Friday, October 21, 2011

Undead Undone

So, I am in a basic sociology class that I really shouldn't be in, just because LMU won't accept my sociology of sex and gender credit from SMC. Very frustrating. I am doing a research project with two guys in the class on subcultures; I resigned to half ass it like a normal person and not get too personally invested. I checked out three books from the school library on Goth, which felt monumentally silly, and a little like I was in an after school special. But two of the books are really incredible. I am getting personally invested, but very little of it will actually be funneled into that project. One of the books, Goth: Undead Subculture by Lauren M.E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby is a compilation of many essays by different authors. I got caught up in the introduction alone, and that's what I'm going to quote from.

"On the other hand, it is possible to argue that the androgynous style of many goth men troubles the very foundations of straight sexuality, suggesting an all but inevitable queerness. Gender confusion– the inability to discern anatomical secrets beneath androgynous gothic display– is a prized effect within the subculture. Hence, in goth circles, it is not uncommon to find heterosexual men discussing their attraction to cross-dressers whom they initially mistook to be women. Conversely, many goth women deliberately seek out such 'pretty' male partners. If, at the end of the day (or night), the object of the goth woman's desire is anatomically, male, it is– one might argue– in every other sense androgynous or 'third.' Thus, when the cross-dressed goth reveals his male body to his female partner, the feminized surface remains a part of their coupling, challenging normative sexuality in some fashion."

It can be very validating to see oneself described accurately by someone one has never met; hence the call for representation of minorities in media. But that's what happened with me here. She describes here what I mean when I say that I don't identify as heterosexual, even though technically speaking, I pretty much am. It also provides a definition for Aesthetisexuality, the likes of which I have never heard from anyone but myself. I do think that Aesthetisexuality can be much broader than this, but this is a large part of my personal experience with it.

Goth male androgyny gets much more scholarly attention than female goth aesthetics, precisely because a female's femininity is not transgressive, whereas a man's is. And this has been at the heart of my desire to have a male body; not that I would be happier with that anatomy, but that it would lend more meaning to my femininity. Being female, I dislike that my femininity is taken for granted, or worse, seen as a compulsory result of my sex. But this little passage, though it didn't tell me anything new, opened up an entirely new train of thought bordering on revelation. It is this:

Heterosexual androgynous men are not actually any more transgressive than the heterosexual feminine women who are attracted to them. I keep looking to personal aesthetic expression as the site of transgression, while the act of attraction is somehow overlooked. The androgynous male who is attracted to the feminine female is conventional in his attraction to her; the female who is attracted to him is the one who is disrupting heteronormative expectation.

To some degree I have always been aware of this, but to draw my own sense of gender transgression from my attraction to others (rather than from my own physical body) seemed somehow less genuine. Or, so I somehow assumed, even though Aesthetisexuality itself is defined by attraction. Well, a combination of attraction, self-presentation, and philosophy. Really, it's beside the point to try to decide who is "more transgressive," because so much depends on the interaction. They are both subject and object, both possess the Gaze and receive it.

I should point out, I keep specifying "heterosexual," but I don't actually mean to exclude bi or pansexual people from the situation. I just mean to specify that the encounters I'm discussing are heterosexual ones, and didn't want to clog my sentences up with too many inclusive labels when the point I was making didn't really need them.

Similarly, a couple needn't be goth to embody the androgynous male and feminine female dynamic. However, goth is where you will find this most consistently, as a subcultural institution. There's a new oxymoron for you.

A third thing that I want to go back and point out is that the references to "cross-dressers" is not something that the authors take for granted throughout the book. They do go on to specify that this may not always be an appropriate term for gothic male androgyny.

One of several amoral-morals of this story is that I shouldn't have felt so silly checking these books out. Just because an academic account of a subculture has been published, that does not automatically mean that is by outsiders for outsiders, thus misrepresenting what it tries to define; I didn't consciously believe this before, but I do think it is a general impression that I and many others have. Especially in terms of goth, it makes sense that "critical insiders" would be academically productive, because goths are so likely to also be self-reflective, literary, "nerdy," and even academic. They (we) don't really need outsiders to cary the burden of doing the analysis.

