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Suffering Sappho! Wonder Woman and Feminism By Jack Halberstam

5 Jul
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Suffering Sappho!!

For those of you young enough to associate the term Amazon only with the corporate giant that slew the bookstores and sold the world, the new Wonder Woman movie may not evoke any earlier lesbian or feminist associations. But for people who still remember certain strands of lesbian feminism from the 1970’s, the term Amazon conjures fierce, one-breasted women who lived without men and who fought, hunted, made war and love and generally embodied a utopian feminist past. And while the Amazons so beloved of lesbian feminists tended to be figured as white, others may make connections to the Dahomey Amazons – not mythological figures at all but an all female military regiment started by the third King of Dahomey in the 17th century. These Black Amazons held political power and trained for war and were only disbanded when Dahomey became a French protectorate.

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Seh-Dong-Hong Beh, a leader of the Amazons of Dahomey

The now much maligned Michigan Women’s Music Festival used to open and close every year with a group rendition of Maxine Feldman’s  “Amazon” (“Amazon women rise, Amazon women weaving rainbows in the skies. Amazon women fly, Amazon women fly!”) And Feldman left no doubt as to what she meant by Amazon: “I am and once was called Amazon, now I am called lesbian!” That is clearly not the meaning of Amazon in the new Wonder Woman movie and indeed the Diana Prince who leaves Themyscira for London is no Dahomey style man-killer. She does not come to bury patriarchy, she just wants her place at the table. Indeed, our era’s Wonder Woman spends more time ‘leaning in’ than leaning on the bad guys.

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Leaning in?

Too bad, because I had very high hopes for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Jenkins, after all, made the fantastic Monster in 2003 starring Charlize Theron as famed rape revenge serial killer, Aileen Wuornos. And Wonder Woman as a character and a comic book hero has a long and colorful origin story that stretches back through early suffragettes, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and a domestic triangle involving psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway and his student/lover Olive Byrne (also Sanger’s niece). None of these details make their way into Jenkins’ superhero movie, alas, and instead we get a competent, conventional blockbuster with an alluring lead actress and long drawn out action sequences punctuated by a few moments of humor, a few leaden speeches and a rewritten version of World War One!

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William Marston with both of his female partners (Olive Byrne in white and Elizabeth Holloway in the right hand corner) and their four children.

 

wonder-2The Wonder Woman of the comic books from the 1940’s was a social justice figure – she opposed male dominance; she defeated the Nazis; she rescued people; and in one issue, she ran for president. In Patty Jenkins’ film, a blockbuster angling for franchise status and no doubt timed to coincide with what most people thought would be the first female presidency in the US, Wonder Woman is a romantic heroine, looking for a mate and fighting baddies along the way. For those who are so inclined, one could even read a Zionist narrative into Jenkins’ film given that Diana Prince is played by Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress, and former Miss Israel, who credits her time spent in the Israeli Defense Forces for her winning the part of Gisele in the Fast and Furious franchise. Her military expertise is fully on show in Wonder Woman. Also, Jenkins’ Wonder Woman moves the comic book narrative setting of World War 2 to World War 1, probably because an Israeli actress fighting Nazi’s in World War 2 would require some kind of discourse on the Holocaust!

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The Germans are still the bad guys in this version and actually the first time Diana meets Steve Trevor he is wearing a German uniform for disguise and the Amazons ask him how they are supposed to tell the difference between him and the enemy. Good question! And would that the film had followed up on this Amazonian instinct that wars pit one form of violent and racist nationalism against another…but we lose sight of any kind of critique quickly as a heteropornographic conceit takes over in which a lovely woman has been stranded in an asexual community of women and then spies a naked man for the first time. After some banter about whether the naked Steve is a worthy representative of the male species, Diana Prince begins the inevitable fall into the sloppy clichés of hetero romance accompanied by bottom-feeding lines like: “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”

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“Men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary.”

This is all very disappointing, if only because Wonder Woman began promisingly enough with scenes of Diana’s childhood in Themyscira: this was women-only territory and the women were training for war. In Amazon territory, viewers are treated to some bona-fide female muscularity in the form of Robin Wright, who plays Diana’s aunt, Antiope, and there are even quick explanations for the absence of men – “men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary.” Once she leaves her Amazonian isle, Diana is plucky and feisty enough and she quickly lets Steve Trevor know “what I do is not up to you.” She consistently out thinks, out fights and out runs him and he underestimates her at his peril. But his presence is intended to snuff out any fantasies of Amazonian love between women.

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Perhaps Patty Jenkins should have made the Wonder Woman film a narrative nested in the far more interesting story about the polyamorous threesome of Marston, Holloway and Byrne who, together, coproduced the fantasy that finally made it to the pages of DC comics. Jill Lepore, in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, tells this story  with verve and skill and she untangles this history from a straightforward account of comics and locates the emergence of Wonder Woman firmly within a scene of sexual experimentation, security porn and suffragette feminism! According to Lepore, Marston, who is also credited with the invention of the lie detector, first married a lawyer, Elizabeth Holloway, and then fell in love with his student, the boyish Olive Byrne. The three lived together and shared household intimacies, chores and inspiration and they had four children together. After Marston’s death, the two women continued to live together, suggesting that the intimacy was not simply an extended three way in which the women shared the man. Olive was the niece of the great suffragist and early feminist Margaret Sanger and it was she who brought Sanger’s activism and writings to Marston’s attention. Much of Sanger’s work fueled Marston’s imagination when, later in life, he was hired to create a female superhero for DC comics. According to Lepore: Marston’s comic, was meant to chronicle what he called “a great movement now under way—the growth in the power of women.”

imagesMarston’s Wonder Woman was fiercely feminist. She was bold and strong if also limited and liberal (she believes in “truth” after all!). But the Wonder Woman that he and Byrne and Holloway birthed was sexually inventive and gave voice to a kind of lusty relation to life, love and romance – romance for her often involved inverted gender roles, light bondage and a casual relation to violence. Many of the Wonder Woman stories played out Marston’s ideas about the power of men submitting to women and there was a non-exclusive representation of heterosexuality capacious enough to allow for a frisson between Diana Prince and her Amazonian sisterhood. Power dynamics, in the Wonder Woman comics, were full of eros and like Marston and Byrne, student-teacher dynamics were avowedly erotic rather than sources of anxiety and concern. Wonder Woman was a utopian who believed in a world made lousy by men and a potential world in which women kept everything in check.

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That the power of women might be linked to lesbianism is not a hidden theme in Wonder Woman. According to Jill Lepore and others, lesbianism was always a clear part of the narrative. Indeed, conservatives railed against both Batman and Wonder Women in the 1950’s on account of the clear implications of a gay relationship between Batman and Robin and the obvious association between Diana Prince and lesbianism. Most accounts of the comic book character refer to her as bisexual. And yet, in the 2017 movie, in an era of gay marriage and public recognition of LGT families, the plot makes no nod to Sapphic love at all! Indeed, Diana Prince only comes to life when she meets Steve Trevor, leaves the island and begins a romantic flirtation with him. He even names her, for god’s sake, when he cuts her off as she is explaining to a military man in London that she is Princess of Themyscira. She gets only as far as “Prince…” when Steve interrupts and says “Prince, Diana Prince…” She also gets her “love conquers all” and “only believe” lines from Steve and the film suggests that after Steve is gone, she still believes he will return to her. Diana’s relations to women are firmly situated in a mythic past and they are all firmly situated as kin rather than love interests.

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While the Wonder Woman of the early years of comics regularly rescued her mates, now she relies upon them to do the heavy lifting. The female super hero who carried men to safety and punctuated many a particularly gnarly situation with pithy catch phrases – “suffering Sappho” but also “great Hera!” and “Athena’s shield! – is nowhere to be found in 2017, in a future world that early Wonder Woman could never have been pessimistic enough to predict. So, what is a contemporary Wonder Woman to do? Too queer for Hollywood, too powerful for male pornographic gazes, too militaristic for feminists, too feminist for Christians (probably too Jewish for Christians in the latest incarnation), too dangerous and castrating to be victim to Trump-like pussy grabbing activity, but too liberal to lead a freedom fight. While Wonder Woman in the past, and definitely in Marston’s version, strongly embodied the feminist aspirations and struggles of the day, does she represent any kind of feminism now?

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Marston’s Wonder Woman might be bewildered by the marketplace of ideas about feminism now and might not be sure whether she is a feminist or not, or what feminism even means in an era when Ivanka Trump, Angela Merkel and Cheryl Sandberg represent female accomplishment! Diana Prince is certainly no corporate feminist asking for a seat at the table; but nor is she simply Roxanne Gay’s “bad feminist” in the sense of finding herself outside its logic. Is she the womanist feminist of 1970’s radical feminism? A lesbian separatist stranded outside the Michigan Women’s Music Festival? Or is she the anarcho-feminist from my Gaga Feminism? Could she be the central character, with her raised fist and willful arm, of Sara Ahmed’s powerful polemic: Living a Feminist Life (Duke UP, 2017)? And will contemporary young feminists embrace the 1940’s Wonder Woman or ask for a trigger warning in relation to her preference for militaristic solutions to political problems?

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To take just one of these options, Sara Ahmed’s sense of a “feminist life,” we might find only a very rough fit between Ahmed’s principles and Wonder Woman’s proto-feminism. And at certain points, they would have to part ways. Sara Ahmed’s book was written in the wake of her decision to leave Goldsmith, a hard decision that she made, as she puts it, “after three years of working with others to challenge how sexual harassment has become normalized in academic culture.” Deciding to give up the institutional life with its tendency to provide brick walls for us to knock our heads against in favor of a feminist life, Ahmed returns to the work of philosopher Marilyn Fry, Black feminists bell hooks and Audre Lorde and other thinkers often associated with 1970’s and 1980’s radical feminism and even argues that “we need a revival of lesbian feminism.” This return has Amazonian potential as does the book’s embrace of willfulness and killjoy tendencies. Reviving the call to see the personal as political, Ahmed quotes Fry’s notion of “lived theory” and even flirts with her separatist orientations (Ahmed declines to quote white men in this book).

But, Ahmed also positions feminism as an “archive of fragility” – she defines fragility as “the quality of being easily breakable” and feminism as “self-breakage” and a feminist politics of fragility as a model of “not only how to survive what we come up against but how to enable relationships to endure that can be easily threatened by what we come up against.” This fragile feminism has little room for a bondage-oriented super hero committed to fighting evil men in hand to hand combat (although Ahmed does conjure the image of a feminist army!). Ahmed’s book is beautiful in places, profound in others and it ricochets between pure anger, despair and a poetic conjuring of the inevitability of miscommunication, and the futility of institutional routes to multiracial and non-sexist education.

