Not the Main Character

A Podcast by Mary Kate McDonald

Click here or on the photo above to listen to Mary Kate’s podcast on Spotify.

Podcast Script

[Announcer’s Voice] Main character: the prevailing and most important figure in a work of literature, television, or cinema.  The type of people that view themselves as the center of life’s cinematic universe- the ones that know the owner, the ones that have all the best shortcuts, the ones everybody roots for. A main character.

[Mary-Kate’s voice] But is the main character always the protagonist?

[Intro music]

It was the spring of 2017 at an all-girls Catholic high school in Dedham, Massachusetts. Students daydreamed of beaching it on the Cape, sailing in Nantucket, and scooping ice cream part time on the Vineyard, only with a required 100 service hours threatening to downpour on this picture perfect New England summer. As a part of our graduation requirement, we would have to complete this service in order to graduate. Girls grumbled about not having enough service hours, even coming up with ways to fake them. One girl with red hair and freckles shared that she logged “bracelet making for cancer patients” and wasn’t questioned further by the faculty. Others nodded in agreement, trying the idea on for size.

I, for one, had a service opportunity for the upcoming weekend. My family-friends and I signed up to serve meals at a shelter for women and children located in the outskirts of Boston. Saturday afternoon came and my Mom and I got into the car [Car door and ignition sound effect] and drove through downtown Boston, meeting with our fellow volunteers outside of the shelter. One of the Moms proposed that we take a group picture and we awkwardly shuffled together, smiling for the camera. Say “helping the needy….” [Camera sound effect]

[Background audio of overlapping voices, conversations, and laughter] In the shelter, we received aprons and gloves before preparing pasta, soup, and salad for the ladies coming in at 4. During this prep time, one of the kitchen employees warned us to give out only four sugar packets per person upon request. This was weird to me. But all other items behind the stainless steel countertop were unlimited- tampons, pads, deodorant- but why a cap on sugar? I would soon learn that hoarding sugar packets are a sign of withdrawal — that sugar highs are a convenient way to compensate for the depletion of dopamine while crashing.

Women of all ages, shapes, sizes, colors, and attitudes poured through the double doors of the dining area come 4 o’clock. Some had small children hiding behind their skirts, some had walkers or wheelchairs. I noticed that one woman with a rather brusque demeanor asked for extra sugar packets. She took four, asked for more, grumbled at the answer no, and hobbled to her seat. A squabble suddenly broke out amongst a group of women at a table, watching them disperse from where this particular woman was seated, a nondescript puddle pooling at her feet.

My first instinct was to laugh. I understand that this story makes me sound horrible, but honestly, what I did was horrible.

People are more apt to root for the main character, work to understand them, identify with them.  I sat there looking at her, laughing at her. The antagonist. Not just today, but I was the antagonist for all the times I failed to acknowledge our culture’s tendency to privilege certain character’s narratives over others. When folks step into the main character role, they’re not always willing to share their spotlight, so the plotlines of the unheard go unnoticed.

One of the men in my family is a former college athlete and hard working, nationally recognized commercial real estate broker. He is happy, healthy,  successful, and good looking–biased, I know, but we have good genes! At age ten, I found a self help book entitled “How to Control Your Drinking” in the bathroom. Until now, I never critically thought about how substance use complications manifest in families that look like mine, i.e., white and upper-class, and perhaps I’m maybe more sympathetic due to these circumstances.  I ask you, the listener, what does a person who uses look like?

The answer from someone who would want to look the most “forward-thinking” or “woke”  would say “anybody”. To that I say, how do works of media  paint a person who is “using” to look like?  Does our media consumption have any bearing on how we discriminate against people suffering from addiction? Years of social priming and both the implicit and explicit expression of stereotypes through popular culture have a particular weighing on the world’s view of a certain population- that population being people struggling with addiction. Shows like Saturday Night Live and Family Guy, both popular programs with a wide range in audience members, lean on humor at the expense of addiction.

[Audio clip from Family Guy making jokes about Lindsey Lohan’s Substance Use Disorder]

Media portrayals of people who use present them as disheveled, poorly dressed, sickly looking, and erratic in behavior. Such jokes have appropriated a real and lifelong burden into a typical trope in “dark comedy.” Certain stigmas are less applicable to those protected by whiteness.