That reminds me, I also found an essay titled "Gothic Scholars Don't Wear Black," about the divide between Gothic literature scholars and the goth subculture, and how the surprising lack of crossover has left a lot untapped. It was exciting to find, because I think I can be that guy- I can tap that, so to speak. Little known fact: I've written a couple (quite praised, ehem) of essays on nineteenth century gothic and will certainly do more. Perhaps it is ironic (or fitting) that I have never looked to school to find a social life, but use the tools taught in school to analyze my chosen social life.

P.S. I wrote the majority of this in the DJ booth at Sanctuary. \m/

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Be yourself if you want to be me

I want to thank everyone for their responses to my last post. Between the comments here, on LiveJournal, and on Facebook, I was so overwhelmed that I barely replied to any of them. I apologize, but that's what happens when I get overwhelmed. A lot of people made wonderfully insightful points I hadn't thought of, offered explanations, drew parallels, posed questions...really great. Sorry I couldn't keep the conversation going.

I want to briefly reflect upon meeting Peter Murphy last week. This was last thursday, and I was actually really embarrassed to be making an excited phone-based Facebook post while still in Amoeba, because I pride myself on not being the twitter-type, on letting things ruminate before broadcasting them. But that was an exception. Well, this will be a mildly ruminated version, I guess.

He played a free show at Amoeba followed by a signing, and Tenebrae, Lauryn and I went to both. It was an awesome opportunity, but I really don't enjoy meeting people I admire. Not because it might shatter some perfect image I have of them, but because I get uncomfortable and awkward, and come away continuing to feel uncomfortable and awkward. But this was actually one of the more positive experiences of its kind. Generally at signing tables, I feel like a sheep (a black sheep amongst other black sheep is still a sheep!), and have only braved it twice before. I'm one in a line of many, and the possibility of anything interesting I might have to say in the few seconds allotted completely dissipates. Tenebrae schemed what he would say, while I welcomed awkward oblivion. But none of it mattered, because Mr. Murphy completely caught us off guard by gushing at us. I feel silly recounting it. But after delivering separate inquires and hair-and-makeup compliments (and asking wide eyed if Michael was Japanese), he said to the three of us collectively, "You are the best of the goths."

Can we just take a moment and appreciate that this was said by Peter Murphy, the so-called grandfather of goth, prince of post-punk, if you will? So he is balding, so he is now Muslim, so what. People age, people change, but he is clearly still standing by the person he used to be, and the subculture that he had a seminal hand in creating (along with his new songs, he played old Bauhaus songs too, just as he did at previous shows). To be told by him that I am basically doing it right is just so...weirdly definitive. My aesthetic is Peter Murphy Approved. And what strikes me as especially funny is that this must mean that Lauryn has been officially inducted into gothdom. Because if Peter Murphy says so, well, that's pretty much that.

The subject line, from Velocity Bird off this recent album, strikes me as amazingly appropriate to this experience.

Also, I used the word "sheep" four times in one sentence in the third paragraph.


Very much unrelated, I was thinking that it might do me well to try to get into performance art. This is not something I have ever considered before, maybe in part because it's so easy to make fun of. But hey, I'd always been afraid of poetry writing because it lends itself so easily to sap and mockery, but it turns out I'm good at it, and have grown balls enough to pursue it. I could be a poet and performance artist; bring on the giggles, until I prove otherwise.

The reason for this peaked interest is that it could be the culmination of so many things. Writing is self contained and does not inhabit bodies (well, not directly anyway). Modeling means either lending myself to someone else's vision, posing as attractive for the sake of attractive, or some combination thereof. Which is great, and I enjoy it, but is not fully satisfying in itself. Shadowcasting is replicating with a combination of accuracy and attitude, which is also awesome, but probably not something I will be getting back into right now. Sideshow is bringing me closer to this idea of performance art, but that is very specific and very collaborative. I don't know what I want to get at with this performance art idea, but it's looming, taunting, intriguing.

