essays

How long will it stay?

Last night, January 19th, 2017, I wondered this as I walked through western Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Memorial Drive, in a neighborhood where somewhat posh residential houses open up into some sudden strips of concrete retail, the filthy river and the glittering Boston skyline just in view. It is not a beautiful place. It is also only ugly to the extent that most architectural products of this age are ugly: morally, even if not aesthetically. Not that I always separate the two. In any case, I wondered how long all the human-made structures that I saw would stay. The electronics store, the gas station, the stoplight, the skyscraper.

One answer is, “It will stay until somebody tears it down and builds something else.” The more geological, morbid option, which I intend to reflect upon today, assumes the likelihood of non-interference by humans, meaning that the human species would be extinct by the time that these stone, metal, and other components began to naturally erode and collapse into nothingness.

I am not asking this question because I expect people will read and take action. As it happens, I am only a fledgling in the countless sums of voices who, possessing some vital belief, have tried to be heard by more than their immediate circle; I am even only a fledgling in the countless sums of voices whose vital beliefs constitute a truth, a prophecy, a desperate plea. Instead, I am writing this because it is the stupid, ridiculous human instinct to record, whether some extraterrestrial archaeologist should ever stumble upon the (digital) evidence and be capable of decoding it, or whether we say only to the absolute, perfect void that we were here. Not many will see what I say here right now. It does not matter. My words are meant for anyone, everyone, but equally for no one— the prospect of no one.

In light of such, I will not worry about whether my words are pretentious. I often find that when I write for an audience, I try to mitigate my mind’s natural gravitas with lighter-hearted phrasing, witticisms, self-deprecation, and so forth. The pretentious quality that I discern or fear others discerning— this arises when I have retreated far into my own stream of consciousness, thinking only of the thing I’m trying to say, relying on a lexicon and psychological environment that derived from reading old literature when I was quite young. But this is what I must rely upon now. I need this writing to be as authentic as possible, not because it ought to be my last, but because it is the first thing I have written in full acknowledgment of what I largely expect constitutes the final descent of my species.

How long will it stay?

. . . .

In my childhood, I remember learning about some grotesque crimes against humanity. They were explained in books and television programs and statements by adults, usually quite sanitized. It was at least enough for me to grasp the simplest facts of what happened, why things were so terrible. Chief examples would be the history of African slavery in the United States, or the Holocaust. At the time I didn’t think either of these things had much to do with me. For a long time I didn’t understand that I had an ongoing role to play as a person with pale skin, European ancestry, and a background of what could be called cultural whiteness. I also didn’t understand that I would come to belong to several demographics targeted in the Holocaust itself, even though I was not Jewish; nor did I know that a slim branch of never-met family members had been, in fact, German Jews. Even in my ignorance, I still knew such past events, and the people who perpetuated them, merited my horror. I had no trouble summoning empathy. No, the real trouble lay in how I imagined some curtain to have been drawn between the events of my own time and the events of people older than me, elderly people, dead people, forgotten people. I lived in a world where certain US residents were called ornery for having human needs now that they weren’t literal plantation slaves anymore (contemporary observation: for the most part). I lived in a world where Nazis were cartoonish, silly men who got outwitted by clever GIs and punched by dashing archaeologists. I don’t miss that time of my development.

What I do miss was the mood surrounding another thing I kept learning about, which was the natural world. My planet, the Earth. I attended preschool, kindergarten, and primary school from about 1990 to 1998, and in this time the capitalist “green revolution” had not yet superseded a different sort of environmentalism. Many of the ideas were the same, of course. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Save the rainforest. Protect endangered species. Don’t waste water. Don’t create pollution. Don’t harm the ozone layer. Don’t contribute to the greenhouse effect, the source of global warming. In the early 1990s, however, this felt different in the sense that, at least in my own education, we were taught these principles to contribute to a glorious, wonderful cause that would help preserve life on this planet— a cause that was winning. We weren’t past any climate tipping points. We hadn’t caused as much damage as we eventually would. We needed to worry, but we also needed to hope and celebrate. It was going to be all right.

That sentiment could have distorted the truth, or it could have been tragically misplaced optimism. I still long for that sense of heroism. It is very gone now. It has been replaced by a sunkenness in my guts, a tightness in my throat. A hollowness, a sorrow, floating on top of a simmering fear that has also dwelt with me since I was extremely young. I speak of the fear of apocalypse.

Raised with an atheist outlook, which I preserve in a highly augmented and problematized form today, I dreaded no Day of Judgment or various equivalents. Briefly, when I learned about the very idea of Hell, I had some nightmare about it, but this didn’t concern me. The most religious fear I felt was when I first read about Ragnarök, when the Fenris wolf is prophesied to eat the Sun. That story, though in truth more complicated than a pure, final, “everything dies” tale, hit closest to the fears that did consume me. Each time that I learned of various Earth-destroying cosmic events that could or would eventually occur, I went paralytic with terror. Asteroid or comet impacts; the planet being consumed by the expanding Sun; the universe as we know it ending with heat death, collapse, or who knows what. I couldn’t bear to think about black holes, even though the Earth is not likely to ever fall into one. The mere prospect of such annihilation petrified me. I felt keenly betrayed by the notion that life should come into existence, that sentient forms of it should evolve, only to have no ultimate chance. We would have billions and billions of years, alone or not alone, but we were slated to perish by the laws of physics.

It did not seem fair at all. It seemed as appallingly unfair as the idea that I could be born, enjoy living, accomplish things, collect spectacular memories, and yet ultimately die with no hereafter to welcome me. On long car rides with my family, when night fell I would stare out the window at the stars, and I would cry childishly but in silence at this impossible, absurd tragedy. The stars were the symbol of things enduring despite all odds, and yet even they would have to lose their fire.

. . . .

Here are some of my vital beliefs.

That humans are relatively hairless chimpanzees that have evolved a general tendency toward an erect bipedal gait, opposable thumbs, and fully developed linguistic faculties, although there are variations across the gene pool.

That we chimpanzees occupy some temperament midway between the common chimp and the bonobo, between the warring killers and the fucking hedonists.

That it is against universal wisdom and morals for humans to detach ourselves from the Earth by pretending we are better than other animals, or pretending we are not tool users, or pretending we are not omnivores, or pretending we are not naturally and inextricably violent.

That it is also against such wisdom and morals for us to detach ourselves from the Earth by pretending our absolute self-interest will have no consequence for life as we know it, or pretending that satisfying instrumentality requires engaging in exploitation, or pretending we need no standards for how to behave toward one another and the rest of life, or pretending we are not also naturally and inextricably peaceful.

That extinctions must happen if a species has lost its place in the cycle of things.

That extinctions must be fought if such a loss is due to a wider imbalance that threatens the whole ecosystem, particularly if the species’ absence would cause further destabilization.

That life in its broadest sense is good, and should be preserved, even while preserving so many evils within it. Even while preserving the more intrinsic forms of death and violence.

That a socioeconomic order predicated upon eternal expansion and profit will always serve as a destabilizing force, threatening all ecosystems, threatening all participants, threatening itself, making itself the greatest and worst joke that our witty species has ever played.

