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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Weird and wonderful: why Matt Smith’s Doctor was better than David Tennant’s

000At Christmas, in a sudden, violent lurch, Peter Capaldi’s face became the Doctor’s. His announcement in the role pleased critics and excited fans as David Tennant’s had in 2005, fresh off the smash-hit set of Casanova – both actors, loved by the public as it was, were hotly tipped for the part. Capaldi, pictured last month in his incarnation’s costume, was by all means a great choice, but I couldn’t avoid mild disappointment. I didn’t want another David Tennant. I wanted a Matt Smith.

‘Who’s he?’, family members asked indignantly when Smith’s casting went public. Headlines were similar. However the Doctor looked, he didn’t look like that. The Doctor’s face was famous – it had eyebrows, not a six inch quiff or polystyrene-block chin. And he didn’t wear turnups, hipster tweed or dicky bows. Whovians winced when on-set photos first emerged, Smith hands-behind-back in dad jacket and charity shop shirt. Where now the gravitas and style of Tennant’s greatcoat, his pinstripe suit’s effortless chic?

Then ‘The Eleventh Hour’ aired in 2010. Bow ties were cool, the new lead said… and suddenly, near magically, they were.

Tennant’s Doctor owed his popularity to populism, handsome, charming and more human than Christopher Eccleston’s had been. Pundits urged his casting when they sensed he’d play a version people liked – like Jon Pertwee’s and Peter Davison’s, Ten was dashing, spry and classically heroic, the handsome head boy with top grades and track prizes. Of all the Doctors, he could most easily be from a different franchise, Buffy or Harry Potter say; at Hogwarts he’d have been a Gryffindor. Russell T Davies envisioned a mainstream, commercial Who, primetime hit rather than fan indulgence, which meant a mainstream and commercial hero. Ten’s character, like his costume, was pitched to be crowdpleasing, a matey, likeable leading man giving noughties viewers what they wanted. They fell for him, and so did his companions.

Smith’s Doctor was, by contrast, weird. He ate fish custard, danced terribly and couldn’t say no to a fez, looked twelve but acted eighty, moralised then all but murdered. 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. Tennant, though a formidable actor, played a character fangirls and -boys would always have swooned over – he never had to work that hard for their affection. That Smith’s Doctor, like his bow tie, was a harder sell is what makes his success remarkable, the product of a singular, tirelessly layered performance.

‘I don’t even have an aunt’, Eleven tells Amelia Pond minutes after his birth, who lives with hers without a mum or dad. He’s lucky, she says. ‘I know’, he answers – the slightest bit too fast, voice tinged with satisfaction, even pleasure. Blink (don’t) between Scottish jokes and nonsense meals, and you’ll miss the ruthlessness Smith sneaks into the line, infusing grief with disturbing new bravado. If Ten was a lionheart like Three and Five, Eleven was a dark-sided eccentric of the Troughton-McCoy school, bumbling to all appearances but stone-hearted, sinister even, when need be. It’s a more complex and interesting portrayal, at least to me. ‘Look Solomon’, he tells David Bradley’s villain later on, targeting his craft with its own deadly weapons. ‘The missiles. See how they shine.’

Tennant played a similar moment in ‘The Family of Blood’ (2007), but never quite found Smith’s brooding subtlety. Who could forget ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, four years later? ‘Fear me,’ sentient asteroid House threatens Eleven, ‘I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.’ ‘Fear me,’ he replies with a nod, part haunted, part self-satisfied. ‘I’ve killed all of them.’

In his fair and relevant critique of Steven Moffat’s writing, ‘The Captain Kirk Problem: How Doctor Who Betrayed Matt Smith’, Ted B. Kissell attacks this incarnation’s habits of ‘telling people how awesome he is’ and scheming deviously, damning Eleven as ‘a swaggering bully – who also withholds vital information from the people about whom he supposedly cares’. This was what made him work. Deceiving Martha was the most manipulative Ten ever got, but Smith’s Doctor (as River Song was fond of pointing out) lied constantly and to everyone – Amy, Rory and Clara for a start. The Doctor’s more interesting when he’s less of a white knight, but more than that, it’s what made this one’s playful whimsy meaningful. Eleven indulged his eccentricities to hide his heart of darkness. His childish side mattered because often, it was a front.

