Monsters, metaphors and military chic: Saara Aalto on stage and the queer politics of kitsch

This post originally appeared at ESC Insight before the final of Eurovision 2018.

The only thing about this year’s first Eurovision semi-final that makes me happier than Saara Aalto qualifying with ‘Monsters’ is that part of the fun of watching the Grand Final with my girlfriend on Saturday will be seeing its high-camp demonstration of queer and lesbian kitsch.

Saara Aalto and the team behind ‘Monsters’ – including her fellow songwriters Joy Deb, Linnea Deb and Ki Fitzgerald, plus UK X Factor choreographer Brian Friedman – are tapping into what are now decades-long traditions of looks and images that queer stars and their audiences have built up together. Queer kitsch turns metaphors for LGBTQ people’s own experiences of marginalisation into riotous, transgressive and, yes, sexy performance and style; it deliberately blurs symbols of different genders together, and dresses bodies in exaggerated versions of powerful outfits that the majority straight world historically hasn’t given them the right to wear – often, in fact, it dresses them in symbols of the very institutions that have oppressed them in the name of the very nations where they have been told they don’t belong.

Most queer people – except the youngest and most fortunate – have grown up learning their queerness was something to be feared before they found out it could also be something to enjoy. Queer kitsch and drag tell stories of isolation and confusion, finding an identity and a community, and revelling in style that puts its hidden meanings about queer desire on show to onlookers who know the code.

Arguably the Eurovision Song Contest’s most iconic entries have reflected this very tradition back to queer viewers through the aesthetics of drag culture, like Conchita Wurst’s ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ and Dana International’s ‘Diva’, and lesbian camp, like Marija Šerifović’s ‘Molitva’. In performance, Conchita (a bearded drag queen played by a cisgender gay Austrian man), Dana International (a trans woman who built her pop career in Tel Aviv’s gay clubs), and Šerifović (whose masculine gender expression made many viewers see her as lesbian or queer even before she came out in 2013), all let queer viewers recognise metaphors for experiences of their own and identify with the character that their songs portray.

Straight viewers see a spectacle of what they think queer culture is, if enough of the references are ‘legible’ to them as queer, or see an uplifting song about triumph over adversity even if they don’t.

Saara Aalto, a lesbian pop diva who’s attending Eurovision with her fiancée Meri Sopanen (my happy sigh on seeing Saara and Meri beside each other in the green room, waiting for the Semi Final result, should probably have been audible from space), goes deep into the thematic wardrobe of queer kitsch.

Monsters themselves, as Lady Gaga reminded pop fans by casting herself as ‘Mother Monster’ to her audience of ‘Little Monsters’, are a powerful queer symbol. When society, school, church, media, and sometimes even family have told you you’re essentially a monster because of who you’re attracted to, how you’re attracted to them or how you want your body to reflect your gender, wouldn’t you want to take the image of the monster back and transform it into something that represents what you are… or join precisely that thrilling, scary community beyond the bounds of ‘normality’ that you’re supposed to be so scared of, and, as Saara puts it, make friends with all the creatures that are hiding there under your bed?

Monsters’ stepped up its aim at Gaga’s throne with a video, released in March, that put some of the queer English-speaking internet’s favourite tropes on show: Drag Race boas, pastel make-up, glitter beards, a Last Supper-style feast that wouldn’t have been out of place at this year’s Catholic-iconography-themed Met Gala, and a diva and her entourage strutting through a spooky palatial house with the same kind of swagger as ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’.

Since Eurovision preview videos are something made to be shown in every country that will broadcast the contest, viewers might even take a perverse pleasure in imagining how far it might annoy LGBTQ-phobic religious nationalists (who, whatever Eurovision fan geopolitics might sometimes suggest, certainly aren’t confined to Russia).

Queer kitsch inspired by the drag scene is Saara’s speciality, from her runner-up Finnish national final performance in 2016 to stepping naturally into UK X Factor’s diva slot in 2017, when producers matched her with ever more ambitious staging concepts that could each have graced Eurovision themselves (including a tantalisingly gothic ‘Let It Go, set in a forest of gargoyles when it wasn’t even Halloween).

Indeed, the X-Factor-sized expectations around Saara’s live show made ‘Monsters’ go into the semi-final shadowed by the ghosts of Silvia Night’s ‘Congratulations, the shock exit of 2006, and other high-concept diva crash-outs from Eurovision’s past.