That there are few things humans have ever built which could be called unnatural, but that in terms of causing non-intrinsic forms of death and violence, capitalism might be called the greatest unnaturalism, the greatest virus, the meta-virus, the meta-death that is far worse than ordinary death.

That we are exquisitely close to running out of time.

. . . .

I am an emotional writer. When I write something that has hurt inside me for a long while, I weep as I scrawl or type. Somehow, I have not wept yet today. Today I am sad but also perplexed, puzzling. Weighing. Fighting the last vestiges of denial. I do not know if my tears belong with denial or with acceptance. When I know, maybe they will spill.

. . . .

By this point, anyone reading this when it’s published or with the relevant background knowledge could see that I have written this on the day that a particular man was officially inaugurated as the President of the United States. He is a despicable, infuriating, repugnant wretch.

But I am not writing simply because I had such boundless hope before he achieved his power and now, only now, is it dashed. For me it is not like that. That would be pathetically, embarrassingly naïve. Over the past several years of shared political struggle and my own private struggles, following various news stories about the latest undesired climate change milestone, the latest labor abuse, and so forth, I have already grown fairly convinced that the species is digging its own grave, and possibly the graves of everything else on this spinning rock.

I will provide two long quotes from a very important essay that I first read some day not long after it was published. One:

We are living in a mass extinction event. This is not a theory. Over half the species on earth will be extinct by 2050. Let me repeat that fact: over half the species on earth will be extinct by 2050. We are on track to kill off 75% of life in no longer than 300 years, assuming we make it that far. This is the fastest and largest extinction event in history, including that of the dinosaurs. If we understand the example of the wolves, we can see that these are not discrete losses, they represent the unravelling of the entire warp and weft of life. In The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, she reports the extinction rate in the tropics is now 10,000 times the background rate.

… Seawater so acidic that the shells of molluscs are dissolving. Oceans overfished to the extent that they resemble deserts, seabeds ploughed to destruction, micro-particles of indigestible plastic poisioning bird life and turtles, reefs bleached, plankton populations which are the building blocks of all ocean life disappearing. Ocean acidification is predicted to double by 2050. Ocean acidification triples by 2100. The death of the seas is inevitable. Of freshwater I will say that the draining of aquifers is ongoing, that fracking threatens the water table and that wars over water are going to rage in the coming years.

… The Earth itself is exhausted, soil degradation endemic, washed with its nitrogen fertilisers into our already poisoned seas. The living Earth is fragile, it takes a hundred years to form a centimetre of topsoil. Farmland is a limited resource and eroding fast. Industrial pollution has destroyed 20% of the farmland in China – I am not sure that you, or I, can grasp quite how much land that is. Globally 38% of farmland is now classified as degraded. Human population continues to grow, as our ability to feed it, and our infrastructures, buckle. Insect populations will soon not be able to pollinate the crops. It is not just the bees, with climate change animals and insects are being born out of sync with their food sources. As I have said before, the wheel of the year has been broken.

… The air and fire are perhaps what should give us most concern. We thought we had more time. That man-made climate change would be tackled. It has not, and it will not be, as Government and Corporate interests are one and the same, namely infinite growth. This is where you should feel the knot of fear in your stomach. The CO2 emissions that are wreaking havoc now are the result of what we burned forty years ago. Since then we have engaged in an orgy of denial and consumption. There is no tech-fix in the Anthropocene, the age of manmade climate change. Nothing has been done.

What mainstream scientists are not telling you is that the impact we are having is creating self-reinforcing feedback loops. Essentially they focus on a single domino when we have an entire array triggered and falling. Methane release from thawing Arctic Tundra is particularly worrying. We are facing NTE: Near Term Extinction.

… Estimates for the time that this process will take, the process of extinction, range from fifty to three hundred years.

Two:

If you prefer reassurances you can ask the New Agers about their ‘global awakening product’ or believe the green wash of the venture capitalists who will seek to cash-in on the death of the biosphere with equally implausible schemes and vapourware tech-fixes. The governments and scientists will continue to lie to you to prevent the panic that disrupts shopping as usual; however, the cracks in the official narrative are beginning to show. Most will choose to keep mainlining what Dmitri Orlov calls hopium from the sock puppets squawking out of the idiot box. However, I predict the next generation are going to be angrier and their witchcraft more radical than you or I could dream. They will realise that there is nothing to lose, rather than this generation which seems concerned only about the size of their pension pots – not the fact that they have cost us all the earth.

… Extinction is a difficult realisation. After you have worked through the denial, you are going to need to cry in order that you can offer up the sacred lament. The five steps of the grieving process are well known, delineated by psychiatrist Kübler-Ross; they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Everyone here will be somewhere on this scale and it is important for you to understanding this process as you come to terms with these facts.

The essay is entitled “Rewilding Witchcraft”, by Peter Grey, and if you are able to still view that link and read it, I hope that you will, whoever you are. It means more to those of us who are witches, myself included, and I do not agree with every single sentence; it almost feels worth remarking here that Kübler-Ross’ theory has been fairly questioned and reconfigured these days. But I read these words in 2014 or 2015 and I knew they were bitterly correct, for the most part.

No matter who is in charge of the United States’ government or any government, so long as we remain committed to the intertwined monstrosity that is Capital & State, the environmental movement will not succeed. Nor shall basic human rights struggles succeed. Although it is a fallacy to speak of animal rights in the same way one speaks of human rights, it is folly to place a division between environmental and socioeconomic revolution. The same forces that destroy human lives are the forces that destroy ecosystems and the very planet’s habitability for life. It is imperative, it is utterly— utterly, utterly, UTTERLY FUCKING UTTERLY— imperative that a critical mass of individuals turn away from Capital (or State) and stop hoping State (or Capital) will save them. They cycle together. Each forms the other. They are a twin ouroboros, without being the beautiful kind.

But I did think for a time that while the result of revolutionary struggle would be the toss of a coin, a chance that in those fifty to three hundred years from now— let’s put a clear date upon that, let’s look ahead to 2317— something momentous would have happened that began to save us. Until recently I thought that while we were already tipping down some horrible slope into the abyss, we might have the resources and tools to find our way to the other side and climb up the slender ladder.

When the presidential election took place two months ago, some of those resources began to slip out of our hands, and the ladder began to splinter and crack. It does not feel like the toss of a coin. Now it is the roll of a die, and the die is weighted, and our odds are no better than one in six. We can perhaps survive, still, and the rest of life with us, but we now must recognize the strong, severe probability that nothing will endure, and after the last life has been extinguished in a few centuries or millennia, the Earth will exist as a quiet lump of carbon with a poisonous atmosphere and some strange, gradually disintegrating artifacts from its multi-million year experiment with self-replicating entities. The best case scenario, so-called, might be that we meet no such fate, but only after enduring unfathomable tolls to human life and the extinction of at least as many species as predicted. There are a range of outcomes in between.

If such an outlook seems needlessly fatalistic— Trump, it’s only a name, I can say his name— my counterargument is that it probably isn’t fatalistic enough. If it were, I would have given into my socioeconomically cultivated suicidal impulses today, or well before today.

