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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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.

Malvolia in yellow: reflecting on the National Theatre’s ‘Twelfth Night’

This post originally appeared at Women Write About Comics.

I wasn’t the only one who missed her step on the London Underground, when the screens switch one poster to another even faster than the escalator pulls you down, because Tamsin Greig was standing in a tuxedo and high heels. One louche hand on hip and a champagne bottle by her feet, a couple of inches of black hair swept back, posed on the marble staircase she was about to stalk as Malvolio gender-swapped into Malvolia in the National Theatre’s new production of Twelfth Night.

Greig is already a queer woman’s George Clooney, fourth or fifth in the seven ages of lesbian, a salt-and-pepper sign that there are archetypes to aspire to after thirty-five. You throw her name into the ring when the question of a female Doctor Who comes up because it’s the next best thing to imagining that you could be, yourself.

Malvolia, when you see her, comes from a different queer heritage. I’m not sure, opening a cardboard tube of sugar-coated eggs in the cinema for the National Theatre’s live feed, whether it was the contours of her plot itself that made someone on social media feel like they’d been queerbaited or simply that the pleasure of the woman on the poster isn’t there.

Greig’s Malvolia is the dominatrix of between-the-wars, hard-faced and buttoned up in black; who’s kept her Louise Brooks bob years past the time when it might have made her look like she was in the cabaret, but never once dared to pair it with a monocle, glance into the mirror and lift her eyebrow high. The ring of keys that might swing from her housekeeper’s belt would come from an age before a ring of keys meant “Ring of Keys,” before a lady châtelain could know “Miss Chatelaine”. She belongs in DuMaurier. She’s been, ever since Shakespeare’s time, the opposite of joy.

You’ve known the story since the third year of secondary school, what any normal place would call Year 9, when you were already learning what girls and teachers said about the signs that anybody was that way inclined and also learning there were women you noticed because they looked like other women, the way you’d almost always notice Viola as someone like that at Twelfth Night.

The grieving Olivia (Phoebe Fox) has shut herself away from men, so her suitor Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris) woos her through his page Cesario, the male identity Viola (Tamara Lawrence) adopted after being shipwrecked on the Illyrian coast and separated from her twin Sebastian (Daniel Ezra). Malvolia’s below-stairs story is their counterpoint. I’m glad to know the plot so well not to be shocked when Olivia’s wastrel uncle Toby (Tim McMullan), her servant Maria (Niky Wardley) and her carpenter Fabia (Imogen Doel) play their trick, propping Olivia’s letter in Maria’s hand on the rim of designer Soutra Gilmour’s pink wedding-cake fountain. They persuade Malvolia that Olivia loves her, when an unrequited, private passion for Olivia is the only intimacy that even the audience have ever seen this supercilious steward express; they persuade her Olivia will love her more if she appears in the very garments Olivia hates, yellow stockings, ‘ever cross-gartered’. It’s meant to be funny enough even in a man. The promise of her fall sustains the interval.

One tweet said changing the character to Malvolia had made her look like a predatory lesbian. I braced. The excess of desire and violation of consent, against whose mould you police your own passion so as not to be thought like her. I collect those tropes like spent arrows now, ready to throw them back across the lines. And yet, knowing it’s coming, you’re still there as she reads the letter, hardly believing that each last new line is true. ‘M O A I,’ inside Olivia’s coded handwriting, ‘doth sway my life,’ until you sense how this Malvolia might have come to this closed house. You’re still there because we were all there. If you were there before, you’re there again.

You tried to decode the signals from the woman you’d noticed anyway, and hoped and longed for it to be true but of course your gender and your class at the same time meant it never could be; and there it is, ‘soft!’ You break your recitation of the letter off every few words, sounding out Olivia’s cipher, because you know these things are never what they seem to be. You read signs wrong before, in that first villa, where cicadas hummed on the far side of Illyria and you held no more standing than quick-witted maid Maria, psychedelic Feste, or Fabia in her jumpsuit and tool-belt; all these women from different niches of style Olivia keeps around. She *must* be. Now she is. No wonder M O A I should take the length of the world to sound, when the horror on that other young woman’s face that hot night still stings the fingertips you never dared stretch out again till now. You won’t believe it. Yet you must. You’ve been there, viewing this, and you know it ends in humiliation, from when exams had you highlighting the script until it fluoresced. You know how easy it would have been to be gulled exactly the same way. A confidante says, ‘——— would really like it if you ———’ and you wonder no-one thought of it, the drama teenage girls invent. I’d have been so excited, even I might not have thought. She dances in the fountain, she’s so happy, and the water soaks right through her prim white blouse.

We watch, and wait, in case we see ourselves.

The payload, in every production, is the entrance. The director Simon Godwin’s entrance is a set-piece of a folly. Malvolia capers like a pierrot undoing her white cape, yellow windmills spinning from her bodice and black garters crossing over her legs like Asterix’s Gauls would wear as bees. That bob makes more sense, in cabaret: she looks like Sally Bowles meets Grayson Perry. Olivia thinks she’s mad. I appeared before an Olivia once, who wasn’t called that, and I heard she cried. No one else’s trick had even brought me there, just my own certainty.

