Monday, March 27, 2017

Biographies I Wish Virginia Woolf Had Written

Virginia Woolf's Flush: A Biography is one of the more adventurous biographical projects of the modern era, unique both in form and content. Woolf's experiments with biography were varied and highly experimental: her biography of Roger Fry is a textured exploration of her friend and colleague's life that dramatizes and enters imaginary spaces, but is still recognizable as a biography, while Orlando is pure novel, a carefully delineated chronology of an immortal English nobleman who is transformed into a woman. Flush, on the other hand, occupies its own strange place. By explicitly referring to it as a biography, Woolf asks the reader to take this story of a dog's life, told from a dog's perspective, emphasizing smell and taste over both sight and sound, with the seriousness demanded by scholarly research. Flush was Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cossetted spaniel, an adored pet that accompanied her through the most eventful years of her life, many of her major publications, her romance with Browning, and her elopement to Italy. These are the stuff of histories and biographies that Woolf makes use of in order to ground her own project in reality, but the major events of Flush's life are not those of his mistress. Flush perceives Browning's entrance into his human's life as a cruel intrusion, he is dognapped in a horrifying episode with Dickensian overtones, and he develops more egalitarian canine companionships in the sunnier climes of Italy. Thus, Flush functions across a multitude of genres: biography of both a dog and his mistress, a panorama of England and Italy in the mid-nineteenth century, a modernist novel, and an experiment in exploring the canine perspective with as little anthropomorphism as possible.

Despite this complexity, Flush is usually regarded as a lesser work in the Woolf canon. At least in part, this critical reaction should be considered as a slightly snobby prejudice against books about animals, though only a very eccentric librarian would shelve this book with such children's animal classics as The Jungle Book, Winnie-the-Pooh, Charlotte's Web, or Black Beauty. Far from viewing Flush as a lesser work, I rather wish that Woolf had written more than one such experiment in biography, and I would suggest the following, very promising subjects for such a biographical undertaking:

Beppo - Lord Byron's cat shares a name with the hero of a poem about a pirate who returns to his Venetian lady. A cat's eye view of Byronic adventures would surely prove to have a spicy flavor.

Bismarck, Disraeli, and Gladstone - Florence Nightingale's politically dubbed cats were beloved creatures treated to the most princely excesses, pampered, cossetted, and fed on delicacies. Bismarck, particularly favored, is said to have taken rice pudding with his tea.

Dinah - Alice Liddell's cat can already lay claim to literary immortality, given her small, but significant role in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but how interesting it would be to eavesdrop on Alice's rather queasily intimate colloquies with the stuttering Oxford don with the sly ironies only a cat can command!

Grip - Charles Dickens's raven was immortalized by his human in Barnaby Rudge, but met his demise as a result of his penchant for drinking paint.

Keeper - Emily Brontë's fierce mongrel was huge and highly selective, deigning to tolerate the company of very few humans and dogs. Legend has it that Keeper was began a skirmish and Emily threw herself into the fray, tossing pepper into the enemy dogs' eyes to extricate her pet.

Lucifer - Cardinal Richelieu, remembered today as the three musketeers' mortal enemy, kept a truly obscene number of cats over the years, but surely one could count on this maleficently dubbed feline to tell a juicy tale of royal intrigues and schemes.

Maude - The White House was a veritable menagerie when Theodore Roosevelt and his family occupied it. Maude, a lovely white pig, shared the Roosevelts' attentions with many creatures, including a badger, Josiah, a bear, Jonathan Edwards, a blue macaw, Eli Yale, and, most strangely, a hyena (unnamed!).

Minou - George Sand's cat supposedly shared a breakfast dish with her cross-dressing and novel-exuding mistress. A cat's-eye-view of Chopin in all his hypochondriac glory would be a delicate dish for Woolf to dismember.

Pinka - Finally, Woolf herself adored her pets and what a treasure of a biography she might have written from the perspective of her own beloved spaniel, who was photographed for the first edition of Flush.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The 'Gay Moment' in "Beauty and the Beast" Is About as Revolutionary as Wearing White After Labor Day

The fungal growth of remake-itis at the Walt Disney Company shows no sign of letting up, though, granted, this particular syndrome has a side effect of insane amounts of money. However, the savvily marketed 'controversy' attached to the wholly unnecessary and slavishly devotional Beauty and the Beast remake promised us all inclusiveness for the LGBTQ community in the form of a so-called 'gay moment.'

