Bisexuality in the Present Tense

“…a particular temporal framing of sexuality has cast bisexuality in the past or future but never in the present tense” – Steven Angelides, A History of Bisexuality

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TwentyBiTeen
2019 has been dubbed – by the collective consciousness of the Internet – “TwentyBiTeen“. It follows from “TwentyGayTeen” last year (and we’re all looking forward to what 2020 will yield).

I’ve struggled to write about bisexuality, a hint perhaps at the deep ways that biphobia lodges within oneself. Now in a long term gay relationship, I’ve found that my previous loud and proud bisexual identification (which I frequently deployed to demand inclusion in queer spaces), has faded, and my silence leaves me feeling like a traitor to my bisexual kin. Like Willow from Buffy, I’ve felt little need to bring up my past as relevant to my current to my identity, and I tend to use the terms “queer”, “gay”, or even “dyke”, to fudge the question. My sense is that there are a lot of bisexuals in “gay” relationships, we just don’t talk about it. But now, this year of TwentyBiTeen, with multiple bisexual texts appearing to haunt me on a daily basis(!), it’s time to confront the question. 

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Bisexual characters on TV are on the rise

As a recent GLAAD report suggests, bisexual representation in popular culture is on the rise – at least on television – but figures are still disproportionately low given findings that suggest at least half of the LGBTQ population (in the USA) identifies as bisexual.

This marginal but increasing representation raises the crucial question of how bisexual identity is being conveyed. This is particularly important to consider given the insidious and harmful tropes that underpin biphobia, including: 1) that bisexuals have “straight privilege”; 2) that it is merely a temporary fluctuation between the fixed poles of gay or straight; 3) that bisexuals are confused, greedy, and/or risky when it comes to love and sex. Are contemporary representations resisting these tropes, or repeating them?

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Angelides’ History of Bisexuality was published in 2001

Bisexuality in the Past/Future
As Steven Angelides describes in A History of Bisexuality, even in its most utopian iterations bisexuality has been understood as a starting point or end point of human sexuality, rather than something that is possible as a stable position in the present.

He describes how Sigmund Freud imagines sexuality as multi-directional and dispersed across the body (“polymorphous perversity”), that then develops into “healthy” heterosexual desire. In this way Freud offers a rather radical understanding of sexuality as innately bisexual, but fixes bisexuality distinctly in the past. On the flip side, Angelides describes how Gay Liberation in the 1970s held bisexuality up as an ideal form of liberated human sexuality, though one that would not be possible without the revolution/destruction of compulsory heterosexuality. In this way, bisexuality was located as always in the future.

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The bi flag was designed in 1998(!) by Michael Page

Angelides suggests that seeing bisexuality as impossible in the present is used to maintain the binary distinctions upon which both Freud’s theories and Gay Liberation were based – male/female, man/woman, gay/straight. To accept bisexuality in the present would be to trouble this organisation. Bisexuality is a threat. As Marjorie Garber writes, “The more borders to patrol, the more border crossings”.

f8bb9a2eeea982d1e2b83aa939622837Bisexuals (and especially bisexual men) have often been seen to “contaminate” straight life. This was most explicitly seen in the midst of the AIDS crisis, during which bisexuals were represented as adulterous hyper-sexual types who risked spreading the disease to the “normal” population. Similarly, gay communities have rejected bisexuals as “risky”, as seen in the 1990s following a rise in homophobic street attacks when the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras effectively limited the ability of non-LGT individuals becoming members. In many ways this kind of thinking was a hangover of 1970s lesbian feminism, which presumed sex with men was akin to “sleeping with the enemy”. This history illustrates how the terms of sexual violence and compulsory heterosexuality create fault-lines in our community.

In this era of TwentyBiTeen, with bi rep on the rise, we might wonder how and if bisexuality is being rendered possible in the “present tense”. To explore these questions I offer an examination of three key bisexual texts I’ve come across lately that philosophise bisexuality and complicate the tropes that underpin biphobia: Desiree Akhavan’s drama TV series The Bisexual, Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations with Friends, and Channel 10 Australia’s reality show Bachelor in Paradise.

