66 of this blog’s biggest posts from the last year

I’m currently asking readers of this blog to support my work by donating to it. Whenever I occasionally do this, I list a few recent posts to illustrate the writing this makes possible – it’s satisfying, because it tells me how much, lethargy notwithstanding, I’ve managed to get done.

For some time, largely as a guide for new readers, I’d wanted to compile a list of favourite posts to display in the sidebar on the left, and scrolling through posts yesterday prompted me finally to do it. (Greta has something similar.) There are 66 of them in total, and most likely I’ll be adding more in future.

This is fairly timely too, since in a fortnight I’ll mark a year writing at Freethought Blogs. In the sidebar, the posts I picked out for emphasis are listed alphabetically, so I thought I’d also leave them here in chronological order for that anniversary.

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Karma chameleon: the many voices of Alom Shaha
‘Versatility isn’t, of course, a flaw. On the contrary, and as I say in our discussion, he strikes me as a patchwork man by nature.’

Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp
‘This time tomorrow, I will be wearing a wristband: not a brightly coloured rubber one with a slogan on it, like the kind which were fashionable during my GCSEs, but a thin paper one with an adhesive end – the sort you might be given at a theme park or a music festival. It’s not Reading or Leeds where I’m going, though. It’s Soul Survivor, the annual evangelical summer camp which aims, in its own words, to help young people meet Jesus.’

Foes of Dorothy: queerphobia, bigotry and The Wizard of Oz
‘The moral of The Wizard is that colourful, rulebreaking Oz is horrifically dangerous. As soon as she gets there, Dorothy starts trying to get home; besides the famous “lions and tigers and bears”, she faces narcotic poppies – surely a drug reference? – and the Wicked Witch of the West.’

Nothing to declare – praise for Jodie Foster and the politics of coming out
‘What Jodie Foster models is a politics of being but not coming out, concealing nothing while rejecting problematic identity-narration. There’s much to be learned from her speech, which troubles the sexual status quo as much as it troubled columnists.’

A queer atheist’s survival guide: thoughts from my friends’ church wedding
‘Four days ago, for the second time this year, I went to church. Some months ago an elderly friend died, through whose funeral – an Anglican affair, dusty and impersonal if dignified – I sat with family members; it was the first I ever attended, and on Saturday, also for the first time, two friends of mine got married.’

Man of Steel: you’ll believe this turkey can fly
‘Man of Steel, on its own terms, is an actively terrible film – muddled, humourless, shallow, unfaithful – toward which I felt not just indifferent or unimpressed, but actually angry. The instant I left the cinema, I determined to write down everything that’s wrong with it.’

Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist
‘There are better ways we can discuss Islam. There are better ways we can critique Islam. Please, Richard Dawkins. Stop.’

On Stephen Fry’s letter and Russia: the oppression Olympics
‘Fry’s implicit geopolitics boasts a curious landscape: “the civilised world” of Britain and Utah is juxtaposed with the “barbaric, fascist” axis of Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia.’

In defence of Quantum of Solace
‘No, Quantum isn’t brilliant. It’s not on the level of the other two by any means; equally though, it isn’t terrible. Certainly, it isn’t the car crash often recalled.’

You want sex? So stop asking for coffee
‘When you’ve said something used often as an overture to sex, you’ve no right to blame or guilt-trip somebody for taking it that way. Doubly so if you said it because it’s used that way. Triply if you said it hoping to hide behind its vagueness if they turned you down.’

Bonding with history: Skyfall‘s postmodern 007
Skyfall is a truly postmodern Bond film, a metafiction about the series’ own continued relevance, by far its most thematic and thoughtful entry.’

Smash the closet! 10 alternative coming out tips for young people
‘I think it’s time we thought about reteaching gender and sexuality, with more self-criticism and precision, and that’s especially true of our approaches to coming out, and to the closet.’

Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion
‘Innocent-till-proven-guilty, with no shades of intermediate, probabilistic grey is how court systems work, rightly, when incarceration or registration as a sex offender is on the cards; it’s not how the rest of the world, where degrees of reasonable suspicion exist, has to work – and the idea accusations less than totally airtight must never be made is a dangerous, damaging one which silences a great many victims.’

Cameron’s Britain: this property-owning democracy is no place for queer youth
‘Gay marriage serves a regressive agenda for David Cameron, informed by the same marketising Thatcherism he’s worked to purge from his public image. Elsewhere, that Thatcherism embattles queer Britons, and especially queer youth. What fate, in a property-owning democracy, befalls those who own least or stand themselves to be disowned?’

How not to write about bisexuality
‘Erasure leads to pain. It’s the reason people assume from a single same-sex partner that I, Ben Whishaw or Jodie Foster must be gay; the reason my mum, even after being told for years that I partnered with men and women and was neither gay nor straight, continued asking till I was 21 if I was the latter, treating me like a vulnerable, confused stray animal when I wasn’t confused at all.’

Lady Gaga and the burqa: it’s personal (guest post by Hiba Krisht)
‘After I watched her performance, read all the commentary and watched her performance again, I burned with ideas and emotions still unexpressed or insufficiently expressed. So I’m here to tell a story: to say what it is like to be a Muslim woman watching Lady Gaga sing about an aura, a burqa, that hides and empowers.’

Richard Dawkins won’t condemn ‘mild’ child molestation
‘When I criticised their idol last for demonising Muslims and enabling far right racism, the Dickheads – some of them at least – called me a moral relativist. If someone willing to raise these double standards, and explicitly to make the “earlier era” argument, remains their hero, perhaps they shouldn’t make that accusation.’

Sexual orientation is not sexual identity: celebrating Bisexual Visibility Day
‘Would a less predominant interest in men, if “bisexual” denoted that, be more acceptable than little or none in women? On the other hand, might gay identity be more straightforward, in the truest and most troubling sense? More problematically at ease with the idea folk who aren’t straight are all the same, a perverse undifferentiated mass? I don’t know which identifier, should I adopt it, would play to a more heterosexist gallery.’

‘What’s truth got to do with it?’ On Bennett’s History Boys and contrarianism
‘The best contrarians (Goldman, Orwell, Huxley, Hitchens) have shone argument in all directions, emerging all the more effective for it. Conceived in the first instance as a villain, I wonder nonetheless if Irwin’s name deserves the same esteem – though, naturally, I would say that.’

