Back when the West-End revival of Cabaret premiered in November 2021 there was some controversy around the casting of Eddy Redmayne – a straight chap – in the role of the Emcee, who had previously been played by queer icons Alan Cumming, Julian Clary, Will Young, Neil Patrick Harris and Joel Grey. Redmayne defended the decision and went on to knock it out the park and win an Olivier award. At the time I was disappointed, thinking yet another queer role had yet again gone to a straight person. Meanwhile, the posters for the show depicted numerous queer-presenting folks (but not Redmayne) and that just felt like rubbing salt in the wound. Zoom forward to last week and I’ve now seen Cabaret. And while it’s a blast one thing it really ain’t is queer.
Clifford Bradshaw is a young, American novelist who arrives in Berlin in 1929. On the train he meets Ernst, a friendly German chap who suggests Cliff seek lodgings at the house of Fraulein Schneider, a lonely, cynical woman. After securing a room Cliff goes to the Kit Kat Klub – a raucous, seedy nightclub full of all sorts and presided over by the mysterious and somewhat menacing Emcee. There, Cliff meets the one and only Sally Bowles, a cabaret performer. It’s not long before they’re living together in Cliff’s room and soon after that Sally realises she’s pregnant, although she’s not sure who the father is. Romance even blossoms for the world-weary Schneider as she falls for her tenant Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. Act 1 ends with their engagement party which is ruined when Ernst reveals himself to be a Nazi. In Act 2 things go from bad to worse as the Nazis rise to power. Fraulein Schneider breaks off the engagement, Herr Schultz leaves the boarding house, Sally gets an abortion and Cliff leaves Berlin. Life is most decidedly not a cabaret.
It’s a brilliant and tragic musical about anti-Semitism, the Nazis and people’s different reactions to tyranny – particularly those of denial and wilful ignorance. But one thing this musical is not about is queerness, especially as its central relationships are heterosexual – between Sally & Cliff, and Schneider & Schultz. However, in this version Cliff’s sexuality is briefly explored. At the Kit Kat Klub he’s approached by Bobby, a man who he had some sort of relationship with back in London (but it’s all quite vague). Cliff no longer seems keen to pursue things but the pair do briefly share a kiss on stage – the history of this kiss dates back (I think) to Sam Mendes’ West End revival of the show in 1993 and is very much not in the original 1966 version. Later Sally asks Cliff if he’s a homosexual, a question which makes him uncomfortable and he doesn’t answer, leading Sally to take back the question. Beyond this the nuances of Cliff’s sexuality are not explored and Bobby is largely forgotten – making their kiss feel more tokenistic than meaningful, as if the production really wanted to get something ‘gay’ in there despite how straight it is. Talking of straight, let’s not forget the Emcee, about whom there was all that fuss. Tbc!
Content note: discussion of transphobia and trauma.
In my previous post I wrote about pain and love. About how people who have suffered pain often end up inflicting that pain on others. They do not sufficiently explore the nature and origin of their pain, and they do not work to heal it – to create that crucial distance between the source of the pain and their self. I wrote about this because I can relate to being in pain. The queerphobia of my youth and adulthood traumatised me and it wasn’t until my early thirties that I realised the extent of this pain – partly through reading about queer oppression and being able to connect that to my own experience. This knowledge allowed me to slowly create a distance between myself and the experience. I poured love, patience, therapy, friendship and kindness into this gap to help heal the wound. And it has healed.
So when I look to the people at the forefront of the transphobic moral panic I draw from my own experiences to try to relate to them. As a person who’s suffered pain I try to connect with the ways they have suffered pain. Hence the title of that previous post, “Pain & Love”. But in doing this I forget about that other key ingredient of transphobia – hate. That visceral loathing for trans women, that hateful disregard for non-binary people and all the other ways hate manifests in a ‘movement’ that wants to see trans people scared, erased and, for many, dead. These things have nothing to do with pain and everything to do with hate and the activating of that hate to harm other people. Another word for this is violence. Simply put, transphobia is violence.
There’s a phrase that “hurt people hurt people” but, do you know what, I’m a hurt person and I try my damndest to not hurt other people – even the people who hurt me! I try my best not to meet anger with anger, even though a lot of people get angry with me, and feel justified in blasting me with their anger. But that hurts and, surprise surprise, I don’t enjoy hurting people. It’s not fun to shout at others, to wound them, to cause them harm. When it comes to hate “hurt people hurt people” simply won’t do as an explanation (or excuse) for the actions of bigots. “Hateful people hurt people” might work a bit better and while it’s important to understand the origins of that hate, just as it’s important to understand the origins of people’s pain, the first task is to defend those being harmed by that hate. So that’s why I’m writing this post – to remind myself to say no to hate. For so long I was conditioned to excuse and tolerate the behaviour of my abusers, constantly making excuses for them, and empathising with them (while they had zero empathy for me), and that conditioning affected my politics too and how I engaged with oppression. But I’ve changed and this post is a reminder that while healing and rehabilitation are vital destinations on the journey to peace, before either of them, we must first hold haters to account and say no to their hate.
