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.

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.

Queer sexualities and Gothic Drag – The Boulet Brothers

In my first blog post, I touched on how Queer, more specifically queerness embodied by drag, tends towards horror, the Gothic, and monstrosity. Well, I mentioned the Boulet Brothers and that I’d talk about them anyway, so this is that. The Boulet Brothers are fixtures of California’s underground punk/fetish scene, identifying themselves as ‘fetish queens’ on occasion. It makes sense. They met in a fetish club, their costumes always have latex and other fetishistic fabrics somewhere in them, and their drag nights (Beardo Weirdo, Dragula, and a third one I’ve forgotten right now) very much celebrate countercultural punk attitudes with a queer drag flair.

At the same time, every image of them that I see makes me think Gothic more than fetish. To some degree the two intersect, but I’d like to put forward my case as to why they make me think Gothic. First, their signature look is ‘creepy twins’ all over (‘the house down’ if you want to be draggy about it). Eerie twins abound in the Gothic. I don’t really feel the need to support that with evidence, when it is such a common trope. It becomes extra creepy when we factor in how their uncanny resemblance is achieved through the tools of drag. Skilled with makeup and costume symmetry, the Boulet Brothers become creepy twins. They also look hauntingly stunning (I hate using such stereotypical Gothic essay words like haunting), embellishing this eeriness further. They frequently feature a slit throat motif, either with makeup (below), necklaces (macabre and humorous pearl ones probably), and contacts that either black out their eyes totally or colour their irises unnatural shades.

boulet-brothers

(unclockable, horror women demons from a Guillermo Del Toro Crimson Peak knock off B-movie. I LIVE)

What excites me about the Boulet Brothers particularly is that they excellently support my notion that queerness is monstrous to heteronormativity (and that that is used is a celebratory fashion in drag). Their identification as ‘fetish queens’, intersecting the taboos of fetish sexuality and queerness, manifests through monstrosity. The Boulet Brothers present an interesting amalgamation of sexuality that deviates from established social norms, using Gothic aesthetics. Their carnivalesque drag nights effectively become spaces to celebrate deviant sexuality, and their use of Gothic aesthetics highlights the inherent perception in heteronormative culture of deviant/queer sexualities as monstrous. Obviously, carnival is something of a double-edged sword as the celebratory space can quickly be demarcated outside the norm, blocked off and isolated to the realm of the carnival (or clubs in this case). That said, drag is more overtly becoming part of pop culture, primarily because of the appropriation of queer/black (in America at least the two have had a consistent relationship since at least the emergence of the ball scene in the 70/80s) language by predominantly white pop culture media outlets (a fancy way to say Buzzfeed uses RPDR gifs a lot and the term ‘Shade’ incorrectly). There is currently a competition show on YouTube hosted by the Boulet Brothers called ‘Dragula: The Search for the World’s First Drag Supermonster’. (I honestly can’t tell if the budget was very tight for the show, or if they’re deliberately evoking B-movie horror. Either way, it’s good). The internet is very much the best medium for queer carnival’s embodied by the Boulet Brothers to break the carnival’s isolationist tendencies.

(Watch this damn trailer and don’t for one second tell me that queer sexualities aren’t laced with the Gothic in the Boulet Brothers at the very least.)

Writing academic things like this is hard without scholarly material available to me to back up my thoughts, so forgive me if certain critics would work really well with these thoughts.

I guess what I’m trying to get at with all this is that gothic drag works often as a vehicle for queer and often deviant sexualities. The monstrousness highlights the otherness of queer/deviant sexualities, and drag works to celebrate that otherness. Creepy as all hell it may look, it demonstrates the positivity of drag and how monstrosity forms a very particular part of that positivity. As I mentioned in the first post, Sharon Needles’ songs often imbricate celebratory attitudes to queerness and queer sexuality, and then mix in Gothic horror motifs to challenge the perceptions of monstrousness that queer and so-called deviant sexualities permeate heteronormative culture. The Boulet Brothers demonstrate that well, because their drag intersects queerness with fetish and monstrousness, celebrating their monstrousness, and throwing it almost defiantly at a culture that would otherwise stigmatise queerness and fetishism.

Again, there is a lot to unpack in all of this, and I definitely would do better with some resources, but at least my ideas are stored somewhere other than in my head. What I want to think about with the Boulet Brothers is: What Gothic do they invoke in their drag? How does drag alter the Gothic? How does Gothic alter drag? And what is the result of all this?

boulet-brothers-2-jpg

“Legendary” and Gothic Drag

This is an idea I’ve been playing around with in my head for a while. “Legendary” and “Iconic” are words thrown around in drag seemingly all the time, and they’re both very flexible terms. It can reference certain drag performers, performances, looks, films, and so on. It seems to me, in some part, to be a way of establishing, for want of a better word, a canon of drag and to work to create referential cultural moments with drag/queer/LGBT (sub)cultures. I’m not sure. All I know is that the following are some prime examples of “legendary” drag things in action:

Films:

Obviously, the legendary films relating to drag are Paris is Burning and Pink Flamingos (though this may be because Divine herself is an icon). I don’t really know what makes them iconic beyond the fact that they achieved a mainstream level of success for a sub/counter cultural performance style that is drag, punk and the ballroom scene to varying degrees.

I’ll likely post about film at a later date when I’ve give it a little more though because there’s definitely more to these reference points than just them being queer films (and drag queens draw on traditionally heterosexual/normative film, tv and lit as well, so I’ll need to think about it more anyway).