Who’d never had such an intricately woven lead. It may not again. Yes, Ten went off the rails in ‘The Waters of Mars’ (2009), but only because hubris was the obvious flaw to script such an unreconstructed hero. Tennant is a script-led actor, hence his success in Shakespeare, but one always sensed Smith, who studied Creative Writing and devised his character by making up short stories, knew more about him than anyone. His Doctor was seldom if ever obvious – instead of giving viewers what we wanted, he gave us what we’d never seen before, then made us fall in love with it.

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Chutney, pineapples and flying spaghetti: why atheism can never be inoffensive enough

This month, posters were snatched from an atheist group at South Bank University. ‘Looking for logic?’ they read, Flying Spaghetti Monster in God’s place on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. ‘Pastafarianism is a real religion.’ Not quite The Satanic Verses, but student union officials took them down in the society’s absence, afraid they’d trigger ‘religious offence’. (The union has since apologised.)

The row recalled a string of prior ones. Censors initially claimed the problem to be Michelangelo’s Adam, painted nude, but changed once offered a blurred-out version to fears of offensiveness. We’ve seen this bait-and-switch before: when UCL’s union tried to ban Jesus and Mo from its atheist group’s Facebook page, complaints were just as interchangeable – the cartoons, said critics jumping between bad arguments, were wrong to show Mohammed in a pub, blasphemous for depicting him at all, or else a form of ‘bullying and harassment’. Officers’ invasiveness is likewise familiar: when LSE’s atheists wore Jesus and Mo shirts at their freshers’ fair, union staff ‘started removing material’; a year before, when Reading’s labelled a pineapple Mohammed, authorities ‘seized [it] and tried to leave’.

Drawings of the Prophet; fruit with his name; the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Targets of censure on our campuses grow, by the year, absurder. The pineapple, displayed in reference to a teacher prosecuted in Sudan for calling her class teddy bear Mohammed, was no doubt chosen for its innocence. The Monster, like space teapots or invisible pink unicorns, is a generic spoof-god – mocking no faith in particular, targeting no one for abuse. It’s a nicer god than any mainstream one, as venomless as parody could be. These items are whimsical, silly, fun. To call them offensive is to take offence per se at anyone finding religion funny.

Atheist blasphemy, even as atheism is blasphemy, has been called gratuitous. Drawing Islamic prophets like Jesus and Mo, or for Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, is one example. Mocking the Eucharist, like PZ Myers or Goodness Gracious Me – whose banned sketch where a British Asian adds chutney to his wafer visibly pained Ann Widdecombe – is another. These exercises, we’re told, are intolerant and crass, offending with intent and for the sake of it. It’s rarely true, but anyway: if any atheist meme attempts the opposite, being as inoffensive as it can, surely the FSM does? If Spaghetti Monsters are aggressive enough to ban, what isn’t?

‘There’s probably no god’, Ariane Sherine’s Atheist Bus Campaign proclaimed, ‘now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Just calling oneself an atheist, most of time, says something not unlike that, but the ASA got 141 complaints. When the British Humanist Association pushed for better census data, railway companies refused to run its ads, which read ‘If you’re not religious for God’s sake say so’ - suggesting nothing either way about believers or belief. In Pennsylvania, bus owners rejected signs as overly controversial and provocative which would have read ‘Don’t believe in God? You are not alone’ and, in one case, simply ‘Atheists.

The advert U.S. bus owners refused to run

Unbelief can never be inoffensive enough. Items like these – bus and rail ads, sketches, spoilt Communion wafers, Mohammed drawings, Jesus and Mo, the pineapple, the Flying Spaghetti Monster – are awkward reminders atheists exist, and this alone, it seems, makes them impolite, unwelcoming and intolerant. Widdecombe, gasping in anguish for the cameras at the gentlest fun-pokes, seems genuinely unready for a world where not everyone shares her beliefs or has grace enough to act as if they do. In theory, no doubt, she’d concede atheists their right to draw breath, but that some might actually behave like crackers aren’t really Christ’s flesh appears to wound her. Response to Mohammed cartoons can be the same, and whoever tore the South Bank posters down must have felt similar. ‘We know you don’t believe,’ blacklisters say, ‘but for heaven’s sake, must you live like it, too?’