Let me put it this way.

Yes, Trump is a single, disgusting vermin. Yes, his regime is only so many vermin. Yes, contrary to the narcissism of many who live in this country, what happens here does not always have an overwhelming effect on what happens beyond our borders. And yes, the historical record indicates that all fascists lose power eventually (usually, and very importantly, by violence, not by nonviolence). I agree with these statements so heartily that I wish very much as if I could have gone through this Friday as if it were any other day— one more day of the Earth’s riches growing stained and toxic. A calamitous event, the inauguration, but only a drop in the poisoned pool of many other calamities. This thought has its appeal not only when thinking in geological terms but also in revolutionary terms, for we should not require the existence of an immensely powerful fascist leader in order for us to take action against Capital & State. And a fragment of my mind continues to think this way. It is an important fragment, well worth heeding in other respects.

Unfortunately, we must also consider certain pragmatic issues beyond how a Trump-like figure in any country would produce a serious existential threat to marginalized members of its populace, even with people like me included. Even if we are witnessing the endgame of the US Empire, this collapse comes when the specific footholds of the empire remain exceptionally capable of influencing the fate of the environment and the fate of homo sapiens. Compared to some people, I am not tremendously concerned about nuclear warfare. If anything, Trump’s purported coziness with Putin would be a boon in avoiding nuclear war unless various other aspects of societal collapse tipped some dominoes that we have not yet foreseen losing balance. (I also could not give a single shit-smeared damn about how much Putin influenced this election, but that is a topic for another day, except to add that I find Putin about as odious as Trump on the whole.) Rather, my already mentioned ecological concerns drive the sense of meta-death today.

This craven scum and his nauseating alliance of capitalists, military officers, Bible-thumpers, and Randians— they do not only seek to kill art and beauty, they do not only seek to exterminate those of us on the margins as if we were so many freaks crawling in the way of their vision (we are, O let us continue to be, O please). The United States’ industry, both internally and in its trade dealings, has a disproportionately large impact on the planet’s climate, the quality of the planet’s resources, and the necessary species diversity both within and beyond our borders. The darkest seat of Capital sits here, whatever may happen with State, for at least a few more decades, by my reckoning. And the newly inaugurated scum are actively working to ruin our final, desperate chance to make the national changes that we so badly need in order to still enter the abyss and climb back out when the centuries have passed.

I do not really think they see it that way. It is fatal stupidity of the highest, most cataclysmic order, nothing more.

If enough other countries besides this one can do double, triple the work that they already ought to be doing, perhaps this country’s failure to cooperate will not matter. But I doubt this.

. . . .

I know that others besides me have written essays on this same subject. Not only the one that I mentioned, either. There are a great deal. I do notice, however, a tendency in other essays to either close with sudden strange platitudes about what we can still accomplish, how we can take solace, etc., or close with no propositions for any solutions. Neither variety is guaranteed to carry a liberal slant, but sometimes that element shines through, malignantly twee. “We still have each other.” “Love is the only thing that will see us through.” “As awful as this is, I don’t know what to do about it.” “I’m just done. If you have any suggestions, let me know.”

I would like to not close any such fashion. First, I would like to quote two individuals who, though white and male, sometimes said some good things.

… it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
— Samuel Beckett

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.
— Bertolt Brecht

I cannot presume who has or does not have anybody. I cannot presume anything about love, a construct as much as a fool’s hope, a destroyer as much as a creator. Instead, it is extremely likely that we will perish, we as ourselves now or we as our species later, and those who perish may perish quite alone and without any love left.

If we do wish for any solace, any solution, these things will come only from reflecting, often, upon exactly how much we stand to lose, and the increasingly inevitable fact that we will lose every single part of it. Certain natural, logical conclusions from directing one’s thought to such ozymandian waste, and those conclusions will form a large portion of my future writing, here and elsewhere.

What I will say in short form just now is that continued collaboration with Capital & State will drive all the nails in our coffin; it will be the end, the absolute and total end. The last shred of a future can only be seized by divesting ourselves, carefully yet efficiently, of that ouroboros. You— you, if you did read all of this— must inoculate yourself against that virus. You must acquaint yourself with revolutionary thought. I must further acquaint myself with it, and I must make plans to do more than I have done, and I must follow through. If you continue to collaborate with the thing destroying us, I have nothing else that I can say except that you are part of the problem.

You, personally, are helping to select us for extinction. I, personally, may not be doing enough. No; I am not, not yet, perhaps ever. It is terrifying to consider that even with the most obvious choice before us, not enough of us will make it, or make it to the extent that it must be made.

How long will it stay?

D. Llywelyn Jones

Survival, So-Called, Part 1

Immediate warning: This entire post repeatedly mentions and describes emotional, sexual, and financial abuse.

I didn’t wake up planning to write this, but I also wasn’t born with the expectation of one fellow human singlehandedly and nonconsensually breaking down who I was and spitting out a remade version of that self. I did not expect to be shaped by abuse.

The reason I feel like writing about my abuse right now is that I have lately meditated a lot— and, yes, occasionally worked with my therapist— on some personal challenges that I didn’t think really connected to that abuse. But, as seems to be fairly typical, of course those things did connect. I also dislike being misunderstood, and since virtually all of these particular problems impact my interactions with other people, this evening I was suddenly moved to write at least once on why I have turned into the sort of friend, relative, etc. that I am. Which is to say, I’m not a terribly “good” friend or relative in many traditional senses, and I feel alternately guilty or frustrated by this. In writing this, too, I hope that maybe I will have a chance at finding other abuse survivors who face what I face, who struggle how I struggle, because we are by no means a monolith, and I can tell that my remaking clearly deviates from the Standard Victim-Survivor Model in some respects.

Here are some things for you to know first. One is that my first novel, Tiresias, does derive large portions of the storyline from my own abuse experience, which anyone knowing me during my junior or senior years of college could clearly recognize; but it is not a connect-the-dots roadmap for exactly what happened to Devon Llywelyn Jones the young scholar. Though it undoubtedly qualifies as a roman à clef, the protagonist Quinn narrates from a crossroads of gender and politics that I once did inhabit but is not my situation any longer, and even in the past I was not identical. The wholly accurate details of my abuse— and of how I really feel about it these years later— have only been disclosed to a few people, and these details were highlighted differently in the novel than what I wish to highlight now.

The second thing, which leads right to my main point: I have encountered and sometimes conquered a number of psychological hangups that relate to how I cohabitate with people, how I navigate my gender, and how I have sex, all of which absolutely derive from being abused; I don’t think that those hangups affect me so greatly nowadays, especially since around autumn of last year when my economic circumstances took a substantive turn for the better. So I’m sure that I could lend my voice to the chorus of survivors describing how we’ve each been affected by someone putting us into debt, by someone exploiting our altruism while collectively sharing our poverty, by someone’s poor impulse control leading to a hoarder household where you couldn’t even fucking breathe, by codependency leading to a mutual willingness to allow shirked responsibilities, by someone using your gender crisis as an excuse to map their own gender crisis onto you in the bedroom, by someone putting their hands where you don’t want them to go on your body, by someone physically hurting your sexual anatomy, by someone coercing you into sex acts that cause you nausea and disgust. But honestly, truly, I think that most effects from those elements of my abuse… they’re now rather marginal. I’m lucky. I’m relieved. I really did survive those things, and I can now live with the ways that Devon Llywelyn Jones was irrevocably remade before and after that survival.

