Book Review: Gender Trouble

I have been afraid to read this book. My previous encounters with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble have been unpleasant. For some reason, lecturers seemed to pick the more opaque quotes from Gender Trouble to bring it into their critical analysis of texts. That, or I just remember them because of how much I struggled with them. That, and a constant stream of comments, virtual and in discussion with people comfortably adept at gender studies, always seemed to reel at Judith Butler, framing Gender Trouble in particular as a necessary evil of postmodern gender theory and criticism. Gender Trouble is an important work, but it is horrible to read has been an impression firmly embedded onto my idea of the work. So I have been afraid to read, and when I did… it actually wasn’t that bad. Maybe I made what other people had said about Gender Trouble become exaggerated as I half remember actual discussion, maybe Butler can write… maybe (maybe) I’m actually smarter than I give myself credit for and maybe the text is more accessible than I had made it out to be in my head. I don’t know, but I’ve read it, so let’s review it.

What I liked

Unsurprisingly, Butler is really good at talking about gender. There are extended segments where Butler focuses on gender and what she thinks gender is and how it manifests. Those aren’t the opaque parts of Gender Trouble. These moments provide helpful insight into what the Butler identifies as gender performativity.

There was also some discussion of drag, which was nice for me.

What I loathed

I hate psychoanalysis. The extended discussions of Lacan and Freud and Kristeva were really dull, convoluted and were so hard to read. This was the Butler that I was expecting for the whole of Gender Trouble. It was not for me.

There was also that usual 80/90s critical way of writing that makes needlessly hard to read, mostly with the psychoanalysis stuff.

What I learnt

I learnt more about gender performativity than I have ever before and I think it will inform my critical practice a lot. I’ve learnt that drag is consistently deprived of critical attention even from works that supposedly derive a large source of their inspiration from this. Butler makes reference to the significance of drag to informing Gender Trouble in the second preface, but then there are only 4-5 pages that talk about drag in some critical way. That was kind of disappointing, but also keeps my point that “no one has given drag proper critical attention”, so my PhD idea is still original (that’s important, right?). I learnt why this text is important, so that it was nice to see that the hype was worth it.

I learnt that I think the following point is often overlooked when teaching people about Gender Trouble. Butler spends a large amount of time discussing psychoanalytic methods of gender construction. I think that Butler is doing all that work to show how much psychoanalysis is overdetermined, tautological, and basically a load of shit. I think Butler takes psychoanalytic thought to the conclusion of its internal logic to demonstrate how ridiculous those ideas (in relation to gender) actually are. I might be wrong, or it might be super obvious and I’m actually quite thick. I don’t know, but to me Gender Trouble spends so much time going on about psychoanalysis to effectively diminish its monolithic hold over gender ideas by taking it to its internally logical conclusion to demonstrate the stupidity of those ideas. Maybe I’m wrong and actually Butler is an active proponent of psychanalytic thought, but I think it makes sense given the value Butler puts on parody that Butler would effectively parody psychoanalytical criticism

 

Personally, I don’t think I can add anything truly new or insightful into what criticisms of Gender Trouble are already out there. It’s been around for like 20 years, so I’ll leave it at that.

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Queer Film Club: Death Becomes Her

I don’t really know how to be critical about a whole film, but I think it’s important to understand that Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her is not a deep film. It has no desire to make an incisive comment on the state on vanity in California. Not being deep is a core criticism of the film I can find from a cursory glance of the film’s reviews. It’s ridiculous to use depth (an arbitrary measure anyway) to measure the quality of a film. Films like Death Becomes Her suffer greatly from this search for depth to qualify a work’s artistic integrity. Films like Death Becomes Her are not trying to be deep, because they are concerned with the surface. Surfaces are important to think about for a lot of reasons. One is because they are where we express our internal world in an understandable way to others. Another is that surfaces are where the external world gets inside and affects our internal composition. Basically, surfaces are porous or partially permeable in some way. So, films like Death Becomes Her are important because of their focus and exploration of surfaces, because they demonstrate how surfaces are an interface between the internal and the external.

