Author: luminouspetals

You Was Never My Age, None of Ya!

Originally published at Medium on 18 March 2017.

Call Me By Your Name and the teens we wish we’d been

Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name premiered at Sundance earlier this year to strong reviews. Ask anyone who knows me and they’d say that “a lush romance set in Lombardy [that] recalls the best of Merchant-Ivory” (the comparisons to Maurice are already flowing), plus a score by Sufjan Stevens, would be right up my alley, and yet I was nervous to take on this “romance between a seventeen-year-old boy and a summer guest.” Though the film won’t reach theatres until the fall, the first footage publicly released depicts a scene straight from the book: Oliver (Armie Hammer) rubs the boy Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) shoulder and Elio shies away. This tension stems from their mutual attraction — each thinks the other isn’t interested — but the scene itself also recalled to me the discomfort of a man’s unwanted touch. 

While I hemmed and hawed, Sundance attendees called the film “fucking extraordinary” and “one of the most powerful love stories to grace the screens of cinema,” described it as ”beautiful visually, emotionally, and my god, sexually” and made much of one scene in particular: “Today I watched… Timothée Chalamet fuck a peach. Sundance is gonna be alright.” For the life of me, I could not figure out what it would mean to “fuck a peach.” Did they mean… literally? Or was I too dense to decipher the innuendo? (They meant literally.) Not to mention that the film and the book had blurred in my mind: it’s no good judging one by the other. What to make of it all? I bought the novel. I intended to find out.

Though I occasionally reference Guadagnino’s film below, because I’ve not seen it, my main focus will be Aciman’s novel and with it, the sexualization of children and teens in popular English-language fiction.

Awakening

Call is our narrator Elio’s retrospective on an emotionally and sexually intense six weeks spent with a visiting grad student, the twenty-four-year-old Oliver. The inside cover speaks of “a sudden and powerful romance that blossoms between an adolescent boy and a summer guest,” a “romance of scarcely six weeks’ duration,” “total intimacy,” and a “heartrending elegy to human passion.” When it was published, The New York Times called it “exceptionally beautiful” and a “Proustian meditation on time and desire, a love letter.” The novel, Stacey D’Erasmo wrote at the time, was “hot.” Michael Upchurch, writing for The Seattle Times, called it a“great love story,” one in which,“intellectually, [Oliver and Elio] are close to a perfect match.” The BBC more recently reported that the film “will make you swoon.” It is a romance, a “coming-of-age,” an “intellectually precocious” teenager’s “sexual awakening.

Yet these words are also signals of abuse: coming-of-age, precocious, intellectual, awakening. Writes D’Erasmo, “Elio is smart, nervous, naïve, but also bold; Oliver is handsome, seductive and breezily American.” He is “already well on his way into the adult world,” says Upchurch. That is, the child is smart and bold, mature for his age; he know what he wants; he’s asking for it… D’Erasmo is captivated by “the lost city of love between the two men” (my emphasis) and pleased that Aciman “never wheels in repressive social forces to crush the lovers,” implying that any force that would separate them — that would, say, protect the child — would be repressive. Out of touch. Not hip. Not with it.(1)

But Call was sweeping, you see, so romantic. Right? I won’t be sarcastic or coy, and I won’t lie: I was swept up in it. I wiped my eyes, felt a clenching in my chest, recognized those feelings. The experience reminded me of Katie Kapurch’s speculation, without derision, that the generic features of melodrama — the emotional excess, the passion — framed girls’ responses to the mid-2000s Twilight phenomenon by providing a“mode of communication” through which readers both processed and shared their feelings. Though I doubt many adults would be willing to view their own responses to so-called literary fiction through a similar lens, this remains a helpful way to consider our “feels” and to then explore what lies beneath those emotions.

Here, become Elio. You’re in a hotel in Rome of course, Roma/amor and etc., and everybody loves Rome, loves in Rome, dreams of Rome — Audrey Hepburn did, Halsey did, take your pick — and you love Oliver and he’s going away in a few days. You drink everything you can get your hands on, it’s euphoric, you might as well be an adult. You’re in Rome with your parents’ blessing and you’re with Oliver and you love him. You wander the streets together — still in Rome, can you believe it? — and you’re drunk off your head, so much that you later can’t remember who you meet, and Oliver kisses you up against a wall. Up against a wall. Didn’t you read that in a book somewhere, see it in a film? Isn’t that what people do? He has you up against a wall, and you love him. Everyone tells you this is romance, this is what it means to grow up. You think of the Basilica of San Clemente,“built on the ruins of subsequent restorations… [with] no first anything, nor last anything,” as an analog for memory and for yourself.(2) And yet there are such things as firsts after all: before you and Oliver had sex for the first time, he wrote a reply to your note that had earlier begged him for a resolution. It read, “Grow up. I’ll see you at midnight.”

Teens in the wild

Here is what I want you to do. First, find a photograph of yourself at seventeen, a candid or a school picture. Lay it on your desk. Next, find a photograph of yourself at twenty-four and do the same. Imagine being twenty-four and being attracted, really attracted, intellectually, emotionally, romantically, sexually, to a teenager, a high school student. It’s not that I don’t think such relationships occur, but that such unbalanced power is rocky ground where love will not grow. “Erotic attention,” writes bell hooks, “often serves as the catalyst for an intimate connection between two people, but it is not a sign of love.” Indeed hooks prefers M. Scott Peck’s definition of “love” as,

“the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

She adds, “since the choice must be made to nurture growth, this definition counters the more widely accepted assumption that we love instinctually.” What then is the “human passion” to which Call is “a heartrending elegy”? What is controllable and what is not? Who gets to be human? Is Elio’s human passion, his humanity, secondary to Oliver’s? If Oliver loved Elio, really, could he not show that love by leaving him alone?

Here are a few things done by teenagers I have known personally, myself included:

  • At the behest of their mom, wear a helmet onstage in the school drama production, lest they injure themselves, age 14;
  • Talk about basically nothing except The Lord of the Rings, become known as The Lord of the Rings Girl, age 13;
  • Pack for lunch a bag of potato chips and head of broccoli, age 16;
  • Drive around in a rattletrap painted like the General Lee, age 17;
  • Drink antifreeze, age 17;
  • Carry, everywhere, a Hello Kitty purse and a clipboard with a picture of Michael Shanks glued to the inside, age 14;
  • Wear, constantly, over-the-ear headphones not plugged into anything, age 16;
  • Convince the music teacher to write a concert-band arrangement of “Iris,” age 16;
  • Wait at the bus stop long after the last bus, hitting each other in the shoulders and spinning in circles (a game known as “punchy-go-round”), age 15;
  • Wear the same Reitman’s dress as the math teacher, age 16;
  • Suggest using an empty salt-and-vinegar-potato-chip bag in lieu of a disinfectant wipe, age 14; and
  • Pack, for a weekend-long camping trip, no food other than hot dogs and mustard, age 17.

We weren’t living sexless lives, to be sure, but are these the suave sophisticates riffing on Liszt, musing on Heraclitus, and banging visiting grad students like their lives depend on it? No.

In our case, of course, we never met grad students. Our passions were more parochial: fawning admiration of the annual Jostens school-picture guy, last year’s graduates returned to upgrade, and substitute teachers just a few inscrutable years out of reach. (One teacher of mine had met their spouse in another school some years before: they had been the teacher.) Yet teachers, if they are good ones, hide their private lives carefully, put a wall between themselves and their students. (Good lord, I thought, hearing years later what went on in the staff room while I was reading The Chrysalids and learning algebra, was all of that really happening at the same time?) It is an embrace of fantasy to act as though we live in the blue lagoon, where everything is natural and nothing hurts and we should all just do what feels good and follow our hearts. Aciman says in an interview, “The peach scene — where did this come from? I have no idea.” Does he really? No idea? It sprung from his head fully-formed like Athena? Elio stands next to Oliver’s bed and feels “like a child left alone for the first time with his homeroom teacher.” Romance! But if, say, the Jostens-school-picture guy or the substitute teacher had spirited me away from my parents or had sex with me in my childhood bedroom, would it have been romantic because I was precocious and intelligent and yearned for “total intimacy,” all of which I would have felt, then, to be true? 

Who is famous for saying, “the heart wants what it wants. There’s no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that’s that”? Woody Allen.

Obsession 

This blog received the bulk of its (admittedly few) search-engine referrals in the last year from people using Google to search for incest, bestiality, and rape pornography based on various young adult (YA) series I had written about in the past. (No doubt Luminous Petals came as a surprise!) Human brains are weird, as are humans’ sexual preferences, and the idea of exposing an individual’s Google history, or dragging fandom and fan fiction, is distasteful, and moreover not terribly helpful. It lingers on the surface in lieu of digging for the root — the single instead of the system. For what sexual preferences are not, in the end, is innate. It is not enough for Aciman to shrug and say he can’t imagine where that peach scene came from, just as we must consider how the authors of these YA novels set the stage for these searches with their own work. Their material, often bizarrely explicit, was created expressly for children’s consumption, from torture porn in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series, the “pleasure” his woman characters find in “agony,” his teenage hero’s arousal at the sight of a woman’s tortured body, and the hopelessness he bakes into the lives of disabled girls who would be better “stillborn [than] unable to make a suitable match,” to “mind rape” in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments, where one teen girl returns to the boy who tried to kill her in a jealous rage and another begs a boy to drink her blood while he ruts against her wounded body. Why?

This is a surface sampling of the vast YA market, in which there are of course many gems. (What are you still doing here? Go read Kristin Cashore!)  When it comes to troubling texts, though, I could easily name a string of others: Stephenie Meyer’s eroticization of pain; Lauren Kate’s reform-school bad girls and Nina Malkin’s ghost-possessed, sex-pollinated teens; Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s hatred of “slutty” girls, voiced through a teenage boy; Jon Skovron’s disgust, yet preoccupation, with “noxious,” “dirty” girls magically coerced into breaking their own limbs and sandpapering their own faces; and at the so-called “literary” end of the spectrum, an elderly man’s “pillow book,” written in a girl’s voice (Aidan Chambers’s This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn), and the romanticized rape of children in Laura Whitcomb’s A Certain Slant of Light, made an ALA Book Pick in 2006. (Kirkus Reviews criticized Slant, but ignored the misogyny and rape apologism in favour of mocking the “young women [who] will be drawn to this book, and will probably finish it.” She wanted it…) Why?