What I am quite sure that abuse damaged in me long-term is: my ability to form, maintain, or even give a shit about most kinds of social attachment; my comfort levels with environments or aesthetics that probably a lot of people consider “pure” or “soothing”; and my interest in existing within certain social arenas at all. Of course, when I say that I was damaged, I mean this in a highly specific sense, not to broadly say that something is now horribly wrong with me. Frankly, though I have long called myself an extrovert insofar as being around other human beings (physically or digitally) is preferable to being alone, I would definitely qualify this as a “closet” extrovert because I’ve always compartmentalized the when, where, and how of most personal connections, e.g. if I know someone as “the friend who holds parties” then I am pretty content just seeing them at parties, or if I enjoy a coworker’s company in the office then I feel very weird seeing them outside of it. In the meantime I’ve also harbored a lifelong gravitation to the macabre, the morbid, the violent (all nuances of that word), etc., and I grew up as an outlier, a brooder, an iconoclast, and a cynic. If I had not been abused, I am fairly certain that I would still have spent a life embroiled in various countercultures, exploring things that are fundamentally queer, Dionysian, even occult. I feel no shame about this. I feel no drive to cloak myself in irony. I am wired unconventionally, and so are plenty of other people, really, and that’s all right. But by being abused, my existing peculiarities were fermented and magnified into something I don’t think many people who currently know me understand. Something that gives me a difficult model for the kind of connections I do want, and something that I suspect makes me a difficult fit for the model of connections that others might expect from me.

I do not think I can lay out the whole history and effects in just one post, even if I had time tonight. For the moment I will just try to focus on the attachment aspect.

To the best of my knowledge, my ex, whom I will call Cat, had been abused in multiple ways by three out of her four immediate family members before I met her when I was a college sophomore. I know this instantly complicates my own abuse narrative because I did not have an archetypal abuser. A young woman, hardly some classical sociopath, in fact impossible to diagnose consistently in terms of her psychology. Depending on which professional she saw, she had bipolar I, bipolar II, major depression, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, or some combination, all of which resulted in a totally new drug cocktail every six months. To say the least, I think that Cat was suffering emotionally on a profound level, and this is more important than classifying a condition or judging how much was borne by her own failings.

(An aside: while I think borderline personality can in fact be a meaningful profile to use for analyzing someone’s behavior, including Cat’s, it does rather frequently seem to be deployed as a way of saying, “You have PTSD symptoms but you’ve brought it all on yourself.” Never mind the gendered components. And the name is grossly misleading.)

Cat’s suffering perpetuated itself into my own life. The abused became the abuser, which I suppose is archetypal in certain spheres, but I couldn’t recognize this for a long time, partly because the ways that she abused me usually didn’t resemble the ways she had been abused. She must have learned that you always hurt the one you love, insofar as she rapidly proved incapable of relating to me in a way that wasn’t harmful, exploitative, manipulative, and alienating; and yet, she was not hitting me, forcing her body physically on mine during sex, doing sexually humiliating things to me in public, and so on. She just started, within months of first sleeping together, to force me into creating an environment where she never had to face anything that she was afraid of.

I won’t make “safer spaces” analogies. There is total validity to the concept of safer spaces and to their underlying logic of expecting people to treat each other with basic human decency. What Cat tried to do was make our shared life something I’ll call an innocent space. First she excoriated my tastes in virtually all media and pastimes because they were not always cute, gentle, optimistic, binary-femme, or sexless. Sometimes they were what you might call “problematic,” but she embraced plenty of problematic media herself so at most she was hypocritical in that regard; generally it seemed like if something were merely dark, intense, butch, or sexual, she could not tolerate it. Over time she extended this daily or weekly coal-raking to my presentation, my pronouns, my creative pursuits, my spirituality, and my social circle. I was not allowed to transgress my assigned gender because choosing something remotely masculine or butch threatened her even despite what a femmy, flamboyant guy I was at the time; if I couldn’t naturally become her partner in twee lipstick lesbianism, she would berate and verbally assault me until I was at least willing to forget or erase the most discomforting parts of myself. And yet gender was really just one part of it. Her gender policing belonged to such a broad package of identity management that I suspect I only zeroed in on the gender for years afterward because it was the most obvious form of oppression, a cis person telling a trans person how (not) to be trans.

Overall, I was systematically isolated from my friends because Cat temporarily convinced me that all of them were useless, unoriginal people, and that I needed to expend all of my emotional energy on her. Not simply because my friends called me “him.” Overall, I stopped doing anything that made me happy because doing it distracted me from her, because it shattered the innocent and calm sphere that she wanted to be in, and because it cost me money that was barely there in the first place (and that she was all but stealing from under my nose). Overall, we stopped having sex because Cat could not compute healthy sexuality into our relationship, because I believed at the time that if we never really had sex then we would still be saved by “love,” and because the sex we did manage quickly became bad and/or encompassed the sexual abuse I did experience. Not simply because she didn’t want to have sex with a “him.”

My abuse was so complex that I already feel like I need to pause and note how deeply I understand why Cat treated me how she did. It was not right for her to do, but the rationale is easy to trace, and it seems impossible to blame her for wanting a cozy, domestic existence surrounded by nice material possessions and some assurance that she would never ever have to experience anything more intense than a fuzzy blanket, or to experience anything more sexually and sensually stimulating than cuddling amid a marijuana high, or to be around men. Whenever I feel severely depressed, even suicidal, due to the state of my life or the world, my first recourse is certainly to go home, have a good meal or buy something nice to wear, and have a long snuggle with my husband, who is literally the only man I can cope with under those circumstances; a good shag would also make me feel better, but my libido isn’t really up to the task for at least a few minutes after a good cry.

I am quite sure that a dividing line between a healthy need and an abusive behavior is when you demand that someone else compromise virtually all their own healthy needs in order to satisfy yours, and when you force them into compliance through guilt or the feeling that you are the only person who can validate them. Cat crossed this line with me too many times to count. I’m sure it was hundreds. It blurred together into two and a half years of utter hell.

Friendships that once mattered to me were shunted aside to such an extent that I was only able to pursue perhaps half of them when I finally escaped, and then I suspect that even half of that half got irrevocably stunted. It had taken me twelve years of grade school to learn how to attract and nurture friends, to acquire the types of connections that I did desperately want— and it took me a sixth of that time to not only drop so many people by the wayside, but also to get shaped into such a cynically judgmental and bitter person that I saw most of these collapses not as losses until I was free. I have even retained that cynicism up till today, though the reasons for which I now find myself judging potential companions are fairly different than what Cat drove into me. This is the most obvious effect of my abuse on my attachment skills. Now, I just tend to back away fast from social connections because they remind me too much of her; because the ways we’re not so compatible are too daunting for me to feel capable of spending energy on getting along anyway; or because of what I will explain next. But I do back away. A lot.

