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.

Katy Perry Does Critical Theory

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Illuminati realness, or reference to Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’? You decide.

There is little doubt now that we are living in a strange time, a time where Teen Vogue talks Black Lives Matter, Elle Magazine quotes Russian revolutionaries, and the dictionary trolls the President of the United States. Activist politics is filtering into mainstream spaces in strange and uneven ways. This week one such event was the release of Katy Perry’s video for her new song ‘Chained to the Rhythm‘, which is, in fact, a hilariously direct engagement with Critical Theory.

Critical Theory emerged in the mid twentieth century, and involved theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer taking up strands of Marxist and Psychoanalytic thought, to provide a critique of society and mass culture. In particular, Adorno was very concerned with what he called the “culture industry“, that is, entertainment consumed by the masses that works to keep people controlled and complicit under capitalism. Adorno believed that popular culture numbs people so that they are not able to fully realise the conditions of their own oppression.

This is exactly the critique of society that Perry presents in her new video.

With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Perry’s video is set in an amusement park called “Oblivia”, where everyone is either viewing the world through their iPads or shuffling behind others toward mundane rides such as a literal hampster wheel. The setting notably connects up with Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous claim that “amusement has become an extension of labor under late capitalism”.

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Gosh KP, what on earth does it mean?!

But with increasing nuance throughout the clip, Perry manages to address some of the most pressing political issues of our time. These include:

1. The financial crisis and the American dream

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The first ride Perry visits is a reference to the financial crisis of 2008 that saw the mortgage market in the USA bottom-out. It’s not a fun ride—you sit in a tiny house and get jolted in the air once you’re locked in the house. It’s almost like Perry read Lauren Berlant’s book ‘Cruel Optimism‘ which talks about how people invest in dreams of a better future (i.e. the American dream) but that this belief is actually a cruel and toxic attachment.

2. Heteronormativity

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The dream drop ride shows heterosexual couples enter, surrounded by a white picket fence. Perry comes along and smells the roses on the fence, only to prick her finger, realising that the roses have stems of barbed wire. In a reverse-Sleeping-Beauty move, this finger prick helps to wake Perry up, and we realise that the deep sleep represented in fairytales is in fact about succumbing to a heteronormative life. Here, Perry functions as a queer character who can’t quite meet the normative standards that allow her to fully enjoy the park. As Perry is also the star of the piece, we are called to rethink the “barbed” reality of heterosexually “normal” life.

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On this note, we should pause here to consider how Perry’s partner on the love-rollercoaster is an incredibly camp man in a glitter shirt.

3. Racism and the Trump Travel Ban 

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One of the next rides that Perry stumbles across involves black couples and single people getting flung over a fence/wall. Here Perry is offering a direct critique of the Trump administration’s white heterosexist rulings.

4. War and nuclear holocaust

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Park-goers walk around carrying fairyfloss that looks like broccoli, that we later realise are actually mushroom clouds. Also this ride:

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Bleak.

5. Climate change and environmental degradation 

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“Fire Water” is Perry’s most obscure reference—or, perhaps her most literal. Perry visits a gas station where the petrol is actually water but that water is on fire. There are also sailors. It’s pretty great. It appears to be a reference to climate change (the world is heating up) but also fracking (which can cause river fires!), and on that note, it is also clearly about Standing Rock.

6. The nuclear family and false appearances

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Toward the end of the song Perry sits in a crowd wearing 3D glasses, watching a family perform in front of a TV screen. Here Perry challenges the charade of the perfect nuclear family, and the societal focus on the heterosexual couple. The retro styling of the entire clip also gains greater meaning here, as we see that this world is also one where women are cast back into the stereotype of the 1950s housewife. But in Perry also adopting this dress (reminiscent of the Jetsons) she is entertaining a form of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag“. That is, a way of embodying the past in order to displace the “present”, to help us question our own progress narratives.

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The imagery of this scene also, remarkably, directly references Guy Debord’s 1967 work ‘Society of the Spectacle‘, which laments the way everything in society has become about consumption and appearances. One of Debord’s proposed tactics for interrupting such a society is called “detournement“—basically hijacking cultural products and subverting their meaning, also known as culture jamming. That Perry would reference (or perhaps recuperate) Debord would, I imagine, have him rolling in his grave.

