Feminist Utopias and Battling Cruel Optimism in Ghostbusters

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This is not a drill

When I first heard about the new Ghostbusters, I was bursting with anticipation. But when the trailers started coming I quickly tuned out. Like a child who has peeked at their Christmas presents before the big day, I needed to hold the excitement in. It all seemed too good to be true. So when the lights went down at the cinema last night, I turned to my girlfriend and said “holy crap—they really made this film!”

By way of review, the film itself is highly enjoyable but clunky at times.

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Hands up who wants to go get a science degree after seeing this film

Don’t get me wrong, I was still hanging on every word out of Melissa McCarthy’s mouth, but the direction and editing needed some tightening up. It was probably a three star affair. But the film more than makes up for its pacing and logic problems with its sharp ideas and cast who pull it right through.

Whether this was a great filmic success is not really the point. The point is that they made a movie dominated by smart and funny female leads, who explore issues of gender and race inequality, with large hints of queer sexuality. It feels like a miracle in a world otherwise saturated with films epically failing the Bechdel Test.

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Outside of the film however, cruel optimism is arguably still going strong

However, the irony in celebrating this bastion of female representation is that I spend much of my academic time critiquing the idea that we should focus on representational politics. I often argue that our focus on getting diversity in film and television obscures the material inequalities that underlie the lack of diversity in the popular realm in the first place. When we are presented with images of “successful” characters from ordinarily marginalised groups, this can help to present a false sense that “anyone can make it” despite the odds stacked against them. This connects up with cultural theorist Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”, which refers to those fantasies we hold onto (like “The American Dream”) that are actually cruel promises destined to fail. Berlant writes:

“Fantasy is the means by which people hoard idealising theories and tableaux about how they and the world ‘add up to something’. What happens when those fantasies start to fray—depression, dissociation, pragmatism, cynicism, optimism activism, or an incoherent mash?” (2011, 2).

Cruel optimism operates where there is a desire and attachment to a kind of projected future, but where this possibility is either impossible or “toxic”. Berlant warns against investing in these projections, because when they fail, it can lead to serious disaffection and demoralisation (or, an unhelpful continuation of false positivity).

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The film doesn’t hold back about the discrimination women experience

So, I have to admit that I was worried that the all-female Ghostbusters might be doing its part to contribute to a cruel optimism about gender equality, to say “don’t worry, women can make it too!”, despite the real-life discrimination, harassment and assault experienced by a diversity of women on a daily basis (and on that note, the Ghostbusters cast). But the beautiful thing about this film is that it owns this reality, and runs with it. The film is surprisingly open about gender issues, directly representing the ways that women are systematically dismissed and derided.

When the characters are thrown out of their academic institutions, it is biting commentary on the historic sexist assumption that women pursue the “irrational” (here represented by an interest in the paranormal). When they are dismissed by the authorities and the “men in charge” it is a reminder of the fact that when women report abuse (here represented by the violent male mastermind) there is a practice of active disbelief. When they are vilified online and represented by the media as liars, it is a reflection of the abuse that women experience in these realms.

Ghostbusters doesn’t present cruel optimism: it reflects the true cruelty of the present. There is not a sense that this can be easily overcome, rather, a mass-scale battle led by a vanguard of ass-kicking diverse women is partly what is needed to make any ground.

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Kate McKinnon, the openly gay dreamboat, plays Jillian

The other thing that Ghostbusters does so well, is show us glimpses of the revolutionary future on the horizon. This is reminiscent of the late José Esteban Muñoz‘s work on queer utopias. Muñoz argues that there is a queer future that we are able to glimpse even in the darkest of moments, where oppressive norms of gender and sexuality have been undone:

“Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1).

In Ghostbusters we catch sight of this queer future in the team’s workroom. Here there is no hierarchy (they are all leaders), much empathy (like when Patty cares about Abby’s blood sugar levels), endless patience (even for Kevin who is terrible at answering the phone), and a deep but balanced engagement with questions of science (they make cool stuff) and humanity (like Jillian’s speech to Abby about love). The film is always on the verge of showing us out-and-out queer love, with a complicated triangle between Abby and Erin (past lovers?) and Abby and Jillian (present lovers?), only slightly ameliorated by Erin’s attraction to Kevin. There is also a diversity of bodies, backgrounds, skin colour, and sexuality. Ghostbusters doesn’t shy away from how difficult gender relations are in the present, but it does show us a hint of a future where things could be different.

