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.

 

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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.

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.

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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.