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The cover of Debord’s classic

During the same scene, Skip Marley emerges out of the television screen, and in a direct critique of imperialism, the ruling class and capitalist society, sings: “Time is ticking for the empire/The truth they feed is feeble/As so many times before/They greed over the people/They stumbling and fumbling and we’re about to riot”.

After this Perry dances around confusedly for a bit, before running and then stopping on a treadmill, giving us a completely alarmed stare down the camera.

When I first heard the song—which includes lyrics such as “So comfortable, we live in a bubble, a bubble” and “Stumbling around like a wasted zombie”—I was annoyed that Perry would take a swipe at ordinary people, as if everyone is just stupid and thoughtless. This seemed perfectly in line with the desperately elitist condemnation by Clinton of Trump supporters as “deplorables” in 2016, which only served to alienate rather than mobilise people. The original critical theory work from Adorno and others is similarly irksome in its extreme disdain for “low culture” enjoyed by the many, versus more intellectual “high culture”. As I see it, to condemn mass culture and in turn the “cultural dupes” who consume it, is to be radically ungenerous to the circumstances and experiences of the people involved.

But here’s where Perry manages to one-up Adorno. What makes Perry’s engagement more dynamic, is the way she places herself in the world of Oblivia. Rather than being a snobby outsider, she constantly refers to herself in the lyrics (through the use of “we”), and depicts herself in the video, as being caught up in oblivion similarly to everyone else. While she gradually becomes more “woke” than the other inhabitants of the theme park, she is consistently shown in a state of ignorant bliss just as unaware as everyone else. Here Perry manages to resolve the philosophical problem posed by Slavoj Zizek who suggests that it is false to think one can be authentically “outside” of a relation to culture. Perry doesn’t pretend to be outside of popular culture in an elitist way because she just physically can’t be…because this is a pop music video! That Marley emerges out of the television at the end also perhaps hints that Perry thinks critical ideas can come out of popular culture as much as you can also be “chained to the rhythm”. Presumably she’s hoping her work will woke you too.

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Marley climbs out of the TV

While the irony of all of this should give you a lot of LOLs it does also beg the question as to whether this is really culture-jamming or merely the selling-back to us of critiques of culture. My sense is that it is almost certainly both (Perry is making money out of this after all), and that it certainly won’t be a Katy Perry video that starts the revolution (unless she keeps up her Brit Awards antics of course).

But I also don’t think it’s bad—in fact, it should be taken as an overwhelmingly positive sign that there is a current mood in daily life that is about being wildly vocal and “about to riot”. As Perry and Marley suggest, “they woke up the lions”. Sure, some of those lions are totally bizarre pop stars, but it also means it’s a jungle out there…

The Queer World of Stranger Things

Joyce Byers: He’s a sensitive kid. Lonnie used to say he was queer. Called him a fag.
Jim Hopper: Is he?
Joyce: He’s missing, is what he is!

Judith Butler: Crafting a sexual position…always involves becoming haunted by what’s excluded. And the more rigid the position, the greater the ghost, and the more threatening it is in some way

Eleven: The gate, I opened it. I’m the monster

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It’s almost too good

*SPOILERS (OBVS)*

I watched Stranger Things this week, yes, five months late to the party (just in time for Christmas so I can be creeped out by the lights). I could list a bunch of excuses, but really I just generally avoid anything that has a whiff of scary. But the thing about the horror/supernatural/sci fi genre is that it tends to engage with questions of the strange, the bodily and the abject, and is therefore inescapably relevant to queer theory and feminism. So, when I found myself in that inevitable position of why can I find literally nothing to watch on Netflix?, I gave in (and boy am I glad I did), because it turns out that Stranger Things is the gayest, campest, queerest, most feminist thing out at the moment—perhaps even in spite of its own intentions.

The troubling thing about watching shows later than everyone else is that you’ve missed the cultural discussion. So when I started feverishly googling “queer Stranger Things” and “feminist Stranger Things” after the series ended, I was surprised at arguments that worked hard to demonstrate how the show is anti-feminist, or like, stop making it about feminism already, and how people are stuck on questioning whether Will is gay or not. I was also intrigued by how everyone was obsessed with Barb and the grand injustice of it all. To me, all of these things entirely miss the richness of insight that the show has to offer on questions of gender and sexuality.