Why? The question that came to me again and again as I read Call Me By Your Name was this: why do adults write with such single-minded fixation on the sexual habits and behaviours of teenagers, whether YA or no, and when they do, why do others, we, not challenge it? Do we want to be hip, to show we understand the Plight of Today’s Youth? Do we wish not to be seen as prudes by our adult peers, or perish forbid, tread a toe on free speech? (I mean, let’s not take things too far! Censorship! Should Judy Blume have been prevented from publishing Forever?) (Be realistic: Forever and vampires who batter and fuck senseless their teenage wives barely belong in the same sentence, much less on the same bookshelf.)

I think the answer is twofold: that many adults want first to signal their virtues as admirable, non-judgemental liberals and/or free-speech advocates (and often thereby justify or conceal their crueller behaviours and bad habits); and second to remember their own teenage years as something other than what they were, something smoother, slicker, sexier and more beautiful. Something cooler than what we were.

Writing for School Librarian, Peter Hollindale said of Aidan Chambers’s Pillow Book, “the torment, joy and intensity of sexual learning can rarely have been caught so vividly.” An adult man, Hollindale uses his role as a critic to justify his relish of a girl’s “torment” and sexuality, itself captured by, you guessed it, an adult man. Cordelia, like Elio, has an affair with an older man, a relationship Chambers’s novel describes as “sexy daughter with sexy dad, the naughty tug of incest, that taboo desire many women feel and most repress,” while Cordelia’s partner later says to their child, “I was your daddy of course, you flirted and were coy with me.” Reviewer Dinah Joy lets it by, going so far as to apologize for potentially offending Chambers: “Once I’d got over my initial queasiness at the idea of a seventy-year-old-man writing about sex in the voice of a sixteen-year-old girl (sorry: ageism and sexism in one line) I couldn’t… put [it] down.” As with D’Erasmo’s “repressive social forces,” Joy suggests that any “queasiness” on the part of readers must be “got over.” At least Karen Coats, writing for the Bulletin of the Centre for Children’s Books, recognizes the all-too-adult attitude problem: “readers who don’t get the wonder of these things are likely to be dismissed as naff chavs and they’ll know it.” Same shit, different day: you chicks are uptight.

You don’t want to be naff, do you? I say, Oliver doesn’t love Elio. Someone else says, stop judging me, you frigid prude, you Victorian moralist, you bigoted dummy. But back to bell hooks: “[t]he widespread assumption that ethical behaviour takes the fun out of life is false. In actuality, living ethically ensures that relationships in our lives, including encounters with strangers, nurture our spiritual growth.” There are many people, certainly, who at seventeen were or are having sex as often as Aciman’s Elio. Alright. Are there any, though, who are so simultaneously stereotypically virginal — the fear, the pain, the shame — and unthinkingly expert, trysting in the window of a fancy hotel, or is Elio a shallow construction? Is there a difference, really, between stories like these and porn, with its fantastical and unrealistic portrayals of sex, except that we call the former literature?  What would happen if we stopped understanding this story as a romance?

Hate-reading (and hate-responding) is another kind of obsession. Some of my older writing revels in eviscerating books I had felt were badly written. I thought it worthwhile to tease out sexist tropes and language, to expose and discuss them, and I still do — but at what price? What is the difference between criticism and trashing? And too, when stories overcome conventional limitations — WASPishness or heterosexism, for instance, as Call does  — when and how should criticism account for any shortcomings in those stories? Yet one might also reframe this question: why should those excluded by literary conventions be expected to make do with subpar art? This is not a new quandary. Susanna J. Sturgis captured this very conflict 38 years ago, discussing “trashing” versus “criticism” in lesbian writing:

“When I came out in the mid-1970’s, the incidence of trashing in the earlier Women’s Liberation Movement had generated a reaction, an ethic that named “judgmental” a negative (patriarchal, male, heterosexist, academic, WASP, elitist, left-brain, etc., etc.) attribute…. Our collective striving to be “nonjudgmental” may have eased the impulse to trash, but it also seems to have encouraged a tendency to uncritical (public) acceptance of every female endeavor, especially those that declare themselves feminist. Writers and artists should be the first to recognize the uselessness and the potential liabilities of such an attitude (in theory at least; a lot of us struggle with the fear that the first discouraging word is going to reduce someone to tears)…. Maybe the “if it’s lesbian , it’s got to be good” credo has started its own backlash. Maybe some critics believe that they have to use scathing sarcasm and/or ridicule to prove that their work isn’t mush and puffery. Maybe it’s just that writing unbridled polemics can be more fun than laboring to say hard things in a gentle way” (my emphasis).

I don’t want to “trash” Call, and I’d rather write something at least a little bit useful than something that failed to stretch beyond “unbridled polemic.” After all, the book has resonated with many and while I must keep reminding myself not to conflate the book and the film, I expect the film will too, as it has for Michael Arbeiter at The Nerdist and Jordan Hoffman at The Guardian. 

I mean, the story certainly resonated with me: it seems I can’t stop thinking about it. But I also want to think about Call as part of a larger pattern, and about how we treat children in our stories. Readers, of course, do not need to “be” a character to relate to them — that’s one of the reasons we see storytelling as a kind of magic — but I do believe that in our relations to characters there is a difference between being a child and remembering being a child. And as Ursula Le Guin says,“If one believes that words are acts, as I do, then one must hold writers responsible for what their words do.”  I’ve been tracking the sexualization of children in popular fiction for years now. I want to talk about it.

Romance is dead

Perhaps I am just a prude after all. I don’t take offence at the word (from the French for “a good man and true” I’ve learned, and made derogatory only as it came to be associated with women). Elio’s thoughts, his uncertainty, his self-reproach at his virginity, his passion, the love he poured out in his admiration of Oliver’s refusal to conceal his Star of David necklace, Oliver’s (seemingly) effortless friendliness and confidence, Oliver’s grace — all these made me want to weep, not with anger but because they were moving, gripping, recognizable. I hate myself sometimes too, buddy. On the other hand, I found Aciman’s sex scenes unpleasant, both in context and in the writing itself (anal sex without lube? seriously?). Even Guadagnino described these as “extremely ridiculous.”

At the heart of this muddle is a false dichotomy that says the heart is pure, but the body is not. The novel is frank when it comes to the body, its characters eating peaches sticky with cold semen and watching each other defecate, but it is not honest. I will explain with an example meant to jar: compare Call to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, although we commonly understand the former as something for serious adults and the latter as something for stupid little girls. Twilight buries the body and its pains (blacking out during sex, having your child bite its way out of your womb, etc.) under the “feels” of its surface romance. Call, with its insistence on“human passion,” does the same. Guadagnino “sought to keep the sexual situations tame because he envisioned the film as being of the ‘idyll’ genre — ‘and I don’t see many organs in an idyll.’” Yet organs there are, no matter how you might like to pretend otherwise. Fucking a peach, remember? Aciman has Elio describes the peach as a “rape victim.” (Guadagnino calls this the “raped fruit” scene.) Masturbating with a fruit is one thing, but from where springs the notion to conceptualize the act as assault? I suppose Aciman would tell us he couldn’t say.

And yet a “lush romance” remains appealing. I type all this and still I think, well, maybe, maybe the movie will be different, maybe I just didn’t get the book… Why?

I know why. Because romance is fucking with me again. Because I’m strung between melodrama and grit, between, dare I say, idyll and organ. Because I want a vision of something beautiful, and hope against hope that something will happen, something will change, something will give, and it will be romantic, after all. I want to prove I can handle it… Prove to whom? To myself? To strangers in a dark theatre trying as hard as I am to play it cool? Look, this book came out ten years ago, when I was seventeen. I’m a decade behind the times, and in a way, I wish I’d read it then, the same year I lay in bed in my dorm room, even more ignorant than I am now and with terrible hair, wishing that the person I loved, who was older than me, would somehow, magically turn up at my door. That’s what I remembered when I read Call Me By Your Name, when Elio lay in his bed willing Oliver to step inside. Now it’s ten years later and good god, what the fuck happened? Why didn’t I go to those parties in high school, in university? Why was I a coward? Why did I take my slippers and my knitting to a house party full of poets who smoked French cigarettes? Why did I sit there like Mary in Pride and Prejudice? (Thank god I really can’t play the piano.) Why didn’t I try harder? Why didn’t I have an incredible love affair when I was seventeen? I remember how it felt, when I was young, and I wish it could have been different. Why couldn’t it be romantic, after all?

This is Aciman’s trick, but not his exclusively: everybody’s doing it.The teens of our books are too often not teens, but vessels for adults’ sexual and emotional gratification, something to memorialize through or to act on or to punish for adults’ faults, or else adults as they wish they themselves had been: suave, sophisticated, skilled, loved — and not only loved but adored. Their bodies, their minds, their words, their shit and their semen, all adored as Elio adores Oliver. But that’s not a lover or a partner — that’s a votary. That’s taking everything you feel, everything you hate about yourself, and making a child carry it. Why, except that Aciman wished it, is Elio seventeen and Oliver twenty-four? Would their relationship, the passion, the eroticism, the tropes of romance, be less relevant or less incendiary for a person later in life? Could a person not have a sexual awakening at thirty? All else being equal, why did Elio have to be a child? 

Just say no

So I could continue to dwell on how boring I was at parties, enjoying those special twinges of shame that come as one is stepping into a crosswalk, washing their hair, or otherwise minding their own business when suddenly struck by the Ghost of Dorkness Past.

Or…

I could forget about the parties I didn’t go to and we could all stop buying into this notion that life only gets worse as you get older. Maybe what adults need is to just fucking say NO. No, I don’t need to pretend to be cool. No, I’ll be naff if that’s what it takes. No, we are sick of this pretentious posturing. No, shut up, we don’t care. No, take your literary fiction and shove it. No, fuck your NAMBLA and your Lolita and your power-trips. No, we will not be cowed. We will protect each other. We will try to love, really love, each other. After agonizing over this essay for weeks, I stumbled across Matthew Galloway’s review of Call at The Gay Recluse, where in a few short paragraphs he captured everything I’d been groping toward:

We’re not here to tell you that Aciman can’t write, because obviously he can, and at times he does so with passion and beauty. More than once he captures a spirit of genuine anguish that can arise from hidden and unrequited love; and at times we were moved by the plight of a 17-year-old who is intellectually gifted but unable to express the one thing he truly wants…. For those readers who like their fiction to reflect some deeper truth about the human condition, this book ultimately disappoints and must ultimately be regarded as only slightly more serious than your average after-school special”

Recognizing our emotions, seeing our feelings on paper, has its own significant value, but an understanding of those feelings does not automatically follow. 

