Endless knot/tangled web – my Middle English final paper

The evolution of a paper. I really enjoyed this research, and am considering doing more work in Arthurian stories.

This paper begins four years ago in English 302, in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of male homosociality, which exists on a “continuum between homosocial and homosexual” (2435). It takes root in various Women’s Studies classes, with the exciting prospect of uncovering queer readings and recovering feminine histories. The first green leaves of this paper, the first iteration of the thesis, is that the female homosociality of Dame Tryamour and Gwenore in Sir Launfal and Morgan le Fay and Guinevere in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is both a queer presence within the texts and an indication of the anxiety and tension between hegemonic Christianity and the paganism represented by the fairy women. This homosociality exists, said the original thesis, and it is as conflict-driven and violent as the homosociality that Sedgwick articulates for men. It was a reach towards collapsing the gender binary, recognizing women’s power and violence, and recognizing the potential for women’s queerness in restrictive Christian social contexts. It was founded on the idea that Christian conceptions of gender must necessarily be heterosexual and heteronormative, and that reading queerness into the text – a queerness that is dependant on the heteronorm – would be a form of resistance to the contemporary norm, and would contribute to a history of feminist scholarship that uncovers queer histories and exposes the ways in which patriarchy is always already undermining itself.

But this paper, an analysis of these texts, cannot flourish in the homo/hetero binary that the original thesis was planted in, because as James Schultz points out, “the heterosexual norm… clamps down on the present and… colonizes the past” (20). Both Schultz and Karma Lochrie argue convincingly that “[t]he heteronormativity of modern scholarship ends up creating its own modern categories where they did not exist before… flattening the gender dynamics of medieval sexualities” (Lochrie xvi). This paper, then, becomes an effort at decolonizing my own scholarship, at freeing my thesis from the contemporary constructions of sexuality that battened it down into intelligible, articulable binaries.[i] It shifts, and in the shifting comes back to Louise O. Fradenburg, and the productive scholarly practice of recognizing and accepting the “undecidability” of a text. My thesis tracks along both an ‘endless knotte’ of contemporary binaries and a tangled web of complexities and undecidabilities.

[i] Although Schultz and Lochrie have convinced me that an uncritical, unintentional projection of contemporary categories of identity into medieval texts is problematic, I am not convinced that an intentionally anachronistic reading doesn’t have a place in contemporary scholarship. For example, although “bisexuality” is not a category that would hold any meaning for a medieval poet, and reading bisexuality into Sir Gawain and the Green Knight would perform exactly the “colonizing” that Schultz warns again, a bisexual reading of Gawain and Bertilak could have multiple positive outcomes for both queer and medieval scholarship. We read these texts within our own time, and the ability to see ourselves represented – even if the original author may never have conceived of our identities – is invaluable. But that’s a different paper!

And here is the paper I actually wrote:

Continue reading

Concussion, Buffy, Charmed, Earthseed and Adventure Time

We’re most of the way through January, and I’ll be honest… this year is kicking my ass. Fibromyalgia, depression, and now the cold that won’t quit – I’m wiped. My Year of Self-Care is suffering. But! My Year of Curated Media is proceeding apace.

So what am I consuming?

Mostly, Buffy. This is, I think, my sixth time through the series and I’m watching it through a much more intersectionally feminist lens. Buffy meets my criteria because of its well-rounded, nuanced, respectful representations of women, and its inclusion of queer characters. Also, the episodes written by Jane Espenson tend to be my favourites, so it occasionally meets the creator criterion as well.

Here are three topics I’d like to eventually research or blog about so far (we’re halfway through Season Three):

  • Kendra, Jenny Calendar and race representations. Kent Ono has an excellent chapter on the topic of race, with a detailed analysis of Kendra’s treatment on the show. Regarding Jenny Calendar, wtf is up with the frequent use of “g*psy” – even in the 90s, that language was not okay (even Entertainment Weekly knew that!).
  •  Xander, and the hatred I bear him. I have disliked Xander since the first time I watched the series (I ship Buffy/Angel hard) and every time I watch again, my distaste for him grows. This is the first time that I’ve really noticed all of the myriad microaggressions that he directs towards the women in his life. He is forever expressing his feelings of entitlement to their bodies and time, and he has a serious case of Nice Guy. He expects (and gets!) praise for not date raping Buffy when his love spell goes wrong, and that just sums him up, right there. Gross.
  • Rape culture in the Buffyverse. Lady T over at Bitch Flicks comments on quite a few of the instances of rape culture represented in the first two seasons here. (And you should be reading her blog and articles – SO GOOD!) My biggest issue related to rape culture, the one I keep coming back to over and over again as I watch, is that the show makes it so easy to gloss over the fact that sexualized violence is what we’re watching. It’s very normalized within the Buffyverse. I find the fact that Buffy regularly confronts and overcomes rape culture awesome, but I find the fact that we do not see it named or commented on very disconcerting. In Go Fish, particularly, I wanted her friends to say something about the fact that she was, again, the victim of an attempted sexual assault in the car, and that it was completely disgusting that the coach then blamed it on her outfit. But they don’t. It’s just glossed over as part of the normal violence of the environment, and that bugs me. I’m still working my way through my thoughts on why and what I want them to do differently, but it’s a big one. Name it. Name it! Showing it, it seems to me, is not enough. (And I do recognize that showing it is a long step beyond most television shows, so I’m asking for “above and beyond”… but I’m okay with that.)

I’ve also been watching Charmed, because when I posted about rape culture in Buffy on Facebook, someone recommended it as another show that regularly shows rape culture and women resisting/evading/overcoming it. I’m not nearly as enamoured of Charmed as I am of Buffy, but I am enjoying it. It meets my criteria because of the representations of women, and because the creator is a woman.