However, I am reminded of when people say that they want a tattoo, but don't know of what. That's entirely backwards to me; something should need so badly to get out that a tattoo is the result. Likewise, I feel that ideally the idea should drive the desire for performance art, not vice versa. But, we'll see. I don't think this is going anywhere anytime soon, anyway. Usually I'm too embarrassed to share pre-formed ideas like this in the first place, so this seemingly aimless ramble is actually a very important sign of personal evolution. So there.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hear me, I'm graphically yours

I am in the beginning stages of joining a sideshow troupe, directed by someone I've known for many years but been mostly estranged from. These are they, the Sideshow Sirens. It is an all female troupe, with the exception of the aforementioned director/MC. And, because it's me, one of my main initial hangups was around this. Since hearing out his philosophies on the structure and presentation of the group, a lot of my reservations have dissipated, but I still feel that it's important to work through them in text form. I feel similarly about this to how I feel about gogo dancing, which I have wanted to write about for a long time, but never got to the meat of it. Gogo dancing is an extreme conflict of interests for me, but I love it, and that's the side that wins out. But when I intellectualize it, I rarely come to positive conclusions.

So, actually I'll touch on dancing before I get to the sideshow aspect. My problems with it are not about objectification, because I am fully in favor of willful, intentional, self objectification. My problem is that most clubs, including Ruin, use only women dancers. I dislike feeling like one in a group of sexy women, mostly because it makes me feel that I am upholding a gender boundary system with which I do not agree. My solution to this is not a lack of objectification (as it seems to be for many other people who look down on women objectifying themselves), but merely taking away the gendered aspect by putting men in the same position. So the idea is not to eliminate objectification, but rather to...disperse it. Individuals displaying their fabulous sexiness for other individuals is great, but when it's strictly gendered it feels like it's upholding a system rather than showcasing awesomeness. And especially in the goth club scene, aren't traditional standards like this supposed to be subverted rather than upheld?

One of the only strong nightclubs I can think of that consistently had both genders gogo dancing was Miss Kitty's, and I really appreciated that about them. But because Miss Kitty's had a significant gay crowd (as well as straight hipsters, goths, general weirdos; it was a really unique crowd) this really points to the fact that the "male gaze" is still in effect. That's one of those terms that I'm a little hesitant to use because it comes from a line of feminist criticism that, in my opinion, often upholds the binary rather than deconstructing it. However, that doesn't mean that it isn't often relevant, and this is one of those times. What I mean is that the "audience" is inadvertently imbued with a male perspective, and the fact that this isn't done consciously shows how insidious it is. The fact that male gogo dancers are only added in when a significant portion of the crowd is gay really points toward this. This is to say, if male dancers are added where there are usually just women, it might seem like a gay audience is suddenly implied. I don't think anyone would cite this as a reason for not having them, but I do think that it is looming in the back of the general consciousness, making people uncomfortable when they have no right to be. Whereas, does having only women imply that the women in the crowd are gay? I don't think anyone would answer yes to that. Women dancers are non-threatening and historically agreed upon as pleasing to everyone, partly because (and it pains me to agree with this ultra-traditional feminist criticism) men are doing the agreeing, and the fact that this is not a conscious act shows how much of an institution it is. What I'm trying to say here is very straightforward in my head, but I realize it may have come out somewhat convoluted.

I sincerely think that LADead could do well with throwing a couple male dancers into the mix. While it makes sense for "normal" clubs to have just women to uphold the heteronormative system on which their thoughtless social lives rely, it just doesn't make sense within the so-called goth scene. Men and women often dance pretty much the same (that is to say, variation is usually individual or experience-based rather than gender-based), and even often dress similarly. Is there really a fear that male dancers would make patrons uncomfortable, threaten someone's precious sexual identity, or look somehow wrong or boring? I really don't know what the rationale is, other than maybe playing it safe. But the goth scene should not be a place for complacency.

I think Bar Sinister needs male dancers, because it would probably significantly cut down the douchebag crowd. Then again, they would loose a lot of business. OH BURN!

I went through a similar criticism with Rocky about five years back, around the way only female "sheet sluts" were used, and pressured to create a makeout spectacle during Brad and Frank's bedroom scene. I made an epic LJ post about it geared toward cast and regulars, and somewhat surprisingly, people gave it thought and discussion and things changed in a rather natural way. More men were picked, and everyone was still encouraged to go up in their underwear, so it's not like the objectification factor was killed, which it shouldn't be, because it's actually relevant the the spirit of Rocky. Upholding heteronormativity is not.