Because here’s how it is: Is it romantic, to be penetrated and hurt in the youth of your experience (or ever), as Elio is? To come away from sex sobbing and ashamed and in pain, as Elio does? Is that intimacy? Is that love? Oliver gives Elio marijuana, then anally rapes him. Read the book: that’s what happens. It doesn’t matter if Oliver is sad, if Oliver means well, if Oliver wants him, if Oliver regrets it, if Oliver’s father is a homophobe, if Elio is “of age”: that’s what happens. It is not a negative reflection on you or your experiences, if you were moved or touched or aroused, if the story spoke to you. We got played. Romance may one day mean love, but it doesn’t yet. Romance itself must be rethought. Romance itself must die — and be remade.

To return to where we began: in E.M. Forster’s Maurice(3), the lonely and miserable Maurice finds himself drawn to an adolescent boy. There are parallels to Aciman’s novel, whether intentional or no: Maurice is older, Oliver’s age, and the boy, Dickie, younger; one is turned out of his bedroom for the other; they meet in the hall at midnight. Dickie “would not kick up a row, but he had rather not” go along… But nothing happens. That night “bursts Maurice’s life to pieces,” but he stops himself from hurting another with less power than himself:

“When the fellow had gone he faced the truth. His feeling for Dickie required a very primitive name. He would have sentimentalized it once and called it adoration, but the habit of honesty had grown strong. What a stoat he had been! Poor little Dickie!”

Later he reproaches himself again: he catches his own reflection and thinks, “Was it conceivable that last Sunday he had nearly assaulted a boy?” Forster knew.(4)

We hear that Call is about “total intimacy” — intimacy here conflated with frankness of the body — yet Elio knows very little about Oliver: doesn’t know where he lives or in what conditions, what his parents or friends are like, where he spends his time when he’s not at Elio’s parents’ house or where he’s worked before (it comes as a surprise to learn near the end of the novel that Oliver spends most of his nights out alone on the beach and that he was a bartender at Columbia). What we have instead is total submission, powerlessness disguised as power: Elio, a child who still uses the word “tummy,” who keeps Oliver’s shirt as a talisman and calls it“Billowy,” and who refers to sex as “it,” turns his body over to an older man, literally, and twenty years later is still that child, alone and wishing for Oliver to come to him, to act on him, to act for him, to honour everything he surrendered: “If you remember everything… call me by your name.” One again, Galloway is more succinct: “Although the prose is rich, deeper insights about the human condition are kept to a strict minimum.”

And so perhaps Call Me By Your Name is only a romance in the way that Romeo and Juliet is a romance — that is, not one, but instead a story that we have largely misunderstood in favour of interpreting our own biases as universal truths, justifying the way those with power treat those without, children in particular; and moreover, a story of what is done to us, the way that children’s trust of adults, their love for them, is betrayed by adults’ selfishness and the lies of romance, and how when that cycle continues unchallenged we look at children and see a mirror, nothing but ourselves, white light and not a prism. Again I ask: what would happen if we stopped understanding this story as a romance? Would it remain powerful but cease to be aspirational? When we interpret our biases as truths, we allow ourselves to look only at a novel’s strengths and away from its weaknesses. We allow ourselves to close our eyes.

Notes

“You was never my age, none of ya!” is taken from West Side Story: Action says, “When you was my age? When my old man was my age, when my brother was my age… You was never my age, none of ya! And the sooner you creeps get hip to that, the sooner you’ll dig us!” The gif at the top was made by Tumblr user matthew-daddario.

(1) Writing this put me in mind of Russell T. Davies’s Queer As Folk, in which the 15-year-old Nathan is caught between a homophobic father, furious with the man who raped his son, and the man in question, Nathan’s abusive lover. Writing on the show’s 15th-anniversary, Tom Crowe says of the relationship between Nathan and Stuart: it “was, and is important to see QAF’s brutal and uncompromising presentation of statutory rape — during a time where we [gay men in the United Kingdom] were fighting for a right potentially undermined by the storyline — as vital to our own understanding. QAF didn’t care about the way that heterosexual politicians viewed the dangerous behaviour — the show never condoned the rape. Nathan’s less than desirable experiences were representative of the very full on and often scary baptism into the scene that young gay men often face.” This plotline has been contested since the episode aired in 1999; I appreciate that unlike D’Erasmo’s vision of “two men” or Upchurch’s “two golden boys,” Crowe recognizes “pederasty” when he sees it.

(2) Through the character of a poet, Aciman describes what he calls “the San Clemente Syndrome,” suggesting  that the confusion surrounding an unnamed Thai person’s gender, that the poet cannot concretely discern this, is an analog for memory and for ourselves, like the basilica “built on the ruins of subsequent restorations… [with] no first anything, nor last anything.” I was disconcerted by the seeming use of a stereotyped gender-non-conforming person, denied a name, as a device (“all of Thailand, it turns out, was flirting with me,” the poet says) and found the scene troubling. 

(3) This blog, Luminous Petals, takes its title from Forster’s novel: “Maurice opened his hand. Luminous petals appeared in it. ‘You care for me a little bit, I do think,’ he admitted, ‘but I can’t hang all my life on a little bit.’”

(4) Maurice ultimately finds lasting happiness with a groundskeeper, Alec Scudder, a relationship Forster based on that between Edward Carpenter and George Merrill. Merril, 22 years Carpenter’s junior, met Carpenter on a train. They were together for 38 years, until Carpenter’s death.

Sources

Feminist Fatalism: Reboot Culture, Time Travel, and Anti-Fascism

Originally published at Medium on 24 December 2016.

The other day I was listening to Owl City (as one does) and came across a track featuring Hanson. This being something utterly unexpected (I suppose you all already knew that Hanson was still making music), I hit play. The song, “Unbelievable,” was poppy, a veritable bop, a fast-talking list of 90s highlights meant to appeal to our desire for nostalgia, but it left a bad taste. The chorus, meant to be cheery, seemed frightened: It’s unbelievable / This is as good as it gets / It’s unbelievable / Don’t know what’s gonna happen next / It’s unbelievable / You haven’t seen nothing yet. And you know how it is, once you start thinking about something, an idea, a name, a fear: it pops up everywhere. I started thinking about time, the way we use it in our stories and narratives, how we try to control it, manage it. It’s like trying to pack a duvet into a too-small box: it pushes back, it doesn’t fit, it comes back unexpectedly. We want the duvet to fit.

Soon after my encounter with “Unbelievable,” I saw two different films that stirred the pot a bit more, that kept me thinking about time, about sequels, about repetition, about stories — stories for recreation, stories for politics, stories for engagement, stories for distraction, histories… The first was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival; the second, Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One. In the former, a lovely and echoing drama, a languages professor learns an alien language that enables her to perceive time beyond linearity: she experiences her teenage daughter’s death, from a rare and incurable disease, years before the child is born. We realize, as the film unfolds, that this daughter is the child of the professor, Louise, and a particle physicist, Ian, and that Ian’s anger at Louise’s decision to love him, to marry him, and to have their child despite knowing what would happen, ultimately poisons their relationship. In the latter, a pointed and gripping prequel to Star Wars, a group of rebels sacrifice their lives to bring about the events that kickstart the series. Both films press heavily against the line between the known and the unknown, depending on it — what has happened, what has not yet happened, what is happening again. As North American pop culture flounders under the weight of sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and reboots — stories fixated on the endless return, the loop, the cycle, the inevitable outcome that has already occurred —it is not the building blocks of stories (Joseph Campbell, etc.) that interest me, but something else. Reboot/nostalgia culture is different: not primordial, but directly imitative: Tarkin’s CGI face, Karl Urban’s DeForest Kelley impression, the upcoming shot-for-shot remake of Beauty and the Beast. We say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but replication… What about that?

Serenity Prayer

When I drove home after Arrival it was late. The streets were quiet and empty and although the film had attached itself to me, moved me, I imagined what I considered a cleaner, sharper resolution — that instead of death as we saw it at the start of the film, with Louise sitting alone beside her daughter’s body, Ian would return. That knowing the future, the couple would together try to change it, would face that grief together. But time in the world of Arrival is not so much a series of sequential events, chains of cause and effect, but all that which is always already happening. There are no butterfly-wing hurricanes here, and nothing changes if Louise turns left instead of right: she is always already experiencing her child’s death. But by the same token, she is also always already experiencing everything else. My desire for a different ending could not compete with the poignancy of the film’s choice, of Louise’s choice, because its lesson was that there could be no different ending. There was no ending. The last words spoken in the film come from Ian, at that point her husband — “let’s make a baby,” he says — and knowing, always already, that she will lose both of them, Louise says yes.


Regarding fatalism, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us that “the word… is commonly used to refer to an attitude of resignation in the face of some future event or events which are thought to be inevitable.” Rather than the broader traditions and scholarship of the philosophical schools, it is this common understanding, often conflated in a blur with nihilism (the common understanding of which suggests that nothing matters) that concerns me here— this niggling sensation that we have no power over the events that shape and move us, only recourse to the simple platitudes used to get through our own regular, non-prescient days. It is what it is or c’est la vie or not my circus, not my monkeys or God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. We say and hear that a lot these days, watching the news like deer in headlights. Louise, though, enacts a life that belies that shrugging fatalism. “I know why my husband left me,” she tells Ian, at that point not yet her lover, much less her husband. The first time they embrace, she says, “I forgot how good it felt to be held by you.”

This outside vision, something that writers overtly play with, is something too that impacts everyone’s perceptions — meaning, in plain terms, that musing on the nature of time is not the exclusive territory of navel-gazers. When I write in my journal, although I have no intention of sharing it, I imagine it being read by someone in the future. When I look at my grandmother’s yearbook, I imagine being able to talk with her at seventeen, what it might be like to have hinted to her all that was coming. In Food, Sex and God, Michèle Roberts writes of Doris Lessing,

“Lessing pictures herself, early on in this wonderful autobiography, watching her parents sitting outside their mud and thatch house in the Rhodesian bush, both of them irrevocably wounded by their losses and suffering in the First World War: ‘There they are, together, stuck together, held there by poverty, and — much worse — secret and inadmissible needs that come from deep in their two so different histories… I stand there, a fierce unforgiving adamant child, saying to myself: I won’t. I will not. I will not be like that… Don’t be like them. Meaning never let yourself be trapped. In other words, I was rejecting the human condition, which is to be trapped by circumstances.’”

Lessing, then, figures entrapment within circumstances as integral to human experience. In the language of Arrival, this is entrapment within linearity. Yet even when Louise transcends linearity, she remains, by choice, inextricably tied to the earth — to sex, birth, death. Conversely, her husband is that wolf in the trap that gnaws off its leg: though Ian is no more or less “trapped by circumstances” than she, he breaks with her, angry that she “made the wrong choice” and unable to look at his daughter as he once did. Both Louise and Ian seek order, but she accepts an experience while he wants a resolution.

