Thursday, July 19, 2012

Not Taking Anything Away From You

I've been a little astonished by the response to my trans reading of Brave. Some people have been remarkably warm and affirming, for which I'm very grateful, but it's also generated more controversy (and more comments) than anything else I've ever posted on this site. People, it seems – many of them cis women – are really, really personally invested in this film, and some of them are Not Happy with my unorthodox interpretation. Looking beyond some nasty knee-jerk cissexism, I think I understand why the angry readers are angry:

They feel like I'm taking this film away from them.

Brave is Pixar's first movie with a female protagonist. Cis female viewers have watched Pixar release twelve prior features, most to critical acclaim, all to boffo box office, and all with male protagonists. They have seen Brave, hoping to see themselves and their family relationships reflected for the first time, and then they have had to endure feminist criticism drawing attention to the film's every single imperfection, while mainstream critics responded with a broad “meh” (perhaps because of “the average male viewer’s lack of practice when it comes to reading female-centric narratives for geopolitical content”?). And now they come across yours truly, suggesting that this movie doesn't even have the female protagonist they so desperately needed.

I get it, I think. It feels as though I am appropriating their property. The heteropatriarchy finally throws women a bone, and I snatch it away and give it back to the guys.

My gut response to seeing people's indignation was along the lines of, “Um, hi? You know who gets even fewer bones from the heteropatriarchy than cis women? Trans* people!” But now I'm playing oppression olympics, which has never been nor ever will be constructive.

Q. Who's more oppressed, cis women or trans* guys?
A. TRICK QUESTION! While we're fighting it out among ourselves, the heteropatriarchy is oppressing the shit out of all of us!

I am a fervent believer in textual indeterminacy. I believe that there is no single, singularly authoritative, “correct” way to read any text. I believe that hermeneutic polyvalence is a good thing, and that multiple different, even contradictory readings of a text can, should, and must coexist. I think that any reading is possible, even unto blurring the line between “(re)interpretation” and “fanfic,” and I think that readings we find difficult and challenging – even infuriating – are essential. But I also believe in judging the ethics of textual interpretations.

When we encounter a (re)interpretation of a text, we should ask the questions: Who does this interpretation serve? What cause does it promote? Why does it exist – what is it doing? Who is being given voice, and whose voice is being suppressed?

In leftist lit theory circles, we have a tendency to pretend that this is easier than it really is. We say, “Well, you can have a reading of the Bible that endorses slavery, or a reading that condemns it, and obviously we choose the reading that promotes liberation for the marginalized and disenfranchised.” That's an easy choice when it's “endorse slavery” or “condemn slavery,” but it's rarely so cut-and-dried. What do you do when it's a choice between “a voice for the cis woman” and “a voice for the trans* guy?”

This is the point at which I turn to polyvalence. You don't always have to choose. The cis woman and the trans* guy both desperately need an interpretation that gives them voice and meaning (and, holy hell, do trans* women ever need one too). My reading (which is mine and belongs to me) is done from my own social location and for my own purposes. Other people don't have to agree with it, because other people have other social locations and other purposes and therefore other readings; and we can do all these readings, and push and challenge each other with the kaleidoscope of ways we make meaning, and we don't ever have to say, “This trans* reading is suppressing / supplanting / invalidating my feminist reading.”

When we say that, we're accepting the idea that there can only be one interpretation. But texts are not the Highlander. “The” (single, authoritative, correct) reading of the text is a false and oppressive construct of the kyriarchy. Don't be taken in.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bear, Bow, And Boy: Queering Pixar's "Brave"

I finally went to see Brave. My expectations were complex: I'd been salivating for Pixar's first female protagonist since the film was called The Bear and the Bow, but the criticism had been mixed. Some praised the movie for its heroine's nonconformity to traditional princess behavior; others critiqued the same thing as further denigration of conventional femininity. It's the same old same old that you get every time there's a Lone Female: she has to be all things to all people, and is doomed to failure from the start.

(Easy solution: have more than one female character.)