In Helena Bonham Carter’s recent interview she defended the transphobia of J.K. Rowling. She said: “It’s been taken to the extreme, the judgmentalism of people. She’s allowed her opinion, particularly if she’s suffered abuse. Everybody carries their own history of trauma and forms their opinions from that trauma and you have to respect where people come from and their pain. You don’t all have to agree on everything – that would be insane and boring. She’s not meaning it aggressively, she’s just saying something out of her own experience.”
My response is simple. Yes. Rowling is allowed her opinion. But if that opinion is transphobic then folks like me will stand up for our dignity and rights. Yes. I do respect where people come from and their pain. But I do not respect when people take their pain, weaponise it and attack others with it. Later in the interview, when asked about Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint speaking out against Rowling’s transphobia, Bonham Carter said: “Personally I feel they should let her have her opinions, but I think they’re very aware of protecting their own fanbase and their generation.” The phrase for when one generation harms another with its own trauma is intergenerational trauma. I want my legacy to be one of ending the intergenerational trauma which I have been given – and there’s been a lot. I’ve spent years exploring, understanding and doing the best I can to heal my pain. And one of the necessary balms I’ve needed to heal is love – filling myself with love from within. The results have proved transformational!
There is now a greater distance between myself and my pain. My trauma no longer defines me and it doesn’t dictate my behaviour (i.e. usually resulting in defensive or aggressive actions). I am better able to take control of and responsibility for my actions, ensuring I inflict less harm on others. This allows me to contribute more to the sum total of healing. This has yielded so much more happiness for me and a greater energy to do that which I think is important. It has liberated my imagination allowing me to imagine worlds beyond trauma, patriarchy and pain, rather than just imagining yet more ways of traumatising others. Love proves a wonderfully sustaining force and so much more motivating than hate. If hate burns like coal then love is a renewable energy like the flow of the river or the current of the tide.
Spoilers for Thor: Love & Thunder and Ragnarok, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness, Avengers: Endgame
Surprise, surprise, Thor: Love and Thunder did not deliver on its vague promises of greater LGBTQ+ representation despite Natalie Portman telling us the film was “so gay” – compared to what, marriage? Nevertheless, cast and crew have come out to defend the film’s ‘choices’ and here I’ll spend a few minutes responding.
Since her arrival back in Thor: Ragnarok fans have been wondering if Tessa Thompson’s brilliant character Valkyrie is LGBTQ+. Love & Thunder answers that question by confirming that she did have a girlfriend, another Valkyrie, hurray! However, said girlfriend died saving our Valkyrie in a brief flashback in Ragnarok. The MCU gives and the MCU takes away, and now we have yet another dead queer in the MCU pantheon. Firstly, there was the gay guy at the start of Avengers: Endgame grieving the loss of his boyfriend in the Blip (when Thanos annihilated half the universe’s population). Of course, when the film ends and all the blipped people come back do we see the boyfriends united, do we sh*t, we see the straight superheroes reunited with their opposite sex partners. Meanwhile, the teen character America Chavez in the latest Doctor Strange film could be queer because she’s wearing a Pride Progress badge throughout the film or she could just be an ally…the script doesn’t bother to clarify. But in a brief flashback we do see her two mums, yay! Although within seconds they’re sucked into an interdimensional portal and presumably killed, boo! So it would appear there are three options for queer characters in the MCU – invisible, grieving or dead (or some combo of the three).
