How To Start Fighting for Good in 2017

So you the garbage fire of 2016 has passed, but the fumes are carrying over into 2017 and bringing the fallout with it.  You see injustice and discrimination and poverty and more, and you want to help but have no idea how.  Maybe this can help...

The full video is at the end of the blog.

 

6 Step Guide to Making A Difference

1. Decide on a CAUSE

- Find a specific cause (climate change, transphobia, mental health epidemic etc)

-Narrow it down further (what is a specific issue that cause faces?)

- That's your start.

2. Assess your SKILLS AND RESOURCES

- What can you bring to the table?

-Money, time, space, supplies, artistic skills, numerical skills, public speaking skills.

- Make a list.

3. Choose your C.A.P.E*

*4 areas you can choose from to invest your time in to help your cause

CHARITIES

  1. Donate Money

  2. Volunteer your time

  3. Volunteer expertise

  4. Work in the third sector/for a charity or NGO

ACTIVISM & ADVOCACY 

  1. Find your power- what energises you, what saps your energy etc- find value in what you can contribute.

  2. Join movements that already exist- start local if you can.

  3. Become a source of accurate and detailed information to help charities and political groups in their work.

  4. Sign up to activist and advocacy e-campaign newsletter for up to date actions you can take.

POLITICS & POLICY

  1. Vote- from national to local elections, both general and mid-terms.

  2. Contact officials (by phone ideally) and attend meetings in person. Regularly.

  3. Volunteer with political organisations.

  4. Talk to people you know and encourage friends and family to get involved.

  5. Run for office.

Education

  1. Educate yourself first.

  2. Share resources from others.

  3. Create things yourself- be a voice others can share.

  4. If your cause should be in schools, work with educational institutions, support organisations and charities that bring your cause into schools, and campaign to change the curriculum.

4. Make a LIST

- Work out a list of tangible things you can do and actions you can take one step at a time.

- Sort them by categories like long term/short term, or high energy/low energy. Pick them up how and when you can.

5. Work out a SCHEDULE

- Make it a habit and a regular thing.

- Create a small group of friends who want to fight too, support each other, schedule meetings.

- Make empathy a communal experience.

6. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

 

Orlando Shooting Speech

The following is the speech I gave at my old high school this morning...I was asked to do "an assembly on LGBT issues".  I couldn't not talk about this.

 

When I was thinking about what to talk about in this assembly, I thought about other topics I’ve covered with young people.  I only have 15 minutes, so I’ve got to make it snappy right?  Maybe go through definitions of LGBT identities, maybe talk about LGBT History, maybe discuss some LGBT stereotypes.

But then yesterday happened, and I knew what I had to say.

You see those other speeches are about easing you into acceptance- maybe if we normalise the discussion around LGBT people that will be enough- you’ll all work out on your own what I really want to say.  What I’m going to say today.

Yesterday, there was a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida.  It was the deadliest single-gun man mass shooting in modern American history. It happened in an LGBT club. 50 people are dead.  Dozens more are in hospital.

Yesterday those hospital issued a call for help.  They needed people to come and donate blood because there were too many trauma patients for their banks to cope.  And people came, wanting to help and to stand defiant in the face of this hate crime. Lines that were hours long formed around hospital buildings. But there was one group who didn’t come.  Because they couldn’t. Because it is illegal for them to donate blood, as it is illegal for them to do so in the UK: gay and bisexual men.  Men had friends, boyfriends, husbands lying in those hospital beds, and they couldn’t do anything.

Statistically, there will be LGBT people in this room.  You will all have people in your lives, friends and family, people you love, who will be LGBT. That is reality.

I want you all to imagine being a young person, who is LGBT, and who is in the closet.  I want you to imagine them hearing this news that I’ve just told you.  The pain, the fear, the anxiety, the shame that this would drown them in.

Now think about coming to school, with all the negativity and worry building up inside you, and hearing people calling out “that’s so gay”.  Seeing your friends laughing as they use your hidden identity as an insult.  Watching as students get teased and bullied for looking, sounding, acting gay.  Never having LGBT people talked about in school except for “very special lesson”, which makes you feel more weird and different.  Never seeing happy LGBT on TV or in films growing up- watching as princes and princesses kissed and lived happily ever after.  Knowing that people saw LGBT people as too taboo, deviant, or “adult” for young people to see.

I made a video after the shooting yesterday because I needed to talk about this. In that video I told viewers that if they needed to talk they could leave a comment, message, or email for me.  Since yesterday I have had over 100 responses, some of which I want to share with you now:

“Fifty people were murdered for something they can't help, and still my instinctive reaction was to feel ashamed for being like them.”

“God i'm so scared... I have a rainbow anklet that I always wear and now I don't even know if I should be wearing it.”

“I feel so sick, and terrified, and outraged, and so so tired”

“I just feel so angry and terrified and lost and helpless”

“I feel so heartbroken and powerless and angry.”

“At my school people make gay jokes everyday, I don’t understand why they hate us”

“None of my friends know I’m gay, I’m so scared of losing them, I don’t know if I can tell them.”

I want you to think about that last one.  Someone who is gay, but is scared to tell their friends because they don’t know what will happen when they do.

You are all talented and intelligent young women.  You have power, influence and opportunity to do something.  In this school you can create a joyous, inclusive, positive community with no tolerance for prejudice.  You can continue this legacy of positivity with you to your work, your universities, and the rest of your lives.

You can be that person that your friend comes to… because they know you are kind and compassionate and trustworthy and safe.