*****

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Oppression, comin’ atcha

Let’s get to the feminist themes of the show first. It’s not feminist because it overtly trumpets “political, social and economic equality with men” (it doesn’t), but rather, it engages a feminist lens that magnifies sexism in all its forms and portrays female and genderqueer characters who resist in spite of the oppression that’s bearing down on them from all angles (literally).

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Joyce, holding her ground

That Joyce communicates with Will via lights isn’t just for special effect—it’s a comment on the gaslighting that many women experience in their everyday lives. Gaslighting is when someone is led to believe that they are misperceiving things, and that they are crazy/losing their mind. The term originates from a 1930s play where a man tricks his wife into thinking she’s going mad, which involves him messing with the gas lamps in the house. Many women experience gaslighting as a subtle form of emotional abuse in intimate relationships. Joyce is told by all the men around her (the police, her oldest son, her ex-husband) that she’s crazy and that she’s mis-perceiving (so crazy in fact that she can’t even recognise the body of her own son), YET she persists in her rescue mission. The ultimate lesson is: believe in yourself and grab a f***ing axe while you’re at it.

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Karen Wheeler (note checked shirt for later)

The show also did a kick-ass job at celebrating mothers as at once loving and fierce. For one, there’s Karen Wheeler, Mike and Nancy’s mother, who is constantly reminding her children: I’m here if you need me. And we might wonder, where the hell is the dad most of the time? Their mother is the centre of it all, she’s the one doing the emotional labour. Joyce repeats a similar mantra of support to both Will in the Upside Down, and Eleven when she’s in the sensory deprivation tank: I’m here for you. Of course we could read this as stereotyping motherhood, but in a world where mothers are so frequently represented along a binary of either strong and evil, or caring but passive, I think it’s a celebration of strength in vulnerability. Unlike the mothers of the original 1980s slasher flicks, these women are to be revered, not feared. The lesson is: celebrate the mothers, they’re the ones keeping sh*t together.

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The patriarchy involves women leaders too

Fathers get a rather different wrap in the show, but the complexity of masculinity is also engaged with rather than made one-dimensional. Perhaps the most notable father is Eleven’s “papa” Dr Martin Brenner, who dare I say represents the patriarchy, that is, the “rule of the father”. This character also demonstrates the long history of science and medicine ruling over bodies, particularly female or genderqueer ones. For instance, he tells Eleven that they are “sick” and that he will make them “better”—a reflection of the disciplining of non-conforming bodies that has long been documented (thanks Foucault). There is also the absent father /deadbeat dad (Lonnie), who functions to show us the abuse that occurs in the family home and the perils of single motherhood. And then there is Jim Hopper, the dad who has lost his daughter. With this storyline we are made privy to the vulnerable side of masculinity, and the very few options for expressing these kinds of emotions that men are offered in life. For Jim, his sadness hardness into detached coolness. Similarly, for Jonathan Beyers—who reveals crying after being forced by his father to kill a rabbit as a child, to “make him a man”—his vulnerability hardens into stalkerish reclusiveness. The lesson is: the rule of the father (or whatever you want to call it—patriarchy, gender expectations, etc) is bad for everyone.

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How good is Nancy?! (Note checked shirt underneath)

You know what else is bad for everyone? Slut-shaming. Nancy experiences some pretty heavy slut-shaming not only from her friends at school, but from the police. While Nancy is all, Barb is missing! the cops are all, but did you have SEX? Nancy realises that justice isn’t going to be served through the formal legal channels, and that she’s going to have to take things into her own hands if she wants to get things done. She’ll pick up a gun, say “screw that” to the nuclear family, and unthinkably crawl through goo in a tree in order to rescue her friend. Unlike many rescue stories, the hero here is a woman. When it turns out that the monster has killed her friend, Nancy doesn’t give up, she grows in her resolve. Indeed, after this she’s out for revenge, but the female-rescuing-female trope subverts the normal “revenge” paradigm that usually focuses on rape. You know who cared about Barb in a world that just generally didn’t? Nancy did. That was the entire driver for Nancy, her friend. The lesson is: sh*t, Nancy is awesome.

