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V for Vendetta: I have a pencil

5 Nov

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

I posted the film version in my Tumblr earlier, but this is the one from the original graphic novel, that a boyfriend (who was gay; I was something of an exception; hell, we even met at the campus LGBT group) made me read when I was eighteen and in the incredibly homophobic environment of our university.

I was already out, so it was not a catalyst for my coming out. But reading it meant I never, ever wanted to be in again, no matter what was happening, and could never stand myself on those occasions that it felt safer or easier to allow for misunderstanding to closet me.

I post it, and write about it pretty much every November 5th, because of the context in which it was written. And I post it here, in the graphic novel form, to tell you how terrifying it felt to read it in 1991 when it felt like a pretty terrible and frightening time to be gay; the 80s had been terrible, and it didn’t feel like they had ended. The tone of protests around AIDS — and I actively participated in those — was angry and frightened, directed at a government that we were sure wanted us dead and perhaps viewed the disease as a convenience.

I remember sitting in a restaurant now long gone in Washington DC that I much loved and jokingly called my lesbian blues bar and cafe, even though it wasn’t technically any of those things, with a group of my friends, and one of them, a woman, stealing a piece of cheese off my plate, popping it in her mouth, and asking, “yeah, but how are they going to get rid of us?”

I was 18, highly imaginative, political through what seemed like an utter lack of choice, and frightened. And “Valerie’s Letter,” in all the weird and possibly unhealthy ways I connect with fiction, was a constant reminder to me to be brave and kind and speak.

I fail at each of those things, especially kindness, at least as much as anyone else, but I’ve got to try with whatever I have left on any given day, because that one inch, if you aren’t paying attention can be stolen so quick and so fast.

I still sob reading this. I suppose I always will. I imagine a world where people won’t, because it won’t make any sense. It’s closer all the time.

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The New Yorker Festival: Chris Colfer

2 Oct

Last night I went to see Chris Colfer interviewed at the New Yorker Festival. It was the first time I’ve actually managed to get to said festival — I always either have trouble getting tickets or the timing is such that I’m traveling. This time, I just barely made it, as I’m leaving for Europe tonight.

At any rate the experience was both lovely and odd, but neither really in the way I expected. As others have noted, the questions were largely a rehash of topics Colfer has covered extensively before, and, despite the moderator being knowing about how everyone in the audience were largely well-informed fans and Colfer himself answering many questions with the preface of “For the two of you in the back who don’t know this,” little was done to target the discussion to either the actual audience or to Colfer’s upcoming projects (he as a movie he wrote and starred in coming out, a middle-grade book deal, and a pilot in development).

Whether this was a matter of the moderator not knowing that catering to a young audience (it was largely teens) or a fannish audience (like I said, we were in the know) doesn’t mean watering it down, I’m not really sure. Either way, it’s worth noting that neither audience actually likes easy, neat, harmless content, but really loves new ideas and process discussion to chew over. But we weren’t given that, and it was really a disservice to everyone.

That said, Colfer was delightful. He’s verbally playful and well-prepared for questions both awkward and boring (He assumed an audience question prefaced as being awkward to be the usual “what’s it like to kiss Darren Criss?” Instead, it turned out to be about Colfer’s choice of cologne, and while none of it was less inappropriate for all that, Colfer’s navigation of that mess sure was a lot funnier than it could have been for those of us cringing in our seats).

The expressiveness of his face was also fascinating to watch as he got stuck watching clips of himself at various points in the evening. I think I learned more about performance from that than anything that actually got said during the entire program.

But evenings like this, when you’re in fandom and like to write about pop-culture, are rarely just about the content on stage. They’re about the people you see and the friends you have drinks with after. So I was glad to chat with three different groups of people I knew before the thing started, catch up on a bit of gossip, and have a lengthy, meaty discussion afterwards on the construction of fame.

For those of you who missed the event, there are quotes, audio and pictures all over Tumblr and Twitter. I would say some of the paraphrasing conveys a different tonal quality on certain issues than I got from the experience, but if you’re among those who have been wound up about recent Glee spoilers in the last week — spoilers that were heavily yet coyly acknowledged by Colfer, who isn’t just playful with words, but dirty with them — I would say, oddly, to trust. I think they know how deftly they have to tread in what’s coming, and I think the effort will at least be valiant.

My upcoming time-zone shift and work schedule mean I may be a little behind on things until I return in two weeks, although I am planning a bit of meta regarding Kurt Hummel’s clothes, one of the leaked performances in 3.03 and the 3.05-related excitement. So when I get to that some time this coming week (after 3.03 has aired), please remember this is a spoiler rich zone.

