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Heteronormativity vs anosmia - John C. Kirk

Jul. 27th, 2007

03:37 am - Heteronormativity vs anosmia

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Last week baratron posted a link to this post: Have you ever noticed, nobody ever says books have too many heterosexual people in them? Well, the internet being what it is, it turns out that there are people who make that objection to books. For instance, this post criticises the Harry Potter books for heteronormativity (warning: contains spoilers for book 7).

I haven't come across the term "heteronormative" before, but I found this webpage from 2005 which defines it as implying "that standard sexual relationships are only between males and females." Wikipedia have a longer article about it, although I advise caution about taking any of their information at face value.

Leaving aside Harry Potter, this is really a question about stories in general, regardless of the medium. The concern seems to be that if you only ever hear about heterosexual couples then you won't realise that there are alternatives, and this would make it harder for people who are growing up different (e.g. if they're homosexual or bisexual). I can sympathise with this point of view, but I think that there's an important distinction between "All of the characters in this story are straight, as far as we know" and "There's no such thing as gay people, la la la, I can't hear you!"

Taking an analogy from my own experience, I have anosmia, i.e. I don't have a sense of smell. That webpage is due for an overhaul, so I think this is a good time to go into a bit more detail.

Back when I was at primary school, I remember being taught that there were five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. However, there were some people who were blind or deaf; the implication was that everyone could touch/taste/smell. My anosmia is congenital: I was born this way, but I didn't really figure it out until I was about 8 or 9. Since I "knew" that everyone could smell, I automatically assumed that I could too, even though the evidence didn't support this. Sometimes I'd have friends round, and while we were playing in my room they'd say "Ah, your mum's cooking fishfingers for tea", and I'd be amazed at how they could possibly know that, given that there were several solid walls in between. (I think this is why I keep an open mind about the possibility of psychic powers nowadays.)

Anyway, I was able to fake my reactions well enough to keep deluding myself, so nobody else noticed either. The turning point came when we got a "Scratch'n'Sniff" card with the Radio Times one week. This was intended to be the Next Big Thing in interactive television (c. 1983), much like 3-D glasses, and the idea was to scratch off the relevant sections of the card at pre-determined times during a TV program that was being broadcast on Saturday evening, giving you total immersion in the scene. I scratched one of the squares off in advance, but nothing happened when I sniffed it, so I thought "Oh, that one's broken". I then tried another, but by the time I'd got through the entire card I had to consider that there might be another explanation. (In retrospect, I do feel slightly guilty about depriving my family of the chance to use the card as it was intended.)

A few years later I was at boarding school, and I mentioned this to the school doctor (at the infirmary). However, he didn't believe me; after all, it's a well known fact that everyone has a sense of smell, so I was presumably just making up stories as a form of attention seeking. He gave me a bunch of tests to prove this: these involved being blindfolded and then given things to sniff, on the grounds that I wouldn't be able to control my instinctive reaction to a bad smell. When I "passed" these tests, he was a bit stumped, so he referred me elsewhere. My memory's a bit hazy on this point, but I was bounced around to a few different doctors, and each time it was the same: they didn't believe me, and didn't accept the previous doctor's diagnosis, so they repeated the tests themselves.

One key problem was that nobody knew why I couldn't smell. Anosmia is a pretty rare condition, so there hasn't been a great deal of research done on it. In my case, I doubt that it's genetic, unless it's a recessive condition that's been lurking in my family tree for a very long time. (Mind you, I'd like to get that confirmed before I ever have children.) The alternative is some form of environmental damage, e.g. if things went a bit wonky in the womb. (That's the theory that I lean towards.) Finally we made some progress: X-rays revealed that I had a bone blockage in my nose.

At the time my father had private medical care as a perk of his job, and this also applied to his family, so I was able to get an operation done when I was 13 to drill away the blockage (and remove my tongue tie) without having to sit on the NHS waiting list. The frenectomy for the tongue tie worked fine, but the bone drilling was less successful: the excess bone is now gone, but it didn't restore my missing sense of smell, so the only effect is that I now get hayfever in the summer when I used to be immune to it. I was quite disappointed by this result, and I do feel rather ashamed of the way that I spoke to the surgeon afterwards (I pretty much accused him of incompetence).