Different Worlds in The Bisexual (Desiree Akhavan)
This six part television series debuted in October 2018, and follows the sexual and romantic pursuits of Leila (Desiree Akhavan) after her break up with long-term girlfriend Sadie (Maxine Peake). In pursuing sex and relationships with men, Leila finds herself not only having to confront her own biases about bisexuality (“it makes you seem disingenuous, like your genitals have no allegiance”), but finds herself on the outer from her previously comfortable queer world. As Akhavan who co-created and directed the series, described to The New York Times:

“I heard myself described as ‘the bisexual’ at every other introduction: ‘the bisexual filmmaker,’ ‘the bisexual Iranian-American,’ ‘the bisexual Lena Dunham’…For some reason, hearing that word made my stomach flip, in a non-fun way. And I wanted to explore that”. 

This show grapples with and complicates the trope of bisexual “straight privilege”, that is, the idea that bisexuals can simply “choose” to partner straight and therefore not experience homophobia. The Bisexual negates this assumption, showing the pressure and pain of occupying bisexual identity in a world organised into distinctly gay and straight worlds. While Leila’s desire is multi-directional, the reality of adapting to heterosexual gender expectations is jarring. In this way The Bisexual explores an idea otherwise papered over by claims that “love is love”, but that is abundantly apparent to bisexuals, as Leila states: “you’re gay or you’re straight and one comes with an entirely different lifestyle”.

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Leila finds herself at odds with gay and straight cultures

The experience of gay coupling versus straight coupling as a bisexual person can seem qualitatively different not because of something intrinsic to gender, but because of these different worlds. For one, if you are in a “gay” relationship, a fear of homophobia can inform and structure daily life (holding hands in public, booking a holiday, family Christmas).

But more than that, the system of gender relations permeates everyday life in a way that partner dynamics in “straight” relationships as a bisexual person can also box you into narrow roles that you have to actively resist. This also plays out in “gay” relationships, but when the world’s not asking you “when are you getting married?”, “when are you having babies?”, etc, you’re operating in a different arena of expectations (for better or worse). As a bisexual person this experience of different, somewhat incommensurable, worlds is very discombobulating. It is also painful to realise these different social worlds exist, precisely because one cannot simply dictate one’s desires.

Parallel Loves in Conversations with Friends (Sally Rooney)

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Conversations with Friends was published in 2017

I never read the back of books, so I was surprised when the main character in everyone’s favourite Sally Rooney novel turned out to identify as bisexual. The story follows Frances, and her romances and encounters with her best friend and ex-lover Bobbi, and with a married couple Nick and Melissa.

“Don’t say ‘just bisexual’ she said. Frances is bisexual, you know. 
I didn’t know that, Melissa said. 
I chose to drag on my cigarette for a long time before saying anything. I knew that everyone was waiting for me to speak. 
Well, I said. Yeah, I’m kind of an omnivore. 
Melissa laughed at that. Nick looked at me and gave an amused smile, which I looked away from quickly and pretended to take an interest in my glass. 
Me too, Melissa said”.

Unlike The Bisexual, in Conversations with Friends there is no major schism between gay and straight worlds, even as we see different intimate and sexual dynamics play out along gendered lines. The trope that this work upends is the idea that bisexuality is a temporary fluctuation between gay and straight. Instead, for Frances bisexuality means having simultaneous desires and parallel loves that are also braided together, working to resist common understandings of romantic love as monoamorous.

To be clear, the work does not make Frances’ sexual identity the major plot drama – nothing hangs on her having to “choose” an orientation. Neither can we really claim that all of Frances’ actions are functional, and she is deeply flawed. But the representation here is an experiment with characters on a stage where the rules of heteronormativity have limited bearing, or at least, where the characters are trying their hardest to come up with “alternative models of loving”. These are characters simply negotiating the stickiness of love and desire, where gay and straight are not opposing poles, but rather, there are no poles. They barely factor into the equation.

Dangerous Desires in Bachelor in Paradise (Channel 10)

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Alex Nation and Brooke Blurton share a kiss on their date

For those unacquainted, Bachelor in Paradise is that particular circle of reality TV hell that involves ex-contestants from The Bachelor and The Bachelorette trapped on a Fijian island. All still “looking for love”, they are given copious amounts of alcohol and made to pair up via “rose ceremonies” where men and women take turns to choose partners. This season featured Brooke Blurton and Alex Nation, two women who openly identify as being attracted to both men and women. This show engages with the trope of bisexuals as greedy/confused/risky, (shamefully) not by rejecting these tropes, but rather by laying them out for all to see.

