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.
Popcorn, fizzy drink, comfy seat, tick. Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy acting their socks off, tick. Celebrity guest appearance from the late Dame Diana Rigg, tick. Matt Smith not playing an over-enthusiastic Time Lord, tick. London in all it’s 1960s glamour, tick. Nuanced feminist critique of patriarchy…absolutely not (spoilers).
I’ll get straight to it. Ellie moves from Cornwall to London to study fashion and finds it full of pervy taxi drivers and douchey lads at her halls of residence. She finds a bedsit at the top of a creepy old Soho’s townhouse owned by Diana Rigg. Once in the creeky old bed she starts dreaming of Sandie, a young woman aspiring to be a singer in 1960s London. The bond intensifies as Ellie revels in the glamour of Sandie’s swinging life…only to discover that the 60s weren’t so swinging after all and there were also loads of sexist men, including Sandie’s manager Jack, who quickly starts pimping her out. There is one nice guy, an undercover cop who briefly appears to warn Sandie away from her life in sex work. Back in the present day Ellie keeps bumping into a creepy, old guy who she is convinced is Jack. The ghosts of the men who abused Sandie start haunting Ellie and she then has a vision of Jack stabbing Sandie in bed. It’s a sad old story and all too familiar, one of sexual abuse and femicide. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the writer/director of Shaun of the Dead (a zombie movie) and Hot Fuzz (a gory buddy cop movie) had now turned his hand to feminism. That was until the final act.
Plot twist! Jack didn’t kill Sandie, she killed him! And then she killed all the creepy men who wanted to pay her for sex and buried them under the floorboards – turns out their ghosts weren’t trying to spook Ellie but wanted her help in vanquishing the psychopathic Sandie. Double plot twist – Sandie’s still alive and it’s the nice old lady who owns the house, cue Diana Rigg trying to poison Ellie and then chasing her up the stairs with a knife before being kicked in the face and burned to death. So, for a final plot twist Last Night In Soho reveals that there’s a far greater problem than the systemic abuse of women within patriarchy and that problem is…women! Yup, behind every abusive man there’s a promiscuous, mass-murdering woman who likes nothing better than slaughtering men and poisoning young women (when their knife wielding days are behind them). The film does try to redeem Sandie’s killing spree with a “what was a girl supposed to do” sort of explanation from Diana Rigg because #girlpower is serial murder, apparently. Meanwhile, the dodgy old guy at the pub isn’t Jack but Lindsay the undercover cop. However, Ellie only finds this out once she’s chased him out the pub and he’s been run over by a car. I mean, it’s not like she could have just asked him his name!? Honestly, what is a girl to do in a film in which coherent female agency is non-existent. Ah well, at least I enjoyed the popcorn and Anya Taylor-Joy’s epic downtempo rendition of Downtown.
I have long loved horror movies. I was around ten when I got into the Scream franchise and from there it was a blood-drenched rollercoaster ride into the worlds of Urban Legend, Halloween and Final Destination. Subversive, problematic, terrifying, exploitative, thrilling, dehumanising, racist, sexist, scary, horror movies are many, many things, but one franchise I didn’t get into was Nightmare On Elm Street. I’m kicking myself now because I recently discovered that the second Elm Street film, Freddy’s Revenge, is considered one of the gayest horror films out there. Spoilers galore.
The franchise is centred on the demonic Freddy Krueger, formerly a janitor who murdered lots of children before being burnt to death by their parents’. But he comes back from hell to haunt people on Elm Street by killing them in their dreams, resulting in their real world deaths. He does it all in trademark fedora, striped jumper and razor glove. He’s terrifying, which is why I avoided him as a youngster – give me a serial killer in a ghost mask any day. The second film sees high schooler Jesse, played by a 25-year-old Mark Patton, and his family moving into the house where Nancy, the doomed protagonist of the first film, used to live. From the off Jesse starts dreaming of Freddy and it becomes clear that Freddy wants to possess his body and use him to inflict carnage. The central premise of the film is a teenage boy’s fear of being taken over by a murderous, demonic man. As Jesse says at one point, “He’s inside me…and he wants to take me again!”
Yup, this film is very gay. Further gay material includes Jesse wrestling with his jock friend Grady after having his tracksuit bottoms pulled down; numerous scenes in the guys’ locker room; lots of shots of Jesse in his underwear – unlike most horror of the time there is much less objectification of the young female body and no shots of exposed breasts, instead a young male actor is objectified (I’m not saying this was progress but I am noting the difference, and teenage me would’ve appreciated it); a scene at a queer S&M club (yup); a shower scene in which the nasty sports coach – who turned up at the S&M club in a leather vest – is tied to a shower with skipping ropes, stripped, whipped on the bum and then clawed to death (yes, actually). Central to the story is the will-they-won’t-they between Jesse and Lisa, an absolutely stellar horror heroine. At the infamous pool party, the pair are finally making out when Freddy’s gruesome tongue appears from Jesse’s mouth. Lisa doesn’t see but Jesse flees to Grady’s house where Grady is tucked up in bed not wearing many clothes. Jesse is terrified…
Jesse: Something is trying to get inside my body.
