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Just Joking: Notes on the Comedy of Hannah Gadsby By Jack Halberstam

9 Aug

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In an interview with Indie Wire recently, Hannah Gadsby ripped into the now-disgraced comedian, Louis C.K.: “He’s a joke now,” she said, “and it is important to keep making that joke.” This, in A very large nutshell, is the essence of Hannah Gadsby’s comedy – time’s up fellas, the joke’s on you! While, I am not the biggest fan of Nanette, I recently went to see Hannah Gadsby’s latest comedy show, Douglas, in New York City. The parts of Nanette that I loved were the relentless pressure on white men to “pull their fucking socks up,” the critiques of gay pride (“the pressure on my people to express our identity and pride through the metaphor of party is very intense”), the quick dismissal of the download-1rainbow flag (“very shouty”), the exasperation with white male rage (“what have they got to be angry about”) and the attempts to reveal the absurdities of white patriarchal logic.

The parts of Douglas with which I was less enamored were the dog references, all of them, and the homilies and life lessons collected from around the edges of comedy – “Punch lines need trauma because punch lines need tension, and tension feeds trauma.” Punch lines need trauma? Hmm, not sure, but maybe comedy in general does. Or how about: “we think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with.” Or: “Ignorance will always walk amongst us because we will never know all of the things.” In other words, the pedagogical impulse is strong in Gadsby, sometimes too strong, you could even call her “dogmatic” (that is my one and only dog joke, I promise): “I need to tell my story properly because you learn from the part of the story you focus on.” This sense that we should learn something from Gadsby perhaps interrupts the humor and the ‘gazing into the abyss’ moments in the show more than I would like (“I believe we could paint a better world if we learned to see it from all perspectives”). In fact, the really effective pedagogical moments in Gadsby’s show come from her ability to wrap audiences around her finger, to pull us to the brink of hilarity one minute and drop us down into the plough of despond the next. I like that she drops us into those deep holes without promising rescue, I appreciate that pleasure is not her only objective, and I love that she is still angry.

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downloadGadsby’s show, Nanette, was a surprise hit last year on Netflix and it has garnered her thousands of fans (including celebrities, like Emma Thompson) and not a few detractors. The fans loved Gadsby’s open repudiation of the stand-up comedy genre and they were moved by her brutal honesty about what it is like to grow up gender-queer in a small place – Tasmania in her case. Her detractors, most popularly Hilton Als in The New Yorker, felt emotionally manipulated by some of her work and saw not a truthful performance but a performance of authenticity. Fans laughed and they cried; detractors claimed Gadsby was not even funny. So, what is the popular appeal of Hannah Gadsby and should we be suspicious of it? Is she a TERF (a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) as some have claimed (and the term is used promiscuously online to signify everything from a 70’s cultural feminist to a transphobic parent to, apparently, a lesbian comedian) or is she, like Alison Bechdel, one of the very few butch artists to access mainstream success? Is her stand-up wholly original or just a new take on a very formulaic genre?

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So just to get the obvious stuff out of the way – yes, Douglas is funny and brilliant. No, you do not laugh at every line because that is not how stand-up works. Is Gadsby a TERF? Well, not in terms of arguing for essential womanhood, nor in terms of bashing trans women, nor in the sense of investing in women-born women spaces. But,  she has a TERF-y focus on the harm done by men to women and a tendency not to place that harm in larger context involving race and class. No, I do not think Gadsby is a TERF, but how about a BARF – Butch Autistic Radical Feminist? Is she really autistic? This is another question thrown about online. As she says in Douglas, Gadsby’s autism is self-diagnosed. In the show, she lists the symptoms of autism as: an inability to read social cues, a struggle with intimate relations, a preference for a cup of tea over a sex party in a dungeon, a tendency to lose her temper and “blow up like a puffer fish” when angered, emotional limitations. I am not an expert on autism, but I am an expert on butches and can I just say that the symptoms for autism in Gadsby’s case and the characteristics of old-school stone butches bear an uncanny similarity!? Gadsby’s autism is “real” inasmuch as she experiences it as a set of debilitating symptoms. But, it is also by now a large part of her very lucrative public performance.

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Finally, on the unfair critique front, is Gadsby boring, unfunny or a trauma queen? No, no and maybe. I think it would be very hard to say that a stand-up comedian who keeps most of her audience on the edge of their seats for nearly two hours is boring. And while, I often find comedians funny but rarely laugh out loud during a show, I laughed out loud during Douglas several times and the audience around me was often in stitches. As for the trauma queen or, in this case, king – yes, Gadsby is quite enamored with her own trauma – “punchlines need trauma.” And sometimes, the problem with trauma is that it has a telescoping effect, making it hard to see around one’s cone of pain, hard to relativize your struggle, hard to see the world beyond it. As Hilton Als wrote in his gentle take-down of Gadsby: “Gadsby, in her work, espouses a kind of puritan-minded radicalism in which someone else is always to blame for how messed up she feels. But isn’t that messed-up feeling life? And what about other lives? What about the millions who have it worse, who are fighting to survive?” Ok, not so gentle, but Als hits the mark on what is missing from some of Gadsby’s riffs – namely, the ability to situate her trauma in relation to the trauma of others and the “messed-up feeling” that we call “life.”

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Hand drawn sketch style Tasmanian Devil isolated on white background. Vector illustration.

When I was in Tasmania recently, indeed, I met several wonderful butches, butches who, like Gadsby, felt traumatized by the homophobic environment of a place that did not repeal its anti-homosexuality laws until 1997! These other butches (“my people,” Gadsby might say) gave a context for Gadsby and she suddenly seemed less unique, less like a rare bird in the wild and more like a solid member of a fairly robust species. Tasmania is a place knee-deep in trauma but not all of it attaches to queers. Indeed, white queers in Tasmania can easily be placed within another national context, a different inflection of “my people,” and in relation not to a punch-line but what is called there “the black line.” The National Museum of Australia explains, that when European settlers arrived in Tasmania in 1830, the native population fought back against the occupation of their land. In response, the museum notes with no hint of condemnation: “Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur ordered thousands of able-bodied settlers to form what became known as the ‘Black Line’, a human chain that crossed the settled districts of Tasmania. The line moved south over many weeks in an attempt to intimidate, capture, displace and relocate the remaining Aboriginal people.” This “black line” was basically a genocidal project and part of what was called the “Black War.” The colonists sought to eliminate Aboriginal people from their own land and by 1847, only 40 native people remained. By 1876, they were all dead.

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This is a grim history, a deeply traumatic history, and it is one from which all white people in Tasmania have benefitted. And I don’t link Gadsby’s show to this history simply to force a trauma comparison. Rather, the world view of the settler colonial both informs Gadsby and is an important part of the ideology that presumably she wants to shatter. And so, the fact that this history plays no role in her show, means that we get a snapshot of homophobic Tasmania but no sense of the carnage that laid the foundations for decades of settler colonial violence and for this particularly brutal form of national homophobia and toxic white masculinity. Remember, it is Gadsby who says: “I believe we could paint a better world if we learned to see it from all perspectives.” One wants to answer that there’s a pretty big perspective missing from the picture she paints.

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Trauma in Gadsby’s world then is real but possibly much more layered and multi-faceted than she lets on. And, on account of this, the strength of her show – her take down of white men – might also be its weakness: her targets, it seems, are only misogyny and homophobia but colonial racism is nowhere to be found. This is in part the critique launched by Hilton Als. In his widely circulated review of Gadsby’s Douglas, Als, complained that Gadsby’s shows only play to and in anticipation of the white-male critical voice. He comments: “The idea that a Black gay writer like me would come from New York to see and appreciate her performance doesn’t figure into her sword-wielding.” Als goes on to accuse Gadsby of lacking nuance, of “puritan-minded radicalism,” and of sounding like she is “spewing undigested Andrea Dworkin.” These are tough critiques especially lodged within an even harsher evaluation of the whole show as “solipsism masquerading as art.” But, Als nails something about what is missing from the show and what might be lost by this exclusive, blinkered take on homophobic violence.

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If Gadsby’s trauma makes her short-sighted, her autism, as she proposes, allows her to see patterns where neuro-typical people see only disorderly displays of power. And her imagesqueerness offers her a refuge from heteronormativity and therefore space from which to diagram misogyny and sexism. Some white queers and feminists may deeply appreciate the takes on white masculinity and patriarchy but many audiences of color may feel their limitations. Part of the responsibility for Gadsby’s myopia falls squarely on her own shoulders, but part of it, and this is the part that Hilton Als ignores, emerges from the nature of stand-up comedy itself – and here Gadsby can be commended for wanting to quit a genre that forces her to base her humor on constitutive exclusions and offers pleasure only by asking that your pleasure come at the expense of others. But she can also admired for taking the genre and twisting it away from its hetero-white male roots and turning it into a platform for a queer feminism that alternates between cheeky and rageful.

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What is funny depends upon perspective and humor draws some audiences in even as it cuts other audiences down. And so, while Gadsby lets loose on her unabashed man-hating, straight women comedians often target the indignities of heterosexuality or the inadequacies of their male partners. And Black male comedians, such as Dave Chappelle, regularly attack white masculinity and white power in their comedy, but, they also find humor in homophobic material on swishy gays and pushy transgender women. In the Chapelle show I watched there were about 17 rape jokes for example.

Punchlines need trauma, says Gadsy. Maybe they do. Comedy is a violent sport and the field is littered with blood and guts at the end of many of the best routines. All too often, self-conscious comedians like Gadsby and Chappelle tell us, the laugh is hard won through sacrifice, caricature, erasure and simplification. Gadsby recognizes this and finds in comedy an analogue to her art history training where she was led through the history of Western art only to find out that this history is actually just the trajectory of white male gazes – to wit, naked women abound: “Art history taught me, you know, historically, women didn’t have time to think thoughts. They were too busy napping, naked, alone, in the forest.” Art requires naked, empty women. Masculine stand up has tended to require abject queers and transgender people. And so, some feminist stand-up requires its own roster of dead bodies, mostly male. Gadsby lets Picasso stand for the white man she comes to slay: “I don’t like Picasso. I fucking hate him. I really– I just– He’s rotten in the face cavity. I hate Picasso! I hate him!” Staving off the inevitable charges of man-hating levied at lesbians, she comments: “All my life, I’ve been told that I’m a man-hater. I don’t hate men, I honestly do not. I don’t hate men. But… there’s a problem. See, I don’t even believe that women are better than men. I believe women are just as corruptible by power as men, because you know what, fellas, you don’t have a monopoly on the human condition, you arrogant fucks. But the story is as you have told it. Power belongs to you. And if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge. I’m not a man-hater. But I’m afraid of men.”

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When she steps out of the magic circle of comedy here, leaves out the punchline and instead descends into a rant, Gadsby, believes she is leaving a shitty genre behind. But in fact, ‘the love it and leave it’ mode she performs IS the genre. Other comedians like Dave Chappelle for example also struggle with the choice of whether to perform comedy or to walk away from it. And so the very piece of Gadsby’s show that audiences found so incredible – her claim that she was leaving comedy – is in fact part of the struggle that all comedians who are not white and male must face. The appeal of Gadsby then is not her moral sense of needing to walk away from comedy nor her pedagogical lessons that are used to justify her continued use of the genre. Her appeal is simply this – she is a fucking brilliant stand-up comedian no matter how much she may deny it and like Dave Chappelle she takes a white man’s art and uses it magically to deconstruct the genre and in the process to remake it!