Okay, we all are aware that Disney isn't exactly a bastion of progressivism. In fact, the company remains one of the most conservative in Hollywood. These gestures towards inclusivity are calculated to increase good publicity, but even if we're willing to be starry-eyed for a moment, these 'moments' are not cutting it, their utter cluelessness obliterating whatever good intentions might possibly have lurked behind them.

Let me explain: LeFou, Gaston's short and fatuously adoring sidekick, has been announced as 'the first canonically gay Disney character' (the fact that Disney refers to its stable of characters as 'canonic' is a subject for another ironic essay). His identity as a gay man is indicated by a few less than subtle gestures, to wit, LeFou is slobbering with unrequited lust for Gaston, a straight man who is also volatile, violent, and abusive to pretty much everyone in his immediate vicinity. He caresses Gaston's shoulders, takes his side when he knows he shouldn't, allowing him to get away with, among other things, attempted murder, and begs to be rescued from a falling harpsichord. When Gaston shrugs him off, LeFou finally realizes that Gaston sucks and falls into the arms of a nameless henchman whose gayness is identified by the pleasure he takes in being dressed and made up as a woman by the talking wardrobe. The last we see of LeFou he is whirling about in the arms of this henchman.

Oh, how problematic this is, let me count the ways. First of all, LeFou's infatuation with a straight man contributes to one of the most deeply entrenched and homophobic stereotypes: that gay men fall in love with straight men. I'm not claiming that this is impossible, but it's not a good beginning for the first 'canonically gay character.' One of the first paranoid claims made by homophobic straight guys is that gay guys will hit on them, the assumption being that a gay guy would somehow prefer to run into a wall rather than seek an actual relationship with someone who shares his interest. This adds LeFou to a long line of unhappy gay male characters, whose unrequited love and apologism for lousy straight men compounds their alienation from 'normal' society and renders them objects of abjection or, at best, pity. Think of Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Despite his jocularity, LeFou seems pretty miserable.

Second, gayness is aligned here with femininity, lisping, and cross-dressing. These signals are all deeply stereotypical and collapse gayness into maleness that identifies with femaleness. Underlying this collapse is a stringent adherence to absolute concepts of maleness and femaleness, in which gayness must be excluded from maleness. This binary is too strictly enforced to allow for any alternatives and thus gay men are assumed to participate in performed femininity of the most blatantly hackneyed type. A man who enjoys wearing a gown must be gay because otherwise he violates the gender definitions that Disney films, the princess films in particular, cling to with white-knuckled tenacity.

Third, the inclusiveness hardly stretches very far. It's frustrating, if perhaps inevitable, that the first 'canonically gay character' turns out to be a white man, in love with another white man, who ends up with yet a third white man. This is least-common-denominator inclusivity and it rings hollow. This is gayness tamed, an alternate route to monogamy within a strictly paternalistic system. The 'exceptional' is safely nestled in the 'normal.'

In the end though, if LeFou's identity as a gay man feels regressive, it might have something to do with the fact the Disney 'canon' is replete with queer narratives and characters that seem obviously queer. There is a reason why Disney films have a central place in the queer cultural pantheon and much of this has to do with the fact that nearly all of the films are about characters that don't fit in in the places where they are told to be. Some of those characters take on obviously queer dimensions, like Mulan, Ursula, Captain Hook, and the Reluctant Dragon, and others more subtly so, but the truth is that in framing LeFou as 'canonically' gay, his gayness has been stripped of any transgressive meaning. LeFou, like all of the other characters in Beauty and the Beast, is swiftly coupled up, his happy ending the exact mirror of Belle's: inclusion in a strict social order that forbids deviation from particular models of living.

Belle's feminism, if one can even call it that, is a band-aid feminism. It allows for certain declarations of independence, few of them reflected in her actions, but Belle's yearning for adventure is translated into duty-bound obligations to the men in her life. Her fate is to marry into the aristocracy, her desires for experience and excitement carefully corralled into a matrimonial aspiration, perhaps based on love, but one that precludes most possibilities for her.