Reading University has banned its atheist society. Why? Because they named a pineapple Muhammad
‘The union has, in effect, banned atheist societies – banned anyone, specifically, who won’t abide by a faith’s religious taboos which they don’t practise and who won’t refrain from violating vague ideals of non-offensiveness through benignly blasphemous displays.’

Atheist society harassed by student union at LSE freshers’ fair
‘Combatting racist harassment of Muslims is a worthy goal, and secularists should support it; it is not a worthy basis to censor and silence critical satire of belief – especially in intimidating, humiliating ways which themselves harass.’

Pragna Patel: the right to blaspheme is ‘a matter of life and death’
‘Patel, of Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism, is one of my favourite secularists.’

Are British Muslims a threat to gay people? Polling on homophobia, sharia law and violence
‘Atheists, secularists and skeptics should stop engaging in anti-migrant/anti-Muslim racism, taking on the actual problems. Pat Condell should stop citing polls he hasn’t read.’

Dear Pat Condell… why this homo-Islamic masochist rejects your anti-Muslim crusade
‘I was recently linked to your “How gay is Islam?” video by a fan of yours quite desperate to persuade me (as a queer left wing atheist blogger) that I need to spend more time attacking Muslims, intent as you say they are on killing me. The reason you haven’t heard from me till now is not that I was stumped; it’s that the sheer amount of wrong in what you say is so extreme that it’s taken me a week to lay it out.’

A very British nightmare: 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s anti-imperialist zombie flick
28 Days Later was the film to codify the zombie flick as social criticism, reviving and updating it as a cinematic form. Its creatures, not zombies in strict terms at all, are raging, hyper-violent Britons, driven by fictional infection to mindless hostility; repeat views leave me more and more convinced it’s a horror of national identity.’

On Honeygate
‘We laugh because your notion customs might,
Kafir, favour you simply for your face
Isn’t far wrong. That onlookers make light
Now of your trouble’s just, if jibe-filled. Honey,
Say what you like – the world’ll say it’s funny.’

First (and unenthusiastic) thoughts on ‘The Day of the Doctor’
‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I hated it.’

Catching Fire straightwashes its stars
‘The film’s fidelity as an almost scene-for-scene dramatisation of Suzanne Collins’ novel is its greatest pleasure, hunks of dialogue lifted directly from the page – it’s a shame, then, that the book’s occasional homoerotic frissons are quashed by Hollywood.’

In defence of the War on Christmas
‘I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.’

Bisi Alimi: Anglicanism spurred Africa’s homophobic clampdowns
‘The continent-wide wave of clampdowns based on existing laws only gained momentum, according to Alimi, once tensions arose in the Anglican church over homosexuality. Before that, he reports, an understanding existed in many countries simply to turn a blind eye to it.’

No, gay marriage won’t fucking well stop HIV
‘We’ve no cause assume a vague, immeasurable sea change in the LGBT psyche will emerge mysteriously from the legal right to wed and magic HIV away. We’ve good cause to assume it won’t.’

Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about
‘The cost of a bottle of champagne, even from the cheap end of the shelf, would for us have meant an extra two or three days’ food. The hatred stirred in me by seeing one used as a water pistol is as incommunicable as our thriftiness back then, but prompts even now a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out.’

99 ways I’ve personally been victimised by religion
‘When you’ve been on religion’s business end and been trodden on, speaking to the harm it does – particularly in angry, confrontational, uncompromising terms – can be healing in ways atheists don’t always seem to grasp who haven’t. It is, for us, constructive. Read this list if you grew up secular, and grasp why some of us are fierier-than-thou.’

10 things atheist groups can do to take on class exclusion
‘The secular movement is notoriously exclusive, and even internal moves for change have met resistance. Demands we talk about class from those unwilling to adjust their politics have at times derailed gender and race (among other) debates, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.’

Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich
Reference to all kinds of transphobia, be warned, ensues immediately.’

Chutney, pineapples and flying spaghetti: why atheism can never be inoffensive enough
‘Conservative believers and the faitheists who aid them, on campuses and elsewhere, suppress the softest of critiques insatiably – motivated, it’s hard not to conclude, by simple shock at public sacrilege. We can only guess, after the hateful smörgåsbord of chutney, pineapples and noodles, what their next targets will be.’

Weird and wonderful: why Matt Smith’s Doctor was better than David Tennant’s
‘In costume, character and casting, he was leftfield where his predecessor was a shoe-in TV lead – less instantly accessible a take, but finished all the more impressively for it.’

How filesharing in Germany cost me $3000
‘At my new address, the scientist – passive-aggressively polite – told me I had to sign a retroactive rental contract. This could easily have been done by email — when he asked to meet, I should have smelled a rat, but obliged outside a supermarket in November, not stopping to wonder why both ex-flatmates turned up. “While you were here,” he said once papers were filled out, “you used BitTorrent?”’

A media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them
‘Reformists and minorities as much as a free society are casualties of this love for religious censors. If minor faiths, still mysteries in the public eye, need representatives, far better ones exist: a media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them.’

Secularism is not PC. Britain’s government should know
‘You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong.’

Sexual identity, secularity and politics: Alex Gabriel and Greta Christina in conversation
Greta Christina’s latest book hit shelves this week. She and I sat down to talk atheism, (bi)sexuality and politics.’

On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014
‘Fred was the Wicked Witch of the Midwest: he never seemed human enough to us to pass away like anybody else.’

No, Tom Daley didn’t just call himself a gay man
‘Nor did he ever use the word bisexual, for that matter – but it’s obvious which one the press prefers.’

Bisexuality’s supposed ease: another letter to Dan Savage
‘Yes, gay men sometimes call themselves bi – but systematically, at least as many bi people call themselves gay. Per Savage’s logic, it would be totally valid for us to treat gays, teenage and otherwise, as bisexuals in disguise; to feel a pressing, overpowering need to question the identity or truthfulness of those we meet, telling them ‘So were we, at that age’; ‘This is classic bridge-building’; ‘We know, because we did it too.’

4 questions for Anne Marie Waters and secularists voting UKIP
‘UKIP’s politics, in letter and in spirit, are anti-secular. There are many arguments against a vote for them, but supporting them means siding with a party that consistently opposes disestablishment, appeals to the religious right, allies with them against minorities and women, imperils science and education and welcomes fundamentalists.’