The topics that keep coming up for me (most of the way through Season One):

  • Race, again.
  • Sex-positivity! I really appreciate that the sisters are all sexually active, and all fine with that. Sex is a normal part of their lives, with partners who are one-night-stands, long-term boyfriends, etc. It’s refreshing.
  • Class. This is a pet peeve of mine, but I really want to see a variety of classes represented in my media. I know that money makes things run more smoothly, but it gets fucking boring seeing only upper middle class folks (straight, cisgender, white upper middle class folks, mostly) in my media. Come on. One thing that I love about Buffy is that the Scoobies do eventually represent a variety of class positions. Listening to Phoebe talk about how broke she is so often, despite the clothes, the “manor,” etc…. it drives me a bit bonkers.

And, finally, to round out my televisioning, I’m watching Adventure Time, finally. It’s SO GOOD! I love it. How does it meet my criteria? That’s tricky, because it’s created by a white guy and the main characters are voiced by white guys, but it does meet my criteria because of the way it challenges, regularly, hegemonic norms. Finn casually referencing that he doesn’t know the gender of a creature, or LSP’s ability to be read as trans*… there are so many moments of subverting expectations. I love it. The Adventure Time Analyzed tumblr talks about some of the ways that the show challenges expectations.

In other media, I’m listening to an unabridged audiobook of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the first of her Earthseed books. It is amazing. And fucking depressing. But mostly amazing. I love Lauren, the young Black woman at the centre of the story – she kicks so much ass. I’m having trouble making it through the book, though, because it truly is terrifying and depressing. A near-future speculative fiction book, it’s set in California after complete economic collapse. It’s believable, and I hope it’s not prophetic.

I’m also listening to Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, which is another near-future speculative fiction, centring on an autistic man and his community. I am loving it so far.

And last, but not least, I watched Concussion. That’s what I actually came here to write about.

Autostraddle says that Concussion is a Watch Now movie and I heartily agree. Feminist Spectator also gave it a thumbs up, and She Wired also approves. I learned my lesson and am reading way more reviews before jumping in to a movie, and it helps when a film meets so many criteria right off the bat – about women, starring women, who are interested in women, written by a woman, directed by a woman… it might have sucked, but it was unlikely to have failed as spectacularly as Anchorman 2.

So, Concussion. Immediately after watching it, I had pages and pages of thoughts about it. I also came down with a nasty cold/flu/abomination and didn’t write any of them down. So we’ll just see how much I remember. Spoilers ahead.

First, the fact that Abby and Kate are a married couple is introduced as secondary to the fact that Abby (a stay-at-home-mom at the beginning of the film) is fallible and human. She yells at her kids, she’s angry, she’s frustrated… as someone who has watched my friends and family parent, and who sees the incredible pressure that parents are under to be (or to be seen to be) calm, caring, compassionate, collected at all times, Abby’s initial outburst was just so refreshing. It is possible to be a good parent and to also yell at your kids. (I say this as someone who is not, and will never be, a parent. But also as someone who loves the parents in my life. So, grain of salt, etc.)

That she is a married lesbian was also refreshing and welcome, and there was no drama around their orientation. No issues of skeptical doctors, homophobic friends… the whole environment of the film was beautifully accepting of (cisgender) queer identities. I love this because so often the response to critiquing homophobia in films is “but that’s reality” and that response makes me want to scream. It’s as though there is an expectation that in order to tell the stories of marginalized communities, you must focus on the ways in which they are marginalized because that’s the only “real” thing about them. And that’s bullshit. Yes, homophobia happens. Yes, a film that addressed or included homophobia would be true to (parts of) reality. NO, that is not the only way to tell stories about queer characters! Concussion does a fantastic job of telling a story about queer characters – a conflict-filled, tense, complex story! – without it being about their struggles as queer characters. It’s just about them as characters. Ahhhh… fresh air.

And when it comes to the queerness represented, here is something else beautiful and refreshing about Concussion – Abby is a lesbian. She’s a “men? god, no” lesbian. She doesn’t want to have sex with men, or even penetrative sex with a strap-on, and that’s awesome. AND there are bisexuals in the film. Bisexual women. Coexisting with lesbian women. No big deal. ‘Cause queer women come in a variety of flavours, and both lesbian and bisexual are a-okay.

Let me tell you how thrilled I was when one of Abby’s older clients talked about her husband, and it wasn’t in order to demonstrate how much she wished she’d married a woman. I was SO THRILLED. It is rare to see multiple queernesses given equal legitimacy in a film. (All of these queernesses are cisgender, to be clear, and most of them are white. The film does not represent all the queer women, only some of them. There are no queer trans women, for example. And there are no queer women of colour who get more than a few moments of screen time.)

Did I say client up there? Yes, yes I did. Because Abby becomes a sex worker.

And it’s okay.

And she’s not shamed for it, or ashamed of it. (!!!!)

And she’s safe! We see her multiple times at the doctor, talking about her work and getting tested. She goes to the STI clinic, and it’s okay! She’s not punished with an STI. She’s not shamed by her doctor. Nobody pressures her to go get tested. She’s a responsible, sexually active adult and sex worker, and that’s just the way it is. Again, no big deal. This is amazing! (Okay, I know, hyperbole all of the place here. But I really did love this movie.)

Her sex work isn’t perfect. Kate doesn’t know about it, and that’s not cool – she should have the opportunity to consent to her involvement. But perfection is not the goal here, respectful representations are, and this film definitely meets that requirement far more than many other films that include sex work. Concussion has been compared to Belle de Jour, for example, and like the blogger at Autostraddle I completely disagree because of the level power between Abby, The Girl and her clients. Nobody is being coerced, manipulated, or lied to (except Kate, as I mentioned).