As the couples dance in romantic pairings at the end of the film, Belle with the Beast, Lumiere with Plumette, a miserable Cogsworth with the town battleaxe, the wardrobe with the harpsichord, and so on, LeFou is enfolded into this Noah's Ark society. A gay man can officially exist in a Disney film, but only as a gay man who essentially wants the same things that straight men and women are required to want in a patriarchal society. This is gayness domesticated, gayness that stays neatly within the boundaries of conservative respectability.

However, this movie is very explicitly and carefully set in France in the 1770s. The royal love-nest is going to be awfully uncomfortable for all of its residents come 1789...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

If Judith Shakespeare Had Written "Romeo and Juliet"

In Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," she creates the character of Judith Shakespeare, sister of William, and equally talented, whose condition as a woman forbids her the literary success of her brother. Fascinating as a thought experiment and damning as a device of feminist argument, Judith Shakespeare has acquired a spectral quality in feminist discourse: she is the ghost of every talented woman throughout history and today who couldn't and cannot have the opportunities, the time, the freedom, to write, paint, compose, sing, dance, study, etc. So, here is a summary of "Romeo and Juliet," if written by Judith, rather than William.

Act I:
Bullied by her father to agree to marry Paris, Juliet rebels, complaining that they have nothing in common and she finds him unattractive. After her father leaves in a huff, threatening to truss her up and carry her to the altar, Juliet, her mother, and her nurse hatch a plan for her escape that night. Lady Capulet sets to work, sewing a warm traveling cloak, and Nurse weaves a ladder, before retiring to hire horses.

Later that night, at a ball, planned by Capulet and Paris as the perfect scene for romantic seduction, Juliet spies Romeo and is immediately smitten. She invites him to dance with her and they are enraptured, discovering they have a million things in common, but Tybalt recognizes that Romeo is a Montague and attempts to murder him. Juliet throws herself in front of Romeo and tells Tybalt to stuff it. Tybalt reddens and vows revenge, but Juliet holds her ground and, snatching Tybalt's sword, snaps it in two across her knee. Capulet and Paris, who have hidden under a chair and behind a curtain, respectively, emerge and praise Juliet's womanly non-violence. Romeo replaces his mask and takes his leave.

Act II:
Lady Capulet urges Juliet to escape that night and avoid the miserable matrimonial fate of her mother, but Juliet hopes to see Romeo again. Romeo arrives below the balcony and climbs up when Juliet tosses him her ladder. He is in despair that Juliet will be forced to marry Paris, but Juliet has a plan and in a long soliloquy, she laments that most women are not permitted to choose their husbands and finally asks Romeo if he will marry her. Romeo dries his eyes and sets off to find a priest. Friar Lawrence agrees to marry the two, in hopes that the marriage will force Capulet to bow to his daughter's desires to end the family feud; Lady Capulet and Nurse act as witnesses to the marriage.

Act III:
The next day, Tybalt tracks down Romeo, who has gone out to do some shopping for Juliet. Tybalt threatens him, but Romeo refuses to fight. When Mercutio charges him with cowardice, Romeo tells him he's being an ass and points out that the whole feud started when Montague and Capulet couldn't decided who should get to ride the only black horse at the last Verona picnic. Mercutio and Tybalt are embarrassed when they remember this. They part good friends and Romeo hints that soon they will be invited to a celebration.

Meanwhile, Capulet is having a tantrum because Juliet refuses to marry Paris. Juliet, Lady Capulet, and Nurse make three speeches, listing all the many reasons Juliet should not have to do so. Capulet insists that he is incapable of making mistakes, so Paris must be the perfect husband, despite acknowledging that Paris has all the faults the ladies say that he has. Juliet then reveals that she has married Romeo. Capulet pretends to have a heart attack and Friar Lawrence is summoned ironically by the ladies to administer the last rites. Romeo arrives at this moment and expresses concern for his father-in-law's health. Capulet recovers and begrudgingly accepts his son-in-law, eventually being persuaded that his daughter is perfectly capable of making her own choices.