Monsters’, competing for attention in the favourites division with Eleni Foureira’s Beyoncé-style fire magic and Elina Nechayeva’s opera vocals and projection dress, gambles its first minute on semi-darkness and Saara singing from a revolving board. It’s on the last line of the chorus, ‘I ain’t scared no more!’ when the lights go up, Saara hits the catwalk, and we meet her entourage of dancers – two men in glamorous eye make-up and two women with short blonde hair, all dressed in light grey outfits with fetish-style harnesses that look remarkably like uniform.

Like ‘Molitva’, this is choreography that rewards a viewer looking for detail – and especially a viewer who’s already used to picking up the signals of queer aesthetics, or what media scholars would call a ‘queer gaze’.

Histories of not being able to express attraction openly make the smallest gestures and glances speak volumes when you’re queer. Though men accompany Saara’s transitions across the stage (helping her down from the board, walking her along the catwalk, and catching her when she falls backwards and – well – lets it go), the real chemistry is between Saara and the women – never more than when Saara waggles her fingers at the woman with the slicked-back hair, who gazes invitingly round as Saara passes by.

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The viewer who’ll recognise herself most of all in that move has glanced like that at another woman herself, or felt a glance like that touch her own shoulder, or just longed to feel it from a woman she desires even if that makes her a monster in society’s eyes. We might even be telling ourselves enough of a story to notice that the woman with the tight blonde crop hardly gets a look-in with Saara by comparison – or read a sexual preference into the moment when the women dancers each push away a man.

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The dancers’ high black boots, long gloves and leather harnesses are the latest example of how queer fashion has brought fetish style and dominatrix chic into the mainstream (gay figure-skating star Adam Rippon wore a similar harness over his tuxedo to the Oscars this year). Military uniforms have long been inspirations for the interdependent scenes of BDSM culture and queer fashion as well, dating back to the 1970s and 80s when almost all countries banned LGBTQ people from serving in the military – so that, as far as straight and cis society was concerned, queer people would never be wearing uniform ‘for real’.

But what’s troubled some viewers – especially at a time when racist populism is gaining political power across Europe, including Finland where the far-right Finns Party joined government for the first time in 2017 (and a group of ex-Finns Party MPs are still there) – is that the military chic of Saara’s entourage looked uncomfortably close to something that should have no place at all being celebrated at Eurovision: the grey uniforms of the SS.

From a Finnish point of view, there’s an easy explanation for why the dancers might have been dressed in grey rather than olive-green or camouflage, which might have communicated the broad idea of ‘military’ more directly to an international audience: the Finnish army’s service uniforms, unusually, are grey. Green might have distracted from the black-and-white stage (Saara wears a black dress and the bone-like neckpiece from the ‘Monsters’ video); or maybe they didn’t even want it to look too obviously military after all.

The military, as a social institution that historically repressed queer people but also as an object of erotic fantasy, has long inspired queer fashion and drag. Among the performance categories that US queer and trans people of colour created through drag balls long before a wider, whiter audience encountered the ball scene’s language through the 1990 documentary ‘Paris Is Burning’ (or ‘Drag Race’ today) is ‘military realness’. For a contemporary pop star serving military realness, look no further than Rihanna, whose 2009 video ‘Hard’ (pun very much intended) dressed Rihanna with a ‘couture military’ outfit for what felt like every rank in the army, plus a few left over from ‘Mad Max’.

Rihanna, however, is a black woman who was born in the Caribbean and works in the USA. Queer military chic is much easier to read as potentially celebrating, rather than subverting, military and fascist aesthetics when it’s on the bodies of white performers – even more so if they match the Nordic and Aryan ideals of beauty that white supremacists still venerate today. Popular culture has contained an image of the Nazi dominatrix since the exploitation films of the 1970s, part of a trend that Susan Sontag criticised as ‘Fascinating Fascism’ at the time.

Queer photographers, film-makers and theorists have often tried to work through the overlap of homoerotic and fascist aesthetics in their art and writing, creating a context – for spectators who are part of that cultural community – that isn’t immediately present when transgressive and fetishistic queer kitsch goes mainstream. Understandably, for some viewers, a light grey uniform feels too close to reality to dress up: Europe’s 20th-century history collides awkwardly with queer kitsch’s playful treatment of military chic.

Indeed, the militaristic and fetish-inspired strand of queer style owes much to Finland in the first place. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the artist Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen) created drawings of super-muscled, hugely-endowed bikers, cops, soldiers, sailors, cowboys and other fantasy figures which became a sensation on the US gay scene. Dome Karukoski’s biopic ‘Tom of Finland’ retold Laaksonen’s story in 2017, setting it in the context of Laaksonen’s own sexual experiences and fantasies in Nazi-occupied Finland during the Second World War – and the homophobic violence the film shows him receiving from police who caught him having public sex.

