Mothers and Freud: What More Could You Want?

Oh, look! A review! This is interesting. Read on: Cartoonist Alison Bechdel is back with her second graphic novel. I examine her own prejudices against the graphic novel and concludes that Are You My Mother? reads like a serious piece of literature, but illustrated with lots of pretty pictures.

Here’s the thing: I am a bit of a snob. I studied English lit at university and I learnt, long ago, that ‘serious works of literature’ don’t have pretty pictures. Illustrations are for children; text is for grown-ups. So I approached Alison Bechdel’s new graphic novel with a kind of, ‘this is going to be fun’ attitude. I was therefore surprised to find Are You My Mother? so, well, serious. With its psychoanalytic approach and quotations from Virginia Woolf, it’s as angst-ridden as a teenager with her first guitar. It’s kind of the lesbian folksinger of the comic genre.

All images courtesy Jonathan Cape

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love lesbian folksingers. Melissa Etheridge? I’m totally down with her. Constant Craving? I’m right with you KD. But, even for a therapy-loving, romantic person like myself, Are You My Mother? was a bit much. Bechdel’s second memoir chronicles her relationship with her mother. It tells the story of her mother’s frustrated artistic ambition as she gives up writing poetry to bring up her three children. It feels like, having exorcised the ghost of her father through her previous memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, it is now Bechdel’s turn to write about her mother.

Bechdel layers stories. She uses psychoanalysis and the work of Virginia Woolf to examine her relationship to her headstrong mother. She writes about mother and daughter through the lens of her therapy sessions and the process of writing Fun Home. The memoir is kind of a book about writing another book as well as this book and … you see? It’s just very hard to explain.

Bechdel is obsessed with twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and Virginia Woolf. Heck, she even goes back in time to imagine the two passing each other in a London park. Bechdel copies chunks of Winnicott and Woolf’s writing into her cartoons. She frames them in her strip, even as their ideas inform and guide her work. It’s all very meta.

It may be in the nature of memoir itself, but Are You My Mother? seems to say a lot more about Bechdel than it does about her mother. Sure, we get the story of her mother’s difficult marriage and frustrated artistic career, but the focus is always on Bechdel’s therapeutic process. She is obviously haunted by her mother. At one point Bechdel moans to her therapist that she can’t write until she gets her Mum out of her head. Bechdel’s mother is portrayed as sympathetic, yet distant. It’s easy to understand how this no-nonsense character is unfathomable to our neurotic, loveable artist.

In many ways it’s tempting to read Are You My Mother? as a sequel to Fun Home. Bechdel’s critically acclaimed first novel chronicles her relationship with her closeted father, who died in a probable suicide attempt when she was 19. Like her latest book, it provides an introspective story of her childhood. Fun Home jumps about in time, drawing comparisons between the frustrated life of her father and Bechdel’s own life as an out lesbian. She seems to be searching for her roots, somehow healing the pain of her father’s death by writing her own, queer, narrative.

In Are You My Mother? Bechdel explores the nature of the relationship between mothers and daughters. It’s a cliché that sons are Mummy’s boys and daughters are Daddy’s girls. So what about mothers and daughters? Freud said that the two are in sexual competition with each other. Our fairy tales portray mothers as scary, unreliable beings who often betray their offspring. Don’t trust your mother, she’ll probably unintentionally sell you to a witch or try to eat your heart. Charlize Theron’s deranged stepmother in Snow White and the Huntsman is a recent portrayal of an older woman who will do anything to destroy her stepdaughter. The murderous aliens of this year’s Prometheus turned our anxieties about our origins into big screen horror. Are You My Mother? sets out to heal the rift between mother and daughter and in doing so navigates one of our most fraught relationships.

Although I felt that Are You My Mother? needed to be edited with a heavier hand, Bechdel’s approach to memoir is compelling. I mean, I love introspection (see above note about being romantic). I’m totally down with the therapy. I am even aiming to read, sometime in the near future, the complete works of Sigmund Freud (I don’t know if this makes me annoying or ambitious. Probably both.). So Bechdel’s exploration of psychoanalysis and the difference between fiction and memoir appeals to me. Maybe if I were less of a geek, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the book so much.

