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.

The Queer World of Stranger Things

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

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

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

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It’s almost too good

*SPOILERS (OBVS)*

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

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

*****

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Oppression, comin’ atcha

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

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Joyce, holding her ground

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

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Karen Wheeler (note checked shirt for later)

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

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The patriarchy involves women leaders too

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

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

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

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Eleven not even messing around one bit

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

*****

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

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A camp extravaganza

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

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Misfits abound in Stranger Things

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

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Will (in yet another checked shirt)

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

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Mouth breather

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

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Barb, another outsider (and checked shirt wearer)

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

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Perhaps Will is reflecting on his internalised homophobia

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

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

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The lab, lined by grids

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Steve’s room, so many grids

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

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

*****

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

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

 

A Tale of Beards and Lavender: Imagining the Secret Lesbian Club of Hollywood

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My Internet history is a Snow/Kendrick love fest

It’s strange, but true: at least once a week I sit down and Google the celebrities I think might be not-straight. There’s Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow (hoping the Bechloe romance of Pitch Perfect finally comes true), Leighton Meester (sure she married Adam Brody but…), Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone (to name a few). Up until fairly recently Ellen Page, Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart were also on my list. They make up what I like to imagine is the “Secret Lesbian Club” of Hollywood. In my mind, this is basically an underground ring of awesome gays who like to get together fairly frequently to watch Bound, talk about butch/femme aesthetic, read gender studies texts, and figure out ways to insert queer subtext into their work. And who do I imagine is at the centre of it all? Taylor Swift of course.

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Life is more interesting through a rainbow filter

Some might say this is wishful thinking. But the thing is, when you spend most of your days thinking queerly (that is, making the familiar strange, particularly with regard to sexuality and gender), you can’t help but see the world through rainbow glasses. It seems to me that “normal” is entirely a fiction, and everyone is a lot queerer than all that. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people with “opposite-sex” or “heterosexual” desires, but just that: a) what we ordinarily make of pairings along these lines belies the complexity of human experience; and b) a lot of people are probably a lot less distinctly straight (or gay) than assumed. With this in mind I look to Hollywood, which produces so many of the cultural texts we consume that show visions of a perfectly normative heterosexual life. I spend much of my time—as is tradition in queer theory—re-reading texts differently, to uncover the hidden queer subtext in popular culture. So, why not re-read the lives of actors themselves, given that we can be 99% sure that the narratives produced about them by tabloids and other press are also entirely fiction?

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Taylor Swift

For me Taylor Swift is the perfect example of someone we ought to re-read, because she is held up as the epitome of the normal, wholesome heterosexual girl of today. For one thing, she made her debut on the country music scene, which is notoriously unfriendly to the gays—despite producing a bevy of flamboyant stars who epitomise the queer concept of “camp” aesthetic (Dolly Parton, for example). The boy crushes of Swift are heavily interrogated in the media, and her relationships with women are (for the most part) understood as purely platonic. However, if you look a little closer, we can see a queer subtext in Swift’s life and oeuvre that suggests a rather more fluid expression of desire. Here are a few things to note:

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It just doesn’t look fun for anyone

She dated Taylor Lautner and it was really awkward
There is no doubt that it is common practice in Hollywood for studios to pair stars up for promotional purposes. This is referred to as “showmance”. But there is also the well-known though little-discussed practice of “bearding” (typically this refers to setting up gay male actors with female stars) or in extreme cases “lavender marriage” where the charade involves putting a ring on it (Rock Hudson is one well-noted example). We can’t be sure whether is was a bearding scenario when Swift and Lautner got together, but they sure were very showy yet extremely uncomfortable together.

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Having a much better time

She used to have a pretty intense relationship with her violinist
During her country music days, Swift toured with a band which included violinist Caitlin Evanson for eight years. Unlike those Taylor x Taylor pics, Taylor and her violinist had sparks galore. Evanson, who is ten years older than Swift once commented, “Taylor is a 40 year old in a 19 years olds body”, which is just the kind of thing you’d expect an older girlfriend to say about their younger lover.

