Monthly Archives: October 2014

Coda: Asexual Awareness Week and the Future of Queer Theory


Last week, I completed the Safer People, Safer Spaces training my university offers to learn better ways to be an ally, whether you’re a member or a supporter of the queer community. One of the activities we did involved matching vocabulary words (like lesbian, heteronormativity, drag, M2F) to their definitions and then discussing what we learned and what confused us. One of the words was asexuality, and to my surprise, no one had any questions about it!

In most settings, this is definitely not the norm. Even though, as one blogger pointed out, the US is home to more asexuals (or, as some prefer to be called, aces) than it is to Muslims, breast-cancer survivors, and Yale graduates, asexuality is not on most people’s radars. Even those within the LGBT community are sometimes unaware of asexuality as an orientation — indeed, the “A” in…

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Re-Reading “Harry Potter”–“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”

Well, here it is, the second installment of my adventures in re-reading Harry Potter.  Today, I wanted to talk about the second volume in the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Again, I was pleasantly surprised at how well this book has aged, as well as how compulsively readable it is.  It now occurs to me that it really shouldn’t have surprised anyone that this series became the phenomenon that it did; these books pull you in and they don’t let go until the very end.

What struck me anew as I read this second book was how very much of a mystery it was, in the sense of leading us inevitably toward the revelation of a deep history that was there right in front of us all along.  I’ve often found that these books in particular operate on a number of textual levels; while you can certainly enjoy them as individuals and in the moment, it is only when you finish both the novel and the series that the true genius of the construction comes to light (I find this to be even more true for Prisoner of Azkaban, but I’ll get to that in my next post).

I also particularly enjoy how this novel does not shy away from the darker side of the wizarding world.  Although we got a glimpse of it with Quirrel and Voldemort in the first novel, now we really get a sense of the great fissures that still exist in the magical realm, particularly concerning wizarding blood and bloodlines.  Naturally, this is a commentary on the deep-rooted classism that still exists in much of British society, but it is also a potent wake-up call to any sort of eugenics movement that stresses the importance of blood.  It also serves as an important reminder that even a world as seemingly halcyon as the wizarding one has its ugly parts as well.

Although Harry is ostensibly the hero and star of this book, I actually found Tom Riddle to be the most compelling part, partially because at this early stage he is still something of an enigma, both to Harry and to us as readers.  We don’t yet know all of the things that led him down the dark road that he would eventually travel.  What we do realize, however, is the uncomfortable similarities that exist between Harry and his nemesis.  While of course, as Dumbledore reminds Harry (and us as readers), it is the choices one makes that determine one’s fate, it still is worth considering just how deeply runs the darkness in all of us, and how much we must continue to fight against our own baser natures to forge a more just and peaceful society (which seems, in the end, to be what Harry and his friends are seeking).

What really sticks with me, however, is just how much this book doesn’t answer.  I am still uncertain just how much Lucius Malfoy knew about the diary that he snuck into Ginny’s possession.  Certainly, he knew that it had great power, but just how much did he know of the charms that had been put upon it?  After all, he was one of the most powerful of the Death Eaters and was part of Voldemort’s inner circle, so it’s entirely possible he knew that it had some greater purpose than merely being charmed.  Of course, Lucius would never be so foolish as to reveal that knowledge to anyone, and it’s a testament to Rowling’s skill with he characters that she doesn’t reveal too much of his hand either.  There are times, it appears, when it’s better not to know all of the information.

Re-Reading “Harry Potter”–“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”

On a whim, I recently decided to start re-reading all of the Harry Potter novels from the beginning (since it’s now been over a decade and a half since the first one debuted).  I also thought it might be worthwhile to jot down a few thoughts as I go through, noting how my perspective on these novels has changed (or hasn’t) in the 13 years that have passed since I started reading them (I began them when I was still in high school).

I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by how well these books have aged.  As I dove in to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I was prepared to be met with the same sort of sticky sweetness that clings to the first film (which I had seen more recently than I had read the book).  What I encountered, however, was a novel that could literally appeal to both young people and adults (however tremulous that distinction is).  The characters and their relationships are well-thought out, and there is a definite menace to the appearance of Lord Voldemort that hints at the dark and perilous things to come in Harry’s future.

