Transphobia, Part 3 – A Broader Conception of Gender

Broadening our understandings of gender will allow us to be better trans allies and, thus, lessen the amount of transphobia there is in the world (of which there is so much). However, many of us do not do this and view the world through a binary lens – that the only genders that exist are male and female and these genders are synonymous with assigned biological sex. This view may be able to incorporate, to an extent, people who are perceived to transition from one binary gender/sex to another but this can still prove difficult to understand/accept, not to mention the existence of other genders. This view is the root of a lot of transphobia and one I used to hold.

Returning to my first post on transphobia, I described my 19 year-old self holding transphobic views towards a gender-nonconforming person who I assumed to be a man dressing up as a woman. I took certain physical characteristics and assumed this meant the person was male and made particular assumptions about the gender of the clothing they wore. I see it differently now. Firstly, an item of clothing cannot have a gender. It can, however, be generally worn by a particular gender (e.g. like how trousers used to be mainly worn by men) but this still doesn’t mean I can make any assumptions about a person’s gender based on their clothes. Remember, also, that the reasons certain items of clothing are associated with a particular gender often have to do with societal expectations, norms and/or prejudices (e.g. that women shouldn’t wear trousers). Furthermore, I cannot assume someone’s gender based on their physical appearance. Instead, I could ask someone for their pronouns and/or talk to them about their gender identity, if it felt appropriate to do so. Otherwise, I could just refrain from making assumptions and wait until I acquire further information or, perhaps, just not know those details about that person.

Another example would be my experience of being a cisgender male – i.e. being gendered in the same way as my birth sex was assigned (based on my genitalia). For a long time I believed that to be a man one must have testicles and a penis and be able to produce sperm. Now, my view has changed – I do not believe having certain genitalia and the ability to produce motile gametes are the hallmarks of the male gender. My view of the category of man includes people who have vaginas and can give birth, e.g. people who might call themselves trans men. I will not police the category of man, instead, I will welcome my trans brothers. Many, many people struggle with ideas such as these and the question remains the same – can we broaden our understandings of gender to embrace greater diversity or will we hold on to our current beliefs? As someone who identifies partly as genderqueer and who is also a trans ally I, of course, seek to enlarge my understanding and hope you will do so as well. It can seem confusing and difficult but I think going on this journey of learning is totally worth it and will lessen violence and increase love – my central aim (one many people are opposed to or claim to support until they double down on their prejudices). To be continued…

As an important caveat – many of the explanations and definitions I offer are not universally shared, which is a reminder of how important it is to not make assumptions and to spend time trying to understand other people’s beliefs and worldviews.

Trans, Transgender, Flag, Pride

Transphobia, Part 2 – What Does Transgender Mean?

For a long time I assumed if someone was transgender it meant they used to identify as either male or female and now they identified as the opposite gender. I believed this because I assumed gender to be a binary – either male or female. Add to this my belief that the prefix trans- only meant across, i.e. a transgender person crosses from one gender to another. However, a deeper dive into the etymological origins of the prefix reveals that as well as across, through and on the other side of, it can also mean beyond. Add to this the realisation that gender is not a binary and there are many genders beyond female and male. And finally, an actual definition of the adjective transgender: denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.

All along transgender had a broader definition than I originally knew – while it definitely encapsulates those who transition from one gender to another, e.g. male-to-female, it also includes people who do not identify as either male or female, including non-binary, genderqueer, and neutrois. So trans can be seen as an umbrella term covering a wide range of gender identities, including one of my own. This is easily forgotten when we assume all that exists is the gender binary. Furthermore, deeper into the etymology and we come to the Proto-Indo-European (super old language) *tra-, a variant of the root *tere-, meaning cross over, pass through, overcome. As well as the idea of movement there is also the idea of overcoming, which (accidentally or not) relates to the huge challenge of being a transgender person in today’s world. Such prejudice and violence must be overcome so transgender folks can simply survive, let alone live the flourishing and brilliant lives they deserve.

