gender

I have never recognized my own face

The author in July 2013, and the author today.

The author in July 2013, and the author today.

I don’t have prosopagnosia, otherwise known as face blindness. Recognizing other people’s faces has never challenged me. In fact, I tend to remember and recognize others’ faces rather well, just as I also learn names fast. There is, however, one face that I can rarely look at and say, “Oh, I know who that is.” This face is my own.

The revelation never struck me until this summer, when I was taking a full inventory of my various psychological oddities in preparation for a new phase of therapy. Amidst a host of other questions I asked myself, I wanted to get to the root of why I am someone who can’t stop staring in mirrors and, yes, taking selfies. What I have concluded is that I can functionally identify my own face, my own person, when viewing a reflection, a photograph, or a film/video recording— but that is only because, since time immemorial, all evidence has pointed to those images being of yours truly. In the meantime I have always felt dissociated from that image, not in the sense of body dysmorphia but in the sense of literally feeling as if the person reflected or recorded is not really me. My inner self-image is not of somebody real.

Sometimes this does lead to vanity, or giving off the impression of vanity. In my constant quest to connect with the person I look like, I ceaselessly examine my favorite features to affirm to myself, “Yes, this is me, I like how this part looks,” and I stare in disappointment at other features as I try to process the fact that no matter how much I don’t like how x looks, it is actually me as well. And I loathe having any photo or recording taken of me that I don’t control from start to finish. When I look at a recording someone else has taken, or even a photo taken from a bad angle, I don’t just hate it because it fails to adequately flatter me; I hate it because it frustrates me by making me stare at it while I perform mental gymnastics to accept the fact that it is me. Half of my Instagram account, as my friends know, is selfies, and I have this habit because it helps me practice acceptance of my appearance, plus it gives me a chance to get photos of myself that come closer to the version of myself that I see when I close my eyes.

I don’t think this is unusual for someone who was both raised in a body-negative society and came to identify as trans over time. But I do think it’s important to distinguish that at the end of the day, I really don’t consider myself ugly. I have a fairly realistic understanding of how much fat is on my bones, too, and I’m confident that I have no features that look bigger or smaller to me than other people would imagine. And when I’m just feeling my body, feeling my body’s place in space, I don’t experience any of the dysphoria I used to.

My confusion and even anguish are just tied to the fact that my mind’s eye is not in agreement with the sensory information I get, when it comes to my looks. This, I suspect, is the strange thing— the thing that makes it less typical for my upbringing and demographics. But maybe it’s really there for a lot of people like me. I don’t know.

In fact, while other trans people’s mileage may vary, I have concluded lately that a portion of my lifelong gender challenges has been that no adherence to any standard gender presentation can help me recognize myself better. The photos at the top of this post are respectively from three summers ago and this summer. When I took the first photo, I still identified as a binary trans man, albeit with some genderqueer leanings, and I was about eight to nine months from a total collapse of my effort to maintain such a gender. In the second photo, you can see a nonbinary, fey leather-femme, who has dyed xir hair bright red and is now embodying a much more iconoclastic imag than before. I know that these are both me. I do not feel that they are both me. The second photo comes a lot closer to the mark, but not because it is more recent— just because it is me doing a better job at making myself look like something I can recognize.

I don’t know if I will ever do a completely adequate job. There are some things I will never be able to change. My face is just all wrong, even though I think it’s reasonably attractive now. Beyond my face, I’m so much shorter in reality than I am in my head, it’s somewhat absurd. I feel as if I probably stand about 5’7″ or higher, and I absolutely don’t. By some laws I am a dwarf (and I’ll take that word over little person, by the by). Maybe I should start wearing six-inch heels. I don’t know.

There is no special point to this piece. It is an observation, an explanation of something about myself, and probably not much else. I will probably write similar pieces over the coming months, if I find the energy and time. In the meantime, whether you like my selfies, don’t like them, or didn’t know I took them all the time, now you have the story behind them.

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

Playing the pronoun game

I am very tired of writing about gender with regard to my own life, but I live in a heavily gendered world, so I’m sure it will inevitably keep rearing its head even when I think I can focus on something else. Today I was thinking about pronouns, and I reached an experimental decision.