What stood out most to me, however, was the very queerness of what I was reading.  I know that my 17 year old self (no less queer than my 30 year old self, mind, but less aware of queer subculture) would probably not have picked up on this, but there are definite echoes between the wizarding world and those queer subcultures that have existed in most parts of the world.  Much as queers have been forced to keep their existence a secret, in the process creating their own world (and worldviews) and vocabularies to express their lived experience, so the witches and wizards of this world have their own secret language and way of looking at the world that is faintly askew from the Muggle world, and infinitely more pleasurable and vibrant than its “ordinary” counterpart.  Just there is something immensely validating about a new queer finding out about the community which he never knew existed, so we as readers are caught up in Harry’s joy as he encounters this new world.

This latent queerness probably helps to explain why this novel continues to exert a powerful hold over me.  I simply could not put it down, even though I knew all of the major plot details and other points.  It’s well-written and tightly-plotted, for sure, but it is this sense of queer pleasure that, I think, explains why it had such a hold on me when I was young and why it continues to exert its hold on me even now.  It also helps to explain why I react so viscerally to the Dursleys, easily the most vile secondary villains to appear in all of young adult literature.  The way in which they seek so relentlessly to repress Harry’s magical abilities (read:  his queerness), is evocative, especially now, of the ways in which so many non-queer families treat their queer members, with resentment, hostility, and often outright violence.

And yet, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone allows its heroes and heroines to recognize that there is a great power in queer/wizardly solidarity.  There is something so immensely satisfying about the ending of this novel, as Harry realizes that even though he has to return to his awful Muggle/normal family, there will always be a place awaiting him at Hogwarts and in the wizarding world, where difference in its multiple forms is accepted and celebrated (at least by the “good” characters and their allies).  This is a message that, it seems to me, is especially important now, and why this book will no doubt continue to be popular among its legions of queer fans, both young and old.

Heavy Histories


So many heavy words, we feel the weight of them; we feel the weight each time, every time, all the time.

Black, brown, race, racism: words that come up; words you bring up.

Heavy; down.

Slow, frown.

It is not that we only feel the weight through words. The load does not lighten when light remains white. Whiteness is a lightening of a load.

Not white: loaded.

When you bring up racism it is like you introduce something that would not have otherwise existed. It is racism that makes “racism” a foreign word, a foreigner word, what you impose on others, what gets in the way of happiness, reconciliation.

Smile: things will get better!

Smile: they won’t.

No wonder words matter. Words are materials. We build worlds with words. We make words from worlds.

This is why: so much of contemporary politics, we might call this so much “happy multiculturalism”…

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Queering LGBT History: The Case of Sherlock Holmes Fanfic


This summer, I fell for BBC’s “Sherlock” hard1 — hard enough to drive me back to fanfic. Fanfic has grown up in the past decade: it now has activists, “aca-fans” (academic fans), and copyright lawyers, and a nonprofit defending artists’ rights to disseminate transformative works, including fiction. My casual intention to fill the wait till next season with fanfic rapidly developed into academic fascination, especially because I discovered that its writers are challenging traditional notions of sexuality and narrative in ways that mass media and even academia aren’t.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that some of the problems about LGBT historiography I discussed last week could be mitigated by our adopting a transformative fiction philosophy. Allow me to map the landscape of queer fanfic, using Sherlock as an example, before I argue that point.

Sherlock fans have been writing fanfic ever since Arthur Conan Doyle (or ACD, as…

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“American Horror Story: Freak Show” Review: “Edward Mordrake: Part One”

In order to enjoy American Horror Story:  Freak Show, or the series as a whole, really, you have to be able to take the good with the bad and just accept the series as it is, warts and all.  While part of last night’s episode was a little tedious–I’m still not sold that this 1 hr, 23 min. format is a good idea–there were also parts that showcased the series’ strengths, making this a solid lead-up to Halloween.

