Cancel Culture Ain’t The Problem, Part 2

It’s taken me longer than I intended to write the Part 2 post to Cancel Culture Ain’t The Problem. Partly because every time I’ve written a response to a current instance of transphobia a new one crops up – Liz Truss, the UK’s equalities minister and foreign secretary, using the Conservative Party’s spring conference to denounce the so-called “ludicrous debates about languages, statues and pronouns” was my initial inspiration but in the meantime we’ve had Ricky Gervais, J.K. Rowling, The Times, the UK Government’s Attorney General…and the list goes on. I was even planning on writing a response to Janice Turner’s deeply transphobic Times article titled “Cult of gender identity is harming children” which she wrote on 21st September 2019, likening gender identities beyond man and woman to Pokemon (i.e. made up). And then I watched the wondrous Jeffrey Marsh’s video on hate and they said four magic words… “hate is largely chaotic”.

That’s when it clicked. I was spending all this time engaging with the work of transphobes be it their articles, tweets, policies, or speeches. I would do my best to articulate a response that explained why their transphobia was bad (and why it was transphobia, full stop, given so many people deny transphobia is transphobia) and to offer a more loving and liberated alternative. I would try to understand them so I could better understand the things they said, wrote and believed. But what they say, write and believe is hate. Transphobia is hate. And these transphobic people have literally zero interest in my blog posts and zero interest in treating trans people such as myself better. Their hate is not thoughtful, well-researched, logical, compassionate and empathetic…it’s just hate. As Jeffrey says, hate is largely chaotic. I was expending so much energy trying to make sense of their chaos. Exposing myself to hate over and over again, trying to turn it into love. And, boy, that is a fool’s errand.

The likes of Liz Truss and Janice Turner will carry on hating me until they don’t (which will probably be never) even while claiming they don’t hate me (if they ever get called out on it, which they probably won’t). They won’t seek to understand me, they’ll just keep hating me. They won’t listen to me from a place of openness and compassion, they’ll hate. They’ll dehumanise me. They’ll ridicule ‘generation woke’, ‘cancel culture’, pronouns, and anything else they want to justify their hate. They’ll use all the familiar moral panic tropes/lies such as ‘threats to children’, ‘paedophilia’ and ‘recruiting young people’. Janice Turner, in her article, even says being non-binary is homophobic. Well, I’m a gay man and a non-binary queer, and I sure for one ain’t homophobic (and nor am I trying to foment hate within the LGBTQ+ community to further my transphobic goals). As Jeffrey says, hate is largely chaotic. Navigating chaos is impossible. Trying to make sense of chaos is impossible. Asking hateful people to listen to me and see me as a human is a job that requires more hours than I’ve got left to live. Hate is a war that has been (chaotically) designed to ensure I cannot win.

I’m done. I care too much about myself to immerse myself in hate. I want to have fun. I don’t want to get triggered every time I try to write a blog post. I don’t want to get caught in hate on the off chance it rubs off on me and I end up hating the haters. I simply don’t have time to hate. And we all know what the opposite of hate is…it’s freedom. A profound personal and collective freedom based on love and unbounded liberation. Of course I’m still going to write sassy blog posts calling out queerphobic tropes in trashy/fun films but I’m no longer going to meet the haters where they’re at. They’re too chaotic to even know where they’re at. They’re too lost in their hate (and on a good day I’d pity them). Having said that, there are still battles I must fight – because our rights and identities are being marginalised and trampled upon. There are material, political and social battles to fight. But I’ll be better resourced to fight them if I do it from a place of such self-love that the hate of others slides off me like water off a duck’s back. At the moment, this ain’t the case, I’m too tired, traumatised and triggered, their hate still hurts. But thanks to Jeffrey I know I can stop trying to make sense of it. “Where does hate come from?” asks Jeffrey and their answer, “Who cares?” I’ll care about myself instead, which feels much more like Queertopia.

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And talking of utopias…in mine, words aren’t used to hurt and dehumanise. Words aren’t used to worsen people’s suffering and push them closer to death. Words aren’t used to minimise acts of transphobic violence, thereby encouraging them. Nope. In my world, words heal. They give life, offer hope and inspire. They do not cancel, they welcome (while clearly not welcoming prejudice). Words are carefully chosen and freely spoken. Words are acts of love realised through ink on a page, clever technology (which I don’t understand) on a screen, chalk on a wall, and vibrations in air. Quite simply, words are magic.

I Loved Hearstopper But…

Big spoilers ahead. Without caveat I loved Heartstopper, the queer teen romance taking Netflix by storm. It centres on gay and out 15-year-old Charlie Spring (played brilliantly by Joe Locke) falling for the could-he-be-gay 16-year-old Nick Nelson (played equally brilliantly by Kit Connor). Turns out Nick’s bi and, eventually, the two finally get their romance. They’ve got epic friends as well and the series offers a true diversity of identities – lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans – and so many races beyond white. There’s also a teacher who wears a Pride Progress badge and offers the sort of sassy support all young queers deserve and there are even some parents who seem pretty okay with having queer kids. The show made me laugh, cry and cheer, I loved it. And while it did make me think of my adolescence and how I would have killed for a series like this, I’m just glad it’s here, now.