Kate, though, introduces another aspect of sexuality that is rarely seen in films. Kate can be read as asexual, particularly when she tells Abby that she “doesn’t want anyone.” Asexuality is so invisible, even more than other non-monosexualities, and although the film doesn’t give it more than this one line, it is at least present. It’s impossible to know whether this is a shift for Kate, or a result of external factors, but it’s there. 

Similarly, consensual non-monogamy gets two brief nods – first, when Abby asks Justin if he and his girlfriend are still “swingers,” and again when The Girl asks whether it’s “gross” that Justin slept with her friend, and Abby replies that she is “learning that it depends.” These are small gestures towards the existence of consensual non-monogamy, and they are somewhat countered by Abby’s inability or unwillingness to understand why one of her clients would be seeing her despite having a husband who is “passionate” about her. She doesn’t seem able to recognize that her client might want sex outside of a sexually fulfilling and passionate marriage. This, though, seems to speak more to Abby’s own feelings about her own marriage and her reasons for pursuing sex outside of it, and less to the films own views of monogamy in general.

There are multiple sex workers in the film and they are almost all treated well. The Girl, Abby’s madame, is a student hoping to get into law school and she respects Abby’s boundaries and treats her with respect. The second sex worker that Abby sees (before she becomes a sex worker herself) is also treated well by the film.

The film also treats the clients with compassion, which I loved. Abby starts as a client, and Abby’s own clients are each unique and sympathetic. The shy virgin whose mom is pressuring her to lose weight, the older, sexually dissatisfied married woman, the bored housewife – each of the clients is presented as a complete person rather than a caricature or criminal.

Even Justin and The Girl, who each act as liasons between clients and sex workers, are treated with compassion and humanity. I wonder whether a film that includes heterosexual sex work would be as willing to treat all of the people involved in the transactions so well, but the fact that Justin maintains his likability and isn’t reduced to the stereotype of a pimp gives me hope. (He does, though, become concerned about Abby’s sex work and is the only one in the film who comes close to moralizing at her to stop, despite the hypocrisy of this.)

However, the first sex worker that Abby sees is described (by Abby) as “dirty” and she’s a much more stereotyped representation of a sex worker. She’s on drugs, the room they meet in in dingy, and where Abby seems to approach sex work as a vocation and a form of self-expression, the first sex worker seems to be doing a job. This is a problematic binary to set up, where the only acceptable sex work is sex work that is art, rather than sex work that is work. It also points to my biggest problem with the film, which was the representation of class position.

The film is about upper class women. Abby becomes a high-price, high-class sex worker. Kate makes a lot of money. Abby’s clients pay her a lot of money. Money, money, money. The only character in the film who does not have visible wealth is described as “dirty.” That’s not okay.

In the end, it’s unclear whether Abby goes back to sex work, finds an extramarital affair, or stays celibate in her marriage. She is still with Kate, and the film ends on a melancholy note that is open to interpretation. I loved it.

A Year of Curated Media, and Anchorman 2

It’s 2014, and although I no longer do resolutions, I am still a big fan of the “new year, new projects” thing. I have two major projects this year: the first is an extension of my Year of Self-Care, which will be blogged, when I blog it, over at Fibro Files; the second is a year of curated media consumption.

When I posted a facebook status about this second project, Lynn Comella (and let me just take a moment to squee over this) suggested that I post my reviews of this year’s content, so, since Lynn Comella (who is an amazing feminist porn scholar) told me to do it, I’m doin’ it. In this blog, since it’s related to my academic interests.

This project was the result of three simultaneous realizations/events.

The first was that near the end of 2013, I got very tired of all the straight white men in my media. Straight white men writing my books. Straight white men directing, producing and starring in television shows, movies, and everything else. I have always casually sought out diverse media, but always as an add-on to the default media all around me. I never seriously considered how lacking in diversity most of what I was watching and reading really was. Very white. Very, very white. Slightly less so but still very masculine. And slightly less than that but still very straight.

This fits with what I’ve found as I dive/drop further into issues of social justice – the issues that are most personally relatable are the ones that get attention first. So for years now I have pulled in more queer media, because my queer identity is the one closest to my sense of myself a person. Then more gender-diverse media. Then, and only then, more racial diversity since the whiteness on screen didn’t previously jar me – it’s the same thing I see in the mirror. Now that I’ve seen the whiteness, though, I can’t unsee it and it is overwhelming.

Second, Ender’s Game came out near the end of 2013, and that was a critical moment for me. The book was formative when I was young – the Ender saga was read and reread, recommended to my friends, discussed and pondered and analyzed and loved. But Orson Scott Card believes and actively supports some things that are just anathema to who I am and who I want to be in the world. I can’t support him. I won’t support him. (Even if, as Scalzi suggests, my refusal to buy a movie ticket has no impact at all on Card’s profits.) It became much more important to me to think about where my money was going, even if that wouldn’t have an impact on the creator. It has an impact on me, and on how I chose to interact with the world around me. That seems like enough for now.

Finally, near the end of 2013 I listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stunning Half Of A Yellow Sun. It was beautiful (and beautifully narrated) and I listened to Adichie’s various talks on YouTube and realized that I really, really wanted to support her and writers like her. Not just casually happening across their work, but actively seeking it out. I want more than a single story.

This all came together and it seemed like time to start actively curating the media I consume. I am going to put my money and my time into media that fits my feminism.