Since then, I haven't gone any further in search of a "cure". I think my best chance is to get an artificial substitute, i.e. a mechanical sensor that I could carry around to identify odours in the air. This experience did leave me with a rather dim view of the medical profession. As I say, anosmia is pretty rare, so I can understand that lots of people (including doctors) won't have heard of it before, and that's fine. However, I do think that they should have tried to do some basic research before coming to the conclusion that I was lying. It's only really been in the last five years or so that I've been able to put this behind me, and nowadays I happily work with doctors (in my day job and at SJA). However, if I do have a medical problem then I still view doctors as a last resort: I prefer to muddle through on my own if at all possible.

As well as doctors, I also got quite used to other people being surprised when I told them about this. As I mentioned on my webpage, the same questions tended to crop up over and over again. (As a side note, I've heard from a few women with anosmia, and apparently the first question they always get from boyfriends is "Does that mean I could fart in bed and you wouldn't mind?") As I've got older, people have been much more ready to accept my claims at face value; I don't know whether that's because I have more credibility as an adult, or just because there's an increased awareness in society that there are plenty of weird medical conditions out there.

Over the last few years, I've been compiling a list of fictional characters with anosmia. (I'd include real life celebrities too, except that I don't know of any.) So far, this list is pretty short:
* Alan A. Allen (from Thunderpants).
* Odo (from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), although he gained a sense of smell later in the series.
* Selma (from The Simpsons).

Odo's anosmia was only referred to in a couple of episodes, and I think that Selma's was only referred to once, so you have to pay quite close attention to pick up on it. Would you have known that trivia fact about those characters if I hadn't told you?

In most stories, the characters are either explicitly referred to as having a sense of smell, or it's not mentioned at all. For instance, in chapter 30 of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" it says that "Dungbombs and Stink Pellets were dropped so frequently in the corridors that it became the new fashion for students to perform Bubble-Head Charms on themselves before leaving lessons, which ensured them a supply of fresh air, even though it gave them all the peculiar appearance of wearing upside-down goldfish bowls on their heads."

Then in chapter 9 of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince", the Potions class includes some cauldrons full of Amortentia. Quoting from Hermione, "it's supposed to smell differently to each of us, according to what attracts us". The book says that "Harry, Ron and Hermione sniffed interestedly as they passed large, bubbling cauldrons", implying that they could all smell something, and it's explicit about what Harry and Hermione could smell.

So, should there have been an anosmic character in the Harry Potter books? Maybe just a minor one? I'd certainly have been happy to see one, in the interest of raising awareness (given how popular the books are). If I'd known that anosmia existed when I was young then it would have been easier for me to figure out that I was different; similarly, if other people had known about it then I wouldn't have encountered so much scepticism.

I can also think of ways that anosmia could benefit the story. For instance, I recall a particular situation from my second year at CH, when one of the other boys let off a stink bomb in my cubicle. It didn't really have the desired effect, because I didn't notice it, so I just sat there reading. However, when the smell spread to the neighbouring cubicles, those boys were then a bit miffed with the boy who'd set it off, so his plan backfired.

Quoting from chapter 19 of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire": [Harry] and Hermione spent a long time going over plans for forcing any stragglers out of the common room on the night in question. If the worst came to the worst, they were going to drop a bag of Dungbombs, but they hoped they wouldn't have to resort to that - Filch would skin them alive."

Suppose that Colin Creevey had anosmia: Dungbombs wouldn't have bothered him, and he'd probably relish the chance to spend some time alone with Harry, so this would have been an extra obstacle for Harry to overcome.

So, as I say, I'd have been happy to see an anosmic character. I don't know why there wasn't one; it's possible that Ms Rowling made this choice deliberately because she hates anosmics, but I think it's far more likely that the idea never occured to her. After all, this condition is unusual, so it's normal to be able to smell.

I could go off on a rant about "osmonormativity", railing against the novels for this criminal oversight and the way that "my people" have been consigned to the ghetto of literature (bruv). After all, the best known reference to anosmia is a joke, which cruelly mocks the afflicted:
"My dog has no nose."
"How does it smell?"
"Awful!"

However, I'm not going to do that, because I have some sense of perspective; this issue may be important to me, but I don't expect it to be a high priority for everyone else, and I'm not going to start inventing reasons to feel insulted.

