Angela Carter’s écriture féminine

•June 15, 2010 • Leave a Comment

“Thus, as there are no grounds for establishing a discourse, but rather an arid millennial ground to break, what I say has at least two sides and two aims: to break up, to destroy; and to foresee the unforeseeable, to project.” (Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”)

Angela Carter may have laid out similar aims for her novel, Nights at the Circus.  She ‘breaks up’ and ‘destroys’ the reader’s acceptance of the unquestioned supremacy of the masculine when she inserts words like “bonfemmerie” and “mistresspiece”.  She projects an image of broken binaries throughout the novel, constantly questioning and subverting concepts of strict gender and behaviour codes.  Fevvers is the feminine body written out, she is écriture féminine.

écriture féminine is “not a theory as such (at least not in the sense which theory is commonly understood), but something that is still related to theory” (Blythe and Sellers, “Helene Cixous: Live theory”).  It is hard to describe and I do not have nearly the grounding to do a good job of it.  It is “feminine writing”, writing that attempts to break the feminine body out of the neat categories commonly accepted for it.  It is writing that attempts to reclaim the act of articulation and creation from the masculine hand.

Masculine writing is grounded in the things that are typically masculine – logic, straight lines – and it is the accepted style.  Feminine writing subverts that style and can be circular, more grounded in the body (and maybe, because we are so unsettled and liberated by this, by its nature “carnivalesque”?)  There is something very disturbing about the idea of ‘feminine writing’ because of the essentialist qualities that seem to be built into it.  However, it can also be a type of writing that is intentionally “turning away from gender-specific formulations and instead emphasizing particular libidinal economies. Thus, feminine writing is a kind of writing that is ‘feminine’ in the sense that it avoids appropriation and annihilation. It is feminine in its relationship to language.” (Kristen Hennesy, “The Complexities of Cixious and Ecriture Feminine”)

Carter does not seem to have the same leanings toward essentialism that are found in Cixous.  She constantly undermines essentialist ideas by complicating Fevver’s gender over and over again, and allowing multiple characters (Walser, The Princess) to inhabit complex and murky gendered spaces.  Fevvers is a strongly masculine woman, but also overwhelmingly feminine.  Her attitude and physical present take space the same way we expect men to, but her clothing and emphasis on looks are very stereotypically feminine.**

I reread “The Laugh of the Medusa” after reading “Nights at the Circus”, because the circular narrative and the subversive language choices reminded me so much of Cixous, who is one of my favorite theorists.  When I first read the essay, it wound its way through my entire being, breathing possibility and joy and anger into all the spaces I didn’t know were empty.  I read it over my birthday, which always includes a camping trip, and I remember campfire smoke and camp chairs and reading whole paragraphs out loud because they were so delightful.  “It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, encoded – which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist” (Cixous, “Laugh of the Medusa”).  Her language is just so beautiful, so poetic, and so militant.

I found the same thing in “Nights at the Circus”.  Every word Carter writes is intentional.  Everything has layer over layer of meaning, some so obscure they only tug imperceptibly at a memory of a paper written in grade 5 about myths, some so obvious they crash like an anvil launched directly at your worldview.  I had sticky notes all over the place throughout the novel, noting a paragraph that begged to be read out loud or an idea that sliced so efficiently to the core of me.

“…the faint jingling of Colonel Kearney’s elephants of flesh and blood as they rattled the chains on their legs as they did continually, all their waking hours, since in their millennial and long-lived patience they knew quite well how, in a hundred years, or a thousand years’ time, or else, perhaps, tomorrow, in an hour’s time, for it was all a gamble, a million to one chance, but all the same there was a chance that if they kept on shaking their chains, one day, some day, the clasps upon the shackles would part.” (Carter, “Nights at the Circus”)

There’s so much anger there!  So much frustration.  We keep shaking our chains, our gilded cages, we keep shaking them and shaking them and shaking them until all it is is the faint rattle of modern feminism and doesn’t even resemble the roar of the first wave.  And people walk by and shake their heads because don’t we understand?  It’s as good as it will get.  But we have to keep shaking our chains.  I love that quote.  It’s too long, it’s uncomfortable to read, it repeats and repeats and the very length of it seems somehow offensive and unseemly, like the elephants and the quote itself should just stop already.  Enough.  We heard you.  But it keeps going, just like the elephants keep going and just like we must keep going, to find freedom.  Some day.  (Even if we end up dead and frozen in our hour of emancipation.  Carter is not an optimist, and she does not paint a rosy picture of the “unforeseeable” future.)

Carter breaks, again, the “arid, millennial ground” that Cixous describes.

