Hope and Glimpsing the Future in the Marriage Equality Debate

This short paper was presented at the Feminist Utopias Conference held at the Australian National University on 8 September 2017. 

UntitledAs Gayle Rubin wrote in 1984, “…it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality” (143). In the midst of the contemporary nuclear crisis, the never ending debate about marriage equality seems a fitting topic to apply the theoretical questions I’d like to explore today, about whether we can and should – and indeed how we should – hope for a better world.

UntitledSo the story goes: “it gets better”. This is a common refrain of LGBTIQ youth services in Australia. “It gets better” refers to the promise that when you leave school, you won’t have to deal with bullies any longer – you’ll be free to live your life as a happy LGBTIQ person. Now, for many of us, this isn’t totally wrong. Leaving the social intensity of the schoolyard and becoming independent from family units, can mean that we are able to find new communities of acceptance.

UntitledBut how cruel might this hopeful promise be, when bigotry can be canvassed as state-sanctioned “legitimate debate”, as we are seeing now? When homophobic and transphobic ideas are not originating from the schoolyard itself – as we know, people aged 15-24 are the most avid supporters of marriage equality – but are being shown on television during the nightly news? Perhaps the promise to our children of “it gets better” is a cruel one.

UntitledAs Lauren Berlant writes, “When we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us” (2007, 33). For the “yes” campaign, marriage equality has become the object of desire that contains within it a cluster of promises: a hope about what will get better and for whom.

UntitledBut cruel is the optimism of the segments of the “yes” campaign that refuse to confront the homophobia and transphobia emerging in the debate, and instead seek to win hearts and minds on the basis of respectability, normality, and the idea that “love” is indeed “love”. As Berlant argues, it is a cruel optimism that operates where we live with the toxic conditions of the present labouring under the view that the future will “somehow” deliver something better.

UntitledAnd indeed it is cruelly optimistic to imagine what that future will entail if we do not question the social constitution of futurity in the first instance. As Lee Edelman (1998) argues, it is the child that acts as the pervasive cultural “emblem” of the future, the ultimate signifier of the hope of tomorrow. Edelman explains that while the left operates under a liberalism that sees the elasticity of this signifier extend – children can still signify the future despite queer family arrangements – conservatives cling to a more intense vision of social rupture, that must preserve such signifiers at all costs. The child is not only a symbol of a future horizon, but also a concretely heterosexual future, where heterosexuality is to reproduction is to the child is to the future operate in a circular and spectacular logic.

UntitledThis is precisely what we have seen playing out for over a decade, albeit more sharply in recent times, in the marriage equality debate. While the right have repeated the refrain, “think of the children”, the left too have taken up this mantle, constantly leaning on statistics about the welfare of queer youth or children from queer families in order to make a point of the utter sameness of the child under queer circumstances. In this envisioning, the queer child doesn’t queer the future, rather, the queerness of the child is contained in order to suggest that there is very little threat – only a slight extension – to the more conservative vision.

UntitledAs the recent GetUp ad for marriage equality suggests, in the words of the mother in the heterosexual nuclear family unit, “kids learn their values at home, from their parents, that’s why we’ll vote yes in the upcoming marriage equality vote. And if she asks, we’ll tell her it’s about fairness and kindness”. In this ad there is the removal of the threat of queering of the child, who is represented as safe from having to learn about sexuality or gender diversity because she learns her values from “the family” rather than through programs like Safe Schools. We learn in this ad that marriage equality is no challenge to the social logic of heterosexual normativity: this is the vision of transformation under marriage equality – total preservation of the existing social order.

But Edelman suggests a different approach to this logic is possible. As Edelman writes: “fuck the social order and the figural children paraded before us as its terroristic emblem; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Miz; fuck the poor innocent kid on the ‘Net; fuck Laws both with capital ‘L’s and with small; fuck the whole network of symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop” (1998, 29). Edelman utterly refuses the “sweetness” of hope and investment in a future, and instead endorses a queer negativity soaks in the bitterness of the present.

UntitledWe might wonder about the astringency of Edelman’s anti-social thesis, in light of the fact that attachment to “same-sex marriage” is currently being enacted by many as a mode of survival. Many have thrown themselves into fighting for a yes campaign precisely in order to assist a striving toward a “getting better”. We might also question the limits of Edelman’s radical presentism and anti-futurity, and if a different kind of future envisioning might be possible without a cruel investment in inevitable progress.

As some have pointed out, Edelman reduces ‘a’ version of the future to ‘the’ version of the future – more radical imaginings of opening up spaces of possibility for queer lives are rendered as as problematic as hegemonic dominant visions of how the future “ought” to be conserved (White 2013, 33). Could there then be a glimmer of a different set of possibilities, a transformed social order, and another logic, to be found? Rather than a cruel and unrupturing hope, can a queer hope be possible?

UntitledAs José Esteban Muñoz offers, “Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1). Here Muñoz suggests that we might adopt a concrete utopian imagining where, “the hopes of the collective” are connected to real, lived struggle in the historical present. In other words, we might have “educated hope” (3). In contrast to Edelman, Muñoz insists on the importance of hope as a critical tool, where “hope is spawned of a critical investment in utopia…profoundly resistant to the stultifying temporal logic of a broken-down present” (12).