When discussing Valkyrie’s sexuality Thompson said it was important “not to hang the character’s hat solely on her sexual identity just because she’s a queer character. I think that’s one way of minimizing her humanity, actually, if that’s the only facet that you get to explore her in.” A similar argument has been applied to Elsa and Dumbledore, as if giving them any agency as queer characters somehow reduces their humanity. Curiously, this argument is never applied to straight characters but let me tell you this – in Love & Thunder Thor is 100% defined by his sexuality. When he’s not fighting people/monsters he’s falling back in love with Doctor Jane Foster as played by Natalie Portman. The film is a very silly romcom about two dysfunctional straight people having another go at being together. These characters’ hats are firmly hung on their super powerful hammers and they basically just exist to fall back in love. In this light, Thompson’s comments are interesting because I’d suggest that Thor and Mighty Thor (Dr Foster gets super powers in this film when she picks up Thor’s old hammer to see if it will help her fight stage four cancer) absolutely suffer from minimised humanity as characters. Thor does get a bit of a character arc though as Dr Foster encourages him to keep his heart open but to teach him this lesson she has to die. Yup. This film 100% betrays its new superpowerful female character by killing her. So, what’s the message for young girls – that you’ll either die of cancer or you’ll die trying to be as powerful as the male protagonist, great. Not forgetting Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness which told us that powerful women become unhinged psychopaths hellbent (literally) on having kids, despite all the nuance WandaVision tried to bring to the character of Wanda Maximoff.
Meanwhile, the film’s director Taika Waititi said he’d “love to see [Valyrkie] with a girlfriend in any movie” but in this one thought the “really interesting” think to do was show her as “someone who’s OK with being alone…she’s trying to learn how to love…herself. And I think that’s just a stronger message, no matter what your orientation.” So somehow Valkyrie drowning her grief in alcohol while watching Thor and Jane make out is meant to be read as her being OK with being alone? C’mon, that’s bad storytelling on the best of days and proves there’s a huge gap between what a creative team wants to portray and what actually ends up on screen. Why not give this arc to the relentlessly heterosexual leads? It’s clear these straight characters have zero ability being OK with being alone as they rush to define themselves via heterosexual romantic love…that is until the female partner dies. It’s almost as if straight people depend on problematic, monogamous relationships to facilitate some form of emotional growth…or at least these are the stories they like to tell (a lot).
I think it’s high time straight (and queer) people stopped making excuses for bad queer representation. Maybe instead they could focus on themselves and explore whether their humanity is minimised by heterosexuality (spoilers, it is). They could even take a closer look at heterosexuality itself and where it came from (clue, the word heterosexual didn’t exist until the 1860s and was originally an illness). Having said all that I did quite like Korg the Kronan rock guy revealing that his species is all male and make babies by holding hands over lava. And he gets a rock boyfriend at the end with a big moustache, cute.
“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.”
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Party Conference, 1987
Thatcher’s comments were applauded and the following year Section 28 was imposed, which prohibited the promotion of “homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” by UK local authorities. Officially, this meant state schools and public libraries couldn’t educate on LGBTQ+ lives and rights, nor support LGBTQ+ people. However, its reach stretched beyond the state sector and empowered other institutions, such as my private boarding school, to say nothing. Silence and neglect were my education and whenever I heard the word gay it was a slur. Section 28 was repealed in 2003 just around the time I was discovering an interest in guys.
Today, history is repeating itself as Conservative MPs such as Liz Truss (and most of the Tory PM candidates), journalists such as Janice Turner and famous novelists such as J.K. Rowling wage “culture war” on “Generation Woke”, reducing trans rights to a ‘debate’ and refusing to even acknowledge the existence of non-binary people. To this, I say bullshit. I’m older now and I don’t rely on my parents and teachers as I did as a child and adolescent, I can speak for myself. I will claim my inalienable right to be non-binary.
Trans rights are not a ‘debate’ they are human rights. Being non-binary isn’t about being ‘woke’, it’s about being a human. Fighting for my rights isn’t a ‘culture war’ it’s a fight for my fundamental right to exist. Just because I was born into an oppressively binaried system of gendering doesn’t mean I have to stay in it. For some this might mean expanding what it means to be male and female beyond the violent limitations of patriarchy. For me, it means stepping beyond the binary itself. I’m not strong because I’m male. I’m not kind because I’m in touch with my feminine side. I’m strong and kind because I’m human. I don’t oscillate between two poles of gender, i.e. male and female, I’m just me. And while I was profoundly shaped by my male upbringing it does not define me. It’s a part of me, absolutely, but it’s not all of me, and I’m excited to keep growing with the years.
The tactics of our oppressors are very familiar – bullying, neglect, abuse, ridicule, vilification – I recognise these from the playground. And I’ve survived them. I have every intention to survive them again despite the rising levels of transphobia in this country. I will meet their hate by loving myself and championing myself. I will meet their destruction by building a life for myself in which I am loved and championed for who I am. A world built of hate can only burn but a world built of love is beautiful and, after all, non-binary is beautiful.