Few things but faith could yield such results: blasphemy, even apparently when most benign, threatens the norms on which religion rests. The earnestness of faith, and faith itself, can’t be taken comfortably for granted when its sacraments are others’ standing jokes, and what can’t be assumed must be explained. Spectators like Tom Bailey of Spiked overlook this, who conflate the campus banning of Spaghetti Monsters and unholy fruits with that, for instance, of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, a song a score of student unions boycotted, which insists in colourfully violent language that women who dance with men ‘must want’ sex with them. No thinking person equates advocacy of rape, or any assault, with dismissing or lampooning doctrines of faith.

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, but if ‘zero tolerance’ means anything, it’s this.

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A study in reset buttons: the trouble with ‘His Last Vow’ and Sherlock series three

Sherlock had a good first series and great second one. The recently aired third helping fell somewhere in between, but its final part, the glossily directed ‘His Last Vow’, was deeply flawed. (Spoilers to follow.)

There was much to like, even to laud, about it. The story’s opening showed more promise than either of its predecessors’, Lindsay Duncan was on form in guest star mode and Lars Mikkelsen, playing Charles Augustus Milverton via Rupert Murdoch, served the icy creepiness his family has cornered. There was far more plot, too, than in either of the prior episodes, and fans seem to have welcomed it. Unfortunately, it falls to bits under the lightest scrutiny.

The denouement came as Magnussen tricked Sherlock, accepting Mycroft’s state-secret-filled laptop in return for showing him his vaults of blackmail material, then revealing they were only in his mind. Mycroft and his snipers thus caught John and Sherlock selling secrets, yes, but they also caught Magnussen buying them. Surely even sans faults, there’s an arrest in that?

‘I don’t have to prove it, I just have to print it’, he says when John points out his lack of hard evidence. If so, why does he need to know these things at all? If things he threatens to print don’t need to be true (or proved to be), why bother memorising endless, unverifiable details? Why not print just anything?

And if he’s only printing libel without proof, why is the secret service (Mycroft’s lot, at any rate) so scared of him? If all he publishes is deniable, why would they even be that worried? Magnussen is meant, of course, to resemble endless press barons – Maxwell, Murdoch, Dacre – raising the awkward point that the gutter press prints unsubstantiated gossip all the time. Harrowing for private individuals, certainly, but nothing for security forces to fear.

Given that Mycroft and his people, who seemed to want rid of him anyway, were apparently the only witnesses besides John to Magnussen’s death, why did shooting him even put Sherlock at risk? Given how shadowy Mycroft’s department seems, having seemingly tortured Moriarty during series two, hadn’t any of them thought of just assassinating Magnussen? And why didn’t Mary, who had, just do so anyway when Sherlock arrived? Sherlock would surely have covered for her, as he has for John – yes, she’d have a witness whose secrecy she relied on, but that’s what happened anyway.

Speaking of Mary… I’ve said it before, but Steven Moffat can’t write women. liked her in Mark Gatiss’ episode as a bread-baking part time nurse and disillusioned Lib Dem. I liked her lying about liking John’s moustache and their interplay in ‘The Sign of Three’ – I liked there being a normal person who took Sherlock’s side, and I liked how likeable Mary was made, a departure from her typical portrayal. I didn’t want another sex-crazed femme fatale – another Irene Adler, River Song or Tasha Lem. You can bet come series four, her gun-toting secret agent background will turn up again and she’ll be just one more of Moffat’s female tr(oll)opes. She was more interesting as she was.

Speaking of women and how Moffat fails at writing them: it wasn’t just Mary’s character that got retconned. Look what happened to Janine, the bridesmaid-on-the-lookout from episode two – here rewritten as a scrounging predator, by turns stupid and unscrupulous, combining sexuality and treachery as Moffat’s women (Song? Adler?) often do. Sherlock even calls her a whore. Then look at Lady Smallwood, the battleaxe and damsel in distress; Sherlock’s mother, ‘monstrous’, oblivious, fawning and a ‘flake’; Mrs Hudson, funny because she used to be a stripper, daft and treated with contempt by everyone around, heroes included. This must have been the most women in any Sherlock episode – and when the best-presented one is Molly Hooper, pathetically in love as ever, things aren’t going well. Yes, there’s a problem.

