Monday, 4 April 2016

On friendship break-ups

I have no idea how people survive the demise of friendships like functioning human beings. I have more or less accepted that romantic relationships are transient, and generally happen in a linear fashion where you experience one at a time (with the notable exception of polyamory - keep loving the good love, team!), but you have multiple friendships at once. You can even have multiple best friends at once. I guess that's why this hurts so much: the assumption what we had was special, when really it was nothing.

Any incredibly long-time readers of this blog will be aware that I went travelling in 2013 and, while in Japan, met and fell for a fellow student from Bristol, to the point where after about 48 hours of knowing each other we fucked off by ourselves and explored the country, just the two of us. It was one of the more impulsive things I've ever done and I feel vaguely guilty about it, but it was also amazing and fun and confirmation of my hypothesis that people are generally good at heart.

We broke up after about five months but promised to remain best friends. And we were. That's why I find it so hard to accept that he would just stop talking to me, with no warning, no announcement, no expression of rage or hate or even indifference. First the Facebook messages stopped, and then the texts, and now no matter what I try I get no response. This has included messaging both his girlfriend and his dad at various points to ask if he is still alive; finding and emailing his university account; and sending him post, addressed to his name and Cambridge college with the hope it finds him.

Because that can't be it, can it? He can't just leave me.

We have matching tattoos. On our hips, there are black and white deer surrounded by falling autumn leaves. I have a doe, and he has a stag: when me bump hips, their hindquarters almost meet. I held his hand while he was getting inked, just as he held mine through both my tattoos. There's proof of my existence etched into his skin. He must be reminded of me every time he takes his shirt of, and yet he has still successfully ghosted me.

And, much like a ghost, he haunts me.

The silence on his end is approaching seven months: longer than we were even dating for. And for me, it's been seven months of slow suffocation, of my chest growing heavy and tight when I think about him. Sometimes I can't sleep, and I lie staring at the ceiling thinking about us. How much we laughed. How much of the world we have left to see together. How much I miss him; how I don't think I will ever have him back.

We had no dramatic fight, no closure, and that's what aches the most. I guess I'll never get that. He can move on, having finally supplanted the position of girl-he-has-a-crush-on with the acquisition of a girlfriend. She goes to my university: he must come to visit her. He comes to my city and I know nothing about it. But I can't. He was too much of my life for that.

For me, it was never about romantic love. After we broke up, I had a string of poorly thought-out romances and one-night stands, from an elected officer at my university to a 35-year-old EFL teacher in Fukuoka. There was an Australian I harboured a soft spot for until he grew terrible facial hair a year later; a student who dyed his hair and pubes blue; a dancer; another student (the final, fatal mistake). All these took place after our break-up, but never in the wake of it. With that said, I know he loved me. I know he carried on loving me. I loved him too, recklessly - but we couldn't be together. I'm a dirty cheater and a coward, which I didn't grow out of till I was twenty. My teenage heart couldn't handle monogamy.

A year after we met, we went to Dublin together. We had a kiss after Irish coffees that was nothing more than a peck. I got sunburn while he dozed in a park. We crashed a French stag party and I didn't even seduce any of them. A couple of months after that, we went to Iceland - it was a week of grey, stunning and mundane in the same day, driving in our rented car and laughing.

That was the last time we went away together; I only saw him a handful of times after that, maybe a few snatched hours together in York. One night at his house, when we promised to hang out again but never did. A brief conversation in a York cafe, ended abruptly when we needed to go study. That was the last time I saw him in person: May 2015, almost a year ago.

So, this is it. This is the nearest to catharsis I will get, because it feels like I was replaced. Forgotten, Thrown away. He found a girlfriend, and from then on our contact became more sporadic until it dropped off entirely. He never wished me a happy birthday for my 21st. He never replied to my messages of happiness, anger or joy. He filled his niche and I became superfluous. He let whatever we had die.

And that hurts worse than any break-up I've ever had.

My friends all say I'm better off without him, and I can't think that's true. I loved him. I love him. The pain of wanting and not being wanted back is universal, but I'd rather have something than nothing.

In the end, I just miss my best friend.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Love in the Time of Media: LGBTQ+ Representation and the Japanese Pop Culture Scene

(Note: this is going to be long. Like, 3000 words long. This is a full and unedited script of a paper I wrote over summer for a module on Japanese pop culture while at Waseda Summer Sessions, June-July 2015, so it's complete with MLA citations. Read on at your peril. Also, due to being written in July, some of my contemporary examples [e.g. Rui in Gatchaman Crowds] may have become somewhat redundant, alongside the same-sex marriage now legal in specific cities not being mentioned due to it not having happened at that point in time.

Please contact me in the unlikely chance you wish to quote this paper or use it in an academic source. There's a bibliography included at the bottom for further reference. I am uploading this as, while it was credited within the Summer Sessions, I received no further academic use for it and it has no impact on my actual degree classification. Enjoy!)


