Masonic Boom

"Crazy" "Oversensitive" "Feminazi" "Bitch" bloggin' bout pop music, linguistics and mental health issues

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Slash: Painting Male Faces Female

It flickered across my tweetstream this morning: @dickon_edwards to give talk about slash (Blur slash, in particular) at the NPG, touching of course, on Dennis Cooper and his infamous Alex James "slash" as part of a talk on Queer Perspectives.

(I put the description of Dennis Cooper's work as "slash" in quotes because, although it depicts gay sex involving a pop star, which many people think of as the very definition of Slash, it was in fact, very *untypical* of the Slash genre.)

This is, of course, to me - someone who was the curator of a mostly Blur-oriented fan fiction site, in the mid to late 90s, before the days of LiveJournal and DreamWidth and gated communities (so I, personally, had to take the blasts and the threatened lawsuits when pop stars were not amused by my authors' work) - a bit like a red rag to a bull.

Is Slash "Queer"? That's a question that gets endlessly debated within the Fan Fiction communities. My problem with assigning Slash solely as a Queer concern is one of Authorship, and implied Audience, and the misogynist assumtions involved.

Slash is inherently 'not Hetero-Male'. But just because something is 'not Hetero-Male' does not make it automatically Queer. When I paint pictures of naked, vulnerable or available males, I am often told that this work is "homoerotic." Um, how? A straight female painting a naked male is *anything* but "homo" - the automatic assumption that a naked man *must* be evidence of homoeroticism is to deny the fact that females could experience desire, or, indeed, posess a sexuality at all, let alone the visual experience of sexuality. It is the same mistake that assumes Slash, because it depicts men, must be "homo-erotic."

I often quip that Slash is no more representative of gay sexuality than the standard "Lesbian Scene" in mainstream hetero male porn - nor is it *supposed* to be. It is the Performance of homosexual acts for an inherently hetero audience, rather than *actual* Queerness.

Slash (and the greater category of Fan Fiction which it is a part of) is one of the few spontaneous, unfettered expressions of *female* sexuality allowed within our culture. It is pornography created almost exclusively *by* females and *for* females. (Edit: mostly, but not exclusively hetero.) Women have been creating Slash for at least 50 years (the term originates from the Kirk/Spock romance texts of the original 1960s Star Trek) and yet it's ignored, swept under the carpet (except for those occasional "OMG Man discovers slash and writes article about how WEIRDED OUT he is" moments of press hysteria) because women aren't supposed to be interested in porn.

Then, suddenly, a man (Dennis Cooper) writes a gay wankfest about a male pop star and OMG OMG Slash is suddenly "High Art" and it's GROUNDBREAKING and both pop culture and Highbrow Journals are suddenly interested in discussing it.

(Are any other women getting flashbacks to those kinds of conversations where you and a gang of men are sat round a table Talking About Music and someone will pose a question, and you'll answer it, but they'll act like they haven't heard you, and carry on, like no one has answered the question, so you repeat your answer - no response. And then suddenly a man across the table will snap his fingers and go "oh yeah, Archie Bell & The Drells - Tighten Up!" and they all clap and say "yes, of course" - like, did you not just hear me say that THREE TIMES?)

So we've got yet another case where it's this thing that women do, and yet it's only addressed within High Pop Culture when *men* talk about it. I can't tell you the number of times I've read some Male Pop Critic mention that he's been asked to talk about Slash and Fan Fiction, then almost as an afterthought goes "ooh, maybe I better read some..." I mean, the usual way it's brought up is by (male) critic addresses, snarkily, (male) Pop Star "Did you know people write GAY SEX FANTASIES about you on the internet?!?!??"

And yet no one ever thinks to ask the people who already *are* experts in it. You know, the women and girls (wait - there's the problem. Right there.) who actually write and consume the stuff.

See, here's my take. And you will see why all the "OMG, why do people only pay attention when it's a *man* doing/talking about it?" carping comes in. Because this is inherently written into the structure of why *I* engage in, create and read Slash. The obvious bias towards men within pop culture, and the exclusion of female voices from it.

