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.

Feminist Utopias and Battling Cruel Optimism in Ghostbusters

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This is not a drill

When I first heard about the new Ghostbusters, I was bursting with anticipation. But when the trailers started coming I quickly tuned out. Like a child who has peeked at their Christmas presents before the big day, I needed to hold the excitement in. It all seemed too good to be true. So when the lights went down at the cinema last night, I turned to my girlfriend and said “holy crap—they really made this film!”

By way of review, the film itself is highly enjoyable but clunky at times.

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Hands up who wants to go get a science degree after seeing this film

Don’t get me wrong, I was still hanging on every word out of Melissa McCarthy’s mouth, but the direction and editing needed some tightening up. It was probably a three star affair. But the film more than makes up for its pacing and logic problems with its sharp ideas and cast who pull it right through.

Whether this was a great filmic success is not really the point. The point is that they made a movie dominated by smart and funny female leads, who explore issues of gender and race inequality, with large hints of queer sexuality. It feels like a miracle in a world otherwise saturated with films epically failing the Bechdel Test.

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Outside of the film however, cruel optimism is arguably still going strong

However, the irony in celebrating this bastion of female representation is that I spend much of my academic time critiquing the idea that we should focus on representational politics. I often argue that our focus on getting diversity in film and television obscures the material inequalities that underlie the lack of diversity in the popular realm in the first place. When we are presented with images of “successful” characters from ordinarily marginalised groups, this can help to present a false sense that “anyone can make it” despite the odds stacked against them. This connects up with cultural theorist Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”, which refers to those fantasies we hold onto (like “The American Dream”) that are actually cruel promises destined to fail. Berlant writes:

“Fantasy is the means by which people hoard idealising theories and tableaux about how they and the world ‘add up to something’. What happens when those fantasies start to fray—depression, dissociation, pragmatism, cynicism, optimism activism, or an incoherent mash?” (2011, 2).

Cruel optimism operates where there is a desire and attachment to a kind of projected future, but where this possibility is either impossible or “toxic”. Berlant warns against investing in these projections, because when they fail, it can lead to serious disaffection and demoralisation (or, an unhelpful continuation of false positivity).

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The film doesn’t hold back about the discrimination women experience

So, I have to admit that I was worried that the all-female Ghostbusters might be doing its part to contribute to a cruel optimism about gender equality, to say “don’t worry, women can make it too!”, despite the real-life discrimination, harassment and assault experienced by a diversity of women on a daily basis (and on that note, the Ghostbusters cast). But the beautiful thing about this film is that it owns this reality, and runs with it. The film is surprisingly open about gender issues, directly representing the ways that women are systematically dismissed and derided.

When the characters are thrown out of their academic institutions, it is biting commentary on the historic sexist assumption that women pursue the “irrational” (here represented by an interest in the paranormal). When they are dismissed by the authorities and the “men in charge” it is a reminder of the fact that when women report abuse (here represented by the violent male mastermind) there is a practice of active disbelief. When they are vilified online and represented by the media as liars, it is a reflection of the abuse that women experience in these realms.

Ghostbusters doesn’t present cruel optimism: it reflects the true cruelty of the present. There is not a sense that this can be easily overcome, rather, a mass-scale battle led by a vanguard of ass-kicking diverse women is partly what is needed to make any ground.

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Kate McKinnon, the openly gay dreamboat, plays Jillian

The other thing that Ghostbusters does so well, is show us glimpses of the revolutionary future on the horizon. This is reminiscent of the late José Esteban Muñoz‘s work on queer utopias. Muñoz argues that there is a queer future that we are able to glimpse even in the darkest of moments, where oppressive norms of gender and sexuality have been undone:

“Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1).

In Ghostbusters we catch sight of this queer future in the team’s workroom. Here there is no hierarchy (they are all leaders), much empathy (like when Patty cares about Abby’s blood sugar levels), endless patience (even for Kevin who is terrible at answering the phone), and a deep but balanced engagement with questions of science (they make cool stuff) and humanity (like Jillian’s speech to Abby about love). The film is always on the verge of showing us out-and-out queer love, with a complicated triangle between Abby and Erin (past lovers?) and Abby and Jillian (present lovers?), only slightly ameliorated by Erin’s attraction to Kevin. There is also a diversity of bodies, backgrounds, skin colour, and sexuality. Ghostbusters doesn’t shy away from how difficult gender relations are in the present, but it does show us a hint of a future where things could be different.