For me, a twenty-something lesbian, it feels like Bechdel has been around for, like, ever. Her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For came out in 1983 (I was only just born, yo) and ran for 25 years. I associate Bechdel with that other lesbian cartoonist, Diane DiMassa. I read DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (obviously it’s hilarious) at about the same time as Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For and now the two authors are tangled up in my head in a kind of feminist-lesbian free association. Perhaps, approaching this memoir, what I really wanted was a bit of light-hearted fun. I didn’t get it.

To sum up, I have to admit that I would read pretty much anything Bechdel writes. Her late-night poetry or scribbles on a piece of toilet paper would, for me, be a treat. Are You My Mother? is harder going than you’d expect, but it is quite fun if you want to be encouraged to run out and read some psychoanalysis or works of modern literature. Its references to other authors gave me plenty of opportunity to geek out and I got to do so while reading a comic.

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Zinefest Berlin is this weekend! Plus, a little update

Hey kids, hows it hanging? Everyone in NYC all right? Hope so. So, as many of you Berliners know, this weekend is Zinefest Berlin 2012! Following the festival’s amazing debut last November, Zinefest continues, bringing self-published radical content to the world of Berlin’s underground. I was very lucky to be in attendance last year, along with my very popular vagina (or, more correctly, vulva) cupcakes and feminist zine. My awesome friend riotmade with love is selling my zine and all proceeds will go to a local queer project, because we are that nice. So go along and read!

The deets:

03-04 November 2012

SFE Gneisenaustrasse 2a

10961 Berlin

the prettiest printing of Dressed Like That, like, EVER

Before I go ahead and publish my post of the week tomorrow, I wanted to let you guys know that I will now be publishing new content every Thursday. This is a (potentially self-defeating) to be more organised and provide you, the reader, with a more consistent service (blah blah blah). I could make a graph to prove this theory to you, but I can’t quite be bothered. So yeah, Rock on. Thursdays are now your favourite day of the week!

I’m Not Leaving You!

Hello awesome people. Some of you have been asking me, since I left Berlin a few days ago, if I intend to keep blogging. And the answer is YES YES a thousand times YES! I have a lot of posts on the go and maybe even some new plans for the site. Keep tuned in…

But back to the most exciting news of today. Well, not new news. More old, but still definitely very pretty. For those of you who still haven’t seen them, I decided to post a small selection of the wonderful and beautiful photos of The Berlin Femme Show 2012. They are so beautiful, I want you to see them too! Check out the slideshow below. A.W.E.S.O.M.E.

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Please don’t reproduce them without asking permission from the photographers Simson Petrol or Sara Svärtan Persson first. Slideshow can be viewed permanently under Performances tab.

Why fetishizing trans men is offensive

See? I love provocative titles! God, I am going to get into so much trouble now. This one’s about when fetishes are harmful and why the queer community’s fetishization of trans men is problematic.

Warning! Controversial material.

In one of my posts earlier this Summer, I suggested that to unthinkingly fetishize transmasculinity can be sexist, and I wanted to flesh out (that one’s for all you vegans) that thought more. For me, there is a slight difference between having a fetish (a kink, for feathers or toes or suchlike) and fetishizing a group of people, such as a gender or an ethnicity.

According to the dictionary definition of a fetish as a sexual obsession, our whole culture fetishizes symbols of maleness (cue image of skyscraper) and we can see the eroticising of many women of colour as suspect exoticism. Fucked-up assumptions about ethnicity + misogyny = extra gross sexism.

I Googled phallus and skyscrapers. It was fun.

Although both the noun fetish and the verb to fetishize have similar dictionary meanings, as someone who likes to think about sexuality and sexual behaviours like, a lot, I find it useful to draw a kinda PC line between the two. For me, I am unlikely to judge someone who says they have, say, a leather or bicycle fetish. Regardless of whether black and bikes turn me on, I can respect someone who says they have a fetish. Have a thing for buttons or custard? Go for it, tiger. I don’t even need to understand these fetishes. They are not harmful, and are therefore none of my business.

Things become more complicated when people’s fetishes start to cross into ideologically laden territory, specifically when we start to fetishize groups of people. Fetishizing a button doesn’t hurt the button. There are (probably) not any button-ists out there fighting for equal rights for buttons or a Students Against Button Objectification group. But when we fetishize a gender, or an ethnicity, we start to deal with the squiffy area of identities that are assigned to people. We start to be attracted to people based on unfounded assumptions we make about them. These assumptions are informed by stereotypes about the social groups to which the person belongs.