Glee: Let’s talk about “Glitter Bombing”

21 Sep

Glitter bombing is not a Glee-ism. It’s actually a recent but recurring political act, with real world history, usually carried out by activists against anti-gay politicians. In fact, the only instance of glitter bombing not related to LGBTQ issues on the Wikipedia page is in its “in fiction” category — and that is Schuester’s use of the tactic in “The Purple Piano Project.”

I wanted to point this out, because most of the discussion I’ve seen of Schuester doing this revolves around either his immaturity or the wackiness of Glee, but without the non-fiction political context, I don’t think that’s a meaningful conversation.

The thing is, I can’t quite figure out what Glee was trying to do with this. Was this another case of Schuester thinking he’s doing the right thing and not? Let’s face it, Sue may say all sorts of appalling things to Kurt, but she also gave him solos, stuck up for him on the atheism thing, and doesn’t seem to hold his queerness against him any more than she holds anything against anyone.

Schuester, on the other hand, spends a huge amount of time being exasperated by Kurt’s queerness (something which previews for next week’s episode suggest will be back), trying to be supportive, and basically just doing things (when he does anything at all) that aren’t about Kurt but are about himself.

So one easy argument is that Schuester is being incredibly appropriative in an incredibly inappropriate way.

The other possibility is one about how Glee defines queerness. By using Glitter Bombing to defend the arts, Schuester suggests that the arts are inherently queer, that his glee club is inherently queer. And not just because it’s more filled with LGBTQ people than he knows.

Certainly, there are a lot of people on Glee besides Kurt, Blaine, Santana, Brittany and Karofsky, with arguably queered sexuality. Tina and Rachel are both othered at various points for liking sexual activity. Artie, through both words and deed, points out that his wheelchair doesn’t getting in the way of his sexual abilities. The women Puck desires are not an expected or necessarily accepted part of his sexuality in the WMHS environment. The intersection of Emma’s OCD and her demi-sexuality has been a near constant topic. And I certainly know more about Schuester’s sex life than I ever wanted to (remember his ex-wife?).

Glee is very insistent that everyone is not just the underdog, but really weird and possibly revolting to someone out there. Sometimes the show is awkward about it; sometimes it’s hilarious. Often it’s both. And, when we look at the ways in which it uses songs (stretch those lyrics, stretch them!), it’s easy to assume they’re just stretching the meaning of Glitter Bombing here to this larger underdog story. On some level, everything on Glee is a metaphor about LGBTQ-ness, and all the LGBTQ content on Glee is also just a subset of a larger story about a broader sense of queerness.

But, at the end of the day I don’t think that’s what is actually happening around this particular act. I do think this is one of our first hints that Schuester is going to remain ineffective, boggled and cruel through obliviousness when it comes to Kurt (and the other LGBTQ kids he’s aware of), because he, like pretty much all the characters on the show, is too wrapped up in his own drama to engage other people in a useful way. Schuester taking Glitter Bombing, screwing it up on behalf of the arts, and then finding a way to mess up the equilibrium of any number of the LGBTQ characters? It seems like a given at this point, and last night’s episode warned us that that’s coming loud and clear.

Torchwood: Miracle Day — Redefining heroism for the Whoniverse

20 Sep

I finished Torchwood: Miracle Day last night, and I find myself more satisfied by the idea of it, than with the series itself. Honestly, that’s largely a matter of pacing. Children of Earth had particularly stellar pacing, and Miracle Day did not.

A lot of that, especially in early episodes, was the by-product of having to introduce the show to a whole new audience. But even then, I thought most of the slowed down pacing was less committed to helping us understand Jack and Gwen and the idea of Torchwood and more to the creeping horror of the Miracle. This would have been perfectly fine, it if weren’t a relatively simple concept to grasp, one that would have been more terrifying, immediate and less distracting in its allegory, at high speed.

But a five or seven episode Miracle Day would have been a different animal, one that could never have contained Jane Espensen’s brilliant episode 7. And let us be clear, I’m not a fan of the episode for the gay romance or Barrowman’s ass (which is, I think, a criticism that gets lobbed, not entirely fairly, but not entirely unfairly either at a lot of fandom and at a lot of female viewers in particular); I’m a fan of the episode for its inherent Romanticism and its narrative about loss — two central traits of the larger Whoniverse which appeared with a poetry in Miracle Day in a way that they actually didn’t in Children of Earth, despite that being the stronger of the two series.

