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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The Argument to be Made for a Female Doctor

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For those uninitiated, Doctor Who is a British Sci Fi series first launched in 1963 with little besides love, cardboard, and fishing line and ran with growing popularity for the next 26 years. It was recently revived in 2005 as a continuation of the original plot line. When compared to American media, it is nearest in spirit to Star Trek, an unnaturally long-running science fiction series that more or less invented and defined fan culture for a country.  It crosses media barriers with books, comics, a mid-eighties movie and numerous radio shows, has seen outrageous numbers of viewers in the UK, and as of today is unarguably Britain’s most popular television export.

The premise of this show is a time-traveling humanoid alien being who travels time and space with his generally human companions in his cleverly disguised spaceship/time machine.  What makes the doctor so special and adored is surely a question for history to answer and fans to bicker about, but one of the things that gives the series so much longevity is The Doctor’s ability to regenerate.  Regeneration is an affectation of The Doctor’s species, called time lords, all of whom possess a binary vascular system and the ability to cheat death by “regenerating” their cell tissue into a new form.  That new form comes with a new face, and conveniently, a new actor to play the role until the next time The Doctor “dies.”

The news these last two weeks has been the announcement of the 12th actor to play the most significant roles in British science fiction, and one of the most prominent roles in the current science fiction landscape in general.  As context may suggest, I don’t consider this a trivial decision.  Many people, myself included, expressed a sense of disappointment at the news that this actor was, like every single actor to play the doctor before him, white and male, especially considering the significant fan campaigns to have the current production team on the series cast its nets more widely when searching for this figurehead of science fiction television.

I reacted by writing a post that reiterated my lack of support for the current writing team on the series, with special attention to Steven Moffat, the current head writer.  Though my argument was largely based on the detriment that Moffat was doing to the general writing of the series, it was largely received by what I can only assume are folks with very low reading comprehension as a demand for an actress to be cast in the role.  I quoted Jill Pantozzi over at The Mary Sue in that article when she said something to the effect of; many female fans don’t want to see what scary sexist shit Moffat would do with a female doctor.

I can wait for a female doctor, I can wait for a POC doctor, I am concerned that the series will not survive Moffat’s decisions, but all my preferences are beside the point.  The fact is that I have yet to hear an objection to this plot point that isn’t couched in misogyny.

  • First of all, it’s canon. 

The first Neil-Gaiman-written episode titled “The Doctor’s Wife,” confirms the possibility of changing genders between regenerations.  If you don’t know this, and you’re still providing false-equivalencies like this one:

“What? Dr. Who has always been a male character. Would you accept Jane Austen books changing their leading women characters to men? Accusing Dr Who of being racist and sexist but yet you wouldn’t allow a black man to play the role of ‘Emma”. Tumblr Feminism strikes again. Smh”

Then you need to brush up on your knowledge. I don’t think being a fan requires knowing every single fact about something you love, but being a well-informed citizen means not barreling into arguments without any real ammunition to back you up.  From Neil Gaiman:

“I was the one who wrote the line about the Corsair changing gender on regeneration, in “The Doctor’s Wife” after all, and made it canon that Time Lords can absolutely change gender when they regenerate”

  • Gender-essentialism is all but dead. 

Numerous modern studies in the fields of sociology and psychology are proving that the differences between men and women that we have typically held to be true are the result of limited and biased science.  This is one of the first things you realize when you begin to actually study gender, that differences in behavior and psychology in terms of gender are largely socially created and more often than not used as an excuse to further oppress and discriminate against women and people who fall outside the straight/white/masculine norm.  It’s also the root of plenty of femmephobia (the systematic undervaluing and dismissing of traits and values typically coded “feminine”), homophobia, and transphobia, because people behaving outside the commonly-held parameters of their assigned gender can be othered and regarded as unnatural.

If The Doctor really has visited our more-evolved and more scientifically advanced future, gender essentialism should be a trivial archaic idea for him the same way sexual orientation is, and eventually the writers of this show will have to acknowledge that in The Doctor’s utopia male and female are interchangeable values of nearly infinite variation.  The Kinsey-scale for gender is on its way.

  • Representation matters.

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There’s one possible role on Doctor Who for women and girls, and that role is always secondary to The Doctor.  In Moffat’s universe, they can be obsessed with The Doctor, in love with The Doctor, or have their fate and existence completely dependent on The Doctor.  The Doctor is always, and has historically been, a benevolent-if-impatient patriarch, handing out instructions as a doctor to his nurse and giving his companions only enough information to get by.

It has been argued that this is not because his companions are female, but because they are human, and in-context that’s an excellent point to be made.  The Doctor isn’t prone to sexism in any way that’s been revealed, but he does often treat humans as inferior regardless of gender, at least he is very often frustrated by their limitations.  The gender-hierarchy represented on screen, however, is painfully familiar to a history of sexism and will need to tread lighter and lighter as progress marches on and viewers become smarter.  A decades-old series is bound to come up against this question, and the way that that series answers it is a deciding factor in its longevity.

The Doctor can have any face that can be imagined, unless we’re actually to believe that time lords are actually all Caucasian, and yet every single time he rolls the dice, he comes up with something that is in practical terms pretty similar to what he had the last time around.  Either the doctor is doomed to a complete lack of variation, or assuming he has some level of control over his regeneration process either in a conscious or unconscious fashion, The Doctor prefers his current skin-color and gender.  Now you can write that off to the fuddy-duddyness of the character, but it must be interpreted that if that is the case, the show itself feels that there is something superior about maleness and whiteness.

  • We’ve got no way to be sure we’re getting the best person for the job.

What does the casting call or casting list look like for the new doctor these days?  According to Steven Moffat, he says there was ONE name on his list this time around, which makes me wonder how many people he thinks that the UK contains. (62.74 million, as of 2011) So out of 62 million people, there’s no person better qualified than this one man?  Clearly that’s not a question that Moffat bothered to ask, if he’s to be believed about his casting process.  Gaiman says that a black actor was offered the role of The Doctor, but turned it down.  His sound bite on that isn’t specific as to which doctor that was, but regardless I’m pretty certain the case is not  that the United Kingdom has ONE representative black actor and once you query him, you’re pretty much out of luck.

And this may be rather naive on my part, but when do we start to hold the white male actors that are cast in these leading roles accountable?  Peter Capaldi is not hurting for work, and had a line of white and male actors said “no thanks,” would we just not have a new doctor?  Obviously not, casting directors would be forced to think outside the race-and-gender box.  How far does the responsibility as allies extend for these actors, really?  The question of casting off privilege affects the majority of us.

It’s entirely possible that the very best person who could have played the 12th doctor is a white man, it’s entirely possible that that person is Peter Capaldi, but unfortunately we’ll never know for sure.