However as Teresa de Lauretis (2011) also contends, we must read Edelman’s point about negativity not as a call to negativity as the political act, but rather the reflection of a condition of society, the death drive at the heart of it all, where there is always the attempt to overcome and resolve this with positivity and hope. Edelman’s imagining is heterotopic as he reflects this death drive back at us, but argues against its resolution.

UntitledSimilarly Anne Cvetkovich’s (2007) work extends this heterotopic view of society, to get to the “depression” at the heart of things, that is, not the negativity and negation of life, but more specifically the feelings that are part and parcel of occupying this world. As feminists have long argued, “the personal is political”, and we might also extend this to say that we feel politics at the level of the body. Cvetkovich argues that affective states like depression can be political – because while they can be antisocial (in quite a literal way – through withdrawal), there is also the possibility that a new sociality may form through making-public these affective states.

UntitledBut in making the negativity at the heart of things public rather than private, we can also become targeted as the problem rather than merely pointing out the problem. As Sara Ahmed illustrates, the figure of the feminist kill joy who offers critique and anger can be seen as the source of unhappiness: “Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy?” (2010, 582). In other words, unveiling already circulating – but hidden – negativity is risky business.

UntitledWhile we focus solely on concepts like fairness and kindness, positivity, good stories, the “good homosexual”, or the “unqueer queer child”, the bad feelings at the heart of the marriage equality debate remain occluded and politically impotent. To fail to recognise and name the homophobia and transphobia that are proliferating under conservative discussions in the marriage equality debate is to inadvertently reiterate a narrative of a heteronormative future where “it gets better”. To engage in a queer hopefulness then, is not to shy away from negativity, but rather, to embrace the possible world that it reveals to us.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 5.56.32 PMIt is only in confronting those elements of the present that we would rather deny, from which a truly utopian vision might emerge. In this case, my educated hope is that we will have a marriage equality debate that confronts homophobia and transphobia, that embraces gender and sexual diversity, and that makes space for the LGBTIQ community well beyond the question of marriage.

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A Queer Reading of Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do

Last week when Taylor Swift’s new single Look What You Made Me Do hit the airways, I was devastated. While the album name ‘Reputation’ seemed promising, the lyric video seemed to confirm that Tayswi – Queen of the Secret Lesbian Club of Hollywood – was only interested in making a petty jab at Kanye West via a mostly terrible pop song. My god, I thought. Is Taylor just completely basic? 

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Please never watch the lyric video. Ever.

But when the new video directed by Joseph Khan dropped, all of my doubts perished, because THIS IS WITHOUT A DOUBT THE GAYEST TAYSWI VIDEO OF ALL TIME. (And by gayest of course I mean open to a queer reading i.e. seeing things sideways, and reading LGBTQ themes into things). Unsurprisingly the mainstream media are calling this Tayswi’s “shade” video which is simply about mocking all of her haters. They are entirely skimming over all the gay bits that they can’t make sense of (never mind that queers invented shade).

So bear with me for the incredibly long journey that is a queer reading (or really, just the most obvious and true and direct reading) of LWYMMD…

The opening shots lead us to a graveyard:

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This is surely an obvious story about Taylor’s trashed reputation, no?

Well, we are also immediately reminded of Leo Bersani’s famous paper Is the Rectum a Grave?, written in 1987 at the time when the peak of the AIDs crisis was unfolding in the USA. In Bersani’s paper he tracks the homophobic response to AIDS, but also how misogyny is also implicated in homophobia, where femininity is conflated with the “passive” bottom position in gay male sex. Bersani urges us to embrace the subordinate feminine/homosexual position as a way to contest and shatter hierarchies of power.

Here we see Taylor trying to “bury” her gaping grave that reveals her vulnerability/femininity/homosexuality:

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At the bottom of the grave we see 2014 circa Swift in her Met Ball gown, the same year of the peak rumours that her and Karlie Kloss were in a relationship:

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Much like the imagery of the video for Bad Blood (also directed by Khan) we appear to be transported to an “underground” world. We might recall that in that clip the underground involved an Amazonian-like alternate reality:

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But in this underground, Taylor isn’t fighting, she’s in a bath full of diamonds:

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While diamonds symbolise wealth, she’s not sitting in a pit of money – most clearly here we are called to think of Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend:

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Not only was Monroe herself a famously closeted gay icon, the original song has some rather queer lyrics: “Time rolls on/And youth is gone/ And you can’t straighten up when you bend”.

