Best stories / essays / movies about (social or physical) invisibility?
May 16, 2016 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Please help me find writing and art about feeling or being invisible to the world.

I'm thinking about designing a first year university English class based on the the idea that one of the most important things art does is make the invisible visible (and even if I don't teach it, I'd like to read more about the idea). Any recommendations of art / literature / poetry / news articles / movies about invisibility would be greatly appreciated!

Obviously Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison addresses this theme, and this article about the invisibility of mental illness is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. Adrienne Rich's essay "Invisibility in Academe" fits but is a bit dated, and Timothy Pachirat's chapter "A Politics of Sight" in Every 12 Seconds is also great. Bonus points for stories or articles by First Nations authors.

Other general themes that I want to get at: the power of being intentionally invisible (e.g. for surveillance), the invisible feeling of loneliness/isolation, and making-visible / representation as a political strategy (e.g. the way Upton Sinclair's The Jungle aimed to improve labour conditions by representing to the public the horrid conditions in slaughterhouses). Thanks!
posted by Edna Million to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin?
posted by JoannaC at 3:29 PM on May 16, 2016

posted by librarina at 3:32 PM on May 16, 2016

There's a Buffy episode that does this (Out of Mind, out of sight). Also the Pixar movie The Incredibles (though only in passing).

Your thesis statement reminds me of a ... germaine greer? quote, or maybe Camille paglia? Angela Carter? But Googling isn't helping, sorry.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:43 PM on May 16, 2016

A few more :-)

These are all non-fiction and I can vouch for each:

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (young girl in hiding during war)
A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Klebold (mother of a notorious killer)
You're Never Weird on the Internet by Felicia Day (overcoming social anxiety via internet culture)
My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege (granddaughter of a Nazi)
So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (people who have been shamed online)
First Family Detail by Ronald Kessler (stories from secret service agents in the White House)

And fiction:

The List by Siobahn Vivian (high school students on anonymously posted pretty/ugly list)
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks (story of a boy's imaginary friend)
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (the legitimate and secret daughters of a bigamist)
posted by JoannaC at 3:45 PM on May 16, 2016

There's a great Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode== "Gone"-- where Buffy is really overwhelmed with life and the expectations placed on her by everyone else, and by chance ends up hit by an invisibility ray (just go with it :) and finds she likes being invisible. She ends up going to her sometimes-boytoy's crypt (again, go with it, he's a vampire and lives in a crypt) and he's the only one who realizes what's happening. She takes advantage of her invisibility to have her way with him.
Anyway, it's a cute episode, with some sex too, which your students might like. The interesting thing is that she WANTS to be invisible, and finds that she can actually be more expressive of herself (and her sexuality, if you want to get into that) when no one can see her.
I couldn't find the episode online, but someone's put the dailies from the filming on Youtube:
posted by my-sharona at 3:46 PM on May 16, 2016

David Mitchell's Ghostwritten is not quite what you're asking for, but I think it fits what you're aiming at. It's definitely about making the invisible visible, but the "invisible" is more the inner self, the threads that connect us, the people we've left behind, and other concepts. And it's a gorgeous book.

Edith Wharton's House of Mirth is about a woman who becomes a social nonentity because of her choices, and is treated as if invisible by society - not by her choosing - as a result.

Your question also made me think of Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series, and Granny Weatherwax's method of becoming invisible:
Some people are good at talking, but Granny Weatherwax was good at silence. She could sit so quiet and still that she faded. You forgot she was there. The room became empty. It upset people. It was probably meant to. But Tiffany had learned silence too, from Granny Aching, her real grandmother. Now she was learning that if you made yourself really quiet, you could become almost invisible. Granny Weatherwax was an expert. Tiffany thought of it as the I'm-not-here spell, if it was a spell.

