Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Archive for the ‘Fictional Literature’ Category

SuperQueers! LGBT+ in comic books

There’s been a fair bit going on recently. Transgender Day of Visibility was on 31st March, and the UK has seen the leader’s debates in the fretful warm-up to the general election. Therefore I wanted to write about something a little less serious, whilst still shedding some light on something not touched on much in mainstream outlets – LGBTQ comic book characters, which for me, shouts capes and spandex first and foremost. There’s been quite a few lists of favourite GSM (gender and sexuality minority) lists compiled by more expert comic book fans – but I’ll try and mix some slightly obscure and interesting examples with some well known classic heroes (and villains) who you might now see in a new light. So in no particular order then…

1. Mystique

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And pretty genderfluid too, but not in the way that normally means.

If (like me) your main familiarity with the X men was the film adaptations, or possibly the animated series of early ’90s morning kids TV – you’ve missed out on some seriously different character development. Amongst the most critical being the erasure of Mystique’s bisexuality. Besides originally being mother to the mutant Nightcrawler (that blue skin wasn’t coincidence) but also foster mother to Rogue (whaaat?), she was also over 80 years old by the millennium, with her shape-changing powers meaning her ageing is atypical also. As this article details, “Mystique’s character was not revealed as bisexual until The Uncanny X-Men #265, almost thirteen years after she originally debuted. This was due largely to the mandate by then Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief that there would be no GLBT characters in the Marvel Universe.” Mystique’s début was in 1978 by the way, so not exactly the pre-legal days of Batman and Superman. Progress is slow though, and slower for letters other than G and L.

2. Batwoman

Delicious irony, in that she was originally introduced as a ‘no homo!’ love interest device, because it didn’t look very hetero when Batman and Robin shared a bedroom, even in the 1950s.

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Whilst like many of the big names there have been various incarnations, parallel universes, and all-round confusing re-inventions, Batwoman was rejuvenated as a Jewish lesbian in a slightly obvious move of clunky tokenism in 2006.

3. Northstar

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Important due to being the first openly gay Marvel superhero – though again, due to the policy of the then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter preventing any openly gay characters (along with the Comic Code Authority), despite debuting in 1979, he was only allowed to be explicitly stated as gay in 1992. With the ability to travel at near light-speed (and the associated resilience and strength), Northstar also got married in Astonishing X-Men in 2012.

4. Extraño

Extraño

 

An early DC queer example premièring in 1988, Extraño, meaning ‘strange’ in Spanish, was painfully stereotypical, though more explicitly ‘out’ before Northstar. Referring to himself often as ‘auntie’, he was confirmed to be HIV positive – possibly from doing battle with an adversary called Hemo-Goblin, who, I kid you not, was “a vampire created by a white supremacist group to eliminate anyone who was not white by infecting them with HIV”. In their own way, the comic book industry tried to engage with important political issues new to the world in the 1980s.

 

5. Wiccan

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A powerful member of the young avengers, Wiccan predictably has powerful magical abilities. With a backdrop that involved standing up to homophobic bullying, and a romance with fellow hero Hulking, this meant the character was particularly well received.

6. Alysia Yeoh

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Although not a superhero per se, Alysia is important as the first major transgender character in a mainstream comic (in 2013), as the roommate of Batgirl. Whilst there has been a few aliens who can morph gender around, psychics inhabiting bodies of different genders, and shapeshifters, this is the first time a transgender person (of colour no less, she’s Singaporean) had been naturalised and involved realistically.

7. Loki

Another huge character in no small part because of film franchises, and also with a complex, multi-incarnate history, Loki has a history of bisexuality and gender fluidity that has been promised to be explored more.