The scenes with Ethel were particularly poignant ones, and they gave us a much-needed look into her backstory and what makes her tick.  If Elsa remains something of an enigma–and a not very likable one at that–Ethel is the beating human heart of this story.  Her tearful encounter with the doctor was a strong beginning, and the revelation of Dell’s horrid manipulation and abandonment of her, as well as her absolute willingness to die, allow her to occupy a privileged position as we watch her march resolutely toward her own death.  The fact that Mordrake recognizes her virtue underscores what the series obviously wants us to believe of her.

Part of what continues to make this season pleasurable to watch, however, is the way in which it consciously plays with the vestiges of its cinematic predecessors.  The flashback scenes including the sinister Edward Mordrake were eerily reminiscent of the horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Todd Browning’s Freaks continues to exert a powerful pull on the narrative and on our consciousness.  And, of course, there is the ever-present shadow of Marlene Dietrich, who continues to serve as the inspiration for Elsa’s antics.  This season of AHS, perhaps more than any other, seems designed in part to provide a specific set of viewing pleasures for the cinephile and the film buff who knows his horror film history.

The best line of the night, as always, went to Elsa who, when confronted with the myth of Edward Mordrake, proudly declaims:  “I am the only myth around here.”  Lange continues to shine, and I particularly appreciated tonight’s allusion to her long-standing competition with Marlene Dietrich whom, she claims, stole her career.  Of course, we in the audience are really expected to believe that Elsa could ever have been up there in the ranks of one of cinema’s most celebrated actresses, but I think we can all agree that Jessica Lange continues to show that she can gather around herself the sort of faded female glamour that made Dietrich so compelling in her later roles (and I’m thinking of her roles in both Touch of Evil and Witness for the Prosecution) and invite us as viewers along for the campy ride.  Perhaps no actress working in television today can so forthrightly and confidently evoke a mingled sense of pitiful and powerful in the same character.

All in all, this most recent entry was a strong one, with some excellent performances and some clever allusions to the past.  Now that Mordrake has been added to the mix, along with two hucksters (Denis O’Hare, swoon), it’s really hard to say what is going to happen next.  Just as compellingly, we know now that the twins may not be twins for that much longer, as it seems that Dot is determined to gain her freedom from Bette, even if that means the death of her sister.  This episode raises the troubling fear of what exactly a set of conjoined twins should do if it turns out that one wants to live a life of their own.  As Dot says, at least one of them can be happy if they end up going through the the separation.

Of course, no review of the episode would be complete without generous priase for Patti LaBelle, who continues to show her defiance and disgust with Dandy and his murderous impulses.  Though Dora hovers at the edges of the main narrative, like Ethel she seems to be one of its more steadfast characters, standing firm, even though she is surrounded by all of the madness and horror that has infected the white middle-class home that she works in.  Thought it might be too much to ask for, we can but hope that she will one day visit a bit of well-deserved justice on Dandy.  We can but hope.

Are We There Yet? “How To Get Away With Murder” And “Post-Gay” Television

In case you missed it, Shonda Rhimes, the noteworthy executive producer of one of this season’s most popular new dramas How to Get Away With Murder, put the smack down on someone who suggested that the gay scenes in both Scandal and HTGAWM were extraneous to the plot, tweeting that “there are no GAY scenes.  There are scenes with people in them.”  The implication, of course, is that gay characters are people just like everyone else, a point driven home by Rhimes’ expressed belief that love is universal.

When I read her response, part of me was exhilarated.  “You tell ’em!” that part of me shouted, grateful that another homophobe had been shot down.  Another part, however, was far less sanguine about Rhimes’ comment, wondering, “Are we now just people?  Are we truly living a post-gay world?”

Some time ago, while reading through my comps list on feminist and queer theory, I came upon two books that would substantially shape how I think of the way that sexuality works within the realm of media representation.  One is perhaps the seminal text on queer representation, Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet.  The other, more recent work is Patricia White’s rigourously argued and researched book Uninvited:  Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability.  Ultimately, Russo urges his queer readers to stop looking to Hollywood for valuable and or positive representations of queer folks, because the very signifying system is itself so thoroughly and irrevocably heterocentrist that anything resembling a nuanced portrayal of queer love or identity is practically out of the question.  White raises an even more complex (and in some ways infinitely more vexing) question, when she suggests that “the oft-heard desire for non-stereotypical, ‘well-rounded’ gay and lesbian characters in film [and I would extend this argument to TV] may go against the very conditions of our visibility” (146).  In other words, the very fact that a character appears as gay renders her, by definition, a gay character, one who is at least to some degree defined by their sexuality.