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They ain’t afraid of no Men’s Rights Activists

There are times of “reverse sexism” within the movie, and I think that kicking a ghost in the groin is probably a bit unnecessary, but largely these moments are used to reflect on the standards that women experience today. The treatment of the assistant Kevin for example, explicitly functions as commentary on the sexual harassment women can expect in most workplaces.

It is no wonder that the MRAs of the Internet are up in arms about this insta feminist-cult-classic. While the sexist and racist hate directed toward the movie serves as a reminder of how far we have to go, it also reveals how challenging this film truly is. As they always say, the feminist proof is in the sexist-reaction pudding.

 

Why “woman” doesn’t equal “feminist”

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Emma Watson, the UN’s “He for She” spokesperson

It seems that every week there’s a new feminist celebrity in town. You definitely know the drill by now: Beyoncé dancing in front of a flashing “FEMINISM” sign, Taylor Swift insisting her girl gang is 100% feminist, or Emma Watson being the poster woman for male feminists. The reaction always falls along the same lines: feminist celebrities are either defended (“hooray at least someone’s talking about it!”) or pilloried (“these women don’t know the first thing about feminism!”). Many commentators also worry that celebrities identify as feminist in order to get attention, or just to appeal to their female audience. However, the key issue for me is not whether they truly and authentically hold feminist ideals, but how the debate fosters a more worrying trend…the idea that if you’re a woman, you’re naturally a feminist.

I’ve been trying to articulate the problem with equating woman with feminist for some time, but it wasn’t until I read an article from feminist theorist Sandra Harding that the heart of the issue became clear for me. Harding says:

“It is an achievement, not a ‘natural property’, of women to develop a feminist standpoint, or a standpoint of women”

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Miley Cyrus has been vocal about desiring “equality”

Harding is talking about something called “feminist standpoint theory”, which is about valuing women’s perspectives as key to understanding women’s marginalisation. At the centre of the theory is that it is important to consider the views of oppressed groups. Because the views of the oppressed are traditionally silenced, attending to their perspectives may spark questions that would never come to the mind of those in power and indeed, questions that those with more power may have an interest in suppressing. According to this theory, if you’re talking about women’s liberation, this should involve listening to women’s experiences (of domestic and workplace expectations, for example) because this helps provide a map of how women are being treated unfairly.

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Beyonce performing in 2014

However, this is not to suggest that women will naturally be able to provide an analysis of why they are being treated poorly, or what ought to be done about it (or, that they will even identify a particular experience as “unfair”). A distinct feminist analysis that says “this is happening because of sexism”, “we should fight back” and “what’s happening is unfair”, is something altogether different from just recounting one’s experience. In this way we see that feminist analysis relies not only on attending to the lived experiences of the marginalised, but stepping back and looking at the whole picture of oppression to see what needs to be overcome.

Of course the difficulty for feminism is that it has historically only provided an analysis that fits the lives of some women. Only in relatively recent times has feminist theory come to grips with the fact that it is important to bring more nuance to analyses of lived experience, to  acknowledge that racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other factors may also be at work.

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A key slogan from the second wave

However, I think the point to take away from this is that political analysis isn’t inherent to identity. The idea that identity is the key to doing politics is termed “identity politics”. This basically just means that identity is seen as inseparable from politics in such a way that the politics flows from the identity in itself. Really this idea is founded in the promotion of the phrase “the personal is political” in feminist activism in the 1960s/70s. The idea in feminist organising at the time was to bring so-called personal issues, such as feeling unhappy as a housewife, to the forefront of feminist consciousness, to show that these “personal” things ought to have “political” ramifications. However over time this idea of the personal as political has collapsed into identity itself, with the idea that identity (rather than specific issues and the analysis of them) = politics.

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People in Sydney rallying to save Safe Schools

We see this belief that politics is inherent to women fail time and time again. This was recently demonstrated with Cate McGregor stating “I am transgender. And I oppose safe schools“. Cate identifies as  a transgender woman, but this doesn’t mean she inherently possesses the best political analysis of transgender women’s liberation. While there are plenty of transgender people speaking out and saying that Safe Schools is utterly important to the LGBT community as a whole, they don’t have the same platform as Cate.