I think surfaces are important for queer people because they are prohibited from queer life. What I mean by that is that there is no right way to express a non-normative sexuality at a surface level in a heteronormative culture. Queers are constantly criticised for expressing their queerness on the surface. Any queer person is likely to have encountered the phrase ‘don’t shove it in my face’ from someone. It’s used against pride goers who are dressed and painted and expressing their sexuality in the most outrageous way possible at the surface. It’s used against couples who are holding hands in public. Conversely, queers will also experience instances where they are not being queer enough in the surface expression of their queerness. There is no right amount or right way to express queerness on the surface. It makes sense, then, that queers celebrate and become attached to things where surface is the focal point. Halloween and drag are probably the most recognisably attractive things to queers. Costume is all about surface and changing the way your body appears to meet an intended expression. It might be temporary, but a socially acceptable moment to express your identity at a surface level is presented and taken by queers at halloween and in drag.

It’s also worth noting that for heterosexuals there are ‘right’ ways of expressing gender and sexuality at the surface level. Women, I think (I’m not a woman, so I won’t ever have a first-hand knowledge to draw from) experience prohibitions and limits on the surface expression of their gender identity. Men, as well, face prohibitions when it comes to the surface expression of their gender identity, though to a much less limiting extent than women or queers. I wouldn’t know where to begin with the ethnic and racial dimensions of the surface expression of gender identities. However, one prohibition that comes through to all heterosexuals in their surface expression of gendered and sexual identities is the playground derogatory phrase ‘that’s gay.’ If the surface expression of your identity is in any way queer, it is mocked, derided, and prohibited. I’m going on this lengthy tangent because it furthers my argument that instances of acceptable surface expression of queerness are few, far between, and revered by queers in their own queer way.

Films like Death Becomes Her are all about surface. Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn only care about their surfaces, their outward experience, the ‘look’ of their pallid, dead, flesh. The Gothic qualities of the film (the large, architecturally confusing Beverly Hills mansion and castles, the potion itself, Steep and Hawn’s character’s undeadness) allow for heteronormative control of surface expression of gender to be destabilised. All men in the film effectively act as servants to the women in the film. Streep, Hawn, and Rossellini find limitless power in their youth and beauty–they invert the subjugating power of the male gaze to gain power. In a broad sense, this is an act of queering. By seizing control of their surface identity expression through the potion in the film, their femininity is empowered using the very tools that would normally exert control over their surface identity expression. The film’s Gothic aspects destabilise the power dynamics that corroborate with fixed gender identities, queering the femininity of the film. Consequently, this exposes the celebratory politics located in the Gothic’s generative qualities.

A suitable counter-argument to this would cite the end of the film, where Streep and Hawn leave Bruce Willis’ funeral. Willis’ character’s narrative ends with indication that he led a full life after leaving the shallow, nightmare world of Beverly Hills. Meanwhile, Streep and Hawn look the same age, but their undead bodies are even more delicate from years of continual abuse. They are unable to paint their bodies well, and so look kind of terrifying and kind of funny. The film ends with Streep and Hawn falling and their bodies literally breaking apart. This scene would seem to indicate that a gravitation towards youth and beauty is a bad thing. The film’s Gothic elements take this point to an excessive conclusion by showing our undying anti-heroine’s bodies literally collapsing. Meanwhile, the dead guy has had a rich and full (and whole) life. This scene suggests that excessive surface expression of identity, to the point where gender identity is destabilised, prohibition and the expected power positions attributed to a binaristic man(top)/woman(bottom) gender system done away with, is a bad thing to be craved by anyone. This scene suggests that the status quo, mortality and a good, but short, life is the preferred outcome. Indeed, the film can easily be read as using the Gothic to maintain the status quo by showing the terrors of destabilisation. This reading, however, skips over Rosselini’s warning earlier in the film. Rosselini’s character tells Streep and Hawn to ‘look after their bodies’, which they blatantly do not do. Hundreds of other characters have been successful in this endeavour in the film, including Marilyn Monroe and Elvis. The gala scene proves that. It is not Streep and Hawn’s vanity, and the broader queering the film does to gender, that is criticised by this scene. It is their disregard of this instruction from Rosselini. When we think of this line across the whole room, with Streep and Hawn’s characters not looking after their bodies, it is clear that Death Becomes Her has no qualms with vanity or queer surface expression. It continues to celebrate it, through and through, provided you look after your body. That is what makes the film an even more deliberate celebration of surface expression. In combination with those broader queerings going on, a celebratory queer Gothic politics emerges in the film, which is what I think makes Death Becomes Her such a popular film within the queer community.