** Ouch.  Don’t you hate it when you accidentally expose your own biases and ugly beliefs like that?  Assertiveness is masculine and superficiality is feminine.  Nice one, Miss Feminist!  But I’ll leave it there, because it’s what I wrote.  I do think that Carter used Fevvers’ costumes to emphasize her femininity, almost to the extreme of making it like a drag performance, but I highly doubt she was belittling women who wear makeup.  Yeesh.

Sources:

Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus. 1984.

Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa. 1975.

Kristen Hennesy, The Complexities of Cixious and Ecriture Feminine. 2004.

***This was my post for last week, which I somehow saved to draft rather than publishing.  Oops.***

Armida: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

•May 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Shameless self-promotion, but I saw Armida last weekend and it was terrible (for reasons relating to gender and the representation thereof, so it fits here!)

Go read my review!

The Sexuality of Twins

•May 27, 2010 • 1 Comment

We had an interesting discussion in class last week regarding twins, and the sexuality of twins.  I was particularly interested in the unique way that identical twins are sexualized by people interested in hooking up with them, and why this might be. Although there is a clear difference between Siamese twins and identical twins, there seems to be a related fascination.

This fascination in Siamese twins can be seen in women’s reactions to Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, as well as the reactions of men in the book Geek Love to Elly and Iphy.  Siamese twins are two people with one body, two minds in a single body, and this is, apparently, highly fuckable.

Identical twins are two people in two bodies, two minds in two bodies, but I think there’s something similar in the way people react to identical twins.  This is just a half-baked idea and I haven’t done any research yet into potential theory behind this, but I think that identical twins may act as a way for people to explore multiple-person sex fantasies more freely because there is the illusion of it being one person.  There is an illusion of mental and emotional sameness because of the physical sameness, and I think maybe this bridges the gap between fantasy and morality.  It’s like being with one person and two people at the same time.  I think this is what appeals to people when it comes to Siamese twins as well.

I think this is also how the twin fad in gay porn gets around the icky feelings most people have regarding incest.  I doubt there would be as much interest in fraternal twins making porn together, because it would more visibly cross those strong moral views regarding incest.  (Then again, there’s a wealth of erotica to be found online and probably in printed compilations that deals specifically with incest, so it’s clearly a fantasy that more people have than we might like to admit).

This might also explain the frequency of clone fantasies, and the idea of fucking yourself.

And all of this reminds me of Donna Haraway, and cyborgs, and blurring all the lines between natural and unnatural.  I think twins perform that blurring (although obviously not in the same way that Haraway’s cyborgs do) and by blurring identity and self they create a safer space for sexual fantasy.

The sexualizing of identical twins may also provide women with a way to indulge multiple-person fantasies without claiming the slut label that would attach itself so stickily to someone who expressed an interest in multiple-person sex.  Saying you’d like to hook up with those twins is a slightly different thing than saying you’d like to hook up with those two unrelated people.  I’m not sure how this would factor into the twin thing happened in gay porn, though.  Slut-shaming is used as a weapon against women far more frequently than it is against men (and that could be a whole other post but instead I’ll just link to this post on Feministe about the difficulty with defining sluttiness and how the term is used as a weapon).

If I’m on the right track, I would say then that twins function similarly to the triangle that Eve Sedgwick describes, where two men fight over a woman and the woman acts as an intermediary for unspoken/unspeakable the desire between the men.  The twins would create a safe space and a buffer around the unspoken/unspeakable desire for multiple-person sex.

Obviously this is a little problematic because multiple-partner sex doesn’t carry quite the same stigma as homosexuality (or does it?  Am I just sheltered in my little sexually deviant world from the horrors of all the things that are not acceptable?)

Anyway, these are all just half-baked ideas but I’m interested in the sexuality of twins and I think it might warrant further thought and research.

Rome: Good stuff and bad stuff

•May 24, 2010 • Leave a Comment

**Spoilers for Season One of Rome ahead**

We’re currently watching Season 1 of Rome, and for the most part I love it.  I love that there’s no stigma attached to the idea that Octavian and Caesar could be lovers, I love the casual acceptance of any orientation.  Atia asks Octavian if he’s “penetrated anyone yet” rather than asking if he’s slept with a woman.  The dialogue used in scenes discussing sex is absolutely brilliant because it’s so matter-of-fact about the assumed bisexuality of the characters.  That’s just how sex is – you have it, you have it frequently, and you have it with people of either gender.  Duh.  It’s refreshing, and it makes me grin every time.