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Former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard

This brings me back to celebrity feminism. The problem with celebrity feminism is that it often involves conflating “woman” with “feminist”. For example, when Leighton Meester says, “I don’t know if anyone would ever deny being a feminist” she is implying that all women are feminists because they have a vested interest in fighting gender inequality. Or when Taylor Swift says, “So many girls out there say ‘I’m not a feminist’ because they think it means something angry or disgruntled or complaining”, she’s suggesting that feminism is not about being critical and assumes that inequality is self-evident. Or when Zooey Deschanel says feminism is just about “being myself”, she’s locating feminism in self-expression as a woman. All of these celebrity feminists do have things to say about inequality, but they all treat this understanding as so obvious that it is basically incomprehensible to see how being a woman does not necessarily mean being a feminist.

It’s a perspective also adopted by some feminists who aren’t celebrities. It’s dangerous not only because it risks condemning women who say they aren’t feminist rather than convincing them why they ought to be, but also because it locates politics in women. There are many negative consequences to this view, but particularly problematic is celebrating female leaders for being female, even if they are materially making conditions worse for many women in society (I’m thinking here of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard cutting the single parent payment, for example).

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Actress Zooey Deschanel

Seeing politics as inherent to women is also bad for feminism. What emerges is the view that feminism can be utterly pluralised, because each individual woman has her own individual feminism. The sum of these fragmented parts is often a feminism that reaches for the lowest common denominator, such as the encouragement of a vague notion of “equality” that we see in celebrity feminism. In Hollywood “equality” might just mean getting paid as many millions as your male costars. While I don’t pretend to have all of the answers for what feminism should be, I do think that a sharper political analysis is needed that calls for liberation in a much much broader sense than rich women gaining equality with rich men.

A Tale of Beards and Lavender: Imagining the Secret Lesbian Club of Hollywood

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My Internet history is a Snow/Kendrick love fest

It’s strange, but true: at least once a week I sit down and Google the celebrities I think might be not-straight. There’s Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow (hoping the Bechloe romance of Pitch Perfect finally comes true), Leighton Meester (sure she married Adam Brody but…), Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone (to name a few). Up until fairly recently Ellen Page, Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart were also on my list. They make up what I like to imagine is the “Secret Lesbian Club” of Hollywood. In my mind, this is basically an underground ring of awesome gays who like to get together fairly frequently to watch Bound, talk about butch/femme aesthetic, read gender studies texts, and figure out ways to insert queer subtext into their work. And who do I imagine is at the centre of it all? Taylor Swift of course.

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Life is more interesting through a rainbow filter

Some might say this is wishful thinking. But the thing is, when you spend most of your days thinking queerly (that is, making the familiar strange, particularly with regard to sexuality and gender), you can’t help but see the world through rainbow glasses. It seems to me that “normal” is entirely a fiction, and everyone is a lot queerer than all that. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people with “opposite-sex” or “heterosexual” desires, but just that: a) what we ordinarily make of pairings along these lines belies the complexity of human experience; and b) a lot of people are probably a lot less distinctly straight (or gay) than assumed. With this in mind I look to Hollywood, which produces so many of the cultural texts we consume that show visions of a perfectly normative heterosexual life. I spend much of my time—as is tradition in queer theory—re-reading texts differently, to uncover the hidden queer subtext in popular culture. So, why not re-read the lives of actors themselves, given that we can be 99% sure that the narratives produced about them by tabloids and other press are also entirely fiction?

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Taylor Swift

For me Taylor Swift is the perfect example of someone we ought to re-read, because she is held up as the epitome of the normal, wholesome heterosexual girl of today. For one thing, she made her debut on the country music scene, which is notoriously unfriendly to the gays—despite producing a bevy of flamboyant stars who epitomise the queer concept of “camp” aesthetic (Dolly Parton, for example). The boy crushes of Swift are heavily interrogated in the media, and her relationships with women are (for the most part) understood as purely platonic. However, if you look a little closer, we can see a queer subtext in Swift’s life and oeuvre that suggests a rather more fluid expression of desire. Here are a few things to note:

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It just doesn’t look fun for anyone

She dated Taylor Lautner and it was really awkward
There is no doubt that it is common practice in Hollywood for studios to pair stars up for promotional purposes. This is referred to as “showmance”. But there is also the well-known though little-discussed practice of “bearding” (typically this refers to setting up gay male actors with female stars) or in extreme cases “lavender marriage” where the charade involves putting a ring on it (Rock Hudson is one well-noted example). We can’t be sure whether is was a bearding scenario when Swift and Lautner got together, but they sure were very showy yet extremely uncomfortable together.

