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.

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.