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Eleven not even messing around one bit

Last but not least on the question of gender, Stranger Things engages with the gender conformity that is thrust upon us in a world of heterosexuality. In order to “pass”, Mike and his friends dress Eleven up in pink, a blonde wig, and makeup. Mike is rather happy about Eleven’s new “pretty”, but Eleven’s not so sure. When Eleven is accused of being too aggressive and too crazy (after hurting Lucas), they cast their wig off and strides into the supermarket to take whatever they like, slamming doors along the way. They’re saying, you don’t own me, you can’t control me. While Joyce teaches us that you can be a mother and a fighter, and Nancy teaches us that you can be feminine and a hero, Eleven shows us that femininity can be restricting and awful when it is thrust upon us.The lesson is: you can be queer in your gender expression and save the world.

*****

This last point brings me to my queer reading of the series. Again, this isn’t to say that the show is queer because there are a bunch of LGBTQ characters in it (this is debated), but rather, we can undertake a queer reading that reveals the show’s underlying themes related to subverting the normal when it comes to gender and sexuality.

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A camp extravaganza

First, the obvious things. The overabundance of christmas lights is super camp. Camp refers to a sensibility seen as linked with homosexuality, a focus on the over-the-top, and the rejection of middle-class taste. Camp is also often associated with Christmas, with its gaudy decorations and glitz and glam. Joyce goes totally OTT with the Christmas lights, and the same time that she’s tearing down the walls of the family home. It’s no wonder that when Lonnie comes home he tries to force “normal” family life by literally patching things up and taking the lights down. But Joyce won’t have it. The Beyers residence is a camp wonderland that does family life differently.

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Misfits abound in Stranger Things

Second, the title Stranger Things, refers to the strange that is so central to queer readings. Queer theory focuses on “queering” the normal, and has often been about celebrating that which is considered “strange”. In the show, all of the heroes are “strange” in some way, they are misfits who reject how things are “supposed to be done”.

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Will (in yet another checked shirt)

Very importantly, there is an overt emphasis on Will’s presumed gayness, with references made to his “queerness” almost every time he comes up in conversation. Whether his character is gay or not is really besides the point, because there is another story bubbling under the surface here (which this article from the Advocate basically hints at—but it’s much more literal than they suggest). When the school bully asserts that Will is “in fairyland now right”, we should take note. If we read this claim in conjunction with Judith Butler’s claim that we are always “haunted” by those sexual subject positions we exclude, we can understand the Upside Down as also implicitly referring to “inversion“, the old way that sexologists in the 19th century used to describe homosexuality. This isn’t to say that the Upside Down is a world of homosexuality, but rather, that it is the shadow world that the bigots project as the opposite normality.

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Mouth breather

It’s also a world that casts queer bodies into what Butler would call the “ungrievable“—where some people’s sexuality and gender cannot be understood to the point that their lives cannot even be mourned in death. That the “real” Will is illegible (he is a shadow, and his “body” is a fake) , that almost no one cares about Barb going missing, that there is barely a blink that several people have disappeared in a matter of days…It all testifies to understanding the Upside Down as that which is cast out of the world, that is not allowed to exist in “normal” life. But what can move between worlds, and what can be identified by those who are critical of normality, is the monster, i.e. homophobia. Here, the monster is the ultimate “mouth breather” (its face is all mouth after all), it is THE bully, the homophobe.

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Barb, another outsider (and checked shirt wearer)

Along these lines we can also note that unlike the old horror movies of yore, it is not the youngsters engaged in hetero sex who get taken by the monster…Barb gets taken specifically because she doesn’t want to engage in that milieu. Who else gets taken? As the police briefly discuss, two men who went out “hunting” that week but their utter lack of concern about this makes us think maybe there’s some subtle homophobia going on there, like, well, we know what goes down in those woods…

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Perhaps Will is reflecting on his internalised homophobia

It is also not surprising that the monster is unleashed in the processes of spying on Russians—as many have documented, fear of communism was often promoted through connecting “commies” to “homos”. As George Chauncey notes, “The spectre of the invisible homosexual, like that of the invisible communist, haunted Cold War America”, which manifested in the USA as the Lavender Scare during the 1950s. In their spying on the Russians, Eleven predictably also spies homophobia. Of course, Eleven gets blamed for unleashing havoc, buying into the notion that it is them who is monstrous, rather than homophobia that is the destructor. We see this play out in life all of the time—when conservative politicians argue that that it is really gender and sexual non-conformity that is the real concern (think of the children!) rather than the bullying and hate-crimes that are committed against those who don’t fit the “normal”. Notably, the monster in Stranger Things forces ingestion on its prey as a way to reproduce, that is, it creates internalised homophobia. By the end Will is literally vomiting up this monstrous self-hatred, and the family home is neatly (too neatly) patched up back to normalcy.

