Getting real

"He doesn't smell right!" he exclaimed. "He isn't a rabbit at all! He isn't real!" "I am Real!" said the little Rabbit. "I am Real! The Boy said so!" And he nearly began to cry.

Yesterday I saw a production of the children’s classic, The Velveteen Rabbit. The story is about a little stuffed bunny’s relationship with a young boy, and the soft toy’s desire to be a “real” rabbit. After much time, the velveteen rabbit does become real in the boy’s eyes. At the end of the story, a fairy gets involved and the rabbit becomes really real, and goes to play with the other bunnies in the woods. The particular theatrical version I saw opened with something wonderful like, “realness isn’t how you look, it’s something you hold in your heart”. It got me wondering, what does it mean to be real?

The other reference to “realness” that came to mind (apart from Pinocchio), was Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning. Set in New York in the late 1980s, the film explores the world of underground drag-ball culture. At these balls, gay men and trans* folk (of predominately African American and Hispanic backgrounds), would compete performing various categories of “drag”. Several categories necessitated the effective portrayal of “realness”– for example, Butch-Queen realness was judged on whether the competitor could pass as a heterosexual in the sub-categories of executive, thug, pretty boy, etc. Below is a clip from the film about realness:

For the participants in drag balls, demonstrating realness was a way of showing your potential, if boundaries such as race, class and gender didn’t exist. However in Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler discusses the way in which doing realness creates the boundaries of realness itself- the rules of realness are reinforced. Butler teaches us that getting real is tricky business.

Aside from the drag-ball scene, the realness issue seems pervasive across so many experiences of sexuality and gender. As discussed previously, it’s easy to find oneself in a situation or community where you feel that you don’t meet the “criteria” for acceptance. The trans* community is very often subjected to the rules of realness, as this piece by Tobi Hill-Meyer reminds us (e.g. “you’re not a real transsexual woman if you don’t wear dresses and skirts all the time“).

Haters gonna hate

But back to Velveteen. I think we can take a lot away from this story on the subject of the real. When the rabbit encounters some “real” forest bunnies, they mock the toy for having no legs (“fancy a rabbit without hind legs!”). And while the fairy at the end assures the velveteen rabbit that for the young boy the rabbit was 100% real, she still changes the rabbit and says, “now you shall be real to everyone”. Despite this ending, when the forest bunnies tease earlier in the story, the velveteen rabbit exclaims, “I know I am Real!”. Maybe then, this little rabbit really does teach us that it’s what’s in our hearts that makes us real- despite what we look like, or what the haters say. And when the fairy transforms the rabbit into a real forest dweller (though she may be reinforcing what it means to be a real bunny), we know that actually, the velveteen rabbit  was real all along.

6 thoughts on “Getting real

  1. Hi Buffy,
    German born theologian Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) was fascinated with contradictions and oppositions. He attempted to generate a system whereby changes and disruptions (exemplified in the French Revolution) could be made sense of and he attempted to incorporate disunities into his larger systemic teleology. Most of the ontological implications for philosophers since Hegelian Dialectics have focussed upon the identified (binary) contradiction between immanence and transcendence (obviously of relevance to Queerness or Quontology), but the more accessible identified (binary) contradiction between nature and freedom appeals more to me.
    Marx admired Hegel’s system but criticised it for limiting itself to Idealism – the realm of ideas. He published a Critique of Hegel’s General System in 1843 and by 1845 was adapting Hegel’s narrative of the Master Slave Dialectic. Marx developed a practical political tool of relevance to the real world: Dialectical Materialism.
    In 1845 Marx’s book on Feuerbach included some memorable (Queerly faaaabulous) and quite useful fragments including:
    The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question.
    And the sublime:
    The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
    One way I imagine the Dialectic – Thesis / Antithesis … Synthesis – system for resolving identified (binary) contradictions is a metaphorical river: Stephen Schwartz (Queerly) captures something of this in the voices of the (Disneyfied) characters Powhattan and Pokahontas –
    Steady As The Beating Drum (Reprise)
    Chief Powhatan
    As the river cuts his path
    Though the river’s proud and strong
    He will choose the smoothest course
    That’s why rivers live so long
    They’re steady …
    As the steady beating drum
    Just Around The Riverbend
    What I love most about rivers is:
    You can’t step in the same river twice
    The water’s always changing, always flowing
    But people, I guess, can’t live like that
    We all must pay a price
    To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing
    What’s around the riverbend
    Waiting just around the riverbend
    I look once more
    Just around the riverbend
    Beyond the shore
    Where the gulls fly free
    Don’t know what for
    What I dream the day might send
    Jut around the riverbend
    For me
    Coming for me
    I feel it there beyond those trees
    Or right behind these waterfalls
    Can I ignore that sound of distant drumming
    For a handsome sturdy husband
    Who builds handsome sturdy walls
    And never dreams that something might be coming?
    Just around the riverbend
    Just around the riverbend
    I look once more
    Just around the riverbend
    Beyond the shore
    Somewhere past the sea
    Don’t know what for …
    Why do all my dreams extend
    Just around the riverbend?
    Just around the riverbend …
    Should I choose the smoothest curve
    Steady as the beating drum?
    Should I marry Kocoum?
    Is all my dreaming at an end?
    Or do you still wait for me, Dream Giver
    Just around the riverbend?
    Queer theorists following Derrida’s linguistic structuralism, deploy the trope of the trace to explore the spaces between the nodes in the De Sausurian system of signs. The more rigidly a sign is reified and defended and endlessly deployed the more the spaces are identifiable and at the same time, the original sign can become brittle and begin to crack up (even just a little). Queer theorists are interested in these spaces between and the cracks in things. The trace, the rhizome, interstices, liminality, the limn, borders, boundaries and bridges are metaphors deployed in these explorations.
    I can’t but think of: Schwartz’s river banks; when the river freezes; a frozen waterfall; the gaps between the molecules; the moment when I plunge into the river but have not yet become completely immersed; the delta; the rill; bogs and swamps and reed marshes; let alone the transpiration, evaporation, precipitation.
    All these analytical tools are for play. To critique one system or proposal or another is part of the play. Seeking deeper engagement in the world of ideas and the world of the real is part of that play.
    Try to forget, make an effort to forget, but failing that Remember: Representing things is not the thing itself.

  2. Great juxtaposition of that astonishing film-clip with the Velveteen Rabbit. My friend descends from its author, and tells me that it was the first ever book in the genre of ‘children’s stories’. But she never mentioned it was a transgender classic. I love children’s story books, and it seems that the best strike a beautiful balance between real and fantasy without really trying to be real….does this work for your discussion of realness as well? ‘I am really good at pretending’ is more fun for me than ‘I’m really someone else’. Its a sad state where transgendered folk have to practice blending perfectly, and gay men have to pose with briefcases so as to be safe. The beauty of queer to me, is our off-beat, edgy uniqueness, and not our chameleon capacity.

    • It’s such a tricky one Buffy! Is in-between-real better than real or unreal? What do they all mean? Surely drama also comes about when we start saying “not queer enough”? Butler critiques the ball scene of Paris is Burning for the way in which playing “realness” redefines “the real”. But when we start advocating for a queerer-approach ontop of that, doesn’t queer then become the norm? (<—Butler reminds us of this too, she's such a champ)

      I love queer because it does everything for me that other words can't. But I'm still not sure we should attempt to pull the binary down, lest we reinscribe the binary in that very process. Hmmmn….

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