Come with me if you want to live

Arrival appeals because I love fantastical stories that play with time: Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Dianna Wynne Jones’s Hexwood, The Lake House, Donnie Darko, Groundhog Day, Meet the Robinsons, Outlander, every special time travel episode of Star Trek where someone inevitably gets hit by a car, The Terminator — you name, I’m into it. Time-travel and time-based stories are puzzles, putting everything into unexpected yet fulfilling order; they are aerial pictures, constructing a fictive outsider’s perspective on the present. They also provide a mechanism through which we can conceptualize the complexities of our actions — not simply the butterfly effect, but the impact of a word, a left turn, a foot in a puddle, the cycles of our behaviours. While we might abstractly understand that all of our actions have consequences (how nice were you to the supermarket teller this morning?), time travel stories make this tangible and overt. Take Doctor Who: Donna turns right, meets the Doctor, or turns left, doesn’t. Take Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever”: Dr. McCoy saves a woman’s life, the Allies lose the Second World War, or Kirk watches her die, space travel is saved.

Time-based stories similarly drive home inevitability. In Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Henry is killed outside of Clare’s house years before the end of their life together. In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Claire and Jamie try to stop the Jacobite Rising, but instead bring it about in the attempt. And while the satisfaction to these kinds of stories, to figuring them out, is not inherently good — at their darkest they show an impulse toward order, toward certainty, toward a Great Man — it is undeniable. We gain a sense of completion, of understanding, and this in itself can be joyful. Take Donnie Darko: Donnie laughs as his death comes down on him, laughs joyously, because everything that’s happened to him finally makes sense.


Since the American election, I walk around, I go to work, I buy my groceries, I sit at my computer or cook in the kitchen or read my books, and I keep thinking of a line from V for Vendetta, no matter how dreadfully trite that makes me:

“I suddenly had this feeling that everything was connected. It’s like I could see the whole thing, one long chain of events that stretched all the way back… I felt like I could see everything that happened, and everything that is going to happen. It was like a perfect pattern, laid out in front of me. And I realised we’re all part of it, and all trapped by it.”

Don’t you feel like you’re in a history book? Princip shot Ferdinand, so the First World War happened. Helen of Troy was a total babe, so a bunch of dudes committed ritualistic military suicide. Logic applied retrospectively and irrespective of events. All the pieces fit together. Chain, chain, chain. Chain of fools.

What kinds of stories are we telling?

Take Star Trek again and consider how two very different eras in the franchise treat time. (I’ve written about this before). The Voyage Home, released in the late 80s, confronts inevitability with action (the crew of the Enterprise travels back in time to change their present, not their past), while Star Trek, released in 2009 as the first of J.J. Abrams’s reboot series, uses time travel as both a weapon (the villain seeks a pre-emptive strike on those would later fail to save his planet from destruction) and a get-out-of-jail-free card (a literal reset that smashes the reboot’s fictive and functional links with its past). The summary of Abrams’s film reads, “The brash James T. Kirk tries to live up to his father’s legacy.” Remember Lessing, “trapped by circumstances”? Abrams created a story dependent on the fatalism of the temporal loop: a young man trying simultaneously to live inside and outside his father’s life and the life of his future self, a franchise trying simultaneously to live inside and outside its history. For in the end, despite the claim that time travel liberated them from the so-called constraints of the past, everything in Abrams’s Star Trek films happens much the same, regardless. The pleasure of Star Trek: Into Darkness, such as it is, is the pleasure of recognizing the regurgitated narrative elements of The Wrath of Khan. Surprise, it’s Khan! See, it’s Kirk dying of radiation poisoning this time, not Spock! Twist!

Glory days

Abrams went on to do much the same with Star Wars: the pleasure of Star Wars: The Force Awakens — apart from the loveliness of Boyega, Isaac, and Ridley, of course — is in its repetition of patterns. Many reviewers commented, generally, “the old Star Wars is back!” For it was back, very much so: The Force Awakens is A New Hope in new clothes. Leaving aside the commercial reasons for these kinds of decisions, let’s consider the impact on the narrative, of what it might signify to love a story such as this. Is The Force Awakens not wrenchingly sad, once you consider what’s happened? As a young man, Han Solo watches, helpless, from the deck of a planet-killing machine, as a genocidal villain murders his aged mentor (or tries to — don’t be fussy about what does or does not happen to Obi-Wan); then, as an old man, Han becomes the mentor and two young people watch, helpless, from the deck of a planet-killing machine, as a genocidal villain murders him. Did life go on so miserably just to end up in the same place?

Go back in time to the events of the crisp and terrifying Rogue One and the anxiety of The Force Awakens crystallizes. Did Galen, Bodhi, Chirrut, Imwe, Cassian, and Jyn die so that 40 years later an angsty white boy could build a copycat death machine? Or in our own world, did millions of people die to, among other things, stop Nazism so that 70 years later, white supremacists could run the White House?

You see that it is difficult to avoid fatalism in the common sense. (Perhaps that is why it is the common sense!) In the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, Javier asks Luisa why she keeps reading old letters. “I don’t know,” she says. “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.”

Open the door! Open the door!

We are choking on this utterly manufactured sense of staving off the inevitable.

But this depressing inevitability, this common fatalism, this “oh fuck, there goes humanity again, that C4-loaded wind-up car” was missing from Edwards’s Rogue One — not combated, challenged, or ironically mocked, but simply ignored. It was not manufactured, replicated—it was made irrelevant. Rogue One is very obviously a movie about fighting fascism: early in the film, when Cassian asks Jyn, the only white lead, if she wants to live under the imperial flag, she says glibly that it doesn’t matter too much, if she doesn’t look up. Soon enough, though, it matters a great deal: she comes to understand that she cannot keep her head down.

Let’s go back to talking about time, patterns, our impulses toward order. Every half-joke you’ve heard about 2016 is an impulse toward order: the things that have happened happened because of the year, that is why, 2016 did this to us, next year will be different. Yesterday Carrie Fisher had a heart attack; I saw a Tumblr post that said that Mark Hamil survived a car accident and Harrison Ford survived a plane crash, so Carrie Fisher would survive this. Order. Patterns.

Going in, we know everything that will happen in Rogue One: the rebels will sacrifice their lives to steal the plans for the Death Star. We know that, but they don’t — they are as “trapped by circumstances” as Lessing, as inevitably doomed as Han Solo. The human condition! In space! But their deaths do not have the ignominy of Han’s death, the nihilistic sense that their actions, their lives didn’t matter, that their endings were both pre-determined and non-dependent on them. At one point, Jyn saves a child inadvertently trapped in a shoot-out; within 20 minutes, the entire city is levelled anyway — should she not have bothered? No one could say that. Does that make it any less terrifying as the rebels pass the computer disc hand-to-hand down the hallway? As one of them bangs frantically at a broken door, knowing that he can’t get through, that he’ll be killed? The entire Star Wars franchise is built on the certainty that the disc gets through, and yet it’s still frightening. Theirs is a feminist fatalism,* if I can call it that: get out of the building and down to the water and if you die, die with everything left on the floor. I was moved by the story Edwards told because it surprised authentically: as a story and as a money-making enterprise, it rejected sequels, repetition, resolution. Its characters will never see what their lives bought.

We know how it ends; it still matters. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to you see. You don’t get to see the pattern, the aerial view. You only get to live.

Shut up, white girl

I recognize the frailty of my claimed ability to talk about conflict, to talk about what it means to die, when I am safe and warm at home, eating three squares and preparing for Christmas. Have I been moved by a film, but not the news? I am not vain enough to say that this little blog post holds cosmic significance, but even so, I struggled with finishing it. We’re heading into a nuclear arms race, so what does it matter, what is the point, who cares? But I want to talk about stories, because I think that the story of Rogue One matters a great deal, not exclusively but in concert with the rest of our experiences.

Here is why: because as it turns out, Lessing’s human condition—“to be trapped by circumstances”—is not the same as resignation. In front of Arrival, I was obliged to watch a trailer for Patriots Day, ostensibly about the bombing of the Boston marathon, but more obviously a spectacle of grotesque white American nationalism, in which the state wears Marky Mark’s face. If stories like that are going to battle for pride of place in our cultural consciousnesses, we need most severely and urgently, then, stories in which the struggle for life, for actual liberty, against that state is obviously, deliberately, and overtly played out. Star Wars merchandise is covered in stormtroopers, characters modelled after Nazis. I saw, the other day, a Christmas stocking printed with Kylo Ren’s face. The spirit of imperialist genocide past. (You are frowning, you are rolling your eyes, but remember: Kylo Ren is a character who intentionally seeks to destroy entire solar systems. Would you give a child a Christmas stocking printed with the face of Milošević or Assad? Jackson or Reagan? John A. MacDonald?)

What stories will we allow to shape us, our actions?

Suicide pills

While it is in the nature of time travel stories to butt up against inevitability, that same common fatalism is less recognizable, though no less present, in the self-feeding loops of reboot culture, where the past is re-imagined as something so wonderful, so glorious that the only future we can imagine is its pale imitation. (Does that sound familiar? Something, something, great again?)

Infamously, in Nevil Shute’s post-nuclear-war novel On the Beach, a submarine crew crosses the ocean in search of a mysterious signal, hoping against hope that someone in the United States has survived. The signal is made, it turns out, by a billowing curtain hitting telegraph keys at random. Meanwhile, back in Australia, the survivors of the war gather with their friends and families to take suicide pills provided by the government rather than die of impending radiation sickness. Shute’s novel was favourably received and has been favourably remembered as a warning, fear instigated for a reason, a story meant to head folly off at the pass. And yet a 2000 television adaptation criticized that apparent meekness of humanity, found it unreasonable to imagine a world in which humanity went quietly into that good night — no looting, no chaos, no scavenging amongst the scraps. But why is it so unfathomable that, in the face of terrible suffering, humans could make a choice toward their better selves — not suicide, no, but the refusal of monstrosity? We are terrible creatures, much of the time, but resignation to our own monstrosity is only the shifting of blame. (Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.)

Several years ago, a friend told me about a presentation in her environmental sciences class, the notion that the stories we told about the future and the settings we imagined created that future. This is not a new concept, but it was, then, new to me, and even today, I think about it often. If you already believe it is inevitable that we will end up living in the dark, wet streets of Bladerunner (or, god help us, Bladerunner 2049), do we not create that inevitability? There is no particular reason to compare Arrival and Rogue One, except that — for me — they overlapped in the same week: a coincidence, an accident of time, a possible pattern, a semblance of order amongst chaos.

We are all going to die. What kind of person will you be until then?