The narrative of Finland’s own progress from state homophobia and a repressive society towards marriage equality – which doesn’t solve the other ways in which society marginalises LGBTQ people, especially queer and trans people of colour, but still changes the shape of what many queer people can expect their life stories and love stories to be – has been told at Eurovision before, when Krista Siegfrids used her 2013 song ‘Marry Me’ to campaign for Finnish MPs to allow a vote on a marriage equality bill and finished by kissing one of her women backing singers on stage.

Finland, ‘Monsters’ wants to show us again, is an open-minded, tolerant enough country for this to be the face that the nation shows Europe – and perhaps also the country that helped make some queer subcultures on both sides of the Atlantic want to dress up in uniforms and chains.

Indeed, the context of the Eurovision Song Contest asks viewers to join in the fun of interpreting performances and the people who perform them as representations of the whole nation they’re competing for, even when some of the people on stage aren’t usually part of that national community (a growing cadre of backing vocalists have worked with different national delegations over the years – and sometimes become Eurovision featured acts themselves, like the UK’s SuRie, part of the Belgian team in 2015 and 2017). The two men beside Saara, Yves Cueni and Kane Horn, are both London-based dancers and models who have danced for talent shows and divas’ pop concerts in the UK, Germany and Switzerland. On stage, they still help to tell a story about a queer-friendly and multicultural Finnish nation – the Finland, and the Europe, that many Eurovision viewers would like to imagine it could be.

Both the monster metaphor and queer transformations of military chic are potentially risky elements of queer aesthetics to put on stage for an audience that brings such diverse contexts to making sense of Eurovision. Yet even that tension probably resonates with many queer women’s lived experience of how they want to present themselves to the world and how the world sees them – certainly, I recognise it intimately enough that watching ‘Monsters’ makes me feel as if the creators behind it recognise it too.

It doesn’t make ‘Monsters’ any ‘more’ queer than other LGBTQ-themed entries at Eurovision because Saara is out and able to appear with her fiancée in the green room, preparing to exercise marriage rights that Krista Siegfrids used Eurovision to campaign for in 2013: but it might just be the one that feels most like my own history of what it’s been like to be queer.

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Writing at History Today and WWAC: monstrous regiments and monstrous women

Writing at History Today and WWAC: monstrous regiments and monstrous women

Two pieces I’ve published elsewhere recently:

This essay for the History Today website on the ‘cross-dressing soldier problem’, or how to talk about people in the past who dressed as men and went to war, while making space for the possibilities of trans lives:

Whether the stories come via a 17th-century ballad, a 19th-century newspaper or a 21st-century tablet, the public has been fascinated for centuries by tales of women who put on men’s clothes, take a male name and run away to join the army – or to go to sea…

Cis historians and journalists usually start from the assumption all these figures can only have been women, so the first paragraph puts it the same way as the headlines – but the rest goes on to show that:

The same sources that show us women who cross-dressed also offer us glimpses of how people who might have distanced themselves from womanhood over a longer period of time got by, how those who felt equally at home in more than one gender role accommodated that fluidity, and how people with intersex conditions coped with a society where their bodies did not belong.

Well done to the editor who gave this article (after the wonderful Discworld novel) the headline ‘Monstrous Regiment’. Good work.

I’ve also reviewed Allison O’Toole and M. Blankier’s collection Wayward Sisters: an Anthology of Monstrous Women for Women Write About Comics:

Most women already know how it feels to be made monstrous. If we can tell what most frightens a society from what form its monsters take and what they threaten, the very ideas governing what societies and people will be frightened of have stemmed from ideologies of gender in connection with race, age, sexuality, disability and the body. Folklore, myth and horror around the world provide bestiaries of monstrous women. Yet so, according to cultural imagination, does everyday life…

Yes, there’s a bit of a monsters theme here this month.

Story sale: ‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve sold a short story, ‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’, to Emma Bridges and Djibril al-Ayad’s collection Making Monsters: an Anthology of Classically Themed Speculative Fiction and Essays, due to be published in mid-2018.

Making Monsters is a mixed fiction, poetry and non-fiction volume published as a collaboration between the Institute of Classical Studies in London and the SFF magazine The Future Fire. Its 19 stories and poems are retellings and reimaginings of monsters from any of the world’s ancient mythologies. The full table of contents is due soon, but the call for submissions was particularly interested in traditions of female monsters and how their reimagined myths might intersect with other marginalisations such as race, queerness and disability.

‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’ takes on two sets of stories society tells about fearing women’s sight: the myth of Medusa, and the queer female gaze.

When her sight famously turns bodies to stone, who’d want to be looked at by Medusa? Perhaps someone who’s learned that her own sight makes her monstrous already…

Independent love song: how possibly the queerest ballad of the Nineties came from Hull

Independent love song: how possibly the queerest ballad of the Nineties came from Hull

Somewhere in between the intimidatingly unambiguous queerness of kd lang and the plausibly deniable maybe-just-feminism of Gala, the middle of the 1990s offered my sub-generation of queer women who didn’t yet have words for themselves Scarlet, a typically empowered, red-lipsticked female duo whose videos wanted you to think they came from New York but who actually turned out to come from Hull.

Next to The Housemartins, The Beautiful South, The Spiders From Mars, Throbbing Gristle, The Watersons and Everything But The Girl – and Calum Scott as well now, I suppose – Scarlet wouldn’t even rate the top five in most lists of Hull bands. Even Google, which today’s algorithmic panic would suggest ought to know that if there’s any chance I’m looking up queer subtext from the Nineties then I probably am, brings their Wikipedia page in two places below a bus company from County Durham and a local news article about a wave of scarlet fever that’s been going round.

In the winter of 1994 and 1995, though, their first and biggest hit ‘Independent Love Song’ was possibly the purest example of a song that had something, everything to do with me, maybe so much to do with me I quietly let myself forget how much when I started hammering together the identity full of excuses I was about to try to live inside.

Neither of the women in Scarlet looked like me, or like the images of what I might want to become that I used to gaze towards and measure myself against. Together and apart, they still signalled aesthetics I could already read as ‘liberated’ but wasn’t yet ready to parse as queer, with the video’s main setting (a Manhattan intersection blocked, as Manhattan intersections in the 1990s apparently so often were, by the band playing piano) continually seguing into close-ups in old-Hollywood soft focus. Jo, the brunette, had the high-fringed bob and pinstripe outfit of a Romaine Brooks portrait, looking as if she’s about ten or fifteen years on from selling a pair of gloves to a woman called Carol. Cheryl, the Eighties-Nineties blonde, wore the frock-coats and ruffled shirts that were still just about too fashionable for me to realise that some of the women who made them into their image were doing so to signal something else.

‘Independent Love Song’ could just have been about women more interested in their vocations than their marriages, if you heard it that way. It could have been about getting and staying off the relationship escalator, about serial monogamy, or polyamory. It would have worked as asexual affirmation, to anyone who already knew asexuality could be affirmed. Its matter-of-fact inclusion of bisexuality as part of its woman-centred queerness seems more organic now than anything similar I heard for years (this, in a song you’d hear on shop stereos while you were buying pic-and-mix in Woolworths or toiletries in Boots). But its video (where Cupid and some cherubs in leather flying helmets are capering along Broadway, transfixing couples on the brink of longing with the courage to hook up) turns out to be, with the incision of hindsight,

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very,

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very,

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queer.

It sounded like something I was going to want when I was ready, with nothing even forbidden or threatening or dangerous about it. It must have sounded so normal and ordinary that, when I started persuading myself a few months later that I didn’t want to be with other women only look like some of them, the invitation to identify with a requited romance which had never even been held out to me before on terms I wanted had already started to fade back away.

‘Independent Love Song”s #12 in the UK charts was Scarlet’s only ever time in the Top 20. The follow-up, hastily clarifying the terms of their vision of liberation as ‘I Wanna Be Free (To Be With Him)‘, made #21 later that spring, and their record label dropped them after their next singles missed the Top 40 and their second album Chemistry (the first had been Naked) also failed to chart.

Their place on pop radio playlists would be taken by the sultrier Texas and the quirkier Alisha’s Attic, a band whose name has somehow lodged itself inextricably beside a certain London burrito chain in my brain, so that every time I walk past I wonder if Alisha’s attic is where Benito left his hat.

Scarlet’s first and only real hit didn’t reveal most of what it could have told me until I heard it fourteen or fifteen years later, meeting my sister in a Bournemouth pub with a video jukebox that served random songs from its library on to the big screen when the football wasn’t on. Almost the moment I’d walked in to look for her, I’d realised ‘Think Twice‘ had been playing (which nobody needed to have heard me talk about as much as I’d made my sister listen to, when I was twelve or thirteen), just too late to be able to wait for it to finish and come back in again. Whatever layer of cortex in my brain turns image into myth is still convinced, if you really poke it, either that she’d rigged the jukebox to do that as I came in or that it had recognised what to pull out from my memory to make most mischief on its own. (All the best jukeboxes have a little bit of magic, and some of the ones I like to imagine have a lot.) Next up, or so my re-sensitised mind remembered, Scarlet.

‘”I’m doing it a different way,”‘ I’m sure I said out loud, with fifteen years’ more practice of hearing queerness coiled inside a labyrinth of lyrics that invite you in, once you’ve started to understand the labyrinth isn’t always a lair. ‘”I’m doing it a different way?“‘

‘Go down… and I’ll show you how to touch me?’ they went on. Though actually, it wasn’t even a love song where women had to be doing that in order to still be doing it a different way, and still as much of a valid one as well – and that must have been one of its most radically independent resonances at a time when any lesbian representation I did see suggested I’d have to become much more enthusiastic about sex than I expected I was ever going to be, or I’d never be a lesbian at all.

Over the last two and a half years, working on the queer contemporary fantasy novel I’m querying agents with now (where queer women are discovering how to manipulate video technology and use their identifications with pop and film stars, mythological figures or any heroes in between to charge their magic, in a story that begins in the 1990s), I’ve sifted through my own queer ideograms as well, very occasionally conceding I’d have to lend them one of mine. ‘Independent Love Song’ didn’t even register then: perhaps because the mood I need for my female duos in the 1990s is dysfunctional, or otherwise where would conflict happen? (Shakespear’s Sister, on the other hand, let’s talk: especially with Siobhan Fahey at their last ever performance with that holly crown.)

But also – I’m thinking today because chatting on Twitter about a song by Dubstar reminded me that Sarah Blackwood from Dubstar hadn’t come from Hull like I thought, but Scarlet had, and wasn’t there something about that one song of theirs…? – I wonder if what I used to hear in ‘Independent Love Song’ was so far ahead of what I spent my mid-teens trying to understand, that subconsciously it doesn’t even make sense for me to have heard it.

When Scarlet sang about a love that could still be big and that strong, even though they were doing it a different way, I wasn’t hearing what I wanted to be like when I was with someone; I was hearing what I wanted being with someone to be like.

And eventually, many more stories later, I’d be able to hear one and tell one that was right.

Reviewing at Strange Horizons and Women Write About Comics

I’ve started reviewing for Strange Horizons and Women Write About Comics recently, so here are my first regular reviews for both (I had a couple of guest posts at WWAC last year about the compelling queer resonances of the National Theatre’s genderflipped Malvolia in Twelfth Night, and – as Jodie Whittaker became the first woman to play the Doctor – why so many women want a TARDIS full of coats).

Reviewing Jeff Noon’s A Man of Shadows at Strange Horizons:

Dayzone and Nocturna are metropoles of underhand business and alternative religion that sometimes resemble a blazing or pitch-dark Viriconium, sometimes call to mind China Miéville’s juxtaposition of two cities separated in the same geographical space by an impassable, conceptual Breach. Dayzone sizzles and whirrs with chronologists’ guilds, cults worshipping every solar deity from Apollo to the holy trinity of earthed electrical wire, and sprawling markets and red-light districts blurring “the artistic and the sexually bizarre” (p. 46). Its contrast with Nocturna might occasionally echo pseudo-Habsburg Beszel and Levantine Ul Qoma, the co-located cities made invisible to each other’s inhabitants that frustrate the detective protagonist of Miéville’s The City and The City—a novel that set the philosophical pace for what the genre might expect diametrically opposed cities to reveal about the society that has been divided between them, or the society that uses them to imagine a truth about itself.

And yet the history of Dayzone and Nocturna is as hard to view as both cities’ physical sun…

A Compendium of Resistance: Comics for Choice Fights for Reproductive Justice‘, reviewing Hazel Newlevant, Whit Thomas and Ø K Fox’s anthology Comics for Choice: Illustrated Abortion Stories, History and Politics at Women Write About Comics:

Newlevant’s editor’s note explains the editorial team wanted to produce a book that would “educate readers about many facets of the history of abortion in America, the incredible diversity of reasons people choose it, and what we can do to protect this crucial right.” Many of its rawest comics are the narratives of women and non-binary people who chose to have abortions, clinic escorts, abortion doulas, and reproductive rights advocates, illustrated in simple but evocative storytelling styles.

At the same time, Comics for Choice provides a history of the reproductive justice movement in the US that powerfully accentuates the intergenerational memory of its more intimate stories…

A little bit more about a personal project

I’ve mentioned this briefly on here before, so here’s more about the main creative project I’ve been working on recently: a queer mythic fantasy novel which I’ll be starting to query soon after a year of revising, a year and some more of drafting, and much of my life wishing someone would write a book like this, until I realised that I was going to have to. And I could.

The Month of the Tanist follows the rivalry of two genderqueer lesbian magicians in 1990s and 2000s London, struggling to keep control of a magic based on moving images, myth and stardom out of the hands of the British establishment – and each other.

Over two decades, as they discover how to master this rising magic and inspire others to work it, they’ll charge their identifications with archetypal male heroes through the ever-rising power of video and digital technology, the glamour of celebrity culture, and ancient magical laws of re-enactment. They’ll strive to remake traditions they were never supposed to belong to – or just break them apart – until one of them is offered an otherworldly alliance with a counterpart who could be her double, her lover, her adversary, or all three, and the other has every reason to want to bring her down.

As the technopagan Nineties and the shock-and-awe 2000s move into a decade of new identities and solidarities, and Britain’s bastions of wealth and imperial militarism are just as quick to keep up with the times, both women must overcome an age-old legend of duelling, doubling and replacement – the legend of the hero and the perfectly-matched heir or ‘tanist’ destined to confront him – in order to prevent a war across worlds that some of their closest allies would be all too keen to bring about.

Or, put another way: 1990s/2000s Strange/Norrell, with lesbians. Some of whom like wearing the same coats.

*

Two things drove me to write this novel rather than just keep imagining what form it could take: the characters whose stories I wanted to tell, when I’d almost never seen queer women and their lives at the centre of a narrative like this, and the world I wanted to create around them, where the intimacies of how we want to be seen and who we want to recognise us could be a literal as well as metaphorical magic.

When I started writing Tanist, I knew I wanted to turn the socially panoramic lens and epic sweep of historical fiction towards the culture and politics of the very recent past, which even for someone who grew up in the 1990s already feels like history.

Often, that sense of wonder comes from how fast our everyday technology has changed – and queer people, who find out so much about themselves through media that show us what we want to become before we can even name it, know particularly well that we take abilities and devices for granted today which, thirty years ago, would have felt magical.

But these have also been years when the monarchy, the military and the aristocracy – institutions of power that date back centuries and wrap themselves in tradition – have mastered turning popular culture and digital media to their own ideological ends… while they started offering queer white people, including queer white women, more space to identify with their projects of nationalism and militarism than most of us would have imagined either, thirty years ago.

The fusion of mythology, celebrity and nationhood around iconic broadcasts like the death of Diana or equally the beginning of the London Olympics isn’t too far away from some of the strategies these characters discover to amplify their own magic faster than other people’s: creating star personas or inspiring dangerous rituals of resemblance, binding ancient and modern myths to themselves and each other as performers by assembling iconic looks or manipulating light, in a city of paparazzi witches, gentrifying cabals, intergenerational found families and planeswalking magic-mirror engineers.

Of course, if the main thing anyone knows how to do with magic is cast illusions, that leaves magic in a similar position to any other creative art: in a class system like Britain’s, access to the knowledge and opportunities and networks that give people the most chance to master it isn’t going to be distributed equally, but an underground can still break through and change the boundaries of what people believe it’s possible to create… whether or not that challenges the oppressive structures around them at all.

One irresistible image I’ve carried over from my work, meanwhile, is the way academics often talk about the ‘enchantments‘ of ideologies like nationalism and militarism, which work by enticing people into complicity. Speculative fiction makes metaphors material – and, moreover, the landscapes of English mythical tradition are the very landscapes of modern British military power, like Stonehenge standing high among the Cold-War-turned-Afghan training ranges of Salisbury Plain. For most of these characters, the land is the other side’s wealth and inspiration, and a military learning to equip itself with English magic isn’t something to honour but something to oppose.

Any fantasy novel set in London is set in the capital of the empire that broke the world – and this is a book that challenges its London magicians to acknowledge that history.

The myth of rivalry I’ve organised the novel around comes from a name Robert Graves gave (or rather, over-familiarly borrowed from the history of Gaelic kingship) to the mythological trope of the hero whose companion and counterpart, the ‘tanist’, is destined to kill and replace him at the turn of the year. ‘T is the spear-month, the month of the tanist’ in the half-alphabet, half-calendar that Graves made up: the month where the successor has taken his rival’s place. Graves made the hero and his tanist rivals for the love of his own imaginary goddess, in the course of making overly merry with practically every cycle of myths he could get his hands on; anyone who enjoys queering up texts that were already full of sublimated queerness in the first place knows it gets even more interesting once you take out the third wheel.

Can we have a story where women’s desiring gazes can mean power not danger, and where one of the doubled pair doesn’t have to kill the other like they always do?

If we can, maybe we can have one where a glance or a touch can be as fateful as a duel, where the strongest alliances turn out to be forged through solidarity across diversity, where we can break out of the myths that have trapped us and reimagine the ones that showed us what we wanted to become?

I was overdue one. You might be as well.

But it’s up to two very flawed women to find a way for it not to play out the way the myths around them always said it had to do.

The action figure and the stable boy: The Last Jedi and the ethics of playing war

The action figure and the stable boy: The Last Jedi and the ethics of playing war

The most important thing I ever needed to know about archetypal storytelling, I learned by accident off sick from school, playing Lord of the Rings with Star Wars toys.

Before Lord of the Rings became mass transmedia entertainment, growing up with it as early childhood mythology meant having a parent prepared to read it to you (with the voices) or replaying the BBC radio adaptation. I had both.

I didn’t have the toys – which would only have been made for the collectors’ market then, and which we couldn’t have afforded to buy new in any case – but what I did have were the Star Wars action figures, handed down by cousins almost exactly ten years older than my sister and me, who had adored the films when they went to see them at the turn of the Seventies and Eighties.

Passed down to us were all the main characters plus a reasonable selection of troopers and footsoldiers from this planet or that, but not – despite auntly negotiations – the Millennium Falcon, which the younger of my cousins had still wanted to keep.

I had no idea about Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey or comparative mythology when I doled out Lord of the Rings parts to Star Wars characters so that I could play out the story I knew back to front with the approximate personifications I had in front of me. Luke with a cape on could be Frodo (it made him look more like a hobbit). Luke without a cape was Legolas. An Ewok could be Gimli. Leia could easily represent Eowyn and Arwen and Galadriel, benefiting from how few scenes in Tolkien passed the Bechdel Test and how seldom I’d ever have to stage a conversation between two women; Han made a decent Aragorn; while Obi-Wan had to be Elrond and Saruman as well as Gandalf (one of the few times in any universe it would have been useful to have Qui-Gon Jinn). Darth Vader was the Lord of the Nazgul, but then, wasn’t he always? I wish I could remember what I used for Sam: I think it might have been R2-D2.

I mean, Frodo and Luke are both naive country boys who come of age crossing the known world to fight the Dark Lord in his volcanic fortress with the help of a seasoned commander and a mystic guardian of ancient knowledge and a doughty friend, even if one of them has a doughty friend who says beep boop

Millions of people have memories of playing with Star Wars action figures (and probably a fair few of them had arguments over who kept the Millennium Falcon, too) as a very early part of the trilogy-turned-universe soaking into their imagination, which is what makes the very last scene of The Last Jedi a new kind of moment for the franchise: one that directly references what its stories have meant outside its universe to show them having the same effect on people inside.

The Last Jedi, as many reviewers have already written, is more than a film about a small band of warrior-monks and daredevil pilots out to save the world (spoilers, naturally, from here on): just as often, it’s a story where the glorious hero’s way might win the battle but take the cause further from victory. This classic path of heroism is, of course, a gendered script, which only white male protagonists have traditionally been allowed to embody (while Hollywood convention expects every other viewer to sand away their differences in order to identify with him).

Dan Hassler-Forest writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books that The Last Jedi ‘not only … question[s] and even challenge[s] its own legacy, but it also accepts responsibility for a cultural phenomenon that is itself part of a frighteningly powerful media empire’ – one that was already lending its name to real-world, government-backed fantasies of space warfare under Reagan, and that cultivates fascination with its compelling villains by knowingly giving new cultural life to the aesthetics of the Third Reich.

If the franchise can transcend the ‘latent fascism’ embedded in its inspirations, he suggests, it has to recreate its ethic of heroism around an utterly different philosophical and social grounding, which The Last Jedi more than any other Star Wars story starts to do:

The initial conflict between the increasingly aggrieved Poe Dameron and the women in leadership positions who surround him is echoed throughout The Last Jedi’s many plot strands: again and again, we see male characters’ self-centered and violent heroic ambitions challenged and corrected by female voices redirecting the narrative, always in the first place by refusing to glamorize death.

Its theme of setting the past alight feels quite unambiguously steered towards renewal and regeneration, rather than the cult of conflagration that inspired early Fascism (which isn’t to say some fans won’t still create a counter-reading that sides with Kylo over Rey; while the much-praised diversity of those voices redirecting the narrative still has some way to go, notably in the films’ failure to imagine any high-profile black women, or to do anything more than hint that characters might be queer).

All this purpose is embodied, Arkady Martine writes, in the image as much as the storyline of Vice-Admiral Holdo, Leia’s second-in-command. Poe Dameron, the nearest thing to an air-ace protagonist, is the voice of much of the audience when he spots Holdo’s loosely-draped clothes and pastel hair and comments, ‘Not what I expected.’ Nor many of us: and when she demotes Poe for taking a disastrous risk in battle or kicks over a smokestack to start a counter-mutiny, neither do we expect the narrative to come down on her side.

It’s no coincidence that Rose Tico, whose presence as ‘a fully-formed hero’ has given Asian women what Olivia Truffaut-Wong hails as a groundbreakingly non-exoticised identification point in this sequence of modern mythology, gets the line that seems to define the film’s intentions: ‘That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.’

To save what we love, Star Wars and other long-running franchises have started to realise, global audiences and fans from marginalised backgrounds need to be able to enjoy them and internalise them as much as the middle-American white everyman. And that doesn’t only mean apparently ‘diverse’ stories where the hero could be swapped out for a white guy called Chris and nothing much would change; it means stories that need to be told differently because of the diversity of what their tellers and characters know.

The end of The Last Jedi, where a stable-boy on the casino planet of Canto Bight uses a handmade action figure of Luke Skywalker to retell how Luke’s last stand against the First Order helped the Resistance escape certain doom, reflects many viewers’ own mythology of Star Wars back to them.

We’re much less used to it in Star Wars than in Doctor Who, where practically every series since the reboot has given us a child or young person who looks up to the Doctor much as the show knows its own fans do. These children, sold or indentured to the stables of Canto Bight where cruel overseers work the planet’s majestic fathiers to exhaustion as entertainment for the gambling arms-traders of the galaxy, belong to the same downtrodden class as Finn or Rose.

Earlier in the film, visiting Canto Bight and encountering the elites who get rich from selling arms to the First Order and the Resistance has been the occasion for Rose to remind the audience of the structures of oppression and destruction that sustain galactic (and earthly) warfare, and that provide stories of battlefield adventure with their stage: Rose’s home planet, Hays Minor, is a child conscription zone and weapons-testing ground for the First Order, hinting (much more obliquely than Thor: Ragnarok, the work of Māori director Taika Waititi) at neocolonial parallels on Earth.

Reminding the audience of their own games with Star Wars action figures – the first time they were moved to tell a story about galactic heroes turning the tide against the odds, via the mythos that George Lucas had mapped out for them – in the very place where the film has staged its structural critique ties the emotion of nostalgia for childhood fandom and the inexorability of the hero’s journey together with a broader, deeper politics of resistance: inspiring hope that we can work together to defeat oppression, and giving us a shared script for the struggle, is what these myths are for.

Indeed, The Last Jedi‘s director, Rian Johnson, wove his own memories of playing with Star Wars toys into his decision to end the film by opening out towards what the new mythology of the Resistance will mean to the rest of the galaxy:

the fact that the kids are retelling his story, the fact that they’re being inspired by it, the fact that they’re playing with these toys that inspired me when I was a little kid playing with them, to want to grow up and have an adventure and be… I don’t know, it all ties directly back into why Luke Skywalker inspired me growing up.

The opening of the scene, with its close-up on the children’s action figure, binds viewers’ memories too into the film’s revived mythology.

Yet the contradictions of Star Wars toys enabling children to create their own imaginative universe at the same time as they make billions for multinational corporations and, feminist International Relations scholars like Cynthia Enloe argue, naturalise the ideas that make war more likely are not lost on Johnson:

It’s easy to be cynical about merchandising and toys… I can’t be, really, because when I was a kid I was playing with those toys. I was creating stories with those toys, in that world. Those toys […] that Millennium Falcon, my action figures, it was what I was using to transport myself, to tell stories that were meaningful for me and helping me through childhood.

And look, the whole Canto Bight thing itself is the notion that people are just making money off this war. I feel like it’s explicitly kind of said. But for me, I don’t know. I guess I’m so close to it and I know personally what they meant to me in such an uncynical way when I was being able to let my imagination loose in these places, and that so much is why I wanted to make this movie in the first place.

The problem the Star Wars universe has exemplified, and which The Last Jedi finally contends with, is perhaps no less than the ethics of imaginative play through war – where who gets to be the hero, and what actions will be remembered as heroic, matter as much as, and have become part of, what the Resistance say they’re fighting for.