Death Becomes Her, in its comic Gothic way, expresses a control over surface identity prohibited from queer people in daily life. Intentional or not, Streep and Hawn are textual representations of a political queerness that is realised by the Gothic qualities Death Becomes Her employs for comic effect.

*

So this was fun and I’ll do more of this as I watch more films. Some things I couldn’t talk about in this were that I think that Hawn and Streep’s characters act in similar ways to drag queens. I think this because of the characters’ textual queer politics, their disregard of expected gender roles and binaries, their over the top characteristics, campness, cattyness, and endless quotability. Interestingly, this parallels a lot of Gothic conventions, particularly the elements concerned with exploring the instability of boundaries, tendencies towards excess, and referentiality. I would call this reading a ‘drag reading’, and I think to some extent, I’ve performed a drag reading in my analysis of Death Becomes Her. So my questions really are this:

Is Death Becomes Her a queer film for other reasons?

Are Hawn and Streep drag queens in this film?

What are your thoughts on my thoughts?

Going Forward

Okay, so I’ve been doing a PhD Proposal for the last two weeks and I finished the first draft yesterday. I’ve included this writing as my taking part in a #100daysofwriting that a former lecturer started. The rules are simple: be gentle, be kind to yourself, and write something every day for 100 days. I know these things exist in some form or another, but I’ve found most ‘challenges’ like this are much more aggressive. I’ve tried some, always failed at some point, and a gentler approach actually seems to be working. But now I’ve finished one major project–drafting a PhD proposal–I need to begin writing stuff in some capacity every day for the next 85 days (today is day 15 and this is my contribution to my #100daysofwriting). Take this as a plan for going forward then.

Queer Film Club

There are a lot of films I want to watch anyway, and preparing for this PhD has exposed me to even more. These ones will actually require me to do some thinking about them too, so I might as well write posts about them as an exercise for that. Formally, I’m setting up a ‘queer film club’ subset of posts, where I think about the queer dynamics of the films I’m watching. These films will fall broadly under the ‘cult’ category or ‘b movie’ category, but they’re also queer essentials from what I gather. Watching them will expand my knowledge of my own communities (sub)culture. Naturally, I will consider them using this ‘drag lens’ I think is necessary for understanding how gender and sexuality are explored in these films, with a particular focus on the destabilising tactics employed. This should enable me to manage and blend the Gothic and drag strands of thought going on in my prep head. Not all these films will fall into the categories, not all of them will be Gothic, as there is a range of queer films I want to watch and I might as well think about.

So that’s that. If you want to join my queer film club, feel free to make recommendations, comment, criticise, and just generally engage. I’m thinking of using my workplace’s LGBT+ network for staff and students as a way of setting this queer film club in a real space (and spreading the scraps of queer culture outwards), but the main focus will be watching, thinking, and posting about films I watch.

Doing drag readings

I touched on this in some of my very earliest posts. They aren’t great, but I think I need to really think about reading drag and using drag to read texts. I’ll be putting more thought and effort into this idea of ‘doing drag readings’ as I get an idea of just what I mean by that phrase. All of this is a work in progress, so we’ll see how it pans out when I try.