The irony is that if a significant amount of gogo spots were open to men, that would cut down on opportunities for myself. But I would feel so much better about taking part in this institution when able to. I really enjoy it, and I'm proud to be doing it, but I would be much more proud if it didn't uphold a structure I disagree with. A huge part of the reason that I have longed to be a boy is so that I could have the same aesthetic that I do now, change almost nothing about how I present myself, and severely fuck the system just by going about my business. I would be able to actively change these structures rather than just telling other people that I think they should do something different that doesn't include me. I may have a dark and unconventional aesthetic, but my gender expression is actually very conventional, and I don't like that. I identify with my femininity more than my femaleness, though I have gotten significantly more comfortable with the latter.

But, I came here intending to write about my induction into sideshow. My perspective on joining an all female sideshow group with a sexy neo-Victorian aesthetic (which I must say I'll fit in with very well) is actually largely the same as what I've written above about dancing with all women. I have no problem with the dynamic between the individuals, or the aesthetic of it, or the displays of blatant acts of masochism; the thing I get hung up on is what it implies about the perspective of the audience, and how we are supposed to be seen. Of course, I say "we" like a performer, when realistically I probably won't be in shows for quite a while.

There is, of course, also the issue of being directed and MCed by a man. I'm not talking about my personal relationship to him as an individual, because Michael is awesome, and a great performer and director, and there is literally no weirdness there whatsoever; I'm talking about what I think the audience will see, or unconsciously see. There is something very unsettlingly traditional about a man presenting a group of sexy women. And yet, I feel that by admitting this, I am upholding it. Ideally, it shouldn't matter, and I'd rather discard this opinion entirely. (For what the weirdness is worth, I say this as the girlfriend of a strip club DJ. Who often looks like a woman.) I was thinking, would I feel better about it if the MC were a woman? I don't know. Maybe not. Would I feel better if there were men in the troupe with the same dynamic, stunts, and general aesthetic as the women? Probably. But I don't think it's the troupe that needs to change, I think that I just need to think what I think, and maybe evolve past some reservations that I have.

Having said that there is something unsettlingly traditional about a man presenting sexy women, I realize that sideshow itself is an unsettling tradition. So perhaps, in that particular way, it is fitting.

One thing I really respect about the group is that it's not just a bunch of sexy women doing masochistic stunts; there's a surprising amount of character creation that goes into it, such that it's more like performance art. I've started writing my character, and I've gotten really great feedback, to the point of being asked to potentially help write aspects of the show itself. I was extremely flattered, though I hate the word flattered for no discernible reason. And I have a new reason to publicly use the name Vesta, which pleases me.

Perhaps the most invigorating thing about pushing myself into more performative avenues is that it actually increases introspection, and I can essentially watch myself grow. Pursuing body-based activities does not contradict my brain-based pursuits, in fact, it really gives me fodder for contemplation and writing. This also means that my dissatisfaction with the structures I've mentioned in this post doesn't necessarily come from a place of anger. It comes from having had the opportunity to take part in some pretty unique things, and then filter them through my brain to maybe reach something better.

Addendum: I have since learned that Bar Sinister now has a male dancer, so I must admit that I'm really pleased to hear that, and revoke my snide remark. Except for the part about the douchebag crowd. Unless that is magically changing too.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On Dropping the Soap

My neglect of this blog has gone on for nearly a year, and I can blame this only partly on being busy with writing for school. But now that I've got some freedom, here's a comeback with something I decided to write on a rather unexpected subject.

