Author: llywelynjones

Writer

Bowie

It’s been precisely a month since Bowie died, and in that month my life has puttered in a comparably smooth state, but I have also been in greater mourning than I’ve yet experienced for a blood relative. This could be surprising to some. Or not.

His absence still hurts. I cried several times after hearing about it, and weeks later I started to sing “Heroes” alone at home and I broke down in the middle, and I can’t think about him being gone without wet eyes. The best I can manage is to listen to as much of his music as possible and pretend that he will never stop writing it. Even though he will. Since I was nine years old, he was one of the most important people I knew of. He explained gender to me, without ever talking about it. He explained my sexuality to me, without ever talking about it. He helped me understand what’s beautiful. Some of his music I never loved, but much of it I did, and I find that in being an adult I love more of it. When I say “being an adult” I mean that until he died I did not really see myself as an adult. I saw myself as a consciousness that had experienced childhood, adolescence, and then some strange chaos of adventure, abuse, and constant financial struggle; I saw myself as a consciousness that had been several genders and several individuals and was starting to come full circle back to something I should have predicted when I was sixteen or seventeen. I didn’t understand “adulthood.” Now I do, a decade after legally holding that identity. I am an adult because one of the few gods I had is dead.

Only the other day could I bring myself to watch the “Blackstar” video; watching “Lazarus” the very day after he died was arguably a mistake. I still have not listened to the entire new album. Soon I will.

I suppose this is an in memoriam post, something to recognize the influence of whom I call the Man Who Fell to Earth (and Returned to the Stars). It is important for me to clarify that I do not regard him as flawless. To me he feels like a family member, and that can mean negative as well as positive. I simply wish for this to serve as a meditation— a digital space to lay a few thoughts and links in response to his mere existence. From what I know about his views on the Internet, this seems especially appropriate.

1. Jes Skolnik, on Bowie as an icon who, yes, had sex with somebody underage: Human/Alien/Human (trigger warning)

2. My favorite song of his:

3. I must, at some point, compile my thoughts on his complete discography once I’ve finished reviewing it. Not this day, however. I need more distance and time.

4. This, presented without further commentary:

DLJ

My work with The Offing

As I’ve been mentioning on social media at intervals, The Offing, a non-profit literary magazine sponsored by the L.A. Review of Books, invited me to guest-edit their first ever Trans Issue. I must say that I never anticipated this at all, but I’m pleased beyond measure to have had the opportunity. Everyone I spoke to at the magazine is incredibly kind, too.

In any event, the Trans Issue has now been published in its entirety. All pieces included were curated by myself and several other trans writers. I strongly recommend that you check everything out; some of it can be tough or triggering reading, but it’s all valuable, and I got to read some truly stunning work. Very inspirational.

The capstone for this experience— I got tagged for an interview, which I suppose isn’t my very first but is at least my first targeted toward myself as a writer. You can read the full text here.

Many thanks to C. Russell Price for the engaging questions, and many thanks to Jayy Dodd for tracking me down in the first place.

DLJ

Not dead

Hello all. I realized I last updated this blog over a month ago, and I wanted to offer reassurances (if anyone was wondering) that I am actually doing rather well. Life is by no means perfect, but I’ve been adjusting to a new rhythm of things. My husband has a new job, thus a new work schedule; I’ve changed my own schedule, too, though less to line up with his and more to attempt a different angle of attack on my depression and energy problems. I’m trying to find the sweet spot between “waking up so early that my delayed sleep phase prevents me from achieving cognitive functionality” and “waking up so late that my seasonal affective disorder kicks into overdrive from the loss of sunlight.” So far, it might be working, but I’m not sure. In any case, a lot more is afoot than simply this challenge, so my attention has been pulled away from writing here. Speaking of writing, I’m doing a lot of things writing-related:

  • I’ve made some sporadic but satisfying progress in my new short story.
  • I’m partway through arranging a private reading for Frankenstein, and I’m getting very excited about how that will go.
  • As I’ve already announced on social media, I’m serving as a guest editor for The Offing‘s first Trans Issue, which will feature work entirely by trans people, curated by trans people. The issue will probably be released pretty soon, and when it does, I will obviously put a link here. I was very honored to receive the invitation for this role, and you should check out the magazine in general; a non-profit arm of the L.A. Review of Books, they largely exist to center traditionally marginalized voices across all genres and types of prose and verse. And they are actively invested in paying their contributors, guest editors, and staff a more-than-nominal amount! What a novel concept. (To help them achieve this goal, please consider donating to their fundraiser.)

That’s an intensely summarized telling of my life as it stands. My best and wickedest wishes to all of you as All Hallows’ draws near.

DLJ

Florida

Florida is desolate. It is the most green, most lush of all possible wastelands I have yet encountered. I have been in the Fort Lauderdale area for private reasons since the very end of August, and soon I will be going home, and not a moment too soon.

I hold the average Floridian no ill will. Not everyone chooses to live here, and like any other part of this country, the original inhabitants have much more of a right than me to talk about who should or shouldn’t be here. The land itself is beautiful, even if it isn’t within a climate my body, mind, or hairstyle can tolerate. I at least admire palms in an aesthetic vein, and I have been fascinated to see so many different species here. There seem to be even more than I’ve encountered on trips to California. Other interesting trees and plants abound, and there are little lizards skittering everywhere, and there are herons, and if the travel schedule had permitted, my husband and I would gladly have gone to tour the Everglades. The summer weather tantalizes my amateur meteorologist; it is unpredictable, but predictably so. Daily, there may be at least one thunderstorm, and though I may curse profusely at driving through them, though I retain a childlike nervousness about being struck by lightning outdoors, I have immensely enjoyed watching the rain and wind and chaos from the safety of the hotel room or the parked rental car. The flat land and the gigantic cloud masses stagger me; every afternoon’s palette is blended lapis and emerald and mist.

I am glad, in a certain way, to have seen these things, to experience some of the farthest southerly reaches of this continent. Though I have seen several unique places across the globe, this is my first time in the tropics. I may be perpetually too warm in the outdoor humidity, too cold and dry in the indoor high-power air conditioning; I may find it unthinkable to personally live somewhere with such a routine risk of hurricanes and flash floods. Still, it’s something new, and it’s good to meet the new.

Almost everyone I have met has been kind. As a New Englander I always have to adjust to random strangers talking to me as if we know each other, but it’s never felt invasive yet. Most people I have met, of course, are workers providing me with services, so I suspect that some of this is a “customer is always right” ethos combining with Southern hospitality, but I have not yet run across the passive-aggressive Stepford niceness I loathe, and frankly I would expect that from a rather different sort of person here. Probably the sort of people who can afford to drive Dodge Chargers. We have counted approximately two score distinct Dodge Chargers here, never mind all of the other sports cars. I should note that I actually like Chargers; that doesn’t mean I have to like their owners.

I’ve eaten food that ranges from decent to delicious. I’ve enjoyed the chance to drive on some exquisitely well-arranged roads where most drivers use a reasonable speed, neither too fast nor too slow, even though I seem to be an anomaly for believing in turn signals. Driving around Fort Lauderdale has become one of my favorite activities here, in fact. I can control the air temperature in my vehicle, I can look at the wonderful trees, I can appreciate the vistas, I can listen to music, and all without much stress. Given that I haven’t regularly driven a car in five years, this has been reassuring.

But the state is desolate. I know this is not a completely fair statement. I have only seen one corner of it, and I’m not expecting to venture any further than a day trip to Miami on Tuesday. During my first few days here, I consciously told myself to have an open mind. I had indeed set foot in a place that, for good or ill, I associated with grotesque heat, bourgeois retirees, and the very worst of conservative politics. Though I had long established that I would never go to Florida unless I had no other option— and, for this trip, I will assure you that I had none— it seemed wise to make the best of a twelve day stay and try to find things I could appreciate. This was how I allowed myself to notice the natural beauty and the relative ease in getting about. I tried not to look for flaws just to say that I had seen them. Unfortunately, the flaws still hit me like a sledgehammer. I did not really have to look in order for them to appear.

It’s the apotheosis of suburban planning. It’s the highly manicured, institutionalized shepherding of the elderly. It’s the utter lack of organic neighborhoods. I have seen essentially no work of architecture that doesn’t seem to have dropped out of the sky without respect for the wildlife around it. I am given nature, but the beauty I find is in that which has just managed to escape human control, not what has been trimmed and set out for me. After a point, I have no words to describe the literally endless strip malls, full-size malls, housing complexes, chain restaurants, every few intersections nearly a clone of the others half a mile away. If the streets did not have such useful signage, and if I did not have GPS access, I would get lost in an instant because of each town’s homogeneity. Sunrise. Tamarac. Coral Springs. Pembroke Pines. Plantation (yes, a town called Plantation). They are all clones, right down to the paint on the buildings, probably right down to the layout of the golf courses.

I know that my complaints are not original. I’m issuing boilerplate criticisms about many parts of the United States, of which Florida is ultimately just an archetypal example. I had the pretentious thought, at one point, “I imagine people will immediately know I’m not from around here.” Yes, me, the exceedingly not-tanned, not-thin, young-ish person with unusual hair, metal playing in the car, dramatic makeup, all-black clothing even in the heat. This was not just a pretentious thought but also, I suspect, an incorrect one. Florida is not actually composed of preppy, orange-skinned people who spend their days boating, golfing, visiting South Beach, and drinking mid-quality mojitos. Rather, the state has a very diverse population, and it simply tries very hard— even harder than some other places— to make it difficult for a lot of those people to live there comfortably. It wouldn’t even be right to say that the state lacks the subcultures with which I associate or one might think I do. Florida has a distinct goth scene, a strong leather community, and an extremely well-known metal scene for fans of the genre.

If I spent more time here, I would be very keen to explore what drives and enriches the good, interesting residents. Some of the best art comes from unlivable conditions, and sometimes that art is what secretly makes them livable. In theory, I would like to not hate this place.

But after I leave it, I don’t have enough money or leisure time to prioritize a trip back to Florida over trips to many other places I’ve always wanted to see. So it is probable that my twelve days in Florida will be my only days in Florida. I have the distinct sense that I’m going to leave it with my thoughts summarized by this rather pointless, nose-upturned, thoroughly Yankee, miniature travelogue. If some people— some— wanted to show me how I was wrong about this state, they ought to. In the meantime, however, I need to get away from the bleakness of so much beauty thwarted by so much concrete. That’s a trite summary of a complex problem, but so far I have found almost nothing in Florida that wasn’t a cliché, and therefore I will keep that thought precisely as it is.

DLJ

Becoming, not being

“You used to be a male?”