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Having a much better time

She used to have a pretty intense relationship with her violinist
During her country music days, Swift toured with a band which included violinist Caitlin Evanson for eight years. Unlike those Taylor x Taylor pics, Taylor and her violinist had sparks galore. Evanson, who is ten years older than Swift once commented, “Taylor is a 40 year old in a 19 years olds body”, which is just the kind of thing you’d expect an older girlfriend to say about their younger lover.

23C707C900000578-0-image-a-68_1417800412246There was that time she apparently kissed Karlie Kloss
Karlie Kloss is supposed to be the closest of Swift’s girl-clan, and in 2014 they were spotted kissing at a club. The photos are pretty dodgy and might well be fake. But I include this point here because it started a bunch of rumours about Swift’s sexuality, which is important for the next point.

Her song “New Romantics” is probably about being more than straight
taylor-swift_240822_top.jpgSwift’s new single off 1989 includes a number of lyrics that reflect a queer subtext. These include:
1.”We show off our different scarlet letters— Trust me, mine is better”: given that scarlet letters refer to adultery, Swift is basically saying here “I’ve got other partners but they’re not who you expect”.
2. “We team up then switch sides like a record changer”: note here that Swift doesn’t seem to be just referring to switching partners, but switching sides.
3. “The rumors are terrible and cruel/But, honey, most of them are true”: this might be referring to the gay rumours as noted above.
4. “And every day is like a battle/But every night with us is like a dream”: this suggests an outside persona that clashes with what goes on behind closed doors, specifically with a partner.
5. “The best people in life are free”: this might refer to the practice of studios paying for beards. Swift is saying, the best people in life are not the ones you get contractually set up with.

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Swift romancing with Calvin Harris on her Instagram

“I Know Places” is about secret love
One thing you can say about Swift’s hetero romances, is that they are very very public. Instagram pictures posted by Swift, hundreds of photos in gossip magazines, TV interviews, and so on. However this song from 1989 refers to a love that Swift must hide away. The song also starts with “You stand with your hand on my waist line/It’s a scene and we’re out here in plain sight”, which suggests a romance that might not be perceived as one at first. This might be a reference to that phenomenon that people will believe anything before they believe you’re in a gay relationship—i.e. “oh, you’re sisters?” or “you guys are such cute best friends” etc.

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Unfortunately it actually is a big deal because openly queer stars don’t get jobs

Let’s be clear here: I don’t want to essentialise sexuality, like it’s some nugget of “truth” that can simply be unearthed like a buried crystal. But I do think there is some benefit in cracking open what is considered normal, so that we can begin to see how this is really just a fiction that *no one* lives up to. This also isn’t to condemn those who do not “come out” of the proverbial closet, because we ought to realise that attempting to live up to the fiction of normality is often enacted as a mode of survival. The horrible reality is that once stars come out they can’t survive easily in Hollywood. Among others, Ellen Page has talked about how she has struggled to get parts playing straight characters since publicly declaring her sexuality.

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Okay so my analysis sounds a lot like this trashy magazine…but the conclusion is that if we refuse the idea of “normal” then this romance isn’t actually”shocking” at all

In any case, you might be thinking: why care about Taylor Swift’s sexuality anyway—shouldn’t that be none of our business? Fair point. Perhaps when you apply a queer “re-reading” to real people it can all get a little…gossipy. Despite this, I continue to hold onto the fantasy that our icons of culture aren’t all that straight and narrow. I think I care so much because I grew up looking and acting pretty heteronormative, and was treated as such. But while I had mad crushes on boys and aspired to extreme girliness in aesthetic, my desires were not simply straight. I had girl crushes too, I just didn’t know how to make sense of my complex range of feelings. I guess that’s why I hang onto the idea that there’s a Secret Lesbian Club in Hollywood, headed by the girliest boy-mad celebrity of all…because in that alternate universe, sexuality might be hidden but it sure isn’t black and white.