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They ain’t afraid of no Men’s Rights Activists

There are times of “reverse sexism” within the movie, and I think that kicking a ghost in the groin is probably a bit unnecessary, but largely these moments are used to reflect on the standards that women experience today. The treatment of the assistant Kevin for example, explicitly functions as commentary on the sexual harassment women can expect in most workplaces.

It is no wonder that the MRAs of the Internet are up in arms about this insta feminist-cult-classic. While the sexist and racist hate directed toward the movie serves as a reminder of how far we have to go, it also reveals how challenging this film truly is. As they always say, the feminist proof is in the sexist-reaction pudding.

 

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.

Queer Music Review – Fun Machine’s ‘Bodies On’

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Fun Machine

As a slight departure from the usual gist of BinaryThis (i.e. critiquing dominant discourse and/or pictures of academically-themed cats) I’ve decided to do a music review. While considering music from a queer theory perspective is nothing new, it’s not often that we turn our lens from the pop culture machinations of the super-famous, to what’s being produced locally. So even though I know sh** all about music, I thought I’d take some time to consider a band from my hometown of Canberra, called Fun Machine and their newest album ‘Bodies On’. My feeling is that while we spend so long trying to recover interesting meanings from the big-name songs we hate/love, sometimes we might miss the very queer happenings right under our noses. Also I have a special place in my heart for this band- they did an ode to Skywhale (Canberra’s many-breasted whale hot air balloon) with Hannah Beasley last year, which is probably the best song OF ALL TIME (listen here!).

This is not the band, but it is what comes up on Google image search when you type in "fun machine"

This is not the band, but it is what comes up on Google image search when you type in “fun machine”

But before we begin, here’s a SUPER quick run down of what I mean when I say “queer theory perspective” (for a longer explanation of queer theory, see here or here). Questions I considered for this review are:
– How is the fixity of identity (such as sexuality, gender or human-ness) being challenged?
– What are the ways in which ideas of “normal” are being critiqued?
– Are there any other openings being made for ruptures/transformations of the way we usually understand the world?

An image from the band's page: apparently you can "NEVER have too much glitter"

An image from the band’s page: apparently you can “NEVER have too much glitter”

As you might notice from those questions, though queer theory has its historical foundations in gay and lesbian activism, a “queer” perspective (though connected to questions of identity) can be about more than just gender and sexuality: doing queer theory involves challenging the way we think. In this sense, “to queer” can mean to make the familiar seem strange. While I have literally no idea how these guys identify in terms of gender or sexuality, that’s not what a queer perspective necessarily needs to involve – it’s about shaking things up. Having said that, sometimes queer is just about glitter – which incidentally, these guys are definitely into.

One thing that I really love about this band is the way they switch between different vocalists, styles, instruments and subjects…Listening to their new album in full for the first time, I had no idea what to expect from one track to the next. They’re also certainly not one of those bands where all their songs sound the same (as a side note here, honestly when the Lana Del Ray song ‘Young and Beautiful‘ came out last year, I genuinely thought it was a re-release of one of her earlier songs. Silly me). Point is, Fun Machine are far from boring. But what of their queer themes? Oh god get to the queer themes already! I hear you say. Okay, here goes…

The first song on their album, ‘Naked Body’, has a rather exciting clip filmed right here in Canberra, involving a crowd of sweaty, body-painted locals:

The clip is richly queer: a montage of skin fills the screen in an ode to hands, breasts, hair, feet and sequins. Blending voices, singers Bec Taylor and Chris Endry sing/shout the lyrics Girl it’s just my naked body/You’ll never touch my naked body/Get your hands off this naked body claiming freedom to nudity, and ownership of their own bodies. Then there’s some loud guitary-drumy bits (I said I don’t know sh** about music) and on repeat we hear Don’t trust unnaked bodies followed by orgiastic images of a dancing crowd smeared in paint and glitter. We see the words “naked”, “fun”, and “rock” literally written on their bodies.