Thinking of my youth, when I was a teen I had Big Brother’s Anna Nolan (the gay ex-nun) and Brian Dowling (the gay flight attendant). I loved that show so much, especially as it introduced me to a world of diversity my boarding school lacked. What my boarding school didn’t lack was prejudice, homophobia, toxic masculinity, bi-erasure and bullying. I also didn’t have sympathetic parents or teachers I could turn to for support. I fought those battles alone. I also remember Queer As Folk, which was definitely not the family-friendly sort of show Heartstopper is, and Angels In America, which blew my teenage mind. Gay guys cropped up in Eastenders, Hollyoaks and Dawson’s Creek but something like Heartstopper, which is incredibly PG and lacking in violence and tragedy, just didn’t exist. What’s more, I don’t think a show like HS could have existed in my time. I can just imagine the backlash from the cis & straight majority. A majority hell-bent on educating queerness out of the youth (via Section 28) and stopping us having sex (the age of consent for male homosexuals was equalised with straights in 2000). I shudder at the thought of the hate-filled articles in The Times (just like the transphobic ones being written today) and all the ‘concerned’ parents speaking out on behalf of the ‘safety’ of their children. Furthermore, as a writer I couldn’t even have imagined writing a story like HS back in my teens. Gay-ish characters cropped up in my Soul Calibur and Final Fantasy fan fic but it wouldn’t be until much later that I created my first exclusively queer play, aka The Cluedo Club Killings.

But. Just because Hearstopper exists now and paints a nice (enough) picture of the queer teen experience, it doesn’t mean everything’s ok – far from it. There’s a review by Amanda Whiting in The Independent titled, “Heartstopper’s sunny vision of school queerness is a fantasy – but that’s OK”. Whiting comments on how predominantly great the school is in the show, a place where “a gay highschooler’s romantic experience isn’t significantly more traumatic than the regular highschooler’s romantic experience.” Whiting states that this isn’t realistic as the realities are often far more worse. But I’d argue that the vision of the school in the show is far from sunny – Elle Argent (played by the wondrous Yasmin Finney), a teenage trans woman, had to move to a different school because of transphobic bullying; Charlie is bullied for being gay (even though we only see a bit of this in the show); and the teacher who provides support does so in the privacy of his art classroom and there’s little sense any of the other teachers have anything to say. This isn’t sunny, it’s just less stormy. It’s also worth noting that a few people commented on Whiting’s review saying their experience of school is actually better, which fills my queer heart with joy. This is also why I’m being careful in this post to not generalise my experience of school to other people’s. Meanwhile, people are praising the character of Sarah Nelson, Nick’s Mum, played by the iconic Olivia Colman, for being “the world’s biggest and best ally“, mainly because she isn’t a massive bi-phobe when Nick comes out. But, again, I’ve got notes. For 16 years Sarah has assumed her son is straight until he tells her she’s not. That’s not allyship, that’s bad parenting. He’s the one who has to come out – which is a huge amount of emotional labour to expect of any teen and itself a product of oppression – while she’s done nothing to hack down the closet she and the rest of society built around him. She then makes a quick apology which, as far as I’m concerned, ain’t enough. I know Sarah Nelson is played by Olivia Colman but we can’t forgive her characters everything.

These observations are not criticisms of Hearstopper which I’ve made clear I lurve! They are criticisims of our relentlessly queerphobic society, which has fought against the creation of shows like HS for years (oh, but huge shout out to G.B.F. of 2014). And because queers of all ages have been dying for a show like this (and literally dying at the hands of said queerphobic society) it’s unsurprising we’re over the moon. I know I am. And because queers like me are so used to lowering our expectations and being grateful for whatever minor visibility we get (such as Scar in The Lion King), when we do finally get better representation it can seem like the weather is sunny when it’s actually still overcast. But Heartstopper isn’t trying to present a utopic view of school, instead it celebrates a diversity of queer loves and characters, and it does this perfectly. Five stars from me.

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On the topic of utopias, if we want a truly sunny vision of a school then I want it to be a school without bullying, without enforced toxic masculinity, without transphobia (and with more sports than blooming rugby which I know far too well from all my time at all boys’ school). When we imagine utopias we liberate ourselves and we uncondition our imaginations. We can dream as big as we want to (and then bigger still). And just because we can’t live in our fantasies doesn’t mean they can’t inspire us to make changes, even very small ones, in our own lives. I know, from personal experience, how painful the gap between reality and fantasy can be, especially if you’ve got a strong imagination, but I’m learning that our ideal places such as Queertopia or Heaven or Truham Grammar School for Boys are there to inspire us. These places exist within our hearts and minds, and they exist to liberate them too.

Black Widow – “That’s Not My Story”

Spoilers for Black Widow, Avengers: EndgameWandaVision, Loki and Captain Marvel

I’ve just started the Hawkeye series, which I am quite enjoying, and remembered I never published this lil’ take on the Black Widow movie, which came out last summer (which in the world of the MCU might as well be a decade ago). Anyways, after years and years of playing second fiddle to male leads Black Widow finally got her own movie and it was…fine. I mean, this is the MCU so don’t expect too much from their efforts at ‘diversifying’ their portfolio. Nevertheless, it’s popcorn guzzling fun with Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh knocking it out the park as lolsome kinda-sisters and the villain has a secret floating base hidden in a cloud and blah blah, let’s get to the analysis.

