Don’t Be an Ellen Jamesian

Grace Lapointe
4 min readNov 11, 2019

Trigger warning for rape and mutilation in fiction

John Irving is one of many authors whom I read way too young. In middle school, teachers often told me that I read on a college level. I wasn’t interested in a lot of YA that was published around that time (the early 2000s). However, that didn’t necessarily mean that I was emotionally ready to skip YA altogether and read all the content in adult novels.

I moved onto my mom’s collection of old editions of books from the 1970s, which she had read in her 20s. John Irving’s 1978 novel The World According to Garp satirizes 1970s radical feminism in a way that I still don’t really understand and that seems dated today. I do think it has some useful concepts, though. The protagonist is conceived via rape when his mother, a nurse and feminist activist named Jenny Fields, rapes an unconscious, intellectually disabled, male patient. This exaggerates the then-current narrative of women’s “sexual liberation” and the idea that an independent woman “doesn’t need a man” — to dangerous extremes.

Shockingly, Jenny is considered one of the least radical feminists in the novel. The most radical are the Ellen Jamesians, a group of women who cut out their own tongues in a sense of misguided solidarity with Ellen James, a real, twelve-year-old girl whose rapist cut her tongue out. The real Ellen James wants nothing to do with them. She’s horrified that people have co-opted her, willingly inflicting a trauma on themselves that she never would have chosen. They also apparently view her disability as a metaphor. Instead of respecting her lived experience, they tried to apply it to themselves, making a general point about women being metaphorically “silenced.” The Ellen Jamesians’ biggest sins include appropriation, ableism and exploiting it for shock value, and self-serving, false allyship.

The real Ellen becomes a poet and also publishes a newspaper op-ed titled “Why I am Not an Ellen Jamesian” by Ellen James. This is possibly a nod to Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian.” It’s exactly the kind of essay that would go viral today, and in that sense is way ahead of its time.

Who are today’s Ellen Jamesians? Those who uphold white feminism and white supremacy, TERFs, SWERFs, and appropriators in general. I can’t help thinking of the protestors who ironically met Justin Trudeau in blackface — ostensibly, to protest said blackface. The concept of Ellen Jamesians has applications far beyond radical feminism. When white people like Donald Trump use “lynching” as a metaphor for anything happening to them, they’re indulging in Ellen Jamesian tendencies.

I Tweeted this, but maybe people didn’t get the reference:

Grace Lapointe


CN racism WW Trump supporter on the news: We vote; we vape! Flavors matter! Me: Did she just appropriate #BlackLivesMatter? For vaping? Mom: Yeah, I heard that too. Truly an Ellen Jamesian level of appropriation.

Ellen Jamesians are people who proudly self-identify as feminists who exclude trans people, but when you repeat that description (TERF) back to them, they suddenly claim TERF is a “slur.” They’re Boomers who disparaged Millennials for over a decade, then in response to the sarcastic “OK, Boomer” meme, tried to draw an absurd parallel between a generational marker and an unprintable, racial slur. They use rape as a metaphor, drawing Christine Blasey Ford, a real person, as Lady Justice, figuratively “raped” by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment. So, in short, they’re appropriators, hyperbolists, and hypocrites.

Long before Thomas Hazlett coined the inflammatory term “feminazi” and Rush Limbaugh popularized it, Irving’s Ellen Jamesians exposed a paradox of feminism without making inappropriate comparisons to Nazis. They misrepresent feminism by betraying its ideals of sex and gender equality. Ironically, they’re exactly what misogynists think radical feminists are like.

When people say that abled people are the ones “really” disabled by ableism, or when they use deafness, blindness, or other disabilities as metaphors for incompetence and ignorance, they are being Ellen Jamesians. They’re companies that spring up overnight, without permits, overtaking wheelchair spots and lanes. They’re the allies we disabled people never asked for and never wanted. We’re all a little bit disabled, they say. They speak for us, to us in those fake, babying, singsong voices, and take us where we don’t want to go. They’re the abled people who ignorantly assume that handicapped seats and spots are for their luggage, not the result of disabled activists’ hard-won protests for civil rights.

“Oh, you need that space for your shopping bags or purse? Tell me when your purse, or its ancestors, crawled up the steps of the Capitol Building or was considered too ‘ugly’ to go out in public.

“OK. Then move out of the way.”

Of course, this is what the stone-cold badass, fantasy version of me says. In real life, I’d at least like the option to ask politely and have my request be respected. It’s easiest for everyone. It would mean that I could have a mundane outing without being seen as mean, brave, or a superhero or causing me anxiety.

Most white people, including me, likely considered some kinds of appropriation OK at some point, until people of color explained why it was offensive. We can learn from other people’s mistakes without repeating their behavior. If we feel tempted to directly compare our own experiences to a form of real bigotry that doesn’t target us, like racism, let’s stop and consider why that’s appropriation and erasure. Let’s take a more intersectional view and consider that racism, sexism, and ableism affect many of the same people. Let’s listen to each other because we’ll never know everything, but we can keep learning.

Let’s be real feminists, not Ellen Jamesians.