The less obvious effect on my attachment skills has arisen more obliquely. Let me talk for a moment about empathic investment. I am very empathic. I don’t feel like starting some contest for who is the most empathic person I know, but whatever mechanism you would use to describe the cause of empathy, I have that mechanism overclocked. Obviously this made it easier for Cat to manipulate me in the first place— if she was suffering, I felt absolutely awful on raw principle— but beyond that, if I do value and respect someone enough to regard them as what many people would call a friend, those feelings of valuation and respect are strong. They are often quite equivalent to what many people would also call love, even though I don’t feel much of an impulse to live together or send flowers or exhibit a lot of stereotypically romantic behavior. I might find them sexually attractive too, and I might harbor some latent hope that they find me the same, though these feelings aren’t some kind of default. I will get to sexuality more soon, but my point right here is that it is hard for me to feel unmitigated admiration for someone else and not experience it as a kind of crush. This feeds into why precisely I am queer, I believe. It’s also a grotesque emotional inconvenience. I cannot go through life with starry eyes for virtually every person who’s moderately interesting, trustworthy, or socially relevant.

So: this is certainly one factor in my closet extroversion, for even if I prefer the company of others to the company of merely myself, I would be empathically exhausted if I made an effort to regularly spend time with anyone who was more than a very casual acquaintance. But also, post-abuse, I find that my basic threshold has dropped for growing emotionally overwhelmed, so more than ever, I feel as if I need to invest my energies strictly in personal connections with the people to whom I do feel magnetically drawn. My social experiences over the past several years have increasingly dwindled to spending time with “kindred spirits,” much as I hate that phrase, or to satisfying my extroversion by simply going places where there are going to be a lot of random strangers. I love long, soul-searching online conversations, and I love ritually scheduled parties, performances, and nightclubs. I can no longer cope with spontaneous “hanging out” or keeping track of important friends’ lives via sporadic status updates or annual e-mails.

That troubles me, because before my abuse, I was never too spontaneous and I was never good at obligatory correspondence. Worse, the general sexlessness of what constituted my ex’s comfort zone (apart from the few times that she decided to abuse me in bed) has repulsed me from connections where I know or imagine I need to walk on eggshells regarding sexuality. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with being open about how the enforced vanilla non-sexuality of life with my ex eventually pushed me to feel most fulfilled as somebody kinky and highly sexual. I never feel as if sexuality rules me in some addictive fashion. It is, however, a severe challenge for me to conduct myself around asexual, minimally sexual, or sexually ultra-private people, and I am not exactly proud of this. I have literally no disagreement with others inhabiting a less sexually-focused existence than my own, but I am directly triggered (yes, in the clinical definition of the term) when I discover myself in the company of people who don’t enjoy sex, don’t experience sexual attraction, are themselves triggered by sexuality, view sexual desire as a corrupting force, or would simply prefer not to talk about sex in general. I can be around these people, but I need to leave the room or take a break from the Internet if such qualities become a discursive focus. I am not terribly afraid of behaving like a genuine creeper, though I certainly hope someone would point it out to me if I ever did; my visceral reaction centers purely around the fear of being judged for something very benign. I don’t like how this has caused my blood pressure to pointlessly spike around people I otherwise would want to spend time with. It’s embarrassing. It’s stupid. Abuse can produce the strangest triggers imaginable. Abuse has hampered my ability to nurture friendships with more than a handful of hugely compatible, equally sexual people.

With that thought in mind, I will leave this alone until I can summon the time and capacity for a post on the next logical topic of this abuse that I seem to have survived in name only.

DLJ

When the city expels you

I haven’t written here lately. Right now, I am on a trip and I’ve only now made time to write— and such time I do have, but I’m now turning somewhat rusty gears. Looking back: in August, I was consumed by the process of moving apartments. Looking back even further: I was able to post twice in July, but those were the few spots in an almost catastrophically bad spell of depression, prompted by the original need to move. My writer-mind is still caught up on wisps of that fog, so before I can say anything else here, I think I need to write— perhaps in a fragmented way, I warn— about it.

A brief warning— there is some discussion of suicidal ideation here.

I was expelled by the city of Boston, and not through eviction but certainly through related political forces. (If you do not believe eviction is ultimately if not directly political, I don’t know what to say.) I now live across a river or two in a much smaller city, still only a twenty minute bus ride from the city, but far enough to feel as if my former locality had forcibly ejected me. Far enough to even feel as if the most immediate surrounding metropolitan area did not desire my residency. My new home is, in certain ways, preferable to the old home in terms of the actual premises and some facets of the neighborhood, but right now it also still feels like a rebound lover after a breakup that I did not initiate. I had even thought for years about initiating it, but I hadn’t thought that my old neighborhood’s immediate circle would reject me even more thoroughly than the ex itself did. The breakup almost seemed amicable, the new prospect seems better, and yet I somehow sank into a psychological abyss in between.

Gentrification. The same urban economic elitism that is striking cities across the globe— London, New York, San Francisco especially, but also others, and definitely Boston. I moved to Boston in 2009 when rent was already less than ideal; the condo-studio I found and eventually shared with my husband was going for $1050. We found ourselves with virtually no choice but to move elsewhere this summer after first it became $1200 in 2014— and after the unit’s owner could not, herself, keep up with the expenses and chose to list it on the market this year. We switched to a month-to-month lease at the end of June.

Logically, it was possible that the unit would sell to a hopeful owner-occupier, which would leave us with 30-60 days to vacate, depending on how fast they closed, but regardless, we would not have been legally allowed to stay in the unit.

Logically, it was possible that the unit would sell to someone who wanted to keep renting to us, but we already knew that the property had been valued highly enough that we could have already been paying $1500 last year. Someone less sympathetic than the current owner would have easily felt every justification to raise the rent. We quite literally could not have afforded that amount, never mind the fact that simply paying $3.00 per square foot of space is already an absurd notion and that this was a studio.

Logically, it was possible that the unit would not sell, but then what? The current owner was about as decent of heart as I could have asked for, but no matter her intentions, if she was not financially prepared to support the unit anymore, she would likely have seen no choice but to raise the rent as well.

There was a slim chance that nothing could have happened at all, but particularly given the fact that we already lived so far from people we knew, that there wasn’t a lot to do in the area, that obnoxious cookie cutter business forces were clearly aligning nearby, we couldn’t imagine a very pleasant outcome if we got to stay, but we couldn’t imagine “getting to stay” as a practical reality.

So we were not being evicted. We also did not face a situation as dire as we could have in other respects; we both benefited from white privilege, at first glance we might be read as a straight couple, both of us were employed in some regard, I had a bachelor’s degree, I had a high credit rating, and we could receive good landlord & personal references. Sadly, there were a host of other obstacles to our home-hunt.

Let me talk about Boston rent and tenant life as a whole.