* Regarding “feminist fatalism”: I struggled to find a phrase for what I mean, the decision to act understanding that your actions matter not so much individually but as small parts of an indeterminate whole. A search for “feminist fatalism” will reveal discussion of the suicide at the close of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; my thoughts here are not intended to correlate.

PeggySous got married: Marvel’s Agent Carter and a cautionary tale about loving television and forgetting history

Originally posted to Medium on 30 March 2016. 

With the announcement last week that ABC had cancelled Agent Carter, the series that began as a one-shot, then continued for two seasons as mid-break coverage for Agents of Shield and the only Marvel property that combined humour, colour, and dedicated women leads, disappeared.

This time last year, fans were celebrating a surprise late-stage renewal, and in the lead-up to the summer release of Avengers: Age of Ultron and the fall release of Jessica Jones (also women-led but unlike Agent Carter, hyper-violent—only adults were watching), the cast and crew also toured the convention circuit, to great effect. Fans were delighted by Hayley Atwell and Lyndsy Fonseca’s engagement with the relationship between their Peggy Carter and Angie Martinelli, by the outpouring of excitement surrounding a woman hero from fans of all ages, and by promising discussions centred on #diversifyAgentCarter. (Among other things, Atwell tweeted, “Diversity in season 2 was brought up today. And not even by me! Which is a first…”)

Atwell tweeted a child’s drawing: “I am so happy to see you it is awesome!!! I love agent carter so so so so so much!!”

Observing this, participating in this, I felt possibility. I had written to a network for the first time! In the all too common ways in which we forget history, I felt like this was the Big Chance: if viewers were to show that Agent Carter was successful, if we were to demonstrate the intensity of our commitment to superhero stories that did not shy away from exposing sexism in its most insidious forms and were willing to openly discuss diversity needs, then we would turn the tide. “We” would show “Marvel” that women sold, and then we would get our shows!


remember reading a Star Trek magazine when I was eleven or twelve. It was a special issue, “the women of Star Trek.” It had Kate Mulgrew, Jeri Ryan, and Roxann Dawson on the cover, and inside, it profiled almost every actress who had ever held more than a bit part in the Trekkie universe. I read it cover-to-cover dozens of times and one argument stuck with me, at first because as a child I believed it, and later, because I could not.

My magazine argued that the three decades between Star Trek’s premiere in 1966 and Star Trek: Voyager’s premiere in 1995 were necessary to make the franchise “ready” for a woman captain to lead a series of her own — That from the original series to The Next Generation to Deep Space Nine to Voyager, with all of the films in-between, it was necessary to gradually, tentatively, slowly approach overt, sustained women leadership, beginning with Christopher Pike’s first officer (who was initially conceived as a woman, but on whom Roddenberry was forced to compromise, instead using an alien — Spock — to demonstrate that “Otherness”) through the “hard” (Denise Crosby, Michelle Forbes) and “soft” (Marina Sirtis, Gates Mcfadden) tertiary women of TNG and the seconds-in-command (Nana Visitor, Terry Farrell) of DS9, and ending at last with Mulgrew’s captaincy on Voyager.

I use the word “ending” intentionally, because rather than an ascendancy — women established in their rightful place — Mulgrew and her colleagues, through no fault of their own, stood at the top of a wheel on a downward turn. Post-Voyager, from Enterprise onward, Star Trek has relied more and more on women in their underwear than women in the captain’s chair. One step forward, two steps back.

Or, as Andrea Mandell recently wrote at USA Today,

“The outlook on female-centric films is depressingly cyclical, says Oscar winner Geena Davis, a women’s activist who has watched waves of discussion on the topic since Thelma & Louise debuted 25 years ago. “As time wore on, I realized — so every few years a movie comes out starring women and does great and is a big hit. And it’s announced that ‘This changes everything,’” she says, only to revert back.

This absence of history, this cyclical erasure followed by reconstruction from first principles, lather, rinse, repeat, has dogged the heels of women activists for ages, just one of the weapons in the backlash arsenal. (Susan Faludi first published her investigative book Backlash, investigating anti-feminist reactions to women’s liberation in Britain and the United States, in 1991; it remains painfully relevant.)

As one example, recall that Playboy once claimed, “A couple of generations ago, this was a man’s world, and a nice young woman without a husband had a difficult time making her own way. Nothing could be further from the truth in 1953.” That is, by 1953, liberated women were so out of control that men had lost any semblance of power and it was basically a matriarchy. Does that sound like any 1953 you’ve ever heard of?

To borrow a phrase from Baudelaire (or The Usual Suspects, if you prefer), anti-feminists’ greatest trick has repeatedly been to convince girls and women that they are starting from zero, for when girls and women embrace this no-history platform, they expose their wonderful passion and energy to capture—to a vampirish society that will suck them dry. At its worst, the no-history platform encourages a toxic sense of superiority (no other woman has accomplished what I’m about to, I will be the first, I won’t be like my mother), fosters a brutal isolation (there are no other women experiencing what I experience, I am alone), and ensures that women always shoulder the blame for the experiences of systemic oppression (I didn’t try hard enough, I didn’t “lean in,” I brought this on myself). Consider Caitlin Moran’s spurious claims in How to Be a Woman:

“Even the most ardent historian, male or female — citing Amazons and tribal matriarchies and Cleopatra — can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck all for the last 100,000 years. Come on — let’s admit it. Let’s stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There isn’t. Our empires, armies, cities, artworks, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians and icons could all fit, comfortably into one of the private karaoke booths in SingStar. We have no Mozart; no Einstein; no Galileo; no Ghandi. No Beatles, no Churchill, no Hawking, no Columbus. It just didn’t happen.

Nearly everything so far has been the creation of men — and a liberal, right-on denial of it makes everything more awkward and difficult in the long run. Pretending that women have had a pop at all this before but ultimately didn’t do as well as the men, that the experiment of female liberation has already happened but floundered gives strength to the belief that women simply aren’t as good as men, full stop. That things should just carry on as they are — with the world shaped around, and honouring, the priorities, needs, whims, and successes of men. Women are over, without having even begun. When the truth is that we haven’t even begun at all. Of course we haven’t. We’ll know it when we have.”

Moran doesn’t mean to feed anti-feminist mythology; it’s just that she stands at the top of the wheel. When you first name the problem, you feel invincible, but opening your eyes is not the same as the gritty, slogging work of liberation, and kicking your sisters to the curb — “women have basically done fuck-all for the past 100,000 years” — will never again feel quite as good as it might the first time, when you felt like a kid ditching their parents’ house for a basement suite you adored, but which was in reality a draughty wreck.


Agent Carter’s first season was brilliant television. It was funny, sweet, exciting, well-plotted, perfectly cast, and superbly acted. The costumes were stunning (flashy hats, tuxes and ball gowns, shoes and handbags, wigs and other disguises), the colours vibrant (bright reds, deep blues, forests, oceans, underground compounds), and the fight scenes well choreographed. It was visually pleasing.

Too, it managed simultaneously to stand alone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe/MCU (again, it was the only Marvel property to place women at the forefront and prioritize colour and humour over greyness and grit) and to integrate itself into broader plotlines for interested fans. By the season finale, the show had so earned audiences’ attention that a gadget that would have been silly anywhere else — a failed prototype vest designed to self-heat, but which exploded if it got too hot — became the focal point of the poignant death of Chief Dooley (Shea Whigham). (Dooley himself, thanks to skillful writing and to Whigham’s performance, succeeded as a boss whose curmudgeonly, sexist behaviour was complicated, but never excused, by his loneliness and war trauma.)

It also balanced these heavier cultural elements of post-war America with scenes that were uniquely and unashamedly comical, due in equal part to scripts that enjoyed humour and actors skilled in physical comedy. For viewers eagerly chowing down on the Marvel menu, it was a relief to laugh at Peggy impersonating a dairy inspector, or Jarvis (James D’Arcy) chasing a recalcitrant flamingo, when other MCU offerings featured, in no particular order a villain who decapitates a man with a car door; a woman who stabs herself repeatedly with scissors; a (gay) man who murders his family and saws off his own limbs; a child who kills his abusive father, then disposes of the body (again, the saw!); a (lesbian) woman whose head is crushed on a table corner; an (Asian) man who stabs himself in the face with hedge-trimmers; and a man — supposedly a hero and soon to get his own Netflix series — who kills a dozen man with his bare hands, then falls to the ground bathed in their blood, and who soon stabs another man repeatedly in the eye with a shard of glass and yet another with a kitchen knife. (Frank Castle is a fascist, but that’s an essay for another day.)

On top of all this, what Agent Carter most astutely captured, to me, was the insidiousness of sexism and the strength of will required to survive its unending barrage. Sexism in Agent Carter was not cartoonish and splashy one-offs in “very special episodes”, but small and evil and constant — as it is. It was Peggy being told to change into tactical gear in the public washroom downstairs, instead of the locker room; it was Agent Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) saying, “Guess you’re used to serving under a captain, huh?” and tricking fellow agent Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) into walking in on Peggy while she changed; it was Peggy being spoken over while her male coworkers stole her ideas and took credit for her work.

Near the end of the first season, when Dooley, Thompson, and Sousa interrogate her, she says:

“You think you know me, but I’ve never been more than what each of you has created. To you, I’m the stray kitten, left on your doorstep to be protected. The secretary turned damsel in distress. The girl on the pedestal, transformed into some daft whore.”

This was the climax of the personal and political struggle she had carried for the entire season: the driving home that even the “nice” men of the office (and the superb Gjokaj’s Sousa is a “nice” man—compelling, kind, and also a twit) perceive women as objects indistinguishable from one another (when another agent is killed, Dooley calls his wife while Thompson calls his girlfriend) and are at best irritated when individual women don’t respond the way they expected or desired. The lesson? That even well-meaning, good men — never mind the bad ones — perform sexism and benefit from it, because that is the way structures of power operate.


Agent Carter’s second season maintained its main cast and crew, including writers and executive producers Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, but also made some major alterations, including moving the action from New York to Los Angeles, eliminating fan favourite Lindsy Fonseca’s Angie Martinelli, and allowing the groundwork laid with the previous season’s antagonists, Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan) and the mind-controlling Dr. Ivchenko, to dangle. Too, one outcome of #diversifyAgentCarter (and/or long-term series planning) was the introduction of Dr. Jason Wilkes (Reggie Austin), with some even speculating that he might have been Peggy’s future husband, and while Austin was super and the group dynamic effective, that’s still a lot of pressure to put on one person.