8. Sailor Uranus

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Although more well recognised from anime than from manga (comic book style serialisation in Japan), the Sailor Moon franchise was chock full of lesbianism, with Sailor Uranus having a relationship with Sailor Neptune. This was quite obvious in the originals through their flirtations – but in typical LGBT erasure/censorship, when translated for a US audience, the characters were positioned as cousins. Due to failing to remove all of the flirting however (either through sloppiness or a wish to actually be somewhat faithful to the original), it was accidentally implied not only that they were lesbians, but incestuous lesbians. Great job, conservative America.

9. Xavin

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Whilst we’ve already looked at Alysia as a sensitive and important example of transgender in comics, Xavin is something else. Quite literally, being a non-human known as a skrull who don’t experience gender in the same way. Xavin assumes male, female, and skrull forms. The character raised interesting interpretations of gender as for Xavin, this could be changed as easily and with no more personal significance than an outfit choice.

BONUS: The Young Protectors

Click to read the comic in full, for free!

Now this is something special. With an interesting, diverse cast of characters and a compelling plot, this young-superhero based comic has a gay-driven storyline, without reading like any kind of seedy knock-off. There’s a great balance between character development and action, and I only find it a shame there isn’t a more extensive serialisation to get one’s teeth into. And I’m not alone either. The creator’s Patreon backing is pretty huge. Well deserved, given the entire story is free to access.

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Non-binary genders have Thousands of Years of Precedent

The enormous extent to which the binary gender system has been enforced – which claims everyone can only be male or female –  has left many people unaware of the existence of anything (or anyone) else. A lot of this has to do with a phenomenon that sociologists understand as the ‘medicalisation’ of sex. Differences in gendered behaviour (whether that be a man doing ‘women’s things’ or vice versa), sexual attraction, or clothing choice became understood as sicknesses, best left to the expertise of a doctor -when before you would’ve called for a priest, or even more likely, not actually been all that bothered. Anthropologists in the 19th century gave fantastical reports of ‘exotic’, ‘alien’ cultures. These social models regarding gender and sexuality were unintelligible to people bound by the western model: that you could be a man (who was attracted to women), or a woman (who was attracted to men). And that’s that. Such ancient and enduring social systems which involve a third gender (or more!) and other ways for understanding sexuality that aren’t readily analogous to ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or ‘bisexual’ can be found all over the world, but it isn’t even these that I’m referring to in the title of this article. One doesn’t need to travel far to find hugely mainstream historical precedent for the concept of a third gender. How about one of the most important and influential civilisations in the western world? Ancient Greece.

I want to talk about a particular text, written by Plato. Student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle, it’s fair to regard him as a founding father of philosophy. The text is a collection of speeches by different important Greek thinkers, written to reflect  each man delivering his speech to the others at a drinking party. This is Plato’s Symposium.

One of the speeches was given by Aristophanes, who was a comic playwright. He asks why is it that when in love, many people report feeling ‘whole’, as if previously incomplete? The explanation, he says, is due to how mankind used to be.

Humans were, according to Aristophanes, originally beings with two heads, four arms and legs, and two hearts, who were very powerful. Each head (and corresponding genitals) could be male or female – so there were three possible sexes! Male, where both were men, female, where both were women, and ‘androgynous’, where you had one male and one female. These powerful double-people decided to storm Mount Olympus, so to stop them Zeus smote them, tearing everyone in half. Each person then desperately tried to find their original pairing – which positions the male and female double-people as gay men and lesbian women, with the third gender representing what we would now label heterosexuality. This comic illustrates perfectly.

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This importantly demonstrates how a two gender system hasn’t always had the total monopoly one might assume it has. Whilst this doesn’t say anything about the thoughts had about gender by the everyday ancient Greek, it simply shows there was recognition of a third gender through stories, and there wasn’t any strangeness or moral failure or sickness associated with it. The same culture gave us Hermaphroditus, the neither-male-nor-female divine child, and root of the word hermaphrodite, often historically used to describe intersex people.

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Whilst the identity labels are new (the word ‘homosexual’ only being created in the late 1860s for example), all evidence shows that the rich human variation of gender identity and sexuality have been around for as long as people have  thought about themselves and who they are.

