Calling Out Callout Culture

The way we consume and relate to media has changed a lot with the rise of the internet. Websites with public forums like Twitter and Tumblr have allowed fans and critics to connect and publically show support or disdain for a piece of work. In most ways, this has been fantastic. It’s a more effective brand of word-of-mouth, allowing lesser-known media to become popular. This encourages discussion, which breeds a healthy exchange of ideas (in the best of times, at least).

Meanwhile, marginalized groups have been able to share their experiences in ways they couldn’t before. Finally, they have a platform where their voices can be heard. And, once again, this has been an overwhelmingly positive progression. Hell, entire social movements have been born or expanded this way (i.e. #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo). When it comes to sparking change, this has been the loudest way to get that ball rolling.

Inevitably, these two groups crossed paths, a veritable Venn diagram of discussion. Among these discussions were the subject of diversity in media and the subject of today’s essay: callout posts. People began calling out problematic media, alerting casual consumers to major issues. Two notable instances were the exposés on the racism in Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth and The Continent by Keira Drake. These pieces were very informative to many readers and caused them to decide not to support these books. This, my friends, was the beginning of change.

However, as time has worn on, these callouts have become less and less substantial. As our culture has become more and more PC, some people have begun looking for new things to get into an uproar about.

The problem is, many of these things are actually not problematic. As much I hate to agree with anti-PC people, they’re right on one front: it has finally gone too far.

Allow me to offer a couple examples of this. Recently, Becky Albertalli has been called out for problematic representation of lesbians in her book The Upside of Unrequited. The claim is as follows: Albertalli made it seem like Cassie has an easier time dating than her sister Molly because she’s a lesbian. However, most lesbians have a much harder time dating than that. This claim, though, has no merit. Cassie doesn’t have an easier time dating than Molly because she’s a lesbian— she has an easier time dating because she’s more outgoing and puts herself out there. Molly, on the other hand, is anxious and shy. She doesn’t put herself out there. Thus, she has a harder time dating. In fact, that’s what Molly’s entire arc was about.

Meanwhile, Cassie does portray some of the more difficult aspects of being a lesbian. She’s nervous when she first develops a crush on Mina because she doesn’t know if Mina likes girls. Fortunately, she does. Furthermore, these girls live in or around the city. Cities have larger populations, and therefore more queer people. Basically, just because you think something is “false advertising,” doesn’t mean it’s problematic.

Let’s take a look at another recent example. Hayley Kiyoko, up-and-coming pop star and proud lesbian, recently dropped her debut album, Expectations. On this album, Kiyoko chronicles a couple relationships she’s been in with girls that ended up with guys. In many of the songs, she asserts that each girl had a better relationship with her. Due to this, Kiyoko was quickly labeled biphobic.

The problem is the content of the album doesn’t support this. Firstly, just because she thinks she was a better partner for both girls (I say both because Kiyoko has confirmed this album is about a couple different people), doesn’t mean she thinks it’s wrong they ended up with men. It simply means she thinks they had a better relationship. In fact, straight people sing about this exact kind of thing all the time and no one raises an eyebrow. It seems to me that this only bothers people because Kiyoko is a lesbian and her partners were not.

Furthermore, if you actually listen to the lyrics, these girls are very clearly stringing Kiyoko along. For example, in “Curious” Kiyoko says, “You say you wanted me/But you’re sleeping with him./You think of me/I’m what you see, when you look at the sky.” This very clearly shows that the girl in question here would flat out tell Kiyoko she was her preferred partner, but then turn around and go back to the guy she’s seeing. In “He’ll Never Love You (HNLY),” Kiyoko says, “You say that no one will understand./You wish you could but you just can’t.” This implies that the girl in this song is closeted and won’t commit to Kiyoko because of image or fear. And yet, all the while she’s “giving [her] that look again.” Once again, Kiyoko is being strung along. Her partner is making promises she isn’t keeping, so naturally Kiyoko is going to call her out. Never, however, does she insinuate these girls are gross or fake for dating guys. The closest implication is that they’re not being honest about their sexuality, due to the way they’re hiding their feelings for Kiyoko.

There was, of course, also the interview in which Kiyoko said she “[needs] to stop going out with straight girls.” Once again, she didn’t say bisexual girls are secretly straight— she said the girls she’s been with were straight and used her for experimentation. But, regardless, no one should be calling Kiyoko biphobic when we don’t know all the ins and outs of her relationships. Just because you say something is problematic, doesn’t make it so.

What can we do about this? Well, before you go online and make a claim, ask yourself, “Can I back this up if I need to?” And the fact is you will need to. The burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused. If you read, watch, or hear something that upset you, take a moment to reflect on why before you take to the internet, torches ablaze. Are you upset because it’s a genuine issue or is it something more personal? Are you perhaps overreacting? Because once a claim is out there, you can’t take it back. Even if you change your mind or delete your post, people have already seen and spread it. Once a person’s reputation is tarnished, it’s not easily fixed.

And, please remember, even if something actually is problematic, most of the time the person responsible means well. Not everyone is as educated about certain issues and they don’t deserve to be attacked or have their reputations ruined for it. Social justice movements are about people at the end of the day, and it helps no one to throw other people under the bus in order to raise yourselves up. Callouts only work when you pick your battles, so make sure you pick the ones that really matter.

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