Roommate Chris has gotten on a kick of watching Soap, and thus introduced me to it. I’m not sure whether or not I actually like it, but I’ve continued watching out of some kind of intrigue or other. The show started in 1977, and it’s incredibly dated. However, dated doesn’t always have to mean just one thing. I say this because I am a huge fan of a lot of things from the 70s, but none of them are exactly from the mainstream 70s. Rocky Horror, Bowie, glam rock, Bauhaus and post-punk– they are all part of alternative and/or queer subcultures, and I wouldn’t describe them as dated, at least not in the same way that a sitcom is. I think that the mainstream dates itself in a particular way that subcultures generally do not. This has only struck me since watching this show. It seems to me that the rift between subcultures and the mainstream used to be much wider than it is now, and this is the most dated thing about the show and the era. Being familiar with the avante garde alternative weirdness that was going on at the same time, I am aware that 1970s America was not actually a narrow, sheltered place if you knew where to look, though mainstream media may have adamantly represented it as such. The interesting thing about Soap is that it begins to close this rift; that is, it acknowledges something outside the mainstream, and does so with a clumsy combination of shock value interspersed with seemingly genuine sympathy.

Of course, I am talking about Billy Crystal’s character, Jodie Dallas. When looking up the Wikipedia page for Soap, I found it interesting that Jodie is the only character with a link to his own page. Jodie was allegedly one of the first openly gay characters on television, and this got the show a lot of attention, both positive and negative, but mostly negative. Conservative Christians flipped out, as did many gay activists, worried how this one character would come to represent them. (Initially Chris told me these things, then I read up a little bit; this clearly isn’t a formal essay so I’m not citing shit. Either take my word for it or look it up yourself. So there.) The pressure that fell on the writing of this character was frankly absurd, the way I see it.

The bulk of the criticism from gay activists was around the sex change plot, and I sure as hell can’t blame them. On one hand, Jodie’s desire for a sex change may show the writers’ extreme heterosexism and lack of understanding of the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. Many people have expressed this opinion, and I don’t really need to reiterate it. But I think the show’s writing also inadvertently reveals the extent to which gender identity is socially constructed. For a 1970s sitcom, this is a pretty complex concept and it’s doubtful that this was done intentionally, but that actually makes it more intriguing. Though usually read as blatant heterosexism and misrepresentation of what it means to be a gay man, the blunders of Soap’s writers actually end up revealing a surprisingly deep social commentary on gender roles.

Jodie is a director of TV commercials, and his boyfriend Dennis is a pro football player; we meet him when they are on a commercial set together, keeping their relationship in stealth mode (ironically, the gay characters were not allowed to touch on TV, so this stealth mode is twofold). I thought the choice to have his boyfriend be a high profile athlete was actually a rather bold, positive step, though. It’s a comedy, of course, but their plot around keeping up Dennis’s heterosexual image for the sake of his career actually comes off as legitimate; that is, two people dealing with a dramatic problem, just as every set of characters does in this soap opera parody.

This is where the sex change comes in. Jodie’s motivation for wanting to become a woman is mainly socially motivated, for the sake of turning his relationship with Dennis into a heterosexual one so that they can be openly together without ruining Denis’s athletic career. This is more important than critics seem to understand. The criticism that this plot suggests that “all gay people are also transsexuals” doesn’t really hold up, and if we look at it differently, this subplot can actually be seen as criticizing social pressure to conform to heterosexuality.

I have to say, dismissing the sex change subplot as implying that all gays want to be transsexuals really does bother me. I suppose this sort of pressure falls on anything that has a seminal role in the media; there is so much pressure for accurate representation of a real population that the character cannot simply be a character. A character should not need to be an embodiment of the group to which they would belong in the real world. But as the first of his kind on TV, the burden is inescapable.

Similarly, Benson, the crotchety yet sassy black butler, is a little odd to watch nowadays. The laugh track goes off every time he opens his mouth, and it seems that his characteristically black sass only garners this reaction because it is juxtaposed with the Tates, the all-white family which he serves. Does this mean that he is not actually, at times, funny? Must this be offensive? If it’s his sassy “disobedience” that is funny, does this actually question the power structure between blacks and whites, or confirm it? I would like to say that race doesn’t have to be a factor, or that the humor holds up even without the power structure. But that’s totally unrealistic, especially for 1977. Even if the humor makes me squirm a little, and is certainly politically incorrect, I am hesitant to say that there is something inherently wrong with this.