Initially I hoped to love the film. Then I realized that, with a hope this strong, disappointment was inevitable. Then I began to think that expecting disappointment might result in satisfaction after all. (This is why you shouldn't think too hard about these things.) I hoped that Pixar's first female protagonist would be awesome; I expected to be disappointed.

What I did not expect was that this would turn out not to be Pixar's first female protagonist at all.

On my reading, Merida is a boy. This film is about a trans boy and his relationship with his mother.

Every use of the word “princess” makes Merida cringe. Why? Because he is a prince. The threat of betrothal sends Merida into a flat panic. Why? Because marriage codifies the enforcement of compulsory cissexuality and heterosexuality.

Merida has no real role model of masculinity. Although his father jokes with him about the useless suitors, and provides him with the bow he longs for (which becomes, along with his gorgeous mess of unruly hair, a totem of his freedom and his true identity unencumbered by the pressures of coercive gender assignment), ultimately the king, like all the other male characters, is a figure of comical ineptitude. Queen Elinor is the primary figure shaping Merida's life, both because of her general competence and because Merida is the first-born (and the only AFAB) child.

Thus Merida's mother is the focus of all his fears and anger. After all, his father is surely just as responsible for the insistence on marriage, but the queen alone draws Merida's rage. She is both the person he wants to be (competent, in control, confident in her identity) and a person he would rather die than become (a woman).

Merida externalizes his desire for the world to see him differently, and projects it onto his mother. Thanks to his actions, his mother and brothers are all physically changed, forced to undergo the trans* experience of being seen by the world as something different than what you truly are. It is this profoundly painful experience of dysphoria – and the fear of becoming something you know you are not, simply because of how you look to those around you – that finally causes Queen Elinor to understand her oldest child's perspective, and to grant him the freedom to break with tradition and be who he truly is.

There is a constant thematic drumbeat throughout this film of fate and how it can be changed. Fate be changed: look inside... It reminds me irresistibly of the feminist mantra: biology is not destiny. Merida does not have to be the princess he was assigned to be at birth; it will take a lot of courage to defy traditional, societal, and familial expectations, but he is brave enough to do it.

I need this reading. I need this reading because there are no mainstream pop-culture narratives of how to be a trans*masculine person without a femme sister, of how to be a trans*masculine person relating to the mother who loves you but wants you to be her daughter. (Of course, I'm not sure what this narrative has to offer in terms of practical advice. How do you de-allegorize turning your mother into a bear?)


I share many things with beloved internet film critic Hulk: a deep love of Community, a profound appreciation for Attack the Block, a propensity for gratuitous CAPSLOCK (just ask my Facebook friends). However, we are not in agreement on the question of postmodernism – at least, not all the time.

Much of Hulk's critique of postmodernism is valid. I have days of utter frustration when I completely concur with him on the Emperor's-New-Clothesiness of it all, and fear that, in my enthusiasm for Derrida and Baudrillard and Mark C. Taylor, I have long since disappeared up my own posterior. However, on good days I tend to believe that postmodernism is incredibly fascinating and monumentally important to the task of doing theology today.

I like Lyotard's definition of postmodernism: “incredulity toward metanarratives.”

Postmodernism, and especially deconstruction (my favorite flavor thereof), tends to make a virtue of its own ineffability – again, something that has me swithering as to whether it's super profound or total guff – but “incredulity toward metanarratives” at least seems to capture a kernel of what it has to offer.

The question I am facing, as a Christian that loves deconstruction, is:

Can you be a Christian while maintaining your incredulity toward metanarratives?

Doesn't Christianity, at its very core, necessitate a belief in a metanarrative? If you believe in the salvific death of Jesus on the cross and the ultimate reconciliation of all creation with everloving God, isn't that by definition a metanarrative?

Well. Well. In answer, I have to point to the fact that deconstruction breaks its own rules. Derrida himself said that the one undeconstructible thing is justice. For all that its critics like to paint it as an anarchic free-for-all of wanton relativism, deconstruction is actually very moral. Justice is the peg on which it likes to hang its hat.