 

Impossible futures and the torture of refugee women 

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Protestors outside the High Court in 2016

It is fair to say that Australia’s refugee policy is cruel and punitive. We have a migration act created specifically to contravene our international human rights obligations. Men, women and children seeking asylum are locked up in offshore islands – a neo-colonial imposition on these neighbouring countries – under the thin excuse that this will stop refugees arriving by boat to Australia and thus will “save lives at sea”. Never mind that the Navy boats out at sea monitoring refugee arrivals have been complicit in ignoring distress signals, towing boats back to other countries, and paying for people to take refugees elsewhere (rather than simply rescuing these boats!). Like we are seeing with the rise of Trumpism in the USA, refugees are made into a scapegoat by the Australian government. Making refugees a “problem”, with xenophobic ideas about Islam trumpeted particularly loudly, distracts from the harsh austerity measures being imposed across the West. This isn’t a humanitarian issue so much as a class issue, when we consider who anti-refugee arguments are aimed at and why.

A militarised response, not rescues

From this perspective we can begin to understand the government’s cruelty. From here we can start to understand how we need to undo the rhetoric we are pummelled with.

What is hard to understand however, is how and why the government manages to get away with openly torturing women and children, who are so often seen as the most vulnerable in society. However problematic that idea might be in itself, there is no denying that these groups are generally seen as more/most in need of care.

Protestors for baby Asha

Indeed in refugee activism, at protests for example, we often see a focus on children. Signs like “Do we really have to protest torturing children?!” are prevalent. And when it comes to specific issues like Abyan (the woman seeking an abortion last year after being raped on Nauru) and baby Asha (who the government is still trying to deport) we do see a greater mass outburst of protest.

The group Mad Fucking Witches says it like it is

But despite the limited public backlash on these specific cases of refugee women and children, the government continues to publicly demand their deportation and incarceration. Why? Why not just let the women and children out, and leave the men locked up as a way to continue to “deterrence” project? How can they keep getting away with it, and why is it seemingly SO important to them that they torture babies, for example? On the surface this appears quite incomprehensible. Doesn’t everyone want to protect women and babies? Doesn’t this trump the class argument?

An Australian Immigration poster saying clearly: “no future!”

Indeed the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull apparently publicly champions women, stating: “I call on everyone to work together to lead the cultural change ensuring women are respected, secure & safe from violence”. How on earth can he get away with such hypocrisy?!

In her article “From horrorism to compassion” feminist theorist Griselda Pollock argues that:

“Killing women with children or women who might bear children is, of course, the horrific core of genocide. War kills the men and uses the rape of women against other men. Genocide locates a future in the feminine. Hence genocide must destroy all women and children; they carry a future” (p.178).

Protestors at Lady Cilento

Now, obviously the torture imposed here is operating within a slightly different framework (though we may note that the detention centres are often referred to as “camps”, which they quite literally are in some cases). But I am suggesting is that in the case of refugees women and children symbolically represent the future. If these people were allowed to remain/come to Australia this would mean an Australia opened up to the Other. They would represent a porous and shifting Australia where “anyone” could be a part. They represent a future that isn’t white. They represent the outside coming in, the border collapsing, the fence coming down. To those who have little, and are at risk of having more taken away by austerity, they represent a future of “taking” – of having to share what is already not much, with an even greater number. In other words: they represent a threat.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has made a specific example of refugee women and children

That’s why the government – to maintain its own policy – must not only continue to torture women and children, but to make a specific example of them. Those futures must be both perceptible (a threatening horizon) and utterly rejected (“you have no future here”) for the government to continue its cruel measures. Of course there is push and pull around this. When you’re making a “necessary” example of women and babies you have to pay some lip service to their welfare as well so you don’t look too bad.

Women are often made symbolic of culture as a whole

In contrast we should not expect that the government will make an example of gay asylum seekers locked up on Manus Island, because symbolically they represent “no future”. As queer theorist Lee Edelman suggests, homosexuality is seen to signify a dead-end insofar as it (symbolically) means an inability to reproduce. In these terms we can see why the government doesn’t bother making an example of gay refugees: they don’t present the same future vision and thus cannot be used as representative of a general threat to Australia in the same way as refugee women and children. Yet to let them come and resettle in Australia would be to acknowledge the fact that not only are these refugees genuine (i.e. fleeing real persecution) but would be to affirm homosexuality more generally, which presents a different kind of threat to the dominant ideology (and the government has much easier targets for this, such as safe schools). Thus they must remain rejected, but cannot be used in the same way to spread fear of refugees specifically.