Indeed, watching Gadsby’s Nanette and Dave Chapelle’s Age of Spin back to back recently I noticed how much they have in common: Gadsby and Chappelle are both angry comedians. Chappelle and Gadsby also feel, and often reject the burden of having a community for whom they speak and a mainstream audience whom they believe needs to hear their shit. They both telegraph where the show is going: at the start of Douglas, Gadsby warns that she will eventually tell a Louis C.K joke, but that it will come so late that the audience will have forgotten it is coming. Chappelle, on the other hand, warns his crowd that he will have four stories O.J. before the show is over. These forewarnings offer clever internal scaffolding for the comedy routine and serve as rhetorical breadcrumbs for the audience picking their way through the routine. Chappell and Gadsby both veer between stand-up routines and canned lectures – Chappelle has material on World War 2, colonial emasculation, civil rights and Gadsby has mini lectures on the representation of women, art history and queer politics. Both mention Bill Cosby.

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The point is, Gadsby is not so original in terms of the form of her stand up but nor is she unique in her ability to pinpoint the problems with the genre. Chappelle’s rape jokes serve exactly this purpose. In the Age of Spin, a routine that has been heavily critiqued for perceived misogyny and homophobia, Chappelle recounts pitching a potential super-hero movie to a Hollywood type. The premise is that the super-hero can only access his super-powers by touching a woman’s pussy. But, the guy in question is too unappealing to get such access and so, at a critical moment, he has to force himself upon a woman in order to save the world. He asks the audience to decide whether the rape is justifiable: “That’s the dilemma” he says, “Because he rapes, but he saves a lot of lives. And he saves way more than he rapes, and he only rapes to save. But he does rape.” The rape here is a kind of metaphor for comedy – is it ok to save people by using violence or to entertain them by trashing others? Gadsby turns the rape joke and the question it asks around. And this is where her anger is so powerful. She asks whether it matters to his legacy that Picasso fucked an underage girl:

“Let’s make art great again, guys. Picasso fucked an underage girl. And that’s it for               me. Not interested. “But cubism… We need it.” Marie-Thérèse Walter. She was 17                 when they met. Underage. Legally underage. Picasso was 42, married, at the                          height of his career. Does it matter? Yeah. Yeah, it actually does. It does matter.”

The rape might be justified for Chappelle if it serves the greater good. The legacy must go for Gadsby if it involves questionable sexual ethics. Both Chappelle and Gadsby are fundamentalists, both try to destroy the genre within which they work, both labor to reveal the messy innards of comedy, its deep secrets and its incredible power and violence. Both return to the genre like a lover who cannot leave but who also cannot stay away.

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Hilton Als felt left out of Gadsby’s show, unaddressed and invisible. And, I can honestly say that lesbians and trans men do not exist for Chappelle. But this too is how comedy works – the comedian speaks from a location, the comedian makes jokes at the expense of others and therefore needs an other (“take my wife…please”) to lambast. That other, until Gadsby, was rarely the white man. At the end of Nanette, Gadsby says: “To the men in the room… who feel I may have been persecuting you this evening… well spotted. That’s pretty much what I’ve done there. But this is theater, fellas.” This is theater fellas, she is saying, it is not real life. In real life you are still king of the hill, so loosen the fuck up and learn how to take a joke! Gadsby and Chappelle are unique in their love/hate relation to the genre of comedy, their mastery of a form that they must destroy and their overt commentaries on the violence that mastery requires. “Sadism demands a story,” wrote Laura Mulvey decades ago in another feminist essay dedicated to the destruction of pleasure. And whether you follow Gadsby down the chute of her trauma or applaud Chappelle for turning a rape joke back onto the audience, you leave the show convinced that the show is well and truly fucked and that the show must go on. And here we arrive at the flawed genius of Gadsby – she is not politically pure, she too racks up as body count in the gladiatorial contest to make strangers guffaw, but she finds humor in her own rage and even as she delivers the death blow: “Pull your fucking socks up!” She finds an opportunity for a cheeky moment of self-awareness: “How humiliating. Fashion advice from a lesbian!” Then back to the meta narrative: “that is your last joke.” But it wasn’t, it isn’t and we know in the end that she was just joking and the show, dogs and all, will go on.

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A (K)night of a Thousand Butches by Jack Halberstam

21 May
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A Butch Knight complete with large sword

TV giveth and TV taketh away. Over the course of a few memorable evenings of television viewing recently, millions watched as Arya (Maisie Williams) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendolin Christie) on the final season of Game of Thrones, lost their virginity to men.  Meanwhile over on Gentleman Jack, an aristocratic female-bodied lord (played by Suranne Jones), took the maidenhead of her neighbor, Miss Walker (Sophie Rundle). I guess being mainstream means that queer viewers can switch channels back and forth between compulsory heterosexuality in the form of pre-war sex on Game of Thrones, and pre-modern butch-femme sex with a little patriarchy smashing thrown in for good measure on Gentleman Jack. While Miss Walker, the object of Anne Lister’s desire on Gentleman Jack, makes it clear that once she has tasted the forbidden fruit offered by her butch paramour, men become increasingly unappetizing, Arya, at least, on Game of Thrones, tries out heterosexuality only to throw it back onto the pile of “thanks but no thanks.” Brienne of Tarth, on the other hand, and hands are key here, seemed to be a true convert to the faith, although, given her partner, it is not clear whether she is in love with prosthetic sex or what Paul Preciado calls counter sexuality, or whether she was just waiting for the right man, as the sad stereotype goes. Arya was at least the aggressor in her disappointing sex scene with Gendry but Brienne of Tarth was all submission and virginal modesty. What do we think about the abundance of butches on television on Sunday nights right now and is there anything to celebrate here? Or, rather, is the masculine woman only trotted out on mainstream television as a form of titillation and sensation?

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As Anne Lister, the eighteenth century masculine woman who conducted business and bedded local married women with equal gusto, Suranne Jones is (mostly) a marvel. Her wooing of her tremulous neighbor, Miss Walker, is a veritable lesson in the art of seduction and, after many a drawn out session of hand-holding and mutual exchanges of meaningful glances, Lister finally gets what she has been angling for – an invitation from Miss Walker to come for dinner…and spend the night!

It would be churlish to complain about watching such luscious scenes of playful and erotic queer flirtation play themselves out, however, quibbles are certainly in order. For, while I love Suranne Jones, who plays Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack as much as the next man, and I admire the way the series depicts her as a can-do, masculine butch, I wish we could see more…shall we say…results for all the erotic back and forth. Instead, at critical moments of encounter, particularly when a long and luscious, open mouthed kiss might be called for, we watch as the studly Lister diverts from her target at the last minute and begins to nuzzle her amour’s cheek! After watching a few of these scenes, my close reading skills confirm that either the lady or her lover is ducking out at the last minute so that in the place of deep lez smooching, we get way too much cheek brushing. And for the novices out there, no, cheek brushing is not a lesbian thing! After a few too many of these neck nuzzles, you, like me, might begin to wonder why TV wants to raise the erotic possibility of the armed and dangerous butch only to immediately turn her back into a pussy…cat.

il_794xN.1466167697_boi4Speaking of armed butches, let’s return for a moment to Brienne of Tarth, who, let me be the first to say, as a female knight in shining armor, surely deserved better than Jamie Lannister! While his prosthetic arm offers some interesting prospects for queer sex between a heterosexual guy (or, given his other lover, shall we say “family man”?) and a giant butch, Jamie seems clueless about his golden glove. The metal hand that he uses to cover over the site of his castrated arm, can easily be resignified as (what we queer theorists like to call) a lesbian phallus! Indeed, the shape of his prosthetic hand lacks imagination – imagine if the Lannister arm had been shaped like a dildo, not necessarily an anatomically correct one – how about a dolphin shaped phallus courtesy of a medieval Babes in Ye Olde Toyland? Or just a fist? With such a weapon on hand, I would have been willing to grant this union some credibility!

But, sadly, the quick and seemingly normal bedding of Brienne by Jamie, and the as-quick abandonment of her by the one handed bandit was disappointing for all who have followed her long character arc through many battles against precisely such men on behalf of much more appealing maidens! Sex aside, Jamie, the King Slayer, could have been an interesting friend for Brienne, indeed he recognizes her knightly qualities and approaches her as his equal. But queer relations is a real failing of Game of Thrones, and I say this as a fan, and so, the show’s heteronormative limit meant that we could not be treated to a straight man/butch friendship. Instead, the bond between butch and bad guy was all just grist for the old hetero mill, and so to bed…

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Dragonglass prosthetics

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Another butch in Game of Thrones left nothing to chance when it came to prosthetics. Before Arya gives Gendry her virginity, she commissioned him to make her a dragonglass weapon of some kind. The sketch she presents to him, indeed, an image much debated online in terms of its form and purpose, looks like nothing so much as a Paul Preciado style contrasexual prosthetic dick! I believe if we said it was a dildo and harness, we might have resolved one of the great mysteries of Game of Thrones – forget who will sit on the Iron Throne, which turned out to be a big anti-climax anyway, the question is who has the best weapon? While Jamie’s aforementioned metal hand is definitely a contender, Arya’s detachable weapon seems to have the edge on all the other valerian steel. And yet, despite long sequences in which Arya encourages Gendry to make this weapon for her, in the end, she does not use it to kill the Night King! This leaves the question open as to what the dragonglass spear might be used for!

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Perhaps when Arya beds the eager Gendry, she was merely looking for a place to try out her dragonglass toy. And, as quickly as she sleeps with the lad, she realizes that heterosexual love is not for her– “that’s not me…I am no lady”– and she rejects her enamored suitor. Brienne of Tarth, on the other hand, having given up her blue-ribbon lesbian status to Jamie Lannister, seemed crest-fallen when the King Slayer rode off to be with his sister/lover in her hour of need. A quick summation of Jamie’s rather unappetizing sexual history – incest, child killer, etc. – should make viewers pause and wonder why Brienne is so often represented as the freak in this duo, but the hasty departure by Jamie suggests that his metal arm may not have measured up to the prothesis Brienne was expecting!

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Like Arya, Brienne carries a big sword, her own Valerian steel (maybe Valerian steel is the medieval equivalent to silicon?) called “Oathkeeper.” In Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth, according to wikipedia is described as:

“…unfeminine in appearance, and is considered unattractive. She is very tall, muscular, flat-chested, and ungainly, with straw-colored hair and broad, coarse features that are covered in freckles. Her teeth are prominent and crooked, her mouth is wide, her lips are swollen, and her nose has been broken more than once. However, her large blue eyes are described as beautiful.”

Wow, like a straight man condescendingly paying a masculine woman a “pity compliment,” this description offers the beautiful blue eyes as the only compensation for crooked teeth and a broken nose. World to medieval fantasy writers – probably everyone had crooked teeth before about the 1980’s when orthodontics became a thing and hey, when you are fighting off rapists at every turn, you may sustain a broken nose every now and then. But of course, it is not what she looks like that makes Brienne of Tarth unappealing to men, it is her dogged, unrelenting defense of women and her unapologetic use of her size and her brawn.