That the monster is attracted by “blood” also calls to mind the AIDS crisis that emerged in the 1980s, and that was a central subtextual theme of many of the horror films that Stranger Things references. At the time AIDS was first called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” or GRID, and again, it was homosexuals who were seen to be the source of death, rather than the victims of homophobic governments who were slow to act on the emerging health crisis.

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The lab, lined by grids

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Steve’s room, so many grids

Interestingly, Stranger Things is dominated by grids. The corridors of the Hawkins National Laboratory that holds the doorway to the Upside Down depict a grid that is also mirrored in Steve Harrington’s bedroom decor (that we see just before Barb is taken). Many of the characters also wear plaid/checked i.e. grid patterns. In fact, the world of Stranger Things is literally littered with grids. The double meaning of this grid obsession is also the “grid of cultural intelligibility” that Butler discusses—the norms of sexuality and gender that constitute the fabric of the social world. Going to the Upside Down means falling off this grid, where you can be the prey of homophobia without cultural recognition.

The lesson of all of this is a reminder that the monster of homophobia needs to be fought, not internalised, in order to keep everyone safe from falling off the grid.

*****

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Stranger Things questions, rather than merely replicates, the dominant paradigm

All of this is not to say that the Duffer Brothers have been reading Judith Butler (though, it’s not that unlikely) or any other queer theory or feminist texts for that matter. Rather, we can see these elements of Stranger Things as testament to the zeitgeist permeating the popular subconscious from the 1980s to today, that involves a mash of ideas about gender, sexism, sexuality, and homophobia. The show manages to tap into these issues and depict the realities of oppression, all the while making its non-conforming characters the heroes. This is really what makes this show stand out in a field of popular representations: it does more than reproduce normative ideas, it offers a challenge to them.

 

Extraordinary Ordinariness: Cultural Imagination and the Australian Dream

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In America you don’t just aim for a home, you aim for the ultimate: The White House

The widely discussed “American Dream” is the belief that anyone is free to climb up the ladder of success and be extraordinary. In contrast, the lesser known “Australian Dream” – so the story goes – is the dream of owning a house in the suburbs. As a 30-year-old woman who has grown up in public housing and precarious rentals I feel a strong affinity with this latter dream, even though it seems on the unreachable horizon (as it does for many in my generation). But whether the accessibility of home ownership  is truly as bleak as it seems, the concept of the Australian Dream warrants fleshing out. And, what better place to begin an examination of the heart of Australian consciousness, than the Olympic Games.

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The American Dream: anyone can climb the ladder of success

On the surface of things, the Australian coverage (so far) of the Rio Olympics seems to suggest that the Australian Dream is very close to the American one. For example, Australia’s initial lead in the medal tally was strongly emphasised by Australian news broadcasters (to the detriment of hearing about what was happening elsewhere at the Games). This focus on success, domination, and being number one, seemingly echoes the obsession with being on top à la the American Dream. But the whole point of the American Dream, as historian James Truslow Adams first defined, is specifically about anyone being able to succeed despite their early circumstances. The American Dream is about everyone having the capacity to be an extraordinary individual, as he states:

“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”

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American Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps hints at the bottomless aspirational quality of the American Dream

US media coverage of individual Olympic athletes exemplifies this narrative. For example, this discussion of wrestler Jordan Burroughs from USA Today highlights his innate ability (apparently visible at a young age), his hardworking attitude, and the importance of holding very high aspirations. The article states: “Though his parents stressed the importance of hard work and being true to his word, dreaming beyond their horizons wasn’t something a lot of people did in his hometown of Sicklerville, N.J. No one had shown them how”. The stress here is on aiming up and ever up. This means not just being number one, but always striving to do better and to work hard to be the best, not just of now, but of all time. As discussed previously, this kind of aspirational attitude has been critiqued by cultural theorists such as Lauren Berlant, who denounce the American Dream as a kind of toxic promise that always fails to deliver but that nonetheless keeps people enrolled in the idea that things might get better. So we might wonder, how different is the Australian Dream from this toxic attitude?

