who’s afraid of lydia tár?

That many audience members apparently mistook Lydia Tár for a real person to me says less about Tár‘s sharp verisimilitude and more about the degraded landscape of contemporary American cinema, where practically the only movies permitted to exist outside the Marvel Extended Universe are biopics. Still, the genius of Tár lies in its counterfactual hyperrealism and its implicit fuck you to the culture of based-on-a-true-story, first-woman-to schmaltz. Tár is a parallel universe story about a world fascinatingly near our own. Its speculative setup thwarts the moralistic style of reception that has become dominant probably in large part due to the prevalence of biopics. This mode of reading encourages audiences to assess the quality of fictional texts as if they were evaluating the political/ethical decency of real people and views, like Jesus separating the sheep from the goats. That Tár seems real but isn’t tempts us to reach for our pitchforks/op eds and then cleverly forces us to question the very instinctiveness of that move.

Yet for all the precision of its plausibility, there is a strange void at the center of Tár, a film nominally about the abuse of power which tells the story of a character seemingly incapable of abusing anyone. Todd Field’s decision to obscure the sexual misconduct Tár is accused of committing, relegating it to a hidden past that surfaces only in cryptic emails, gossip, and subtext, is an effective choice. Or rather, it would be an effective choice if it this is what the film actually did. Instead, its central section consists of a sequence in which Tár pointedly does not abuse a young woman, the new member of the Berlin Philharmonic, Russian cellist Olga (played by real-life cellist Sophie Kauer).

As soon as Olga joins the orchestra, Tár develops a crush on her. (Are we to think this is a crime in itself?) What follows can only be described as a parade of simping. Tár takes Olga for a lunch, fulfilling a tradition for new members of the orchestra, and thus jumping the gun somewhat as Olga has not actually been confirmed as a member yet. In a Roger Ebert review Glenn Kenny writes that “The look Lydia gives Olga at their first lunch is almost literally wolfish,” again raising the question of whether it is desire itself we are putting on trial. In any case, it is Olga who dominates the conversation, boisterously ordering before Tár has a chance to do so. (The wolfishness of Tár’s expression might be hunger for Olga, and it might also be literal hunger—she eats only a cucumber salad, having mentioned at the beginning of the film her aim to stay thin in advance of the upcoming performance of Mahler 5 that serves as the film’s climax.) Olga tells Tár about her idolization of Jacqueline du Pré and the performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto she gave as a 13-year-old soloist with her youth orchestra. Tár is enraptured and goes on to add the Elgar to the Mahler 5 program and select Olga as the soloist, to the horror of the rest of the cello section and the orchestra’s concert master (who is also Tár’s wife).

There is a sense in the lunch scene and throughout the film that Olga is unabusable, a quality implicitly tied to her tough, ultra-direct Russian disposition. This is curiously juxtaposed against the film’s representation of young Americans as hypersensitive and fragile, particularly in the abominable (and notably racist) Juilliard scene. Here Tár recalls the horrible second season of The White Lotus, with its seething contempt for the spoiled, ineffective, self-obsessed Gen Z archetype Portia and her seething contempt for her fellow Gen Z archetypes, as conveyed in her infamous gratitude that Albie is “not nonbinary.” I would not go as far as Richard Brody in calling Tár reactionary and regressive. I thought the comparison between #MeToo and Denazification—both projects that created panic among the powerful yet ultimately failed to disrupt the status quo—was not heretical, but fascinating. Yet there does seem to be strange traces of right-wing neo-Cold War hysteria at play here, panic that 21-year-old “BIPOC pangender” snowflakes will never outmatch straight-talking Russian prodigies and thus doom the US to global irrelevance.

Another way in which Tár echoes The White Lotus is through scenes of nominal workplace misconduct that strangely metamorphosize into tales of tragic lesbianism that seem straight out of the 1920s. Having become infatuated with Olga and instantly granted her the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of performing the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Berlin Phil, Tár brings her to New York on a press trip for the book Tár on Tár. After determinedly dodging a cartoonish woke mob picketing her reading, Tár falters when she sees Olga flirting with a young man in the audience, with whom she seemingly meets up later after claiming to be too jet-lagged to get dinner with Tár. The scene eerily resembles the episode in which the White Lotus hotel manager Valentina, a middle-aged lesbian who for some reason has never slept with a woman, asks the younger employee she has a crush on out for dinner on her birthday, only to learn that the woman is engaged to a male member of the hotel staff.