23C707C900000578-0-image-a-68_1417800412246There was that time she apparently kissed Karlie Kloss
Karlie Kloss is supposed to be the closest of Swift’s girl-clan, and in 2014 they were spotted kissing at a club. The photos are pretty dodgy and might well be fake. But I include this point here because it started a bunch of rumours about Swift’s sexuality, which is important for the next point.

Her song “New Romantics” is probably about being more than straight
taylor-swift_240822_top.jpgSwift’s new single off 1989 includes a number of lyrics that reflect a queer subtext. These include:
1.”We show off our different scarlet letters— Trust me, mine is better”: given that scarlet letters refer to adultery, Swift is basically saying here “I’ve got other partners but they’re not who you expect”.
2. “We team up then switch sides like a record changer”: note here that Swift doesn’t seem to be just referring to switching partners, but switching sides.
3. “The rumors are terrible and cruel/But, honey, most of them are true”: this might be referring to the gay rumours as noted above.
4. “And every day is like a battle/But every night with us is like a dream”: this suggests an outside persona that clashes with what goes on behind closed doors, specifically with a partner.
5. “The best people in life are free”: this might refer to the practice of studios paying for beards. Swift is saying, the best people in life are not the ones you get contractually set up with.

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Swift romancing with Calvin Harris on her Instagram

“I Know Places” is about secret love
One thing you can say about Swift’s hetero romances, is that they are very very public. Instagram pictures posted by Swift, hundreds of photos in gossip magazines, TV interviews, and so on. However this song from 1989 refers to a love that Swift must hide away. The song also starts with “You stand with your hand on my waist line/It’s a scene and we’re out here in plain sight”, which suggests a romance that might not be perceived as one at first. This might be a reference to that phenomenon that people will believe anything before they believe you’re in a gay relationship—i.e. “oh, you’re sisters?” or “you guys are such cute best friends” etc.

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Unfortunately it actually is a big deal because openly queer stars don’t get jobs

Let’s be clear here: I don’t want to essentialise sexuality, like it’s some nugget of “truth” that can simply be unearthed like a buried crystal. But I do think there is some benefit in cracking open what is considered normal, so that we can begin to see how this is really just a fiction that *no one* lives up to. This also isn’t to condemn those who do not “come out” of the proverbial closet, because we ought to realise that attempting to live up to the fiction of normality is often enacted as a mode of survival. The horrible reality is that once stars come out they can’t survive easily in Hollywood. Among others, Ellen Page has talked about how she has struggled to get parts playing straight characters since publicly declaring her sexuality.

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Okay so my analysis sounds a lot like this trashy magazine…but the conclusion is that if we refuse the idea of “normal” then this romance isn’t actually”shocking” at all

In any case, you might be thinking: why care about Taylor Swift’s sexuality anyway—shouldn’t that be none of our business? Fair point. Perhaps when you apply a queer “re-reading” to real people it can all get a little…gossipy. Despite this, I continue to hold onto the fantasy that our icons of culture aren’t all that straight and narrow. I think I care so much because I grew up looking and acting pretty heteronormative, and was treated as such. But while I had mad crushes on boys and aspired to extreme girliness in aesthetic, my desires were not simply straight. I had girl crushes too, I just didn’t know how to make sense of my complex range of feelings. I guess that’s why I hang onto the idea that there’s a Secret Lesbian Club in Hollywood, headed by the girliest boy-mad celebrity of all…because in that alternate universe, sexuality might be hidden but it sure isn’t black and white.

 

Queering and Queening Femininity

Snog, Marry, Avoid?

SMA host Jenny Frost (centre) with two contestants pre-make-under

Recently I published an article in the journal Australian Feminist Studies titled “Queer Femininity Versus ‘Natural Beauty’ in Snog, Marry, Avoid“. In the article I discuss the way that femininity is represented on the BBC’s Snog, Marry, Avoid – the show where they take “extreme” women and give them a make-under to help them fit in.

