On Girls, Visibility and Why You Won't See Me on MSNBC

Growing up, I never saw myself represented in media. I still don’t.

Apr 17, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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I may look like I come from Lena Dunham's world, but I don't.


Why do I feel like the only person on Earth irked by that new show on HBO, Girls? 

“I’m sorry,” I complained to my boyfriend last night while we were watching, “but I just cannot get behind a program whose major dramatic question is ‘how will the protagonist support herself AND avoid work that she perceives as beneath her now that mommy and daddy stopped paying the bills?’” 

Unapologetic privilege is one thing but the glorification of entitled brat syndrome is something else entirely. I think what bothers me most is how quick the media was to call it their new favorite show, declaring its creator Lena Dunham “a voice of a generation.” As one anonymous commenter put it, "I'm not really sure that the 'voice of a generation' where 'generation' is defined as 'a narrow slice of privileged white people' really makes much sense." 

It will be nice when women are allowed to speak through art or whatever without feeling pressured into having to be representative of all women, as if we are one big monolithic vagina. It will be even nicer when, if just once, whomever being declared “a voice of a generation” was a voice that spoke, at least in part, to me.

 Sometimes I think I just don’t see the world the way most people do. The adversity I’ve experienced in my life, I sometimes fear, has left me so completely maladapted. My boyfriend sometimes comments how difficult it is to watch TV with me. He calls me a “hater.”

He’s right, I sometimes think. I’m just so very angry. I get very stuck on what’s wrong. I didn't think it was funny or pithy or whatever, for example, when Girls' main character Hannah (played by Lena Dunham) stole the housekeeper’s tip. I found it appalling, actually.

I found it appalling that we never see the housekeeper or any poor or non-white people in Lena Dunham’s version of Brooklyn. When the two girls go into the bodega, they leave the money on the counter. We don’t even get to see a hardworking brown hand snatch it up. 

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Under the dull florescent witness of the streetlamp, I am laying between the double yellow lines running down the center of the street. I’d gotten the idea from a news broadcast talking about how kids had gotten the idea from a movie they’d seen. I don’t recall ever having seen the movie. The first car that drove by was a cop.  

My mother must’ve already been asleep because my father answered the door. When the police officer explained what his 14-year-old daughter had been doing by herself in the street at 10:30 at night, he offered a look of confused irritation, as if he’d just been rudely awakened from a comfortable dream. He thanked the officer and ushered me inside. As the cop left, he shut the door and shuffled back to his spot in front of the TV. 

Growing up in a home without food, you are always hungry and every kind of hunger, it seems, feels like you are starving. Of such an appetite, you become ashamed. When your needs become confused with desires, you always want more. In a world of unreliable people, you learn to rely on yourself. Stripping was one way I learned to get noticed, and being noticed -- I thought -- is what it took to survive.

My multiple degrees may have earned me membership into the intellectual class -- a membership I don’t see myself ever being able to pay off -- but regardless of my bank account balance I will always be defined by my experiences growing up working poor. I will always best recognize myself as a member of a profoundly misunderstood group.

I am a woman, a working poor woman, a former sex worker, an alcoholic (in recovery). I am a thirty-something sexual being. I am a feminist, in spite of everything this identity does to disavow me. In my mind, I am all these weird identities that stand between me and “normal.”

I don’t and have never known what it means to be normal. Normal, I always thought, was what you see on TV. Growing up, I never saw myself represented in media. I still don’t. TV shows I relate to today: Intervention. Cops. Seriously, those are my people. I get them. I get the major dramatic questions of their lives. 

 In my head, I will never be a talking head, the kind of shiny happy version of personhood that you see on TV. So it is extremely disconcerting that I am becoming this -- the very this of this. In some ways I have become an “expert” and yet I don’t feel like an “expert” or qualified representative of anything, sometimes not even of myself.

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Two years ago, I published an article on the Huffington Post in defense of the rights and dignity of sex workers, of which I have a history. For coming forward about that history I was ridiculed in the press and shamed by my employer at that time. Ultimately, I lost my job.