Octavia and Servilia also make me grin.  Their flirtation and romance is perfect.  Both had been shown having satisfying sexual relationships with men previously and are now shown having a satisfying sexual relationship with a woman.  They are bisexual female characters whose bisexuality is not centered on a man – delightful!  I’m a little concerned about Servilia using Octavia to get at Caesar, but it doesn’t take away (at least not yet) from the awesomeness of their relationship.

How often do you see the casual acceptance of bisexuality in popular culture?  Especially regarding women who are allowed to have fulfilling bisexual lives that don’t revolve around appealing to men.  Never!  Well, almost never.  And the acceptance of male bisexuality as common and positive is equally rare.  During the brothel scene when Octavian is to “penetrate someone” at his mother’s behest, Titus Pullo is the one to suggest that he wait and take a look at the young men being offered.  Pullo is a stereotypically masculine man, with many of the traits often associated with violent and primarily heterosexual masculinity, but he is clearly expecting Octavian to be bisexual and shows no distaste at all.  Because Pullo presents such a macho masculine figure, his acceptance and expectation of bisexuality in men challenges viewers to rethink their own expectations.  That scene is one of my favourite so far in the show, primarily because of Pullo’s role.

So, sexual orientation issues – A+!  Rome wins!

But.

Big, huge, had-to-pause-and-scream but.

The representation of Cleopatra made me livid.  Positive representations of alternative orientations are great, and the show has put in huge effort to point out, over and over, the acceptance of bisexuality.  So why did they have to BUTCHER Cleopatra’s character?

Rather then presenting her as a strong, resourceful, autonomous character, they place her firmly under the thumbs of the men around her.  Ptolemy has her as his prisoner when Caesar arrives in Alexandria, we first see her languishing in gold chains somewhere outside of Alexandria.  She’s a weak, drug-addicted prisoner who is rescued at Caesar’s command and brought to him.  All of her autonomy, all of her cunning and brilliance in having herself smuggled into the palace to meet Caesar is taken away from her.  She’s reduced to the role of the passive female, and it is incredibly disappointing and frustrating.

She even says to Caesar that she will be his “puppet queen” at their first meeting – the character takes what little power the writers have given her and hands it over to Caesar.

That episode should have been fantastic.  Cleopatra is an amazing character!  But they butchered her.  They took away every shred of power she had and reduced her to a passive role, with her sexuality being her only tool, rather than one among many as was the actual case.

I meant to write something really coherent and insightful, but I just get angry even days after watching the episode.

This is what Cleopatra meant to me:

When I was younger, I loved her.  (Her and Boudicca and Morgan le Fay.)  She was brilliant.  She spoke nine languages, and was the only ruler in the Ptolemiac dynasty to actually speak Egyptian.  She was ruthless and cunning, and at 18 she was wily enough to know what it would take to gain power and to act on that knowledge.  Having herself smuggled into Caesar’s rooms was the kind of audacious and convention-defying act that I wanted to engage in.  She refused to be trapped in the limited roles she was offered.  She was amazing.  And the fact is, however much the facts have been distorted by history and however much her legend has been inflated in the retelling, she was amazing.  If she did even half of what’s attributed to her, even half, that’s amazing.

And up to that episode, Rome was thrilling me all over the place.  I was blissfully ignorant of the sexist undertones in the writing, which I now can’t ignore, and am probably seeing more frequently than is warranted.  Up to Cleopatra, Rome had charmed me into adoration.  Seeing what they did with such a brilliant character made me incoherent with anger.  Jon wasn’t sure we would make it through the episode!

The thing that I don’t understand is this – why?  Why ruin her like that?  They’ve taken such risks with their representation of sexual orientation, why not take the (from my point of view) seemingly smaller risk and allow Cleopatra to be a strong female character?  Why would it be so threatening to have her be as incredible as she really was?

I understand that Pullo and Verenus are central to the story, and the way it was written gave them a critical role.  But they could have accomplished the same thing without completely and utterly disempowering Cleopatra.

For one thing, the drug habit was ridiculous.  Weak and pathetic, she seems more like a junkie than a woman who had managed to keep herself alive despite intense political conflict.

They could have had Verenus and Pullo on guard outside the palace, intercepting her in the carpet (her idea, her plan).  They could have had Caesar send Verenus and Pullo to find her (as they did) but rather than finding her chained to the bed they could have found her battling the men Ptolemy sent to kill her.  They could have intervened, and then carried her into the palace in the carpet (her idea, her plan).  Actually, that would have required almost no tweaking of the existing plot but would have been a totally different representation of her as a woman.  If all they changed was to take her chains off, give her brilliance rather than petulance, and have her orchestrate her introduction to Caesar, it would have been miles, miles better.