2020 is asking a lot of us and one of the things I think it asks is that we broaden our conceptions of gender (and biological sex for that matter). I can’t see a way forward without this. Failing to understand the nuances and abundances of gender means we fail all the folks whose sense of personal identity and gender do not correspond with their birth sex, of whom there are millions, myself included. By informing ourselves and changing our behaviours accordingly we will be able to remove some of the many challenges that trans people are forced to overcome on a daily basis. To be continued…

transgender flags

Transphobia, Part 1

There was one gay night a week when I was at university in the late noughties. Me and my friends would don our glad rags, have our prelash and pile into this tiny bar with a sweaty dance floor in the basement. I was nineteen years of age and a regular and pretty much always requested Candyman by Christina Aguilera. I remember one of the other regulars – long eyelashes, fabulous hair, glitter, make-up on point (as we say nowadays), feminine clothes and an array of body hair. I found this person equal parts captivating to repelling. I assumed they were male and used he/him pronouns (not that I spent much time thinking about people’s pronouns back then). I often found myself wondering why a guy would want to dress up like that. To my nineteen-year-old self this ‘guy’ was just weird.

Looking back I see my thoughts for what they were – transphobic. I was repelled by this gender non-conforming person and they evoked in me a whole host of internalised queerphobia, transphobia and misogyny. Why couldn’t they act like a normal man? Why did they dress so weirdly? What sort of guy would want to wear that much make-up (wasn’t guyliner enough)? Something else I also didn’t understand at the time was that I was deeply attracted to this person. But my mindscape was a shitshow of boarding school prejudices and conservatism with a big dose of toxic masculinity that I would have to battle for years to come. It wouldn’t be until the January sales of 2016 that I bought my first dress and not until the summer of 2018 that I wore a dress in public for a prolonged period of time. How sad that it took me so long when all those years ago that fellow regular at the weekly gay night (I don’t think it was called a queer or an LGBTQ+ night back then) was showing me how it’s done.

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I share this here as an instance of transphobia in my own life. It would be a much better world if I had not been transphobic in the first place and had treated my contemporary with the love and respect they deserved. Sadly that wasn’t how it worked out and it took me a long time to learn my lessons. So I share this post, now, so we can learn our lessons quicker and more compassionately because transphobia is on the rise and so many trans people are suffering – whether it’s their mental and/or physical health, personal safety and/or their life.

One thing I wish I knew back then was that biological sex and gender are different. The former, also known as assigned sex, relates to medical factors including chromosomes, hormones and genitals. There are at least five sexes, if not more, and the two most common we label female and male. Someone’s sex tells us very important things about that person, their biology and the sorts of care they might require in their lives. Meanwhile, gender relates to someone’s identity and behaviours, which relate to larger social practices/norms/pressures/expectations of what it means to be a certain gender. Often the birth sexes of male and female are used to denote gender based on genitals (and presumed chromosomes), however, as I know now, there’s so much more to gender than a binary.

I shall leave you with a very simple online definition of the adjective transgender: denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex. I wish my younger self  had this knowledge and understanding. I wish my younger self had sought it out. Instead, I was spending much too long analysing Descartes’ mind-body dualism (another binary we can do without) and sleeping off my various Wednesday morning hangovers. To be continued…

Uh-Oh, I’m A Millenial In My 30s (During A Pandemic)

For a certain sort of middle class Millenial such as myself there was a particular path laid out for me as I became an adult. In my 20s this path was to involve getting a job with a decent salary and slowly working my way up the office hierarchy. I would also meet my future life-partner, preferably of the opposite gender, with whom I would enter into an exclusive, monogamous relationship. At some point, possibly our mid-to-late 20s, we would enshrine this relationship in marital law, expecting it to last until we died. After marriage we would combine our financial assets and purchase our first flat (maybe even house!) and start to build a home. By the time we hit thirty we would have a child on the way, with plans for at least one more. It’s seems like a fairy tale life and, a few years into my thirties, I can assure you that I have achieved none of these things!