Reviews

The only content I’ve been able to consistently put out, and that’s just fine. Reviews of critical work give me a back catalogue of criticisms to pull from when I start the PhD and I’ve long forgotten what I thought about a book I read over a two-week period a year ago. I’ll carry on doing that.

 

There’s going to be no set schedule for this content. It’ll come as I am able to write stuff that’s not completely half-baked. But I’m thinking of these as ongoing projects that I can put time into each day in a gentle and manageable fashion, allowing me to continue this #100daysofwriting and go beyond it. Habit formation is a good thing, and it doesn’t need arbitrary markers of achievement to become sustained. In theory, if I’m putting words together, content will come.

Wish me luck!

 

Review: Gothic & the Comic Turn

I finished this like a week ago and it is a good book. Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik’s text has become fairly influential in Gothic Studies (as far I’m aware anyway, I might be wrong), which is pretty impressive given Gothic & the Comic Turn was published in 2005. In it, Horner & Zlosknik mark down the aspects of the Gothic that are humourous in some way or another. It is convincing, concise and incredibly good at treading into this area of Gothic Studies. It only really suffers because the scope of the text (the entire established Gothic tradition from Walpole to contemporary Gothic) is a little too large. It negotiates this scope issue by looking at specific texts as case studies, though the success Gothic & the Comic Turn has in this endeavour depends on who’s reading it.

What I liked

What I found particularly interesting was the consistent exploration of humour within and across the Gothic tradition. Gothic & the Comic Turn does this excellently by employing its case studies and performing an in-depth analysis of the multi-faceted ways in which the Gothic mode employs comedy and humour. There were specific moments of insight into the Gothic’s generative properties that demonstrated an understanding that these properties can be used in a liberating fashion. This is very exciting for me, as it directly counters the attitude of a lot of Gothic scholarly work that has an attitude of inevitable Othering for those that exist at the periphery of Western heteronormative patriarchal culture. Gothic & the Comic Turn explicitly and implicitly explores the Gothic’s generative qualities as having the potential to liberate those that are usually subject to Othering. It helped that Gothic & the Comic Turn is written in an engaging and accessibly manner that made the content digestible.

What I learnt

Aside from the above, I learnt that Gothic humour is best understood as a spectrum. Horner & Zlosnik explain it better, but basically one end if psychotic laughter and at the other is wry meta parodic humour. I also got a couple of additional fiction and critical works to consider in my PhD, because there was a brief mention of cross-dressing. It wasn’t properly explored, which is both a good and a bad thing, as I have yet to stumble across my thesis idea already written, but could someone please at least give cross-dressing and drag more than a cursory glance.

What I didn’t like

The scope was a bit too large, and the case studies, if I’m being totally honest, didn’t really hide that problem. This text was clearly intended to begin the discussion of its topic area, but I think it could have done that with an in-depth study of the Gothic literature of a set time period, and then teasing out areas of further study. Most obviously, this would involve studying another period of the Gothic mode’s history. That said, Horner & Zlosnik effectively did the ‘further research could be done in this area’ bit by stating that other critics could easily explore other aspects of Gothic humour, using their text as a foundational one. I will probably be doing this.

 

I am going to be reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble soon – I collected it from the library, and am trying to muster the mental energy to start it, so a review will appear in a couple of weeks. I am also engaging in a thing one of my ex-lecturers set up (#100daysofwriting) to help develop a regular routine for writing my ideas and thoughts down. Hopefully, this means I’ll also be making more content, but we’ll see.

 

Catch Up Shorts

Okay, so I last posted something in May and now I’m trying to start my routine again. I have no excuse for June and July, but August and September have been a bag of wank. I have been reading and pulling my ideas together and have actually started writing my PhD proposal, but I need to get back into a routine where I am actively thinking about the pros and cons of various texts, as well as writing in rough my ideas for my PhD (i.e. the whole point of this blog).