Without episode 7, Miracle Day would also not be a story about Jack. It’s the knitting to his arc, one which many people in fandom have been writing very eloquently about coming full circle in this series (please post links if you’ve got them). Certainly, as one of those fans with a deep commitment to the Face of Boe story, to see Jack finish this series with his immortality intact and a real sense of peace and wonder with the world again, I was relieved. I was also satisfied, when Gwen shoots him to prevent him from being a suicide.

Giving up one’s life for the cause is, essentially, how heroism is defined in the Whoniverse. Jack, when we first meet him, is mortal, screws some stuff up, and is ultimately willing to give up his life to fix it. He doesn’t. Then, later, when he’s willing to give up his life to save his friends, something intervenes and he becomes immortal, robbing this con-man who had become a better man of the ability to execute on heroism as defined by the Whoniverse. This has dogged him through each and every one of his failures across the programs; all he can do is sacrifice others, and that is, we are told, the act of a coward.

When Gwen steps up to be complicit in the death he has volunteered for, she is not just expressing love for Jack, and helping (seemingly) to return to him his heroism. She is actively altering the structure of what it means to be a hero in the Whoniverse; she is taking the gun out of Adelaide Brooks’s (“Waters of Mars”) hand and saying she doesn’t have to do the right thing alone. Gwen, in letting her father go and in being willing to kill her friend, who she loves once again, tells us that maybe Jack was not a coward when Ianto died and perhaps, unsettlingly, not a monster when he sacrificed Steven.

These are some pretty fascinating and powerful ideas, littered across an intriguing landscape filled with atheistic play with religious metaphor (something I don’t think Russel T. Davies could avoid if he tried), that culminate in Jack, whose life was in many ways made smaller by his immortality (he wound up confined this this earth full of its restrictive morals about love and sex), witnessing it possibly make someone else’s life (Rex’s) larger.

Miracle Day is, in its parting shots, a return to the wonder that was Torchwood in the largely monster-of-the-week incarnation that defined its first two seasons.

But satisfying in my brain, and satisfying in front of my eyes are two different things, sadly. And of all the series, this may be the one I am the least likely to rewatch in its entirety for anything other than scholarly purposes. Aside from finding its pacing off-puttingly awkward, its attempt to unify the original show’s queer sensibility with a perception of American masculinity and viciousness was at best inexplicable and extraneous and, at worst, arbitrarily offensive.

On the other hand, I still hope there is more. I will always want to follow Jack’s story, because Jack’s story is always. I want more detail and elegance around the Families and the idea of their plan as Writing the Story.

Finally, Jilly Kitzinger? Most fun villain, EVER.

Monday Morning Housekeeping

12 Sep

First all, for those who asked for a non-Kindle, ebook version of Bitten by Moonlight, that is now available via the publisher. Yay, and thank you for your patience.

For those that heard about my amazing medical dramas over the last few days, I’m fine, although it’s still hard for me to hold a glass in the affected arm without dropping it. For those who missed it: stepped on metal splinter, got a tetanus shot, had reaction to the tetanus shot, wound up in the ER. That drama started Wednesday night and went through Friday. Then I spent the weekend recovering. It has also, as you might imagine, been strongly recommended I see an allergist.

Additionally, I’ll be in Europe for work October 2 – 16. If you’ve got recommendations for ways to occupy myself in London on October 3 and October 15, do let me know. My birthday is the 4th, and I’ll be away from both Patty and friends, so I am trying to make the best of it but sneaking in a total of about 40 hours non-consecutive hours in one of my favorite cities. Dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant on earth is on, but otherwise, no real plans yet; help me out! (Also, if anyone wants to share their experiences about bringing a guitar on British Airways, let me know. I’ve picked it up again recently, and am contemplating bringing it along, but imagine that might be an adventure greater than I wish to have).

And finally, yes, I’m still three episodes behind on Torchwood; we may have to have a conversation about True Blood later, though.

Torchwood: Miracle Day – Finally Getting to America

21 Aug

Once upon a time I had a letter published in the New York Times in response to a piece they did on Russel T. Davies. In it, I noted that Torchwood felt like a show about people like me, just with more aliens.

What I meant by “people like me” wasn’t necessarily obvious. Because it wasn’t the show’s queer content so much as the smart-people-with-complex-friendship-and-romantic-networks-who-are-in-over-their-heads factor. But sure, the queer content helped, of course.