I didn’t freeze in place, but my pulse quickened slightly. The woman before me could mean this with malice or she could mean it as some kind of misguided friendliness. Either way, it was not an appropriate inquiry to receive from someone working at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but I answered, “Yes,” because it was the pragmatic thing to do. Yes. Just finish processing my license renewal and gender marker change. Just change it from M to F. Please.

RMV Woman kept working, apparently seeing no reason to deny me, but in doing so, she smiled and remarked, “You’re so pretty, you’re very lucky. I would never have guessed. A lot of people come in and—” She didn’t finish the thought, but she gave me a look that said more than enough, and unfortunately she then barreled on. “Really, though? You really—? You’re very pretty. It’s wonderful. I hope you’re not offended— sometimes people are offended.”

I didn’t know if I was offended personally. I did feel offended on behalf of various other people. I did feel frustrated that the photo snapped of me was not flattering; I didn’t like the hint of a double chin, a trait that was mostly the product of being on testosterone therapy for three and a half years. I did want to end this conversation as quickly as humanly possible.

It did conclude, even though the temporary license I received first still said “M” by mistake and I had to run back and ask for that to be changed, too. RMV Woman assured me that on the actual license everything would still be correct. With that, I walked out into the sweltering summer heat as someone who might legally be regarded as an FTMTF. Because the fact of the matter was— I did used to be a male, by some definitions of “used to be” and some definitions of “a male.” But, by similar standards, I also “used to be a female.” I had thus been subjected to an experience all too common for many women, yet on the one hand, I had experienced very few of the other challenges that those women often encounter, and on the other hand, it had taken me work this morning (and this week) to achieve the appearance that garnered the pseudo-compliment.

Is this a typical experience of the average FTMTF? Should I call myself that?

I don’t know.

. . . .

I was born with genitalia of a relatively unambiguous nature such that the world identified me as “a girl.” I was raised accordingly, though my parents did not prescribe any gender roles or rules for me. I remember some occasional concern given to how I would be treated by people outside my immediate family on account of my gender, but mostly I remember an early understanding that gendered terms were of an essentially anatomical nature. Nowadays I know this is still not the best way to present it, but while it meant that I viewed sex and gender as linked, I also viewed gender as so identical to sex as to be barely worth the distinction.

Of course, this perspective evolved. My parents were soon not my only influence, and I learned things like “women and men think differently,” “women are irrational,” “sexual promiscuity is bad, especially for women,” and much more. As adolescence began, I also noticed how female peers received social and academic advantages if they acted happy, flirtatious, sexy, deferential, and non-opinionated. I had no inclination to force a good mood, to use sex appeal as a diplomacy tactic if I didn’t feel real desire, to suppress my goals in favor of others’, or to not say things I was thinking about unless it was genuinely a good time to keep my mouth shut. Consequently I found success in almost anything where I had talent and interest, but I was not a celebrated person, and in my peer group I was clearly regarded as incendiary, difficult, bitchy. I failed to see my disadvantages as a facet of patriarchy; I saw them as female weaknesses, and I saw myself as better than other young women.

The physical component did not go away either. Adolescence also brought distressing changes to my figure. I was already very short and I didn’t grow very much, so sometimes I was seen as childlike and sexless when I would rather not have been. I also did experience a very intense puberty in other respects, such as being among the first in my class to wear a bra, being struck by hellish acne, growing body hair that I was taught to hide, and generally filling out beyond the curve proportions that were regarded as conventionally attractive. I was infuriatingly jealous of my friends who were more appropriately beautiful, and in my queerness I was also in love with them. In this respect I saw myself as inferior to other young women.

So I was superbly intelligent. But I was ugly. That was my situation, according to myself. (I will briefly mention that my angst, though having legitimate sources, not only funneled into confused, misogynist outlets but also strikes me now as embarrassingly exaggerated given that I was white, not MAAB trans, and had no significant disabilities or deformities. If this had been otherwise, it’s very likely that my troubles would have multiplied.) By the time I reached the end of high school, I felt as if I were both “beyond” female in a positive sense— and tragically “failed” as female in the earliest physical definition of femininity that I’d learned. There was a lot of appeal in rejecting the label.

At the age of seventeen, I did reject it, albeit privately, and the next ten years were spent on an endeavor to define that rejection. First I explored the idea of being, more or less, a guy who was unafraid of femme presentation and uninterested in physical transition. Then normative pressures built up from others in my college trans community, and I explored the idea of being a guy who presented at least 90% butch and did intend to physically transition to something that most of the world would consider male apart from that which was contained in my boxers. Then I entered a relationship with a cis woman who abusively pressured me to embrace a genderqueer and eventually a female identity, using the logic that all of my attempts to assume a male identity were borne of misogyny. In some perverse sense, she was not wrong, but she emotionally and sexually damaged me in the course of trying to project her theory onto my reality. She also exploited me in other respects, so it was only natural to leave that twisted life with a fortified wish to make manifest everything she had denied me.

And so it was, as I entered a new relationship with the man to whom I have ultimately pledged myself for a very, very long while, that I sought a classical “FTM” arc again, and I hated my body. Though in the course of my past abuse I had finally learned the importance of feminism and no longer saw womanhood as some odious thing, I was still terrified of actually being a woman. And then— perhaps as early as 2012, but manifesting more strongly by 2014— I was suddenly in some circumstance with the love of my life, some circumstance with my social life, some circumstance with my activism, some circumstance with determining my real objectives before death. I suddenly felt eminently comfortable with a myriad tokens of that which most other human beings considered female. It was as if I had so many factors against comfortably identifying as a woman before, and now they were gone.

Framing my past in these terms courts danger. It would be all too easy for someone who professes feminism but repudiates trans people to take everything I have said and use it as fuel for their ideology. I have shied away from writing about my latest gender experiences for precisely this reason. Let me therefore say some things with utmost clarity:

  • I have been describing a life path that did not work for me. It may very well work for other people, and in fact I have seen it work.
  • I chose to be a man. I chose it as an act of survival and desperation. The reason I have now made a different choice is not that nobody should choose to be a man or that nobody should accept their natural inclination toward manifesting various concepts of “man.” My choice to be a man proved wrong, proved misguided, simply because it was not actually the correct choice for me to make.
  • I need an entirely separate essay to lay out the exact psychological process behind my abrupt comfort with woman-ness, with female-ness, with femme-ness, with anything remotely on those ends of those false binaries. I plan to write that at some point. For now, the raw summary is that for many years I did not have that comfort, and now I do. It is also more than a comfort; it is a need.

With this understanding hopefully established— that is, the understanding that I am only, only, only describing what has happened in my life and not what happens in the life of any trans person assigned female at birth— I will at least enumerate some of the tokens that I welcome and crave. I do not consider these things to somehow be female or worth gendering in any precise way. But I am fully aware of how most other people in society would gender them:

  • Allowing my breasts to be discernible, even accentuated
  • Wearing clothing made of certain fabrics or cut in certain styles
  • Wearing my hair in certain ways
  • Wearing makeup
  • Bearing children

I have written previously on the cost of femme— how wishing to have certain elements in my gender presentation affects expectations for other elements. But I am speaking here of the things I specifically do desire. Assume that things I choose under duress are still chosen that way; assume that I am performing femme “successfully,” i.e. as RMV Woman decreed.

It is odd for me to really group all of these tokens together so succinctly. Bearing children is, of course, only a biological process. It is not female, and it is not femme. And since I find the femme/butch dichotomy deeply insufficient, I am uncomfortable grouping my presentational choices together as if they are somehow linked, never mind adding childbearing into the mixture. Sadly, other people link all of these together, and it is that link I’m referencing.

I identified as genderqueer and genderfluid for a while over the past year or two, as I explored the tokens I had abandoned. To some degree, I believe these are still the most accurate descriptors for my person. I am not sure, but it’s possible. But the more that I have explored these aspects of my presentation and personality, the more that I have fully committed to that which many call femme, the more that I have run into a critical social conundrum.

. . . .

It comes down to choosing battles. Someone could have long ago asked of me, “Why abandon a male identity? There is nothing saying a man truly cannot wear a brassiere, lipstick, and high heels. There is nothing saying a man truly cannot be pregnant. Do you really mean to give up he/him/his over a matter of narrow-mindedness?”

For one thing, I do not necessarily mean to give up he/him/his. Pronouns are a sacred affair, whether for personal comfort or for political statement, and I still sometimes think that because I have fought for the right to be called him, I should not surrender it altogether. I will get back to that some other time. In the meantime, however, no, I also do not mean to give up an establishment of male identity simply because one can never ontologically qualify as male based on what you wear or what you do with your uterus.

I am giving up my attempt at maleness because I was not any better at conforming to all of its expectations than I was at conforming to all expectations of femaleness. Many people may find that one struggle is easier for them than the other, but I have not. I am giving up my attempt at maleness because it is too hard for me personally to be a man among misogynist men. Many people may find that it is easier for them to do this than it is to try alternatives, but I have not. I am giving up my attempt at maleness because it is too hard for me personally to be a feminist ally and still contend with my own instances of male privilege. Many people may be able to balance these things effectively, but it is beyond my own capacity. I am giving up my attempt at maleness because I am tired of it. Many people may not give up like this, and I genuinely congratulate their willpower, but I cannot continue.

On the flip side, someone could ask me, “Why accept a female identity? Not being a man does not necessitate being a woman. I thought you saw beyond the binary.”

I absolutely see beyond it, at least to whatever extent one person can overcome such conditioning. As I have said, I feel more comfortable identifying as genderqueer or something in that rough area. Even though my early aversion to some forms of prescribed feminine behavior was misogynist in its expression, I still certainly don’t want to identify as female if that will result in other people leaping to a huge number of conclusions about my interests, what I want to do with my life, my way of thinking, and so on. I also don’t want to say that because I have a great deal in common with cis women, I am one of them; I think it is preferable, ultimately, for everyone to question the gender which they are assigned, to deconstruct it, to rebuild it. I do not want a flat out binary female identity to suggest anything reductive about what “being a woman” could mean.

But reduction is a very key word in my situation. For better or worse, with the way that I generally present myself, 99% of all complete strangers are going to assume I am a woman and treat me however they treat women, unless I go around wearing a nametag that says I am not one, which strikes me pragmatically as a terrible plan in this day and age. For better or worse, if I ever get pregnant, have a child, and raise it while continuing to present myself as I currently do, then most authorities, institutions, and strangers are going to regard me as a mother, and as a woman by extension. The only people I can expect to gender me as neither a woman nor to pronoun me as she/her? They are either people who know me already or people to whom I could reasonably expect to explain my identity based on demographic factors that I learn in the course of interacting with them. These people are not the entirety of people I am going to meet in my life. This is a pure, cold fact of life that I have (re-)discovered over the past year, and I do not anticipate it changing within my lifetime.