With that, I present to you “catch up shorts” – brief segments on the stuff I’ve read. Honestly, I’ve mostly forgotten the high level criticisms I had when I first read these books, but that’s what happens when personal crises fuck up your routine. Onward.

Pauline Palmer – The Queer Uncanny: New Perspectives on the Gothic

Some really interesting ideas in this one on the broader field of Queer Gothic. The main thing I took from this was an idea that queer Gothic can actively work to renegotiate the more standard paradigm of queer Others as monstrous, powerless and evil. My main issue with it was that there are clear influences of psychoanalysis within it, which is to be expected when it is drawing on Freud’s notion of the Uncanny. Largely though, the text didn’t overly rely on psychoanalysis to explain every goddamn thing. It was also well written, which is always a plus. There was a brief mention of a text with a cross-dressing character, but there was (as usual) little analysis of the way cross-dressing (drag) functions in the text within the context of the author’s main arguments. There are definite small jumps to be taken from this into an analysis of drag as a queer textual gender performance (which I guess I shall be doing).

J. Halberstam – Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monstrosity

Another good academic text. It provided a clear grounding with surface level analysis of the Gothic, and how the body functions as a necessary site for discourse generation. Halberstam made little effort to examine the regenerative and renegotiating possibilities of queerness within the Gothic at the site of the body, falling into a pretty dire belief that Others cannot use their Otherness to their advantage as a source of power. I also remember feeling like the two main Others – Queers and Jews – were fighting for critical attention in the book. This often left one or the other not receiving a full critical analysis in the text Halberstam discusses. Despite the analysis of the Othered (Gothic) body, drag had been reduced to an analogy on one page. That said, the one line is a good one that directly links drag and the Gothic as sharing a shared capacity for excessive fakery and performance.

George Haggerty – Queer Gothic

This one wasn’t bad, but the scope of the text was a little too large for something a little over 200 pages. There was also some drawing on psychoanalysis again, which I’ve just come to expect now. I remember having a big issue with how queerness was never really defined in the text, and there was this kind of expectation for the reader to know what exactly the queerness meant in Haggerty’s context. In my opinion, this serves to render a level of exclusivity to a critical work, and I found myself questioning if I knew what queerness Haggerty was on about. This text, for me, was the one that solidified a real problem with current analyses of queer Gothic – a tendency towards negativity and having to begrudgingly accept the status quo of Othering. Haggerty ends with the statement that ‘even gothic failure is a kind of success if it challenges the status quo and insists on behaviors otherwise invisible’. To me, this means that if a Gothic text challenges the status quo, it somehow becomes less Gothic. Consequently, this reduces the generative possibility of the Gothic. Adversely, a Gothic that reinforces the status quo is unable to be truly queering, and that kind of diminishes the challenges put forward in those queer Gothic texts Haggerty has been writing about. It kind of feels like a ‘well this was pointless’ sigh.

Julia Kristeva – Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection

I read this whole thing and there were some useful bits. It was written very beautifully, but in that dire and inaccessible way mid-to-late-twentieth century academic criticism is so often written. I don’t think I have anything new to say that would be adding to the existing discussions surrounding this text, so I’ll move on.

And that’s it. Well, not quite. I just finished Horner and Zlosknik’s Gothic and the Comic Turn, but that was literally this week, so I can write something a little more in-depth that these sound bites.

Review: Catherine Spooner’s ‘Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic’

As with my previous review, I have some feelings to get out first about this book. I liked it a lot and I’m somewhat anxious about reviewing a book written by my potential PhD supervisor. I don’t want to be insulting or crass and I don’t want to be a suck up because these reviews (and this whole blog to some extent) is supposed to be an extended exercise that keeps my academic brain going. Also, it would be helpful to have a journal of ideas and thoughts I can refer to when filling out funding forms and doing the PhD. Okay, anxious/emotive bit done with, let’s try and be more critical.