Queens:

Iconic and Legendary queens abound. James St. James makes a point in one of his ‘transformations’ episode on YouTube about queens being “legendary” in certain regions and for a limited time, so being truly “legendary” is something that is constantly worked on for queens to retain their relevance. That said, there are certainly “legendary” queens now, thanks to things like RuPaul”s Drag Race providing a platform for queens to generate an iconic, legendary status. If I were to cite “Legendary” queens, I would undoubtedly have to include breakout stars of RPDR like Raven and Jujubee, Raja, Latrice Royale, Ongina, Sharon Needles, Alaska Thunderfvck 5000, Jinkx Monsoon, BenDeLaCreme, Bob the Drag Queen, Violet Chachki, and so on. In addition, there are queens from RPDR and more general internet and television fame like Kim Chi and Willam to add to that list. Finally, there are the queens who have made a name for themselves and achieved a legendary kind of status like RuPaul, Lady Bunny, Bianca Del Rio (also a winner of RPDR), Lily Savage, Divine, and Dame Edna Everage. These queens are all so stunningly vibrant and excel in so many varied ways that comparison between them isn’t begged but may be necessary later on for investigative purposes. They are legendary for their impressions on audiences, their skills in certain facets of drag, and for other reasons I haven’t really thought about.

It seems that “Legendary” encompasses a kind of non-fame, or maybe anti-fame?. “Legendary” Queens are famous and revered in their very small circles. “Drag will never be mainstream” is something that I’m paraphrasing, but RuPaul says it often enough. “Legendary” status is memorable, culturally impactful, those regular famous this. But it is also inherently queer and countercultural. To be “legendary” is to be a queer kind of famous, both in the sense of actually being queer but also in the old use of queer as strange (if that makes any kind of sense). It speaks and appeals and becomes famous because of its queerness, and in heteronormative culture that also shuns it. I don’t  really know how to explain it, because “Legendary” things (in my experience) also bring up physical and mental reactions in me. Take the “Legendary” Tandi Iman Dupree performance below. This is a performance I have watched many times and it still makes my brain scream “yasssssss” very loudly. It makes my head move and my mouth drop. If I was partial to it, I would probably snap my fingers viciously and cheer every time it happened (and if I weren’t in public). It invokes a physical and emotional response that celebrates queerness and is queerness embodied in itself. A man in a wonder woman costume fell from the ceiling into a split, broke her heel and continued a performance of spins, kicks, dance moves and choreographed launching, all whilst perfectly lip-synching “Holding out for a Hero”. If that doesn’t make you go “yassssssss” and doesn’t evoke a physical and emotional response, you’re probably a happy heterosexual who’s never experienced a sudden release and celebration of their sexuality. But I think that’s what “Legendary” is, to some degree anyway. And it comes out in so many ways, so let’s get to the bit I want to talk about the most: when monsters are brought into drag…

(YES MISS TANDI)

So, if “Legendary” equates to queer in every sense of the word iconic/famous moment, then it makes perfect sense that monsters and monstrosity quickly become iconic looks. There are a plethora of looks and Queens I can draw on for this, but none really do this specifically as well as Sharon Needles. I could make reference to the Boulet Brother here or British Queens like Meth and Bruise, NYC Queens like Severely Mame, and more I probably don’t know, but Needles really does monstrous drag the best. The Boulet Brothers I’m gonna talk about in a different post when I’ve put more thought into monstrosity’s relationship to fetish in what I’m broadly labelling as Gothic Drag. Now, miss Needles.

Take this for example:

That runway is “Legendary” because of it’s spectacle, because nothing like this had been done before through a televisual medium (Drag Race has always had a difficult relationship with certain drag styles… Sharon kind of changed that).  It’s “Legendary” because it’s a moment that is so famous, and it is queerness in so many senses of the words. It’s a zombie, with blood pouring down its face, but there’s still drag makeup contouring, and heels. A zombie. In heels. It’s audacious and brilliant, beautiful, queer and uncanny. In a word, “Legendary”. Okay, I’ll try and be critical and not just gush over this look. Sharon does this constantly. Her aesthetic, in her words, is “beautiful, spooky, and stupid”. She has Lovecraftian looks, vampire looks, zombie looks. She’s dragged up Freddy Kreuger and Poltergeist.

Monstrosity, for Needles, lends itself well to “Legendary” status. I’m not fully sure why, but I think there are multiple reasons. Monstrous bodies are Other to “(hetero)normal” bodies, so they interpolate well with bodies indicted with queerness, as in drag queens. Does it create something new, smushing monsters with queerness? Yes, but I don’t think it’s as simple as Queer monsters, because LGBTQIA bodies are already queer monsters. I think it brings those anxieties to the surface by fully realising the monstrous and queer sexuality (more on that in fetish and gothic and the Boulet Brothers). And also, using iconic monsters in this way also takes them from their traditional heterosexual context. I’m not suggesting Bram Stoker was queer or anything… what I’m trying to get at is, gothic drag appropriates the queerness of monstrosity, intersects that with the existing monstrousness of non-heterosexuality, and compounds it into a body that celebrates its otherness (I think this is also why many queer music videos create spaces where gayness for want of a better word is on display and celebrated as well… Very few of Needles’ songs/videos don’t bring sex(uality) into it as well). In turn, this affords its “Legendary” status, because its queerness embodied, celebrated, and made famous (kind of). And by celebrating queer monstrosity, reappropriating it via dragged out monsters from heteronormative culture, the practice of Gothic Drag becomes inherently celebratory in a lot of ways. I’m not really sure where it goes beyond that and I definitely need to unpack all of these ideas more and research them more, but I think that’s the basis of my thoughts to do with “Legendary”/“Iconic” moments and the Gothic at the moment. So… yeah.

Also, I’ll do a proper post that provides more kinds of “Legendary” or “Iconic”, but I think you get at least the base idea from this short post.