Black Widow – “That’s Not My Story”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

A Person With A Penis

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

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

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

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

Last Time Watching Last Night In Soho

Popcorn, fizzy drink, comfy seat, tick. Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy acting their socks off, tick. Celebrity guest appearance from the late Dame Diana Rigg, tick. Matt Smith not playing an over-enthusiastic Time Lord, tick. London in all it’s 1960s glamour, tick. Nuanced feminist critique of patriarchy…absolutely not (spoilers).

I’ll get straight to it. Ellie moves from Cornwall to London to study fashion and finds it full of pervy taxi drivers and douchey lads at her halls of residence. She finds a bedsit at the top of a creepy old Soho’s townhouse owned by Diana Rigg. Once in the creeky old bed she starts dreaming of Sandie, a young woman aspiring to be a singer in 1960s London. The bond intensifies as Ellie revels in the glamour of Sandie’s swinging life…only to discover that the 60s weren’t so swinging after all and there were also loads of sexist men, including Sandie’s manager Jack, who quickly starts pimping her out. There is one nice guy, an undercover cop who briefly appears to warn Sandie away from her life in sex work. Back in the present day Ellie keeps bumping into a creepy, old guy who she is convinced is Jack. The ghosts of the men who abused Sandie start haunting Ellie and she then has a vision of Jack stabbing Sandie in bed. It’s a sad old story and all too familiar, one of sexual abuse and femicide. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the writer/director of Shaun of the Dead (a zombie movie) and Hot Fuzz (a gory buddy cop movie) had now turned his hand to feminism. That was until the final act.

Plot twist! Jack didn’t kill Sandie, she killed him! And then she killed all the creepy men who wanted to pay her for sex and buried them under the floorboards – turns out their ghosts weren’t trying to spook Ellie but wanted her help in vanquishing the psychopathic Sandie. Double plot twist – Sandie’s still alive and it’s the nice old lady who owns the house, cue Diana Rigg trying to poison Ellie and then chasing her up the stairs with a knife before being kicked in the face and burned to death. So, for a final plot twist Last Night In Soho reveals that there’s a far greater problem than the systemic abuse of women within patriarchy and that problem is…women! Yup, behind every abusive man there’s a promiscuous, mass-murdering woman who likes nothing better than slaughtering men and poisoning young women (when their knife wielding days are behind them). The film does try to redeem Sandie’s killing spree with a “what was a girl supposed to do” sort of explanation from Diana Rigg because #girlpower is serial murder, apparently. Meanwhile, the dodgy old guy at the pub isn’t Jack but Lindsay the undercover cop. However, Ellie only finds this out once she’s chased him out the pub and he’s been run over by a car. I mean, it’s not like she could have just asked him his name!? Honestly, what is a girl to do in a film in which coherent female agency is non-existent. Ah well, at least I enjoyed the popcorn and Anya Taylor-Joy’s epic downtempo rendition of Downtown.

 

 

The Trouble With WandaVision (Spoilers)

WandaVision was great. Elizabeth Olsen is a star. But it’s time for some queer, intersectional, feminist analysis. As a disclaimer, I’m a big MCU fan and I hope my facts are right but there may well be plot points and nuances I’ve missed, having only watched the show once.

Here’s (some of) the story in a nutshell (spoilers) – super hero Wanda Maximoff and her super powered robot husband, Vision, are living their best lives in Westview, a quirky, little American town. They end up having two sons together and couldn’t be happier. Each episode is in the style of a classic TV series such as Bewitched, Arrested Development and Malcolm In The Middle. But didn’t Vision die in the Avengers: Infinity War movie? And what’s with the TV shows theme? Plot twist – Vision is dead and Wanda, with her super magic, has created a giant force field around Westview, brainwashed all the inhabitants and created a fantasy life based on TV shows she liked watching as a kid to escape the grim realities of growing up in Sokovia, a dreary, Eastern European cliche country. Turns out super heroes super grieve. A further twist is that Wanda’s neighbour, Agnes, is actually the super witch, Agatha Harkness, who zoomed on over to Westview because she was so fascinated by the powerful Chaos Magic Wanda was inadvertently using to power the whole shebang…but we’ll get to her later.