Spooner’s Post-Millenial Gothic is a short text (a little over 100 pages) that works to challenge a lot of established paradigms within Gothic criticism. The main arguments it engages with is that A) Gothic is exhausted and doomed to endless repetitions that are constantly of lesser quality than ‘proper Gothic’ and B) Gothic is sad. By exploring Gothic in a literary and cultural sense alongside Goth as a subculture, Spooner works to present an argument that Gothic can be happy and celebratory. Consequently, this view also revitalises Gothic to some degree, countering point A and demonstrating point B.

Spooner has a clear level of expertise within this text. The extended sections on fashion and clothing are exemplar of this. Perceiving Gothic fashions through a positive lens is decidedly refreshing, and Spooner could easily have focused on this for all the chapters in the text, but she goes one step beyond this and treads ground she is not as familiar with. This is not a bad thing. Often, these sections are written as well because Spooner is clearly aware of her own critical and culturally contextual limitations. By pressing into new areas with a solid sense of her own limitations, Post-Millennial Gothic is so precise in breaking new ground that is effectively circumvents those usual weaknesses of academic texts of overreaching. For example, there is a brief section on drag. Spooner utilises her knowledge and research of vampires, fashion and camp to discuss drag and its done incredible effectively. There’s no attempt to suggest that this section is ‘right’, and it invites other scholars to dissect it (and other sections) in greater detail. It focuses on the referential nature of vampires, and draws comparison between Gothic referential tendencies and drag’s own referential tendencies. It’s a good scholarly approach to present something you have little familiarity, express interest, generate some insight using your existing knowledge and research, and then basically say ‘this is what I think, and it fits well from what I can gather into my current research [this book], but I think other scholars might be better equipped to discuss this at greater length.’ The text is also highly readable with Spooner being sparing on needlessly academic language, which is a big plus for any piece of scholarly material in my opinion.

Unfortunately, I can’t just say this was a fab book with lots of great lines of argument, because that would be no good for a proper review. This is a slim text that is packed with ideas and points for greater discussion. I get a sense there was a lot on the cutting room floor with Post-Millennial Gothic. And not to make this sound like a cop out, but the reason its good is also a point of weakness in the text. It could be easily argued that it is too full of points of discussion, meaning that some points are not discussed in enough detail. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to Burton, using his work as a prime example of Gothic visuality, and how narrative is delivered largely through visuals. That’s a comprehensive chapter. Then the chapter on the Whimsical Macabre, which is also a good chapter, jumps through a lot of different examples. I’m not sure if I like the mixture of extended case studies (Burton) and then something more theoretical that moves through a lot of examples. It might be something that reads worse than it is, I don’t know.

I also don’t like to use of Columbine and Sophie Lancaster’s murder as events that catalysed happy Gothic. That’s a personal dislike. I’m not a fan of the ‘massive event triggers equally massive cultural shift’ argument. It’s one of those notions that sounds good on paper, but can be very slippery to handle well and easily torn down. It’s a personal dislike of mine and probably nothing more than that to be honest.

My final point of criticism is that Spooner identifies an erasure of ‘women’s culture’ in existing (and principally male) academic Gothic criticism. Spooner states this right at the start of the text. It’s a valid point, but I don’t remember seeing it highlighted again throughout the text. There might be an assumption that lifestyle tv, fashion, twilight and so on are ‘women’s culture’ and so it is implicit throughout Post-Millennial Gothic. A little more signposting would have helped (I can also be incredible thick when reading, so I might just not have noticed it.)

Overall though, I think this is an excellent piece of work. It knows exactly what it is talking about, and isn’t afraid to say ‘I don’t know enough right now, but this is interesting’ when it doesn’t. I got a lot from this book (all the quotes are typed up on a separate document) and it has given me a lot to think about. It is packed with ideas and I think Spooner knows exactly what she is doing when it comes to demarcating this sub-field. She has carefully left room for other scholars to perform more in depth work on certain aspects of Happy Gothic, whilst providing multiple points of reference for those same scholars. It is as if Spooner has designed the Happy Gothic workshop. In the display cabinets (just roll with this metaphor) is the extended work she has done (e.g. the Burton chapter). Then, we are presented with the tools (imagine a camp file or a whimsical macabre lathe… I’ll stop now) and shown the basics of using them. Then, readers are invited to go off and make something of their own with the tools invented. I think the next phase of Happy Gothic research would be a collection of essays that can go into greater detail on some of the approaches put forward by Spooner in Post-Millennial Gothic.