In both scenes, what threatens to become an episode of workplace misconduct—two women using their position to go on dates with their direct inferiors—turns out to be no match for the supposedly impenetrable power of heterosexuality, leaving the lesbians at its center heartbroken, powerless, lonely, and pathetic. Aside from the anachronism of the eternal Well of Loneliness in which these two narratives are apparently set, there is an internal inconsistency at play. Tár is obviously supposed to possess immense sexual power—if not, why cast Cate Blanchett in the role?—which she has apparently been abusing. Yet with the exception of an early scene in which she flirts with a journalist, Tár’s sexual power itself hardly appears onscreen, and its abuse never does. (Tár’s treatment of her assistant Francesca, which several clueless reviewers have described as shockingly cruel, does not count. I have been a Francesca. Basically all assistants are treated this way.) In fact, Tár seems so repulsed by the possibility of her own sexual power that when she is asked to pick a Filipina masseuse from a lineup in a scene that evokes commercial sex, she is so horrified that she throws up!

Maybe Tár is in fact a film about a reformed abuser. This would explain why its central character is psychologically tortured by her own conscience, not a typical experience of those who serially exploit others. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the real reason why, despite all her social and professional power, Tár is not shown to commit sexual abuse is due to a hesitancy surrounding this character’s sexuality, an unwillingness to fully commit to the film’s own premise. Tár is notably devoid of any sexual contact save a single kiss between Tár and her wife (and the dreamlike flashbacks of intimacy that torment her). Again, this could be an interesting choice, potentially a way to convey the lack of eroticism that surrounds coercive and exploitative sex. Yet this doesn’t explain why, when Tár’s new favorite rebuffs her advances, instead of becoming cruel and aggressive she melts away like a crestfallen wallflower, literally hiding when she catches Olga on her way out to her date. In moments like this you really have to ask in what sense this is a story of abuse. Giving a talented young cellist the solo in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, flying her to New York, and being kind to her throughout your rehearsals may indeed be evidence of infatuation. It is not exactly a crime.

In the invented New York Post article that draws the accusations against Tár out of the whisper network and into the limelight, Tár is accused of “grooming” young musicians. Given that everyone she appears to have harmed is over the age of 18, the use of this term is inaccurate, but not unrealistic given the contemporary climate created by both far-right queerphobes and zealous TikTok age gap policers. It’s clear that those seeking to cancel Tár are unafraid to invoke the age-old depiction of homosexuals as pedophiles. Yet the film itself is ultra-cautious around this issue, a fact pointed out to me by my boyfriend Gray (at least half the thoughts in this post are his). Following their lunch, Olga sends Tár a video of her performing the Elgar with her youth orchestra, which Tár watches alone in a state of rapturous desire. Olga is, as you will recall, 13 in this video—but instead of casting a 13-year-old to play her (and in doing so actually evoking the specter of predatory, pedophilic desire), Field uses Kauer, putting her in a clunky wig that makes her look more like an actor in an amateur Agatha Christie production than a younger version of herself. The effect is bizarre and comically incongruous with the beauty of her musical performance—and with the indication that Tár is falling into an infatuation with her. The casting choice in this scene convinces me that there is a fundamental nervousness undergirding the film’s inability to commit to its own premise. If this is a film about a female/lesbian abuser, then it is one doomed by fear of its own central character.

lesbian fascism on TERF island

In the years leading up to World War II, many suffragettes became fascists. I don’t just mean that they harbored fascist sympathies, but that they continued to agitate for women’s emancipation as active members and leaders of fascist parties. Both the general presence of women in British fascism and the suffragette-to-fascist pipeline in particular are fairly well documented, but existing accounts tend to treat the queerness and gender deviance of many of the key players as incidental (if they acknowledge it at all). From what I can tell, there has been no treatment of lesbian fascism in its specificity, an oversight made all the starker when compared to the extensive explorations of the connection between fascism and male homoeroticism/homosexuality. What does it mean when a person’s desire for masculinity, for women, and/or for women’s emancipation becomes deeply and deliberately intertwined with fascism? (You can probably guess why I’m asking this question—it’s in the title.)

The founder of the very first fascist political party in the UK was a gender-nonconforming “spinster” who tried to join the Boy Scouts as a child and whose political career was ultimately derailed by her frequent participation in drug-fuelled orgies. Like the French Nazi butch Violette Morris, Rotha Lintorn-Orman got a taste of macho agency as a WWI ambulance driver, returning to England a traumatized patriot and Mussolini fanboy who despised communism. She established the British Fascisti on March 6, 1923, inspired by the October 1922 March on Rome.