It’s taken me longer than I intended to write the Part 2 post to Cancel Culture Ain’t The Problem. Partly because every time I’ve written a response to a current instance of transphobia a new one crops up – Liz Truss, the UK’s equalities minister and foreign secretary, using the Conservative Party’s spring conference to denounce the so-called “ludicrous debates about languages, statues and pronouns” was my initial inspiration but in the meantime we’ve had Ricky Gervais, J.K. Rowling, The Times, the UK Government’s Attorney General…and the list goes on. I was even planning on writing a response to Janice Turner’s deeply transphobic Times article titled “Cult of gender identity is harming children” which she wrote on 21st September 2019, likening gender identities beyond man and woman to Pokemon (i.e. made up). And then I watched the wondrous Jeffrey Marsh’s video on hate and they said four magic words… “hate is largely chaotic”.
That’s when it clicked. I was spending all this time engaging with the work of transphobes be it their articles, tweets, policies, or speeches. I would do my best to articulate a response that explained why their transphobia was bad (and why it was transphobia, full stop, given so many people deny transphobia is transphobia) and to offer a more loving and liberated alternative. I would try to understand them so I could better understand the things they said, wrote and believed. But what they say, write and believe is hate. Transphobia is hate. And these transphobic people have literally zero interest in my blog posts and zero interest in treating trans people such as myself better. Their hate is not thoughtful, well-researched, logical, compassionate and empathetic…it’s just hate. As Jeffrey says, hate is largely chaotic. I was expending so much energy trying to make sense of their chaos. Exposing myself to hate over and over again, trying to turn it into love. And, boy, that is a fool’s errand.
The likes of Liz Truss and Janice Turner will carry on hating me until they don’t (which will probably be never) even while claiming they don’t hate me (if they ever get called out on it, which they probably won’t). They won’t seek to understand me, they’ll just keep hating me. They won’t listen to me from a place of openness and compassion, they’ll hate. They’ll dehumanise me. They’ll ridicule ‘generation woke’, ‘cancel culture’, pronouns, and anything else they want to justify their hate. They’ll use all the familiar moral panic tropes/lies such as ‘threats to children’, ‘paedophilia’ and ‘recruiting young people’. Janice Turner, in her article, even says being non-binary is homophobic. Well, I’m a gay man and a non-binary queer, and I sure for one ain’t homophobic (and nor am I trying to foment hate within the LGBTQ+ community to further my transphobic goals). As Jeffrey says, hate is largely chaotic. Navigating chaos is impossible. Trying to make sense of chaos is impossible. Asking hateful people to listen to me and see me as a human is a job that requires more hours than I’ve got left to live. Hate is a war that has been (chaotically) designed to ensure I cannot win.
I’m done. I care too much about myself to immerse myself in hate. I want to have fun. I don’t want to get triggered every time I try to write a blog post. I don’t want to get caught in hate on the off chance it rubs off on me and I end up hating the haters. I simply don’t have time to hate. And we all know what the opposite of hate is…it’s freedom. A profound personal and collective freedom based on love and unbounded liberation. Of course I’m still going to write sassy blog posts calling out queerphobic tropes in trashy/fun films but I’m no longer going to meet the haters where they’re at. They’re too chaotic to even know where they’re at. They’re too lost in their hate (and on a good day I’d pity them). Having said that, there are still battles I must fight – because our rights and identities are being marginalised and trampled upon. There are material, political and social battles to fight. But I’ll be better resourced to fight them if I do it from a place of such self-love that the hate of others slides off me like water off a duck’s back. At the moment, this ain’t the case, I’m too tired, traumatised and triggered, their hate still hurts. But thanks to Jeffrey I know I can stop trying to make sense of it. “Where does hate come from?” asks Jeffrey and their answer, “Who cares?” I’ll care about myself instead, which feels much more like Queertopia.
And talking of utopias…in mine, words aren’t used to hurt and dehumanise. Words aren’t used to worsen people’s suffering and push them closer to death. Words aren’t used to minimise acts of transphobic violence, thereby encouraging them. Nope. In my world, words heal. They give life, offer hope and inspire. They do not cancel, they welcome (while clearly not welcoming prejudice). Words are carefully chosen and freely spoken. Words are acts of love realised through ink on a page, clever technology (which I don’t understand) on a screen, chalk on a wall, and vibrations in air. Quite simply, words are magic.
Big spoilers ahead. Without caveat I loved Heartstopper, the queer teen romance taking Netflix by storm. It centres on gay and out 15-year-old Charlie Spring (played brilliantly by Joe Locke) falling for the could-he-be-gay 16-year-old Nick Nelson (played equally brilliantly by Kit Connor). Turns out Nick’s bi and, eventually, the two finally get their romance. They’ve got epic friends as well and the series offers a true diversity of identities – lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans – and so many races beyond white. There’s also a teacher who wears a Pride Progress badge and offers the sort of sassy support all young queers deserve and there are even some parents who seem pretty okay with having queer kids. The show made me laugh, cry and cheer, I loved it. And while it did make me think of my adolescence and how I would have killed for a series like this, I’m just glad it’s here, now.
