Spooktober Reading Roundup

I love horror. Not gore, so much, but the creepy stuff. Give me dark family psychology (gee I wonder why), cursed objects from dusty archives, the uncanny blankness of our modern built environment and the soulless things lurking beneath its plastic surfaces. Lately I’m especially drawn to historical atrocities with a supernatural twist, a sub-genre where a lot of writers of color are currently making their mark.

I read every horror anthology I could get my hands on in the 80s and 90s, mostly from school and public libraries because our family was broke. I knew I was “movin’ on up…,” as The Jeffersons theme song went, when I could afford to buy the annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror trade paperback for $25.

Nowadays I get most of my literary scares from NetGalley or thrift stores, a nice mix of old and new. Honestly sometimes the most chilling aspect of these pulp paperbacks is how much sexism and homophobia you could get away with in the 1990s.

Certain flavors of horror don’t appeal to me, but this is my personal taste rather than an aesthetic pronouncement. I don’t usually pick up zombie stories because (I assume) they will be gross and violent. Same for serial killers, whose psychology is not as interesting as they themselves think it is. I can’t picture myself as a character in a post-apocalyptic survival novel, because it’s drearily obvious that I would immediately die from falling into a hole, just like I do in Minecraft every time my son demands that I play. Or else I’d be the person killed and eaten by my starving companions in the first week for complaining too much about the lack of flush toilets.

With respect to horror fiction based on real-life historical injustices, I find these books uniquely satisfying because they have a purpose beyond momentary thrills. I learned about the Negro Travelers’ Green Book from Lovecraft Country. Victor LaValle’s cosmic horror Western Lone Women, one of the best books I read this year, taught me about the diversity of 19th-century frontier homesteaders. Often, the terror and suspense in these books arise from oppressive forces that persist in the present day. The ghosts and monsters, on the other hand, may be a powerless group’s unlikely allies. If cosmic justice isn’t forthcoming, at least coding these stories as horror is refreshing in its honesty, compared to the whitewashed narratives of progress in our “realistic” history books.

A standout in this category is Tananarive Due’s The Reformatory, coming out Oct. 31 from Gallery/Saga Press. Set in rural Florida in 1950, it’s based on a horrendous “reform school” where one of her ancestors perished as a teenager. Robbie, the 12-year-old son of a Black labor activist, is sent there on trumped-up charges to bring his father out of hiding. The sadistic warden takes a special interest in the boy because he can see the ghosts of other young inmates who were killed by beatings, rape, and hard labor. Capturing the ghosts will allow the warden to cover up his crimes. In return, maybe he’ll let Robbie go free. But the ghosts are going to make Robbie a counter-offer that he’s afraid to refuse.

This week in Jessica Dore’s Tarot newsletter, I came across a citation to Saidiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts”, which is a meditation on the simultaneous impossibility and necessity of reconstructing the voices of sexually exploited female slaves. Hartman’s remarks about the archives’ “libidinal investment in violence” resonated with themes in The Reformatory, where the warden keeps a secret stash of photos of the boys he’s abused. Robbie and his allies hope to use this evidence against their tormentor, yet they know there’s no guarantee that the images will inspire empathy, let alone effective action from the authorities. The archive is contagious and uncontrollable as the Necronomicon, titillating the white gaze, while infecting Black viewers with further traumatic images.

Comedian and horror movie director (a combo that makes sense if you think about it) Jordan Peele is the editor of Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror, just published last week. This one was a mixed bag, for me, with some amazing stories and others that didn’t have enough of a point, but I recommend checking it out anyhow. Tananarive Due contributes another solid tale based on Jim Crow history, this time about Freedom Riders seeking supernatural aid to fend off white supremacists. Nnedi Okorafor’s elegiac story of a Nigerian-American haunted by an Old World deity contains a wry moment when two white Karens in her neighborhood see the monstrous figure in her driveway and demand that she show them her parade permit! You may see the twist coming in Terence Taylor’s virtual-reality nightmare “Your Happy Place” but it’s no less horrifying, because you know that if the technology existed, America would happily sign onto this method of extracting prison labor.

Also out this month, Raul Palma’s A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens (Dutton) is a tragicomic ghost story about an impoverished Santeria priest in Miami who promises to exorcise his debt-collection lawyer’s McMansion in exchange for loan forgiveness. The book is both a Dickensian satire of capitalism and a poignant exploration of survivor guilt, as the priest learns that some emotional debts must be lived with, not expunged.

A pulp anthology that deserves to be rediscovered is Women of Darkness (Tor/Tom Doherty Assocs., 1988), edited by Kathryn Ptacek. Intentionally feminist without being didactic, this collection of horror stories by then-contemporary women writers holds up better than its male-dominated counterparts from this era. Lisa Tuttle’s haunting yet humorous tale “The Spirit Cabinet” reminds me of Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” in how even a nice husband can dismiss his wife’s perceptions, with fatal consequences. Kit Reed’s “Baby” explores the darker side of the all-consuming bond between mother and child. Elizabeth Massie’s grotesque “Hooked on Buzzer” deals karmic revenge to people who exploited a disabled young woman.

From the same period (and batch of tag-sale paperbacks), I enjoyed Shadows 6 (Berkley Books, 1983), edited by Charles L. Grant, and Supernatural Sleuths (Roc, 1996), edited by Martin H. Greenberg…but with the caveat that both include some cringey sexism and ethnic stereotypes. Some of the new-to-me authors whose work I especially liked were Leslie A. Horvitz, Jack Ritchie, and Lee Killough.

The anthology Dark Fantasies (Legend, 1989), edited by Chris Morgan, evokes the gritty and despondent vibes of Thatcherite Britain, with contributions by Ramsey Campbell, Nicholas Royle, Tanith Lee, Lisa Tuttle, Ian Watson, and others. In a lot of these tales, you’re not sure if something supernatural is happening or the characters have had a psychological breakdown, but either option is suitably unsettling.

