Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Let's Discuss Paper People

Let's discuss paper people. If you've read John Green's novel Paper Towns you know what I mean by a "paper person." If you haven't you should be ashamed of yourself and should immediately drop what you're doing and purchase that book, then read it cover to cover. I'm going to assume not all of you did that and that a few of you continued to read my article, so I'll bring you up to speed on what's important for this discussion. In the novel, one of the main characters, Margo, describes her home town as a paper town full of paper people living in their paper houses. This doesn't literally mean that Orlando is populated by people made out of paper. What Margo is getting at is that everyone living there is something less than a full person. They're fake people that only exist and care about their own two dimensional lives. There's nothing substantial to them. They literally have no depth. This type of thinking is extremely dangerous. Here's why. As soon as a person is thought of as anything more or less than he or she or gender-neutral-pronoun is, then they become something that is either too great or too little to actually meet our expectations. The novel focuses primarily on "what a treacherous thing [it is] to believe that a person is more than a person," and it does a wonderful job so I won't discuss that here. If you want that argument, read the book. I would like to discuss the flipside, what happens when you imagine someone as less than a person?

I'm not going to talk about legally defining a person as less than a person. Slavery is clearly messed up and the three-fifths compromise was absolute bullshit. That's not really up for debate. But here's something that's been a little more moot of a point recently: public perception. Oftentimes, in media women (primarily) are portrayed as objects of sexuality. It happens to men too though (see any Abercrombie and Fitch ad or any movie starring Channing Tatum), so Ill allow that into the discussion as well. People are showcased not as people, but as decorative objects on which to hang clothes like living manikins way more terrifying than anything from Doctor Who. Furthermore, the focus of these people isn't even on the face, but on their bodies. A woman is nothing more than her breasts and a man is nothing more than his abs. Please don't quote me out of context on that one. The point is they become nothing more than symbols of sexuality. Now this symbolic sexuality becomes so visually pervasive in our tv in our magazines in our movies in our books that it becomes embedded in our brains. And just as with anything else, too much exposure begins to shift your understanding and soon all people become their sexual symbols. Women are just breasts and men are just abs. As people turn into symbols the only value they can hold is what they symbolize. As a result if you don't have perfectly symmetrical, perky breasts or you don't have washboard abs, then you are worthless. Would people still flock to Angelina Jolie's movies if  she didn't get implants to replace the breasts she lost in her double mastectomy (which was extremely brave by the way)? Would people like Brad Pitt as much if he weighed an additional 40 pounds of fat? I pick those people as examples because they are both insanely talented, yet are appreciated for being the "sexiest" members of their respective sexes, but I highly doubt they would be. And though this idea is certainly not a novel one, it is nonetheless distressing. But that has actually been discussed a number of times by a million different scholars and bloggers and facebookers. Every woman has experienced that. I would like to then extend the conversation just a little bit more.

A long time ago some Greek guys argued about what was the best way to write theater. One of them, some dude name Aristotle, argued in his Poetics that in good theater, characters should be symbols to represent something more than people (someone please correct me is I'm misremembering my Poetics). Aristotle was a moron. Symbols are by definition a two-sided coin. On one side is the symbol, a Raven for example, and on the other side is what it stands for, death perhaps. There is nothing more to it, and while symbols are a very valuable rhetoric tool, it is no way to view people, who are eternally complicated to the point where we don't even know who we are. If that's the case, how can simplifying someone down to two sides even come close to the multifaceted messy masterpiece that is a person? It can't. All it can do is make someone out to be less than they are. It is so unfair to make someone into something less than they are, because then they have no space in your mind to exist as anything more than you expect from them. A pair of breasts is a pair of breasts. They only serve so many purposes, not a whole lot of surprises there. But a woman, a woman is a thinking being that has opinions and the potential to do amazing, surprising things and is beautiful in so many ways so much deeper than her body. Unfortunately we've been brought to this point in society where people have become symbols of our own desires. That symbol meets my sexual desire. That symbol meshes with my idea of a housewife. That symbol meshes with my idea of wild freedom. And it's sad. it's sad because it's not fair to the people being turned into symbols, into cliches.

I realize this argument has been talked about a lot, but it's a problem now more than ever. And I'm not innocent. My gosh I'm not innocent. But certainly the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging it. And that's what we as a society need to do because we are tumbling into a pit of symbolically obsessed paper people. Dustin Hoffman discussed this very phenomenon in an interview about his film Tootsie. He concluded it and I think nicely described the problem with these words: "There's too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed."

Don't let the men, women, and gender-neutral-nouns in your life be reduced to symbols. Don't let people become paper people. It's unfair to them to be minimized like that and it is unfair to you to lose the potentially amazing relationships you may find with potentially awesome people.


You can buy a copy of John Green's book here.
And I'll embed the video of the interview with Dustin Hoffman below

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