Exposed flesh bursts forth in 'Naked Body'

Exposed flesh bursts forth in ‘Naked Body’

The whole scene adds up to a reclamation of the exposed body as something to embrace, but “fun” is located in your own enjoyment and relationship with your body rather than becoming object to someone else’s desires. At the end of the video clip we see a “money shot” of glitter in an orgasmic rock finish. Transcending boundaries of gender and heteronormativity, music is the polyamorous lover that brings bodies to climax. Here, nakedness is not about being seen, but about being “true” to yourself and your own desires, not the expected norms of sexiness.

‘Shave’ is the fourth track off their album, which also boasts a locally made vid. This was obviously done on a shoe-string budget (I love how you can see the pieces of paper they’ve pasted together for the backdrop):

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Brady Bunch for the 21st century in ‘Shave’

The clip starts with a colourful grid of local faces, a kind of modern-day Brady Bunch where “family” is no longer recognisable as the norm of mother-father-children, but rather the connections you have to your community and the people around you. The video involves these faces (also sporting neon makeup and jewels) lip-syncing Come back to me my love/And watch me as I shave. Faces are interspersed with surreal scenes that push the limits of reality: Barbie’s head has been replaced with the Hulk; a plastic wolf is bleeding from the mouth; a monkey mask is covered in candy bananas. The song finishes by asking Are you dancing/Gorgeous/Chaos/Hard Lust? More glitter bursts from a balloon, and a picture of Australia’s Prime Minister is smashed with an egg. ‘Shave’ opens up the limits of what we might take pleasure from and exposes a multiplicity of desire directed at rupturing “reality”. That the PM ends up with ‘egg on his face’ in amongst the scenes of multi-coloured surrealism, suggests that a different political future might be possible – things might be otherwise if we raise our voices up and shout Hey!

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Fun Machine: a veritable glitter-fest

Other songs on their album are also strange and wonderful. ‘In the Jungle’ has helpful tips for what you might want to have handy in the Jungle: You need a hat cos it is sunny/And penicillin never goes wrong, just don’t forget your games console…But I like to play my way/Play Nintendo in the Jungle. With a melody that reminds me of a late 80s sitcom blended with nostalgic videogame tones, this song may seem frivolous on the surface. But I can’t help but think that one message in this is that in order to survive we need more than just the practicalities of life, we need to play. In other tracks we hear about zombie girlfriends (‘Set You on Fire’), how we change each other in relationships (‘Alchemists’) and the possibilities for change (‘Ready for the Fight’). I couldn’t quite understand all of their songs- I think ‘Souvenir Teaspoon’ might be about taking drugs with your grandma, but I’m not sure. The album drifts from gruff deep voices to the softest lilting melodies – this is a musical landscape of difference and transformation.

As a final point, we might note that amongst “80s german minimalist techno” and “pop” they also classify their musical genre as “gay punk” and “genres are weird”. To me, this sums it up: Fun Machine are queer as f*** because you can’t put them in any one box. I encourage you to listen to their new album or go see them if you can: you’ll probably end up dancing around naked and covered in glitter. And as we all know, you can NEVER have too much glitter.

My Struggle With Feminism

This lovely print from dothandmade really sums it up (check out her etsy page)

This lovely print from Michelle Scott of dothandmade really sums it up (check out her Etsy page)

Feminism and I go way back. For one thing, my grandmother used to write STEREOTYPE in big, bold letters underneath problematic pictures in my colouring-in books, such as wart-nosed witches, or coquettish Disney Princesses getting married off to their rather dull princes (if nothing else, this instilled in me a fervour for cultural criticism at a young age). I also had my mother, less the radical-separatist type, more a non-identifying new third-waver, which largely explains that my first tape at the age of four was Madonna’s Immaculate Collection (which I have to say ensures some rather awkward conversations, like when you jump around the lounge room singing “Like a Virgin”, which leads your mother to ask, “Do you know what that word means?”, a series of lying nods, and “the talk” before you’ve even got this Kindergarten thing down pat). I read The Paper Bag Princess, played with Motherpeace Tarot cards, and went to all number of Reclaim the Nights, and pro-choice rallies.