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When Brooke and Alex first appear in the series, they repeat every negative idea of bisexuality in the book: “I’m just greedy!” “I just can’t make up my mind!” “I’m confused!” and on. Similarly other contestants repeat stereotypes, describing the women as “very sexual beings”, and men hinting they would “like to be a fly on the wall” for them getting together. Interestingly, at first their bisexuality is accepted without drama (at least that’s the edit). The hyper-sexualisation of bisexual women, and widespread assumption that bisexual women will always end up with men, means that women’s bisexuality in the context of other straight people is not always perceived as a “threat”. 

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The men’s faces when Alex chooses Brooke for a date

However later in the show we see exactly how “threatening” bisexuality can be to the laws of heterosexuality, when Alex chooses Brooke to go on a date. Both women already have men who they are interested in on the island, which for Brooke includes a man also called Alex. The men start “freaking out” as it means that the women might give each other their “roses” and send un-partnered men home. In (what I read as) a poetic sign of bisexuality’s ability to smash gender hegemony, the men start saying things like “It’s over for us boys”, “Paradise is under threat”, and “Paradise is over”. Here we learn that all along “Paradise” was merely a synonym for the boozey swamp of heteropatriarchy.

A few episodes later, when Alex tells Brooke she’s more keen to “explore her feelings” for another (man) contestant, Brooke is heartbroken. In spite of all the biphobic guff we’ve had to endure as viewers, what’s beautiful about this event is that Brooke calls off her simmering relationship with the other (man) Alex and decides to leave the island, which acts as a kind of metaphor for the viewer – bisexuality is impossible in Paradise, so no Alex can be loved.

Bisexuality is a present

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I think this image speaks for itself

All of this is to say, the representation of bisexuality today is uneven, but where bisexual voices are at the creative centre (as in The Bisexual) tropes can be reworked and resisted in complicated ways. Unlike The Bisexual or Conversations with Friends, Bachelor in Paradise is neither high production television nor well regarded literary fiction. Perhaps then, as a mass entertainment example, it is the most important sign that despite headway bisexuality is often represented with deferral to old tropes.

What all of these texts do reveal however, is that, for those lucky enough to find themselves in the bisexual position, bisexuality can be a gift. It means often occupying a liminal space that gives you a distinct view of gender and sexual expectations.

I’ll end on this note from Jonathan Alexander who explores his bisexuality in his essay with Karen Yescavagae “Bisexuality, Queerness and Identity Politics”. After describing growing up in a highly religious homophobic family/community he reflects:

“Still, despite this abuse, I had a crush on a boy, a young Latino named Domingo. I plotted and planned how to become friends with him, and though we never ‘did’ anything, I suspected that my interest in him (and his khaki-clad bottom, his hot pink undershirt, his luxuriant Navy pea coat) was bringing me perilously close to the forbidden realm of faggotry. My internal confusion, my soul-searching cognitive dissonance was intense: could something I want so much really be so evil? Imagine my confusion when I left the all-boy environment of high school to attend university and finding myself interested in some of the young women in my classes. (I might be safe after all!) I developed a crush on a classmate, Laura, and I eventually married another fellow student, Tara, some years later. Still, my interest in men continued, and I felt buffeted back and forth – a buffeting that ended my marriage.

I eventually ‘came out’ as bisexual, thinking that’s the term that best describes my ‘condition’. I developed a primary relationship with another man (with whom I still live), but my interest in women – as intimate friends and even subjects of desire – continues. Many of my gay friends scoff at this, wondering how I could ‘stand’ vaginal sex. But I like it. And I’ve come to see this plurality of desires as something that enriches me, that speaks to the complexity of connections I want to create with people. And I like it”. 

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). 

Give Drag a Chance

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Priscilla, queen of my heart

When I was a little girl, I loved drag queens more than anything. It was back in the days when video stores were still around, and my babysitter asked me which film I wanted to rent. Of course I said Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which was my absolute favourite as an eight year old, and I couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it already. By the end of the film she was rather shocked, but I remember thinking thank god I am a girl. My thought was that if I had been a boy I would have had to be a drag queen, and things would have been really tough. To me being a feminine as a girl was like being a drag queen too, you just didn’t get hate for it.