Regarding the job, I initially decided to pursue a path of environmental activism followed by one of writing and narrative coaching. Neither of these have landed me big bucks but it was a compromise I chose to make to pursue things I was passionate about. I also used the financial privilege I did have to support me in this. As for that life partner, well, I’ve blogged about the challenges facing gay and queer men a number of times. While a Conservative government may have made the tokenistic offering of marriage the mental health struggles, suicide statistics, loneliness epidemic and widespread unhappiness paint a very different picture. It’s not that we can simply translate our lives onto the blueprint offered by cisheteropatriarchy. And the older I get the more I realise I don’t want to do that, even if I could.

Because there are problems in monogamous relationships and nuclear families that rarely get discussed but often get felt acutely by and taken out on queer people. Some of us our thrown out of the very homes and families we were born into while most of us have to struggle through childhood, adolescence and adulthood with hardly any support at all in understanding who we are and how to build strength to face societal prejudice and indifference. It’s often not until we’re a bit older that we meet others like us and by that time it’s too late – we’re already carrying trauma and unhappiness, yet somehow are expected to cohere into a seemingly functional group of hetero-almosts who fit in and don’t cause too much of a fuss. If we’re lucky, we’ll find a group of like-minded folks who want to talk about our emotional experiences and identities in a supportive environment. I’m part of such a gay men’s group as we struggle through decades of piled up problems we could all really do without. But again, we’re having to take the initiative to protect ourselves with very few straight people stepping up to support us or showing a great willingness to hear our stories and help be the change (a phrase I hear a lot of cishet people bandy around). Somehow in and amongst this and all the other woes of neoliberal, consumer capitalism that further isolate and fracture we’re expected to be happy and make home. That’s a task I’m not even sure Hercules could accomplish. And now with the pandemic, multiply all these problems by a very high number and then add 100.

I want to be clear. I am not against monogamous relationships, life partnerships, heterosexuality, healthy celebrations of love and/or families. But, as ever, I want to speak a word for queerness and the myriad ways we are excluded from all of the above and how they are made exceptionally difficult for us. It is also when these things combine to create a culture of cisheteronormativity that actively excludes, tokenises, exoticises and, often, murders queer people, that I just have to call bullshit. The intersections of our struggles are unique and cannot be qualified with “it’s not that bad” or “it’s better than it used to be” or “it could be worse” or “but I don’t have a problem with the fact you’re gay”. I also want to be clear that the heterosexual people who benefit from the privileges of this system also face huge struggles. Domestic abuse, dysfunctional partnerships and family units, financial inequality, sexism, toxic masculinity, loneliness, are just some of the ways this system crushes those within it as well as those it ostracizes. I am not trying to pit heterosexuals against queer people but I am suggesting that there are alternatives to how we live and love that could benefit us all.

But the thing is, if we want these alternatives, which queer people have been busy building for years, it will take self-reflection and a willingness to let go of the privileges of heterosexuality and being cisgendered (this does not equate to relinquishing those identities if they are important to you). Privileges that often don’t make for happy lives but do make the lives of queers even unhappier. To be continued…

I Reserve The Right To Cancel You

Cancelling is when someone withdraws support from someone else, often a public figure, due to offensive things they have said and/or done. Like unfollowing J.K. Rowling on Twitter after she made her transphobic comments. Very sensible if you don’t want to be exposed to transphobia. However, lots of people decry cancel culture like the many people who share J.K. Rowling’s transphobic views and would rather defend them than understand why they are transphobic and, therefore, dangerous. It’s as if the detractors of cancel culture think unfollowing someone on Twitter is worse than experiencing transphobia and others should endure prejudice so we can continue the “debate” and “discussion” around whether trans people exist or not (N.B. they do). Furthermore, cancel culture has long pre-dated the likes of Twitter and Instagram, it’s just gone under many different names.

Patriarchy is a form of cancel culture in which women are cancelled. Racism, one in which people of colour are cancelled. Heteronormativity, one in which queer people are cancelled. The English class system is another classic – lots of rich, white men going to posh schools and posh universities and then getting top jobs in key sectors and industries. It’s called the old boys’ club. Technically I’m a part of it due to my educational background and it’s fab for getting a leg up in the world (if that’s what you really want). Although maybe these aren’t examples of cancel culture because someone has to be allowed in before they can be cancelled, maybe they should just be called exclusion culture. So, before you’re tempted to decry cancel culture, maybe check your privilege and explore the ways you haven’t experienced exclusion in your life before you call out a transgender person or trans ally for unfollowing J.K. on Twitter.