Same-sex relationships have been legal in Japan since 1880, long before the West decriminalised them, but the repressed national character of the country has led to a rather paradoxical treatment of LGBTQ+ characters in media. For this essay, LGBTQ+ will refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other non-cisgender or not-heterosexual identities, which may be shortened to “queer” where appropriate. My thesis is that the anime, comics and games industry is both more accepting of same-sex relationships and non-cisgender characters than its Western counterpart, but also suffers from a lack of progress in its representation over the last two decades and “has yet to grow beyond […] motifs” (The Artifice). In contrast, while Western companies initially erased queer characters in its localisations, social progress has led to society becoming more accepting of these themes, to the point where LGBTQ+ characters are now arguably better represented in Western pop culture than in Japanese media; Japan has merely had “a gradual softening of traditional prejudice toward gays in Japan” (Osaki) rather than the sharp turning point Western countries have experienced. Mostly focusing on anime but with some games case studies, I will begin by exploring the main features of queer representation in Japanese media as I perceive them, which are: an acceptance of queer relationships even in media marketed to children; deliberately portraying a relationship between two same-sex characters in an ambiguous manner (often known as “ship-teasing” or “ship-baiting”); characters who do not easily conform to ideas of the gender binary; and instances of problematic representation. I will then consider these within a globalised framework and look at how localisation can cause issues for representation, and conclude that the progressive attitude to queer people in Japan has stagnated.

To begin, I would like to consider some representation of same-sex pairings in mainstream media. (I am deliberately not talking about the yaoi or yuri sub-genres of ACG here, due to space constraints.) Firstly we have the case of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune in the popular franchise Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, or Sailor Moon. Sailor Moon started as a manga series in 1992, spawned a TV show that lasted for 200 episodes, and has most recently been revived as Sailor Moon Crystal. Since they were first introduced, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune have been a lesbian couple who happen to also be part of the Sailor Scout team. This encountered no problems, and the Japanese manga and anime series have all depicted their relationship as a couple. Another example of same-sex attraction comes from Cardcaptor Sakura, known in the West as Cardcaptors and another seminal example of a Magical Girl publication. It is created by CLAMP who are well known for their sympathetic portrayal of gay characters in mainstream media, and Cardcaptors features the canon gay pairing of Yukito and Touya, as well as Tomoyo’s precocious lesbian crush on Sakura which mirrors her mother’s unreciprocated crush on Sakura’s mother. The reason these two properties are important is due to how localisations treated them, which I will come on to in the second part of this essay: namely, they were picked up to be localised and shown in the West as children’s television shows. Also from the 1990s, Revolutionary Girl Utena (Shoujo Kakumei Utena) was released as a manga in 1996 with the anime first broadcast in 1997 and spanning three seasons. In the anime, Utena is a ‘princely’ character, wearing a male uniform to be more like her idolised prince, and saving Anthy the Rose Bride from various evildoers, and their relationship is made explicitly romantic in the 1999 movie Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie (known in Japan as Shoujo Kakumei Utena Aderesensu Mokushiroku) which received a fairly faithful localisation in English-speaking countries in 2001.

In more recent years, same-sex couples have been canonically included in a variety of media. Ryuko and Mako from Kill La Kill are implied to have romantic feelings towards each other through the whole series and go on a “date” (deeto) in the final episode, described using the same word as typically heterosexual dates to cement the romantic nature of it, as well as sharing a kiss before the last battle. Strike Witches is a mixed-media project encompassing animated series, manga, light novels and a movie, and features a same-sex pairing of Sanya and Elia (complete with their own song, “Sweet Duet”). Finally in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the driving force of the plot is Homura’s intense love for and need to save Madoka, to the point where it becomes possessive and toxic: Madoka solves with by rewriting the laws of the universe and transcending into a divine existence. The third film, Rebellion, features Homura fighting to free Madoka from her meta-existence, eventually sacrificing her own humanity in order to do so. Despite this, especially for same-sex couples, it is very rarely explicitly stated that characters are in love, leading to a lot of debate over the canonical status of their relationships. For lesbian relationships specifically, many people try argue that these are really just examples of close female friendships, a phenomenon which exists to erase female sexuality by effectively denying it could exist with a man to be the object of it.

Besides characters who obviously experience same-sex attraction, queer representation in ACG often involves characters who do not conform to a specific gender. Haruhi in Ouran High School Host Club becomes involved with an all-male club called the “Host Club” and thus has to cross-dress in order to maintain her façade. Here, the trope exists to deconstruct clichés in romance manga, but Haruhi herself states: “I don’t really care if you guys recognize me as a boy or a girl. In my opinion it’s more important for a person to be recognized for who they are, rather than what sex they are” (Episode 1), leading many to debate whether or not Haruhi identifies as female. This is somewhat ruined in the manga, as the distant epilogue shows Haruhi in traditionally feminine attire with long hair, but the anime follows a slightly different canon and so could be read as portraying her as gender-fluid, non-binary or as having no gender. Another character with unclear gender identity is Rui from Gatchaman Crowds, who was male assigned at birth but frequently wears female clothing and wigs. It is ambiguous in the first season whether this is a disguise, cross-dressing or an expression of a variable gender identity, but the acceptance of the other characters leads the audience to also accept Rui as they are, without questioning their gender presentation.