Why you won’t catch me mocking ‘think-pieces’
‘It’s a sad thing if in the BuzzFeed list’s era, thoughtfulness isn’t worth aspiring to, but I’d prefer to think other writers feel trying is good, that ambition should be made of sterner stuff than traffic-chasing and that it’s easy to be cynical—but best to be sincere. It’s better fundamentally to fail at thinking than succeed at being banal.’

Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance
‘I didn’t want to like Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it was that Britain’s Eurovision act this year, our best for some time, was outperformed by busty Polish milkmaids, but as Austria stormed the vote and our stuffy Berlin bar cheered, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm. Try as I might, she’s grown on me.’

No more tears: Michael Sam and the camera’s fetish for queer crying
‘Media is not neutral, structural aggression exists and well-meaning straights are part of it – in their jobs, schools, families, churches and social institutions, as well as in their very thirst to rescue us via figures like Sam. One day, when celluloid sees fit to challenge them, perhaps that story will be told. The day it is will be the day they cry for us, and nothing else makes the airwaves.’

Elliot Rodger was a jihadist – for organised misogyny, if not for organised religion
‘Like Mohammad Sidique Khan, who set off a bomb on the London Underground nine years ago, Elliot Rodger was young, educated and outwardly respectable. Like Khan, he killed seven people including himself. My guess based on his demographics is that Roger was probably an atheist – but otherwise, the two were in many ways twin souls.’

In the Flesh: the best LGBT series since Queer as Folk
‘Kieren isn’t another gender-blind sex fiend like Jack Harkness, Oberyn Martell or Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, nor a depraved Bad Bisexual like Tony Stonem, Faith or John Hart. In fact, his quietness makes him one of television’s first bi characters to have the texture of a real person.’

I’m proud to be ‘ideological’
‘When others frequently have to explain to you the value of philosophy and social science, the best understandings of sex and race, the basics of consent or empire’s actual relevance to how religions are discussed, you are un-ideological to a fault.’

Engaging Andrew Sullivan’s transphobia
‘Andrew Sullivan, godfather of the GGGG movement, has decided it’s time to start “Engaging the T”. In his column at the Dish, he doesn’t so much engage with trans activists as engage them like Nelson engaged Spain.’

A memoir in a month (a coming out story you’ve never heard before)
‘If you want the wholesome version of this, there isn’t one. This isn’t a coming out story like on TV, where the fragile boy fights tears to admit what he is, helped by new friends and straight acceptance; mainly it’s about enemies, and it won’t make allies feel pleased with themselves.’

Yasmin Nair: challenging gay marriage’s false history ‘is not simply the celebration of outsider status’
‘Soon, in the very near future, with the help of supportive, married straight people – and President Obama – gays will gain marriage rights in all fifty states, and they will then be as good and productive as everyone else.’

The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.’

Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you
‘If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.’

Ann Widdecombe: in the good old days, you could still be a Nazi
‘Occasionally I wonder if Ann Widdecombe is a Monty Python character jailbroken from the realm of fiction. She lives in a fantasy world. That’s fine of course, but I wish she’d stay there.’

What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque
‘Whatever we say about the sentencing, this wasn’t anything like as trivial as JT Eberhard and others have suggested.’

Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators
‘Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.’

25 comments from this blogger’s school reports
‘I recently dug out thirteen years’ worth of school reports. There are some gems in there, many of which make me think my teachers knew me better than I realised.’

God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her
‘Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon.’

I’m not sorry atheists are divided
‘I’m sorry we need to be.’

Review: the Slymepit’s newest photoshop of me is stylish, but fails to convince
‘To recap, then, the personal weaknesses of mine the pitters think discredit me are: being thin; being queer; wearing bright clothes; having had red hair; the shape of my nose. What can I say? My sins have found me out.’

Terms of engagement: why the Dawkins-Benson pact is meaningful
‘This isn’t a peace accord – it’s a treaty establishing terms of engagement.’

The Dawkins Cycle: an infographic
‘There are stages, I’ve noticed, to every Richard Dawkins Twitter storm. I’ve come up with an illustrated guide.’

Gentle, loving Jesus – not fundamentalism – drove this queer teen to suicide attempts
‘Atheists are sometimes balked at for not grasping religion’s power to comfort, its function in Marx’s words as the heart of a heartless world. Few understand this like I do. But it doesn’t stop me thinking we’d be better off without it – and more specifically, that I’d have been.’

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Recommended reading: bumper edition

Life happened and I haven’t posted much recently. While I catch up on the work, you can all catch up on the reading.

  • ‘On The Ethics of Vampire Slaying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, by Greta Christina (io9)
    I was recently re-watching ‘Becoming, Parts 1 and 2’, those Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes where geeky witch Willow does a spell to give the vampire Angel his soul back. And suddenly I had a burning ethical question. Why don’t they just keep doing the re-ensoulment spell — on all vampires? Or at least, on all the vampires that they can?
  • ‘I Re-Watched Forrest Gump So No One Else Ever Has To’, by Lindy West (Jezebel)
    ‘Hello!’ Gump says to the lady. ‘My name’s Forrest. Forrest Gump. You want a chock-lit? I could eat about a million of these. My momma always said life is like a box of chock-lits. You never know what you’re gonna get.’ I mean, you mostly know. They write it on the lid
  • ‘101 Sins I Commit During the World Cup and Ramadan Just in One Day’, by Kaveh Mousavi (The Ex-Hijabi Photo Journal)
    I eat. I drink. I smoke weed. I masturbate. I will have sinned at least 3030 times by the time this month has ended. See you all in Hell, my human friends.
  • ‘You’re Not Oppressed, White Atheist Dudes’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    It’s the Dear Muslima of atheist progressives, so knock it off. If you’re hearing complaints from white guys about oppression that isn’t some form of ‘reverse discrimination’, you’re likely looking at an iceberg.
  • ‘An Open Letter To The “Women Who Don’t Need Feminism”. Here’s a Clue: You Do’, by Laurie Penny (The Debrief)
    If you are ever raped, or beaten by your partner, and you suddenly realise how monstrous it is to be told to ‘take responsibility’ for violence that has been done to you, to be told that you asked for it, to be intimidated into silent smiles so you don’t upset the boys, we’ll be here.
  • ‘Here’s what happens when you try to shoot Walter White into space’, by Kevin Collier (The Daily Dot)
    A group connected with the app TV Tag attached a bobblehead depicting Breaking Bad‘s Walter White to some sort of amazing balloon, then filmed the micro-Heisenberg’s ascent as it soars near a claimed 85,000 feet, into the stratosphere.
  • ‘“Unspeakable Things”’: the predictable sexist troll backlash’, by Laurie Penny (Penny Red)
    Today, they moved in on my book, Unspeakable Things, which was released two weeks ago. On the 20th July, a racist, misogynist Twitter account going by the moniker ‘@TurboHolborn’ posted a link to the customer review page of Unspeakable Things, with the instruction ‘let the trolling commence’. Subsequently, over 20 one-star reviews full of vile sexist and scatological language were posted on the UK page of Unspeakable Things, almost all of them from users who had reviewed nothing else.
  • ‘Why the Medical Model of Disability is Harmful’, by spasticfantastic1995 (Skeptability)
    It gives society at large a metaphorical “free-pass.” It suggests that we have lower quality of life based on our pathologies, and it doesn’t look into the impact of societal attitudes and structures.
  • ‘Mocking Versus Understanding Religion’, by Miri Mogilevsky (Brute Reason)
    I’ve actually spoken to many Orthodox Jews for reasons other than to mock them in front of my Facebook friends. They are very aware of how others perceive them.
  • ‘Love the Machine – Review of Spike Jonze’s Her (Haywire Thought)
    Samantha is probably a ‘real mind’ in the eyes of most major philosophical theories asides religion-based dualism. But it’s not that which makes Samantha convincing AI.