Now, “feminism” is a wibbly-wobbly identifier. My feminism attempts to be pleasure-positive (meaning that I maintain a strong focus on issues of consent, autonomy, self-determination and collaboration), trans*-inclusive, anti-colonial, anti-racist, pro-PoC, pro-sex worker, and socialist. What that means, practically, is that the “feminism” is just one piece of an anti-oppressive ideology that I’m slowly constructing for myself. It would be counter to my feminism to limit myself to media that only addresses gender issues, or that is only self-identified as feminist. Because of that, and because I want to set the bar low enough that I can actually see this project through the year, I am only asking that my media meet one of the following categories:

  •  that it features well-rounded and respectful representations of people of colour
  •  that it is created by a person of colour
  •  that it features well-rounded and respectful representations of women
  •  that it is created by a woman
  •  that it features well-rounded and respectful representations of at least one member of the QUILTBAG*
  •  that it is created by a member of the QUILTBAG
  •  that it features issues of sex worker’s rights, sexual autonomy, consent, safer sex practice, or sex ed

AND

  • that it does not harmfully misrepresent the above groups or actively contribute to harmful stereotypes about the above groups

That’s really not that much. I’m *hoping* I can find a majority of media that meets multiple criteria, but that’s not this year’s project. This year, it just has to meet one. I’m even flexible on “created by” and will take any single significant creative role – director, writer, etc. (And, I will be completely honest, I’m also giving myself a couple passes. One pass will be used on the second Hobbit movie, for example. The point of this project is not that straight white men can’t make fantastic media about straight white men, it’s just that I’m tired of that being the vast majority of available media.)

I’m relying fairly heavily on reviews, and when I read this review, I was optimistic! And this review also gave me hope. So yesterday I went on a date to see Anchorman 2. An hour in, I walked out. I can’t give a full review of the movie, since I only saw half, but this is why I left the theatre (which I rarely do – I’m not much of a walker-outter).

I enjoyed Anchorman, despite my skepticism going into it. My partner assured me it was “not as bad” as I feared, so one night last year we curled up and watched. I enjoyed it! It was offensive, but it seemed intentional and satirical, and I enjoyed the final message of women’s workplace empowerment. At the very least, I didn’t hate it.

Anchorman 2, though, started to lose me almost immediately. There were things that bothered me because I don’t like seeing them represented, even though the scene appeared to be satirical - Veronica allowing herself to be sniffed and petted by a network exec in order to get a job, for example. I would have stayed in a movie full of these scenes, just like the first Anchorman was, because I do think that satire can be such a powerful tool. Making people squirm because they recognize how inappropriate common behaviours are can be a strong motivator for change. I don’t often choose to watch that kind of humour because it does make me uncomfortable (particularly when it’s created by someone in a privileged group rather than someone in a marginalized group – punching sideways rather than punching up), but I can still see the value.

And then there were scenes that bothered me because they were nothing more than humour at the expense of marginalized groups. I was starting to get angry already – Champ’s extreme racism seemed one part satire and three parts an excuse to make the jokes we’re no longer allowed to make – when Ron’s transphobic rant happened. There are no trans* characters or performers in Anchorman 2, there is no counter to the transphobia on display. Whereas Veronica proves herself competent in the news room so the sniffing and petting is clearly stupid, there is never any pushback against the transphobic (and whorephobic, and classist) rants. I almost left at that point, and I almost wish I had. But I stayed.

When Linda first shows up on screen, Ron’s response – repeating the word “black” over and over again because it’s the only thing he can say – seemed like a highlight, because it was obviously ridiculous, other characters in the scene were horrified by it, and Linda held her own. Satire. Awesome!

But Linda, set up in that scene as a tough-as-nails, ball-busting, strong woman (problematic in itself, given the unrealistic expectations we have of Black women), is immediately disempowered. Ron and the news team come up with their own format for the show, run with it without consulting her, are a huge success, and she is, in addition to being humiliated in front of her boss, apparently overcome with lust at, I don’t know, finally having been shown her place? It’s weird and gross and completely lacking in context. And it’s the reason I walked out. Or at least, it leads to it. First, she corners him in her office and proceeds to make animal noises at him and demand that he “bark like a puppy.” How upsetting was it to watch a Black woman perform aggressive animalistic sexuality on screen while people laugh at her? A lot. It was a lot upsetting. It was disgusting.

And then… and then!… Ron Burgundy goes back to the news team and says he thinks he’s been raped.

And I walked out.

Fuck. That. Noise.

What works in a movie like this is when a character believes something bigoted and the story around them reveals the belief to be false. What does not work is when the story itself believes something bigoted. When the story itself believes that trans women are not women, or that Black women are dangerous, aggressive, hypersexualized animals, or that “rape” is something you can joke about.

When the story itself believes something awful, the story is awful.

I wanted to like Anchorman 2. I was excited about seeing racism and sexism challenged in a movie that will appeal to straight white men who might not be watching a whole lot of other overlapping media with me this year. But while the misogyny directed against Veronica was challenged in the film, the misogynoir directed against Linda was not. And the transmisogyny was not. And the racism was not nearly enough. And that’s just not good enough.

I’m not willing to say that Veronica is enough to give the movie a “well-rounded woman character,” but even if she was, the misogynoir and transmisogyny would disqualify it. (Disqualifiers will be harder to catch going in to media – I suspect those will have to be analyzed in my reviews after watching or reading something, unless I’m lucky enough to find a review like this AutoStraddle critique of Dallas Buyers Club.) Anchorman 2 definitely isn’t worth a pass, and I wish I hadn’t spent the money on it.

So, there we go! One of my two major projects for 2014. I’ll try to blog as many reviews as I can.

* Queer, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans*, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay

Cultural appropriation of food, questions

This was posted on my facebook wall, and is shared here with permission (thanks Joe and Linda!) and I’d like some help answering. Feel free to comment!