(A brief diversion: Marc N. Kleinhenz at ScreenRantdiscusses the season’s integration of the “Dark Universe” as a set-up for the upcoming film Doctor Strange, suggesting to me that at least some of these alterations were Marvel arm-twisting to bolster the rest of its roster at the expense of the show. Remember: a child who was ten years old when Iron Man came out is now is now eighteen, with Marvel occupying pride of place throughout their entire childhood, and in that same time, the MCU has hosted thirteen blockbuster films, five one-shots, and four multi-season television series, with more yet to come. That Disney owns our souls — and that this is painful to recognize because we have built deeply emotional and personal identities around the contents of these franchises, and are thus likely to experience structural critique as personal critique, never mind the relationship between fandom and canon — is another discussion altogether.)


Back to Agent Carter: some episodes into the second season, which I watched religiously, I at last put my finger on what bothered me, the core tonal shift: the women had gone.

In the first season, Peggy might have been surrounded by dudes at work, but everywhere else, it was girl city: she mourned the murder of her roommate, Colleen, developed a close friendship with Angie (just gals being pals… #cartinelli), even moving in with her at the end of the season, and lived at The Griffith, the all-women boarding housing where Dottie was first revealed as a Black Widow and undercover Soviet spy. An entire episode was even dedicated to consulting with Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper) numerous ex-girlfriends.

But in the second season, those relationships were severed. Secretary-turned-agent Rose (Lesley Boone) got a brief arc and the opportunity to punch a bad guy in the face, but was otherwise reduced to blushing at Stark’s flirtations and putting up with Aloysius Samberly’s (Matt Braunger) come-ons. Violet (Sarah Bolger), Sousa’s physiotherapist and briefly his fiancée, didn’t get a last name or a story beyond Sousa’s, while the fantastic Dottie (exactly the kind of character that, if male, would have been a series regular by then; see also Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Spike) turned up for a single episode that, although otherwise grand, served to remind everyone that only Bad Girls were attracted to other girls. Jarvis’s wife Ana, who had escaped the Holocaust, wore pretty dresses and wished her husband would pay more attention to her, not unlike the season’s villain, Whitney Frost, who was villainous only in that she was a woman who wanted her due. Whitney’s desire to do her scientific research and be accordingly appreciated literally drove her insane.


With this flattening, the progress earlier episodes made in exposing the machinery of systemic sexism and toxic masculinity—that could have been expanded to better address the way these impact and compound racism and other systemic oppression—stalled. With the exception of Jason, all new characters were white, and with the exception of Whitney and Violet, they were men. I would have loved, too, to spend more time with Ana, with even a passing reference to her faith and her survival of the Second World War, something only hinted at in past episodes. There were still undeniably strong moments — for instance, when Thompson, who had latched onto a crooked mentor in his desperation for the approval of powerful men, realizes that he misses the peers he has alienated, or when Whitney, who had only ever wanted to study, realizes that her husband has betrayed her — but there are also some painful missed opportunities.

For instance, while the first season captured the constancy of everyday sexism, Peggy’s second-season confrontations with racism while befriending Jason were comparatively clunky, as though racism didn’t exist in England, or the American army hadn’t been segregated when she served in it. Further, given her truth-bomb in the in the previous season — “I’ve never been more than what each of you has created” — a more plausible way to complicate her relationship with Sousa might have been to explore why Peggy saved New York City, but Sousa got a promotion and a bureau of his own in California. While in the first season, Sousa rather awkwardly saw himself and Peggy as relatively aligned, him as a disabled man and her as a woman (no, no one explained intersectionality to him), what happens when power elevates him, but not her? We didn’t get to find out. In an interview withEntertainment Weekly, Atwell commented (and her degree of irony is unclear),

“they [could] embark on a fabulous love affair, but then they realize they’re really bad at domestic chores and that they can’t compromise on who washes the dishes and they decide to go their separate ways. That’s a possibility, too. I like to think that this is the start to a beautiful relationship.”

I cannot see Sousa as a man willing to wash the dishes, nor Peggy as a woman willing to accept that.


The cancellation of Agent Carter reminds me of Cagney and Lacey. This award-winning series about two women cops ran from 1981 to 1988 — but not without struggle. As detailed in Faludi’s Backlash, Barbara Corday and Barbara Avedon shopped their pilot around for six years before CBS picked it up for a made-for-TV movie. The movie was successful and the network launched a series, aired two episodes, then cancelled the show, brought it back, cancelled it, brought it back, and cancelled it again — and this back-and-forth doesn’t include the episode, ultimately cancelled anyway, where executives barred Gloria Steinem from guest-starring. Despite a popular and critically-acclaimed run (fans wrote thousands of support letters), showrunners battled regularly with executives over the latter’s insistence that Cagney and Lacey were “‘too tough’”; that women cops were not marriage material; that Cagney was too promiscuous and insufficiently “‘vulnerable’”; and that Cagney could not be permitted even to contemplate an abortion, years after Roe v. Wade. Ultimately, though, as Faludi writes,

“the show’s staff tried to save the show by disavowing its own politics. For public consumption, they began denying that the show had any feminist content — even though the show regularly took feminist positions on employment discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence, women’s health, and prostitution. Cagney and Lacey producer April Smith assured the press that the show’s crew had ‘no desire to turn it into a women’s lib vehicle.’ On a talk show, the show’s co-star, Sharon Gless, asserted that [it] was not a feminist show because that label was too ‘limiting’” (187).

For the global minority that followed the most recent Canadian election, a metaphor: they NDP’d it: in an effort to appeal to “everyone,” they bunched toward the centre, thereby alienating their base toward the left and continuing to fail to impress those toward the right who didn’t like them anyway.


As for Agent Carter, the show transitioned from a show where women were front and centre, where men were shown as both the agents of sexism and the victims of their own toxic masculinity, where women conversed and interacted with each other, and where by the end of the season, Peggy had moved into a love-nest with her best friend (as I said, just gals being pals… #cartinelli), to a show where Peggy had only enlisted out of guilt after her brother, who recommended her without consulting her, was killed in action, where Jarvis concealed Ana’s infertility from her, where Peggy rarely spoketo Whitney, Ana, or Dottie, and where Angie’s sole appearance was a musical dream sequence in which she exhorted Peggy to hurry up and choose a man, as though that decision were integral to a plot where the antagonist had a dimension-altering nuclear weapon.

Rather than a continuation, the second season seemed more like a do-over — Agent Carter, but more heterosexual and less critical of male power; a feminism that sells, not a feminism that serves. As Tumblr user infinitypeggys says,

i’m just gonna say it and be done with it: peggysous and daniel sousa’s toxic masculinity/paternalistic sexism killed agent carter.

we lost one of the best, most three dimensional heroines in the superhero genre because of a forced love triangle and a stupid musical number.

Sousa tries too hard to be A Man™, and while this is a perfectly plausible character arc, the plot rewards him instead of critiquing him as it had in the first season, all while Jason is shunted to the side, as though Peggy could never have chosen a black man — if she had to choose a man at all. Indeed, Peggy and Sousa’s season-closing kiss begins with Sousa giving her a dressing-down:

SOUSA: Look, I… got to say something to you about what happened at the rift.

PEGGY: Oh, there’s no need to thank me.

SOUSA: Uh, actually, I was gonna say you messed up. Big.

PEGGY: Sorry, what?

SOUSA: As your supervisor —

PEGGY: You’re not my supervisor.

SOUSA: As a supervisor, I feel obligated to tell you your actions were ill-advised and reckless.

He’s not her supervisor, but he claims the right to reprimand and control her as Chief Sousa—as a man with power. Their conversation also mirrors the first episode, “Now is Not the End,” where Sousa had challenged another agent for making snide remarks to Peggy:

PEGGY: Agent Sousa, about what you just did —

SOUSA: Ah, don’t worry about it —

PEGGY: I wish you hadn’t.

SOUSA: You’re an agent. They treat you like a secretary. I just wanted —

PEGGY: And I’m grateful. I’m also more than capable of handling whatever these adolescents throw at me.

If we accept this narrative framing, then we accept that Sousa interfering in Peggy’s affairs — attempting to take control of her life and be thanked for it, as is his habit — is comparable to Peggy saving his life when he lost control of an operation.


And so we lost Agent Carter—and viewers do feel the loss. As runs the slogan of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, “if she can see it, she can be it,” but with Agent Carter in the bin with Marvel’s Most Wanted, a would-be Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird series; with Marvel titan Kevin Feige promising a (yes, one) LGBT character in the next decade (he seems to have missed the memo) and hedging on a stand-alone Black Widow film since Natasha is so good at supporting the men; and with both Captain Marvel and Black Panther pushed back to make room for Marvel’s sixth crack at Spider-Man since the early 2000s, one wonders when our time will come — or if Marvel’s lease on our attention will have expired by then.

If we do not see ourselves at all, if we are always beginning and never progressing, how can we be at all?


Sowhat should I do? I should tell the folks at ABC what Agent Carter means to me, that they ought to save it. Many people are doing so, with petitions racking up signatures. But ABC only offers 350 characters or a 30-second voicemail. Not a lot of room to say “I love it, please renew it, but also, please let me help you: fix your poor treatment, if any, of people of colour; your queer-baiting; your queer-coding of villains, but not heroes; and your oppressive emphasis on in-your-face heterosexuality.” I have already run out of characters, and Mr. ABC Studios will say, “Welp. They don’t like it. Turns out girly TV is a bust.” Which is, of course, assuming that Mr. ABC Studios pays attention at all. Let’s remember what Avedon and Corday had to go through, for example, or what it’s like to be a woman working in film and television in the United States when an assistant-director feels entitled to dry-hump you on set. We know what Agent Carter’s problems are, sure, but I am fairly confident they are not behind its cancellation. Do the men in charge, throwing up obstacle after obstacle, care at all? What might the creative team have gone through, trying to give viewers what they wanted, trying to #diversifyAgentCarter?

So is it my fault, in part, that it faltered? Did I say the wrong thing, or not enough things, or too few times, or too quietly? Did I go with the Internet crowd, our rumblings of discontent, and turn my back on Agent Carter, although I bought it on iTunes and watched it every week, tweeting along faithfully? And if I now support it, if Netflix or some other network picks it up, and season three goes further back instead of forward — Well, won’t I have egg on my face then?

And all the while, other rubbish television carries on its merry way. Agent Carter had its issues, because all television does, but it was denied the opportunity to fix them—the glass ceiling writ large on the small screen; meanwhile, the CW’s Supernatural queues up an eleventh season as easy as breathing, or as another Marvel/ABC example, Agents of Shield knocks off another renewal no problem, despite making a tradition of killing a major black character every mid-season finale, and still we have to stand back and watch Agent Carter and Marvel’s Most Wanted bite the dust, and see CBS’s Nancy Drew reboot — featuring Persian actress Sarah Shahi — get canned for testing “too female.” Agent Carter, true to the way we treat women, was So Good that the only natural follow-up was being Too Bad.