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Paris is Burning

Priscilla, and films like Paris is Burning before it, helped to make drag intelligible to a mainstream audience. Today RuPaul’s Drag Race continues to work that magic, bringing a greater awareness of drag culture as well as a diversity of queens into the spotlight with each season.

But even though everyone is watching Drag Race, word on the street for those in the know is that you’ve got to be a bit careful because drag queens are, well, a bit of a drag. So the story goes, drag queens—at least those “normy” hyper-feminine ones—are just reinforcing every stereotype of womanhood that feminism has ever fought against.

Strangely this critique of drag comes from two, usually wildly oppositional, directions within discussions of gender.

578579The first is from trans-exclusionary radical feminist types, who conflate gay male culture with drag queens with transgender identity. Such perspectives see gay men, drag queens, and trans women as responsible for propping up fantasies of femininity that only serve to oppress women. Germaine Greer famously stated in The Female Eunuch 1970: “I’m sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate”. Greer’s suggestion here is that there is some form of “natural” womanhood that can be liberated from the dictates of culture. Similarly, and more recently, Sheila Jeffreys has even argued that drag kings distort lesbian culture and the celebration of “natural” womanhood. She writes: “If the suffering and destruction of lesbians is to be halted then we must challenge the cult of masculinity that is evident in such activities as drag king shows”. These views are rife with homophobia and transphobia, as well as massive conflations and wild leaps that see men, masculinity, and femininity, as the true oppressors of women.

license-shutterstock_178095647z-56cddde63df78cfb37a34dedI don’t have much time for these views, which encourage us to believe that the biggest threats to women are trans women, drag queens, and gay men. This view distorts Marxist theory to argues that men in particular are *the* class that oppresses women, and sees the liberation that is to be won as a liberation from “gender”. Luckily the currency of radical feminism in academic spaces seems to be waning. But when overall activist struggle in society is low, it is easy for people to slip into arguing that we are each other’s problem, that if only we could free ourselves from gender we’d be truly liberated. It’s a much easier argument to make than organising to transform the fundamental economic arrangement of society, and it makes space for all kinds of class collaboration between powerful women and poor women alike (even if it means at the end of the day that power doesn’t actually shift).

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I heart Judy B 4eva

Understandably in many queer critical circles, no one has much time for radical feminism. For example Judith Butler—our queer theory queen writ large—has openly critiqued Jeffreys, describing her views on trans women as a “feminist tyranny”. At the end of Gender Trouble (1990) Butler famously held drag queens up as exemplars of gender subversion. There was of course a lot of responses to this, but much of these debates focused on whether drag really was the best example of the theory of gender performativity that Butler was proposing.

herofille2So that’s why it’s kind of surprising to hear people within queer communities suggesting now that drag, in its mainstream formations, is a problem. From this perspective drag, if performed by ostensibly cis males, reproduces misogynistic ideas of femininity and is really just another expression of the “gay-triarchy“. Drag that is seen as more alternative in these scenes is drag performed by faux-queens (women performing as drag queens), or drag that queers gender in some way, like the intense influx of bearded-queens we’ve seen in recent years.

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I love Sasha but I don’t doubt we occupy the same ivory tower

Within the land of RuPaul, this desire for more alternative drag to address the “problems” of drag culture is summed up by Sasha Velour. Now, there is no way that I am not #TeamSasha, obviously I love Sasha. But she also represents an extremely mobile, well-educated subset of drag culture, who can quote Butler and play with the expectations of drag (like, having a bald head) because let’s face it, they’re still going to get by even if they don’t win $100,000.

What the queer critique of drag shares with the radical feminist perspective is the view that we are one another’s oppressors, and that if we manage to transform our individual gendered selves in a particular way, this can contribute to liberation. For the rad fems this might mean rejecting expectations of femininity and trying to embody “natural” womanhood. From the queer perspective this might mean rejecting anything perceived as mainstream and normative. The conclusions are the same: do your politics through your body, and reject those individuals who don’t.