Like most heterosexual narratives, Game of Thrones has little to no idea what to do with “Brienne the Beauty” as she is sarcastically called, and so, as the denouement approaches, she is thrown a couple of masculinist bones in the form of Tormund, who calls her the “big woman,” and Jamie, who is marginally more appealing because he seems to genuinely like her. Brienne’s love options had fans giggling with joy over the idea that the seemingly unattractive woman might, as one writer in Marie Claire puts it, “find true love.” Other clueless articles call her a feminist icon (maybe but feminist here is just a nice word for lesbian) but the whole lesbian thing is only addressed by a few smart .queers on social media. Hopefully there is fan fiction out there pairing Brienne up with an unarmed (as opposed to one armed, but nothing wrong with one armed either) lady.

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Meanwhile, over in Halifax, circa 1803, Anne Lister, also known as Gentleman Jack, also unattractive and no doubt, also, if pictures are to be believed, featuring bad teeth and “swollen lips,” possibly even a broken nose, was despite her lack of conventional beauty, wooing and bedding ladies on the local estates. And in her spare time, she intimidates, harasses and tops local men in relation to the business of running her estate. Suranne Jones is a fabulous flirt and very good in this role which finally gives her room to express something other than toxic femininity (see her in Dr. Foster and Scott and Bailey). The ‘real’ Anne Lister (1791 – 1840) was an aristocratic lady lover who traveled around Europe bedding married women and then wrote about all her experiences in an elaborate code in her diaries! There is a tendency now to regard Lister as a “lesbian,” and this show makes that same mistake, but (reference LGT History 101) no such word would have been used during Lister’s life-time and the markers of Lister’s difference from other women concerned his/her cultivated masculine appearance and his/her desire for women. S/he did not understand herself to be part of a community of others like herself and s/he considered her partners to be women while s/he was something else, something closer to manhood.

The show Gentleman Jack is good fun — not good fun in the way that Game of Thrones is good fun with sex, violence and armies of the dead! — but good fun as in amusing and if not quite historically accurate, still insistent enough about Lister’s masculinity to offer some succor to those of us waiting for Arya and Brienne to find their own lady loves! And by the way, according to many fans of Game of Thrones, Sansa also might have been ready for some queer action and now that she is Queer/n of the North, I sincerely hope she finds it!

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There were, indeed, plenty of opportunities for some authentic medieval tribadism on Game of Thrones, but neither George Martin nor the show runners on HBO had the know how or balls to really figure out how to tell a good story about masculine women with weapons. As Game of Thrones winds down and leaves us pondering big questions about sovereignty, rule, governance and war, and even bigger questions about dragonglass dildos, it is time to hope that someone, somewhere on line is bringing into being a fan/fiction universe where we can reimagine queer characters outside of their function as local color or titillation and see them as amazons, witches, bitches and butches.

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Dear Tom: Missions Possible and Impossible

8 Aug
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Your mission, Tom, should you choose to accept it….

By Jack Halberstam

Your mission, Tom Cruise, should you choose to accept it, is to self-destruct within 5 seconds of reading this message.

Oh, you did that already, several times, and in public, and on Oprah and in documentaries about the Fascist Church of Scientology. Still, please do it again and mean it this time. Consider all rumors about your homosexuality to be null and void, you are way too ordinary to be homosexual. Also, you dress badly. And, furthermore, pursuant to this message, you will no longer be a lesbian boy idol. Someone get the message to Ellen please.

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As for your latest masterpiece, Mission Impossible 47, it sucks. FYI Tom, “masterpiece” is not a compliment, don’t get excited, definitely don’t start jumping around like a puppy on sofas the way you did when people had to hear about you kidnapping your last wife, Katie Holmes. Your new film sucks so bad, Tom, because we have to watch you supposedly saving the world from the bad guys. Who are the bad guys, Tom? Are they anarchists? Are they? Really? What? Do you know what anarchy is, what it means, what it stands for? Do you get that anarchists reject hierarchy, and property and believe in self-governance and call attention to abuses of state power? Do you know what you are Tom? You are a guy who jumps out of planes and thinks that this qualifies you to save the world. Do us a favor next time – how about don’t save us from the anarchists? Please.

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Tom, Mission Impossible Fallout is a nonsense film with a nonsense title. The only fallout is the nuclear level stench that the film puts out as it tries to offer audiences clever twists and turns on a very bad plot. Oh, and you fall out of planes and helicopters a lot. Let’s think about the plot of this movie, Tom, and see together if we can understand where it falls out with even its own premises. Ok, bear with me Tom, there is a lot of summary here and I want you to follow along with me, focus…no stop looking around for someone who needs your help, I need your help, I need you to explain this nutso plot to me so that I can understand how and why in the age of renewed right wing populism and fascist patriarchy, anarchy becomes the problem afflicting what you like to call in this film “the world.”

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OK, here we go, a summary: a rogue group of operatives (Tom, you played Ethan Hunt, right? A man who is both hunted, haunted and hunting…clever…and then there is Benji played by the desperately trying to be funny Simon Pegg, and Luther played by Ving Rhames, who, in this film is essentially a Black male punching bag whom you keep saving to prove your morality – so good of you to save the Black man when his role usually is to die off quickly and leave the white guys to save the world, but you saved him! Wow…deep). As I was saying Tom, look at me, as I was saying, you lead a group of rogue operatives known as the Impossible Missions Force as they try to prevent some bad anarchists from obtaining plutonium and using it to blow everyone up. The Impossible Missions Force…great name Tom…let’s shorten it to IMF to make it clear for whom you work. Do you know what the IMF is Tom? Ask Siri…no not your daughter, that’s Suri, although she probably knows the answer, Siri – Siri, what is IMF?

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“Here’s what I found: IMF stands for the International Monetary Fund. The IMF promotes international financial stability and monetary cooperation. It also facilitates international trade, promotes employment and sustainable economic growth, and helps to reduce global poverty. The IMF is governed by and accountable to its 189 member countries.”

Sounds ok Tom, right? The IMF sounds like a good thing to you, maybe – reducing global poverty? Gooood. Sustainable economic growth? Gooood. Wrong, not good. The IMF basically allows wealthy countries to impose neoliberal capitalism on poor countries. The same countries responsible for creating shit shows in the global economy (think Germany) then gets to impose restrictions on bad “lazy” countries (think Greece). Not good, Tom, not good. So, you are the IMF and you work for the government? Sort of? Not sure, not really?

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Who is the government in this film, Tom? Is it that Black CIA officer, Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett), who keeps bugging you and following you and assigns to you a childminder by the name of Walker (played by a hunky Henry Cavill)? Or is the government Walker himself who is keeping tabs on you, but who is also a buff and better version of you and, just in case the audience ends up liking him better than you, is also ultimately revealed to be a loser anarchist??

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Or is it Alec Baldwin’s character, Alan Hunley, your boss, who shows up to stop you from going rogue but then, twist after twist, ends up assisting you in going your own maverick way? Is he the government Tom? Is it the lady on the motorbike, Ilsa, who keeps hunting you (the hunter gets hunted) but always holds back from shooting you once you are in her sights? Is it the White Widow who seems to represent a shadowy terrorist group but actually turns out to be working with the CIA? But if Ilsa is the government, and so is the White Widow then who is the enemy? Is the government good or bad in this story Tom? No, don’t think about it, don’t look to your daughter Suri to help, even Siri is no use here. Simple question, is the government good or bad? If good, then why do you keep going rogue and why don’t they trust you? If bad, and you oppose them, and want to be free of their surveillance, and in fact want to go it alone on behalf of ‘freedom’ or some such vague concept, well, then in that case Tom, are you an anarchist? No, I know you are not a mutual aid anarchist or an anti-fascist anarchist, I mean duh! You are a scientologist and believe that you are a superior being in an inferior world (the plot of most Mission Impossible films). Obviously. But maybe you are a right-wing anarchist? Like Zizek? What’s that Tom? Oh, you LOVE Zizek, right, you have never heard of the IMF but you love Zizek, it is all making sense.

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Solomon Lane – an anarchist in Mission Impossible and Zizek look alike.

But wait, Tom, we have not finished the plot summary. So you are trying to stop the bad anarchists from dropping plutonium on the “world” which would create….fall out! And so, you need to impersonate one bad guy, John Lark and then kidnap another bad guy, Solomon Lane, and then hand him over to someone called the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby, last seen playing another royal – Princess Margaret and wasted here because there is no one to charm because Ethan Hunt is on a mission and has no time for tomfoolery). Luckily, the hunt for John Lark led us, Tom, to one of the very best scenes in the film (I hesitate to call it a film but it has a plot, was shot on some kind of digital equipment and trades in visual imagery that overwhelms its human accompaniments). Yes, the bathroom scene where you and that hunky Henry rough up an Asian dude in a bathroom stall and then when people enter the bathroom, you pretend to be having a threesome in the stall to avoid detection.

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Niiiiiceee Tom! An arch little wink to the homo rumors that dog you (that we have declared null and void) and a postmodern moment of self-consciousness that allows us all a good giggle at the idea that you would ever masquerade as anything. Because that was the plan, right Tom, you were supposed to pretend to be John Lark and with some nifty face transferring technology, you would have gone undercover as the Asian guy. You would have fused with him, entered him, and all kinds of other metaphors for the sex you were pretending to have with him. Would you have been in yellow-face if you had actually followed through on this thoroughly racist premise? But you abandoned the whole idea pretty quickly Tom, not because of the racism but because, well you killed the guy. Dead guy, no face. Technically, of course, that was a “good” kill because he was the bad guy and you, you are so good you cannot even pretend to be bad. You are so original, you can only be you, right Tom?

Anyway, the plot thickens. Of course it does! You, being the very, very good guy that you are – we remember how you have already saved Ving Rhames several times by this point in the plot, you have killed several baddies, you consistently put your team first – overturn a plan (from the government? who is the government Tom, I know I keep asking) to kidnap the anarchist (and remind me again Tom what do they stand for?) that would result many deaths. Damn it Tom, you are SO good, you just keep saving and saving the world, one innocent at a time. I-am-so-moved. And now you must impersonate John Lark using face technology in order to meet up with more bad guys (who turn out to be the government in disguise, just saying Tom, confusing!)

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Now, this face off technology is pretty cool Tom…were it not for the fact that it has been done to death in another film, what was it called…something catchy and clever…oh yeah, Face Off, ha, that’s good, another clever film featuring a white, pseudo-homosexual (we call them faux-mo’s Tom in case you need the correct lingo ever) who is a member of the Church of Scientology and thinks he is the bomb – wassisname? Oh right, John Travolta. Is this a metaphor for some kind of sex thing you guys do in the Church Of Scientology? Face off, jerk off, stare into the eyes of other alpha male members and their members, imagine your face in their face, your eyes in their eyes, your members for ever privately communing and confirming with their members in a members only bathroom stall? But needless to say, by the second or third time you used that technology in the film Tom, I was over it. So, when you left the naughty anarchist alone with Walker, told Walker to watch him and then it turned out that, oops, Walker and Lane were in cohoots and oops wait, Lane is not Lane but Benji with a new face and oops, Alex Baldwin is not the bad government rep but a good guy there to support you….wow, I just can’t. Way too much Deus Ex Machina shit here Tom…what? Deus Ex Machina, no it is not a church thing, it is a theater thing. It is the way stupid plot can be resolved when the author has painted himself into a corner – you just introduce a moment of technical wizardry that saves the day. Remember Finding Dory? No? With your friend Ellen in it? Nobody does, Tom. Sequels Tom, fear sequels. Anyway, Finding Dory keeps painting itself into a corner because Dory was a-dory-ble precisely because she kept forgetting everything and now she remembers everything so she needs new and interesting obstacles to overcome and new ways to overcome them. In this film, the resolution comes in the form of…wait for it….a smart octopus. No, Tom, I do not think you need to hire an octopus in your film. But you do need something.