The MCU actively avoided producing a film with a female protagonist for years because leaked emails in 2015 revealed CEO Ike Perlmutter didn’t think it would sell (which reminds me of the time a ‘friend’ told me a gay Captain Kirk wouldn’t sell). Yup, women aren’t profitable. This is just one example of the sexism Scarlet Johansson would have experienced during her many, many years playing a secondary character, not to mention the objectification, having to kill people with her thighs (I mean, does Thor ever do that?), her love-interest plot-device status, and a briefly mentioned backstory including an enforced hysterectomy in the Red Room – a grim Russian spy-making facility. Oh, and in her final movie appearance in Avengers: Endgame she dies. She throws herself off a cliff to save a guy (and the universe) and doesn’t even get a big funeral at the end, unlike Tony Stark. She also doesn’t come back to life, unlike Loki and Vision. That’s not to mention the countless sexist questions Johansson had to field in interviews for the films, rarely receiving allyship from the male actors, who didn’t get questions about clothes and underwear (apart from this one).

After all this she finally got her own movie. Trouble is, it’s not really her movie but an introduction to her replacement (because, she’s dead, remember), aka Yelena Belova, played brilliantly by Florence Pugh. They’ve got a long backstory involving being fake sisters with fake parents, brainwashing and the Red Room. But Natasha escaped all that and joined the Avengers, leaving Yelena stuck for years (until someone blows special red powder at her which undoes her chemical brainwashing, yup, that happens in the film). It’s when the pair meet that we get the best acting in the film. They are such believable siblings – squabbling, mocking, loving and trying to make sense of their superhero super trauma. Most MCU films and series are dependent on the chemistry between the two leads – usually a straight white man and either a black, straight male sidekick or a white, straight female sidekick/love interest. Captain Marvel saw a white, cisfemale get the lead and her own straight, black cisfemale sidekick – any potential romance between them 100% denied by the MCU rules even though it wouldn’t haven’t been had Monica Rambeau been a guy. Anyways, Johansson and Pugh are great.

Yelena mocks Natasha for selling out to the Avengers, for flicking her hair back, for always doing a certain fighting pose because, apparently, she loved posing and being looked at. I laughed at the sibling rivalry and banter but once I left the cinema I realised it wasn’t funny at all. Black Widow flicked her hair and posed because that’s what the script and directors had her do. They objectified her because that’s how they profited from a female actor and character. Yelena also criticises her for selling out to the Avengers but she never had the chance to buy into anything else. Her character was never written to have significant agency. It kinda hurts, then, that in her own film she is mocked by another female character for having been objectified and for lacking agency. Black Widow is a victim of sexist storytelling and the lack of imagination of predominantly male teams to imagine well-rounded female characters. But as far as the MCU is concerned it’s all a joke. Talk about rubbing sexist salt in the sexist wound.

Another joke concerns the enforced hysterectomies that Natasha and Yelena were subjected to by the Red Room. After busting out their fake-Dad from a Russian prison (it’s a long story involving an avalanche) Yelena criticises him for never having really cared about her. He mocks her, asking if it’s “that time of the month”, to which she replies she cannot have a period. She then vividly describes what the hysterectomy was like. On the one hand it’s great to have a female character school a male one in periods (and the lack of them) and the nature of a hysterectomy. But the trouble is, it’s played for laughs. Yup, their torture and mutilation is a joke. Black Widow even smirks when Yelena threatens to talk about “fallopian tubes”. This is often the case with the comedy of the MCU. So many moments that could be serious or played for emotion, are played for laughs. Although can you imagine Tony Stark and Captain America bantering about enforced vasectomies? Even Yelena putting flowers on Natasha’s grave in the post-credit scene is interrupted by Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine (played hilariously by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) blowing her nose. So that’s Black Widow’s death and Yelena’s grief getting a punchline.

Another hurdle the film falls at is racial diversity. The two leads are white as are the actors who play their fake-parents. Nothing inherently wrong with a bunch of white leads but it’s how the other characters are treated that’s important. There’s Oksana, another Black Widow, played by Michelle Lee, a Chinese American martial artist, stuntwoman and actress. She doesn’t last long as, having fled the Red Room, she’s stabbed by a pre-Red Powder Yelena. Oksana then bleeds to death, it’s a tough watch. Later on, the Black Widow assassin Ingrid chases Natasha but ends up falling from a roof and hurting her back. Dreykov, the super (white) villain and head of the Red Room, then commands Ingrid to blast herself in the head as she’s failed her mission. It’s another hard watch especially as Ingrid is played by Nanna Blondell, a Swedish actor of Ghanaian decent. The trouble here is that the film couldn’t commit to a more racially diverse group of leads but it did diversify the secondary cast, which results in a lot of non-white* characters dying at the hands of white ones. We’ve seen this before in Thor and Age of Ultron. Unfortunately, art appears to be imitating life by normalising the deaths of non-white people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for diverse casts (100%) but I want diverse leads as well and I want race to be successfully integrated into the DNA of a story just as it was, in many ways, in Black Panther, when a predominantly black team were put in charge. Where was the predominantly female team for Black Widow? And what about a predominantly queer team for the queer lead hero that the MCU ain’t even promising us?

There was a lot to enjoy in the film and I, for one, am loving Phase 4 of the MCU as a lot of the white, male leads take a step back to allow for a host of new characters. But the MCU needs to diversity how it creates and tells its stories, not just diversity who gets a leading role. As Natasha says to Yelena in the trailer below, “That’s not my story”, and I reckon she could be talking about the very film that is meant to be telling her story. Tbh, if I were Black Widow I wouldn’t just flee the Red Room, I’d flee the MCU.