I'm sure that there are various stories which could be adapted to be more representative of modern day society. However, the problem with introducing token characters is that you wind up with something like Extreme Ghostbusters. The writers have claimed that they didn't deliberately aim to be PC; for instance, they chose to put Garrett in a wheelchair because he seemed like the stereotypical "jock" character before that. However, it does come across as being an exercise in quotas: "The black guy! The hispanic guy! The guy in a wheelchair! The woman!" (Having said that, I quite enjoyed the series.)

If I started putting anosmic characters into all of my own stories then I'm sure that people would (and should) criticise this as self-indulgent behaviour. The closest I've come is with my short story Psilence (which acts as a metaphor). I'll only use that character trait if I think it contributes to the story, and I won't ask for more than that from other authors.

So, to conclude, I think it's unreasonable to seek examples of your chosen demographic group in every story you read; I prefer to judge each work of fiction on its own merits. However, I should just clarify that I'm not trying to single out the post that I linked to at the start for specific criticism. There are several other people with the same attitude, and that's just the first one I came across; if you read that then you'll be able to hear the opposing point of view.

Comments:

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From:firefliesinjune
Date:July 27th, 2007 05:38 am (UTC)

Longest response EVER.

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I think it's easy for people to grumble about how their particular group (ethnic, race, sexual preference, political preference) is omitted from a book or a movie, and consider their omission a slight of some type. But not all stories involve all types of people. How boring and formulaic would the world be if every story included one of each type of person? What if your story only has three people in it? Would you need a bisexual Hispanic woman who was left leaning to balance out your macho white male right leaning assassin? But gosh, won't someone think of the Eskimos? The world doesn't work that way, and books as an art should reflect life, not our ideas of what life "should" be like. Then again, I don't care for movies with forced happy endings, because in real life, there isn't always a happy ending.

I can sympathize with your anosmia because I am both female and colorblind. http://www.agape1.com/color%20vision.htm which is very rare. That website says .5% of all women, but every optometrist I've ever been to has claimed that I'm his first and only. This leads to a lot of annoying conversations with people. Do you see any colors? (yes) What color is this? (well, I think it's red.) I have visual acuity colorblindness that means I see only a few shades of each color - for example, I see light blue, medium blue, and dark blue, but almost no colors between those. Blue and green are often the same color to me, as are red and orange, brown and black.

I tend to read anything I can get my hands on, and a few years ago I picked up a book called "Perfume" at a yard sale for a dime. http://www.amazon.com/Perfume-Story-Murderer-Patrick-Suskind/dp/0375725849/ref=pd_bbs_sr_2/002-0362948-5225601?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1185513136&sr=1-2
It's a fiction story about a man who does not have a scent, but has an extremely keen nose. Everyone shies away from him because they sense that something is wrong, even though they don't know what it is. So he develops a type of perfume that makes him smell like a human so that he will be accepted. Oh, and he goes on a murderous rampage. :) But that's neither here nor there.

As a nerdy cooking addict, your lack of a sense of smell makes me want to cook for you just to get your opinion on what dishes are missing. I hope that doesn't offend you. I often mentally pick apart dishes in restaurants so I can recreate them, and the sense of smell can sometimes get in the way of that.

And I love that in your short story the girls slap Paul when he makes innocent suggestions. It doesn't take someone with psi abilities to know what a teenage boy is thinking...

OK, this reply was way longer than I meant for it to be. Sorry about that!
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From:pozorvlak
Date:July 27th, 2007 09:27 am (UTC)

Re: Longest response EVER.

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But gosh, won't someone think of the Eskimos?
They're called Inuits now, you insensitive clod.

[BTW, I have a colour-blind female friend, so you're not alone. I can't remember exactly what form her colour-blindness takes, though.]
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From:totherme
Date:July 27th, 2007 10:06 am (UTC)

Re: Longest response EVER.

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In case the reference is lost on anyone... ;)
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From:johnckirk
Date:July 27th, 2007 12:58 pm (UTC)

Re: Longest response EVER.

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Thanks for that: I assumed that pozorvlak was joking, but I didn't recognise the reference since I don't normally read Slashdot.
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From:gaspodog
Date:July 27th, 2007 07:58 pm (UTC)

Re: Longest response EVER.