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The cast of Season 9

Let’s pause here to imagine why someone might get into drag (noting that the great thing about Drag Race is that we get to hear some of these reasons). For some, drag offers a space to play around with femininity, after growing up as a “weird” kid who didn’t meet the expectations of masculinity. For others, drag is a way of working through questions of sexual and/or gender identity. For many that have been kicked out of home or found themselves rejected by society at large, drag offers a space for new forms of family to emerge.

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Drag queens can be comrades too

For many, drag is a mode of survival, socially and economically. Drag queens struggle with expectations around femininity too. Drag queens don’t oppress women: the struggle against sexism is a shared one. There is a lot to be learned from RuPaul’s constant reminder that “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”.

So, let’s celebrate those drag queens that can push boundaries and show us new ways to think about gender, but let’s embrace those “normy” queens too. This doesn’t mean everything in drag culture should be immune from critique, but it does mean we should give drag a chance. After all, the struggle is best won together, not alone, and drag queens are not the enemy.

Brooke Candy and the Question of Queer Femininity

I think we ought to treat pop stars as philosophers (as constructed as they are), citing them in our papers for their insights on the nature of existence and revealing to us the pulse and contradictions of dominant culture. But we must proceed with caution: like all philosophers, pop stars are often deeply problematic. On this note, I think LA rapper/singer Brooke Candy is worth exploring. She shows how all art is appropriation, but is a reminder that cashing in on subordinate cultures is vastly different from trying to rip open a norm from the inside out. She’s also an interesting case for what she does (and doesn’t) show us about the queer potential of femininity.

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Brooke Candy (left) in Grimes’ (right) video for “Genesis

Candy provides the kind of sexual, aggressive, high-femme, esoteric visuals that follow firmly in the tradition of the mega-pop-queens before her, like Lady Gaga and Madonna. However when she first came onto the scene in 2012 with her clip for “Das Me” she was called out for cultural appropriation, along with others like Miley Cyrus who appeared to be cashing in on black culture.

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Candy in “Das Me”

Candy’s stylisation referencing black culture was focused on at the time, but we might also note Candy’s fetishisation of disability as shown in the frame below, which is also clearly referencing Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi. As in many cases where cultural appropriation is pointed out, Candy’s would-be fans challenged her to try and speak from her own position instead.

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The woman pushing Candy along here seems to be saying to the director “Really? You don’t see how many levels of wrong this is?”

However, the problem with the demand to “speak only for yourself” is that it’s difficult figuring out what that should (or can) look like. How can we avoid appropriation in art when culture circulates in endlessly reverberating ways in a globalised world? After all, the postmodern turn taught us that truth is multiple, and that meaning ought not be essentialised in bodies or objects or things…right? The solution here might be: why not turn to the “norm” as a focus for your experimentation instead?

We can see this method playing out *some* of Candy’s subsequent work, where she engages with embodiments of “ideal” (white, blonde, pretty, and so on) femininity and amps it up.

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From “Happy Days“: Candy plays on ideas of cuteness and sexual performance

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From “Paper or Plastic“: Candy organises for her sister-wives to shoot their oppressor

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From “Nasty“: Candy blurs the distinction between stripper and Victoria’s Secret Model, with camp sensibilities

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From “A Study in Duality”: Candy thinks through the relationship between sex and death (among other things). Here she is shown wearing her feminine armour, which appears throughout many of her clips

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From “Opulence“: Candy explores issues of greed, death and power. Here Candy appears to be taking the trope “diamonds are a girls best friend” to a new level (though, it could also be argued she is tapping into imagery of Shiva)

Many of her videos contain Candy playing with being grotesque, violent, scary, overwhelming, sad, and hysterical at the same time as “showing” us her objectified body. What we gain from Candy as philosopher is an engagement with the idea of the queer potential of femininity. That is, where femininity can be made “strange”, where the expectations of sexuality and gender cannot be neatly contained. Often this borders into “cultural appropriation”, and Candy fails to cast off the overt symbols and accessories of marginalised cultures (which, really should tell us something about the “norm”).

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Candy has questionable Chola curls going on in her latest clip for “Living Out Loud” but also seems to be channelling Miley Cyrus circa 2013

Candy grew up in a remarkable context—her parents were divorced, and while her mother worked as a nurse, her father worked as the chief financial officer of Hustler magazine. Despite (or perhaps because of) this “duality” of life experiences, it appears that she has been signed to a major label and for all intents and purposes is as corporately-driven as other stars.