While I was one of the people who loved Children of Earth (so much so that academic research related to events in it took over a year of my life), Miracle Day, the current series, has been a bit of a struggle for me.

That’s been natural, I think. Aside from having to adjust to new characters and settings, there’s the sense of frustration that’s unavoidable as the show’s founding conceits are introduced to a new audience while us long-time fans are waiting for the plot to advance. But some of that has also been a frustration at tonal shifts that have been the result of the show’s coming to America.

Despite a team of US and UK writers, much of the show’s American content has felt like an impression of America from outside itself run through a damaged lens. This has come off less like commentary and more like just not understanding the nuances of life here: from our homophobia to our paranoias (justified and not) around the healthcare debate. It’s largely been a cartoon America, drawn hastily, with the wrong tools, and it’s been distracting.

These problems, however, are nothing compared to the ones Miracle Day very deliberately sets up for itself. Nazi allegory, even heavy-handed Nazi allegory, is nothing new in SF/F, of course. But it sets the bar high – how do you rise above the crowd with this trope? And how do you do it without being, well, assholes? (context, part 1: I’m half Eastern-European Jewish) While it can be harder and harder for many of us to remember, WWII and its atrocities are still events within our collective living memory.

I’ve been mixed on the show’s handling of this. Episode 4, for example, filled me with a near constant (and perhaps useful and strategic) rage. It reminded me of too many TV movies from the 80s, where people with AIDS were tattooed and put in camps. It was allegory upon allegory, and combined with the character of Oswald Danes, convicted pedophile, going in amongst metaphoric plague victims like Jesus, made some pretty unpleasant connections to some of the more revolting corners of our collective imaginations related to disease and queerness and the corruption of children. I was not comfortable, and I was unsure if the show had a remotely good reason for putting me in such discomfort.

Episode 5, however, knocked me over. Even as the Nazi allegory became even more aggressive to a degree that was perhaps insulting to the audience’s intelligence (yes, I can see that they are setting up camps), I was engaged. And I was perhaps most engaged when Oswald Danes gave his speech about us becoming angels, paralleled with the show’s examination of humans as monsters. I don’t know where Miracle Day is going with this (or if it was just a pretty speech) but at that moment I hoped, and perhaps still do, that part of the mystery to be revealed will have humankind as, in fact, the Nephilim – maybe we have been the supernatural and the monstrous all along.

But through all of this, Miracle Day hasn’t necessarily felt like it was a show about people like me. The interpersonal relationships were sketched too quickly; the casual queer content felt like a sloppy mockery of US homophobia and added nothing to the narrative; and while everyone was smart and in over their heads, they weren’t trying their best. Watching it, I felt, I guess, lonely.

And then, Episode 7 came along (after 6 mitigated some of my reservations about the Nazi allegory, because there’s a specific and legitimizing power when a UK citizen calls out another one on helping to set up camps in their own country), and it was everything I had hoped and wanted Torchwood to be since I first watched Season 1.

It was not just the content (Jack backstory, although where in Jack’s timeline it’s hard to tell), and it certainly wasn’t the sex, but the tone. Here was Torchwood once again understanding that what this show has always been, at its very best, is a romance, not because of Jack’s many relationships, but because of Jack’s many losses and the debt/reward relationship the show, and its source, Doctor Who, has always focused on between mortality and the wonders of the universe.

But it was, for me, also more personal than that. Now, I’ll grant you, fictions I love are always personal for me, and Torchwood has a very special place in both my personal and professional lives. However, that still didn’t mean I expected Episode 7 to take place in Little Italy in New York City or to hear gay slurs that I had previously only heard from my relatives (context, part 2: I’m half-Sicilian).

So it may have taken seven episodes, but my weird show about dysfunctional people trying to save the world with not enough resources while distracted by interpersonal dramarama is back. It’s even in America; one I recognize, finally, because my family came through Ellis Island too and sometimes uses some pretty terrible words.

I’ll do a real analysis of Miracle Day and its various references, allusions and allegories when it’s over. But right now, I’m a little too busy being grateful and stunned.

trash day in a whole new borough

12 Aug

The new house is fantastic, even if it’s still filled with boxes, even if the new couch isn’t here yet, even if the new cable service is completely screwed up (a technician is coming on Monday), and even if we totally can’t find an accent chair we agree on. The fact remains, however, that while we’re no longer exhausted, we don’t quite have the energy to get everything solved. It’s perhaps only now, that so much of the weight of the last month and a half has lifted that I get how really bad and exhausting it’s been. It’s going to take a while to get back to ourselves, but we’re getting there, I think.

