What’s in, what’s out, how it tells your story, and failing to parallel Hamilton’s subversive structure
Content warning: rape, anti-abortion rhetoric
On June 26, I left Richard Rodgers Theatre with an embarrassingly big grin - after all, I had just experienced Hamilton. Like many others, I'd listened to the soundtrack many times before even acquiring tickets to the musical, and I'd heard praises for the costumes, the acting, the staging from my friends who had already seen it. It lived up to the hype.
That giant smile wasn't primarily about performance, but about the racial subversion that underscores the story. Lin-Manuel Miranda painstakingly researched Alexander Hamilton's life to create a transformative work (read: fanfic) that bent race to elevate those who were left out of the formation of my country despite the reality that the oppression of people of color was integral to its creation.
Of course, not everyone got that, but none missed it as poorly for me as Alex Nichols complaining that Miranda's choices "ducked the question of slavery". So when Todd VanDerWerff replied that "it's not a work that tries to excuse Alexander Hamilton’s failure to do anything substantive about slavery" but a "rumination to make a better story", I smiled because someone directly responded to Nichols's criticisms with Hamilton's transformative nature. VanDerWerff speaks to how Hamilton's "story about stories" presented a platform to stories too often robbed of that platform and describes how Miranda picked what to include and what to exclude didn't remove slavery from the narrative - "the story that seemed like the most important one" didn't have to be the most important one - but ultimately I think he missed the point in a way that left me feeling sour.
VanDerWerff draws parallels between the circumstances of his birth - namely his mother possibly being raped by his father and her choosing not to get an abortion - and his father's story to Miranda's approach to Hamilton, but where Miranda's choices change the common narrative of our society, VanDerWerff's continue it.
Miranda chooses not to linger on the Founding Fathers' tacit acceptance of slavery, but that decision wasn't one that meant Hamilton sanctioned slavery. Unlike with Miranda's swift exclusion of slavery, VanDerWerff lingers on never getting his father's side of the story, how he chooses to "never, ever call his father a rapist". Miranda approaches the inexcusable exclusion of people of color from having a say in the conception of the United States subversively, but VanDerWerff continues the status quo by repeating the need for the (usually male) rapist to condemn himself instead of pausing to deeply reflect on the woman victim's story. I do not begin to think it would be easy to think that someone related to you so closely could be guilty of the terrible act of rape, but he could have dropped the subject just as easily as Miranda did the details of slavery in Hamilton instead of repeatedly circling back to the night in question. VanDerWerff could have written the untold story of his father instead of continuing an often told story that damages women.
Inspired by the series of accidents surrounding Alexander Hamilton's involvement in the American Revolution, VanDerWerff discusses the happenstance of his mother's choice not to get an abortion. I agree with his insight that "We are, all of us, accidents, in a sense" like Hamilton. But Miranda's Hamilton subversively focuses on accidents surrounding an immigrant in a time where immigrants are systematically denied the respect they deserve, while VanDerWerff plays up the dominant narrative that not getting an abortion ushers joy into a mother's life - the same narrative prioritizes the possibility of a dependent fetus becoming a child that is incorrectly used to pressure a woman out of considering the needs of her own life and body, the story used to pressure women out of getting abortions. It's the same story that incites violence against the women who exercise their right to one despite that undue pressure.
The beauty of Hamilton lies in using catchy beats and phrases to help us think critically about the world we live in, to think about how it could be better by including people of color, respecting immigrants, and praising the works of marginalized groups. Hamilton works specifically because it focuses on important things missing from the narrative we're overwhelmingly taught - instead of picking pieces from the narrative in a way that highlights already common, and damaging, beliefs like VanDerWerff's article.
 and the failure of the other Founding Fathers, too.
 I also jumped for joy because someone found beautiful, cohesive words that embody my feelings on how Eliza deserved the final number.
 Hamilton certainly was when John Adams called him "creole bastard" despite all the Founding Fathers being recent immigrants to America.
 and I don't doubt for a second that his existence in his mother's life and the world at large are treasures
Liz rides the subway is a series containing thoughts I have on the subway, mostly as an experiment to get me to write more. The ride home after yet another day hearing someone famous has been abusing a woman in his life:
Content warning: abuse, rape
Johnny Depp has allegedly been abusing Amber Heard, and a judge granted Amber Heard's restraining order against him on Friday in light of her claims of repeated physical and verbal abuse. Of course, an army (of mostly men) has been saying (very loudly) that we don't know that he abused her and that we have to give him the benefit of the doubt since obviously he's innocent until proven guilty.