Now, there has been a growing tide of voices, and Rhimes’ is among them, calling for a universalizing “love,” for moving away from an identity-politics mode in which one’s political and social identity remains defined at least in some degree by the positions that one occupies within one’s society, e.g. race, sexuality, gender, etc.  We saw this with Raven Simone’s declaration with Oprah that she now longer sees the need to be defined by or identify as her African American identity.  And I hear all the time about how millennials disavow all of the political identities that characterized their generational predecessors, including environmentalist, feminist, queer rights activist, the list goes on and on.  Perhaps no other cultural sign indicates the ubiquity of this mindset more tan the plethora of -posts that litter the mediascape:  postfeminist, postmarxist, post-closet, post-gay, post-race, blah blah blah.

But are we really there yet?  Have we really reached a state of queer utopia in which all manner of sexualities and genders are fully recognized, when it no longer matters whether you’re gay or bi or trans, when any of those sexual characteristics become just another aspect of a TV character’s personality?  Have we really reached a point where the norm no longer exists and we can just do what we please in terms of sexuality in gender?  Is TV, in other words, really queer?

To put it bluntly, of course not.  Cam and Mitch of Modern Family are certainly the most visible queer folks on TV right now, and they’re about as normative (and largely asexual) as you can get, still striving toward that middle-class, white, heterosexual norm that is really what most people mean when they say they want to be like everyone else (or “normal”).  Queer sex is okay, this seems to suggest, as long as its done in the safety of the bedroom or on those sexy and deviant pay channels like HBO and Showtime, away from the innocent eyes of the children.  If anything, Connor (the gay character from How to Get Away with Murder) is such a pleasure to watch precisely because his desires are untamed and unapologetic, that they refuse to be channeled into appropriateness (although, alas, it seems the series might be trying to put him into a monogamous relationship).  Gay sex is on screen on a network TV drama; far from being irrelevant, it’s an incredibly important moment in queer representability, and we should be open about accepting that fact and shout from the rooftops that queer sex is not just like every other kind of sex and that that’s perfectly okay.  It’s past time that we stop being ashamed of queer sex (especially promiscuity) and, for crying out loud, stop labeling it as deviant.

I fully recognize that we have come a long way from the bad old days of TV, where a gay character’s narrative (when it appeared) would center around his struggle with AIDS (which almost always ended tragically), his coming out (which would shock everyone including, presumably, the audience), or around a hate crime (another form of tragedy).  Nor am I suggesting that there is an easy answer when it comes to the thorny question of queer visibility and representability (and it’s the latter that poses a particular problem).  However, what I do want to suggest is that we stop pretending as if being just like everyone else is the panacea for all of our social and cultural woes, because it isn’t.  Not really.  Monogamy is just one of many choices one can make as a queer person, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.  What I’m asking for is to move away from the universalizing discourse, precisely because it pretends as if there is a universal that we can strive for.  What’s wrong with being queer, anyway?  To put it bluntly:  NOTHING.

What are your thoughts?  Are we living in an “post-gay” era of television?  Are there actually queer characters in the television landscape?  Should there be?  Feel free to share in the comments!

Why you should use Twitter during your PhD

The Thesis Whisperer

This post is by Sheree Bekker, who is originally from South Africa and now based in Australia as an international PhD scholar at the Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention (ACRISP), Federation University Australia. Her research centres around sports safety. Follow her on twitter @shereebekker

twitter-follow-achieverTwitter, according to Wikipedia (yes – how terribly un-scientific of me), is an online social networking and micro-blogging service that enables users to send and read “tweets”, which are text messages limited to 140 characters. Twitter is vital to the success of your PhD. Yes, you heard me read me correctly, a seemingly superficial social media site is a fundamental element that will contribute to the success of your PhD – if you embrace it!

Let me tell you my story.

I was a Masters student in South Africa, where I had completed my undergraduate studies and an Honours…

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Review: “The Way He Looks”

Warning:  Spoilers follow.