Nobody likes a popular woman.

But suppose, too, I am willing to take the risk — that I believe in Agent Carter and in the women working on it, and in our capacity not only for survival, but also our betterment. When I do that, then, I must do it for everyone. There is no shame in liking problematic media, but it remains a terrible thing to agitate for your own representation, then tell someone else to wait their turn. A show cannot be all things to all people, but for heaven’s sake — we can try.


So where is the cautionary tale in all this? Love all you want, and don’t let anyone stop you, but a show, a network, Marvel Studios — these things can’t love you back. Continue to agitate, though, for what you need, for what is just — if she can see it, she can be it — and remember that we are not without history. Agent Carter carries its own unique set of circumstances, but when it comes to women on television, we have been here before.

If we remember that, and each other, maybe it can finally be different next time. Our eyes will be open and we will put our shoulder to the wheel. The long slog. One step forward, and another, and another. (As Steve Rogers said in The Winter Soldier,Well, I guess I just like to know who I’m fighting.”)

And yes, it does matter. Agent Carter was denied the chances offered to lesser shows to grow under the supervision of a talented creative team doing, I truly believe, their best, and at the same time, with its cancellation, viewers were punished for their reasonable and righteous disappointment in its shortcomings. Many of the show’s cast and crew, including Atwell, Butters, and Fazekas, have already lined up new projects, and given how talented the lot of them are, anyone who hasn’t is likely to in short order. I miss Agent Carter, and I’m saddened by what happened to it, but I certainly don’t begrudge any fresh opportunities coming the way of its team. If a third season materializes, I will be right there in line, hoping for the best.


Kleinhenz, back at ScreenRant, attributes the cancellation of Agent Carter to two primary obstacles: one, reduced viewership due to lack of integration with the MCU, and two, ABC cleaning house after the firing of Paul Lee. The latter is valuable insight into something fan letters and hashtags are hard-pressed to impact, but the former — well, I must disagree. Integration with the MCU (including setting up the Dark Universe for Doctor Strange and the Roxxon Corporation for Daredevil) crushed the life out of Agent Carter, itself already weakened by existing within an industry that favours maleness and/or whiteness above all else, and despite how far we think we might have come from seeing Cagney as the anti-wife, networks still see the need to shoehorn leading women into heterosexual relationships. To get those viragoes under control.

How could Peggy have a life of her own while carrying the weight of all these goddamned men?

And as she would say, crikey o’reilly. Isn’t this a damn shame.

“Admiral, I am receiving whalesong”: Why The Voyage Home is the best Star Trek film

Originally posted to Medium on 2 May 2016. 

first thought of writing this for Earth Day, but alas — I didn’t quite make it. The moral of the story stands, though, because The Voyage Home— in which the crew of the Enterprise travel back in time to 1980s San Francisco to rescue Gracie and George, a pair of humpback whales — is perfect not only for Earth Day, but for every day, which is pretty much the moral of Earth Day in the first place.

For those unfamiliar with the film, a brief summary: Voyage is the third of a multi-film arc, following The Wrath of Kahn and The Search for Spock. At its start, with Spock found and the lot of them flying a stolen Klingon ship, the crew is headed for home. Meanwhile, an unidentifiable craft emitting an unintelligible signal is headed in the same direction, destroying every ship and space station in its path. As Earth comes under (seeming) attack, Spock is the first to identify the signal as an attempt at communication.

McCoy: Really? You think this is it’s way of saying ‘hi there’ to the people of the Earth?”

Spock: “There are other forms of intelligence on Earth. Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man.

In fact, the probe is transmitting the call of a humpback whale. The problem? There are no whales left on Earth to answer. The solution? Time travel! The back cover of my DVD reads, “Kirk and his crew bend time and space to save Earth and rediscover the meaning of friendship.” What’s not to love?

But let’s not be jokey. Let’s not say, “oh, it’s clumsy, it’s clichéd, it’s light and fluffy, but we love it anyway,” because it isn’t any of those things. It does precisely what it means to, delivering exactly what it promises and exactly what we need. In their 1986 review of Voyage, Siskel and Ebert commented,

“We’re seeing a family affair on the screen, a family with distinct characters who like each other and who we suspect at some point love each other… Because the characters are true, they can get away with saying lines that if thrown in another movie, you say‘ ‘oh that’s phoney.’”

Any compulsion we might feel to dismiss the story dwells in the fact that it is far easier to be jokey about science fiction that is gentle, kind, and hopeful. When I first read Kim Stanley Robin’s Pacific Edge, for instance, I thought it naïve: how could the worst problem facing the Californians of the future be romantic rivalry, zoning fights, and a baseball game? But as it turns out, I’m as happy to have been wrong about Kim Stanley Robinson as I am to be right about Voyage.

How many delightful moments can one movie have? Spock trespasses into an aquarium tank to mindmeld with Gracie and ask the whales’ permission to bring them forward in time (“Gracie is pregnant,” he later tells marine biologist Gillian) and nerve-pinches a music-blasting punk; Kirk befriends Gillian over pizza; Sula parks their cloaked ship, renamed the HMS Bounty, smack dab in the middle of Golden Gate Park; Scotty addresses a computer through its mouse; Uhura and Chekhov wander downtown San Francisco, politely asking where they might find any nearby nuclear vessels; McCoy supplies a hospitalized senior with a pill that grows her a new kidney. Newcomer Gillian (yes, played by the mum from Seventh Heaven) is also a delight, a committed conservationist whose first act upon reaching the 23rd century — since she insists on travelling with the rescued whales — is to enlist on a science vessel, since she has “300 years of catching up to do,” and who, in her own time, sought to protect the whales’ welfare, knowing that captivity was not automatically the best option:

Gillian: My whales? Where could you take them where they’d be safe?
Kirk: It’s not so much a matter of a place as of time.
Gillian: The time would have to be right now.
Kirk: Why right now?
Gillian: Let’s just say that no humpback born in captivity has ever survived. …The problem is that they won’t be that much safer at sea because of all the hunting this time of year.

Later, when she grills Kirk and Spock on their motivations for trespassing, she asks, “It wasn’t some kind of macho thing, was it? Because if that’s all, I’ll be real disappointed. I really hate that macho stuff.”

Me too, Gillian. Me too!

This is the beauty of Voyage — it doesn’t go in for “that macho stuff.” Unlike the recent reboot, of which I am still very fond, there is no Kirk creeping on various women as they undress, no attribution of McCoy’s nickname to a mean ex-wife instead of his profession, no dismissal of Christine Chapel as a forgettable hook-up. There is no anxious hyper-masculinity in old Star Trek, and it’s not because they have nothing to prove but because they know they don’t need to.


When Kirk and Spock first tour the aquarium where the whales are being kept, Gillian gives a brief history of whaling, much to the dismay of the two time-travellers:

Spock: To hunt a species to extinction is not logical.
Gillian: Whoever said the human race was logical?

There’s oodles of science fiction predicated on the assumption that the human race will, at some point, pass the point of no return with the planet, whether through war or resource depletion or technocracy or something else or some combination therein. Even among the most cheerful of these (for a relatively recent example, take WALL-E), the common denominator remains the abandonment of a dying planet. Humanity will survive, these stories suggest, but only as outward-seeking settlers or refugees, with varying degrees of attention paid to the people (and otherwise!) left behind. The underlying theme is one of escape and the underlying tone one of resignation, sometimes even hurriedly, as though we are too eager to get on to the next planet, the next horizon.

This planet’s already dead, why save it?

The next world will be better, so who cares about this one?

Remember Firefly’s opening monologue? “Here’s how it is: The Earth got used up, so we moved out and terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths.”

But Voyage, for all its seeming lightness, knows that this planet is the only one we’ve got. The film has no explicit villain, not even the whalers who almost stop Gracie and George’s escape — there’s only us.


Weknow that film and television impact the world we create for ourselves. That’s why Google markets devices under the Nexusbrand, why Whoopi Goldberg once attributed her interest in acting to seeing Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek (and why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked Nichols to stay on the show), why Disney pretends Tibet doesn’t exist for the sake of its Chinese box office, why the coordinators of NASA’s Twitter account converse with William Shatner, etc.— And so it should come as no surprise that, if the bulk of the media we consume are pieces where we damage the planet beyond recognition,we approach our current damaging-the-planet with a sense of laissez-faire resignation, and that even our more hopeful pieces (say, Fury Road, which remains a flawless treasure) are about surviving the worst, not preventing it.

We all read 1984, we all read The Road, we are all glued to the tube for The Walking Dead. We’re pretty sure we know how this story ends.

Except.

Stories like Voyage say no.

Even new Star Trek — of which, as I said, I am fond, despite its trampling of both Kirk’s better traits and the whole of Dr. Carol Marcus — predicates itself on magical escape from inevitable tragedy. In J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek, time travel is a do-over, a reboot, an erasure — It’s an escape hatch from the worst-case scenario. But in Voyage, time travel is not an escape: humans still drive the humpback whale to extinction. Gracie and George survive, but everything else remains the same. The crew doesn’t change their past, only their future. We still have to live with ourselves. We still have to live with the planet. We still have to care.


Wenever find out why the probe called out to humpbacks. Was it testing humanity’s ability to care for other species? Was it wondering why billions of tiny flesh lumps had taken over the whales’ planet? Was it simply looking to catch up with its whale-friends? (*turns planet upside down* *shakes it* WHERE ARE YOU WHALE-FRIENDS!?). Instead, there’s only joy: the crew soaked in rain and seawater, friends reunited, a marine biologist on the ride of her life — and whalesong.

At its best, Star Trek embodies the spirit of imagination that makes it possible for us to make ourselves better, and Voyage is some of the best of it. Whether friendship or the planet, this is all there is. Don’t mess it up.

“Adventure and empowerment” in boudoir photography? Not so much.”

Originally posted to Medium on 30 March 2016. 

A article recently printed in EdgeNorth suggests that “boudoir photography offers Yellowknife women adventure and empowerment.”

But there is something about the aesthetic of boudoir photography—nudes or semi-nudes professionally taken for personal use—that doesn’t sit right. That squicked me, as they say on the Internet. The article’s language presents a particular kind of womanhood—anxious, self-conscious, eager to be pretty, the giggly virgin caricature of a Harlequin romance (or, let’s be real, something very different: men’s pornography): “nervous butterflies,” “exposed and vulnerable,” “the joy that comes from a day of being pampered,” “a way to treat… oneself,” “silk, skin, and self-love,” “confident and giggling,” etc.