Taylor’s bath is also in the centre of a room full of mirrors, recalling the saying “hall of mirrors” where one is not able to distinguish fact from fiction. But we also need to recall the intertextual reference to her earlier clip for Style, which is all about duality:

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We might also note the rainbows evident in this clip:

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And the tension between the internal masculine/feminine:

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A theme which is also represented in Bad Blood:

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But back to LWYMMD, we are met with our first glimpse of snakes:

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Which are mostly obviously a reference to Kimye’s attack on Taylor after the Famous shenanigan. BUT what about the fact that snakes appear on Taylor’s hands in a lot of her earlier video clips? For example, Style:

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Shake it Off:

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And Blank Space:

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The fact that Taylor wears many of these snakes as rings is also significant in light of her earlier ring choices, notably the fleur-de-lis of Our Song, representing chastity:

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So, Taylor has gone from a symbol of chastity, to snakes, which coincidentally are strongly associated with sexuality due to that whole Adam-and-Eve-snake-incident-thing. In other words, snakes are traditionally understood as representing sexual power. For Freud snakes were a symbol of male sexual drive, but lesbian culture has also embraced the snake namely in reference to the ancient matriarchal Minoan society symbolised by the “Snake Goddess”:

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We then see that Taylor is indeed positioning herself as snake queen:

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But she’s not only queen of snakes i.e. queen of sexual power, she’s drinking tea:

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Which seems kind of random UNTIL we recall that tea is associated with the gay community as Urban Dictionary defines: “Used within the urban gay community, ‘tea’ signifies a piece of sensitive and possibly highly sought-after information or tidbit”. Or, as A.J. Musser has argued: “While I do not want to argue that tea functions as the sign of lesbianism, it does serve as one among a collection of possible signs of female queerness”. So, here the tea drinking is not only about recalling a secret, it is a nod to lesbian stereotypes. In light of this we might see the “et tu Brute” chiselled into the columns as not only referencing Kanye as a backstabber, but perhaps also calling him out of the closet – i.e. “and you, Kanye?”

Next up it’s Taylor in an epic golden car crash, and as everyone has pointed out, she looks just like Katy Perry (but holding the grammy Katy doesn’t have – so shady):

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Up until recently the reason behind Katy and Taylor’s famous feud wasn’t known. Katy has since explained that it was about backing dancers. Are we really to believe that Taylor wrote Bad Blood, which features the lyrics “You know it used to be mad love” just because of a fight about backing dancers?

Maybe Taylor is trying to reference Judith Butler’s theory of gender melancholy here – you become what you cannot love…(And, not to mention that Katy came out earlier this year).

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We then see Taylor the caged bird, calling to mind Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which explores questions of lesbianism among other themes. We might also note that Taylor is in an orange jumpsuit behind bars, a la Orange is the New Black.

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But importantly, Taylor’s “feast” in the cage involves a lobster and a rat:

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While rats are symbolic of new beginnings, and lobsters also represent regeneration, “lobster” is slang for “lesbian”.

We are then taken to scenes of Taylor robbing what appears to be a music streaming company. But this isn’t just about her feud with Apple, she’s also sporting the very pansexual slogan “BLIND FOR LOVE” amongst a bevy of cats/pussies:

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Of course Taylor has been upfront about her obsession with cats for some time (also a lesbian stereotype), as we see in early videos such as 22 (where she just happens to be hugging a woman while making a “V” sign…):

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And lobsters/cats aren’t the only animal symbolism Taylor has used in videos – remember that beaver from We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together who (along with a random woman) beckons Taylor away from her bed/phone call with her boyfriend?

Beaver

Back in LWYMMD, things take a turn for the extra gay, with Taylor referencing Dykes on Bikes (a lesbian pride group which began in San Francisco in the 1970s):

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While some have suggested this is undoubtably a reference to Peter Lindberg’s “Wild at Heart” shoot for Vogue in 1991, there is no doubt that the inspiration for that was this:

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We then see Taylor as the dominatrix leader of a “squad” of plastic women (note the cats also on screen – it’s her “pussy squad”), in reference to her infamous girl gang groupies:

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While the figure of “dominatrix” has its own overt sexual connotations, the imagery (as Every Outfit on SATC has pointed out) is clearly referencing the 2016 horror film Neon Demon:

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WHICH notoriously includes an extended scene involving lesbian necrophilia.

Taylor then bursts in to the metaphorical closet:

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Which also calls to mind the “door” in her clip for Fifteen where she is 800% in love with a girl and is just a completely gay story for real (lyrics include “you might find who you’re supposed to be…take a deep breath and walk through the doors”):

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In the LWYMMD closet she doesn’t meet her teen girl crush, but rather a crew of effeminate men in heels, including the notable and openly gay Todrick Hall. A lot of commentators have pointed to the “I ❤ T.S.” on the men’s shirts as a jab at Taylor’s supposed ex-boyfriend Tom Hiddleston who wore a similar shirt when they were said to be dating:

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But I think the real takeaway message here is the association between those who declare their love for Taylor, and being gay/closeted. In other words this whole scene is about Taylor’s beards.

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The finale is Taylor standing on a pile of warring alter-egos (and of course the “T” referencing not only “Taylor” but the “tea” earlier in the clip):

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Up the front we have Taylor in her Swan Lake outfit from Shake it Off, and given that this particular character was chosen out of a cast of many from that particular clip, we might also see this as a reference to the lesbian horror (see a theme here?) film Black Swan:

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With feminine horror also referenced in Taylor’s outfit as she saws the wings off a phallic aeroplane:

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In the final scene Taylor once again meets the many sides of “herself”:

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A theme of self-confrontation we have also seen in earlier clips like Out of the Woods:

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But while Taylor’s previous clips have been about “finding” herself, it is clear in LWYMMD that we the audience have not yet found the “true” Taylor.