So here is the heart of it. It would be wonderful, beyond wonderful, if governments, employers, and many more ceased using genders as criteria for identification. A simple “M” or “F” marker is meaningless other than to oppress, and even adding further options does not really help. Even with twelve options or a fill-in-the-blank, we would be left with the problem of having to conform to this identifier in some fashion in order to not have our identity called into question— just as we are expected to have our names, addresses, eye color, and fingerprints likewise listed accurately. Truly we should work on creating a society where identification in general is used only as an administrative tool and a source of celebration, not a source of policing and pigeonholing, but surely gender is the most troublesome classifier on basic documents today. Just about always, it lends literally no information of value other than a presumption of what pronouns the bearer prefers— and this assumes the gender marker is also what the bearer prefers, and this assumes that there is a direct correlation between pronouns and gender, which is a gross simplification. Regrettably, these are the conditions in which we live. They are the conditions in which I live.

In those conditions— while I have to identify myself to the state, to businesses, to landlords— I am going to run into exponentially more problems if it continues to say “M” on my personal identification documents while I continue to adopt so many tokens of what most people would label “F.” Pragmatically I have chosen to not fight this battle. I laud others who do. I cannot. I have too many other battles in which I am even more invested, and I need energy and time for them. I also find myself surprisingly unrankled by the prospect of having pieces of paper say that I am a woman. Even if I do not yet know what I am really comfortable being called on the whole, I certainly feel as if my life experience is close enough to that of a woman, or at least that of a queer, white, depressed, formerly affluent, currently working-class woman— if someone absolutely must reduce me to man or woman, it is woman that I would choose, even though I wish so greatly that this choice did not sometimes need to be made.

So today I went to the RMV with a piece of paper signed by my doctor, affirming that in his “professional opinion” I am female.

. . . .

“¿Español?”

Before I entered the RMV, just as I was at the door, taking out my earbuds, I had heard this question off to my right. It was from the man who held the door open for me. Unfortunately, my Spanish is not very good, so I shook my head apologetically, I said, “No hablo, sorry,” and I winced.

“Oh, okay,” the man said, following me in. It was rapidly apparent that whatever language I spoke was immaterial to his real point: “Beautiful, beautiful.”

I hate street harassment. I hate it viscerally. It has the power to ruin several hours or a day, for me. But any analysis I could give of this encounter should probably be deconstructed on racial grounds; I’m aware of the stereotyping of Latino men as libidinous cat-callers, and though I don’t deserve some kind of medal for reacting calmly to his behavior, I mostly hope others might understand that I’m only raising his ethnicity because it was relevant to how our conversation began and I can’t think of a good way (or reason) to fictionalize the whole thing and whitewash him.

In any case, I heard this word from him. “Beautiful, beautiful.” He said it a few times, and I found myself flustered. I said, “Thank you,” helplessly, just as I would eventually do with RMV Woman. I didn’t really want the attention, but I also found him much more polite than someone yelling hey baby as I passed them by. It also seemed awkward to suddenly be waiting for an elevator as just the two of us, getting into an elevator as just the two of us, but I was getting off one floor before him. During our very short journey together, he kept going on about how beautiful I was, until he held out his hand for me to shake and asked my name.

“Devon.”

“Devon, I’m Sergio.”

“Nice to meet you, Sergio.”

By now I was still uncomfortable, but I was also finding a strange thrill. He may not have had the right to snare my attention like this, but I had the right to accept it or discard it, and I felt like accepting it. I am married, but this hasn’t constituted a barrier to flirting; my lack of real interest in this Sergio was likewise not a barrier to opening myself up to the experience of his own flirting. There are so many circumstances where I am sure I would not have been in the mood, and I would allow anyone else the right to not accept any of it overall. But for my part, I was intrigued. People don’t usually flirt with me. They don’t usually compliment my appearance in a serious, respectful way. I haven’t usually received sexual attention from strangers (subtle or not) in a context where I could really control my response to it. I decided to try here.

“You really are very, very beautiful,” Sergio said again. Then— as seemed inevitable— “Are you married?”

“Yes, sorry…” I winced again. I showed him my ring.

Promptly Sergio snapped his fingers, knowing he was going to strike out. I decided not to try explaining my polycuriosity in the span of thirty seconds to someone I had met under these conditions. I was ready to flirt but anything beyond that is a little beyond what my husband and I have quite arranged, and I didn’t know enough about Sergio to have my interest piqued. But we smiled at each other, and he asked, “Do you have any children?”

The other inevitable question. I said, “No, not yet.” Then the elevator was at my floor and I exited, telling Sergio to have a nice day.

I am quite sure I will never see him again, and I am not wistful about this. But I was amused and a little sad as I headed toward the hour-long wait in the RMV and the future conversation with the woman who thought I passed very well as what she considered a woman. I do not know what Sergio would have thought if I had told him why I was at the RMV in the first place. Would he still have thought I was beautiful? What if he knew that it had said “F” on my driver’s license many years ago?

What is the actual threshold at which people with a gender preference in their partners gain or lose interest?

Why do I live in a world where uninvited flirting from a man could feel more welcome and affirming than misguided, transmisogynist reassurances from a woman?

What am I now? What is an FTMTF? I know I am not that, but from certain angles, certain slants, some would use the phrase. Just like some would say I am a woman. Just like some would say I am not a woman. I think I am not anything. I am only becoming something. I am always becoming something.

Free preview: “Tiresias”

It’s probably overdue; there’s already a preview of Tiresias on Lulu, for instance, but you only see a few pages of the actual story that way. To that end, I’m posting here a large section of text from further on in the novel, and for future reference I will keep it linked on my Publications & Projects page. In so many ways, I feel as if I’ve moved on from this book, but right now it’s the longest previously published sample of my work to date, and these paragraphs perhaps belong here. (Content warnings apply for descriptions of suicidal ideation & behavior.)

DLJ


The lurid hue of sodium cast upon our faces,
It stretched upon the ghastly snow and smiled,
A blackened pair of lips now beckoned and beguiled,
I ventured to abandoned places
And all the while,
To whit, to whoo, to whit, to whoo,
Athenian familiar in the night and black,
Crying, to whit, to whoo.
But whom would I woo, with so little wit.

. . . .

I would watch television with her in the shrinking, claustrophobic box of an apartment. She hoarded so much now. Half of our home felt like waste, needless accumulation, closing around us. Sometimes we couldn’t see much of the worn and ripped brown carpeting, brown like moist shit mixed with grey hairs. There was a bookcase to the left in the needlessly long entryway; the bookcase was made of cheap metal painted black and wrought into floral curlicues near the top of the frame. This was where I kept books from childhood that I never read. The entryway was narrow so Anne had to squeeze. I didn’t but it was still close and choking. Where the entryway met the living room, which is an ironic name, there was a bright green table covered by our messenger bags and an explosion of papers, mail never opened, mail still to be answered, mail ignored. There was also a coat rack. Beyond that, against the right wall, there was a table made of plain pine with two old chairs that predated its purchase. Above this table was one window, facing the east and an area meant for gardening. A red brocade curtain altered by my mother could obscure the view if so desired. There was a terrible Orientalist aesthetic to the space, the red brocade, the tatami mat that tried to hide the shit-floor, the futon sitting opposite the table on the left wall—the futon cover was white with black Chinese calligraphy markings all over it. I derived no pleasure from any of these things, no true pleasure, when we bought them, but they were the only things that Anne could accept as a compromise instead of her endless obsession with prints of roses and ivy vines and things you should be sitting on for a prim English tea, or her other endless obsession with vivid pinks and yellows that clash like the carefree whimsy of a teenage magazine. Behind both the table and the futon were the grey metal bookshelves with books I didn’t read because Anne didn’t like them. In the center of the far wall, in the midst of this agglutination of halfway-design, was the squat black coffee table with the television set that had a good picture quality but a very small screen. Around the corners of the floor, against the baseboards, anywhere that the tatami didn’t cover and even some places where it did, there was more paper, odds and ends, used plastic cups, dead insects, cracked CDs, unused diaries, unwanted gifts, a slushpile of things that should have been put in their proper place or thrown out—if only there were room. If only there were some assurance that Anne would not find a way to fill up the floor with new things in a few more weeks. If only it had not become so taxing to consider caring for my own well-being, let alone hers.

Rounding the corner from the entryway toward the left, you stepped around a temporarily constructed wire rack that had become permanent and also overwhelmed with the same garbage, and when you looked left again there was the entrance to the fluorescent formica kitchen, and there was also the entrance to the bathroom which was a different circle of muck in that the toilet always clogged, the shower stall was small and scummy and had spiders. Anne and I could never fit in to shower together. If you did not go into the kitchen or the bathroom, and you just proceeded forward past the futon and its red end table, there was another door immediately and this led you to the bedroom. Where there was the useless north-facing window, and the curtains were mismatched brocade in green and purple, and the comforter on the bed was green and the throw blanket upon it was purple, and beneath all of this the sheets were an incongruous white with black polka dots. The bed frame was thin and rickety and made of pine, and we built it perfectly according to the instructions, but we bought one size too big for our mattress, so the mattress slid on the slats constantly, making slats fall out. Underneath this poor planning there wasn’t an ounce of storage space, but it had been claimed for that anyway, like every other place, stuffed with scarves and lost quarters and candy wrappers and water bottles half-drunk so that the water inside had turned to foul petri dish. And pills, dropped and unaccounted for and now unlabeled. This was to your right, and to your left was the too-small closet and the nook for the laundry basket which was ever-flooded because Anne would buy shirts with her credit card once and never wear them again but we had to clean them.

Useless desserts piling up in the freezer. Dishes stacking up in the sink. Trash in the form of papers, old boxes, damaged books, starting to breed within every corner, pleading for me to remove it except that what if Anne needed those things just once, what if what if, I absorbed her habits and her lack of motivation. I bought her a PlayStation 2 for our anniversary that February and now in May she had fifteen new games bought with debt, several never played, several played briefly and then an apparent disappointment, several played so frequently that I would lose my mind if I heard the game music ever again. Buying. Always buying. I was learning to help her feel better by buying, a lesson hard-learned when she’d spent $200 on me for Christmas and I frugally spent $25 but this turned out to be the shittiest form of support I could provide. “I understand you have all these pragmatic concerns,” she would tell me time and again, “but dearest one, without nice things… I mean I just want a little something now and then, you know?” A $200 little-something on our barely more than $1000 per month, and no, she was still not employed, not even unemployed in the benefits sense, all she had for any support was the COBRA plan for healthcare that her parents had conceded on in one rare and hard-won fight via mail. I pressed her time and again to do something else but the phone calls required scared her too much.

