One Day, One Thing More

Everyday observations

Month: June, 2017

Queer pleasure: academic and professional drag. Or, How getting screwed enabled me to screw with the system.

Queer identity is inherently tied up with performance–from Judith Butler‘s insights into gender as performance to the heady pleasures of camp and drag to the series of small choices we take so we ping someone’s gaydar (or don’t), the daily experience of early queerness often centers on the drama of gender and sexuality. Can my parents tell I’m gay? Can my friends at school? And, more excitingly, can She? It’s no surprise that queer and “theatrical” were functional synonyms for so long: the daily demands of queer life show us how identity is all a show, and each audience calls into being a different version of ourselves.

Now that I’m an adult (of sorts), this theatricality still informs my daily experience of life. Sometimes, as I explored in my last post, that performance can feel like inauthenticity, which elicits grief and a host of other negative emotions. But at the same time, our ongoing relationship with performance allows us to open up new possibilities for connection, disruption, and intervention in every part of our lives.

I’m most struck by how these opportunities open up in my professional life, especially in terms of my work wardrobe. It’s safe to say that I never mastered the art of professional dress. When I was temping in my 20s, I could never figure out the bland professional costume of the office drone. And when I got negative feedback about my wardrobe, FORGET IT. Take out my nose ring? Fine, I’ll show up in a skirt with a slit all the way up the side and a fur coat. Neckline too low? No problem, how’s this micromini? I was fast and focused, so I never had trouble getting a new position, but my placements were often pretty short. (Not as short as my skirts, but you get the idea)

Now that I have a Real Job, I’m still stymied by professional dress codes. My Beloved Bride has described my personal style as looking like I “have a day pass from the clown college at the nut ward.” A million colors, a zillion patterns, plus a unicorn or two. You know–the standard professional costume.


Why yes, I did wear this to work.

I suppose I could be worried that people won’t take me seriously, but I think the opposite might be true: in an academic setting at least, I’m convinced that dressing like a weirdo makes people take me more seriously, not less. Like: “I know she’s only staff, but maybe she’s an artist or something–still waters run deep!” And there’s something that’s deeply satisfying to me that my job is so closely associated with prestige (at many universities, my office is actually named the Office of Prestigious Awards), and I dress like–well, like a mentally ill lesbian.

In Queer Feelings, Ahmed argues that “the display of queer pleasure may generate discomfort in spaces that remain premised on the ‘pleasures’ of heterosexuality” (165). And I would argue that the endless variations of camp and drag which make up the performance of weirdness (which is what I’m talking about here, really) don’t just generate discomfort, but open up new possibilities for expression and liberation.

Case in point: my first year of my PhD program was also the first year that my Beloved Bride and I were dating, and I think the technical term for my mood during those first heady months is “fuck-addled.” Not only was I coming off a life-changing experience of catastrophic illness, but I was having frequent amazing sex for the first time in my life. So every day was this gauzy haze, just waiting until I could get home again. I may have started a graduate program in English Lit, but what I was really doing was majoring in Joan.

At the same time, I was taking a graduate seminar from the guy who would go on to serve as my advisor. He was teaching a course based on the book he was currently working on–always a tricky prospect–and the course was a mess. It was called “The Long 1950s” and was an examination of the effects of McCarthyism on 20th century American Literature. The issue was that he was so close to the material that the course ended up reproducing the dynamics that he meant to critique: rather than unpacking McCarthyism, the course became a shadow of it. My professor lorded over us all like McCarthy himself, waiting for us to echo back his ideas successfully; his favorite student filled the position of Roy Cohn, sniping at those of us who hadn’t yet mastered the lingo of my professor’s theory of abasement. The central ideas of the course (the S/M dynamics of political power) were really appealing to me, but the pedagogy was so fucked up. Everyone was jockeying for favor, so worried they’d lose his attention and approval.