*

P.s. I’m using the term non-white* not to reduce people to something that they are not (i.e. white) but in an effort to try and show that whiteness is going on here and not something that can be taken for granted and considered normal (or not even seen). I appreciate it’s a clunky term and one I may jettison as I continue to educate myself.

P.p.s. as another little post-credits comment, in terms of the MCU and it’s abysmal history of female representation can I just complain that having slogged my way through six sometimes inventive, sometimes dull episodes of Loki I was disappointed (but not surprised) that the person who causes all the bad that’s going to happen for Phase 4 is…..drum roll…..a woman. Yup, female Loki, played by Sophia di Martino, is the one who might just be responsible for the next multiversal war.

A Person With A Penis

At my local swimming pool there are two changing rooms – male and female. I change in the male changing room. I do this because I am biologically male (not that I’ve ever had a test to confirm I have a Y chromosome) and because for the majority of my life I was identified as male (note, I am differentiating sex and gender). As a kid I was called a boy and from the age of 8 I was sent to all boys’ schools. There I was taught how to be a man, often tough but there was fun to be had as well. I became attached to these identities – boy and man – and it wasn’t until I was 26 that I learnt what the word cisgender meant. Over the years I started to lessen my attachment to the gender identity of male and explored the words trans and non-binary, as well as using they/them pronouns. Now, somewhere into my thirties I identify as all and none of the above. Such a large part of my gender history is male and he remains a huge part of me. He’s the dude that got me here after all, so kudos to him. I am trans because I don’t exclusively identify as the gender I was assigned at birth. I am non-binary because I believe gender is so much more than the binary of male and female. I am also none of these things because I’m just me, Robert. It is this person who takes his clothes off in the changing room and puts their swimming trunks on.

This is my gender journey and it’s unique, as are the experiences of every dude who gets his swimmers on in the changing room. And I want to use this post to make clear that, as far as I’m concerned, all men are welcome in my changing room. And to be even clearer, I’ll use the word mxn with an ‘x’ as I’m not just talking about biologically male people who identify as men. Trans and non-binary men are also welcome. And just because I’m a person with a penis doesn’t mean I expect everyone in the changing room to have a penis. I don’t actually care about their genitalia, I just want them to feel they belong in this changing space. I also don’t find it inherently dehumanising to be referred to as a person with a penis when it’s appropriate, however, this time around, regarding the changing room, having a penis isn’t of interest to me because I know there are men with vaginas and intersex genitalia. All I ask is that people treat each other respectfully.

I also want to be very clear that my changing room isn’t trying to erase men. If there’s someone who was born biologically male and identifies as a guy (like my 18 year-old self did, for example) then he is blooming welcome in the changing room as is a trans dude who has just had top surgery as well as the non-binary guy with breasts and the cis guy with breasts. However, I do recognise that many trans men will have experienced transphobia from cis men, so I’ll try and do my bit as an ally, and ensure the changing room is as safe a place as possible for all the mxn who use it. I’m not sure if any of this can be said of the actual changing room I use given there are no messages or codes of conduct which make clear it’s an inclusive and safer space.

I write this post partly as a response to some of the articles I’ve read by “gender critical” feminists. In one the author wrote that, asides trans women being a threat to women (apparently), she never heard of men having to make space for trans men. I know this isn’t true and here’s my post to prove it. Some GC feminists also deny the existence of gender identity and speak only of biological sex (well, they speak only of male and female biological sex and ignore the others) and in doing so they erase my identity as trans, non-binary and a man. They just want me to be a biological male with a biological penis…and might even want me sent for “conversion therapy” to ensure I man up. Gender critical feminists (aka terfs, aka transphobes) want to exclude me from society whereas all I want to exclude is transphobia (and sexism and racism and inequality etc). I can assure you that even though a lot of cis women are causing me considerable pain I will not weaponise that pain and throw it back at them. Add to that all the pain cis men have caused me whether it was bullying at school, homophobia at university or queerphobia since but, again, I’m not anti-men, I’m anti-abuse. I want a world in which people of all genders and sexes can be safe. All men and mxn, all women and womxn, and all people are welcome in Queertopia.

Notes From A Terf Island

Just when I was going to write a blog post about Liz Truss, the UK Conservative government’s Minister for Women and Equalities, talking about the “ludicrous debates about pronouns”, Putin went and compared Russia being cancelled to J.K. Rowling being cancelled by “fans of so-called gender freedoms”. I mean, I’m a writer and I can’t write this stuff. Not to mention the other week when I flicked on BBC Politics in the afternoon and a group of middle-aged women were discussing the “crisis of well-being in the UK”, rather than be assured by the conversation I asked myself – how long before something transphobic is said? Answer: less than two minutes as a Baroness soon dismissed people’s “promiscuous” use of mental health when, for example, university students claim to experience PTSD in the wake of so-called transphobia. In these three examples my desire for they/them pronouns has been dismissed as “ludicrous”; my fandom of “so-called gender freedoms” has been dismissed by the man responsible for the invasion of Ukraine; and the pain of the experience of transphobia has been dismissed as “promiscuous”.