My earliest fandoms were Star Trek and Star Wars. (OK, technically, I used to watch Dr Who in the 70s, as a toddler from my father's lap, hiding behind his knees when it got too scary. But we're talking about the first fandoms where I engaged with the text on a personal level, and interacted with other fans.) When you're 9, you want to identify with the characters, partly you're looking for role models, partly you're just looking for who you are going to be when you play "Star Wars" with the neighbourhood kids. And let's face it. The roles for women in sci fi of that era were *RUBBISH*. Playing "Star Wars" was problematic - there was only one woman in it, and all she did was stand around waiting to get rescued with her hair tied in knots.

And playing "Star Trek" - as a pre-teen, I loved Star Trek more than I loved Star Wars, because I could already see that it was more complex, that it was more "sci" and less "fi" - and it used science fiction to address the philosophical issues I was starting to be interested in. But the roles for a 10 year old girl to project herself into? Well, it was Lt. Uhura or green-skinned alien girlfriend of the week? No thanks!

And yes, I know that Lt. Uhura was a groundbreaking character in terms of the depiction of race on primetime telly. First major black character, first interracial kiss... yes this is significant stuff. But as a female role model? Communications Officer? Fuck that - she was the bloody RECEPTIONIST. Her role just reminds me of the endless companies I've worked for where all the Board Members are males, except for the lone woman who is the "Director Of PR" because, like, girls are so GOOD at communicating, aren't they? (notice anything about all those pictures of "receptionists" in the link up there?)

The interesting characters, the ones who got to have emotions (or not, and struggling with it, in Spock's case) and character development and decent plots - they were all men. Passionate, impulsive Kirk; logical, intellectual Spock; the cranky but compassionate conscience of McCoy; houseproud Scotty. These were the people *I* identified with, and they were all men! So is it really any wonder that when women projected themselves into the universe of Star Trek, they chose to animate and inhabit the males?

Anyway, fast forward to puberty, and I have to admit I swapped sci fi geekdom for pop. Aged 12, I fell in love with Duran Duran and synths and new wave haircuts. And guess what, yet again, it was gang after gang of 5 Fearless Men with no females in sight (except the rotating Other-ised Girlfriend Of The Week in their videos.)

And you know what? The roles of women in the world of Rock Music were EVEN WORSE than those in Sci Fi. It wasn't even a choice between "stand around with your hair in buns waiting to get rescued" or "ship's nurse in a miniskirt" - it was basically groupie or... nope, just groupie. That's it, that's your role, that's all you can aspire to, as a woman, in rock music. (Wait a few years, and if you're lucky enough to be in an American indie band, you can be the token Girl Bassist, but this is 1982 and indie hasn't been invented yet.) GROUPIE. Disposable sex receptacle. No thank you.

See, I already know what to do. I grew up on sci fi. I got used to the idea - if there are no female role models available, identify with a male one. But hey, I'm hitting puberty. I'm... experiencing... odd... urges... As everyone else in my grade was picking who their Duran Duran boyfriend was going to be, I was experiencing the bizarre and conflicting urges of simultaneously wanting to fuck them and *be* them, all at the same time. So where my mates were lusting over John or fawning over Nick, I became that weirdest of creatures - I became a Nick/John slasher.

It had nothing to do with Queerness. Aged 12, I didn't even know what "Queer" was. It had nothing to do with wanting to "be a gay man" - it was a defiant statement about the rubbishness of the roles assigned to women. It was a *female* response to a world from which females were excluded.

Now I know that I don't speak for all Slash consumers or writers in this regard. For some women, the lack of female characters is part of the *appeal* - no perfect, toned, blonde, barbie model girlfriend to feel insecure in comparison to. (This saddens me in ways I can't entirely express - how thoroughly the Beauty Myth has twisted the ability of women to even enjoy their own sexuality.)