"Innocent until proven guilty" is an insidious phrase people toss around to give cover to abusers all the time. We dodge the possibility that a celebrity harmed a woman by blaming it on the legal system. But as Kate Harding writes in response to the accusations against Jian Ghomeshi of sexual violence, "innocent until proven guilty" has a very specific legal meaning that has nothing to do with this:
I shouldn't need to say this, but I will: Taking reports of sexual violence seriously doesn't mean denying anyone due process or chasing the accused down with pitchforks. I'm not talking about punishing people at all right now; I'm talking about forming educated opinions, by weighing up what evidence we've been allowed to see and deciding what we think of it all. We do this every day when we take in the news, except when the news is about rape, in which case we act like "innocent until proven guilty" means no one - preferably not even investigators and prosecutors - may legally suspect that the guy might actually have done it.
Let me tell you a wonderful secret about the U.S. and Canada: If you're not on a jury, you are allowed to hold any opinion you like of an accused criminal's guilt or innocence, regardless of whether he's been prosecuted and/or what the prosecution can prove! You are not required to wait until some vague future date when "all the evidence" has come in, nor to withhold judgment until a jury has decided the matter, nor even to accept that a jury verdict is necessarily correct! So far, there are no actual thought police - isn't that terrific news?
That is terrific news!
Now, if we could also use our newly acquired abilities to evaluate the evidence of abusers and rapists within our own social circles - the evidence that is right in front of us - we could make life a whole lot better for the survivors we know, too.
Liz rides the subway is a series containing thoughts I have on the subway, mostly as an experiment to get me to write more. Today was the first time I was street harassed on my commute since moving in November... memories relived on the following train ride:
I was walking through the last aisles of the grocery store to find the last item on my list, almond butter. Since I rarely buy anything but produce and dairy at Brooklyn Fare, I forgot exactly which aisle the almond butter was in and ended up going down the wrong one.
I turned the corner to the next one when a man called out to me, "Damn, looking good today, honey." I ignored the "compliment" and kept walking.
But he didn't leave me alone. He turned around to follow me and asked, "Why are you being so rude to me? I just wanted to talk to you, need to get your number."
"I'm not interested." I upped my pace, stared at the floor in front of me as I moved, and decided to forget about the almond butter - I was no more than thirty feet from the tail of the checkout line where other people would be around.
He followed, raised his voice, "You're such a prude bitch." as I was just near the end of the line. People stared. At first it looked like it was at both him and me, but in a few seconds, everyone was looking at me. No one said a word - were they waiting for me to? I stood mortified at the end of the line, hoping it would move faster than putting all my groceries back would, forgetting that dropping my basket and just leaving could be an option, hoping everyone would forget what just happened, hoping to disappear. My head hung down, and the man went the other way, presumably back to whatever grocery shopping he was doing.
I exited the 2 train through the doors closest to the eastern exit at Hoyt St, walked out the turnstile before anyone else, and started up the stairs to Elm and the south side of Fulton. There are two stories of stairs - the lower story is twice as wide as the top, so during rush hour, it's a massive bottleneck.
I wasn't looking too far in front of me, just far enough to know I wouldn't run into someone. When I was two steps from the middle, right where bottlenecks would happen, a man blocked my path - one hand on the rail to my left in the middle of these stairs, the other on the rail to my right on the wall.
I clicked my headphones to pause the music I was listening to, "Yes Anastasia" by Tori Amos. "Excuse me," I spoke sternly.
He didn't move. "Hey baby," he said. He might have said more. I wouldn't know because I clicked my headphones to restart my music while hurrying down the stairs. I swiped back into the station and walked quickly down the platform to get to the other exit.
I'm just outside my building on my way to the F train. The light is in my favor, there aren't any cars still in the intersection, so I begin to cross Livingston St. About half a block down, a white SUV rolls down the road.
I'm about 150 feet directly in front of the car, and it starts honking. Somehow my instinct is to turn left at it instead of scurrying the rest of the way across the light.
"The fuck are you doing? I have the light!"
The car's pretty close now. I can see the driver. It's definitely slowing down.