For those who missed it, the Diner en Blanc matter has had a positive resolution, in that there is no longer an additional burden on queer couples wishing to register for the event. Am I still less than pleased with the phrasing or the suggestion that our existence inherently mars the tradition of a social occasion? You bet. We’ve always existed, and seating arrangements have only really become the end of the world in a world with so many other lost formalities.

I do a lot of things where this stuff comes into play, social and historic dance among them. Patty and I have registered for gender balanced balls with me as the man, worried about how it would go, and then it’s always been fine and without remark. Always. But one still has to go through the explaining your situation politely and being told no and then they worry and plan for what to do when you sneak around the rules anyway and it isn’t fine. The worst part, really, is that I get it — in dance you need a good balance of leads and follows; in historic dance you arguably want to recreate what you are romanticizing about the past.

But the past totally contained people like us, even if the terminology was different. Yes, the level of knowledge and response to homosexuality was varied from social circle to social circle, but that’s not actually particularly different to today, although the word “out” and most terms currently used for sexual, romantic and gender identity are anachronisms in historical discussion. But the fact is LGBTQ people have always been invited to dinner parties, and so the idea that we’re interrupting tradition, when tradition is just history, and history is filled with queerness — well, it’s a little tiring.

That said, Diner en Blanc did the right thing in the end, even if clumsily, and we’ll be attempting to register today.

I should also note that today is photography day for “A Day in Gay America.” So get out your cameras.

Meanwhile, I’m very briefly off to Boston tomorrow to see one of my creative collaborators perform, with the hopes of getting back to a possibly dry NY early Sunday so that Patty and I can picnic in our new backyard.

Finally, I owe you some writing about Torchwood. Through episode 3 I was bored, episode 4 made me angry, and episode 5 made me wonder if they were up to some seriously sneaky (and brilliant) stuff in the midst of all their heavy-handedness. I am almost afraid to wait until after tonight’s episode to write about it, simply because any answers that come our way in the episode may make it less interesting (and my theories less clever, but if you’re long-time fans of the show, I think/hope this is all going somewhere that’s weird, gnostic, about the nephilim and “what’s moving in the dark,” and will addresses just what sins of his past Jack is alternately trying to mitigate or forget about). But I did say I would give it through episode 6 to comment at any length and so I shall.

Thanks to everyone who has picked up Bitten by Moonlight. I’ll try to post an excerpt from “Sanquali” and talk a little bit about the process of writing the sort of thing I never write (Italian AU werewolf lesbians!) this weekend.

“Sanquali” in Bitten by Moonlight

10 Aug

While we are still living in a city of boxes (and we can’t put out recycling until Sunday night), just a very quick post to note that my novella, “Sanquali,” is now out as part of the lesbian werewolf anthology Bitten by Moonlight edited by Joselle Vanderhooft.

My own copy has not yet arrived, so I don’t know much about the other stories, but if you want your Georgette Heyer queerer, hairier and about the servants with some really, really creepy mythology behind it, you’ll want to check “Sanquali” out.

The anthology is available in both hard copy and ebook.

Harry Potter & Glee: Hoping some boys can save themselves

13 Jul

Shanna Yarbrough, the hostess over at Don’t Turn It Off, and I have been emailing about a whole bunch of things lately: Glee, the New York real estate market, a secret project or seven, and Harry Potter. And, in one of those emails, where we were talking about going from being Harry Potter fans (and specifically Snape fans) to Glee fans, I said in an offhand way, “Well, Severus Snape is the guy we’re all praying Kurt doesn’t grow up to be.” And, even though I hadn’t consciously gone through the list on it at the time, it turns out, it’s sort of really true.

There’s an external perception of gender variance that follows Snape his whole life if you buy the reading in my post of the other day; I doubt Kurt’s apparent gender non-conformity is going anywhere soon.

There’s Kurt’s incredibly sharp tongue, a trait certainly shared with Snape.

There’s the history of being bullied, and the working hard to seem like something other than what he is: Mechanic’s son? designer clothes? trying to fit in at Dalton? Kurt’s perceived status and choices regarding that status can certainly be read as fairly similar to those of the “Half-Blood Prince.”

And, of course, there’s also the obsessive love and the self-restricted sexuality.