It’s a unique premise for a Marvel show and made for very entertaining and frequently hilarious viewing. It’s also great to have a female protagonist – of the 23 movies up to Spider-Man: Far From Home there has been precisely one with a female lead, Captain Marvel. But here’s the thing – Marvel has a history of reducing its female characters to stereotypes, primarily focussing on their reproductive and romantic possibilities (asides Captain Marvel who gets a typical-ish hero’s journey). And much of Wanda’s story is very domestic – doing household chores and raising children. I’d argue the earlier episodes encourage us to critique and laugh at this sexism because it’s so obvious in the dated nature of the TV shows, such as Bewitched, but come the finale and the narrative breaks down and Wanda must unleash her super powers to fight Agatha, fight Tyler Hayward (a human bad guy in charge of an intelligence agency called S.W.O.R.D who secretly wants to power up a new Vision to kill Wanda…it’s a long story), save her kids and end her brainwashing of Westview. Now we’re firmly in the MCU genre in which Wanda is contractually obligated to fight the Big Bad and save the day. This is progress for female characters in the MCU. Like Captain Marvel she is the protagonist and not playing second fiddle to a man. Unlike Black Widow (played brilliantly and regularly by Scarlett Johansson), she isn’t often little more than a plot device in men’s stories who occasionally gets to scissor kick villains. But underlying all this drama is a trope common to the super hero world – that when a woman gains too much power she goes off the rails and usually kills loads of people (even if accidentally), such as Jean Grey in the X-Men and the Invisible Woman in Fantastic Four. Incidentally, Wanda has already done this when she killed a load of people at the start of Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m all for equal opportunities and, of course, Wanda can have a partner, raise kids, do domestic chores (Vision does his share of domestic stuff too), be a full-time super hero and go off the rails in a big way…but something tells me that this is all she can do in the MCU. Wanda may have trapped a bunch of people in Westview but she, herself, is trapped in the limited imaginations of her creators.

Even Agatha gets a rum deal because when we get her few minutes of back story we learn she was also super powerful but the other witches in her Salem coven didn’t like it and tried to kill her. Agatha managed to kill them first and drain them of their powers. It seems powerful women in the MCU sure have a thing for trying to kill other powerful women. This is especially problematic because the actual story of witchcraft is one of women being subjected to torture and murder. The Salem witch trials were femicide committed by (predominantly) men who feared powerful women and Christians who feared other worldviews and used slurs of witchcraft to justify the hunting and executions. WandaVision didn’t even touch on this history even though the comics did. Yes, we have a female lead and a female baddy but a lot of nuance got left behind.

However, I think one of the biggest problems with WandaVision is it’s failure to acknowledge that alongside Agatha and Tyler Hayward, Wanda is the third Big Bad. Brainwashing is a form of psychological torture and it’s happened before in the MCU. In the first Avengers movie, Hawkeye is brainwashed by the evil Loki to a do a bunch of bad things. He’s saved by Black Widow and when he wakes up he says: “Have you ever had someone take your brain and play? Pull you out and stuff something else in? Do you know what it’s like to be unmade?” To which, she replies, “You know that I do.” She says this because she was a former KGB assassin brutally sterilised and brainwashed by them to become a super spy. So the MCU does take brainwashing seriously when it’s expedient to the plot (and when committed by a baddy) but when it’s a goody whose done it to hundreds of adults and children, who literally plead with her for it to stop, it can be glossed over. Indeed, in the finale, Wanda talks with Captain Monica Rambeau (played by the brilliant Teyonah Parris), another agent of S.W.O.R.D who always believed Wanda meant good. Monica says, “They’ll [the inhabitants of Westview] never know what you sacrificed for them”, i.e. that she lost Vision and then had to lose her imaginary Vision and children – but this clearly cannot justify the immense pain she has caused. Wanda replies, “It wouldn’t change how they see me. And you, you don’t hate me?” – weirdly only concerned with Monica’s view rather than everyone else in Westview. Monica replies, “Given the chance and given your power, I’d bring my Mom back. I know I would” – fine, but that still doesn’t justify the behaviour. Wanda: “I’m sorry for all the pain I caused” – maybe she could repeat that apology to everyone else. “I don’t understand this power. But I will.” Yes, it must be a lot to be filled with Chaos Magic and it’s probably terrifying but it’s pretty clear she knew what she was doing when she created a giant, magic Hex around Westfield. As for Wanda’s fate – she gets to fly off to a boojy hut on a mountain rather than, say, go to prison and/or therapy.