Over the past few years Britain has become an increasingly transphobic country. A moral panic is very successfully being stirred which paints trans and non-binary folx as dangerous, demanding, deluded and all manner of dehumanising tropes. We’re the enemy within, apparently, and the comments of the likes of Truss and Rowling simply affirm this. The moral panic is working. It’s divide and conquer – divide cis women and trans people, especially trans women, and set them off against each other. I’ve also seen this at play amongst my friends and acquaintances, but more on that another time. But you know me, I call bullshit. As a they/he, trans, non-binary, and a little bit cis, insofar that I do identify with the boy and man I used to be, I want a world for everyone, one full of gender freedoms and gender abundance. But what’s abundantly clear is how few people care about this world of gender abundance, caught up as they are in the moral panic, instead believing that trans liberation is a threat to cis people. I dream of Queertopia but I’ve got to live on terf island. So, as well as critique the issue (because there is so much to critique and I sure love a sassy blog post) I want to focus on how I’m going to survive and, hopefully, thrive in the face of systemic transphobia.

I’ll start by sharing this – that in all 30+ years of my life I have never been so trans, so non-binary, so queer, and just so much of me. I’m done with not being validated by those around me – I’ll validate myself, thanks. I’m done with being routinely dehumanised by mainstream society – I’ll humanise myself. I’m done with being told (in all manner of words and silences) that I am hated – I’ll love myself. It’s me, myself and I (hence the excuse for posting the below video). Not forgetting all the friends who do validate and love me, and all of those learning how to in the face of norms that have taught them the opposite. Not forgetting my therapist and also the wondrous Jeffrey Marsh, trans super guru! It’s tough living on terf island, really tough, but I’m tough too. And I am growing such a power within that one day the dehumanising and hurtful comments from BBC Politics, Rowling and others won’t have to hurt so much. One day.

250 Posts Later & Cancel Culture Ain’t The Problem, Pt 1

Coming up to seven years now since my first post and after everything that’s happened – Brexit, Donald Trump, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, climate change (still), covid-19, George Floyd’s murder, Sarah Everard’s murder, a transphobic moral panic, Putin invading Ukraine – you’d think that some of our critiques would focus on neoliberal capitalism, xenophobia, white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, femicide and transphobia. But no, according to many in the mainstream the problem is actually that thing called ‘cancel culture’. Previously referred to as ‘no-platforming’ and before that ‘political correctness’ (gone mad) as well as ‘rewriting history’, it’s that many-headed monster…yup, people demanding an end to prejudice and hate. Once again, I call bullshit.

No, the problem is not less powerful people speaking out against the violence, physical and/or psychological, of more powerful people. The problem is the more powerful people refusing to relinquish any of their power. Whether it’s white people getting called out for being racist, cis people for being transphobic, men for being sexist, people hate being faced with their prejudice and most of them will deny being prejudiced in the first place. But we already know all this and I, for one, am fed up of those around me (and beyond me) doubling down on their prejudice and ignorance. I’m exhausted from trying to explain gender diversity to my family and justifying why pronouns matter to my cis friends. They throw back the usual – ‘but it’s so important to have an open discussion’, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you’ and ‘I’m fed up of people I don’t know being angry about this on twitter’ – and I’m left right where I started but a little more hurt.

However, so many of these conversations are predicated on someone else’s assumption that I will stay and listen to what they have to say. I’ve done this a lot – listen. I’ve listened from a place of empathy, compassion and patience. But these past few years have killed that patience and I’m tired of people assuming they can say what they want to me because they feel ‘safe’ to express their prejudice at me. I work so hard to create safer spaces and, boy, it hurts when people use that space to hurt me. It becomes clear that they don’t care for my safety and well-being in the way I care for theirs and they often don’t even care for the validity of my existence as a trans & non-binary person. They cancel my very identity (while claiming cancel culture is the problem). And, surprise, surprise, when I challenge them on this they usually get defensive; either doubling down on their prejudice or denying it in the first place. I’m left where I started but much more hurt. But it’s time for change and 250 posts later there’s no time like the present. To be continued…

The Boys Don’t Like Anal

As someone who has seen way too many Marvel films and TV series I thought The Boys would be a nice antidote to the predictable three-act structure with the dubious final fight scene and  limited morality. The superhero world needs some cynicism and not just Batman’s grumpy malaise but something with wit. The Boys has been praised for doing just this – making fun of and deconstructing the genre while offering bloody violence and intrigue. A lot of its satire is very funny with some stellar performances from the likeably unlikeable super “heroes”. But four episodes in and I was becoming uncomfortably aware that the violence of the series also included a morbid and violent fascination with and disgust for the anus and anal sex.

Take episode 2, the superhero Translucent has been captured by the show’s group of unpowerful vigilantes. His skin is made of a carbon metamaterial which makes him both bulletproof and able to turn invisible. For the life of them the boys cannot figure out a way to kill him. Cut to Frenchie, one of the vigilantes who is…French, spotting a tortoise on TV. He watches as it retracts its head into its shell. I knew exactly what was going to happen next. Yup, they drug Translucent and insert a bomb up his anus. Hilarious, right. They want to use it to keep him under control but it’s not long before he gets blown to pieces. Like a lot of graphic violence this is played for laughs and the fact that Translucent has something forcibly inserted into his anus when he’s drugged is part of the joke. Cut to another scene in which the superpowerful Popclaw, high on drugs, is straddling a man’s face. “Eat my ass,” she screams but it’s not long before she crushes the guy’s skull with her bum. Hilarious, right. Come episode four, Frenchie and another of the vigilantes, Mother’s Milk, are having a row about a superpowerful and violent women they had tried to capture but who got away.

