Mama Mia: The Trouble With Cher

Firstly, I want to make clear that there is no trouble with Cher, she is blooming fabulous. I fondly remember turning back time as a kid and wondering if I was strong enough, and the Cher challenge in the latest season of Ru Paul’s was almost everything. No, my problem is not with Cher (unless she’s done something awful that is yet to come to light) but with the latest Mama Mia film’s ruthless exploitation of her. Here we go again (spoilers).

The original Mama Mia heavily implied that Meryl Streep’s mother was dead (I’m going to use their real names given their fictitious names aren’t very memorable and we didn’t really watch this for the characterisation). So it was quite a surprise when Streep’s mother turns up at the end of the second movie in the guise of Cher. Of course, she doesn’t just arrive, she arrives. In a helicopter, looking a million dollars and stealing the show with a marvellous rendition of Fernando. On top of that the other characters are pretty forgiving of the fact that Cher has been a largely absent character from both her daughter and grand daughter’s lives. She missed Meryl graduate, set up a hotel on a small Greek island, have and raise a child on said Greek island, get married, die and have a funeral. She missed all of her grand daughter’s life as well until she flew in at the last-minute. Now, I can’t know what Cher’s character was going through and what her struggles were and I do not want to pass judgement but, still, people seemed really forgiving at the end of Mama Mia 2 and I can’t help but wonder that it’s because the producers were more interested in shoe-horning Cher into the story by any means possible than they were developing her back story. And why might that be?

To get the gays in. Cher is a gay and queer icon of epic proportions. The LGBTQIA+ community love her for many reasons: her wondrous songs, brilliant dress sense, fierce support of her transgender son Chaz Bono and equality for transgender folks in general, her Oscar-nominated starring role as a lesbian in the film Silkwood, her joy at the recent Australian marriage equality vote and even her desire to emulate gay men from the age of 12 because she thought they were so much more fun than “regular men“. So, you can be pretty sure, that if you’ve got Cher cropping up at the end of your movie for a couple of minutes and singing a famous ABBA song then her queer fan base will be throwing their pink pounds away to get a front row seat at the cinema. I did, although I sat further back because I didn’t want to crane my neck. Of course, as far as the Mama Mia makers were concerned having a gay icon in their film equates to representing the LGBTQIA+ community. But it doesn’t, does it. Representation would mean actually having a lesbian, a transgender person, a bi-sexual or anyone from the LGBTQIA+ community adequately characterised in the film with a story arc of their own and despite the slightest of nods being sent in Colin Firth’s direction this didn’t happen. So just to recap, we’ve got a film based on ABBA songs with Cher in it and the queer representation is next to nil. Let’s just take a moment to let that one settle in.

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The Gay Novel Is Dead, Long Live The Gay Novel

I’m often late to the party and this holds true for Alan Hollinghurst’s proclamation that the gay novel is dead. He was at the Hay Festival a few months back (which in the world of news might as well be years ago) and said this of the gay novel: “I think as such it has had its day. It rose in the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties in response to these new opportunities and new challenges and the two big clarities — the one of liberation and the one of Aids — and there was an urgency, a novelty to the whole thing. In our culture at least those things are no longer the case. I observe that the gay novel is dissolving back into everything else and we are living increasingly in a culture where sexuality is not so strongly defined.” Late, as ever, I’ll offer my ten pink pounds on why the gay novel cannot dissolve and die.

Because the opposite of the gay novel is not the straight novel it’s the novel and in the “novel”, as in “life”, heterosexuality is taken for granted. Men fall in love with women and vice versa or maybe people don’t fall in love at all but whatever happens you can be sure that homosexuality won’t be visible or if it is it will be a joke, trope or tokenised. If a character’s sexuality isn’t referenced the assumption will be that they’re straight unless they’re some flaming stereotype. Homosexual characters will be defined by or reduced to their sexuality and not given sufficient agency to be human. Their storylines will end, if given sufficient pages to end, in some sort of tragedy, despair or loneliness. And that’s not good enough.