For probably more than a year, I’ve had mixed feelings about being he/him/his or she/her/hers. This probably doesn’t surprise many people, given my ongoing gender exploration and how I’ve at least in some ways framed myself as nonbinary, genderqueer, or genderfluid— take your pick. I have certainly been he/him/his for a few years, rather insistently, largely fueled by how I previously had to fight for the right to use those pronouns at all; I’m sure this could invite confusion from individuals who link pronouns directly and inextricably with gender. Why would I want to be he/him/his if I wasn’t interested in being a guy? To those individuals, I would like to point out that just as gender is a social construct with concrete implications, so is language, and you can jumble the two things however you like, particularly when you consider how some languages don’t express gender on a grammatical level. (Hence the importance of saying, “I use he/him/his,” and not saying, “I use male pronouns.”) All the same, when I hear he/him/his in reference to myself, I lately feel dissociated. Even though I can separate he/him/his from male, I know that most people using he/him/his for me don’t make such a distinction. I know most of them are gendering me as male (or as a qualified trans variety of male) in their heads, and while I don’t feel pained by that realization, it simply bothers me to use default pronouns that will invite others to make assumptions about me unless I constantly educate them otherwise.

She/her/hers comes with other problems. As detailed a few posts ago, I have essentially resigned myself to most people interpreting my gender expression as “female,” “feminine,” “femme,” insert f-word here; this has some practical repercussions. I feel less resigned to simply hearing she/her/hers in reference to my person. Of all my memories of willful/forced (mis)gendering, those syllables sting the most. Dissociation endures. Sometimes, from some people, I can encounter she/her/hers for me and vaguely connect it with that-which-is-me, but these circumstances are private, sacred, complicated, and most of all, unsullied by even a trace of the voices that ruined she/her/hers elsewhere. Generally speaking, she/her/hers does not feel safe to me, and it may never feel safe, even though I’ve come to accept that I will encounter it endlessly from people who don’t know any better. I wince internally, move on, my emotional reserves intact, but I still think to myself, “That wasn’t really talking about me.” She/her/hers just can’t attach (yet, or maybe ever) to the public, default identity of Devon Llywelyn Jones.

So far, my conundrum may seem like the reason why so many nonbinary people opt for a gender-neutral pronoun configuration. For some among us, I’m sure there are some similarities, but I can’t really speak to that. I myself have had a terribly difficult time choosing gender-neutral pronouns in English:

  • they/them/theirs – This is a popular choice, and an important one to justify. We do already employ singular-they, and there is no logical excuse to play grammarian (if there’s ever an excuse) when you’re only really invested in slapping nonbinary people in the face. For me personally, however, singular-they too greatly connotes that someone’s gender is unknown, not that it is automatically beyond the binary or that it doesn’t exist. So I have trouble applying this pronoun to myself.
  • ou, thon, and historical gender-neutral English pronouns – I do find it quite a shame that words like these had earlier usage or were at least proposed in our language. I personally would like a pronoun that is more contemporary, however.
  • xe/hir/hirs and a huge number of recently coined variants, along with virtually any other option from the late 20th century onward – Sometimes I just don’t like the look or sound of the letters involved. If I am going to use something like this, I’d hope it would aesthetically please me, regardless of pleasing others. Sometimes I just know it would take work to have people say things how I wanted, and I don’t want to spend that energy. I’m happy to use these sorts of pronouns for other people, but when I think of how I could just use in Mandarin for any gender (even though the character is written differently), or how the new Swedish hen sandwiches so neatly between its binary han and hon, I sigh.

All language is a game. All gender is a game, and arguably gender could be described as among the most complex language games of all, so hugely predicated upon language that if you jumble your gender-language together differently from someone else’s, you may face dire consequences. Plenty of games are not funny or entertaining, especially when you are told from day one of life that you’re playing and you’ll only learn the rules when you’re punished for breaking them. It has turned out that as I play this game, I want nothing more than to stop playing in my native language altogether. Literally all options sound wrong. Yet I need something, because I require colloquy and contraction in my life. To see Devon stiltedly appearing in every sentence about me, or worse, to hear it, I couldn’t bear. Whatever writing style I may use, I slur and drawl my speech, and I crave pronouns that other people around me can say with ease. I have a right to something “difficult” if I please, but if I personally am going to go that far, I’m going to invent a new language from scratch; if I can’t go that far, then I need my pronouns to work so simply that they feel irrelevant. I would like my gender expression to be fluid on a self-conscious level, but I would like my pronouns to be fluid on an unconscious one.

Earlier this month, I read Kate Bornstein’s My New Gender Workbook, and I completed nearly all of the exercises in it. I was looking for answers to many different questions there, so I won’t address the entire experience here. I will also avoid a tangent about what I thought of the book, outside of the fact that to love Auntie Kate is to love an imperfect but incredibly compassionate person who, in my opinion, does theorize gender in a way that makes a great deal of sense to me. I raise the book now because it put into words a model of gender performance that I think I’ve struggled to describe for years. The core argument therein— if I’ve got it right— is that each of us may have a self-concept of our gender that we manifest, but our gender in a practical sense is augmented by not only how other people read us, but how we ourselves perform our gender differently depending on audience and environment. There is some intersectionality theory too, of course— the idea that for instance there is no unified entity of woman, as womanness is inherently processed and modified by how white you are(n’t), how straight you are(n’t), etc., and of course, how cis you are(n’t). I am especially intrigued, though, but the thought that we are all a little bit genderfluid, and by the thought that gender— like language— does not occur without two people interacting. At bare minimum, the gender we use on our own is never going to be understood by another person exactly as we understand it ourselves.

