As a teenager I loved Fade by Robert Cormier. Fade is a creepy young adult novel about a teenage boy who learns he has inherited the superpower of invisibility. If I revisited it again today I’d probably find it even more creepy than I did then — stalking is sexualised, women are objectified, etc. Time puts a fresh spin on that story, though the taboo is part of its appeal. (Flowers In The Attic works the same way.)
Fade is an example of literal invisibility in storytelling. This is invisibility as a kind of wish fulfilment; what would you do if no one saw you do it? Personally, I would enjoy walking at night in summer, free from high UV, harsh Australian sunlight and the occasional scary street harassment.
When women on Twitter were asked what they’d do if men had a curfew in October 2018, many answered the same: We’d go outside and enjoy the freedom. Turning invisible would be similar, and I think it serves the same basic wish fulfilment: The wish to move freely in the world.
In storytelling, invisibility is a fairly common trope, but it doesn’t always serve this exact purpose. Writers use it in a variety of different metaphorical ways.
THE INVISIBILITY OF MIDDLE AGE
This is an example of non-literal invisibility. Age is a great leveller; no matter how good-looking and attractive you were as a young person, age will take some of that away. Some struggle with this. Others see it as a great freedom:
When I grow up I want to be like Louise. Louise a woman at that peculiar age when women become invisible to others, neither old nor young, just invisible…There is an age when women become invisible. It can be curiously and accurately charted from the first time you go into a restaurant and the waiter calls you ‘Madam’ while he clears away the other place set on the small table for two you have chosen. He knows instinctively that no one else will ever be there. There are seldom tables for one in restaurants.
The Lonely Margins Of The Sea, Shonagh Koea
THE INVISIBILITY OF FAT
Fat activists such as Lindy West point out that, for fat people, it doesn’t take middle age to become invisible. If you are a fat young person, you are socially invisible long before that.
And while fat is a feminist issue, men do suffer from culturally imposed body shape expectations: a man explains what it’s like to be treated differently after turning from a chubby boy into a muscled grown-up.
Advertisers do their best to teach us that being invisible is the worst possible thing you could be. ‘Stand out’, we are told by the advertising team for the Mitsubishi Outlander.
But I remember my high school soccer coach transporting five of us to a match in her rattly Toyota. A team mates pointed out a flash sports car stopped at the lights and the coach said, “When choosing a car I try NOT to stand out.” (I don’t remember her teaching me any maths, but I remember that off-the-cuff life lesson.) However, Western picture books tend to preach the message that it’s great to stand out from the crowd. This message usually starts with a character who stands out even if they don’t to. Elmer is a patchwork elephant when all the others are grey; Freckleface Strawberry doesn’t want her freckles. In every case, the child learns that to be different is a strength.
To be seen by others is perhaps at the bottom of the hierarchy of human needs. Australian social commentator Hugh McKay certainly believes so, as explained in his book What Makes Us Tick? and also in The Art Of Belonging.
In modern churches across the globe, leaders assure their flocks that even if we feel unseen, God is looking after us. This hardly subverts the the idea that attention equals worth:
From Pastor Jeff Owens: “The richest people here tonight…have not the value of the widow’s mite. Have not as much worth in God’s eyes as those of you who put one dollar in the plate. To me you can never be little or lost of insignificant because to God you can never be little. There are no little things in this world. No little deeds, no little sins, no little acts of kindness, and no little people here tonight!“
This message of worthiness is balm to those who do the thankless work of this world and suffer the purest snub of all: invisibility. Most people here tonight do not have careers; they have jobs, and they exist as part of the background of the lives of the professional and semiprofessional middle classes. After all, somebody has to groom the dogs and wire the doctor’s new $60,000 kitchen. Somebody has to collect all the quarters from the Laundromats and drive the semitrailers to the Pottery Barn warehouse.
Deer Hunting With Jesus by Joe Bageant
INVISIBILITY AS PURITY
As living organisms, we are primed to accept the idea that clear running water is safer than muddy puddles.
I expect to see the invisible = pure trope used more and more in advertising as eco-conscious consumers are encouraged to leave smaller carbon footprints. If we are invisible, we inflict less damage to our environment, or so goes the idea.
Mercedes Benz has made use of this invisibility metaphor:
(Of course, it’s not ‘us’ who are invisible. We still wish to be acknowledged for our eco-conscious choices.)
INVISIBILITY AS SEAMLESS INTEGRATION
Why are amateur photographers in the Nokia Lumia 1020 commercial taking photos with empty hands? They are trying to tell us the device is so streamlined that taking a photo on a device is not an intrusion into your ‘real life’. Also, it takes such good photos that it’s like you’re really there, even when looking at the photo, not the actual event.)
INVISIBILITY LEADING TO NEGLECT
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; see the annotated version by Leonard Marcus
“Milo’s lesson on perspective continues in the twin cities of Reality and Illusions. Since the residents of Reality have decided to block out their perceptions by turning their heads down and hurrying from place to place, their city has become literally invisible. The city of Illusions is even worse; it does not even exist as anything but a mirage. Here Juster seems to be referring to the tendency of people to rush past the important things in everyday life.”
The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan
In The Lost Thing, adults have become so world-weary that they no longer notice things around them, including things which need their help. Only a young person is able to see what’s really there, due to his childlike curiosity.
INVISIBILITY HIDING INEQUALITY
If everyone really understood how inequality works, surely we’d be so seething with rage that we would take to the streets.
The truly rich are so removed from ordinary people’s lives that we never see what they have. We may notice, and feel aggrieved about, college kids driving luxury cars; but we don’t see private equity managers commuting by helicopter to their immense mansions in the Hamptons. The commanding heights of our economy are invisible because they’re lost in the clouds.
Our Invisible Rich from The NYT
Wealth invisibility is just one example of problematic invisibility. Fortunately, more and more is being said about invisible labour and also invisible disability. While visibility doesn’t always mean acceptance, which doesn’t always mean inclusion, visibility is a necessary first step for marginalised groups.
When the media fails to report on human rights abuses, we turn a blind eye. This explains the difference in response between an American refugee crisis and an Australian one. In Australia, the refugees were deliberately hidden from media, and by proxy, from Australians.
Symbolic annihilation is a concept which applies to narrative — when certain groups do not appear in a story, they have been annihilated symbolically. This is another form of problematic invisibility, and because we are so used to seeing certain groups in story from birth to grave, we don’t automatically notice it’s a problem. This needs to be pointed out.