And they’ll know this because they see you.  They see you telling people that using gay as an insult isn’t acceptable here.  They see you when you speak up for people who are bullied for their sexuality.  They see you when you invite speakers like me in to talk about the LGBT community.  They see you when you help organise a school LGBT History Month.  They see you when you choose an LGBT charity for your form fundraiser.

And I hope- and I want you to hear this, look into yourself, and believe it- I hope that maybe they’ll see it in ten minutes time, when you leave this hall.  And you turn to your friends and tell them “If any of you came out to me, I want you to know.  You can trust me. I won’t tell anyone. And I will always be your friend.”

Thank you.

Women on YouTube Workshop

On Tuesday 23rd Feb I ran a Women on Youtube Workshop for a group of female YouTubers at the YouTube Space in London.

Over two and a half hours, I lead the group through a series of activities and discussions around the platform, creativity, and collaboration.

This was the first time I'd run this particular workshop, and I'm so pleased with how it went... everyone really got into the spirit of the space, and had some unique and vibrant contributions to share.

If you're interested in booking any workshops or talks check out my events page here.

How the CW’s ‘The 100’ Is Getting Sex Positivity Right

This article contains spoilers for the first two seasons of The 100 … be warned!

On the surface, it might seem like we live in a sex positive society already, I mean, I just wrote an article about Channing Tatum’s intimidatingly chilled torso for this very website. We hear things like “sex sells” all the time, meaning it’s clearly viewed as positive for our economy if nothing else. But the tiniest scratch below that oiled up muscly surface shows something more complex and gendered. Women’s sexualities and sex lives are viewed in turn as both precious fortresses and exploitable commodities, by a world which can’t quite make up its mind whether it wants to protect us or fuck us. But then men and boys are being taught not to respect either a “weak” woman who needs protecting, or a “slutty” woman who wants to be fucked. So it came as a ridiculously pleasant surprise to see the portrayal of sex and sexuality in the CW’s teen dystopian show The 100.

 

The 100 is one of those shows that snuck up on me; I watched the pilot when it first came out, and promptly dismissed it as an OK series that I might try again if I got bored and it ended up on Netflix. It’s the story of obligatory-CW-beautiful Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and 99 other teenage prisoners who lived on “The Ark,” a collection of space stations which houses all that is left of the human race, floating above the Earth. I say “lived,” past tense, because pretty much as soon as the show opens all 100 of them are blasted down onto the surface of our messed up planet to see if it’s survivable. One-hundred delinquent teenagers alone on a potentially deadly planet. What could go wrong? Honestly, I only gave the show a real chance after Tumblr excitedly informed me that the lead character wasn’t entirely straight, and it came under the radar as a show with increasingly great representation. So I gave it another chance, and by the time half a season had gone by, it was clear they were building a series that wasn’t afraid to give the middle finger to easy outs and happy endings. And yet, none of those difficult choices or moral and physical suffering were linked to the characters’ sex lives.

 

Although we like to talk about characters as if they were independent entities, it is the writers who choose character’s choices and the consequences of their actions; traditionally morality plays and novels had marriages to reward the good and death to reward the bad. Sometimes the only way to tell that an otherwise progressive woman was meant to be perceived as good was the fact she was allowed to marry at the end (Jane Eyre, anyone?). And so it is the consequences of sex on screen, not just the having of sex itself, which can truly show an audience how sex positive a show is. Meta-fictional films like Scream and Cabin in the Woods draw attention to this idea when they comment on the absurdity and sexism inherent in the horror trope “The Final Girl” and the importance placed on virginity, where “pure” women are allowed to survive, and having sex carries a death sentence on screen. Although in a show like The 100 the Venn diagram of “characters who have had sex” and “characters who suffer” has a lot of overlap, this is vitally not a causal relationship; the death of Finn and the horrific struggles that Clarke faces as a leader, are not because of their sexual relationship. In fact, it’s the aspect of love and intimacy, rather than lust and sexuality, which makes Clarke’s part in Finn’s demise so difficult–the show plays with the idea that human connection, whether it’s through friendship, family, alliance or romance, is painful because it matters, not because it is fundamentally wrong.

 

Teen shows have in the past been guilty of using sex to drive melodrama, or of using it only sparingly in “very special episodes” to give a warning. But The 100uses its post-apocalyptic future setting to frame a version of the sexual worldview as a non-issue, suggesting that we as a collective species get the fuck over it when we have stuff to worry about like the end of the world. Is this realistic? Meh, who cares, I don’t watch sci-fi for realism, I apparently watch it for bisexual lead characters and complex moral decision-making with psychological consequences… but we’ll get on to that in a second. This lack of realism, I think, also extends into what makes the show an enjoyable watch for all its tragedy; there are some things that are safe, namely the sex. As a teenage girl being abandoned on an inhospitable planet with a number of teenage guys who all seem pretty invested in violence, gaining control, and hedonism, rape would be an immediate threat in my mind. Yet the CW set up of the show, and the storylines so far, seem to be completely removed from this fear, which gives me as a viewer a sense of security in a lot of ways. Similarly, the way the show pushes back against stereotypical or soap-like storylines, means as a viewer I am also not that concerned with the seeming lack of condoms or birth control going on, because I feel pretty secure that they won’t include “warning” storylines around safe sex with pregnancy and disease based on the tone of the show. At first, I was worried that the relative sexual freedom which the teenagers had found on the Earth’s surface would become a problem once the parents were reintroduced, with apologies and stern looks. But, again, they had more pressing matters to deal with.