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Or, maybe she’s all and none of these characters. Maybe she’s been trying to flag her sexuality for the longest time, with her snake rings, masculine internal duality, tea, rainbows, closet doors, lobsters, beavers and cats. I guess only time, and the rest of Reputation may tell.

(Thanks also to Clare S for helping with this piece, specifically the research on lesbians and tea). 

Review: Jamila Rizvi’s Not Just Lucky

9780143783534Jamila Rizvi’s recently released book Not Just Lucky is basically a very long riff on the old saying, “carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man”. This is a very useful adage, which works as a reminder of the ways that women are socially conditioned. I find myself repeating this saying to women in my life frequently, and it’s useful to have a  book that spends time unpacking ways that women are brought up with negative self-beliefs.

Rizvi is intent to present “solutions” not just “problems”, and so the book also provides a lot of extended advice on how to speak, dress, think, and act in ways that might get you ahead as a working woman (even though the book claims it’s not a self-help book, but a “career book”). It’s funny and well-written. I also appreciated the very organised bullet-point lists of recommendations – I daresay Rizvi and I are a similar collection of letters on the esoteric Myer-Briggs test.

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Obligatory selfie of me reading Not Just Lucky

But while I found myself nodding along to many of the passages exploring the sexism that women experience in the workplace and beyond, Rizvi’s solutions fall short. What is offered is at best a band-aid to the problems described, and at worst, a cruel promise that working hard and undertaking individual self-betterment can lead to certain success.

To be fair, Rizvi acknowledges from the outset that her book doesn’t have the solutions for fixing structural problems like childcare and the wage gap, but simply offers ways women can change their thinking that has resulted from structural enculturation.

I’m on board with women undergoing some gender-CBT, heck my job is literally to talk about gender and double standards and how things we think are innate are in fact social.

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I am more than ready for the “lady boss” obsession to end. Please end.

But presenting the antidote to women’s ills as endeavoring to be “brilliant” and offering a blueprint for how to succeed as a “lady boss”, is not what we need right now. In this day and age, when humans are staring extinction in the face, capitalism is in a late and hideous form, and there are right-wing forces mobilising around the world, these kind of liberal feminist solutions feel a little like over-prescribing antibiotics. Sure, it might help you feel in control of getting better, but it will make all of us more unwell in the long run.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, but the biggest blind spot is: you guessed it, class. While Rizvi acknowledges her own privileged upbringing as a limit to her ability to empathise, what is needed here is not an alternative individual view but rather a different analysis of how to fix a broken system. Of course proposing a workable solution requires identifying the underlying problem. If you ignore class, then you’re destined to merely tinker around with the symptoms.

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Rizvi’s book is similar to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In

The thing is, all our problems don’t just boil down to how we are socialised. Rizvi claims that “the challenge for each of us is to rise above our own conditioning”. But thinking about the pitch of my voice at work, or asking for a salary increase, isn’t really going to make a huge difference – except of course, for me as an individual. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question gender norms, but it does mean that we might have to go beyond ways of individually speaking, dressing, thinking, and acting, if we want to make substantive change.

I was a little surprised that Rizvi stayed so closely to discussing things individuals can do, given that she claims in the beginning of her book the work is “unashamedly feminist”, and also notes at the end that “it is only together that we can change the world”. These words remain, for the most part, vague gestures. I can well imagine my grandma reading this book and saying to me “we were talking about these issues in the 70s”. That’s the point isn’t it: gender inequality is a persistent problem. If you want to acknowledge the changes in our lives for the better that have occurred, you have to talk about the struggles and the tactics that have gone before.

ednext_20124_guthrie_openerWhat’s interesting here is that Rizvi and I are the same age, and we went to the same university, at the same time (and did student politics together – I was in the Labor students club that she was the leader of). Unlike Rizvi though, I came from a very poor single-parent family. Yet, we both were able to get stellar educations. Despite my low SES background, there were quite a few structural supports in place such as public housing and welfare support, as well as decent free primary and secondary schooling, that meant I could get a leg up. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that some of these structural supports were targeted by the very Gillard government Rizvi fondly remembers working for.

Rizvi does suggest that there are policies that need to change in order to best address gender inequality. Rizvi also makes one note about unions, and a worker’s strike in Brisbane in 1912. These pages provide a short breath of fresh air in the discussion about how to make change. But strangely Rizvi moves seamlessly from discussing the importance of joining your union, to how to treat the symptoms of an unfair system which includes how to be a great boss.

I think is somewhat of an indicator of what’s wrong with contemporary Labor politics. It’s not really about representing the working class, because the interests of bosses are seen as equally important. Rather than seeing how being in the position of boss under capitalism necessitates exploiting those below you, not attending to class at all means you can’t acknowledge nor resolve that power dynamic. Here’s the rub: CEOs and working class people do not share the same interests, even if they share the same gender identity.