The point is it’s a good book as an example of academic practice and as academic criticism.

TLDR

What I liked?

The section on drag. The chapter on whimsical macabre. The solid work done to present this ‘Happy Gothic’ (sub)cultural moment. Its readable. The good academic practice of inviting discussion from other scholars to improve, argue, and ultimately build research into Happy Gothic.

What I didn’t like?

The use of Columbine. The mix of extended case studies for certain chapters and smaller examples for other chapters. That some sections could probably have had more space given to them to breathe (again, that ‘there was a lot on the cutting room floor’ vibe was there when I was reading it.)

What I learnt?

Happy Gothic can be understood through multiple critical lenses, and probably benefits an interdisciplinary approach. Good academic practice when writing extended work. A whole lot more that won’t fit into a TLDR mini-section tbh.

 

Up next, I’m currently reading Paulina Palmer’s The Queer Uncanny, so that’ll turn up in a few weeks. I oughtto write an extended post that is my thoughts on something draggy at some point though. I should do that before another review. We’ll see.

Review: Marjorie Garber’s ‘Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety’

Right, let’s get the emotive bit out of the way before I get to the critical bit. I hated this book when I read it. I hate it now. I hate it for taking up 3 months of my life. It is an awful piece of writing. Okay, that’ll probably trickle throughout the review, but I’ll keep it as critical as possible. Also, my total lack of output for the last… several months is down to suddenly being made full time, and preparing for conferences. The next review is Catherine Spooner’s Post-millenial Gothic, which is a good piece of academic work.

Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety has a promising title for anyone interested in any form of cross-dressing. It’s a title that promises intimating something comprehensive, perhaps the book has been designed as an introductory text that won’t attempt grab at too many grand statements. It even has a nice pun.

Then, on opening the thing, alarm bells start ringing. You see it’s from 1992. Anyone who has ventured into the humanities academic texts of the 80s and 90s knows this isn’t a good sign. I’m not saying these texts are bad, but they mark a very culturally specific moment in Humanities scholarship. It is marked by texts like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Edward Said’s Orientalism. These are not bad texts. They are defining texts of many contemporary disciplines. They are, however, profoundly inaccessible. Humanities scholarship at this point decided it was going to write in an overly complex, comma heavy style. I have my own thoughts about this moment. They mainly situate this writing style as a kind of cultural anxiety that the topics being discussed need to be dressed up to be accepted by the established academe. It would make sense, considering the big academic texts (e.g. Orientalism) broached that entirely new and apparently ‘improper’ area of criticism: (very very) broadly, cultural studies. I think the writing style came from anxiety about new subject matter being ‘improper’ and was then popularised because these texts were also ground breaking. Vested Interests sits itself towards the end of the this period, where the writing style is firmly established, popular, and the dominant critical format.

