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).

Doing Drag Readings

severely-mame
Drag Queen Severely Mame. I just like this picture, it doesn’t have much to do with the content of the post.

My PhD thesis is becoming more structured in my head in terms of what I want to explore and the time period I want to consider. There are going to be two main threads of argument that work off of each other. My first line of inquiry explores the Gothic drag, considering how the Gothic intersect with drag and what the Gothic does the drag. Particularly, I want to explore how aspects of monstrosity colludes with drag. There is a wealth of texts that explore transformation in the Gothic, and a wealth of texts that explore Queer Gothic, but I have yet to find something that brings the two together in the context of drag. When drag performers and acts like Sharon Needles, The Boulet Brothers, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the entire cast of Dragula, and pop culture phenomenon Elvira (and to some extent Morticia Addams… the Jennifer Huston one in particular), I really don’t understand why no one (as far as I can find) talks about drag, and that subset of drag that is monstrous gender performances, within the various queer, transformation, Gothic, or fashion theory fields of academia.

As I’m reading more and more (currently, I’m reading Majorie Garber’s “Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety), I’m starting to notice patterns when academic talk about queer gender performances, gendered clothing, and causing ruptures at sites on the gender binary. Mostly, I’m noticing how a lot of these texts were written in the late 80s and 90s, a period that is synonymous for me with opaque and lengthy academic writing. Undoubtedly, this is because of the establishment of theory in the arts and humanities critical toolkits. In my area of interest, no doubt I’ll have to go and read “Gender Trouble” at some point, though I’ll put it off as long as possible, because Butler is the queen of opaque and lengthy academic writing. But one other thing that is synonymous with the 80s and 90s academia, is a kind of underlying misunderstanding of queerness, clothing and gender performance (I’d even argue a casualised homophobia is fairly frequent). I have yet to fully untangle and concretely think about all these misunderstandings, but my ultimate pet peeve is this god awful tendency for these texts to regard “Cross-dressing”, “drag”, “transvestite”, “transsexual”, and “transgender” as interchangeable synonymous term. This is a real pain when the second line of argument in my PhD intends to use drag as a tool for reading and interrogating the Gothic. Garber frequently does this in “Vested Interests” and it really gets on my nerves, because the text is otherwise promising (this will be laid out in a proper review of the text when I’ve finished it.)

Viewing these terms as interchangeable degrades each terms meaning. It’s not just the mild transphobia of equating “cross-dressing” with “transsexual” that’s makes these texts miss points and make mistakes. It’s more the fact that critics following on from the initial 80s/90s gender performance and queer texts keep doing it. Transgender/transsexual has largely been dropped and isn’t seen as interchangeable with the other terms (good), but “Cross-dressing”, “drag”, and “transvestite” are largely perceived as meaning the same thing. I imagine no one thinks it’s important to draw discrepancies between these things, but I imagine anyone who knows a damn thing about drag or transvestism probably knows those discrepancies are present, and important. So, in my limited knowledge, I’ll lay down how I intend to approach and use these terms, for the sake of “doing drag readings”. This is subject to change as I continue to research and develop.

“Cross-dressing” is probably the easiest because it’s the most explicit. I see cross-dressing as simply the act of wearing clothes that cross a boundary. Largely, this is the gender boundary, but I don’t see why it can’t be considered cross-dressing when someone crosses a boundary like class, status, or something else (was Cinderella a cross-dresser?) Cross-dressing does not have to cause a rupture in the boundary, it does not have to have any wider political stance. In my opinion, cross-dressing is the act of dressing in such a way that the individual crosses a boundary.

“Transvestite” as far as I am aware is the fetishisation of cross-dressing. It turn the person cross-dressing on. Again, this largely is known to cross the gender binary. Dressing as a woman turns the man underneath on. Again, I don’t see why transvestite can’t relate to other kinds of boundary crossing. Is a “Puppy” a transvestite because they are aroused by “being” an animal? That’s for someone with more interest in the subject to dissect. The main point still stands. The act of crossing a boundary through dress is fetishised for the transvestite.

“Drag”, for me, is the more complex one, but again, the distinction from the other two terms is fairly simple. To me, drag is the simultaneous celebration of queerness and mockery of heteronormativity through the act of cross-dressing and explicit gender performance. I’m being intentionally vague here because I need this idea to encompass drag queens, drag kings, bio-drag (I’m not a fan of the term “bioqueen” as it takes drag out of the title, so assumes the “bioqueen” in question is not doing drag and therefore not mocking heteronormativity or celebrating queerness), and other drag performance styles. When you get into the specifics of each type of drag style, there will undoubtedly be more nuance to these actions. I also think that that the mockery and celebration elements are distinct from each other, not a “two-side of the same coin” situation, though the drag performers probably do both at the same time anyway. A drag performer does not get aroused by being in drag (though you can be a drag queen and a transvestite). A drag queen mocks heteronormativity by explicitly performing as a “woman”; a pageant queen does this by participating in pageant and becoming a “beautiful woman” (usually with heavily exaggerated female features to hide the man… again, something to untangle); a horror queen does it by becoming a “feminine monster”; bio-drag performers are women performing as “women”… mockery.

Celebration takes the form through the overt and explicit queerness. Drag is rife with coded language (a reclamation/evolution of the coded language lgbt+ people would use back when being lgbt+ was illegal) and reclaimed terms (“queer”, “faggot”, “bitch”, “cunt”, drag reclaims queer and feminine insults and makes them positive and affirmative). Drag performers are explicitly queer and they take center stage at Pride events for that reason. Mocking heteronormativity and celebrating queerness rupture the gender binary, which is reflected back onto the drag performer and encoded in their clothing, character, makeup, and all those other things which encompass drag. The differences between these terms are important because with such discrepancies, we can begin to unpick and perform solid critical and cultural analyses.

Now, with these discrepancies somewhat outlined, go and look at pictures of drag queens and think about the different ways they celebrate queerness and mock heteronormativity.

I want to do more with this, but I’ve exhausted my brain writing this and I think it’ll be two full blog posts so I can properly begin exploring this. I should also probably try and write these upcoming “readings” posts with a little more care than my usual dribblings. I think I’ll do one on Gothic Drag, looking at Elvira as a key example of that, and one on Drag Gothic, considering if the book “The Lie Tree” features drag (I think it does). These two upcoming posts would work nicely off each other as they both focus on women performing doing drag, which is quite handy for me.