File:Rotha Beryl Lintorn-Orman.png
Rotha Lintorn-Orman

Julie Gottlieb sheds some brief light on Lintorn-Orman’s queer and gender-nonconforming tendencies in her monograph Feminine Fascism:

“Not only was Lintorn-Orman a single woman, but her preference for women in uniform and the paramilitary regimentation of the feminine provoked the pejorative description of her as a ‘mannish-woman’ […] When the Fascist Children’s Club held a Christmas party for 600 children in 1925, Lintorn-Orman played Father Christmas. A the Frivolity Ball organized by the London Dance Committee on 4 April 1930, Lintorn-Orman won one of the prizes for the best costume: she had dressed as a ‘grandfather.'”

In a book that features the word “lesbian” only once (in a footnote), it is hard not to read the extremely vague phrase “her preference for women in uniform”—which could refer to transmasculine inclinations, lesbian eroticism, or a general fervor for patriotic conformity—as deliberate obscuration. Nonetheless, the image conjured is as clear and painful as it needs to be: a person whose existence was so restricted and whose choices were so misguided that one of the few places they felt able to express their gender identity was a Fascist Children’s Club Christmas party.

Mary Sophia Allen—easily my least favorite of these lesbian fascists—was another militant suffragette whose feminist politics, beyond the vote, were entirely limited to extinguishing prostitution and so-called “white slavery” (work that is a direct antecedent of the contemporary anti-trafficking movement). Following enthusiastic participation in WWI, Allen returned home and began LARPing as a police officer, wearing a Metropolitan Police uniform and engaging in aggressive unpaid surveillance of communists. During the 1930s she met Mussolini and Hitler (with whom she discussed the issue of “women police”), and in 1939 joined Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists. Known as Robert to friends, Allen’s life is documented in a three-volume autobiography, The Pioneering Policewoman, A Woman at the Crossroads, and Lady in Blue.

Mary Sophia Allen (right), with partner, Margaret Damer Dawson

Mary Richardson, the militant suffragette famous for entering the National Gallery with a meat cleaver hidden under her clothes and using it to attack Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, was another lesbian fascist. Fanatically devoted to the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst, Richardson’s decision to destroy the painting was motivated by her outrage on hearing that Pankhurst had once again been arrested while delivering a political speech in Glasgow. Although she did not join the BUF until 1932, Mary’s justification of her famous act of iconoclasm—written up in a statement to the WSPU that was printed in The Times the day after her arrest—fuses lesbian feminist longing with traces of protofascist melodrama:

“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas […] If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they [the government] allow the destruction of Mrs. Pankhurst and other beautiful living women, and that until the public cease to countenance human destruction the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy.”

I won’t pretend there haven’t been times in my life when I, too, might have been tempted to commit aesthetic terrorism on behalf of a woman I considered to be “the most beautiful character in modern history.” But that’s only part of the story: Richardson later explained, in radio interviews decades after the event, that she couldn’t stand that men “gawped” at the painting and that she “thought it sensuous.” While she may not yet have been an overt fascist by the time of the attack, the strange combination of her fanatical devotion to Pankhurst, distinctly lesbian feminist sex negativity, and urge to punish “artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy” demonstrates how Richardson’s love for women and commitment to women’s emancipation was already inextricable from her brewing fascist inclinations. Her words evoke the militant prudishness of Sex Wars groups like WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women) and WAVPAM (Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media). Such militancy lingers as the primary tone of mainstream feminism in the UK today, which continues to be defined by anti-trans and anti-sex worker ideology, and where it is totally normal to suggest that choking during sex or the NHS adopting gender-neutral language are the most serious threats contemporary British women are facing.

In another retrospective explanation of her decision to disfigure the Velázquez painting, Richardson stated: “I had to draw the parallel between the public’s indifference to Mrs. Pankhurst’s slow destruction and the destruction of some financially valuable object. A painting came to mind. Yes, yes—the Venus Velasquez had painted, hanging in the National Gallery. It was highly prized for its worth in cash. If I could damage it, I reasoned, I could draw my parallel. The fact that I had disliked the painting would make it easier for me to do what was in my mind.” There is, of course, a beautiful and vital history of property destruction as a tactic of protest against human immiseration, and particularly the slow death of incarceration. It’s not like destroying a painting is always a bad thing. But to me, Richardson’s attack evokes a quite different political tradition. Examining the damage, it’s hard not to notice that every single one of her blows landed directly on Venus’ body:

The Rokeby Venus in 1914, after Richardson’s attack

Looking at this image, I think about the argument, commonly made by SWERFs, that sex work, porn, and even the visual presence of nude women in general is a kind of symbolic violence against civilian women—indeed, that it is the primary form of violence sex work engenders. This bizarre argument allows SWERFs to claim that civilian women’s ability to shield their eyes from sex work—to live in a world where sex work is concealed and suppressed by criminalization—ought to trump sex working women’s ability to attain fair labor conditions and keep themselves safe. While Venus is just a painting, Richardson’s attack nonetheless presages the view that some women’s bodies can be (even ought to be) destroyed in service of the preservation of “beautiful living women”—a phrase eerily reminiscent of so-called gender critical feminists’ favored “adult human females.”

These stories are personal to me, a dyke deeply attached to my own masculinity who spent seven closeted years in a secondary school, Camden School for Girls, devoted to the preservation of the suffragette legacy. Every year, CSG holds a Founder’s Day on which students wear posies of suffragette colors and speeches are delivered about the school’s role in the history of women’s education and emancipation. We received extensive lessons about the suffragettes in History (where there was no mention of any of them being either lesbians or fascists). I recently learned that Maya Forstater, the woman so transphobic she was fired for it and whose case was subsequently championed by JK Rowling, is also an alum of CSG. So is Julia Hobsbawm, Eric Hobsbawm’s “Entrepreneur” daughter who recently attacked the gay socialist Owen Jones for his apparent war against “biological” women (she deleted the Tweet while I was writing this post). In 2019, CSG invited a transphobic feminist, Caroline Criado Perez, to speak at its assembly. In 2014, it made headlines for banning a 16-year-old student from wearing a niqab to school.

Despite an insightful and still-expanding body of thought on the question, I still think we haven’t fully resolved why UK feminism is so transphobic and (at times) so fascistic. Personally I suspect that the answer partly lies in a distinctly British aversion to pleasure, freedom, and self-actualization. The commitment to misery, to being a “bloody difficult woman,” is one of the main affective drives of the stubborn British insistence on an anti-trans and anti-sex work position even as the rest of the world moves on. At the same time, the historical roots of fascistic feminism are still, it seems, underexplored. As much as the “gender critical” movement is primarily driven by straight women, the involvement of lesbians is a sad reality, and TERF ideology is significantly grounded in a misguided saviour complex regarding butch/lesbian identities. Recuperating lesbian fascism might seem like a weird impulse, but it’s a history that, in all its bitterness, might help us better understand this sinister landscape we’re in.

*I just want to add quickly that in talking about “lesbian fascism,” I don’t want to definitively claim these figures were lesbian rather than trans. Part of what I’m trying to show is that the nonconsensual imposition of the category of womanhood—which seems to have been unwanted in at least some of these figures’ lives—appears to have been one of the driving forces behind their turn toward fascist ideology. Although they may have called themselves women (it’s striking that the words “woman” or “lady” appear in the title of every single volume of Allen’s autobiography), there is no doubt that Lintorn-Orman and Allen also occupy a complex position within trans history.

might trick me once

After my last post I joked (threatened) that I was going to start the blog off with an anality triptych and write about the first scene of The Argonauts or something. Instead this is about I May Destroy You, my third post about sexuality in contemporary women’s TV and the last one before I write about something else.

I May Destroy You is a dissection of contemporary sexuality, one largely free from the artificially simplistic cynicism of heteronegativity (there is of course Arabella’s familiar disavowal, “I’m not straight, I just love dick”—more on that later). Its negotiation of women’s sexual agency in a landscape crowded by the mundane brutality of rape and assault is often brilliant, yet there are certain aspects of the show’s navigation of sexual ethics that puzzle me. Still, I think there’s a way to read the show against the heavy-handed and at times troubling moralism of the latter episodes, instead locating an ethics in the transformative ambiguity of its earlier moments.

The moment in the show that most moves me is one I epically misread. It’s the scene in Italy where Terry has her threesome—with the viewer arriving at the threesome’s conclusion, when the two men quietly gather their belongings in the cool glow of the early morning and leave together. Terry watches them through her window, her expression conveying (so I thought) the depersonalized tenderness of the anonymous sexual encounter, a tenderness for these two men who have set down their heteromasculinity for long enough to not only have sex together (with each other?) but to have a friendly conversation on their way home. I (hopefully) imagine that the the two men sucked each other’s dicks or kissed or touched at some point, although this is all optimistic speculation as the threesome itself is barely depicted.

