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Nothing about us without us: Mainstream media take note

StolenAmy Chua and Leslie Feinberg are two recent insidious examples of mainstream media and publishing companies deliberately distorting the true stories of individuals to retell them in a way that confirms the existing stereotypes of their audience – a practice that needs to be stamped out, write Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin.

13 February 2011

“Nothing about us without us” is translated from the Latin (“Nihil de nobis, sine nobis”) and came into contemporary use in Central European, particularly Hungarian, law. The point is that no legal or social decision should be made about a group without the participation of members of that group. Most commonly in this century (in the US), it’s used by disability activists.

Generally, the slogan refers to government and policy decisions. Recently, however, we’ve run across two cases where the mainstream media has (for reasons we’ll go into a little later) deliberately distorted or ignored the true stories.

Amy Chua, a professor at Yale, has written a memoir called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about her initial decision to raise her American children in a very strict, conventional Chinese fashion, which she’s the first to point out, although she calls it “Chinese parenting” for convenience, is not the parenting style of all Chinese parents and is the parenting syle of many non-Chinese parents.

The Wall Street Journal put together a set of excerpts from the book, eye-catchingly entitled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” and ran that article under Chua’s byline. She never saw it before it was published.

The article caused a firestorm of comment particularly in the Asian-American community. Many Chinese people were understandably upset and angered by the prescriptive tone of the article.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘This is my particular hardcore way of parenting, take it or leave it, do whatever you want,’” says Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, a mother of four who writes the syndicated column, Adventures in Multicultural Living. “But the article is saying, ‘This is how Chinese people do it’ — implying that we all treat our kids this way. You spend so much time trying to break down racial stereotypes and after something like this, it all goes out the window.”

The problem is that what Wang is asking for is exactly what Chua says in her book. She told Jeff Yang of

The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.

I’m not going to retract my statements about Chinese parenting. But I’d also note that I’m aware now of the limitations of that model — that it doesn’t incorporate enough choice, that it doesn’t account for kids’ individual personalities. And yet, I would never go all the way to the Western ideal of unlimited choice. Give 10-year-olds total freedom, and they’ll be playing computer games eight hours a day. I now believe there’s a hybrid way of parenting that combines the two paradigms, but it took me making a lot of mistakes along the way to get there.

You might, possibly, say that this was just an oversight or a confusion on the part of some Wall Street Journal staffer, who only glanced at the book and pulled a few key quotations, but it’s hard to believe when you know that the book’s cover says:

This was supposed to be a story about how Chinese mothers are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old.

As Yang points out, there’s no trace of that humility in the Journal article. As a result of the Journal’s misrepresentation, and its fast migration through the internet, Chua has gotten death threats, and she’ll probably spend the next five years trying to dispel people’s preconceptions of who she is and what she’s said.

Let’s jump from here to Leslie Feinberg’s problem. Feinberg is the author of the incomparable Stone Butch Blues, a brilliant autobiographical novel about a stone butch’s journey in the 1950s and 1960s.

Feinberg is justifiably incensed because Catherine Ryan Hyde, an estranged relative, has written a young adult (YA) book with a transgender theme (a teenage girl who falls in love with a young man and then discovers he is an FTM transsexual in transition), and is now on a book tour, where she is claiming that her understanding of Feinberg’s life is one of the underpinnings of her insight into the story.

Feinberg, who has for several years been too ill to speak or write easily, has emerged from seclusion to make a long, clear statement:

On her author promotional tour, Catherine Ryan Hyde is developing an embryonic biography of my life—fictionalized and unauthorized—to which I give no consent. Her assertions are all easily found on the web in a google search.

“This is totally my story to tell,” Catherine Ryan Hyde publicly maintains. She claims insider knowledge, because, she says, she grew up with a “transgender sibling.”

She also claims that because I have written and spoken publicly about my own oppressions and life’s struggles, my life is now public domain for her imagination. This argument draws an equal sign between the right of oppressed individuals to self-expression, and the bigoted “voice-over” that contradicts and denies those oppressed identities and life experiences.

Hyde’s book tour is underwritten by her publishers, Alfred A. Knopf, a prestigious division of Random House, which is in turn a division of German media giant Bertelsmann.

So here we have two very different forms of mainstream media providing support for narratives which not only disagree with but undercut and undermine the authentic voices of the people being discussed.

This is nothing new: where stories of marginalized individuals and groups are concerned, the job of the mainstream media is to retell the story in a way that confirms the existing stereotypes of their audience … which (of course) also serves to keep the mainstream audience comfortable with only the oversimplified and untrue story.

The vicious cycle is perpetuated, because then the true story sounds either false or too complicated to someone who has heard the simplistic one dozens, if not hundreds, of times.

Which is why “nothing about us without us” is so important for media as well as for government. If we cannot hear the authentic voices (including the different experiences, disagreements, and ambiguities) from any group, we have no chance of understanding anything about that group.

Both of these cases are especially insidious because the voices are disguised as genuine: Chua’s byline is on the Journal article, Hyde can claim close-kin personal experience. But in both cases, the real voice is erased by the false one.

Laurie Toby Edison blogs with Debbie Notkin at Body Impolitic.  They write about body image issues in the broadest sense. Notkin is also her writing partner on her projects. Edison's books of photographs include Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes and Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes.  Her work has been exhibited in many cities, including New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, Toronto, Boston, London, Shanghai and San Francisco. Her solo exhibition “Meditations on the Body” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka featured 100 photographs. Her most recent completed project is Women of Japan, clothed portraits of women from many cultures and backgrounds.

Debbie Notkin has been a body image activist, and a collaborator of Laurie Toby Edison's, for more than 25 years. She wrote the text for Edison's first photography book, Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes, and collaborated on the text for Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes with Edison and Richard F. Dutcher. She is also a member of the motherboard for the James Tiptree Jr. Award, which rewards works of science fiction and fantasy which explore and expand gender, and helps organize WisCon, the world's first feminist science fiction convention. Most recently, with Karen Joy Fowler, she edited 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula LeGuin, published in 2010 by Aqueduct Press. For a day job, she writes and negotiates publishing contracts for John Wiley & Sons, Inc



0 #1 Del LaGrace Volcano 2011-02-15 17:49
First of all, tell me, what exactly has Catherine Ryan Hyde (CRH( said that rewrites, distorts or disrespects Leslie Feinberg life story? Secondly, HOW is it that an individual author comes to represent the entire 'mainstream media' ? Have either of you actually read the responses to Feinberg's vitriolic post, the book in question? Or, as I suspect, are you simply jumping on the bandwagon because a queer icon basically asked everyone to do so? Are you saying that the author, who DID grow up with Leslie Feinberg. CRH was 12 when Leslie left home at 17 and began transitioning has no right to write a novel that has a trans character? That NO ONE does unless they are trans? So does that mean that women should only ever write about women and white people must never create a non-white character?! I'm having a bit of trouble with your logic here!

Leslie's post is troubling and troubled. It is emotive and uses extremely vitriolic language to ensure a 'loyal' response. The trans character in question bears no resemblance to either Leslie hirself or Leslie's life story, as narrated by Leslie. If you were to do even the most preliminary research on this subject you would find that Leslie, hirself, states that STONE BUTCH BLUES is NOT an autobiograpical novel, but a work of fiction.

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