And obviously not all women *have* to identify with the male characters they slash. Sometimes it is just about the smut. Many women choose to consume or produce slash because well, let's face it, men kissing men, men making love to men is TOTALLY HOTT on a visceral, physical, visual level. (You know, all those things that females are not supposed to care about in our sexuality, because we are "not interested in pornography" and all that.) If you're a woman who finds male bodies beautiful or desirable, having two of them, with added extra bonus emotional content - double the pleasure.

And yeah - the emotional content is an implicit part of the appeal. Guys getting emotional, guys bonding, guys going through hurt/comfort and all the other slash conventions - this has its own sexual and romantic appeal to women, independent of the lack of female voices and role models within the cultural world - whether that culture is Rock Music or Science Fiction. Slash is a way of exploring and inhabiting the emotional landscapes of our culture's Texts, whether that Text is a television show or the pop narrative of Four Lads With Guitars Who Become Famous.

It's a common complaint, in internal criticism of Slash by other fans. That the men in Slash don't behave like men (even gay men); they behave, well - like women. Those heady, emotionally charged friendships that spill over into almost romantic intensity... the jealousy, the oversharing, the emotional dynamics... that's the emotional landscape of teenage girls and the women they become.

Slash is NOT a way of painting "straight faces queer" as Dickon would have it. What it is, when you participate in it, is a way of women painting MALE faces "FEMALE."

Anyway, I survived adolescence. I grew up. The Indie explosion happened. Riot Grrrl happened. I was part of that generation of women in the early 90s who woke up and decided to start their own bands. For a brief bubble, it was awesome. Women invaded the Male Space of Rock Music. Men decided that it was possible to redefine Masculinity in a way that looked almost as if we could all actually throw off the gender role straitjackets entirely.

And then just when it looked like the world was opening up, there followed the Britpop Backlash. The NME put its foot down, it was time to stop bopping our handbags round to the Marxist Feminist Dialectic of Stereolab and go back to treating pop music like a football match between two gangs of straight, white, cis males. (And girls had to get back to their traditional role of cheering from the sidelines wearing British Flag Bikinis - ironically missold to us as "Girl Power") A multicoloured, multicultural, multigendered landscape got reduced down to Blur v. Oasis.

Except, well... with *Blur* we initially wanted to protest "But no! They're more like us than against us - they went to ART SCHOOL. They have girlfriends in riot grrrl bands! Their proper cultural counterparts aren't football louts like Oasis, it's queer theory referencing gender terrorists like Suede!" Except no, watching the pop culture landscape of late 90s British "indie" change, and become whiter, more male, more heteronormative - it was a real conflict, to watch a band you thought you loved slowly destroying everything you *did* actually love about a music scene.

Well, we knew how to react to this, didn't we, ladies? When they took away our female role models, and started forcing this male-centric worldview down our throats again, we picked up our pencils and started re-writing, in fan fiction, the world we didn't get in the "real" fiction of the pop landscape.

And wow, were Blur a slashable band. All bands - well, the good ones at least, the ones that aren't just props for one person's ego - revolve around a creative Romance. (Think Lennon/McCartney, think Jagger/Richards.) Blur were interesting because they didn't just have *one* central romance (the obvious Damon/Graham pairing) they had this strange triple-act between Damon and Graham and Alex, with the pairings constantly being pulled off balance by the presence of a third party. That was what made their music interesting (Damon and Alex combining to form a pop landscape that Graham would rip apart with ugly-beautiful guitar noise) and what made the slash interesting (what's the OTP? Is it Damon and Graham because they were childhood friends? Graham and Alex because they were art school pals? Damon and Alex because they were thrown together by Graham's refusal to join in Groucho-fuelled tabloid antics? And what about Alex's love affair with Damien Hirst? Graham flouncing out of Blur in a lover's tiff and Damon taking up with Jamie Hewitt? The possibilities were endless!)