Next, I want to examine the phenomenon of “ship-teasing” whereby two characters are written in such a way to deliberately invoke discussions regarding the nature of their relationship. While many fans will create non-canon pairings for fan-fiction or fan-art, ship-teasing encourages this through making relationships vague enough to be interpreted however fans desire while offering no canonical comment on the veracity of it. This is very common in all-male or all-female properties, such as the swimming anime Free! featuring only boys, or the musical animes K-On! (Keion!) which features no male characters, and Sound! Euphonium (Hibike! Euphonium) whose male characters are secondary. The homoeroticism often varies by episode; for example, Episode 8 of Sound! Euphonium features the main character Kumiko and her friend Reina hiking up a shrine, calling each other “attractive” and essentially having a date, while Episode 10 reveals that Reina is in love with the male music teacher. Many fans see this as ship-teasing, due to such factors as the close proximity in which Reina and Kumiko are often drawn, the deliberately romantic language they use to describe each other (like “attractive” or “hot”), and the ending credits featuring Reina and Kumiko tied together by a red string of fate like that thought to connect lovers in Chinese traditional media. Ship-teasing is very prevalent in ACG as it allows companies to provide titillation and speculation without having to include canon homosexuality; however, it is also a very damaging and dated practise as it implies same-sex relationships exist purely to excite or amuse fans, and are not as valid as heterosexual couplings. It re-iterates the idea of heterosexuality as a compulsory norm, while same-sex attractions are played for laughs, brushed aside entirely or explained away as stereotypically gendered behaviour.

This fascination with gender stereotyping and interactions leads to many franchises where “sex-changing” becomes a core mechanic. As the main character’s consciousness remains the same while their bodies change, these gender-flipped characters are arguably representations of transgender people, albeit presented comically and in order to examine gendered behavior rather than to explore the plight of transgender people. Mahou Shoujo Ore features a protagonist whose Magical Girl transformation sequence entails becoming a muscular man, while Ore to Hero to Mahou Shoujo is the other side of the coin, featuring a grown man becoming a teenage magical girl. Ore, Twintail Ni Narimasu also heavily relies on the perceived comedy value of a teenage boy transforming into a girl, but these representations are often problematic because of the way male-to-female characters are presented. Laughing at the awkwardness of a male-bodied person in a dress can be a variety of transmisogyny, or the belief that transgender women are not really female. This is very pervasive and thus very damaging, as it normalizes the idea that certain people can be mocked for their gender identity.

As I have been noting, many of these portrayals of queer characters are problematic. The relationship between Sanya and Elia in Strike Witches suffers from the male gaze whereby they wear minimal clothing and interact romantically in part to titillate a male audience. A recent interaction from the new Fire Emblem If game, which has yet to be officially translated into English, also displays this intolerance towards lesbianism, as Soleil’s romance conversations with the protagonist involve her being ‘cured’ of her same-sex attraction, thereby making lesbians seem like an acceptable target for heterosexual male attention as they can be made to like men. Besides same-sex relationships being written to excite fans, sometimes Japanese media instead uses negative stereotypes. An all-girl high school in Ouran High School Host Club called Lobelia Academy features a lesbian trio who are distinctly antagonistic, including kidnapping Haruhi to “steal” (Episode 19) her first kiss, perpetuating ideas of lesbianism as unnatural or evil – which is especially out of place in the show, considering its cheerful acceptance of male homosexuality and Haruhi’s father’s bisexuality and current job as a transvestite host.

As well as these instances of same-sex relationships, the depiction of transgender characters comes up against many obstacles. In Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, one of the datable characters is a female assigned at birth but male-presenting character, Naoto. While this has the potential to be very progressive, the game treats Naoto’s gender identity as an obstacle to be cleared, making “no distinction between gender and sex” (Brice); indeed, when romancing Naoto, the player’s choices completely determine his gender, and “the gameplay mechanics encourage the player to nudge Naoto towards becoming a woman.” This implies transgender identities are the result of choice rather than an internal facet of being, and – even worse – should change themselves to fit into their partner’s sexuality, denying their own individuality. This combines transphobia with homophobia, as potentially encouraging Naoto to present as male could make players (probably straight, probably male) feel uncomfortable with their sexuality. Transgender characters are rare enough in media, but for their potential to be wasted with damaging tropes is reflective of larger cultural problems.