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How does Deus Ex Machina work in  Mission Impossible 47?? It works through you, dude. You are the Deus Ex Machina Tom. Whenever the moronic mission takes a wrong turn, you arrive from above, from below, on a bike, in a plane, flying a helicopter, on a cliff, in a tunnel, with a gun, or your fists, on your knees or hanging from a rope, or a ledge, but you always make it, you always get the job done, often with only one second remaining and a bad guy still loose. You do it, and you do it again, you save the day.

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And I have not even finished explaining your film to you Tom. Oh man, remember the good old days Tom, when you were just a young whipper snapper and you just wanted to have fun and and dance around in your underwear and when “risky business” meant crashing dad’s car not parachuting through a storm from 30,000 feet up? Remember back then – you still used allegorical names then – I think you played Joel Goodson…what’s that? Allegorical? Oh it just means, well, never mind Tom. I just meant that there is a pattern to your films. In fact, in Risky Business, there was also a queer theme – remember the transgender person you nearly had sex with in that film? Now that was a great film – white kid fucks up his parent’s house, gets into a relationship with a prostitute, ends up owing “bad” people money but at the end of day, still has a bright future and gets into Princeton. Wow, magic how that happens…for white boys. Now, that was your sweet spot, the cute story about innocent young white boys getting into trouble but always coming out on top! You had a good thing going Tommy boy, so why this nonsense about fighting anarchists and stopping the end of the world?

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Back in the good old days, you did not have to think about the IMF, or ask who exactly represents the government, or figure out how to juggle three women in one film without having sex with any of them or sort through why your wives leave you, often under cover of night and with much planning. And now Tom? Now, as your church tries to figure out who you should marry next, as your bulked up mid-life crisis body begins to show signs of wear and tear, as your plots contain as many contradictions as a story about why three heterosexual guys were caught in a toilet stall together, now Tom, it is time to do the right thing.

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What should you do Tom? Well, stop making these Mission Impossible films. Really stop it. But, second, if, like Samuel Beckett, you find that “I can’t go on. I’ll go on”…well, what? Who is Samuel Beckett, no he is not that Black action actor, that is Samuel Jackson, and no, Jackson is not available to play a support role in your next film, nor is Samuel Beckett. But as I was saying, if you find you must go on, here’s a plot for you: your shitty boss, Alex Baldwin’s character, has been sexually harassing the head of the CIA played by Angela Bassett, and blackmailing the White Widow and  trying to kill Ilsa, all while stymying their promotions, taking responsibility for their work and ideas and making tons more money than them. You, in the meantime, have been luring international men of mystery into public bathrooms with hunky Henry. You are so busy that you fail to see all the angry women who are lining up to take down the IMF. When you finally emerge from the restroom, no longer even able to feel your face, not even knowing any longer if it is your real face, the women have formed a rogue group and teamed up with anarchist groups to bring down global capitalism, assassinate its leadership, redistribute wealth, make health care and child care free, put a cap on earnings, abolish inheritance (all money goes back into the system), abolish prisons, make university free, figured out how to pay teachers properly, get rid of lawyers, ended marriage, oh and stopped nuclear war. All that…while you were in the bathroom with the hunk.

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But, if you really want to help people, and you really seem to want to, based upon all your Scientology videos, give your money away – some could go to Black Lives Matter to acknowledge that it is the police and not the anarchists who need to be stopped. More could go to various humanitarian crises in Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Indian occupied Kashmir and elsewhere (remember Kashmir Tom? You shot the last third of the movie there without mentioning its own ongoing struggle). More could go to help women and minorities make real films instead of these insanely expensive, sorry excuses for movies that you are involved in. You could endow a chair in sexuality studies somewhere so that people can study why people join pseudo churches to cover up whatever sexual secrets they have. You might consider funding a bunch of smart young, radical politicians to start a third party that would really go rogue in the US and would break with the super capitalism of Trump and would figure out how to redistribute wealth, how to hold banks and bankers accountable and how to rescue us from plutocratic democracy. Tell you what Tom, here’s an idea, you really can save us and the world. Take all of your wealthy friends in the 1% and put them in a helicopter – show them how to jump out with out a parachute, and if they resist, push them out. We will call it Mission Possible – Push Out and our world won’t end, but yours will. What’s that? You’ll do it if you can be reinstated as a lesbian boy idol? Ok, I will talk to Ellen and see what I can do.

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“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, AND EVERYBODY ELSE” by Paul Preciado

26 Jan

This is a guest post by Paul Preciado, Philosopher. Preciado’s piece was first published in French in Liberation on January 15, 2018 under the title “Letter d’un homme trans à l’ancien régime sexuel.” On Jun. 16, 2018 an English and a German version were published in Texte Zur Kunste, the English translation was done by Simon Pleasance. Preciado’s piece responds to the backlash in France to #metoo which was decried by Catherine Deneuve and some other prominent women as “puritanical.”

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Caught in the crossfire of sexual harassment politics, I should like to say a word or two as a smuggler between two worlds, the world of “men” and the world of “women” – these two worlds which might very well not exist, were some people not doing their utmost to keep them apart by means of a kind of Berlin gender Wall. I want to give you some news from the “found object” position or rather from that of the “lost subject” – lost during crossing.

I’m not talking here as a man belonging to the ruling class, the class of those who are assigned the male gender at birth, and who have been brought up as members of the governing class, those who are given the right or rather who are required (and this is an interesting analytical key) to exercise male sovereignty. Nor am I talking as a woman, given that I have voluntarily and intentionally abandoned that form of political and social embodiment. I speak as a trans man. And I’m in no way claiming to represent any collective whatsoever. I’m not talking, and cannot talk, as a heterosexual or a homosexual, although I’m acquainted with and occupy both positions, because when someone is trans, these categories become obsolete. I’m talking as a gender renegade, as a gender migrant, as a fugitive from sexuality, as a dissident (sometimes a clumsy one, because there is no trans user’s guide) with regard to the regime of sexual difference. As a self-appointed guinea-pig of sexual politics who is undergoing the as yet unthemed experience of living on both sides of the Wall and who, by dint of crossing it every day, is beginning to be fed up, ladies and gentlemen, with the stubborn rigidity of the codes and desires which the hetero-patriarchal regime dictates. Let me tell you, from the other side of the Wall, that things are far worse than my experience as a lesbian woman let me imagine. Since I’ve been living as-if-I-were-a-man in a man’s world (aware of embodying a political fiction), I’ve had a chance to check that the ruling class ( male and heterosexual) will not give up its privileges just because we send lots of tweets or let out the odd scream. Since the sexual and anti-colonial revolution of the past century shook their world, the hetero-white-patriarchs have embarked on a counter-reformation project—now joined by “female” voices wishing to go on being “importuned and bothered”. This will be a 1000-year war—the longest of all wars, given that it will affect the politics of reproduction and processes through which a human body is socially constituted as a sovereign subject. It will actually be the most important of all wars, because what is at stake is neither territory nor city, but the body, pleasure, and life.

 

Untitled-Infographic-11What hallmarks the position of men in our techno-patriarchal and heterocentric societies is the fact that male sovereignty is defined by the lawful use of techniques of violence (against women, against children, against non-white men, against animals, and against the planet as a whole). Reading Max Weber with Judith Butler, we could say that masculinity is to society what the State is to the nation: the holder and legitimate user of violence. This violence is expressed socially in the form of domination, economically in the form of privileges, and sexually in the form of aggression and rape. Conversely, female sovereignty in this regime is bound up with women’s capacity to give birth. Women are sexually and socially subordinate. Mothers alone are sovereign. Within this system, masculinity is defined necro-politically (by men’s right to inflict death), while femininity is defined bio-politically (by women’s obligation to have children). We might say with regard to necro-political heterosexuality that it is something akin to the utopia of the copulatory eroticization between Robocop and Alien, if we tell ourselves that, with a bit of luck, one of the two will have a good time…

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Heterosexuality is not only a political regime, as the French writer Monique Wittig has shown. It also a politics of desire. The specific feature of this system is that it is incarnated as a process of seduction and romantic dependence between “free” sexual agents. The positions of Robocop and Alien are not chosen individually, and are not conscious. Necro-political heterosexuality is a practice of government which is not imposed by those who govern (men) on the governed (women), but rather an epistemology laying down the respective definitions and positions of men and women by way of an internal regulation. This practice of government does not take the form of a law, but of an unwritten norm, a translation of gestures and codes whose effect is to establish within the practice of sexuality a partition between what can and cannot be done. This form of sexual servitude is based on an aesthetics of seduction, a stylization of desire, and an historically constructed and coded domination which eroticizes the difference of power and perpetuates it. This politics of desire is what keeps the old sex/gender regime alive, despite all the legal process of democratization and empowerment of women. aline1This necro-political heterosexual is as degrading and destructive as vassalage and slavery were during the Enlightenment. The process of denouncing violence and making it possible, which we are currently experiencing, is part and parcel of a sexual revolution, which is as unstoppable as it is slow and winding. Queer feminism has set epistemological transformation as a condition making social change possible. It called binary epistemology and gender naturalization into question by asserting that there is an irreducible multiplicity of different sexes, genders, and sexualities. But we realize, these days, that the libidinal transformation is as important as the epistemological one : desire must be transformed. We must learn how to desire sexual freedom.

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For years, queer culture has been a laboratory for inventing new aesthetics of dissident sexualities, in the face of techniques of subjectivation and desires involving hegemonic necro-political heterosexuality. Many of us have long since abandoned the aesthetics of Robocop-Alien sexuality. We have learned from butch-fem and BDSM cultures, with Joan Nestle, Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin, with Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, with Guillaume Dustan and Virginie Despentes, that sexuality is a political theatre in which desire, and not anatomy, writes the script. Within the theatrical fiction of sexuality it is possible to want to lick the soles of shoes, to want to be penetrated through every orifice, and to chase a lover through a wood as if he were a sexual prey. Two differential factors nevertheless separate the queer aesthetic from that of the straight normativeness of the old regime—the ancient régime: the consent and the non-naturalization of sexual positions. The equivalence of bodies and the redistribution of power. As a trans-man, I disidentify myself from dominant masculinity and its necro-political definition. What is most urgent is not to defend what we are (men or women) but to reject it, to disidentify ourselves from the political coercion which forces us to desire the norm and reproduce it. Our political praxis is to disobey the norms of gender and sexuality. I was a Lesbian for most of my life, then trans for the past five years. I am as far removed from your aesthetics of heterosexuality as a Buddhist monk levitating in Lhassa is from a Carrefour supermarket. Your aesthetics of the sexual ancient régime do not give me pleasure (don’t make me come). It doesn’t excite me to “harass” anyone. It doesn’t interest me to get out of my sexual misery by touching a woman’s ass on public transport. I don’t feel any kind of desire for the erotic and sexual kitsch you’re offering: guys taking advantage of their position of power to get their rocks off and touch backsides. The grotesque and murderous aesthetics of necro-political heterosexuality turns my stomach. An aesthetics which re-naturalizes sexual differences and places men in the position of aggressor and women in that of victim (either painfully grateful or happily harassed).

