Tag Archives: Jack Halberstam

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

7 Dec
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Boys Don’t Cry, 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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Director, Kimberly Peirce

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

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

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

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

Here are a few thoughts:

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

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Dressed To Kill, 1980

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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“WHO KILLED BAMBI?” SID VICIOUS

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

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STEVE BANNON/DARTH VADER

Winter in America by Jack Halberstam

10 Nov

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“And now it’s winter

Winter in America

And all of the healers done been killed or sent away

Yeah, and the people know, people know

It’s winter Winter in America

And ain’t nobody fighting

Cause nobody knows what to save.”

Gil Scott Heron, “Winter in America” 1974

 

“Winter is Coming.”

Game of Thrones, 2011

 

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

 

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

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

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

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s Rally in Mobile Alabama

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

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

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

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

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

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Who Are “We” After Orlando? By Jack Halberstam

22 Jun

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangster

I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar

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

I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.”

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

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

Fifty Shades of Zzzzzzzzzz by Jack Halberstam

25 Feb

fifty-shades-of-grey-movieHalf way through the erotic snooze fest (no seriously, the woman next to me was snoring 10 minutes in!!), Fifty Shades of Grey (FSOG), our eponymous hero presents his lover to be with an offer she can’t refuse in the form of a multi page contract. While conventional courting material used to include roses and chocolates, in our neo-liberal world order, romance is now filed under “C” for “consent” or “contractual” depending upon your location. The contract that our heroine receives in FSOG, lists the sexual activities that Mr. Grey proposes for them to undertake along with check boxes in which she can indicate her preferences and disinclinations. Lawyers and bureaucrats might be salivating at this point, but for the rest of us, this seems like an emphatically decent proposal with very little frisson.

new-fifty-shades-of-grey-poster__oPtThe heroine of FSOG, Anastasia Steele played by a winsome if vacant Dakota Johnson, goes over the contract line by line while biting her lip—her signature (and only) sexy move—and, after putting her newly earned English literature degree to work in decoding the document in front of her, surface reading it if you like, she gives her suitor his answers. Yes, she will agree to light whipping, some bondage, the use of slings and even the use of some designated sex toys. But, and our respect for her is supposed to grow at this point, she has some very clear limits. Thinking back to readings from her Gender Studies classes, she remembers that in all negotiations around sex, there are trespassers and line drawers. She will draw the line, she tells Mr. Grey, at “anal fisting.” How about “vaginal fisting?” he counters. Heroine bites lips and makes her decision. No, that is also off limits, and she scratches the item off the list.

Somehow, of all the nasty, filthy, deliciously perverse things that human bodies can do to one another, fisting becomes the sign of going too far. Fisting, of course, has often been linked to queer sex and it indicates a phallic order that exceeds the penis and offers in its place a larger and more dexterous limb. When fisting is the furthermost limit that a sex film can imagine, you know you are in the gray zone alright – not the gray zone of limits pushed and desires tangled, but the gray zone of boredom, banality and avowedly vanilla sex. Having dispensed with the nasties – here represented, and it is worth repeating, as fisting — our sharp, shiny, heroine, Ms. Steele, has onlyFRANCE-ARTS-FIAC one more question: “what is a butt plug?” What is a butt plug? Really? That is your only question here? Not: wait, what? Does our sex really require a contract? Or, I don’t see anything here about water sports. Or, how about, how much are you paying me? No, the lovely and newly deflowered Anastasia Steele has only one remaining, lingering concern …what …is ….a…butt…plug? A butt plug, dear lady, is a plug you put…wait for it…in your butt!

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And so we are off and running in the race to drop a blockbuster smack into the middle of a long winter and a hyper commercialized valentine season (yes, it is now a season. But, Valentine, let’s not forget, was a saint who was killed for marrying Christian couples – hence our definition of romance is linked definitively to Christian marriage, not to mention male martyrdom and female subjugation!). But Fifty Shades of Grey also drops smack into the center of a highly charged national conversation about sexual assaults on campus, on which, more in a moment.

The movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey promised dynamic sex, the subjugation of a feisty if inexperienced woman, the allure of a dominant man, but it delivers only a series of pre-queer theory lectures on BDSM and has less effect, I am willing to bet, on the libidinal urges of its audience than an episode of The Golden Girls – and I mean no disrespect here to that glorious and lusty project of octogenarian girl power.

Fifty-Shades-Of-GreyBy the time Mr. Grey, played less winsomely and way too wholesomely, by Jamie Dornan, finally gets Ms. Steele into a kneeling position in his play room awaiting her punishment, we have dispensed with contractual foreplay, we have been teased with silk ties, perfectly laundered shirts and sex toy shopping in a hardware shop, and we feel as an audience that we too by now deserve something – pleasure, punishment, light torture, whatever it is, get on with it! But alas we get nothing close to the Pasolini style torture we have been promised. All that transpires…trigger and spoiler alerts in full affect…is a little spanking, a lot more lip biting, a few feathers, six (count them) pats with a paddle and a whole lot of cross cutting to make the whole deal seem energetic.

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Fifty Shades of Grey, one is tempted to say, is Last Tango in Paris without the butter, without the sex and without Brando and Maria Schneider…What it does have, however, are great aerial shots, lots of hard torsos and soft core lenses, some nice car porn and way too much chatter. But this is not a movie review, partly because FSOG is barely a movie! The question towards which I have inched, for anyone who cares to answer or is still reading, is this: what is the relationship between a widely shared and expressed, seemingly white, cultural fantasy of male domination and female submission, and the epidemic of sexual assault accusations on college campuses across the
U.S. right now?

Of course, it is entirely possible that the two phenomena, sexual assault charges, new laws aroundEntire-Playhouse consent in California, and fifty shades of sex play, have nothing at all to do with each other. One is, after all, about the violent and disastrously non-consensual interactions between young men and
women, and the other is about fantasy and a narrative of consensual engagements between a wealthy man and his aspirational and virginal lover. And yet…And yet, there is certainly more to our odd sexual climate in which a popular romance involving BDSM and selling 100 million copies worldwide sits uncomfortably along side statistics indicating that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in college! This weird historical juncture seems made up of part sex panic, part paranoia, part patriarchy, part Peewee Herman (I am not sure which part is Peewee but I sure hope he is in there somewhere).

In September 2014, California became the first state to adopt a law that requires college students to confirm that they have consent for sexual interaction. This law has been dubbed the “yes means yes” act counteracting the date rape rule of thumb that “no means yes and yes means anal” as some fraternity brothers have it. I would like to amend the nickname into “no means no, yes means yes, and maybe means pass the butt plug.” I would also like to designate February as the month for “inviting your fraternity boyfriend to provide oral sex on demand” and March as “take your boyfriend to your gender studies class” month. And as for April, the cruelest month, maybe in April we can begin the Anus Monologues and all think about why “anal” anything and everything has become short hand for punishment, pain and the yuck factor.

No, but seriously, what do we make of the trend for (misrepresented) BDSM in romance fiction and the multiplying charges of sexual assault among college women? As many letter writers to the New York Times Magazine noted in their responses a few weeks ago to a long article about a soured relationship between a male instructor and a female student at Stanford University, the article appeared online with ads for FSOG popping up in the margins. The article in question tells of a relationship that was once completely standard on college campuses (and I am not saying this approvingly necessarily), that of a young female student and a slightly older instructor/TA/professor. Many of those relationships in the past were quickly legitimized through marriage and whatever impropriety may have presented itself in the early moments of the relationship were swept to one side with the explanation of “true love” and so on. Until, that is, the professor replaces his once-student-now-wife with another student-soon to become-wife. In the NYT’s piece,The Stanford Undergraduate and the Mentor a 21 year old junior got involved with her 29 year old mentor, dated him on and off over the course of a year and then, when the relationship soured, she accused him of forcing her to have sex with him. The case, which involves lots of romantic texting, lots of he said/she said back and forth, and lots of accusations and counter-accusations (he assaulted me/she is mentally unstable) is still in the courts.