 

Book Review: Everything Must Go by LaJohn Joseph

Hello kind readers, this installation of GenderBen! Sees a new book review – though somewhat different to the usual fare. Firstly rather than one of the usual academic-y books I normally cover, today’s page-turner is a novel, and quite a new one. Everything Must Go is the debut novel of La JohnJoseph, who from what I can tell is a tour de fource of queer, campy, radical, postmodern dadaism – reminding me in some ways of a modern day Rose Sélavy (though this comparison in no way means to collapse Joseph’s gender identity to the cis crossdressing of Duchamp). Supporting an artist whose work (and perhaps existance?) explores and fucks with gender is the reason why I accepted the offer of reviewing this work, and felt it would be relevant to your interests, dear readers.

Everything Must Go was released on the 25th March by ITNA press, and you can buy the kindle edition here and the paperback here.

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If you’ll forgive me by opening my review with a quotation from the work I’m meant to be reviewing, I think it sets the stage incredibly well in appreciating what you’re in for when you open this book:
“If you go about looking for sense, asking for logic, and putting your faith in reason, then you are asking for trouble and you will deserve it when two big thugs named Senseless Violence and Why God Why? drag you down and alley and beat you up.”

The narrative is tolld first person by the protagonist, Diana, and her journey to go about ending the world. How, why, and who with might be less important than you may think as this story is much less about what is said than how it is said. Diana and their view of the world is the grand constant. Practically any rule about time, space, place and possibility is broken, bent, or queered at some point along the line. Sex and violence are likewise turned inside out and upside down – queering morality as much as reality, so brace yourself if shockable.

This book has a surrealist streak unlike anything I’ve ever read before, which made it both interesting and memorable. However this does necessitate letting go of some of the fundamental qualities one may usually expect from a narrative, with little to no explanation of the surreal aspects of the story’s reality. This became one of the things I liked most however, as the casual, blasé way in which fantastical happenings were dropped into the descriptions of every scene added an additional cheeky, self-aware dimension to the (abyssally black) humour. This also made me all the more willing to utterly suspend reality, though this wasn’t for the sake of intrigues with the plot or the substance of the characters, but chiefly due to the beautiful use of language. Even when discussing rape and murder with a nonchalant ennui so confounding you can only smirk. Gobs of historical and cultural trivia are scattered around quite naturally that helped connect the world of the book to the recognisable. This was also aided by the delightful depth and variety in the descriptions throughout. I never felt like the range of situations and descriptions were self indulgent or random for randomness’ sake, which is impressive given how out there much of the content is.

On the back of the book, one of the comments reads “my brain feels completely sullied and violated. Do it again please!” Which is bizarrely accurate. Whilst still reading I felt like the experience that was this book might be somewhere between a stroke and an orgasm. It’s certainly horizon-expanding. Totally bewildering, definitely. I think it’s fair to say as well that a good number of people may hate this book. However, I imagine that the people who love it are amongst the most interesting, queer, and fabulous. This book was indulgent and a joy to read, if sometimes unbridled and uncomfortable!

It’s okay because he loves me! – Why Twilight is damaging, and why it’s still popular

(Trigger warning: Some description of domestic abuse)

Spoilers: Twilight series, Angels in America)

That the Twilight series has been called ‘the new Harry Potter’ over its rise in public awareness I think is utterly depressing, even for those who weren’t that fussed about J. K. Rowling. The universal appeal of Rowling’s work and the skill with which they were crafted are insulted by being compared to the flimsy, clichéd, mewings of two-dimensional pseudo-romantic escapism that Stephanie Meyer has wasted trees on. Comparative multi-kajillion pound sales does not a comparative standard of literature indicate.

But why my harsh words, given I’m not a rabid potter-fanatic? Dear J. K. probably doesn’t need my support, writing from her home which is probably made of gold. It’s a point that has been made by others before me, but there is absolutely no ambiguity whatsoever that the relationship between Bella (often criticized as a Mary-Sue) and Edward is utterly abusive.