Extinct Species Heterosexual man,extinct 2042.

Extinct Species Heterosexual man,extinct 2042.

 

 

If it’s possible to say that in the queer and trans culture we fuck better and more, this is, on the one hand, because we have removed sexuality from the domain of reproduction, and above all because we have freed ourselves from gender domination. I’m not saying that the queer and trans-feminist culture avoids all forms of violence. There is no sexuality without a shadowy side. But the shadowy side (inequality and violence) does not have to predominate and predetermine all sexuality.

Representatives, women and men, of the old sexual regime, come to grips with your shadowy side and have fun with it, and let us bury our dead. Enjoy your aesthetics of domination, but don’t try to turn your style into a law. And let us fuck with our own politics of desire, without men and without women, without penises and without vaginas, without hatchets, and without guns.

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#DemandBetter Straight Sex! By Angela Jones

21 Jan

This is a guest blog by Angela Jones, Associate Professor of Sociology, Farmingdale State College.

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The year is 2018. A cis woman lies beneath her cis male partner. He grabs her naked thighs and thrusts his penis inside of her—in and out—in and out. He grunts and moans and occasionally speaks. “Oh, that pussy is so good!” Her face is cold, and her mind is racing—she lays beneath this troglodyte thinking about piled up laundry and how if he “finishes up” soon, she might just get six hours of sleep that evening. She did not cum, nor will she. After he cums, he excuses himself to the bathroom to clean off his weapon of mass dissatisfaction. She turns onto her side, her back facing the dimly lit bathroom, and she lies there thinking, “sometimes it just feels like he’s raping me. I know he loves me, but why does he have sex with me when he knows I don’t want to?”

This story is not fiction. It is based on a real experience a friend shared with me. I remember thinking to myself, “but why would you consent to sex you do not want?” When the now infamous Grace shared her story about Aziz Ansari, I thought about my friend again. Why do straight women consent to unwanted sex acts with men? If a man, such as Ansari keeps making advances that you don’t want, why do you stay? These questions have been swirling around the Internet, and so, in this piece, I aim to provide some answers that will serve as a new vantage point from which to continue these important discussions.

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Before the Dworkinites come for me with their pitchforks chanting that I’m a rape apologist, I want to share something personal. I have been both sexually assaulted and raped. When I was 11 we lived in the working class black neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens in New York. I was sexually assaulted by a worker in Farm Fried Chicken on Merrick Blvd. The worker pushed me in a corner, gyrated his hips against me while whispering his nasty thoughts in my ear. What hurt most about this was that kids in my neighborhood teased me about the encounter—as if I did something wrong. When I was in my early 20s I was raped in my own apartment in Bayside, Queens.  The guy who raped me thought having sex with my half unconscious body was legitimate because I was too drunk and high to say no and because he probably thought I wouldn’t mind since everyone knew I was a sex positive stripper. I have seen one too many sisters assaulted and harmed by men. So, believe me, I take sexual assault seriously and I know all-to-well the long term wounds that sexual assault can leave on our spirits as well as our bodies.

With this said, please stop calling what happened to Grace sexual assault. Please also stop reductively calling what happened between Grace and Ansari simply “bad sex.” What occurred was far more complex than either social media camp wants to admit. Moreover, this moment poses intriguing questions for those willing to push past binary social media talking points.

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The initial questions this scandal posed for me were:

First, related to the Ansari’s of the world, what social forces produce droves of cis het dudes who have no idea what passionate consent looks like? How can a man shove their fingers in a woman’s mouth or continually make sexual advances and be so ostensibly unaware that she isn’t feelin’ it? Like, seriously, what’s wrong with you bro; how can you not see that she’s disgusted?

Second, related to all the Grace’s out there, why do straight women suck dick and lie there getting fucked when they aren’t interested? If your male lover doesn’t make you cum, why don’t you show him how? Straight ladies, if your male lover wants to fuck you like you are in a porn, and that’s not what you want, why don’t you speak up?

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In this piece I am making a call to women to #demandbetter! I despise the idea that the only way to avoid these scenarios is for men to change. Of course men need to change, but guess what?–Most men won’t! I want to see more women standing up and demanding that the male-centered definition of straight sex be revolutionized into one that includes female pleasure. The reality that many women engage in regular sex that is not pleasurable, and at times violating, is unacceptable. It is time that straight women redefine sex on their own terms and stop waiting for men to do better. So, straight women: start demanding better for yourself and all women!

Sadly, that’s not what the Babe article accomplished. The Babe article did not help to advance the cause of bringing more women in to sex positive feminism at all. In fact, my observation of its aftermath suggests that, instead, the piece has created a victimization narrative that paints Grace, and all women in similar situations, as powerless and helpless. That is the narrative we need to change. While it is important to use political strategies that foster sisterhood among women, we must move past just saying #metoo, in the hopes that women’s pain might appeal to benevolent men. We can stand behind hashtags such as #enoughisenough or we can #demandbetter through action. Women can do that by asserting their voices to insist that their sexual partners respect their bodies and honor their desires. Now, to be clear, this may often be easier said than done.

The fear that we are going to be sexually assaulted can send lead into our legs, and instantaneously quiet our speech. Believe me, I know! Grace seemed caught off guard, and confused by the behavior of Ansari, who claims to be a feminist and a staunch supporter of #timesup. The problem was Ansari was enjoying this encounter while Grace felt attacked. Moving forward, more men need to ask women what they want rather than assume what they want.  And more women need to clearly articulate what they want rather than assume men are getting it. Because clearly, many men are not!

Before we can get to that level of communication, however, we need to understand—and eventually put a stop to—the ideologies at work in the scene that played out between Ansari and Grace. I am getting back to my initial questions: Why is it that men (Ansari) cannot see that their coercive behavior is unacceptable and making their date (Grace) feel uncomfortable and violated? And why do women (Grace) stick around and even perform sex acts that they don’t want to on their eager partners (Ansari)?

There are many ideological culprits contributing to these awful sexual encounters. Western discourses of love and monogamy, patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity, and heterosexual sex itself all contribute to and set the stage for the terrible drama we imagine played out in the Grace/Ansari scandal.

First, Western discourses around love and monogamy declare that love is a sacrifice. Women’s genitals, bodies, and dignity often get sacrificed on the altar of heterosexual monogamous love. Women, like Grace, often put up with sexual coercion in search of love, as my friend allowed herself to feel raped to maintain what she sees as love in her relationship.

Straight women may consent to sex that feels like rape because patriarchal family structures are characterized by a grossly unequal distribution of power. In this system, women are the sexual property of men. The antiquated norms of heterosexual monogamy mean that many women will go along with all sorts of bullshit out of an obligatory sense of devotion and love for another human that doesn’t actually see them as an equal. Also Grace’s story underscores that women often pay a feminine sex tax, both coming and going—that is, if she goes, she’s an uptight prude who led him on, and if she stays, well then she must knowingly consent to unwanted sex and it’s potentially harmful effects.

ansari 4So, my intent here is not to blame women. These discourses that prioritize heterosexual patriarchal monogamous love are ubiquitous. Remember the Disney film The Little Mermaid? As a refresher, Ariel, a mermaid, who is an avid singer is willing to give up her voice as well as her fins and family for the love of a man she had met two minutes ago. Every year, Hollywood spits up several nauseating RomComs featuring the very same themes Disney tried to force down our throats when we were kids. Western society force-feeds individuals an unrealistic and undesirable romantic dream that reifies the overlapping systems of patriarchy, heterosexism, and white supremacy—systems that provide privileges for cis white men and inequalities for everyone else.

 

ansari 5Under patriarchy, men also engage in the relentless pursuit of masculine validation—acts which men use to (often unconsciously) maintain their privilege. Hegemonic masculinity means that proving that they are a “real man” is often predicated on and facilitated through active misogyny and heterosexism. Tested by neo-liberal capitalism, many men’s ability to demonstrate manhood through property ownership and status proves impossible, and they seek out other modes of masculine validation. The system of global white supremacy means that men of color must also find other modes to acquire masculine validation. These additional strategies or modes of masculine validation often involve their bodies. They build up their muscles to show us—and their cocks play the leading role in their masculine performances. This is why Louis CK wants to show it to you in action, and why men everywhere want to text you unsolicited pictures of it—and every heart emoji sent back validates their internalized sense that their dick gives them power.

Thus, sex—heterosexual sex—is a primary mechanism men use to prove they are real men. Hegemonic masculinity then means that men must be in dominant positions in sexual encounters in order to feel like real men. The more they take charge, the more aggressive they can be—the more manly they feel. Remember, the sexual scripts within heterosexual sex are based on patriarchal norms. So that means, for example, no pegging if you are a real man!

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Under patriarchy, real men are sexual aggressors. They penetrate. They initiate. They dominate. For many men, their manhood is contingent on how many “bad bitches” they fuck and based on the status they achieve by “smashing” as many women as possible. For some men, they are oblivious, like Ansari, because their behavior is normalized by the systems of patriarchy and heterosexism, and the pervasive rape culture that buttresses these systems. Moreover, while dismantling rape culture is vital, I would also love to see far more critical dialogue around how we define rape culture. For example, when rapper Rick Ross said, “let’s get these hoes on the molly,” in the popular rap song Pop That by French Montana—this to me is a legitimate example of rape culture. But on the other hand, for example, anti-porn feminist Gail Dines sees porn as contributing to rape culture. Without necessarily drudging up the Sex Wars, we must deploy the term rape culture with far more precision, and in a way that leaves room for sex positivism.

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Briefly, I’d like to take my example of the Rick Ross lyrics a bit further. It is worthwhile to consider how Ansari’s and Grace’s respective races might have shaped their encounter. This is a missing element in much of the debate about Grace and Ansari. It is important to think about how race shapes our discussions of rape culture and sexual assault because of the negative stereotyping that often results.

In the US, there is a long history of racist cultural imagery that depicts black men as hypersexual and dangerous. So, when Rick Ross says if they get women intoxicated they can have sex with them—he is describing rape, and he is doing so within the context of these existing racialized discourses. While it is impossible for me to unpack here the different complex histories of systematic racism in the US, let alone the world, men of color have too often already been culturally marked as predatory.  “Predator” is also an all too familiar racist trope used in political discourse to criminalize men of color. Therefore, we should be mindful of how we deploy and use the word predator to describe men accused of sexually inappropriate behavior or sexual assault. The word predator is a racially and class marked term that when deployed capriciously may also reify racist stereotypes about men of color.

For centuries, for black women, sexual assault has been a part of racial terror. If a white man rapes a black woman, that crime should not be divorced from the historical legacy of white supremacy, and the centuries of rape that black women have endured at the hands of powerful white men. So, it is important to always racially contextualize sexual assault.

