Some of the titular outsiders featured in Alissa Quart’s new book, Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels, are crazy. That’s not a judgment; it’s a self-description: Among her diverse range of nonconforming subjects, Quart explores the “Mad Pride” movement, a group of people who reject the notion that their mental illnesses are disabilities. Some of them reject psychiatric medication, and others call their bipolar disorder or schizophrenia “dangerous gifts” instead of illnesses. According to Quart, this renaming is a key “rebel rule”: “Outsiders can change the language people use to describe them and thereby change the mainstream a little.”
Though Quart shows the downsides to fringe movements like “Mad Pride” (the unmedicated mentally ill can sometimes cause harm to themselves or others), she also shows how mainstream culture has been enriched and altered by these groups. Quart covers a lot of ground in just under 200 pages–from an autistic young woman who is proud of her non-neurotypical wiring, to a committed group of film bloggers and programmers who resurrected a great movie that had been buried by its distributor–the connective thread is always the Internet, and how it has enabled like-minded outsiders to advocate for change.
Even if you don’t consider yourself an outsider or a rebel, Quart’s book has several lessons for creative work, particularly when it comes to making art outside a heavily commercial system.
This point is related to how “Mad Pride” folks coin their own language. Quart interviews several young transgender and gender queer people, who were creating their own gender identities outside of the male-female binary. They reject the widespread notion of a male-female dichotomy and hope that their ideas go mainstream. Quart interviews Rey, who was born female and transitioned to becoming a man through hormones and surgery, but still writes, “I was never trying to be a man. I was never trying to be a woman. I was always and I am still just being myself.” Of Rey’s gender fluidity, Quart writes that Rey is:
“[A] cultural entrepreneur of a sort, selling an idea of transformation to a broader public as well as consuming it himself. He and his peers were creating the ideas they needed to nourish their sense of self. They were propelled by the broad and nearly sacrosanct American belief that the point of life was happiness, and they felt they could achieve that happiness if they could just alter the gender norms they were born into.”
This is instructive for those who do creative work, and even for people who are trying to engage in any kind of meaningful self-definition: Don’t always accept other people’s categories. You can always make your own.
Quart describes two instances in which young cinephiles went outside the studio system to make or promote films they felt passionate about. The first is a fairly well-known story—the genesis of the Oscar-nominated film Beasts of the Southern Wild. The filmmakers who made Beasts were focused on authenticity and community engagement. They had no budget and no studio backing, so they went to New Orleans and, by casting locals and making whatever they could themselves, created a deeply moving piece of art. More important, everyone involved with the movie felt as though they played a pivotal role in its creation.
According to Quart, “Some of the producers worked for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign and said they learned from that grassroots operation that you need to give the least professional, most minor-seeming workers a sense of ownership for the projects they made as a whole.” This is something that wouldn’t happen in a big-budget production, when interns are mistreated and assistants get phones thrown at them.
Another story of movie buffs getting around a studio is with the Kenneth Lonergan film Margaret. Fox Searchlight, the film’s distributor, was not really supporting the film—they only released it on a few screens and didn’t even mention it on their Twitter feed. When film critics who had screened Margaret found out about this, they started agitating for a re-release and for studio support, using the #teammargaret hashtag on Twitter. Many more people ended up aware of Margaret because of #teammargaret’s efforts, despite the fact that, to the studio, the film was DOA.
One of the most moving parts of Quart’s book is her chapter on autistic adults–“Beyond Normal.” She profiles a young artist named Katie who likes to wear muppet-bright colors and is part of the online “neurodiversity” or “autistic rights” community. “Her outsider microcosm strives to redefine how American thinks not just about autism but also about normality itself,” Quart writes. She goes on to describe how Katie’s art is informed by her autism. Katie paints infants, “lovely, eerie pictures of an isolated, blankly staring child holding a lollipop. . . . Her excellent draftsmanship and awry perspective were part of why she received prizes and has already had gallery shows. Katie’s photo-realistic draftsmanship–her ability to paint with an almost photographic quality–may be related to being autistic.”
Katie is overwhelmed by loud noises and particular social situations, and so, instead of trying to change herself, she changes her surroundings. Quart interviewed Katie at a pizza place, and at one point Katie requested that Quart stop asking her questions, because she was overwhelmed. As Quart points out, most neurotypical people wouldn’t do that, because we’d be afraid of social repercussions. “The rest of us are often too focused on the kind of personal or financial success that so often requires charming or pleasing others to break from the social convention in this way,” Quart explains. While we might not always be able to avoid convention in the same way Katie does, it’s worth asking ourselves what we really want, instead of what others want from us.