As the article would have it, boudoir photography seems to be about “‘taking time for yourself in this hectic life,’” but is it really for you? Or do you “‘want to do it for [your] husband’” or to “‘add some spice into [your] relationship?’” One of the photographers interviewed says of her clients, “They’re so proud. To be able to take all the noise away and just see themselves as the rest of the world sees them.’”

But how does “the rest of the world” see them—see us, see women? Do they see “‘the raw beauty of a woman?’” And if they do, what is this “‘raw beauty?’” Boudoir photography is presented, here, as something special, singular, and private — “‘it’s all about my one client,” says one interviewed photographer, while another local photographer’s website promises confidentiality — but it isn’t, not at all. In the same breath, the interviewed photographer adds, “[it’s about] what we — the rest of the world — see as their beauty.”

Again, the “rest of the world.”

And if it were really about self-love that took all the noise away, why would we care what the rest of the world saw as our beauty, or at least, if we still cared (it’s hard not to), why would we go to such concerted efforts to bend ourselves to it?

The website mentioned above also states, “I like to get it right in camera, which means that I will spend the time to pose you to flatter your body type, yet make you look natural. You will be uncomfortable, you might ache for a few days afterwards, but it’s SO worth it.”

That is, it will hurt to contort your body into uncomfortable positions and lingerie, but the camera will conceal your discomfort. It will be “SO worth it.” No pain will show, your face made up, your hair styled, your body strapped into lingerie you bought just for this photoshoot, leaving only your “‘raw beauty.’”

The article goes on to highlight women clients who are are “at pivotal points of change in their lives, whether those be changing bodies or relationships or views of self—Women who want “‘an extra confidence boost after a separation or divorce,” or after having a baby, or for their husbands.

That is, women on whom beauty tyranny has begun to turn the screws a little tighter. Women feeling the pinch. Women getting that patriarchal boot right to the face.

It is not a matter of whether or not we feel beautiful, whether or not our “‘raw beauty’” shines through, not really. It’s about sexual objectification in a world in which even the thinnest, whitest, youngest girls are not thin, white, or young enough.

It’s about fuckability. We know this. We have all felt this. It can be as abstract as the constant barrage of photoshopped advertisements or as intimate as the insults of a family member. (One of mine referred to me, humourlessly and without affection, as a “woolly mammoth” because I don’t shave anymore. Ouch, right?)

But we fight this by rejecting the binary of fuckability/unfuckability, when we feel strong enough to bear that burden—not by paying for the privilege of being reminded that “the rest of the world” sees us as sex objects and that, for an afternoon at least, we can be hot enough to join the club.

It feels good, of course, to not fight the binary. Everybody likes to feel beautiful (whatever beautiful is wherever we are) and to be recognized as beautiful, because to be beautiful is to be rewarded for it. We like it when we look nice, when we try hard and it pays off, when we receive compliments in person or online. Of course we do; it feels good — And it has tangible results that cannot be denied. When you are thin and/or white and/or pretty, juries of your peers are more likely to believe you, people are more likely to think you “competent and smart,” and you’re likely to make more money in your lifetime, etc. But these are side-effects resulting from and compounded by our racist, sexist, and misogynist, body-hating practices, not from any value or virtue inherent to prettiness or personal empowerment. It has nothing to do with power poses or how good it might make one feel to put a gift-wrapped, glossy picture of their ass under the Christmas tree. (“For Christmas this year,” reads the image just linked to, “give her a little piece of herself”—as though anything so wonderful as everything you are—hairy, spotty, scarred, decidedly not beautiful!—could be lopped off and given as an object. And if the boudoir shoot is being given to a woman, is it even a “choice?”)

In an interview at Feminist Current, Lindsay Kite says of her organization, Beauty Redefined,

“[This is] really kind of the gist of our whole message. [It] is that, if we’re more than bodies to be viewed, we need to prove that in the ways that we value ourselves, in the way that we live our lives, and recognize that self-objectification — and really, the obsession with what our bodies look like inside our own minds — is the thing that’s really hurting us. It’s the thing that’s causing the body shame. A lot of these people try to fight against beauty ideals and that’s why they share images of marginalized women’s bodies in an attempt to say, “This doesn’t fit the ideal but I still think it looks good and you should, too.” But that still is further just posing these women’s bodies for consumption by other people, reinforcing that idea that we are there to be consumed and that’s where we can gain our value.

It’s definitely a complicated issue. Another one of the bits of pushback we got was the whole idea of, “Okay you don’t think it’s empowering for women to share their lingerie photo shoots online, but what if they think it’s empowering?” And to that I say: We’re not trying to tell anyone that we have all the answers or you’ve got to do this, and this is the only thing that will work. But what we do know is that we need to be very critical of what we’ve been told is empowering.

Feeling good does not magically become good politics. We don’t always have to practice good politics, because that’s exhausting, if not impossible, but we have to be honest enough to try to say when we’re not.

I recognize the importance of pushing back against beauty standards, as well as the way that so many different women have used photography, self and otherwise, to force expansions in who and what we are told is “beautiful.” At the same time, though, I repeat Kite’s words: “What we do know is that we need to be very critical of what we’ve been told is empowering.” We, personally, need to be critical in our own lives, and since I’m being sold boudoir photography, that’s what I’m doing. Where do boudoir poses come from? Why is that what’s “beautiful?” Are we really trying to beautiful—and what do we mean by “beautiful”?—for ourselves? Is it really that, “YOU are beautiful NOW. NOW it’s time for YOU”? Or are we all just clamouring to run on the hamster-wheel for a culture that hates us anyway? Don’t we do that enough already? These are not rhetorical questions, but instead questions—for me, so far—without answers.

Pretty feels good because we get noticed, admired, praised. Because we feel more desirable and less lonely, even if briefly. Because we chose it, being free human beings with independent will, etc. We chose it, whatever it is, boudoir pics and nudes, labiaplasty, hours and hours and dollars and dollars on makeup, Spanx, whatever. (I use make-up, I strap into Spanx, I don’t wear tank-tops because I don’t like my shoulders, I take selfies—I do it too, okay?)

Says one of the interviewed photographers, “‘Sometimes our own brains can pervert our sense of reality, of who we are, and we can forget about our strengths.” That’s certainly true—But she follows with this, that “it’s powerful to be reminded about the beauty the rest of the world sees in us.” Again, the “rest of the world,” which does not see beauty so much as compliance (or non-compliance).

The owner of a Yellowknife-based studio writes,

In our small town many of the people I photograph are very familiar faces, and given the intimate nature of the art we create together- and the fact that they are used as gifts as well! — I am unable to share many of the images- but am so thankful to travel this journey with each of you!

I am also conscious of “our small town,” its familiar faces, our friends and acquaintances and friends of friends. I am conscious of the importance of local business, local journalism, and women entrepreneurs and journalists. I am conscious that no harm is meant and that the boudoir photographers interviewed for EdgeNorth feel strongly for their clients, that they cry at the intimate and sisterly privilege and responsibility of supporting another woman when she is vulnerable, of making her “feel independent and beautiful for the first time in a long time.

But as Kite says in the same interview,

“Lots of people have become really aware of the hot topic that is “positive body image” because people recognize it’s a huge issue. Girls and women really do hate their bodies and there’s no arguing that. But they’re trying to fix this problem in generally one way: They typically will say, in so many words, “Girls, women, you are so beautiful just the way you are. If only you understood just how pretty you are, you would have all the confidence in the world. Now get out there and have girl power.” And we [Lexie and I] try to flip the script on this because we know that boys and men have self-esteem issues, too. They have confidence issues. And when people try to fix girls’ and women’s confidence issues — not just their body issues — by telling them they’re beautiful and they’re actually prettier than they think they are, that just serves to further reinforce the idea that your body is the most important thing about you, and that your looks define who you are. So girls and women get this message from multiple angles, even from people who are really well-meaning.”

The hamster wheel. It’s such a struggle.

The Little Shadows

The Little Shadows (Marina Endicott)

“‘I want to be honest,’ she said. ‘I don’t much care about honour’” (465).

Endicott’s Shadows relates the lives of three sisters—Aurora, Clover, and Bella—and their mother, as the three pitch their “sister act” for the early 20th-century vaudeville stage across Canada and the northern United States. While they dream of stardom and earning “a thousand a week,” they are all too aware that they are only a few missteps away from penniless, but both poverty and passion push them onward. 

Endicott’s supporting cast, too, is wonderfully developed. “Vaudeville people… [are] used to separation” (453), but they enjoy reunions all the more for it, and acts, performers, and vaudeville families pop up again and again, at different theatres and in new permutations all around the circuit and through the sisters’ lives. Early on, for instance, the girls encounter another sister act, the Simple (later, Saucy) Soubrettes, and while the Soubrettes are the stronger performers at the time, the girls become not enemies, but colleagues and friends. The Soubrettes, too, are the sisters’ first glimpse into the darker side of vaudeville, Mercy, the oldest, having been forced to give the theatre manager a “French job” to ensure their billing. Like anywhere, vaudeville is not always safe for the sisters, but Endicott handles her material—which includes rape, suicide, and war—gently, intelligently, and with great compassion for the injured. 

Having recently attended a preview screening of the incredible film, Testament of Youth, I’ve been thinking (once again) about the First World War, and though fiction where Testament is based on Vera Brittain’s memoir, Shadows, too, captures the war’s impact on the lives of women at home (and Canadian women, to boot).

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Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

“‘Well—what kind of books does he write?’ she asked.

‘He’s doin’ one now about another young fellow who wrote books, and then his sisters pretended they wrote them, and they all died of consumption, poor young mommets.’

‘Ha! A life of Branwell Brontë,’ thought Flora. ‘I might have known it. There has been increasing discontent among the male intellectuals for some time at the thought that a woman wrote Wuthering Heights. I thought one of them would produce something of the kind, sooner or later. Well, I must just avoid him, that’s all” (75-6).

Oh, how I laughed! Gibbons’s 1932 send-up of the rural melodrama is a treasure and not to be missed—I’m only sorry it took me this long to get around to reading it! In this short novel, the young socialite Flora Poste sets out for her distant relations’ Sussex Farm and, upon arriving, determines—come hell or high water—to put everyone and everything in order. And so she does, from making matches and arranging film auditions to setting the bull loose and insisting the curtains be washed. Flora is a delight, as is her no-nonsense attitude and her deft handling of the silly Mr Mybug, who insists that the Brontës were frauds. You can polish Cold Comfort off in an evening or two, so check it out!

 

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