. In her words, “tension isolates us and laughter connects us.” When you’re in a crowded theater of people, laughing, that tension flows from your body and encourages ease. The issue then arises that the comic is the one that made you feel that tension, they created it for the audience. This leads to what Gadsby calls an “abusive relationship.” It’s uncomfortably true. Most of the jokes that comedians tell are meant to illicit these types of responses. It’s their job. A joke is essentially a set up, then punchline, or a question that receives a surprise answer.

The other important facet of Gadsby’s thesis on comedy is just how much trauma and tension can harm the comic themselves. Toward the beginning of the show, she tells the story of her mother’s reaction to her coming out. As some can imagine, it wasn’t quite a jump for joy. However, she returns to the subject of her mother revealing that she later apologized. The mother wanted to keep Hannah safe from the world, knowing that her life would be hard and she just didn’t want it to be harder.

Without that ending, Hannah’s story is not complete: “Comedy has suspended me in a perpetual state of adolescence. The way I’ve been telling that story is through jokes. And stories, unlike jokes, need three parts: a beginning a middle and an end.” Jokes typically need the beginning and middle sections to work, because it creates tension: “Punchlines need trauma because punchlines need tension, and tension feeds trauma.” This leads to one of the most profound refrains in the entire show when Gadsby declares, “You learn from the part of the story you focus on. I need to tell my story properly.” It’s hard to enjoy comedy after that. There is this American idea that endures where people feel as though they need to suffer to be able to bring any sort of substance or creativity into the world. That’s just not healthy. Perhaps this thesis explains why so many male comics appear as juveniles running around on the playground. There is no growth in telling the same joke about your wife for the umpteenth time. There is no growth in proclaiming the word “rape” to a crowded room of people, yet the jokes continue (yeah, I’m looking at you, Daniel Tosh).

Cameron Esposito is no stranger to the “shock-jock” type of comedy. In a brilliant sequence from Take My Wife, Matt Braugner plays a Tosh-esque male comedian delivering a very tasteless rape joke while Esposito and Butcher watch from side stage. Braugner says, “If this year has taught us anything, it’s that society will not believe that a woman’s been raped unless 48 other women claim they were raped by the same guy. That’s why I only raped 47.” Yikes. There’s a lot to unpack there, but the main issue lies in how that character utilized sexual assault in the joke. Many male comics use sexual assault to make their jobs easier. If you talk about rape in a room full of people, there will be a good deal of tension in that room. While the joke appears as though it will offer some form of constructive criticism, it quickly dissolves into the same harmful discourse we’ve come to expect from male comics.

Esposito meets these issues head on, discussing backlash at the expense of politically correct culture as it appears in contemporary stand-up. She characterizes some performers as needing harmful words to tell jokes and her response is justifiably savage, “if there’s any particular word that you need to use to do this job, I am a better stand-up comic than you.” Sure, it’s funny, but it’s a powerful statement to make in a career dominated by straight white men. As a songwriter, I’ve always stood by the credence that unless a curse word is completely necessary to the spirit of the song, I refuse to use them. There’s really no need for it. Plenty of words in the English language allow me to express myself without vulgar or harmful words. Perhaps that same standard should apply for comedy.

The PBS Newshour aired a feature with Cameron Esposito as a highlight for the release of Rape Jokes. In the interview, she addresses limits that must come with a comic’s experience and the taboo subjects they may tackle in their sets: “Lead with personal experience, if you have that. If you don’t have personal experience, then you need to be aware of that and you need to be aware that perhaps speaking to an audience that has more experience with something than you do. And acknowledge that.”

Entertainment definitely has an entitlement problem. Men think they have capital over the stories they tell. As Gadsby says, “you wrote the rules, read them.” Comedy has been male dominated for decades and it is comics like Hannah Gadsby and Cameron Esposito that are stepping forward and changing the rules. Society is shifting which means ideas are shifting with it. People within the margins want the agency they have been denied for so long. Just a few years ago, a female audience member speaking out against a male comic awarded her ridicule. Now, many female comics are on the offensive and defensive, discussing paramount topics such as gender, race, misogyny, as well as rape culture and sexual assault. These two are stepping forward and using their platforms to speak for those who aren’t typically allowed to speak.