 

A negativity around women and sex is not just doled out from those in positions of power, the “I’m not like other girls” phenomenon between female peers is rooted in ideas around sexual promiscuity and femininity being lesser. This negativity towards sex is a tool used to pit women, and girls, against each other, rather than being a tool for raising up fellow men or boys because of their perceived sexual prowess. The double standard is hardly new and can be seen in real life as well as being played out on screen in films like Gone Girl, where Flynn criticises the idea of the “cool girl” aesthetic as creating a personality and way or acting based on your desirability to men. This is why it was so refreshing to see the treatment of Clarke and Raven’s relationship, as two women who were interested in the same guy, be secondary to their other connections. There is no passive aggressive MeanGirl-esque in fighting fraught with jealousy; Clarke can’t turn off her feelings for Finn, but immediately understands she can’t be with him, and gets on with what needs to be done. This decision is completely in line with her nature as someone who sees things as they are as far as she can, who is practically minded, who corrects Finn even as he is trying to be romantic when seeing that Raven falling to Earth isn’t a shooting star at all. Clarke is the first person to see Raven on Earth and witnesses her essential rebirth on the planet, they share an interesting relationship in their different ties to Abby, Clarke’s mother, and their friendship is of vital importance based on their respect for each other. The show ultimately rejects the jealous ex paradigm which it seemed to be setting up, and identifies itself as unexpectedly progressive in its portrayal of female friendship.

 

The portrayal of bisexual women in society at large, is one of “greedy” girls showing off for the attention of men. They are often viewed as more likely to be unfaithful or “slutty,” and both the straight majority and gay community seem to be wracked with worry that their bisexual partners are secretly monosexual. The portrayal of Clarke (the clear lead of the show) being attracted to and forming relationships with, both men and women, plays away from these shallow stereotypes, while not denying her an active sex life. The tragedy in the storylines with both her partners is not caused by her sexuality, although her very real feelings for them heighten the pain for both her and us as an audience. Killing Finn and having to watch as Lexa betrayed their political alliance, took a huge psychological toll on the teen, but ultimately her hardest decision- to kill the population of Mount Weather- was connected to familial and friendship based bonds that created the community of the 100. However, historically the b-word has been conspicuously missing from the screen, even in forcefully progressive shows like Orange is the New Blackand so it is too for The 100. This can be explained away with the idea that the future is as liberated about sexual orientation as it is about sex, and that labels are no longer used or required. But that reduces the real need for bisexual viewers right now to have representation on screen and arguably contributes to the bi-erasure which it could so easily be combatting.

 

Ultimately, this is a show that features some really beautiful humans having sex, and in that way it isn’t unusual. What The 100 is getting right is creating a narrative where the usual toxic cliches are subverted, and the characters are all the better for it, rather than ignoring sex and praising characters for that instead. There are of course ways to improve: I hope that next season we have Clarke voice her sexuality specifically, because that explicit labeling would be a pioneering act in representation. I would also like to see more diversity, particularly in body type, having an active sex life on the show, which is often missing or played for lazy and crude laughs on screen more widely. How likely is that to happen? My experience with shows in the past tells me, not very. But at the start of The 100 I’d never have guessed they would make any characters queer, and look what they did with their lead. So, if you’re reading this writers of The 100, I’d really love for you to prove me wrong again.

No, You Can’t Watch: The Queer Female Gaze on Screen

The Female Gaze, and scathing criticism of it, has come bursting into the world recently through Channing Tatum’s pecs. And not in an Aliens face-hugger way either (Magic Mike III anyone? No?). Magic Mike and its extra extra large sequel have been talked about as both a rare movie celebrating female sexuality, and as a prime example of feminist double standards. How can you complain about objectifying women’s bodies and then not criticise a film which seems to do the same to men? The whole debate was fascinating to me as a insider-outsider; sure I’m female, but I’m also a lesbian and so have very little interest in any part of Channing Tatum apart from his underrated comedic timing. I’ve talked before about the strange awkwardness of watching both Magic Mike films as a queer woman in the cinema (what are you doing with that spinning metal wheel of sparking fire, Mike? Do you want to burn your dick off? etc), so when this month’sBitch Flicks theme was revealed to be the Female Gaze, I was ready and raring to go. But it turns out that the Female Gaze, and particularly the Queer Female Gaze, was a lot harder to pick through than I thought.

 

But let’s start at the beginning. Although the Male Gaze was a term coined in the 1970s, it was just a concrete name for an age old phenomenon. The Male Gaze is two-fold:

  1. The sexual objectification of passive female characters.
  2. More generally the tendency to default to male protagonists, points of view, and stories.

The Gaze can be seen literally as a gaze, the way the camera interacts with the women it looks on, doing things like introducing female characters by trailing slowly up their bodies rather than establishing them with their face and actions. This differing treatment of men and women can be seen to be both informed by a patriarchal social structure, but also to reinforce it. Women can be on screen in a sexual situation, and not be subject to the Male Gaze, provided it is plot-relevant and that they are not only there to be a one-dimensional character purely put there for men’s pleasure. Alice Eve’s controversial underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness would be a perfect example of how, although she was not a one-dimensional character in the film as a whole, she was given a pointlessly objectifying scene which established nothing about her character, and seemed oddly out of place. The scene was also an example of how the sexualisation of women on screen, as opposed to men, is often used to reduce their power or respect in some way, either by playing into the “whore as worthless” idea, or by making them physically vulnerable as happened with Carol in the film.

 

The Female Gaze, however, is a trickier subject, partly because its a newer phenomenon–as Transparents Jill Soloway said last year, “We’re essentially inventing the female gaze right now.” Both women’s stories and their sexuality are much less likely to be the focus of screen time historically. Definitions, classic camera angles, a checklist of what the Female Gaze might be, are hard to find when only 29 percent of current movies have female protagonists, and all women creative teams are rarer than panda sex. Is The Female Gaze always found in films made by women, for women, or about women? And does that gaze have the same definition as the Male Gaze with the genders switched? Perhaps not. Is it really true that women don’t objectify men? That they always view them as complete and whole human beings? The popularity of the Chippendales suggests otherwise. And our old friend Magic Mike is surely the obvious example of that female sexuality in action, proving women’s sexual desires make them see men as objects just as much as men do to women in films.

 

However, when we look at the story of Magic Mike and his magic mic, the fact the main characters are strippers means the lack of clothes is plot dependant, and the films revolve around an exploration of the men’s interests, personalities, desires, and dreams. They are sexual, but they are also three-dimensional characters. Moreover, romantic comedies are always an example cited by critics of feminist film theory of movies which reduce men to merely a female fantasy. If that’s the truth, then women’s fantasies of men are a lot more full, positive, and respectful than men’s are of women. Men in romantic comedies aren’t just one-sided sexual beings; the appeal of them is hinged on their personal compatibility and often flawed realness as well. Hugh Grant made a career out of playing the soft-eyed Englishman, who bumbled along and stuttered over his words, hardly a paragon of sexual virility you might expect from the directly switched Male Gaze. Conversely, if women’s sexual pleasure and desire is depicted on screen, it is seen as much less acceptable than a man’s, particularly telling in the differences of age rating given to films that show male vs. female orgasms and oral sex.

 

If the Female Gaze is hard to pin down, then Queer Female Gaze is near impossible. What I mean specifically with that term is the Gaze we might be able to see in work produced for and about women who are attracted to women. Queer female characters in films made for and by end are almost always either packaged in the same sexually objectified way as straight women, or they are the butt of jokes as “ugly butch lesbians.” So although ostensibly it could be assumed the Queer Female Gaze would be identical or at least hugely similar to its male counterpart, in fact it cannot be mapped directly onto the Male Gaze for a few crucial reasons:

  1. The number of films made for, by and about queer women in mainstream cinema is embarrassingly small, and is not compatible to that male default I mentioned earlier.
  2. The sexual desires of queer women are different to that of straight men.
  3. The male ownership of female bodies is something tied to male behaviour rather than an intrinsic reaction to female bodies by anyone who desires them.
  4. Queer women are interested to see interesting women on film, meaning having women be solely sexual objects is not necessarily going to fly with us.

So maybe it’s something in-between, or something new entirely. Maybe, as I have come to believe over the last few weeks, it isn’t something which has a real definition or direction, simply because it doesn’t have a present or strong enough canonical tradition in media. Instead I’ve tried to look at current examples of media for and containing queer women, to see where it differs or intersects with the Male/Female Gazes.

As a queer woman it might seem to any men who are attracted to women, that I would love images of half naked oiled up women, because they do. But while they may just see the object of their desire, I have to also see myself. So when I see sexualised women on screen who are given no agency, plot or power, I don’t get anything positive from that. It feels unbelievably naive and worrying that someone who is for all intents and purposes a pliant sexual object could be genuinely and maturely desirable. This is the source of a long held observation in the queer world that “lesbian porn” is so obviously and inexplicable made for straight men. It also may be why I have never been able to come out to a male stranger who is trying to chat me up without him immediately asking for a threesome. I am infinitely more interested in women who are allowed to make decisions, tell their stories, control the narrative, in addition to being autonomous sexual beings, because that’s how I see myself, my friends, my partners.

Secondary issues that comes with the Male Gaze are problems like a lack of movies that show meaningful female friendship (as shown most simply through a quick look at how many films don’t pass the Bechdel Test; although films that pass don’t necessarily show female friendship, it’s pretty hard to find a film that fails the test that does). Shows with a focus on queer women, like Orange is the New Black or the web series Carmilla, also have a strong emphasis on female friendship alongside female sexual or romantic relationships. The desire to show a complex version of yourself seen with male characters in the Male Gaze, alongside a desire for a complex version of your partner seen with male recipients of desire in the Female Gaze, combines in the Queer Female Gaze to produce sexual and romantic relationships often rooted in friendship.

 

This is furthered by the prevalence of narratives in queer cinema about coming out and finding community, which can give a tentative and holistic treatment to attraction. In the quintessential lesbian teen movie But, Im a Cheerleader, Graham and Megan begin as friends and develop parallel to Megan’s own acceptance of her sexuality. Their relationship is more than just sex, because it is so tied to her understanding of herself, in a way which values Graham far more than the Manic Pixie Dream Girls of the “young straight man finding himself through romance” narratives of the Male Gaze. The showing of intimate, dirty, casual or loving sex in any queer narrative does not remove the possibility of the women participating in this sex being fully imagined characters. The Gaze means female desire, both sexually and the desire to see herself present and whole on screen, and this is even more effective the more women you present for those queer female audience members to align themselves with.

 

Women can be seen on screen as sexual beings, without being sexual objects. Queer women’s position as both gazer and gazee give a brilliant opportunity to reject the tired reduction of female characters in and out of the fictional sheets. What remains to be see, as we make the slow journey towards mainstream queer media, is whether the defaults of The Male Gaze, with its dehumanising camera shots and need for a male presence on screen, will bleed into the Queer Female Gaze through what we take for granted as “just how cinema is made.”

