Willow Rosenberg and the Gold Star

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This actually started as a post on tumblr attached to a casually biphobic video by YouTuber Arielle Scarcella. I posted it, walked away, got in the shower, and basically panicked about it being on the internet. I came back and ripped it down, feeling 75% better, and consequently very ashamed. I normally write non-fiction through the lens of pop-culture in order to provide the proper objective point of view and distance, as well as give readers a common ground from which we can all hopefully draw examples. I blog about pop-culture because I think it is ridiculously important and often ignored. But I don’t have a way to come at this through pop-culture. I’ve been working on this post for the better part of four months trying to find a way to talk about it, and I have not come up with a way. There’s a reason. There’s no popular media or sci-fi go-to person for bisexuality. As important as Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire slayer is to me personally, she never identifies as bisexual, in fact, despite the very familiar terms she uses to describe her attraction; “And it wasn’t women, it was woman. Just one.” (episode: “The Killer In Me”) and her late revelation about her sexuality, the depth and intensity of her relationship with Oz, the whole question is settled early and firmly with “I’m gay now.” Willow is in fact one of the most visible television lesbians still, and she could very well be a lesbian with a dating history that includes men. That on its own would be wonderful, but as it stands either way she does nothing for bisexual visibility or bisexual representation, and finding anyone, male or female who explicitly uses the word bisexual in reference to themselves in television or movies is discouragingly difficult considering the long and rich history of the term.

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The reason I know that representation matters is personal experience. The invisibility of my sexuality in popular media made it that much easier to accept it when people said it wasn’t real, that it was a train stop on the way to something else, that if I was queer at all, I would just know. Media infested with ex-lesbians and girls kissing “for attention” and experimentation made it easy to dismiss my own truth with common sentiments like, “well, all girls like girls a little bit, everyone’s a little gay, who doesn’t get excited by lesbian porn?” Like Kennedy, all the queer women I knew knew they liked girls by early adolescence if not earlier. One of my friends in technical theater told me she knew when she was five and gave me the weirdest look when I said, “I would kill to be that certain.” So I moved in hetero space, I stayed out of the queer spaces where I felt more comfortable because I also felt like an impostor. I still have that impostor feeling.

I am often vague about my sexuality, I let people assume my gayness or my straightness based on the situation, I get labeled lesbian in queer spaces and sometimes I don’t quibble. I drop “my girlfriend” into the conversation and then don’t go any further. If I were an ally, I would consider myself a truly terrible ally- but something occurred to me very recently that hadn’t before: I’m not an ally. I’m not vacationing in queer space as a stealth man-loving woman, I’m not letting people assume my heterosexuality to enjoy the “privilege” of invisibility as opposed to letting people assume my heterosexuality because it’s safer given the situation. I’m in the middle of this problem, and while as an ally I would expect myself to be vocal in public and to defend myself against erasure and micro-aggressions, I’m not an impostor here.

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When I first came out, someone told me that the LGBT (at the time it was still usually GLBT) acronym was a hierarchy, and I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time. Today, it’s the reason I remain very uncomfortable with the acronym, it’s the reason I’m so fond of the word “queer.” I love the idea that we can all be one giant intersectional umbrella of marginalized sexualities and gender identities including people who hardly ever make it into the acronym; including people who I’m already too old and stuffy to be educated about yet, but we have some stuff to figure out with each other before that’s really the reality we’re living in. I continue to use “queer” because I live in hope.

Maybe Willow Rosenberg isn’t bisexual, but she’s also not what the lesbian community calls a “gold star” lesbian. This gets really technical, but when you get right down to it, to be “gold star” you mustn’t have been penetrated by a penis. Obviously that’s a ridiculously transphobic definition, so some will scale it back to “never had sex with a man or male-identified person,” but if you talk to people who make the “gold star” distinction, it reduces to one of two things pretty quickly, straight up misogyny or biphobia. The misogyny comes from the idea that a vagina that has never been penetrated by a penis is somehow more pure or eternally virginal, the weird misconception that sex with guys invariably leads to a “loose” vagina, and the idea that someone sleeping with a woman has some sort of discretion over that woman’s sexual history, a pretty direct brand of slut-shaming. The biphobia comes from the idea that there exists some sort of hierarchy of being attracted to women and women who have never had sex with a man (totally erasing the existence of women who were coerced or molested) are somehow more gay and deserving of praise, and/or inherently more dateable or sexually desirable. The “gold star” idea is just one ugly way that some lesbians will continue to marginalize and erase bisexual women, and I’ve heard it more than once used as one of many legitimately held reasons to not date bisexual women. All this is to say that lesbian space is not generally safe space for bisexual women.