I won’t go over all of the details of my analysis of the show, but in a nutshell the point I make is that the “natural beauty” promoted by the show is far from liberating. In fact, the contestants are merely presented with a form of appropriate gender that they must conform to, which restricts rather than frees them.

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A typical contestant pre-make-under

Indeed, if we consider the women prior to make-under we can see that their “inappropriate” and excessive femininity is actually queer in many ways. That is, “queer” in the theoretical sense of making the familiar strange and subverting ordinary understandings of gender and sexuality.

It may seem anti-intuitive to say that women who are covered in make-up, wearing extremely short dresses and who have outrageous hair extensions are queer in any way. The usual sentiment that would circulate about such women is that they are a product of a problematic “raunch” culture where women are compelled to be sexy and one dimensional.

However what we see in Snog, Marry, Avoid is that these women are not treated as “normal” at all. Rather, they are marked out as deeply problematic and in need of transformation.

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A contestant hears that a man would prefer to “avoid” her

Men are interviewed on the show and are asked whether they would like to “snog, marry or avoid” the contestants. Their responses (almost always negative) are used to justify why a make-under is essential for the woman in question. The women who don’t want to change are ridiculed as ridiculous and disinterested in being attractive.

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For Halberstam “kinging” involves some understatement, “performing non-performativity”

This is where the idea of “queening” is helpful. The term is an inversion of queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam’s “kinging” referred to in the book Female Masculinity. In this text Halberstam looks in part at female drag kings and the kind of masculinity they present. Kinging describes portraying masculinity via “understatement, hyperbole, and layering” that makes obvious the performative aspects of gender.

In the same way, the contestants on Snog, Marry, Avoid are involved in exaggerating femininity and showing it up. The contestants often talk about wanting to look “fake”, and the show frequently points out how the women indulge in/are obsessed with “fakery”. In this way the women are queening rather than kinging – making obvious their adopted feminine presentation. In contrast, when the women are made-under their gender is portrayed as “natural” despite the fact that they are still wearing make-up, have had their hair styled, and so on – sometimes they are even wearing wigs! Here another kind of queening is going on, where they are compelled to perform naturalness.

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A typical before (left) and after (right) shot on SMA

We see that while a more extreme portrayal of femininity (pre-make-under) can serve to show us how constructed gender is, the portrayal of “natural beauty” insidiously covers this up. The make-under process presents gender as something that is natural, as something that can be found underneath and within.

Rather, we ought to understand gender as something that is determined by social expectations and norms, where some people are considered “normal”, and where others fall outside of these constructed boundaries and are often compelled by society to conform. Ironically Snog, Marry, Avoid does help us to see this, if we analyse the show for what it is contained within it rather than the narrative of normalcy it attempts to enforce.

Scourge of the Girl Crush: 7 Nearly-Gay Movies

Sam Frost and Lisa Hyde 4EVA

Sam Frost and Lisa Hyde 4EVA

I have this habit of erasing straightness from movies and TV shows, to the extent that I often remember things as explicitly gay, when really there’s heteroromance as a main focus. For example, in this year’s series of The Bachelor on Australian television, I was convinced that the main man Blake was gay, and that his top two women left at the end – Sam and Lisa – were in love (I still stalk their Instagram accounts and hold to this theory). When it all went to crap, I couldn’t help thinking it was probably because everyone was gay, and the new girl Blake picked was just the only one willing to be his beard.