But ultimately Ahmed’s return to lesbian feminism, the reclaiming of the kill joy is not as inclusive as Ahmed makes it sound and despite reaching out to trans women with the definition of womanhood as “all who travel under the sign women,” the history of lesbian feminism that she draws upon is the exact history of feminism that made transwomen unwelcome in the first place! And the connection between feminism and fragility, along with Ahmed’s sympathy for trigger warnings and calls for safe space, and never mind her warning that humor “is a crucial technique for reproducing inequality and injustice” might ultimately leave readers with a depressive version of feminism – one that precisely lacks joy, pleasure and sex.

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Wonder Woman, might balk at having to understand herself a part of what Ahmed calls a “fragile archive,” a record of the many slights and wounds that female-bodied people are dealt in a male-centric world. In Ahmed’s world, Diana Prince would not have much recourse to humor and she might have to issue a few trigger warnings before seriously kicking some patriarchal ass. Wonder Woman would be inclusive of trans women but she would ultimately have her fist in the air for safe spaces, sensitive students who are used and abused and a kind of femininity that does not want to hear about the erotics of bondage.

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Likely Ahmed would not accept Wonder Woman as a symbol of the “feminist life.” But if we return to the Black Amazons of Dahomey, we can find a better image for her book and for some compromise between the tough, gnarly, intersectional feminism that she offers us and the anarchic power of the super hero. Fortunately, Wonder Woman had a much more interesting twin sister – Nubia – a Black super hero sculpted from dark clay while Wonder Woman was sculpted from light clay by their mother! When the two meet, in a volume of Wonder Woman comics from January 1973, they engage in woman to woman combat – Nubia wins but does not kill Diana, instead she claims the title of the Real Wonder Woman and the two unite to defeat Mars. In another issue, Diana is battling to “free the women of Africa.” This is laughable when we remember the Dahomey militias, and luckily Nubia steps in to save “the women of Africa” from the promised emancipation at the hands of a white hero, and she gives Diana a lesson in anti-colonial struggle.

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We might hope for some future Wonder Woman movies that hew more closely to the spirit of the original Wonder Woman than Pattie Jenkins’ safe and genre conforming film. Supposedly something is in the works about Marston, Holloway and Byrne and there are also rumors of a Nubia film with squabbles online about whether Nubia should be played by Serena Williams! Either of these has more potential to tap into super-heroic feminist powers than the film we have been given in 2017, a time when a few violent women willing to put male “heroes” in their place while fighting for justice could go a long way. If someone is sharpening her pencil and readying to write/draw an episode of Wonder Woman in which both Wonder Women – Diana Prince and Nubia – or even a multi-racial coalition of trans* Wonder Women are gearing up to fight an evil Overlord with yellow hair, tiny hands and an even tinier vocabulary, let me know. And when they are finished with him, how about fighting a host of Overlords like Google, Uber, Whole Foods and others and taking back the term Amazon for more righteous and queer utopian freedom dreams?

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WHITE MEN BEHAVING SADLY by Jack Halberstam

22 Feb

White Men Behaving Sadly

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At the end of a year in which men behaved badly, madly, and even gladly, how appropriate that an Oscar contending film appears in which men behave, yup, sadly. Indeed all the ladly behaviors that make up the repertoire of white masculinity have culminated in this – a film where we finally understand why the white man is sad, why everyone else is bad and why despite being sad because everyone else is bad, he learns to be a dad.

Manchester by The Sea (directed by Kenneth Lonergan) is a self-indulgent but pretty picture in which Affleck the Younger, Casey that is, mopes around for a full hour onscreen before we understand that something terrible has happened to him. His brother dies but that barely merits a tear from our sad sack chap. So could it be that he has a really bad job as a handy man that puts him in the way of verbal abuse from women and people or color and even an episode that comes close to sexual harassment from a woman of color? No, the sad white man mostly just takes the abuse and keeps on keeping on. He soldiers on because he is a white man behaving sadly and that is what white men do. So what is the terrible thing that has happened to Casey Affleck to make him move around in the world like a zombie, silent and brooding, angry and resentful. Well, spoiler alert, let me explain. Lee Chandler (played by Affleck the Younger), we find out in flashbacks, once had a wife and some kids. And he was a good man. And he behaved gladly and sometimes even a little badly. Like, one night he had his buddies over and they made too much noise. So his wife broke up the party and made them go home. Sulking, Lee makes a fire in the living room and then steps out into the night to get some more beer. By the time he gets home, his house has burned down with his children in it and only his wife escapes.

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After an episode in the police station where you think that maybe he might be charged with something, manslaughter perhaps, he finally wigs out about what has happened and tries to grab a police officer’s gun, presumably to kill himself. The police politely restrain him and he is released to his brother’s care. Well, wow. So he burned his own house down and waved a gun around in a police station and lived to tell the tale because…sad white men’s lives matter and so accidently burning your kids and waving a gun at cops is not a big deal and just requires a little TLC! Don’t you get it? He is hurting and we are expected to cry for him because it is all so sad…for him! Not for his wife, not for those kids, not for his brother, but for him. All the bad things that happen around him, are his bad things.

Why are white men so sad? Well, in this film, they are sad because women are fucked up shrews and alcoholics who drag them down, give them heart attacks and, for god’s sake, try to talk to them and offer them food. They are also sad because they work for very little money and do the worst jobs in the world. They clean other peoples’ toilets, fix their showers and live in small garrets alone and with very bad furniture. Poor sad white men. This sad white man also has to take on the burden of parenthood after his brother’s death. His brother left his only son in Lee’s care and Lee and the boy tussle about girls, sex and authority until Lee learns to see the boy as his heir, as another white man who should enjoy his adolescence because soon everything will be taken from him too.

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Yes, reader, this is a film made to measure for the coming Trump era, a time when white men can stop being sad, feel very glad and grab lots of pussy with impunity. Like Trump’s entire campaign, this film does not need to trumpet its white supremacy because this doctrine is embedded in every scene, it saturates every shot, it controls the camera and it lives in every hangdog moment that Lee Chandler spends staring silently off into space. Whiteness, the film tells us, is part of the frayed beauty of America and its power hangs in the balance in a world where bad things can and do happen to white men…even when they themselves cause those bad things to happen! Indeed, off screen Casey Affleck has been cast as a serial sexual abuser and while accusations of sexual harassment brought Black director Nate Parker’s Oscar hopes to a sordid conclusion, Affleck’s history with sexual harassment suits barely merits a mention. This film gives us a clue as to how powerful white men see the world, women, love, loss and violence – it is all one tragic narrative about how hurt and misunderstood they really are.

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The world of “Manchester by the Sea” is the world imagined by white men in an era when a Black man was in the white house and women held public offices at many levels. It is a world where the white working class man has no power – he dies young (Lee’s brother), he lives alone (Lee), he cannot even enjoy spending time in his basement with other white men. His wife treats him badly and then later, after the tragic event (that he himself caused) his Black boss and his female customers abuse him. The white world of Manchester by the Sea is elegiac, brimming with a sense of tragedy that exceeds the events on the screen and asks us, begs us even to find a reason for why things should be this way.

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There are great tragedies written about women who have killed or been forced to kill their children – think of Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved who takes a hatchet to her baby rather than relinquish her back to slavery. Think of Medea who kills her children to take revenge on her husband and their father, Jason, for leaving them. Think of Sophie in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice who must choose to let one child live and the other die upon entering Auschwitz. These stories show infanticide as a deliberate action taken as part of a sacrifice or to prevent something worse than death from happening. No such logic underwrites Manchester by the Sea – the death of the children is almost gratuitous, it means nothing in the film except as its function as the source of irreducible melancholia for the white man. This same melancholia does not affect his wife (played by Michelle Williams) who quickly marries and has another child. There is no set up in the film to show us the bond between Lee and his children; there is little that explains the melancholia – is it guilt? Anger?

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While critics fall over themselves to give this film an Oscar, we should ask what the film is really about. If this film is an allegory then it is a perfect symbolic landscape of the territory that ushered Trump into office – the film sees the world only through the eyes of working class white men. It sees such men as tragic and heroic, as stoic and moral, as stern but good. The film knows that the tragedy from which the white man suffers is of his own making but nonetheless the film believes that the tragedies that they have created happen to them and not to other people. This is the same logic by which Dylan Roof took the lives of nine African American church-goers in South Carolina while claiming to be defending white people from Black criminality and it is the logic by which Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded fourteen others in Isla Vista near UC Santa Barbara in 2014. Rodger left a manifesto behind that represented him as a victim of women who had sexually rejected him. It is the logic of every lone white gunman in America and while the media depicts these killers as mad and marginal, American cinema romanticizes them as sad and solitary. Obviously, Manchester by the Sea is not about a serial killer who turns a gun on innocents and yet innocents do die by his hand and rather than seeing this as a tragic narrative about white male narcissism or about the dangers of centering one group in a complex society, we are asked to read the film as just another story about white men behaving sadly.

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And now, in Oscar season, we prepare to watch the films that celebrate white families, white song and dance, white grief, white music go up against films about Black families (Fences), Black grief (Moonlight), disaporic displacement (Lion), and win or lose, we can hear the storm troopers outside on the streets. Films that a few months ago just seemed to be about sad things or happy things, now appear in a new light and become part of our national tragedy in which all attempts to make diversity mean something, to resist systems that criminalize communities of color while representing white crime as law and order, to rethink sex, are quickly dismissed as identity politics, political correctness or authoritarian feminism. It is time, apparently to make America great again, to cater to the sad white man, to feel his pain, to lift him up and dry his tears. White men have been sad for too long apparently, now it is our turn.

“Hiding the Tears in My Eyes – BOYS DON’T CRY – A Legacy” by Jack Halberstam

7 Dec
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Boys Don’t Cry, 1999

In 1999, just six years after the rape and murder of a young gender variant person, Brandon Teena, and two friends in a small town in Nebraska, Kim Peirce released her first film, a dramatic account of the incident. The film, Boys Don’t Cry, which took years to research, write, fund, cast and shoot, was released to superb reviews and went on to garner awards and praise for the lead actor, Hilary Swank, and the young director, Kim Peirce, not to mention the film’s production team led by Christine Vachon. The film was hard hitting, visually innovative and marked a massive breakthrough in the representation of gender variant bodies. While there were certainly debates about decisions that Peirce made within the film’s narrative arc (the omission of the murder of an African American friend, Philip DeVine, at the same time that Brandon was killed), Boys Don’t Cry was received by audiences at the time as a magnificent film honoring the life of a gender queer youth and bringing a sense of the jeopardy of gender variant experiences to the screen. It was also seen as a sensitive depiction of life in small town USA. Kim Peirce spoke widely about the film in public venues and explained her relationship to the subject matter of gender variance, working class life and gender based violence.