Surprisingly enough, I have a problem with literature (I’m being generous in using this word) which normalizes and excuses gendered violence to any audience, let alone the pulsating mass of hormones and peer pressure that are teens and tweens.

‘OMG Team Edward!’… ‘I want his sparkly babies!’… ‘My spine is being crushed…’

What is this violence you might ask? Well, in no particular order, how about:

  • Edward breaking into Bella’s home to watch her sleep is glorified as romantic, rather than pant-wettingly terrifyingly stalkerish.
  • The emotional manipulation and implicit blame placed on Bella by Edward through such choice (melodramatic) language such as “If I wasn’t so attracted to you, I wouldn’t have to break up with you.”
  • How about not only that after sex, Edward leaves Bella “decorated with patches of blue an purple” (because the word ‘decorated’ is hugely appropriate for describing the marks of violence, as if it were jewelry) but also that Bella tries to hide this because it would upset him to see. Such an empowering message for women right there.
  • When carrying their half-vampire baby (that was only conceived after marriage of course, Meyer being a good Mormon writer), the pregnancy causes Bella’s spine to break and so Edward tears open her uterus with his teeth to provide a supernatural caesarian.

Obviously (from the links) I’m not the first person to point these issues out either. Is Twilight a soft target then? I would say only in the way that George Bush was a soft target – yes a lot of jokes were made, but ultimately the man had (and has) a scary amount of support that ultimately got him into a position of huge influence. Spreading awareness of the critical inadequacies of large-scale yet damaging things is important.

A response often levied by fans in response to acidic criticism such as this:

‘Why do you have to be so analytical? That takes the fun out of it, it’s just a love story, and we enjoy it for what it is. Why can’t you just enjoy it?’

Okay. So without rhapsodizing too extensively on why normalizing harmful behaviour by accepting it as unproblematic is, well, problematic – this is a defense often used when one makes a criticism of something they like that has a millimetre more depth than simply saying what is immediately put in front of you. It certainly seems a little odd to me that the idea of putting a modicum of thought into something means you’re automatically stripping it of its ability to be enjoyed. To quote from a wonderfully useful article, this argument says nothing more than “I think people shouldn’t think so much and share their thoughts, that’s my thought that I have to share.” Nice work.

The problems with the book series don’t begin and end with the horrific but nonetheless simple ways in which Bella is harmed and manipulated. As far as I understand it, two themes that repeat throughout the work as justifications are that 1. What happens is justified by love, and 2. What happens is what Bella wants. It’s not that often in works of fiction that when one partner of a relationship does something horrible to another, the victim actually says ‘fuck it, I’m not standing for this’. It’s more ‘romantic’ for even extreme violence to be neutralized even through a literary tactic as banal as ‘well, he then felt really, really bad about it’. A great example I can think of that goes against the grain is Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, where the character Prior is abandoned by his boyfriend Louis, who can’t face the physical symptoms of Prior having AIDS. In the end, the two are shown to have a deep friendship, but not before the dialogue:

Louis: I really failed you.  But…this is hard.  Failing in love isn’t the same as not loving.  It doesn’t let you off the hook, it doesn’t mean…you’re free to not love.

Prior: I love you Louis.

L: Good.  I love you.

P: But you can’t come back.  Not ever.  I’m sorry.  But you can’t.

“You know you’ve hit rock bottom when even drag is a drag…”

Whilst this clearly isn’t written as the same sort of dreamy escapism that is the big hook of Twilight, it’s a nice illustration that these characters have more depth to them than life having zero meaning whatsoever except for their one true love. How is this an attitude that receives admiration, anyway…?