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Rizvi brings up Elsa quite a bit so this feels relevant

This book is explicitly inspired by the Sheryl Sandberg Lean In idea: the cruelly optimistic notion that you too can succeed, if you employ the correct tactics. But in a world that is becoming more and more unequal in terms of the distribution of wealth, where a handful of corporations own pretty much everything, and where capital and profit is valued over human and environmental well-being, success cannot be measured by how well you individually survive the fire.

Rizvi proposes that it’s not really luck but hard work that gets you ahead as a woman. We would do well to question whether the ceiling is really a class one that needs to be broken, in order to make lasting change for the lives of women at large.

Film Review: First Girl I Loved

When you are a teenager, having a crush can be truly agonising and all-consuming. It’s equal parts thrill and terror when your feelings are reciprocated, as you innocently try to work out how to turn those feelings into a relationship. But, if you happen to be a heterosexual couple while you’re navigating all this, there are endless guides on how you should act and your partnership is symbolically celebrated every day in songs, TV shows and movies. That’s why a First Girl I Loved is unusual, and so very welcome. Unlike 99.9% of films produced on the topic of love, it is unashamedly gay, even as it works through how shame feels if you are gay.

Written and directed by Kerem Sanga, First Girl I Loved is a smart, affirming film about teenage love. Dylan Gelula  plays Anne, who has fallen for senior cool-girl/softball star Sasha, played by Brianna Hildebrand. We follow Anne and Sasha as they try and figure out what the unspoken spark between them might mean, and what it could possibly lead to. Anne’s best friend Clifton, played by Mateo Arias, complicates the story with his own feelings for Anne spilling out in dangerous ways.

FirstGirlILoved_Promotional_Still_AN_CL_stairsWhile the closure of the film was a little clunky (and I wondered if they actually had a few different endings in mind), overall First Girl I Loved is utterly engrossing. The opening scenes are framed tightly and closely around the protagonists, and we remain at eye level, almost as if we are right there with them – behind the softball fence, lingering at the doorway to the bedroom, walking down the street sipping $4 wine. We’re next to them all the way, not as a voyeur, but as a friend along for the ride.

26-first-girl-i-loved.w1200.h630Gelula’s performance is very commendable. She strikes a delicate balance between unbearable apathetic teen, and captivating hero that we want to succeed. Through Anne we see just how brilliant and strong teens can be, even if they’re totally clueless. Teens are often denigrated by society writ-large for being naive, but First Girl I Loved shows the pain and beauty of fumbling through, the intelligence involved in not knowing but pushing on nonetheless. The awkward innocence of Anne and Sasha’s interactions is wonderfully executed, and there was something so familiar about their veiled giggling banter that I felt like I was watching my young self up on screen.

1As I sat watching the film unfold, I found myself desperately wanting things to work out for the characters. I wanted it to end happily not only because I was so engrossed in the story, but because happy endings for gay characters are so few and far between. It’s been great to see more films coming out that address romance between women, like Lovesong in 2016 or Carol in 2015, but many remain stories about tortured, impossible love, or a love that’s always on the horizon that we never get to see fully flourish. That’s why Imagine Me & You from 2005 is still one of the greatest lesbian romance films – not only does it relish in the genre of romcom rather than locating gayness in the seriousness of arthouse, but it moves through unspoken desire to love shouted from the rooftops.

First.Girl_.I.Loved-szn1While I can imagine some queer theorists arguing that the lack of traditionally happy endings for gay films is welcome, because who wants to live up to that heteronormative expectation anyway, it’s also pretty shit to constantly have popular culture either ignore your relationship or portray it is an inevitably difficult affair. While there is something to be said for representing the reality of homophobia and the difficulty of queer life, it is a pain that everyone else gets the option of fantasy (because let’s be real it’s not like heterosexual life really ends happily for everyone) except for gays who must remain proper realists.

The-First-Girl-I-LovedFirst Girl I Loved is no romcom, and it is serious. But it does manage to deal with difficult issues and give us a sense of both catharsis and hope, even as it leaves many things unresolved. It doesn’t make the empty promise that so many teens are barraged with that “it gets better”, but it does suggest that queer kin can be found and that inner strength is possible while traversing difficult and unknown terrain. First Girl I Loved gifts its audience a small beam of light for navigating this path, and for that it should be celebrated.

Give Drag a Chance

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Priscilla, queen of my heart

When I was a little girl, I loved drag queens more than anything. It was back in the days when video stores were still around, and my babysitter asked me which film I wanted to rent. Of course I said Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which was my absolute favourite as an eight year old, and I couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it already. By the end of the film she was rather shocked, but I remember thinking thank god I am a girl. My thought was that if I had been a boy I would have had to be a drag queen, and things would have been really tough. To me being a feminine as a girl was like being a drag queen too, you just didn’t get hate for it.

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Paris is Burning

Priscilla, and films like Paris is Burning before it, helped to make drag intelligible to a mainstream audience. Today RuPaul’s Drag Race continues to work that magic, bringing a greater awareness of drag culture as well as a diversity of queens into the spotlight with each season.