Herein lies one of the major problems of Candy: though she’s just like every other pop star trying to make a buck, she’s pretending she’s something “alternative”. As she stated in one interview: “We can watch the news and see what’s happening in the world or we can have our attention caught by some famous asshole in a red dress…Who cares who wore what at the Met Ball, it’s all fake bullshit. It’s a big fucking show”. The comment reveals (another) limit of Candy’s queer femininity: she thinks that somehow “putting it on” makes her more queer than those women at the Met Ball. In reality, the drag and camp culture that Candy revels in has always referenced the divas and the “assholes” in red dresses—in ways that is often about reverence and worship rather than cynicism.

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What really differentiates Candy from her contemporaries on the red carpet?

If anything, Candy’s attempts to amp up aspects of her style to border on the “obscene” is that you don’t have to do amp it up to see the queer possibilities of femininity. Appropriation of the norm shows us how very contingent and unstable the norm already is in the first place. And if we rely on strategies of “turning up the volume”, we might accidentally fix that (Met Ball) femininity as “natural” and “normal” by comparison. Where does gender stop being drag stop being gender stop being drag? Of course this is Judith Butler‘s old point, but also as RuPaul reminds us, “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”. This isn’t to undermine the experience that gender is an essential part of identity. In fact, it is rather to make a case for seeing gender as at once constructed and as something that we can’t fully choose. So the theory goes, questioning gender makes space for the gender yet to come.

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Maybe this doesn’t recover Brooke Candy from her problems (she’s practically the Heidegger of the pop world). But it is a helpful case in thinking through the limits and possibilities of attempting to enact queer femininity. As it turns out, gender was never not-queer all along.

Extraordinary Ordinariness: Cultural Imagination and the Australian Dream

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

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

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The American Dream: anyone can climb the ladder of success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig

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

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

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

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

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

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The Australian Dream: work hard, get lucky

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

Worst Lesbian Date Movie Ever

Fact: If you see this film, you're going to have a bad time

Fact: If you see this film, you’re going to have a bad time

Not long ago my girlfriend and I went out to the movies together for a first date. We’d been seeing each other for a little while, but hadn’t had an “official” outing together, and a movie seemed liked a sweet pick. Now my girlfriend’s taste in film can be summed up thus: storyline about food/cooking, attractive older women (e.g. Helen Mirren), slightly progressive tone, feel good transformation of some kind, romantic. But with a dearth of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on offer, we had to settle for the romance factor promised by Adam Sandler’s new flick, Blended. Having not read even a single blurb about the film, our exact decision making process was Drew Barrymore? Yes. 

We were quite prepared for the heterosexual focus of the film – after all it is very unusual to find a mainstream romantic comedy that even includes LGBT side characters let alone central ones. We were not however, prepared for the barrage of homophobic insults included in the dialogue, the central messages of which were: it’s not okay to be a lesbian and it’s certainly not okay to be gendered differently. I guess that whole Adam Sandler continually making gender offensive films should have been a dead giveaway, but alas.

A distinct lack of chemistry

A distinct lack of chemistry

If you look up rundown of the film, you’ll get descriptions like this:
After a bad blind date, a man and woman find themselves stuck together at a resort for families, where their attraction grows as their respective kids benefit from the burgeoning relationship.

Jim positively ruins his girls by dressing them in comfortable gym gear, etc

Jim positively ruins his girls by dressing them in comfortable gym gear, etc

 

But an honest description would go like this:
A divorced woman with two boys and a widower with three girls are not very attracted to each other. They decide to shack up when they learn that they can actually teach each other’s children how to be appropriately gendered in society. The divorcee who cannot manage to control the freudian sexual impulses of her own boys, finds solace in applying makeup and hair extensions to the girl children. The widower who has managed to raise girls that are very successful at basketball and that dress in comfortable clothes, learns that he is also good at teaching boys how to “be a man” through sport and activity. They come together at a special camp for people struggling to learn how to build a normal family. 