Out of Tune, Book 2 (JournalStone, 2016), edited by Jonathan Maberry, is an anthology of horror and dark fantasy stories that each take inspiration from a spooky folk song or murder ballad. Books organized around a gimmick tend to be uneven in quality but this one, in my opinion, was consistently strong. Contributors include Cherie Priest, Delilah S. Dawson, and David J. Schow. Pretty sure I got this one at the NecronomiCon Providence vendor hall in 2017. The Young Master has graduated from “Paw Patrol” to “Wednesday Addams” (and not a moment too soon) so the stars may align for a family trip to NecronomiCon next August.

Just another Sunday afternoon in Northampton.

October Links Roundup: 78 Degrees

Happy Spooktober!

Pumpkins by Shane.

My inner 12-year-old would like to remind you that October 2 is the 571st birthday of King Richard III. Follow efforts to clear his name at The Missing Princes Project.

78 degrees is how hot it’s expected to be today in Northampton. Thanks, global warming! It’s also a reference to the godmother of the modern Tarot renaissance, Rachel Pollack, whose book 78 Degrees of Wisdom blended psychology, mysticism, and and literary iconography to inspire deeper relationships with the cards. At Xtra Magazine, Jude Doyle assesses Pollack’s legacy as a pioneer of trans-inclusive feminist spirituality:

Here, from Pollack’s self-designed deck the Shining Tribe, is her description of the Emperor: “A number of modern tarot decks have taken on the issue of patriarchal culture. They have tended to see the Emperor as a kind of villain, with gentle, childlike males as an alternative. Such images both belittle men and demonize them.” Instead, Pollack offered, women who drew the Emperor card might try to see themselves in it: “It might be a strong experience to imagine ourselves as the Emperor. What might it be like to contain and express such power and determination?”

The Hierophant is changed to the gender-neutral “Tradition,” and that is that. It seems to be as close as Pollack ever got to a direct rebuke of her peers’ transmisogyny. Yet that tiny tweak—don’t look for male power, look for your power—changes everything about how people see these cards, and therefore, how they think about gender and power when reading them…

…Her biggest contribution to women’s spirituality, The Body of the Goddess, waspublished in 1997. For a trans woman to write a book on Goddess worship in the mid-’90s was gutsy. For a trans woman to call that book The Body of the Goddessis fucking bonkers. It’s mind-blowing. It gets more so when you open the book and find that Pollack’s Goddess not only likes trans women; she is one herself.

Pollack doesn’t ignore menstruation or childbirth as aspects of female embodiment, but she doesn’t stop there either. She also locates trans and gender-fluid goddesses throughout mythology. Some—like the intersex goddess Cybele and her likely transfeminine priestesses, the Galli—are canonical. Others are creative interpretations of existing myth: Pollack notes that the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, is “created” when a male God named Ouranos loses his genitalia. Afterward, Ouranos essentially disappears, and a brand-new, very feminine Goddess arises to replace him.

Even trans guys get a turn. Pollack tells us that Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, madness and ecstasy, was raised as a girl and was sometimes known as “the Womanly One” for his feminine looks and unusual kindness to women. In a 1995 essay for TransSisters, she gets even more detailed: Dionysus “went mad in adolescence,” was cured by Cybele, and went on to become an androgynous he/him whose myths portrayed him liberating people of all genders from the patriarchy. At rituals, Pollack tells us, “his male followers would dress as women, [and] his female followers would strap on large phalluses,” suggesting that liberation took a highly recognizable form.

Humorist Daniel Lavery is another of my favorite theologians, capering madly along that line between farce and horror. See, for instance, his questionnaire at The Stopgap, “Do You Think the Creator God Is Doing a Good Job, or Should Be Replaced by a Big Sheep or a Demiurge?” Bring back the formless void!

Gay provocateur playwright Joe Orton (1933-67) apparently had a sideline in altering library books to add satirical and bawdy images, then sneaking them back onto the shelves. You can see samples from the collection online. Not that I’m recommending you do this…

But there’s a hole just waiting to be filled.

“It’s both mystical and humiliating how your novel can know things before you yourself know them,” says the author of the queer coming-of-age novel Idlewild in this recent article at LitHub, “James Frankie Thomas on Discovering His Trans Identity While Writing Fiction”. Yeah, I know how you feel. Thomas describes a writing workshop, pre-transition, where the teacher and classmates criticized him for being coy about a self-insert character’s gender identity:

In all seriousness, I prided myself on my well-observed portrayal of teen girlhood in the early 2000s—specifically the way teen girls back then were consumed with the desire to be gay men. That was something you just never saw in fiction about teen girls, but Idlewild was going to change that. From the very first page, on which I introduced Fay as “a gay dude trapped in a female body,” I plumbed my memories of my own adolescence for universal truths about teen girlhood…

“Why not make it explicit from the start? What’s gained by withholding such important information about the character?”

And I wasn’t allowed to speak, so I just had to sit there and take it over and over. I was so flabbergasted, I bet you could see a giant cartoon exclamation point floating over my head. How had my entire workshop read my novel so wrong? Stranger still, how had they all read it wrong in the exact same way? There was only one possible explanation, something I’d long suspected but never dared to admit out loud: Everyone was stupid except me.

For what it’s worth, I also see myself in Richard Siken’s new poem “Pornography” in DIAGRAM Issue 23.4: “I want to fuck everything but I don’t want to be touched.”

Perhaps this is related, perhaps not: In the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, researchers Kristen Bottema-Beutel et al. question the objectivity of neurotypical researchers in their paper “Anti-ableism and scientific accuracy in autism research: a false dichotomy”.

Autism research focuses almost exclusively on autistic people’s perceived deficits relative to non-autistic people, and researchers rarely acknowledge that autistic people have strengths and abilities in addition to impairments, and exist in contexts that enable or disable functioning. Autistic people are often inaccurately described as missing core human capacities, and as incapable of social reciprocity or contributing to shared culture. Deficit construals persist even when autistic people show strengths in domains that would otherwise be considered positive, such as transparency, rationality, and morality.