This image is interesting because it interrupts the traditional future narrative and as such says “everyone is welcome here”

It is important to realise that refugee activists cannot win against the government’s rhetoric by focusing only on women and children because it is not about the women and children themselves, but what they represent. Indeed those championing women and children often forget to tackle the underlying symbolic issue of what “future” is at stake. They often erroneously reduce the argument to a purely “rational” humanitarian one, when the government’s logic: a) isn’t actually irrational; and b) is clearly about class not purely humanitarian concerns. This creates the illusion that the ordinary people arguing against refugees are monsters, yet (in contradiction) that we can simply win by yelling our humanitarian arguments louder and louder. I have heard in many an activist meeting for example that “the biggest supporters of refugees are those who have PhDs [laughs]”. This is a horribly elitist perspective that needs to be challenged at every opportunity because it will never help us win.

No, the arguments that must be made to undo the cruelty must address the future the government wants so many to fear. When we advocate for refugee women we must argue for a future for all refugees. We need to keep behind all of our arguments the idea of a future that is open, porous, more than white, borderless. But most importantly we need to argue that the only people who “take” from us are the same ones torturing refugees. We need to argue that austerity is imposed from above, not by those who come across the seas. We must argue for boundless plains to share, and we must remember who it really is that threatens our collective future.

Queering and Queening Femininity

Snog, Marry, Avoid?

SMA host Jenny Frost (centre) with two contestants pre-make-under

Recently I published an article in the journal Australian Feminist Studies titled “Queer Femininity Versus ‘Natural Beauty’ in Snog, Marry, Avoid“. In the article I discuss the way that femininity is represented on the BBC’s Snog, Marry, Avoid – the show where they take “extreme” women and give them a make-under to help them fit in.

I won’t go over all of the details of my analysis of the show, but in a nutshell the point I make is that the “natural beauty” promoted by the show is far from liberating. In fact, the contestants are merely presented with a form of appropriate gender that they must conform to, which restricts rather than frees them.

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A typical contestant pre-make-under

Indeed, if we consider the women prior to make-under we can see that their “inappropriate” and excessive femininity is actually queer in many ways. That is, “queer” in the theoretical sense of making the familiar strange and subverting ordinary understandings of gender and sexuality.

It may seem anti-intuitive to say that women who are covered in make-up, wearing extremely short dresses and who have outrageous hair extensions are queer in any way. The usual sentiment that would circulate about such women is that they are a product of a problematic “raunch” culture where women are compelled to be sexy and one dimensional.

However what we see in Snog, Marry, Avoid is that these women are not treated as “normal” at all. Rather, they are marked out as deeply problematic and in need of transformation.

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A contestant hears that a man would prefer to “avoid” her

Men are interviewed on the show and are asked whether they would like to “snog, marry or avoid” the contestants. Their responses (almost always negative) are used to justify why a make-under is essential for the woman in question. The women who don’t want to change are ridiculed as ridiculous and disinterested in being attractive.

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For Halberstam “kinging” involves some understatement, “performing non-performativity”

This is where the idea of “queening” is helpful. The term is an inversion of queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam’s “kinging” referred to in the book Female Masculinity. In this text Halberstam looks in part at female drag kings and the kind of masculinity they present. Kinging describes portraying masculinity via “understatement, hyperbole, and layering” that makes obvious the performative aspects of gender.

In the same way, the contestants on Snog, Marry, Avoid are involved in exaggerating femininity and showing it up. The contestants often talk about wanting to look “fake”, and the show frequently points out how the women indulge in/are obsessed with “fakery”. In this way the women are queening rather than kinging – making obvious their adopted feminine presentation. In contrast, when the women are made-under their gender is portrayed as “natural” despite the fact that they are still wearing make-up, have had their hair styled, and so on – sometimes they are even wearing wigs! Here another kind of queening is going on, where they are compelled to perform naturalness.

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A typical before (left) and after (right) shot on SMA

We see that while a more extreme portrayal of femininity (pre-make-under) can serve to show us how constructed gender is, the portrayal of “natural beauty” insidiously covers this up. The make-under process presents gender as something that is natural, as something that can be found underneath and within.

Rather, we ought to understand gender as something that is determined by social expectations and norms, where some people are considered “normal”, and where others fall outside of these constructed boundaries and are often compelled by society to conform. Ironically Snog, Marry, Avoid does help us to see this, if we analyse the show for what it is contained within it rather than the narrative of normalcy it attempts to enforce.