With all this in mind, today I went back to the mental drawing board. I reviewed existing gender-neutral pronouns, I quietly tried out some phonotactics, I reminded myself of some conventions in other languages. I thought about the different spheres in which Devon Llywelyn Jones is represented, the multiple identities I assume beyond even those spheres, and most of all, the role that written vs. spoken discourse plays in my self-concept. Choosing pronouns, of course, is really a two-step process. Often, English-speaking people assume a direct match between written pronouns and spoken pronouns, but in some languages there are different registers where what you call someone aloud is not what you would call them on the page; and in languages without phonetic or quasi-phonetic orthography, the relationship between what you write and what you utter is strictly to be inferred by convention, not by something spelled out.

The Internet— and text-based communication as a whole— frees pronouns in a rather excellent way. With what anonymity remains to us online, with whatever creative manifestations of ourselves we can produce in text anywhere, we are not bound so readily by others’ assumptions. This is precisely why I’ve favored interacting with strangers through text, even as a hypothetical extrovert (properly: an extrovert with a caffeine dependency who can’t put up with inauthentic dialogue). Text does not even have to sound like anything. Text can just look like something. The person I am in writing is arguably truer to my deepest impulses, even if it may seem more calculated on the surface. I have to calculate infinitely more about my physical form than about its cyber-emissions.

To that end:

My pronouns, in summary

Written:
xi
xir
xirs
xirself

Spoken:
hi = said as “hee”
hir = said as “heer” or “herr”
hirs = said as “heers” or “herrs”
hirself = said as “heerself” or “herrself”

Written and read aloud:
xi = said as “hee” or “shee”
xir = said as “heer” or “herr”
xirs = said as “heers” or “herrs”
xirself = said as “heerself” or “herrself”

My trick for winning my hand in the pronoun game is to remain genderless on paper and to leave the “voiced” form of self open to multiple possibilities starting from a multilingual viewpoint. “X” is a placeholder in writing, but aloud it can be pronounced as variants of “h” in some languages, and as “sh” in others. It can also be “ks” or “z.” To read “xi” aloud, choose the sound that flows the most naturally. For most English speakers, “hi” or “shi” will sound like the obvious choices, and I will gladly accept either, just as I will accept less obvious readings. Because “shir/shirs/shirself” can present homophony with “sheer” or “sure,” however, I think it would be simpler for people reading the written “xi” to only substitute “shi” for “hi” and to otherwise stick to the “h” forms in general.

Consequently, for speaking about me in the third person without a written point of reference, “hi/hir/hirs/hirself” would be my overall pronouns of choice. “Hi” is homophonous with “he,” while “hir” can be homophonous with “here” or “her,” meaning that the speaker can choose whether to lend my person a dual “masculine”/”androgynous” flavor or a dual “masculine”/”feminine” flavor, depending on their own inclinations. The ultimate joke, of course, is that “hi” is the third person feminine pronoun in Welsh.

You may consult with me about exactly what pronouns make sense for you to use with me, but fundamentally the choice is in your hands.

Basic examples:

(writing to someone else about me) Devon said xi was hoping to make some brownies from xir family’s favorite recipe.

(speaking to someone else about me) Devon said hi was hoping to make some brownies from hir family’s favorite recipe. Say hir as heer or herr, it doesn’t matter.

Assuming you’ve stayed with me this far, I suppose you might have concerns about whether I intend to “come out” to everyone I know about these pronouns, not just to everyone who reads my blog. To this I would say both yes and no. I definitely intend to tell some people who won’t have seen this immediately— and I’ll be linking them to this so they can see the full explanation. But they’re all people whom I don’t need to educate a great deal. When it comes to representing myself as a professional writer and artist, too, I’m going to attempt clarity about this, because the arts are a safer sphere for establishing such “quirks” as these, even if understanding is hardly a guarantee. When it comes to establishing myself as a textual presence before I can be established as any other sort of presence, i.e. online, I will try asking for xi/xir. After exhausting those various categories of potential genderers, though, I’m not ready to deal on that level with my 9-5, with random strangers, or with other people whose overall impression of me is going to be skewed and presumptuous regardless of what pronouns I use. For the time being, this pronoun experiment is about establishing a more transparently nonbinary comfort zone amongst people with whom I’m already the most authentically myself. If you happen to read my blog, then you’re probably one of those people.

Thanks for reading. We will see where this leads.

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