"Mmm, lookin' good, lady! Can I take you out sometime?" He knew I had the right of way all along, just he thought scaring the crap out of a pedestrian headed across the street was a risk worth taking for a date.
"No, asshole." Realizing I didn't have brain enough to bite my tongue, I finally get that jolt to run the rest of the way across the intersection.
I remember the first time I reflected on "doing good": I was watching the final scene of a sitcom I grew up with, Boy Meets World. The main characters, who've now come of age, speak with the teacher that has been with them through every phase of their educations and lives:
Mr. Feeny: Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good.
Topanga: Don't you mean "do well"?
Mr. Feeny: No, I mean "do good".
It's the kind of scene that sticks with you after years of investment in a show. I cried. (And I cried again when I rewatched the scene to write about it.)
A few lines later, Eric tells Mr. Feeny how because of him, he's going to be a "good person who cares about people". At the time, this felt like the pinnacle of personal goals. And in a way, it still is.
But when Eric says he wants to be a "good person who cares about people", I think he actually means he wants to be a person who cares for people by doing good. When Mr. Feeny says "do good", he's referring to caring about people as an action, not an idea. This distinction is important because there are many fallacies in framing people as "good people" and "bad people".
When we call someone a "good person", we tend to idolize them. The overly simplistic model of the "good person" only allows them to do good things, so when they inevitably do harm - we all make mistakes - we either need to categorize them as a "bad person" or to ignore their harmful actions so they can remain a "good person". Since we usually don't want them to turn into an unredeemable "bad person", we often give their harmful actions a free pass. It's important that they are able to address those actions, but the "good person" framework does not give them that space to do so. We need a framework that encourages owning up to their mistakes as a way to do good, especially when they try to repair the harm they caused and also do better in future related situations. Also, when we aren't able to give constructive criticism because it is automatically considered an attack on someone's character, society doesn't have the room to address harmful incidents to improve.
Additionally, deeming someone a "bad person" partially relieves them of responsibility for their actions because their "bad" nature means the only thing they can do is harm. When evaluating someone who repeatedly does harm within a framework centered on actions, we have the space to talk with that person about their harmful actions and how they can repair their negative effects. A framework centered on actions also more readily allows good actions to influence how we view them - if we see someone make changes to do good, we know we can expect them to do good and improve, instead of writing them off as a bad person.
We need a different way to frame people. Enter the "doing good" framework.
The "doing good" framework involves praising people for their actions instead of for their supposed nature as a "good person".
The "doing good" framework holds people accountable for their actions; "good intentions" don't count in this system. Having good intentions doesn't absolve someone of the harm they've done, but people who truly have good intentions are the people who admit they did harm and work to repair the harmful results of their actions. They also learn from their mistakes to align future actions with their good intentions.
The "doing good" framework allows for reform. Someone doing good who mistakenly does harm will not automatically be deemed terrible forever, and someone doing harm has the ability to start doing good and to be recognized for those good actions.
The "doing good" framework can account for circumstance because it doesn't operate in absolutes. If someone cannot do good in a particular situation, there are no actions, good or harmful, that contribute to that person’s status under the "doing good" framework. While it is very important to evaluate if acting threatens your safety, people are usually able to do good in more places than they think they can, and inaction can be harmful.
The "doing good" framework allows for society to more carefully reflect on which behaviors it should and should not tolerate. Looking at someone's actions instead of focusing on some concept of character allows us to closely examine how harmful actions negatively affect us. We can then improve by mitigating those effects and working to prevent that harm in the future.
The "doing good" framework does not erase an individual's complicity in systemic problems like racism and sexism. Recognizing an individual's contribution to fighting racism, sexism, etc. encourages others to help eliminate those injustices, and calling out someone's behavior that perpetuates inequality encourages us to take helpful actions instead of harmful ones. However, everyone lives within our racist system, our sexist system, our classist system, etc. and the "doing good" framework still allows us to talk about how some of us benefit from that system and how we can do our part to stop perpetuating them without having to label anyone who benefits as a "bad person".
The benefits of the "doing good" framework have a lot of potential to improve our discourse and our society, and I'm excited to live in a world where those improvements will help us not just "do well" at being good people and instead "do good".
I am a feminist. I am also human, and with humanity, another core part of my identity, comes shortcomings and failure. When I inevitably mess up, it's because like you, I am human - don't blame feminism.