Grady: Yeah, and she’s female, and she’s waiting for you in the cabana. And you wanna sleep with me.
Yup, still very gay, and it’s not long until Freddy literally bursts out of Jesse’s body and slashes Grady to death. Freddy then returns to the pool party and attacks Lisa but she wards him off with her love for Jesse, who she believes is still somewhere inside Freddy. So the demonic maniac kills a bunch of other teenagers before finally being vanquished by a fearless kiss from Lisa. Freddy’s skin falls away to reveal a petrified Jesse within. This is almost the end save for the mandatory nasty twist.
That’s the film in a nutshell and on it’s 1985 release many fans hated it. Various articles picked up on the gay subtext (hardly very sub, I’d call it the text), which cued a lot of denial from the movie’s creators. The director, Jack Sholder, claimed to not have a clue the film was super gay as did the writer, David Chaskin. He denied homosexual and homoerotic themes and subtext. Instead, Chaskin criticised Mark Patton’s portrayal of Jesse, blaming him for the character’s effeminacy, sensitivity and possible gayness. At the time, Patton was a closeted gay actor, famous for having played a queer character alongside Cher in a film. Suddenly he was thrust into the spotlight and subjected to all sorts of homophobic abuse and speculation. Panic ensued and it wasn’t long before his agent told him he’d have to get good at character acting because he’d never be able to play it as a straight man. All this to a backdrop of a deeply homophobic moral panic fuelled by Reagan’s Republican party and the press, and their use of the AIDS pandemic as justification for on-going homophobia. It wasn’t long before Patton left Hollywood in order to protect himself.
Over the next few decades Freddy’s Revenge became an underground gay hit and acquired a cult following. I wish I’d had Jesse as a role model, tbh. It got harder and harder to deny the gay subtext and eventually Chaskin acknowledged he’d lied. He’d written the gay themes on purpose. Except, for him, it wasn’t a homosexual story, it was a homophobic one – he wanted to play on the moral panic to scare adolescent boys even more. What’s scarier for a teenage boy than a demon with razor fingers? Being gay! To achieve this Freddy’s Revenge deviated from the typical horror movie plot. Many horror films of the time had female protagonists, aka final girls – virginal female characters who are hunted by a dangerous, male killer with a penchant for murdering teens. The final girl would usually avoid sex, thus making it to the end, while her ‘promiscuous’ friends got butchered. So, we’ve got slut-shaming; punishing and shaming women for their sexuality while fetishizing and objectifying the bodies of young actresses; and the murderous male villain as a metaphor for rape and assault. The first Elm Street film has a scene in which the protagonist, Nancy, is asleep in the bath when Freddy’s razor glove appears between her legs. His grotesque tongue also licks her through the phone and later, after killing her boyfriend he shouts, “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!”. These images are deeply scary with the fear centred around female vulnerability and sexual assault. Cut to the end of a typical horror movie and said final girl finally takes it upon herself to kill the maniac with a knife, axe, gun or other phallic symbol – Nancy uses a sledge hammer, an exploding lamp and lighter fuel. In a way, she learns from her tormentor and uses his tools to kill him because murder is so emancipating, right?
Freddy’s Revenge changed the formula by having a final boy. The change wasn’t a simple one though because part of the final girl story is her objectification and her punishment for being sexual. But if a final boy is being stalked by a male antagonist then the sexual overtones would be gay. You wouldn’t hear Freddy yell, “I’m your boyfriend now, Jesse!”, partly because Jesse wouldn’t have a boyfriend in the first place and also because Freddy can’t be gay. There was even a scene where Robert Englund, who plays Freddy (very well), suggested that as well as stroke Jesse’s face with a razor finger he also put it into his mouth. But I think it was the make-up artist who suggested to Mark Patton that he not go through with this because it might look gay (unlike all that other stuff). Furthermore, in a horror movie the monster is often a stand in for predatory behaviour, assault and rape as experienced by women. But with a final boy at the helm this would force us to consider male rape, which was beyond the scope of an Elm Street film. So, how to solve the problem of the final boy? Well, he can’t just pick up a machete, slay the monster and liberate himself from the oppression of men, instead, he became the monster. Because that’s the story of male sexuality – the end result is becoming a monstrous sexual predator and mass murderer.