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Australian Olympic champion swimmer Ian Thorpe (who competed at the same time as Phelps) emphasises staying normal

Looking at Australian media coverage of the Olympics, we see the expected focus on stories of success (the Olympics are about competition after all), however, a slightly different dream is visible. While there is a similar story about the importance of hard work, there is an emphasis on ordinariness rather than extra-ordinariness. For example, in this discussion of recent gold medalist shooter Catherine Skinner from the Sydney Morning Herald, the story follows Skinner’s tribulations trying to balance school and shooting practice. While there is a clear message here that you should keep trying and stick to your guns (literally in this instance), there is also sympathy for Skinner wanting to be a normal university student doing assignments and partying with friends. The article labours on Skinner’s hard work ethic, but doesn’t allocate her success to something innate. Rather, there is a sense of luck, as the article quotes her: “I was really lucky to come into the sport at the right time. There were a lot of development programs coming in. It’s really nice to see them all pay off”.

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From Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig

In comparison to the American Dream then, the Australian narrative isn’t just about anyone being able to nurture their unique natural talents to reach stardom, but rather, anyone being able to achieve anything through a blend of hard work and luck. It is useful to remember here that Australia is often culturally defined as “the lucky country” after all.  The best thing you can be in Australia is extraordinarily ordinary, as you don’t want to risk being a “tall poppy” (someone who is too far above everyone else). A great example of this is Stephen Bradbury, who won a gold medal in speed skating in 2002 after everyone else in the field fell over. With his mix of persistence and sheer luck, Bradbury came to epitomise the Australian spirit.

c_13181_234_234_true_trueLooking at these examples, we can see that the Australian Dream is different from the American one, but presents perhaps another version of cruel optimism. Rather than highlighting one’s difference and unique abilities that one can harness for success, there is an emphasis on the importance of sameness and chance. Of course, Australia is also marked out as a land of the “fair go“, that being the idea that anyone should have a chance to make it, to get lucky. Interestingly, in the recent federal election opposition leader Bill Shorten made an appeal to the need for a fair go for all central to his economic plan, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull emphasised the fantastic opportunities already available to Australians. In other words, Turnbull turned up the volume on the myth of the lucky country, and quietly side-stepped the notion of the fair go that might call for some recognition of deeper inequalities.

Perpetuating this particular narrative covers over the social constitution of “luck”, that is, the structural privileges that  contribute to success. The toxic promise here is the lie that anyone can be a champion, if they keep working hard and are in the right place at the right time. There is no mention that as part of this you have to win the lottery of life, that is, be born into the best class position, race, gender and so on, that will guarantee a leg up. The perpetuation of this myth ignores the numerous indications that inequality and structural disadvantage is on the increase in Australia.

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Australia’s Next Top Model, where difference is played down

We also see this myth play out in Australian reality television. Anyone can be a Masterchef, and in fact, anyone can be as good as the superstar chefs. Never mind that if you’re not white or not emphasising your Aussie-ness rather than your complex ethnicity, you don’t stand much chance of winning. Similarly, anyone can be Australia’s Next Top Model, as long as you’re white and have that girl-next-door look exactly like everyone else. There is very little labouring on the unique talents, or features, or traumatic backgrounds of the contestants in any of these shows (which is surprising, given how much we still see the contestants cry). If anything the emphasis is always on how very normal the contestants are, and how normal they will continue to be despite their successes.

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The Australian Dream: work hard, get lucky

As I was watching the coverage of Rio last night, I was struck by the frequent remarks by the Channel 7 commentators that “anyone can be an Olympic champion”. Not only does this seem patently false in a way that papers over important advantages and disadvantages that people experience, it seems to diverge so much from the American narrative of everyone being special individuals. In Australia the best you can be is extraordinarily ordinary. The Australian Dream says: rather than wasting your time fighting for equality or better conditions or more affordable housing, your best bet is to put your head down, work hard, and be grateful for what you get in life. If you play by the rules, you too might get a home to live in one day, heck, you might even win a gold medal in speed skating! After all, this is the lucky country, isn’t it?

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.