She was talking about cameras more, and also about voices. About the people who were mean and wanted to kill her. I asked if she meant her family, she said not them. I wondered if they would give her money, help us out in any way. We wrote and asked and the answer was still no. She bought a cat to feel less depressed, and he was a beautiful black cat with the sweetest and loudest purr, but she still stayed depressed so she never scooped his litter and I took this task upon myself because he would shit on the bathroom floor and cover it with towels otherwise. And he still did this even when I started to scoop and clean the box, because the box itself was too small and we couldn’t afford a bigger one, at least not when Anne wanted to choose between such necessities and a new pair of shoes.

One day, she started to talk about killing herself. This didn’t disturb me as much as it could have, initially; I had always known that her depressive phases involved suicidal ideation, or whatever they call it in medical terms. I had even heard her speak that way before. Distracted, chilled speech, completely bored: I don’t really know why I’m alive.—I should probably just die.—I’m going to be honest, I keep thinking about all the knives in our kitchen, I want to put one into my stomach and bleed everywhere. My uncle had killed himself but I didn’t really know what the signs of seriously attempting something were. Every time that she said these things at first, I felt panicked and asked questions like Anne do you want me to put all the pills away or hide the knives, Anne should I call someone about this, Anne have you considered changing your meds or maybe seeing a therapist again or something. It unsettled her to see me unsettled, or so it seemed, because whenever I made those responses she would assure me that it was okay, I’ll be good, as if not hurting herself were a matter of obedience. She also told me that I was probably the one who needed therapy instead, when was I going to sort out my gender confusion, and so forth. And she never even tried to carry through on her threats.

But that day, a weekend in June as I recall, because I had been home the whole time instead of slogging over to the cognitive science lab for my summer research assistantship there, that day she talked about killing herself an awful lot. She talked about it every couple of hours, from the moment we woke up to the time we snacked on some junk food for our lunch, to the time I performed a rare floor vacuuming, to the time we fought about dinner and ordered out and I picked it up. Then, after we ate and I tossed out the Styrofoam boxes in our overflowing trash—rested the boxes on the lid would be a better descriptor—I wound my way into the bedroom to find her on the bed scratching away furiously at her wrists with a plastic knife, frantic frenetic, labored enough that I could almost read the question why aren’t they bleeding yet?… Indeed, Anne looked very troubled by her lack of success, and she glared at me as I approached to snatch the utensil out of her grasp.

“Will you go to the hospital, Anne? I think we need to take you there.” I thought maybe I should have flipped my shit more, raised my voice, because after all, it was only plastic but there was no room in our apartment to hide anything truly dangerous, and I could not watch Anne 24/7.

Shaking her head, voice coming out in an abruptly terrified whisper: “I don’t want to go to a hospital. They’ll make me stay overnight,” Anne protested. We had never spent a single night apart, not since helping her flee New Jersey.

I knew she was half right, but I spoke as gently as I could, finding my mind startlingly clear under the circumstances. More clear than it had been during more mundane incidents, in fact. I said, “We don’t have to check you in like that. Not if you don’t want to. But maybe in the ER they can at least write you a prescription for some better meds, something temporary to tide you over till you could start seeing someone more often for this.”

“But I don’t want to see anyone!” Trembling. Anne reached out her hand for mine, or maybe for the plastic knife, which I was still holding. I gave her my free hand instead while she continued, “You remember what I told you about my parents, how they made me see a shrink year after year and the shrink would always tell them everything I said.”

“No therapist or psychiatrist or psychologist up here is going to be able to say anything to them. They wouldn’t even try if they even deserved a license.” I drew in my breath and looked around our dismally cluttered little chamber. The cat had found his way in and now appeared without warning upon the foot of the bed, settling into a loaf shape.

“I don’t want to do any of this.”

A dry swallow: “Anne… if you don’t do something about how you’ve been feeling lately, then soon you might wind up in the hospital and there won’t be any choice about whether you stay overnight.” They would keep her while she recovered from whatever trauma, and then if she were still talking about cameras and voices or if she cried too much, they would decide she was crazy. What did madness even mean? When I looked at Anne I saw a very sad and directionless person who needed help, and that was mostly it. I didn’t want anyone to lock her up if this got worse. But while I could watch over her for just about anything, help her in almost any respect, bend over backwards to make sure her needs were met, I knew I was limited when it came to her expressed wish to die.

I waited for her to address the dilemma I’d mentioned, and the cat watched the pair of us with eyes that were the pale green of a sickly moon.

Finally Anne mumbled, “Okay, we’ll go to the hospital.”

The hospital nearest us was a small and highly dubious operation that everyone at my school knew you didn’t want to visit because the staff would tell you for serious ailments that you were simply dehydrated, and related tripe. So we collected Anne’s insurance papers to prove that the COBRA would cover her, and we embarked on a twenty minute drive to a different hospital across the Hudson, except that it really became half an hour because we got lost on the way, quite lost—lost in a literal field of cows lost. In the fading light of the nearly midsummer sunset. But we found the building eventually, a forbidding and surprisingly tall brick structure that resembled more a factory than a place to lie down and be well, and I was already regretting that we hadn’t picked yet another place to go. Anne’s fidgeting told me of her own remorse.

We parked and walked to the emergency room entrance without saying much. Indoors, everything looked as if it should have been pristine and clinical white, but in fact it had grown dingy and beige instead. All the signs looked too old. The desks were small, the waiting areas were cramped, the hallways seemed narrow, the individual exam rooms were like tiny cells. And as we got directed to the intake center for psychiatric emergencies, Anne muttered, “What the fuck,” and I could see why. The little room had space for maybe six people to sit, all in close quarters, and there were only two seats left. Immediate discomfort, heightened claustrophobia, and over in the single exam room attached to it, a wildly drunk man was lying prone on the bed because he likely couldn’t do much else. Besides curse a lot and yell at the nurses about how he wanted to go home and they were such bitches and cunts for keeping him there. Fuck knows how he had gotten there in the first place, but I kept hearing the nurses tell him that he was too drunk to go home on his own, the only way he was getting out of there was in a cop car. This elucidated little, of course, and he made Anne wide-eyed, anxious, even frightened. She wanted to go, she told me, but we had already checked in and we weren’t allowed to leave until they were done evaluating her.

A nurse crowded everything in the little space—christ, could they at least turn the goddamn TV off, its volume being broken and thus loud enough to garble everyone’s speech—by wheeling in some equipment to check Anne’s vitals. The nurse wanted the usual data but she even wanted a blood sample. She was terrible at finding a vein in Anne’s arm, too. I watched Anne wince and almost cry as the needle was stuck around and prodded nearly ten times. My head spun to the point of dizziness. How was this healthy for psych patients, exactly?

I stared at the time after a while. We had arrived around eight-thirty, I knew, but now it was ten. I couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t believe that no one had actually evaluated Anne yet or told us what the story was. “They don’t give a shit how I feel,” Anne even said softly, and it was true. Or if it wasn’t true, these people were certainly poorly equipped and poorly trained to help people who felt like killing themselves figure out a way to feel better for even the next few days. It took another solid hour of listening to the drunk man curse and the television blare and some ten year old kid who’d arrived sit down nearby with his parents and proceed to bounce off the fucking walls, then we were shown in to see the sole social worker.

The social worker had thick glasses and aging features and a weariness in her, topped off with a brown cardigan with a horrible pattern that I thought might set off Anne’s synesthesia—colors and patterns having smells for her on occasion. And right on cue, I saw Anne wrinkle her nose. In any case, the social worker wanted us to be very clear about whether or not Anne was feeling suicidal, and suddenly Anne said that no, she wasn’t, she just wasn’t feeling very good; confused, I worriedly piped up, “But what about—” everything you’ve said and Anne cut me off. She and the social worker proceeded to have a conversation about little more than medication, although it was impressed upon us strongly that Anne would benefit from therapy or at least more regular meetings with a psychiatrist. Soon enough, we were out of there, Anne having swallowed an offered pill and bearing a prescription for a small dose of the rest, pending her ability to see someone else for a more precise analysis.

“Don’t you ever put words in my mouth again,” hissed Anne through heaving breaths as we trudged toward the car in the pitch black night. I felt baffled by the experience of being outdoors after spending so much time in that nasty little den. But I was more baffled by what I just heard, and I must have asked for some kind of explanation, because Anne went on, “If I had said in her presence that I was really suicidal, they would have had to keep me overnight. Legally. Don’t ever let them do that.”

I wanted to ask if the better thing would be to let her remain suicidal and maybe kill herself; I really wondered this, I didn’t want to pick a fight when she was at her most vulnerable. After my uncle’s suicide for several years I imagined, as many people do, that the worst thing you can possibly do for a suicidal person is let them go through with it, because life is inherently worth living. Now for another several years I hadn’t been sure about this. Life did seem inherently worth living—but only to me. I couldn’t impose life on someone who didn’t want it, not any more than I could impose death. So why had I been so insistent about taking her to the hospital and making sure she didn’t attempt anything that night? Was it because I loved her? That seemed fucking selfish. I needed a better answer.

Maybe it was because it would mean I had failed as a caretaker. I was more a caretaker than a lover by now, in any case.

Maybe I just knew that if I didn’t try to help her, save her, she might survive anything she tried and then, in a change of heart, place the blame on me for my neglect.

Maybe I defended her reasons to live because if she died, my life would return to how it had been before knowing her, and I would not be relieved that she was gone—far from it, I’d be devastated, I couldn’t comprehend the grief when I tried to picture it—but I would feel better about other things over time. All the things we’d fought over and all the ways I was breaking myself in the name of love and devotion, they would fix themselves.

. . . .

There is no drinking here, for it is dust.
There is no wine, no company,
No guest to bless the jug.
There is no laughter from the corner room.
There is no moon to smile paper thin.

Here is where they fell and had their lust.
Here is for time, and vanity—
She gives the hour a tug.
Here is the spider weaving at her loom.

It is too soon that I should try to grin.

But would it matter, could it,
If I had scorned the passing minute hand
And stayed?
As if I might have knelt upon instruction
Hand folded on other hand for a minute
While in solemnitude and sable all I prayed.
I would have never done. I read too much now,
Tour the grandes cités in only dreams.
For there are masses of dead upon their rivers.
The Thames, the Seine, with glutted death aquiver.
In brief, I cannot go.

And do I go, dear heart,
To hunt with Diana;
The youth was felled by a boar.
Lully-lullay, thou

Gifts will be brought and placed,
The shades drawn, the electric lights on,
And out they lay the Body and the Blood
For grasping hands to pluck and pour—
Il n’était pas fait pour souffrir, mon amour.
I am not Christ, but only ash,
Consumed within the hurled fire;
This, too, shall pass.

For,
Ye verray niest morn ich maad here my bryde
So ye world myghte haven noght for to seye
Al ye belles dude ring, an ye birds dude sing
As ich crowned here ye swete quene of May

Ring out O ring out, ring ring…

The hour is darkest and my need is great
But all is of my doing. I will wait
In Somerset upon the blackened beach
Where things desired lie just beyond our reach.