Weruche Opia as Terry

What I initially see in Terry’s expression standing at the window is a deeply familiar and treasured feeling, the sense of boundless porousness that washes over you in the wake of sexual promiscuity, the erosion of the boundary between self and world. No one can deny that there is a sinister version of this promise—one symbolized by the bar in which Arabella is raped, Ego Death—but I thought what Terry is experiencing is the beautiful version, the version that endows you with a carefree lightness, a reprieve from the demand to be sovereign.

I deliver my euphoric reading of Terry-at-the-window via text to my ex-girlfriend/best friend Fenja. She replies: “Really?” (Like a therapist slash skilled pedagogue, Fenja never explicitly tells me I’m wrong, just gently tosses whatever I’ve said back at me for reexamination.) Fenja has what turns out to be the correct understanding of the scene: the men deliberately deceive Terry, pretending not to know each other, a fact that begins to dawn on her in that literal dawn moment standing at the window and seemingly haunts her later in the series.

I find this twist disappointing for the way it dramatically relocates the threesome’s location on the pleasure/danger axis. Of course, the threesome may have been terrible for reasons other than deception. It may have been awkward, corny, painful, frightening, boring, devoid of sexual pleasure—but we don’t even get to the point of knowing that. (Terry’s smile and sultry pronouncement—”Yeah it was wild”—indicates she enjoyed it, but this is never unequivocally confirmed.) By displaying so little of the sexual encounter nor Terry’s feelings about it beyond the deception element, the show sidesteps the question of Terry’s experience, making the entire issue whether or not she was tricked.

I stubbornly protest to Fenja: Who cares if she was tricked! I reimagine Kelis’ Trick Me as an anthem about semiconsciously consenting to deception in order to have sex with two strangers in a beautiful bed in Italy. I think about the opening of this essay by Emily Ogden. I think about something my sister once said, the mantra of straight girl sexual reclamation: “You think you had sex with me, but really I had sex with you.”

But my text is somewhat disingenuous. I know it matters if Terry was tricked because the show eventually suggests that she feels (at least somewhat) violated by the deception. At the same time, I am intrigued about the possibility that this deception might not be the defining fact about the threesome. This possibility—and the ambivalence it produces—is masterfully conveyed by Weruche Opia in that window moment I can’t get out of my head.

Taken on its own, the episode deals spectacularly in ambivalence. (As an aside, it also contains one of the least corny, most accurate and most hilarious representations of drug use that I’ve ever seen in mainstream TV.) However, as the series goes on, ambivalence around the issue of deception/disclosure gives away to a more straightforward moral regime that does a disservice to the sexually vulnerable, the sexually deviant, and the overlap between the two (this last category including, of course, everyone).

One of the pieces of evidence for my initial reading of the threesome scene is the exhilarated text Terry sends Kwame—the gay male character who embodies sexual liberation and the joy of promiscuity—after the encounter. As Oluwatayo Adewole, Jason Okundaye, and Leyla Reynolds have pointed out, Kwame and the gay freedom he represents are done dirty by Arabella, Terry, and the show itself. After being assaulted during a hookup, Kwame inexplicably sleeps with a cringeworthy white woman, Nilufer, without first disclosing that he is gay—an act framed as assault in what Adewole points out is a “false and worrying equivalence.”

The show doubles down on its demonization of queer/trans “deception” through its celebratory depiction of a trans man who is essentially a walking act of disclosure (quite the cis fantasy!). This man, Kai, is the first person who suggests to Terry that the men she had sex with may have deceived her, doing so while they are on a date in the penultimate episode. As Reynolds points out in her essay at Gal-dem, Kai’s “only storyline is the disclosure of a trans identity.” Not only that, when Kai tells Terry that he is trans, he does so through a suspiciously immediate and clinical description of his genitalia: “Well, I was born in Hertfordshire, I moved to London when I was 17 to make it as a guitarist […] Couldn’t compete, so I ended up studying fine art. And now I have the outward appearance of a young man, but there within my pants lies a vagina.”

In an attempt to convince him that she isn’t too “prudish” to date a trans person, Terry tells the story of her threesome, explaining with flirtatious boastfulness that she seduced not one but two men, that, in this moment, “I could have had anything I wanted.”

Opia across from Tyler Luke Cunningham, who plays Kai

Kai immediately informs Terry that she misread the situation. “They weren’t strangers […] Sounds like they made a plan and waited for someone to take the bait.” This is some classic mansplaining, but it’s also more sinister than just that. Kai creates an analogy in which the Italian men are conniving hunters, Terry the naive prey. You actually can’t have anything you want, Kai effectively tells her. You thought you were having sex with them but really they were having sex with you.