For these reasons I want to argue that while Freddy’s Revenge can be seen as a gay film, this is only possible via an act of reclamation – i.e. it takes a queer eye to see the details. But the original script was never meant to be gay, it was meant to be homophobic. It’s a cautionary tale meant to terrify teenage boys out of their possible, blossoming interest in other guys, be they bi, pan, gay or anything else. The point is guys shouldn’t like other guys. Homosexuality is a monster within that will literally tear you apart and destroy your life. One can also see the monster-within as a metaphor for AIDS, another way gay men were vilified and left to die. Remember, also, that the leather-vest wearing coach was slashed to death moments after we see him turn up at a queer S&M bar. So the only queer character is quickly murdered and there’s even the implication that he’s a pervert/paedophile. Grady warns Jess that the coach is “into pretty boys” like him and the coach sure does enjoy punishing Jesse and sending him off to the showers. And let’s not forget that moments after Grady mocks Jesse for wanting to sleep with him, Jesse/Freddy impales him against his bedroom door, because if you can’t sexually penetrate your best friend why not do it with a razor glove. In terms of LGBTQ+ representation, the film basically says gay men are a murderous threat to those around them and deserve to be killed. This isn’t gay, it’s homophobic. A gay version of the film would go something like this…
Jesse would fall for his male friend Grady (rather than his female friend Lisa) and the feelings would be reciprocated. Jesse could be camp and femme, into sports, love wearing nail varnish, and all sorts, he could just be himself as he wanted to be, not as toxic masculinity dictates. Tension would amount around the two friends having sex together, cue Freddy’s arrival to punish sexual teens. Freddy would hit on Jesse just as he’d hit on female characters and it would all be gross and problematic. By the end true love would win and Grady would kiss Freddy to save Jesse. This is a much gayer version of the film which would, in the crass, contradictory and violent way horror movies do, celebrate Jesse’s sexuality. But we didn’t get that film, we got a homophobic one.
I’d also like to voice a big shout out to the character of Lisa, played brilliantly by Kim Myers. First things first she is bonkers level intelligent and adapts to the supernatural horror without batting an eyelid (while Jesse has yet another breakdown). For example, while Jesse’s Dad is busy trying to come up with a “rational” explanation for why his pet parrot just burst into flames, Lisa has already researched the origins of Freddy Krueger and is quick to suggest Jesse might have a psychic link to him. This is lightning fast intellect. She also fearlessly confronts the absolutely terrifying Freddy and even kisses him, in order to save Jesse. This time the Princess saves the Prince. When I watched the film I genuinely believed in Jesse’s affection for and attraction to Lisa and didn’t see his attraction to men precluding an attraction to women. However, the film won’t let Jesse actually voice this or realise his attraction to men, other than turning into a psychotic killer and penetrating his best friend with razors rather than, say, a finger or his penis. In many ways, the film can also be seen as a thwarted and deeply problematic bisexual coming of age story. Either way, Lisa gets caught up in a young man’s angst around his own sexuality and gets a rough ride for it. This is a sexist trope very prevalent in the genre of male coming of age films, here’s looking at you Call Me By Your Name. In my version, Grady and Jesse would be lucky to end up in a throuple with the clever, brave, compassionate, kind and independent Lisa. Having said all that, shouldn’t Lisa be allowed to freak out, be messy, and go off the rails like Jesse does? Why should Lisa have to highly achieve being a heroine when the guys around her are kinda average (but I do get that Jesse is in the throws of demonic possession which is no easy ride)?
The final point I want to make concerns villainy. Because the real villain here isn’t the razor glove wielding Freddy, it’s patriarchy. Yup, I whacked in a plot twist in the final paragraph just like the movie does in its closing scene. Toxic masculinity pervades all of the story – in the way Jesse is verbally bullied by his father and his coach; in Jesse and Grady only being able to connect intimately through fighting rather than platonic, sexual and/or romantic affection; and in the way Lisa is forced to compromise for a teen-demon. Patriarchy also pervades the creation of the film itself, as demonstrated in its huge homophobia and the way in which Patton was scapegoated. Fortunately, Patton recently made a brilliant documentary which outlines his story. I think Freddy’s Revenge is a fascinating example of how the limits of society limit how we can tell stories. The twist isn’t that this is actually a gay film, it’s that it was never the straight film it pretended to be, because straightness is an identity that artificially precludes queerness, even though we all carry queerness within. Queerness is no monster though but its suppression is truly monstrous. That’s the stuff of very real nightmares.
It was International Coming Out day on Monday 11th October and it got me reflecting. For so much of my life coming out was something I had to do for the benefit of other people – i.e. straight and cisgender people. When I told my parents I had a boyfriend the response was one of surprise and bewilderment. They didn’t have a clue what to do and so it fell on my teenage shoulders to carry the burden. When I told my parents I use they/them pronouns the response was one of surprise and bewilderment. They didn’t have a clue what to do and so it fell on my thirty-something shoulders to carry the burden. As you can imagine, I really want a massage.