It's like this see

It’s like this see

I was recently asked by a friend why I was so insistent on seeing queerness in straight romances, like, isn’t this some kind of reverse homophobia?! I answered that there are is so little queerness represented in the mainstream that by default I see queer storylines in some kind of attempt to open up space. As Jill Mackey writes about seeing the gay in the straight:

Despite [the] dearth of honest representations of ourselves and our lives, lesbians continue to see mainstream films, and we make up for the lack of representation of ourselves by “reading against the grain” for representations of women that we might appropriate and interpret as signs of lesbian love and desire

I'll save the queer reading of Princess Bride for another time

But I’ll save the queer reading of Princess Bride for another time

Of course I don’t see every romance this way and there are some “straight” partnerships I definitely love – Buttercup and Wesley, Elizabeth and Darcy and all of Love Actually, for example. But in many movies, I just can’t help seeing epic romances between the female characters, which leaves me in a state of perpetual disappointment and/or simply mis-remembering the endings (always tricking myself that the fanfic in my head actually happened). Adding to my angst is the fact that many films try and pass off any possible queer vibes as simple non-threatening “girl crushes” instead. This makes me pretty mad, because it suggests that there is a “safe” way for women to be nearly-queer, while still asserting an explicitly “no-homo” sentiment (many “bromances” also promote the message of safely-not-gay).

So, entertaining a mix of both delight and disappointment, here’s a rundown of my top seven nearly-gay-girl-couples (spoilers ahead):

drinking

“We got played by the same guy… do you want vodka or tequila?”

7. Carly and Kate, The Other Woman
The Other Woman
has an interesting premise – when Carly finds out that she’s actually the mistress of the man she’s been dating, she becomes unlikely friends with his wife Kate (and they team up to do awful things to him). The movie explores their burgeoning friendship and (if you ask me) there is a great deal of homoeroticism in their unintended ménage à trois, particularly when they discuss their desire to still have sex with the cheating guy, yet “withhold” for each other. All I’m saying is that there is a lot of sexual tension, drunken rollicking and under-wedding-skirt action. But really for me the unacknowledged love between the two women is cemented when Carly “falls” for Kate’s handsome yet fairly two-dimensional brother. It’s like seeing her choose to take the second prize in a raffle. The bro don’t cut it.

"You are more beautiful than Cinderella! You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine"

“You are more beautiful than Cinderella! You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine”

6. Rita and Becca, Bridesmaids
This one’s not quite as painful, because really the lesbian themes are pretty overt, so it’s not so much about reading into things as celebrating a minor storyline. These guys have a serious crush on each other, and the femme-on-femme action couldn’t be better. In fact I love them so much I can’t even remember how this storyline ends, despite seeing the film several times. I think they go back to their husbands, but in my head they get shacked up in Vegas. My only wish is that there was a lot more of the film dedicated to them and I’m still hoping for a gay wedding spin-off.

"A woman's touch can quickly fill the empty flower boxes on a window sill. One smile from her and zoom, little buds begin to bloom

“A woman’s touch can quickly fill the empty flower boxes on a window sill. One smile from her and zoom, little buds begin to bloom”

5. Katie and Calamity, Calamity Jane
What can I say about these two? They move to a hut in the wilderness and dance around singing a song called “A Woman’s Touch”. About how good the touch of a woman is. Yeah. At the end the Hollywood producers stick a weird double wedding scene in there where Katie and Calam marry some forgettable guys, but it’s pretty hard to believe. Did I mention that Calamity also sings at length about her “Secret Love“? Mmm. 

"It's time to see what I can do. To test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me I'm free!"

“It’s time to see what I can do. To test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free!”

4. Anna and Elsa, Frozen
Okay, stay with me on this one. I *get* that Elsa and Anna are sisters, but the queer themes here are out of control. I mean it’s really nice to see sisterly love represented as “true love” instead of romantic love, but it’s hard to overlook the intensely gay themes of the film. Funnily enough, when Frozen came out and was lambasted by a bunch of right-wing religious nut jobs, I agreed with their readings of the film as super gay (but obviously disagreed with the conclusion that this was a bad thing). The way I see it, there was some serious Freudian taboo stuff represented at the beginning when Anna gets “touched” by Elsa (representative of the sexual exploration that children do), but then Elsa is forced to hide her queer touch. When she runs away to the mountains and sings “Let it Go” it definitely smacks of coming out of the closet (plus she femmes up like a super high femme of excellence). Olaf the camp snowman is like a concrete manifestation of her queer desire, and not surprisingly turns up at the beginning, but doesn’t come to life until Elsa “comes out”.