Sounds bad? It was. And that’s not to even mention the overtly racist tones in the “Africa” (country not specified) scenes, where dark skin = dim-witted servant status at the resort they find themselves at. As per usual the darker skinned men in the film were also overtly sexualised (that old trope where  racist assumptions represent certain groups as closer to “nature”, “the body” and therefore sex).

Before: sporty, active, unhappy

Before: sporty, short hair, unhappy

After: quiet, inert, happy

After: shacked up, long hair, happy

The hardest thing for me was listening to the audience laugh at the openly anti-queer jokes, such as when Lauren (Barrymore) and her coworker are caught hugging and then make a series of funnies about how they’re not lesbians (not to mention they work at a wardrobe-sorting business called “Closet Queens” – hilarious). And then there was this beautiful scene, where Lauren approaches Jim’s (Sandler) eldest daughter who is staring wistfully at a boy that won’t acknowledge her existence:

Lauren: Maybe you should just go talk to him.
Hilary: Oh, no, no, I can’t.
Lauren: Have you ever considered changing your hairstyle?

Without blinking, the film gives Hilary a makeover from her “bad lesbian haircut” (as it is referred to) and she instantly gets the guy. Meanwhile Lauren teaches the six year old in the film how to apply makeup properly (unlike her father’s attempt, which makes her “look like the walking dead”) and Jim shows the boys how they can channel their sexual frustration into competitive sports such as boxing and throwing cricket balls at people’s crotches.

It was so unbearable that we were both quite hysterical with disbelief that such a film could still legitimately exist.

But what actually really worked for this film, was that it was so overt in its sexual and gender stereotyping, you could use it in any GEND1001 course as an exemplar par excellence of how heteronormativity functions in society. For example, here’s a few things I picked up from my viewing of Blended:

TBH you literally have to learn how to even touch each other

TBH you literally have to learn how to even touch each other

1. You have to work really hard at being heterosexual and monogamous. Most of the time people fail and become single, on the brink of slipping into gayness. In fact, most heterosexual couples have to go on training camps to really get their act together and make it work. If you don’t try hard enough as a woman, you might find yourself rejecting men altogether and spending too much time with your supportive best friend.

Everyone is a *lot* happier when they look like normal girls

Everyone is a *lot* happier when they look like a normal girl

2. Being appropriately gendered is something you have to learn. One is certainly not born a woman and there are many skills about self-presentation you will need to acquire. Having short hair is not going to cut it for getting a man. Ditto being good at sport or wearing comfortable shoes. Similarly, makeup is not something to play around with, it is serious. If you use too much everyone will see your gender efforts, so hold back. Once you’ve got the skills down, they can be handed from generation to generation via same-sex familial relations.

Stick it out for the good of humanity

Stick it out for the good of humanity

3. To avoid everyone being queer, different or interesting in any way, every family needs a mother and father. The only way to keep a lid on everyone’s non-normative gender and sexual expressions is to keep the family unit together. Sure there might not be much attraction between the mother and the father, but at the end of the day they’re going to have to close their eyes and go in for the kiss for the good of the family, and for the good of the straight world as a whole. It’s a small price to pay to make sure that we don’t get queerly gendered and sexed kids running all over the shop.

So as horrendous as it was, the takeaway from the film is that it is a parody of itself. For all you queer kids out there, let this be something to hold on to: this film reveals the truly laborious and unnatural task that it is to be “normal”.

Let’s Talk About Class: Hierarchies of Taste and Gender

Posh man: I ain't one

Posh man: I ain’t one

Recently, I found myself at a wine-tasting session with a friend, only to be confronted with the embarrassing reality that I had no idea how to act “appropriately” in the situation. The whole thing wasn’t helped by the fact that I was wearing an outfit much like Julia Roberts circa Pretty Woman, as I sometimes care to do (it’s a great look). Trying to “be myself” rather than affect a more refined countenance turned out to be quite the faux pas in terms of the disdainful/pitying/embarrassed looks I got from other patrons. While on the one hand I was rather “f*** you” about it, it also later resulted in me crying into my pillow.