These issues are also present in the globalisation of media, due to the way the West is also wary of gender and sexual minority representation. Some of this can be explained by different cultural stances towards LGBTQ+ relationships, and how acceptance in the West has progressed while it has remained fairly static in Japan. In the 1990s, television was wary to show queer relationships in anime as they were often aired as children’s cartoons, so many relationships were erased. To return to some of my earlier examples, Sailor Moon’s Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune had their relationship changing into “cousins” in the dubbed localisation. However, as the scene composition of many shots was not changed, this led to the unfortunate subtext that the two women were cousins who were dating, which is presumably less appropriate than merely a same-sex relationship. Additionally, the eponymous character often had her lines complimenting the other Sailors edited out in localisation: despite being in a canonically heterosexual relationship, any hints that Sailor Moon may be bisexual or even bi-romantic were removed.

The fifth and final season of the Sailor Moon anime was broadcast from 1996 to 1997, but did not receive an official foreign dub till Viz Media announced that they were redubbing the whole series in 2014, 18 years later. Part of the reason for the fifth season’s lack of export was that it featured the Sailor Starlights, magical girls who usually appeared as male idol singers, and one of whom developed romantic feelings for the titular Sailor Moon. Another property to have undergone this queer erasure is Cardcaptor Sakura: Tomoyo’s crush on Sakura is completely edited out, and as a result Tomoyo’s character is very two-dimensional. The relationship between Touya and Yukito is also left out of the original dub, which aired in 2000 in the West. This lack of localisation now seems strange, when animes such as Lesbian Bear Storm (Yurikuma Arashi) are receiving official dubs, which goes to show how much attitudes in the West have changed while remaining relatively static in Japan. These delayed accurate localisations also demonstrate something of a perception shift in the West: anime has gone from being serialised on children’s television to instead being marketed to older audiences, like teenagers and young adults, meaning that there are fewer problems with showing queer characters

However, retaining original features can be impossible due to different age rating systems in Japan and in the West. The franchise Harvest Moon is a very popular farming simulation game which features a large dating simulation section, where you are able to romance villagers and eventually marry them. In the 2005 release Harvest Moon DS Cute, you play as a female character who can romance a number of different bachelors, as she is the opposite-gender counterpart of the original Harvest Moon DS game. However, four female villagers who were available to marry in the original game were able to be wooed in Cute, which could eventually result in “best friend” status and a female moving into the player’s house; the two women could even find and raise a child together. However, this feature was removed in the Western localisations of this game, probably due to the different age rating boards: same-sex content would have pushed the game out of its family friendly ‘E for Everyone’ rating. Despite the fact this game came out 10 years ago, none of the subsequent releases have tried to reinstall same-sex relationships – and this is also regardless of the fact that Japan has no legal recognition of same-sex relationships, while between 2005 and 2015 many countries in the EU and North America have legalised same-sex marriage of partnerships. Also regarding age ratings, the fairly inoffensive Ouran High School Host Club was released on DVD in the UK with a 15 age rating, presumably due to the numerous homosexual references as well as the central premise of cross-dressing: however, the show did not contain any sexual situations, violence even strong language as would be expected in Western releases with a 15 age rating, demonstrating a bias towards romantic behaviour viewed as different from the norm.

With that said, there have been other franchises which have made some form of progress in queer representation without fear of age ratings. The Fire Emblem games, which are story-driven turn-based tactical role-playing games, always feature a large cast of diverse and obtainable characters. Previously, the only overtly queer character was Heather, a minor thief from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (released in 2007) who, while having a line about joining for all the “pretty girls” removed from localisation, still compliments every female character she interacts with, even in the English language versions of the game. Unfortunately Heather is not a plot-relevant character and unlike many of the important characters, who have the option of heterosexual paired endings which often detail their successful marriages, Heather cannot have a paired ending. However in Fire Emblem If, released in 2015, same-sex support conversations have become part of the dialogue for both male and female protagonists. There are serious flaws with this: for example, there is one available same-sex marriage option each for the male and female protagonist, and each of these only appears in one of the game’s two main storylines, as well as the aforementioned attempt to cure Soleil’s lesbianism. While for many this seems like tokenism, especially given that the highest level for same-sex relationships is “A+” rather than the “S” for heterosexual couples, it still represents a step forward by Ninetendo, a notoriously family-friendly company. Seeing what survives the localisation will be interesting, but given that the announcement of same-sex support conversations seemed to generate a lot of positive media attention, it is unlikely to be entirely erased even for the sake of a lower age rating.