So, I want more gay novels, many more. Until the wounds of the AIDS crisis have healed. Until I see myself and so many others reflected in culture over and over again. Until culture has liberated itself so much that we have the option to let go, a little, of our strongly defined sexualities because the fight is won and not because we are exhausted and need some time to lie low. Until the “gay novel” is not forced to define itself by its sexuality because heterosexual people lack imagination and harbour prejudice. Until the “everything else” that the gay novel dissolves back into is as gay and queer as fuck. Then, and only then, can Hollinghurst give up on the day job. Although I hope he doesn’t because we will always need brilliant novels written by men who love men.

Obsession With Nigel Biggar Identity Goes Too Far

A response to Nigel Biggar’s article in The Times titled: Obsession with gender identity goes too far (if you replace the instances of Nigel Biggar with transgender you effectively get his article).

Recently a man decided to come out as Nigel Biggar at a public gathering somewhere north of Hadrian’s wall. He did it to raise the profile of people who identify as “Nigel Biggar” (of which I believe there is only one) who, he claims, are being refused “their human right to be recognised as they wish”. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are certain aspects of identity that I think are vastly important, especially sexuality, gender, religion, ethnicity, race, but being Nigel Biggar is not one of them. Unfortunately, the alleged Nigel Biggar seems to think that because he identifies as Nigel Biggar then others should identify him as such. He claims to feel his identity very deeply but, unfortunately for him, not all identities are equal and some just aren’t worth holding on to. No identity deserves uncritical respect and I think it’s time we jettisoned the identity of Nigel Biggar entirely.

When the self-professed Nigel Biggar came out as Nigel Biggar he claimed that his own community has difficulty grasping such a “complex concept”. He went on to explain that the signifier Nigel Biggar “describes anyone who feels that they do not exclusively fit the accepted definitions of people who do not identify as Nigel Biggar.” I have to confess to being a little puzzled by all this. Now, before you accuse me of being Nigel Biggarphobic, I can’t be, because before I can fear or hate something, I have to achieve some idea of what it means. And, frankly, I struggle to make sense of the claims of the new Nigel Biggarism. I mean, why should someone identifying as Nigel Biggar demand that society behave in such a way as to acknowledge their existence? Should we even bother having to put the words Nigel and Biggar together? Should Nigel Biggar identifiers be allowed to go to the toilet, fill out census forms or sleep? As far as I’m concerned the Nigel Biggar identity adds nothing new to our already diverse array of identities and is just an act of private obscurity made manifest. For example, we’re told that “Nigel Biggar” describes any person that trascends the “accepted system” of people who aren’t Nigel Biggar. But why does this already established system need any further identities, we have enough. Self-professed Nigel Biggars claim to transcend those who are not Nigel Biggar but I wonder what qualities actually remain after all other identities have been claimed? I’m struggling to imagine Nigel Biggar’s existence beyond some amorphous blast of hot air.

Most importantly though, why should we care? Whatever Nigel Biggar identity is supposed to be, what’s it good for? What does it achieve? The strength of felt attachment alone can’t endow it with value. So my attitude towards Nigel Biggarism is very much like some random person’s view that the inability of square pegs to fit into round holes has nothing to do with their shape. There are plenty of people out there who are in urgent need of our help – for example, the many transgender folks who are being routinely discriminated against, violently abused and killed in Britain and around the world. In their light, obsessing about the social recognition of the elusive Nigel Biggar identity does look awfully like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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This man claims to identify as Nigel Biggar but I struggle to see the point of him doing so.

Mama Mia: Here We’re Straight Again

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike straight people. They’re fine. Lots of them are very nice and some have good senses of humour. I live next door to a straight person and they’re perfectly pleasant. I don’t disprove of the straight lifestyle either, I can think of much worse things like the meat industry and climate change. However, my thing is this: while I’m happy for straight people to do their straight thing I wish they could do it a little more privately. And that’s when Mama Mia: Here We Go Again really takes the biscuit because in a little under two hours I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many cis, white straight people make out with each other. Kind of like heterosexual rabbits, of which I hear there are a few.

Before I go on I just want to make something clear, I am not a Mama Mia hater. No. ABBA and toned torsos really do it for me. I even cried at the end. Of course, I could mention that a decade after the original came out the representation of diversity on-screen besides a few seconds given to a woman in a wheelchair and the odd person of colour cropping up in the background is still pretty underwhelming as the ready-to-hand chorus of Grecian labourers return, serving an almost exclusively white cast of leads. I could mention the other racial and national stereotypes. I could also mention the underlying colonial messaging of the film as privileged and often incredibly wealthy white people strut around the globe doing whatever they want. But why mention these things as we’ve come to Mama Mia for a tuneful escape from the woes and intersectional prejudices of the world.

