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Yes, Words Matter

by Joanne Kalogeras on July 10, 2011

in Celebrities,Discrimination,Joanne Kalogeras,Media

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Editor’s note: With this inaugural piece we welcome American-born and U.K.-based doctoral student Joanne Kalogeras to The New Civil Rights Movement. We’re excited and honored to have her!

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

It’s a line we tell kids when trying to help them feel better after they’ve been bullied by their peers. Some of us even believe it, but it’s not true. It takes me about 10 seconds to recall hurtful words that remain seared in my brain decades after hearing them.

“You’ve stuck a knife in our hearts.”

“Put a dress on!”

“I think it’s best if you don’t call anymore.”

“It’s against God’s natural order.”

“It’s this thing you’ve done to the family.”

“Look at her, just like a man.”

Those words bothered me more than my girlfriend and I getting physically bashed in a near-empty movie theatre had (why I feel compelled to say this here, of all places, I don’t know… but we weren’t even kissing). Mostly because the guy ran out immediately after the attack, but the fact is, the anger that welled up inside me was different from the kind inspired by words hurled at me by strangers, family, or friends (including one I know was queer). I’ve never been physically harmed worse than that head bashing, and I’m sure friends of mine who’ve been severely beaten would disagree. But to me it just didn’t feel as bad. At least those hits were direct, and then over. They weren’t meant to punch me in the heart; it was a lashing out by some idiot who no doubt had a problem with women and/or sex.

I went through a brief bullying phase in grade school. Later, I realized I’d been having problems because of the effect my father’s heart attack had on the family. I was otherwise a likable, friendly and happy kid. But there were a few kids, vulnerable ones, whom I verbally picked on, and I know my words hurt more than any shoving I could have done. More than once, one of my targets did not return to school after lunch. (At one point, I was called to the principal’s office and told that my behavior was not “lady-like”. Way to get to the heart of the matter—this should have been about bullying, not about gender. Unfortunately, her admonishment resulted in the exact opposite of its intended consequences, as I actively rejected anything hinting at being like a lady.) Belated, I know, but I’m sorry, Toni and Mike.

A few years ago I had a friendly debate with someone I respect about the violence of words. Textual and symbolic violence are facts for me, something I’ve studied in various ways for years. He thought that to apply the word “violent” to anything other than the physical lessened the power and efficacy of the word. I thought the violence of words and texts deserved to be understood and taken seriously more than they usually are, because words matter. Reagan uttering the word “AIDS” for the first time, in the context of a joke. David Cameron telling a female colleague to “Calm down, dear” in British Parliament, to the immense amusement of his fellow Tories behind him. Kobe Bryant calling a ref a “fag” in anger, and the words of his “apology” utterly failing to address his slur.

The positivity of words is no less powerful. There’s the recognition and the thrill of hopefulness that comes when an admired public figure says something you’ve been dying to hear for longer than you can remember. Bill Bradley answering, unequivocally, “the racial division” when asked what he thought the U.S.’s biggest problem was. Watching Ellen announce, “I’m gay” on television and finally understanding what we’d been missing up to that point. (I was an activist, and I understood the impact of media representation. Or, at least I thought I had until that day in 1997, when it dawned on us that there would be no turning back.) When Glee’s teenage Santana declares to her best friend and lover, “I love you. And I don’t want to be with Sam, or Finn, or any of those other guys. I just want you.” Fourteen years after Ellen, and hearing anything like that in a mainstream TV show on a U.S. network still hits me like a ton of bricks. I’m not happy that it remains unusual after such a ridiculously long time. But I’m glad those words continue to have such an impact on me.

That last item falls into the more complicated realm of media representation, and it’s one I’d like to explore further. It’s happening now, and the onscreen relationship between Santana and Brittany apparently overlaps in some ways with that of the actors who play them (brilliantly, I’d like to add), Naya Rivera and Heather Morris. Both relationships are affecting a lot of queer and straight youth alike, but especially teenage girls who are trying to navigate their way through an often-hostile world. They’re fighting both the invisibility of teenage lesbian sex and its diametric opposite, the pedophiliac pornography it so unfortunately seems to inspire.

There are several aspects of this Glee storyline that are fascinating, not least being the challenge the writers face of minimizing the potential pornographic implication, while doing justice to the seriousness of the tender sexual romance of two girls in love. A lot of queer girls are aware of the problem, and it is, if I may, really pissing them off. Good for them. It’s offset by their respect and all-out adoration for the writers (the main “Brittana” writer, Brad Falchuk, is often referred to in the favored portmanteau style as “Brod”: Brad + god), and especially for Rivera and Morris, who’ve emerged as young Hollywood champions for difference. Fans have shown immense appreciation and loyalty for those three, specifically because of their articulated dedication to an honest portrayal of the struggles young queer girls face. It would be easy enough to say that’s what Glee is all about, but to a lot of teenage girls, Falchuk and these two women are positively heroic.

So this is one of the many subjects I’d like to tackle on these pages—the significant power of words and the amplification of that power through the media—along with the different perspectives on queer outsider status, the hidden injuries of homophobia, and a host of others. This is my first blog post for The New Civil Rights Movement, and I’m excited about it. We live in a liberal democracy and right now individual rights are at the core of our political system. And I’m a supporter of gay rights because those in the military and those pursuing marriage rights needed them like yesterday. But I personally have a complicated and ambivalent relationship with the idea of (human) rights for reasons I hope to discuss down the road. Thus, my focus will be a little different from others here. It will be less in terms of gay rights, and more of media representation, social trends, and, to put it plainly, Foucauldian discourse (more on that later, too). Thanks for taking the time to read this. I hope you’ll stick around for my next post.


Joanne Kalogeras grew up outside of Chicago. She studied political philosophy at the University of Chicago before engaging in various and sundry other occupations, including a long stint in software development. San Francisco is her home, but she is currently residing in London where she is finishing her doctoral thesis on cosmopolitan theory at the London School of Economics’ Gender Institute.

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{ 1 comment }

joannachristina November 18, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Wonderful article!

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