‘The Hunger Games': Proving Dystopia Is the Best Young Adult Genre

Dystopian narratives can generally be described as “An imaginary place where people lead dehumanised and often fearful lives,” which is accurate, but does not fully express key characteristics of the genre.[1] The Hunger Gamesfor example, is temporally situated in a future version of America, and this relationship between time periods affects the causes of the dystopian societies and the extent to which our own world is responsible for their making. In this way, and especially looking at The Hunger Games as a Young Adult series, we can examine how dystopian landscapes are an overwhelmingly apt vehicle for social awareness in the younger generation by interacting with their world and self-identity.

 

What Would Katniss Do?

 

The Young Adult label is a recent one, with a distinctive lack of research on the genre; even its definition is contentious as a mixture of both a self-styled labelling by authors themselves, and a marketing tool for publishing companies. Intended readership is perhaps the most useful way of understanding the Young Adult literature, with the genre then defined as those books, films, or TV written and produced specifically for young adults.

The contemporary relevance of YA protagonists ensure that the exploration of self-identity for characters within these films is inevitably reflected back onto the YA audience, helping to shape their own views of themselves and the world around them. By exclusively using protagonists who are young adults themselves, films like The Hunger Games are able to emphasise the need for social change, and the possibility of it, by giving power to its viewers; as the protagonists create a better world, so too can the audience. At a talk at Cadogan Hall, John Green asked for questions from the audience of young readers. On receiving insightful and pertinent questions, and reading aloud one on the pain of writing about unfulfilled lives, and another comparing the use of water in his book to that of James Joyce in Ulysses, he remarked “I wish all the journalists who tell me my books are too complex for teenagers could hear this.” Dystopia, in its futuristic escapism and its contemporary relevance, is an ideal genre for the young adult demographic. By pushing the boundaries of disturbing content and reflecting on youthful idealism, dystopian narratives trust the YA consumer to be both literary in their consumption of the book or film, but also socially and morally insightful in their view of the imagined world they hold. By extrapolating a possible future from wider themes of importance in the contemporary age, the need to change current society is heightened.

 

 

Literary critic Robyn McCallum prefaces her work on adolescent identity by proposing the relative truism that “concepts of personal identity and selfhood are formed in dialogue with society, with language and with other people.”[2] The implication of this for The Hunger Games, however, is far more significant, as the reaction to and rebellion against Panem shapes not only the self-identity of the characters, but also the audience’s attitudes toward them. Dystopian worlds are often a product of mankind’s inability to learn from history, and The Hunger Games utilises this by mirroring its world building with Ancient and contemporary civilisations while creating the new history of Panem. Penelope Lively’s argument that “to have a sense of history is, above all, to have a sense of one’s own humanity” ties Katniss’ identity to distant history, as much as to her father’s death in the recent past.[3] The use of the name Panem for the dystopian world Collins creates, gives a multi-layered sense of antiquity and contemporary history. The Latin translation of Panem as “bread” is most notably tied to the quintessential Roman phrase “Bread and Circuses,” directly paralleling the Games and historical Gladiatorial contests, with the pre-Games feast even mirroring the cena libera in Roman culture. However, there is also a similarity with the famous Pam Am airline, evoking the past glamour of American globalisation, ironically contrasted with the static divisive state of the future America. Similarly the Capitol ties together ancient Rome and modern Washington with the utopian setting of the high society in Collins’ novel. The film’s costumes and design has a similar relationship with history; District 12 has a distinctive feel of dustbowl America, as if stepping out of the Depression-era photograph of an impoverished farming community.

 

Although set in our future, Katniss’ outfit undeniably echoes the past.

McCallum argues that “to displace a character out of his/her familiar surroundings can destablise his/her sense of identity,” yet Katniss does her growing within the hostile and unfamiliar landscape of the Arena, as she refuses to mirror the career tributes bloodthirsty methods, even though we as an audience know she is already skilled in hunting and killing.[4] The Arena is a form of anti-society, as The Games encourage a distrust of society via a distrust of individuals and alliances on which communities are based. By placing Katniss in such a space, it ensures a shaping of her social identity as a victor, but also her internal one, as her compassion is not completely destroyed by the mistrust and cunning she demonstrates in order to survive.

 

 

For a dystopian society to flourish there needs to be, as a characteristic of its ruling elite, the ability to block out natural empathy, or to remove the lower citizens from full human status deserving of empathy, in order for these hardships to be justified.[5] For the Games in The Hunger Games to achieve their purpose, they have to be watched both in horror by the Districts, and with delight and wonder by the Capitol. The Hunger Games uses the Games as an extreme image of where desensitising an audience potentially extrapolates to. The most immediate reflection of empathy within The Hunger Games is the relationship between Katniss, Rue, and Prim, as Katniss finds herself unable to detach her feelings for her sister with those for her fellow Tribute. This creates a sense of her as an unexpected maternal figure, sensing a gap between the younger girls as small children, and herself as an adult with responsibilities to them. Haymitch, as a representation of the experienced, and therefore jaded, adult character, is able to comprehend consequences of Katniss’ actions, whereas she reflects the stereotypical teenage attitude of living in the present, allowing her to focus on empathy over practicality and preserving her as a moral character as she teams up with the defenceless Rue.