. . . .

Almost four years ago, Tom went back across the sea, attempted Americana once more. He has a master’s degree now, he has no small proficiency in Sanskrit, he has some new friends, he has some faint smoking lines around his mouth, he has rather less hair about his temples—the recession swifter than he would like—and right at this moment, he has a brand new jacket being hemmed at the tailor’s just down the road. But he is in London, because so much time amongst the bricks of Boston, crammed with intellectuals and academes, spectacled faces and spotted bow ties, voices thin as ancient manuscripts, it all became too much; he didn’t know that it was the cerebral qualities of this city at first, imagining he only missed Europe. He tried Germany and then war broke out, the offered scholarship at Merton seemed safer, he languished in Oxford amongst other Americans and anti-Americans. Now he has determined the root of his dislike. At twenty-six, Tom has been a scholar all his life, and though he thrives upon such pursuits for his mind, he stares from his apartment window out onto the street, the flower seller with her roses and carnations passing by, and he knows this is what he has waited for. An alcove for his own person, his own existence and way of doing things, less people to answer to. Less of the bowing and scraping—oh, he knows how to pay respect, but he would prefer a license to be disagreeable when he wants. More time to work, to think, to write. Not to be absorbed in the culture of a university.

Tom sips his coffee gingerly, for it still needs to lose some steam. He does not know yet how much he likes England, but he is not an elitist about coffee, and he will accept this much. Another glance out the window—June is in the breeze, arriving any day now. It will be lovely to explore and learn London in the summer right away, and then to commence his doctoral work. More poetic work, too, perhaps. Slowly, gracefully, Tom prepares to drag his typewriter near to him, letting it clunk over the small kitchen table covered by plain white cloth. He needs to draft a letter thanking that fantastical gentleman Pound for the pending publication of Prufrock, it is only to be regretted that I shall not be in Chicago itself to pick up a copy of the magazine myself, et cetera. The poem had been “Prufrock Among the Women,” all that time ago, but he’s altered the title slightly, not to mention slashed a few lines from the middle, retooled the opening epigram from Dante… Jean had dismissed the Italian ignorantly, when he read the early version. Tom remembers this with a strange stiffness creeping through his fingers. No, he will not write the letter now. Why has he thought of Jean, in any case? Their correspondence has slowed ever since the war started, and in fact Tom merely knows that Jean enlisted. Medical officer, of course.

The telegram thus arrives with perfectly malicious timing. While Jean could never have written very much about his location or life in the service, he had promised one thing: to make sure his family kept Tom apprised of the French Army’s activities on the level of civilian knowledge, which would likely prove quicker and more accurate than what Tom might read in an English newspaper. If not more accurate, certainly more interesting and personal. Tom has received several letters over the months, and recently directed one to be sent back providing his new address in London. The other times, he hadn’t thought about Jean very much. This is the first time that such a thought has unexpectedly heralded news—who else, indeed, would send him a telegram but the Verdenals, and why a telegram of all things if it were not important. All of that is why Tom finds his heart rushing and booming somewhat too feverishly, as he hears the front doorbell ring, comes downstairs to answer it, and sees the fellow with the neat little card in hand. It is all happening too momentously, the thoughts and events aligned in perfect precision. If only he could kick the doorframe and throw the world out of balance, because then it would not make such agonizing sense. Young men befriend each other during their collegiate studies to become lifelong companions or mere ships passing in the night. Young men become soldiers to die.

In a certain case, drowning in mud while attempting to save the lives of his injured brothers in arms, somewhere on a far Turkish beach. Gallipoli, the Dardanelles. Tom knows the place, chiefly from Homer, that stretch of Asia Minor generally designated the site of Troy. He reads the news in French again, translates it in his mind, while turning away from the telegraph courier and returning back up the steps. Back up to the apartment that he calls all he could want right now. He’s been forgetting something from that evaluation.

“Sweets to the sweet,” he murmurs, the allusion impossible to restrain, only then his guts curdle and he vomits suddenly and simply on his floor, a hot rush of bile and bitterness. He cries, “Oh Christ,” and his ears ring, the sweet summer wind whistling under the cracked window could be as bleak and choking as a desert storm after apocalypse—

I lifted my hands from the keyboard.

I thought I had stopped writing.

I had only stopped writing the biography. This was a work of fiction. How did I know the way that Eliot received notice of Verdenal’s death? I didn’t. Why had I never included such basic details as the truss that Eliot habitually wore for a lifelong hernia? It hadn’t seemed interesting. I was writing a work of fiction about real people. I realized this with sweat beginning to form on my back. And here, in the present, the actual, I was the lie. Stop writing about other people when you don’t even know who you are, Anne had said, but it took those words to make me stop knowing myself. I’d known who I was before she fertilized any chance of doubt. There is great value in introspection, in scrutiny, in questioning one’s essence, but it is a fool’s errand if performed only to placate another soul, and if the other only prompts this strip search because of what they would prefer to see.

I had not lived through Tom before, but the moment Anne invented the notion, something crystallized. Now I started to see what it was, and I shuddered, pleaded with myself not to finish this scene, because I had already wept and begged forgiveness and stared into all my abysses of inadequacy, I did not want to do it again.

But I did finish the scene. Tom cries for me, this time. He cries with less loathing and more horror, but he doubles over from it all the same while the vomit stinks like decay from down at his feet, and he is loud and childish in his sobs and cares nothing for his neighbors’ repose.

Somewhere else in London there is a girl whom he has met and known since February or March, a governess who would like to be a dancer, or at least they have danced together from time to time. He decides to get married to her. It seems like the best solution to everything.

Poem: I bring the razor back

I bring the razor back
and the razor has four blades.

One:
the hair on my head
rich enough to sculpt and paint
and it has been ethereal long
and it has been clipped in confusion
and it has been growing in this my third spring.
I bring the razor back
and it bares my scalp in stripes
leaves a shadow curtain draped atop—
I bring the razor back
and make bare my fey heart.

Two:
the speckling of my chin
traces of a test forsaken
and it had grown with the hair of my belly
and it had grown with the hair of my breasts
and it had grown with the hair of my legs in that my second spring.
I bring the razor back
and it hides this mark in stripes
protects me from eyes and tongues and hands—
I bring the razor back
and make bare my fey heart.

Three:
the down of my doom
sprouting troublesome oh I remember
and I had heard it should not be here
and I had heard it should not be there
and always I doubted this part of my role even in my first spring.
I bring the razor back
and it bares my scars in stripes
scrubs pits and legs and loins—
I bring the razor back
and make bare my fey heart.

Four:
I am an animal
warm and fleshy
and the hair grows thick upon me
mane and ornament.
I’ve pruned myself so many times
I do not know what grows a rose
for me and for you too.
If I should learn the fourth blade’s name
then may my stroke be true.

Oh how that is my vow and art—

I bring the razor back
and cut quick to that fey heart.

DLJ

New look for the website, new work to do

I’ve had this site for about a year now— it seemed like the right time to improve the look. I’ll admit the old banner looked tacky, and even though I find white-on-black more readable and aesthetically pleasing, I couldn’t shake the feeling that a perfect stranger running across the page might find the look rather too Angelfire. This version looks less 1999, I hope. More literary. Something.

As an addendum, if you missed me saying so, I’m very pleased to report that Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is now in the beta reading stage. My goals from this point forward are to conduct further revisions during late summer/autumn, to arrange a private reading by year’s end, to do one more revision round and a public reading by mid-2016, and then to have the play professionally produced by some point in 2018— the bicentennial of when Mary Shelley published her original novel. That is basically a three year ongoing project, and I expect some stagnant periods, therefore I’m also especially pleased to add that this summer I intend to seriously get to work on my second novel. This itself will easily take me years to complete even the first draft, because it’s going to be very long— though technically I’m not going to be writing it alone. I will leave you with that cryptic implication for the night.

DLJ

Fury Road Feminism, or: how I learned to keep raging and love the grimdark

Trigger warnings: general discussion of sexual(ized) violence, violence against women, etc. Also: spoiler warnings.

This piece was modified on 5/28/2015 to add a new bullet point under the “What’s not so good” heading.

On Sunday night, I decided to stop watching Game of Thrones. I’m later going to write an entire separate essay series on the complex relationship I’ve had for half of my life with the show’s parent novels, the reasons I stuck with the show as long as I did, the reasons I ultimately think the show has failed beyond rescue, and all of the ways that George R. R. Martin’s female characters have made me think. Right now, though, I’m too upset by what happened on the show that evening— an episode that I hadn’t even watched yet, but whose summary I thoroughly know. In this post I will simply say that in a show rife with gratuitous instances of rape and oppression of women (many of which deviate from book canon, which is saying something), instances which are always nominally “justified” as establishing the nasty setting, instances whose gravity is undermined by the casual and self-unaware titillation factor of most other sexual content in the show, instances which are rarely offered as meaningful character development for the survivors themselves, instances which are couched in an environment of sloppy writing that compresses a lot of genuinely wonderful female characters into grotesque frat boy interpretations of the source material… well, there was finally one rape too many, one instance of gendered suffering too many. And it happened to a character with a book-canon ability to survive an entire metric ton of Terrible Things and yet so far have never been raped; she, a teenage girl, and her lack of violation have been sacrosanct for me, for so many reasons, and the showrunners defecated all over this as they have defecated over nearly all the women on the show, and I can’t bear it anymore.

The night before this happened, I watched something very similar and very different. It’s a movie. It’s called Mad Max: Fury Road, and it’s entirely possible you’ve heard of it, you’ve heard the hype, and depending on your interests, maybe you’ve already seen it or you would like to. Rather than put words to my anger at a ruined TV show right away, I’m here to talk about why Mad Max: Fury Road is still a flawed work of art, but also about why it’s brilliant on so many fundamental levels, why I’m in love with it, and why there might possibly need to be a delineation for “Hollywood movies released before” and “Hollywood movies released after” this film.

Giving a synopsis of the film, which I’ll abbreviate MMFR, is easy. In the post-apocalyptic (or mid-apocalyptic) waste of the existing Mad Max universe, a woman named Furiosa rescues five other women from sexual servitude of the brood mare variety. The bulk of the story is simply a prolonged chase scene away from the environment that these women are leaving— toward an uncertain future. Mad Max himself is mostly an accidental fellow traveler who then finds himself in a more serious alliance with the six women.