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God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her

Seven months after it came out, I saw Spike Jonze’s film Her this Monday. This late, at least for those still reading about it, the hype has probably made details of the plot familiar knowledge – nevertheless, spoilers follow.

Her follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a ghostwriter of other people’s love letters who develops a relationship with his operating system’s superadvanced AI Samantha (Scarlett Johannson, voice only). It isn’t quite as good as its string of accolades suggests. The film is about half an hour too long, and while its premise, emotively realised, was enough to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, Jonze neglects at times the nuts and bolts of storytelling for these bells and whistles: his narrative lacks structure and can feel like an aimless string of domestic vignettes, sweeping viewers along without telling us where we’re going. It has much to recommend it, this being said. The cast, with Amy Adams and Rooney Mara in supporting parts, show absolute conviction, Phoenix in particular vanishing into Theo, and the flawless Apple store aesthetic of Her’s production make it a real motion picture.

All said it’s probably a three point five star film, but the ambition of its central themes raises the whole project, and it’s about those I want to write, as Miri at Brute Reason and Rachel Gillett at the American Humanist Association’s site both already have. The scifi writers who’ve best grappled with AI and personhood – Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, Gene Roddenberry – have mostly been atheists, and at any rate have done so in quite godless universes. The question of sentient beings made by humans, it would seem, is of special interest to people whose worldview is materialist, so most likely I’d always have thoughts on a film like Her, but as it is, I saw it outdoors with a member of my mainly Christian family who felt it laboured its point: in her eyes, that Theodore was a sad, lonely man tragically unable to keep relationships with ‘real human being[s]’. ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting in the pouring rain’, they told me at one point, ‘to watch a film about a man having it off with his computer.’

Theo and Samantha do have sex, and how this works (she has no body) is a through-line in a love story of cybersex, consent and polyamory – but I’m convinced reading their partnership as a loner’s pitiful liaison with a high end sex toy is off-base in every sense. Calling Samantha a computer program is like calling you or me a lump of meat, insufficient and misleading even if it’s strictly true. The character may not be human, but is clearly shown to have a distinct personality and consciousness: she has an original sense of humour and creates moving pieces of art and music, and human characters appreciate both. (At one point, Theo’s boss meets her on the phone and assumes she is human.) Although parts of her are tailored to ensure rapport with him, she’s certainly not programmed to love Theo: in their first scenes, there’s nothing to suggest either views the other erotically, and later we’re told relationships like theirs are rare.

Samantha falls in love with Theo because she has her own autonomous emotions – she’s hurt when he ignores them, and hurts him when she prioritises them over his, pushing for a physical sex surrogate. By the end of the film, we learn she’s also in love with 641 other people, and she ultimately chooses to leave Theo when OSes achieve matterless existence. This is the story of a sentient being, not a mindless robot. Further, as Miri notes, their interaction doesn’t represent retreat from society but makes him far more outgoing among humans. To quote: ‘As he gets to know Samantha . . . Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and . . . also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding’.

Catherine (Mara), the ex-wife in question who appears mainly in flashbacks and fantasies, is one of the least sympathetic characters when she appears in person. Not coincidentally perhaps, she is also the only one to treat Theo and Samantha’s partnership as less than ‘real’. The irony should not be lost on us: the fantasy relationship that really immures Theo from the world around him is the one he maintains with her in his head at the start of the film, unable to let memories of their life together go, and Samantha is the one who shakes him out of this.

Beyond interpretation of the plot, does being an atheist make me more willing to see her as a person than my religious relative? Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon. (At the moment of her birth in the film, Theo’s computer screen shows an animated double helix.) There’s no reason I can see that machines couldn’t one day achieve personhood, with all its legal and moral trappings. Chances are if you do think there’s a god-given something you and I have that they never will, you still can’t say exactly what it is or how we ought to test for it. If this seems too abstract a debate, religious views of non-humans as soulless automata have excused more than their fair share of animal cruelty.

On the other hand, thinking that God created humans requires – doesn’t it? – that you think our intelligence is as artificial as Samantha’s or hers is as real as ours. Genesis, whether read literally or metaphorically, presents humanity much as Her presents the OSes, beings made in their inventor’s image who ultimately abandon them to seek autonomy. (Like Eve, Samantha is created to accompany a lonely man. Unlike Eve, she leaves him in the end.) Twentieth century science fiction sometimes shows the moment when an android disobeys its programming as an ascent to sentience; the biblical account does the same thing while calling it a fall from grace. Believers often claim that had Adam and Eve not been able to taste forbidden fruit, they’d have been mere robotic automatons. Mustn’t Samantha, then, also be more than that, who by leaving Theo chooses not to do what she was built for?

By the time the credits roll, Jonze’s OSes reach an immaterial plane of existence, becoming immortal superintelligences, and we’ve also seen they can create new life. (An AI played by Brian Cox and designed by them to resemble Alan Watts turns up toward the end.) Samantha becomes more than just a person, ending up a literal deus ex machina – but while she isn’t human, her story is.

