I spent a decent portion of my teenage years watching two movies on repeat: Labyrinth, that ridiculously 1980s Jim Henson + David Bowie concoction (complete with fan theories written about at Mad Art Lab), and Fight Club. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what that says about me. What I wanted to focus on was what the movie says about consciousness and reality.
Spoiler Alert for a movie that’s older than I am: Sarah, the protagonist, brings down the Goblin King’s entire concocted kingdom by simply and confidently declaring to him, “You have no power over me.”
It’s an appealing message, to be sure, especially since she says what she does as a very young woman to an obviously, fantastically powerful older man. Taking charge, being independent, kicking butt and taking names — all empowering-seeming messages. Sisters are doing it for themselves and all.
After high school, I expanded my movie tastes and didn’t think much about Labyrinth, let alone its ending, until I started hearing variations on the message coming from rather curious sources in specific circumstances. Namely, when I post about assholes leaving misogynistic comments, or a fellow blogger talks about gender-based discrimination, or a friend posts about experiences with racism, a certain type of person will rush to tell her some variation of the line.
The sort of person to claim that power can only be given and never taken, that you only receive what you ask for, that nothing can be done to you without your consent is, all too often, white, as well as usually male. I mention this not to preclude members of other ethnicities and/or genders from guilt (as they are capable of it, too), but to point out that those speaking the loudest about agency are those who face the least in the way of the more inescapable forms of structural inequality. In other words, they are the types who are capable of exercising the most agency and often seem to not understand that others do not have that freedom.
The parallels to the line in Labyrinth struck me recently because someone on a friend’s thread insisted, in a response to a post about racism, that “I have no power over you, unless you give it me.”
Did I “give power” to those who called 14-year-old headscarved me “fucking Arab murderer terrorist” and spat at me on the street during those terrifying weeks following 9-11? Or those drunk, armed-to-the-teeth men who followed my cousin’s best friend on the freeway, and, upon arrest, claimed that they were fighting terrorism? Years later, did I “give power” to the multiple employers who denied me employment or fired me due to my “exotic” name, larger body, and textured hair?
All along, has it been marginalized groups’ fault for “giving the power” to people who didn’t even need to speak to us before discriminating against us in a way that made our lives worse? I think we know the answer to that. No, no, and no. The Secret is bullshit, and this kind of thinking is a version of it.
Those who face institutionalized, widespread forms of oppression don’t get to choose for bigotry to not have power over them. It does. Right now. Full-stop. It harms them every day. We are born in a world with structural and cultural inequality built into it. Statements from alleged non-bigots that are so obsessed with the romantic idea that equality already exists that they ignore reality don’t help. Insisting that individuals have the power to stop such treatment using sheer force of will excuses those who perpetuate oppression.
Why speak of oppression if it opens the door to the bigot support system that is the well-meaning denialist? Though I can’t give or take certain forms of power within society, I do have the power to speak of oppression. As for those people who insist to me that I somehow courted it? Your platitudes have no power over me.