It’s a new day. Through literature, the visual arts, music, performance, and education, the marginalized peoples of the world are bringing their stories to the front page. People are also learning to love better so that once we name our trauma and begin the healing process, we don’t forget that we once made self-defeating choices to cope. Instead, we broaden our perspectives, learn other people’s stories, learn to identify truth, and stand for truth alongside our brothers and sisters who are breaking abusive generational cycles. And you can bet your last avocado that them perpetrators we all talkin’ bout ain’t finna be pleased with this new arrangement.
Tiffany Haddish raises the bar in the high jump that is comedic entertainment with her new special They Ready. Haddish gracefully shines an overdue spotlight on a group of veteran comedians whose unguarded accounts of their histories and mistakes blow the stage wide open. Tracey Ashley, Flame Monroe, Aida Rodriguez, Marlo Williams, April Macie, and Chaunté Wayans represent with the help of executive producers Tiffany Haddish, Wanda Sykes, and Page Hurwitz. They Ready is one of the funniest and most affirming things I’ve seen on my computer since I got my hard drive replaced in Thailand on the cheap. #lifehack
In her episode, mental health positive Afro Latina and Puerto Rico native Aida Rodriguez alchemizes her heartbreaking narrative into cathartic gut laughs. She discusses being kidnapped by her grandmother in an effort to protect her from her mother’s deadly boyfriend, gaining power over negativity from dealing with her racist stepfather, and the hateful murder of her late uncle. In interviews following the special, Aida discussed how using standup to cope with a hurtful past also helped her to escape homelessness, earn a living, and provide a better and more empowered life for her and her children. Still, some people had a problem with it.
In a post-show interview on The Sit-Down with DJ Sixsmith, Aida told about how a critic got under her skin when he expressed that “he was disappointed in me cuz he felt like I was exploiting my family for a Netflix special.” I’m sure that I along with many others share the sentiment of confusion associated with this criticism. Since the beginning of jokes, we have seen comedians throw their family members under the bus for laughs. We’ve watched comedians drag their own babies, who could in no way defend themselves or question the validity of the comedian’s perspective. We have seen comedians exploit their wives, husbands, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents; the ones who actually loved and cared for them. Comedians exploit their divorces, trash the co-parents of their children, and tactlessly bring their celebrity friends’ business into the mix. So why is Aida being criticized for using humor to heal from her family trauma? Furthermore, why does this person feel that he has the right to be “disappointed” in a grown woman’s choices to talk about what she wants to talk about?
Gaslight Much? (Spoilers included. Watch the movie first)
To answer these questions, let’s first break down the psychology of the commenter. Anyone who expresses “disappointment” in a grown human being whose bills they don’t pay is crossing boundaries and engaging in a form of gaslighting.
Gaslighting: using manipulative tactics designed to make someone question their reality in order to gain power or control over them or their narrative.
The name “gaslighting” comes from the 1938 stage play Gaslight where a husband tries to convince his wife and others that his wife is crazy.
We’ve all experienced gaslighting. For example, when you call Airbnb to get a refund because the host cancelled your reservation at the last minute, the staff at Airbnb will work really hard to convince you that none of that happened and that you’re a crazy person. They will send you to the next agent, tell you that they’re working on the issue when they’re not, and try to wear you down with numbers they made up. But I digress…
In recent years, the term “gaslighting” has become popular in the study of narcissistic abuse. Though the conversation has been enlightening overall, a key element has been left out that makes a huge difference in how gaslighting is interpreted: the secret the gaslighter is working to conceal.
Life is full of enough challenges, so why would a person use their time and energy so frivolously as to spend it manipulating a single person? In Gaslight (which has been adapted to screen and is available to watch on youtube, which I highly recommend before reading any further #spoileralert), a husband worked to convince his wife and the authorities that his wife was crazy so that he could have her locked in an asylum. But why? It turns out that the manipulative husband had committed a murder in order to steal rubies and his wife was the greatest threat to his getaway plan.
In one sentence, the critic of Aida Rodriguez’s standup special used classic gaslighting strategies to try to convince her that she should be ashamed for telling the truth of her experience. These strategies include:
1. Using what is near and dear as ammunition. He came for her by attacking her motivation to tell her stories.
2. Using positive reinforcement to confuse the situation. His rhetoric would suggest that he was a supportive fan who found fault in her motivation and was therefore "disappointed." This is not support. This is a threatened person working to distract attention from his own shame.
3. Projection. In order to distract himself from whatever hurt, shame, or guilt he was feeling, he tried to project that hurt/shame/guilt onto someone else.
Through sharing her stories, Aida Rodriguez is creating a catalyst through which she and others can heal. Exposing secrets to light enables perpetrators to be held accountable. Talking about our experiences frees us from self destructive secrets that lead to depression, suicidal ideation, addiction, and repeating the same toxic patterns with more vulnerable others. Comedians are pros. Criticism is a part of the comedy game. However, gaslighting is a common tool used to hijack a narrative and silence survivors. When you start to tell your truth, everybody's not gonna like it; and that's their problem.*
Branding Survivors as Attention Seekers/Opportunists
If I am in the process of unpacking my convoluted bag of messy experiences and I see a mess that belongs to someone else, it is my obligation to dispose of that mess expeditiously. Eliminating big messes is a messy job that might garner attention. Anyone who watches me handle a big mess that isn’t mine and calls me an “attention seeking opportunist” isn’t helping me get rid of the mess. They're just in the way.
Perpetrators of abuse and the defenders of those perpetrators do not want to bring attention to the problem, so they project the attention onto the survivor by calling survivors “attention seekers.” For obvious reasons, the perpetrators do not want to deal with the real life social (and sometimes criminal) consequences of the crimes they committed. However, those who did not commit the crime but choose the side of the perpetrator, even when the truth is known, are motivated differently. People who protect abusers do so in order to protect a system of privilege through which they are benefitting or have benefitted. These people believe that if they choose the side of the survivor, they will lose their position or become a target of ridicule (or worse) by people in power. We’ve seen this dynamic play out with whistleblowers who have lost their jobs and sometimes their freedom for standing up, telling the truth, and doing the right thing after having benefitted from a corrupt system.
Are People Just Evil?
It takes courage to tell your story and heal from past trauma. Abusers are generally victims who never healed. I don't think that it's helpful to dichotomize people into "good" and "evil," but nobody gets to hang out in limbo. Aida Rodriguez and the cast of They Ready set examples of what happens when we transform hurt into connection. To everybody who has a problem with it: You don't have to be a hater ya whole life. Have the courage to tell your story and stand with the healers.
Shouts out to Tiffany Haddish and Aida Rodriguez for continuing to tell their stories and encouraging others to tell theirs. The greatest threat to a secret is a brave voice.
Much love and gratitude to the mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who recognized the wrongs of the past and decided to raise their children differently, even when others don’t understand.
© Cathryn D. Blue, 2019. All Rights Reserved
Photos Courtesy of Da Internets