But even though everyone is watching Drag Race, word on the street for those in the know is that you’ve got to be a bit careful because drag queens are, well, a bit of a drag. So the story goes, drag queens—at least those “normy” hyper-feminine ones—are just reinforcing every stereotype of womanhood that feminism has ever fought against.

Strangely this critique of drag comes from two, usually wildly oppositional, directions within discussions of gender.

578579The first is from trans-exclusionary radical feminist types, who conflate gay male culture with drag queens with transgender identity. Such perspectives see gay men, drag queens, and trans women as responsible for propping up fantasies of femininity that only serve to oppress women. Germaine Greer famously stated in The Female Eunuch 1970: “I’m sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate”. Greer’s suggestion here is that there is some form of “natural” womanhood that can be liberated from the dictates of culture. Similarly, and more recently, Sheila Jeffreys has even argued that drag kings distort lesbian culture and the celebration of “natural” womanhood. She writes: “If the suffering and destruction of lesbians is to be halted then we must challenge the cult of masculinity that is evident in such activities as drag king shows”. These views are rife with homophobia and transphobia, as well as massive conflations and wild leaps that see men, masculinity, and femininity, as the true oppressors of women.

license-shutterstock_178095647z-56cddde63df78cfb37a34dedI don’t have much time for these views, which encourage us to believe that the biggest threats to women are trans women, drag queens, and gay men. This view distorts Marxist theory to argues that men in particular are *the* class that oppresses women, and sees the liberation that is to be won as a liberation from “gender”. Luckily the currency of radical feminism in academic spaces seems to be waning. But when overall activist struggle in society is low, it is easy for people to slip into arguing that we are each other’s problem, that if only we could free ourselves from gender we’d be truly liberated. It’s a much easier argument to make than organising to transform the fundamental economic arrangement of society, and it makes space for all kinds of class collaboration between powerful women and poor women alike (even if it means at the end of the day that power doesn’t actually shift).

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I heart Judy B 4eva

Understandably in many queer critical circles, no one has much time for radical feminism. For example Judith Butler—our queer theory queen writ large—has openly critiqued Jeffreys, describing her views on trans women as a “feminist tyranny”. At the end of Gender Trouble (1990) Butler famously held drag queens up as exemplars of gender subversion. There was of course a lot of responses to this, but much of these debates focused on whether drag really was the best example of the theory of gender performativity that Butler was proposing.

herofille2So that’s why it’s kind of surprising to hear people within queer communities suggesting now that drag, in its mainstream formations, is a problem. From this perspective drag, if performed by ostensibly cis males, reproduces misogynistic ideas of femininity and is really just another expression of the “gay-triarchy“. Drag that is seen as more alternative in these scenes is drag performed by faux-queens (women performing as drag queens), or drag that queers gender in some way, like the intense influx of bearded-queens we’ve seen in recent years.

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I love Sasha but I don’t doubt we occupy the same ivory tower

Within the land of RuPaul, this desire for more alternative drag to address the “problems” of drag culture is summed up by Sasha Velour. Now, there is no way that I am not #TeamSasha, obviously I love Sasha. But she also represents an extremely mobile, well-educated subset of drag culture, who can quote Butler and play with the expectations of drag (like, having a bald head) because let’s face it, they’re still going to get by even if they don’t win $100,000.

What the queer critique of drag shares with the radical feminist perspective is the view that we are one another’s oppressors, and that if we manage to transform our individual gendered selves in a particular way, this can contribute to liberation. For the rad fems this might mean rejecting expectations of femininity and trying to embody “natural” womanhood. From the queer perspective this might mean rejecting anything perceived as mainstream and normative. The conclusions are the same: do your politics through your body, and reject those individuals who don’t.

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The cast of Season 9

Let’s pause here to imagine why someone might get into drag (noting that the great thing about Drag Race is that we get to hear some of these reasons). For some, drag offers a space to play around with femininity, after growing up as a “weird” kid who didn’t meet the expectations of masculinity. For others, drag is a way of working through questions of sexual and/or gender identity. For many that have been kicked out of home or found themselves rejected by society at large, drag offers a space for new forms of family to emerge.

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Drag queens can be comrades too

For many, drag is a mode of survival, socially and economically. Drag queens struggle with expectations around femininity too. Drag queens don’t oppress women: the struggle against sexism is a shared one. There is a lot to be learned from RuPaul’s constant reminder that “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”.

So, let’s celebrate those drag queens that can push boundaries and show us new ways to think about gender, but let’s embrace those “normy” queens too. This doesn’t mean everything in drag culture should be immune from critique, but it does mean we should give drag a chance. After all, the struggle is best won together, not alone, and drag queens are not the enemy.