The response to both comics has not only been encouraging, but beyond inspiring as well. Twitter continues to explode with heartfelt outpourings of support for Gadsby and Esposito. Major media outlets are producing numerous think-piece’s, blogs, and podcasts discussing the emotional and political implications of both specials. Sexual assault is becoming a prominent topic of discourse. To have two women who are very much respected in their fields, step forward and dismantle the very space they occupy themselves is momentous and immeasurably brave. People are connecting to these experiences because their stories have the potential to help and heal. For the viewers who have suffered the horrors of sexual assault, violence, or abuse in any way, these specials allow them to hear their traumas reflected in a healthy way, not as the butt of a joke from someone who has never experienced such pain. The success of Nanette and Rape Jokes brings hope to stand-up. They encourage new ways to share a narrative. Trauma does not need to be debilitating; performers can show audiences the way they hurt. Gadsby used her experience as a way to connect with her audience, not separate them. Esposito noticed her position as a figurehead within queer comedy and used that status to help others and raise money for RAINN, one of the biggest organizations dedicated to helping survivors. To every artist out there, we can take care of our stories and make people laugh, or move them through painting or music. I hope these successes for Gadsby and Esposito can open doors for other queer performers and perhaps stand-up comics of color, both cis and queer.

I would like to conclude by discussing the endings of both specials. Despite the power and rawness of the subject matter, they end with messages of wisdom and hope, which is something I’ve rarely experienced in a stand-up special. “Diversity is strength,” Hannah states, with tears in her eyes, “difference is a teacher. Fear difference, you learn nothing.” By the end of the special, the importance of telling our stories becomes her central focus. The rage is gone, because such anger is never constructive. Gadsby is almost pleading with those watching: “My story is your story and your story is my story.” It’s so easy to forget how connected we are as human beings. Each person has a different experience, but we are all humans that share this earth and we need to hear one another’s stories. We need to understand why some love who they love or do live however they choose to live. We need to focus on the ways we are connected, rather than capitalize off what keeps us alienated. Hannah’s final words are gentle and empathetic. She’s not here to spread anger, but to preach a gospel of diversity.

Cameron ends her special talking about a coworker of hers who stepped in front of her assaulter when he tried to attack Cameron on school grounds. This man diffused the situation and sent the assaulter on his way. She discusses how we as a people want to leave a legacy. That coworker left a legacy in her life because he intervened. She tells the crowd, “You wanna leave a legacy? Get in the way, any way you can. Believe people when they tell you this is what happened to them, like, believe people on social media. Come to see this, talk about this thing. Talk about your own stories.” It is so important to help those who face real danger in our current culture. We need to help even when standing up for someone puts us in an uncomfortable spot. We need to stand in the way, we must listen to the voices of our sisters and mothers and loved ones when they tell us their story. Men, if you truly want to protect the women in your lives, use your privilege to amplify their voices. Have those uncomfortable conversations when they can’t, help stick up for someone on the subway, or the bus, or in a restaurant. Speak up and act.

It’s easy to feel consumed by the darkness of our current administration. Many days I feel like the injustices people face are just too great, or the hatred that divides us as a nation feels too strong. Part of the reason I cried while watching Nanette was because it was so powerful and so genuine. After wrapping up the circuit of shows, Hannah Gadsby has expressed that she needs to take a bit of a break and I don’t blame her. What separates her and Esposito’s performances from that of other comedians is that their care is genuine. These shows take a lot out of a person, but it also shows they’re doing necessary work. Their words and insight touched me on a deep and cerebral level. I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. What they gave me was a warm sense of hope; a hope that encourages women and queer people to tell their truest stories. A hope that will push comedy past the constraints it has long suffered under. Perhaps comedy has the potential to be a medium where performers can exercise their trauma, not abuse it. So please, if you’re not doing anything else this weekend, watch these specials. Stream Nanette on Netflix, fire up Rape Jokes on Cameron’s website, and don’t forget to open up your heart and allow their healing to wrap you in love. I think we all could use that right now.

