You watch too many scary movies.
In a rare moment of unity, the Internet has enjoyed a collective "WTF" moment watching the case of Natalia Grace unfold.
Most recently, Dr. Phil interviewed the Ukrainian-born orphan who's been accused of masquerading as a child in order to be adopted by an all-American and "unsuspecting Christian couple"—before allegedly attempting to murder them. As the (now divorced) Indiana couple Michael and Kristine Barnett await trial for felony neglect of a minor, Dr. Phil has appointed himself to be the interlocutor to uncover new layers to the mind-boggling story. As if straight out of the 2009 horror movie Orphan, the Barnetts alleged that in 2010 they adopted Natalia from a Florida orphanage believing that she was 6 years old. While they were well-informed that Natalia was born with a rare form of dwarfism, they claim they were "scammed" by the "con artist" whom they allege was at least 20 years old when they adopted her. In 2012, they successfully petitioned a court to legally change Natalia's age to 22, claiming that bone-density tests and anecdotal evidence proved that she'd completed puberty and was a grown adult. Then they rented Natalia her own apartment in Indiana while they moved to Canada with their biological son.
Cue our collective "WTF?!"
From media coverage ranging from The Daily Mail to Buzzfeed News to The Cut, we know that some details of the Barnetts' testimony are in direct contradiction with others who support Natalia. Dispute over the girl's age at the time she was adopted place her anywhere from 6 to 8 to 14 years old, with initial bone density tests never recovered or corroborated by other scans. The Barnetts had Natalia treated for various psychiatric disorders, and while Dr. Phil pointed out that children who grow up in institutional care can experience developmental difficulties, the brain is surprisingly resilient and can compensate for neglect later on. That's to say: No, Natalia Grace is probably not a psychopathic movie villain come to life.
Apparently, Natalia's been living with a new Indiana couple, Antwon and Cynthia Mans, who don't believe she's an "evil dwarf," in Dr. Phil's delicate phrasing. In the interview, Natalia says of the Barnetts, "I actually thought I had found the right family after bouncing around from a lot of families. I thought I had found the right family for me." But soon, as Buzzfeed News notes, "Things started going downhill after she underwent a surgery related to her dwarfism...and Kristine Barnett began questioning her age. 'Everything started happening after that one moment,' Natalia said." She identified her conditions as diastrophic dysplasia, as well as scoliosis. Sitting with Dr. Phil, as Natalia watches video testimony of Kristine Barnett's allegations against her, her open expression clearly wilts. She watches as Kristine alleges that she discovered evidence of Natalia having a menstrual cycle and full pubic hair when she was believed to be 8 years old (which Natalia and Cynthia Mans deny), among other claims that Natalia made threats to murder the family and hid knives in the kitchen. Natalia went into detail to recount her version of the events that drove Kristine Barnett to accuse Natalia of poisoning their coffee and standing at the foot of their bed in the middle of the night while holding a knife. Ultimately, she said she doesn't wish the Barnetts to be sentenced to prison, but "if it comes to that…" so be it. She said the Barnetts should "get right with God." Dr. Phil ends the interview by telling Natalia, "I'm very impressed with you. You're an impressive young woman."
So while we now have Natalia's side of the story, our weirder-than-fiction fascination with the (probably) 16-year-old is refracted through plenty of ableism and xenophobia that still exist within horror stories' tropes.
First, there's the creepy factor of the foreign, adopted child. Orphan worked so well to freak us out because of its excellent play with the Spooky Boy trope (i.e. children are inherently creepy and they Know Things). The good/evil child dichotomy might be filtered through the lens of tiny-psychopath-on-the-loose or the more obvious supernatural threat of possessed children, but depictions of non-biological children have been used to add an eerie quality and signal that The Kids Aren't Alright. From Damien in 1978's The Omen being adopted and maybe being the Antichrist to Macaulay Culkin as a sociopath in 1993's The Good Son to 2009's Orphan, let's acknowledge there's a not-great message that non-biological children pose a danger to our sense of safety underlying some of our classic horror tropes. In one of the most famous examples—get ready for a throwback—we have the patently horrifying appearance of Samara in The Ring. Yes, she's a dead little ghost girl based on Japanese folklore, but her full backstory is that she was a troubled kid with a horrific parentage who was adopted by an uber-Christian couple before she began showing supernatural powers—until her adoptive mother threw her in a well to, you know, protect the village.