Nostalgia, Taste & Looking Backward

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Nostalgia: it’s all the rage

The desire for nostalgia is a funny thing. Studies have found that you’re more likely to seek out nostalgia when you’re feeling down, particularly when you are lonely. Perhaps that’s why society seems to have been on a full-tilt nostalgia trip for some time now: everyone is feeling pretty bummed out about the future to come, and under late neoliberal capitalism more isolated individualistic-thinking than ever before. Here we might turn to Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie to help us. Anomie describes the state of singularity and disconnection felt as a symptom of modernity and rapid social change—anomic societies are highly individualistic and fractured. It would be interesting to take up Durkheim’s analyses of anomic societies here and see just how much financial crises and social upheavals correlate with, say, the sale of Hanson tickets.

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Hanson: still looking twelve years old

Going to a concert on a Monday night is strange at the best of times, and this week was certainly a bit odd when I found myself at the anniversary tour of 90s teen-pop boy-band sensation, Hanson. My friend Patrick contacted me months ago to ask me if I wanted to go, and we managed to secure tickets even though the first show had sold out in seconds. It seemed like a good idea at the time, to get a good old dose of nostalgia. But perhaps my initial response to “Do you want to go to Hanson?”—”Lol maybe!”—should have triggered me to remember: when you were a kid you didn’t actually like Hanson.

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90s band Steps

Here’s the thing: I didn’t actually like Hanson. I was in year five when they got big (feel free not to do the math on that). I had just moved from a small city to a very small town, and everything I knew about what was cool, and what was what, needed to adjust. I had grown up listening to the national youth radio channel Triple J, and that was my cultural world. When I was eight (again, no math please), I remember being shocked when Kurt Cobain’s death was announced on the radio. That year was also my first concert, the Icelandic singer Bjork’s Post tour. But when I found myself in a small town (at least, in this particular small town), I found out that liking so-called “alternative” music was so not cool. Everyone was into surfing and dancing and hanging out at the beach listening to S.O.A.P. I distinctly remember being invited to a birthday party of a girl in my class and everyone knew the dance moves to 5, 6, 7, 8 by the band Steps, except for me of course. I needed to learn, and I needed to learn fast.

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Smash Hits magazine was extremely useful for getting in the know

Luckily my new friend Sally who lived across the road from me knew what was what. And she was obsessed with Hanson. Sally was what they call a “completist“—someone who collects every version of every album and single and other paraphernalia released by a band. In Sally’s case this also extended to buying every magazine and newspaper that featured Zac, Taylor, or Isaac, even if it was a picture of them she already had. Her room was a shrine, perfectly plastered in a way only achievable by meticulously obsessive tweenagers. Sally’s love for Hanson eclipsed any faint glimmer of feeling I might muster myself. Plus, she owned Hanson. Zac specifically.

Nevertheless, Hanson was my gateway drug to the Top 40. I started taping songs off the radio (as you did in those days), and started listening to songs from Aqua, Spice Girls, and Savage Garden. I changed my taste, as much as I could, so at the very least I could get it when the year six girls performed to Backstreet’s Back  (though where they were back from I’m still not clear) in the school talent contest, to a standing ovation. I was the Cady Heron, finally able to say “I know this song!” and I could respond “I’m Posh Spice” when someone asked me how I fitted into the scheme of things.

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Jordan “Taylor” Hanson

As a skinny nerdy kid with a single mother, monobrow and noticeably second-hand school uniform, pop taste could only help me pass so much. But vindication came in year six when Sally and I performed to Hanson’s Man from Milwaukee (we had to choose this song, as Zac sung it) and we won one of the prizes. “Good job” said my crush outside the canteen, licking a chocolate Paddle Pop. “Really nice” he said, as he brushed aside his Hanson-esque long hair. Pop music was the ticket.

That was, until I was in my mid twenties, dating a musician. This was the period wherein I learned that liking pop music was so not cool. According to this theory, if it wasn’t from Seattle in the 1990s, or wasn’t electronic music created while taking a lot of stimulants, it wasn’t really music. I made mix tapes out of love but they were met with derision. I also learned that a lot of this attitude was just thinly veiled sexism and elitism. How could a woman pop singer possibly be a talented musician? Obviously that bad romance didn’t last, and I decided to embrace pop music more vehemently. But in hindsight I had spent so long worrying about taste and how to achieve it, that I had forgotten what I even liked about music in the first place.

All of this ran through my head on Monday night as I listened to the epic two-hour set from Hanson, which it turns out, is an ample amount of time for 20 years’ worth of triggered memories. I had come for nostalgia, but I had instead been faced with two decades’ worth of feelings around my inadequacies in taste.

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Heather Love’s Feeling Backward

The whole thing reminded me of the point that Heather Love makes in her book Feeling Backward: we can’t always “move on” from bad experiences, in fact, it might be worth dwelling awhile in some of these feelings to see how the past is still playing out. As Love states: “It is the damaging aspects of the past that tend to stay with us, and the desire to forget may itself be a symptom of haunting”. Love is talking specifically about the feelings that haunt LGBTQ communities in thinking about the past and the need to attend to, rather than forsake, these memories. But this might also be a lesson for everyone: embrace feeling backward, remember the pain of being a misfit or misunderstood that you’d rather forget. In these memories we might learn something about who we have become, rather than looking for a fantasy hit of nostalgia that can’t ever really deliver us from the present.