The researchers argue that we can move away from these negative presumptions without sacrificing accuracy. They survey some now-debunked but still influential theories of autism’s causes, such as vaccines and insecure maternal attachment, which were considered objective but were demonstrably influenced by sociopolitical forces (e.g. backlash to mothers working outside the home). They also suggest that due to neurotypical researchers’ assumptions, common autistic behaviors like hand-flapping and echolalia have been dismissed as meaningless compulsions, when truly open-minded observation would reveal their communicative functions and nuances.

Speaking of repetition, this Missouri Review essay by Caitlin Horrocks, “Lullaby Machines”, reminded me of the hallucinatory early months of parenting the Young Master. Horrocks reminisces about trying to work, sleep, and stay sane while playing the same lullaby album 20,000 times. When Adam and I were reading up on parenting, one of the sleep-training books told us to keep a consistent routine. Baby Shane seemed to respond to this Spotify album of Celtic Harp Lullabies. Well, we played that thing on the iPad in his room every night for three or four years. We took it with us when we traveled. I used to joke that someday, as an adult, Shane would be at a harp concert with his boyfriend or girlfriend, “Woman of Ireland” would start playing, and he would have a Pavlovian urge to fall asleep and/or poop his pants.

Listen at your own risk.

Meta-Fiction’s Diminishing Returns

I like the midrashic commentary structure in fiction as much as anyone. Heck, I’m currently debating with my publisher how many different typefaces we can use in my next novel to set off the main first-person narrative from the invented “documents” fleshing out the story. Give me those footnotes that argue with the text; those Gothic framing devices beloved by Lovecraft and Hawthorne, pretending that the spooky tale was found in a genuine esoteric manuscript by the narrator. Done right, these tricks give pleasure because they re-create the complexity of real life, where one individual rarely has the complete perspective. As Aristotle observed in the Poetics, we enjoy the skill that went into a good imitation, even apart from its content.

However, I’ve been disappointed with a recent trend in structuring the multi-vocal or self-problematizing novel. Unlike the type of fiction described above, these books don’t reveal their layers of construction from the outset. Rather, what you get is an opening section that reads like a believable and emotionally engaging traditional narrative. Then, the next quarter or third of the book discloses that the story you just read is an inaccurate fiction by one of its characters, or by another character whom you haven’t yet met. Following this, you guessed it, there’s a third narrative undercutting the second one.

Some acclaimed books in this format include Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, and Hernan Diaz’s Trust, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year. David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife got so close to being my favorite novel-with-archives, until the very end, when a very minor character “revealed” that the entire murder mystery and its gay ex-Mormon protagonist were merely a literary device she’d created to frame her research about fundamentalist polygamist communities. It gave me real heartache to have this young man’s happy ending snatched away within a few pages after it occurred.

At the fan fiction site Archive of Our Own, the post “The Violence of Fate (or, How to Tell the True Kind of Lie)” by a contributor named Osteophage voices the question that troubled me after reading these novels:

“Why does it feel like fiction has broken its contract with us when it conveys, in-world, that the story never really happened?”

The feeling that a story made itself pointless, Osteophage muses, requires us to ask what the “point” of storytelling is. The post delves into a discussion of a narrative RPG (video game) where an important character is fated to die regardless of the choices you make. Playing this game, with this knowledge, gives Osteophage a kind of catharsis in facing the fact that sometimes we’re powerless to save those we care about. But this feels different from a narrative where the author is arbitrarily pulling strings to make an outcome seem predestined. The latter is a lazy notion of “Fate” while the former tells us something true and difficult about the human condition.

I think Osteophage is getting at something about why I felt cheated by those novels, despite appreciating them in other ways. In fact, it’s because the first sections were well-written and emotionally affecting, that I resented having the rug pulled out from under me afterward. Maybe this literary trend dovetails with our current era of “fake news” and the hermeneutic of suspicion-verging-on-paranoia that it breeds. As each successive narrative within a book is discarded in favor of a new one, a numb cynicism sets in. I’m never able to care as much about the subsequent characters and situations, as I did about the first set. The whole point of the book is that I’d be a fool to do so. Which, to me, is ultimately not a very interesting or helpful raison d’être for a novel.

September Links Roundup: Book Art and Backlash

The wheel of the year turns again. Back to school for Shane, end of school for me: I finished my coursework for Year Two in the Temple of Witchcraft Mystery School. Now that I’m not receiving long assignments every month, I hope to spend more time playing with my collage art materials and exploring how to integrate poetry into visual media.

Poet L.I. Henley elegantly marries these genres at her blog Paper Dolls and Books. She showcases beautiful paper creations she’s made in response to contemporary poetry books like Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut and Todd Kaneko’s The Dead Wrestler Elegies. The dolls are jointed with fasteners, reminding me of the Commedia Dell’Arte paper marionnettes I made from one of those Dover Publications books in my childhood. (Probably this one.) In an interview with Cincinnati Review editor Bess Winter, “The Doll is the Third Space”, Henley shares why she assembles her dolls from multiple moving parts:

To make art that is not static, that can change even once it’s been made, means there is no being done with the thing; the life of the art piece extends beyond my handling of it. Photos, paintings, sculpture: all are fixed, and the only thing that changes, perhaps, is interpretation.

But poseable figures, especially ones with lots of joints, can change in shape, composition and mood. Even if a doll’s face is frozen in a smile, the implication of that smile changes when the legs are squat in a birthing position and the arms are reaching to the sky. Tilt the head a bit, and the smile is mischievous or coy. People who have purchased my dolls love taking photos of them in various poses and locations. They get to play and also collaborate in the artistic process.