Thinking of my youth, when I was a teen I had Big Brother’s Anna Nolan (the gay ex-nun) and Brian Dowling (the gay flight attendant). I loved that show so much, especially as it introduced me to a world of diversity my boarding school lacked. What my boarding school didn’t lack was prejudice, homophobia, toxic masculinity, bi-erasure and bullying. I also didn’t have sympathetic parents or teachers I could turn to for support. I fought those battles alone. I also remember Queer As Folk, which was definitely not the family-friendly sort of show Heartstopper is, and Angels In America, which blew my teenage mind. Gay guys cropped up in Eastenders,Hollyoaks and Dawson’s Creek but something like Heartstopper, which is incredibly PG and lacking in violence and tragedy, just didn’t exist. What’s more, I don’t think a show like HS could have existed in my time. I can just imagine the backlash from the cis & straight majority. A majority hell-bent on educating queerness out of the youth (via Section 28) and stopping us having sex (the age of consent for male homosexuals was equalised with straights in 2000). I shudder at the thought of the hate-filled articles in The Times (just like the transphobic ones being written today) and all the ‘concerned’ parents speaking out on behalf of the ‘safety’ of their children. Furthermore, as a writer I couldn’t even have imagined writing a story like HS back in my teens. Gay-ish characters cropped up in my Soul Calibur and Final Fantasy fan fic but it wouldn’t be until much later that I created my first exclusively queer play, aka The Cluedo Club Killings.
But. Just because Hearstopper exists now and paints a nice (enough) picture of the queer teen experience, it doesn’t mean everything’s ok – far from it. There’s a review by Amanda Whiting in The Independent titled, “Heartstopper’s sunny vision of school queerness is a fantasy – but that’s OK”. Whiting comments on how predominantly great the school is in the show, a place where “a gay highschooler’s romantic experience isn’t significantly more traumatic than the regular highschooler’s romantic experience.” Whiting states that this isn’t realistic as the realities are often far more worse. But I’d argue that the vision of the school in the show is far from sunny – Elle Argent (played by the wondrous Yasmin Finney), a teenage trans woman, had to move to a different school because of transphobic bullying; Charlie is bullied for being gay (even though we only see a bit of this in the show); and the teacher who provides support does so in the privacy of his art classroom and there’s little sense any of the other teachers have anything to say. This isn’t sunny, it’s just less stormy. It’s also worth noting that a few people commented on Whiting’s review saying their experience of school is actually better, which fills my queer heart with joy. This is also why I’m being careful in this post to not generalise my experience of school to other people’s. Meanwhile, people are praising the character of Sarah Nelson, Nick’s Mum, played by the iconic Olivia Colman, for being “the world’s biggest and best ally“, mainly because she isn’t a massive bi-phobe when Nick comes out. But, again, I’ve got notes. For 16 years Sarah has assumed her son is straight until he tells her she’s not. That’s not allyship, that’s bad parenting. He’s the one who has to come out – which is a huge amount of emotional labour to expect of any teen and itself a product of oppression – while she’s done nothing to hack down the closet she and the rest of society built around him. She then makes a quick apology which, as far as I’m concerned, ain’t enough. I know Sarah Nelson is played by Olivia Colman but we can’t forgive her characters everything.
These observations are not criticisms of Hearstopper which I’ve made clear I lurve! They are criticisims of our relentlessly queerphobic society, which has fought against the creation of shows like HS for years (oh, but huge shout out to G.B.F. of 2014). And because queers of all ages have been dying for a show like this (and literally dying at the hands of said queerphobic society) it’s unsurprising we’re over the moon. I know I am. And because queers like me are so used to lowering our expectations and being grateful for whatever minor visibility we get (such as Scar in The Lion King), when we do finally get better representation it can seem like the weather is sunny when it’s actually still overcast. But Heartstopper isn’t trying to present a utopic view of school, instead it celebrates a diversity of queer loves and characters, and it does this perfectly. Five stars from me.