The Ring (2002) - Samara Morgan's FULL Death Scene (with Deleted Scenes) www.youtube.com
Moreover, foreign children particularly bear the brunt of this weird, mostly unconscious anxiety, with Esther in Orphan being a young Russian girl. Evil characters using "foreign accents" has long been a not-quite-right problem in media. As carriers of racial or plain xenophobic stereotypes, many movie "villains were constructed based on views of the American people at the times in which the films were created. This would mean that the foreign entanglements at the time of production had a direct impact on the villain character as far as casting and racially biased portrayals," as studied by Bryant University. That is to say: Why, exactly, do all the headlines about Natalia Grace identify her only as the "Ukrainian Orphan"? Regardless of her age, she's indisputably been in the United States since 2008 when she was first adopted, though she was later sent to a Florida orphanage. Under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, Natalia has been an American citizen since 2008.
In case you have a headache from how plain an allegory that is for Spooky (Adoptive) Children, let's just mention the obviously ableist aspect of our possessed-by-a-demon tropes. The unsettling truth is that many of history's famous cases of possession have compelling arguments that a medical condition was to blame for the symptoms we now associate with "evil," especially in horror movies: body deformities, strange gait, unusual facial characteristics, unusual voice. After all, who isn't still haunted by Linda Blair crawling down the stairs in The Exorcist? The Insidious franchise is predicated upon a lovely couple witnessing their son Dalton fall prey to supernatural forces, which is signaled by the fact that he falls into an unexplained coma. A sad trope in media, in general, is that of the "Sad Cripple," with plenty of professionals and activists and regular viewers who understand metaphors pointing out that there's a regressive, f*cked up stigma being reinforced about disabilities and disfigurement in today's media.
As Dr. Colleen Donnelly wrote in "Re-visioning Negative Archetypes of Disability and Deformity in Fantasy," "Fantasy and horror often exploit disabled people, presenting them as embodiments of terror and evil...Dwarves have been presented as a race of stout, earth and mountain dwelling miners, sometimes susceptible to obstinacy and greed, as in Tolkien's Hobbit (1937) and C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), and made childlike by Disney or in the presentation of munchkins in the Wizard of Oz movie. Often throughout history, villains and malefactors have also been presented as monstrous, disabled or deformed."
So if it's true that the Barnetts' behavior towards Natalia changed after she had an operation related to her medical condition, maybe the Barnetts have simply watched too many horror movies. Natalia told Dr. Phil, "I don't want people to see me as what they have been saying I am…I want them to see my personality...I don't want them to be scared to come say hi because of what they read...I want them to see the genuine me."
'I Don't Want People To See Me As What They Have Been Saying I Am,' Says Ukrainian Orphan youtu.be
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Cats in tuxedos are here to lend you their strength.
2020 is on fire.
From the COVID-19 pandemic to the racist police epidemic to freaking murder hornets, let's just throw 2020 out. Yes, the entire year.
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The Science Guy Isn't messing around
When Bill Nye drops the F-bomb on TV, it's like our favorite teacher swearing on the last day of school: It's cool but the end of childhood innocence.
On Sunday, Bill Nye appeared on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to clarify that, yes, climate change is a destructive crisis, and we're all to blame. Writer Yashar Ali shared the clip on Twitter and expressed the same mixture of nostalgia, shame, and joy felt by everyone who grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy (RIP 1998). He posted, "Just seeing this @BillNye video and I am thoroughly deceased."
Nye, a passionate activist for climate change awareness, appeared in a parody of his beloved children's show's experiments. Equipped with a lab coat, protective goggles, a desk globe, and his signature bow tie, Nye begins by saying, "By the end of this century, if emissions keep rising, the average temperature on Earth could go up another four to eight degrees." Then, with the help of a handy blow torch, he sets the globe on fire. "What I'm saying is the planet's on fucking fire," he says and gestures to three random flame retardants on his desk. "There are a lot of things we could do to put it out—are any of them free? No, of course not. Nothing's free, you idiots. Grow the fuck up. You're not children anymore. I didn't mind explaining photosynthesis to you when you were 12. But you're adults now, and this is actually a crisis, got it? Safety glasses off, motherfuckers."
The clip is part of John Oliver's break-down of the Green New Deal, the economic plan proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward J. Markey to combat climate change by curbing carbon emissions. The plan's divisiveness, as well as its failure to pass through the Senate in March, makes Bill Nye's appearance a jarring and much-needed touchstone to spread awareness about climate change. Because he's Bill Nye, "The Science Guy"—How could we not trust him?