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And I actively avoid reading slashdot wherever possible, because it's a pile of poo. Hence the below &c &c.
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From:johnckirk
Date:July 27th, 2007 10:59 pm (UTC)

Re: Longest response EVER.

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Well, yes :) pozorvlak and I discussed its relative merits a while back, and I basically agree with your attitude.
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From:gaspodog
Date:July 27th, 2007 10:06 am (UTC)

Re: Longest response EVER.

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They're called Inuits now, you insensitive clod.

Now that all depends on who you're talking about. For starters, the plural form of Inuit is Inuit, which doesn't have an 's' on it.

If you were to refer to the Yupik and Inupiaq peoples of Alaska as Eskimo, that would be perfectly acceptable (If you're thinking along the lines of the whole "eaters of raw meat/fish" connotations of the word, sane linguists no longer believe this to be the origin of the word). The term would be considered pejorative to aboriginal peoples in Canada however, primarily due to historical usage.

The term Inuit would not be acceptable to all the native peoples in the Canadian/Alaskan Arctic. The Yupik, for example, would be rather pissed off if you lumped them in with the Inuit I suspect.

Eskimo is also perfectly acceptable linguistically when referring to the larger branch of the Eskimo-Aleut languages.

So, check your facts before you weigh in with sweeping judgements and absolute declarations.
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From:pozorvlak
Date:July 27th, 2007 10:25 am (UTC)

Re: Longest response EVER.

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See totherme's comment. But thank you for increasing my knowledge.
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From:firefliesinjune
Date:July 27th, 2007 03:32 pm (UTC)

Re: Longest response EVER.

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Good grief. I haven't laughed that hard in quite a while. Thank you!
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From:firefliesinjune
Date:July 27th, 2007 03:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Longest response EVER.

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:) Not all Eskimos are Inuit. Are you discriminating against the Yupik?

Most people who are color blind are just two color (for example, red/green) colorblind. You should ask her, I'd be very curious to hear.

I hope you don't mind me asking, but I noticed you're from Scotland. I'm moving to the UK for a three month vacation in late October and am looking for recommendations on where to live. I'll be spending a lot of my time writing, but would like to be near people/public transportation. Can you recommend any places that might be nice for a girl to get a furnished flat and just tool around for a few months? I'm currently compiling a list of places and pros/cons for each. I don't really know anyone in the UK except for one friend in London and one in Yorkshire.

And yes, I know it's cold there in the winter. I'm a winter sort of girl.
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From:pozorvlak
Date:July 28th, 2007 05:40 pm (UTC)

Re: Longest response EVER.

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Well, I'd recommend Edinburgh and Glasgow to anyone - they're both great cities. Glasgow's rather bigger, Edinburgh's more twisty and windy and olde-worlde. But Glasgow has its pretty bits too. Finding a three-month let on a flat is outwith my experience, but should be doable (though October is the start of the University term...). The downside of Scotland is that getting down South to see things/people there is time-consuming and expensive - it's two hours on the train to get as far South as the Lake District, and 5-6 hours to Oxford/London/etc (if you're from North America, this may not be such a big deal: we have a somewhat different attitude to distance and time over here). The upside of being in Scotland is that you're in Scotland! If you're an outdoor sort of person, then proximity to the Scottish Highlands is definitely a Good Thing. As for actually living in the Scottish Highlands, it's been a long time since I did that, so I can't really comment, except to say that it will be even more of a pain in the arse to get anywhere that isn't Scotland.

While it does get cold here, it doesn't get that cold - we hardly get any snow in the Central Belt (though I've seen leftover snow in July on top of mountains in the Highlands). It does, however, get wet, so bring a waterproof jacket. I believe the West coast (where Glasgow is) gets more rain and the East coast (where Edinburgh is) gets more extreme temperatures.

Other places: well, I've lived in Oxford and loved it, I've lived in outer London and found it a worthwhile experience but not that much fun. The thing about London is that there's an endless variety of Stuff going on, but the density's actually quite low, so you spend all your time travelling about. London's also hella expensive (as is the whole of the South East, to a lesser extent). I've lived in a lot of other places, but I was generally a child at the time, so can't do much other than repeat stereotypes.

What kind of thing are you looking for, anyway? A thriving music scene? Art galleries and museums? Fellow intellectuals to bounce ideas off? Access to the countryside? If so, what kind of countryside? Beaches? Mountains? Moors? Forests? Farmland?