In recent screenings of the film, some accompanied by Peirce as a speaker, others just programmed as part of a class or a film series, younger audiences have taken offence to the film and have accused the filmmaker of making money off the representation of violence against trans people. This at least was the charge made against Kim Peirce when she showed up to speak alongside a special screening of the film at Reed College in Oregon, just days after the Presidential election. Unbeknownst to the organizers, student protestors had removed posters from all around campus that advertised the screening and lecture and they formed a protest group and arrived early to the cinema on the night of the screening to hang up posters.

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Posters at Reed College Protesting the Screening of Boys Don’t Cry, November 2016

These posters voiced a range of responses to the film including: “You don’t fucking get it!” and “Fuck Your Transphobia!” as well as “Trans Lives Do Not Equal $$” and to cap it all, the sign hung on the podium read: “Fuck this cis white bitch”!! The protestors waited until after the film had screened at Peirce’s request and then entered the auditorium while shouting “Fuck your respectability politics” and yelling over her commentary until Peirce left the room. After establishing some ground rules for a discussion, Peirce came back into the room but the conversation again got out of hand and finally a student yelled at Peirce: “Fuck you scared bitch.” At which point the protestors filed out and Peirce left campus.

82e7d16be887d89692c1dfd6efd0aca5This is an astonishing set of events to reckon with for those of us who remember the events surrounding Brandon Teena’s murder, the debates in the months that followed about Brandon Teena’s identity and, later, the reception of the film. Early transgender activism was spurred into action by the murder of Brandon Teena and many activists showed up at the trial of his killers. There were lots of debates at the time about whether Brandon was “butch” or “transgender” but queer and transgender audiences were mostly satisfied with the depiction of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. The film appealed to many audiences, queer and straight, and it continues to play around the world.

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Director, Kimberly Peirce

The accounts given of these recent protests at Reed College give evidence of enormous vitriol, much of it blatantly misogynist (the repeated use of the word “bitch” for example) directed at a queer, butch film maker and they leave us with an enormous number of questions to face about representational dynamics, clashes between different historical paradigms of queer and transgender life and the expression of queer anger that, instead of being directed at murderous enemies in the mainstream of American political life, has been turned onto independent film makers within the queer and LGBT communities. Since this incident at Reed, I have heard from other students that they too felt “uncomfortable” with the representations of transgender life and death in Boys Don’t Cry. These students raise the following objections to the film some fifteen years after its release:

  • First, younger trans oriented audiences want to know if Peirce herself is trans. And they understand her as a non-trans person who is making money from the representation of violence against transgender bodies.
  •  Second, they ask about the casting of a non-trans identified actor in the role of Brandon and wonder why a transgender man was not cast to play Brandon.
  • Third, students in particular have objected to the graphic depiction of rape in the film and feel that the scene is poorly orchestrated and the film is too mired in the pathologization and violation and punishment of transgender bodies.

These are interesting critiques and queries and worthy of conversation in their own right as well as within a clear understanding of the film’s visual grammar and representational strategies. It is not, however, a worthy activist goal to try to suppress the film, to cast it as transphobic and to target Kim Peirce herself as someone who has profited from the exploitation of transgender narratives. The film after all cost only 2 million to make and returned almost nothing to Peirce in profits.

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How might we respond to these objections then in ways that do not completely dismiss the feelings of the students but that ask for different relations to protest, to the reading of complex texts and to the directing of anger about transphobic and homophobic texts onto queer cultural producers?

Here are a few thoughts:

1. We need to situate this film properly within the history of the representation of transgender characters. At the time that Peirce made this film, most films featured transgender people only as monsters, killers, sociopaths or isolated misfits.

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Dressed To Kill, 1980

Few treated transgender people with even a modicum of comprehension and even fewer dealt with the transphobic environments that were part of heteronormative family life. There were very few films prior to Boys that focused upon transgender masculinity and when transgender male characters did appear in film, they were often depicted as women who passed as men for pragmatic reasons (for example The Ballad of Little Joe, 1993) or androgynous figures of whimsy (for example Orlando, 1992).

Boys Don’t Cry is literally the first film in history to build a credible story line around the credible masculinity of a credible trans-masculine figure. Period.

 

2. We cannot always demand a perfect match between directors, actors and the material in any given narrative. As a masculine person from a working class background who had experienced her own sexual abuse, Peirce identified strongly with the life and struggles of Brandon Teena. Peirce is not a transgender man, but is gender variant. The film she produced was sensitive to Brandon Teena’s social environment, his gender identity, his hard upbringing and his struggle to understand himself and to be understood by others. If Peirce told a story in which the transgender body was punished, she did not do so in order to participate in that punishment, she did it because that was what had actually happened to Brandon Teena and it would have been dishonest to tell the story any other way. The violence he suffered stood, at the time, as emblematic of the many forms of violence that transgender people suffered and it called upon the audiences for the film to rebuke the world in which such violence was common place.

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Hilary Swank in her break through performance in Boys Don’t Cry

3. Transgender actors should play transgender roles but that is not always possible and certainly was a long shot at the time that Peirce made the film. Furthermore, it would be more effective to argue that transgender actors should not be limited to transgender roles. Peirce conducted a national search for a trans masculine actor for Boys Don’t Cry. She did screen tests with many trans identified people and she ultimately gave the role to the best actor available who was credible as a young female-bodied person passing for male. That actor was Hilary Swank, known in some circles at the time for her role in The Karate Kid and occasional appearances on Buffy the Vampire. Given the dependence of the success of the film on the acting ability of the main actor, it was vital to have a strong performer in this role and Swank was cast accordingly. Also why should a transgender actor only play a transgender role – shouldn’t we be asking cis-gendered male directors to cast transgender men and women as romantic leads, protagonists, super heroes?

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4. We should not be asking for films to make detours around scenes of sexual violence instead we should be asking about what we actually mean by violence in any given context. In Boys Don’t Cry, the rape scene was brutal, hard to shoot, hard to act in and generally a difficult and emotionally draining piece of filmmaking. But it is also a deeply important part of the film and a way of representing faithfully the brutal violence that was meted out at the time to gender non-conforming bodies and it was true to the specific fate of Brandon Teena. The brutality of the rape also cuts in and out of scenes in the police station when Brandon Teena reports the rape. The police treat Brandon as a “girl” who must have been pleased by the attention from young men and they see the young men as normal, sexual subjects. 23Thus, the rape scene damns the police, highlights the role of violence in the enforcement of normativity and draws the audience’s sympathies to Brandon in a way that makes transphobia morally reprehensible. When we target scenes of rape and sexual violence in independent films about historical characters and call them unwatchable, we are making it difficult to grapple with all kinds of historical material that involves systemic violence and oppression.

But, we are also limiting the meaning of “violence” to physical assault. As so many theorists have shown, violence can also appear in the form of civility, empathy, absence, indifference and non-appearance. Violence is the glue of contemporary representation – we regularly watch films in which cars are blown up (every film with a chase scene), planes are shot down (many films with Tom Cruise or James Bond in them), superheroes sweep the streets of evil taking out hundreds of people at a time (Iron Man but also Ghost Busters), tidal waves sweep through entire cities (The Fifth Wave), colonies of fish are swallowed up by marauding sharks (Finding Nemo), a female deer is shot in front of her child (Bambi), aliens land and eliminate buildings (The War of the Worlds), zombie mobs chase humans and eat them slowly (The Walking Dead) and so on. To focus solely upon sexual violence and to ignore the more general context of cinematic violence and to take complaints only to queer directors who are struggling to represent queer life rather than to straight directors ignoring queer and trans life betrays a limited vision of representational systems and ideologies and ultimately leaves those systems and their biases completely intact.

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“WHO KILLED BAMBI?” SID VICIOUS

At a time of political terror, at a moment when Fascists are in highest offices in the land, when white men are ready and well positioned to mete out punishment to women, queers and undocumented laborers, we have to pick our enemies very carefully. Spending time and energy protesting the work of an extremely important queer filmmaker is not only wasteful, it is morally bankrupt and misses the true danger of our historical moment. 

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STEVE BANNON/DARTH VADER

Winter in America by Jack Halberstam

10 Nov

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“And now it’s winter

Winter in America

And all of the healers done been killed or sent away

Yeah, and the people know, people know

It’s winter Winter in America

And ain’t nobody fighting

Cause nobody knows what to save.”

Gil Scott Heron, “Winter in America” 1974

 

“Winter is Coming.”

Game of Thrones, 2011

 

We do not know what to say or do. We who are usually so full of words, ideas, programs and plans of action, we too fall silent in the face of such devastating news. Donald J. Trump, the clownish buffoon who has been caught on tape berating people of color, women and even babies, for God’s sake, will be the next president of the United States of America. If we thought George W. was bad, wait until we see what a government stacked with right wing Republicans and led by an egotistical fool might do to all semblances of intellectual exchange, economic redistribution and racial justice.

 

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Is this how the Fascism starts, as a creeping, insidious mood of hatred slipping into everyday conversation? Does it begin with the eschewing of complex explanations in favor of simplistic ‘us against them’ accounting? Does Fascism begin when white supremacy is courted, relied upon, solicited but never named as such? Or did this particular political disaster begin when Donald Trump’s outrageous, sexist, misogynist, racist comments were played for the whole nation…and many people did not care because they hear worse everyday, in their homes, at their work places, in public? How about when FBI Director, James Comey, decided to revive the inquiry into Hilary Clinton’s email despite no new evidence compelling him to do so? Has this all been a coup initiated by the FBI, ratified by law and carried out by a rabid group of white men, endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, cheered on by David Duke and involving millions of mostly white voters, including a majority of white women, who happily, cheerily cast their vote for a liar, an avowed racist and a failed businessman who has cheated, shouted and shoved his way into the spotlight?

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We are in checkmate because we turned our backs for a moment and when we did Donald J. Trump moved chess pieces at will, taking the queen and cornering the king. We are down for the count, lost in translation, behind, bewildered, frustrated and legitimately scared. Trump’s election is bad for women, bad for all people of color, bad for business, bad for immigrants, bad for the environment, bad for the economy, bad for babies, bad and getting worse. Donald Trump is good for himself, good for his scary and much more ideologically extreme running mate, Mike Pence, good for angry white men, good for tax dodgers, global warming deniers, corporate elites, unrepentant white supremacists, good for nothing.