It’s exciting to see more female characters take centre stage in MCU films and series. I cannot wait for the Black Widow film (finally!) in which Scarlett Johansson describes her character as “a woman who has come into her own and is making independent and active choices for herself.” More of this please (and why did it take so bloody long)! And hopefully Captain Rambeau will get more screen time as the first black, super powered female character. But, as the MCU diversifies so its limitations are further tested as we’re forced to ask if being an MCU super hero is all it’s cracked up to be what with its legacy of sexism and racism and its imaginative limitations. Ultimately, an MCU hero gains heroism through violence (they’re basically soldiers), they exist in a world of binary morals with Big Goods v. Big Bads, and their character development is limited by the requirements of the Hero’s Journey plot structure and the mandatory explosive finale in the third act. This doesn’t work out particularly well for the male heroes either who often suffer from PTSD/PTSI, depression and/or alcoholism. Perhaps we need a new genre entirely. In the meantime, here’s Agatha’s theme song – she’s the purple-wearing, super camp, super villain I’ve been waiting for and she deserves a spin-off (I listened to this thing on repeat for days).

Transphobia, Part 6 – ‘Gender Critical Feminism’

A lot of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (aka TERFs) do not like being called TERFs and consider it a slur, even though it accurately describes their anti-trans (aka transphobic) views and beliefs. However, rather than question whether they should be organising to undermine trans rights and equality they often come up with new language that sounds a little ‘softer’ and makes their transphobia seem a little more palatable. So we get the term ‘gender critical feminist’ instead. In this post I will explore a few of the ‘arguments’ ‘gender critical feminists’ put forward for undermining trans rights and equality. Much of this is a summary of the video by ace Youtuber, ContraPoints – do have a watch (below), she’s much funnier than I am!

First things first, all feminism is gender critical – gender norms and conventions are analysed, as are power dynamics between different genders. Meanwhile, different forms of feminism have different goals – e.g. some might want to eliminate gender while others wish for an increased range of gender categories. But none of this is transphobic and trying to sneak transphobic views in under the umbrella of being ‘gender critical’ is disingenuous and deeply harmful (much like how racists rebrand racism as ‘race realism’ as ContraPoints observes). These transphobic views are usually based on a binary, biological and essentialist understanding of gender – i.e. that there are two genders, male and female, which are determined by the chromosomes and reproductive organs we have.

Thus, ‘gender critical feminists’ view trans people through this binary and reductive lens. So, for many ‘GFCs’ trans women are actually men in women’s clothes worthy of criticism. These criticisms include wearing clothing that’s ‘too feminine’, thereby perpetuating patriarchal standards of femininity; or appearing too ‘masculine’ and thus failing to meet the rights standards of femininity. Trans women can’t win either way and find themselves on the receiving end of prejudice disguised as a critique of patriarchy. The simple truth is that no one has the right to police how someone else appears and/or dresses. Trans people deserve the right to self-expression just like everyone else and liberating any group of oppressed peoples liberates us all.

‘Gender critical feminists’ use terms such a ‘trans ideologues’ and ‘trans orthodoxy’ to imply their is a homogenous group of trans people trying to make everyone trans or threatening children or just waiting to get into women’s toilets to commit acts of violence against cis women. Thereby, an association grows between these deceptively simple terms such as ‘trans dogma’ and the broader stereotypes that are used to dehumanise and harm trans people. Remember when J. K. Rowling criticised the use of the term ‘people who menstruate’ in an article on Devex and said the word should be women. However, Rowling’s comments ignored trans men and non-binary people. So, an attempt to use more inclusive terminology was tarnished as an effort to repress cis women and was connected with this broader anti-trans narrative that trans people, especially trans women, are a threat to other women. However, no trans-inclusive feminism would expect a cis woman to stop calling herself a woman and the article even spoke of the “girls, women, and gender non-binary persons [who] menstruate”. Rowling’s implication that women were being erased was actually an act of transphobic scaremongering. Regardless of whether one strives for a world without gender or one of gender abundance, feminism entails the championing of all women and this, of course, includes cis women. The existence of trans people is not an assault on cis people. Trans identities are not a threat – the threat remains the huge amount of violence perpetrated in the name of patriarchy.