Minimum wage in Massachusetts, a “progressive” state, is $9/hour. This means that if a single minimum wage worker works full-time, i.e. 40 hours per week, after taxes— after— they will earn about $1150 per month. There is now virtually no apartment in the entire Boston metropolitan area where you will pay that little in rent. By “Boston metropolitan area” I mean “if you can use MBTA-provided public transit to reach it,” though it possibly tapers off after you’re an hour’s commuter rail ride outside the city. And then you are paying literally hundreds of dollars per month on commuter rail expenses, so you should be wealthy enough to own a car. Within the geographic area I describe, anyone advertising an apartment under $1200 is all but certifiably a con artist or a disreputable broker (same thing, of course). I will reiterate that this includes studios.

Consequently, if you make minimum wage in the Boston metro area, you are virtually required to live with a roommate and/or partner to afford any rent. Never mind any social and/or mental health difficulties with sharing your living space; consider simply that because a studio goes for more than this amount, it makes no sense at all to rent a studio for “downsizing” purposes unless you are prepared to share your living space very, very intimately. My husband and I only survived together for five and a half years in a studio because of our own intimacy.

Meanwhile, market rate units are leased largely with the expectation that the residents’ combined income be three times the rent. This is at best an irritation. Suppose you have a couple seeking a studio or a 1-bedroom. If they want one such apartment in any place that is reasonably serviced by an actual T line, they should expect $1500 as a minimum market rate. Bare minimum. They may knock off $100 or $200 for merely having a somewhat accessible bus line. Let us be charitable and give this couple a rental offer for $1300/month, all utilities included except electricity (because electricity in Boston is not usually part of the deal, at least for this end of the market). By market rate standards, the couple should hope to make $3900 per month in total, which translates to $1950 per person if an even split at full-time hours is assumed. That’s somewhat more than a $12/hour wage. Now, the landlord may merely expect $12/hour per person before taxes; and if the couple is lucky, eats fairly cheap, and doesn’t have too many regular expenses overall, they may be able to afford the $1300 rent with a little monthly wiggle room, though that’s more likely if it’s $12/hour after taxes.

But if they are not both making something in this approximate range, it is entirely likely the couple’s rental application will be denied, regardless of whatever other factors may work in their favor, not simply because of market rate standards but because of demand. The landlord has virtually no reason to rent to such candidates who are equal to others except that they earn less. For the landlord it’s a question of their own personal risk, and in the first place they assume they’re taking a very high degree of risk if their tenant(s) don’t make over some baseline amount. That’s not necessarily an inaccurate calculation, but it means that even a couple making more than minimum wage is still priced out of many units. Remember— $1300 is very cheap, and we assumed both partners were working full-time.

And I have only laid this out for a couple. Assuming that one does wish for more routine privacy from one’s roommate(s), a 2-bedroom probably starts around $1700, and again that’s at the very low end. Do the math again and for an even split this puts two roommates just shy of requiring $16/hour each at full-time. For three people, I cannot imagine a market rate 3-bedroom going for less than $2000, and here you would again need all three roommates to be at $12.50/hour at full-time. Four people might split a 4-bedroom priced at $2500, at which point the full-time wage requirement for each of them is finally something under $12. Maybe. I may be too kind with these rents. They’re all certainly rare.

People can, of course, live like this. People live like this all the time in Boston, because they don’t really have two thirds of their income left over every month for non-rent expenditures, especially not when many employers refuse to bump workers up from part-time hours in many industries. (Giving raises isn’t even in their vocabulary, either.) Paradoxically, however, even though market rate units are not supposed to accommodate economic hardships aside from the legal requirement to accept Section 8 vouchers— the requirement that a landlord mitigate risk through a minimum income requirement means that many apartment doors are de facto locked for people who are “not poor enough” for subsidized housing or can’t get off the waiting list for it.

This becomes a more laughably awful state of affairs when some things about subsidized housing are considered. The Section 8 waiting lists in this state are, generously, 8 to 10 months, often much longer, and many waiting lists are flat out closed. In an emergency where someone doesn’t fit the rather stringent requirements, there is no choice but to look at alternatives for a new home. Most public housing in Massachusetts, meanwhile, is about as synonymous with slum conditions as Pruitt-Igoe became, thanks to the powers that be. Private “affordable housing” alternatives are nominally safer, but even though they are not market rate, they almost universally come with minimum income requirements for anyone lacking the sacred voucher. Those requirements are lower than market rate because the rents themselves are lower. Sometimes. Frequently, “affordable housing” is given away, sometimes by lottery, to households making between $50,000 and $80,000 a year. Frequently, those values are for a single person.

This is “affordable” insofar as people within such income brackets may still find themselves being asked to pay $3000 per month or more in rent for maintaining their personal standard of living, and they still naturally want something less expensive that won’t increase as regularly as a market rate unit will. Despite what economic challenges these tenants face, however, Boston does not expel them as it expels others.

Of the several dozen people I call Boston-area friends or acquaintances, I can think of possibly two or three who live alone, even though they are single, and I am not sure how many can fathom doing otherwise, even if they would much rather do so. There is simply no choice.

I know the figures I’ve quoted above because I’ve read some statistics but also because, though the market is volatile, in terms of my own experience in July this was precisely what my husband and I faced. I am not interested in airing our entire financial circumstances to the world, but in loose terms, depending on the unit at least one of the following always proved detrimental to us: combined income, combined credit, combined employment hours, employment type, and similar. And, though I don’t have confirmation, in one case possibly the fact that it said “M” on my driver’s license whereas I had otherwise been read by everyone involved as “F.” This was the case even after a solid month of top-to-bottom listing searches to which I dedicated hours and hours of every single day.

We were rejected from three units before being accepted for one. For various reasons I will not name our new property management service, but I will say that compared to everything else we faced, they showed sane, flexible tenant criteria, and the unit itself is so far everything we could have wanted in a 1-bedroom. We are content with the result. In the meantime, though, as hard as the three rejections were to bear, we could have faced more; the equal if not greater difficulty arose simply in finding anywhere that was worth the application. This made every rejection chill me, nauseate me. It would have been easy to shrug off each “no” if there was the assurance that we could rapidly find somewhere else where we wanted to be told “yes,” but about half the showings I arranged did not result in an application, a very small fraction of the inquiries I made even resulted in a showing, and a very small fraction of the listings I searched even resulted in those inquiries.

Our needs did not seem substantial. A few tiers higher than “categorically desperate,” yes, but very reasonable for the region, very reasonable for our lifestyle, very reasonable for people with our particular psychologies.

  • T or bus access. As mentioned, living in commuter rail land means you should just as well own a car, unless your income is already extremely flexible. Meanwhile, living inside of the zone where commuter rail no longer matters, a car can have some meager benefits, but Boston and its adjacent municipalities have obscene parking fees, obscene roads, and obscene traffic.
  • Pet friendly. Many, many people in Boston own pets. This is not a novelty. And it is my not-exactly-minority opinion that when you welcome a pet into your home, it is your obligation to provide them with that home as long as you both shall live, unless some situation causes a dire case of incompatibility.
  • Rent we could afford independently of official income requirements.
  • Utilities included with the rent, if the rent was over a certain amount.
  • Ideally, no broker fee, but if nothing else, not too many up front expenses on the whole.
  • A dishwasher. I could go on a long tirade about how a dishwasher is not a luxury, it is a general 21st century necessity, it is extremely important for people (myself included) whose bodies do not put up easily with standing in front of a sink to wash dishes by hand. Instead, I will leave it at “a sink full of unwashed dishes” being an actual trigger for me vis à vis my abuse history. I have very few triggers, but triggers for many people are unusual, and this is mine. I need a dishwasher. I need one.
  • In-building laundry. It’s common enough these days, and it’s still troublesome to haul laundry up stairs, but less so than taking it outdoors.
  • No roommates apart from each other. The reasons for this are endless; the most succinct one is that there are very few people on the planet with whom either of us can live.