When I was younger, one of my favorite movies was Chasing Amy, one of the “Clerks” spinoffs directed by Kevin Smith. I love it for its sexual exploration, its down-to-earth romance and its flawed characters, but the press on the movie largely described it as, “man falls in love with lesbian; turns her straight.” The above scene is one in which the main character Alyssa tells her presumably and implied lesbian friends that she’s in love with a man. I have always and only seen a bisexual woman coming out at long last to her friends. The reception is chilly as you’d expect, and the scene ends with one of her friends saying; “another one bites the dust,” as if Alyssa is succumbing to some heteronormative pressure rather than following her heart after much painful soul searching and deliberation. Her friends give her no benefit of the doubt, and that scene stuck with me and continued to echo my own experiences with coming out. It’s not “easier” to come out as bisexual. You have to REMIND people that you have already told that you are bisexual, you have to CONVINCE people that you exist, you have to DEFEND your right to not be called either gay or straight or confused. If you think that Katy Perry’s “I kissed a girl” was bad for lesbians it was 20 times worse for bisexual girls, because it reinforced slutty bisexual stereotypes, the stereotype that we’re all lying or confused or experimenting, and the non-monogamous bisexual (from which folks can say they wouldn’t date a bisexual girl because they would be worried about her cheating as if we’re ALL THE SAME.) What little representation I can come up with in media portrayals of bisexual characters mostly reflected that handful of negative stereotypes, and only one out of the thirteen I could come up with actually used the word “bisexual” at any juncture.

Everyone should watch Orphan Black, just, everyone.

Everyone should watch Orphan Black, just, everyone.

Even though I was incredibly fortunate to grown up in a time in a metropolitan area where homophobia was at least socially frowned upon in public, it took me YEARS to understand and come to terms with my own bisexuality, because I spent that entire time questioning and interrogating and doubting my own feelings. I still struggle with feeling like an impostor, I still sometimes feel like my experiences don’t count as authority. But nobody hated this label more than I did, and now that I have it, you can’t take it away and I won’t shut up about it.

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Mean Girls and Whores

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A few days ago I read for the first time that 1996’s teen slasher flick Scream was a place for Wes Craven to pin his hopes of keeping the slasher flick alive and well by marketing it to women.  This may just be a popular rumor the internet is passing around, but it immediately called to mind the fact that Scream and a few of its sequels have been and remain my favorite horror movies.  Scream keeps us inside the horror by taking its characters seriously, but then pops us right out with Randy the resident horror movie expert.  Randy exposes the tropes, lays down the rules, and even points out the killer.  It was the first time I started to understand just how rigged the horror movie game was, and having Randy there to let us know it was all just one big morality tale was just the anesthetic my teenage brain needed to think it through in the midst of all the innards and blood.  Scream is a great tool for rhetorical and critical thinking about media, but its distinction is mainly in being the first popular attempt at such in its genre.  Unfortunately, what the movie seemed to spawn in its wake was merely a legion of crappy cheap parodies of this borderline parody and I didn’t see much in the way of even derivative work on the silver screen until meta-master Joss Whedon tried his hand at horror last year.

If you haven’t yet seen Cabin in the Woods, good god, stop reading this right now and queue it up.  What you’ll find is a slasher that borders on the epically tragic and understands that even though this movie is just a deadly game, we still have big stakes in it.  Whedon really wants us to transcend our regular thinking and suggest this genre as a form of subtle social control.  And isn’t that where Scream was headed, after all?  We all know the rules:

  • Never have sex (lust)
  • Don’t drink or do drugs (gluttony)
  • Don’t say you’ll be right back (pride)

Don’t have sex, definitely don’t enjoy it, don’t indulge yourself, and absolutely positively don’t practice confidence.  The other four sins have their place in terms of cause of death, but Randy has outlined these as the ones that are absolutely unsurvivable.  As Jules, our final girl from Cabin in the Woods says in her final revelation; “They don’t just want to see us killed, they want to see us punished.”  Cabin suggests something ritualistic about our need to complete this story over and over again, even giving us totems; the fool, the whore, the athlete, the scholar, and the virgin or final girl.  There exist leagues of discussion about the final girl, and some of it well worth reading, but I concern myself chiefly with the other side of this virgin/whore dichotomy, the girl who doesn’t survive- the whore.

When the whore exists outside of the horror movie genre, the audience’s need for her to be punished follows her, as does the slut-shaming and witch-burning.  She’s the embodiment of biblical Eve, she’s the girl who, in the context of horror at least, must die, and she will die first, and she will die naked and afraid.  She is the blonde girl in the alley that Whedon so pitied that he wrote an entire television series about how she runs into a dark alley with a monster and emerges triumphant.