 

 

The Other is a vital component of social (rather than ecological) dystopian fiction, as the propensity of the ruling elite to create such a nightmarish reality often relies on the subjugation of those who are deemed different. Going through the physical gendering process of puberty emphasises gender divides for YA characters and viewers. Gender in Panem is never raised as an Othering principle, indeed both male and female tributes are treated with the same objectification and callousness, and both genders display compassion and ruthlessness equally. However, the problems of patriarchy are so present in our own society that we project these values onto the characters. The Atlantic magazine, for example, described Katniss as “the most important female character in recent pop culture history” and the success of the film franchise has bolstered support of an increase in films with female protagonists as both morally and financially justified.[6] In The Hunger Games, Katniss’ unbridled contempt for her Mother’s mental state, shapes her into becoming a traditional father figure, assuming the patriarchal rather than matriarchal role in the house. Similarly, although ostensibly the tribute Johanna Mason subverts the traditional gender stereotypes when fakes a meek sensibility in her own Games before revealing her bloodthirsty nature in order to win, there is a sense within the books that the same ploy would have worked had Joanna been Joseph.

 

 

Those of a high social rank in the Capitol become characterised by an extreme aestheticism, mirroring the turn of the Century upper-class preoccupation with art and beauty explored by Oscar Wilde and other Decadent artists. Cinna’s team work relentlessly on Katniss, as the ideals of beauty are vital to gaining support in the Capitol; looks help you win. In Finnick’s storyline, this preoccupation is given an added sinister twist, as he confesses Snow allowed Capitol citizen’s to rape him, inviting a comparison with the sexual exploitation of both men and women from the working-class backgrounds in Panem, with the sex industry in our own world.

 

 

Having Katniss act as the face of a building revolution, young adult viewers can see reflected in the films images of fictional young adults with the ability to change the world. They use a combination of fear and hope to allow young adult viewers to feel empowered, both in their internal self-identity and their engagement with the contemporary issues reflected in the films. Hope is traditionally the driving force in children’s fiction–to prevent despair from becoming the ultimate end of the experience, thereby preventing the impetus for creating a better alternative, and the same can be seen in Young Adult fiction. The actor Donald Sutherland, who portrays President Snow in the film adaptations ofThe Hunger Games has noticed the story’s “potential to catalyse, motivate, mobilise a generation of young people who were, in my opinion, by and large dormant in the political process,” through this combination of alarm and optimism.

 

 

Dystopian films relate the horror of the fictional worlds to the future of their own; in The Hunger Games the starvation in the Districts is a clear reflection of the poverty and famine experienced world-wide, even within contemporary America, where 57 percent of American children live in a home which is designated “poor” or “low income” and 20 percent live in poverty. Moreover, the extravagance of the Capitol’s food and clothes holds a mirror to the wasteful culture in the Western World, where up to half of all food produced is never eaten. Furthermore, the life or death conditions for children chosen as Tributes can be associated with the problems surrounding the use of child soldiers in countries such as Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The empathetic fear of young adults towards these issues was illustrated clearly in the viral awareness campaign “Kony 2012,” where the plight of child soldiers captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of young people world-wide. Although critic Downey wrote in 2005 that “one of the great difficulties in teaching about horrific periods of history […] is addressing how to help students comprehend the incomprehensible,” she simplifies the abilities of young people by supposing that what is viewed as “incomprehensible” is relegated to the past, and that as adults, teachers are able to better understand these events.[5]

 

 

Hardships endured can both build and destroy characters, and although destruction can be viewed as a more realistic reaction to living in a dystopian society, forming positive identities around interacting with a society and set of values one finds unfair or lacking is a YA viewer’s reality. As the brilliant YA author Patrick Ness puts it, “Teenagers don’t see dystopias as dystopias; they see them as barely fictional representations of their day-to-day lives,” through their own powerlessness and fear. A fear which is inevitable in our world, and a reality to YA viewers–Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaids Tale, for example, famously composed its terrifying society from real cultures and historic movements. Dystopian narratives gives a YA audience a way of processing this reality at a distance, while potentially using it for personal inspiration, to foster an empathy which allows them to create their own morality separate from and informed by imperfect societies.

 

This is a piece written originally for Bitch Flicks' Masculinity Week.  Find the original article here.

 

[1] Merriam Webster Encyclopedia of Literature (Springfield, MA: Merriam Webster Inc, 1995)

[2] Robyn McCallum, Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The Dialogic Construction of Subjectivity (New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 1999) p.3

[3] Penelope Lively, “Child and Memory,” Horn Book, 49/4, (1973), p.400

[4] Robyn McCallum, Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The Dialogic Construction of Subjectivity (New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 1999) p.190

[5] Downey, A.L., “The Transformative Power of Drama: Bringing Literature and Social Justice to Life” English Journal, 95/1, (2005) p.33

Seattle: The Time I Stayed with People I’d Never Met Before

 

 

Seattle was not my first choice of City when planning my trip to the States.  In fact, to begin with, it wasn’t a choice at all.  

 

Me: “That’s the place with the… Space… thing, right?”

Mum: “Ooo Frasier!”

 

But then I got an offer from someone I’d never met before, saying I could stay at their friend’s apartment for the week.  Was this the nefarious plot of a Seattle criminal mastermind, luring innocent British lesbians to their doom?  Not exactly.  Her name is Bree.  I say I hadn’t met her before because, I suppose according to traditional thinking, I hadn’t.  