Other times, localisations can be affected by the power of the fan community. For example, Love Live! School Idol Festival is a smartphone game which features minor homoeroticism in the original Japanese text. One female character has had her dialogue changed from the original Japanese, “I like looking at cute girls,” to, “I like looking at cute things.” Another character had her line “I don’t mind, even if we’re both girls,” changed to, “I don’t think it’s scandalous for a boy and a girl to hang out,” (Reyna, Nerdspan) which implicitly changes the gender of the featureless player character. However, the fan backlash against the changes was so strong that in June 2015 the developer, KLab, changed the text to restore the original light lesbianism. These minor acts of erasure count as micro-aggressions towards to the LGBTQ+ community by tacitly denying their existence: the support of the fans in this case shows how pressure from consumers, combined with the cultural move towards celebrating queer relationships (especially in the wake of the American Supreme Court legalising same-sex marriage) manifests itself in company policy.

In closing, then, we can consider the presence of same-sex relationships and queer or gender non-conforming characters has been a part of Japanese popular culture for a long time, being accepted in Japan long before it was portrayed with similar sympathy in the West. However, globalisation has made the world smaller, so while Japanese properties are being sent to the West, American and European media are also proliferating in Japan. From these many case studies, I hope to have demonstrated that the West’s treatment of queer characters has become more progressive, while Japan’s has stagnated and remained static. Unless major steps are taken in raising the profile of same-sex relationships and gender variant individuals within Japan and removing the stigma surrounding them, mainstream Japanese anime, comics and games are unlikely to become more ground-breaking and may soon be overtaken by their Western counterparts.


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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Are white men our biggest threat to free speech?

Free speech, free speech, isn't it great? Free speech, free speech, it's really first rate. Free speech, free speech, something else that rhymes with great.

I am somehow found myself, over the course of the past week or two, caught up in one of those endless tedious arguments about a lot of different things, that started as one thing and turned into something else entirely.

At first, it was a feminist outcry over my university producing a statement about why they were celebrating International Men's Day which claimed men experienced sexism in recruitment because there are more female admin staff employed there. They wrote a letter which was published after the university had cancelled their plans to mark the day. Then when the university cancelled it, it became a debate about men's mental health. Then a vile toe-rag known as Milo Yiannapoulos wrote an article linking a suicide to the university's cancelling of the event and called one of our women's officers a murderer on his MRA-jizzstream of a Twitter account, so it became about harassment and safety. And then after Milo was invited to speak at the university, we got embroiled in the issue of no-platforming. Finally - well, yesterday at least - it was announced that Milo's speech had been cancelled, and free speech has now become the overriding discussion.

(I'm not going to go in to all the reasons that this week has been a complete shitstorm, from the university's bizarrely-worded initial statement to their retraction, which implied the letter took issue with issues of men's mental health rather than the other parts of their post. I'm not going to talk about tactics of running to the media with an incorrect version of the story. And I'm not going to talk about the issue of homophobic, misogynistic or transphobic gay men, who seem to think that being homosexual makes them immune from criticism of their views on gender or sexual minorities)

So what I learned this week is that feminists are responsible for ruining free speech. It's now illegal for cisgender white men to voice their opinions without being shouted at. People of colour are threatening our indelible right to say whatever the fuck we want. Trans people are going to get you lynched for saying ~perfectly reasonable~ things, like that they aren't people.

Obviously, I disagree with my political opponents, but they also prove my hypothesis: the biggest threat to free speech is white men.

When oppressed, minority groups threaten free speech, they do it by saying things that the prevailing discourse don't want to hear. We threaten free speech when we talk about the harassment we face. We threaten free speech when we call people out for being racist, or sexist, or transphobic, or giant piles of toxic diarrhoea. We're destroying indelible human rights when we tell someone they're wrong for thinking we don't exist.

The truth is, we are disenfranchised. We have no power, except the power to shout.

No cisgender person has ever been killed for saying hateful things about transgender people, and yet those same thoughts are responsible for the deaths of literally hundreds of women and non-binary people every year.

A feminist society at university complaining about a misogynistic man is not a threat to his free speech, but if the same man incites such harassment and abuse against them, then he is most definitely a threat to theirs.

In Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter protests don't mean that white lives are therefore insignificant, but they sure as hell can be shot for believing that.

People who think abortion is murder literally murder actual people for carrying them out.

Obviously, when I say "white men are our biggest threat to free speech," I am being polemical. I am exaggerating*. Not all men, not all white people, etc. and so forth. Except for the fact that yes all men, and yes all white people. The power structures in place give the ruling majority the dominant voice, and to deny that is to prove you are incapable of being self-aware of your privilege.

Free speech is about literally everyone being able to say what they want, so long as they aren't inciting hatred or politically charged attacks. That means you have to respect your opponents. And if you think your opponents aren't people, of course you're not going to give them the time of day. You might even dox them in public and think that's perfectly fine behaviour - because if unsavoury people just happen to see them, that's not your problem. It's not your fault if they are sent rape and death threats. From your perspective, their very existence threatens your freedom of speech, so I guess you don't care if your actions threaten their existence.