But anyway, I digress. (Slash is like that - once you see the world in that way, it's very hard to pull back and view interactions "objectively" and not as a series of "romances" again.)

Yes, we Slashers, we know that we are only borrowing homosexual acts for our revisionist female rewriting of pop texts. But that borrowing is mutal, evidenced by the way strong female artists get rewritten as "Gay Icons." Gay men take strong women for their Gay Icons because strong Out gay males have traditionally been so lacking in our homophobic society. So we do the same thing. Females rewrite male pop culture figures as gay when strong *female* characters are so lacking within our misogynist cultural landscape.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

False Dichotomies

The reason for this blog is that this is a subject which comes up often in conversation on the internet, and it's far too complex, involved and emotive a topic to resolve in the running battle of a flamewar or the brevity of a typical forum post. Nonetheless, it's something I find myself explaining too many times, in too great a detail, via private email conversations. I wanted to put it in writing somewhere I could simply point people at and say "this is my experience." This is not meant as an attempt to change anyone's mind as to what they believe - simply as an explanation, to demolish some straw men I have found myself accused of being.

It seems to me that Atheists (and by this, I mean the card carrying types that like to start public debates) have as many delusions and false ideas about "Religious People" as they believe "Religious People" to have about God. Then again, that may be down to the kind of "Religious Person" that chooses to get involved in these antagonistic "Science Vs. Religion" debates.

In my general experience, the greatest gulf is not between Atheists and... whatever the opposite of Atheist is - what an odd term for a movement, one that defines itself solely by what it is opposed to - but between people who say "well, this is what I believe, but I'm fine with whatever you choose, so long as you don't try to force it on me" and those who are convinced that their personal philosophy is the best, and in fact only method of viewing the world. The latter is what I call "Dogmatic" whether the text they are banging is Richard Dawkins or the Bhagavad Gita.

People are often surprised to find out that I am not an Atheist, given that I am interested in science and maths. They often like to put this down to my upbringing, but the truth is, I spent much of my life as a somewhat hostile agnostic - it was only in the post-Dawkins landscape of conflict that I started to give it serious thought, and realised that I was not, by any means, an atheist. Although I don't currently subscribe to any organised religion (though if I had the time and the inclination, I would be a Quaker) Spirituality is a part of my experiences and my personality that I can not deny or discount.

And this is something that many Dogmatic Atheists miss, for all their talk of "memeplexes" (whatever that meaninglessly reductive term signifies - a religion or a philosophy is no more a "memeplex" than a symphony is a "noteplex" or a Monet a "brushstrokeplex.")

Spirituality, for the religious person, is an experience, and generally an emotional experience. Have you ever tried to explain the experience of "being in love" to a person who has never loved? Have you ever tried to explain an acid trip to someone who has never taken drugs? Of course it sounds nonsensical.

For example, people who are in love behave in ways that are incomprehensible to those not involved. Best friends become murderous rivals, formerly single-minded careerists give up their ambitions to nurture another and formerly vibrant people can pine away when denied the object of their affections. Yes, these are extreme examples, but so are many of the behaviours that Atheists bring up when deriding the religious experience. From a purely Materialist point of view, Love does not exist. Humans are driven by chemical reactions in their brains, animals are compelled to reproduce by their DNA. A reductionist approach that gets rid of Spirituality because it is a purely emotional experience would also rid us of love, music, novel-writing, painting and many other non-rational activities that most humans derive enormous meaning - and pleasure - from.

Which brings us to the second point - a question of temperament or personality. Human beings come in different flavours - some are pedantic, some are easy-going, some love the company of others, some crave time alone. This is usually where I tell people to go and take a Meyers-Briggs test, and see where they fall. Unlike most "personality tests" (which split the world into two types of people - those who like dichotomies and those who hate them) - this measures personality along 4 axes of 8 qualities. It is also recognised that many of these indices are not strict binaries - for example many people may use a combination of Thinking and Feeling when making decisions, or show a strong preference for one in some situations (for instance, Thinking when deciding what job to accept) and a weaker preference for the other in a different kind of decision (for example, Feeling, when deciding what person to enter a marriage or civil partnership with.)

