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Corona reading Current Affairs Pop Culture

Consider the Pandemic Plushie

Guest Blog for Bunker Bloggers by Scott Herring

The past few weeks have witnessed an astonishing efflorescence of deviant typologies: the blasé super-spreader, the face toucher, the way-too-close cougher, the spring breaker, sun bathers en masse, the 5G cell tower arsonist, the N95 mask hoarder, the paper towel price gouger, the hydroxychloroquine profiteer. To varying degrees, each violates our new social order. Some (Brady Sluder, of “if I get corona, I get corona” infamy) have issued apologies on social media accounts after significant shaming. Others (Baruch Feldheim and his 192,000 masks) deserve prosecution. Still others (you, anonymous white lady who ran off with the contents of a Dollar Tree store in Pompano Beach, Florida) will live on the InterWebs as a cautionary tale of How Not To Buy TP in a Global Pandemic.  It’s folks like these last two—those who media outlets often classify as “exploiters” of novel coronavirus—that populate my browser history these days, alongside sites tracking horrific projections and numbing numbers of “total deaths” updated second by second on Worldometers.info. Whether I like it or not, such individuals find themselves immersed in material deviance amidst the queer world of COVID-19 goods. 

Add Etsy sellers to this strange mix. Founded in 2005 and specializing in “extraordinary items, from unique handcrafted pieces to vintage treasures,” the online store has been a vital platform for Do-It-Yourself small business owners that enables arts and crafts to flourish well into the third decade of the twenty-first century. Yet little more than a month ago many sellers found themselves in the same taxonomic boat with Sluder. In a tale retold by Business Insider, The Hollywood Reporter, The Verge, and Wired, a March 4, 2020 Buzzfeed News article reported that “Etsy Just Removed All Coronavirus-Themed Merchandise.” To be precise, the article detailed, Etsy stated that “we have […] taken down hundreds of items that attempt to exploit the developing coronavirus situation.” Most of these items, we are informed, were from sellers whose questionable goods “used the coronavirus as a punchline,” including unfunny clothing that recalled U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s racist insistence on titling SARS-CoV-2 “the Wuhan virus.” Another item banned from Etsy, ironically, was a candle that urged its lighters to “Wash your hands and don’t be racist.” The gist of Etsy’s decree was that now wasn’t an especially ripe moment for yucks of any sort.  Swept up in this purge, Buzzfeed News also noted, was Tahani Baakdhah, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, who knits spectacular art in her spare time as a stem cell researcher.  Check out her Etsy site, The PurpleLilac Science Crochet, and click on “crocheted cirrhotic hepatocyte” or “crocheted stem cell earrings.” When interviewed, Baakdhah confirmed “that she started making coronavirus-shaped crochet art a few weeks ago” as part of her longstanding commitment to crafty “educational products.”

Quite a few sellers, however, have found ways to work around Etsy’s prohibition after its early March restrictions. If you type virus into the Etsy search engine, you find an impressive array of queer objects enabling you to purchase your own novel coronavirus—or at least versions of it inspired by the now-familiar image Centers for Disease Control and Prevention artists Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins created earlier this year. You can buy a “virus cat/ferret toy” that looks suspiciously like the CDC’s red and gray studded prototype. You can purchase “Calling out Corona lampwork earrings” from Estonian artist Laura Šmideberga. You can order virus pendants, virus cufflinks, virus plushies, virus pincushions, and “amigurumi crochet virus” from Dudochka at Crochet Toys Studio Co., a seller based in Kiev, Ukraine who excels at this craftwork. That last piece now sits on my writing desk and it is a marvel of Eastern European-meets-Japanese contemporary women’s folk art: intricate yarn weavings that mimetically replicate the CDC’s depiction. As one of Dudochka’s merchandise images shows, her amigurumi COVID-19 easily fits in the palm of your hand in a perverse form of queer animacy.

Why purchase a coronavirus for your home office? Or toss one into your ferret’s cage? Or wear one across your neck? Etsy’s ban on “coronavirus-themed content” due to its unseemliness is but one way of approaching a globalized crew of “exploiters” like Baakdhah, or Šmideberga, or Dudochka. There are others. While I write in the midst of needless swift death thanks to inept elected officials, it strikes me that these Etsy sellers are also peddling a version of what Lauren Berlant terms lateral agency.  In the same manner that we take small pleasures in eating packets of Combos or looking at screens that may not be breaking with unbearable news (Tiger King, much?), a crocheted virus can make these really bad days momentarily bearable. It “adds a little bit of levity to our home confinement,” one buyer posted in a review. I am inclined to agree. A virus replica soothed this buyer, and who’s to say that it didn’t mitigate the anxieties of its maker, too? You can hold COVID-19 in your hands as a de-stressor, if you like, and one Etsy seller does pitch their crafty virus as a double-duty stress ball. Such objects and their exchange queer the proscribed relationship to the virus as one of both anxiety and social isolation.

At the same time, I wonder about essential workers—often minority populations—who might wear coronavirus earrings along with a homemade facemask if they have but little choice to go out and work in the world. Even though Etsy notes that these masks “aren’t medical grade,” the company helpfully offers them at relatively affordable prices and styles including one with “FCKRONA” stitched in rainbow colors. Here and there on the site you can also find plastic face shields, a testament to the abysmal job the U.S. federal government has done securing reliable supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE). As a part of this rapidly emerging medico-material world that links the home to the hospital to the bodega to the public park, might Etsy coronaviruses somehow protect one from the panic surrounding this pandemic, however fantastic the wish? 

If so, treat these wares as complements to the “Virus Protection” crystals, the “touch-free door openers,” the tiny knobs to press elevator buttons without using your fingertip, and, yes, the bottles of homemade travel-size hand sanitizer that all populate Etsy’s marketplace. As Šmideberga remarks about her glass virus earrings: “A modern amulet. A talisman for our time. Ancient Nordic practices indicate that the way to deal with something evil or unwelcome is to laugh, or bring it into the light.” While such merchandise may fall under “the wave of exploitative and misleading products” as characterized by Business Insider, these virus tchotchkes are also crystals of a sort, or charms, even though Šmideberga is “not offering any cures.” Hence it is not surprising that another seller, SkyzWonders’s Crochet Crafts based in Starkville, Mississippi, offers a crocheted virus wearing a disposable earloop mask. In a world yet to be vaccinated against this coronavirus disease, Etsy is where some go to find extraordinary trinkets that use the virus to try to ward off this plague’s attendant trepidation. 

I do not for a minute think such merchandise is a cure-all or a substitute for hard science. I know full well that stressors will persist for far too long. These goods are, however, a supplement to public health guidelines and those fortunate enough to have decent medical care—a non-pharmaceutical intervention where a stuffed virus is tantamount to anti-anxiety antibodies. Or as Baakdhah’s pinned January 30th tweet on her @Thepurplelilac account confirms: “Crochet replicate of #Corona virus.  This version is one of a kind and can’t be reproduce in laboratories or in nature. It is 100% safe and trusted.”  Exactly. With the queer art of viral amigurumi, this Etsy seller lets you fleetingly cultivate the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19—which is as much distrust of governmental incompetence and mismanagement—and immunize yourself against them. Posted one admirer, Joel, to Baakdhah’s Etsy account: “PurpleLilacAmigurumi Thank you for the beautifully work of a smiling Covid 19. At least not to be afraid of it and a good way to say to the virus we are not enemies keep cool please.” Bonds with novel queer inhumanisms are being forged online and with free shipping as I type.

Would it be too much, finally, to cast these wayward Etsy sites a form of queer craftivism that Ann Cvetkovich explores in Depression: A Public Feeling? Offering some succor, these sellers seem less like exploiters or profiteers and more like lack-of-government-faith healers. Someday in the not-so-distant future these items will wind up as an important archive for scholar-activists trying to make historical sense of the catastrophe in which many find themselves—as but one window into what Priscilla Wald calls our viral cultures. In the long meanwhile of 2020, keep on supporting your online small businesses as they keep up their material deviance. An army of knitters, crafters, and noncompliant sellers do not offer the necessities of life by any shape of the imagination, but the wares they peddle are still necessary in these terrible times. With their harmless materials, they are doing some of us out here worlds of queer good. 

for Princess Immunity Kitty

Scott Herring is James H. Rudy Professor of English at Indiana University.  He is the author of several books including The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2014).

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