 

Bree and I are “internet friends”; we met through watching each other’s YouTube videos back in late 2014 and have been talking to each other online ever since.  Back in the early 2000s, when I was first venturing out onto the internet like a newborn giraffe with terrible taste in usernames, every piece of information given to me said this was  BAD IDEA.  People on the internet weren’t people!  They were evil shadow creatures who had turned touch-typing and were coming for me.

Bree, me and Jess in the British Aisle of their local grocery store. So. Many. Condiments.

Bree, me and Jess in the British Aisle of their local grocery store. So. Many. Condiments.

 

But only a week ago I found myself walking off a plane at Seattle Airport, my snapchat blowing up with messages from Bree and her apartment-having-friend Jess, telling me they were eagerly waiting for me to land.  And after a frantic baggage reclaim and catching the train to where they were waiting, we were grinning at each other and hugging like “real life friends”.  Because, as the next week would prove, that’s exactly what we are.

Me being a disgusting tourist in from of Pike Place.

Me being a disgusting tourist in from of Pike Place.

 

Seattle quickly proved itself to be a City of gems, some hidden, and some old favourites.  A quick walk from her apartment took us to the EMP (i.e. the Museum of my dreams) and their exhibitions on sci-fi, fantasy, horror and the costumes of the Star Wars universe.  My tweets forlornly predicting a lack of non-plastic cheese on my trip meant Jess took me to Beecher’s in Pike Place so I could get their gorgeous Cheddar/Gruyere flagship cheese.  A trip to Golden Gardens on a cloudy day turned into an afternoon making flower crowns next to a jubilant spiritual drum circle on the beach.

We are precious flower fairies

We are precious flower fairies

 

Seeming the most abundant type of store in Seattle were bookshops, although maybe that says more about the three of us than it does about the City.  In Pike Place we ventured into the Anarchist Bookshop (complete with polite sign asking people not to take the books without paying pretty please); just down the road from the apartment was a shop full of second hand books, where I bought a copy of “Macbeth” and Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” for $3.50; in Capitol Hill we visited a Queer Library (and I cried a little inside that I couldn’t take any of the books away to read).

Me and Bree's cat.  Her dog liked me better...

Me and Bree's cat.  Her dog liked me better...

 

The queer presence in Seattle was also joyfully unavoidable; even the chain-owned grocery store across from Jess’ had a giant rainbow flag up for Pride Month.  From the gloriously coloured rainbow crosswalks to the covert stickers in shop windows offering a safe space for LGBT customers, Seattle was the first City where I’ve felt totally visible and respected.  London has its gay clubs, of course, but they mainly only cater for gay men wanting to go on a night out.  The range of community activities and space for queer people outside of that alcohol and sex based environment was so special to see.

They made me try "American snacks"...at least there was no spray on cheese...

They made me try "American snacks"...at least there was no spray on cheese...

 

I made a little and totally self indulgent travel video while on the train travelling away from the City and my new friends and towards my next destination, and had a little cry when I watched the finished product.  It felt a lot like saying goodbye over again, and it hit me that it is a very real possibility I might never see any of my Seattle squad again in person.  Ever.  In my whole life.  

 

But then I got a snapchat from Jess letting me know they missed me and that Bree had been a big baby and cried at the station after I’d left.  I fucking love the internet.

Writing Diversity...

- writers: rigorously examine how you are writing in regards to the social default… if your main characters are white, straight, able-bodied, male… ask your self why… why was that a story you wanted to tell, what would it do to change that default.

-Whose stories are you/others telling, why do you place the importance on them?

-Show female friendship, queer friendship, POC friendship…- deny and destroy the shitty idea that there is one “best” woman or gay person, or POC who is allowed to play with the boys and has to be everything to everyone. Deny solely portrayals of infighting and catfighting, and of minorities tearing each other down, show the love and support your own communities and friendships give you.

-Do your research and admit your faults- don’t be scared away from writing about an experience that isn’t yours just because you are worried about the limiting idea of “write what you know”.

-Everyone- vote with your dollar, buy diverse books, films, comics… support small scale indie ventures which are pushing the limits of storytelling.

-Collaborate and make allies in your field, whatever that might be, who have the same long term goals for society. Support each other. Share ideas, projects and resources.

- Mentorship is key- find one and become one, share your knowledge and experience.

Masculinity and the Queer Male: There’s Nowt So ‘Queer as Folk’

If we were being cliche about it, we’d start this essay with a nice textbook definition of masculinity. “The Oxford Dictionary defines masculinity as…” But the thing is, the dictionary defines masculinity as “possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men,” and queer media, of which Queer as Folk (North American version) is but one example, should surely take issue with this very premise considering how heavily it relies on assumptions around a gender binary that doesn’t really exist. Queer as Folk is overwhelmingly about men, but they are men living in a subculture with different “traditional qualities.” Queens, Bears, Straight-Acting, Leathers… any number of ideals of what it is to be a certain type of man in a certain type of tradition. When sexuality is bought into the mix, and the queer body is the one playing with these gendered constructs, we find an element of doubt: if what it means to be a man can change so easily between male identities, then there is no innate power behind it. Effeminate gay men, like Emmett Honeycut, are subverting gendered stereotypes, of course. But masculine gay men, like Brian Kinney, are also subverting preconceptions around sexuality, and are in turn fucking with gender in a similar way. If the power of masculinity is that it is the thing “ordinary” straight men are meant to aspire to, for a gay man to inhabit that aspiration is for the queer to encroach on and upset the accepted balance.