She reasoned that everyone had something inside them that told the world they were there. That was why you could often sense when someone was behind you, even if they were making no sound at all. You were receiving their I-am-here signal. Some people had a very strong one. They were the people who got served first in shops. Granny Weatherwax had an I-am-here signal that bounced off the mountains when she wanted it to; when she walked into a forest, all the wolves and bears ran out the other side. She could turn it off, too. She was doing that now. Tiffany was having to concentrate to see her. Most of her mind was telling her that there was no one there at all.
posted by Mchelly at 3:47 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

There was a memorable episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone run called To See The Invisible Man about a man who is sentenced to a year of invisibility. He's not actually made invisible, the authorities give him a brand that informs everyone that he is now "invisible" and to be ignored, on pain of being made invisible themselves if they acknowledge his existence. Haven't seen it in probably decades but that one stuck with me.
posted by rodlymight at 3:59 PM on May 16, 2016

The Awakening by Kate Chopin. It's about a woman whose individuality is covered over and dis-acknowledged (and therefore she is made invisible) by the world she lives in.
posted by Blitz at 4:06 PM on May 16, 2016

Oh, what rodlymight posted reminded me of that old short story, Man without a Country-- again, not literal invisibility, but social. He was sentenced to confinement on a naval ship, but no one was allowed to mention the United States to him. (I think his crime was participating in the Aaron Burr coup attempt.) Here's the story:

Coming from 100 years after it was written and 200 years after it took place, I had this odd sense that it connects to the experience of undocumented workers in our country-- necessary but necessarily invisible. And some really are stateless, and their children too-- citizens of nowhere, protected by no laws.
posted by my-sharona at 4:09 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

If science fiction is permissible, Larry Niven's A Gift From Earth is the story of a man with the involuntary psychic power to make people completely lose interest in him and forget he's there.
posted by ejs at 4:10 PM on May 16, 2016

Perhaps it's not exactly on the nose, but the movie The Station Agent gets close to some of the themes you're aiming at. Plus, Peter Dinklage in an excellent role that's not Tyrion Lannister.
posted by cleverevans at 5:11 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Racial invisibility is a major theme running through Claudia Rankine's difficult-to-categorize work Citizen, especially the passages dealing with microaggressions. I think there's a lot to work with there, and it's an important book by an important author.
posted by drlith at 5:39 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bonus points for stories or articles by First Nations authors.

Can't link from phone but: Here is a mini-essay/ Facebook post specifically about First Nations invisibility by the amazing Mvskoke poet Joy Harjo.
And here is another fantastic Facebook site called Invisible Nations that is about all sorts of First Nations issues
posted by flourpot at 6:18 PM on May 16, 2016

The Glamour by Christopher Priest
posted by crocomancer at 4:33 AM on May 17, 2016

Here is a link to a Star Trek: Voyager episode called Unforgettable.

Here's the description of the opening: "A cloaked ship suddenly appears with an injured female onboard hailing Chakotay. Once Kellin, the injured woman, is beamed to sickbay, she asks the Captain for asylum from her people. When Chakotay asks how she knows him, she explains that she was recently on Voyager for several weeks. No one remembers her because memories of her people cannot be held in the minds of others for more than a few hours. Her body produces a pheromone that blocks their long-term memory engrams. She confesses that she has returned to Voyager because she fell in love with Chakotay."

Star Trek covers the concept of invisibility several times throughout its seasons/series.
posted by Amy NM at 6:43 AM on May 17, 2016

This is an episode from "The New Twilight Zone" from the 1980's.
posted by neutralmojo at 9:13 AM on May 17, 2016

Villette by C Bronte is about a woman who feels she is pretty much invisible, personally and socially.

There's a short story by Alfred Bester about a man who is shunned by society - deliberately ignored - I think because he is a criminal - and there's a great scene where he puts on scuba gear and goes under water and connects with a human being (a girl) because she doesn't recognise who she is. As soon as they resurface, she is immediately repulsed. Can't remember the name tho... :( (he's clearly not invisible, but people pretend that he is)
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 10:49 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Women Men Don't See by James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon).
posted by creepygirl at 11:27 AM on May 17, 2016

Awesome, thanks everyone--can't wait to check these out!
posted by Edna Million at 12:22 PM on May 19, 2016

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