The New York Times’ piece, like the much ballyhooed Rolling Stone piece, “A Rape on Campus,” before it about accusations of sexual assault on the University of Virginia campus has no answers about sexual assault on campus, only more questions. I am willing to bet that the real problem in the US at any rate in relation to sex on campus has everything to do with limited sex education for high school students, lots of alcohol, and lots of very bad sex. No doubt there are guys who just don’t care whether the woman they are with actually wants to have sex with them, and no doubt there are women who consent and then regret their decision and make assault charges. But ultimately, the problem cannot be legislated one lawsuit at a time. What we need, IMHO, is a robust model of feminism for all genders, a clear program for sex education in high school and some kind of national discussion about what’s wrong with heterosexuality!

So, before wrapping up this rambling attempt to make sense of the confusing and treacherous terrain of sex in college, romantic fantasies and realities and the heterosexual fear of and fascination with the anus, let me just close with three arguments, ok, people always say three, so I will go for four:

Kink1. We should really be asking not what would I do under these circumstances, as either the accused or the accuser, but more importantly, what would James Franco do? I am surprised in fact that, despite his rumored homosex proclivities, his time spent taking queer theory courses at Yale and his role in many a Judd Apatow film, that Franco has not become the designated spokesperson for what’s up with college students and sex. No doubt once he is finished restoring sex scenes to various queer classic films, he will step up and offer us a book, a poem, an installation or even a film on Fifty Shades of Ass Play.

2. Could the real problem be not just bad people taking advantage of naïve people but sheltered people having lots of bad sex with lots of cheap alcohol thrown in for good measure? Can it really be true, as some have asked, that college women are the most vulnerable population when it comes to sexual assault? What do we leave out of the picture when we focus on college campus scenarios to the exclusion of say sexual assault in the home, sexual assault of sex workers, sexual assault of queers? I don’t know the answer to these questions but I think Professor Amy Adler, a law professor at NYU and a smart and creative commentator on sex and the law might – ask her!

3. What is a “butt plug”?

4. And finally, because four questions/conclusions are a bare minimum, can we all stop the violence now – no more horrendous clichés about virgins and powerful, rich, young and handsome men; stop propping up the worn out narratives of heterosexual love and sex; someone shut James Franco up or down; and next time, if you want me to pay lots of money for a two hour snooze fest, please let there be fisting.

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By the way folks, there is actually a pretty good BDSM film out there by Peter Strickland involving two women who play out a series of erotic fantasies of control, domination and submission. The Duke of Burgundy (2015) is beautifully shot and has a credit for the “lingerie manager” so you know it is on the right track. With scenes involving constraint, coffins, golden showers, stilettos, stockings, punishment and delay, the film makes BDSM less of a party trick, less about the equipment and more about repetition, waiting, suspense and reward. Ditch the hen parties on their way to FSOG and take your date to a real film.

And that’s all I have: no haters, just laters baby!

 

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Transparent (2014): The Highs, the Lows, The Inbetweens

7 Jan

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I was willing to go with the non-trans casting of the excellent Jeffrey Tambor for the role of the father who comes out to his children as a woman later in life. I was willing to overlook the stereotypes of lesbians as domestic snuggle bunnies blissed out on home improvement and less interested in hardcore fucking; I was even willing to tolerate the dweeby brother who, despite being a deeply irritating human being, manages to pick up one interesting lady after another. But the final straw for me, late one night, deep into a binge watching cycle of Transparent, was when Dale, a transman, struggles to get his sex toy out of its child proof packaging in anticipation of hot sex with his fem date, Ali, and then drops his dildo on the floor. In that moment, I felt my faith in the series slipping away as fast as Ali’s desire, and when she turns to leave, giving up for now on the potential of a heated and sexy exchange, turning her back on the fallen Sparkle Unicorn tool, I was ready to go with her. But, like any good binge watcher, I continued watching, being lifted by its high notes, disappointed by its low blows, and somewhat entertained by everything in between.