Mother’s Milk: So where’s the girl, Frenchie? Since you’re the psycho chick whisperer all of a sudden.

Frenchie: Maybe subway. Maybe she wants to find a train, no?

Mother’s Milk: Oh, yeah? How deep up your ass did you pull that out?

Frenchie: Well, it depends. How deep does your tongue go?

Witty dialogue, right? I mean the thought of Frenchie having a subway train up his bum, lol. And the thought of Mother’s Milk rimming Frenchie with a really long tongue, gross! A few moments later and Frenchie says, “I understand it’s hard for someone who’s anally OCD to understand.” Another anal joke mixed with a mental health one. Hilarious!

Nope. Anal sex is not gross and is often amazingly pleasurable for the people involved. Yet The Boys treats the anus as a site of ridicule, disgust, and violence. Anilingus between guys is referenced as something gross, thereby ensuring the series is mega-homophobic. Meanwhile, a guy getting a bomb forced up his anus and a woman crushing a guy with her buttocks are played for laughs, while the sexual violence, homophobia and sexism of these jokes are completely ignored. Add to this that the protagonists’ of The Boys are pretty much all male. The heroes we’re meant to root for are the guys cracking jokes about anal violence, which means there’s no way the series can step back from the homophobia and anal-phobia (for want of a better word) and critique them. They’re treated as normal. Of course, what we’re really looking at is toxic masculinity within patriarchy predicated on, amongst other things, homophobia, sexism and an utter fear and disgust of the anus. These are what make boys men and we’re supposed to laugh along with the joke. I don’t think it’s funny.

But what if one of the male protagonists enjoyed anal sex and it wasn’t treated as a joke or something to be ashamed of? Perhaps he uses a dildo, perhaps his girlfriend rides him with a strap on, or perhaps he just uses his finger. Or what if there is a male character who sleeps with other men and enjoys it and we can understand the pleasure and empowerment he gains from it? The only male character I saw in the show who gets with other guys was a total creep #herewegoagain. A show like The Boys is totally ill-equipped to present male liberation, leaving its characters to no-homo each other and make anal sex/rape jokes instead. Not for me, thanks.

The Disempowerment Of The Dog, Pt 3: Straights Win

Happily Ever After? As Peter gets closer to Phil he starts to teach him that being a man doesn’t have to involve being sexist, homophobic, racist, and aggressive. Indeed, a man can be camp, bad at tennis, sensitive, well-dressed and into dissection. Phil realises he is full of repression, anger, trauma and prejudice, and that he’s been taking these things out on the people around him. He finally sees the error of his ways and starts apologising to Rose, George, the local Native Americans, and everyone else he has treated awfully. He becomes close, platonic friends with Peter, and it all ends well…ha, does it bullshit.

Homophobic Plot Twist: as Peter gets closer to Phil it’s hard to tell the nature of the affection the older guy has for the teenager. It could be platonic and paternal but the film is so rife with gay tropes it’s hard not to read more into this, especially as the trailer queerbaits with the (very brief) moment when Phil rubs Peter’s neck. “Look, GAY SUBTEXT,” screams the film but that’s it as far as gay intimacy goes (not forgetting the sweaty handkerchief). As for what Peter feels, he gets a little flirty and seductive, holding a cigarette to Phil’s lips and asking suggestive questions about Bronco Henry. And then what? They fall in love? Nope, Peter kills Phil. Yup, the creepy twink murders the old, repressed gay dude. An earlier scene in the film showed Peter snapping on some Marigolds (lol) and dissecting a dead cow (yuk). Later Phil shows Peter how to make rope out of dried cow hide but he doesn’t have enough. Annoyingly, Rose had given all the excess hides away to the pesky “Indians” but luckily Peter has some he prepared earlier. We watch as Phil places the strips of hide into a tub of water to dampen them. Phil has a cut on his hand and his blood mixes with the water. Peter watches intently, knowing full well the dead cow he skinned died of anthrax. So, for Phil, what is a moment of manly, possibly romantic, bonding is, for Peter, the perfect time to commit murder. It’s not long before Phil is in a coffin. Take that you repressed queer!

“For what kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother, if I didn’t save her?”

Peter asks himself this question right at the start of the film and it’s clear that Jane Campion was interested in exploring masculinity. Yet having the more effeminate queer guy kill the more masculine one isn’t a poignant insight into the male condition, it’s just another example of the awful treatment and characterisation of gay men in film.

Straight Love Good: the closing scene sees Peter tucking the rope (aka murder weapon) under his bed (wearing gloves, of course) and going over to his window. Outside he sees George and Rose getting back from Phil’s funeral. They kiss and Peter smirks because what does any queer son love more than murdering his mother’s bully so she can continue her happy, heterosexual marriage. What’s more, it’s not just straight marriage that gets a big tick, it’s also the straight, nuclear family, as George chooses Phil’s funeral as the prime time to invite their parents for Christmas. They happily accept because, thank God, their awful gay son has finally been murdered by an evil twink. It’s also not clear why George does so little to stop his brother abusing Rose, leaving it all up to Peter instead. I mean, if a gay guy has to get murdered could it at least be at the hands of his straight brother, rather than the only other queer character. I’d also settle for Rose shooting Phil, he really does treat her awfully.