But no.

They had to cut her down to size, reduce her to her sex and nothing more.  When they chained her to the bed, they weren’t joking.

Sex and Memory Writing & Erotic Reading Circle

•May 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Date:
Sunday, 23 May 2010
Time:
3:00 – 7:00 pm
Location:
Midtown Co-op Community Room
Street:
1130 11 Ave SW
Town/City:
Calgary, AB

Sex and Memory Writing: 3-5pm

“Sex & Memory: Writing from Your Own Experience” is a writing workshop series with Carol Queen at the San Francisco Center for Sex & Culture, and was the inspiration for this group.

The monthly CSC newsletter says this about the group – “Did you ever have a sexual experience and say to yourself, “I absolutely HAVE to write that down”? Whether you’re documenting amazing experiences for your lover or your history for posterity, penning a soon-to-be-published memoir or hiding your secrets in a time capsule in the basement, come write and discuss getting your own sexuality and experiences into a format you can share. We’ll write together, also, if the group wishes, but for the first meeting, bring either a piece of your own writing or a piece of sexual/erotic memoir written by someone else. Future classes will include memoir-writing guest authors, too. And feel free to stay around for the Erotic Reading Circle afterwards, to read or listen!”

We’ve all had those amazing sexual experiences, the ones that just demand documentation. But we can’t all get to San Francisco every month!

The goal of this Calgary-based group is to provide that same welcoming, open, non-judgmental environment for members to share and explore together. We will be writing together, sharing our experiences, and discussing the experience of examining the life lived lusciously.

Erotic Reading Circle: 5:30-7pm

The Erotic Reading Circle was developed in the early days of Good Vibrations in San Francisco before being taken on by the Center for Sex & Culture (http://www.sexandculture.org/), where it is facilitated by Carol Queen and Jennifer Cross of Writing Ourselves Whole (http://writingourselveswhole.org/) — we are offering it here in collaboration with them.

Writers of all orientations and experience levels are welcome, and we want to hear your work! The group will provide a non-judgmental and supportive space to share your writing, both old and new, and any style of writing from poetry to memoir or fiction.

This group will be facilitated by Tiffany Sostar.

This will be a monthly group, and is open to anyone interested in writing or reading. All orientations and experience levels welcome!

Coming late to the Geek Love

•May 18, 2010 • 1 Comment

The first time I tried to read Geek Love was more than ten years ago, in grade 11 (or 12?) when my best friend raved about it.  She had introduced me to Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the hotness of gay porn, The Boys of Life, and made me mix tapes that included an abundance of Suede and The Smiths, so I trusted her recommendation.  But… I hated it.  Hated it.  Loathed it.  Could not get past the third chapter.  I don’t remember exactly what it was that I hated so much, but I think it was the physicality of it.  The deformed freaks that I desperately hoped I could not relate to.

I think when I was younger I wanted to read about pretty people.  Freaks, like me, outcasts and people on the fringes, but pretty people on the fringes.  People who didn’t threaten my notions of beauty equalling goodness.  If the freaks are at least attractive, if I am at least attractive, then that must mean I’m good even if I’m not popular, right?  Maybe it’s an ungenerous reading of my adolescent worldview, but I suspect I really was that shallow.

Physical attributes sometimes seem immutable.  I became a goth because I was tired of people making fun of things I felt I couldn’t change, and it seemed like a logical step to my 14 year old mind.  If they wouldn’t stop mocking me for my overbite and my love of books, at the very least I could gain some power over what they said about me if I was wearing a cape and black lipstick.  It was a way of controlling what felt like an uncontrollable world.  I suspect there are lots of kids in highly visible subcultures who have chosen to be there because it works as protection for them.  (Although I truly did believe that I “wore black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside.”)

The ability to choose that specific othering is a privilege.  Privilege, whether it’s white privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic or class privilege, or any other kind of privilege, can be very difficult to own.  As a teenager, I felt very oppressed.  The whole world was out to get me, and although I did go through some difficult times and there were definitely elements of yuck in my little life, I had the privilege of choosing to other myself in a way that made me feel more safe.  The idea of the Binewskis and their much more physical, much more permanent (although even that is not necessarily true, and is questioned in the novel) othering, I think, scared me.  It called attention to my privilege, and to my prejudice.  Because the fact was, I did not like those freaks.  They scared me.  They challenged me.  They seemed to threaten some of the things I held very sacred, like the idea of physical beauty.  It’s embarrassing to admit it, but I suspect it’s true.