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220px-Solowaydirectorsphotocrop1-1Transparent, created and directed by Jill Soloway, received much acclaim for its first season. Rolling Stone credited it with “making the world safer for trans people”; Out dubbed it as the first show to properly handle not only transgenderism but also bisexuality; and, The Advocate called Transparent, simply, “great television.” Telling the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family in Los Angeles that falls apart and regroups around the patriarch’s revelation of her desire to live as a woman, Transparent covers a lot of new ground for television. The acting is uniformly great in this show, and its refusal to trade only in positive images of trans people–never mind Jews, lesbians, female rabbis, and butch security guards–makes it a unique media event in the history of queer representation. In a nutshell, the show gets a lot right, but as a footnote, it also makes some rookie mistakes. Now, some four months after its release, after allowing the dust it kicked up to settle a little, let’s reassess the highs and the lows of Transparent.

The Highs

  • The Writing – “No one has ever seen me except me” (Maura). The challenge with Transparent lies in its ability to represent a specific trans experience without making it representative of all trans experience. The show manages to convey, with some subtlety, the relief of coming out, the stress of feeling exposed, the sadness of being late to the table. Maura is a multifaceted character and a uniformly talented cast backs her up.With a writing team that includes the great Ali Liebegott and a consultant team that includes Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Transparent made the wise decision to work with trans people’s own narratives rather than to cleave faithfully to Jill Soloway’s autobiographical story. Soloway’s experience with her father’s transition still forms the spine of the piece but it is well rounded out with a clutch of other stories about aging, sexual experimentation, addiction, sibling tension and so on
  • Transparent7.5The HumorFour out of Five Pfeffermans Now Prefer Pussy.” When Ali (Gaby Hoffman) explains to her siblings Josh (Jay Duplass) and Sarah (Amy Landecker) that her date for the “Trans Talent Show” is the handsome trans man across the room (played by Ian Harvie), Josh first struggles to incorporate more new information about gender flexibility and then blurts out the line of the season: “Four out of Five Pfeffermans Now Prefer Pussy.” It is a great line and like much of the humor in the show, perfectly delivered. Eschewing the sit-com laugh-line humor for a more self-deprecating style that mixes defeat and disappointment in healthy doses with wry self-awareness, Transparent actually hits a few new notes for comedy.
  • The Acting – Jeffrey Tambor really draws out the fine shading of his character and while the siblings perform their hysteria (Amy Landecker as Sarah), paranoia (Jay Duplass as Josh) and neurosis (Ali) to the tee, some of the best acting falls to the minor characters like Ian Harvie, Judith Light and Carrie Brownstein. Brownstein’s show stealing turn as Ali’s best friend in love with both Ali and embroiled sexually with her brother, was magnificent. And both Harvie and Light are totally convincing and more in their roles.tumblr_ncji0riq271r4aenjo5_500
  • The Brutally Realistic Appraisal of the Fucked Up Family: Davina to Maura: “In five years you are gonna look up and none of your family are gonna be there. Not one.” Resisting the Hollywood-ready narrative of the ever-expansive family network that bends and bows to embrace the good and the bad of its flawed members, Transparent is willing to dig into the fragility of family ties. Family, the show reveals, hangs too much upon the pathetic alibi of blood bonds and longevity and these connections, dependent as they are upon custom and routine, cannot incorporate new information well. Family, more often than not, is convenience, parasitism and laziness, a group of people stuck in hell and too idle to leave. And queer community, at least prior to the installation of gay marriage, offered one important alternative to biological bonds. One of the greatest contributions made by Transparent, indeed, lies in its willingness to expose the rotten core of American family life and offer alternatives even if they come in the form of bad sex, infidelity and addiction!

The Lows

The Writing – while mostly I loved the writing, there are numerous missteps. In one episode, for instance, Syd tells Ali she is a “vaginal learner” (huh?), “you have to stick stuff in there to see what it feels like…” And, in another, Sarah asks her ex husband, Len, whether her tits were “too overwhelming” for him. Later, in much telegraphed post-breakup sex, Len tells Sarah that, since she is now with a woman, she must be missing his cock. And so on. These interactions seem to be playing to another audience, a straight audience perhaps, an audience who often has to be instructed in what Len calls “dildo-ology” or in the variations within the category of transsexual. Who can argue with a little pedagogical push, but when push comes to shove, the show seems to orient too much to a straight audience, the one most identified with sleazebag Josh, and most invested in familial stability.