The Elephant, where Sebastian meets half of Illyria but not his own erstwhile lover—the gay pirate Antonio (Adam Best)—is a neon-lit drag bar: improvising extras, when the camera picks them out, might be dressed in eighties/seventies leather, and a drag queen in silver robes serves Jacobean gaga realness with a hi-NRG disco ‘To be or not to be’. The pre-show interviews filmed for the live stream had clips of Perry and Conchita Wurst, interviews with Jack Monroe, all embodying the play across gender boundaries we like to think is so much of our time.

We’re inside a brick cell, Malvolia blindfolded and bound. We were still locked up in asylums in living memory, for nothing more than what she did, or less. All the more likely if we were the class who went into domestic service, or fell out of it. Other things in love’s madness are yellow: the stars that shine for you; wallpaper; kings. ‘Sir Topas the curate’ ties on his beard, to further frighten her. In some of our lifetimes he brought electrode wires, and still we tried to scream that we were sane.

Comedy contrives, eventually, to put the four requited lovers in the same street at once. The first phrase of Shakespearean criticism I learned was the ‘golden circle’: the pairs whose plots are reconciled, while others stand outside. Twelfth Night‘s other setpiece is the resolution: Olivia can be with Sebastian, Orsino with Viola, and both can take the same aesthetic pleasure, even if some productions—of course this one does—still hint Orsino loved Cesario as much or more. Malvolia has to be brought, to vouch for the captain who helped Viola transform, and so that Feste—Doon Mackichan, here, from Smack the Pony—can read out the letter she finally let Malvolia write down. Patriots worked out they could post fake dating profiles, and when we answer them they make us disappear.

They bring her up, down to her vest and stockings, and her garters, and the belief the first letter was in Olivia’s hand. Fabia confesses; Maria and Toby are married; Feste chants back Malvolia’s insistence that she wasn’t mad. Malvolio has one of Shakespeare’s capital-E, fist-shaking Exits. Malvolia puts her hand to the crown of her head, mussed from the blindfold and captivity; she pulls back her parting from the scalp, and underneath her bobbed wig is a flattened crop of ash-blonde hair.

We know the screen trope of this disordered woman, bent on vengeance, mascara smeared into a shadowed mask. I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you! The remnants of her yellow bodice and stockings, still cross-gartered, just as she’d learned the Olivia of her desires had commended, tell you how much she’d have replayed the stages of her revelation and Olivia’s thrill. This secret would have been the last surprise, inside the chamber. It would have been proof and promise all at once. On stage, she’d be the same distance away; the camera frames her tight.

Maybe only someone whose desires have run that course can hear what lines are spoken in the sudden colour. A long game of design might have put this whole process on rails, from the posters to Malvolia on the surface to Malvolia underneath.

The overload of her abjection means that by the time I notice that this relieved Orsino has still turned to kiss Sebastian and not Cesario, while Olivia hasn’t yet let go of Viola, the twins are already crossing the stage, back where the golden circle that never extended to us says they ought to be.

The set is built around a double staircase, steep as Gibraltar. Its skeleton of a revolving pyramid sections the stage into streets and courtyards, or, now, wedding-chapels, while queers and servants sprawl over the stairs, drinking sack or strumming a guitar. Feste delivers her last song, ‘When that I was a little tiny boy,’ with something Bowie in it. She glances back at Malvolia, on the steps alone, as she revolves. I’m sure she does. Who are all these people who thought this production was about joy? And last of all we’re with Malvolia, in her vest and stockings, stripped down to her folly and stripped of her façade: her cropped blonde head is the first sign of her desire and the first seal of her shame. She crawls up the stairs towards a fine rain she’s never close enough to touch, when it ought to pour down as heavy as a fountain. It roared, when she was under her illusion, so loud it almost drowned M O A I. Against impossible distance, with her back to us, Malvolia in yellow and in vain still stretches her fingertips towards the light.

She is the queer art of failure. She is the cruel optimism. Marked by her attraction, bleached by her desire, she embodies everything we fear we’ll turn out to have been.

I race to be first out from the theater, snatching coat and programme from the seat beside me, clutching a tube of sweets which ought to blaze bright yellow through my hand.

Why queer women in the 1990s probably had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio even if they didn’t know why

This, like many questions on the internet, can probably be answered with a gif:

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But this Autostraddle article only slightly ironically reviving 1990s Leonardo DiCaprio as a queer women’s style icon sums up what a lot of us, in between Romeo and Juliet and Titanic, were probably thinking.

Almost every queer woman from the 90s has a DiCaprio story: even if we didn’t yet know why.

The ideas that if I was a lesbian, I might still like watching Leonardo DiCaprio / that finding something attractive in him didn’t mean I wasn’t one / that you could want to pick up part of how he or anyone else looked because you were attracted to them, not instead of that – were all so far outside my experience that in 1996, when Romeo and Juliet came out, I didn’t even recognise him as belonging to the same category as the women and girls I was noticing, with both those contradictory impulses at once.