On the Marsh Hawk Press blog, poet Elaine Equi gives prompts for getting back into the flow of writing after too much time away. Starting again at “Square One” can be intimidating, so she starts by guiding us not to fear the blank space. The essay itself is written somewhat like a poem, with stanza breaks and fragmentary phrases that enact the “room to breathe” that she recommends.

For me, an essential part of writing is to make a clearing,

first in my mind, then on the page,
so words can be seen, heard, taste-tested.

A clear ring like one of those pristine sound booths
that will allow the words to resonate.

White space is important.

What’s not said can be as important, possibly more important, than what is.

There are already so many texts, messages, words directed at us each day.
Every inch, every surface, seems covered in words.

But even words need room to breathe—and breed.

To de-clutter from words, Equi pivots to other senses. She might make or study visual art–a practice I find restorative, too. Listen to music, move your body, go for a walk. One of my hard-working poet friends fiercely defends the time spent lying on the couch, just thinking. That’s writing too!

PEN America is an organization that defends freedom of speech for writers worldwide. Their just-published report, “Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and Language of Harm”, studies the negative impact of social media outrage on writers’ ability to address controversial topics. Although the critics in question are often motivated by progressive ideals such as anti-racism, the report argues, our political discourse suffers when publishers over-react by canceling book contracts or revising books without the author’s permission. In many of the examples cited, the book’s problems were capable of other interpretations, or the author’s public behavior was too quickly conflated with the value of the book itself. Individual books and authors become scapegoats for problems with access to publishing as a whole.

There is no inherent contradiction between the belief that the publishing industry must transform to afford greater opportunities to authors from historically excluded backgrounds and the notion that writers must be unconstrained in their choice of subject matter. As PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel has said, “You can dismantle the barriers to publication for some without erecting them anew for others.” The conflation of the need for wider literary representation and strict litmus tests for the legitimacy of authorial voice—two related but distinct issues—threatens to do a disservice to both.

This burden of representation can unexpectedly fall on members the very communities that movements like #OwnVoices seek to elevate, forcing them to reveal aspects of their identity that they might not have otherwise chosen to make public.

I thought that this lengthy report was a carefully researched and well-argued discussion of censorship from the Left. The cases studied were generally not analogous to J.K. Rowling’s sustained, intentional misuse of her public platform to attack a minority group. The living authors whose books were literally canceled (by publishers and distributors) shared most of the political values of their critics. Some were attacked for writing outside their own demographic, others for some ill-advised public statement that had nothing to do with the book’s contents. Media pile-ons don’t distinguish between honest errors and true prejudice pervading a text. The separation between author and text has been erased in our era of personal branding, leading to shallow ad hominem attacks on books that the critics may not even have read. Moreover, the overheated language of literary “harm” plays into the hands of right-wing government censors who crusade against LGBTQ-affirming and anti-racist literature.

Who needs an audience when you can enjoy your own artistry as much as this charming old gentleman? British character actor David Foster’s titular song from his 2015 one-man show is full of queeny double entendres, reminiscent of Quentin Crisp or John Inman. No, I’m not giving away the name; watch it for yourself.

Mr. Humphries made my college years more bearable.

The Poet Spiel: “Details You Just Can’t Live Without”

Friend of the blog The Poet Spiel tells me he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1996 and wrote this flash essay in 2000. What’s the secret of his immortality, I wonder? Could be his bawdy sense of humor!

 

Details You Just Can’t Live Without

Nurse Jonesy is rushed and red-faced as she wheels my gurney to surgery. She advises my mate Paul that I’ve been having these invasive procedures too frequently and I’m likely to become  increasingly vulnerable to stirring infections which naturally lie dormant in my system.

Sharp insistent pain is shooting into the middle of my back.

I’ve just agreed in writing I will not drive a car or sign any legal document for at least 48 hours.  The drugs I’ll be given will alter my judgment.

Assistants Heather and Tanya greet me like old friends in the sterile room, then drape me with  an x-ray apron and begin intravenous administration of 125mcg of Fentanyl and the hypnotic  sedative of 8mg Versed. As I drift into ‘twilight sleep’ they’ll be able to converse with me but I  won’t have a clue what I’m saying. I insist that they save the stent which is to be replaced in my  clogged bile duct. I’ve wanted to see how much crud it has collected after past procedures but somehow those loaded stents have always mysteriously disappeared.

A big color monitor hangs overhead as Doctor Lutz maneuvers his endoscope through my  innards. Though I can view the process, I won’t recall what I’ve seen during my conscious sedation—or so I’m told.

As the drugs engulf me I hear his voice—remotely—as if wind blows it toward and then away  from me. I can’t relate to the fact that he is talking to me. During past quarterly visits the women  have shown me the gross anti-gagging device which, at this moment, persecutes my lips as they  cram it against my gums. But this time I perceive it as a multifaceted stainless steel monstrosity and I believe they are pushing a shiny silver tractor down my throat. I resist vehemently. These veteran nurses strong-arm me back into working position.

From here on my awareness is nil as the side-view scope tube is advanced into the second portion of my duodenum where they’ll locate the biliary stent protruding from my papilla. This is the stent installed ten weeks ago when I was in horrendous pain. Debris occludes the stent just  as it has clogged each stent for the past 16 procedures. A tiny snare is skillfully manipulated to  remove the fouled stent.

It had been a close run with death—the outset of this awful process several years ago when we  learned my pancreas had curiously twisted and knotted my common bile duct and since then, this never-ending series of keeping my bile duct flowing freely.

The women manhandle me again as I struggle in discomfort. Doctor Lutz uses a biliary catheter  to cannulate my duct, then injects contrast iodine to obtain images that indicate a high-grade  stricture in the common hepatic duct just above the cystic duct. Now he passes a guidewire through my cannula, advances it through the stricture and on up into the intrahepatic ducts. The cannula is removed over the guide wire, over which he also passes a seven centimeter 10-French Teflon biliary stent. It’s placed above the stricture in good position and finally, aha! even in my  dumbed-down state, I see clear bile draining from the biliary stent at the conclusion of the  procedure.