Of course I wanted hardwood floors, a great deal of space, more than one bedroom, highly modern appliances, excellent lighting, in-unit laundry, a balcony, and much beyond that. Ultimately I just wanted a home to call completely my own, to do with as I pleased, and it is indisputable that up to a certain price point we would be paying less on a mortgage and utilities than on rent and utilities, so we have even explored this option to a limited extent. But we had no hope of affording a down payment for any house, particularly not on short notice. And the things we considered a basic requirement for our new home— they truly were the only requirements.

They were still too complicated, apparently, for the city of Boston and any city or town directly bordering it. With very few exceptions— those being the ones I/we toured and applied to, and I will note that most still indirectly bordered the so-called Hub— it was possible to live less than a mile’s walk from public transit, but largely not for the rent we needed, largely not with a fair number of utilities included, largely not without grotesque fees, and oh. Pets? The rental market might reduce to 25% of its regular size, if that, when you want to have pets. Make it smaller still for more than one pet, never mind that many pets are much happier when they get to live with another of their own species. Make the number of available units even smaller for more than two pets, even though pets of a certain size and pets of nearly all temperaments are not going to cause any more inconvenience or property damage when there are three or four instead of two. We have three cats. You see the sport we were in for.

Dishwashers in this city sometimes seem like devices used on Mars. I understand perfectly why some buildings don’t install them and don’t allow tenants to install them. Water use, electrical use, etc. But here is the part where I do say this is the 21st century and this is a problem of universal accessibility. Of course, they are very common when you reach a certain bracket. Poor people, however, apparently don’t need them. It is people with leisure time who need even greater leisure of this sort. I could find “cheap” units with in-building laundry at perhaps three or four times the rate of equivalent units with dishwashers.

Most brokers I dealt with were rude, dismissive, and/or ultimately scamming. Most people I contacted didn’t get back to me, even when they seemed entirely legitimate. Regarding the brokers I worked with for a little while, most still could not give me straight answers to basic questions that I asked repeatedly, most were transparently working to fill their/their clients’ units and not to find my household a home, most were bad at answering e-mails or texts or phone calls in a timely fashion. By “timely” I mean that they were really not so slow, but for the rate at which the market allegedly moved, they were always the ones dropping the ball while I, the person potentially paying them, was working at the speed of light. Some brokers convinced me to visit or hear about units that transparently failed our criteria, which I had plainly communicated.

I entered this hunt in a preemptive state of paranoia and despair. I was already in the grip of the depression symptoms that had been resurgently ruining my emotional life since August of 2013. There were enough economic and domestic pressures for my husband and I, and I had enough gender pain to sort out on a separate level. I knew the search was going to be bad before I started. I knew we might have to settle for something very much less than ideal. And yet I had no idea just how many options would disqualify us out of hand, just how many options we would have to disqualify out of hand.

I will remain eternally grateful that a good unit finally fell into our laps. For a solid month prior to that, however, I grew convinced for a time that “our” studio would sell to some new owner before we could find a place that would not require the breakup of our feline family and would not bankrupt us, and thus we truly would become homeless. I know that to some degree this was a very irrational fear, but there was a kernel of truth in it, and if it was not truly homelessness itself that I feared, it was the prospect of having to compromise on a new home in awful, horrible ways that would prove psychologically damaging to us over time, whether that be in terms of the commute, the cost of living vs. amenities provided, the forced separation for any/all cats, the prospect of couch surfing and dealing with other humans in a domestic setting. Gradually, it became apparent that the studio would not easily sell, and this comforted me, but the mere possibility remained a source of distress. We were still frantically packing up our belongings so that we could move quickly, either as expected by any new unit or as demanded by any quasi-eviction. And even if I should not have worried too greatly, I did need to be working as hard as I could on the housing problem, so as to best stave off any worst case scenarios.

I had to put almost my entire life on hold to address this one facet. I was resentful.

For several weeks, I was fixated on suicide. My husband and I already struggled so much to make money, to be happy, to improve our lot, to prepare ourselves as needed for the enormous top-level goals we had for our lives together. Over the past year we had reached a few conclusions about how to accomplish some things, and we were continuously developing more plans, and suddenly we weren’t allowed to work on these things anymore because we had to do something utterly critical. There was no timeline for this hiatus from getting ahead. It could have taken us the month that it did, or it could have taken us many more months, depending on our luck. Facing this uncertainty, I did not objectively desire death, but as has happened to me on a small handful of past occasions, and as has happened to me more often for the past two years due to poverty in particular, all but daily I thought of doing myself assuredly lethal bodily harm. Death was not for me, but life was also not for me, and maybe death would be different. If I failed, maybe the people who could have done something about my plight would take pity on me once they knew I was in a hospital on life support. As if somehow all of those people would hear about it.

I am embarrassed about these feelings now, and I was terrified of them then. I cried almost constantly, some days. It shattered me. Half the time I would cry from sheer stress and frustration. Half the time I would cry because I had thought about slitting my wrists again and I didn’t want to be thinking about that. My face and my eyes and my throat hurt from this after a while. On days when I did not have to be at work and did not have boxes for packing, I was a listless, useless, sobbing sack of flesh. Unless I got onto a listing site and started perusing new places, sending out new queries. Then I became a perfect machine. But then I would eventually run out of units to investigate, and I would start worrying about the places I’d looked at, and I would melt down again. My lifeline was also my madness.

I have already written too much about this, too much to bother explaining how we found our new home, how we were approved, how we made the arrangements, how we moved into it. It is enough to say that it happened. But a month and a half after I finally received that blissful message of you’re approved, I find myself still looking back at the state I was in just prior to that moment. I was driving myself into, I suspect, a borderline psychosis, but I would ascribe equal blame to the normal situation of an average tenant in Boston. I think I was merely in a less resilient mental landscape for surviving the tumult, compared to some who have been in my/our precise position. On the whole, the city’s masters did not want me to be there anymore. Not in a conscious, deliberate way, perhaps, but in a meaningful way. They especially do not want even poorer people, they especially do not want people of color, they especially do not want undocumented workers, they especially do not want people with visible disabilities. But then there are many other sorts of people they don’t want there, and they don’t want them in Cambridge, they don’t want them in Somerville, they don’t want them in Brookline, they don’t want them in Quincy, in Watertown, in Newton, in Charlestown, in Malden. The city of Chelsea took me instead; it’s a city that takes a lot of people, and it’s a vibrant and interesting and good place, so far. In my reckoning.