Whenever heterosexual and cisgender people ask me when I came out the question makes me feel uncomfortable because it’s framed as something I had to do. No one ever asks the question – what did your parents do to champion you as a queer child? For me, coming out was predicated on being in. As a teenager I kept my sexuality hidden for years. I was surrounded by homophobia, both loud and quiet, and with each comment and microaggression so the closet was built around me. As a twenty-something I kept my gender hidden for years. I was surrounded by transphobia, both loud and quiet, and with each comment and microaggression, so the closet was built around me. Despite all this I barged my shoulders against the closet doors and forced them open. But rather than being met with love, solidarity and validation, I was met with surprise, neglect and continued microaggressions. I was still loved, though, and well loved, but it wasn’t a love that could adapt and expand to fit and understand queerness. While my first boyfriend came to stay for Christmas, for example, I was policed on who I could tell. This policing of my sexuality and gender was a regular feature of my twenties as I kept getting shoved back into the closet, “Don’t talk about these things in front of the kids”, “Don’t mention these things on your CV”, “Stop shoving it down our throats.” It’s not elephants, it’s closets all the way down.
As you can imagine, I’m tired of coming out. I’m exhausted by it. These closets were not of my making and all they’ve done is make my life harder. It’s not my job to tell straight people I’m gay and queer, it’s their job to stop assuming I’m straight. It’s not my job to tell cis people I’m non-binary, it’s their job to stop assuming I’m cis. I’m done with coming out for the very people who built the closets in the first place and then forgot I even came out! So, rather than come out those closets I’m going to burn them down. But even as I write this I realise there is a bigger closet than the one I was trapped in and that is the closet of cisheteropatriarchy. It’s a closet in which so many heterosexual and cisgender people are trapped in, even though they do not realise it. Instead, they’re left busily doing the thing they know best – building closets. It’s closets all the way down, after all.
To counter this somewhat bleak post I want to note a few times when coming out has been a joy. When I met one of my long-standing friends at uni and we both had got the same badge at Freshers’ week, it read, Homophobia Is Gay. Looking back, it’s a self-defeating badge which says a lot for the state of things back in 2007 but thanks to that badge my friend and I came out to one another. We then went on to become co-LGBT (I’m not sure if we had the Q on back then) reps for our college and, boy, did we have a lot to fight back then. We also threw some great parties. And just the other day I met someone for tea and we both came out as non-binary and it was a joy. Four hours later and it transpired we had a lot to talk about. It’s these experiences of coming out that I live for, when it’s not a struggle to barge open the closet doors but the closet kinda dissolves as we embrace who we are. After all, why build closets when you can build Queertopia?
It’s time to make magic again! Dumbledore Is So Gay is available on demand until 17th October. With five stars from Boyz Magazine and the Daily Express, this isn’t one to miss! “A beautiful coming-of-age story for a Harry Potter generation” said Mugglenet.
In this post I want to discuss one element of the plot (spoilers), namely, time travel. At the end of Act 1 the play’s protagonist, Jack, whips out his Time Turner and zooms back from age 18 to 12 to live his adolescence again. It’s an idea that chimed with audiences; that desire to go back and make things better. Second time around Jack does get some of what he wants but it wouldn’t be theatre if there weren’t plenty of surprises. He has another go in Act 3. One night after the show I was chatting with an audience member who said how bittersweet it was given that those of us in the Muggle world don’t have access to Time Turners. We are left with our losses, regrets and missed opportunities.
This sentiment was reflected in the MuggleNet review of the show: “It’s funny, and it’s heart-breaking. It makes you want to wrap the characters up in a hug and tell them it’s going to be okay – even when you’re not sure it is.” In a way, this is what I was doing when I wrote the script. I was going back in my own timeline and trying to make sense of the things that happened to me and the things I did. Except I was going back as someone with more age and wisdom, and an ability to see things differently. To my mistakes I could bring understanding, for my losses I could grieve, and to all my experiences I could contextualise them within the abuses and neglect of cisheteronormativity. In effect, I could go back and wrap little me up in a big hug and tell them it’s going to be okay – because here I am, and I wouldn’t be here without them. That doesn’t mean I know what’s coming next but I’m still here, and that counts.
This process wasn’t quite as simple as writing a script and healing my wounds, other vital elements of this process include having therapy, reading Brene Brown books, exploring my emotional and spiritual growth at Embercombe, building relationships with people who see me and care about me, all of which I’ve written about on this blog. These things have taken years and I don’t regret any of them. They have given me new distance from which to view my past. Older and wiser I can see the young, queer me striving to survive and thrive in a world that often wanted me to fail. Kudos to little me. Storytelling forms a vital part of this process and is a tool I often use to make sense of my life, regardless of whether that writing ends up as a staged script. So, as it transpires, I can time travel. With memory, wisdom, storytelling and kindness, I can travel back and save me from the past that so often took so much away. Tickets!
