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.