This is exactly the kind of style I would go for

This is exactly the kind of make-up style I would go for

Of course with this kind of upbringing, I didn’t identify explicitly with feminism. That was just assumed, background information, something everyone was au fait with (I thought). In fact, I actively rejected many of the feminist critiques I was exposed to. Much to the chagrin of my family, I demanded to wear dresses. I loved pink. Fairies. Ballerinas. Makeup. In my lifetime I have managed to have not one but three makeup-themed parties (though, on all occasions I was less interested in beautification than I was drag-queening).

Later, despite choosing university majors in psychology, political science and philosophy, I managed to write about sex, gender and sexuality whenever possible (a trend unfortunately only evident in hindsight). But it wasn’t until I began my honours in philosophy, that I finally read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex – which was a revelation. After that I took a giant leap straight into Judith Butler territory, sparking a rather dense love affair with her textual genius. But theoretically, I jumped from a foundational second-wave text to a pretty intense critique of all things gender. I’ve spent the years since then catching up on a lot of the feminist texts in-between and since the great Gender Trouble, but it’s fair to say I’ve taken the queer theory path rather than the recuperative one you see feminist writers like Angela McRobbie taking now (in Aftermath of Feminism McRobbie levels that the work of JB contributed in part to feminism undoing itself). 

This for example, is some crazy bullsh*t

This for example, is some crazy bullsh*t

The point is, a lot of the time, I find myself challenging many of the encompassing explanations of oppression presented by feminist writers and thinkers, instead proposing sneaky little queer readings of things that might otherwise be held up as extremely problematic and supportive of the patriarchy (for example, the much condemned antics of Gaga, Miley, Britney, Katy – I just can’t help falling in love with these women and I will defend them to the death god dammit!). But then at odd and unexpected times, I find myself confronted with street harassment, anti-abortion preachers, or even just vaguely misogynistic comments on social media, and I am reminded hey wait a minute, feminism isn’t always perfect….but it’s still pretty tops. After all, feminism doesn’t mean just one perspective – for me at least, laying claim to feminism in part just means caring about questions of gender.

It sure is

It sure is

As Butler put it herself in the 1999 preface to GT, “I was writing in the tradition of immanent critique that seeks to provoke critical examination of the basic vocabulary of the movement of thought to which it belongs”. In other words, one can write from a critical space that is also ultimately founded in feminist thought. And while I can’t help agreeing with some authors like Janet Halley, that it can be productive to “take a break” from feminism sometimes, I can also never forget my feminist roots.

Flicking the switch – is flexibility at the top (and bottom) of the postmodern agenda?

A filmic representation of the dominant/passive binary

Today at an end of year lunch gathering I briefly mentioned my word discovery of the day – “switch”. The term is part of BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Sadism/Masochism) lingo and refers to the idea of alternating between a top/active/dominant position and a bottom/obedient/passive position. My description was: switch is to top and bottom as bisexual is to lesbian and gay. My point was not to perpetuate a view of switch and bisexuality as more indecisive or indeterminate positions (as is often levelled at bisexuality), but rather to see these identifiers as caught up in a possible in-between space that language has been trying to catch up with (see also, pansexuality).

My description of switch got me questioning its connection with the concept of flexibility. I wondered if switch, bisexuality and other supposed in-betweens could be considered to be more flexible positions- not in the derogatory sense of being easy or undecided, but rather, as potentially more open or adaptive? I realised almost instantly that this would be a problematic assumption to make. This line of argument would seem to necessarily privilege switch and bisexuality over other orientations, inclinations or preferences, and I would therefore be making (what I would like to call) a flexibility fallacy.

I realised that the problematic I had encountered relates to a book I read earlier this week, by queer theorist Judith “Jack” Halberstam called In a Queer Time and Place- which focuses on the tension between transgression and conformity that exists around accounts of queer. Halberstam argues that there is a “postmodern fantasy of flexibility” being promoted, that serves to exclude some ways of identifying from a postmodern agenda- given postmodernism’s apparent obsession with all things indeterminate. Halberstam’s point makes me wonder whether my initial suturing of switch onto a “flexible” dynamic was a bi-product of my subconscious postmodern assumptions.

On that note (of the danger of possible postmodern misreadings), I’ll leave you with this (potentially) BDSM-esque song: