Hope and Glimpsing the Future in the Marriage Equality Debate

This short paper was presented at the Feminist Utopias Conference held at the Australian National University on 8 September 2017. 

UntitledAs Gayle Rubin wrote in 1984, “…it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality” (143). In the midst of the contemporary nuclear crisis, the never ending debate about marriage equality seems a fitting topic to apply the theoretical questions I’d like to explore today, about whether we can and should – and indeed how we should – hope for a better world.

UntitledSo the story goes: “it gets better”. This is a common refrain of LGBTIQ youth services in Australia. “It gets better” refers to the promise that when you leave school, you won’t have to deal with bullies any longer – you’ll be free to live your life as a happy LGBTIQ person. Now, for many of us, this isn’t totally wrong. Leaving the social intensity of the schoolyard and becoming independent from family units, can mean that we are able to find new communities of acceptance.

UntitledBut how cruel might this hopeful promise be, when bigotry can be canvassed as state-sanctioned “legitimate debate”, as we are seeing now? When homophobic and transphobic ideas are not originating from the schoolyard itself – as we know, people aged 15-24 are the most avid supporters of marriage equality – but are being shown on television during the nightly news? Perhaps the promise to our children of “it gets better” is a cruel one.

UntitledAs Lauren Berlant writes, “When we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us” (2007, 33). For the “yes” campaign, marriage equality has become the object of desire that contains within it a cluster of promises: a hope about what will get better and for whom.

UntitledBut cruel is the optimism of the segments of the “yes” campaign that refuse to confront the homophobia and transphobia emerging in the debate, and instead seek to win hearts and minds on the basis of respectability, normality, and the idea that “love” is indeed “love”. As Berlant argues, it is a cruel optimism that operates where we live with the toxic conditions of the present labouring under the view that the future will “somehow” deliver something better.

UntitledAnd indeed it is cruelly optimistic to imagine what that future will entail if we do not question the social constitution of futurity in the first instance. As Lee Edelman (1998) argues, it is the child that acts as the pervasive cultural “emblem” of the future, the ultimate signifier of the hope of tomorrow. Edelman explains that while the left operates under a liberalism that sees the elasticity of this signifier extend – children can still signify the future despite queer family arrangements – conservatives cling to a more intense vision of social rupture, that must preserve such signifiers at all costs. The child is not only a symbol of a future horizon, but also a concretely heterosexual future, where heterosexuality is to reproduction is to the child is to the future operate in a circular and spectacular logic.

UntitledThis is precisely what we have seen playing out for over a decade, albeit more sharply in recent times, in the marriage equality debate. While the right have repeated the refrain, “think of the children”, the left too have taken up this mantle, constantly leaning on statistics about the welfare of queer youth or children from queer families in order to make a point of the utter sameness of the child under queer circumstances. In this envisioning, the queer child doesn’t queer the future, rather, the queerness of the child is contained in order to suggest that there is very little threat – only a slight extension – to the more conservative vision.

UntitledAs the recent GetUp ad for marriage equality suggests, in the words of the mother in the heterosexual nuclear family unit, “kids learn their values at home, from their parents, that’s why we’ll vote yes in the upcoming marriage equality vote. And if she asks, we’ll tell her it’s about fairness and kindness”. In this ad there is the removal of the threat of queering of the child, who is represented as safe from having to learn about sexuality or gender diversity because she learns her values from “the family” rather than through programs like Safe Schools. We learn in this ad that marriage equality is no challenge to the social logic of heterosexual normativity: this is the vision of transformation under marriage equality – total preservation of the existing social order.

But Edelman suggests a different approach to this logic is possible. As Edelman writes: “fuck the social order and the figural children paraded before us as its terroristic emblem; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Miz; fuck the poor innocent kid on the ‘Net; fuck Laws both with capital ‘L’s and with small; fuck the whole network of symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop” (1998, 29). Edelman utterly refuses the “sweetness” of hope and investment in a future, and instead endorses a queer negativity soaks in the bitterness of the present.

UntitledWe might wonder about the astringency of Edelman’s anti-social thesis, in light of the fact that attachment to “same-sex marriage” is currently being enacted by many as a mode of survival. Many have thrown themselves into fighting for a yes campaign precisely in order to assist a striving toward a “getting better”. We might also question the limits of Edelman’s radical presentism and anti-futurity, and if a different kind of future envisioning might be possible without a cruel investment in inevitable progress.

As some have pointed out, Edelman reduces ‘a’ version of the future to ‘the’ version of the future – more radical imaginings of opening up spaces of possibility for queer lives are rendered as as problematic as hegemonic dominant visions of how the future “ought” to be conserved (White 2013, 33). Could there then be a glimmer of a different set of possibilities, a transformed social order, and another logic, to be found? Rather than a cruel and unrupturing hope, can a queer hope be possible?

UntitledAs José Esteban Muñoz offers, “Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1). Here Muñoz suggests that we might adopt a concrete utopian imagining where, “the hopes of the collective” are connected to real, lived struggle in the historical present. In other words, we might have “educated hope” (3). In contrast to Edelman, Muñoz insists on the importance of hope as a critical tool, where “hope is spawned of a critical investment in utopia…profoundly resistant to the stultifying temporal logic of a broken-down present” (12).

However as Teresa de Lauretis (2011) also contends, we must read Edelman’s point about negativity not as a call to negativity as the political act, but rather the reflection of a condition of society, the death drive at the heart of it all, where there is always the attempt to overcome and resolve this with positivity and hope. Edelman’s imagining is heterotopic as he reflects this death drive back at us, but argues against its resolution.

UntitledSimilarly Anne Cvetkovich’s (2007) work extends this heterotopic view of society, to get to the “depression” at the heart of things, that is, not the negativity and negation of life, but more specifically the feelings that are part and parcel of occupying this world. As feminists have long argued, “the personal is political”, and we might also extend this to say that we feel politics at the level of the body. Cvetkovich argues that affective states like depression can be political – because while they can be antisocial (in quite a literal way – through withdrawal), there is also the possibility that a new sociality may form through making-public these affective states.

UntitledBut in making the negativity at the heart of things public rather than private, we can also become targeted as the problem rather than merely pointing out the problem. As Sara Ahmed illustrates, the figure of the feminist kill joy who offers critique and anger can be seen as the source of unhappiness: “Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy?” (2010, 582). In other words, unveiling already circulating – but hidden – negativity is risky business.

UntitledWhile we focus solely on concepts like fairness and kindness, positivity, good stories, the “good homosexual”, or the “unqueer queer child”, the bad feelings at the heart of the marriage equality debate remain occluded and politically impotent. To fail to recognise and name the homophobia and transphobia that are proliferating under conservative discussions in the marriage equality debate is to inadvertently reiterate a narrative of a heteronormative future where “it gets better”. To engage in a queer hopefulness then, is not to shy away from negativity, but rather, to embrace the possible world that it reveals to us.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 5.56.32 PMIt is only in confronting those elements of the present that we would rather deny, from which a truly utopian vision might emerge. In this case, my educated hope is that we will have a marriage equality debate that confronts homophobia and transphobia, that embraces gender and sexual diversity, and that makes space for the LGBTIQ community well beyond the question of marriage.

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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.

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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.