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

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

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Please never watch the lyric video. Ever.

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

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

The opening shots lead us to a graveyard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We might also note the rainbows evident in this clip:

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And the tension between the internal masculine/feminine:

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A theme which is also represented in Bad Blood:

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

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

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Shake it Off:

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And Blank Space:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WHICH notoriously includes an extended scene involving lesbian necrophilia.

Taylor then bursts in to the metaphorical closet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Best Lesbian Date Movie Ever

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A shot from ‘Pride’: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM)

Seeing as I usually only cover depressing Adam Sandler movies here at binarythis, I thought that it was high time I do a review of something more uplifting. Yesterday my girlfriend and I went to see Pridethe true story of how a gay and lesbian activist group joined forces with a mining town to fight the Thatcher government’s attacks on miners in 1984 -1985.

We assumed that it might be emotion-making – seeing as we both cried watching the trailer. But we didn’t expect quite the workout that our tear ducts got, and we laughed at our own sentimentality as our eyes welled up in pretty much every scene (to be fair to us, beforehand we accidentally primed ourselves for an afternoon of happy tears by watching Ellen Page’s coming out speech).

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Ben Schnetzer as LGSM leader Mark Ashton

Particular tear-jerkers for us were every time:
– someone mentioned the importance of solidarity
– people spontaneously sang union songs
– there was the shaking of hands/friendship between the gays and lesbians and the miners
– someone stood up for what they believe in, even though it was really tough
So yeah, pretty much the whole film.

As someone who has been involved in political struggles, particularly around students and education as well as refugees here in Australia (#HeyAsio), the movie struck a chord with me because it showed the way in which activism can fundamentally transform people’s views and bring them together to fight for a better world. This is summed up in my favourite quote from the film, from one of the miners who visits a gay club to thank Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) for raising money:

When you’re in a battle with an enemy that’s so much bigger, so much stronger than you, to find out you had a friend you never knew existed, well that’s the best feeling in the world. Can you see what we’ve done here, by coming together all of us? We made history!

Real-life Pride March, 1985

Real-life Pride March, 1985

Though I really wanted to know more about the struggle on the picket lines (and how they managed to maintain such an extremely long strike), the focus of the film was really the journey of the gay and lesbian group who supported the miners. It was so refreshing to see a film where intimacy between same-sex couples was the norm and where it was not made into a plot spectacle or reduced to a joke. Overall the film managed to cover a great range of struggles encountered in queer life (homophobia, parental relations, AIDS, coming out, and finding pride) as well as political organising (building coalitions, schisms forming, the difficulty of leadership, and the challenge of those who argue for “partying not politics”).

When we got home we listened to Bread and Roses as we made dinner, elated with a sense that history reveals human beings are capable of remarkable solidarity.

Loving the Straight Girl

I found the relationship between Frances and Sophie heartbreaking

I found the relationship between Frances and Sophie heartbreaking

I recently watched two movies – Frances Ha and Mean Girls (re-watched that is)  – which seemed to me tales of unrequited or unrealised queer love. Admittedly I often have this problem, upon finishing a book or movie I’ll talk to my friends about “how gay all the characters were” or the “gay storyline” and appear quite mad (often because these stories end in heterosexual marriage). When I first meet people I also tend to implicitly assume that they are gay – which people pick up on and then “come out” to me as straight at some point. I enjoy this queer imagining of the world. This is perhaps an unfairly comfortable universe for me, from my privileged position as someone who “passes” as straight and therefore doesn’t have to face the daily reality of harassment based on sexuality (though I do definitely face street harassment  based on my gender presentation…that’s another story).

But there’s another downside to this queer outlook: when the story line is your life and not just a movie, it can be sad if not downright heartbreaking when you find yourself pining for the straight girl. For me, this love of the unattainable woman has come in two major forms: the popular girl and the best friend.

Veronica: to die for

Veronica: to die for

The popular girl
There are popular leaders and then there are the popular sidekicks – in high school I found myself loving the latter. The ones who I thought why are you in that group, you’re so much better than that. The Veronicas of the world. Sure, sometimes these popular sidekick girls would be just as mean to me as their powerful counterparts, but I could forgive them with my imagining that they would one day break the shackles of their hetero crew. Because often these girls would be way more spunky than those they followed – tough enough to put up with the sh*t of their girl clan and generally sidelined because they weren’t as generic looking or acting as the top dogs. And you’d see them in PE class, with their awesome athletic skills (while you sat on the bench, pretending to feel sick with a note from your mum) and think damn girl, you don’t even know I exist… Years later you friend them on Facebook and find that they are just as hetero as ever, still lusting after the football-types and barely remembering who you are. *Sigh*.

Why Calamity Jane and Katie Brown were not in a relationship is something  I'LL NEVER UNDERSTAND

Why Calamity Jane and Katie Brown were not in a relationship is something I’LL NEVER UNDERSTAND

The best friend
This one is the kicker. It’s a horrible cliche that queer people must be in love with their best friend of the same sex, but at least in my case I’ve often found it to be true. When you get so close to someone that you can practically finish their sentences and they’re the only person you want to spend all your time with, it seems strange that you don’t just shack up and live in a little cottage growing flowers and raising beautiful babies. Even when you constantly propose such ventures (e.g. text message “I want to have your babies”), if your best friend identifies as straight I’ve found there’s not much hope – just slow heartbreak.

It’s perfectly reasonable that perhaps for the popular girls and best friends I just wasn’t the right person for them. Nevertheless, you’ll still find me crying into my pillow about why Frances and Sophie never got together and why all Cady ever cared about was Aaron Samuels.

Masturbation: More Like Masturgaytion?

So I was reading some philosophy the other day – by one of those crazy French guys who’s writing is so dense you need a chisel to get through – and it got me thinking about touch. The piece was The Intertwining–the Chiasm by Merleau-Ponty, which focuses in part on the concept of one’s own hand touching the other. Merleau-Ponty uses this example to explore sensation and perception as a two-way process. Just as your hand feels, it is also being felt. It’s fascinating and poetic stuff and since Merleau-Ponty died before finishing this remarkable essay we are only left wondering where he was actually going (however my sense is that even if he’d finished it, I’d still be pretty lost). Thinking about all this touching and being felt this question popped into my mind: is masturbation inherently gay?

I’m not the only one who’s been asking this. Last year, Pastor Mark Driscoll from Seattle made some strong remarks against men engaging in solo fun unless a lady friend was also in very close vicinity. Driscoll also made the claim that masturbation is “monosexual” and particularly sinful if a man is, “watching himself in a mirror and being turned on by his own male body”.

Incurring the wrath of God aside, what else can we say about this touching-oneself experience when it comes to desire? I’m guessing that not everyone sits in front of the mirror checking themselves out, but in fact fantasizes or watches porn, etc. So are we just touching ourselves but imagining that the “toucher” is actually someone else? One might draw the conclusion that this explains why so many men watch porn, i.e. MUST-SEE-WOMAN-ON-SCREEN-SO-NOT-GAY. However, since women are also avid porn-watchers, perhaps that’s an unfair conclusion. Plus, as previously discussed, I’m not a big fan of drawing gendered lines in the sand when it comes to talking about what men or women “normally” do. And who is to say that our porn watching habits actually reveal anything about our sexual orientation? Perhaps gay men masturbate to female porn?

Well, I don’t know about gay men, but there has been a fair bit written on lesbians that watch gay male porn. Apparently (according to writer Ariel Levy) “It’s definitely a thing”. As this piece from The Daily Beast explores, a lot of women report that watching gay porn is about enjoying masculine role-play and themes of domination and power more than gender per se. The article quotes comedian Kate Clinton, explaining her proclivity for man-on-man visuals: “We’re so used to watching men in our lives wield power. Gay porn is an opportunity to watch them get f—–.” Clearly the porn that people enjoy has an elaborate relationship to the desires that people have. 

Considering all of these points, what are we left with when it comes to beating the bishop/ cranking the shank/ jerking the gherkin/ insert euphemism here? Well, at the end of the day I don’t think that masturbation is inherently gay because it involves the mind and not just sensation. Considering this particular experience of touching and being touched reminds us that desire is not so black and white, in fact, it is extremely complex.

The world through rainbow-tinted glasses

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Okay, I’ll admit it. I think everyone is gay. It’s this affliction I have- like that thing where people usually assume you’re straight, but the opposite. Literally. It’s not my gaydar that’s broken, it’s just that my straight one is missing.

This is actually quite annoying when it comes to finding potential lady dates- especially given the extra line blurring that hipster fashions, roller derby, and burlesque seem to have brought to the mix (queerifying straightness in a not-necessarily-gay way). In fact, it’s not so much that I think everyone is gay, but I tend to err on the side of everyone as potentially bi/pansexual.

Let me explain. 

I really respect that people have different sexual orientations that they identify with, I do. I just accidentally assume it’s a bit more fluid than that. This conversation I recently had with a friend (at Tilleys Devine Cafe) demonstrates my thought pattern:

Lady friend: So, what you’re saying is, you think everyone’s gay? Me: Basically. Lady Friend: What about me, do you think I’m gay? Me: Pretty much. Lady friend: But I have a boyfriend. Me: For now…

I am basically Friend Zone Fiona (if she were gay. Which she clearly is)

While I understand that this is probably really offensive to some, and just stems from my narcissistic and un-empathetic queer perspective, I also hope that some people find this refreshing. After all, why assume that everyone’s on the straight and narrow path (or the gay/lesbian yellow brick road and staying there) if you know that things are rarely that simple? Why assume that every happily married couple you meet also doesn’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend, or some other arrangement of a rainbow flavour? No reason (well, unless they explicitly tell you. Maybe).

So basically, if you’re straight, I’m afraid you’re going to have to come out of that gay glittering rainbow closet when you’re ready. That’s all.