 

 

Queer as Folk, based on Russell T. Davies’ original British series of the same name, follows a group of five gay men, and their two lesbian friends, in Pittsburgh. The creation of the series was born of a desire to see the reality of modern gay life on screen, and the show doesn’t disappoint. There are story lines that deal with things such as coming out, marriage equality, gay bashing, HIV+ characters, assimilation vs. subversion of mainstream society, adoption, gay parenting, workplace discrimination, religion, accepting and condemning families, and, of course, sex–themes and ideas which were both universal to the gay experience, and specific to the life of gay people in the period between 2000 and 2005 when the show aired. This pioneering attitude toward sexuality across an entire ensemble cast in such a frank and explicit way cements its place as a cornerstone of queer media history, and an important series to explore in regard to sexuality and masculinity and how they connect.

 

The show balances characters across the spectrum of masculine and feminine, with people like Brian or Drew Boyd on one side, and Emmett on the other, with the rest placed somewhere in between. It demonstrates the differing elements of gender presentation, from looks to interests, and suggests these are innate parts of a person which are then packaged and labelled by society to the either one thing or another. Ben Bruckner’s interest in quiet peace and serenity might exclude him from the masculine, while the fact he is the top in his relationship with Michael might pull him out of the feminine; these labels become ultimately meaningless not just in queer characters, but in any characters. However the show doesn’t deny that social pressures can shape someone’s natural disposition and interests to conform to the expectations of gender. We can see how Drew’s intense masculinity is something which is tied to his vehement denial of his sexuality, creating a defensive barrier that keeps Emmett at a distance because he doesn’t fit with the artificially created version of Drew.

 

The show also addresses the issues that come with excesses in the physical power of traditional masculinity, through toxic masculinity and violence. As a show in the early 2000s, cases of this violence turned onto the queer community, like that of Matthew Shepard in 1998, were a very real fear. Justin’s gay-bashing at the end of the first season cut brutally through the softening of Brian’s distanced outward demeanor as they danced together at prom. Thus men who needed to use their masculinity against other people, rather than a genuine and internal reflection of their own identity, were clearly shown to be a problem, not an aspiration. This idea was bought even closer to home in Season 4 when Justin joins the Pink Posse, a group of vigilantes who forcibly strip homophobes in public, and his anger escalates to a horrific peak when he gets his chance at revenge.

 

When Justin brings home a gun, and later uses it to terrify and humiliate Chris Hobbs, he has reached the outer extreme of masculinity. That classic visual cliche of the gun as phallic symbol rings true, as he forces Hobbs to take the weapon into his mouth and “suck it” at his command. This extremity is ultimately condemned by the writers and framed as a downward spiral for Justin, rather than an upward journey to masculine perfection and strength. At a simplistic level he is working toward what society might deem desirable masculinity: he is attaining power both physically and sexually, he is defending himself, he is showing only the “strong” emotion of righteous anger. But when this is played out literally in front of us, as an audience, we recoil in horror at the reality that this hypermasculinity can produce, further undermining its apparent appeal.

Hypersexuality in the gay scene has long been a criticism leveled against the community as a whole, as well as the TV series itself. The stereotypes around gay life and promiscuity are arguably enforced in Queer as Folk, where we are introduced to our male leads in the omnipresent club Babylon, full of men looking for sex (especially contrasted to the domestic frame of motherhood given to Mel and Lindsay as we first see them in the delivery room). Yet this very concept of shaming queer men for their sexuality while society is praising straight men for their sexual conquests as a key element of “successful” masculinity demonstrates the way homophobia intersects with a devaluing of the feminine. Women, including the way their sexuality is viewed as precious and dirty at the same time, are traditionally tied to femininity, which is in turn linked to weakness. By linking gay men, femininity and sex together as the stereotype does, we can see how male sexuality can be condemned when it is with another man, but not when it is exclusively with a woman. However, the show occasionally falls in playing out the masculine/feminine dichotomy within its queer relationships, rather than subverting this heteronormative pattern entirely–the pinnacle of masculinity, Brian, refusing to bottom and the butch/femme dynamic of Mel and Lindsay’s relationship. Are the explicit queer politics of Brian, or the “we’re not like you” speech from Michael, enough to counter this? Maybe the answer to that, like our relationship with gender in the real world, isn’t clear cut.

Subverting this binary with masculine women, and indeed feminine men, has a complex history in fiction; from the villainous dandy to the “strong female protagonist,” character tropes are full of gendered workings. Masculinity is a difficult thing to pull apart in the real world, but in fiction it has been decided and crafted by a writer specifically to feed into that particular character. In a patriarchal world where masculinity is power, strength, and the ultimate goal, we might be tempted to see masculine characters as a sort of ultimate character. One of the clear strengths of Queer as Folk was the way it refused to be a show which played into the idea of there being only one way that queer people should play out their gender identity. It didn’t lay claim to sweeping generalisations that feminine gay men are out “giving us a bad name,” and that masculine gay men as assimilated traitors. Ultimately the portrayal of masculinity, and indeed femininity, in the show felt natural and unique for each character. It uses its ideas around masculinity, and indeed femininity, to expose the reality of gay life, and how it intersects with, and pulls away from, heteronormative society.   It is certainly true that if the show was remade now (and there are vague hints of that as a possibility) fans like myself would hope for a greater depth of diversity both within the queer spectrum (the L and G of the acronym were well-represented, but not so much anyone else) as well as in intersectional ways (not having an all white main ensemble would be a great start). But for a pioneering show of its kind, there was nowt so great as Queer as Folk.

 

This is a piece written originally for Bitch Flicks' Masculinity Week.  Find the original article here.