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You can follow Cameron Esposito and Hannah Gadsby on Twitter @cameronesposito and @Hannahgadsby. Also be sure to watch their clips on YouTube, listen to albums on streaming services, and support the fantastic work they are doing every day.

It’s Never Too Late to Bloom: Gender Dysphoria, Growth, and Self Empowerment in “Super Late Bloomer” by Julia Kaye

This particular post is important to me for many reasons. As of September of 2017, I became aware of the fact that I struggle with gender dysphoria. For those of you who may not have encountered this term before, gender dysphoria “involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify.” It can certainly go much deeper than this, as many complex ideas will, but for me it was the realization that for as long as I can remember, I wished I was born a girl instead of a boy.

Naturally, there’s a lot to unpack there. When did this begin? What sparked such a feeling? These are all questions I am currently addressing. Some of my difficulty in addressing such an epiphany is that I have no idea what any of it means. There were not many trans folk in our severely Christian area of Souderton, Pennsylvania. Our high school’s Gay, Straight Alliance was small and rarely allowed to be vocal. So once I started at community college, away from my religious leaning school, and learned a punk icon of mine came out as transexual, I wanted to know more. Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! was one of the first public trans figures I had come into contact with. She tackled her battles with dysphoria in the lyrics of their 2014 album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I felt connected with the songs on a cerebral level, but how? I wasn’t someone who struggled with gender dysphoria…was I?

Fast forward three years and I am a lost, confused, but ultimately hopeful man/person/etc. Naming my dysphoria helped me to understand a depression and self-hatred I harbored for most of my life. There was a freedom that came with such an understanding, but also a deep fear. What truly scared me the most was a simple thought: What do I do now?

I remain eternally thankful for a wonderful support system of friends that consistently check in with me and work to understand what it is I am going through. A few months ago, one such friend reached out to me to recommend Super Late Bloomer. He is aware of my love and scholastic desire to discuss comic books and graphic novels whenever possible, so this particular suggestion meant the world to me.

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Image courtesy of Andrews McNeel Publishing

Super Late Bloomer is described as “a highly personal collection documenting the early months of artist Julia Kaye’s gender transition.” This collection is an autobiographical extension of Kaye’s Up and Out webcomic, where she has been sharing experiences and anxieties concerning her transition. She is currently a storyboard artist for Disney Channel’s Big City Greens and has provided work in Maxim, Cosmopolitan, and BuzzFeed. It is through this book and her work within the webcomic that have brought her much acclaim.

The book opens with a heartfelt “Before” piece, where Kaye chronicles life leading up to her realization of dysphoria. I was sitting on a bus home from New York, reading this opening piece and crying because her feelings were so visceral and relatable. Her fear and uncertainty reflects those of anyone struggling with their identity: “I may not have understood myself, but I do remember from a very young age I felt I had to hide myself away. I began trying to change my behavior in an attempt to fit in. The social cues coming from every direction told me that who I was was not okay.”

She further explains the uncomfortability with physical body and appearance changes which took place during puberty and then later into her 20’s. Those are moments where dysphoria feels as though it dissipates, or is vanquished, only to return with a vengeance. These ideas are familiar, even to folks in other facets of the queer community. The shame that comes from being told that what you desire is “not okay” provides a debilitating sense of your existence. It can be hard to unlearn such shame and eradicate negative reactions when you finally try and embrace who you are. This is just as pertinent for Kaye, but she knows that to be truly happy is to commit to her truest self. While the decision to transition was earth-shattering, it was integral to her well being.

The “Before” section offers a comfort to the reader. For those who have transitioned, seek to transition, or are looking to learn about dysphoria, it’s a perfect introduction to the emotions that come with such an epiphany. Alienation, disconnection, and fear often manifest when you realize that you don’t feel comfortable in the gender you were assigned. As readers make their way through the comics collected within, Kaye navigates the good and bad days of transitioning. She captures the liberation and sometimes crippling anxiety that comes with changing your entire life and gender. The best part is she does all of this with a hopeful spirit, never allowing the uncertainty to overpower her journey to peace and happiness.