To address the second point, what Bella wants is used as a justification for much of what happens in the stories that feminists have taken issue with. A main character who other than fawning over her undead boyfriend has no obvious hobbies beyond cooking and cleaning for her father? It’s okay, that’s what she likes doing. Meyer has claimed in interviews that because feminism is about choice, Twilight is a feminist book. But not one of the female characters in twilight work, or engage particularly with independent activity. An honest choice is not what is being made appealing here. The same idea is true when it comes to the issue of abortion. As a Ms. Magazine blog post states:

Edward, Jacob, Alice, Carlisle and the Quileute wolves are all against Bella’s choice to carry out the pregnancy–and understandably so, given she looks like a living skeleton. The fetus, as Carlisle tells her, “isn’t compatible with your body–it’s too strong, too fast-growing.” Yet Bella never considers not carrying out the pregnancy, even though her life is clearly at risk—something that would no doubt make those who propose “egg as person” laws and “let women die” acts quite happy. The life of the fetus is framed as more important than Bella’s, a sentiment that colors these pieces of anti-abortion legislation. And Bella is portrayed as a heroic martyr, the ultimate mother-to-be, rather than as a delusional lovestruck teen with a seeming death wish.

There are plenty of readers who are quite astute enough to realise all this for themselves. There’s no shortage of feminists who enjoy Meyer’s works. This seeming paradox is pretty common – there are plenty of film, TV and literature examples which we might enjoy, whilst also experiencing the nagging doubt in our minds that to be consistent with our politics, we really shouldn’t. Enjoying Twilight doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a bad Feminist, any more than enjoying a MacDonalds necessarily makes someone a bad fitness trainer. Just be aware about what you’re enjoying.

A Feminists Guide to Curing Yourself of Twilight-Mania offers some amusing resources, including recommending the fiction of Anne Rice and Laurel K. Hamilton. If vampires and love are your thing, these are definitely worth a try.

GenderBen is now on Tumblr!

So I’ve finally started exploring the wonderful queer and gender-y nooks and crannies and communities present on Tumblr. I’m currently in the process of posting links on there to older blog works on here, but I’ve also found there’s so much good stuff (particularly images) that I want to share, i’ll be reposting lots of things on there that won’t actually be found here.

So if you want more gender fun, beauty and thought in your life, then follow:

http://genderben.tumblr.com/

Because this sort of thing is all kinds of awesome.

The furry fandom: an introductory exploration + fantastic fan art!

It’s pretty fair to say that there’s a huge range of gender identities and sexualities that are virtually invisible to the mainstream public, but there also exist many dimensions of human experience and identity that depending upon personal interpretation, can blur the boundaries of what is one’s identity, sexuality, and community involvement. One particular example will be discussed today. Introducing: the furries.

A furry is an individual who takes a particular interest in anthropomorphic animals. This refers to depictions of animals usually with humanesque personalities and traits. Generally speaking, people identifying as furries are able to embrace and explore their identity through online communities, though many conventions and get-togethers also exist. The term furry can almost be regarded as an umbrella, as the particular interests, and the nature of a given furry identity can vary hugely between individuals. It’s also important to recognise that whilst some individuals may fulfill this simple criterion, they may not choose to identify with this term. This is to be respected, in the same way that, in terms of identity politics, being a man who has sex with men does not mean one identifies as gay or bisexual – and can’t be said to mean ‘that is what one really is’.

The range of anthropomorphic animals varies hugely. You might think of Mickey Mouse, or Simba from the Lion King, or animal headed ancient Egyptian deities. Whilst the term ‘furry’ seems to have originated from the first early community grouping via fanzines in the 1980s, the existence of ‘funny animals‘ – your quintessential cartoon critters – stems from the 1930s onwards, and precedent for cultural recognition of anthropomorphic animals in entertainment and culture can be found going back hundreds of years.

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This is a drawing by the successful French artist J. J. Grandville, from 1828-1829.