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As we near the end of the first day of the new order of Trumpocracy, we better ask ourselves what is to be done. We better meet and sound our outrage, we better establish a plan of action. We need to find better leaders – Hilary Clinton was not the leader many of us wanted even as we felt she would be a capable and reasonable presence in the White House. Where are the young, impassioned, visionary leaders who can, unlike Hilary, outline a detailed opposition to Trumpocracy, give people the argument for universal health care coverage, arm people with not statistics but a critical way of thinking? We need a representative who will actively assuage working class resentment without stirring up racial antipathy; someone who will explain why we pay taxes rather than boast about not doing so. We need someone who does not feel entitled to win office but who rides to victory on a coalition of explicitly leftist platforms. We need a smart, informed speaker who understands the history of race in America, who opposes prisons and demands gun reform and who refuses to apologize for working on behalf of the most vulnerable populations and in opposition to the most entitled.

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s Rally in Mobile Alabama

There have been many shocks this week, shocks that reminded us that “we” are not at all united and “we” will often be defeated. For example, Five Thirty Eight reports today that while Hilary Clinton won women’s votes by 12 points, she lost the votes of white women overall. This is a devastating reminder of how effective compulsory heteronormativity is in this country. Heterosexual white women, despite being regaled by audio tapes of Trump boasting about “grabbing pussy,” despite numerous women stepping forward to give accounts of being molested or harassed by Trump, despite his public and open contempt for women he dates, women he rejects and women he would not even consider, many of these women voted willingly for boorish, violent, contemptuous masculinity. They voted with their men; they voted their racial investments in whiteness, they voted against the security of Roe v. Wade, they voted to continue being helpmates rather than agents, they voted to be cheerleaders and mascots rather than players in the game, they voted against the first female president of the United States. They voted to continue being what Simone De Beauvoir called “the second sex.”

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We have faced political winters before and winter will come again. In 1974 in the wake of a horrifying series of political murders in the US, after the deaths of Martin Luther King, JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X, Gil Scott Heron penned, “Winter in America,” an anthem for dark times. Shana Redmond’s book, Anthem, provides a rich account of the adoption of anthems by Black groups in the diaspora. In the history that Redmond provides, the anthem is wrenched out of its role as a universal statement of belonging and national aspiration and transformed into a rallying cry for a disenfranchised group and a spiritual call to action. We need an anthem now and “Winter in America,” unfortunately, has become relevant again. In the liner notes for his album, Gil Scott-Heron explained his title and connected his music to the political climate around him:

Winter is a metaphor: a term not only used to describe the season of ice, but the period of our lives through which we are traveling…Western iceman have attempted to distort time. Extra months on the calendar and daylight saved what was Eastern Standard. We approach winter the most depressing period in the history of this industrial empire, with threats of oil shortages and energy crises. But we, as Black people, have been a source of endless energy, endless beauty and endless determination. I have many things to tell you about tomorrow’s love and light. We will see you in Spring.

We are now facing our own winter; we too have just put the clocks back to save Eastern Standard time; we too approach a deeply depressing season run by snowmen buoyed by a “whitelash” (Van Jones); we too want to believe that Spring will come but fear that only more winter lies ahead. In this our own “most depressing period,” we watch bankers and realtors and politicians convince working class people that callous disregard for the public good, outrageous extravagance and corrupt racially skewed economic practices will “make America great again.” They will not. They will confirm us as a confederacy of rogues, a global bully, a white supremacist nation committed to rewarding the rich, locking up the poor and handing everything to the clowns, the snowmen, the would-be kings, the small minded men with small hands, big wallets, self-centered dreams and willowy, empty women on their arms. Gil Scott-Heron looked to Black community for hope and termed Black people as a “source of endless energy, endless beauty, and endless determination.” He promised “love and light” in the potentiality of tomorrow even as he mourned the experience of “living in a nation that just can’t stand much more.” Now that democracy is once more “ragtime on the corner,” now that peace is out of reach, now that white men have their fingers on the scales of justice, now that white heterosexual women are standing by their men, now that we know that many gay people and some people of color must have voted for Trump, we better find some coalitions that will still offer the possibility of “energy, beauty and determination.”

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As Game of Thrones warned us in season one, episode one, 2011, “Winter is Coming.” For the House of Stark, this was a warning that political peace is fleeting and unreliable. For us it is a terrifying future that we now confront. In Game of Thrones, winter came and went, men were slaughtered, spirits raised the dead, and women rulers rose up as fighters, witches, as young queens, as rape avengers. Even in this most patriarchal of medieval fantasy worlds, there is space to imagine female sovereignty and a better world forged out of a coalition of the very old, the very young, women, queers, native peoples, people of color, trans people, disabled people, wildings, wolves and dragons. We need to tap into our utopian fantasies now, our freedom dreams (Robin Kelley) to find small channels of potential running through the political architectures in which we are currently imprisoned. I am worried we will not find a way out, and I know you are too; but I also know that we are all ready for the fight of our lives.

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Who Are “We” After Orlando? By Jack Halberstam

22 Jun

 

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In a recent response to the shootings of Latino gay men and others in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida, on June 12 The Atlantic ran an article claiming that violence against LGBT people in the US was all too common and was even more common than violence directed at other minorities. The main argument of this article was repeated four days later in The New York Times under the heading “L.G.B.T. People Are More Likely to Be Targets
of Hate Crimes Than Any Other Minority Group.” Both articles cited the same source, namely research conducted by Southern Poverty Law Center, and both quote a senior fellow there, Mark Potok. In the article that appeared in The Atlantic, Potok is quoted as saying: “LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people.”

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This is an interesting claim in that it presumes both that LGBT people are neither Jews nor Black people and that killers target people only on the basis of one strand of hatred! It also creates a specious hierarchy of violence within which white LGBT people are cast as more vulnerable than other minority groups. These kinds of widely circulated claims support a generalized expression of LGBT vulnerability that appeared on social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, in the wake of the murders. But these killings were highly specific and as new material surfaces on Omar Mateen’s tortured relation to his own sexuality, we want to challenge this sense of an amorphous homophobic threat that separates homophobic violence out from the particular, convulsive expressions of racialized hate.

hate-crimes-against-lgbt-1466044414162-articleLarge-v6Both of the articles on hate crime bury contradictory demographic details about hate crimes against LGBT people towards the end of their reports. In The New York Times, for example, a chart representing the distribution of LGBT violence across race and class tells quite a different story than the sensational headline. When sorted by race, the charts reveal that, in the words of the reporter, “the vast majority of those who were killed were Black and transgender people.” And the charts show that even among those who were not killed, the LGBT people who were most often the victims of hate crimes and violence were people of color.

Obviously the shooting of 49 people in a gay club on a night geared towards Latino gay men shakes all LGBT communities to their core and reminds us of other violent and hate-filled attacks on other clubs over the past few decades. In other queer clubs, on other nights, other bodies have fallen victim to the toxic masculinities that imagine violence as the solution to shifts in the status quo that might shake up hierarchies of sex and gender. But on this night, in this club, the target of steroid fueled, militaristic, narcissistic, deeply conflicted masculinity was a group of mostly Latino gay men.

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Victims of an arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge in 1973. 32 died.

Justin Torres conjured the scene in the Pulse that night in a beautiful essay offered as a tribute to the slain and titled “In praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club”:

Maybe your Ma blessed you on the way out the door. Maybe she wrapped a plate for you in the fridge so you don’t come home and mess up her kitchen with your hunger. Maybe your Tia dropped you off, gave you cab money home. Maybe you had to get a sitter. Maybe you’ve yet to come out to your family at all, or maybe your family kicked you out years ago. Forget it, you survived… Maybe your half-Latin-ass doesn’t even speak Spanish; maybe you barely speak English. Maybe you’re undocumented.

Torres carefully and tenderly located the victims of the Orlando massacre not as a unified group of gay victims but as a happily disordered group of Latino queers with varying relations to race, language, class, citizenship, family and kinship. Using a second person form of address – “maybe you’re undocumented” – Torres talks to the dead rather than around them, about them, through them. He talks to the dead, recognizing their differences from one another and from the culture that too often threatens, excludes, exploits or ignores them, and Torres situates the club goers in relation to nightlife, to Orlando, to each other and to larger LGBT communities. In his next paragraph, Torres describes what lies outside the club – Christians, Trump, exclusion, racism – and then draws a magic line around the club that designates it as a safe space for people who are patently not safe elsewhere in the culture. Back in the world, Torres reminds the lost, struggle continues, but here, in the club you thrive, you dance, you live: “You didn’t come here to be a martyr, you came to live, papi. To live, mamacita. To live, hijos. To live, mariposas.”

Torres’ beautiful song for the slain mariposas recognizes the beauty and the fragility of this community and situates that fragility in relation to the multiple vectors of violence that exist outside the club and that always threaten to make their way inside. Some of those violators will arrive in the form of unstable men with weapons, some will come in the form of la migra or homeland security, some will and did arrive in the form of the police and others will arrive in the form of white LGBT people who see this violation as their own and incorporate this crime into a general narrative of anti-gay violence.

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Christina Hanhardt has written at length about the specificity of anti-violence claims in LGBT communities and the ways in which some of those claims lead to increased police presence in LGBT communities and increased jeopardy for communities of color. In a summation of her position in The Scholar and Feminist Online (S&F Online), Hanhardt
identifies the role of gentrifying gay male communities within neoliberal and post-welfare urban landscapes. Gay and lesbian gentrifiers, she explains, have often “been hailed as the remedy for urban problems.” And so, all too often, white urban gay populations replace racialized and poor communities and become sites of investment. She writes:

Central to the history of LGBT activism, in which the themes of violence and safety have been so prominent, is the calculation of risk: the risk of violence associated with a gay vulnerability that calls for anticrime initiatives as well as the risk of lost profit linked to real estate speculation. One outcome has been to redefine normative gay identity as an identity threatened by those deemed “criminal” (in particular, the racialized poor), while finding solutions in risk negotiations, including self-regulation and open financial markets.

In other words, urban development projects often depend upon and encourage an often white, gay creative class while displacing and endangering poor communities of color. In turn, white LGBT communities can imagine themselves as part of the nation and its prosperity while queer communities of color are situated as sites of crime, illegality and protest cultures.