What one of my Facebook friends wrote seems to ring true now: "I believe in free speech. It gives me a voice. As a woman of colour who identifies as LGBTQ and Disabled I have been silenced numerous times from men in my family, waiters at restaurants I've been at and men at this university."

It is a favourite tactic of people on the right (and on the left, too, whenever people further to the left of them) to cry "you're threatening my free speech!" whenever their views are challenged. Bullying, threatening and coercion in response to holding specific views is terrible on both sides of the table, but only those on the right make a point of holding views which actively want to damage and limit the freedom of speech. If what you say makes other people feel too scared to speak freely, then you are the biggest threat there is to free speech.

*This week, I was accused of having no sense of humour, and of being unable to see exaggerations, hyperbole or irony. This was levied at me after Milo Yiannapoulos was invited to talk about men's mental health and the problem of male suicide at my university, and I screen-capped and posted a tweet in which he suggested people not following his Instagram should kill themselves. Apparently I did not understand it was a joke. Funnily enough, I knew it was a 'joke'. I just thought it was tasteless and ridiculous for anyone who claims to care about the epidemic of young male suicide to make suicide jokes on his Twitter. Is that such a controversial position?

Friday, 23 October 2015

The missing transmen of TV.

Tatiana Maslany, I love you. You are wonderful and gifted, a charming and charismatic actress and the star of one of my favourite television shows. You're the heart of Orphan Black, which is consistently such a fantastic and intelligent shows... and yet, I have a complaint. Not about you, per se, but about the clones in your television show.

I have a complaint about Tony Sawicki.

Tony is a fantastic character. He's got a criminal record and seems far less trustworthy than our morally ambiguous heroine, Sarah Manning. He's feisty and flirtatious, and wields his crooked smile like a weapon. And he's trans, bucking the trend of his family of clones by not being mirror images of the others. The girls can freak out over their identical faces whenever they meet each other, but not Tony. Strong and stoic, he's already different from them, and he wears his difference with pride.

My problem is not with Tony: it is with the absence of him. For Tony only appears in one episode in Season 2 of Orphan Black, Variable and Full of Perturbation. That's the lowest appearance count of any clone who isn't currently deceased, and so one of the only transmen on television is cut out of the show entirely except for one token appearance, which could cynically been seen as existing just to highlight how inclusive and progressive Orphan Black is. Tony appears in a whirlwind, shares a brief kiss with Felix, then disappears from the narrative and is promptly forgotten about.

I won't even make my usual gripes about a cisgender actor portraying a transgender character, as Tony's status as a clone means it makes sense for him to share an actor with the others. That's how much I appreciate Tony. He's an example of positive representation of a transperson who actually has a character that revolves around something other than his gender: he's not a patient saint whose presence makes others better people, nor a walking ball of angst. He's Tony, transient and flighty, and we're just getting to know him when he leaves.

Tony's absence from the show is symptomatic of the missing transman characters in the rest of television, and pop culture at large. Our representations of trans* people are Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Caitlyn Jenner. In the UK we have Rebecca Root, Bethany Black and Paris Lees too, beautiful women who don't or can't speak for whole swathes of the community.

Non-binary or genderqueer representation in the media isn't much better: I can think of Jack Monroe, Laurie Penny, Miley Cyrus and Ruby Rose, all AFAB people with fabulous stories but whose stories and struggles are still not the same as the AMAB people who don't connect with their gender. The only one I can think of is Andreja Pejic, who first appeared in fashion magazines presenting as a male model in the women's fashion industry, though obviously this is a false recollection as she is actually a transwoman.

So what I want from Orphan Black is for Tony to come back, to be more than just an interlude in the tightly woven plot. And from the media in general, I want more transboys, and kids who are neither male nor female. Give me a Project Castor clone who wears dresses and identifies as they; give me men cross-dressing as women with no shame or transmisogynistic jokes; and please, for the love of all that is holy, give me a transman portrayed by a transgender man actor.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Gender trouble.

(Oh look, a "sneaky" allusion to the famous Judith Butler book of the same name! How many people would have got this reference without me pointing it out? It's too late now, your time to shine is over, yes my blog post is using the name of a book published four years before I was born. Think of it as inter-textuality. So post-modern!)

Gender sucks. This is an opinion but also kind of a fact. As my non-binary squeeze asked me a few days ago, "what is gender?" And I kind of floundered and offered a few responses - it's a set of social behaviours, it's to do with human conditioning, it's innate, it's learned, it's a spectrum, it's all performative actions - but none of them seemed to really work in the face of their gaze, their cool almond-shaped eyes looking up at me, ringed with delicate eyelashes and deep thought.

I have to have some notion of gender, right? It's something we all have, but not something that gets critically considered unless you or someone you know isn't cisgender - that is, having your gender identity and your physical sex match up. I am not cisgender. I am a demi-girl, which is one of those "tumblr genders" that people seem to think doesn't exist. But also being pansexual, I'm used to erasure.