"I just wanna meet I guy I like as much as you"

“I just wanna meet I guy I like as much as you”

3. Paige and Sasha, Life Partners
This movie is painful because it follows the story of Sasha, an openly lesbian woman (representation – tick), who is best friends with a straight woman Paige. When Paige gets a really straight boyfriend and stops hanging out with Sasha, everyone has a bad time, particularly anyone in the audience hoping the women would get together. Apparently this film was trying to push boundaries by representing this kind of relationship (and is based on a true story/ directed by the real-life Paige). But what you end up with is wondering why Paige stays with her super clean cut man, when Sasha is about a zillion times more interesting and dashing in every way. It’s like the film is an ad for homosexuality through painting a picture of a monotonous and droll heterosexual world. It’s very confusing.

"That's my jam. It's my lady jam."

“That’s my jam. It’s my lady jam.”

2. Beca and Chloe, Pitch Perfect
Oh Beca and Chloe! Or, as Tumblr kids refer to them, “Bechloe“. Pitch Perfect is one of my favourite movies (I would watch it as frequently as I watch Mean Girls, but I can’t deal with all the vomiting), but the non-eventuating Bechloe storyline is a killer. They have so much chemistry, they are pretty much literally on fire for each other. The shower scene! The party scene! The finals scene! OMG it’s a Bechloe love-fest! Except that it’s not, and when I re-watch I am continually reminded that there is some dude that Beca gets with at the end. I’m sorry but getting sentimental over Breakfast Club? Whatever. I’m sure Bechloe will live on in Pitch Perfect 2. And in my heart.

"I'm with Muriel"

“I’m with Muriel”

1. Muriel and Rhonda, Muriel’s Wedding
I re-watched Muriel’s Wedding on TV the other night, and was delighted to see the glaringly obvious gay themes in there that I’d never noticed as a kid. Not only does the film indulge in an uber-kitsch camp aesthetic, but it seriously challenges the institution of heterosexual marriage by mocking it at every turn. Rhonda sweeps in and transforms Muriel’s life, and the two are miserable when they part. There is also the scene where Rhonda discovers Muriel’s book of fake wedding pictures and is utterly distraught, and when Muriel finally does get (sham) married, Rhonda sits like an outcast at the back. But your heart skips a beat when they look at each other leaving Porpoise Spit at the end – practically on the verge of kissing at every moment.

There it is, my depressing/delusionally heartening list that would make for a super marathon of film watching. If you have any other films with similar not-yet-queer themes, let me know in the comments below!

Revolutionary Eggs and the Pop-cult Basket

Hunger Games: selling you nail polish?

Hunger Games: selling you nail polish?

Currently I’m reading Catching Fire from the Hunger Games trilogy. This has mostly been triggered by the fact I’m going to see the movie on Saturday, and since seeing the first one I thought it might be a good idea to actually go and read the books. It is also a nice way to switch off for a while after uni each day, especially since I don’t own a TV. Since I have such a shoddy memory, I have been struck by how fantastically political the series of books actually are. As easy access young-adult lit, it really draws out quite an amazing Marxist critique of society (compare this to the John Marsden we were all reading when I was in year six, where the main theme was fighting against the invasion of Australia…).

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Suzanne Collins’ treatment of the characters from the Capitol is part of what I find most interesting. It seems to me (though this doesn’t come out so much in the first film at least) that although they are rather superficial in their interests, they are by no means devoid of humanity. Sure, they like watching kids slaughter each other on the telly, but they also have feelings. Though they are clearly part of an oppressive system, they are so inculcated in the norms of the capitol that the idea of resistance does not occur to them (false consciousness anyone?). 

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And may the odds be ever in your favor

So then that got me thinking – I invest a great deal of my time waving the popular culture banner and resisting dominant readings that suggest we are all brainwashed and oppressed by current norms around sexiness, raunch, the problem with Disney Princesses, etc. But what if we had our very own Hollywood Hunger Games – would I spend my time analysing it in terms of the death drive, or the way in which it rendered boys and girls as equals within a killing field? Would I approach it without revolt, without action to break those kids out of that crazy systematic torture?