We can dissect a lot about this extremely basic narrative, whether we look at the interesting class politics (and thus maybe the film’s slightly-too-pat ending?), the genius of George Miller as a director and practical effects advocate (I’d say everything you’ve heard about the film is true if it concerns a slap in the face to everything Hollywood puts out on those fronts in the action genre), or the way this fits into the existing Mad Max suite. Since I haven’t actually watched the story of Mad Max as it precedes this one, I would already give MMFR a better analysis if I waited to catch up on what I’ve missed— and I will. However, I can still talk about the thing that struck me the most powerfully, the thing that has undoubtedly proven the film’s most notorious and intriguing selling point. Men’s rights activists are apparently in a huff about the way that women are depicted in the story; does that mean that the women are actually depicted well? Is this a truly feminist action movie?

I am often the first person to say that calling x media feminist is not correct. Frankly, I’m very hung up these days about how women (and nonbinary people) are depicted in any story, to an extent where even people I know who also call themselves feminists probably find my choosiness and cynicism to be “a bit much.” I have to objectively allow that in my impatience for something that I can call good without adding many qualifiers, I am not keen on latching onto things that “at least aren’t awful” simply for their achievement of mediocrity. Call it perfectionism, elitism, idealism, but that’s how I am, I know. So, acknowledging this personal trait, and leaving aside the fact that I still sometimes consume unsatisfactory media for reasons like nostalgia, eye candy, intellectual fascination, or masochism— I want to be clear how choosy I am. With that in mind, I say MMFR checks off so many good tick boxes for me that I consider my impatience vindicated. MMFR is so effective at what it sets out to do in the sphere of gender politics, and it’s so effortless, that to me the film proves exactly why we don’t need to accept media with subpar gender politics. Whether it’s feminist or not— I’ll get to that at the very end of this essay, but I’d like to at least initially go through (nearly all) the reasons that MMFR empowers the women in its narrative. In my opinion, a lot of these items are so elementary that if a story doesn’t have them, it must try very very hard to be feminist in some other way.

What’s good

  • Virtually all of the women demonstrably exhibit agency, regardless of the results or their prior circumstances. Some of the women manage liberating accomplishments, whereas others fail (sometimes fatally; more on that later). In nearly any case that I can recall, the women in the story complete their individual arcs because of their choices to remain involved. None of them are entirely passive bystanders. Even when one woman is left behind in the inner sanctum of the Citadel where Immortan Joe, the warlord captor of the “breeders,” discovers his human collection is gone— she makes a stand against Joe of her own volition, and she explicitly states that the Wives asked Furiosa to facilitate their escape. The Wives are not Furiosa’s own pawns.
  • The women’s skills and limitations all have grounding in concrete realities, not in something to do with their womanhood. Along with Furiosa, we meet quite a few women in the story who can fight with an array of weapons, ride motorcycles, conduct their lives without evidently much male involvement; they are seasoned killers and it clearly comes from their life experiences. The Wives do not have the necessary experience or fitness to fight in all the ways that Furiosa and these other women (or Max) can, so sometimes they must make do with psychological tactics or taking a gamble on a physical maneuver that requires less practice and more raw animal instinct; all of their choices are resourceful and intelligent; most of their choices produce a positive outcome. But most of all, if the Wives do fail to accomplish something, it doesn’t make them look like a bunch of hapless ninnies amidst their competent betters, and it can’t be explained away as a gendered problem. The Wives blatantly just lack a certain degree of combat prowess because they haven’t lived in a setting where they could obtain it. Period.
  • The female lead functions as a classic action hero without being “malewashed.” A common problem with a lot of “badass” female characters is that their author feels some obligation to make them “not like the other girls” and possibly even “barely girls.” The author may make the heroine gleefully misogynist, or the author may strip her of emotional expression and other so-called “feminine” qualities, or the author may make her incredibly butch and juxtapose this against antagonistic female characters who are more femme. In my opinion it’s important to recognize that real women exist who are misogynists, and/or have personality traits typically considered masculine, and/or aren’t comfortable presenting femme— and these women can still be unique and interesting characters whom we should all consider writing. Maybe some of these women aren’t even strictly women, but simply get read that way by their peers. The possibilities are endless for writing such women in morally nuanced lights. However, it’s very unfortunate when, as frequently happens, such women are written not for nuance but for demonstrating that this is how women must behave to count as heroic. Therefore, it’s amazingly refreshing to see Furiosa perform a lot of typically masculine-coded activities while demonstrating overt solidarity with her fellow women. She likewise never has those masculine-coded activities coded as such in the narrative; she is doing what she does because it’s just what she does. Also, she does express heartfelt emotion, and her gender presentation simultaneously embodies butch qualities (shaved head) and femme qualities (a corset; more on this later).
  • The female lead is not romantically/sexually linked to the male lead in any way, nor is there even subtext for it, nor is she ultimately coded as dependent upon him, nor is her narrative really about his narrative. Max stumbles into Furiosa’s situation, not the other way around. They mutually save each other from different things. When Max gives Furiosa some advice that she heeds about how to ultimately defeat Joe’s regime, it’s not a direct demonstration of his male competence superseding her inferior strategy, it’s a pledge of faith to her cause wherein he finally gives a resource (his own strategic thought) that he’s been so far withholding; he becomes truly of use to her. Even when Furiosa is all but mortally wounded, she fights on with the assistance of other women first, and Max mostly saves her life in a healing (read: classically feminine) act where he gives her his blood, prioritizing the needs of her body over the needs of his. He holds her not as one holds a lover but as one holds a comrade in arms. And when their side has evidently triumphed, he ducks away into a sea of people, becoming one face among many, allowing Furiosa to hold the spotlight instead. Furiosa and Max have a relationship where the woman still retains some vulnerability, where the man still retains some agency, but where everything is framed in such a complex, multifaceted, realistic way that I don’t really read it as portraying a man’s power trumping a woman’s.
  • Romance/sexual attraction are not completely banished from the scope of the story in service to stupid ideas about what women must be in order to be badasses or “good survivors.” Even as Furiosa and Max avoid even a hint of attraction, one of the Wives and one of Joe’s minions show hints of a surprisingly innocent and inevitably star-crossed love. It is plainly a love driven by their own personalities, not by the woman being generically sexy and by the man being generically lustful. It is also reassuring to see a woman who’s known to be a repeat rape survivor still showing agency in her romantic/sexual leanings. She does not have to be so traumatized that she no longer wants anything to do with any men. And her emotional evolution on this is couched amidst the fact that her four (or more) fellow survivors are not following an identical arc; thus she does not function as some representative example of how survivors do or should behave.
  • The female lead uses a prosthetic arm, and this is not treated like a novelty, this is not treated like a tragedy, this is not something she is obligated to explain, and she can even effectively fight without having the prosthetic in place. I’ll come back to the topic of disabilities later, but in and of itself, it’s phenomenal to see not just a female action hero in Furiosa’s vein— but one whose physical abilities are not what most people might expect for any action hero. The lack of mawkish sentimentalizing or expositioning around this point is icing on the cake. (Of course, I could still be looking at this poorly from the perspective of someone inexperienced with disability issues, so please give a shout if that’s the case.)
  • Not one, but two, pregnant women feature and meet different fates. The most obviously pregnant woman, the Splendid Angharad, fends well— but eventually dies. I’ll also come back to this event because I have mixed feelings about it, but in the meantime I was gratified to discover later on in the story that Angharad had not been the only pregnant member of the escaped women. The other pregnant woman makes it alive through the whole movie, so I didn’t feel like there were any real messages about pregnancy inherently equaling weakness.
  • There are old women who are competent, action-capable, heroic figures. Seriously. There are a bunch of them. Some of them wind up dying in combat, but plenty of them don’t, and they’re basically awesome. I love them. I can’t come up with anything articulate to say about this aspect of the movie.
  • Many of the women talk significantly more than the male lead. Not only has Max stumbled into a female story instead of the reverse, but his voice just also doesn’t dominate amongst them. Dialogue in the film remains quite limited, but beyond passing the (of limited relevance) Bechdel test, Max is generally a silent figure compared to the women in whose presence he finds himself. And, as discussed above, when he finally offers a big piece of advice that the women heed, it could arguably be read as him becoming a strategic savior figure, but to me it really seems more like he has finally decided to lend his voice to the others as a show of support, nothing more.
  • While the reproductive and related capacities of assigned-female-at-birth individuals are the designated reasons for the women in the story who have been oppressed, there is (mostly) not much metaphysical reliance on tropes of magic moon wombs, etc. Similarly, no directly or even obliquely transphobic humor. The possibly-matriarchal society that Furiosa seeks out for assistance is called the Vuvalini, which I can’t help reading as a portmanteau of vulva and kundalini (or, maybe stretching, yoni). If that’s the point, then I find that awkward. I also can’t otherwise help imagining that in the absence of any trans characters, a trans-positive feminism is not necessarily put forward in MMFR. But there were a lot of opportunities in such a framework to put the anatomy of the characters under a gendered spotlight, or even to introduce a transgender or crossdressing character for the purpose of sending an extremely negative (or misguidedly humorous) message. I hate feeling like I need to commend the filmmakers for not being outright assholes, as this should be so basic that it isn’t even worth comment, but unfortunately in an era where even the most “accidentally” transphobic morality plays or comedic moments are still widespread— look at the catastrophically unfunny crossdressing subplot that appeared in The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies without even having a canonical cause— well, I at least must express my relief that I didn’t walk into that kind of direct ugliness in MMFR. I’ll talk more about this later, but this is the positive side to it.
  • What women wear. For one thing, all their clothing suits their stations and (usually) isn’t used in a way that I found discomforting. The Vuvalini wear extremely practical outfits for riding motorcycles and killing people in a desert; it’s not exactly common to sexualize elderly women anyway, of course, but either way, this isn’t exactly a band of roving femmes fatales. Meanwhile, the Wives wear skimpy outfits that, for them being sex slaves, make a kind of contextual sense, but in my opinion the camera (usually) doesn’t focus upon their figures in a way that objectifies them. And Furiosa herself has a practical, androgynous presentation that I found lovely in an abstract way— but that certainly doesn’t sex her up. Even her corset, a high femme token, is practical insofar as it involves some hookups for her prosthetic and it seems more like a back brace than anything else. Now… note that I did say “usually” about some of this. I have mixed feelings about a few specific shots, and there’s one younger Vuvalini woman whom we see obliquely naked and I’m honestly not clear about why. Also, one group of women kept by Joe for ultra shlocky B movie milk-sploitation— this is a word now— are shown more or less completely naked apart from the milking machines they’re hooked up to. I’ll get back to them in more detail shortly, but I feel it’s worth mentioning this here in the realm of female wardrobe decisions.
  • Women die, and it’s a tonally distinctive event. Which is to say— their deaths are not presented all that differently from male deaths, so it isn’t tonally distinctive in that respect, but it’s certainly distinctive from how we usually see female death in media. If women in MMFR die, it’s invariably the death of a sympathetic character, so it’s a bit sad or upsetting, but we are largely spared any sexualized direction or photography, and their deaths usually come about from the same kinds of generic violence that cause male deaths. The Splendid Angharad proves a notable and complex exception; she dies after a presumed one-two punch of being run over and having her ultimately unviable child cut out of her uterus in an unabashed statement about the priorities of men like Joe and probably like pro-lifers. Despite the fact that we know this information about her demise and witness a little of the grisly caesarean, we don’t really get a clear view of anything, and her body generally retains some modesty and dignity insofar as it does appear onscreen. It is a troubling series of events, and I’ll soon say more about why, but in the meantime, I felt that if you were already choosing to kill a conventionally attractive pregnant woman, especially under these circumstances, MMFR does it in as “tasteful” a manner as possible.
  • The initial confrontational relationship between Max, Furiosa, and the Wives functions on a basic survival level; it isn’t cast in openly genderered terms. When Max first properly meets the main women he’s going to be dealing with for the rest of the plot, he isn’t very nice. He points a few guns around at them, makes demands of them, gets in a nasty physical fight with Furiosa, and attempts to steal Furiosa’s vehicle without regard for how desperately the women all need it. But Max does all of this while operating in a nihilistic state where, as his own opening voice over mentions, he just wants to survive, and he’s being inherently selfish. The moral to this little debacle is that he can’t really go it alone, and as already mentioned, he eventually finds an altruistic cause at the women’s side, at least for a short while. It seems— to me at least— that all of his initial actions toward the women are the same as many men in his position would do to their fellow men. He labels no woman a “bitch,” belittles none of them, does nothing to transform the narrative into a “battle of the sexes” or whatever idiocy. I can’t imagine Max calling himself a feminist or even always acting like one, but the fact that he doesn’t act openly anti-feminist means that the story is able to get on with simply showing how awesome its women are and not self-referentially dwelling on, “Whoa, tough women.”
  • Perhaps most critically, we are both shown and told enough information about the women’s sources of oppression to grasp what they face, while (mostly) avoiding any exploitative imagery. Some of that imagery is there, particularly with the brief shot of the “milking mothers,” whom I honestly consider an interesting concept— what might a desert apocalypse fascist warlord do about dairy products in an environment where cows can’t exist anymore? is it absurd to see this fetishized breastmilk, or does it simply seem too foreign to understand?— but of course this is also the stuff of some ignominious kinky smut. I simply don’t know what to think about Miller introducing that touch, even though I love how much the actors involved are committed to what they perform. Anyway, leaving aside the milking mothers and a few more ambiguous moments— though the film excels at showing us things instead of just telling, it also excels at showing and telling us a bare minimum of things that establish the conditions under which Joe’s women live, then leaving a great deal simply up to the audience’s imagination. We see chastity belts being cut off as the women are freed; we see a glimpse of the literal vault in which they lived; we see that they are angry and deeply affected by their own experiences; we hear from an expository minion that they’re “prize breeders”; we see how implicitly the Splendid Angharad is treated like nothing more than a vessel for Joe’s unborn son. At no point do we sit through these women being raped, molested, or leered at, even though we certainly witness them in occasional moments of non-sexual peril. Is there possibly a way their story could ethically be told wherein we do see more? Maybe. That’s a thought I’m building toward. In the meantime, the movie otherwise makes a simultaneously very safe and very daring decision: to treat the audience like real adults and let us fathom what horrors the Wives underwent without needing to witness it. I can’t say that the film would never be triggering for anybody, but I think the risk is considerably less, and it shouldn’t be revolutionary to say that if you’re going to depict sexual assault, you should take into account the needs and expectations of actual sexual assault survivors in the presence of this depiction— but this consideration is nauseatingly rare. I’m very, very pleased that George Miller kept the “things that shouldn’t constitute sexual content but are” focus on things like explosions, bikes, car engines, and flame-shooting double-necked guitars. Not on rape.