In the case with Ansari, he has said he is not religious but was raised Muslim, and he is an Indian American. By all accounts, Grace is white. There is ample research in the social sciences that empirically show that institutionalized white supremacy creates cognitive biases in individuals, and so it is crucial that we ask how these cognitive biases shape sexual encounters. For example, when white women accuse men of color of sexual assault, we must consider if and how these racist cognitive biases might be shaping perceptions of these encounters. We should use this an invitation to think through how race is affecting our conversation about sexual assault at the present moment.

Now, the accounts I have read about the Grace and Ansari case are missing one more thing—I have saved the best for last! I am convinced that part of the issue we are grappling with relates directly to how heterosexual or “straight sex” has been discursively produced. For many straight folks sex is defined solely as penile-vaginal penetration. In the Babe article, it said, “She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him. She did, but not for long. ‘It was really quick. Everything was pretty much touched and done within ten minutes of hooking up, except for actual sex.’” Here, Grace, doesn’t see the oral sex they engaged in as “actual sex.” By ignoring the oral sex she received (even if unwanted) and the oral sex she gave, her definition of “actual sex” echoes so many people. The problem with this commonly employed definition of sex is that it places male pleasure at the center of sexual encounters.  Therefore, defining sex as penile-vaginal intercourse renders all other acts—which many women find pleasurable (e.g., cunnilingus)—not as sex but as some kinda added bonus (if it happens at all). Straight sex by this limited definition ensures male pleasure, and relegates all other female desires as unimportant.

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So, again, I’m left thinking that part of the problem is with the way many people define straight sex. The horn-dog, male centered, pushy Ansari is a manifestation of this definition of straight sex. Perhaps, then, what many women are pushing back against in this moment is straight sex (as it’s currently and commonly defined).

 

Now, generalizations suck! I am aware that people may read this piece and criticize me for generalizing straight sex, and by default, romanticizing queer sex. So, let me address this. Of course, there are straight couples who regularly have mind-blowing, mutually pleasurable, wake the neighbors up kinda sex. My feeling is, this good sex is occurring because they are actively doing the work of writing their own sexual scripts, and disrupting gendered sexual mores. This pleasurable, well negotiated, and more egalitarian sex is occurring precisely because many straight women do embrace and live by sex-positivism and because their male partners are actually feminists.

I also have no doubt that sexual scripts regularly map themselves onto queer sex. Yep, I’ve had enough queer sex to know. So, no, my suggestion is not that straight sex = bad sex and queer sex = good sex. Yet, straight folks could learn a lot from queer communities! For example, many straight people could learn a lot from BDSM communities and their emphasis on safe, sane, and consensual sex. Polyqueer communities emphasize the importance of regular and open negotiation between sexual partners. In my thinking about Grace, and women like her, I am saying that more straight women need to make sex with men conditional on meaningful discussion of her desires.

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So, yes, not all straight sex is bad, and not all queer sex is good. But straight sex, as it is currently defined, was not equally designed around’s women’s pleasure as it is around men’s pleasure. There needs to be a collective push to redefine straight sex through progressive sex education and other cultural institutional transformation.

In conclusion, I am hoping we can move past Ansari and continue to unpack all the complexities that this moment presents. I’m hoping we can push forward in a more productive direction—towards a future, where women #demandbetter straight sex! Where we don’t just #demandbetter of individual men, but we #demandbetter from our government and its agencies; where we #demandbetter of the institutions that perpetuate patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, and cisgenderism; where we #demandbetter of ourselves, for ourselves, and for everyone.

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Bad Girls: On Being the Accused

21 Dec

By Jane Ward

Jane Ward is a guest blogger from the University of California Riverside and the author of Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (2015).

18817dlaqr49qpngAll these mother fucking men. These men who grope and threaten and assault girls, boys, and women. They are finally going down. We are celebrating, so the commentators say. We are enraged, they say. Every pundit has something to say about what has happened to us—the “survivors” of rape culture.

 We, it seems, are also being careful, strategic. We are whispering to one another, please don’t muddy the waters by talking about false equivalences right now. We are admonishing each other out of fear, please, I beg you not to distract from this powerful wellspring of feminist truths, this unstoppable testimony of violation and survival, by attending to gray areas and complexities. Not now. The stakes are too high. This is finally working! In trusted company we acknowledge these complexities, but we ask that they not be spoken outside our carefully guarded feminist chambers, where we trust they will be handled with great care.

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But these complexities are not theoretical. And they are not private. Nor are they evidenced only by the starkest historical examples, such as Carolyn Bryant’s lies about Emmett Till, or the day-care satanic sexual abuse panic of the 1980s and 90s, or the lesbians now known as the San Antonio Four, falsely accused of sexual abuse in the mid 1990s (A case I’ll discuss further in a moment). The complexity—by which I mean the fact that seemingly feminist, zero-tolerance responses to sexual assault are often animated by racism, sexism, and heteronormativity rather than any kind of substantive feminist intervention—is the key fact for many of us, absolutely impossible to compartmentalize or put off for discussion until a more convenient time.

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My partner and I—like many queer people—are included in this group of people for whom the complexities are often the real story, not the marginal notes. Three weeks ago, just as the #metoo campaign gained momentum, my partner—a genderqueer teacher at a public high school in Southern California, received a formal reprimand from the principal at her school. It seems a girl at the high school had been giving a boy, one of my partner’s art students, regular blowjobs in an art classroom during lunchtime. Having heard from another student that this was happening, the principal confiscated the students’ cell phones and found evidence in black and white: the girl had texted the boy expressing her excitement about the blowjobs she was planning to give him. Needing an adult to take the blame for these blowjobs, the principal explained that the school district considered placing my partner on a disciplinary leave, but ultimately decided a reprimand letter would be sufficient. In the reprimand they placed in my partner’s employment file, they described how she had “enabled obscene acts” by not supervising the students who had told her they were doing their homework in the classroom during lunch. The principal confessed that the whole thing was “sort of a cover-your-ass situation,” in case the school was subject to legal action initiated by the girls’ parents. The boy was given the choice to withdraw from school or be suspended for the remainder of the semester; he chose the latter. The girl was suspended for one week, cast largely as a “victim” of the boy’s sexuality. And my partner, she was asked to produce a response letter explaining why and how she had “failed to create a safe learning environment.”

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Everything about this story is right out of the sex panic playbook.  Consensual sex cast as abuse, girls’ sexual desire rendered invisible, boys’ sexual receptivity cast as aggression, teenagers imagined to be simultaneously sexless and obscene, safety and sex framed as mutually exclusive, the school imagined to be a sex-free environment, a queer teacher to blame for all of it, and the whole episode driven largely by instrumental concerns about liability. Even as school administrators invoked concepts like “safety” and “obscenity” in their formal communications, they made clear during less formal, in-person discussions with my partner that they did not “personally” believe she had behaved inappropriately. They just needed to follow the rules.

 What my partner’s experience confirmed for me, as I simultaneously followed the public disavowals of sexual misconduct by Miramax, NBC, Netflix and so on, is that the answer to rape culture is not, and can never be, liability culture. Rape culture—and the use of sex as a weapon of power and discipline more broadly—is not undone by compliance with institutional policies that attempt to manage people’s unpredictable behavior, create sex-free institutional environments, and protect the institution from profit-disruption or lawsuits. What that kind of liability culture accomplishes is similar to what a parent spanking a child accomplishes: it trains people to avoid certain behaviors out of fear of punishment, and to develop an unreconciled split between what they actually think or want (e.g., the principal who did not really believe my partner was to blame for Blowjob Gate) and what they must publically say and do (e.g., blame a teacher so as to appear tough on anything resembling sexual misconduct).

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Queer women have long been the scapegoats during times of mass fear about sexual victimization. Lesbians who interact with children, in particular, are always already embedded in histories of sexual suspicion and fear of predation. Four decades ago, Anita Bryant’s Save the Children campaign overturned employment discrimination protections across multiple states so as to ban lesbians and gay men—and in some cases, anyone friendly to gay men and lesbians—from working as teachers in public schools. Only twenty years ago, in the late 1990s, four Latina lesbians in San Antonio were falsely accused of gang-raping a little girl and spent 15 years in prison before being exonerated. Prosecutors used the women’s queerness as a motive, but their case was also bolstered by the satanic sex abuse panic that swept through the country in the years just prior. In 2001, queer comedian and foster mother Paula Poundstone was accused of lewd acts on a minor and her children were removed from her custody. Poundstone has consistently denied sexually touching her children (though she acknowledged that her alcoholism affected her parenting) and prosecutors ultimately dropped the lewd conduct charges.

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Many queers, including queer women, are aware that queer life means risking accusations of having made other people uncomfortable, perhaps even making them feel violated, with our sexual excess or illegibility or unpredictability or boldness. It is for this reason that some of us cannot so immediately vilify the accused and “believe all women,” because we have been the accused, we have loved the accused, and we have watched institutions manufacture and take down the accused to protect their own interests.  We have watched as liability concerns have posed as feminism (such as when university administrators have implemented “robust” sexual assault policies without seeming to have consulted a single feminist student or faculty member).  We have witnessed people and institutions, unwilling to acknowledge that sex is part of institutional life (because humans are part of institutional life), attempt to train, report, discipline and sue their way out of dealing with the presence of sexual desires that make them uncomfortable (see Jennifer Doyle, Campus Sex, Campus Security) . Rather than grapple with a teenage girl excited to give a blowjob, they have cast their environment as unsafe.

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I, for one, have long been a sexual problem. I grew up in a sex-talking house. I recall my father chasing my mom around the house, his arms outstretched, yelling “boobs! boobs!”—my mother running away laughing. I recall my brother, upon entering puberty, coming down the stairs and proudly announce the presence of a new “pube.” My mother, the most reserved of our bunch, laughed heartily at every ridiculous, juvenile sex joke on her favorite show, South Park. And for my part, I took my sex interests to school. In kindergarten, I organized a consensual butt-rubbing clinic in the girls’ bathroom, which was met with a severe spanking and public shaming by my teacher. In high school, I was sent to detention for noticing aloud that my friend Ashley’s boobs had grown, not finding out until later that the school had called a meeting with my mother in which they earnestly inquired whether I had been molested—because what else could explain such a brazen, sex-talking girl?

 By high school I had learned that despite all efforts to cast me as a sexual victim, adults were worried I may be one of those girls who was a sexual problem. I was perhaps one of those girls from whom other girls needed protection.

text-bad-girl-rose-temporary-tattooMy partner, too, was sometimes cast as one of these bad girls—accused and not accuser; perpetrator and not victim. Once, while she was in her elementary school, administrators found pages from a Playboy magazine in the trash can of the girls’ bathroom and subsequently launched a McCarthyesque investigation in which they asked all of the students to write down the name of someone they thought might have brought Playboy to school. While it turns out that my partner had not brought the magazine to school, she had, on earlier occasions, proudly shown three friends who had visited her house that her dad had a collection of this intriguing magazine. Hence, her name was written down three times, and she was subsequently subjected to an intense interrogation by several sex-panicked adults. Amazingly, when it was discovered several years later that she was on campus again (her brother was now a student at this elementary school and my partner walked there from her high school to be picked up along with her brother), she was told she was not allowed to enter the school because the Playboy images had continued to appear on campus. She remained their number one suspect. A few years later, when she came out as queer, the news about her lesbianism spread through her family and she was banned from interacting with some of her younger cousins. Cast, yet again, as a sexual threat.