So what does one do, if one is a furry, you might ask? Well, all sorts, depending on what interests you. Some people might simply talk to other furries through one of the popular available online forums, such as the website furaffinity. The production of literature and visual art are also popular pursuits, with many users producing such material. This can range from personal images representing a character or identity an individual may have within the fandom (also known as a ‘fursona’) to highly professional digital and fine art. Below are a range of examples.

An example of a fursona, used with kind permission by Rico – http://www.rico-dawg.deviantart.com/

Image used with kind permission by Adam Wan – http://www.furaffinity.net/user/zaush

Image used with kind permission by Adam Wan – http://www.furaffinity.net/user/zaush

Image used with kind permission by Adam Wan – http://www.furaffinity.net/user/zaush

Image used with kind permission by Adam Wan – http://www.furaffinity.net/user/zaush

These two images are not publicly available, so I particularly thank Adam for sharing these images with me for use on GenderBen.

Images used with kind permission by Adam Wan – http://www.furaffinity.net/user/zaush

The furry fandom has not received much press. When it has, it has often been rather disingenuous and misinforming about the breadth of identities and activities that occur. One particular lengthy article, published by Vanity Fair in 2001 is somewhat unsubtle in its implications that virtually all furries must be socially awkward males in their 30s and 40s, who are either sad, lonely freaks with stuffed toy collection obsessions, or engaging in sinister or illegal fetishistic sexual practices. There is a sense that reporting on this community is really an indulgence of a macabre, carnivalesque voyeurism – made all the worse by its fundamental inaccuracies.

It is of course unsurprising that some people with a furry identity enjoy (different) elements of sexual roleplaying as part of their identity experience, or produce or consume erotic literature or pornography. I find it somewhat ironic that many of the individuals who would castigate such behaviour are mocking an ‘abnormal’ or ‘deviant’ expression of desire that causes zero harm or impact on others, and yet undoubtedly remain silent or indifferent to the countless examples of sexual, physical and emotional abuse that can be performed against women (and men) in much ‘mainstream’ pornography.

Oh, also, it might be nice to examine some figures about the interests and population of the online furry society, which rather challenges the idea that this is an e-club of drooling chronic masturbators who haven’t quite made it out of their parent’s basements.

Each year, a large scale online survey is performed, with the 2011 data containing responses from 4,365 self-identified furries. 71% of respondents are between the ages of 15-24, and 21.2% report a ‘female sex’ (kudos to the report for granting respondents the opportunity to distinguish between their ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Whilst imperfect, the existence of an ‘other’ option for sex and the recognition of some complexity on the one is a hell of a lot better than virtually any other data collection I’ve seen). One can hardly claim that the stereotype of the furry population being made up of  ‘heterosexual males perving on dehumanised female fantasy’ has fair basis either, with only 42% identifying as “completely or mostly heterosexual”. There has been a shift in that there now exists the stereotype that the furry fandom is composed instead of awkward gay adolescents with immature sexual fetishes. The obvious heterosexism aside (as if it would matter even if every single furry did possess a minority sexuality), this idea of using the construction of stereotype to then ridicule is merely a marginalisation tool, as made obvious by the fact that different, contradictory offensive stereotypes exist to target the same heterogeneous group.

Most interesting possibly are the sections of this report that consider the importance of sex to respondents. On a scale of 1 to 10, participants were asked to rate how important sex is to them, how important they believe it is to other furries, and how important they believe it is to the public. The most popular answer for personal importance of sex was 1 – least important. However for other furries, the most common pick was 7, hinting that people may be perceived as considering sex as important, when really they care about other things much more. 37% believed that the public rank a 10 on sex importance. This is easy to see why when one just has to do a google image search for ‘furry’ to see the number of poor attempts at caption humour have been crafted with the basic theme of ‘furry = sexually wrong’. When one has experienced the public policing one’s identity, one becomes far more aware of how restrictive sexual hegemony really is.

Of course, explicit art isn’t always to be avoided.

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It can even be amusing. Credit for images – http://www.furaffinity.net/user/coal/

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