Being a demi-girl, to me, means I have some level of detachment from being feminine or female. As much as I am female, I am also not-female. This element of not-female isn't male, either: it's just not really anything, maybe agender or genderqueer (i.e. having no gender, or being somewhere in the middle of the indiscrete mass of gender identities) but not specific. Being a demi-girl, for me, means some kind of disconnect between my XX-chromosone, supposedly 'female' body and the expectations placed upon me for being a girl.

For all my behaviours - my empathy, my need to please but also challenge authority figures, my rebellious streak, my wanderlust, the Maths papers I bailed on - I worry whether they were truly my choices or made by the environment I grew up in, which necessarily includes the patriarchy. I am good at remembering names, but is that because of the burden of femaleness impacting my thought processes and others' expectations of me since I was a kid to the extent that it's become part of my personality?

I have too many unanswered questions about this, so identifying as not-a-cis-girl helps me with it. Being demi- helps me feel more secure in my skin, helps me challenge notions, helps remind me that acting typically feminine does not make me a stereotype, that girly is not synonymous with weak, that internalised misogyny is not my fault but that of the system I was born into. (It's like one of my agender friends commenting how accepting her gender identity as agender helped her be more comfortable wearing dresses and skirts: to paraphrase, once she accepted she had no gender and thus nothing to lose from not being 'feminine enough', the act wearing feminine clothing didn't carry the same problems and was liberating.) I have no problems with the undeniable womanly curves of my body, as a binder would probably damage me too much without doing anything to sort out my hip-to-waist ratio that proves I endured female puberty - but being unhappy in your body is not a prerequisite of any gender identity whatsoever. Dysphoria is not essential to the trans or non-binary experience.

You may feel this exact way and yet still identify as cisgender, but guess what? That's your prerogative. Like not every person who is attracted to people of more than one gender has to identify as anything other than how they feel, nobody's going to try and make you have a gender that's not what you identify as. (Shout-out to all the straight guys in the back I've slept with! Guess what? You've fucked a non-binary person! If that makes you feel uncomfortable then that's your problem.) At the same time, there are options.

Gender isn't a fixed construct. We get to make up our minds ourselves. There are more words than there used to be, but there's also much more awareness and discussion of feeling like this. Feeling confused over my gender isn't a new phenomenon for humanity, and not for me - I've been a conflicted tomboy all my life, stealing my brother's girls but pretending not to like pink to keep my brand consistent - but I have the language now to express it. Technically I am trans, in that I am not-cis, but I don't see myself in that umbrella. Rather I am in the non-binary camp, of people whose gender is not either girl or boy, yes or no, pink or blue. How is increased language and awareness a bad thing?

And because of all this, and because of understanding gender as a spectrum before I even worked out where I was on it, I define as pansexual. I am attracted to people, and their gender is irrelevant. Call me bisexual and prepare for a long discussion about this.

I still don't know what gender is. For my enbie beauty (whose non-binary label they wear as a hesitant badge of pride), it's freedom to dress as they feel on any given day without giving a fuck. It's not worrying about not being served in Betty's for wearing a skirt and not having their identity questioned on the days they wear combats. It's something that makes them happy in a world full of insecurity and uncertainty: the knowledge that they are not boy or girl, and that it's okay and really most people don't care other than to compliment them on their banging Hello Kitty dress.

Dating my enbie (non-binary person) brings its own string of challenges: it's made me aware of how I use language so much more, the arbitrariness of gendered clothing, the constant weighing up of whether to confront catcallers or not, and the total shittiness of men in women's clothing being a "joke", like femininity is funny and shameful.

Wearing female clothing brings you into a female space regardless of biology, and on the streets that can mean harassment and danger as others feel entitled to look at you and make comments. My enbie happens to be 6'2" and wear stubble with their flowing red and brown locks, which raises even more confusion from passers-by. There's not been much actual street harassment, but there's so much whispering and confusion, comments to friends, wolf-whistling. I ignore it, burning to confront harassers and educate them about gender; I can't imagine how it makes my other half feel.

Neither of us are out to our parents, and there's something depressing about that. If we can't be who we really are round our families for fear of them not understanding - or worse, laughing about it, or reacting badly, or cutting us off - then living authentically gets that much harder,

Maybe we all have gender trouble. But if you learn anything from this, it's that your cheap laugh at the expense of a muscled dude in a red dress in the Fallout 4 E3 previews is a bullet shot to the hearts and souls of gender non-conformers around the world. Laughing at a man wearing a dress says you think women's clothing is embarrassing, and any feminist worth their salt can see why that's problematic. So, I will fight tooth and nail to keep my non-binary friends and kin safe, even if that sometimes means the best way to fight is through stony glares and silence as we walk on in our swishy blue skirts.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Be happy, go think about your ex.