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Given the different histories of white LGBT urban populations and LGBT communities of color in relation to space, property, policing and risk, we might ask who “we” are after Orlando. Does the attack on these brown bodies reflect a more generalized vulnerability experienced by LGBT communities as a whole? Is there, in fact, any connection at all between the vulnerability of white LGBT communities to homophobia and the ongoing violence that LGBT communities of color face within the current climate of anti-immigrant, anti-Black, pro-banks, pro-business, free market mayhem?

In the wake of Orlando, it might be time to break up the fantasy of the LGBT monolith not in favor of ever more precise calibrations of identity but on behalf of the urgent need to confront state violence whether it is expressed through a security regime that works well on behalf of bankers and politicians but not at all on behalf of poor people of color or whether it comes in the form of incorporative strategies aimed at privileged queers or increased policing aimed at queers of color. While gay marriage is quickly being offered up as the motivation for increased homophobic hate crime activity – the NYT proposed “Ironically, part of the reason for violence against L.G.B.T. people might have to do with a more accepting attitude toward gays and lesbians in recent decades, say people who study hate crimes” – a better way to understand gay marriage is as part and parcel of an incorporative logic in which opposition is gobbled up and turned into more of the same.

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As middle class white LGBT people celebrate their access to normative social forms and agree to pay the price for such acceptance by consenting to new forms of violent exclusion, they/we cannot simultaneously claim to be the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, the most victimized of the victims, the most in need of shelter, protection and sanctuary. Orlando showed me at least that the security state we live in with its second amendment values and its shouty, crude formulations of “us” and “them” needs to be countered with complex, intricate, risky conversations about who “we” are and who “we” want to become.

9780814757284_DetailFor Torres, Orlando brings us face to face with the transformative power of Latin night at the queer club: “The only imperative is to be transformed, transfigured in the disco light.” In a similar way, Orlando brings us to José Muñoz’s conjuring of queer utopia as “a type of affective excess that presents the enabling force of a forward-dawning futurity.” Orlando is not a generalized and non-specific “we” it is a clearly situated “you” standing, dancing, living and dying in the wee hours of the morning, in a space at the very furthest edge of community, on the verge of a forward-dawning futurity into which other worlds, could and will come to be.

IS THERE LIFE ON MARS? GOODBYE TO BOWIE BY JACK HALBERSTAM

14 Jan

bowie1It is not a question of whether you are or were a fan of David Bowie, it is a question of which Bowie was your Bowie. My Bowie, at various times, was the lightning streaked face of Aladdin Sane, the dulcet voiced soul man of Young Americans and the rock god of the Orwellian extravaganza, Diamond Dogs. I also kept Station to Station and Low on my turntable for weeks at a time in the 1970’s during Bowie’s “Berlin” period and listened to David Live obsessively, especially the mash up of “Sweet Thing” and “Candidate” from Diamond Dogs. For me, as for so many, David Bowie represented a glittering, odd, unearthly reminder that life is about change, risk, madness and mayhem, and that while our domestic structures work hard to keep the madness at bay, we must be ready at all times to “turn and face the strange.”

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Social History. Housing. Manchester, England. Circa 1970’s. Slum clearance in Salford showing a terraced area being demolished.

To understand Bowie, you partly have to understand what England was like in the 1970’s and what it meant to suddenly, in the middle of this a grey, ruinous landscape of charred buildings, post-war debris, and financial collapse, find out that there is a “starman “waiting in the skies.” bowie-ronson-spaceThis was the message that British youth watching Top of the Pops in 1972 received loud and clear from a beautifully eccentric and sexy performance of “Starman” by Bowie and Mick Ronson. Dressed in shiny pant suits and wearing high boots and shaggy hair-do’s, Bowie and Ronson really did look like they had fallen to earth from some distant planet where people had fun, believed in something and knew they could change worlds. David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust told us to be receptive to the messages from Mars and other planets; he counseled youth to listen to the secret memos from the starman, to pay attention to the coded communications from other worlds; he told us that the starman would only speak to us if we sparkled (“if we sparkle, he may land tonight”), and he taught us that all that sparkles is indeed gold. And no sooner did he create a persona with which to tell new stories about sex, rock and riot than he killed the man and started again.

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My first Bowie album was Aladdin Sane. I studied the cover art for some clues as to who this ambiguously gendered person might be and I thrilled to the persona of the mad lad singing of mortality, protest, drag queens and race riots in Detroit. I knew no queer people at that time and knew of few escapes from the suffocating normativity of British school life in the 1970’s. But I felt that Bowie represented something special, something just out reach, something or someone that I did not know yet but set off to encounter. With his otherworldly voice that ranged from low growls to ethereal falsettos, and with his calls to rebellion – both social and gendered – Bowie captured the emergent political imagination of a generation. He was queer before queer, punk before punk, cool long after Presley. Bowie disobeyed all laws of genre and he merged English glam rock with US soul music, rhythm and blues with jazz and funk with electronica without seeming opportunistic, appropriative or dilettantish.

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Bowie’s sexuality was always up for grabs. It was not a question of whether he was gay (“John, I’m Only Dancing”) or straight (“Be My Wife”), many of his public relationships have, after all, been with women; but Bowie always laid claim to a kind of excess, a set of identities that exceeded norms and expectations and that were some combination of male femininity (Ziggy), masculine exotic (Aladdin Sane), Martian sexiness, ethereal beauty, originality and innovation. The word most often used about Bowie, and one I have made recourse to here, is “otherworldly.” His reputation as profoundly alien was enhanced by movies like Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 space oddity:Man-Who-Fell-to-Earth-800x450 The Man Who Fell to Earth. This movie, like no other (apart from maybe his “walk off” cameo in Zoolander!) confirmed Bowie’s status as unearthly. He needed no make up to be convincing as a man from another world – in the film he is called a “visitor,” a “freak,” an “alien” and he manages to convey a sense of bodily oddness that is unique in film.

Is there life on Mars? If you believe in David Bowie, the answer is yes. While earth for Bowie is a place where time is on perpetual repeat (“Always Crashing in the Same Car”), in the exotic and exciting moonage daydreams that Bowie conjures, apocalypse appears alongside utopia, futures are exciting and curtailed (“we can be heroes…just for one day”), and the body is a place to play out colorful fantasies of love and rebellion. As we say goodbye to a truly queer icon, a performer who invited us to “press your space face close to mine, love,” we also bid farewell to someone who has reinvented fame, spectacle, eccentricity and stardom.

But, Bowie left us a final album to decode, Blackstar, where he intones:

“I can’t answer why (I’m not a gangster)

But I can tell you how (I’m not a flam star)

We were born upside-down (I’m a star star)

Born the wrong way ‘round (I’m not a white star)

(I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangster

I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar

I’m not a pornstar, I’m not a wandering star

I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.”

Not a white star, not a gangster, not a wandering star, a black star – Bowie’s final message, part physics/part undercommons, draws upon the metaphors of space that saturate his entire output. A black star in physics represents, Wikipedia tells us “a transitional phase between a collapsing star and a singularity,” it is a zone where event and infinity collide, where matter disintegrates into a vacuum. It is a space of death and dying. But black star could also be a way of rethinking racialized embodiment itself such that the thin white duke recognizes himself in the black aesthetics that swirl through his music, the soul inflections that he channels and inhabits and the machinery of fame that works through a process of Black music/white stars, transferring fame to white bodies from music created through and around the experience of blackness. What others appropriate, Bowie inhabits. What others steal, Bowie acknowledges. What others hold at a distance, Bowie embraces.

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“I’m a blackstar,” Bowie sings, “I’m a blackstar.” So, while we attribute some of Bowie’s incandescent oddness to gender and sexual ambiguity, race is also a huge part of what rendered Bowie a star – not a white star, not a pornstar, not a wandering star, but a black star. As Bowie now passes into immortality, as he assumes legendary proportions, as he comes to represent the expansiveness of wild reinvention, musical experimentation, bodily flexibility, political imagination and queer uncertainty, we should look up to the sky and sparkle in the hopes of receiving a message from pop culture’s most beloved astronaut, a starman waiting in the sky.

Straight Eye For the Queer Theorist – A Review of “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” by Jack Halberstam

12 Sep

Straw-man-argumentStuart Chase’s 1956 Guide to Straight Thinking is sometimes credited with the first use of the term “straw man.” He used the term to describe the rhetorical practice of basing a strong argument on the misrepresentation of another position. The straw man/person represents a figure without depth or dynamism that is easily knocked down. And so if one represents feminism in terms of a unified group of man-hating, chainsaw wielding, separatist lesbians, rather than as a wide array of positions held by many different groups with or without chainsaws, then it is relatively easy to persuade a neutral audience that feminism is dangerous. Straw men, or in this case straw womyn, stand in for the complexity of a flesh and blood opponent. The term draws upon the image of the scarecrow on the one hand and on fairground games on the other – the term “Aunt Sally,” for example, is often used as a synonym for Straw Man and comes from the fairground game where a target (often an “ugly” woman or racialized in someway) is set up for others to knock down.

A recent issue of the journal differences engages in the production of straw people and does an Aunt Sally on queer theory. The issue, differences Volume 26 #1 (May 2015), edited by Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson, and titled, “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” asks the question: “What might queer theory do if its allegiance to antinormativity was rendered less secure?” The answer goes something like this: if its allegiance to antinormativity were rendered less secure, queer theory would be…more complicated, more dynamic, and, broader because other important and pressing concerns that have been obscured by this singular focus would come to the fore. What are those concerns? What does this new, shiny, more complicated (queer) theory look like? We never find out. More interested in critique than in outlining new methodologies, archives or theories, this volume is content to say, repeatedly, that oppositionality is not all its cracked up to be; that the humanities orientation of queer theory has concealed the fact that the social sciences are important too; and that queerness as a category has an increasingly elusive relationship to activism, political change and social transformation. None of this is controversial, and it could even be the basis of some interesting new directions in the study of sexuality and gender. But this issue does not lead us there.

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What is queer theory without antinormativity, we may ask with the editors of this special issue? Without a critique of normativity, queer theory may well look a lot like straight thinking. And, without these clear alternatives, that is what this volume threatens to become.

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Inexplicably sharon wasn’t interested in a second date.

It draws sexy energy from a title that proposes a new kind of queer theory namely, a queer theory without antinormativity but, like a date with a lover who promised hot sex but falls asleep by 9pm, or like an iphone update that claimed it would transform your gadget but actually just ate up all the battery, the issue titillates only by virtue of nestling up to titillation, it thrills only by offering to declaw what is thrilling, it excites by promising to name the fugitive source of an entire genre’s critical excitement. But when push comes to shove, and there is a lot of shoving in this issue despite its seemingly civil tone, queer theory without antinormativity might just be…well, theory, theory about theory.