Another thing that comes to mind is Secretary, irrelevant though that may seem. I’m just talking about audience reactions to it, especially the audience from within the BDSM community. It is argued as one of the only realistic film portrayals of an S&M relationship, and acclaimed for this reason, but it also got a lot of criticism for implying that all submissives are cutters, sublimating this tendency into S&M. Frankly, many are and many are not (I say this going through a figurative roster of acquaintances), and Leigh (Maggie Gyllenhaal) just happens to be one who is. I feel that the viewer’s accusation that a character’s traits imply that “all [blanks] are [blank]” merely shows a generalization on the side of the viewer. The writers don’t even need to be implicated.

But, back to Jodie. He oscillates between claiming that he has always been meant to be a woman, and insisting that he is only going through with it to be with Dennis, but would rather they could be together as men. Is this inconsistent writing or nuanced character development? Possibly the former, but if we read it as unified and intentional, these are actually not contradictory but deeply suggestive of gender as socially constructed, which I mentioned earlier. The scene that really made me think about this in depth is when Jodie explains to his mother why he genuinely feels he is meant to be a woman. I will probably grossly misquote: “Remember when I was a kid and you and dad gave Danny and me those little shaving kits for Christmas? Well, he went to shave his face like dad, and you know what I did? I tried to shave my legs.” Cue audience laugh. In harkening back to childhood and trying to prove that his femininity is innate and essential, he really confirms that it is social and relational. The shaving kit is a great example of how kids’ toys train them for the roles that they are supposed to grow into, and Jodie uses his gendered toy to mimic the “wrong” role. I kind of wanted to punch the laugh track. Because, so what if his femininity is somehow innate? Must that lead toward a need for femaleness? For example, I know men who shave their legs, and have no literal desire to be female. And I guess David Bowie shaving his legs in the 70s just wasn’t enough to get that point across.

When Jodie checks into the hospital for hormone treatments, Dennis can’t take the pressure of knowing that he going through with it simply so they can be together. He says that he is marrying a woman because he is afraid for his career, and regretfully breaks up with Jodie. At this point, Jodie begins to embody the old media standard of the suicidal gay character; he ODs on pills while the sympathetic old Jewish man with whom he shares a room tells him inspirational stories of overcoming lost loves. Now, this is only about as far as I’ve seen, but I do know that he doesn’t die and also doesn’t become a woman.

The external pressure to conform to heteronormative structures is the cause of their problems; that is to say, being gay isn’t the problem, it’s the world they live in. If we see this as commentary on heterosexism, it’s actually pretty bold for 1970s mainstream TV. And the fact that it is not preachy–and may even be unintentional–makes it all the more insidiously yet light heartedly profound, in my opinion. But people have a hard time looking past the fact that Jodie is conflating homosexuality with transsexuality.

Another aspect worth mentioning is Jodie’s family’s reaction to him; not only to his potential transsexuality, but to his existence. His stepfather, Burt, who is a constant source of comic relief throughout the show, is openly disgusted by him. He won’t look him in the eye or touch him, and invites his masculine sons on fishing trips while intentionally excluding Jodie, and hilarity is supposed to ensue. In a similar reaction to Benson’s humor, it’s kind of uncomfortable to be amused by these scenes, but that doesn’t mean they fall flat.

The most irksome lines spoken about Jodie are the more subtle ones, in which Mary rattles of the problems with her family, including, “One of my sons is gay.” This is lumped in with murder, infidelity, involvement with the mafia, etc. It’s hard not to be offended by that, because it’s so dismissive, and also seems to establish that his existence is a problem for his family.

Nowadays, a show involving a gay person dealing with homophobia in his family would undoubtedly be much more serious. It’s not the situation that’s uncomfortable to me as a modern viewer, but the fact that it’s comedic. However, after a tiny bit of speculation, I really came to admire it. This is a comedy, but it’s also very dramatic; the reality of Jodie dealing with his normative middle class family actually seems surprisingly realistic. Though my initial inclination was to be indignant that the main characters were written as homophobic, it wouldn’t really make sense for their characters to be otherwise. More importantly, his family’s difficulty accepting him does not encourage homophobia in its viewers. The scene in which he forces his brother Danny to come to terms with him as a gay man is monumentally touching without being sappy, especially for a show that parodies soap operas.

However, possibly the most disturbing aspect to me as a viewer is admitting that Billy Crystal was mildly attractive back in the day. Especially in drag.