And maybe that is the child that calls out the Emperor's nudity, the proof that deconstruction ultimately succumbs to the very metanarrativization it claims to undo. Maybe this appeal to justice is the admission that all of deconstruction and postmodernism is illusory, pointless, a shiny and pretentious way of rephrasing the bleeding obvious.

All I can say for certain is that deconstruction is something that works for me personally at this point in my life – as a way of challenging my preconceptions, keeping me on my toes, critiquing all metanarratives up to and including the one metanarrative that really matters:

And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace!”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Remembering 2002: A Very Peter Gabriel Teenhood

Did you hear? Peter Gabriel is touring North America to mark the 25th anniversary of his great album So. Naturally I am stoked to see my favorite singer in concert for a fourth time, because I am hip and trendy and down with the kids; but I am double-stoked because 2012 is actually a personal anniversary in my relationship with So.

People who had the misfortune to know me when I was in my teens could tell you that my defining characteristic as an adolescent was my deep, borderline-obsessive love for Peter Gabriel. (Like I said: hip, trendy, etc.) The wall above my bed was completely obscured by posters, newspaper clippings, and magazine articles relating to PG, as I abbreviated him; I faithfully wore my PG T-shirt and baseball cap every weekend; I traded bootlegs online (yes, children, once upon a time we used to trade bootlegs, via snail mail); I was consistently in the top five posters on a certain PG fan forum.

At its best, being a teenager is very dull – a stretch of life you just have to wait out so you can get to the good parts. You have to latch onto something to get you through it: casual sex, illegal drugs, chess club. I was really, really into Peter Gabriel.

One of the reasons is simple timing. After a decade of soundtrack albums and thumb-twiddling, PG dropped Up, his first proper record since 1992's Us, on September 24, 2002 – which happened to be about six weeks after my family relocated from Kenya to Scotland.

I had, of course, known that summer 2002 would be our last summer in Kenya. I was careful to commit it to memory: all the safaris, bumping along dusty roads on the roof-rack of the car, dutifully penciling down every critter we saw; blissed-out days spent reading voraciously beside the pool of a coastal villa; swearing eternal loyalty to the friends I still wasn't really used to having. Plus, Peter Gabriel. That school year I had been very into the Who, Pink Floyd, Rush, and Gong, so maybe it was toward the summer that PG fever struck me. I can remember sitting in my parents' car, listening to “Big Time” on headphones, and thinking: I am IN LOVE with this album.

Acclimatizing to life in the UK from Kenya is really, really hard, even if you're not 13. Peter Gabriel's music helped me get through a rotten time in my life. My prog-rock childhood had convinced me that good music was over; but the release of a new record from my favorite musician was like a little island of sanity in the midst of that chaotic combination of culture shock and adolescence. So was something from Kenya. Up was something from Britain. Peter Gabriel offered a way of exploring new territory while still being in touch with my past.

I love So. I've listened to it probably eighty billion gazillion times in the past decade, but to my ears it still hums with the echoes of a very different part of my life – a part that ended ten years ago. It feels very weird to be ten years out of Kenya, and weirder still to be ten years removed from the profoundly, awesomely ignorant little oddball I was when I was 13. Here are five things I wish I could go back in time and tell my 13-year-old self, to ease those troublesome years of high school:

1. Read this. Try not to be a douche about your shiny megatons of privilege.

2. Gender theory, sex-pos feminism, and QUILTBAG awareness. UK sex ed in the early-to-mid-2000s is entirely contraception-centric, with the admirable goal of reducing unwanted teen pregnancy, but you will not get any of the sex and gender education you so desperately need. You'll be much happier once you deconstruct the dominant cultural framing of all sexual activity as teleological toward PIV. Learn not to worry whether you're “normal” re: gender identity or sexuality.

3. It's okay to feel things and want things. You don't have to empty it all into your fiction, and you don't have to let other people dictate who you can be. Life will never be easy, but I promise you it will one day be a million times more interesting than it is right now.

4. Mother is right more often than you think, and she is wrong more often than you think. If that sounds contradictory, welcome to having a Jewish mother. You'll never get used to it.