Suffragette Comic: Christabel Pankhurst and Her Tiny Dog

Yesterday a friend told me some pretty bleak stories about the famous suffragette family, the Pankhursts. The head honcho of the Pankhurst bunch was Emmeline, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Britain, and was a key figure in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She had a bunch of daughters who also grew up into activists of various kinds.

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Sylvia Pankhurst in action

One of the Pankhurst offspring was Sylvia, who was pretty radical. She rallied against the first world war (when so many were in favour of it, including her family), and, like her mother was part of the WSPU fighting for women’s rights.

 

But while Sylvia was trying to broaden the struggle, her mother Emmeline and her sister Christabel were taking the women’s suffrage movement in a different direction. Emmeline stated that members of the WSPU should focus on fighting for women’s rights alone and not be distracted by other social issues.

NPG x32608; Dame Christabel Pankhurst by Record Press

Christabel Pankhurst

In 1912 Sylvia started the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) as part of the WSPU, specifically targeted at empowering and fighting for the rights of working women. Much to Emmeline and Christabel’s dismay, the East London group also supported broader trade union struggles and the fight for Irish independence. During this time, Sylvia was arrested on a number of occasions, often subject to the “Cat and Mouse Act” where police officers would release suffragettes who were on hunger strike, wait until they were healthy again, and then arrest them once more.

Fed up with her sister, Christabel summoned Sylvia to visit her in Paris in 1914. Sylvia had a bad time. This is pretty much exactly how the scene went down:

FullSizeRenderChristabel told Sylvia that working women ought not be involved in the fight: “Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!” Sylvia later commented that the expulsion left her feeling “bruised, as one does, when fighting the foe without, one is struck by the friend within”.

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Sylvia at the ELFS headquarters in London

Eventually Sylvia was vindicated in her views on working women, who were key. In 1914 the WSPU stopped fighting for the vote, and instead turned their efforts to campaigning for the conscription of men in the war. However, the ELFS continued the fight. In 1928 full suffrage for women was won in the UK.

 

Sylvia kept up her activism and was involved in various anti-fascist and anti-imperial campaigns, and eventually moved to Ethiopia. Christabel campaigned against men spreading venereal diseases, and became a televangelist in California. The Pomeranian was sent to live with Emmeline, and things did not end well.

Vale Bowie: A Breakdown of the Occult Symbolism of Blackstar

When Elvis died, they said “the king is dead“. Now Bowie is gone, and there is nothing we can say that really sums it up.

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When my girlfriend broke the news to me last night, I cried and cried. I cried into my dinner. I cried as we sat and watched endless clips of him over the decades. Seeing the outpouring of grief in others was a salve. But I wanted to shout at everyone on social media that wasn’t posting endless Bowie things, “BOWIE IS DEAD! NOTHING CAN BE WELL!”

This morning, when the trending started to fade (and those celebrities in North America seemed to barely react), I sat and listened, pressing the bruise that is Blackstar—Bowie’s latest album, released on his 69th birthday just days before his death. In particular, I was struck by the imagery in the video for the title track. I quickly became obsessed with decoding the symbolism lacing the clip.

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The album cover for Blackstar

Apparently Bowie told one of his saxophonists on the album that it was about “Isis”. Some fools took this to mean “Islamic State”. But those dinguses really need to do their occult reading. Before Daesh, Isis actually referred to an Ancient Egyptian goddess, who, as some myths have it, became impregnated by lightning. LIGHTNING GUYS. Sound familiar? She was also the goddess of magic. My suspicions about Bowie’s occultism were confirmed when I came across this Flavorwire article about some of Bowie’s favourite books, which lists a number of esoteric books, including Eliphas Lévi’s Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual

Bowie’s obvious occultism seems to have reached its peak in recent times. Blackstar is not only about death, it is a meditation on consciousness and what it means to be alive when you are slipping out of the world.

So, focusing on the Blackstar clip, let’s break it down. Most of this is me surmising, so please don’t take this too seriously (unless you want to end up in an occult clickhole…)

The opening shot is of a spaceman, whose gloved hand has a red band around its middle finger, and more prominently, black tape around its thumb. Here the red band may be a reference to the Kabbalah practice of wearing red string around the left wrist to ward off the evil eye. And as we know, black is often associated with death, particularly in esoteric traditions. We also see the astronaut’s foot, wrapped in blue tape, the colour of consciousness and the spiritual. The astronaut itself is no doubt a reference to Major Tom from Space Oddity, representing Bowie and/or Bowie’s past.