Which is sort of why I’ve just got to hope this Blaine thing works out, because a wounded Kurt is a scary thing. And I have to think, even if only from having been such an obsessive HP fan, that if this boy gets his heart broken, or, rather, blows everything up with his own sharp tongue and natural, reasonable distrust of other people, he’s far too likely to go down the road of someone like Snape, or, to keep it in Glee terms, Sue Sylvester. We’ve already seen Kurt have a surprising rapport with Sue on more than one occasion. Arguably, that’s Kurt’s very real generosity and kindness; or it’s Kurt seeing his own nature and seeing the person he’s trying desperately not to become.

There’s always a temptation, I think, in large swathes of Glee fandom to address Harry Potter. The teen protagonists are the right age to care, and once Darren Criss was cast as Blaine, the opportunity for boy wizard references became ridiculously difficult to ignore. Often, this seems forced. And, in particular, Harry Potter seems like a poor fit for Kurt’s pop-culture interests, which, outside of Broadway, largely seem taken from the lives of queer teens in the 1980s.

But now I can’t help wondering if Kurt did read the Harry Potter series and if they even do midnight screenings of the films in places like Lima. I wonder if he read those books and felt like Harry (Shanna recently summarized the plot of the series on Twitter as “Closeted boy must defend himself and those like him from violence and oppression. Do not despair, Harry: It Gets Better.”) or recognized himself in Snape. Did he think of the man’s spying as he went to snoop around Dalton? Did he smile in the dark at the films every time he noticed all the buttons on Snape’s clothes speaking softly to a love of detail and a pride in confinement? If any or all of these things are true, what does it feel like for Kurt every time he looks at Blaine and realizes he won’t become quite the man he always thought, or perhaps feared, he would?

Certainly, especially during this fandom old home week, I am always fascinated by the way fandoms sometimes migrate collectively to new interests. For example, it seems a large contingent of the broken-hearted over Torchwood‘s third season moved to White Collar en masse: No aliens, but the pretty suits and good banter have made a certain amount of sense as a new focus.

So I have to wonder now if there’s a fair portion of us who somehow migrated from Harry Potter to Glee or rather, from Severus Snape to Kurt Hummel, because after the tragedy of Snape’s end (Snake bubble to the head? Really?) it just feels so damn good to watch this very difficult, talented, wounded, and vicious boy who just might be able to save himself.

Harry Potter: Severus Snape as a representation of female heroism

11 Jul

At, I believe, Terminus, I gave a paper related to Snape and female heroism. I’ve threatened for years to turn it into something more formal, and no doubt should. But since people are always asking me for it, and I actually want to reference its arguments in a post I’m working on about the patterns in how people jump from one fandom to another, I’d thought I’d throw up an edited, bloggy version of it here.

I should warn you it’s profoundly dichotomous about gender, because with the possible exception of Tonks and various people expressing horror at having to polyjuice themselves into the form of another gender, the Harry Potter universe is profoundly dichotomous about gender, so I’m arguing from within its constraints.

One of the persistent criticisms of the Harry Potter series has been its portrayal of gender roles, and specifically its lack of representation when it comes to female heroism. While significant female characters exist in the form of Hermione Granger, Bellatrix Lestrange and Molly Weasley, each of these characters are largely defined by their relational roles: Hermione is Harry’s friend. Bellatrix is Voldemort’s romantically, or possibly erotically, chosen, and Molly Weasley is defined through her epitomization of motherhood.

In fact, while the Harry Potter series can only barely pass the Bechdel Test, the test is arguably a poor gauge of female strength for novels which center constantly on the status of both Harry Potter and his adversary, Lord Voldemort, within the plot.

Despite all this, adult fan involvement with the world of Harry Potter can look predominantly female (certainly HP cons are generally 90% female in attendance). This can be explained by many things, including word-of-mouth fandom culture in female-dominated spaces like Livejournal, the long-standing not not especially proven argument that “girl will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls” and, of course, the possibility that the conservatism of the Harry Potter universe’s view of women may be reflective of real world norms and even desires.

Or, it might be something else entirely.

In fact, I’m now going to totally contradict myself and say that female heroism isn’t absent in the shadow of Harry’s journey, it’s just in a superficially male guise. That guise being the character of Severus Snape.

In many ways, none of what I’m about to go into regarding Snape is a particualrly unique phenomenon. There is, of course, a long history of queering the villain. However, as the series ultimately reveals, Severus Snape is no villain, which is what makes his representation of female attributes, and in fact, female heroism, so unique.