In the end though, ‘His Last Vow’ was a study in resets – retcons, reversions and suddenly-dropped ideas. Mary became a villain, then wasn’t after all. Sherlock shot up so Magnussen would think he was an addict, then Magnussen didn’t believe him anyway – despite him testing positive. Magnussen seethed and basked in villainy… then arbitrarily got shot. Sherlock was flown to probable Eastern European death, then flown back minutes later. This was a plot that didn’t know what to do or be. And then… that ending.

Look.

I love Moriarty. I love Andrew Scott as Moriarty. I loved his storyline in series two. But part of it was shooting himself in the head.

When Moriarty aimed his gun inside his grinning mouth and pulled the trigger, it wasn’t just a way to write him out, but a character moment – perhaps the ultimate one. This man was so unhinged, so desperate to spite Sherlock, that he’d kill himself to cut off his escape route. Reversing or negating that doesn’t just wind the story back – it undermines a powerfully crucial aspect of who Moriarty is.

That episode of series two, in case you hadn’t noticed? January 2012. Two years ago. Three years at the very least before we tune in for Sherlock series four. It speaks to a stagnating story if two to three years later, we’re still hung up about what happened on Bart’s Hospital roof. Series three’s sole contribution to long-continuity appears to be John’s marriage, and that’s not much sustenance for a one or two year wait till we see Baker Street again. (Compared, at least, with ‘How did Sherlock survive?’) I didn’t want another Moriarty arc – I’d have much preferred a longer, fuller look at Magnussen.

All in all? A muddled episode and rather wasted, if entertaining, third series.

In defence of the War on Christmas

As 2011’s royal wedding happened, the Guardian hit on a stroke of genius. Perched in easily missed white type atop its sprawling coverage, a tiny button read “Republicans click here”, which when activated hid all related stories. The button, which proved popular enough to reappear this year when the couple’s child was born, made the paper’s site a refuge for the unenthused, the only place online or otherwise where bunting and bootlicking could be escaped. As Advent commences, I often wish such a filter hid reminders of Christmastime from view.

As Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience notes on the programme’s blog, arguments for the validity of godless Christmas celebrations have done well in recent years. These are the “Axial tilt is the reason for the season” shirts, the “Keep the merry, dump the myth!” placards of American Atheists, the selection of cards sold by the British Humanist Association, the Digital Cuttlefish’s books of festive (and fun) poems; they’re various chapters in Ariane Sherine’s Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, and by implication part of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, the Rationalist Association’s annual benefit; they fill countless column inches by Robin Ince (its host), Richard Dawkins, Elisabeth Cornwell, Myra Zepf, Alain de Botton, Alom Shaha and Jim Al-Khalili among others.

The case, summed up in AA’s slogan, is no doubt as familiar to atheists today as are the faults of Pascal’s Wager, both being discussions with believers one comes across too frequently for comfort. Many of our Christmas customs if not most – gift-giving, good will, feasts, festooned fir trees and Father Christmas – aren’t of a necessarily religious character, the argument goes. If superstitions bequeath us an excuse to have at them, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

The logic’s sound, but commonplace enough that it risks seeming both reflexive and received. I decided to give up Christmas last year, for no more grand a reason than that personally, I don’t enjoy it. With such passionately vocal thirst to reclaim it in the secular community, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly rebuked, as if my absence from the bandwagon endangers a key atheist PR objective, stopping images of secularist grinches waging war on Christmas being properly cast off.

The trouble, and I’ve only realised it in recent years, is that 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.

Yes, I’m turned off by the BBC broadcasting Bible readings, church services and carols about blood and gall – but I’m just as turned off by their annoying, repetitive melodies. I’m angered by Operation Christmas Child, and by millions of children being made to sing said carols in their schools or act out narratives from religions whose ideas they may not share and aren’t yet well placed to assess – but I’m just as angry parents lie to their children about who provides their presents, often objecting to them being told the truth, for no clear reason except finding the deception somehow sweet. I don’t enjoy the smell of tangerines, the putting up of decorations, the taste of mince pies or the expectation I gorge myself on food I’d never otherwise eat, enduring sit-down meals and light dinner conversation (no swear words allowed) with relatives I’d rather not encounter. In the end, I struggle mostly to be cheerier than usual for contrived and arbitrary reasons.