The second alarm bell is that this person take a psychoanalytic approach. I am not in favour of this approach. Psychoanalysis has its place, but its grand unifying-ness makes it both easy to implement, and easy to get wrong. Garber falls into the latter often. The text overly applies this theory, as well as a crude attempt at being Derridean, in addition to its overly complicated writing style, to be totally inaccessible, and mostly incorrect. In terms of broad strokes, Garber uses the critical equivalent of a paint roller. In her own words, Garber ‘began this book by noting how frequently the phenomenon of cross-dressing, or transvestism, is looked through rather than at in critical and cultural analyses—how often, indeed how insistently, cultural observers have tried to make it mean something, anything, other than itself.’ To do this, Garber looks at every instance of cross-dressing she can think of: cross-dressing, transvestism, transgenderism (transsexualism in the book), drag, film, musicals, military shows. There are trips to the ‘Orient’, and time travel adventures to Early modern theatre. In all these examples, there is supposed to be this attempt to look at cross-dressing, rather than using it to an end. Garber does not do this. She does not focus on the cultural specificity of these instances of cross-dressing, working to collapse them into an archetypal ‘transvestite’ figure. In Vested Interests, cross-dressing in military shows serves the same purpose as drag and Harlem ball culture, which are the same as cross-dressing in Oriental cinema. Garber then collapses this further to fit this into a psychoanalytic lens. At this point, I’d also like to point out that Garber specialises in Early modern theatre, particularly Shakespeare. Yet, she has the audacity to lay claim to every instance of cross-dressing she can think of. There is no sense of self-awareness, no insistence that certain things are beyond the scope of her understanding (and judging by the bibliography, the scope of the research performed for this book.) There’s not even anything as simple as ‘I don’t really know much about this, and I will leave this area for other, better suited, scholars, but from what I can interpret, I think it’s really interesting.’ Or some similarly convoluted sentence admitting a lack of knowledge. It genuinely worries me how scholars can possibly be confident in their absolute knowledge of a field, just because no one has written directly on it.

Vested Interests is a hugely problematic text. It is mildly homophobic in places, has tended towards racism in others, and seemed to rely on a reader’s lack of knowledge to get away with certain theorisations of evidence. I remember the text referring to Marsha P. Johnson as a transvestite, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as some kind of performing troupe. The former is a gross misunderstanding of Marsha, who was a trans-woman and drag queen. The latter is a decidedly tactical use of language and reliance on a reader’s lack of knowledge. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were at no point simply a performing troupe. They have always (as far as my knowledge of them extends anyway) been an activist and charity drag organisation. Anyone using them as an example would know that context. I am somewhat astounded that such poor academic practice could be published, but perhaps that’s because of my own historical and contextual viewpoint.

With all that said, there are some positives to glean from this text. It is an influential text on cross-dressing, and it’s 390 pages of A4. There are a few select points of quality scholarship, once you’ve panned through all the silt. Its breadth is both a blessing and a curse in that way. If it was approached differently, with some statements admitting lack of total knowledge, whole swaths of text might have been viewed in a better light. And if anything, Vested Interests is a prime example of what not to do when producing academic scholarship.

Which brings me smoothly back to the title. At the point of entry, this seemed like a good title. When closing page 390, there is a glaring issue with it. It’s the word ‘anxiety’. It’s singular. Finishing the text, I realised this should have been my first warning signal. Cross-dressing, in all its culturally specific forms, with all the ways of approaching it, only enacts one cultural ‘anxiety’. On the front of the book is that attempt to collapse a highly varied medium that can only be fully understood within cultural contexts (plural) into a singular ‘anxiety’. Cross-dressing, for Garber, is the universal ‘third’, outside of, transgressing, and violating all binaries. It is singular, and enacts a singular ‘anxiety’, which expresses the book’s desire to collapse and reduce.

TLDR

What I liked?

There is an attempt to shed light on cross-dressing. There is an attempt to theorise it. There’s some solid stuff in there if you are willing to wade through the rest.

What I learnt?

There are some films, journal articles, and books I ought to follow up. What not to do when writing academic material. To keep it nuanced and specific.

What I didn’t like?

The breadth of material is too wide, and it’s obvious where Garber’s strengths and weaknesses lie. The Shakespeare was significantly more solid than the Orientalism. The needlessly complex language use. The overly complicated sentences. The grand sweeping statements, and attempt at grand unifying theories. They are bad. They go against the very intent of the book to look ‘at’ rather than ‘through’ cross-dressing by ignoring historical and (sub)cultural specificity. The bad academic practice of selectively ignoring facets of the material being discussed (e.g. the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence).