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…

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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.

We all need trans books: why kids don’t ‘change gender’ because a teddy in a picture book told them to

We all need trans books: why kids don’t ‘change gender’ because a teddy in a picture book told them to

The latest nonsense that young trans people and the adults supporting them are having to deal with, in what’s been a relentless cascade of scary articles and interviews in UK media about trans awareness and gender therapy for under-18s, comes courtesy of the Sunday Times, and the fight it’s decided to pick with a pleasant young teddy bear named Tilly.

Cover of 'Introducing Teddy' by Jessica Walton

Tilly, the hero of Jessica Walton and Dougal MacPherson’s picture book Introducing Teddy: a Story about Being Yourself, has something important she needs to tell her human, Errol: she isn’t the boy teddy called Thomas he always thought she was.

Also in the sights of the Sunday Times‘s article on ‘fears’ that books which ‘focus on characters that believe they are the wrong gender… may be damaging’ are Sarah Savage and Fox Fisher’s book Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?, about a child called Tiny who doesn’t want to say whether they’re either, and the organisation Educate and Celebrate, which helps UK primary schools teach age-appropriate activities about gender identity.

Tweet by Fox Fisher

This isn’t just a worrying example of attacks on trans awareness for young people framed as concerns for children’s welfare, though it is that too; it’s missing the point about what books about trans themes and characters do for the children who read them, whether they’re trans or not.

Fisher describes Are You A Boy or Are You a Girl? as ‘a book I wish I had existed when I was growing up’, and they wouldn’t be the only one to think so.

What the Sunday Times misunderstands – and what other people worried about trans education in schools choose to misunderstand or have never had the opportunity to understand otherwise – is that reading about a trans character, and finding out trans people exist, won’t turn a child trans unless something in their experience already makes them think they might be. Children don’t suddenly reinterpret their entire lives just because a teddy in a picture book tells them to.

But if a child has already felt like that character, yet literally never had the words to say so, trans-themed books for young children give them that. (And why would they have those words, if they’re just beginning the process of learning language and concepts from the adults around them, and their adults don’t even recognise the kinds of experiences they need to talk about?)

Why should a child have to be able to express ‘Mum, everything you and the doctor ever said about me being a boy is wrong,’ before her family and school will listen to or believe her, when books like these can let her say, ‘Mum, I think I might be like Tilly?’

Even as a teenager – or as an adult – the only way for years that I could articulate most of my nuances of queerness was to point to characters and celebrities that might have expressed something like me (the little queer ideograms this blog is named after); today, queer and trans writers and artists have finally been able to grasp the tiniest platform to put identification points like that in front of people when they’re three or four years old.

While for the children who have never felt like that, but are wondering why someone they used to call Uncle Thomas is now Auntie Tilly (or why Mum’s sibling Tiny doesn’t like it when you call them an auntie or an uncle at all), these books help them understand that not everyone’s sense of being a boy or a girl is as straightforward as theirs.

Introducing Teddy leaves Tilly and Errol at the point of acceptance, with Errol reassuring her that it doesn’t matter whether she’s a boy teddy or a girl teddy, ‘you’re my friend’: I’d like to see him giving an even more confident affirmation of her gender, maybe, but we close the book trusting that Errol – and a reader who identifies with him – will treat her as the girl she is. (Which every Errol needs to learn, even the majority who are never going to need to say they’re really Elsa.)

Trans-themed picture books show children, of all genders and all relationships towards gender, that transness as a way of being in the world is natural. Of course, that’s what the people trying to kick trans books (and trans kids, if they can help it) out of schools don’t want.

Two of the things that make it so upsetting and isolating to be a queer or trans young person, and especially one who doesn’t fit into the categories of queerness that cis straight people most readily understand (by the time I was a teenager, they’d just about grasped that sometimes a more masculine woman and a more feminine woman would somehow fall in love) are: firstly, to think you’re the only person that this disjuncture between the gender you’re meant to have, how you’re meant to express it and who you’re meant to desire because of it has ever happened to; secondly, not to have the right words to even be able to tell someone else what that disjuncture, for you, actually is.

Queer British people just a few years older than I am remember the media climate in the run-up to Thatcher’s government padding the Local Government Act 1988 with its infamous ‘Section 28′, as opposed to just remembering the insidious effect it had on schools’ ability to support queer children and teens.

How to reassure the public that preventing schools from teaching that homosexuality was a normal family relationship was necessary, rather than controversial? (Although decades of media homophobia had already persuaded many straight people at the time that homosexuals and all the other queers were a threat to children.)

Panic about children’s books – as the blogger Lisa Severn wrote on Twitter, recalling the furore over Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, a translated Danish children’s book swooped on by the British press and Secretary of State for Education after the Inner London Education Authority made it available to teachers in very limited circumstances in 1986.

Tweet by Lisa Severn

The panic over Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin didn’t cause Parliament to vote for Section 28, but contributed to a climate – at the height of the AIDS crisis – where schools and teachers knew how easily they could be accused, in a homophobic, biphobic and transphobic society, of trying to turn children queer.

Articles like today’s piece in the Sunday Times, in conjunction with the constant alarmism about gender therapy for young people on BBC Radio 4 and Newsnight current affairs programming, are exactly the kind of groundwork that a campaign for an anti-trans Section 28 would need to lay.

And that campaign would have allies from, if not even backers from, around the world – from Poland to Brazil, movements against ‘gender ideology’ have mobilised against feminism and any movements representing queer, trans and intersex rights for ‘indoctrinating’ children into ‘wanting to change gender.’

(Judith Butler, the philosopher most associated with detaching individuals’ gender identity from the gender that their genitals seem to biologically determine, was recently burned in effigy by Brazilian ‘anti-gender’ protestors while visiting Brazil for a conference she’d co-organised about democracy.)

The difference in Britain, maybe, is that most other countries don’t have such widely-disseminated feminist voices taking the side of the ‘concerned’ anti-trans lobby against trans youth – to an extent that bemuses feminists abroad. But every different country’s movement has its specificities.

But here’s where people who worry about trans-themed books being in schools and libraries deliberately, or sometimes genuinely, misunderstand what it means to be trans or queer. Reading about Tilly and Tiny isn’t going to make children change their gender, just like reading about Eric and Martin wouldn’t have made a boy who was always only going to be attracted to girls decide it would be fun to shack up with another man.

Trans people aren’t suddenly changing the gender they are – they’re changing the assumptions everyone else has made about their gender since a doctor scribbled ‘male’ or ‘female’ down on their medical notes after a quick look at their body. For many people, that newborn assumption is accurate enough; for some people, it isn’t.

(And some of them will know from childhood that other people aren’t recognising them as the gender they ought to, while others will take much longer to understand their not-fitting-in-ness as a gender thing; neither of those two sets of people are more or less trans than the other.)

Banning children from finding out about trans people and identities at school – as we have to assume, with the Leave.eu benefactor Arron Banks stating that children don’t need to be persuaded homosexuality is ‘a great lifestyle choice’, and the UK Independence Party’s equalities spokesperson arguing that trans ‘political correctness’ in the UK has gone ‘way way too far’, some influential lobbies would like to see – won’t stop children and young people being trans, if that’s what they were going to be.

It might stop them knowing for years longer that there is such a thing as being trans, if their parents, their schools and the government lock down their access to the digital spaces where they could find that out. But it won’t stop them actually being it.

Instead, the main thing you’ll get if you prevent children from finding out about being trans while they’re still children? Trans people with much worse mental health to deal with when they do come out – all the more so since puberty will have exerted changes on their bodies that they could have held back if they were allowed the hormone treatment that would have given them thinking space (current UK practice does allow ‘partially reversible’ hormones to be prescribed for people ‘around 16’ with a gender dysphoria diagnosis).

(The latest evidence shows that only 4% of young people diagnosed with gender dysphoria, not the higher figures that opponents of gender therapy for teens often refer to, will ‘desist’ from deciding that they’re trans; and no support the UK health care system would offer someone aged under 18 is irreversible, if they did decide as they were growing up they’d interpreted their identity the wrong way.)

One of the arguments often thrown at trans children is: kids like saying that they’re dinosaurs or astronauts and then grow out of it, how do we know trans kids aren’t the same?

Well: even that spark of identification with that dinosaur or astronaut might be the beginning of what makes them the next great astrophysicist or palaeontologist. Unless you encourage them, you’ll never know.

Also: we still need way more great trans astrophysicists and palaeontologists up in here.

But most of all: trans books for kids aren’t the same as books that make kids want to dress up as astronauts. They’re more like books that show kids there are astronauts, and hey, that bulky white thing with a helmet you’re wearing? That’s a space suit. They’re more like books that show you those bright lights above your head belong to space.

In my own childhood, part of what I needed to get to know my own gendered self already came through children’s literature (‘I guess I’m sort of like Nan Pilgrim in Witch Week, but maybe if she wanted to be more like Chrestomanci…?). But what would it have been like to meet characters that made me want to point a book out to someone and say, ‘I think I’m like that too?’

When we didn’t have the books we needed when we were growing up, we write them: but what more could we be creating if the books had already been there to help us realise earlier all the things we were?

In our own ways, Fisher and Walton and I all want to put that right, for the younger audience they write for and the older ones I’m going to be addressing: both for the readers who are going to be trans or genderqueer and for the readers who are going to stand by their friends who are.

Genderflipping violence and imperialism: who needs an all-girl Lord of the Flies – apart from Taylor Swift?

Genderflipping violence and imperialism: who needs an all-girl Lord of the Flies – apart from Taylor Swift?

I’d probably have expected to be writing this evening about it being 20 years since the death of Princess Diana, but then two white male Hollywood producers signed a deal with Warner Brothers to make a contemporary update of Lord of the Flies ‘with all girls rather than boys’, and the feminist internet jumped into a volcano.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is one of the most common set texts on the UK English Literature curriculum for GCSE, and also readily assigned by high-school English teachers in the USA (apparently teens really need to read more about young people waging disastrous psychological and physical violence against other young people as part of being educated for adulthood). If there’s one thing the public at large know about the 1954 book or its 1963 film, it’s that it depicts utter social disintegration in an all-male environment, where the upper middle class white British public schoolboys who should have been expected to personify civilisation after crash-landing without adults on a desert island quickly revert to savagery.

It’s one of the 20th century narrative settings that only needs a few visual brushstrokes to conjure – a campfire on a beach, some improvised loincloths and spears, and the infamous pig’s head impaled on a stick.

simpsonsdasbus
The Simpsons parodies Lord of the Flies (1998)

Generations of high-school English classes have made Lord of the Flies, in other words, a byword for what today might be called toxic masculinity left to run riot – leaving many people wondering what the point would be of updating Lord of the Flies with girls at all, and others anticipating a tired rehash of tropes about adolescent girls’ cruelty to each other that had already been covered better in original movies like Heathers and Mean Girls.

(There is also, because bad ideas never come round on their own, an imminent television reboot of Heathers where the leads are still a conventionally attractive mixed-gender couple and the three ruling Heathers are respectively fat, black and queer.)

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at The Daily Dot, for instance, argued that remaking Lord of the Flies as a narrative about present-day girls would take it so far away from the cultural setting in which Golding’s story could take place that it would lose anything that defined it as Lord of the Flies:

When the boys in Lord of the Flies get stranded on an isolated island, they don’t just represent some vague statement about how “civilization” breaks down when people are forced to dangerous extremes. The story takes place in the middle of a world war, and those kids have a specific cultural background: mid-20th century English private schools for boys. They’re part of a conservative, hierarchical culture where bullying is routine, and they’re destined to become the ruling class of the decaying British Empire.

Even translating the intent and method of Golding’s cultural commentary from 1950s Britain to the contemporary USA, on the other hand, there are themes that a gender-flipped adaptation of Lord of the Flies could explore which we rarely get to see in Hollywood cinema – the more serious flaw is whether these producers and the team they’re likely to build will have the awareness of gender and colonialism that they would need to bring these complexities out.

What gender scholars like to call ‘masculinities’, or the cultural archetypes and social positions that in every society or institution offer various ways of being a man, are powerful enough that – as queer women whose gender expression veers masculine-of-centre know particularly well – they don’t necessarily just serve as identification points for men.

(For a more benign case in point, which also takes us back to my GCSE year, we can think about what Leonardo DiCaprio meant to many young queer women in Titanic.)

The problem of how far queer women, and other people who aren’t men, become complicit in the ideologies of power, violence and toxicity within many masculinities when they choose to associate themselves with aspects of them is one I frequently ask myself as a feminist, in creative work, and even in some of my research. It goes without saying that’s a theme I’d always be keen to read and see more sensitively-crafted narratives about.

One intertextual move Golding made when devising Lord of the Flies, for instance, certainly could be adapted to comment on gender and violence in the present, as long as the creators of the remake found a suitable equivalent as the new ‘source’.

Golding deliberately based the premise of Lord of the Flies on R M Ballantyne’s classic 1858 children’s novel The Coral Island, hoping to deconstruct the genre of imperialist adventure stories for boys and reveal it as the basis of the illusions behind post-war British masculinity (at, let’s not forget, the end of Empire).

In The Coral Island, three British boys (Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin) are shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific, and build themselves a microcosm of civilised society before getting into adventures with Polynesian cannibals and fallen British pirates, not to mention rescuing the obligatory chieftain’s daughter who wants to defy her father and convert to Christianity.

Golding’s Ralph, Jack and Piggy either become, or cannot defeat, the ‘savages’ themselves (to put the breakdown of their society after Jack makes his fascistic play for power in the same imperialist terms), turning Lord of the Flies into a statement of how The Coral Island Would Have Really Happened.

The depth of the effect that adventure stories and adventure play, with their figures of masculine military and imperial heroism, had on white British boys’ relationship towards ideologies of the nation and empire in the middle of the 20th century by working through their own sense of imaginative identification is the theme of one of the books on masculinity – and identification itself – I most appreciate, Graham Dawson’s Soldier Heroes.

There’s no reason at all, knowing what queer women and non-binary people have had to say about masculinities as identification points for themselves, to only ask Dawson’s questions about men – far less with the weaponised gender equality of the liberal 1990s and the 21st century giving women in a growing number of circumstances the same access to the exercise of state violence as men.

Find a narrative about how to be an upstanding representative of the nation and its imperial project that you could say was held up for American girls – because of course they’d be American girls – today to emulate in the same way that British boys in the 1950s were still offered The Coral Island, and you could begin to have the rationale for an update that would preserve the creative intent, as well as genderflip the surface aesthetics, of Lord of the Flies.

Indeed, that move surely couldn’t help but explore the ideology of what feminists of colour including Sara Ahmed have termed ‘white women saving brown women from brown men’ – a paraphrase of Gayatri Spivak’s description of imperialism as ‘white men [just like the Coral Island boys] saving brown women from brown men’ which first helped to diagnose the racism of white imperial feminism, then explained the overtones of imperialism in 21st century cosmopolitan warfare like the US-led wars ostensibly against Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(Nicole Froio’s Twitter essay on Lord of the Flies and white women’s violence is recommended reading on how those connections could start being made.)

The Pacific islands, and Americans’ fantasies about them, are colonialism writ large, remediated to Americans (and then to the rest of the globe that watches US popular culture) through dozens of films, musical spectaculars and the once-ubiquitous tiki consumer tat.

Anti-militarist feminists in the Pacific and the USA – not least in Hawaii, the kingdom conquered by the USA during the 1890s and turned into a heavily militarised home for the US Navy – have struggled hard to expose the conjunctions of militarism, imperialism and sexual exploitation that have constituted US colonialism in the Pacific.

I’d question how much awareness or insight the team behind the rebooted Lord of the Flies have into those politics, though, without at the very least heavy creative involvement by Polynesian women… and whether the stories Polynesian women would be most interested in telling are stories about crash-landed American girls is, of course, another question in itself.

Far more likely, I’d pessimistically suspect, that the projected film would end up looking like a cross between one of the many exoticised and orientalised music videos made for divas like Shakira in the mid-2000s and the spectacle of all-girl pop ultraviolence that is Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood‘, with half its set-pieces grabbed from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (another fight to the death on a desert island with young women at the centre), and the near-certainty that someone, somewhere has been inspired to pitch this using the words ‘Themyscira Gone Wild’.

In fact, with Swift occupying far too much collective feminist brainspace than her latest drama deserves, I can’t dispel the vision – especially after another of her videos two years ago managed to imagine an Africa full of imperialist clichés with ‘not a single black character‘ in it – that Swift would either be starring in the Ralph role as the one civilised white girl left in this Lord of the Flies, or playing every part and simultaneously personifying all of the Five Beckies.

There are other very valid reasons why it doesn’t need a reimagining of Lord of the Flies to explore the themes I’d like to see represented more, not least the fact that by reinterpreting it the creators of the new film are choosing to put themselves into a creative lineage with a writer and teacher who – his posthumous biographer showed – sexually assaulted a younger girl while he was a student and conducted manipulative psychological games with at least one class of his public-school boys.

Moreover – as many fans immediately pointed out on Twitter last night – Libba Bray’s YA novel Beauty Queens, published in 2011, already imagines what would happen if a group of competitive 21st-century American girls crash-landed on a desert island and would be ripe for adaptation – albeit bringing very different politics to Golding’s, strong LGBTQ representation, and a critique of the entertainment industry’s entanglements with the arms trade.

I don’t have any reason to expect, therefore, that any of the queer or anti-colonial themes one could explore by genderflipping and updating the narrative logic of Lord of the Flies would materialise in the planned adaptation.

I might appreciate a differently conceived reinterpretation, written and devised with enough nuance and knowledge to trace women’s as well as men’s complicity in neo-imperial masculinities and the violence they enable – but I’m not sure who needs what this version is likely to become, apart from Warner Brothers, and maybe Taylor Swift.

 

Quick note on a personal project

Quick note on a personal project: for the last year and a half I’ve had a novel in progress that I aim to be submitting to agents in the coming months.

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

Charging 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 in – 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 those at the same time.

More soon on how and why I came to write it, but for now, that’s the plan.

A TARDIS full of coats: why queer women are already costuming the first female Doctor

This post first appeared at Women Write About Comics on 23 July 2017.

Even before Jodie Whittaker pushed back Peter Capaldi’s hood to reveal herself as the first woman actor to play the Doctor, Doctor Who’s female and non-binary fans – especially those whose gender expression tacks masculine-of-centre – were already watching odds shorten on Peter Capaldi’s replacement being a different gender … and skipping ahead to what style and costume will define the ‘first female’ Doctor, or rather, the first Doctor who will be gendered female on Earth.

Under the outgoing showrunner, Steven Moffat (whose run has contained a string of problematically drawn plotlines for women), this series has primed its audience with the groundwork for a female Doctor through canonically genderfluid Time Lords and a female incarnation of the Master.

One of the excitements of seeing a woman rather than a man take the title role, which fans could start anticipating for real after the BBC aired a 50 second teaser at the end of the men’s Wimbledon final on Sunday, is imagining how Doctor Who’s costume designers will define the character through clothing, as the show has taught us with each new Doctor.

That’s all the more the case for viewers who aren’t men but have already looked to the Doctor as an example of masculinity they identify with, even when it seemed the Doctor could only ever be played by a man – and whose ways of communicating that in the real world might owe something to Doctors past as well as future.

The women typically fancast as female incarnations of the Doctor – Tamsin Greig, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Zawe Ashton – haven’t just shown in their previous roles the quirky irascibility that any Doctor needs. Their images have often also embodied a blurring of gender boundaries that it also seems to go without saying that a woman playing the Doctor would need to mediate.

Wondering what degree of masculinity or femininity Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor will express is an extra queer layer that Whittaker’s gender adds to waiting for the regeneration, just like anticipating if and on what terms Thirteen will reunite with River Song (and hoping against hope Pearl Mackie’s Bill will stay around). The duffel coat and zipped hoodie that already identifies the woman with the jaw-length blonde bob as the Doctor in Thirteen’s first wave of fan art is one of the main costumes for Capaldi’s Twelve. Thirteen’s signature style, whatever it will be, might be revealed in further publicity this year or it might be a surprise held back until Whittaker’s debut in the Doctor Who Christmas special itself. (Our first out-of-story sight of a new Doctor is no certainty at all: Matt Smith, revealed as Eleven in 2009, was announced with an indie-goth photograph outside the TARDIS that left me making sniffy remarks about the BBC copying Twilight.)

How much masculinity and how much femininity in a body that humans will read as female (who knows what genders the rest of the galaxy has seen the Doctor as), wants to present to the world is also a question that the character will be asking herself in front of the TARDIS’s infinite wardrobe.

Contrary to ‘Brian from London’, who commented on a Daily Mail article predicting a female Doctor that “Nobody wants a TARDIS full of bras,” Gallifreyan ease with genderfluidity suggests the TARDIS is full of precisely as many bras as any Doctor the TARDIS can imagine might want it to be.

Whether she knows instinctively how she wants to be perceived or whether she’s constantly figuring it out, it’ll speak to some queer women’s (and other people’s) relationship to gender expression.

After thirteen numbered regenerations and most-of-us-have-stopped-counting out-of-sequence ones, viewers know the rules: solving the mystery of the next Doctor’s personality is the first narrative move, and how they react to the changes from their past appearance, plus what outfit they assemble, will tell us–and any companions in the TARDIS–what that personality is.

Who doesn’t wish they had the run of the TARDIS’s infinite wardrobe to pick out their statement coat?

Whittaker’s Doctor, if written with enough insight, could speak to many gender-variant experiences. For transmasculine fans, this Doctor could embody what it means for the world to treat you as a woman when you aren’t; for trans women, this Doctor could stand for insistence on your womanhood (mediated through whatever gender expression you choose) when the world persists in telling you you can’t be one because it used to perceive you as a man.

While for some queer and masculine-of-centre women, the Doctor’s character has already been a point of identification for years–and Whittaker’s Doctor could get closer to embodying the reasons why than any Doctor before.

We’ll theorise about why in just a moment, but on a surface level which queer convention tells us is the expression of a deeper level: look.

If seeing Whittaker in Capaldi’s coat doesn’t guide your eye to imagine, at least for a moment, “Could those be women in the other outfits too?” before the image resolves into Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant and the rest, rest assured it will have done for some people–who were already imagining it before Whittaker was even there.

(Yes, even Nine. Especially Nine. Come on.)

Time Lords look like they belong on Earth, until a detail every human should know gives away that they don’t. So many queer experiences and intersections of our queernesses with race or dis/ability or faith, lead in the same way to us suddenly turning out not to be what somebody expected, until we’re left feeling like we must have just come down from Mars, or, why not, Gallifrey.

Each Doctor wears their out-of-placeness as proudly as their coat: the Doctor gets to be clever and brave and funny when their alien quality breaks through, and then that very strangeness saves the day.

Perhaps that’s what these identifications drill down towards–but style fixes the identification tighter, either because the Doctor embodies how you’d like to present to the world or sometimes because they’re embodying something of yours already.

Each new Doctor, deciding their signature style in the TARDIS, has had to decide what kinds of masculinity they want to evoke. The Doctor’s costume has always drawn on the figure of the dandy, even if only to reject it, but how each Doctor takes theatrical pleasure in coats, suits and ties defines each character. The lines along which each Doctor fashions themselves are the same: how dressed up versus how dressed down? How contemporary versus how Victorian?

And that neo-Victorian Doctor Who aesthetic, turned unambiguously steampunk post-reboot, reminds us: these looks do hark back to the white masculinity of a particular time and place – while the people of colour taking steampunk far beyond its origins in Victorian nostalgia still haven’t had the pleasure of watching a black or brown Doctor fighting the Daleks or confronting Earth’s and Britain’s past.

A female actor embodying the Doctor adds a third line, one of the queerest: how masculine-of-centre versus how femme?

People who aren’t men but who want the world to notice some relationship towards masculinity when it reads their gender make the same choices. While drag performers expose the artificiality of a masculine archetype through exaggeration, masculine-of-centre women and non-binary people are making their own negotiations with masculinity through everyday style: which kinds of masculinity do we want our clothes or hair to cite, and what do they bring with them?

A bow tie references the dapper upper class, or a leather jacket mid- to late 20th century rebel toughness, even as it might be being reappropriated through parody, subversion, being worn deliberately the ‘wrong’ way, or being combined with clothes, accessories or bodies it would never have belonged with when it first became iconic.

Within all these citations of different masculinities, the Doctor’s coat is the piece that makes each Doctor. Some have their signature accessories – Two’s flute, Four’s jelly babies and his scarf and hat – but, at a pinch, you could match each outfit to its Doctor just by glancing over the empty coats hanging on the TARDIS wall.

Rachel Charlton Dailey’s viral tweet – ‘This coat has FAKE pockets! ’– strikes its nerve because anyone who wants or has to buy ‘women’s’ clothes knows the thread sewn across a pocket opening, even on the most androgynously styled piece of clothing, is a tiny fabric cordon reminding you that, when it comes to the social boundaries of gender, society and capital – not you – too often still get the final say.

It also strikes its nerve because we know, in signalling how each regeneration has interpreted their personality, the coat is the Doctor’s brightest semaphore.

We know, or we expect, Whittaker’s Doctor will choose her signature coat: and we know, or we expect, Whittaker’s Doctor, gendered on Earth as a woman, will meet her own equivalent of that tiny barrier of thread.

How will the Doctor overcome it? We haven’t yet seen. But everybody wants a TARDIS full of coats.