I 100% did not need this film. I’ve seen enough homophobic tropes to last a lifetime. Brokeback Mountain (spoilers!) was a super depressing gay love story in which two cowboys did actually fall in love but one gets beaten to death (by straight people) and the other lives on unhappily. That film has the excuse of being 16 years old. Not to mention that The Power of the Dog, the book, was published in 1967 (no one needed this adapted into a film over fifty years later). There are a zillion films out there that celebrate straight love – in which the straight couple don’t die/get murdered and get to stay in love. But there are not a zillion films that celebrate queer love, quite the opposite. The balance needs to be redressed.

The Power of the Dog is a brilliant film for many reasons – acting, cinematography, directing, setting, writing, music – but it’s the story that is the problem. It adds to the long history of the homophobic portrayal of gay men in film. In trying to say “hey, masculinity has nuances” it actually said “gays are bad”. The stories we tell have consequences. Bad stories will have bad consequences and I, for one, am exhausted and deeply disheartened by the amount of bad LGBTQ+ stories being told and, more often than not, by straight people. The Power of The Dog should really be called The Power of the Trope and, boy, those tropes are even tougher to kill than a repressed, gay cowboy.

Straights get to dance, kiss and be happy. Queers get killed (and handkerchiefs)

The Disempowerment Of The Dog, Pt 2: Gay Love Bad

Young Twink: it’s almost like Peter is an amalgam of what the filmmakers thought would make for an edgy, young queer character – he’s camp, loves his mum, is bad at tennis, loves dissection, is a bit weird (in a cousin of the Addams’ family sort of way), and has a male “friend” at uni who gets referenced once and could be more than a friend but it’s never made explicit (like the guy Q is making dinner for in the latest James Bond – we never meet him and we’re not even told it’s a date, yawn). But just like with Phil (and Rose and George for that matter) the film doesn’t dig deep. For example, there is an interesting co-dependent relationship to explore between Peter and his mother but for the sake of the film it seems it’s only really there to make clear that Peter loves his Mum a lot (i.e. with potentially lethal consequences). Meanwhile, Rose loves her queer son very much and is super nice to him, which is wonderful given it’s 1925! But again, why and how she’s like that given the time and place are unclear, instead, it’s as if she’s nice to Peter so we like her more and, therefore, hate Phil even more who, remember, is awful! Also, it’s strange that the film never explicitly says Peter is gay or into guys, despite the barrel of tropes it throws at us, whereas the love between Rose and George is unequivocal and explicit. I’ve so often heard straight people say to me, “oh but we don’t have to make a thing about it”, as a way to silence discussion about homosexuality, while heterosexuality gets taken for granted. In a film like this, no form of sexuality should be taken for granted.

To be clear – I love a camp guy who plays tennis badly (#guilty) but, in this film, I think it’s lazy storytelling – “effeminate gay guys can’t play tennis, ha!” As for the plot, well halfway through and we’ve discovered Phil likes sniffing old handkerchiefs. Peter has spent most of the film avoiding Phil but then he spots him skinny dipping…

Male Nudity: cue Cumberbatch taking his clothes off, covering himself in mud and going for a swim. The camera lingers on his bum and there’s even a brief flash of his mud-covered willy. When Phil sees Peter watching he runs out the river to chase him and his bum jiggles everywhere. For a moment I thought I was watching a farce! While nudity in movies can add so much this just felt like a reason to get the ratings up, including the scene where Phil watches some of the other cowboys playing naked in the river. More bums and the odd willy to see! It’s nice that the female body isn’t being objectified for a change. However, given all the body shaming of George for being fat, it’s strange that the film spends so much time eyeing up the naked bodies of muscular men. It’s like it wants to critique toxic masculinity while cashing in on its body ideals (here’s looking at you Beach Rats). But hey, nudity sells, right, and if it’s artistic enough it might just clinch that Oscar. After the mud bath and naked jog things take a surprise turn…Phil starts being nice to Peter.

Gay Love Bad: and this is where I just cannot. For starters, Phil is in his 40s and Peter is a teenager. Meanwhile, George and Rose are of a similar age and have a nice marriage, if it weren’t for all those awful gay guys ruining everything. As for Phil and Pete, they get the old guy fancies young guy trope, like Call Me By Your Name but much worse. It’s not like Phil could just meet a dude his age and have a nice life with him – I mean, there’s plenty of historical evidence that this happened a lot. Phil also takes to Peter as a way to get at Rose – so even that adds a touch of evil to the whole thing because, remember, Phil is awful.

Phil shows Peter how to ride a horse, knot ropes from strips of cow hide (lovely) and other such manly things. He’s keen that Peter stop letting his mother turn him into a sissy because, yup, Phil is a misogynist douchebag. As they get closer (or appear to get closer) Phil opens up and reveals that the initials ‘BH’ on the dirty handkerchief belonged to Bronco Henry (who also owned the saucy magazines). Bronco was an older man who took a shine to teenage Phil (here we go again, *eye roll*) and taught him the ropes of being a man, including rope tying (obviously) and sexism. One time Bronco and Phil were out on the planes and Phil had an accident. Bronco saved his life, which involved getting in a sleeping bag with him. “Naked?” asks Peter. Phil just laughs. It’s these details that form Phil’s origin story and we discover who’s to blame for why he’s so awful – a repressed older gay guy! History sure loves repeating itself in this movie.