 9781563410864These are common dyke stories: being the first suspect when sexual misbehavior is (or is imagined to be) afoot; being told to stay away from the children in one’s extended family; keeping your distance in locker rooms and bathrooms and other places where straight women presume the absence of same-sex desire and panic when they realize it could present. Dykes know what it means to be the accused.

 And these experiences, too, are the context that shape queer people’s unyielding attention to the complexities and to the dangers of zero tolerance approaches “where rough justice stands in place of careful analysis, nuance and due process,” to quote Andrea Ramsey, the democratic candidate for Congress from Kansas, who dropped out of the race this week following a resurfacing of sexual harassment charges she has long denied.

We celebrate as the Weinstein monster is, we hope, blocked from wielding his shockingly unchecked power over not one more woman and her career. Let this, too, be the fate of President Trump, Russell Simmons, and anyone else who may be proven to have used their power to rape, assault, and repeatedly harass.

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And yet in many other cases, truly different kinds of cases, we demand a deeper, historically-informed, intersectional analysis of the problem and its solutions. These include cases involving consensual sex between employees or students, unwanted kisses or touches that ended as soon as the uninterested party said no, sexual propositions deemed inappropriate or unprofessional by institutions but not by the people actually involved, the presence of sex or desire in places that some people would rather it was not present or between people disciplined into believing they are not supposed to desire one another (cross-racial desire, queer desire, cross-generational desire, etc.), and messy conflicts between people that may have a sexual element.

Queer people have good reason to fear any cultural turn in which these sorts of situations are collapsed under the same zero-tolerance umbrella as rape and sexual assault. Because while they are coming for Al Franken now, we recall that they have come for us, and we know they may come again.

Wieners, Whiners, Weinsteins and Worse by Jack Halberstam

23 Oct

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Reading over the dirty details of the exploits of scumbag of the month, Harvey Weinstein, one thought occurred to me over and over: something is rotten in the state of heterosexuality. And yet, in all the masses of media coverage on Weinstein’s disgusting behaviors, I barely remember seeing the word! Believe me that I am not one to argue that gays are innocent by comparison, only that the “#me too” twitter campaigns and the national discussion of enforced blowjobs and massages seems, for the moment to be focused upon powerful men forcing young women into compromising positions. Shouldn’t this be the beginning of a widespread conversation about men, women and sex? And should we be all thumbing through our old copies of Catherine MacKinnon and wondering whether in fact she was on to something when she wrote: “male pleasure is inextricably tied to victimizing, hurting, exploiting”? While we might want to hesitate before tarring all men with the same brush of sexual harassment, nonetheless, the exposure of widespread instances of harassment accompanied by extensive cover-ups, facilitation and pay offs has certainly raised again questions about male power and female victimization.

 

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So, how would a national conversation on heterosexuality need to begin? Well, for once, we would need to name a power dynamic for what it is. Just as the popular press has tended, until very recently, to shy away from calling the racial context in which police officers beat and shoot Black men white supremacy, so they hesitate to call the sexual context in which powerful and famous men cajole, nudge, push, shove, forcibly manipulate often young and inexperienced women to sexually please them, hetero-patriarchy. But this is what it is and this is the atmosphere in which many young men are trained to understand themselves as extremely desirable while young women struggle with their self-image. Rather than wagging our collective fingers at a Wiener, a Weinstein, a wanker or worse, we need to turn to the way we raise young men to believe that if they want it, she does too…or even, if they want it, it does not matter what she wants. But we should also be thinking about how we raise young women to comply and about what happens when women say enough is enough.

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The climate on college campuses recently is representative of the confusion some young women and men have about the meaning of heterosexuality, its rituals and its rules. Many express confusion mixed with outrage, fear, paranoia and anger. Students and professors launch sexual harassment charges at one another, and while some big name professors who are serial abusers have been caught pressuring their students and face charges, the latitude of the Title IX regulations have also been used for homophobic purposes. And so, in at least three cases that I know of personally, queer and trans faculty have been accused of “improper conduct,” or “inappropriate boundaries” with students. In one case, a queer/trans couple of color have been suspended with a reduction in pay! Perhaps on account of our reluctance to have a national conversation about heterosexuality and its abuses,  Title IX regulations designed to protect students from quid pro quo scenarios have led instead to increased surveillance of queer and trans faculty.

 

heterosexual.ed.WEBAs shocked as we all may be about the stories about Weinstein, in their sheer repetitiveness and consistency, they must be read as totally normal. Weinstein, obviously, is only the tip of a very large and very nasty Hollywood iceberg. Despite Hollywood’s own thematization of the sexual casting couch – how many films are about feisty women who are asked to sexually compromise their integrity for a job but refuse to? – it is a theme in Hollywood films because it is obviously one actual route to visibility and jobs. In fact, there is a kind of tautology to Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie coming out, long after the fact, and saying “me too.” Of course they were victims of the casting couch, their fame may tell us as much! And I am not saying that successful female stars only got where they are today because they succumbed to Weinstein or his equivalent at other studios, but I am saying that there are probably countless other actresses who never made it big precisely because they did say no. Weinstein implies as much in case after case reported by The New Yorker. When women pushed back or refused him what he felt was his sexual due, they were told, as Lupita Nyong’o bravely reported, that this would cost them in their careers.

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Newton’s third law states: for every action, there is an equal and opposition reaction. So, a bird can fly because its wing motions force air down and are met by the force of the air pushing it up – flight depends upon the relations between actions and reactions. For every lewd guy who sidles up to a woman and whispers inane nothings in her ear in the hopes of seducing or forcing her into bed, there must be among all the women he approaches at least one who hears his spiel as seductive. If only every woman who ever came into contact with the bulk and force of Weinstein’s body said, as Lupita Nyong’o did: “With all due respect, I would not be able to sleep at night if I did what you are asking, so I must pass.”

Sex is like Newton’s third law – it depends upon actions and reactions. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This could be a definition of heterosexuality.

opposites_attract___paula_abdul__fanmade_artwork_by_musicownsmysoul-d4o0w7jThis is certainly one of the ways in which we have thought about heterosexuality – as in “opposites attract,” or “women are from Venus and men are from Mar,” or, in the immortal words of Paula Abdul: “Baby seems we never ever agree/You like the movies/And I like T.V./I take things serious/And you take ’em light/I go to bed early/And you party all night.” You say potato and I say potarto, let’s call the whole thing off. Heterosexuality has been cast in art and in science, for better or for worse, as a détente between different species. She wants monogamy and stability, he wants to spread his seed far and wide. He wants quantity, she wants quality. And so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. But, here’s the rub for heterosexuality – for a culture invested in the idea of men and women as “opposites,” it takes a major and continuous PR campaign to make heterosexuality seem natural, normal and even appealing.

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In her engaging book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (2012), Hanna Blank explains how heterosexuality became synonymous with sexual normativity. She writes: “Early in the history of the term, it was even used interchangeably with the term “normal-sexual.” Over time, of course, norms shift and change but in this day and at this moment we should be clear about what norm heterosexuality names: what is normal apparently between particularly white men and women is for white men to see women as toys, accessories, playmates and trophies. What is normal for women is to react to a range of behaviors from boyfriends, fathers, uncles and family friends that slide back and forth between flirtation, seduction and abuse. The “me too” hashtag that went viral on twitter recently suggests that much of the attention directed at women by powerful white men slides quickly from seduction into abuse and that this has been so normalized that women have accepted that slide as part and parcel of heterosexuality. Heterosexuality is the normalization of abuse.

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Obviously not all heterosexual relations are abusive. Not all powerful white men are abusers. Not all women have been sexually assaulted. And so on. But, as Jenny Holzer 8c61069802bea760691abdfe18ecd2a7--heather-chandler-red-aesthetic.jpgonce wrote with admirable and characteristic economy, “abuse of power comes as no surprise.” We live in a world, as Sara Ahmed reminds us in Living A Feminist Life, built by and for white men. For this reason, she proposes, white men fit well in the world they have built and all other bodies have to struggle to find their place. The winner takes all mentality of white supremacy has organized the expectations of generations of young men and women such that white men expect the world and women are expected to deliver it to them. When those deliveries halt or slow down or are interrupted, the white man feels that he has been deprived of something he was promised. In the world that the white man built, a world where he has authorized his own violent reactions to disappointments, he now legally buys a gun and legally walks through the streets with that gun and waits for the moment within which he will use that gun to remind everyone around him that this is his world and we will live and die in it.

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It is time to confront the normalization of abuse under the heading of heterosexuality. It is time to think about the violence of the norm, the way in which norms are self-perpetuating and the possibility that white male violence continues because some (white) women succumb to it, consent to it, extend it. Trump after all, after decades of Wiener/Weinstein/wanker like behavior, after extended publicity on his violent rhetoric and actions towards women, was elected with considerable help from white women voters. And for every Lupita Nyong’o who says unequivocally no to a pig like Weinstein, there are 10 others who either felt they could not say no or decided it was easier and more beneficial to their careers to say yes. Heterosexuality is a candle burning at both ends. For the casual violence that it masks to be confronted in a structural way and not in the piecemeal and potentially homophobic ways that Title IX regulations currently oversee, we need to confront heterosexuality head on. Heterosexuality promotes, depends upon and perpetuates gendered hierarchies, sexual assault and the suppression of feminine people. Heterosexuality, indeed, is not the other to homosexuality, it is the other to social justice, a politics of pleasure, a funky and open relation to sex in which we care whether our partners are awake and responsive versus drunk and inert, ready and willing versus resigned and submissive, excited and aroused versus disgusted and fleeing.

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To all the Wieners, Weinsteins and Wankers out there: your days are numbered, your gig is up. Your disdain for women, people of color and the many who work for you is building towards an inevitable reversal in which you will no longer be the predator out on the prowl; in the immortal words of Grace Jones, we are approaching the moment when the hunter gets captured by the game. Get ready!

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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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“The Asian was told to leave. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted. So he had to be carried out on a stretcher.”

16 Apr

On Compliance, Complicity, and Beating Up Asian America.

By Eng-Beng Lim

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For Asian Americans and other professional elites of color who think their class privilege or “whiteness” protects them from the racialized brunt of U.S.-America’s corporate-nationalist wrath, the bloody “re-accommodation” of 69-year-old Vietnamese American doctor, David Dao, on an allegedly overbooked United Airlines (UA) flight might be their “get woke” moment. Just to be clear, it involves police and neoliberal capitalist terror, corporate bullying, and Asian shaming. Dr Dao sustained “a broken nose, a concussion, two knocked out teeth and sinus problems that may require reconstructive surgery.” All for refusing to vacate his seat to accommodate UA’s administrative inefficiency.

But “getting woke” may depend on your level of subscription in the club of denial and complicity. Those with premier benefits might find it hard to relinquish their bad love. For denial has its own rewards, and complicity its wanton rationalization and even perfume.

Membership, afterall, has its privileges. What exactly is the cost of your membership’s privileges? Who is paying the price for your preferred status and clubby jaunt?