A different semester might have found me participating in this depressing horse race, but like I said: fuck-addled. What I noticed instead was that a key figure of my advisor’s analysis of the psychoanalytic structure of mid-century America was missing: the terrifying mother. That, my friends, was a job I could pick up, easy peasy.

manchurian mommy

Bow down to the queen, bitches

So I started making small alterations to my wardrobe: more A-line skirts, lipstick every day, etc. And I was coating every comment, especially the brutal ones, in my sweetest tones. But the moment that won the day was when I did my in-class presentation. I was (natch) presenting on The Manchurian Candidate, focusing on the figure of the s/mother. I decided to give my presentation in full 1950s drag: a twin set, white gloves, pearls, kitten heels, the whole package. Unused to the benefits of a private institution, I still did all my copying at the library, and ended up being about 5 minutes late for class. I walked in just as my professor was saying “Where is she?” and I sauntered over and patted his arm as I assured him “It’s okay, honey, we can just start now.” I kept my gloves on the whole time.

I’m still not sure where I got the chutzpah, but I think there’s a connection between the way I was finally coming into my own (as it were) as a person with a decent queer sex life and my willingness to disrupt expectations in my class in this way. On the heels of my brush with death, my invigorated sex life made me feel impossibly, endlessly alive, like anything was possible. This is part of what I think Ahmed is getting at when she says “the hope of queer politics is that bringing us closer to others, from whom we have been barred, might also bring us to different ways of living outside the circuits of exchange within global capitalism.” Here was this woman, different from anyone I’d ever connected with before: instead of taking care of her, I was being cared for; instead of being the pursuer, I was pursued; instead of holding back, I was jumping in. If this could happen, then anything could. Maybe instead of currying favor, I could beat my professor at his own game. Maybe I could turn the scene of my abasement into something playful and sexy and feminist as fuck. This, to me, is the possibility of new connections.


Queer Grief: Queer in Public

So I’m working on a book manuscript these days, and I’m back in the world of queer theory for the first time in a long time. I’ve been blown away by Sara Ahmed’s work on queer affect, and especially (so far, anyway) by her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion. In it, she focuses on two feelings as being centrally transformative for queers: grief and pleasure. For Pride, I want to spend my next few entries thinking through these ideas as they’ve arisen in my own life.

In a way that’s unsurprising, given the recent focus on negativity within queer theory, she spends more time and energy thinking through grief than pleasure. She points out the invisibility of queer grief, and the difficulty that comes with publicly acknowledging queer loss—the temptation to change “I suffer” to “my suffering is just like yours.” She argues that “the failure to recognize queer loss as loss is also a failure to recognize queer relationships as significant bonds, or that queer lives are lives worth living, or that queers are more than failed heterosexuals, heterosexuals who have failed ‘to be.’” (156)

I think what she means here is that queer grief is for relationships or bodies that fall outside of the narratable framework of everyday life. And what it feels like to realize that you are the only one who recognizes your grief as such. I’m thinking of three moments from my own life that crystallize what she’s getting at, from the three central registers of queer life: the public sphere, romantic love, and beloved community. I’m going to do three entries on queer grief, and then close out the series with one on queer pleasure.

Queer in Public

On the day of the massacre in Orlando, Ariel and I had to go to a birthday party for one of the kids at Izzy’s bougie daycare. In general, we’d liked it there—there were a few other hipster families we’d connected with, and we even spied one of the dads marching with the bisexuals in the Pride parade. But she was the only kid with same-sex parents at the school, and it was an expensive place, so the majority of the families (including ours) were quite wealthy.

I got the news of the shooting early and spend most of the day shell-shocked. We watched a movie in the morning so we could keep our parenting as low-effort as possible, and all I could do was keep checking my Facebook feed, hoping for new information, taking comfort from my friends’ changing their profile pictures and sharing memories of clubbing in their youth. My heart hurt, thinking of all those beautiful young people moving together, and the loose embodied freedom of movement that comes in a club which had transformed so quickly into such a nightmare. And the fact that it was almost all black and brown people who had been killed made the whole thing even more awful—more in line with the endless parade of violence that has now taken over public discourse in this country.

I had received a few texts from concerned straight friends—I suspected they were reaching out because they’d been instructed to do so by some clickbaity article “5 things to do if you are feeling overwhelmed about the Orlando massacre—1: check in with your LBGT friends. They’re likely feeling lonely and frightened, and it will help them to know they are not alone.” But whatever—maybe I’m some functional token in their pursuit of relief, but I was grateful for the care and attention.