As Heather wheels me to the front curb of the hospital, I am still under the influence of the  magic twilight of Versed, still babbling, making drug induced inappropriate comments about the  gross size of the endoscopic tube, revealing that I’d prefer to have my mate’s dick shoved down  my throat. She tolerates my rude remark as he pulls to the curb to load my dead weight into his  Pontiac.

As he drives me home. I realize they’ve not shown me the fouled stent. I become paranoid. I ask  him over and over again why he thinks those stents disappear. Does he suppose docs are pulling  the wool over my eyes? Maybe these gadgets don’t really fill up? Disability insurance money is easy money these days.

But what about my very real pain?

Between the hospital and the 45 miles to home Paul claims I ramble at least twenty times about  the size of that tube. Oh, and how the first thing I want after every procedure is a big steak  dinner with plenty of mashed potatoes.

He knows I’ll forget that wanting as soon as my head hits my bed.

But the best thing about these repeat procedures: I’m certifiably not responsible for what I’ve  said—or for what I say for the next forty-eight hours.

Hot Pink Heteropessimism

If anyone was primed to love the Barbie movie, it was me. But I didn’t.

Sure, I got a kick out of the dazzling pink re-creation of Barbie’s homes and outfits, and the jokes about obscure and ill-advised real Mattel dolls, like boob-growing Skipper and pregnant Midge. Somebody has to buy me a Palm Beach Sugar Daddy Ken, right now!

sugar daddy ken doll, mattel, barbie boyfriend

Transition goals!

I would have enjoyed “Barbie” far more if it hadn’t tried to say Something Serious About Feminism, because what it came up with was a very 1990s gender-binary utopia where all women are girlbosses and all men are idiots. That a film about male uselessness also has zero queer pairings, either in Barbie Land or the Real World, feels like both a failure of nerve and a bleaker assessment of gender relations than you’d expect from its relentlessly inspirational vibes.

Gender studies scholar Asa Seresin coined the term “Heteropessimism” in a 2019 article in The New Inquiry. Seresin defines it as a mode of discourse where male-female coupling is both inevitable and unsatisfying, even politically suspect. It masquerades as feminism without actually improving anything.

Heteropessimism consists of performative disaffiliations with heterosexuality, usually expressed in the form of regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about straight experience. Heteropessimism generally has a heavy focus on men as the root of the problem. That these disaffiliations are “performative” does not mean that they are insincere but rather that they are rarely accompanied by the actual abandonment of heterosexuality. Sure, some heteropessimists act on their beliefs, choosing celibacy or the now largely outmoded option of political lesbianism, yet most stick with heterosexuality even as they judge it to be irredeemable. Even incels, overflowing with heteropessimism, stress the involuntary nature of their condition.

The movie’s Barbie Land is an alternate reality where Barbies have all the prestige, intelligence, and possessions. In the Barbies’ social life, the Kens are either mocked and excluded, or tolerated like endearing but none-too-bright puppies. When Barbie and Ken visit our world, she’s crestfallen that the dolls’ feminist fantasy world didn’t do more to inspire social change. Meanwhile, Ken discovers that real-world governments and corporations are run by men just as stupid as he is. He leads a short-lived patriarchal takeover of Barbie Land that mainly consists of bros drinking beer and explaining “The Godfather” to their girlfriends.

Notably, when the status quo is restored, the Kens’ legitimate grievances are still ridiculed. (Seresin: “A certain strain of heteropessimism assigns 100 percent of the blame for heterosexuality’s malfunction to men, and has thus become one of the myriad ways in which young women—especially white women—have learned to disclaim our own cruelty and power.”) With an obvious wink, the female president promises to allot them spaces in the halls of power…exactly to the extent that women have it in real life, i.e. not much. I guess what makes this a fantasy is that the men react with sentimental tears rather than incel violence.

Seresin suggests:

In this sense, heteropessimism is, to borrow Lee Edelman’s phrase, an “anesthetic feeling”: “a feeling that aims to protect against overintensity of feeling and an attachment that can survive detachment.” Heteropessimism’s anesthetic effect is especially seductive because it dissociates women from the very traits—overattachment and “the overintensity of feeling”—for which straight culture is determined to make us ashamed. That much heteropessimist sentiment is delivered in joke form coheres with Henri Bergson’s idea that comedy delivers “a momentary anesthesia of the heart.” Unlike traditional comedy, however, heteropessimism is anticathartic. Its structure is anticipatory, designed to preemptively anesthetize the heart against the pervasive awfulness of heterosexual culture as well as the sharp plunge of quotidian romantic pain.

If everything in Barbie Land is supposed to be a feminist role reversal of our flawed world, the Barbies’ indifference to their lovesick Kens seems to offer relief from the pervasive pain of coupling with a man who exercises power by not giving a shit about anyone. But if you ask me, a utopia full of man-babies is too much like the world we’re trying to leave behind.

At our trans men’s support group last weekend, we read aloud some passages from the 1995 memoir-in-essays S/HE by Minnie Bruce Pratt, the recently deceased lesbian poet and partner of Leslie Feinberg. In one piece, Pratt mused about how it felt patronizing when a man opened a door for her, but exciting when a butch woman did it. One scenario carried the assumption of superior male strength, the other had the potential for playing with gender roles between equals. Coming from a Southern feminine upbringing, in her generation, Pratt must have seen a lot of chivalry-as-patriarchy. But I was like, I’d be thrilled if the average young man today opened a door for anybody. Modern heteropessimism is at least as much a reaction against the kind of men who make up the essay collection The Bastard on the Couch–educated Gen-X and millennial guys who feel infantilized by their wives’ competence, and have decided to lean into the privileges of being useless.

There have been several think pieces about queer-coded elements of “Barbie” but I’m tired of settling for that. See also, “Across the Spider-Verse” and every other superhero movie that appropriates the emotional arc and metaphor of being closeted. Straight storylines with a gay aesthetic are as old as Puccini. It’s hard to beat Madame Butterfly for heteropessimism! The effeminacy of the Ken doll is so well-known that Autostraddle ran a humor piece “75 Lesbian Ken Dolls, Ranked by Lesbianism” when Mattel redesigned the doll in 2017 with a slimmer, more androgynous look. In the Barbie movie, though, this effeminacy is only played for laughs, as proof of the Kens’ immaturity and inferiority. It was hard to enjoy this movie because it would have given me massive dysphoria not too many years ago. Dysphoria that didn’t have a name for itself, other than “there’s no place in the world for the thing that I am.”

I made Stylin’ Stripes Ken my Facebook profile picture the year before I came out as nonbinary.

Beachy Tropical Shirt Ken is the 25-year-old trans guy that all of us dad bods with T-induced hair loss are sooo jealous of.

 

August Links Roundup: We’re Here to Recruit You

It is I, your professional transsexual, here to wish you a Happy National Goat Cheese Month. First up on our appetizer platter of links, historian Hugh Ryan (When Brooklyn Was Queer) asks “Who’s Afraid of Social Contagion?” in this Boston Review essay about our ever-evolving concepts of sexuality and gender.

“Are there actually more queer people now, or just more out queer people? Or are those the wrong questions to ask?” Ryan notes that while diversity of attraction and gender performance has always existed, the classifications themselves have changed several times over the past 200 years, shifting from a behavior-based to an identity-based paradigm, and conceptualizing more specific flavors of queerness as people’s social circles became more diverse through urbanization and the Internet.

For instance, Ryan says, Victorian society was extremely sex-segregated. Homosociality, even homoromanticism, was normal so long as you otherwise performed your “proper” gender identity. Most deep relationships were between people of the same sex, whether or not they discreetly included erotic intimacy as well. Deviant queerness in the 19th century resided in gender performance (effeminate men, butch women, or what we’d now call genderqueer presentation). This changed during the early 20th century:

City life enabled a radical new form of heterosociality—social interaction between people of different genders. Millions of people were able to leave the communities they came from and explore their desires and ideas in busy, anonymous, transient cities full of other people, some like them and some incredibly different. People who were normally gendered but attracted to people of the same sex—a group that had gone unnamed before—found each other in greater and greater numbers and began to recognize themselves as communities with shared identities. Soon, doctors, politicians, lawyers, and others began to notice them as well, and the category of the “invert” was broken down into people who were normally gendered but desired people of the same sex (homosexuals); people who desired to have bodies that were differently sexed (transsexuals); and people who already had bodies that were differently sexed (intersex people).

The seeds were sown for the current generation of “Fellas, is it gay to…” memes. Once the idea of homosexual identity was out there, same-sex affection of any kind became suspect:

As a result, in order to prove they were not homosexuals, newly defined straight people had to start acting differently: avoiding places were inverts went, avoiding too much time with people of the same sex, avoiding physical affection, and so on. This is one of the origin points of modern homophobia…

Ryan theorizes that the Internet has created a second great reorganization of our ideas of queerness. Like the mass migration to cities, it brings previously isolated members of sexual minorities into conversation with one another for the first time.

The gulf between chromosomal sex, physical sex at birth, physical sex in adulthood, gender identity, and gender presentation has never been wider, and this gulf causes problems for a system of sexuality and gender identity that rests on binary sex and binary sexual object choice—the paradigm of LGBT identity that dominated the twentieth century…

Twentieth-century notions of LGBT identity cannot answer these questions adequately, because they were not developed to understand the experiences of queer people; they were developed to segment straight cis people off from the rest of us.

After decades of change on a smaller scale, we are experiencing an epistemic change, a change in the base meaning of sex, sexuality, and gender. This is why it’s bringing together people who would otherwise seem to have no common alliance. But when you think about trans-negative “feminists” and conservative Christian fascists, what do they have in common? They both see the world through a reductive framework built on binary sex, and they both tend to spend most of their lives following rules determined by genitalia: men with penises here, women with vaginas there. Of course they are clinging to each other. Their ideas of “good” and “bad” are different, but their assumptions about what is “natural” and “real” are the same.

Legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon’s radical feminist credentials are indisputable. That’s why I was so thrilled to see her distance herself from the anti-transgender movement that has appropriated the radical feminist label. In this thorough exposition in Signs Journal, MacKinnon explains how reactionary their position is. The article, “Exploring Transgender Law and Politics,” transcribes a symposium with MacKinnon and Finn Mackay, Mischa Shuman, Sandra Fredman, and Ruth Chang at Oxford University in November 2022. Acknowledging that she’s still learning about trans issues, particularly regarding trans men, MacKinnon shows great comprehension and empathy:

Much of the current debate has centered on (endlessly obsessed over, actually) whether trans women are women. Honestly, seeing “women” as a turf to be defended, as opposed to a set of imperatives and limitations to be criticized, challenged, changed, or transcended, has been pretty startling. One might think that trans women—assigned male at birth, leaving masculinity behind, drawn to and embracing womanhood for themselves—would be welcomed. Yet a group of philosophers purporting feminism slide sloppily from “female sex” through “feminine gender” straight to “women” as if no move has been made, eventually reverting to the dictionary: a woman is an “adult human female.” Defining women by biology—adult is biological age, human is biological species, female is biological sex—used to be criticized as biological essentialism. Those winging to the Right are thrilled by this putatively feminist reduction of women to female body parts, preferably chromosomes and reproductive apparatus, qualities chosen so that whatever is considered definitive of sex is not only physical but cannot be physically changed into.

Feminism, by contrast, is a political movement. If some imagine a movement for female body parts, the rest of us are part of some other movement, one to end the subordination of women in all our diversity. In other words, what women “are” does not necessarily define the woman question: our inequality, our resulting oppression. Those of us who do not take our politics from the dictionary want to know: Why are women unequal to men? What keeps women second-class citizens? How are women distinctively subordinated? The important question for a political movement for the liberation of women is thus not what a woman is, I think, but what accounts for the oppression of women: who is oppressed as a woman, in the way women are distinctively oppressed?

Women are not, in fact, subordinated or oppressed by our bodies. We do not need to be liberated from our chromosomes or our ovaries. It is core male-dominant ideology that attributes the source of women’s inequality to our nature, our biological sex, which for male dominance makes it inevitable, immutable, unchangeable, on us. As if our bodies, rather than male dominant social systems, do it to us…

Inferiority, not difference, is the issue of hierarchy, including gender hierarchy.

The whole piece is worth reading. MacKinnon handily cuts down other myths that sexism and transphobia share, from “deceptive” trans women to the bathroom panic. “I really don’t understand why there is such a feeling of vulnerability around women in bathrooms, which usually have stall doors that lock, compared with homes, where no such protections exist and sexually assaulted women are victimized in high numbers by untransitioned men in their own families.” On the so-called advantages of trans women in sports: “Any advantage that height and weight disparities confer, for instance, exist within sexes as well as across them…Michael Phelps is built like a fish, but no one is looking to take away his swimming medals.” Instead, let’s re-evaluate which sports need to be sex-segregated, at all.

Literary scholar and trans activist Grace Lavery strikes back against TERF nonsense in the L.A. Review of Books. “Gender Criticism Versus Gender Abolition: On Three Recent Books About Gender” reviews new titles by Helen Joyce, Julie Bindel, and Kathleen Stock, a trifecta of so-called gender-critical feminists who dominate the debate in the U.K. Like the MacKinnon article cited above, Lavery points out how reactionary it is for feminism to defend the biological binary. Lacking merit in their ideas, these writers have positioned themselves as free speech defenders in order to win mainstream allies.

The success of gender-critical thought has been so remarkable, and the capture of the British public sphere so comprehensive, that even to point, childishly, and inquire whether the beautiful finery in which this new philosophy is arrayed really, um, exists is to invite the charge of having done a cancel culture. Promoting these ideas on the grounds of free speech, rather than on their merits, has proven a stroke of tactical genius. Think of all the iconoclastic jouissance one could access if the simplistic philosophical nostra of yesterday—Cartesian dualism, say; or the Platonist theory of forms—had not been refined, but had actually been censored! Stupidity would become wisdom; ignorance, strength. Freedom would be the freedom to submit “2+2=4” as one’s doctoral thesis in pure mathematics, and to anticipate warm praise for one’s principled refusal to challenge the assumptions of the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus.

Lavery would have us look back to genuine radicals like Simone de Beauvoir or the Victorian advocates for women’s rights, who believed that womanhood was a mutable social category before it was a biological fact. “Demands for women’s suffrage were rooted in the notion that ‘women’ were not a naturally occurring type, distinguishable from men on natural grounds, but simply a group of persons that had been denied legal parity.” Metaphysical debates over the essence of womanhood are a distraction from fighting sex-based inequality.

A holiday we can all agree on.

Introducing Theodore DiMeow!

Please give a warm welcome to my new son, Theodore “Big Pussy” Cavalieri DiMeow!

Theo is a quiet but inquisitive young fellow, somewhere between 1 1/2 to 3 years old. He greets everyone with enthusiastic head-rubs. A stray living with a feral cat colony, he was rescued by the good folks at Animal Friends of Connecticut. I went down there for a different cat I saw on Petfinder, but as soon as I met this little guy, he reached out his paw and patted me on the arm. When I was about to walk away, he grabbed my shirt front with his claws. It was destiny!

“Big Pussy” and the DiMeo crime family are “Sopranos” references, of course. “Cavalieri” means knight in Italian, as my name, Reiter, does in German. Theodore was the name they gave him at the shelter. It suits him. He is a gift of God.

July Links Roundup: Happy Barbenheimer Month

Happy pink apocalypse, readers! Can you believe I have not seen the “Barbie” movie yet? Clearly, I’m working too hard.

Recent signs of the End Times include the ongoing right-wing attack on libraries. BookRiot reported on July 7 that “Hoopla, Overdrive/Libby Now Banned for Those Under 18 in Mississippi”:

Despite the age of consent in Mississippi being 16, no one under the age of 18 will have access to digital materials made available through public and school libraries without explicit parental/guardian permission.

Mississippi has a new law on the books directly impacting access and use of digital resources like Hoopla and Overdrive for those under the age of 18 throughout the state. Even if granted parental permission, minors may not have materials available to them, if vendors do not ensure every item within their offerings meets the new, wide-reaching definition of “obscenity” per the state. Mississippi Code 39-3-25, part of House Bill 1315, went into effect July 1, 2023, and libraries across the state have scrambled for how to be in compliance…

By definition, any vendor is out of compliance by simply having materials available in their system which depict sexual reproduction or queerness in any capacity. Images of nude female breasts–which are often part of sexual education, reproductive education, and/or biology and anatomy books written for those under the age of 18–would be out of compliance with the law.

These gatekeeping requirements further entrench educational inequality. Teens without good libraries in their hometowns now face further limits on what they can learn digitally. Those exploring different beliefs and identities will have to out themselves to their parents or lose access to potentially life-saving information.

In other free speech news, the Texas Tribune reported on July 11 that “Texas A&M recruited a UT professor to revive its journalism program, then backtracked after ‘DEI hysteria'”. Evidently, A&M didn’t notice that UT-Austin journalism school director Kathleen McElroy had covered diversity and inclusion stories for the New York Times for 20 years. No wonder their journalism program needs help. In any event, some of McElroy’s fellow A&M alumni made a stink that she was talking about racial equity–the horror! We can expect more cowardly behavior from other school admins, in light of the state’s crackdown on talking about things that make white people uncomfortable:

Also in Texas, the Supreme Court’s ill-founded decision last month in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis is empowering other homophobes to deny services to gay couples. According to the Texas Tribune:

McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley filed a lawsuit after a state agency warned her about refusing to marry gay couples. She hopes a recent U.S. Supreme Court case about religious freedom helps her cause.