It’s curious though, isn’t it, all this defensiveness around cancel culture, as if the detractors want to push shame and responsibility elsewhere rather than examine their own beliefs and prejudices and the beliefs and prejudices of public figures they admire. Wilful and persistent ignorance, an inability to empathise and listen, maintained prejudices (however seemingly “minor”), an inability to take responsibility for one’s in/actions, defensiveness around being called out, passive aggressively pushing back at the oppressed person and/or group. These are some of the problems, not unfollowing someone on Twitter because they are prejudiced. I appreciate cancelling is not always done well but that’s not the point here. We can’t seriously always expect someone on the receiving end of prejudice to cancel someone well given the oppressor is often trying to cancel the very identity of those they oppress. So, yes, I reserve the right to cancel you because I like my boundaries and mental health, and I want to defend equality, not my prejudices.

Cancel, Stop, Culture, Subscription, Warning, Delete

Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance

I was born into a world of gender scarcity and binary. The doctor saw a penis between my legs and sorted me into male. If I’d had a vagina it would have been female. That was it, apparently. This decision to gender me as male fundamentally changed my life and the expectations people had for me and meant I was sent to all-boys’ schools from the age of eight. Ten years later and I arrived at university with a bunch of unresolved anger issues, an inability to process my feelings, shame around even having feelings and a legacy of bullying/being bullied. Given the nature of my schooling (private in the south of England) I was also encouraged to be racist, sexist, and classist, amongst other things. It wasn’t until my first trip to Embercombe, at the age of 25, that I was asked to express my emotions in a vulnerable and open manner. It was really hard. That was when I realised just how thick the armour of day/boarding school really was. An armour that I put in place to protect me from the system I was being schooled through, which ultimately became a straightjacket and hindered my emotional growth and ability to form functional relationships (both platonic and romantic). It was also during my mid-twenties that queerness, for me, became something embodied as well as intellectual. When I looked beyond my gonads, my assumed Y chromosome and my particular hormonal balance, I didn’t find a man (a Slytherin!), I just found me, Robert. At heart I believe myself to be genderqueer even though I still present as cis-male in most of my day-to-day life. It is only in certain spaces, where I feel safe, do I say I use the pronouns they/them as well as he/him. I am not as vocal about this as I could be and, in part, this is me cashing in on my privilege, it’s also protection from the endless ignorance and prejudice I encounter from people I know (not that they would necessarily consider themselves ignorant or prejudiced). It’s been a long old journey, sometimes heart-crushingly lonely, other times euphorically connected, and it isn’t ending it. I am absolutely committed to building Queertopia, rainbow brick by rainbow brick.

But things would have been so different if I’d gone to Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance…

Here there are not just two houses, male or female, in fact, there aren’t any houses at all, not because identities don’t exist but because we are all united in allowing one another to express our myriad identities. We make space for that, so much space. There’s the whole LGBTQQIAAPP2S community and more besides. There are transgender women, non-binary folx, genderqueer kidz, cisgender men and a whole rainbow panoply of fantastic people. We don’t get sorted into boys-are-blue, girls-are-pink, but if a boy likes blue and a girl likes pink then that’s absolutely wonderful. Meanwhile, all of us get to do DIY and cooking and all of us are shown how to process and share our emotions. Being strong, compassionate, kind, brave, fun, caring and adventurous are traits we all get to enjoy (without being forced to!) because we know that these traits are human traits and not limited to particular genders. We also recognise the fluidity and flux inherent in identity and create space for change and exploration, throughout our lives, yup, right up until the end. At this Hogwarts the repressive binary of a gender scarce world has been transcended as we revel in gender abundance, respecting and encouraging all our myriad identities. There’s so much less bullying here than there was at my private schools because here life’s about collaboration and building something wonderful together. Sure, we compete in the odd Quidditch match but factionalism beyond the pitch is not encouraged and there’s no stupid house cup because everyone wins at Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance. The irony is that at my all-boys’ schools I was trained to win and for so long in my life I feared being a ‘loser’. It was shameful. Until a number of breakdowns and identity crises taught me just how much I had really lost by trying so desperately to win. If anything, my prize was alienation from my own soul (a word I use to refer to the entirety of one’s unique, embodied self). Finding it again transcends the very concept of victory (and it feels fab!).