If you are a Christmas person, and clearly many of us are, I’m all for your enjoying the rituals of your choice – we’d do well to be cautious, though, of insisting “Of course atheists love Christmas”, implying as a chorus of this insistence does that we not only can but should. One perk of non-religious life, it’s been argued in New Humanist before, is the right to pick and choose our festivals. A status quo where atheists feel bad for not being Christmassy enough has something very wrong with it.

Atheism’s collective urgency to show festive credentials is understandable. As Glasser writes, “[p]opular culture is full of rotten characters who hate Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Narnia’s White Witch.” Alone among calendar dates, failing to love it ostentatiously provokes a barrage of reproach: I’ve been called a killjoy, a spoilsport and an Eeyore for disliking it, but never for finding Valentine’s Day crass or New Year underwhelming.

One wonders if the keenness to affirm secular love for Christmas stems in part from a desire to placate religious critics, assuring them our boat-rocking plans are limited. Certainly, Eric Pickles’ call three years ago for councils “not [to] allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity” drew valid fire for recycling myths about “the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous” as evidence for a so-called war on Christmas, but Pickles also demanded councils fund “carol services and nativity scenes” – a valid target, surely, for secularist pressure?

Baulk as we might at the “war on Christmas” narrative, parts of how Britain marks it belong in godless people’s crosshairs, from government-backed proselytising of this kind to evangelism in state schools, religious programming at licence payers’ expense and the pollution at large of the public sphere’s secularity. However excised of religion Christmas exhibits might be in marketplaces and the media, they’ve undoubtedly opened the door to public religious displays more widely in the name of inclusivity – Oxford’s giant street-mounted menorah, say, lit each Hanukkah by the town mayor and a local Rabbi, or Channel 4’s broadcasting the adhān for Ramadan this year.

The object of a so-called war on Christmas (and on all these articles of faith as establishments of public life) is really a profoundly diplomatic settlement, an understanding of the public sphere as neutral, unclaimed territory rather than land divided among orthodox religious groups. This is why I can’t support the ‘multifaith’ approach above, espoused on Bill O’Reilly’s programme by Chris Stedman recently: a multifaith public square is as bad as a single faith one, in some ways worse, because it still gives public authority to clergy; still makes people outsiders who won’t participate; still pollutes the peaceful neutrality of a marketplace which asks no one to demonstrate their piety.

However secular or holy we think the festive season is, that détente matters. Those in atheism who sit happily with unwrapped gifts and hangovers on Boxing Day should think twice before they lapse into unravelling it themselves, keen to ‘destigmatise’ secularists by showing us as Christmas-lovers. A culture of pressure to participate fostered by atheists is as bad as one produced by theocrats like Pickles – neither tolerates dissent, and both perpetuate the notion those who don’t join in are spite-filled Scrooges.

If we care for people’s conscientious freedom or right to live by the calendar they choose, we shouldn’t let fears of seeming grinchish silence us when religion encroaches on public life at Christmastime; equally, we should support those in our ranks who don’t do Christmas, and oppose the spectre of the Grinch being used to guilt or smear them. Call this scaling back of peer pressure a war on Christmas if you must, and Bill O’Reilly is correct that it exists; to me, it seems like giving peace on Earth a chance.

Catching Fire straightwashes its stars

Catching Fire, the Hunger Games follow-up, ranks among this year’s best films, achieving the rare status of a sequel better than its predecessor. Praise for Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from Oscar success and giving one of her best performances, justifiably saturates reviews, but the real revelation is director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who draws magnetic work from the whole cast while dropping the shaky cameras and muffled sound that dulled the first film’s violent edge. Returning actors up their game without exception, none more than Donald Sutherland (whose scenery-chewing villain graduates here from standard beard-of-evil scowler to frame-filling, scene-stealing menace) and Elizabeth Banks, comic and tragic by equal turns as effete mistress of ceremonies Effie; newcomers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright impress as gamemaker Plutarch and tech-savvy Beetee, winning me over despite clashing with my vision of their characters, and Jena Malone embodies deadpan, axe-wielding Johanna Mason to a tee. 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.

Finnick Odair, the trident-wielding, frequently naked victor from District 4 emerges the one character the film gets wrong in my eyes. In the book, he’s described as follows on first meeting Katniss:

Finnick Odair’s famous sea-green eyes are only centimetres from mine. He pops a sugar cube in his mouth and leans against my horse.

. . .