For example, if I am a white girl who has a thing for black dudes, then my fetish is a bit more problematic. If I say that I prefer black dudes, then I have to ask myself what assumptions I am making about black men that makes them seem more attractive to me. Everyone knows that we, as a culture, believe a lot of clichés about black men. That they have larger penises and are in general more virile or aggressive. These myths probably originate in the racist assumption that people of colour are closer to nature and more in touch with their ‘animal’, and therefore ‘sexual’ selves (we also think the same about women; the man=intellectual / woman=irrational dichotomy). This racist, evolutionist ideology influences my apparently innocent sexual preferences. My fetish for black dudes is shown to be informed by some really dodgy cultural values.

Demure, submissive, avoiding eye-contact? Yup, that’s the Asian Doll stereotype

A similar thing happens in the queer community around transmasculinity. Most of us queers profess to only be attracted to queers on the masculine side of the spectrum and say we ‘just don’t find femmes, or feminine folks, that attractive’. I find this unthinking celebration of transmasculinity and its corresponding rejection of femininity extremely problematic. That to even write ‘transfemininity’ feels like an oxymoron – how can something be ‘trans’ and ‘feminine’? –  reveals that we use ‘trans’ as an adjective that means someone or something is inherently radical and inherently masculine.

So often, I find in queer communities that we assume a man we know to be trans will be feminist or queer. (Cis men at a dyke sex party? No thanks! Trans guys? Oh, that’s OK.) So often, we use the word ‘trans’ to mean only transmasculine folk, which leaves trans women and transfeminine peeps totally out of the picture. This kind of trans-misogyny from within the queer community mirrors the way patriarchal society values men and women.

Awesome blogger Natalie Reed sums up the way trans men are fetishized in the queer community:

“I am getting sick of trans men being treated as these totally awesome hot sex-pots in the queer community while trans women are treated with open contempt and revulsion. … I’m getting annoyed by trans men being perceived as radical super-duper gender rebels, smashing apart outdated norms, while trans women continue to be painted as tedious, conservative throwbacks to patriarchy- no matter how we express our gender. … I’m sick of femme straight trans women being pushed out of the queer community entirely while trans men are appreciated as the vanguard no matter how they present or who they fuck.”

– When Trans-Inclusivity Goes Wrong

I agree with Natalie that we in the queer community put trans men on a pedestal. We see them as the embodiment of sexiness and as the embodiment of queerness.At the same time, we explicitly (in, like, rules) and subtly (y’know, by staring and making them feel unwelcome) exclude transfemininities and trans women from queer spaces.

I, too, am not immune to this collective adoration. I have a ‘thing’ for trans men just like all the other queers out there. But I find it problematic that I fetishize trans men. What makes me so much more likely to jump into bed with a guy, just because he’s trans? Then, I realised, oh that’s because I’m making all these assumptions about a guy who’s trans. I assume he’ll be better at non-normative heterosexual sex, I assume he’s more likely to be feminist, to be open-minded, to want to have penetrative sex and to be a considerate lover. Wow, all that and before I’ve even talked to the guy! Crazy.

Although it would be nice to think that a trans man will have a better understanding of sexism and be more feminist because he has been treated by others as if he were a woman, this assumption just doesn’t hold up. I am beginning to realise that there are also some lovely cis guys out there who are just as aware of and into the above things, and that being trans does not give a guy a magical pass to queer- and awesomeness.

To have the possibility to live as a transgender or transsexual person, that is radical. To fight for the right to change your name and decide your own sex, that is radical.  To be a pregnant man, that is radical. But to be trans, is, in itself, not radical. That is (or should be) normal. It’s your gender identity and it shouldn’t have any values imposed upon it (of course it does, but that’s what I’m discussing, innit?).

I am not trying to suggest that living as a trans person isn’t harder than living as a cis person. It is. I am not trying to say that to fight, every day and in myriad ways I will never, as a cis person, understand, for your right to exist as a trans person is not radical. It is. I am, however, saying that just because someone is trans, it doesn’t mean that they are inherently left-wing, feminist, queer, clever or considerate. You can be trans, and you can be a jerk at the same time. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. That is all.