This troubles me. But then I am brought back to why I think approaching things queerly and providing alternative perspectives is part of resistance: because it opens up a space for thinking the world differently. I would hope that alongside my resistant readings would sit some heavy structural critiques. Because, as I have always found, you can’t jump from problematising, say, a dominant feminist line, without considering why feminism is so freaking important in the first place.

Britney-Spears-Work-Bitch

You wanna hot body…you wanna Maserati? You better work bitch

But most importantly, I don’t put all of my revolutionary eggs in the pop cult basket. I don’t actually think that millionaire Miley is necessarily going to smash the gender binary, or that the perfumed Britney is going to start the Marxist revolution with “Work Bitch”. But I also think that doesn’t matter. The way in which we approach these texts might matter though, a lot – to imagine different possibilities for sex, sexuality, class, identity, and so on.

She is pretty great though

Even The Hunger Games could be seen on one level (a classical critical theory approach) as making revolution part of a fantasy world, not a real one. But from another perspective, our encounter with this text could yield a whole other set of discussions and imaginings.

Getting real

"He doesn't smell right!" he exclaimed. "He isn't a rabbit at all! He isn't real!" "I am Real!" said the little Rabbit. "I am Real! The Boy said so!" And he nearly began to cry.

Yesterday I saw a production of the children’s classic, The Velveteen Rabbit. The story is about a little stuffed bunny’s relationship with a young boy, and the soft toy’s desire to be a “real” rabbit. After much time, the velveteen rabbit does become real in the boy’s eyes. At the end of the story, a fairy gets involved and the rabbit becomes really real, and goes to play with the other bunnies in the woods. The particular theatrical version I saw opened with something wonderful like, “realness isn’t how you look, it’s something you hold in your heart”. It got me wondering, what does it mean to be real?

The other reference to “realness” that came to mind (apart from Pinocchio), was Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning. Set in New York in the late 1980s, the film explores the world of underground drag-ball culture. At these balls, gay men and trans* folk (of predominately African American and Hispanic backgrounds), would compete performing various categories of “drag”. Several categories necessitated the effective portrayal of “realness”– for example, Butch-Queen realness was judged on whether the competitor could pass as a heterosexual in the sub-categories of executive, thug, pretty boy, etc. Below is a clip from the film about realness:

For the participants in drag balls, demonstrating realness was a way of showing your potential, if boundaries such as race, class and gender didn’t exist. However in Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler discusses the way in which doing realness creates the boundaries of realness itself- the rules of realness are reinforced. Butler teaches us that getting real is tricky business.

Aside from the drag-ball scene, the realness issue seems pervasive across so many experiences of sexuality and gender. As discussed previously, it’s easy to find oneself in a situation or community where you feel that you don’t meet the “criteria” for acceptance. The trans* community is very often subjected to the rules of realness, as this piece by Tobi Hill-Meyer reminds us (e.g. “you’re not a real transsexual woman if you don’t wear dresses and skirts all the time“).

Haters gonna hate

But back to Velveteen. I think we can take a lot away from this story on the subject of the real. When the rabbit encounters some “real” forest bunnies, they mock the toy for having no legs (“fancy a rabbit without hind legs!”). And while the fairy at the end assures the velveteen rabbit that for the young boy the rabbit was 100% real, she still changes the rabbit and says, “now you shall be real to everyone”. Despite this ending, when the forest bunnies tease earlier in the story, the velveteen rabbit exclaims, “I know I am Real!”. Maybe then, this little rabbit really does teach us that it’s what’s in our hearts that makes us real- despite what we look like, or what the haters say. And when the fairy transforms the rabbit into a real forest dweller (though she may be reinforcing what it means to be a real bunny), we know that actually, the velveteen rabbit  was real all along.