It’s showtime…tomorrow! After a long 18 months, sell-out success Dumbledore Is So Gay is back onstage, at the Pleasance Theatre from 21st – 26th September, get your tickets here! And it’ll be available online from 27th Sept – 11th October. Below are a few paragraphs from me that will be included in our online programme.
Early 2019, I was doing the Pottermore Sorting Hat test. I got Gryffindor. I had mixed feelings because some of the Gryffindors can be pretty self-righteous (here’s looking at you Percy Weasley) but gold and red are great colours. Then one of my friends got Hufflepuff and, I’m ashamed to say, I made fun of them for it.
Early 2019, I’d been at a school in North London helping run a workshop on LGBTQ+ issues. I shared a real life story about a particularly bad experience of being bullied at school when I was a teenager. After I’d told my story some of the students wrote questions on post-it notes and one asked whether someone had helped me through the bullying. The answer was no, I had been completely alone. The student also wrote that they would have helped me through it, which kind of broke my heart. A lot of my life caught up with me then and so began a very acute and difficult period of depression.
Early 2019, a few months after the workshop and with the Sorting Hat on my mind, I started writing a script. The character of Jack quickly emerged, a Harry Potter super fan who struggles with getting sorted into Hufflepuff just as much as he struggles with his sexuality. The early drafts were written for me, more an exercise in figuring out and reclaiming my story. I’d read the book Straightjacket by Matthew Todd during the summer of 2016, which predominantly focuses on the experiences of gay men in contemporary society and the absolute minefield of issues they face, including prejudice, isolation and suicide. Over the following years I was able to locate my own experiences in this minefield. It was a tough reckoning that I never saw coming and absolutely no one had prepared me for. Towards the end of an early draft Jack wishes he has a Time Turner, so he can go back and transform his life for the better. Wait a second, I thought, maybe that could become part of the plot…
Early 2020 and rehearsals were underway for the first run of the show at the VAULT Festival. It was no longer my story but Jack’s and with lots of help from the cast and crew, especially director Tom, the script was well polished and stage-ready. The final week in February was a dream come true and we had an absolute blast staging the show. As a queer child and teen I lacked agency and power. I was told the wrong stories and experienced too much pain and indifference. It’s only as an adult that I can look back and better understand what it was I went through. It’s only now I can appreciate why so many queer folks don’t make it, including people I knew. I want this to change. So older queers like me can heal and younger ones won’t get hurt in the first place. For this, we’ll need good stories, which is why Jack’s back to take centre stage. His story is a testimony to the strength and resilience of LGBTQ+ folks, and a celebration of the endless immensity of the queer spirit.
Conversion therapy is a nasty euphemism used to denote a form of torture that involves trying to ‘cure’ LGBTQ+ people of their LGBTQ+ness, be it changing their sexual orientation or suppressing their gender identity. It’s violent, abusive and practised widely around the world, including in the UK, and as far as I’m concerned should be criminalised and declared a human rights abuse. The cultural conversation often focuses on particular instances of conversion therapy as practiced by an institution (e.g. the church) during a specific course (e.g. a summer camp, evening classes). These institutions and courses are designed to cure people, and are run by people who believe that being LGBTQ+ is an illness. I would add that conversion therapy isn’t limited to these places. In fact, the very experience of being queer within a cisheteropatriarchal society is like being subjected to constant conversion therapy.
From my own experience of being queer people have regularly tried to cure me. “Are you sure?” people have asked of my sexuality. “What about dating a woman?” “Why do gay people always have to rub it in our faces?” “Children shouldn’t hear about these sorts of things.” What all these phrases have in common is a desire to change me – whether it’s for me to be less gay or not to be gay at all. I use the word gay here, rather than queer, because many of my oppressors still refer to me as gay, even though I ask them to identify me as queer – yet another way in which they erase my identity. “You’ve chosen a difficult path” is another classic, and often used to justify not bothering to understand me better or support me. Another ol’ chestnut is being told to not tell people I’m in a relationship with a man, “it might cause gossip” was one justification recently given. I was also told not to tell a 5-year-old that my then-boyfriend was my boyfriend (even though years later I found out the 5-year-old had worked it out). “I don’t have a problem that you’re gay” is another, as if me saying to a female friend that “I don’t have a problem that you’re a woman” is somehow acceptable (it isn’t). “You’re just Robert to me,” sounds supportive but, again, erases my identity and lets the speaker off the hook of actually having to learn anything about it or offer me support. “Being gay should just be normal” is one that sounds nice but often means, “I wish gay people would be less openly gay and talk about it less.” Other experiences include being told my non-binary identity is as valid as Father Christmas and that the non-binary identity is a last case resort for the vulnerable. I was even accused of “experimenting” on a child by giving them a birthday card with a fairy on. Hearing these sorts of things has been such a regular experience of mine that I’ve grown a particular form of thick skin to deal with it. A thick skin designed to protect me from the ignorance and prejudice of others.