What’s not so good

  • The diversity count probably isn’t ideal. I’m honestly not clear on the race/ethnicity of some of the actors, so I’m not going to try conjuring a precise number, but while women of color do feature, they’re still a noticeable minority. MMFR is generally a pretty white film. Beyond that basic fact, I feel challenged to comment and will defer to more relevant voices, but I would also be remiss if I didn’t remark on this at all.
  • Let’s talk again about disabilities and grotesquerie. So Furiosa is a badass heroine who has a prosthetic arm. That’s wonderful. At the end of the movie, we also see the milking mothers— all very large, heavy, fat, pick your word— bestowing the water that the dead Joe “owned” upon his former subjects. That’s also a nice touch. Some of Joe’s subjects also have visible disabilities. Simultaneously, though, the bad characters are almost entirely plagued by tumors and health problems, or they have “oddities” about them like fatness, congenital dwarfism, blindness, and what have you. The appeal to the instinctive human fear of the grotesque, the diseased— it’s a powerful tool, and I can imagine any number of reasons existed in the minds of Miller and others for why to create characters of this nature. Plus, it’s maybe not as much of an exploitative choice when balanced against Furiosa and the other sympathetic characters, or when you consider that in this evidently post-nuclear environmentally-collapsed wasteland, the chance of someone having a bunch of physical features like this is damn high. But while all of that makes sense to me, I once more doubt that I’m the only one who finds this element problematic. If nothing else, the Wives are all conventionally attractive and do not have disabilities or “abnormal” features— which is precisely why Joe collected them all in the first place, so the internal logic exists— but we’re still left with a higher ratio of good, conventionally pretty people to bad, “hideous” people.
  • Let’s talk again about trans representation. All right, the film doesn’t introduce any overtly gross ideas like “women-born-women,” but if any characters are supposed to be trans— which, with all due respect to George Miller, I doubt any were— we don’t know it. Everyone reads to me as cis, and just like it’s an omission to make a story about women and not make it about women of all colors, the choice to avoid transness also constitutes an omission. Now, this is just one movie out of many, and I am not personally going to demand that every film have an “at least one trans person” quota. (“Just one movie out of many” is something I’ll come back to at the end of this, too.) I also personally prefer that trans people not be represented in media if our representation is going to be so negative and unpleasant that we fail to seem like real people worthy of respect. So just speaking for myself, I’m not as bothered as some could be by MMFR’s lack of trans characters. But… a) I think it’s others’ right to be more bothered if they are so moved; b) I once again can’t not comment on this, insofar as MMFR does not exist in a vacuum and rather fits into a pattern of cinema; and c) even if the film does not actively express transphobic/cissexist messages, it doesn’t feel particularly trans-positive either. Having at least one trans character in this specific film would really bolster it in several ways, and I hope that if George Miller inexplicably read my blog, he would understand I mean this with nothing but respect.
  • Where are the queer ladies? Here I can mostly just reiterate the same basic point as I have above— if we do want to take the story as a definitive tale of female experience, maybe there should be a diversity of female sexualities represented. There is a very chaste heterosexual relationship arc; there is also a general premise of women fleeing mandatory heterosexuality. Couldn’t there be room for some exploration of different women’s orientations? Of course, I’m glad that we aren’t confronted by Second Wave political lesbianism, even though I have complex feelings about that concept. But lacking knowledge of whether any characters are queer, the natural tendency of most audience members will be to assume that all of them are straight. Those who aren’t so quick to assume might go home and write some Furiosa/Angharad fanfiction, but this work doesn’t have to stay solely the purview of audience members’ imagination. Having said all this, I would actually like to note that I don’t want to take this story as a definitive tale of female experience, and I also appreciate when storytellers do leave even non-grisly things to the imagination (this film hugely benefits from not getting bogged down by backstory). I will get back to that in a minute, though. The fact remains that MMFR is written at least partially as a gender parable, and within that context, queer sexuality usually has some place.
  • How much is this truly a women’s narrative? Even though I can rationalize Max’s role in giving the female characters a way to “win” that they hadn’t originally considered— that is, it makes sense for the kind of narrative that Max himself has— I would still have probably liked it better if it wasn’t his idea. And though I can again rationalize the symbolic purpose in Furiosa being critically injured (so that Max can share his blood with her and make his body a tool for a woman instead of for a man), it has the unfortunate side effect of her being unable to immediately claim victory back at the Citadel— requiring Max’s help to stay upright, etc., before Max refuses the fame and departs. Furthermore, even if this is Max stumbling into Furiosa’s narrative, we still see the world a little more through his eyes than through hers, given his hallucinations; it would be refreshing to see an action hero like Furiosa who is unequivocally the lead in every sense. There is still so much demonstrable female strength and power throughout the rest of the movie, I don’t find myself getting too hung up on these points, but I can’t gloss over them.
  • Eve Ensler‘s seal of approval is hardly a gold medal. I don’t want to take the focus of this post away from the actual film and onto an individual who consulted on it for only about a week, but it’s true that MMFR has gotten some attention specifically for how Eve Ensler worked with actors on the topic of sexual violence, sex trafficking, etc. After the fact, Ensler endorsed the movie. Now, if it weren’t obvious yet, I love the movie, enough that whether I liked Ensler or loathed her, her opinion of MMFR would not matter to me. It does matter to some people. And on that account, I want to point out that Eve Ensler has an unfortunate history of trampling indigenous women’s concerns. Indigenous activist Lauren Chief Elk describes this very well, and for the details, I suggest that anyone read that entire article. As for some of her conclusions, I will quote:

    Women of color continue to discuss the ways in which state violence is significant and is used to break up our communities to further harm us. That structure is violence; it is historically predicated on rounding up and locking away Indigenous and Black people. The existing system is not a place we are able to turn to for help. When mainstream white feminism is continually calling for more laws, punishments, for strengthened ties with law enforcement, and expanded police jurisdiction, they are enabling the violence against us. There is no “we,” because this approach is at the expense of us. Women of color become collateral damage in the continued quest to uphold and protect white womanhood.

    The problem with the framing of sexualized violence as an issue that hurts all women equally is that it erases many of the historical and current experiences for Indigenous women. Rape in particular is a force of colonization.

    If there is a feminism in MMFR, is it a white feminism? Possibly. Of course, the tormentors whom Furiosa and the other women flee— they are entirely white men, or men (interestingly) painted to look white. But as noted, the skin tones we see among the women are also not as varied as they could have been. We are also not given a lot of information about the politics of Furiosa or the Vuvalini; I could write a separate essay debating whether the film’s overall left-wing slant is truly radical or concealing a liberal-progressive core, and at some point I’ll probably do so. We have a lot of room— in just watching MMFR— to assume that at the movie’s finish, the wonderful women at its core collaborate with the others formerly oppressed by Immortan Joe, and they build a just society in the ashes of the old. But leaving the question of resource scarcity aside, we can nonetheless imagine a post-Joe society that’s fundamentally more of the same— maybe not oppressing people of color in the way that we see it today, but emulating Western colonialist projects that are racist by their very nature.