Practically every facet of transitioning is explored during Kaye’s journey: from battling internalized transphobia, hormone usage, misgendering, and struggles with self image to the brighter moments of self empowerment and support from loved ones. Most of the strips only contain a few panels and offer snippets of her experiences, but each snippet brings moments of encouragement and reflection.

Some of my favorite sequences are when Kaye challenges the constraints or rules of traditional gender. She remains aware of the fact that her past shame haunts her in the ways she picks apart her masculine features. She yearns to see her true self, but will also reaffirm that the journey is not easy and will take time. There is also the battle of defining femininity for herself. In a strip marked “August 22nd, 2016,” Kaye crashes out of a small box that is pictured in the first panel: “I’m tired of self-imposed constraints. I’m transitioning to be happier with myself.” As she kicks the ruined box away, she declares, “Gonna be my own special brand of girl.” Expression is a constant question present in Kaye’s story. She struggles to find her own middleground between expressing herself and not seeming like a “crossdressing man” to the public. Her anxieties are justified and it’s fulfilling when readers can witness her bounce back and embrace all facets of her identity.

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Image courtesy of http://www.upandoutcomic.com

Other therapeutic moments for me are when she confronts ideas and artifacts from her past, like in “October 9th, 2016,” where she is looking through old sketchbooks. “It’s strange seeing my depression so plainly in sketchbooks from college,” she starts, “I found drawings of myself as a woman. I’d felt so euphoric drawing ‘em without understanding why.” There’s a look of peace on her face as she shuts the sketchbook in the final panel. This particularly struck me because I had recently found threads of dysphoric thought in my own lyrical writing.

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Image courtesy of Julia Kaye and Smash Pages

This is common in trans narratives. Laura Jane Grace wrote many lyrics that not-so-subtly addressed her dysphoria before coming out to the music world. In “The Ocean,” which comes from the 2007 album New Wave, Grace sings, “And if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman / My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.” These moments of reflection are so important to anyone struggling with dysphoria.

Kaye references Against Me! in a sequence that grapples with voice pitch and the desire to sound more feminine. She says that she feels “less broken” when singing along with Grace, depicting herself in the car, screaming along to the lyrics of “True Trans Soul Rebel” from Transgender Dysphoria Blues.

It’s so hard to pin down all of my favorite moments from this collection because there were so many that hit me on intimate levels. She tackles the frustrations that come with constantly shaving and not being able to remove all of the beard shadow—something I never imagined would upset me. There’s the previously mentioned fear of looking in mirrors and never seeing your “true self,” but embracing the days when you do recognize the beauty in your appearance. Part of my emotional response to this collection was in part due to the time frame in which I read it. The friend that recommended it to me was reaching out in response to some of my recent writing, specifically a piece I wrote for HerCampus entitled, “A Progress Report.” In the piece, I was addressing some of my anxieties and feelings of gender-related imposter syndrome, so Super Late Bloomer was a refreshing reminder that such emotions are natural. I had also suffered an emotional breakdown just hours before I would board the bus and tear through the collection. My dysphoria was particularly strong that day and I couldn’t stop crying as my girlfriend quietly comforted me. Because of all of that, Kaye’s story and expressiveness felt like a warm hand on my shoulder, or a hug, just to say that everything was going to be ok. I felt valid and I could never be able to express how much that meant to me.

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Image courtesy of http://www.upandoutcomic.com

The publication and success of this collection is a triumph, as well as an inspiration. Julia Kaye is one of many writers and illustrators sharing their stories through online and print platforms. Queer artists are becoming more and more vocal, sharing their experiences and struggles with anyone who will listen. Since many major comic book publications feel that stories depicting diverse experiences don’t sell enough to survive, creators have found it more lucrative to circulate their work on social media. Kaye posts Up And Out on Tumblr and communicates avidly with fans and supporters on Twitter. She even brought light to a particularly gloomy day of mine, pointing me in the direction of the asktransgender subreddit page and offering words of encouragement.