Finnick Odair is something of a living legend in Panem. . . . [H]e was a Career, so the odds were already in his favour, but what no trainer could claim to have given him was his extraordinary beauty. Tall, athletic, with golden skin and bronze-coloured hair and those incredible eyes. While other tributes [his] year were hard-pressed to get a handful of grain or some matches for a gift, Finnick never wanted for anything, not food or medicine or weapons. . . .

The citizens of the Capitol have been drooling over him ever since.

Because of his youth, they couldn’t really touch him for the first year or two. But ever since he turned sixteen, he’s spent his time at the Games being dogged by those desperately in love with him. No one retains his favour for long. He can go through four or five in his annual visit. Old or young, lovely or plain, rich or very rich, he’ll keep them company and take their extravagant gifts, but he never stays, and once he’s gone he never comes back.

I can’t argue that Finnick isn’t one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet. But I can honestly say he’s never been attractive to me. Maybe he’s too pretty, or maybe he’s too easy to get, or maybe it’s really that he’d just be too easy to lose.

Note the determined absence of references to gender: ‘citizens’, not ‘women’ of the Capitol; ‘those’, not ‘girls’, who are in love with him; ‘four or five’ per visit, with no appended noun. Finnick, the text seems to imply, courts male and female desire as indiscriminately as ‘old [and] young, lovely [and] plain, rich [and] very rich’. In the third book, Mockingjay, he reveals just as non-specifically his sale by authorities as a sex slave:

‘President Snow used to … sell me … my body, that is,’ Finnick begins in a flat, removed tone. ‘I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. . . . To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewellery[.]‘

On film, Sam Claflin’s Finnick seemed to me a womaniser in the classic sense, cocky, objectifying and chauvinistic, another of American celluloid’s preppy, athletic playboys. In a word, he seemed distinctly straight. The sugar cube scene in which he first meets Katniss plays as if he’s making Conneryesque overtures, but Finnick is no Sean Connery. He’s ‘pretty’, as much a sex object as she is if not more, seductive rather than entitled, coquettish rather than just coarse, wooing seemingly both men and women. (Beyond how his public appeal is described, it’s notable that almost all Panem’s higher-up movers and shakers, among whom Finnick is sold around, seem to be men.)

One of Catching Fire‘s more comic moments comes in the book as Peeta is electrocuted striking a force field. Katniss, with next to no knowledge of CPR, outlines Finnick’s attempts at first aid thus:

Finnick props Mags against a tree and pushes me out of the way. ‘Let me.’ His fingers touch points at Peeta’s neck, run over the bones in his ribs and spine. . . . I pull an arrow, whip the notch into place, and am about to let it fly when I’m stopped by the sight of Finnick kissing Peeta. . . . Then Finnick unzips the top of Peeta’s jumpsuit and begins to pump the spot over his heart with the heels of his hands.

Lawrence’s film not only fails to capitalise on this, but crops it conspicuously from the frame, no mouth-to-mouth contact left visibly in shot – something of a slap in the face, it must be said, for fans who enjoyed this moment’s ambiguity. (The pretext is medical, of course, but isn’t Finnick’s every action a double entendre of some kind?) It’s odd to say the least if public floggings, executions and fights to the death were deemed suitable for audiences but even ostensibly non-sexual male lip-locking got cut.

Similar comments could be made of Johanna, whose textual self like Finnick seemed coated in bisexuality. Unlike his, her personality remains intact in the adaptation, but various tense moments between her and Katniss are altered or left out. In Collins’ pages, their first exchange regards sartorial style. ‘That strapless number you wore in District Two?’, Johanna asks her. ‘So gorgeous I wanted to reach through the screen and tear it right off your back.’ The film, on the other hand, skips this line, bringing Johanna in moments afterward as she disrobes before Katniss and Peeta and playing up the safely heterosexual side of this encounter: as she has Peeta undo her zip and winks raunchily at wizened Haymitch, we’re invited simply to think she plans on psyching Katniss out by flirting with her man, where in fact the book’s both the earlier line and Peeta’s dialogue afterward suggest her stripping down, like Finnick’s teasing with the sugar cubes and another tribute’s unexpected kiss, is a come-on intended to fluster.

We’ve seen this kind of straightwashing in Hollywood before, of course – in GatsbyFried Green TomatoesThe Color Purple. I only wish The Hunger Games could have avoided it, since its characters lose out as a result.

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