I am stating this, not to interrupt the momentum of trans activism that is building up all over the world, but to ask us, as self-proclaimed feminists and queers to think about what values we assign to the different gender identities in our community, and why.

Of course there are truly radical trans dudes and transmasculine folks out there. There are trans men, and masculine genderqueers whose embodiment of masculinity is beautiful and does a wonderful service to feminism and great relationships everywhere. It’s just that we tend to assume trans men will be awesome for no other reason than they are trans. And that’s just silly.

So, back to fetishizing. I think we, in the queer community, fetishize transmasculine folks. We make a whole lot of positive assumptions about a guy, just because he’s trans, which may or may not have anything to do with him as a person. This is not only unfair to the individual personalities of all the transmasculine folks out there, it is also part of the demonization of trans women.

Further reading:

My thoughts in this article have been informed and developed by the brilliant writing of other folks around the web. I heartily invite you to check out the articles below.

A Beginner’s Guide to Trans Misogyny

When Trans-Inclusivity Goes Wrong

‘No cis guys’ – No thank you

Self-Examination and Shifting Desires

Enough with ‘I date women and trans men’ and follow-up post

‘Socialised as a woman’

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Hey dudettes, I know I’ve been absent recently, but that’s what working for the man does to you. I need to find a woman! To tide you over in times of need, I have helpfully linked a review I published this week on The F Word. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is the second autobiography by Jeanette Winterson, one of my fave authors, and it has taught me a lot about the connection between mental health and creativity. You can check out my review at this brilliant UK feminist website. Enjoy and CLICK ME!

Queers are Slutty, Lesbians are Boring

Why queer feminism is sexist, queer snobbery and, somehow, the Grand Prix.

Well, that was a bit ugly wasn’t it? All that fighting about the Berlin Femme Show. Meow, meow. I admit, swearing publicly on my blog wasn’t the best move, but it was the accumulation of years of femme hatred and misunderstanding and I was just sick of it and lost my temper. However, just like Nina Simone, I am a fluffy little kitten on the inside and I don’t want to be misunderstood. Oh well, on to the next topic.

Earlier this week I wrote a review of queer porno Mommy is Coming. It’s a pretty straightforward film with lots of sex and solid, quite funny, storyline. If you feel so inclined, I think you should go see it. However, something about it irked me a bit, and I’d like to talk about it more here.

The popularity of my post on hypersexualisation within the queer community obviously touched a raw nerve for many of you. A lot of you agreed that you felt pressure to want to and to have a lot of sex in order to fit in the queer scene. It seems, that in order to be a hip queer in the 21st century, you need to be very sexual and sexual in a certain way. I know that I’ve talked about the hypersexualisation of queer and the privileging of polyamory a fair bit already, but what can I say? I’m still not over it.

“Queer is an ideal that none of us feel we can reach”

Last year I attended a zine workshop run by a friend. Each participant was asked to make a page for a collaborative zine for Lad.i.y.fest Berlin. We weren’t asked to focus on a particular topic, but given that this was a group of mostly queers at a feminist festival, nearly all of us wrote about our queer identities, which, of course, we probably all see as feminist. It was really fascinating to see a group of people, with hardly any prior guidance, all create pieces about their struggle to fit in the queer community and coming out as queer. One person wrote about feeling outcast as a bisexual, another a celebration of polyamory. I, of course, went on an angry femme rant. Diverse as they were, it took my friend’s perspective to see what all of these pieces had in common. She summarised – lifting her hand above her head – it seems that queer is an idea we think of as up here, and we – she moved her hand down to her waist – feel that we can’t get at it and are stuck down here. Queer is an ideal that none of us feel we can reach.

This idea has stuck with me over the past year and come up again and again as I keep hitting wall upon wall within the queer community: femmephobia, the privileging of polyamory over monogamy, queer masculinities over queer femininities and BDSM over so-called ‘vanilla’ sex. Although we queers congratulate ourselves on living by radical ideas that eliminate sexist and patriarchal hierarchies, we too create hierarchies that cause us to push away individuals who don’t conform to our standards.

Can any of us, as queers, say that we feel 100% comfortable in the queer community? I certainly don’t.