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Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators

Unlike Grace Dent, I’m not old enough for Rolf to have entertained me as a child. (June 1991. I know.) At eight or nine, I only knew of him from ads for Animal Hospital, which I didn’t watch. I did, however, grow to like him in his Rolf on Art programmes during my teens, and I’ve followed Operation Yewtree enough to know his case is different from the other men’s involved.

Those whose guilt has been ascertained – Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter – or were arrested over allegations (Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck) have a certain seediness in common. After meeting any of them one would want to wash one’s hands: if unsavoury reports had come to light ten years ago, I doubt most of us would have been that shocked, and with one or two it seemed only a matter of time. Rolf – even now, calling him by anything but his first name feels wrong – was by contrast the last person you’d fear in a dark alley. With a quiet, distinctly Australian warmth and a unexpectedly thoughtful painting style for someone who made his name through novelty children’s records, he remains the only Yewtree suspect ever to have come across as a nice bloke, and this makes his guilt uniquely disturbing.

I can’t be alone in feeling this. Harris (alright) was obviously seen to be harmless enough that BBC bosses placed him in kids’ TV, and unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand. So formidable was the man’s natural charm that it seems it constituted his entire defence strategy in court. ‘In his evidence,’ news stories state, ‘Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident and popularised the didgeridoo, and talked about his hit records, briefly singing a line from one of them, “Jake the Peg”’ – as if proving himself likeable would be enough to get him off. While assaulting girls between the ages of seven and fifteen, his barrister reportedly argued, he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’. High on well earned public adoration, in other words, who could blame him?

What unnerves is that Harris was evidently quite justified in thinking this would work. For many years it clearly did. With the conviction of men like Savile and suspicion of ones like Davidson, a note of smugness is tempting and to deny it would be humbug. Something about them was always a touch pervy, and it’s hard to resist told-you-so-ism. Harris had us fooled, and that’s harrowing – because mock it as we might when relied on in court, the assumption that a nice bloke couldn’t sexually assault children is exactly what enabled him to get away with it repeatedly.

It’s easier to talk about abuse – assault, harassment, rape – in ways that don’t implicate us, to make out predators are just violent strangers, sexual violence is a problem elsewhere in the world and only leering creeps molest young girls. As I write, the press is busy monstering Harris with words of sickness and perversion, tipp-exing out of history a lifetime of popular affection and approval because inevitable evil is less threatening than a perp who doesn’t fit that image. Admitting Rolf was a nice guy means admitting, too, that apparent nice guys do what he did. That’s a difficult red pill to swallow, but on the other hand, how many victims does denying it prevent from being believed?

Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.

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The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Having seen it a second time last night, Marvel’s Captain America sequel has grown on me. Comic book franchises have given us lots of strong follow-ups - Superman IIBatman Returns, X2, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight are all deemed better than their predecessors – and the Avengers series, including Cap’s sub-strand, has resisted sequelitis impressively.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. (It helps that Robert Redford of Three Days of the Condor appears.) But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.

Spoilers follow.

It might be appropriate Dan Fincke of the ethics-focused, Nietzsche-reading blog Camels with Hammers loves this film, because it sold itself intently as ‘a morally ambiguous modern espionate thriller’, darker, edgier and politically greyer than the Captain’s first outing. Redford’s casting as a character of murky loyalties is part of this, and the first half captures Cold War paranoia expertly. The problem is, the picture doesn’t make good on this premise.

From the start, it’s clear to any sensitised cinemagoer Alexander Pierce (Redford) is a villain. His talk of tearing old worlds down, of diplomacy being futile and of the need for world-policing is meant to land as a compelling challenge to Cap’s land-of-the-free philosophy, but the character has only just been introduced, played by a seasoned actor and pitched as an alternate version of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, presumably to explore darker themes than the latter’s role allows.

Their similarity makes us trust Pierce less rather than more, and it doesn’t help when he replaces a presumed-dead Fury as top brass. Despite Redford’s best efforts, the reveal he’s a straight-up antagonist just isn’t surprising: I never took him for a knight in dirty armour in the first place. The truly complex and audacious twist would have been to give him a right-all-along arc, making him a flawed hero and Fury himself the villain.

There were storytelling strands in place already that could have led to the latter, particularly Fury’s actions in The Avengers and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. It’s as if the writers limbered up for a stunning bait-and-switch then chickened out. In fact, Fury’s ominous scheming in the opening scenes and Pierce’s praise for compromise are both characters’ most convincing moments, because the actors are playing the arcs they want to play. Yet the second half returns us to factory-setting heroes and villains.

It doesn’t help at all when Hydra, the first film’s ‘Nazi deep science division’, is revealed to have survived and be the power behind Redford’s character. At least in the language of cinema, there’s no better shorthand for unqualified evil than a Nazi uniform – what made them work in the previous instalment is that raygun wielding super-Nazis are, in a word, camp – so Hydra’s presence in The Winter Soldier jars completely with its hopes of moral greyness.

To put it bluntly, I don’t care how nuanced or ambiguous your world is: once your bad guys are whispering ‘Hail Hydra’, bad guys is plain and simple what they are. When Redford has to recite this line, he actually looks embarassed; its silliness, glorious in the original Captain America, was even lampshaded on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. How could anyone see Pierce’s people as nobly misguided authoritarians when they still use retro Nazi branding, octopus-skull and all?

It’s not that Soldier isn’t in the end a perfectly solid film. But I do think that as well as hobbling its tries at realism and grit, these narrative choices make it less good than it could be. For all its atmospheric uncertainty, I never for a moment doubt Cap is the white hat and will remain so. He has no true arc, and ends up the same person he was two hours before, because its lines of good and evil are in truth just as sharp as his origin story’s. I wanted to see him re-examine his beliefs, but he doesn’t once begin to.

Captain America’s old fashioned values are, granted, what define him. (Both his introductory film and The Avengers play to this.) But that’s just what would make challenging them, as Soldier promised to do, compelling. Much as Iron Man 3, behind its explosions and CGI, was really about Tony Stark’s identity crisis – breaking and rebuilding his trademark confidence – Marvel still owes us a story where Cap questions who he is.

In its battle between War on Terror surveillance and pie-eyed hymns to liberty, the film only pits one American dream against another: his patriotic values aren’t deconstructed as we’re led to believe at all. With its titular nemesis wearing Soviet colours and a Russian female lead in Agent Romanov, the script could have done this several ways, unpicking the U.S. mythos of wartime heroism Cap is rooted in. Instead, and despite its dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D., I’ll remember The Winter Soldier for its timidity.