The Pathos – I am all for a little pathos. Hell, I am all for a lot of pathos especially when it is used judiciously to spring a coming out narrative out of the mine field of clichés and to place it in the all too human terrain of loss. But sometimes, Transparent divvies up and distributes the pathos in ways that make it seem like simply part of the terrain of transgenderism. Pathos, we all know, is the foundation of heterosexuality, maybe of all sexuality, but in the show, sometimes, especially in the trans-talent episode, pathos seems to be the hallmark of trans life and this despite the deep and wide and magical archive of queer performance scenes that the producers all participate in and could have drawn upon. Given the incredible contributions to art, film and performance made by Drucker and Ernst and considering the eclectic writing career of Ali Liebegott, there is just no reason that the drag show had to be so bad, so sad, so pitiful.

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The Trans Sex Scene

And so, we circle back around to the Sparkle Unicorn in the room, the dildo on the floor, the trans sex scene that never happened. Ian Harvie has answered questions about this scene in various interviews and has insisted, rightly, that the scene must be considered in context. The scene is intercut with a failed sexual interaction between Josh and the female rabbi, Raquel and so the theme of the episode is detumescence. This is all well and good but while Josh simply fails to get it up, Dale cannot handle his dildo, and the banter between Ali and Dale leading up to the failed sex scene is kind of cringe worthy. The “shave-your-pussy” scene just seems like one major buzz kill.

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So, in between the highs, the lows and the lousy, there is much to admire in this new series and while I am still waiting for a dildo-sex scene to rival the one that Kim Peirce shot for The L Word back in 2006, I have faith that the Sparkle Unicorn will survive its fall from grace and return to offer a real lesson in sex, gender creativity and magic.

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

15 Jul

by Jack Halberstam

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

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

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

Some of the best responses to my piece include:

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

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

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



What’s Paglia Got To Do With It?

14 Sep

By Jack Halberstam

Oh no! It was just as a new semester began, as the football season kicked off and right when Jersey Shore moved to Miami…right when Justin Bieber was adjusting his diaper for the VMA’s and the Jackass crew had figured out new ways to showcase male moronism in 3D…indeed just as Gaga chopped up her filet mignon to wear the next night at the VMAs, just then, someone let Camille Paglia out of her box: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/public/magazine/article389697.ece

Once a decade, Paglia, an acid tongued Susan Sontag wannabe, rents space in some national newspaper to tell us that we are all wrong about everything. Usually we are all wrong about a cultural icon we all love…or else we are all wrong about an entire movement of theory and philosophy, or we are simply wrong about our historical moment, the meaning of sex, the politics of gender, Madonna, Italians, John Donne, lesbians, drag queens, the economy, universities, cultural revolt…and now, we find out, **newsflash** we were all wrong about Lady Gaga. Yup, we were wrong. We all thought that Lady Gaga was actually doing something interesting, cultivating new combos of avant-garde innovation and popular recycling. We thought she sounded good, looked even better and straddled the divide between Warhol and whimsy while flashing her notoriously ambiguous meat purse. Many of us found her musically interesting, culturally thrilling and inordinately fabulous. We liked her in leather, in chains, in a wheelchair, in bed, in a sandwich, in a pussy wagon, on the phone, in jail, under meat, we liked her but then we found out that, well, we were wrong.

Lady Gaga, I learned from Camille Paglia, is just a copycat who latches onto a generation of glazed eyed internet clones and exploits its incapacity to think without an Iphone app at hand or to know anything without a twitter feed. She is a rich girl playing at being marginal, “a diva of déjà vu,” less sexy than a drag queen, less talented than Elton John, less charming than Lily Allen (is that possible??), and a “rootless” pretender who manipulates her fans, the “little monsters,” into pathetic displays of fanatical admiration. Gaga, for Paglia, represents the end of culture, the end of civilization, the end of truth, values and meaning, the end of sex, and the triumph of a kind of Baudrillardian age of the simulacra (only she wouldn’t cite Baudrillard because he is French and therefore…wrong).