What’s the basic argument? Queer theory has been characterized by an antinormative stance that has gone unquestioned (until now) and that is the basis for the claims that queer theory lays to a radical political project. This commitment to antinormativity, Wiegman and Wilson say, characterizes the work of all kinds of queer theorists who might otherwise disagree. The problem with antinormativity, as far as Wiegman and Wilson are concerned, is that it derives from a fundamental michel_foucault_by_ivankorsario-d5qvsbtmisreading of Foucault’s theory or norms; it makes certain positions seem inevitable – a critique of disciplinarity for example; and, antinormativity’s uncontested rightness eliminates the possibility of taking up any other relations to norms or normativity. Furthermore, antinormativity, they propose, has become “canonical” in the field and therefore has acquired, ironically, the status of a norm, proving once and for all that norms are unavoidable and cannot be opposed.

Let’s take the first point in Wiegman and Wilson’s critique – the idea that antinormativity emerges from a misreading of the norm in Foucault. They write: “Even as it allies itself with Foucault, queer theory has maintained an attachment to the politics of oppositionality (against, against, against) that form the infrastructure of the repressive hypothesis” (12). By contrast, Wiegman and Wilson propose to offer a different methodology for reading the norm and they will do so through a return to the idea of the norm as it is found in Foucault “in order to revivify what is galvanizing (indeed what is queer) about its operations” (12). This is an odd claim at best – first, is it even possible to “revivify” what is not dead but is in fact “galvanizing”? Just asking. But, second, I cannot find this mythic other methodology anywhere in their text. Their anti antinormative methodology seems to amount to the claim that we are all subject to norms. Norms, they remind us, neither restrict nor ostracize, they are neither “controlling” nor are they “tyrannical,” and we are all equally subject to their powers (“we question the political common sense that claims that norms ostracize, or that some of us are more intimate with their operations than others…”). This claim is then followed by a series of quotes from Berlant, Edelman, myself, Sedgwick all clustered under the leaky umbrella of “queer theoretical ambitions” and organized by the common belief that norms are bad.

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Few of the theorists mentioned in this essay, if any, have advanced the theory that norms single out certain people or that they target only certain bodies and then tyrannically restrict their capabilities or legitimacy. Instead, the rather impressive group of theorists gathered under this capacious and yet nonsensical heading of antinormative queer theory (Berlant, Butler, Duggan, Edelman, Eng, Ferguson, Halberstam, Halperin, McRuer, Muñoz, Puar, Reddy, Sedgwick, Warner) have all published extremely complex accounts of the relations between nationalism and norms, sexuality and terror, identity and repetition, race and disidentification, sexuality and death, pessimism and optimism, negativity and utopia, recognition and failure. No single theory of norms unites these works either through their embrace of the antinormative or through their understanding of the political. They have no single object, they do not share a goal, they follow multiple methodologies and none of these theorists unambiguously embraces a singular, critical stance from which it unfairly draws energy and through which it proposes to change the world. The antinormative position is, I will say it again, a straw queer, an Aunt Sally, a rag and bone target for any straight thinkers who want to score points in an academic marketplace of diminishing returns.

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Like the bad critical theory essay in which everyone is wrong because the author is right, or in which the author notices something that everyone else in the history of critical thinking has ignored, or in which an intrepid and insightful author uncovers a fallacy upon which an entire area of study has depended, this journal issue requires big targets, thinkers united in their false assumptions who can finally be revealed for what they are – naïve, blind, simple folk who see tyranny where there is only discourse, who confirm the status quo through opposition, and who create a new canon while claiming to bring the house down.

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What, I ask you, do Wiegman and Wilson want? They tell us they want to “channel the energies of queer inquiry otherwise.” Ok – point us in the direction of “otherwise.” And I really mean that  – I want to understand the project here, but it feels elusive. They tell us they will promote scholarship that moves “athwart” rather than “against” (although they are clearly against antinormative queer theory, not athwart it…what is athwart, critically speaking?). And they offer to “rethink the meaning of norms, normalization, and the normal” while imagining “other ways to approach the politics of queer criticism altogether.” Let me translate dear reader: we critics, who read athwart not against, who offer critique without solutions, who know something is wrong but cannot offer to replace it, will keep thinking about this in the hopes of generating something that is not more of the same.

Ok, that sounds harsh so let me break it down:

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1. Most of the theorists assembled under the heading of the anti-normative produce the very 51TjyujvLxLscholarship that Wiegman and Wilson call for – namely a critique of simple notions of the political as oppositional . Consider Lauren Berlant’s idea of a relation of “cruel optimism” that “exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Or think of Lee Edelman’s reminder that the impulse to call for a politics around the figure of the child ensures the reproduction of the status quo. Or look again at Rod Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black and his analysis of the way that canonical sociology requires the Black body as a foil for the production of the truth of statistical norms.

2. If you don’t want to commit to some kind of critique of norms you may be doomed to “straight

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

thinking.” Straight thinking is characterized by a matrix of rhetorical operations that support the common sense of the moment, commit to foreclosing on critiques of the status quo and reinvest in the ordinary, the good and the true. Such rhetorical operations have propped up the very distinctions between straight and gay/lesbian/trans or between abled and disabled or between whiteness and of color that have allowed for legal, social and political benefits to accrue to one group at the expense of the other. Abandon antinormativity and you slip quickly into acquiescence.

3. Antinormative thinking, as represented in this issue, simply means scholarship with an urgent, complex, politically explicit agenda. It is the opposite of the seemingly objective “deviance studies” scholarship that Heather Love writes about in this issue but it is in line with some of the writings by Evelyn Hooker, Mary Macintosh and others that she claims queer studies has rejected. Like other essays in the issue, Love’s piece works around a false claim and a false dichotomy. She claims from the start that there are “ongoing conflicts between humanists and social scientists” within the field of queer studies and that these conflicts turn on “the question of whether the empirical study of sexuality should be understood as social recognition or as epistemological violence” (77). Such conflicts were very common in the 1990’s but disciplinary skirmishes have long since diminished under the pressure of new insights about the arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries (Latour). Critiques of the social sciences from within queer studies by Rod Ferguson and others are not disciplinary quarrels so much as they are historically situated accounts of how non-heteronormativity gets located firmly at the heart of U.S. racial formations and links the “multiplication of racialized discourses of sexuality and gender” to the “multiplication of labor under capital” (12). By separating an account of sexual deviance from its imbrication in the production of knowledge on racial deviance in her essay, Love straightens the lines between sexuality and race in a way that literally undoes the work of queer of color critique. What Ferguson had intricately described as meshed, Love unties and analyzes separately.

And later in Love’s essay, she takes aim at the romanticism of The Undercommons to reveal how attached humanities scholars can be to their own subversive potential. What Moten and Harney describe as the role of the “subversive academic” in The Undercommons, Love rejects as a kind of unconscious political violence: “if we are in, we are also of” she writes. Championing the “queer ordinary” and describing the queer academic as a “professional knowledge worker,” Love settles into and accepts her role as observer of ordinary life. Her stakes are clear: the antinormative queer scholar or the fugitive scholar of the undercommons are just engaged in a “romantic disavowal of our position as scholars.” With no account of the activist worlds that informed early queer studies research, no recognition of the disciplinary violence that goes into establishing a definitive split between the “truth seeking” missions of the social sciences and the “civilizing” goal of the humanities in the first place, with no references to the difference that race makes to either professional knowledge production or the definition of deviance, this is an essay that refuses to grapple with its own site of enunciation – for whom is the ordinary smooth and even? For whom is it absolutely unattainable? For whom is it unacceptable?

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And so it goes, the straw person argument allows for the wholesale ransacking of several decades of exceptional work from a range of positions and disciplinary locations, emerging from different activist histories and focused upon various political and even utopian horizons. This issue claims to re-evaluate but it comes to eradicate; it claims to survey a field but it creates a position to lambast; it claims to speak for the ordinary but it colludes with the status quo. So, to clarify the argument here: if you still believe in the socially engaged academic and if, like them, your work continues to circle back to performativity, cruel optimism, intersectionality, queer of color critique, queer negativity, critiques of homonormativity, disciplinary critique and the undercommons, this mini-movement is not for you. And for those of you who are still wondering what the answer is to the question posed by this volume of differences in the first place, namely “what is queer studies without antinormativity,” I think I have an answer for you – it is disciplinary, neoliberal, no stakes, straight thinking. You’re welcome!

From Sister George to Lonesome George? Or, Is The Butch Back? By Jack Halberstam

16 Jul

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While as recently as a decade ago, many butches could still be found in their natural habitats – dyke bars and softball teams – and while some could even be spotted in the wild, in recent years, their numbers have declined leading some scientists to predict their eventual disappearance. Indeed, like the passenger pigeon or Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise that died in 2012, the butch seemed like a category whose time had passed – a relic, a fossil, a victim of cultural climate change and an irredeemable symbol of past times that a new generation was eager to forget. But, in a kind of miraculous adaptation, the butch, like the Eurasian beaver or the Dalmatian Pelican, seems to have trembled on the brink of extinction and…made a remarkable recovery!

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From the Broadway musical based on Alison Bechdel’s memoir of growing up butch with a closeted gay father, Fun Home, to Lea Delaria and the consortium of butches (what is the word for a group of butches? A Charm? A Pace? A Kennel? A Brace? A Barren? A Murder? A Parliament? Or, my favorite – a Bale? I am going with bale of butches) in Orange is the New Black, from Charlize Theron’s turn as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max to the hockey playing tomboy in Inside Out, we would seem to have a bale of butches in popular culture right at the very moment that the category has supposedly gone out of style.


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Are the new representations of butches ghostly after-images of a recent past that has come and gone and taken its place within a pantheon of gay and lesbian histories relegated to the past by the recent triumphalism of the gay marriage era? Or, conversely, are they harbingers of a new future of gender variability that has expanded beyond man and woman into a wide ranging set of expressions of the gendered body? Is butch back or was it never gone? Has butch been around long enough to become trendy? Or, in an era of unprecedented visibility for transgender embodiment, does butch represent an obstinate fragment of an older paradigm, still capable of generating both fascination and fear?

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 27:  Amelie Mauresmo of France plays a backhand during the women's singles third round match against Flavia Pennetta of Italy on Day Six of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 27, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

It was less than a decade ago at Wimbledon that French tennis player, Amelie Mauresmo was accused by Lindsay Davenport of “playing like a guy” and then described by Martina Hingis of being “half a man.” Now Mauresmo is the super effective coach for a male top ten player – Andy Murray. And, only six years ago, South African runner, Caster Semenya was subjected to a clearly racist “gender test” when her unapologetically athletic appearance led to suspicions about her masculinity, drug use and so on. Now, on the current world cup winning women’s soccer squad there are several visibly butch players and plenty that are openly queer. How, then, did we leap, in the last year or so, from uniform expressions of disgust, suspicion and dismay directed at the masculine female form to empathy, recognition and even acceptance?

17mag-17talk-t_CA0-blog427In an interview in The New York Times Magazine in May of this year, Alison Bechdel, who appeared in the photograph accompanying the piece dressed in a very smart tailored suit, was asked:

“In “Fun Home,” you wrote about becoming a connoisseur of masculinity at a young age. Today a young person like you would be more likely to identify as transgender than gay. Is the butch lesbian endangered?”

Well, first of all, great question!! Second, wow, in The New York Times? Really? Third, well, is the butch endangered? Bechdel answers adroitly:

“I think the way I first understood my lesbianism, before I had more of a political awareness of it, was like: Oh, I’m a man trapped in a female body. I would’ve just gone down that road if it had been there. But I’m so glad it wasn’t, because I really like being this kind of unusual woman. I like making this new space in the world.

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So, is butch the designation of a new space or an old space? The article is ambivalent and implies both that butch is an old-fashioned form of identification that is in danger of being eclipsed by transgenderism and that it is a “new space in the world.” And maybe that captures perfectly what shall hereafter be known as “the temporal paradox of the butch” – it is out of time and ahead of its time and behind the times all at once. Butch is simultaneously a marker of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag” or “the visceral pull of the past on the supposedly revolutionary present” and of certain forms of what Juana Maria Rodriguez terms “sexual futures.” The uncanny, uncertain, dislocated and indefinable terrain of the butch competes with our sense of the stubborn, recalcitrant, unmoving and unmoved essence of the butch. Butch was supposed to fade away as a category precisely because it encapsulated the ugly, the dowdy, the backward and the tragic (Stone Butch Blues not Stone Butch Ecstasy), but its calcified intransigence may actually have equipped the category for survival!

A close friend sent me the clip of young Sydney Lucas singing “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (thanks GG!). The show-stopping song, penned by the incomparable Lisa Kron, that has thrilled audiences on Broadway found an even larger audience when Lucas performed it at the Tony’s awards this year. While singing children are nothing new and generally kind of irritating, lesbian-themed Broadway shows and songs about youthful identifications with butch women are as rare as gay men on football teams or straight ladies in the power tools section at Home Depot. So, this song and this musical had few cultural traditions upon which to draw. Amazing then that the song is so effective, so moving, so…emotional!

“Ring of Keys” tells the story of an encounter between the young Alison and the adult butch who walked into the diner where Alison and her closeted father were eating. Sydney sings:

Someone just walked in the door, like no one I ever saw before, I feel…I feel…

I don’t know where you came from, I wish I did, I feel so dumb… I feel…I feel.

Your swagger and your bearing and the just right clothes you’re wearing.

Your short hair and your dungarees, and your lace up boots and your keys, ohhh, your ring of keys!

“I know you,” she sings, “you’re beautiful…no, you’re handsome”! This song is just so…it’s…I feel…I feel…Ellipsis in the song conveys the unspeakability of this articulation of butch cross-generational identification. There are no words for such affect, no precedents for generations of butches past who may also have seen strong, gender-queer female-bodied women and who may have wanted to claim them. As novelistic descriptions by Leslie Feinberg and others of just such ghostly encounters between adult, abject butches and the young proto-butches who want to find their likenesses in the world demonstrate, in the past, the butch adult would have been more likely to spark terror and fear in the young queer’s heart than adoration, acceptance and identification.

What the young Alison feels for the anonymous butch who crosses her path has no words, cannot be culled from any archive of feelings, gay or straight, and so is captured in that open mouthed, soundless wonder that punctuates the song. The mouth, open and silent, mimics the ring of keys that say everything without speaking, that jangle a noisy song of their own without words, that say butch in a way that ordinary language could not.

The success of Alison Bechdel’s work, long overdue and so well deserved, both exemplifies and contributes to the evolution and repopulation of butches. Butches can now be found in sports and in the arts, on the soccer field and on Broadway, on TV (Orange is the New Black) and in movies. Only 7 years ago, we had an entire TV series, The L Word, that represented butchness as “the B word” that dare not speak its name. Despite the fact that the character of Shane (Katherine Moennig) drew heavily on the history of butch sexiness, she never could claim that history, name it or own it. And when a butch character was introduced, Moira played by masculine of center actor Daniela Sea, they quickly transitioned to trans leaving the category of butch stranded like a missing link, like a bad memory to be Pousseypromo_croppedexpunged from queer representation.

But now, in Orange is the New Black, Lea Delaria’s character “Big Boo,” has the letters B-U-T-C-H tattooed on her arm and is not the only butch on the prison block either. Black butches on the show, including Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) and Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) represent a much longer history of non-traditional Black genders that may or may not be captured by the term “butch” at all.


Game of Thrones has its own bale of butches including Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) who represents a tall, strapping, princess-saving heroic knightly butch, and Arya Stark (Massie Williams) a renegade princess turned sword fighter and monk. For more comic butches, think Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) of Glee who plays a gloriously mean, bully butch athletic coach competing with the Glee club for school funds.

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The butch is, to continue our wildlife conceit, neither fish nor fowl. But to introduce another rhetorical device, the butch is neither cis-gender nor simply transgender, the butch is a bodily catachresis. The Greek word, catachresis, means the rhetorical practice of misnaming something for which there would otherwise be no words (I feel I got this formulation from bullyblogger pal Tavia Nyong’o but not sure from where). Butch is always a misnomer – not male, not female, masculine but not male, female but not feminine, the term serves as a placeholder for the unassimilable, for that which remains indefinable or unspeakable within the many identifications that we make and that we claim. For Derrida, catachresis captures the inherent linguistic instability in all signifying practices and for Spivak it names the inherent colonial violence lurking in the practice of naming and identifying, systematizing and translating. And so, in this era of LGBT rights and recognition, let the butch stand as all that cannot be absorbed into systems of signification, legitimation, legibility, recognition and legality.

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Even as the butch seems to be back in circulation, I do not think this representational presence is a marker of social acceptance, rather, the butch, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, survives or fades away depending upon the levels of toxicity in the air. Unlike the canary however, and now I wish I had never introduced said bird in the first place, the butch thrives in toxic conditions and fades away in the clear air of apparent freedom. The butch is back, in other words, and here the butch is not canary like at all, in fact forget the damn canary, because we need a reminder that recognition is NOT freedom, that the absorption of the few at the expense of many others is not liberation and that the illegible, the unassimilable, the inconsolable, the illegitimate multitudes still await a coming emancipation. The society that embraces the butch will be ordered in a way that we cannot yet imagine. Our current social order, after all, with or without gay marriage, with or without mainstream images of transgender bodies, is the one that rendered the butch as the anachronistic, useless, dowdy misfit in the first place.

To quote a smart rapper, don’t call it a come back, we’ve been here before. Butches have flickered in and out of cultural visibility for at least the last hundred years. They have survived wars, economic depressions, homophobic panics, gentrification, petrification, Andrea Dworkin and Camille Paglia, stupefaction, French cinema, the 80’s, and both film versions of Sex in the City. Despite flannel shirt shortages, shifting fashion trends towards androgynous looks, the trendiness of transgenderism, a severe height disadvantage in relation to many femmes, and new levels of emotional sensitivity in queer communities, the butch has survived and lives to wear another ring of keys.

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Whether, in the future, the butch will hit a rough patch in the evolution of sexual ecologies and die out like the Golden Toad, or whether the butch has the capacity to replicate under precarious conditions remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, live or die, the butch, represents a piece of queer history that remains unspeakable and unspoken and all the more resilient for it.

Should The Vajayjay Speak?

16 Apr

Back in January of this year, 2015, a curious story began to circulate in online education journals like Inside Higher Ed: “A student group at Mount Holyoke College has decided to cancel its annual performance of The Vagina Monologues, saying the play excludes the experiences of transgender women who don’t have a vagina.” Now, I am no big fan of Vagina Monologues, or any kind of speaking genitalia for that matter (I am flashing on a show I saw on HBO a few years ago on “The Puppetry of the Penis”…don’t ask…don’t tell…). But, despite my aversion to genital soliloquies, and my general disinterest from the get go in The Vagina Monologues, I still do not understand the premise for the cancelation.

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If the students had decided that the play was too focused on universalizing US experiences of womanhood, or that it participated in an imperialist feminist paradigm that cast North American feminist body politics as representative of all versions of body politics, I might have thought ok, shrugged and moved on. But canceling it because it does not include the experiences of trans women or women who lack vaginas just did not add up. The play is not saying that women without vaginas or that women with surgically constructed vaginas are not women after all, it is just saying…well, what is it saying? Love your vagina? Love whatever you have that is not a penis? Love your penis that can now be reterrritorialized as your vagina? Talk to your vagina? Listen to your vajayjay…not sure but it is NOT saying, transwomen are not women.

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Like the debates around the inclusion of trans-women in historically women’s colleges, this all feels like a storm in a teacup. It is clear that we are living at a time when gender norms have so definitively shifted beyond stable concepts of man and woman, that there should be no need for anguished and urgent debates about the admission of transgender women to women’s colleges or about the extension of monologues about female genitalia to trans women with or without surgically constructed vaginas (talkative or not). Trans women will be admitted to spaces formerly reserved for women born women precisely because the activism that would enable us to see an expanded and expanding category of “woman” has already taken place. The current activism on college campuses now calling for for the expansion of the category of “woman” to trans women, in fact, is belated and after the fact. Activism is not simply calling for something. Activism is about creating a context within which the thing that you are calling for comes to make sense – this process, in relation to trans womanhood, began back in the early 1990’s with the rise of poststructuralist feminism and queer theory and it comes to bear now on the discussions about gender protocols.

It is of course true that the time for The Vagina Monologues is surely come and gone – and I am not so sure that it was ever here in the first place — but certainly a few generations of enthusiastic college students did perform the play with pride and gusto and who are we to sneer at that. So why not quietly move on from the performance of talking vaginas to other theatrical projects more suited to this historical moment? Can the very vocal and publicized decision to cancel The Vagina Monologues be understood as part of what has been identified as a new censorious mood on college campuses in general? What fuels this new sensitivity on the part of students to all kinds of “problematic” material and is it part of a new millennial moralism?