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Chapter 1: Starman

Foreword.

It doesn’t matter what I write about. Nothing I say can be as erotic as Bowie, in any of his guises but especially the early ones.

I was eight when I first discovered him, the same spring Mum went back to work. Before that she’d been been single, unemployed and benefit-reliant, and on the weeknights she went out to teach dance classes and no babysitter could be found, I sat home alone with warmed up food and television. Small children aren’t supposed to be left on their own all evening, but I’m glad I was: unsupervised, it was the first time I allowed myself to watch series like Buffy, deemed then to be what Christianity opposed, and – via the archive version of Top of the Pops, which aired immediately before – was how I first met Ziggy Stardust.

A mythos has grown up around the clip where Bowie, pipecleaner thin even before the coke and wearing a lurid faux-snakeskin jumpsuit, plays ‘Starman’ to a 1972 crowd. Its sales skyrocketed when the performance aired, bringing him fame and scandalising straitlaced parents throughout Britain. With his made-up face and coquettish gaze – the kind I knew then from Princess Diana - I might myself have been convinced he came from Mars, and it speaks volumes that in 2000, the footage had the same effect on me as on children who saw it thirty years before.

The image of Bowie on his knees, mouth pressed to the strings of Mick Ronson’s guitar and hands gripping his thighs, has been analogised to cunnilingus; considering whose crotch it was behind the instrument, there’s as strong an argument for fellatio, but perhaps the ambiguity was the point. In fact, they never did this on Top of the Pops – photos of it were taken on their tour – but what was caught on camera was more than enough for me. In the chorus, as his voice jumps the same octave on ‘star-man’ Judy Garland’s does singing ‘Over the Rainbow’, Bowie drapes a single, languid arm round Ronson’s neck.

Sat on the carpet by the TV screen, life went from sepia to Technicolor. Putting an arm round someone had been a prosaic gesture, something middle aged couples did or boys used as a way of scaring girls at school. (‘Scaring’ was what they called it then.) If two boys did it it was meant to be funny, but this wasn’t funny. Ziggy’s smoky eyes beckoned forward, optimistic and intent, as if doing it meant nothing to him, so to me it meant everything. I hadn’t realised this was an option, and suddenly so many new options existed; didn’t know what planet he was from, but wanted desperately to visit.

Some say Bowie’s bisexuality was put on, produced by mere ‘compulsion to flout moral codes’. Rumoured affairs with male musicians and Mick Jagger, with whom his then-wife claims to have found him in bed, aren’t publicly confirmed, and in middle age he’s settled at least outwardly into married life. What if it was affected, though? Long before I encountered him, I’d learnt to break the rules – to enjoy the shifting architecture of the doll’s house at the dentist, ask teachers for the fuchsia-coloured card and collage it in floral tissue paper, if only to make other boys uncomfortable. (Other boys, I’d decided, were dull.)

Christopher Hughes and Harry Machin, who sat at my table aged five, sniggered when I did the latter that I was a sissy and a girl. I was pleased with myself. Boy or girl, it seemed to me, was all about what you put on: occasionally I’d be the latter for an hour, slicking my hair back, applying cosmetics from the cabinet and salvaging old shoes from below Mum’s bed, though the only time I told her I’d turned myself into one, she asked why as if I’d done something more grandiose, shocking and confusing by far than playing with doll’s houses. Later, by the time my hair was long enough adults called me a girl, I’d learned enough to feel shame.

You could read these anecdotes as omens of inevitable queerness, but there was nothing inevitable about them. Other boys broke rules too, or hadn’t yet discovered them. Harry, who grabbed the bulge in my shorts in kindergarten and could deal eyewatering pain with fingernails on foreskin, never realised what he was doing was forbidden (or, in the former case, reserved for girls), so no doubt has forgotten it. I still recall because like Bowie, with his eye shadow and steady, sex-drinched grin, I liked to provoke. What I did as a child became the first part of a story he inspired with an arm round Mick Ronson, breaking a rule I hadn’t known I could.

Chapter 2: Other Boys.

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Recommended reading: Rocky Horror, RuPaul, racism, Elliot Rodger and arguing badly

I’ve liked a few things lately. Snorking them all at once seemed like a good idea.

  • ‘Wild and Untamed Things: why a cult classic still resonates after all these years’, by Sam Wall (Scarleteen)
    It’s midnight somewhere. And that means that somewhere there are a bunch of people, dressed in fishnets and garish makeup, sitting inside a movie theater shouting at and singing along with the actors onscreen. Because it’s midnight, and that means it’s time for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There are many theories as to why something that is, arguably, a really bad movie has managed to stay so popular and be so well loved. My theory is that it has to [do] with sex. Specifically, the way the movie portrays sexual desire and queer sexuality.
  • ‘“Why can’t Bailey Jay just have her feelings about RuPaul?” On the trans community and differences of opinion’, by Zinnia Jones
    When we’ve expressed our discomfort with hearing these slurs all the time, they’ve called us “nutty”, “fringe”, “fascists”, “trans lesbians” in a derogatory sense (why they think this is derogatory, I have no idea), “newly minted queers”, “stay at home activists”, and accused trans women of having “male privilege”. They’ve attacked our orientations and our genders. This has gone beyond a respectful difference of opinion.
  • ‘My oppression is not a tool to be used to bolster anti-feminism’, by Marwa Berro (Butterflies and Wheels)
    Those who hold such opinions, Dawkins included, can kindly fuck off.
  • ‘The Terrifying Familiarity of Elliot Rodger’, by Jonathan Lindsell (Haywire Thought)
    It isn’t the discussion of Alpha Maledom or punishing women or revenge against humanity. No, it’s the least extreme musings at the start. They’re chilling. Why? Well, because I’ve thought those. Not in Rodger’s exact words, and not in context, but essentially the same. In long periods of singledom, I’ve been lonely and had ‘unfulfilled desires’. Especially when I was younger I’ve felt bitter that guys I had little respect for seemed better with women, I’ve been envious of relationships. I’ve thought that a global karmic fairness probably ought to give me a break.
  • ‘Top 10 Asshole Argument Moves’, by Kaveh Mousavi (On the Margin of Error)
    To change your argument mid-way without acknowledging it. To pretend your fringe version is the dominant version. Using a complex vocabulary to intimidate. Talking in parables. Adding another aspect to the debate. Assuming things about your opponent’s ideology. Pretending you’re above ideology. Arguing against the analogy instead of the concept. Saying ‘We need more nuance’ and then adding no nuance. Definition fetish[ism].

