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.


  1. This is a really fantastic post, as is the one that stemmed it. Well done, and thank you.

  2. I would like to apologize for getting all defensive before. Honesttly, it wasn't just that last was a mountain of reviews asking if she was supposed to be a lesbian and saying she might of well have been a boy. I don't understand this notion that if a girl isn't acting perfectly feminine there is something wrong with her. I do agree there should be more trans people as well as gay people in mainstream media though! 2. I felt it was disrespectful to the writers of the film. IF you read interviews, the writers and directors said they wanted to make a mother/daughter story which brings me to 3. I was really bothered by the misgendering, to me it is wrong to misgender anyone, even if the character is fictional. Brenda Chapman was infusinging her own experiences with her daughter in the story. This is probably just my own defensiveness as a writer though.

  3. err I didn't meant something wrong with her as in there is anything wrong with being lesbian or transgender..but why must everyone polititize everthing and rely on stereotypes...Why can't we as a society see a strong female character and just see her as that.

  4. Honestly, this is what I love so, so much about fandom and fannish communities - there's wank, sure, but in the circles I travel there's also so much room for (re)interpretation of the text, different levels and types of meta to pick things apart and read them differently, ways to bring a different kind of clarity to a story - because, as the saying goes, all stories are true: "legends are lessons; they ring with truths."

    And, anon @ 2:56 - to your third point, regarding misgendering: I do agree that it's not cool to misgender someone with a stated/known gender - but that's the thing, innit, that we only have what we see and know and can interpret to define Merida's gender, and the OP's reading of Merida as a trans* guy is just as true as the writer's intended reading of Merida as a cis girl. So no one's misgendering Merida.

  5. I'll bow out of this conversation now..I overreacted to the original post, and wanted to apologize. I have a vastly different philosophy for literature and movies, to me if a writer says this character has these attributes...then that is what they are. IT is after all their creation.

    1. Thank you for your gracious apology. As you say, that is a very fundamentally different attitude toward interpretation, but now at least we understand where each other is coming from.

  6. With feminists like these, who needs patriarchy?

  7. Isn't it also possible that what made people uncomfortable about the post was your decision to re-assign Merida's gender without her permission? The only true way to know someone's gender identity is to ask them? That your post assumed a lot of things about what makes someone a woman or man or trans based on traditional archetypes? That a bow or a bear or the disavowing of a gendered word makes someone a gender that they don't state themselves.