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We see a smiley face patch on the jacket of the spaceman (who we soon learn is dead).

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This is perhaps a nod to the Smiley Face Killer theory, again calling to mind death.

Next we pan out to see the spaceman alone on a strange planet, with an eclipse in the sky. Eclipses generally represent a powerful and dark time of endings and beginnings.

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When we first see Bowie, singing about “the day of execution”, he is the blind man with only buttons for eyes. He repeats, “your eyes, your eyes”. Given the symbolism regarding the third eye throughout the clip, this is perhaps a reference to Bowie “knowing” his fate, though he cannot see. It also suggests that the imagery of the clip is occurring in his mind’s eye. The video is then about what he is seeing and experiencing in that place between waking life and death.

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This idea is repeated when we see a woman finding the spaceman who has a monobrow, again symbolising the third eye. But why does she have a tail? Well, perhaps it is a reference to Isis’ sibling the deity Set, the god of chaos, who is often represented as having a tail. Though, maybe not. That one’s a long bow.

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We can only imagine that the candle “in the centre of it all” we see next is the light of human consciousness that has been burning for a long, long time.

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We then see the jewelled skull that lies beneath the spaceman’s visor, again a callback to Ancient Egypt, and the ornate decorations of mummy tombs. But it also bears striking similarity to the ornate skulls from the catacombs of Rome, which were later worshipped in Europe. The camera zooms into the hollows of the eye socket.

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Throughout we see people dancing feverishly, quaking as if having a religious seizure. In particular the inclusion of a white and black man dancing together in unison, and the other black and white contrasts used, calls to mind the esoteric idea of opposites. Here we also think of the phrase “as above so below“. That is, the idea that the spiritual and the physical is interconnected—opposites are not separate, but one.

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We see a shot of the city, “the villa of Ormen”—which looks a lot like what the first city might have looked like, in southern Mesopotamia (now, Iraq). Or perhaps, it’s a call to this.

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A group of women gather, perhaps a coven, forming a magic circle—a key to rituals where energy is being raised.

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Meanwhile, the skull is now a relic in the hands of the woman, travelling to the centre of the city. We see the skeleton being pulled slowly into the eclipse as a reminder of the inevitability of death.

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We see Bowie’s face for the first time and he is holding what appears to be a book of shadows, where magic secrets are kept. Bowie is the high priest. Notably on the front we see a five-pointed black star, the same as the album cover. This is undoubtably a pentagram. With its point facing up, this is a symbol of good magic (not dark magic). All eyes follow as Bowie waves his book, and the shadows pass over.

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The song switches to Bowie praying—almost pleading— in the attic he was previously blind in. A ray of sunshine pours in and he sings about the “day he died”. But then things start to get fuzzy again. The camera blurs, and the music distorts. Consciousness is waning.

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Then we see some really creepy scarecrows. The history and symbolism of the scarecrow is contested. But what is interesting here is the clear parallel with imagery of Christ on the cross. Perhaps here the scarecrow also represents a boundary—a “do not pass” border, protecting the material realm. Scarecrows also call to mind for me the creepy as hell one from The Singing Detective, which presents itself as a nightmarish vision experienced in illness, between the conscious and unconscious. Notably the scarecrows in Bowie’s clip are blindfolded with bandages and so cannot see—but only feel—death.

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We see another group of women gathered in a magic circle, worshipping the skull. A dreadlocked and rather terrifying creature appears in the next shot, perhaps summoned by their ritual.

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The creature has hooks (or perhaps scythes, or claws) for hands, and it is fast approaching. It seems to be a figure of death. The deep vibrations we hear throughout the scene remind me of the nightmarish figures that appear during sleep paralysis, particularly if you are trying to lucid dream. Perhaps Bowie is communicating here the visions experienced when one is not quite conscious, which no doubt become more vivid when death is coming.

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The scarecrows try to frighten the figure off, and we see the again-blind Bowie writhing in fear. The scarecrows fail, and the figure slashes at their feet.

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All we are left with is a vision of lightning over the city.

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If we believe the story that Blackstar is about Isis the goddess, not Daesh, we can see the lightning as representing (re)birth, not death. After all, if we’re really going to be esoteric about it, the symbol of death isn’t about doom and darkness, it’s about transition, a new beginning. The soul continues and the candle keeps burning bright.