Taneka Stotts is another queer creator doing incredible work for POC and LGBTQ+ communities. Her recent anthology, ELEMENTS: Fire, won an Eisner award for best anthology and features an entire roster of creators of color. Stotts is continuously vocal concerning diversity in comics. In a 2016 interview with Women Write About Comics, she stressed that she was often the only woman or person of color contacted to be a part of comic anthologies. She states that while many comics like to “say they’re diverse,” it isn’t usually the case. ELEMENTS was crowdfunded by Kickstarter, which was fully funded within a week, and then broke the 40K mark shortly thereafter. What does this say about about the audiences reading comic books and graphic novels?

Representation is incredibly important. People seek to read stories that reflect their own experiences and not the same tired white, cis, hetero-patriarchal BS that has endured for decades. What many of the big name publishers don’t realize is that things are shifting. While enduring narratives of western pop culture have focused on the triumphs and successes of white characters, modern audiences are more and more desiring of new and diverse perspectives. We want stories about Shuri, America Chavez, Petrichor from Saga, or any character that is not strictly white, a binary gender, cis sex, or employs impossible body ideals upon children across the world. Comics are changing and so are their creators. To be able to read stories like Julia Kaye’s is a gift and I hope our society will see more trans and non-binary stories told within the coming years. For young people who may face dysphoria in the future, it is paramount that we as a literary society provide stories that will connect and encourage their narratives. Trans lives are human lives and their expression is just as vital to our overall culture as anyone else’s.

Julia can be found on Twitter and Instagram at, @upandoutcomic

The Witch is Back: Witchcraft, Feminism, and Sexual Reclamation in Kristen J. Solee’s New Book

Have you ever read a book that almost feels as though it appeared to you for a reason? I can only imagine you have and I hope it’s brought you immense joy. When I saw a copy of Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive by Kirsten J. Sollée, I was drawn to its cover. Black and yellow, with the title in large letters surrounding a pair of black, glossy, and glittery lips slightly pursed, I was compelled to pick it up. Upon reading its description, I knew I needed a book like this in my personal library. Folks, I’m sure am glad I bought it.

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Image courtesy of BitchMedia

Reminiscent of theory books like bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody, Solée’s book serves as a primer concerning witchcraft and the ways it interacts with feminism and sexuality. The main aim of this conversation is to connect the history of witches as we have seen them, with the more modern signifier of “slut.” While it may seem strange to try and relate “slut” and “witch,” it’s a far easier task than you’d expect. Our history and present are steeped in damaging patriarchal values and assumptions about women and their autonomy and reproductive rights.

Solée is a writer and teacher at The New School in New York City, where she focuses on gender studies courses surrounding this very topic. She is a founding “editrix” at Slutist.com, a site that focuses on sex positivity, feminism, and healthy witchcraft practices. The website is discussed further in the book, highlighting its work toward reclaiming the body politic of “slut” and utilizing this word to foster positive narratives about safe sex and exploration. One of the key points in Witches, Sluts, Feminists is that sexuality and occultism go hand in hand. Much of the fear men had of witches was due to the “mysteriousness” of women’s sexuality and the deeper connections with their own bodies that came through worshipping Nature. Fun fact: there was a genderless term for practicing witches, “wicche,” that came from Middle English. This would eventually morph into the universal “witch.”

Feminism also plays a huge part in this book. Right off the bat, Solée cites hooks’s incredible and concise definition: “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” What I truly gushed about was then the author went on to discuss hooks’ decision to not gender the concept of oppression. Oppression exists for both genders, though in differing ways. Despite the supposed gains that men should receive from patriarchy, “gender stereotypes and sexist narratives” can be just as damaging for them as their sisters. It was so incredible to see that Solée and I shared the same views on hooks’ landmark theories. To understand the sexual and emotional violence that is acted upon women in this society, we need to look at the misinformation and emotional violence enacted upon boys and men.