If you’d like to build Queertopia with me or know anyone that might, please do get in touch, hello@robertholtom.co.uk

Stranger In The Village by James Baldwin

Stranger in the Village is James Baldwin’s final essay in his collection Notes of a Native Son published in 1955 when he was 31. The essay details his time in a small Swiss village around four hours from Milan. It soon became clear that many, if not all, the white villagers had never met a black man before. Their reactions ranged from fascination to suspicion and he describes how some of the children would try to touch his skin and hair. He found the behaviour shocking and writes that while “there was certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.” Unlike his experiences of racism in the US that sought to dehumanise him through violence and debasement, the racism of the Swiss villagers dehumanised him through ignorance.

Their ignorance stemmed from their ability to live their lives totally unaware of black people as real people and of the legacies of European colonialism. Yet it was precisely from Europe that colonialists and empire builders went forth, inflicting genocide, slavery and conquest over so many of the world’s countries. Baldwin notes that inherent to this colonisation was the idea of white supremacy, “that white men are the creators of civilisations…and are therefore civilisation’s guardians and defenders.” Crucial to Baldwin’s essay is the reminder (or lesson) that white supremacy is a European idea.

I was never taught this lesson, in fact, I was schooled in white supremacy. I grew up in an almost exclusively white village, went to almost exclusively white private schools and studied at a predominantly white university (Oxford). Throughout my life I have been taught racism: in the colonial propaganda that passed as history, the privilege to never have to think of the colour of my skin and the prejudice I was encouraged to show towards people with darker skin. I was told the world was my oyster. As Baldwin wrote of the Swiss villagers, “these people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it.” I have never been made to feel like a stranger because I am a child of empire. I have inherited white supremacy and, as I re-educate myself, so I learn of the history of European colonialism, upon which so much of the ‘modern’ world was founded. Whether we learn our lessons or not is one of the crucial questions facing white people. Whether we choose to defend the legacies of oppression and its statues, or whether we stand with Black people and make space for the healing of traumas inflicted by white supremacy. Fortunately, as statues fall, syllabi are changed, police are defunded, we know that change is possible. Here’s to a world in which no one is a stranger.

This post only deals with a fraction of Baldwin’s essay and I recommend you read it for yourself along with his other great works.

Dear White People, This is What We Want You to Do

“…this reconditioning is a necessary lifelong endeavor.”

Dear fellow white people, unlearning our racism and learning anti-racism is a necessity. Start now if you haven’t already, keep going if you have.

Inside The Kandi Dish

I don’t want to hear “I can’t believe this.”

I want you to read upon the history you’ve had the privilege to ignore.

I don’t want your opinions or thoughts.

I want you to listen to the Black experiences you’ve chosen to forget.

I don’t want your #BLM Instagram story reposts.

I want screenshots of your bail out money donations and patronage of Black labor/art/knowledge.

I don’t want your passive Twitter likes.

I want you to follow Black tragedies as much as you follow Black trends.

I don’t want to vindicate your white guilt. It’s yours to reconcile.

I want you to check your racist parents and call out your apathetic white friends (especially when there are no people of color there) without expecting a pat on the back.

I don’t want your tears. I have plenty of those.

I want you to check in…

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Earthsea: Can You Imagine A Woman Wizard?

“The earthsea books as feminist literature are a total, complete bust. From my own archetypes and from my own cultural upbringing I couldn’t go down deep and come up with a woman wizard. Maybe I’ll learn to eventually but when I wrote those I couldn’t do it. I wish I could have.”