On the topic of utopias, if we want a truly sunny vision of a school then I want it to be a school without bullying, without enforced toxic masculinity, without transphobia (and with more sports than blooming rugby which I know far too well from all my time at all boys’ school). When we imagine utopias we liberate ourselves and we uncondition our imaginations. We can dream as big as we want to (and then bigger still). And just because we can’t live in our fantasies doesn’t mean they can’t inspire us to make changes, even very small ones, in our own lives. I know, from personal experience, how painful the gap between reality and fantasy can be, especially if you’ve got a strong imagination, but I’m learning that our ideal places such as Queertopia or Heaven or Truham Grammar School for Boys are there to inspire us. These places exist within our hearts and minds, and they exist to liberate them too.
Spoilers for Black Widow, Avengers: Endgame, WandaVision, Loki and Captain Marvel
I’ve just started the Hawkeye series, which I am quite enjoying, and remembered I never published this lil’ take on the Black Widow movie, which came out last summer (which in the world of the MCU might as well be a decade ago). Anyways, after years and years of playing second fiddle to male leads Black Widow finally got her own movie and it was…fine. I mean, this is the MCU so don’t expect too much from their efforts at ‘diversifying’ their portfolio. Nevertheless, it’s popcorn guzzling fun with Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh knocking it out the park as lolsome kinda-sisters and the villain has a secret floating base hidden in a cloud and blah blah, let’s get to the analysis.
The MCU actively avoided producing a film with a female protagonist for years because leaked emails in 2015 revealed CEO Ike Perlmutter didn’t think it would sell (which reminds me of the time a ‘friend’ told me a gay Captain Kirk wouldn’t sell). Yup, women aren’t profitable. This is just one example of the sexism Scarlet Johansson would have experienced during her many, many years playing a secondary character, not to mention the objectification, having to kill people with her thighs (I mean, does Thor ever do that?), her love-interest plot-device status, and a briefly mentioned backstory including an enforced hysterectomy in the Red Room – a grim Russian spy-making facility. Oh, and in her final movie appearance in Avengers: Endgame she dies. She throws herself off a cliff to save a guy (and the universe) and doesn’t even get a big funeral at the end, unlike Tony Stark. She also doesn’t come back to life, unlike Loki and Vision. That’s not to mention the countless sexist questions Johansson had to field in interviews for the films, rarely receiving allyship from the male actors, who didn’t get questions about clothes and underwear (apart from this one).
After all this she finally got her own movie. Trouble is, it’s not really her movie but an introduction to her replacement (because, she’s dead, remember), aka Yelena Belova, played brilliantly by Florence Pugh. They’ve got a long backstory involving being fake sisters with fake parents, brainwashing and the Red Room. But Natasha escaped all that and joined the Avengers, leaving Yelena stuck for years (until someone blows special red powder at her which undoes her chemical brainwashing, yup, that happens in the film). It’s when the pair meet that we get the best acting in the film. They are such believable siblings – squabbling, mocking, loving and trying to make sense of their superhero super trauma. Most MCU films and series are dependent on the chemistry between the two leads – usually a straight white man and either a black, straight male sidekick or a white, straight female sidekick/love interest. Captain Marvel saw a white, cisfemale get the lead and her own straight, black cisfemale sidekick – any potential romance between them 100% denied by the MCU rules even though it wouldn’t haven’t been had Monica Rambeau been a guy. Anyways, Johansson and Pugh are great.
Yelena mocks Natasha for selling out to the Avengers, for flicking her hair back, for always doing a certain fighting pose because, apparently, she loved posing and being looked at. I laughed at the sibling rivalry and banter but once I left the cinema I realised it wasn’t funny at all. Black Widow flicked her hair and posed because that’s what the script and directors had her do. They objectified her because that’s how they profited from a female actor and character. Yelena also criticises her for selling out to the Avengers but she never had the chance to buy into anything else. Her character was never written to have significant agency. It kinda hurts, then, that in her own film she is mocked by another female character for having been objectified and for lacking agency. Black Widow is a victim of sexist storytelling and the lack of imagination of predominantly male teams to imagine well-rounded female characters. But as far as the MCU is concerned it’s all a joke. Talk about rubbing sexist salt in the sexist wound.
Another joke concerns the enforced hysterectomies that Natasha and Yelena were subjected to by the Red Room. After busting out their fake-Dad from a Russian prison (it’s a long story involving an avalanche) Yelena criticises him for never having really cared about her. He mocks her, asking if it’s “that time of the month”, to which she replies she cannot have a period. She then vividly describes what the hysterectomy was like. On the one hand it’s great to have a female character school a male one in periods (and the lack of them) and the nature of a hysterectomy. But the trouble is, it’s played for laughs. Yup, their torture and mutilation is a joke. Black Widow even smirks when Yelena threatens to talk about “fallopian tubes”. This is often the case with the comedy of the MCU. So many moments that could be serious or played for emotion, are played for laughs. Although can you imagine Tony Stark and Captain America bantering about enforced vasectomies? Even Yelena putting flowers on Natasha’s grave in the post-credit scene is interrupted by Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine (played hilariously by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) blowing her nose. So that’s Black Widow’s death and Yelena’s grief getting a punchline.