The message was clear: if you have a history such as mine, and an opinion on the matter that differs from the common view, keep it to yourself. Or else. Since losing my job I have dedicated myself to promoting the opposite to that message -- the message that everyone, particularly people who've been historically rendered invisible, have the human right to be seen as well as heard, and that true social change comes about by listening without judgement or condescension to the communities we purportedly seek to help.

These days, I work as a freelance writer for places like Salon, the Daily Beast and here at xoJane. I write articles talking about myself which sometimes feel like the same article again and again begging to be understood, like a recurring dream that slips away just when I wake up which I am forced to replay. I open myself up to scrutiny and criticisms -- some of it predictable, some of it less so.

Last week, for example, I got an email in response to a piece I was assigned by The Daily Beast from a fellow advocate who called my rhetoric “flawed.”

She went on, “I do wish former workers, like yourself, who are still trying to make sense of their sex work experience not work it out in the public sphere.” 

 “While I agree that private or internal conversations (such as this one) are important,” I wrote back, “I don't agree that current or former sex workers should not be allowed or should be discouraged to participate in public conversation until they've perfected their rhetoric. I may never make complete sense of my experience. In the meantime, I don't discount the contribution I can make knowing what I do.” 

The truth is that I do discount the contribution that I make. I discount it all the time. I wonder with judgement, what is this incessant need to be seen? Why am I constantly inviting scrutiny and criticism, typically by scrutinizing and criticizing. Why can’t I just be nice?

Sometimes I think I became a writer for the same or similar reasons I used to sit next to the same group of boys on the bus, in grade school, by whom I was sexually harassed. An adolescent part of me still believes that any kind of attention is better than no attention. Without your eyes on me, I don’t exist. 

I am learning to modulate my need for attention -- to think ahead to probable outcomes and not rush to say yes. With that in mind, some days after the Daily Beast piece ran, MSNBC emailed me to go on Melissa Harris-Perry. Awesome! Until they told me I'd be on with an anti-trafficking advocate Rachel Lloyd.

“Why don't I just let them videotape me strangling kittens in a dishtowel to save everyone all the intellectual aerobics?” I wrote on Facebook. 

Rachel is a relatively reasonable voice, but for the fact that she's an abolitionist which is a wholly more popular position on the matter than mine, albeit a willfully ignorant one. Not to mention that she's a seasoned pro at media appearances, which if I were to be honest is more of what scared me off. I pictured the two of us, her all cool and collected, looking like a stock photo, and me with my hair like Medusa, eyes bugged, sounding all crazy and unreasonable (as women with unpopular opinions are wont to do).

I said no thanks. Rachel went on without me. I didn’t bother to watch it. 

I’m just jealous. 

Really, I am. I’m jealous not because I want to be Rachel Lloyd, or Lena Dunham, but because I want a “Rachel Lloyd” or “Lena Dunham” to speak on my behalf and if there isn’t someone, I might be willing to do it if only I knew how to do my makeup. If maybe I’d had the money to get my hair done, I might've had the guts.

I’m jealous of anyone with privilege -- my heart ached, for example, when I saw Hannah's parents laying in matching pajamas in that big hotel bed (when my mom comes and visits me she sleeps in my bed and I take the couch) -- but more than that, I’m jealous because I will never be proclaimed the voice of a generation because what I have to say is weird and unpopular and not pleasant, not nice albeit true.

I’m jealous not because I want to be the voice of a generation but because I am aching for visibility, the kind of visibility that just one of me will never fulfill. I have a strong feeling that the voice who speaks for me won’t be a solo -- it will be a cacophony.

I am encouraged by a quote from writer and literary agent Betsy Lerner: "The more popular culture and the media fail to present the real pathos of our human struggle, the more opportunity there is for writers who are unafraid to present stories that speak emotional truth."

That, and something my Facebook friend Christina Page once said, “Each of us is full of shit in our own special way. We are all shitty little snowflakes dancing in the universe.”

I know it is April and we are all enjoying this lovely springtime weather, but I'm not afraid to be the one to say it: Let it snow.