[“Heroin AM” Audio clip from Saturday Night Live]

All of the SNL actors in this skit entitled “Heroin AM” are white, upper-middle class individuals. Their behavior was erratic and crazy, but the whole premise of the skit was that this isn’t everyone’s typical heuristic of people who use. It’s not “typical.”

[Background audio of overlapping voices, conversations, and laughter] Back to the dining room. I see a Black woman with torn clothing, disheveled hair, and a telling scowl. I can easily tell that she has a lack of resources—that she relies on a shelter for consistent food and toiletries, that she doesn’t have the money for extensive amounts of clean clothing. Two differentiating factors impeded my ability to empathize with this woman’s experience: socioeconomic status and race. As explained in Biased by Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, the “other-race-effect” is characterized by the ability to recognize the faces of those who present as your identifying race. This also impacts empathic neural responses. On a biological level, we’re less likely to empathize with and relate to those who look different than us.

[Uplifting background music] Empathy. It’s an interesting concept; the ability to identify other humans’ experiences without fully understanding their point of view, visualizing others as the main characters in their own lives. Making ourselves the supporting character, stepping out of the spotlight in order to illuminate the perspectives of those that often go unheard.

I had originally gone to that little shelter outside the city in search of service hours and in hopes of coming out of my day of service feeling content. I left with a “funny” story to tell–at the time– and a vague “pat myself on the back” type of satisfaction. Sitting in the front seat of my Mom’s car, I scrolled through Facebook to see a post that read “Mothers’ and Daughters’ afternoon of helping others…Feeling humbled and grateful tonight.” 14 white women, all with cheesy grins that said “look at how selfless we are!” Remember the photo from before? Yeah, it’s almost comical how tone-deaf it was. Speaking in hindsight as a 19-year-old woman, that post was performative,  savior-esque,  and defeated the whole purpose of our service. The main character generously outstretching a hand to the downtrodden side character before an adoring audience.

A few short months after this, while scribbling a journal entry in Theology class about the true meaning of service, I was hit with a pang of remorse and shame. Serving others is not merely a requirement, nor should it be for personal gratification. Service is an act of decency and solidarity in pursuit of the greater good. Only when we acknowledge the tainted and unfair ways we see people who differ from us can we truly show up for one another. Retiring our main character personas and supporting another less-heard voice as their own protagonist.

I know I’m not perfect. This learning process is by no means linear. We will mess up. In this case, I did. 14-year-olds are selfish. That is objectively true, I’d like to see you try to disagree with me. That’s not to say that what I did isn’t shameful, ugly, and evil. I’m just making a point to acknowledge and explain why I felt the way I did, not to dismiss it or try and justify it.

But if I could go back and witness my 14-year-old self laughing at the woman, I’d pull her aside and explain that addiction is a disease and it should be treated as such.

“Mary Kate. Put yourself in their position. Would you laugh if this were a white, well-off, teenage girl who was so hooked on drugs she lost control of her body? Would this make you uncomfortable now that you see yourself in their shoes? Would you consider it to be “tragic”? Would you laugh then?”

A loved one of mine once said “don’t be sorry, be better.” This podcast isn’t an apology. It’s an investigative commitment to doing better. But how can those benefiting from being a main character do better? I’m figuring that out myself, it is a process. The world is working against marginalized communities by pigeonholing them into the media stereotypes that  inform our implicit biases. [Outro music] There’s a lot of work to do. Think critically about what it means to be an active bystander for those overlooked and stereotyped. When you see people who use being treated as a side character trope, think about how that impacts your ability to empathize. Place yourself in their shoes. Retire your role as the main character. This isn’t an easy process, but we can start by listening and decentering ourselves from the story.

Thank you so much for listening.

Author Interview – Mary Kate McDonald

Q: Why did you choose to write about your particular topic for the project?

A: This piece was inspired by Biased by Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, Elon’s common reading selection from Summer 2020. The prompt of this project was to inquire into explicit and implicit biases and dissect a time in which our bias informed our opinion of another person/group. My personal experience while doing a service project felt like a prime example of how stereotyping and social priming impacted my ability to empathize.

Q: With this contest, we want to feature pieces that challenge and discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion. How do you feel your piece accomplishes that goal? 