    In a way, MMFR is intelligent and radical simply because there are so many blanks that we can fill in and imagine whatever politics we might want. Is that not enough? Perhaps not. Either way, if any part of its background research were grounded in the work of somebody like Ensler who props up the white capitalist feminism industry, I think the film deserves some closer reading over time. That’s not even saying anything of the fact that a male director created it, which has to have some relevance too.

On that note, I’m prepared to finish just listing things that I like or don’t like about this movie from a feminist standpoint. I am still not ready to say whether it is or isn’t feminist, but as a raw listing of pros and cons through a lens of feminist considerations— there you have it. In that respect, I will first conclude that I think the cons don’t usually contradict the pros in a direct manner; it’s more that they augment my general positive sentiment toward the film into something positive yet critical.

But as indicated, “positive yet critical” is a huge step for me. Usually I find myself flat out critical. Thus, my fuller conclusions are going to center around how for once my criticisms still hold and yet my enthusiasm is the main thing preoccupying my thoughts of the film. Since criticism often wins out in the end, I had best let the enthusiasm out while I still have a psychological chance.

So: how did these great things happen in a story like this?

I think what’s shocked a lot of people about MMFR isn’t just how many things with women that it does well. It’s that the premise itself can so readily suggest that nothing would be done well at all. Let’s expand our focus to not just MMFR, but to the entire field of “gritty, violent narratives where terrible things routinely happen to innocent, often systemically marginalized people.” We can loop back in Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire), alongside a whole bunch of other media in basically any genre you can think of. But especially speculative fiction, because…

Well, here is a simplified version of the dialogue that I often see in relation to grimdark, crapsack, “life is shit” environments in genres where the point is for you to make up everybody’s modes of existence.

A: “I love how intense this fantasy novel is! The author isn’t afraid to depict harsh realities like rape and grisly sexualized dismemberment.”
B: “Um, why are you enjoying that? It sounds to me like the author gets a gross kick out of showing audiences those things.”
A: “Of course not. This is fantasy, but it’s based on historical truths. The author is just being accurate.”
B: “Actually, it’s not accurate…” (or) “This is an escapist genre, I want to read about a world where things are better than how they factually were or are.” (or) “It might be one thing to depict something ugly like this in fiction based in a fully real time period, but this author is clearly just making up terrible things to titillate fellow fucked up people in the audience.” (or: all of the above)

Even though I have sympathy for both arguers A and B, especially B in a lot of contexts, especially B as relates to my current opinion about Game of Thrones, I think that really this is a zero-sum conversation.

Looking at A first: of course, liking a story chock full of rape just because it’s “intense” is a fairly disturbing approach; and of course, a lot of the time an author is not being accurate, even if they think they are. Either way, there’s simply a key threshold where I as a reader do not need any more reminders about how rapey the setting is. That threshold varies from genre to genre, subject to subject, even writer to writer, based on their own skill. But it’s a real threshold, and if you cross it, I truly can’t help thinking that, at best, you’re writing this material as a way of indulging some feelings you have about rape that not everyone in your audience is prepared to read; at worst, you don’t even understand how rape and rape culture work, and you’re thoughtlessly aroused by nonconsent and just want to write a story that gets your rocks off.

Looking at B, however: let’s really unpack some of what they’re saying.

“It’s not accurate.” Even when it’s not accurate to the specific setting inspirations of what the author has created… rape culture, patriarchy, and all the attached nastiness have been part of literally every component of human history, and they haven’t really gotten any better even in the present day. Rape culture is something accurate to human experience even if the depiction of rape culture can itself be dubiously portrayed. It can happen— it can— that someone genuinely wants to explore rape culture in their writing, and if they want to do that within the realm of speculative fiction, they have every right.

“This is an escapist genre, I want to read about a world where things are better than how they factually were or are.” Maybe it’s an escapist genre for you. For me, there is no escapist genre. From my perspective, and to paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin, all fiction is about telling the truth through a convoluted series of lies. Speculative fiction is a pronounced version of that, but I’m less interested in finding a writer who can imagine a “better” world, and I’m more interested in one who can represent a convincing alternate or parallel version of the world I know. This does not mean that world has to have all the same problems as the real one, and sometimes it’s to a story’s advantage if it doesn’t. If you’re never going to meaningfully confront and break down misogyny in your story, for instance, there is no reason to make a grotesquely misogynist setting. But I will also gladly accept a grotesquely misogynist setting if the author is going to engage with it in a productive manner and not try my patience with how they see fit to illustrate the misogyny.

“It might be one thing to depict something ugly like this in fiction based in a fully real time period, but this author is clearly just making up terrible things to titillate fellow fucked up people in the audience.” I see this argument less, but I’ve definitely seen it, and it bothers me. Let’s talk quickly about another show I’ve been watching of late: Mad Men (“finally”). I… don’t actually like it that much, and I have several reasons that aren’t worth getting into here, but one is that it has too many characters and doesn’t spend enough time properly letting me into their lives, experiences, and thoughts. It leaves me guessing just a little too much. Consequently, where the female characters are concerned, I witness a very high proportion of scenes involving them where they’re being actively oppressed, and I don’t witness nearly as many scenes as I would like to see where they have lives that aren’t entirely rooted in their gender, or where they’re really processing their experiences and not just being thrown into patriarchal moment after patriarchal moment. I don’t think the show is absolutely, positively reveling in excuses to show men being sexist, and yes, it’s true that in the time period it portrays, a lot of sexism took the forms that we see on the show (compared to some different permutations now), and maybe we’re also supposed to see something of the contemporary world beneath the period trappings. Nonetheless, as hard as the show might try to seem progressive, its generally poor writing choices re: character development leave me uncomfortable with the constant parade of “it blows chunks to be a lady.”

Honestly, even though I’m done with Game of Thrones, during its finer moments the writers conveyed a huge cast with extremely strong, unique personalities— characters invented usually not by them, rather by George R. R. Martin, but still brought effectively to the screen— and even in the faux-medieval fantasy environment full of rape and arranged marriages and what have you, I still had a better sense of GOT’s women as real people than I do of Mad Men‘s, in both cases five seasons in. Neither show is wonderful, and Mad Men is now less egregiously exploitative than the fantasy show. But if we are going to judge when writers include misogyny as a major setting component in their storytelling, we shouldn’t even be starting with the question of whether the type of environment (as driven by the genre) merits the inclusion of misogyny. We should be starting with the questions of why the misogyny is really there and of what steps you, the creator, are going to take in handling the monsters you make.

What I basically want to explore here is the possibility that it is not the creation of grimdark, rape-ridden environments that’s the problem. The problem is creating them without intending to handle that content with the dignity it deserves. The problem is creating them without having or seeking the experiences of people most directly affected by rape and other incredible violations of personal autonomy. The problem is creating a setting where rape is prevalent and yet functions as window dressing. The problem is creating a setting where rape is a plot point, a character point, for the people who aren’t actually affected by it the most. The problem is inventing Rapeworld, then nihilistically refusing to offer a way out of it, and/or offering a way that is terribly problematic on its own. The problem is putting people in Rapeworld and fatalistically consigning everyone vulnerable to rape (and maybe even everyone else) to get raped.

Considering all of this… what is a feminist story? I might argue it’s a category error. There isn’t any one model for a feminist story. There are only a host of things one can do to make a story clearly anti-feminist, and in my book Mad Max: Fury Road succeeds at steering widely clear of most obvious anti-feminist narrative choices. This is so rare that it merits celebration. But leaving aside the fact that the film still isn’t perfect, I shouldn’t have to celebrate a movie whose portrayal of women finally makes me leave the theatre refreshingly not in the mood to punch a screenwriter. There should be so many movies emulating models similar to Mad Max: Fury Road that I can stop being excited when they don’t do something stupid and start just being excited when they’re all consistently doing smart things (which, I think, MMFR also does a lot).

There is no feminist story, there is only the collective entity that is potentially-feminist storytelling. There is no feminist movie, there is only the collective entity that is potentially-feminist cinema. These collective groups of art are realms where women aren’t confined to gratuitously limited possibilities, and they aren’t supposed to serve as singular representatives of womanhood. Making this kind of media relies on having multiple women in a story, and it also relies on acknowledging inside and outside the story that this is not the “definitive women’s narrative,” because there will never be one. Mad Max: Fury Road belongs to this important cinematic realm insofar as it succeeds on many of its own merits— and simultaneously as making more like it will allow it to not stand alone. If you cannot populate the art you make with a realistic array of women, whether that be within one part of your ævure or within the whole— if you cannot make their fates be more than a loss of agency— if you cannot give them stories that are truly their own— if you cannot at least do as well as Mad Max: Fury Road on those accounts— then honestly I question your ability to make art at all, and I’m applying that standard to myself as much as to anyone else. I’m applying that standard to anyone who creates a story where women are nominally empowered, and to anyone who creates a story where women systemically aren’t. Our premises doesn’t matter. It’s our execution. This film constitutes shots fired. Any writer prior to its release already had few excuses. Now we have none.

DLJ

Excerpt #1 from an inner gender monologue

A glimmer of thoughts on my current gender status, which require a much more substantial essay eventually—

Investigating the etymology of queen (after I noticed the similarity with Swedish kvinna for “woman”), I led myself to the medieval variant quean which, far from suggesting royalty, seems to have on different occasions meant a female serf, a hardy young woman, or a sex worker. It is fascinating to reflect on how these words, sharing a common origin, illuminate the potential conceptualization of queenliness in Germanic languages; on the one hand a working woman whose body is used by others nevertheless has her function designated something other than whore (a worthily reclaimed term, but negative to many), and on the other hand, perhaps more importantly, a woman whose body (cissexually reduced to a womb) is nearly sacred from its role in producing the royal lineage but whose function is recognized subtly as nothing more than that vessel.

The plot thickens, of course, when we see the term queen eventually applying to people without wombs and/or people who aren’t women, whose sexualities are not predicated on fertility cultism, whose behaviors may be coded as feminine and attire may be coded as femme, and yet who are often still associated with promiscuity and being sexualizable.

There is something very profound worth reflecting on here as an anglophone. There is something exciting in this word, queen/quean, that implies the possibility of straddling the line between fertility cult and ecstatic cult. The chance to queer “womb-ness” and also to simultaneously uncouple it from the exploiting class. To recognize the historically enforced link between childbearing and femininity, to make each of these things revolutionary possibilities, and yet not to require that we perform one in order to successfully perform the other.

Queen is a magic word, I think. When I think of some ways in which I could use it, it is not something airy and fluffy. It is something chthonic, dark— and perhaps readily mistaken for many things that the world calls woman, but in fact something wonderfully, wildly beyond.

DLJ