But no skin is thick enough to protect my soul and for over thirty years I have endured these demeaning, abusive and invalidating comments. My soul has suffered the consequences and each comment has been a drop of acid rain. What’s more, the very act of putting up with it has been so normalised in my life that I consider it normal. Of course this person will say ignorant things, of course I can’t expect love and support for my queerness, of course they “don’t mean it”, of course it “doesn’t come from a bad place” etc. Straight and cis people have gone out of their way to emotionally abuse me and then justify their emotional abuse. While their efforts at conversion failed on the fundamental level of changing me – I’m queerer than I’ve ever been; they succeeded in brainwashing me into thinking that I didn’t deserve better – that I am actually worthy of love and respect for my queer and non-binary identities, not in spite of them. All along my abuse was normalised and my needs fundamentally neglected. But there’s nothing normal about abuse or neglect. Yet it is interwoven into the way so many cisgendered and heterosexual people treat queer people. To date, I have survived these constant experiences of conversion therapy and whatever people do or don’t say, I will not change.
The shape of my love is the shape of my heart and the shape of my heart is an approximation of a heart because it has been shaped by my history. I am the ways I have been loved and the ways I have not been loved. That was the love my heart could give, was trained to give, and if I want it to be different I must learn my history so I can see the mould and break it.
When I was growing up I learned to see the pain of others and to feel compassion and offer empathy. I learned that the needs of others are important and my task is to accommodate those needs. I learned how to listen. I learned that in a world in which gay and queer were slurs that there were pieces of me that would never be seen. For decades I believed this and it wasn’t that I thought these pieces would never be seen it was that I couldn’t even imagine what it might be like if they were. Those around me were comfortable with this and it pleased them. I liked pleasing people, it helped me to feel liked and to feel like I belonged. For a long time I assumed my heart was heart shaped and I was told it was because we, all of us, had grown accustomed to lacking a valve or two. I was dutiful to patriarchy – to its assumptions of gender binary and its glorification of heteronormativity. I laboured hard to belong because it was in this world that I was given love.
I say I laboured but, really, it was an unpaid internship, if that, and my line manager was ignorant and her manager was prejudiced and the business model was bankrupt. So now I do the only thing I can – quit. I cannot accommodate the pains of patriarchy and I will not be dutiful to the cis-tem and the heteronorm. I have to protect my heart, which is learning to pump new blood into valves which are opening for the first time. The mould in which my heart was set was too small. It was warped. The history in which I grew up was not mine. I will rewrite this history so my heart can be the shape of one and I can love properly. I will start by loving me.
WandaVision was great. Elizabeth Olsen is a star. But it’s time for some queer, intersectional, feminist analysis. As a disclaimer, I’m a big MCU fan and I hope my facts are right but there may well be plot points and nuances I’ve missed, having only watched the show once.
Here’s (some of) the story in a nutshell (spoilers) – super hero Wanda Maximoff and her super powered robot husband, Vision, are living their best lives in Westview, a quirky, little American town. They end up having two sons together and couldn’t be happier. Each episode is in the style of a classic TV series such as Bewitched, Arrested Development and Malcolm In The Middle. But didn’t Vision die in the Avengers: Infinity War movie? And what’s with the TV shows theme? Plot twist – Vision is dead and Wanda, with her super magic, has created a giant force field around Westview, brainwashed all the inhabitants and created a fantasy life based on TV shows she liked watching as a kid to escape the grim realities of growing up in Sokovia, a dreary, Eastern European cliche country. Turns out super heroes super grieve. A further twist is that Wanda’s neighbour, Agnes, is actually the super witch, Agatha Harkness, who zoomed on over to Westview because she was so fascinated by the powerful Chaos Magic Wanda was inadvertently using to power the whole shebang…but we’ll get to her later.