From the first time we meet Snape we are presented with a powerful figure, but not one who is overtly masculine. In fact, almost immediately, from his first speech about “foolish wand waving,” JK Rowling informs us that this character is, on some level, a rejection of masculinity, especially in light of the many moments of phallic humor wands provide us throughout the series.

This is compounded by other key details of Snape’s work from the cauldrons in which he brews to the very nature of the cultural associations we have with potions work. Potions are easily interpreted as women’s work, whether you examine them from the Muggle equivalent of cooking or the fairytale lexicon of witches stirring pots.

Even the violence in Snape’s work – from the dissection of ingredients to the presumed skill with poisoning – speaks to feminine archetypes. In traditional narratives (and Harry Potter is a decidedly traditional narrative, a man murders with a gun or a sword or a knife. A woman poisons.

Additionally, coded language about gender exists in almost every description offered of Snape throughout the series. Mad-Eye Moody is particularly vocal on the matter of Snape’s Dark Mark. He says in chapter 25 of The Goblet of Fire, “There are some spots that don’t come off, Snape. Spots that never come out.”

On the surface, this remark speaks solely to the series’s cultural centerpiece of the Death Eaters and their social structures. However, it also speaks to that thematic element of forgiveness and redemption that has so often been highlighted in the novels. That Mad-Eye Moody feels Snape is precluded from redemption, speaks to the nature of his perception of Snape’s sins in his time with the Death Eaters. However, to speak of an irremovable taint is to also invoke the spectre of Original Sin, which, in Christian mythos, of course, arose into the world through first Eve and not Adam.

And the idea of a woman being marked or tainted and ultimately of lesser social or commoditized value because of often youthful indiscretion – often sexual – is sadly ubiquitous in our culture.

While Snape’s indiscretion is arguably more one of violence than sexuality (although that issue does loom large through implication throughout the series both in terms of Snape’s own suspected sexual history, which I’ll address later, and and also through repeated instances of implied sexual violence in the series.), rape is an acknowledged crime in the Wizarding world, and one we must suspect Death Eaters of having committed.

Sirius Black and the Marauders of memory, too, offer commentary on Snape from a gendered perspective both in word and in deed. While “Snivellus” is a typical school-yard taunt – after all, in our gendered society bullies have long mocked children of both genders for non-strict compliance with expected rolls and behavior, the comment is of significance in light of both the other language used to address Snape and the fact that he does frequently deviate from the expected portrayal of masculinity in Harry’s world.

In fact, feminine references follow Snape back into his childhood. Not only does Harry note the handwriting in the Half-Blood Prince’s book looks like that of a girl, but in the memory presented of Snape’s first meeting with Lily Potter he is described as wearing something that looks like an old women’s blouse. This is not only the second reference the series gives us to Snape in women’s clothes (the other being Lupin’s encouragements to Neville to picture Snape in his grandmother’s wardrobe to defuse the boggart that has taken on the potions master’s appearance), but it references a common piece of generally British slang. To call someone a “girl’s blouse” is, according to urban dictionary, to call them “a male displaying percieved feminine characteristics through actions which cause his peers to think less of him.”

And as much as Snape is embroiled in both the first and second Wizarding wars, he is not a fighter, but a spy. He doesn’t duel at dawn (that training incident with Gilderoy Lockhart aside) or look a man in the eye and draw on the count of five. While Rowling gives us no clear portrayal of the violence Snape commits in the name of his mission, his function is clear from the moment Dumbledore asks him if he is ready, if he is prepared. He will not fight, but observe.

In war (and we must acknowledge the Harry Potter series is, in fact, that of a world at war, even if it is largely a guerilla war and not one of standing armies and open fields), women have historically not been open combatants. Even today’s American military theoretically bars women from combat positions. Yet, women have long fought in war through activities of support, resistance and covertcy. This is the role Snape takes in the struggle – that of secrecy and betrayal, characteristics historically portrayed in literature as women’s sins.

Snape has a range of other female roles throughout the series as well. His expertise at legillimency and occulmency are, as psychic arts, also stereotypically feminine skills.

Narcissa Malfoy’s request that Snape protect her son in the place where she is unable to do so, portrays Snape not as a father figure, but as a mother figure as he is to stand in her stead.

And, of course, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Snape takes on his most prominently female gendered role in his clandestine provision of the true Sword of Gryffindor to Harry through the use of his patronus. In this scene, Snape essentially plays the Lady of the Lake, which is consistent with broader Arthurian readings of the Harry Potter series.