The Psychology of TV "Experts"
In fact, American culture has put celebrity scientists on a strange pedestal—even ones of dubious credibility. On daytime TV, The Dr. Oz Show features Mehmet Oz giving bogus medical advice and promoting trendy pseudoscience (the show's currently in its 10th season). Similarly, Phillip McGraw's talk show Dr. Phil is in its 17th season, and features outlandish family dramas and extreme oddities of human behavior (Dr. Phil also interviews murderers in his free time). The list goes on, from exploitative reality TV series like Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew to the celebrity talk show The Doctors. As long as someone calls himself "Dr.," has a strong personality, and very white teeth, he can play a believable scientist on TV.
Of course, anyone with a talk show is interested in self-promotion. When it comes to scientists, we trust their "expert" opinions by virtue of the fact that they have that public platform. Are they credible, experienced professionals? Who cares? They're on TV!
Partly, our brains are wired to trust images—particularly images that suggest authority. Marketing analyst Michael Schein points out, "The human brain has to sort through a near infinite amount of information. As a result, it uses shortcuts—or heuristic—to help it make judgments." So we assume a character in a lab coat knows how to make cool things explode, and everyone who wears a stethoscope probably knows multiple words for "heart trouble." But our innate trust of images can overpower our logic and even our knowledge of facts.
Perhaps the pinnacle example is "America's Doctor," Dr. Oz. While Oz is, in fact, a board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon and a professor at Columbia University, he's also been denounced by the established medical community as a self-promotional witch doctor who "has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine." In 2015, a group of prominent physicians wrote a letter to Columbia calling for Oz to be fired (the open letter was signed by 1,300 other doctors). They specify that he uses his show to promote unproven and unscientific cure-alls for the sake of earning companies profit. In fact, when evaluated by practicing physicians in a study, half of his recommendations were found to be unsupported or in direct contradiction to established medical knowledge. His bogus claims (for example, he said green coffee beans are "a magic weight-loss cure for every body type") have "misled and endangered" the American public throughout his career, according to the physicians' letter.
Oz was even called to testify before the Senate to address his promotions of dangerous weight loss pills. He admitted to knowingly recommending remedies that have no basis in science, saying, "I recognize that oftentimes they don't have the scientific muster to present as fact."
Yet, the public doesn't seem to care. Not only has Oz maintained his position at Columbia, The Dr. Oz Show won a Daytime Emmy in 2018. Schein states, "To your brain's unconscious, trustworthy medical professionals wear scrubs. Mehmet Oz wears scrubs. So Mehmet Oz must be a trustworthy medical professional." Despite being condemned by practicing physicians as "a quack and a fake and a charlatan," Oz is telegenic, charismatic, and well-spoken. He's a reality TV star who wears scrubs; the implied prestige means America wants to trust him.
Okay, but Is Bill Nye a Real Scientist?
To return to one of our favorite 90s TV hosts, Bill Nye has received similar critiques of not being a "real scientist," particularly after his Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World premiered in 2017. Marketed as a variety show, the series relies on Nye's name recognition as an entertainer rather than an expert: "Emmy-winning host Bill Nye brings experts and famous guests to his lab for a talk show exploring scientific issues that touch our lives."
But as he told Stephen Colbert in 2017, "I'm a mechanical engineer, it's physics, for four years it's physics, I took six semesters of calculus, is that enough?" For some, it's not. While Nye has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University, the fact that he also pursued a career in stand-up comedy while working for Boeing (and inventing something called "a hydraulic resonance suppressor tube" for 747 airplanes) strikes some people as anti-scientific. So does the fact that he invented the bow-tied "science guy" persona to fulfill both his ambitions at once.
Overall, critiques target his simplified presentations of complex data and blasé treatment of evidence, prioritizing calls to action to address how science impacts society over hard studies. Hence, we got to see him drop F-bombs on Last Week Tonight. But while more seriously regarded experts like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted documentary series rather than talk shows, they and Nye entered mainstream pop culture by making science accessible: entertaining, even.
While many of TV's favorite "scientists" are no better than reality TV stars, the point of experts in entertainment is to make science an accessible, public good. So we might have to live with Dr. Oz's bogus claims on the air for another 10 years, and Dr. Phil may not be a mortal who will ever succumb to death. But Bill Nye had a reason for yelling at America to "grow the fuck up" instead of discussing statistics: we're adults who can critically think for ourselves. If we develop lazy thinking habits, passively absorbing anything we see on TV, then, you know, the world might catch fire right under our noses. Safety glasses off, motherfuckers.
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