“Re-accommodation” is a term used by UA CEO, Oscar Munoz to characterize the forced extraction of seated passengers “randomly” selected by the computer to make space for four crew members. They had to catch a connecting flight that would otherwise be understaffed, delayed or canceled. The flight in question was not overbooked or oversold, as airlines officials originally claimed. That few if anyone is picking on this lie only shows our level of compliance with the fungible language of bureaucratic corporate procedure. We are so inured to gaslighting and alternative truth that a white lie is a just white lie (switch the color and you are most definitely a liar). Let’s give companies and the men who run them the benefit of doubt, and beat the crap out of consumers who do not comply.

Dr Dao was illegally ejected from the plane in violation of 14 CFR 250.2a. that prohibits giving preference to airlines employees over paying customers, especially if they have already been seated. Part of the dispute will hang on whether the employees who are considered “must-ride passengers” can unseat paying customers on a full flight. But it does not get to the spectacular violence against the doctor, and the seemingly inexplicable assault on the American consumer and Asian America. To sort out this mess, let’s start with a quick recap of the world we live in, and an earnest question:

Could it be that the corporatization of the Senate and the vindictiveness of male-centered egos exemplified by conservative and rightwing ideologues like Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and their cabal of mediocre apparatchiks, naysayers, white supremacists, 1 percenters and security thugs now go hand in hand with the thuggery of state-sanctioned oligopolies like UA that operate as their armed, air travel functionary disguised as service?

A nation’s divisions, arrogance and toxicity do not just spring out of nowhere. Their escalation has been facilitated by ultraconservative white supremacist rancor and gaslighting running the spectrum of racism/xenophobia, anti-gay/misogyny, anti-refugee/Islamaphobia. It’s almost mechanical at this point. But that we should entertain the idea that gaslighters are outraged that their crimes are “leaked” to the press rather than being outraged at their crimes is a real kicker. It is a rich ethical perversion that gives perversion a bad name. The vacuous shorthand, “a nation divided,” only compresses the deniability of those who start wars and fires by demagoguery or political poison. Enter the Bully-in-Chief with explicit instructions for his devotees and initiads, which include white nationalist groups:

“Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously.”

“I’d like to punch them in the face, I tell you, would you?”

“I love the old days. Do you know what they used to do to guys like that in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

More than just Trump’s expressive nastiness at his rallies, these opportunistic incitements to violence have a long history in U.S-American nationalist bravura, machismo, belligerence, imperialism and gun culture. But as corporate performatives, it is virtually unheard of unless we examine the violent deeds of corporations as the very enactment of these words.

Yes, those are exactly the words that UA is saying to Dr. Dao who is carried out on a stretcher, and by extension to Asian/America. You know, the time when Asian exceptionalism means you can be legally discriminated against because the law does not apply to you – the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese incarceration camp, just to name two – or, clobbered to death with impunity (Vincent Chin RIP).

Regarding Trump’s incitement to violence, multiple lawsuits filed against him state how “black residents were brutally attacked by a white mob,” including a plaintiff who was “kicked, choked, shoved, punched, scratched and referred to as nearly every racial slur known.” Though the racial violence is specific and contextual, the abuse is also generalizable of Trump’s treatment of African Americans, especially powerful black women like Susan Rice, Maxine Waters and April Ryan. The intersection of race, violence and corporations that has fueled Trump’s business empire and the rise of his despicable Presidential persona is also at the heart of UA’s treatment of Dr Dao.

To put it plainly, it’s about corporations punching people in their faces, sometimes without them knowing because it’s in the gut so to speak, and sometimes in the flesh, knocking them out senseless. The continuing fetishization of choice in this regard is laughable to say the least. Trump’s response to the incident is for airlines to increase the compensation for bumping passengers off the aircraft as if that would create more access and equality for air travel. And lo and behold, United has quickly announced an upper ceiling of 10k for those bumped out of their seats in the future. That is the solution? Some people are excited about how this is an enticing option to game the system. Who do you think will benefit from? The Dr Daos of the world or those “in the club”?

Let’s put it this way, you may think you are choosing or benefiting freely as a consumer but you have no say about the options from which you choose, and how you are treated in practice. When the options are lousy, they are lousier for those at the bottom whether it is U.S. air travel, healthcare or the school system. They are about creating insufferable conditions for the majority so that the super-privileged who can afford Platinum-level service can take up ever more space and resources just because they can. Because corporate entities love revenues more than anything else. Does this sound like a bloviating cheeto-maniac sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and making everyone parse his gibberish just because he can? That’s the kind of treatment we’re being trained to accept from POTUS Inc. which hails from the neoliberal business world where such disciplinary technique, from Walmart to Wall Street, is justified in the name of financializing everything. Cheap prices and ruthless profits rule the day.

Dr Gao’s plea, “I want to go home, I want to go home” resonates in this echo chamber of hell like a desperate, lonely cry in the woods. Like a bad Hollywood movie where a hero played by Harrison Ford/Liam Neeson/Tom Cruise enters an altered realm of reality where he is met by violence and punishment disguised as law enforcement, Dr. Dao found himself stranded in the limbo of the oversold flight. But while the white Alpha male Hollywood hero is always right and always vindicated, Dr. Dao was knocked unconscious for his efforts on behalf of righteousness and dragged unceremoniously from his seat.

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He was told to leave “politely” but he refused as a consumer who paid for his seat. He was given an explanation about how “we [United] have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.” No explanation was given as to why he was not one of the customers that UA wants to get to “their destination on time and safely.”

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Nevertheless, the Asian doctor persisted in defiance of his extraordinary exclusion from the airline’s articulated customer base. So the airlines summoned the full force of airport security, including the Chicago Department of Aviation and Chicago Police Department whose officer promptly smashed his face, rendered him senseless, and eventually carried him out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth. All the doctor could say in the end was, “Just kill me now.”

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Now imagine Senator Elizabeth Warren being carried out on a stretcher for refusing to abide by Mitch McConnell’s controversial rebuke to silence her during the nomination debate about Jeff Session as U.S Attorney General. Or, for that matter, citizen Warren being dragged out like a rag doll through the aisle, her hair disheveled, and her glasses askew on her face as she is rendered incoherent. All because she refused to shut up or give up her seat. Not so long ago, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”?

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For those who missed this political theater, Warren had sought to read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter regarding Sessions’s discrimination against black voters. The meme that went viral encapsulated the public’s response to the blatant sexism of the Senate that voted 49-43 along party lines to shut her up. Degrees of indignity aside, the different scales of violence tell a story of how gender and race are inflected by notions of privilege and proprietary that shape our political and social sympathies. It would be unacceptable for Senator or even Citizen Warren to be taken out the way the body of the limp and anonymous Asian doctor was treated. In fact, the discomfort of witnessing the Asian American doctor’s infantilization and breakdown struck such a raw nerve that reports have eschewed the racial spectacle unfolding before our eyes. He was some Asian man, maybe a doctor, no one was sure, and many commentators cast doubt about him being a doctor at all based, presumably on the way he looks.

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In a sign of the times, a doctor standing his ground on a humanitarian appeal (he had patients to meet the next day) was of no consequence to UA in Trump’s nation where self-serving corporate prerogatives come first. There is a lot more to be said about the terrible entanglements of corporate personhood, profit, policing, and biopolitical regulation. Suffice to say, Dr. Dao’s treatment is not exceptional in the context of ubiquitous bullying and killing across the country. They are only intensifying under the toxic charge of Trump’s administration. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of those being bullied or killed are folks with names like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Danny Chen, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Isabella Cornell and David Dao.

We might return to take a closer look at the scene where Dr Dao is carried out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth, and notice this time a different set of actors laughing in the fuzzy background: Team Agent Orange oligarchs, politicos and airlines executives feasting on their bloodied meat. We might add Dr Dao to the names of those who are targeted for harassment and even gunned down because they refuse (or are perceived to be refusing) to comply with bogus rules, corporate prerogatives, heteronormative policing, and white nationalism. The violence produced at the systemic level between colluding regimes and corporations are enduring and far-reaching.

To what extent is complicity – “the state of being an accomplice; partnership or involvement in wrongdoing” – and especially the complicity of cluelessness, detachment or apathy an alibi of colluding forces? Now more than ever, raising questions about complicity’s new faces is also a crucial inquiry about our moral and ethical coordinates as an American, witness, neighbor, ally and friend not only in the U.S. but around the world.

The satirical jokesters at Saturday Night Live suggest that in Trump Nation, complicity is a political pathology for sale in a seductive package. Their metaphor is a bottle of perfume. In an episode that indicts Ivanka Trump for her foxy agendas, Scarlett Johansson’s hyperbolic portrayal of Ivanka vamping it up for a line of perfume makes clear the businesswoman’s product placement comes before the public office she holds (to everyone’s incredulity). One can only wish the public’s wishful projection for Ivanka to be the progressive women’s voice ought to have ended in a recent television interview where she declared, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”

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Complicity’s feminine two-face (Johansson is herself accused of being complicit in Israeli settler colonialism for defending Sodastream’s factory as legitimate in the illegal settlement on the West Bank) blurs the good and the bad with no commentary on women’s participation in compulsory whiteness, colonial violence and clueless privilege. What looks good and desirable, like Ivanka or the perfume, might help to obfuscate what is making the lives of the disenfranchised even more miserable.

It is nonetheless a club that draws many members, including bourgeois apologists of color, other white liberal allies, and the pinkwashing homo-matrimonial types who want to smell nice. Everyone in this club is trained to love an arsenal of amnesia-inducing denials and blindspots: “I cannot see what you see,” “It doesn’t rise up to that,” “I need more information,” “They did nothing wrong,” “He was belligerent,” “He’s an illegal,” “Who cares?”

To be complicit is to approve the collusion of corrupt power, money, and imperial projects. It is to give your tacit approval of using violence, harassment and assault on people to protect corporate mandates and personhoods, the belligerent police-military state, and colonial whiteness at all cost. The stakes are higher as bombs matching the egos of a bumbling and bloviating team in the White House are being detonated in Syria and Afghanistan to legitimize their violent and morally bankrupt worldview. To speak out as many did on the plane where Dr Dao was assaulted is to reject the normalization of complicity as our moral code.

As we bear witness to the return of an angry U.S. police-military state and the increasingly swampy topography of corporate malfeasance and assault, how many of us will turn a blind eye or do nothing at all?. How many of us will be caught in the victim-blaming, smear campaign against the next “Dr Dao,” or be bought off by the new 10k reward for bumping off passengers?

Do people care? Over 240,000 comments and 550 million views are recorded a day after Dr Dao’s assault on China’s Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter), not counting the millions of views on related YouTube videos. United Airlines’s share price has dropped, and calls to boycott the airline are stronger than ever. So, yes, people do care and they make a difference.

The centrality of the question of complicity tells us we are desperately, urgently needing a salvageable moral and ethical position to live and to flourish in Trump’s America. This is an America where witnessing violence against a neighbor seems to have become a sport, where apathy and cluelessness are quickly becoming the new alibis of complicity. It gives new meaning to sitting tight with privilege in the face of trouble, and sometimes a face says it all:

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Screenshot of a widely circulated video of an unidentified man sitting calmly as Dr. Dao screamed in the background.

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.