ContraPoints focuses on other ways that ‘gender critical feminists’ weaponise issues around male privilege, reproductive oppression, gender stereotypes and gender metaphysics to further entrench their transphobia. Ultimately, she notes that all transphobia stems from the same place – visceral disgust. This isn’t rational even though it’s ‘rationalised’ in all sorts of horrible ways. Just like homophobes are disgusted by the sight of two men kissing, for example, so transphobes are disgusted by the existence of trans women. Likewise, they may well be disgusted by the sight of a trans man or even angry that he’s ‘betrayed’ his ‘true’ gender, i.e. female. I would add that transphobia (and queerphobia in general) also stems from fear, e.g. a fear of cis men misapplied to trans women who are inaccurately seen as men; or even the fear of oneself (many straight men fear they may be somewhat attracted to other men and take this fear out on gay, bi and queer men). It’s a sad old story and the endless abuse of this disgust and fear is setting human rights back decades and causing untold harm to trans people around the world, as well as bolstering support for far more extremist and terrifying worldviews.

I realise in describing people as TERFs over and over again, as I have done in this post, it may seem like I am dehumanising them and reducing them to their prejudice. However, just as with the terms racist, sexist, homophobe and transphobe, I think it’s important to have terminology which makes visible people’s prejudices, so they can be held to account for them. I also think it’s important to resist and criticise efforts to rebrand prejudice to pass it off as something more acceptable. When it comes to TERFs and ‘gender critical feminists’ the end result is still the on-going verbal, legal and physical assault of trans people. And even if a TERF might decry the use of physical violence their views facilitate it. A further irony is that TERFs will decry the use of the term TERF as an offensive slur while continuing to misgender trans people and refusing to acknowledge their existence and humanity. Prejudice is the real problem here, not the term being used to describe someone’s prejudice. Imagine if someone said they were ‘race critical’ or ‘Judaism critical’ or ‘women critical’ – we would immediately know we’re dealing with prejudice and bigotry. The same is true for this transphobic brand of ‘gender critical feminism’.

Transphobia, Part 5 – Feminism

There is a common misconception that the existence of transgender people is a threat to feminism. Much transphobia is levelled at trans women, who are considered to be threats to cis women (not that a transphobic person would call themselves cisgender because they question the existence of transgender people, as outlined in my previous posts). We saw this form of transphobia come up a lot last year, most notably by J.K. Rowling. In response, many people defended the comments made, defensively proclaiming that someone like Rowling isn’t and can’t be transphobic. But. Transphobia is interwoven into the fabric of our society and its norms, and regularly appears in our actions and beliefs. And rather than defend and double down on our prejudices we can acknowledge, challenge and change them.

I believe the origin of this form of transphobia lies in the widespread belief that men are threatening and violent. This view is underpinned by the huge amount of violence perpetrated by men towards women. However, this is a concern regarding cisgender men, not transgender women. But because many people do not believe or fully believe in transgender people, it is assumed that transgender women are actually just men dressing up as women and are, therefore, devious and a threat to other people, especially women and children. This is why they shouldn’t be allowed to use women’s toilets or changing rooms and why something like the Gender Recognition Act (which allows people to legally change their gender) should be questioned – because cisgender men will use it to pretend to be women so they can continue to commit acts of violence. This belief – that transgender women are actually just men – is both inaccurate and prejudiced, as are the resulting beliefs it produces, not to mention the huge amount of pain and suffering these beliefs cause. The truth is that transgender women are women.

