Bil Browning

The message we should be sending

Filed By Bil Browning | October 25, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: It Gets Better, PSA critique, Shakesville

While there have been a couple of critiques of the It Gets Better videos on Bilerico Project, I've been amazed at how quickly some readers and other sites got all worked up when someone suggests that the messaging could have been better or the fact that some celebrities are doing it just for PR reasons. While I agree that it's a good project, I do think that the messaging could have been tweaked a little bit. What about those for whom it doesn't get better?

Over at Shakesville they have a long running comic strip called "Conniving & Sinister" where they re-imagine "the long-running comic "Frank & Ernest," about two old straight white guys "telling it like it is," as a fat feminist white woman and a biracial queerbait." They're generally pretty darn funny and Friday's version really nails the whole "What's missing from this upbeat PSA series?" question.

Check it out after the jump. And be sure to check out the complete archive of "Conniving & Sinister" strips too.

Clickety to embiggen

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I think everybody here understands that it doesn't necessarily get better after you graduate from high school or even college, and that reaching adulthood is not a one-way ticket to a life of Sunday brunches and a timeshare on Fire Island.

But here's the thing to bear in mind: The It Gets Better Project isn't about us, i.e. it's not directed at sophisticated grown-ups who, in some way or another, have already made their own lives and achieved a nuanced, adult-like understanding of life. It's meant for teenage kids who are convinced that it doesn't get better and who can't see past the walls of their own middle school or high school.

It's like soup advertisements. Companies like Campbell's will frequently use puffery in their ads, putting marbles at the bottom of bowls of chicken-noodle soup so all the contents float to the top, even though when you actually prepare the soup, it doesn't always look like that.

The IGBP is also a form of puffery. True, things don't always get better -- some GLBT people end up homeless, while others encounter things like racism and class prejudice. But that's not what a 14-year-old boy who's being bullied every day, is convinced it will never end and is seriously thinking of killing himself needs to hear; he needs to hear that it's going to get better, or more specifically, that there's a better world beyond school, home and church. I'm no expert on adolescent psychology, but from what I remember from having once been a hopeless teenager, a message that merely says "Well, it MIGHT get better, but there's all this bullshit out there too" often translates into "It will NEVER get better, so just off yourself already."

This kind of puffery might seem dishonest, but it's important to put it in perspective. Adults like us have the knowledge and emotional sophistication to cope with the trials of life. Teenage kids most often do not. Helping them get over the hump of high school hell will at least give them a chance to develop emotionally so that they can handle life later on.

I don't comment that often on my own posts, but I wanted to pop in and say how much I appreciated AJD's comment above. He/she really nailed it.

It's okay for us to quibble back and forth about messaging and goals, but the kids just need something to hold onto and their experiences usually hasn't given them the ability to make such calculated and nuanced decisions. After all, if you're in the spot where you're seriously considering suicide as an option, it's patently obvious that your decision making process isn't the most reliable at the time.

But as a bipolar person who's experienced horrible depressions that leave you with nothing but suicidal thoughts sometimes, I also wanted to point again to the C&S comic because when I'm in that shape, "It gets better" seems so far away and distant that I just can't imagine "making it" to the better part. The message of "You are not alone" though really punches through some of the self-sorrow and horrible thoughts and can really make a difference.

Obviously it's too late to do a rewind and tell people to start using a "new catchphrase." The IGB project's heart is in the right place. And it's helping. But I still like the C&S message better just because it doesn't require waiting passively for things to improve as much as proving that there is help available.

Oh, if it's the catchphrase, I guess that's just because Dan Savage did this kind of spur of the moment and it took off. It was totally organic. BUT I think what the videos essentially do is say you're not alone, because here's hundreds of gay adults who went through similar things. So, I think it's in the spirit of you're not alone if not the actual words.

I just think of the alternative. If this had been thought out and planned by any organization, it'd be all filtered and would only show certain types of gays. Savage is already getting crap for submissions from drag queens, and being Dan, he refuses to filter. It really doesn't get more organic and grassroots than this. The message is whatever people submit.

To be honest, most of the videos I've seen aren't really all that puffy. It's more along the lines of "You'll be okay."

Even though the grown up things I deal with now are more serious, I've learned how to cope. Because that's what growing up is. A lot of queer teens are still in a state of questioning, confusion, not being able to imagine any kind of future and not knowing the way forward.

I just remember going from a despondent, lost and conflicted teenager that was having panic attacks to a radical 18 year old dyke full of piss and vinegar running around throwing condoms at people. That's how it got better even as everything in politics got worse. I just needed to get from point A to point B.

My thoughts exactly...

When I said "puffery," I didn't mean it in the sense of being dishonest, but in the sense of emphasizing the positive without going into the negative. As you said, kids just need a way to get from Point A to Point B so that they'll have a chance to learn to cope as they get older, even if it takes a few marbles at the bottom of the soup bowl, so to speak.

John R. Selig | October 25, 2010 8:24 PM

Folks, we are not dealing with coming up with the perfect portrayal of LGBT life here. We are talking about holding out a lifeline to young people without hope on the verge of killing themselves. For the overwhelming number of us it does get better when we get older. It doesn't get perfect but it gets one heck of a lot better.

LGBT teens are much more likely to attempt suicide than straight teens and those who attempt are much more likely to succeed.

These videos are making a huge difference and if they get kids to call The Trevor Project and other organizations for help then all I can say is BRAVO.

As GrrlRomeo pointed out above, "You're not alone" is implicit in these videos -- and sometimes it's even stated openly. (As Speaker Pelosi did in the first 30 seconds of her contribution, just to name the first example that comes to mind.)

I agree with most of the comments here, starting with "It's not about us, it's about the kids." It's not, and I've said that before. I think maybe we should not worry so much about controlling the messaging or the motivations of those who are contributing (that's the downside of a grassroots movement -- you don't get to tell people what to say) -- the important things are that the message is out there and that people are reaching out to these kids. And frankly, along with all the everyday people, it's good to have important political leaders and celebrities joining in -- their voices carry a lot of weight.

It's not about us, it's about the kids. That's why Dan Savage has an "It Gets Better" book deal and plans to cash in on the project.

Kids need real help, and if people want to make YouTube videos, that's fine, but suicide is more complicated than saying, "Hey, tough it out."