As you read through the personality types you will recognise friends, family, and maybe even yourself - these results can be confirmed by taking the test, and these results are replicable.

The preference to privilege "Logic" and "Rationality" over "Emotion" and "Instinct" is a cultural bias that has been written into Western society for hundreds, if not thousands of years. A recent conversation complained about how human qualities were divided in two, and the "rubbish" ones assigned to women - it could be just as valid to say that human personality types were divided up, and those traditionally associated with women were rubbished.

I reproduce here a page from a book by the Philosopher of Science, Mary Midgley. Section 1 shows meaningful dichotomies in which Science, indeed, is preferable. Section 2 starts to break it down into philosophical differences which are debatable. By Section 3, it has degenerated into the False Dichotomies and arbitrary cultural privileging with which not just Dogmatic Atheism but most of Western Culture is riddled with.

The point is, that certain personality types will find "Scientific" (logical, rational, reductive) ways of looking at the world helpful and descriptive, others will find "Spiritual" (metaphorical, symbolic, subjective) ways of looking at the world helpful and descriptive. The metaphor that Midgley uses to describe it is as if a botanist and a carpenter are looking at a tree. Both will use different language, to describe different aspects, for different purposes, but there is no doubt that they are both looking at the same tree. Science and Spirituality are no more in conflict than mathematics and sculpture; they have different functions.

Which brings us to the final catapult with which Atheists like to bombard their spiritual counterparts. The endless cry of "but it's not truuuuuuuuuue!" What does True mean? This is like the difference between accuracy and precision. It is a misunderstanding of terms, the conflation of a Myth with a lie. We use the term "myth" quite casually to mean a falsehood, but this isn't strictly accurate. A Myth, as opposed to a lie, is a story which, although factually false, may still reveal useful insights into the nature of (and assumptions about) humans and the world. The vast majority of religious people today who are not fundamentalist extremists understand their religious texts as guides, as metaphors, as poetry to be interpreted. Saying that a story is a myth may make it not true, but that does not make it not useful or meaningful.

And the next conflation is that of little-f faith and its dictionary definition with the idea of a capital-F Faith, often used as a synonym for Religion. Faith in this sense is much closer to the idea of a Philosophy, a framework of truths which are held to be self-evident in order to function within a culture. As Midgley points out in her book "The Myths We Live By" - even the great bastions of the Scientific Method - and more commonly, the kind of Scientism as espoused by Dogmatic Atheists - are not free from a philosophical framing device, and a set of cultural assumptions about the world.

My own personal experience of religion and religious people is that their big-F Faith could not be further than the kind of blind little-f faith that Atheists believe it to be. It is something which is experienced, challenged, examined and reaffirmed in a myriad of ways, which may not be Scientific, but are still useful and meaningful, both to the individual, and the formation of community.

I am not pretending that all of humankind's Religions are as liberal and positive as the tradition from which I come. Religion can be as "self-serving and evil" as the humans that comprise it. So can governments, political parties, academic institutions, corporations, sporting teams and in fact, any formal association of a group of human beings. Should they, too, be disbanded on account of the diversity of human nature? Especially when many religions have, at their core, an attempt to address and make sense of the changeability and "evil" aspects of human nature.

Religion is an expression of human culture, good and bad, not the cause of it. To quote Midgley again, "The evils which have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution. Nor is it even clear that religion itself is something that the human race either can or should be cured of."

The myriad interpretations and expressions of the Spiritual experience within humanity is not proof of Spirituality's falsehood, but of human ingenuity. If anything, it seems to me small-minded, to fail to see the staggering cultural richness which can produce systems as diverse as Animism and Monotheism, and traditions as mind-bogglingly different as Mahayana Buddhism and Roman Catholicism - let alone bundle up this glorious diversity and casually dispose of it within the same wrapper.