In continuation of my perfectly contradictory way of being, the happier my relationship is, the more I think about my exes. For possibly the first time ever, everything is functional. There's no communication issues, no co-dependence, no unequal states of affection or distance that tests commitment. What this proves to me is that my sadness over past loves is unrelated to my current relationship. It's not that I am "not over" my exes: it's that I will always be sad about the way things ended.

I think part of the reason we can become so bitter to our exes is that, for a time, they were so important to us. The gap remains between what they were and what they are now. Once, they were close to us. They slept next to us, spoke to us over every little thing, held our hands and occupied our heads. But after you break up, they can become strangers.

While I've never had a shouting-till-dawn break-up, there's been a mix. The ones where you stop responding, the ones where you promise to stay friends, the ones that distance tempers into being not quite so harsh. My exes are all on my Facebook, but I wonder if they remember. When we pass by without making contact, do we both think back to the days we said we were happy? Were we really?

None of this can be verified against another's experience and we are all different. Even though it happened more than two years ago, I can still get sad about being broken up with over dessert after going to London aquarium together. I feel guilty for dumping a long-distance girlfriend over text when I was 16, and it makes me sad we don't talk any more. Clinging to the past is toxic, but there's a melancholy in realising these people that were so close once are now nothing.

Losing touch scares me, How easily we can be forgotten, If we are nothing but the sum of the relationships we make, what does it say when they can be forged and broken so quickly? We are all fragile. And I guess that goes for friends, too: the people I know who are graduating used to be so close to me, and are now gone. Yes, when we became friends they were sweet, and perhaps they became less so the better we knew each other, but that doesn't stop them from being close.

We forget too many people. Getting left behind is awful. This is all stuff we know, but don't want to consider. Maybe that's why I think so much about the people I had so much almost-happiness with. Things aren't meant to last: all things end. But it's not really so bad to think about the relationships that did. They had meaning too, and their status as passed doesn't negate the value they had at the time. That is not to say I react healthily: I bottled up my angst at someone who hurt me which ended in wanting to punch them. How are you meant to respond to that, when you also know their own ex had physically abused them? I compete with others on arbitrary scales to measure happiness, and I am aware of my bizarre jealousy over who moves on first and how easily exes seem to get over things. My best friend is technically my ex: he has moved on, and I think I'm losing him now to a girl the year below me. That hurts more than anything, as our friendship survived my multitude of inadvisable relationships and torrid flings: it's upsetting that one person can decide to curtail things and they just end.

Whatever. I think and write about this well-trodden ground far too much. Go stroke a puppy or something.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Wearing my loves.

I have a soft spot for stolen clothes from my loves. That's lovers in all senses - familial and romantic and friends. They can give me things all they like, but I am terrible at returning loaned things. Possession is temporary: nothing is really ours after all, is it? So I keep things, magpie-like, pieces of people I don't want to forget and reminders of things I need to remember. I used to steal my brother's pyjamas when we were kids; now, I borrow my father's tailcoat to go to a ball. It's wearing pieces of history, bringing the past into the present, taking on old

Sometimes in my head I get an image of me wearing the things I've received from the people who mattered most to me at the time, all at once. I'm barefoot, because my feet are too small to steal socks or shoes; I am in boxers I stole from the dancer I had a mostly-physical relationship with and wearing the oversized t-shirt of a boy I loved, but was not in love with. There's a long necklace from the first girl I ever dated, which hangs low and bronze almost to my navel. And I am wearing the hoodie of the one I am in love with, while circumstances are getting in the way.

When I am sad I wear other people's clothes. It makes me feel connected, reminds me that others exist even when I am alone and lonely. Today I am in my mother's cardigan and my friend's big, blue coat. They are keeping me warm in the cold, keeping the rain away from my face and holding me together when I feel like falling apart.

I know I should give these things back, but things are only things. Material possessions matter less than memories to me. Moment and experiences are transient and can give you the warmth or sadness that clothes cannot. I have always been a physical person, and the proximity and affection of touch is what I seem to perpetually crave. It is getting hard for me to sleep alone. The quiet of my room is no match for the tumult of my brain. And I have always been fine by myself, but that doesn't mean I am not lonely.

My mother's feet are smaller than mine and she still wears my old trainers that I have grown out of. I wonder if she feels fond of me when she wears them. I would. Or does she just see them as trainers, utilitarian things to keep her feet dry?

I don't know what is going on with my life, but I will give back this cerulean blue hoodie if my love asks me to. It's the colour of a clear sky, the highlights in my hair, my eyes in a storm. (His eyes are more green.) If love is putting someone else first then my selfish heart can do that, even if it means martyring myself. I will give back the hoodie that after two months still smells of him. But if he does not, then I will keep it. It reminds me of affection, of being held, warm hands on my cold arms. I am holding myself together as best I can, in other's clothes, to keep me whole when I want to unravel.

I suppose I have always been one to wear my heart on my sleeve.