Ladette to Lady: teaching us how not to be working class

Ladette to Lady: teaching us how not to be working class

Later, I came across this article about the UK’s Education Secretary Michael Gove, and his comments that working class children must learn to be middle class to get on in life. The basic gist of Gove’s sentiments is that upper-middle class kids are mostly the ones in charge and working class kids need to develop more refined cultural tastes so they can fit in with the elites and get a leg up. The whole thing reminded me of my wine-tasting misadventure. I thought, should I read the ancients, learn Latin, listen to classic music, learn what the f*** foie gras is, so I too can run the world one day? I’ve spent much of my life trying to dress and appear more middle-class than my background would suggest and I definitely understand the mobility that this has afforded me. This is not to mention the fact that the (relatively free) education system of Australia has allowed me to work my way up to doing a PhD and now I have the privilege of education giving me a leg up to even comment on all this. 

Struggling with this issue, I showed the Gove article to my first year sociology classes yesterday. They rightly pointed out that while Gove brings to light the important issue of cultural capital, his solution reinforces the same hierarchy of inequality he’s talking about (<3 my students those smart little beans). 

In Australia we refer to working class people with "unrefined" tastes as "bogan"

In Australia we refer to working class people with “unrefined” tastes as “bogan”

The idea of cultural capital comes from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and as this handy quote from McLaren (1994) suggests, cultural capital is “the general cultural background, knowledge, disposition, and skills that are passed on from one generation to another. Cultural capital represents ways of talking, acting, and socializing, as well as language practices, values, and types of dress and behavior.” So, the whole wine-tasting biz revealed my lack of cultural capital in this arena – probably owing to the fact that I was raised in a single-parent welfare-dependent family in a rural area and wine-tasting was something we had no access to, let alone interest in. But cultural capital isn’t just about etiquette, it’s about taste, as Bourdieu (1984) himself states, “…art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.”

Pro-tip: don't mention Miley at your next wine-tasting event

Pro-tip: don’t mention Miley at your next wine-tasting event

I talked about the hierarchy of taste with my classes and asked them what was at the top versus the bottom – i.e. if someone loved and knew lots about X what would make them seem really sophisticated, but if they loved Y would be looked down upon? People had some difficulty identifying what would be at the top – Mozart perhaps, Kafka? But when I asked them what was at the bottom, they all knew instantly – pop music, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, basically anything that was seen as the stuff of the masses. I joked with my students that I decide what I like based on what carries the least cultural capital, because f*** that sh**. When I came across this article in The Guardian about how horrifying it is when “pop and rock collide” I couldn’t help thinking it might be because pop is seen as such a low art form that it contaminates all “true art” that it comes in contact with.

Game of Thrones: So sophisticate. So amaze (for reals).

Game of Thrones: So sophisticate. So amaze.
(FYI I do love it also)

You may be thinking, well hang on, rock is also the stuff of the masses isn’t it? Why would rock be above pop in this crazy hierarchy of taste? Jimmy Hendrix ain’t no Mozart…right? Here we come to the gendered aspect of this culture war. I can’t help but see how within evaluations of “good” versus “bad” taste, often what is seen as of interest to women (or made by women) is way down the ladder. For example, what ridicule do writers or readers of romance fiction face compared to those of crime novels? How often have you heard someone bemoan how problematic Girls is, but how amazing Game of Thrones is? Or how Kanye West is some kind of genius and gets played on alternative radio stations, but Beyoncé stays within the realm of commercial radio (unless she’s featured by Kanye)? It’s as if something carries more cultural value if it’s seen as belonging to the realm of men’s taste, men’s stereotypical areas of interest like action-adventure, if it’s made by men or simply features men being awesome.

While Kanye is a world away from the cultural capital Michael Gove is talking about, the gendering of taste also plays a huge part in what counts right at the top of the hierarchy. The ancients, classical artists and musicians, the writers of classic texts and operas…predominately men (well, at least the ones we value/know about – the erasure of women from history in all this is another story). 4916523Feminists and cultural theorists have been fighting this for years, to try and turn the tables around. That’s at least part of the reason why you see university courses geared toward taking popular culture more seriously, particularly that which is seen as “women’s interest” areas (like romance).

Of course none of this means we shouldn’t critique popular culture for its downfalls and the way it reproduces other problematic norms around sexuality, bodies, consumption, race, ability, etc. But it does mean we need to hold ourselves to account when we’re critiquing these things. When we judge “popular” culture who are we judging along with it? The working-class? Women? The under-privileged? And we might also ask ourselves: what are we going to do about it?