In recent weeks, articles by Laura Kipnis in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times have generated outrage (and protests in Kipnis’s case) because these authors dared to suggest that we seem to be in the grips of a moral panic on college campuses. While Kipnis took aim at administratively authored “sexual paranoia” at her university, Northwestern, which had taken the form of a ban on consensual relations between professors and students, Shulevitz accused students of “hiding from scary ideas” by deploying the defense of calling for “safe space.” Both Kipnis and Shulevitz articulated what is, I believe, a fairly widely shared belief, that in Kipnis’s words “students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.” We don’t have to agree with everything Kipnis or Shulevitz has to say in order to feel that something has certainly changed in the way that campus politics are transacted.

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And, there are probably many factors that contribute to this “skyrocketing” sense of vulnerability for college students – students have been produced within the neoliberal university as consumers, dependents, debtors, children and pre-professionals. They have been cheated, patronized, exploited and abused. They exit the university with massive amounts of debt, a sense of futility and a need to make money and they want someone to blame. It is always easier to blame the messenger rather than going after the system that produces debt and despair in equal measure. But it is surely a mistake for students to be “calling out” (the new term for demanding accountability) their Gender Studies professors for showing them disturbing material on sexual assault; or calling out their Ethnic Studies professors for showing images of racial violence; or calling out their political theory professors for arguing that power is productive and ubiquitous not local and possessed. Local calls for this or that form of speech to end does not really help anything. Rather than demanding simply that category X be admitted to this or that, we need wide-ranging structural analyses of the production of violence of exclusion and inclusion within neoliberal forms of governance.

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To wind down my rant, let’s turn to an example of what NOT to do as a feminist: In a great episode of Portlandia, Candace (Fred Armisen) and Tony (Carrie Brownstein), the fictional proprietors of the women’s bookstore, Women and Women First, go to a Portland Trailblazers basketball game. They watch the game and are amazed at how much they enjoy it: “these people are really good at what they do!” But then, in a time out, when the Blazer’s cheerleaders come on to dance for the crowd, Toni and Candace become outraged by the exploitation to which they have become witnesses. Candace wonders why the cheerleaders are wearing so little clothing, and they both end up calling for the “liberation” of the “private dancers.” “Let them speak!” yells Candace, “say something! Tell us your stories!” The two feminist pioneers demand a meeting with the dancers in order to “help” them and they ask the dancers to “drop their poms poms.” Providing them with a “safe space,” they call on them to “read and resist” rather than dance and be oppressed and they create a new performance piece for them that involves telling the audience who they are and crawling out from under the oppressive regime of the NBA – all accompanied by a primal scream performed by Toni. The episode is hilarious as a good-natured satire of a feminism that has misguidedly become a crusade to protect and rescue.

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Activism, Portlandia reminds us, is not the transaction of change through the blotting out of ‘problematic’ speech  on behalf of new disciplinary norms of conduct. Inclusion can be as corrosive a technique of rule as exclusion and speech as much as silence can be a vector for oppression. In an era when universities are saddling their students with debt, transforming their teaching staff from permanent to adjunct labor, paying their administrators corporate salaries and buying up all the real estate in their neighborhoods for luxury housing, calls for inclusion have to be accompanied by broader critiques of the transformation of the university. In a speech at Berkeley last year titled: “Free Speech Is Not For Feeling Safe,” Wendy Brown reminded us that:” today, the gears of the machine don’t clang and grind out there: they are are soft, quiet, and deep inside us.”  Trans women should certainly be admitted to women’s colleges, and vaginas probably do need to stop monologuing but inclusive policies, safe space, correct speech and sexual paranoia will not change the middle-class demographics of the university and will not stop the university from its rapid evolution into a factory for the production of the next generation of bankers. What we need are new and inventive modes of protest not more safe space.

Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard To Do

15 Jul

by Jack Halberstam

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I was re-watching 30 Rock the other day (yeah, right after I finished my Monty Python marathon) and I came across the episode where Liz Lemon’s show, TGS, is accused of “hating women.” Liz Lemon is outraged, and reminds her crew that their last episode was all about women – cut to Jenna as Amelia Earhart crashing her plane because “oh no! my period.” And then cut to Jenna as Hilary Clinton messing up a press conference because “my period!” Liz Lemon explains: “that was an ironic appropriation of…oh, I don’t know anymore.” The skit continues with another humorous twist of the screw with which I won’t bore/amuse you but perhaps this is a good place to start: we often don’t know anymore, when something is an ironic appropriation of…and when it is just more of the same.

The responses to my recent Bully Bloggers piece “You’re Triggering Me: The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma” have pretty much polarized people (at least those who have responded publicly) into camps that break along that kind of division – people who hear humor and irony in the piece and are in favor of “ironic appropriations,” and people who think that the humor is just fancy dressing for odious and hurtful dismissals of real experiences of harm and pain. Obviously the wide range of responses to the post suggests the virality of the topic in the first place and perhaps justifies my attempts to make an intervention. And obviously I wrote a polemic so I cannot claim now to be surprised when the polemic polarizes!

But I was surprised by some mis-readings and dismayed by some of the more vicious responses, and I was very sorry, in particular, that some of my characterizations smacked of a dismissal of disability rights claims or discourse.

Some of the best responses to my piece include:

  • Andrea Smith’s wise “Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivized Healing” (not a direct response to me at all) where she asks: “How do we create spaces to experiment with different strategies, as well as spaces to openly assess and change these strategies as they inevitably become co-opted? How do we create movements that make us collectively accountable for healing from individual and collective trauma?”
  •  Another excellent post that did directly respond to mine, and critiqued it, came from Natalia Cecire who offers that I am missing the way that neoliberalism also counsels us to “suck it up” in relation to harm and pain that we may feel. And she usefully points to the ways that the modes of expression that I critique are often associated with the feminine and therefore draw out a sexist response that she associated with my article. Finally, Cecire proposes that it is ridiculous to point to and intensify a generational split, one that older people have in many ways created and exploited and then blame it on a younger generation and all while accusing people of lacking a sense of humor. Fair enough.
  • Julia Serano, the author of the fabulous Whipping Girl, a book I regularly teach, calls my blog a “kitchen sink” piece and reminds us that activism can be messy and difficult but that the quarrels over language and feelings are ultimately worth the effort. She also memorializes her dead parrot while trigger warning the memorialization and joking about her own trigger warning. And she has funny inter titles, and is always worth a read, even if she is ripping you a new one!whipping_girl
  • Finally, Valéria Souza’s excellent blog on “Triggernometry” charts the history of some of these debates and she situates triggering as an almost necessary part of learning and something that we cannot shield ourselves from but that we should not ignore either.
  • You can also read other great posts by Brandy Daniels, and Matthew Nelson.

In response, and quickly because I know people are somewhat sick of this topic by now:

  • warning-humor
    1. I apologize to all those offended by my article. And to those who were not offended, it was not for lack of trying (joke).
    2. In trying to express frustration with some of the ways in which we engage each other in public around safe space, trigger warnings and appellations/pronouns, I realize that I made a straw person out of the environmentally sensitive people who object to perfume in public spaces. On this point, I have been re-reading Anna Mollow’s excellent article “No Safe Place” in Women Studies Quarterly (2011). My point was not to critique people who have environmental allergies  but to question how we make room for each other, or don’t, how we interact in public spaces and how important it is to find ways to communicate our needs without shouting each other down. This is something that I believe disability rights groups have done gracefully  and not simply by yelling at others in spaces fouled up by toxic odors. It may also be a good time to return to Todd Haynes brilliant film, Safe (1995), which managed to situate environmental illness not as a metaphor but as a part of an emergent landscape of differentiated vulnerability to all kinds of social and chemical toxicity. safe
    3. Generational conflict is an important topic. In my book, In a Queer Time and Place back in 2005, I actually wrote about the potential for emergent queer youth groups to pit old and young against each other in queer communities that were not actually organized along generational lines. This kind of conflict, I said then, is organized within Oedipal structures that make one generation see the other as their rivals/replacement. Consequently, these Oedipal structures substitute for other more queer, fluid and entwined relations between young and old, relations moreover that were often intimate and that, in the past, allowed for knowledge (prior to the internet) to be passed on from one generation to another. I still think that some of the impact of queer youth groups comes in the form of Oedipal conflict and I am committed to thinking with others about how to communicate, exchange and theorize beyond that Oedipal frame. I reproduced the framework in my essay for sure, but that is an inevitable consequence of struggling over a term like “tranny” that many people in their 40’s and 50’s use and other younger people often detest.Emperor-Penguins
    4. After reading through many responses to my original piece, I also agree that “censorship” might be too strong a word for the work that trigger warnings do, but censorship can mean not simply preventing someone from speaking but also insisting on what they say when they do speak. Trigger warnings originated in more local contexts and certainly warrant more conversation as and when they move from those contexts to public discourse. On this front, we might want to think about the provincial nature of these trigger warning/safe space debates and their specificity within North America – as several people pointed out in comments to my original blog, perhaps it is worth considering how American the demand for and expectation of safe space really is and whether we should dialogue about the centrality of injury to political claims made here in the US as opposed to elsewhere. But also we might consider how demands for safety in the US all too often come at the expense of others within a security regime.
    5. Julia Serano’s parrot is an important reminder of the stakes in these debates. Serano suggests that while she did lose her parrot in a way that was sad for her, she would not claim “that I was “traumatized” by her death. Nor am I “triggered” these days by watching Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. But,” she continues, “do you know what would upset me? If somebody tried to dismiss my feelings about Coby and the grief that I felt after her passing.” I can very well understand that, no one wants their feelings dismissed but we should not confuse sad feelings with uncontrollable grief and so, I want to validate Julia’s feelings about her pet, Coby, and I want to propose that if I was at a play or performance where someone’s parrot became an ex-parrot and it was part of a humorous sketch about our attachment to animals, we should not have to have a town hall meeting about the performance later on account of the fact that it was disrespectful to those who have suffered the loss of said avian companions…if you catch my drift.monty_python_dead_parrot_sketch_by_seekerarmada-d5muzjm
    6. And if you don’t, no worries, to follow in Julia Serano’s footsteps, I will now be known as Whipping Boy or Jock Halberslam or, as my favorite tweet put it, “ the sports dad of queer theory.” Or we could all move on and work harder to understand each other, to trust each other and to believe that even if we cannot shield each other from harm, we can at least make the odd dead parrot joke in good humor and with impunity.67Z94Svt