Her lawsuit alleges that the commission violated her rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Her lawsuit was dismissed by a lower appeals tribunal, but last month, the Texas Supreme Court said it will hear arguments on whether to revive the state judge’s lawsuit.

How this will be resolved is anyone’s guess. In her role as a public official, Hensley doesn’t have as much freedom of speech as the private website designer in 303 Creative. At least, that’s how prior case law has treated public employees’ rights to express views contrary to their employer. But given that the Supreme Court shouldn’t even have heard 303 Creative, because the plaintiff lied about having been asked to create a gay wedding website in the first place, one can’t count on precedent to stand in the way of right-wing judges’ desired outcome.

Recent state-level bans on trans health care have repeatedly failed court challenges. The Intercept‘s Natasha Lennard warns that we still can’t be complacent, based on Republicans’ successful long game for overturning reproductive rights.

Democrats failed for decades to vigorously defend reproductive rights by lending all too much credence to the Christian right’s anti-abortion stance. President Bill Clinton’s famous phrase — that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” — treated abortion as an unfortunate necessity rather than an integral part of bodily autonomy and a public good.

There’s a relevant analogy here between the common liberal treatment of trans kids: that they’re an unfortunate rarity, which should be tolerated but not celebrated. Against such a threadbare defense of trans existence, the violently committed anti-trans right will surely win.

Liberals putatively opposed to the GOP’s draconian anti-trans onslaught should take heed of the judges’ rulings on trans youth health care. All too many powerful liberal organs — the New York Times perhaps chief among them — have channeled Republican talking points by treating trans children as a site of peril, and gender-affirming treatment for kids as potentially too experimental.

In point after point, however, federal judges from Florida to Tennessee to Arkansas have agreed that arguments treating gender-affirming treatments for youths as untested and dangerous are, quite simply, not based in fact.

“What is clear is that before all kinds of judges, when these bans are tested by what the states are claiming is their evidence, they categorically fail,” Strangio told me. “What that means is that you have a popular discourse playing far more hostile to trans people, far more open to misinformation, than a federal court is at this stage.” Strangio added that “it would be helpful if the center left media were to then cover the cases, after having sparked fear everywhere.”

While I personally feel abortion raises moral questions of harm, which trans healthcare does not, I’ve come round to understanding why our struggles are linked. I can maintain that abortion is an ethically problematic choice in some circumstances, and also that it’s none of my business, let alone the government’s.

The great lesbian poet Minnie Bruce Pratt passed away on July 2. My mom-of-choice Roberta and I had the privilege of meeting her when she donated the books and papers of her late spouse, Leslie Feinberg, to the Sexual Minorities Archives in Holyoke. Pratt’s poetry collection Crime Against Nature, which had recently been reissued by Sinister Wisdom, described losing custody of her sons when she came out. I often think of her poem “This Is My Life You Are Talking About” when cis-het folks debate the “gay issue” or the “trans issue” as if we’re not in the room.

Need a minute to smile? Enjoy this AI-generated Elvis video from There I Ruined It.

Poetry, Music, and a Queer Doll Wedding by Nhojj

I connected with singer-songwriter and poet Nhojj through my friend John Ollom, the movement artist. Raised in Guyana and Trinidad, Nhojj has recorded 7 studio albums and published 3 books. Winner of 4 Outmusic awards, Nhojj has shared stages with Norah Jones, Regina Belle and Estelle. Nhojj views his art as multidimensional healing spaces where audiences can experience themselves through the eyes of acceptance and love.

He filmed this adorable gay wedding with two Ken dolls, set to his original song “Faithful”:

Nhojj has kindly allowed me to reprint two of his poems below.

Ritual of Dance…

I
Dance at
Night on a basement floor
Music
Pounding
Tribal vibrations
Sounding
Sweet on my taste buds
Soca
Beats provoke my waist
Flood of
Sweat
Drips down
Body strips down towels wait
Behind the door cause
I aim to leave it all on this homemade
Dance floor

This house hypnotizes
This afro symphony baptizes
Me by the silk cotton tree
Spirits arise & walk in
Moonlight… fireflies
Reggae lullabies
Djembe drum sanctifies
Our dun dun purifies

Eyes closed
Chest exposed
Arms flailing…remake me
Voices wailing…remix me
Feet stomping…rewind me
Speakers thumping…replay me
Over & over & over again…
Gods of Jouvet
Voices
Chanting rhythms
Visions speaking in tongues
Lyrical phenomenons
Spirit of Shango
Magic
Lightning & thunder
Beneath my feet

Turn the dial left…
Left for…
Higher bandwidths
Higher frequencies
Higher planes

Villages of ancestral domains
Calling forth the rains
Come forth
Come now
Fall down &
Water this parched earth
With…

P
E
A
C
E

****

Cherish Yourself

She didn’t notice me at first, but then I turned, and the light bounced off my being, getting stuck in her vision like a speck of dust. Her eyes narrowed, recognizing something familiar… something distasteful.

Of course this wasn’t the first time. There had been many before her, mostly boys in men’s clothing, with that look of recognition in their eyes, trying desperately to erase this thing inside me. They’d used every trick in their books, teaching lessons they’d been taught about what was right and who was wrong.

This time it only took me 3 years… 3 years to feel my fingers and toes again… 3 years below ground to feel my heart beating… wildly at first, then more evenly, with each new breath. 3 years for me to remember my light, always recognized, would not always be cherished.

So now, every day as sun rises, bending light and shadow round table and chair, I write in my journal, read books from the shelf, and recite the words “cherish yourself”.