“TL;DR – Cultural Appropriation of food.
Hey Tiffany! Linda and I were talking this morning about cultural appropriation as she was wondering where it intersects with cultural foods. A Korean market and Japanese market have opened near to where we live so has helped instigate these thoughts. We couldn’t quite figure out all the nuances and I know posting on your wall often creates the liveliest of debates. Here are some things I was considering:

1) Cultural food is big-commerce in the western world (and anywhere people immigrate, it seems). Many immigrants and even Settler Canadians (thanks for the term, Tiffany) have opened restaurants to serve their cultural foods. However, this trend is arguably helped by challenges to find job or careers in old (white) boys clubs and other high-paying careers that are tied with power in the community. So is eating at these establishments helping those immigrants be successful in a unbalanced system OR is it needlessly supporting that unbalanced system, or both?

2) In the same vein, it may certainly be cultural appropriation if I went to a Japanese restaurant owned and operated by people who are not Japanese. I often favour Japanese owned establishments, but usually the choice is framed as the food will be better, or more authentic, if the owners are Japanese. Either way, it’s rare that I take time to really get to know the owners which might make frequenting the establishments more acceptable as being part of a larger community.

3) Then there is the whole food bastardizations (like Ginger Beef) which are Westernization of cultural food made more “appealing” to the Western palate. And walking that line are the ‘fusion’ cuisines that one could argue is paying homage or taking inspiration from international cuisines, but still irks me when, say, Wendy’s or Earl’s has a Thai chicken wrap.

4) On a more personal level, there is home cooking. Linda and I like to try our hand as making sushi at home. We do it because we like sushi and we tend to buy sushi-grade fish from Asian markets. It doesn’t feel problematic – but being privileged white people, perhaps we can’t see it.

Overall, I see it as a complex issue but I don’t see much discussion about it. I wonder if its due to food we eat not often being considered a social statement? Also, North American culture has access through immigration and shipping networks to such a wide variety of foods and it’s often painted as a great thing and I don’t recall seeing it framed as one of the huge privileges that our society enjoys.

When I try to think of ways to make a similar case like Halloween style cultural appropriation, I imagine the scenario where someone makes culturally significant foods (foods used in cultural rituals). And even worse if they served them at their Western wedding or birthday party. I see that as the worst case, but there is so much grey between that and having a rice course with dinner.

I would love to hear some thoughts on this, especially from people with immigrant relatives who might be closer to this then myself as a third generation Canadian mutt of various European descent and no particular ties to a culture outside of Canadian.”

Wrestling with words

I am running into a significant linguistic issue around sex and gender in the rewrite of my honours thesis (which is being turned into a book chapter). My supervisor/coauthor and I have different perspectives on where the focus of the paper should be, and we need to bridge them. This writing is my first attempt to grapple with the language, to figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it, and to try to understand how to bridge between our perspectives to make the paper as strong as possible.

***

In writing about feminist queer pornography, it is necessary to bridge what can be an ideological divide between feminist politics (centring on an understanding and analysis sexed and gendered oppression) and queer politics (centring on a rejection of biological essentialism and the gender binary). These two focuses are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to recognize the binaristic lens of hegemonic culture, and the way that deviation from a norm of “male, cisgender, masculine, heterosexual, white, able-bodied” is othered and marginalized, while still rejecting the gender binary and the hegemonic norm.

It seems necessary, in a feminist analysis, to talk about “women” and about power differentials related to the Euroamerican binary understanding of gender and the way that this understanding impacts even non-binary individuals. For example, although Jiz Lee is not a “woman,” their genital morphology means that viewers tend to read them as “female” and “woman.” It is necessary to address this fact, to expose the lens that binaristic hegemony views pornography through, without erasing the reality of non-binary sex and gender.

It seems, to me, that Courtney Trouble bridges this (potential) gap in Nostalgia by casting the film with individuals who are all designated-female-at-birth, but who are not all women. Or rather, perhaps, that she opens a door for scholars to bridge this gap in their analysis of her film. Through her casting, she is able to create a film that explicitly and materially displaces the biological cock as the centre or focus or active member[i] of the pornographic scene. It is only through this displacement of the phallus that Trouble is able to go into a nuanced examination of the potential to displace climax and orgasm itself within the pornographic scene.

Removing the biological cock entirely from the pornographic scene leaves some clear and relevant gaps, such as the question of where trans women fit within feminist queer pornographies and whether there is space for cisgender men in queer feminist pornographies. (It is relevant that Trouble has answered these questions and filled these gaps in other films, such as “trans grrrls” and her work with Ned Mayhem and other cisgender men.)

Removing the biological cock also presents the viewer with a film that can be inaccurately read as being about “women’s sexual pleasure.” The fact that only one form of genital morphology is presented leaves the film vulnerable to readings that fall into the trap of the sex-gender-orientation continuum that Shiri Eisner articulates (whereby sex is assumed to determine gender, and gender is assumed to determine orientation – from Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution). However, the film rejects this essentialist reading by using technology in the form of strap-ons to complicate gender performance, and by including multiple genderqueer performers, most notably Jiz Lee.

Finding language with which to discuss the film presents a challenge. Discussing the film in terms of “women’s sexual pleasure” erases the genderqueer identities of those performers who are designated-female-at-birth but who are not women. Discussing the film as being about “trans* sexual pleasure” similarly erases the identities of the cisgender women performers. The term “gynocentric” is transmisogynist and enforces gendered language around genitalia that Jiz Lee has explicitly rejected (referring to their genitals as their “hole” and not a “vagina”). Gynocentric also has a historical connotation that excludes trans women, non-binary individuals, and cisgender men.

We are left, therefore, in a challenging linguistic space.

So my question is, how do we talk about sex and gender in a way that recognizes the structure within which hegemony forces bodies into rigid roles, while also recognizing the inaccuracy of this structure and the harm it causes to people who do not fit within these roles.

Whether we recognize the identity of the person on screen, their identity remains a real part of the performance. When Jiz Lee is read as a “woman,” they do not become a woman.