So my whole life felt focused in on this moment: me, my phone, my computer screen, and an unimaginable scene hundreds of miles away. As we drove up to the house in Winchester where the party was and I saw the houses get bigger and bigger as we snaked past the local golf course, I could feel my stomach tighten. Usually when I look at my life, it’s with a kind of baffled gratitude: how did I get here, to this beautiful house with this sweet family? But that day, my bafflement at how I ended up here, trudging up a steep driveway bearing Legos for twin boys, felt less grateful. The world was ending and everyone was just wandering around in their boaters and madras plaids, blinking into the sun and making small talk like it was any other day.

My impulse was to disrupt the party—to do something that couldn’t be looked away from. Take my clothes off and jump into the pool; start weeping and curl up in the cool darkness under the swing set. But all I remember was chatting blandly about kindergarten plans for the following year and praying in the bathroom for the ability to keep it together. At one point, the kids ganged up on one of the boys there and I did intervene, yelling for them to “shut it down” as they chanted his name in unison. So that’s something.

I should have said more, I think—if the event had happened now, post-Trump, I think I would have done. I’m more allergic to this kind of assimilation these days, and insist on airing my grief more often and more publicly. It’s this moment of decision that characterizes queer grief, I think: the knowledge that airing it will necessarily be disruptive, that you’re calling attention to something people would rather look away from. I suppose all grief is like this—that’s why it’s such a lonely emotion—but when your loss is unrecognized as such by the dominant framework, then finding the space to express it is often alienating and disruptive. So there are two ways to think about queer grief, then: the silence that we have to break through, and our responsibility to acknowledge and hold space for our own grief and others’.

In this way, I want think about ways to incorporate mourning into Pride this year. Pride is about joy, of course, but it’s also about loss—a response to a society that keeps telling us we don’t matter, a glorious “fuck you” to every bully who told us we were too butch, too nelly, too fat, too weird, too much. It’s an explosive celebration of that excess, but one that always comes with that knife’s edge of overcompensation. So this year, I’m pledging to celebrate my connection to all corners of this community—I’m not interested in a narrative of Pride that focuses on triumphant transcendence. I’m grateful for my beautiful bougie life, but what I need to do is remember (and teach my kids) that there’s loss at the center of it, and that it’s up to us to even things up.

After all, my refusal/inability to express my grief at the party was also a missed opportunity. It’s possible that I would have been met with the bland suburban “meh” I feared if I’d told the truth about how sad I was that day, but it’s just as likely that people would have responded with kindness. Not having taken the risk, I’ll never know. But I’ve made a different decision in the months since the election, and what I’ve found is that I don’t have to make my queerness as invisible as I think I do. There’s space for my weirdness, and I can use that space to open up more space for others. Not by folding them into the “us” of bougie Arlington, but by acknowledging how my communities are multiple, by making space for different voices of mourning, by refusing to sanitize my grief or to demand that others do the same.

So much scope for the imagination!

I was extremely wary going into Anne with an E, the new Netflix adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Reviews called it “darker,” and I had a hard time imagining how that would be possible, given the almost relentlessness sunniness of the source material. Anne is a classic “plucky orphan,” and my memory of the book is of her being welcomed in by the town in a pretty uncomplicated way—the same qualities that made my social life unbearable day to day (an overactive imagination; endless, uncontrollable emotional reactions; a deep knack for saying the wrong thing; preciousness) seemed to reap only rewards for Anne, and the world of Avonlea felt generous and good. I was so closely identified with Anne that in the sixth grade, in a classic Anne Shirley move, I changed the spelling of my name to include an E. I was Anne, but my weirdness never won me her social acclaim, and I didn’t have a Matthew and Marilla with whom I could start anew. It’s the perfect stuff of fantasy projection: she’s like me, but everything’s a little dreamier.