The idea there was some specifically queer way of noticing DiCaprio, and that by telling each other about it we’d recognise ourselves… was already coming out of feminist media studies, in those very years – Reina Lewis’s article on ‘the lesbian gaze and fashion imagery’ dates back, so appropriately in my case I almost can’t believe it, to 1997 – but nowhere near my everyday consciousness as a 14-year-old; today it would just be a few shares, retweets or last-ditch Google terms away.

The fact that we now have the technology and the connectivity for complexities of sexuality and gender identification and gender expression and everything in between to be not just revelations but tropes – not even the kind of utterance that pulls the curtain back from the world for the first time but if it’s a guy who looks like he’s dressed like a lesbian again, it must be Thursday – when that very confusion used to leave me and women my age not knowing what was up with us for years, is one of the increasingly few things that leaves me not wanting the universe to toss the last thirty years into the trash and start again.

We learned about crushes from pop magazines. Or we were meant to. These were the last years of the irreverent Smash Hits, the glory years of Just Seventeen, slices of British pop-cultural history that one day are going to be somebody’s research. (Someone had done that with Jackie before I was even born.) I couldn’t make myself interested in them; they were always about boys.

Romeo and Juliet appeared mid-1996, when the only way I knew how to say I was attracted to a woman was either to say she looked like someone else or – a sensation I was years from even being able to explain, because of everything unnameable it rested on – sometimes that I wanted to look like her. You couldn’t say that, or I thought you couldn’t sat that, about a guy, no matter how much Justine from Elastica and Alex from Blur might effectively resemble each other. DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet, and Tim Henman at Wimbledon, were talk of the classroom; coming up a distant third, I think, was Steve McManaman.

I should have still seen Romeo and Juliet at the cinema, with my mum, except we hadn’t realised that we’d need to book. I knew it from trailers, still photographs in film reviews, and The Cardigans’ earworm of a ‘Lovefool’, which stayed on hourly rotation all summer when I wanted the radio to play Celine Dion.

Titanic, two years later, brought more of Celine Dion than almost anyone could have wanted, although not the way I wanted, which was another story; and it brought back Leo.

(I say two years; its UK release was mid-November 1997, and so we probably saw it close to Christmas, one of that set of things like ‘Torn’ or the All Saints I’ve mentally pushed into 1998 because they obviously came after, not before.)

By the time I saw Titanic, I was A Lesbian. I had to be; I’d had to admit it, because the only other explanations anyone could find for how I’d been behaving were so much worse. Lesbians fancy women. They fancy Kate Winslet, because everyone, apparently, fancies Kate Winslet, and the ones with short hair definitely would, because that’s the way that couples go together.

I didn’t have the slightest interest in Kate Winslet, or equally, by that point, Celine Dion.

Catch Leo from the back, like you hardly ever would because the camera already knew he was the star, and he’d look like someone I wasn’t meant to think about any more.

One lunchtime in I-think-it-was-still 1998 a girl canvassed the computer room we’d occupied for our school newspaper, asking for each of our top three crushes so she could make a chart. These days I like to think I’d know that I could rattle off what I’d be thinking, if I was 15 or 16 now: Ruby Rose, Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Stewart. ‘Ricky Martin,’ I blurted out, not knowing he’d be a soft-butch lesbian icon in due course. ‘Michael Owen.’

For some queer women, Leo was the safe one: the one you could talk about because everyone did, and not have to admit that what attracted you to him was what brought him closer to you across the gender boundary rather than what pushed him further away.

For other queer women, Leo was the exception: the one you could desire without threatening your queerness, when the pressure not to compromise your identity with any hint of being attracted to men was even higher than it is now, because everything that made him attractive was androgyny.

For others, Leo might have been the one you could try to be as much like as you could yet never have to let on to anyone you were a woman, because the safety net of his masculinity and his heterosexuality was always there.

And yet what made DiCaprio a star was ambiguity; before stardom and age resolved it, as it so often does.

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For years I wouldn’t have known – I didn’t know – what to do with the fact that almost every photo of DiCaprio in between those films had him wearing outfits I or young women around me might have worn. (Just from that article, I had two bead necklaces like that, and at some point one of those plastic headband combs; I recognise one of his shirts so closely it makes me want to check the label; my hair never flipped over properly, though that was nothing new.) For years I didn’t see – just like I didn’t even see the tightness of Carrie-Anne Moss/Keanu Reeves’s duality in The Matrix – what oh-of-coursed its way past me as I posted that last gif, that Leo’s sandy hair and chain mail are reminding me of another icon from a few years later, Milla Jovovich in Joan of Arc. DiCaprio in the 90s looked like a lesbian, an inadequate shorthand that subsumed the whole gamut of sexuality and gender expression into one very specific, culture-bound way of being queer that still lives on as a working concept on the queer internet: some kind of affinity with masculinity, in the style of someone who hasn’t had it prescribed for them.

Almost every queer woman from the 90s has a DiCaprio story: and many of us couldn’t even imagine, then, that we’d be sharing or even understanding ours.