In a kind of counter-Haraway move (think Haraway of “Cyborg Manifesto” rather than Haraway of “Companion Species Manifesto”), Paglia argues that we have lost touch with what is real, true and good in our mania for media manipulation, video games and cell phones. If Haraway recognized an interpenetration of humanity and technology in the digital age that was exciting and wondrous (even as it was also exploitative and dangerous), Paglia, sees, predictably, a manufactured public realm populated by media puppets and their passive and stupid fans. If Lady Gaga’s supporters have recognized in her a newish formula of femininity, phones and desire, Camille Paglia sees only same-old same-old or, in her words “the exhausted end of the sexual revolution.”

Like a bad drag queen imitation of Allan Bloom, the prophet who preached the end of culture just two decades ago in The Closing of the American Mind, Paglia worries that “the younger generation” is missing out on all the really important cultural texts that made up her own education. The Iphone generation take pleasure in cheap imitations when they could be thrilled by “real” culture, i.e. canonical English literature; they are literate in texting but hopeless at real expression and they are not even original in their forms of rebellion. Paglia has always seen it all before and she never tires of sending her readers back to school circa 1950 to bone up on their John Donne, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Like a manic T.S. Eliot guarding the “great tradition” and prowling around its archive with claws out, Paglia reminds one of the schoolmarm host of the British quiz show The Weakest Link. Ann Robinson became famous for dispatching her victims on the show with the immortal words: “you are the weakest link, good bye.” And it is this tradition of learning (rote memorization of the tried and true authors memorialized by new criticism) that Paglia returns to time and time again. Why the popular media returns to Paglia time and time again is another question! But probably the answer has something to do with a kind of media masochism, a desire to be spanked for not paying attention or for succumbing to banal mind candy. But at any rate, when Paglia does come out of her box, we get to watch a completely unselfconscious right-wing libertarian blurt out high-minded nonsense while thumbing her nose at all the other academic drones who believe in crazy shit like “the construction of gender,” the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction and the mediated nature of reality.

Paglia knows better. She knows that women are women, feminists are stupid, communication networks have replaced real intimacies and Madonna was ripped off. What she doesn’t seem to know is that all cultural production consists of wild combinations of the new and the old, the borrowed and the bold, the real and the fabricated. She also doesn’t seem to know that every generation must have its icons and the tired cycle of oedipal denunciations within which older people sneer at younger people’s tastes never does change anything. She also does not seem to know that Madonna was the queen of rip offs and that her cultural borrowings were almost never acknowledged and often fell within a long tradition of white absorptions of Black cultural innovations.

Many people have noted that Lady Gaga lives in the long shadow of Madonna but noting this is not the same as totally collapsing two performers from very different historical and cultural milieux. Weird then that Paglia condemns Lady Gaga for her “poker face” when she adored Madonna’s performance in 1990 in “Justify My Love” because it confirmed that “we are nothing but masks.” Strange that Paglia charges Gaga with “obsessively trafficking in twisted sexual scenarios” while casting Madonna’s Christian upbringing as inspiring because “without taboos, there can be no transgression.” Bizarre that Paglia is so taken with Bowie’s androgyny and Warhol’s relation to the marketplace but can find not a single shred of glamour or talent in Lady Gaga’s gender-blending and articulate performances.

Ultimately, what Paglia thinks about Gaga is about as interesting as what Sarah Palin thinks about feminism or what Glenn Beck thinks of Eminem. More important is the issue of what narratives about the popular, the avant-garde, innovation and cultural appropriation make it into the mainstream media. And somehow, Paglia always seems to find an open page ready to receive her rants, her crazed generalizations (“most of Gaga’s worshippers seem to have had little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin”), her nutty projections about a generation, a culture, a movement. While Paglia is stuck in 1990, still spinning her narratives about atrophied affect, cultural decline and sexual inertia, we have actually entered new debates, developed new vocabularies and in creative interactions with new media, we have all of us become little monsters, chasing our own gaga urges and moving steadily further and further from the modernist splits between high and low, good and evil, sex and death.