Another hurdle the film falls at is racial diversity. The two leads are white as are the actors who play their fake-parents. Nothing inherently wrong with a bunch of white leads but it’s how the other characters are treated that’s important. There’s Oksana, another Black Widow, played by Michelle Lee, a Chinese American martial artist, stuntwoman and actress. She doesn’t last long as, having fled the Red Room, she’s stabbed by a pre-Red Powder Yelena. Oksana then bleeds to death, it’s a tough watch. Later on, the Black Widow assassin Ingrid chases Natasha but ends up falling from a roof and hurting her back. Dreykov, the super (white) villain and head of the Red Room, then commands Ingrid to blast herself in the head as she’s failed her mission. It’s another hard watch especially as Ingrid is played by Nanna Blondell, a Swedish actor of Ghanaian decent. The trouble here is that the film couldn’t commit to a more racially diverse group of leads but it did diversify the secondary cast, which results in a lot of non-white* characters dying at the hands of white ones. We’ve seen this before in Thor and Age of Ultron. Unfortunately, art appears to be imitating life by normalising the deaths of non-white people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for diverse casts (100%) but I want diverse leads as well and I want race to be successfully integrated into the DNA of a story just as it was, in many ways, in Black Panther, when a predominantly black team were put in charge. Where was the predominantly female team for BlackWidow? And what about a predominantly queer team for the queer lead hero that the MCU ain’t even promising us?
There was a lot to enjoy in the film and I, for one, am loving Phase 4 of the MCU as a lot of the white, male leads take a step back to allow for a host of new characters. But the MCU needs to diversity how it creates and tells its stories, not just diversity who gets a leading role. As Natasha says to Yelena in the trailer below, “That’s not my story”, and I reckon she could be talking about the very film that is meant to be telling her story. Tbh, if I were Black Widow I wouldn’t just flee the Red Room, I’d flee the MCU.
P.s. I’m using the term non-white* not to reduce people to something that they are not (i.e. white) but in an effort to try and show that whiteness is going on here and not something that can be taken for granted and considered normal (or not even seen). I appreciate it’s a clunky term and one I may jettison as I continue to educate myself.
P.p.s. as another little post-credits comment, in terms of the MCU and it’s abysmal history of female representation can I just complain that having slogged my way through six sometimes inventive, sometimes dull episodes of Loki I was disappointed (but not surprised) that the person who causes all the bad that’s going to happen for Phase 4 is…..drum roll…..a woman. Yup, female Loki, played by Sophia di Martino, is the one who might just be responsible for the next multiversal war.
At my local swimming pool there are two changing rooms – male and female. I change in the male changing room. I do this because I am biologically male (not that I’ve ever had a test to confirm I have a Y chromosome) and because for the majority of my life I was identified as male (note, I am differentiating sex and gender). As a kid I was called a boy and from the age of 8 I was sent to all boys’ schools. There I was taught how to be a man, often tough but there was fun to be had as well. I became attached to these identities – boy and man – and it wasn’t until I was 26 that I learnt what the word cisgender meant. Over the years I started to lessen my attachment to the gender identity of male and explored the words trans and non-binary, as well as using they/them pronouns. Now, somewhere into my thirties I identify as all and none of the above. Such a large part of my gender history is male and he remains a huge part of me. He’s the dude that got me here after all, so kudos to him. I am trans because I don’t exclusively identify as the gender I was assigned at birth. I am non-binary because I believe gender is so much more than the binary of male and female. I am also none of these things because I’m just me, Robert. It is this person who takes his clothes off in the changing room and puts their swimming trunks on.
This is my gender journey and it’s unique, as are the experiences of every dude who gets his swimmers on in the changing room. And I want to use this post to make clear that, as far as I’m concerned, all men are welcome in my changing room. And to be even clearer, I’ll use the word mxn with an ‘x’ as I’m not just talking about biologically male people who identify as men. Trans and non-binary men are also welcome. And just because I’m a person with a penis doesn’t mean I expect everyone in the changing room to have a penis. I don’t actually care about their genitalia, I just want them to feel they belong in this changing space. I also don’t find it inherently dehumanising to be referred to as a person with a penis when it’s appropriate, however, this time around, regarding the changing room, having a penis isn’t of interest to me because I know there are men with vaginas and intersex genitalia. All I ask is that people treat each other respectfully.