Unfortunately, many people do not believe this and continue to dehumanise trans women while scapegoating them for the violence of cisgender men. Furthermore, even if a cis man were to pretend to be a woman so he could enter an all-female space to commit violence that still says nothing about trans women (or trans people in general) but everything about this particular cisgender man’s violence. I find it genuinely heart breaking to see trans people demonised and dehumanised in this way (just as gay men were once and still are regularly called paedophiles and perverts to justify undermining their human rights). The existence of transgender people really shouldn’t be up for debate just as we don’t question whether bisexual people exist or black people or cis women. I believe it is possible to articulate a form of feminism that champions all women, including cis and trans, and protects the reproductive rights of all women. Broadening our conception of womanhood does not dilute it but diversifies and strengthens it. This isn’t about trying to limit any women’s rights or limiting her access to spaces and resources. This is about enshrining more rights and creating more spaces and providing more resources. It’s about recognising the Patriarchy Pie is inherently unjust and causes minorities and oppressed groups to fight one another, rather than make a new pie together. As someone assumed to be male, amongst other things, the patriarchy pie affords me many privileges. But rather than cash in on them and turn my back on others I say, bullshit! I want a better pie, that’s fairer and tastier, for everyone, and that absolutely includes trans people.

I make these comments as someone who was raised a cisgender man and who now identifies as genderqueer. I will absolutely not speak for women and whilst I wish for a world of equality I cannot force anyone to suddenly feel comfortable with change. There may well be discomfort on the road to change as assumptions we long held about gender are challenged and dislodged. But I believe the discomfort felt by cisgender people as they are made to question the gender binary is so much less than the discomfort and pain they create by being transphobic. The former, I believe, is necessary for positive change while the latter is totally unjustifiable and inhumane.

Federal judge allows transgender discrimination lawsuit against North Carolina officials and universities to proceed

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

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.

Will Elsa Ever Be Gay?

Elsa’s journey to lesbianism has been a long one. It began in the subtext of the first movie (I mean, the metaphor speaks pretty loudly and Let It Go did become an LGBTQ+ anthem) and became a rallying call in the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend dating back to 2016. Over the years those at Disney regularly alluded to Elsa’s possible homosexuality without ever  committing to it in what is a classic case of queer baiting as the fans did the imaginative labour (and spent their rainbow dollars) while Disney never had to come out for LGBT+ equality and representation. Then an unknown female figure was spotted in the sequel’s trailer and we’d finally been given a glimpse of Elsa’s future girlfriend! Alas not, as it’s now been made clear Elsa isn’t going to fall in love with a woman (or a person of any gender for that matter).

“Like the first movie,” said Kiristen Anderson-Lopez, the film’s songwriter, “Elsa is not just defined by a romantic interest. There are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. That’s not a story that we wanted to tell at this point in time. What we really wanted to tell was if you have these powers, how do you grow and change and find your place in the world and find answers that haven’t been found before?” And Anderson-Lopez is right, there are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. But there are zero Disney movies that allow a protagonist to be defined by their romantic interest in someone of the same gender.

Furthermore, being defined by a same-gender romance doesn’t mean a character has to be reduced to a stereotype or trope. In fact, given how Elsa’s society treated her for having ice powers it wouldn’t be surprising if they shunned and shamed her for being gay, thus traumatising her and forcing her on a lone quest for healing and self-empowerment. Being Elsa and being fab she would find resilience in the face of hostility and liberation in the face of ignorance and if along the way she found love then, my God, she would deserve it and the audience would celebrate it. To clarify, the problem with reducing LGBTQ+ characters to their romantic interest has nothing to do with LGBTQ+ people or characters but everything to do with the ignorance, prejudice and lack of creativity of the heterosexuals who contribute to oppressive cultures of heteronormativy and benefit from its privileges and violent policing of binaries. Tokenism and stereotyping are perpetrated by oppressors, not the oppressed. In the wrong hands Elsa would be reduced to a trope but in the right ones she would be shown for the multi-faceted and brilliant gay character she could be in the face of a world of hostile bigotry and callous indifference. But something tells me that the courage and bravery so prevalent in the hearts of all queer people who have to fight simply to exist is not to be found in the offices of the billion-dollar company that is Disney. I guess I should just let it go.