Brooke Candy and the Question of Queer Femininity

I think we ought to treat pop stars as philosophers (as constructed as they are), citing them in our papers for their insights on the nature of existence and revealing to us the pulse and contradictions of dominant culture. But we must proceed with caution: like all philosophers, pop stars are often deeply problematic. On this note, I think LA rapper/singer Brooke Candy is worth exploring. She shows how all art is appropriation, but is a reminder that cashing in on subordinate cultures is vastly different from trying to rip open a norm from the inside out. She’s also an interesting case for what she does (and doesn’t) show us about the queer potential of femininity.

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Brooke Candy (left) in Grimes’ (right) video for “Genesis

Candy provides the kind of sexual, aggressive, high-femme, esoteric visuals that follow firmly in the tradition of the mega-pop-queens before her, like Lady Gaga and Madonna. However when she first came onto the scene in 2012 with her clip for “Das Me” she was called out for cultural appropriation, along with others like Miley Cyrus who appeared to be cashing in on black culture.

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Candy in “Das Me”

Candy’s stylisation referencing black culture was focused on at the time, but we might also note Candy’s fetishisation of disability as shown in the frame below, which is also clearly referencing Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi. As in many cases where cultural appropriation is pointed out, Candy’s would-be fans challenged her to try and speak from her own position instead.

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The woman pushing Candy along here seems to be saying to the director “Really? You don’t see how many levels of wrong this is?”

However, the problem with the demand to “speak only for yourself” is that it’s difficult figuring out what that should (or can) look like. How can we avoid appropriation in art when culture circulates in endlessly reverberating ways in a globalised world? After all, the postmodern turn taught us that truth is multiple, and that meaning ought not be essentialised in bodies or objects or things…right? The solution here might be: why not turn to the “norm” as a focus for your experimentation instead?

We can see this method playing out *some* of Candy’s subsequent work, where she engages with embodiments of “ideal” (white, blonde, pretty, and so on) femininity and amps it up.

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From “Happy Days“: Candy plays on ideas of cuteness and sexual performance

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From “Paper or Plastic“: Candy organises for her sister-wives to shoot their oppressor

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From “Nasty“: Candy blurs the distinction between stripper and Victoria’s Secret Model, with camp sensibilities

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From “A Study in Duality”: Candy thinks through the relationship between sex and death (among other things). Here she is shown wearing her feminine armour, which appears throughout many of her clips

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From “Opulence“: Candy explores issues of greed, death and power. Here Candy appears to be taking the trope “diamonds are a girls best friend” to a new level (though, it could also be argued she is tapping into imagery of Shiva)

Many of her videos contain Candy playing with being grotesque, violent, scary, overwhelming, sad, and hysterical at the same time as “showing” us her objectified body. What we gain from Candy as philosopher is an engagement with the idea of the queer potential of femininity. That is, where femininity can be made “strange”, where the expectations of sexuality and gender cannot be neatly contained. Often this borders into “cultural appropriation”, and Candy fails to cast off the overt symbols and accessories of marginalised cultures (which, really should tell us something about the “norm”).

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Candy has questionable Chola curls going on in her latest clip for “Living Out Loud” but also seems to be channelling Miley Cyrus circa 2013

Candy grew up in a remarkable context—her parents were divorced, and while her mother worked as a nurse, her father worked as the chief financial officer of Hustler magazine. Despite (or perhaps because of) this “duality” of life experiences, it appears that she has been signed to a major label and for all intents and purposes is as corporately-driven as other stars.

Herein lies one of the major problems of Candy: though she’s just like every other pop star trying to make a buck, she’s pretending she’s something “alternative”. As she stated in one interview: “We can watch the news and see what’s happening in the world or we can have our attention caught by some famous asshole in a red dress…Who cares who wore what at the Met Ball, it’s all fake bullshit. It’s a big fucking show”. The comment reveals (another) limit of Candy’s queer femininity: she thinks that somehow “putting it on” makes her more queer than those women at the Met Ball. In reality, the drag and camp culture that Candy revels in has always referenced the divas and the “assholes” in red dresses—in ways that is often about reverence and worship rather than cynicism.

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What really differentiates Candy from her contemporaries on the red carpet?

If anything, Candy’s attempts to amp up aspects of her style to border on the “obscene” is that you don’t have to do amp it up to see the queer possibilities of femininity. Appropriation of the norm shows us how very contingent and unstable the norm already is in the first place. And if we rely on strategies of “turning up the volume”, we might accidentally fix that (Met Ball) femininity as “natural” and “normal” by comparison. Where does gender stop being drag stop being gender stop being drag? Of course this is Judith Butler‘s old point, but also as RuPaul reminds us, “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”. This isn’t to undermine the experience that gender is an essential part of identity. In fact, it is rather to make a case for seeing gender as at once constructed and as something that we can’t fully choose. So the theory goes, questioning gender makes space for the gender yet to come.

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Maybe this doesn’t recover Brooke Candy from her problems (she’s practically the Heidegger of the pop world). But it is a helpful case in thinking through the limits and possibilities of attempting to enact queer femininity. As it turns out, gender was never not-queer all along.