Act IV:
The wedding is celebrated with both Montagues and Capulets in attendance. Though occasional quarrels arise between the men, Juliet has taught her girlfriends how to snap swords in two and by the end of the evening, there isn't an intact weapon in the palace. Paris gets very drunk and falls into a wine barrel, but he is hoisted back up by Mercutio and Tybalt, who have finally admitted that they are in love. Friar Lawrence is somewhat nonplussed, but being in his cups agrees to marry them too, as long as nobody tells the Pope.

Act V:
Romeo and Juliet wake up in their bedroom and rejoice in their happiness. A tumult in the courtyard below piques their curiosity and looking down from the balcony, they see that the Prince of Verona has arrived with two black horses, one for Montague and one for Capulet, who promise never to feud again. Romeo and Juliet climb down their home-made ladder and join the fun.

For never was a woman so dead set
As she who loved Romeo, Juliet!!!!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Try to Read "I Love Dick" on the Subway...

Chris Kraus's I Love Dick is a cult feminist classic, one of those books that creates an immediate bond when you find out someone else has read it (and got it - it has its detractors). It's a tough read: fiercely intellectual and taking for granted that the reader will have read thinkers like Simone Weil (yes!) and Baudrillard (oy...), hyper-autobiographical but without any prettifying or concern for likability, and deeply, deeply uncomfortable for anyone who hasn't, at the very least, wrestled with what it means for straight women to unrequitedly love men within a feminist paradigm. Actually, it's probably uncomfortable for those who have wrestled with that idea.

The title is deliberately provocative and meant to have multiple meanings, but at the most literal, Dick is a person. Since the book was published, it's been revealed that the character is based on the writer Dick Hebdige, who has strenuously objected to the book. But for feminists, Chris Kraus's overwhelming, obsessive, at times operatic, at times self-absorbed, ardent, stalkerish, and one-sided adoration for Dick is a very rare instance of a type of passion that has earned adulation for male writers for centuries. What Chris feels and expresses to the world is the same life-altering love written about by men such as Dante, who saw Beatrice a handful of times at most, Petrarch, ditto for Laura, Goethe, who knew Charlotte well enough but had little regard for her lack of interest, and so on and on. What makes the novel such uncomfortable reading for so many people is that Chris stakes a claim on one of the most strictly gendered prerogatives of western culture: to turn her beloved into an object through art.

But just to get to that controversy, one actually has to read the book and for a woman, reading I Love Dick in a public space is something of an iffy proposition. I Love Dick is dangerous, literally. Just try being a woman and reading it in the subway.

The current edition is a white paperback. The image on the cover is fairly bland: a notebook held open by a pen, its recto covered with indistinct cursive writing, and next to it an ashtray. So far, so safe. It's the title that's the problem, thick green letters spelling out words that would yield pornography with a google search. The need for such a book - one that allows a straight woman to hold the same influence over a man that men have held over women for so many centuries - is proved by what we, as women, face when we read this book in public.

Men get a glimpse of that title and suddenly anything goes, any form of harassment from lewd comments to groping, fury at a lack of response to flashing, or pulling up explicit pictures on a phone. Women who appear to show an interest in sex are expected to then show a reciprocal sexual interest in any Tom, Dick (haha...), or Harry who manspreads on the subway. Every single woman who has talked to me about this book has mentioned two things: 1) that it bonds them with other women who have read it; and 2) men seem to take the title as a prod to emulate the most cartoonish version of a man named Dick that they can come up with. The male responses to those words, so widespread, indicate how little power women can wield in public spaces. A book becomes one more excuse, objectively feeble, but culturally sanctioned, for men to behave badly towards women, the literary equivalent of a mini-skirt or one drink too many.

If it weren't a big deal to read I Love Dick on the subway, we could start talking about post-feminism. But it's a huge deal. Ask any woman who's ever dared. Indeed, if we want to judge how safe a public space is for women, we could use the I Love Dick-test. It might go something like this: A woman reads I Love Dick in a public space (subway, cafe, airport, wherever) and the behavior of the first hundred men who react to her, or the book, is recorded. The percentage of men whose behavior constitutes any form of harassment will give an illustration of how safe women are in that space; the higher the percentage, the less safe women are. Though I don't have hard numbers, anecdotally at least, I've yet to hear of any public space where women reading I Love Dick haven't faced harassment. As long as that's the case, women have cause to complain that they do not yet have parity.