A: My podcast was created with the vision of taking accountability for using and abusing my privilege and transforming it into a medium where I can shine a spotlight on the experiences of those who are less likely to be heard. I believe that amplifying such stories helps people relate to others under different circumstances, therefore expanding their worldview and exercising empathy. 

Q: How do you feel the genre of the project helped you effectively communicate to your audience? What were the advantages of this genre in particular?

A: Podcasts are fun. I love a good podcast myself; I’m known for always having one playing. I think the nuance of sound design fused with purposeful writing and delivery makes for a compelling piece that is more likely to evoke emotion and stick with the audience.

Q: What did you learn through the process of research and completing this project, and/or the experience of preparing it for publication?

A: The most important piece of the research process was coming to terms with the fact that it isn’t enough for me to be aware of biases, but it is crucial to undo the thought patterns that constitute bias. This became especially clear as I fleshed out the idea of whether I am an antagonist versus a supporting character in the piece.

Q: How has your writing process changed throughout your time at Elon? How do you feel ENG 1100 fostered that change?

A: My writing process has always been a bit scattered. I have progressed in my work on both argumentative and creative pieces, and I attribute this to utilizing the help of others. Whether I am reading out loud to a friend or asking a pair of fresh eyes to pore over my latest draft, I am able to produce writing that is clear and gets my message across while also remaining true to the style.

Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?

A: Write about it! Whatever it is that compels you, write about it. Whatever makes you afraid, intrigued, infuriated, confused, and overjoyed, write about it! Writing classes are your laboratory to immerse yourself in a topic that intrigues you. Ask questions, analyze, and create something beautiful in the process. Take risks, and ask the questions that make people think. Also, feel free to send me your writing. I love to peer edit.

ENG1100 Faculty Interview – Dinidu Karunanayake

Q: What is your overall approach to teaching ENG 1100? 

A: I value a student-centric approach in which students play the main role in knowledge production. At the same time, I want to challenge them to think, research, and compose beyond their comfort zones. To facilitate this, I follow an inquiry-based method. We begin with personal reflection. Students are encouraged to “mindfully read” their own perceptions of their past experiences and biases. This leads to the next inquiry: rhetorical analysis in which students learn how to mindfully examine texts. We discuss the pedagogical power of texts and question how ethics come into play. Then we compose research arguments thinking about academic audiences. Finally, we translate the research essays into multimedia texts. In sum, ENG 1100 is a space where I help students develop a set of transferable interdisciplinary skills that they can apply both inside and outside the classroom.  

Q: What do you hope students get out of completing this particular project?  

A: The reflective inquiry delivers several objectives. It urges students to re-evaluate their familiar perceptions of what writing is. Here, students are asked to use their own experiences as rich material to tell a story. The first thing they learn is that they are already writers; writing can be an everyday practice; and that they have an audience looking forward to reading their work. This perspective goes a long way. On the other hand, they realize the multimodal nature of composition. I offer the option of a podcast because it helps students merge their creativity with reflection, and in a sense, choreograph its delivery. They also learn that composition is a process and gather hands-on experience in this regard. 

Q: In completing this project, did your student face any particular challenges? If so, how did you help them navigate those challenges, and/or how did they work to overcome them?

A: Once we demystify what composition is, and when we realize that everyone is a writer, students face fewer challenges. They are often already familiar with the technology. We have peer review sessions in addition to one-on-conferences with me. The beautiful thing is when students have technology-related questions, their colleagues readily offer advice. Therefore, the challenges in fact foster a collective learning experience. 

Q: What was the most rewarding part of working with your student on this project?

A: The most rewarding part of working with Mary Kate in Fall 2020 and Malcolm Capers in Spring 2021 was witnessing the growth of their ideas through different stages. I’m truly happy to realize that I have facilitated their creative journeys. 

Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?

A: I would encourage students to consider ENG 1100 as more than a writing class. It is a place of self-discovery and offers many creative and research possibilities. It’s one of the most important classes they take for their future in academia and beyond. Consider it a place of both unlearning some previous (mis)conceptions and co-creating new knowledge. Be adventurous. Experiment with new media. The class will help you unearth and hone some of your talents that you might have so far taken for granted.