The thing that distinguishes Anne with an E from the book and from the previous adaptation is its willingness to take Anne’s backstory as an orphan seriously, and to give it space and energy in the text itself rather than leaving her trauma between the lines, in the un-narratable background. Anne is explicitly positioned as suffering from PTSD, and all her central qualities—her imagination, her garrulousness, her embrace of affectations—are posited as coping mechanisms, not just general charms. Until the show veers off into melodrama, its depiction of Avonlea builds on the insights about trauma that form the unspoken foundation of the novel.

As a viewer, this causes an unexpected break with my childhood experience of the text, and maybe demonstrates one of the things that a successful adaptation can accomplish. Instead of wanting to be Anne, I want to protect her. Texts about trauma serve different purposes for us, depending on our position vis-à-vis that trauma. As a kid, I needed fictional worlds I could reside in: Anne of Green Gables offered me a vision of what might be possible if a provincial community made a decision to open itself up to a needy weirdo. As an adult, though, what I need from stories about trauma isn’t a way out—time and years of therapy have provided that—what I’m looking for is a way to see my former self with perspective and compassion.

In the first few episodes of the season, we see the people of Avonlea attempt to reconcile themselves to this girl who doesn’t follow or understand the social rulebook. Ultimately, they get to a place of generosity and open-heartedness, but it doesn’t come automatically or even easily. Her weirdness and her socially outré background has the effect it so often does in real life: the girls at school mock her, parents forbid their children from befriending her, she remains lonely and shut out. Anne is eventually welcomed into the community, but it feels earned.

This early commitment to realism is part of what makes the second half of the season’s foray into high melodrama feel disappointing. In the book, the action is resolutely located in the domestic and the everyday: Anne falls off a roof playing with friends, she bakes a cake using medicine instead of vanilla, she dyes her hair green. These small-scale, feminine conflicts don’t seem exciting enough for the adaptation. Instead, everything has to have more explicitly life-or-death stakes: it’s not enough for Anne to be barred from going to the church picnic, she has to be sent back to the orphanage and nearly abducted by a child molester. Matthew and Marilla get tragic backstories, and the story goes truly off the rails when Matthew threatens suicide.

While this does build on the Gothic undercurrents that the books have always had (Anne’s House of Dreams is particularly bananas, with its dead babies and secret twins), I feel like the shift here isn’t so much about embracing the Gothic as it is about rejecting the domestic as too boring to motivate narrative action. Puffed sleeves, in and of themselves, aren’t interesting enough for the breakneck pace of contemporary TV narrative, it seems. We still get the story where Matthew sneaks away and buys Anne an expensive dress, but then he also has to meet a former love interest, and then sells the dress back when the fate of Green Gables hangs in the balance. The emotional pitch of Avonlea matches Anne’s overactive imagination, rather than being outpaced by it.

Ultimately, I find the shift of focus away from the “small” concerns of the domestic sphere to be frustrating because it loses sight of one of the central experiences of trauma: its location in the mundane. There’s this great phrase in Alanon, “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical,” which captures the weird delayed timing of trauma, and also how much the ongoing effects of trauma are felt in unexpected, boring places. One of the central facts about trauma, especially early trauma, is how it breaks down our ability to make meaning. We think we understand how the world is supposed to work, but then something happens which breaks down that understanding: home is not safe, our bodies stop working, protector becomes threat, etc. Signification gets slippery. And as a result, spaces or things that are dangerous feel safe and vice versa; everything’s either imbued with too much meaning or not enough. The way that the puffed sleeves work in the book is a great example of this: the object itself (the dress) is insignificant, but it gains the hysterical energy that Anne imbues it with because it’s a physical sign of the social acceptance Anne craves, and then for the care Matthew offers her. It’s funny because it’s just a dress, but the truth underlying it all is that when it comes to trauma nothing is “just” anything.

When the show veers into melodrama, then, that slippage stops: the drama isn’t heightened—it hardly needs to be, with all the house fires and suicidality. It’s fun, and it does seem like a story that Anne herself would like, but the explicitness of the drama means (here, anyway) that it no longer highlights the connection between Anne’s “scope for the imagination” and her own internal struggles. At the end of the day, that feels like a missed opportunity.