I suspect, admittedly, that our stay in this new, tiny city will be comparably short, at least in this apartment. We do want to eventually switch to a mortgage, and we don’t plan to stay even in the Boston area forever. The landlord knows we won’t be there forever, too. So our departure, our self-expulsion, is somewhat guaranteed. I can only hope that not many in our new city don’t have to face what we faced in our old one. It’s quite possible they may. Property developers and real estate agents are speaking now of Chelsea as a hot spot, and people who do want to save money are moving there on a regular basis. White people. Affluent white people. I didn’t have very much of a choice about moving where I would be permitted to move, but I cannot overlook the larger pattern into which my action may have taken place, and even if it was harmless on its own, who can tell how long it will be before someone looks at Chelsea and decides to make it a place for the affluent alone, just as Boston has now become?

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.

The cost of femme

As some who know me may have noticed, I look different lately. Probably enough that if they already knew me as he/him, as a guy with a fairly short haircut, as a guy who bound his chest and didn’t shave his legs, as a guy with stubble, as a guy who usually wore clothing not socially ascribed to women, as a guy who in wearing “women’s clothing” would describe it as drag— to those people, whether they be friends, family, or colleagues, much has changed. It still says “M” on all the legal documents where I had it changed, and all I’ve ever said publicly to anyone about what might be the case is that I’m really genderfluid or genderqueer. But I’ve substantially grown out (some of) my head hair, I sometimes wear makeup, I don’t bind, I shave a good deal of my body and face, and I wear ambiguous or outright “female” clothing depending on where I’m going. Most crucially, I have stayed off of testosterone injections for more than a year— which has had several major effects, but the very obvious one is that I’ve changed shape and could no longer fit into most binder models. Resurgent estrogen is enthusiastic.

I would like to assure everyone at this time: nothing is wrong. This is not the first time I have explored something beyond the gender binary, but in this instance I am not doing so under duress. Far from it. What’s actually happening with my gender is extremely complicated and confusing, even for me, and I have held off from explaining it to many others because I want to understand my own impulses better. So— this is not going to be a big essay about why I’ve “gone femme.” It’s also not going to be a big essay about all the disagreements I’ve developed with the femme/butch binary; let it suffice for now to simply hint that you would think in a world with such highly advanced and convoluted gender theory we might be more wary of any binaries.

For now, I’m just reflecting on the sheer fact of my gender presentation veering more in the direction that many people call femme— in the direction I will call femme as a cautious placeholder— and how this has a cost for me. I do not mean a social cost, a privilege cost. Even though they’re real, I will get into those issues whenever I write about the femme/butch binary failing. I mean something else.

First of all, leaving out the existential why of me turning to femme, some facets of that shift are within my control and some facets are less so. Some of my femme is an utterly independent choice, and some is not. I have chosen to grow my hair, I have chosen to wear makeup, I have chosen to wear bras that make me feel good about my appearance, I have chosen to wear clothing that I like and that happens to not be considered suitable for men. But I have not had a choice about wearing bras in general principle; if I can’t fit into a binder or do anything else that effectively compresses my chest, there is no point in trying, and there are a host of reasons that walking around publicly with unsupported double-Ds is not something I’d be comfortable doing. And more urgently, while others can always do what they feel is necessary for their own survival (physical and psychological), I have felt distinct pressure to keep myself hairless in all the places that women are “not supposed” to have hair. Given most other aspects of my presentation, if someone reads me as a cis woman, I am likely to be treated a certain negative way, and I am under too many other stresses in my life to cope easily with repeated microaggressions of that nature. More gravely, I have to consider the fact that I am not a trans woman, I would never lay claim to such experiences, but I am a femme-performing person with a tenor voice and occasional five o’clock shadow; if anyone were to interpret this as some always could, it might go quite poorly for me under some circumstances. I’m learning to materially enjoy the feeling of baby-smooth depilated skin where it didn’t exist before, but it began as and still remains a survival decision. My only areas of serious resistance are one area that very few people get to see, and my armpits. Possibly because everybody has armpit hair, and mine is sparse. Not everybody has face hair, and not everybody has leg hair in abundance.

That’s the first personal cost: it’s difficult for me to do femme in half measures. If you commit to part of it, I’m under the impression that you may often wind up committing to more because otherwise the world won’t even want you to try. This has at least been my struggle. Luckily, I’m adapting to it. With a particular level of commitment assumed, the bigger costs mount: time, energy, and money. Depilating cream doesn’t work very well on me, so all depilation means shaving, and this adds easily 30-40 minutes to any combined shower & hygiene routine. I have to contort myself and focus so intently that it’s physically exhausting. I have to shave my face every 1.5-2 days before the stubble is too visible, and it’s become tedious at best. I have to spend money on things I never used to budget for. Things I need to feel comfortable in my own skin, to like how I look: makeup, bras, clothes, products to protect against chub rub on parts of my thighs I never used to expose. Things I need to safely complete the femme commitment: more razor blades more often (until I can save up for a straight razor or something like electrolysis), bras again.

I could always give up. I could stop bothering with the things I genuinely don’t want to do, and I could stop bothering with the things I do want to do until I somehow get the budget to handle everything. Unfortunately, one thing I do know about my gender journey is that my history of butch presentation around 2007-2008 and 2009-2014 stemmed from several things, but one was that I actually had given up. I’d tried to do femme for so much of my life before that, and I actually wanted it, but as a child and teen I had limited energy, somewhat limited time, and a huge impression that there was no value in trying femme; I saw myself as a femme failure. As I then explored a binary male identity from linked but distinct causes, I increasingly lost the time for femme altogether, and I lost the money, and one bad relationship gave me a visceral aversion to it. Then I got into a much better relationship, one where I was actually free to be me in general, and I started to explore what my real self-expression was, and over time it’s happened that this involved many femme tokens, but there was still neither time, nor energy, nor money. But now I am somehow— sometimes it feels ludicrous— trying to go back to my truest, deepest aesthetic instinct.

I’m trying to make the time and energy spent on “pampering” myself actually feel like pampering, though that, of course, would still require money in its fullest form. I don’t know if it’s working. I’m trying. I’m trying to spend money efficiently, wisely, and with an eye for durable investments, just as I have to do with so many other things. I’m trying. I discovered the Lush brand recently, and I immediately saw its appeal to many consumers; a lot of their products look virtually edible, and who doesn’t want to literally rub a chocolate-based exfoliating mask onto their face? Unfortunately I also learned that Lush has donated money to the odiously misogynist organization PETA, which I cannot consciously support, so I’m not buying anything else from them, but I’m probably going to copy some product recipes for fun (and for cheaper). I’m trying. I’m trying.

The cost of femme really does take a lot of trying, though. And that is what the industry exploiting femme in our current society takes into account. I’m not happy about that, and I don’t see my choice to be femme as somehow empowering. I feel limited and sad about lots of things even though I feel happier about myself. And it would be the reverse if I went back to doing butch. I don’t think there is a clear winning or losing presentation between the two. And again, as I hope to write more about later— I really don’t want to think of it as “the two” at all. I suffer the costs of doing femme now, but truly I suffer them as the costs of doing something else entirely.

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