So said Ursula K. Le Guin at a writing convention during the 1970s and the clip is shown in Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a documentary released shortly after her death in 2018. She was talking of the first three books of Earthsea: A Wizard of Earthsea (published 1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1970) and The Farthest Shore (1972). All beautiful books about magic, shadows, dragons and, more often than not, men. However, reading the lines and between them I do not consider this spell-binding trilogy of books to be a total, complete bust as far as feminist literature goes, even though there are no woman wizards (spoilers).

Much can be learned about the three books from the maps at the start of them. The Wizard of Earthsea shows the map of the whole archipelago of Earthsea, much of which the protagonist, a young wizard named Duny/Sparrowhawk/Ged (it’s a long story, go read it!),  gets to explore in his quest to defeat the shadow he conjured from the lands of the dead in an act of youthful hubris. The map in The Farthest Shore zooms in on the west of the archipelago and it is here the young Prince Arren joins a much older Ged as they sail from island to island in search of the great evil that is draining the world of life. As for The Tombs of Atuan, the map shows the enclosure of the Place of the Tombs including a few temples, dormitories and the Small House in which the young Tenar sleeps alone. A second map reveals the labyrinth beneath the Tombs, home to the Nameless Ones for whom Tenar is high priestess. These maps are symbolic of the terrain that male and female protagonists get to come of age within: Ged and Arren get the run of Earthsea, while Tenar is literally walled in. A further irony for Tenar is that even though the walls are crumbling and full of holes, the land beyond is miles and miles of arid desert. Escape is both lethal and unimaginable. She is well and truly trapped, while Ged and Arren begin their stories with a much larger degree of freedom. Yes, Ged’s early life is tough but because of his innate gift for magic his situation swiftly improves, whereas Tenar has no magic to improve her lot, there are no woman wizards in Earthsea after all.

Furthermore, in Book 1 Ged spends most of the time fleeing then tracking a shadow of his own creation and in Book 3 Arren gets to choose to join Ged on a mission to save the world from evil. Whereas Tenar is taken as a young child and forced to learn the arcane (and pointless) rituals of an oppressive faith, in which women used to have power but now have been reduced to tokenism within an increasingly patriarchal system. Tenar does not have the privilege to roam free and certainly doesn’t have the privilege to make a mess then clear it up. It is no surprise, either, that at the triumphant end of Book 3 Arren feels a great sense of “victory”, while in Book 2, Tenar does not have the time to win or lose, instead all she acquires is freedom from the oppression of the Tombs. The price of this freedom is high: she can never return to her family and must leave the land she grew up in, unkind to her in many ways but also one in which she found friendship and care. Her actions may fulfil a prophecy and Ged may escort her safely away from the Kargard Lands but her future is completely uncertain. This isn’t victory and it’s barely freedom, if anything, it is escape.

There is one woman wizard in the first trilogy, in Book 3, but she has lost her skill and only exists for a page or so. Meanwhile, the women who do have magic are looked down on as common witches who know herbs and petty love potions, “weak as a woman’s magic, wicked as woman’s magic” they say on the Isle of Gont, where Ged was born. Female characters do not fare too well in the first three books of Earthsea and acquire very little page space, save in Book 2. However. Beyond Ged and Arren’s typically heroic character arcs, Tenar shows an amazing resilience and bravery in the face of a patriarchal system that would see her dead. To survive the book she must challenge everything she has been raised to believe, she must reject the belief in her own supreme power as high priestess, she must let crumble the very labyrinths she has sworn to protect and betray the Nameless Ones she has long worshipped. To survive she must change entirely and agree to flee her home with Ged, who she rescues from the darkness of the labyrinths. In the face of all this Tenar survives and she grows in ways young Ged and Arren cannot because their very privileges deny them the ability to learn from what they take for granted. They strive and they suffer and they are admirable heroes (who I’d happily go sailing the high seas with) but in my recent rereading of the trilogy it is young Tenar I find myself caring for most, there is more nuance in her story and thus she is given more scope to be human: petty, selfish, wicked as well as brave, fearless and kind (curiously, when Arren starts to think mutinous thoughts about betraying Ged halfway through Book 3 it is because he is under a spell and not because he is revealing his own nuances of character).