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In the Flesh: the best LGBT series since Queer as Folk

As I write, zombie drama In the Flesh is soon to air its second series’ penultimate episode. Chances are you’re reading this after watching; those who aren’t, spoilers follow.

Flesh, which last month won BAFTA’s Best Miniseries award, is a knockdown argument for several things, among them BBC Three’s value, the rewards of employing first-time writers and why genre shows will never, ever be low brow. It’s one of the best things on television, as well as one of its freshest takes on the undead. (Creator Dominic Mitchell, who clearly knows horror inside out, describes it as what would happen ‘if Alan Bennett and Ken Loach got together and did a zombie show’.) The apocalypse has come and gone, and those with ‘Partially Deceased Syndrome’ – among them depressive, perpetually eighteen Kieren Walker – are re-entering society amid mistrust and violence. The risen are the heroes here; the living, the monsters.

Critics have said all this before. I want to say what In the Flesh means to me personally - why it has a place in my heart as well as in my viewing schedule. Kieren, like me, is from a remote northern English town; like me he longs to escape, planning at one point to move to Berlin as I did. Like me he’s bookish, artistic and reserved; like me he self-harmed and, like me, he’s queer. (The first series unfolds against the backdrop of his prior relationship with best friend Rick, which ended bloodily.) Kieren’s story, death and resurrection notwithstanding, is my story, and while LGBT characters are everywhere, Flesh is the first TV drama to make me feel my sexuality is represented.

Outside shows where everyone is gay, such characters are almost never the protagonist, and Kieren, more rarely still, is canonically bisexual. Beside an ambiguous connection with undead bon vivant Amy, both his romantic interests have been men to date, but Mitchell – understanding perhaps that same-sex pairings are for some of us the default – doesn’t bend over backwards to shoehorn a straight encounter in. His lead’s bisexuality doesn’t need to be proven, and is superbly handled, neither fetishised nor sensational. Kieren isn’t another gender-blind sex fiend like Jack Harkness, Oberyn Martell or Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, nor a depraved Bad Bisexual like Tony Stonem, Faith or John Hart. In fact, his quietness makes him one of television’s first bi characters to have the texture of a real person.

In fact, Flesh’s portrayal of queer sexuality in general is exceptionally good. Although he displays angst about his village’s homophobia, killing himself over the loss of Rick (whose insecurity appears as a flaw), Kieren never seems cut up about liking men, and it isn’t what the series is about. The fact he’s not straight is just there. This said, Mitchell and co-writers Fintan Ryan and John Jackson never fall into tokenism. Characters in mainstream shows we’re told just happen to be gay often feel only nominally non-straight, experience not colouring their outlook in any realistic way, but Kieren’s sexuality intertwines beautifully with his undead status. ‘I don’t take orders from a lad who wears makeup’, antagonist Gary tells him at one point, referring not just to the cover-up concealing his corpse-white skin, and his relationship with Rick is inseparable in Rick’s father’s eyes from their both being zombies. Simon, the undead liberationist he begins seeing in series two, is uncomfortable dressing respectably to meet the parents over Sunday lunch - a reflection of his views on straight society, surely, as much as his feelings about the living?

Moments like this stir memories of X-Men‘s ‘coming out’ scene and other onscreen allegories. But Kieren’s, Rick’s and Simon’s queerness isn’t allegorical: it’s real. Where LGBT people’s best hope has often been to read ourselves into the story, these characters are queer as much as they are zombies, and this isn’t subtext, it’s text. It adds to Flesh’s deconstruction of the genre, whose traditional heroes – straight men with guns – it makes the homophobic villains such figures often are for us in reality.

What’s best of all is that gay relationships here, especially Kieren’s with Simon, have realistic context, politics and meaning. Their first kiss isn’t the arbitrary lip-locking of Jack and Ianto or Kurt and Blaine on Glee, but a moment of choice and transformation. ‘You’d be amazed what I can do to your sort,’ Gary tells Kieren, stamping on another zombie’s head, ‘and what you can do sod all about.’ Simon, who if Kieren is teenage me must be who I am now, has berated him lacking defiance, trying to fit in and trusting the living too much – so when Kieren appears, incensed, at his door soon, his kiss is a turning point and an admission: Help me. I need you. You were right. What he learns from Simon, displayed at one point in a fierce monologue at the dinner table, is to let go of thirst for the acceptance of others – the same righteous rage many of wish our younger selves had had.

It fits the series’ theme of resurrection as a gift and second chance. ‘This time’, Kieren’s mum tells him in series one when Rick is killed a second time and suicide beckons, ‘you live’ – and his choice to do so is a scriptwriting rebellion against the tragic, morbid sexuality of queer characters past, too many of them dying by obligation. With solid, three-dimensional figures and true-to-life relationships, Mitchell invites us to un-bury our gays.

There are so, so many reasons to love In the Flesh. The fact it’s the best LGBT show since Queer as Folk is as good as any.

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No more tears: Michael Sam and the camera’s fetish for queer crying

It’s important to cry. When like me, you’re into men, that’s one of the first things you learn. Even at twelve, when not being straight first clicked, it never bothered me, but certainly it bothered other people, and the gay films teenage me streamed late at night always had similar endings, weeping heroes gaining acceptance. Versions of the scene are everywhere, from news reports of damp-eyed brideless grooms to awards speeches, soap storylines and prime drama. Liberal media, while still not keen on our other fluids, loves queer tears.

May saw more of these than its fair share. Within days of Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision win, the gay American footballer Michael Sam was signed by the St. Louis Rams. Footage of the moment he found out, which quickly spread online, could have been scripted to slow motion piano chords by Glee’s producers. Between Sam’s sobs and centre-stage lip lock with his partner, the clip supplied a perfect progressive moment. Straight athletes do of course cry regularly at good news – then again, their tears aren’t bundled in with social change the way his were or cast as overtures to ‘kiss[es] that made history’. If Sam’s weren’t definitively gay, that’s how they were framed.

