Casual Ableism: The Conversation We Need to Have
(TW: ableist language, discussion of ableism)
There comes a time in every company’s lifespan where they make an advertising mistake. For SheVibe, that was recently, when they ran a sale with “Crazy Edna” as the mascot. This drew the ire of Mary, who made a series of tweets regarding the incident. I will only quote a select few here, so if you’d like to read them you’ll have to go through her old tweets.
Gotta love ableist marketing by “sex-positive” retailers. The sexist comics were bad enough. #crazyednacangofuckherself
— Mary Q. Contrary (@MaryQConfesses) July 30, 2015
This advertising campaign was in no way intended to be offensive – it’s a reference to Crazy Eddie, an electronics franchise founded in 1971 that popped up in the Northeastern United States. The problem is that Crazy Eddie’s name and slogan (“His prices are INSANE!”) were ableist. This post is somewhat long and discusses ableist language, including its historical context, common usage, role in marginalizing women and the mentally ill, and perspectives regarding the reclamation of the word. At the end I will further discuss the situation with SheVibe and what they did to rectify the situation.
“Crazy” is an ableist slur that gets thrown around a lot in casual conversation today. Most people don’t think about how “crazy” and “insane” are words that originated as a way to marginalize and oppress the mentally ill. While insanity is now a legal term, crazy and insane originated as medical terms and were used to refer to “abnormal” behavioral/mental patterns. These words have fallen out of favor in the medical profession in recent decades, and have been swapped out for specific disorder names and more person-centered language.
Today, we colloquially use the word crazy to mean a variety of things depending on the context, and all of them hinge on behaviors that we associate with the mentally ill: irrational, deranged, unpredictable, unlikely, fanatical, wild, or aggressive. Different. We may try to frame the word in a positive light (“I’m crazy about cats!”), but it’s honestly not a very positive word. What you have to understand is the context of the word “crazy.”
You have to consider that the branding of craziness has been used to cast people aside for centuries. The first asylum was built in England in 1403, the first in the US was built in 1773, and until the 19th century they weren’t used to seek cures for the mentally ill, they were used solely to isolate the mentally ill on the fringes of society. They were prisons for people considered abnormal. Our health care for the mentally ill in the United States is sub-par right now, and a number of mentally ill people still end up in prison. Now when we say that someone is crazy we almost always say it to dismiss, shame, or other someone who acts different, whether they’re actually mentally ill or not.
The word crazy is also frequently used in a sexist connotation. Crazy is perceived as bad, and women are often branded as “crazy,” particularly when they display behavior that men don’t understand or appreciate. This discredits women and erases the experiences of those who actually have a mental illness. To call a woman crazy is to imply that she is not to be taken seriously, and you can’t trust her experiences. When we use the word “crazy”, we aren’t just using a word that can harm and trigger others, we are also normalizing its use. We’re reinforcing that it’s okay to use the word. This results in other people thinking that it’s acceptable to use it as well, and often postpones critical thinking and productive discussion about the word and its effect on others.
SheVibe’s employees hadn’t considered that crazy was ableist. I know because they reached out to others and asked about it. When I was called out for ableism on my site, I was in the same boat as SheVibe. I had never really thought about ableism beyond not using the word “retarded”. In my case, while I did use the word “crazy” sometimes, I primarily used the word “stupid” on the site, which has been used time and time again to hurt and dismiss those with learning and developmental disabilities.
I know that a lot of people have mixed feelings about slurs and their usage in everyday life. Some people feel that the word no longer carries the weight because of how language has evolved so that now the word crazy is used colloquially without reference to actual mental illness. Some people believe that by using the word casually you take the power away from it. Some mentally ill people embrace the term “crazy” in an effort to reclaim it.
As a person with a number of mental illnesses, I personally do not make an effort to reclaim the word. I choose not to use the word and continue to make an effort to eliminate it from my vocabulary. Being called crazy doesn’t trigger me personally, hearing the word doesn’t hurt me, but I choose not to use it in order to avoid hurting others and perpetuating the cycle of normalization and oppression. Others may deal with this word in their own way, but I feel that my strategy is right for me.
One thing that I do not like to see is people dismissing those who are offended by the word as “overly sensitive.” When we dismiss people who are concerned about the use of ableist language, we are invalidating their feelings and experiences. Mary mentions that she has experience with the word crazy being used to oppress her, and her experiences and complaints are completely valid.
Honestly, this one is. I’m tired of my MI being the scapegoat of every white killing, of having to disclose it on every application… — Mary Q. Contrary (@MaryQConfesses) July 30, 2015
I’m tired of it being attached to my driver license record, of it being why a TV killer or child abuser does what they do.
— Mary Q. Contrary (@MaryQConfesses) July 30, 2015
I am “crazy” and I am someone’s aunt. And I am deeply, deeply disappointed in a retailer I can no longer recommend. — Mary Q. Contrary (@MaryQConfesses) July 30, 2015
After hearing input from people with a variety of perspectives regarding the usage of the word, SheVibe opted to change Crazy Edna’s name, because they didn’t want to hurt or offend anyone.
I think that SheVibe’s solution was exactly what they should have done, and I think that they handled it very gracefully. Mary doesn’t have to change her opinion about SheVibe, but this event actually strengthened my opinion of them. I don’t need to write a long-winded defense of the company, but SheVibe’s commitment to ethics, particularly social ethics, really impressed me during this incident. Sure, the better path would have been not to come up with the Crazy Edna campaign in the first place, but it didn’t come from a malicious place, and while they can’t undo the offense that Edna caused, SheVibe has at least made an effort to rectify their mistake. I would love to see larger (and incredibly offensive) companies like Pipedream change their offensive marketing like SheVibe did.
I would love for more people to weigh in on this topic, both my readers and my fellow bloggers. I know that a number of us in the blogging community wrestle with mental illness, and some of us have been very open about our struggle with it.
What can we do to spark the conversation about ableism in the sex blogging community? What do you do about casual ableism? What is your perspective on reclamation? What do you think SheVibe should have done instead of what they did? Will the Edna snafu discourage you from purchasing from them in the future?