It’s a unique premise for a Marvel show and made for very entertaining and frequently hilarious viewing. It’s also great to have a female protagonist – of the 23 movies up to Spider-Man: Far From Home there has been precisely one with a female lead, Captain Marvel. But here’s the thing – Marvel has a history of reducing its female characters to stereotypes, primarily focussing on their reproductive and romantic possibilities (asides Captain Marvel who gets a typical-ish hero’s journey). And much of Wanda’s story is very domestic – doing household chores and raising children. I’d argue the earlier episodes encourage us to critique and laugh at this sexism because it’s so obvious in the dated nature of the TV shows, such as Bewitched, but come the finale and the narrative breaks down and Wanda must unleash her super powers to fight Agatha, fight Tyler Hayward (a human bad guy in charge of an intelligence agency called S.W.O.R.D who secretly wants to power up a new Vision to kill Wanda…it’s a long story), save her kids and end her brainwashing of Westview. Now we’re firmly in the MCU genre in which Wanda is contractually obligated to fight the Big Bad and save the day. This is progress for female characters in the MCU. Like Captain Marvel she is the protagonist and not playing second fiddle to a man. Unlike Black Widow (played brilliantly and regularly by Scarlett Johansson), she isn’t often little more than a plot device in men’s stories who occasionally gets to scissor kick villains. But underlying all this drama is a trope common to the super hero world – that when a woman gains too much power she goes off the rails and usually kills loads of people (even if accidentally), such as Jean Grey in the X-Men and the Invisible Woman in Fantastic Four. Incidentally, Wanda has already done this when she killed a load of people at the start of Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m all for equal opportunities and, of course, Wanda can have a partner, raise kids, do domestic chores (Vision does his share of domestic stuff too), be a full-time super hero and go off the rails in a big way…but something tells me that this is all she can do in the MCU. Wanda may have trapped a bunch of people in Westview but she, herself, is trapped in the limited imaginations of her creators.
Even Agatha gets a rum deal because when we get her few minutes of back story we learn she was also super powerful but the other witches in her Salem coven didn’t like it and tried to kill her. Agatha managed to kill them first and drain them of their powers. It seems powerful women in the MCU sure have a thing for trying to kill other powerful women. This is especially problematic because the actual story of witchcraft is one of women being subjected to torture and murder. The Salem witch trials were femicide committed by (predominantly) men who feared powerful women and Christians who feared other worldviews and used slurs of witchcraft to justify the hunting and executions. WandaVision didn’t even touch on this history even though the comics did. Yes, we have a female lead and a female baddy but a lot of nuance got left behind.
However, I think one of the biggest problems with WandaVision is it’s failure to acknowledge that alongside Agatha and Tyler Hayward, Wanda is the third Big Bad. Brainwashing is a form of psychological torture and it’s happened before in the MCU. In the first Avengers movie, Hawkeye is brainwashed by the evil Loki to a do a bunch of bad things. He’s saved by Black Widow and when he wakes up he says: “Have you ever had someone take your brain and play? Pull you out and stuff something else in? Do you know what it’s like to be unmade?” To which, she replies, “You know that I do.” She says this because she was a former KGB assassin brutally sterilised and brainwashed by them to become a super spy. So the MCU does take brainwashing seriously when it’s expedient to the plot (and when committed by a baddy) but when it’s a goody whose done it to hundreds of adults and children, who literally plead with her for it to stop, it can be glossed over. Indeed, in the finale, Wanda talks with Captain Monica Rambeau (played by the brilliant Teyonah Parris), another agent of S.W.O.R.D who always believed Wanda meant good. Monica says, “They’ll [the inhabitants of Westview] never know what you sacrificed for them”, i.e. that she lost Vision and then had to lose her imaginary Vision and children – but this clearly cannot justify the immense pain she has caused. Wanda replies, “It wouldn’t change how they see me. And you, you don’t hate me?” – weirdly only concerned with Monica’s view rather than everyone else in Westview. Monica replies, “Given the chance and given your power, I’d bring my Mom back. I know I would” – fine, but that still doesn’t justify the behaviour. Wanda: “I’m sorry for all the pain I caused” – maybe she could repeat that apology to everyone else. “I don’t understand this power. But I will.” Yes, it must be a lot to be filled with Chaos Magic and it’s probably terrifying but it’s pretty clear she knew what she was doing when she created a giant, magic Hex around Westfield. As for Wanda’s fate – she gets to fly off to a boojy hut on a mountain rather than, say, go to prison and/or therapy.
It’s exciting to see more female characters take centre stage in MCU films and series. I cannot wait for the Black Widow film (finally!) in which Scarlett Johansson describes her character as “a woman who has come into her own and is making independent and active choices for herself.” More of this please (and why did it take so bloody long)! And hopefully Captain Rambeau will get more screen time as the first black, super powered female character. But, as the MCU diversifies so its limitations are further tested as we’re forced to ask if being an MCU super hero is all it’s cracked up to be what with its legacy of sexism and racism and its imaginative limitations. Ultimately, an MCU hero gains heroism through violence (they’re basically soldiers), they exist in a world of binary morals with Big Goods v. Big Bads, and their character development is limited by the requirements of the Hero’s Journey plot structure and the mandatory explosive finale in the third act. This doesn’t work out particularly well for the male heroes either who often suffer from PTSD/PTSI, depression and/or alcoholism. Perhaps we need a new genre entirely. In the meantime, here’s Agatha’s theme song – she’s the purple-wearing, super camp, super villain I’ve been waiting for and she deserves a spin-off (I listened to this thing on repeat for days).