These ideas are explored through the actions and beliefs of religious figures during the Salem witch trials, Heinrich Kramer’s scandalous troll-tome The Malleus Maleficarum, and even our Commander in Chief during the last election. In a chapter discussing reproductive rights, Solée tells of the early anti-abortion efforts of “the American Medical Association to discredit midwives and establish the primacy of ‘real’ (male) doctors.” Many midwives and healers were executed during the witch trials, not so much for “the type of healing being practice by the wise woman…but the fact that she was an unlicensed healer,” as Hillary Bourdillon is cited in the chapter. They were made to blame when wounds did not heal, or diseases were not cured. Many of the doctors on call during the witch trials were explicitly male. This stigma remains in our society today. While many women hold high positions in the medical world, the majority of doctors remain male who “remain willfully ignorant of biological facts regarding sexual and reproductive health.” Amen.

Another aspect of Witches, Sluts, Feminists that I truly love is its feeling of inclusion. Solée does not only rely on theory or text-based research to further her ideas; several sections feature interviews with a wide range of individuals such as scholars, artists, and all manner of practicing witches of varying races, genders, religious practices, and sexualities to create a brilliant cornucopia of experiences. In an interview with Hazlitt, Solée asserts her want to make this book as intersectional as feminism should be: “I am a white woman—but there were so many witches, feminists, and theorists of color that were extremely important to me and my continued growth as a feminist, so how could they not be part of the story? Within the history of witches and witchcraft, you cannot separate them.” I cannot agree more.

Intersectionality is becoming more prevalent within the feminist movement thanks to Kimberlé W. Crenshaw’s introduction of the term in the early 90’s and empathetic TED Talk in 2016. Solée is aware of the extent of her experiences, but does not allow that to limit her research. She uses this book to amplify the voices of those consistently marginalized in our history. She even discusses prominent female historical figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and Victoria Woodhull who were central to the women’s movement, revealing their connections to Spiritualism and other practices. She looks at pop culture and figures such as the member of The Satanic Temple, Jex Blackmore and the artist Rebecca Goyette for their acts of rebellion against patriarchal views of the witch and the autonomy of their bodies.

This book is so important. Contextualizing rape culture through the lens of witchcraft and its history is bold but also necessary. Women deemed as witches were being accused by husbands, sons, fellow women, as the means to control their autonomy. As a culture we often use the word “slut” to do harm. It seeks to control women’s bodies and strip them of their sexual autonomy. Our culture uses “slut” in this fashion far too liberally than we should. I am shameful for the times I used it in foolish ignorance, believing sexuality was something that women should mediate on men’s behalf. I had none of the knowledge that I currently possess concerning the complexities of sexuality, and this book helped me to further understand the ways oppression, toxic masculinity, and rape culture harm and have harmed our sexual politics. It also worked as a “gateway drug”—as Solée cheekily describes her book in the introduction—sparking my interest in witchcraft, while wanting to further explore the ways it connects to feminism and oppression. While I can’t describe everything that makes this book fantastic, I implore you to give it a read. It’s the beginning of some massively important work and I look forward to reading more of her writing in the coming years.

You can follow Kristen on Twitter: @ShadowtimeNYC

A Friendly Welcome

Hello there. Welcome to DemiConsensual. This page will be home for my discussions concerning various texts that deal with theories and ideas of gender, sexuality, feminism, race, and much more. My goal is to explore works of various genre and concentration within print and electronic media, connecting their various ideas and experiences with our current culture. As a writer, I seek to amplify voices that may not typically be heard by a mainstream audience. I do this in hopes of encouraging discourse from and with a range of writers and creators.

As a fun aside, the name DemiConsensual is a play-on-words with an important meaning. I identify as demisexual and bisexual. Demisexuality is when a person seeks a deeper emotional connection with a potential partner before feeling comfortable to engage in any form of sexual intercourse. I am also someone who very much believes in the importance of consent, whether it’s in sexual situations or otherwise. These are two very crucial aspects to my personality and feminist beliefs, so I wanted to highlight them in the spirit of this blog.

I hope you enjoy your time here. I very much look forward to my conversations with you all.

-Tyler James McMaster