It’s worth noting that the relationship between George and Rose is a nice one that lacks overt physical and emotional violence, whereas the one between Phil and Peter is predicated on abuse. So often when straight people write gay romances it involves some sort of violence (Skins season 1, Sex Education season 1 etc). One character is mean to the other but really it’s because they like them and eventually the violence (emotional, psychological, physical etc) becomes love (at least, a very toxic form of love). This is also true of loads of straight romances as well but, hey, this post ain’t about one of those films. In essence, it seems The Power of the Dog wants to romanticise violence between gay men because what’s sexier than getting with your oppressor, amirite!? As for Phil and Peter, if you think things sound bad so far, they’re about to get much, much worse. Tbc…

Queerbaiting alert! Think you’re in for a touching gay romance? Think again!

The Disempowerment Of The Dog, Part 1: The Evil Gay

The Power of the Dog tells the story of the world’s biggest dickhead, aka Phil Burbank, played very convincingly by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s 1925 and he lives on a cattle ranch in rural Alabama – think wide open planes, topless cowboys sewing hides and lots of castrating bulls. He has a brother, George (Jess Plemons), who marries a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst, who is actually married to Plemons!). Rose has a teenage son called Peter (Kodi Smitt-McPhee) who likes nothing more than making flowers out of newspapers and dissecting rabbits. Let’s just say that when Phil first encounters Rose and Peter, he sets one of the newspaper flowers alight and lights his cigarette on it. Yup, things are going to go from bad to worse…and they really do.

Phil Is A Dickhead: the whole film rests upon this premise. He bullies and body shames George, regularly calling him “fatso”. He’s racist, preferring to burn surplus hides rather than sell them to the “Indians”, i.e. the Native Americans who also live on the land. He bullies Peter, calling him “Miss Nancy” and ridiculing him for being an effeminate sissy. Worst of all is his deeply misogynistic hatred of Rose. His bullying of her is slow and purposeful. He mocks and humiliates her, and drives her to alcoholism. Phil is a walking example of toxic masculinity, who loves his leather chaps as much as he does castrating bulls with his bare hands, yee-haw! He also loves being sexist, fatphobic, homophobic and racist. Altogether now, Phil is a dickhead!

But why is Phil so awful? Could it be the other cowboys? Well, they do like homophobically bullying Peter and clearly revel in the masculine ideals of being strong and awful, but Phil’s the boss, and isn’t close to them. Could it be his parents? They do appear briefly in the film but there’s no exploration of how they contributed to Phil’s personality. What about George? He’s so nice it’s impossible to imagine him teaching Phil how to be awful. It’s clear that Phil depends on George to the point of co-dependent dysfunction, which further explains his hatred of Rose, but that still doesn’t tell us why he’s such a bad guy. Then half way through the film we find out Phil’s secret…he’s gay!

Evil Gay: surprise, he fancies men! He’s got a secret stash of photos of hot dudes hidden in a tree trunk and he likes watching the other cowboys swim around naked. He doesn’t join in, presumably because he’d enjoy it too much. He also has a giant, dirty handkerchief with the initials BH on. Phil loves nothing better than sneaking off to the woods, taking out the handkerchief, putting it down his pants, then rubbing it over his face. I’m 100% not here to kink shame and this scene was played so earnestly but, boy, did I laugh. So it turns out Phil is a repressed gay, he’s also incredibly evil, which makes him an Evil Gay – a trope familiar to us LGBTQ+ folks, just watch a Disney film! And there’s nothing an Evil Gay likes more than ruining straight people’s lives, which is precisely what Phil does throughout the film. Now, there is a nuanced point to make here – namely how patriarchy and toxic masculinity oppresses same sex desire between men and how that oppression has awful consequences. But we’re never shown how Phil has been oppressed. As I said earlier, there’s no effort to explore why Phil is awful, we don’t even find out if his parents were homophobic or not – a huge contributor to the shaping of a queer person’s psyche. Phil is just evil and gay, simples. But this is lazy storytelling which rests heavily on decades of homophobic tropes.

Lazy History: now, someone could say that Phil isn’t gay because that word didn’t exist in the 1920s to describe love between men or the identity of a man who loves other men. The word homosexual wasn’t even invented until the 1860s and it certainly wasn’t an identity that one could claim with pride, it was a medical pathology, an illness. It’s also highly likely Phil might never have heard the word homosexual, it was far less common than it is today. This history is vital to understanding Phil as a man in the 1920s but the film doesn’t bother to explore it. It’s not like Phil’s time was one of joyous fluidity in which guys had access to words such as bi, gay, pan, heteroflexible, homoromantic, ace, etc. We have no idea how he relates to his own feelings and possible identity, but what we do know is that he’s horrible, repressed and gay. A further irony is that he’s the chief homophobe of the film. None of the significant straight characters, namely Rose, George and the parents, ever express homophobia. Rose is even extra caring for her ragingly gay son, how nice! So it’s left to nasty, gay Phil to be a homophobe too. To be fair to the film, I think with the character of Phil it was trying to say “toxic masculinity = bad” but what it actually says is “repressed gay men = the root of all evil”. Unsurprisingly, the chief object of Phil’s homophobia is Peter who turns out to be another grab bag of gay tropes. Tbc.