Anyway, back to heterosexuals. They are literally all over this film. Making out in boats, sheds, French hotels, Greek hotels, on plinths, off plinths, near plinths, in the sea, on dryland. Just about everywhere. I mean, I don’t mind hets doing these things but I wish they could spend more time doing them in the privacy of their bedrooms. Fortunately, it’s not all a song and dance about insecure straight people failing to have mature relationships and spending twenty odd years living repressed, unhappy lives, there is the odd strand of queerness. We’ve got Colin Firth, who very quietly (and not altogether explicitly) came out at the end of the last movie and got to hug a topless man in a fountain, who has made up for his lonely gay life by getting some cats and making lots of money. Unfortunately, the scenes where he examines his unhappiness and isolation at the hands of heteronormative patriarchy were left on the cutting room floor but he is given a moment to flirt with Omid Djalili and have a man-on-man Titanic moment with Stellan Skarsgård. Then there’s the woman-on-woman kiss between Lily James and Celia Imrie, playing the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. When James’ character breaks out into When I Kissed The Teacher (my new favourite ABBA song) Imrie’s character is all stern and awkward but after a brief kiss (which is obscured by James’ hair), Imrie throws off the shackles of her long black gown and mortar board and appears to be pretty thrilled with life. I think this can only be interpreted as her finally coming into herself as a queer woman. Of course, for many straight people, they may have missed these elements of the movie as, unlike with queers, they are not trained to keep their eyes peeled for the quanta of queerness on offer given they can just thrill in the deluge of straightness. But I’m sure in another ten years Amanda Seyfried’s daughter will grow up to be a raging queer. Can’t wait.

The Inheritance

Imagine your friendship group, y’know, those people you care about and love spending time with. The people who know you and help you deal with life’s problems. Now imagine being told that one by one they are dying. They’re dying because of a disease called GRID, gay-related immune deficiency. That’s right, gay men are spreading diseases. GRID is deadly. You can get it through physical contact, sharing food, sharing a drinking fountain and even through sneezes. A phone call, another one of your friends has died. Meanwhile, GRID gets a new name, AIDS. The public is outraged and not because people are dying but because gays are spreading diseases. People are calling for AIDS patients to be quarantined, to be tattooed and to be forced to carry identity cards. Another phone call, another death, it’s your best friend this time – if only he’d said something. You worry you’ve got the disease but you don’t know who to talk to. Your family is homophobic, your local bishop is urging the parishioners to stop drinking from the communion cup and, now, your boyfriend has been diagnosed with the disease.

This was the reality for many gay men living through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and was vividly realised onstage by The Inheritance – a new duo of plays that recently finished showing at the Young Vic. The plays explore the trauma and the stigma that typified so much of the crisis and how both impact on the lives of gay men living today. I am a gay man living today and I often think of what I have inherited from the AIDS crisis. As well as the ability to live positively with HIV, something denied to my forebears, I have also inherited a gaping hole in my history. Not just a lack of knowledge and education but also a lack of people. As the script says, people who could be mentors, friends, lovers, teachers and elders but cannot because they have died.

I have often been told how disappointing gay men are – we spread diseases, we’re narcissists, we’re too irresponsible to be allowed to have sex at the same age as heterosexuals, and other such criticisms. But I wonder if the people who criticise me and my community have spent much time actually thinking about my community and its history. I doubt it. This is why plays such as The Inheritance (and Angels In America) are a vital weave in the fabric of the gay and queer community, a stitch in time to save lives and ensure our future can be better than our past. Fortunately, the show will be transferring to the West End to ensure more folks can enjoy such a smörgåsbord of acting, directing, teching, writing and staging talent. And for those of you who don’t want to spend six hours in an auditorium but do want to know more about the AIDS crisis and its legacies why not click here.

Andrew Burnap and Samuel H. Leving in The Inheritance

Home Is A Verb

“Home, imagined, comes to be.”