If you want to email me about this, I can be reached at ladislav-at-samur41-dot-org-dot-uk.
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From:firefliesinjune
Date:July 30th, 2007 05:17 am (UTC)

Re: Longest response EVER.

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I've sent you a long email about this, and thank you so much for the advice!
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From:bazzalisk
Date:July 27th, 2007 07:57 am (UTC)
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Well, the situations are slightly different, Anosmia affects something like 0.6% of people (based on a crude internet search) whilst more like 10% of people are openly homosexual (and the percentage is rising). This means that amongst all the characters named in the HP books one might expect perhaps one anosmic, whereas a significant portion would probably be gay or bi -- and considering the attitudes teenagers tend to have towards sexuality one of the students coming out would not be a minor background thing which wouldn't come to people's attention ;)

The real thing is, of course, that Rowling's stories barely feature sexuality of any sort. Apart from a few rather poorly described flings on the part of the three main cast the only relationships we seem to hear about are people who are getting married -- it's like Rowling is pretending that the only adul relationships which exist are marriages. Which I would say is a more disturbing message than some imagined message on sexuality.
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From:bazzalisk
Date:July 27th, 2007 08:03 am (UTC)
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Thinking about it this (the concentration on marriage) might reflect one of the cultural differences between wizarding and muggle society -- though I'd expect more attention to be brought to it were that the case. I think the only hint that non-marital relationships can exist that we get is in Book 7 when Dean Thomas mentions that he doesn't know who his father was, or even if he was a wizard or not.
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From:johnckirk
Date:July 27th, 2007 11:51 pm (UTC)
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Dean's a slightly odd case. Back in chapter 11 of "Order of the Phoenix", he said: "My parents are Muggles, mate. They don't know nothing about no deaths at Hogwarts, because I'm not stupid enough to tell them." The relevant quote from "Deathly Hallows" is in chapter 15: "My dad left my mum when I was a kid. I've got no proof he was a wizard, though."

Based on that, I'd assume that if his father was a wizard then he never mentioned it to Dean's mother (since she would have told him about it). If he thinks of his mother's current partner as his father (to refer to them as his parents), I'd guess that's a long term relationship, which may or may not be a marriage.

Ultimately, though, I don't think it matters. Just because we haven't explicitly been told about any adult couples who are living together without getting married, that doesn't mean that Rowling is denying their existence, any more than she's denying that people with anosmia exist.
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From:totherme
Date:July 27th, 2007 10:02 am (UTC)
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It seems to me that the main difference between sense of smell and sexuality,
is that there has been (is?) a large political movement dedicated to forcibly
wiping out (one way or another) all the people who don't conform to a
particular sexual "norm". I'm not aware of any great political "osmophobia". To
put it another way - no-one's frightened of anosmia, violently or otherwise.

Because that kind of societal fear doesn't exist, we can be pretty sure that
any failure to mention anosmia in literature is down to the kind of demographic
ignorance you were talking about. But if you fail to mention homosexuality,
this might be because of demographics, or it might be because of fear. Fear of
homosexuals on the part of the author, or fear of homophobes not buying the
book. That would be sign of discrimination.

I don't think that forcing quotas of demographics on books is a good way to
deal with this. I think that the best way to deal with this is to deal with the
fear that is the root cause, and let the books sort themselves out. This is
much harder to do - and there are probably those that would argue that
temporary quotas would be a good first step in dealing with the fear. They
might even be able to persuade me that they're right - but that's not what I
believe right now.
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From:susannahf
Date:July 27th, 2007 10:34 am (UTC)
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Actually, there are no disabled / chronically ill people in Harry Potter at all (or indeed, many other books and TV programs). Now that could be seen as discrimination unless they are all either Healed or incarcerated in St Mungos...
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From:johnckirk
Date:July 27th, 2007 12:54 pm (UTC)
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Yes, that's true; the nearest I can think of is Mad-Eye Moody (one eye and part of one leg missing), but those are injuries rather than a disability he was born with. On the other hand, if they can regrow all the bones in an arm overnight then maybe they can do something similar for nerves: forget stem cell research, that would sort out spinal problems!

I was also thinking about something else that you'd probably notice: have there been any left-handed characters in the HP books/films?
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