The other night, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Daniel Ribeiro’s touching film The Way He Looks (original title Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho), a Brazilian film about a young blind man who finds himself falling in love with his best friend.  Based on Ribeiro’s short film entitled Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho, the film is Brazil’s official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.  Who would have thought we would see this day?  We can but hope that it will win the statuette.

The film explores the experiences of young Leonardo as he attempts to forge an independent life for himself away from his overprotective parents while also contending with the jealousy of his best friend Giovana as he grows ever closer to newcomer Gabriel.  Gradually, as he grows closer to Gabriel, they must both contend with the deepening of their feelings for one another, until at last they admit to their feelings for one another and the film ends with them defying the school bullies by holding hands as they walk home.

Through both its cinematography and its score, The Way He Looks evokes all of the angst and anxiety that young love, especially young queer love, evokes in those who experience it.  However, it does so in a way that never comes across as trite or overdone.  Much like Weekend, another film that relied on solid storytelling and subtle aesthetics to explore the intricacies of gay love, The Way He Looks takes its time with its story, fully fleshing out its characters and their motivations, and it’s clear the the director and writers actually like these characters and want us to as well.  This is not to suggest that they are perfect–even the hero, Leonardo, comes across as somewhat ungrateful to his parents and their obvious concern for him–but they are characters with whom we can not only identify, but whom we can actually recognize as humans.  If (and this is a contentious question) we as LGBTQI consumers of media want well-rounded characters to represent us to the populace at large, then I think this is just the film for that purpose.

Aside from its generous and gentle politics, however, the film also contains a great deal of aesthetic sophistication that grants it multiple layers of pleasure for the savvy queer filmgoer.  Two scenes in particular struck me as poetic in their construction.  In one, Leo pleasures himself while embracing the hooded sweatshirt Gabriel has left behind, and in the other Gabriel stares at Leo’s nude back as he showers even as we, the spectators, are invited to identify with his gaze and with the burgeoning desire that he cannot deny and cannot yet accept .  The composition of the former shot looks as if it could have been lifted straight out of a painting, while also suggesting that desire does not always work on the level of sight, thus allowing the latter scene to explore desire at the visual level.  The visual sophistication of these scenes, and the underlying nuance of the film’s portrayal of visual impairment, allows it to move out of the realm of the purely romantic into the realm of the sublime.

What emerges from this portrayal, I would suggest, is a vision of what the representation of queer love might come to look like now that the acceptance of LGBTQI people has reached a significant high point in many places (remember that Brazil has legalized gay marriage).  It is refreshing to see a high-profile film that does not rely on the queer tragedy trope that haunted representations of us for so long.  Though I love Brokeback Mountain, it too relied on a tragic narrative that highlighted the violence and death that have for so long clung to representations of same-sex love.  This is not to suggest that these representations don’t have a place–we should always remember our history–but instead to argue that we need to diversify what we want to see in terms of representation.

Above all, however, The Way He Looks is a poignant and beautiful testament to the power of young queer love.  As I sat there in the audience with my boyfriend and well over a hundred other queer spectators, I felt my heart swell with joy at the feeling of community and camaraderie that permeated the gathering.  Even now that it’s 2014 and we as a community have won many hard-won battles, I still feel a little tremble of fulfillment when I see gay love depicted on screen and know that there are others in the audience with whom I can share that experience.

Overwriting History: “Just Reading” and the Case of John Henry Newman


John Henry Newman has been in my Twitter feed a lot lately. Apparently, when this Victorian cardinal wasn’t writing his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the nineteenth century’s longest and driest autobiography (sorry, Newman), he wrote religious commentary that some people still find instructive. But it wasn’t all that long ago that Newman was in the news for very different reasons.

Just before his beatification in 2010, gay-rights activists protested the Vatican’s exhumation and relocation of Newman’s remains from the grave he shared with his dear friend, Ambrose St. John, to a chapel for public veneration. Claiming Newman as one of their own, protestors pointed his written command that his body join his friend’s in death: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St. John’s grave and I give this as my last, my imperative will.”1  To the protesters, the Vatican’s flouting of

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