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“Buffy the Vampire Slayer was explicitly conceived of as a reworking of horror films in which ‘bubbleheaded blondes wandered into dark alleys and got murdered by some creature.’ As he notes, ‘The idea of Buffy was to…create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim.” (from PostFeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories, by Stephanie Genz)

Buffy ends up being much more of a final girl than whore in the end.  Buffy’s first tender sexual encounter is emotional and characterized by blurry flashes of flesh and ends in tragedy, while we’re led to believe that Cordelia’s sexual relationships have been numerous and far less pivotal.  Though virginal Xander is her longest on-screen relationship, no one seems to imagine that Cordelia graduates as a virgin, and when she leaves the series she spins off being just as promiscuous.  The difference is clear, Buffy is the kind of girl you take home to meet mom, and Cordelia is the kind of girl you date in secret. buffy-cordelia

Cordelia is not only a whore, she’s also a self-identified bitch, meaning that she looks out for herself and isn’t afraid to bargain with her affections, physical or otherwise.  She dates boys for their cars, she jumps from one emotionally distant but profitable relationship to the next, and she is not afraid to step on the neck of anyone who gets in her way.  She’s ambitious in a very feminine way, and it’s not that she doesn’t know how to censor herself, she just refuses to.  “Tact is just not saying true stuff.  I’ll pass.”  Cordelia sees her social position as something which she has earned and sacrificed for, and Buffy, by denying her authority in turning down her offering of friendship in the first episode, and then later directly threatening her position by going after the title of Homecoming Queen, is a threat to all Cordelia has, which is, even in her own estimation, not a whole heck of a lot compared to Buffy’s superhero status and support system.

The popular girl (identified as the “Alpha Bitch” by TV Tropes.org) is about status, she often comes from a broken home, or suffers from a lack of parental guidance or interest, but unlike the redeemable male bully, her situation is not to be pitied or empathized with.  Cordy is well-hated among the cast of characters, as well as among the fans, and she’s often the butt of jokes, but in Whedon’s universe, she is allowed a dignity and depth she might not otherwise be afforded.

That leads me to a position for which I find myself constantly explaining myself.  Mean Girls, the Tina-Fey-written feminist-lauded screenplay about just how monstrous it is that girls in the patriarchy don’t have each other’s backs while completely ignoring the fact that the patriarchy is a figure in the equation.  My lack of contemporary horror-movie knowledge means that Regina George is the most recent example I can conjure of “the whore” being unrepentantly publicly destroyed for mass-consumption, but I find that Mean Girls is easily the least criticized example of this trope.

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The narrative in Mean Girls would have us believe that Regina is an empty-eyed sadist, and the movie uses the viewer’s socially-conditioned contempt for the trappings of femininity to reflect the character’s intended shallow and phony personality.  Her clique is called “the plastics;” a catty dig aimed at shaming cosmetic surgery, her mother’s breasts are fake and therefore alien, she’s “flawless,” she insures her hair, and her bedroom is as pink as the group’s outfits on Wednesday.  Regina is the straw-femme designed to be measured against our main character and found wanting, but they both are self-interested, insecure, and unkind at different points in the narrative.  Cady is fairly unrepentant about hurting the other girls in Regina’s clique and easily falls into doing the same kind of bullying that is meant to make us feel alright about the karma-bus that hits Regina in the end.

The difference between Regina and Cady though, is in where they come from.  Regina comes from a house where drinking and sex are freely permitted, where she pushes limits and finds no boundaries whatsoever, where her obviously uninvolved father shows up for one scene in order to be a concerning joke about his teenage daughter’s burgeoning sexuality.  Despite the emotional neglect, she takes care of herself, sets her own boundaries and expectations, and builds herself a fortress of perceived self-esteem which cannot be punctured.  Cady on the other hand, while mysteriously under-socialized with young people her age, has a consistent and firm support system.  In short, she knows better, but she does anyway.

The audience is meant to enjoy tearing down Regina because of what she represents the same way that every teen-slasher-flick sets the scantily clad or nude “whore” on the altar of our own prejudices and inhibitions.  She is punished, no matter the genre, for daring to embrace her sexuality, her femininity, and herself, and she is right to mistrust us, because she knows intuitively that we would love to tear her down.  Mean Girls did seem to be a really genuine look at how and why girls bully each other, but my fondest hope is that a decade from now we will have a feminism that allows us to empathize with this character to a point at which this movie transforms in the public eye much like Merchant of Venice from the comedy that it wants to be to the tragedy that it is.