The Operating Instructions, Ursula Le Guin

Unsurprisingly, the late Ursula Le Guin has a lot to say about home. She talks of the need to find your people, to build customs and habits together, to live out traditions and to question them too lest they become stagnant and oppressive. She talks of how the written word can connect us to other minds throughout the world and history and, how there, in that text you can find a piece of home as well. She talks of the need for listening and silence as integral acts of community building. And the more she talks of home the more it becomes clear that home is a verb before it is a noun.

Because home is something we have to do for ourselves and for others. Life for the individual is a long process of homecoming as we, hopefully, delve deeper into ourselves through the years, learn more about ourselves and become more of who we are – sloughing off old ways of being that don’t serve us anymore and striving through painful and violent impositions that others, alive and dead, may have enforced upon us. Thus, as we live so we are always coming home. Life for the collective is not a dissimilar process as we learn how to live well together, how to enact our love, set our boundaries and share what we have. Ceremonies, celebrations and rituals are a vital part of this – be it praying together, getting KFC together, or chilling out on the sofa – as they help to keep the social fabric strong as we weave it over and over again. Home is a collective endeavour.

However, for many, home is a painful and difficult process as we are so often cut off from ourselves and others be it due to the swift atomisation of ‘modern’ society, a lack of teaching and knowledge about all the different ways there are to be and live, and/or violence. So home becomes a privilege but, really it shouldn’t be, all should have the right to home but it is clear we do not. Thus, home can be a mindset and a mission for those with the privilege as they can make the space for others be they refugees fleeing other countries or LGBT+ folk cut off from their own gender and sexuality by repressive societal norms and so many other forms of violence or those facing the prejudice of being HIV positive. Home is not something that can be taken for granted, home must be done and it must be done together over and over again. So, yes, I think home is a verb – a state of being, possibility and hoping. And, if we’re lucky, home, imagined, will come to be. So let us never stop imagining.

Bertie Did Burlesque!

Back in the autumn of ’16 I had the privilege of watching the fierce, fabulous, queer, Canadian, Burlesque wunderkind that is Rubyyy Jones perform at Ku Bar’s first ever Kindness Kabaret. They stripped to sparkly underwear, they sang and they stuck two fingers up at the God awful patriarchy. Suffice to say it was love at first sight and a year and a half later I found myself in a small dance studio in East London being coached by Rubyyy in the art of Queerlesque.

I signed up to the course for two reasons: one, I do actually love Rubyyy and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend more time with them and, two, I wanted to turn my overly-intellectualised dissatisfaction with mainstream beauty norms into something practical (put my money where my sparkly jock strap is, sort of thing). The Queerlesque classes themselves were a wondrous adventure – I learned about classic burlesque, neo-burlesque, lip sync, choreography and costume. I also got to do the course with five other epic folk, all there for different reasons and all of whom taught me lots about dancing, stripping, living and being queer. The course culminated in a graduation show at the Hackney Showrooms (just last week actually) and, given I had never done anything like this before (discounting singing and dancing in front of the mirror), I had to come up with an act. It came in the form of Bertie. He cropped up as an idea early on in the course and gradually took shape: a former public schoolboy and Oxford University graduate conditioned into toxic masculinity and poshness but yearning to reveal his inner queerness (sound familiar!?). Cue chinos, loafers and a tie being stripped away to reveal tights, jock-strap and mesh. And then I had to perform the thing in front of an actual, live audience!

Rubyyy led the way and one by one we did our acts until my name was called. Pushing my need to pee aside I stepped up onto the stage and, basically, had fun. I wasn’t there to prove myself to others or try and be sexy for them, I was there for me and for Bertie. Besides, sexiness is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t control that, but I can bare my body and own it. I can occupy space and queer it. I can be me and have fun. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of nerves, but I did what my acting friends do – I acted confidence until I felt it. And it felt great to rip off the layers of posh programming and show the real(er) me beneath and it felt great to get applauded for it. So, for one night, myself and six others (we had a bonus guest appearance from a previous Queerlesque course), led by the fantastic Rubyyy, kittened by the fab Lydia, shared a bit of our souls and varying amounts of our skin. Together we created the world we long for – queer, fabulous, inclusive, just and joyous. At least that’s what it felt like to me. Now, here’s Rubyyy…