His name is Phastos and he’s one of the Eternals, a group of super beings who’ve lived on earth for yonks and will be blasting into cinemas this November (hopefully). Played by actor Brian Tyree Henry, Phastos is going to have a husband, a kid and an on-screen kiss. This is big news. Marvel’s previous LGBTQ+ representation included one of the films’ producers, Joe Russo, playing a nameless, grieving gay man opening up about his loss in a support group with Captain America in the film Avengers: Endgame. Yup, the first vaguely gay character is significant because a man he loved had died – eye roll. And then (spoilers) when all the people who turned to dust come back do we see the nameless gay guy be reunited with his now reincarnated lover, do we get an onscreen kiss, maybe even a hug? Do we bullshit. Not to mention Valkyrie from the third Thor film who, after the movie aired, we were told was bisexual, it’s just that any scenes that indicated this were left on the cutting room floor. So we didn’t get LGBTQ+ representation but we did get queerbaited. Again.
So, Phastos is progress – men kissing, men of colour kissing, men raising kids together, men loving one another. Hurrah. My concern though is with the larger morality of the MCU and how it’s dictated by the hero’s journey – it’s all about men following their punches with punchlines. Heroism is violence and quipping. There’s Iron Man, insufferably arrogant Tony Stark who likes nothing better than patronising women and making billions off selling weapons. Captain America, who used to be a scrawny guy but got injected with super-steroids so he could go beat up Nazis, living the American dream, right? Doctor Strange is a less funny, more arrogant version of Iron Man but with magic instead of a metal suit. Thor is the bro-God of Asgard who’s a violent mess with a big hammer but he is kinda funny. The Hulk is the personification of anger in giant, green blob form. The aforementioned are all white but fortunately Black Panther is black and also gets to beat people up in the name of good (although at least his movie has some nuance). Not forgetting Captain Marvel, a woman who’s a fighter pilot turned superbeing capable of inflicting super violence. Oh, and she’s great with those one-liners. So who is Phastos going to be? The violent, funny and gay one, who’ll do whatever he can to defend the simplistic and binary values of whichever side we’re being told is good? Kinda like gay soldiers being allowed to fight for Queen and country. It’s a certain sort of progress predicated on opening up opportunities for killing bad guys.
As for the portrayal of Phastos’ sexuality in the film, my gut feeling is that it will be ‘normal’ – the “hey, we don’t have a problem that you like boning guys” kinda reaction from straight people, “as long as you don’t rub it in our faces” etc. It’ll just be normal that he’s got a husband and kid because, y’know, gay people are normal. But normal in the MCU is patriarchal and violent which, spoiler alert, is a reflection of wider American society. Will we see any of the struggles that Phastos has had to face for his sexuality – the bullying, exclusion, poor mental health, loneliness – or will the Eternals be conveniently OK with diversity despite having delivered only one movie with a black lead and one with a female lead? Because it seems with a lot of movies these days, diversity is copying and pasting LGBTQ+ people into previously cishetero roles, rather than questioning the patriarchal plot lines and actually delivering something novel.
But queer isn’t just a word for describing gender and/or sexuality, it’s also a type of politics and, for me, that politics challenges the constraints and violences of the world so championed by the MCU – one which has so regularly seen women reduced to their reproductive capacity (or incapacity in the case of Black Widow) and romantic possibilities; and also one that so often kills off people of colour because they’re usually secondary characters (see Captain America: Civil War and the first Thor film as examples). Meanwhile, the baddies in the Eternals are known as the Deviants, which is a word often used to describe LGBTQ+ people but I’m guessing they’ll be a group of people as equally OK with diversity as the eternals but just the nasty version who want to commit some sort of simplistic evil so the audience will know to boo at them (in the MCU this usually means committing genocide and/or harming children). In conclusion, while there is progress in diversifying the MCU, I can’t wait to see Valkyrie actually get to be bisexual (and maybe get a name as well), until the underlying structures are transformed (i.e. truly queered) it’s just a fresh paint job on patriarchy. I could be wrong, though, and The Eternals could be the queer, intersectional feminist extravaganza we’ve been waiting for but I won’t get my hopes up.
P.s. and one quick aside about Valkyrie: when the director of Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi, was asked if Valkyrie would be explicitly queer in the next movie he said: “I think so…The IP is not mine. But with the actors, I feel whatever makes them comfortable — whether they feel like there’s a natural choice, or a natural way for that character to go — then I’m pretty supportive. If Tessa wanted to do that, I’m in.” But why does a queer plot line require a “natural choice” and a “natural way”? Heterosexual relationships never have to jump this bar and get endless, unquestioned screen time, while queer relationships have so much more ‘work’ to do to ‘earn’ their place on screen. Yawn.