I was no better than the people flocking to the Glass House to watch Miranda and Paulette and Denise strip and dance and wave their freakery, their attractive, sexual, and therefore acceptable freakery, around.  When Oly says that the show at the Glass House is nothing like the show her family put on, she is correct on so many levels.

I like to believe that as an older woman, no longer requiring a cape and black lipstick as armour before I can venture out into public, I’m a little less blinded by the beauty myth.  I’m a little more aware of my own privilege, and a little more sensitive to issues of prejudice (such as the ableist views that are confronted so frequently in the novel.)  Although I still felt the shock of distaste in the first few chapters of Geek Love, this time around I found it fascinating.  I loved it.  There are so many layers to the book, to each character, and they are so deliciously theoretical.  There’s so much to think about in the book, so much about bodies and power and choice and autonomy and what’s normal and what’s not.  Lots to sink your teeth into.  Lots to geek about.

Gender Trouble

•May 7, 2010 • Leave a Comment

A recent Facebook quiz, “Which Theorist Are You?”, informed me that I am, in fact, Judith Butler.

According to the quiz: “You know how to take what you’ve learnt and apply them to what matters to you. You are concerned with deconstruction (sic) the current state of the world, particularly the politics of sex and gender. You are not the most original of thinkers, you rely heavily on Foucault and …Derrida, but that does preclude the possibility of you being the most influential. You write in difficult, sometimes unintelligible prose. The mark of a true theorist.”

I was a little miffed that I didn’t get Foucault, but there might be some truth to the quiz result.  At least, I’d like to believe that I’m able to “take what I’ve learnt and apply [it]” and I am definitely “concerned with the deconstruction of the current state of the world, particularly the politics of sex and gender.”

Judith Butler, in a nutshell, theorizes about performance.  Gender as a performance, self as a performance.  We take on these roles and attitudes, even ways of moving and physically being present, and perform them.  There’s nothing set or solid, no “core” from which our gender flows.  She writes a lot about drag and subversive performances of gender that can undermine the perception of a set and “natural” binary.

I really do love Judith Butler.

One issue I have with her, though, is that the idea of performance can be very exclusive.  Taken at face value, the idea of performance assumes that all people have the option of performing a subversive or alternative gender role.  It assumes a level of freedom that is simply not there for a lot of people.  Rejecting labels is great and feels wonderful – if you can do it.  If it’s safe, if you have the economic means, if you have the social support and resources available to you to do so.

Every time I start thinking about Judith Butler, and about the trouble with gender, and about performance, I stall.  I love, I absolutely love the idea of gender as a social construction and as a performance and as a choice.  That feels right, to me.  It feels just… good.  It fits.  When I think it, there’s a reverberation of agreement all through me, because it means so much freedom and it’s so hopeful, and it does feel right.

But.

When I think about it further, I’m not so sure.  Post-modern theorists have been accused to being complicit with the patriarchy because individuality and choice can be interpreted as putting all of the responsibility on the individual woman without recognizing the system-wide oppressive forces.  It’s the same issue I was thinking about regarding gender neutral language.  Is the idea of performance something that is beneficial to most women?  Certainly for me, with all my privilege – financially secure, in a post-secondary environment that is not totally hostile to alternative gender representations, with a fairly androgynous body – it is beneficial.  I can play with it.  I love playing with it.  But I hesitate to say that this theory that works so well and feels so good for me is the best way to approach gender trouble.

It needs further thought.  (Which is not to say that Judith Butler needs to keep thinking – I couldn’t even begin to claim to understand her theory fully.  Further thought it required on my part.)

It’s too easy to ignore the advantages that privilege offers.  Financial, socio-cultural, biological privilege all impact my ability to perform, which impacts my perception of the theory itself.  If I were struggling to make ends meet, forced to work as a hostess in a restaurant with a strict dress-code, would “performing my gender” really have any solid meaning for me?  Probably not at work.  If I had a body that was more visibly gendered, would dressing up as a boy have the same result, the same feel?  Maybe not.  I don’t know!

I’m not unhappy with my quiz result, but I think I’ll have to spend some more time thinking about performance before I come to any really solid conclusions.  (Except that I’m lying – my solid conclusions have already been formed and they absolutely do believe in performance!  Absolutely!  So I guess a more accurate way to say that would be “I’ll have to spend some more time thinking about my instinctive reaction to the idea of performance before I can accept the conclusions I’ve come to.”)

And on the topic of privilege, go read this – http://blog.shrub.com/archives/tekanji/2006-03-08_146#intent/  It is brilliant, and gave me a lot to think about.