I also want to be very clear that my changing room isn’t trying to erase men. If there’s someone who was born biologically male and identifies as a guy (like my 18 year-old self did, for example) then he is blooming welcome in the changing room as is a trans dude who has just had top surgery as well as the non-binary guy with breasts and the cis guy with breasts. However, I do recognise that many trans men will have experienced transphobia from cis men, so I’ll try and do my bit as an ally, and ensure the changing room is as safe a place as possible for all the mxn who use it. I’m not sure if any of this can be said of the actual changing room I use given there are no messages or codes of conduct which make clear it’s an inclusive and safer space.
I write this post partly as a response to some of the articles I’ve read by “gender critical” feminists. In one the author wrote that, asides trans women being a threat to women (apparently), she never heard of men having to make space for trans men. I know this isn’t true and here’s my post to prove it. Some GC feminists also deny the existence of gender identity and speak only of biological sex (well, they speak only of male and female biological sex and ignore the others) and in doing so they erase my identity as trans, non-binary and a man. They just want me to be a biological male with a biological penis…and might even want me sent for “conversion therapy” to ensure I man up. Gender critical feminists (aka terfs, aka transphobes) want to exclude me from society whereas all I want to exclude is transphobia (and sexism and racism and inequality etc). I can assure you that even though a lot of cis women are causing me considerable pain I will not weaponise that pain and throw it back at them. Add to that all the pain cis men have caused me whether it was bullying at school, homophobia at university or queerphobia since but, again, I’m not anti-men, I’m anti-abuse. I want a world in which people of all genders and sexes can be safe. All men and mxn, all women and womxn, and all people are welcome in Queertopia.
Just when I was going to write a blog post about Liz Truss, the UK Conservative government’s Minister for Women and Equalities, talking about the “ludicrous debates about pronouns”, Putin went and compared Russia being cancelled to J.K. Rowling being cancelled by “fans of so-called gender freedoms”. I mean, I’m a writer and I can’t write this stuff. Not to mention the other week when I flicked on BBC Politics in the afternoon and a group of middle-aged women were discussing the “crisis of well-being in the UK”, rather than be assured by the conversation I asked myself – how long before something transphobic is said? Answer: less than two minutes as a Baroness soon dismissed people’s “promiscuous” use of mental health when, for example, university students claim to experience PTSD in the wake of so-called transphobia. In these three examples my desire for they/them pronouns has been dismissed as “ludicrous”; my fandom of “so-called gender freedoms” has been dismissed by the man responsible for the invasion of Ukraine; and the pain of the experience of transphobia has been dismissed as “promiscuous”.
Over the past few years Britain has become an increasingly transphobic country. A moral panic is very successfully being stirred which paints trans and non-binary folx as dangerous, demanding, deluded and all manner of dehumanising tropes. We’re the enemy within, apparently, and the comments of the likes of Truss and Rowling simply affirm this. The moral panic is working. It’s divide and conquer – divide cis women and trans people, especially trans women, and set them off against each other. I’ve also seen this at play amongst my friends and acquaintances, but more on that another time. But you know me, I call bullshit. As a they/he, trans, non-binary, and a little bit cis, insofar that I do identify with the boy and man I used to be, I want a world for everyone, one full of gender freedoms and gender abundance. But what’s abundantly clear is how few people care about this world of gender abundance, caught up as they are in the moral panic, instead believing that trans liberation is a threat to cis people. I dream of Queertopia but I’ve got to live on terf island. So, as well as critique the issue (because there is so much to critique and I sure love a sassy blog post) I want to focus on how I’m going to survive and, hopefully, thrive in the face of systemic transphobia.
I’ll start by sharing this – that in all 30+ years of my life I have never been so trans, so non-binary, so queer, and just so much of me. I’m done with not being validated by those around me – I’ll validate myself, thanks. I’m done with being routinely dehumanised by mainstream society – I’ll humanise myself. I’m done with being told (in all manner of words and silences) that I am hated – I’ll love myself. It’s me, myself and I (hence the excuse for posting the below video). Not forgetting all the friends who do validate and love me, and all of those learning how to in the face of norms that have taught them the opposite. Not forgetting my therapist and also the wondrous Jeffrey Marsh, trans super guru! It’s tough living on terf island, really tough, but I’m tough too. And I am growing such a power within that one day the dehumanising and hurtful comments from BBC Politics, Rowling and others won’t have to hurt so much. One day.