Snape’s role as The Lady of the Lake is broader than the simple provision of a magical weapon, for not only does he lead Harry to this necessary tool, but he also reunites the young man with his most loyal companion, or, it might be said, knight – Ron Weasley.

Shades of Snape’s role as the Lady of the Lake also exist in his complex relationship with Albus Dumbledore. While Dumbledore has clearly served as a mentor, friend and confidant to Snape, Snape’s contempt for Dumbledore’s use, and, it can be argued, exploitation of him, is clear, implicitly throughout the series and explicitly in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. Additionally critical to Snape’s portrayal of the Lady of the Lake is his role in Dumbledore’s demise.

These matters of status and use between the two men mirror the problematic relationship between Merlin and The Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend. While there are many different versions of these tales –- in large part because Arthurian legend has been the subject of fanfiction-like cultural revision and expansion for centuries — one oft repeated theme in these stories is that Merlin mentored the Lady who took on her exile within the lake in response to and rejection of his unwanted romantic and sexual advances. In these stories, ultimately, it is the Lady who eventually helps to secure Merlin’s downfall.

Snape is clearly mentored by Dumbledore throughout his history, but he also rejects Dumbledore’s attempts to make him a truly different man. Just because Snape rejects the evil of the Death Eaters, does not mean he does so for noble purposes. Rather, they are selfish and so he essentially rejects Dumeblore’s own greedy advances to sway him to the side of light. Finally, it is Snape who assassinates Dumbledore. While this is planned between the two men and is clearly portrayed as a subject of grief for Snape, the fact remains that Avada Kedavra requires feelings of true hatred and it is certainly possibly that Snape found these feelings not just about Voldemort and his actions, but towards Dumbledore in the moment in which he utters the killing curse.

Snape’s actions in the Sword of Gryffindor scene also offer us another, non-Arthurian nod to his representation of female gender in the form of his patronus. Snape’s patronus is explicitly female, and this possession of a patronus of a different gender than its caster is, in fact, nearly unique in the series. While Tonks’s patronus is noted to be a dog or a wolf when she is harbouring her then unexpressed crush on Lupin (a feeling mistakenly thought to be directed at Sirius Black), its gender is not, in fact defined. Additionally, as a metamorphmagus, it’s arguable that Tonk’s gender is not really defined either despite the fact we always see her in female form. While it is certainly possible that her patronus is male to represent her feelings for Lupin, this seems unlikely or at least atypical in light James and Lily’s patronuses matching but being gender-consistent.

This leaves Snape’s Doe patronus as a startling anomaly for which we have no clue within the text on how to decode. In thinking about this, I kept trying to look at the way the daemons work in His Dark Materials – same sex demons only occur in gay individuals – what does a same sex patronus mean? Is it representative of great sexual or romantic love? Is it symptomatic of Snape’s profound covetousness of the woman he can’t have? Is it an expression of grief? Or, does it ultimately emphasize Snape’s feminine characteristics and underscore both Snape’s identification with, and the reader’s identification of Snape with, the feminine within the Harry Potter series?

Snape’s association with the feminine is also highlighted by his struggles to claim a masculine role. While being unable to claim masculinity must not be equated with being able to claim femininity, these two conditions so work together to help to establish Snape’s literary gender. For example, Snape’s insistence that he is “not a coward” is an attempt to claim masculine authority, as no idealized man, especially in a society as Western-tradition bound as the wizarding world, could if suffering under that label.

Snape’s performative masclininity is also challenged in his love for and loyalty to Lily Potter. Being so driven by romantic love is, of course, an arguably stereotypically feminine trait in the modern world. By contrast to Snape, Harry rejects his relationship with Ginny to be a warrior, whereas Snape only chooses to go to war out of his adoration of Lily Potter.

To a certain extent this mirrors the well-documented phenomena of women going to war, disguised as men, largely during the 19th century in order to follow lovers who had left them behind to fight.

Similarly, we learn that there have been no other women for Snape because of his devotion to Lily Potter, or, at least, her memory. This is, in the context of the books likely to be both an emotional and sexual fidelity. Snape can then, therefore, be speculated to be a virgin – a state often revered in women, but maligned in men.

It is, in fact, only in death that Snape achieves literary manhood, for his passions and desires are only revealed in the examination of his memories, which he emits in viscous fluid at the moment of his death. While this is no little death, that is, no orgasm, it is the culmination of all that Snape is, and stands in for the sexual and romantic life he subsumed to duty, obsession and error.

And it is in death, that even Harry acknowledges Snape’s manhood, calling him, “the bravest man [he] ever knew.”