Of course, I know that many of you lovely readers are super intelligent. I know that many queers understand that the queer community can never be a happy patriarchy-free bubble, because this is the world we live in. And the trouble with the patriarchy is that it gets everywhere. But I do think we rest on our laurels too much. We are a bit too self-congratulatory and too quick to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit the queer bill.

Over the past few months I have come to distrust the phrase ‘queer feminism.’ In fact, when I hear an event described as queer feminist, I am most likely to grumble and not want to go. This is because the values I see queer feminism representing here in Berlin are actually ones that I find sexist. Queer feminism, has, for me, come to mean a party where I will be the only femme and I will be ignored. No one will hit on me and I will struggle to find anyone who looks like me. I’ll smile if I see anyone wearing a bit of make-up, a hint of colour. The only trans represented at these parties will be transmasculinities.

 “I started to notice that calling myself a lesbian was distinctly uncool”

When I came out for the second time as bisexual (I had come out as a lesbian before, and then promptly fallen in love with a guy), I did so not because I really felt bisexual (I thought of the guy moment as a freak accident rather than a possibly recurring event) but because it was the cool thing to say. As a girl, it was OK for me to come out as bisexual because that wasn’t seen as threatening to the heterosexist status quo. As a bisexual woman, I still had one foot in the hetero pond, and everyone knows that girls can’t really fuck each other anyway. It took a lot of courage, and it was a very slow process, for me to later come out as lesbian, an identity that I found fitted me better.

Later, moving to Montreal and getting my first taste of living within a queer community, I started to notice that calling myself a lesbian was distinctly uncool here too. Real queers have fluid sexualities and don’t focus on such unimportant things as gender. Real queers love the person, not the gender. It became very fashionable to say, “Man, I experience my sexuality as fluid” (except without the ‘Man’, because actually if you were cool you wouldn’t sound like someone trying to imitate a rap star from the 90s, like I do). I get the whole sexuality is fluid idea. My own sexuality has changed faster than a tyre in the Grand Prix and I don’t think it’s my job to dictate someone else’s desires for them. However, I don’t like snobbery and such statements, with their implied I’m-a-better-queer-than-you, really piss me off.

So, how does all this relate to Mommy is Coming and queer porn? In my review of the film, I noted that although it showed some fine butch-femme and butch-butch sex, its view of what ‘queer sex’ is still felt pretty limited to me.

As queers and/or lesbians, what you will, we are starved for representation in film. There are still very few films out there about us, and even fewer that don’t pathologise us completely in order to ease heterosexist angst about queers taking over the world. Mainstream films about us portray us as fucked-up power lesbians who have non-penetrative sex on flowery beds next to our teddy bears. So it’s not surprising that our community-made queer films tend to go in the opposite direction. BDSM, dildos, public sex and leather. However, just like being a lesbian is uncool, it feels to me like the prevalence of these types of sex and relationships in queer films show a one-sided view of queer life. They seem to be saying that this is the epitome of what it means to fuck and love as a queer. If you’re a cool queer, this is what you’ll be doing in your bed/dungeon/swing tonight.

As a reader commented on my latest article:

“In the same way rad fem lesbian separatism did a fine job of ostracising certain women based on an essentialist reading of bodies, I find that far too much ‘queer’ culture and porn is doing exactly this again under a different banner”

Thanks, supernaut, for summarising so well. It seems that, instead of living in a happy-go-lucky world free of sexism and social norms, we queers are enforcing social norms in exactly the same way as the big evil Patriarchy Dude does ‘out there.’ Queer films promote polyamorous relationships, public sex and BDSM as a privileged viewpoint.

Contrast this with the fluffy-bunny-rabbit version of lesbianism we see in mainstream L-films, and you get a kind of kinky devil versus innocent angel version of gay life. Queers are leather-touting bois, lesbians are asexual little girls. It’s pretty interesting that these two images mirror the virgin/whore dichotomy, (not to mention masculinities vs. femininities) right?

My point here isn’t to slate Mommy is Coming, or to write a harsh critique of the few queer and mainstream lesbian films we have. I just want to point out that, yes, we do put too much pressure on each film to represent how we live our lives, and, yes, there aren’t enough films about us. So, budding queer filmmakers, who’s ready to take up the challenge?

Did you like this article? Then stay tuned for: Radical vs. Queer feminism; the showdown, next week.