Similarly, when they are read as white, they do not become white. In a parallel linguistic minefield, my co-author and I are attempting to address racial issues in Nostalgia, where the film is open to a reading that is “white” if viewers are not aware of the racial identities of some of the performers.

The fact that we read bodies through these hegemonic lenses, assuming that we know gender based on secondary sex characteristics or genital morphology, assuming that we know race based on skin tone – this is not a problem that the individual whose identity is being overwritten needs to correct. It is not incumbent on Jiz Lee to visibly perform genderqueerness in order to be genderqueer. To demand this of people who deviate from the norm would be to further marginalize them. Rather, part of the feminist queer project undertaken in Nostalgia is to highlight the assumptions being made and then to subvert them.

Nostalgia may be read as a film about “women’s pleasure” but it is not.

It may be read as a “white” film but it is not.

I need language that recognizes these facts, but also acknowledges and addresses the fact (and I do believe it to be a fact) that hegemonic lenses are the norm, that viewers will read this film as both a “women’s” film and a “white” film. I need this language to challenge this norm, so that the chapter cannot be easily read with these lenses on. It seems like a nearly impossible task, and I am not sure that I’m up to it.


[i] I’m so punny.

Speakers Corner Calgary: Abortion Debate

I participated in the Speakers Corner Calgary “Abortion: Whose Human Right?” debate yesterday. This is the text of the speech that I gave.

***

I am pro-choice. By this, I mean that I strongly believe in free, legal, safe and easily-accessible abortions. I believe they should be available on demand to anyone who makes the choice to have one.

Not only cisgender women, whose gender expression is in alignment with the sex they were assigned at birth, but also anyone with a uterus, including trans men, non-binary individuals such as myself, and some intersex people are impacted by reproductive politics. We have an obligation to trust individuals to make the best decisions for their own bodies. And we have an obligation to treat individuals with uteruses with at least as much respect for bodily-autonomy as we would a corpse – meaning that we cannot demand that having a uterus obligates a person to donate their body to sustain another’s life. We do not make these demands even of our own dead – how cruel, hypocritical and unjust would we be to demand this of our living?

I am also a pleasure-positive feminist activist. Consent is at the foundation of my politics – I believe that consent must be given for anything that happens to our bodies, and I believe that consent can be withdrawn at any time. Consenting to kiss is not the same as consenting to sex, consenting to sex is not the same as consenting to be pregnant, and consenting to be pregnant is not the same as consenting to remain pregnant.

I believe our right to bodily autonomy includes the right to engage in whatever brings pleasure to the consenting adults involved. I believe that sex – the right to engage in it and the right to choose not to engage in it – is a fundamental right.

In order to create a consent-focused culture, we need to reduce the stigma attached to sex and sexuality.

We need to reduce the shame surrounding frank conversations about sexuality, and the violence and harm that results from that shame.

There are points on which I will never be able to find common ground with anti-choice rhetoric.

I believe that personhood begins at birth, and I recognize that the two sides of this debate will likely never see eye-to-eye on that question.

I also believe that individuals should not be shamed for seeking an abortion, no matter what their reasons for wanting an abortion are. Abortion as birth control is often held up as the inevitable result of free access to abortions, and some people would use it that way. I have no problem with that. People have elective surgeries all the time, and what they do with their bodies is up to them. Consent. Bodily-autonomy.

However, because I think that there are many more points on which common ground can be found, I want to focus on the potential bridges between seemingly insurmountable differences.

First, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to want fewer unwanted pregnancies. For me, this is because as much as I believe an individual has the right to choose not to carry a child to term, I also believe that for many people it would be preferable to just not have to deal with it in the first place.

There are ways for us to work together to make that happen.

Comprehensive sexual education that is both queer and trans*-inclusive, free and easy access to a variety of effective contraception options, a concerted effort to stop rape and intimate partner violence – these are issues that we can work on together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and the need for abortions in those instances.[i]

A study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology in October 2012 found that free, reliable birth control could prevent between 41 and 71 percent of abortions in the United States.[ii] The scientists found that access plus education was even more effective in reducing abortion rates than they had anticipated.

Current access to birth control, including more effective options such as IUDs and hormonal birth control, is often inaccessible to individuals who do not have medical coverage or financial privilege. Even less effective barrier methods are not always accessible, especially not for individuals who don’t know about organizations like the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, or some of the Alberta Health Services initiatives.

Further, our sexual education is woefully lacking. Not only do we not teach about consent and creating a culture of consent, many educational programs are cissexist and heteronormative, presenting a single definition of sex and gender that leaves many individuals unaware of their potential for pleasure AND for risk.

We need to recognize that trans* folks, binary and non-binary, have sex! We need to recognize that queer folks have sex, sometimes with people of multiple genders. We need to recognize that asexuality is real, and that our discussions of pleasure-positive politics must include asexual individuals, both those who do not have sex, and those on the asexual spectrum who engage in consensual sex with their partners. All of these things are real, all of them happen, all of them have the potential to result in unwanted pregnancies and a lack of awareness and education for these groups is incredibly harmful.

This is the most important way that our two sides can work together to reach a common goal of fewer unwanted pregnancies. By increasing education, increasing access to effective contraception, and reducing rape, we can put our efforts into work that will be effective for meeting both of our goals.

Second, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to care for children. Though we disagree about when a fetus becomes a person, people on both sides claim to care for children.

When abortions become inaccessible, children suffer. Evidence of this is painfully obvious. In Romania, both abortion and contraception were banned in 1967, by the 70s and 80s the number of children in state-run care facilities was over 100 thousand. In one such institution, the mortality rate of the children was over 50%.[iii]

People who seek abortions either do not want, or cannot keep or care for the child they are carrying (many people who seek abortions already have children, and do just fine with them). There are a thousand thousand reasons a person might want or need an abortion, and the only one who can judge that reason is the individual themselves. However, regardless of the reason for wanting an abortion, the result of being forced to give birth with adequate access to resources is not good for either the parent or the child.

We can work together by working to reduce poverty, to increase access to education, health-care and social services, and making sure that the children who are currently in the world are given a real life.

Third, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to care for the individuals who might seek abortions. My colleagues on the other side of this debate talk about the harm caused to an individual who has an abortion – primarily the emotional harm.

I want to talk about the harm the results from illegal abortions.

First, a simple fact – abortions will happen.

Abortions have been happening since pre-history, and they continue to happen even in countries where there are severe legal repurcussions.

So the question is not WILL abortions happen – the question is, HOW will abortions happen?

Legal abortions are among the safest medical procedures available. Complications from having a first trimester abortion are significantly less frequent and less serious than those associated with giving birth.[iv]

On the other hand, illegal abortions are extremely unsafe.

In countries where abortions are illegal, abortion is a leading cause of maternal death. And according to a 2005 World Health Organization report, over 68,000 women die each year, worldwide, from unsafe abortions.[v]

In El Salvador, for example, abortion is illegal and the laws are strictly enforced. A report by the Centre for Reproductive Rights found that “clothes hangers, iron bars, high doses of contraceptives, fertilizers, gastritis remedies, soapy water and caustic agents such as car battery acid” were used in clandestine abortions.[vi] There are individuals serving up to 30 years in jail for having an abortion, and these are the tools that they are using. So when I say that abortions will happen, I mean that abortions WILL happen.

And this is an issue that disproportionately impacts poor individuals. In El Salvador, wealthy individuals retain the “right to choose” because they can fly to locations where abortion is legal and accessible. But among the poor, this is not an option.

It’s easy to look at this and entertain the racist thought that we do better here in Canada. Yet it was not that long ago that Canadian women faced the same class and wealth-stratified access to abortions. And in Texas, where abortion clinics are being forced to close, there is increased risk for individuals who have to seek out illegal and unsafe street drugs sold as abortificants.[vii]

When we simply and uncritically vilify individuals who seek abortions, we do harm on multiple levels. We over-simplify an issue that is incredibly complex. The people who seek abortions are many and varied. They include parents who know they do not have the resources to care for another child, teenagers who know they are not ready for parenthood, victims of rape and intimate partner violence, individuals for whom a pregnancy would cause health risks, including mental, emotional, physical or financial well-being – some of the stories of abortion are heart-wrenching and emotional.

One of the people I admire most in the world had an abortion, and the story of how they came to their choice makes me so proud to know them – the amount of thought and care that went into the choice, the deliberation, the intention with which they chose to abort their pregnancy – these stories deserve to be told.

Other stories also deserve to be told. People who do not need to deliberate because it’s not a big deal for them – their abortions are just as valid and their stories just as real. People who use abortion as birth control, people who have five or fifteen abortions. Regardless of how a person chooses what happens inside their own body, that choice is theirs. It is their right to consent to whether they share their body with a fetus, or whether they choose not to.

This, then, seems like a point on which we cannot find common ground and yet I think that is unnecessarily gloomy. Because there are things we can do to increase the health and well-being of individuals who have uteruses. We can increase their access to social services and reduce poverty and class divisions so that more individuals who want to carry their pregnancy to term have the resources to do so. We can increase access to social services after birth, such as child support, so that pregnancies are less likely to drastically reduce an individual’s success in their job and their ability to support themselves. We can increase education and access to safe, effective contraception so that, again, there fewer unwanted pregnancies.

Even here, where it seems like an unbridgeable gap exists, there are ways that we can work together towards a common goal.

Finally, I want to talk about the language that we use when we talk about abortion.

Often we talk about abortion as a “woman’s” issue. It is not. As I mentioned earlier, trans men, some non-binary individuals and some intersex individuals also have uteruses and also require control over their reproductive lives. But also, and importantly – not all women have uteruses, or are reproductive. Trans women do not have uteruses and are women. Cisgender women who have had hysterectomies or gone through menopause or are infertile are still women.

The way that we talk about abortion is important. Often the discussion reduces women to their ability to bear children, and excludes from the conversation any women for whom that is not an issue.

How we define sex, and who we see as relevant has impact beyond the people who need abortions. Our discussions of abortion impact our perception of the full humanity and bodily autonomy and integrity of people who have uteruses. These discussions impact how we talk about sex, and whether we view it as a human right or something shameful. This debate impacts our thinking about rape and rape culture, and consent. Especially consent. If we begin to argue that consent is not relevant for people who have uteruses, that consent is not on-going, that we cannot change our minds and stop giving consent – think about the repercussions of that line of thought. Reproductive freedom, consent and bodily autonomy, comprehensive sexual education, the full humanity and bodily integrity of people on all points of the sex and gender spectrum – these things are not trivial and they are not, in my opinion, up for debate.

World Mental Health Day

Content warning for discussion of depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality.

I’m sitting in Vendome, one of my favourite cafès in Calgary. I just sent out the writing prompt to my Patchwork writers, posted it on the Facebook page, shared it on my personal Facebook, tweeted it, posted it on the Writing in the Margins blog. Most of the time I respond to writing prompts privately, in a longhand journal. If I share the writing later (which I rarely do, outside of workshops where I read my just-written work with the group), I type it up and polish it a bit.

But the prompt today is to write about mental health.

And I am a mental health advocate. So I am typing this response directly into my “add new post” screen, and I am going to hit “publish” when I’m finished, and then I’m going to share it on my other blogs so that it will be up on Writing in the Margins, and Fibro Files, and Sex Texts. And then I’ll post a link to it on Facebook and on all of my Twitter accounts, and here’s why -

At 13, I went through my first serious depression. I did not know what was happening to me. (If you suspect that you may be going through a depression or other mental health concern, here is a free screening tool. It’s not perfect, and symptoms are not so cut-and-dried for many people – it is a place to start, but not a final word.)

Suddenly everything was awful. There was a pain in my body/brain/heart/soul. I cried a lot. I self-harmed. I scratched my neck and shoulders and hips and belly until I was cross-hatched, red and scabbing. I smashed my head into walls, sometimes until I was dizzy. I didn’t know who to talk to. The only person who knew I was self-harming, the only person I confided in, was my 9 year old sister. It was terrible for both of us, a weight far too heavy for her small shoulders (or my own).

Writing about this time, I feel my chest tighten and my breath shorten, the muscles in my neck knot up – these are the first physical manifestations of anxiety in my body and I am aware enough now, at 32, to recognize them for what they are. I take a deep breath, roll my shoulders, take a sip of water, continue.

In high school, at around 16 or 17, I went through a second (or perhaps just a worsening of my ongoing) depression. This was complicated by the arrival of Sadisty – a very angry, very vicious voice in my head. I do not seem to have a split or multiple personality disorder – Sadisty was just (“just”) my mind’s way of externalizing the intense self-loathing that I was experiencing. Though I feel a deep shame about what feels, to me, like one of the lowest points in my mental health journey, I am also amazed and grateful for whatever it was in me that did choose to externalize rather than internalize those feelings. Sadisty wanted me to die, and I had many moments of suicidality, but I didn’t want me to die. I put all of that negativity into Sadisty, to get it out of my own head, to make those nasty comments come in a voice that wasn’t my own.

I am lucky to have survived high school, to have survived Sadisty and that second/ongoing depression.

(Breathe again, breathe again.)

At 18, I started volunteering at the Calgary Humane Society. I adopted a dog, my soul mate. Tasha. She had separation anxiety and dog-dog aggression. She was anxious, fearful, aggressive. Helping her helped me. Things got better. Sadisty was gone, and she has never come back.

I got married, I got divorced.

My mental health stayed at a consistently low-grade level of self-loathing. Low self-esteem. An at-that-time undiagnosed anxiety disorder. The impact of early trauma, unacknowledged anxiety and low self-esteem on my sex drive led me to believe I was “sexually dysfunctional” (a whole other thing, related but tangential to this post).

(Breathe, breathe. Roll shoulders, stretch wrists, refill water. In my body right now – tightness, tension. Shame, anxiety, fear.)

After my divorce, I went through a third severe depression. Again, I was self-harming. Again, I was suicidal.

I was 28.

I was ashamed.

I felt foolish – this was supposed to be done, part of the horror of adolescence. How could it follow me into adulthood? How could it threaten to destroy the new life I was trying to build for myself? How could I?! Shame, anxiety, self-loathing – there was a toxic mix of emotions and beliefs at play. Fortunately, I was seeing a counsellor and had her support, and the support of my anchor partner. I had started seeing a counsellor when I was trying to get past the sexual dysfunction, and continued seeing her through my divorce and into the depression that followed it. I still see her, and will continue to do so. I recognize now that my neurodivergence is not something I will ever “overcome” – it is part of who I am. It has taught me invaluable lessons, and has helped me become the advocate that I am. At 32, I recognize the value that this neurodivergence has brought to my life.

But at 28, I climbed halfway over my 28th floor balcony, intending to make strawberry jam on the pavement below.

After that, my counsellor helped me come up with an emergency plan.

I made the painful call to my sister, my mom, my dad.

I said, “I am currently depressed. Sometimes I feel suicidal. I am calling to ask if you would be willing to be part of my emergency plan. What that would mean is that if I call and tell you that I am feeling suicidal, you will be available to come and be with me, or take me to the hospital if necessary.”

I had to euthanize Tasha.

My mom was hit by a truck, she almost died.

I experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. The depression got worse. The self-harming escalated.

My best friend stopped taking my calls. Months later, she told me that it had just gotten to be too much – there was something wrong every time we spoke.

Depression, anxiety, other mental health concerns… they can be like bombs, decimating at the point of impact, shrapnel flying everywhere. Relationships can be crippled or destroyed. Partnerships suffer. The ripple effects of a mental health issue can make the isolation and loneliness, the shame and fear and pain so much worse. Among the conversations that we do not have regarding mental health, this conversation about self-care for caregivers, and balancing the various and sometimes conflicting needs for support is both absent and necessary. It is possible to remain friends with a depressed person, but because we do not ever have this conversation, many people don’t know how. (Sabrina Morgan wrote an excellent post about how to help a depressed person, and it’s a good place to start.)

I came out of that depression.

I became an activist.

I developed an amazing, diverse, wide-ranging social circle.

I learned new coping skills. I breathe more intentionally now. I pay attention to tension in my body. I rarely allow an anxiety attack to escalate to the point where I feel the urge to self-harm. I use lip balm and apply it when I start to feel anxious – I pay attention to the feel, the smell, the taste. I take supplements and get exercise. I see my counsellor every other week, more frequently when things get bad.

I am 32 now.

I am currently depressed.

I wake up in the morning and I feel sad. I feel hopeless. I feel discouraged.

I haven’t reconciled with the addition of fibromyalgia to my life. I miss my dad. I miss my dogs. I am financially unstable, and frustrated by my ongoing mental health concerns. I am crippled by anxiety on a regular basis.

But I have help. And I have a purpose. I believe that my weakness is one of my superpowers, that my willingness to speak openly about my struggles is part of my activism.

So I am depressed.

I am waiting for it to be over (for now).

I use all my new coping skills. I lean on my friends, as much as I can allow myself, and I breathe. I stretch. I take my supplements and drink my water and have epsom salt baths to help with the physical pain.

It is World Mental Health Day.

And this is my mental health story.