The implication is that Le Guin thinks the first trilogy of Earthsea is a “complete bust” as far as feminist literature is concerned because there is no woman wizard protagonist. But it’s no surprise that the works of a woman living through a time of patriarchy would reflect the values and prejudices of such a system. The universities were full of men, not unlike the School of Magic on the Isle of Roke reserved exclusively for men, and the literary canon was full of men. “From my own archetypes and from my own cultural upbringing I couldn’t go down deep and come up with a woman wizard.” However, we do get Tenar as a protagonist, a young woman struggling to come of age within a callous and dangerous patriarchal world, and I think she’s brilliant. As for woman wizards, “Maybe I’ll learn to eventually but when I wrote those I couldn’t do it. I wish I could have.” And it’s that wish that is both heart breaking and inspiring: the former because it acknowledges all the ways Le Guin’s prejudiced world robbed her of the freedoms and privileges she so deserved and inspiring because it informs the second trilogy of Earthsea. TBC.

Frankenstein At The National

Content note: discussion of rape, racism, ableism, oppression, violence towards women of colour.

I remember watching Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre back in 2011. Those heady days when I could sit in close proximity to lots of people in a darkened room and watch other humans move about on a raised platform, I’m talking about theatre darrling. One of the production’s clever tricks was to have the two lead actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, interchange the roles of Dr Victor Frankenstein and the Creature on different nights. I took my seat not knowing who I’d get and as one hundred light bulbs glared and fizzed there appeared before me a very naked Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. I had a whale of a time.

Nearly ten years later and last week I decided to watch Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and was once again impressed by the production, especially the quality of acting and the versatility of the staging as we were taken from busy steam trains to the Orkneys and way off into the Arctic. However, what I noted this time round is despite the supposed universality of the Frankenstein myth – when man plays God he does it very badly and lots of people get hurt (yup, pretty accurate) – the play’s protagonists lacked contextualisation. We are never asked to spend much time exploring Dr Frankenstein’s identity as a wealthy, white, able-bodied man who has the luxury to spend time building a human from bits of corpses and then immediately do a runner once things don’t go quite to plan (namely, he finds the Creature too ugly). Hmm, a man making a mess and not taking responsibility for it, sound familiar?

Another central theme of the Frankenstein story is how the monsters which haunt us are often of our own making. The Creature can very much be seen as parts of Victor’s psyche made manifest, some of which transcend his own capacity for morality while others turn to murder and rape (as implied in the book, as depicted on stage). And again, the Creature as a projection of Victor, a contextless man, also lacks context, he is an embodiment of feelings, sensations and impulses concocted in a laboratory. Whereas in our everyday world we create contextualised monsters all the time, for example, in the way racist white people treat black people, bigoted men treat women, prejudiced able-bodied people treat people with disabilities. Oppression often involves the projection of things we hate or do not understand about ourselves onto others. Yet watching Victor and the Creature clash on stage I felt they were robbed of any ability to offer a more nuanced take on oppression precisely because they lacked context. This relates to the diverse casting of the play with a brilliant Naomie Harris trying to get some mileage out of the brief stage time given to Elizabeth Lavenza before she is graphically killed by the monster. However, just as with the parts played by George Harris and Jared Richard, I would argue the production doesn’t ask us to think about race. The fact a black woman is raped and murdered on stage is less significant than the fact that Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s fiancé, is raped and murdered on stage because it’s his story after all (even though we’re never asked to explore much of who he really is).

Despite oppression, sexism and ableism being key themes of the story, the play fails to adequately explore them because it never really bothers to explore the contexts and privileges of the protagonists. In Victor we could see the embodiment of white, able-bodied, male, privilege writ large, outsourcing his violent desires to his reviled white, male Creature constantly facing violence for being “ugly” and “different”, but instead we just see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller duking it out on stage. Frankenstein is an amazing novel which had much to say in 1818 and still has much to say today but Frankenstein, Danny Boyle’s production, while repeating many of the original messages didn’t say much more for 2011/20. Perhaps what the play inadvertently reminds us is that within supposed ‘universal’ stories lies an awful lot of unspoken privilege and injustice.