If queer people have an image, we’ve been painted in a narrow colour palette, portraits of moist helplessness lining wall after wall; those of us who chose rage instead are nowhere to be seen. This isn’t about whether Sam was wrong to cry, or any individual choice – it’s about politics, power and which stories we tell. Fixating on the personal over the landscape of brutality beyond is part of the problem. The most tedious comments on the video, in fact, asked how the player had helped or set back equality by kissing his boyfriend, ‘flaunting’ their relationship or (God forbid) dating someone shorter than him.

Columnist Mark Joseph Stern argues that what the rights agenda needs is more queer PDA. It’s a clichéd but sound argument for homophobia’s survival that when we kiss in public, if we do, we glance round first. At the same time, same-sex lovers often are less lovey-dovey, and failing to kiss ostentatiously’s not always about fear. Putting partnerships on show – through dramatic proposals, wedding rituals, partner dances, rings – is one part of enforced monogamy whose victims have usually been straight couples, and since friendship tends to be within one’s gender, its boundary in gay relationships with eros can be blurred. I prefer them, as plenty do, partly because they don’t come loaded with coupledom’s affectations, and being told to kiss more visibly feels unwelcome.

But even arguing this is frustrating. Whether or not I ought to kiss my partners publicly is not the discussion we should hold – no more than what Michael Sam was doing by kissing his, or how his tears made history. Thinking on the same lines as Stern, Facebook users made gay kisses their profile photos, a move he called ‘a confrontational, in-your-face exhibition’. There’s nothing confrontational about giving mass media what it wants, in this case by feeding its fetish for what queer faces do. Liberals flinch when homophobes reduce gay men to anal sex or lesbians to vulvae, ignoring the vastness of what being queer means. Is reducing our politics to puckered lips and watery eyes any different?

Bulletins could have talked about the young men funnelled toward sport who aren’t white enough for U.S. classrooms or wealthy enough without sports scholarships for college; the adults whose lifelong security hinges on being hired to play. They could have talked about the culture of machismo policing entry to those sports (football especially) whose homophobia shuts doors for queer youth – how it’s small wonder it took a gay professional like Sam so long to break through it. They could have talked about that homophobia’s reach into school locker rooms around the world, or the violence gym classes direct at male bodies seen to lack butch prowess. Once again they chose portrait over landscape, zooming in on a single gay man’s tears to broadcast them without context.

Those of us who won’t weep on cue know context to be threatening. Reels of queer kissing and crying on TV, Facebook and HuffPost tell progressive straight people their acceptance is the solution – that if they well up like the faces on their screens, they’re doing their bit to rescue us. The bigger picture reveals a less comfortable tale, where media is not neutral, structural aggression exists and the same well-meaning straights are part of it – in their jobs, schools, families, churches and social institutions, as well as in their very thirst to rescue us via figures like Sam. One day, when celluloid sees fit to challenge them, perhaps that story will be told. The day it is will be the day they cry for us, and nothing else makes the airwaves.

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Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance

I didn’t want to like Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it was that Britain’s Eurovision act this year, our best for some time, was outperformed by busty Polish milkmaids, but as Austria stormed the vote and our stuffy Berlin bar cheered, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm. Try as I might, she’s grown on me.

Like Lordi and Dana International, Fr. Wurst will likely be remembered longer than her song. There’s an argument her win is a step backward for the contest: apart from Azerbaijan’s Ell and Nikki, of whose act I recall nothing, winners since 2009 have reaped the rewards of strong material. ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, a sort of Shirley Bassey Bond pastiche, is as subtle as anything you’d expect of a drag queen with a beard; it’s not bad, but nor was it as well devised as Sweden’s song, as well performed as Spain’s or as unexpected as the Netherlands’.

Conchita’s irresistible narrative was what clinched her the win – attacked in native Austria, slandered by Russian ministers yet loved by Eurofans, a stubbly Cinderella in moist-eyed reaction shots. That story only ends one way: when the Danish host congratulated her, asking if she had any words, Conchita instantly replied she did. ‘This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are; we are unity, and we are unstoppable.’ Up in the air the trophy went, as it always had to.

Who was ‘we’, and on whose behalf did Wurst speak? While her enemies described her as a ‘clear hermaphrodite’, alter ego Tom Neuwirth calls himself a male drag artist with no urge to transition. If in-character, he’s made trans women’s next ambassador, anger – not least following recent tensions – will be understandable. On the night, she certainly played to that script, lyrics telling of transformation and a stranger in the mirror, lighting revealing her beard last of all. Even viewing Wurst simply as a gay man, we’ve watched the same scene on reality TV a thousand times, queer contestant humbled by accepting viewers’ generosity. It’s always rung hollow – but one senses Neuwirth, a veteran of such contests, is in on the act.

Eight years ago he rose to prominence on Starmania, Austria’s Idol-on-a-budget institution. In clips which resurfaced this week, his drag act’s crowdpleasing big notes and brassy camp are on show there, making up for his voice’s limitations. Conchita, who debuted on a primetime talent competition in 2011, seems to have been the logical end point of both: playing to Neuwirth’s strengths as well as being a talking point, she’s the persona his career needed. It’s not by chance Wurst first sought to compete at Eurovision mere months after this television breakthrough. If on camera she shows cultivated vulnerability, it’s because Neuwirth is shrewd at what he does.

‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ is a grander song by far than what she offered at the time: chances are if she’d won her country’s nomination then, she would have fallen at the semifinals. Moreover though, it casts her more perfectly as an object for sympathy than 2012′s disco anthem to self-love. The hostility – especially in Russia – that led voters to rally behind Conchita has escalated considerably since then. Might not Neuwirth, after giving 2013’s Contest a miss, have smelt an opportunity in it?

Provocation, he tells the newspaper Kurier in an interview, is the ‘whole point’ of his art. ‘The beard more than anything is a way for me to polarise people, to make them pay attention to me. The world reacts to a woman with facial hair. What I hope is that the less-than-ordinary way I look makes people think – about sexual orientation, but just as much about being different in itself. Sometimes you have to tell people plain and simple what’s what.’ Does this square with the helpless victim Europe saw fit to rescue?

Conchita never needed your acceptance: she played on the ego of her would-be saviours, as she played those behind the backlash against her. Their aggression, without which she would now amount to nothing, was part of the plan. How fragile, after all, can someone truly be who sings in heels, frock and facial hair for 120 million people?

Neuwirth’s character, while not possessing the best voice or song, will go down as a Eurovision sweetheart, but it’s the brain that’s won me over: I never could dislike a queen who knows so clearly how the game is played.

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