Crucially, Kai not only informs Terry that she misread her threesome, but reconceptualizes her recollection of pleasure as traumatic. After Kai’s revelation about the men, Terry admits, “There was something about the way they left,” before becoming flustered and distant. She notes, “It was a while ago,” to which Kai replies, “Still burns like it was yesterday, huh?” putting the words of trauma directly in her mouth.

This is where I May Destroy You is at its most heterofatalistic. On one level Kai and Terry’s dynamic is very straight, but the way in which Kai distances himself from the Italian men—who have suddenly become the men of Men Are Trash—also signals a departure from heterosexuality. (This scene is also haunted by Arabella’s earlier pronouncement, “I’m not straight, I just love dick.” What are the implications of this heteronegative catchphrase for Terry and her new trans boyfriend?) Seemingly harmed by cis men, violated by what (according to the logic of the show) Kai reveals to be an act of assault, Terry is redeemed by the cis fantasy of what a trans man should be: rigorously moral, nonaggressive, disdainful of sexual deviance, and willing to disclose his transness with almost comic immediacy. When Terry and Kai become an item, it is a triumph of nonthreatening masculinity, of the miraculous evaporation of Terry’s (initially quite intense) transphobia, and of the couple form.

(Another aside: I am always trying to write about sexuality in a way that is analytical rather than normative, that describes what exists rather than what should be exterminated, but I throw my hands in the air and admit that I really struggle to extend this to the couple form. I’m working on it.)

The date scene annoys me, confirming, as it does, my own earlier misreading—a misreading that of course parallels that of Terry herself. On my second watch of the show, I am drawn to wonder if misreading can actually form a deliberate strategy for claiming sexual agency, desire, and pleasure for straight women in a world that denies them these things (all the more so to black working-class women like Terry). Misreading might be seen as a refusal to excavate sexual truth, a refusal of the “logic of the trial” which Jennifer Nash, following Loïc Waquant, laments has become the foundation of so much feminist analysis of sexuality. For straight women in particular, misreading names a strategy for wilfully misperceiving apparent facts or men’s subjectivity in one’s own erotic interest—ignoring, for example, that a man thinks he has conquered or debased or violated or tricked you because you want to have sex with him anyway. (If you can’t already tell, this is where the essay gets personal; as a dyke of occasionally sleeping with men experience, I’ve done a lot of misreading in my time.) Misreading is about refusing a man’s “objective” truth in service of a truth of your own or, for that matter, no truth at all.

There are of course limits to misreading. In advocating for it, I’m conscious that my own misreading of Terry’s threesome was inevitably informed by my position as a white lesbian, as well as a scholar of (hetero)sexuality invested in certain kinds of sexual representation. Lord knows there are harmful forms of misreading, which include misgendering, racist misinterpretation, and misreading “no” for “yes” (I hope it goes without saying that you can’t misread your way out of an assault). Nonetheless, I’m intrigued by situations in which misreading is a liberatory strategy, one of the many un- or under-articulated tools straight women employ in order to access freedoms and pleasures the world holds at arm’s length.

Terry being penetrated by Luigi
Watching the two men walk away together from her window

In any case, what moved me so much about the scene of Terry’s threesome is not a conviction that the encounter is straightforwardly pleasurable or (yikes!) empowering—it’s the look on Terry’s face at the window. Following Nash, I read this as a look of “ecstasy,” a term Nash explains “marks the fraught nature of racial-sexual pleasure.” What is so brilliant about the scene—for all the issues with its later framing—is how it submerges Terry in the ecstatic. In this sense it’s perhaps crucial that she never verbally articulates her experience of the threesome. As Nash puts it: “I am drawn to the term ecstasy in much the same way some feminists have been drawn to the term jouissance, to describe pleasures that exceed or transcend the self and to capture a bliss that exceeds language.”

abject feminism

For a long time I’ve been thinking about abject feminism. My working definition is that it is what happens when white cishet bourgeois women decide to refuse the limited sovereignty the world offers them and instead dig deeper into their own debasement, a gesture of ethical disengagement that ends up (re)producing harm—not least to those whose abjection is mandated by the construction of white cis womanhood itself. As an aesthetic project abject feminism thrived in the 2010s, a steady stream of depictions of the bleak, disgusting, wretched debasement that apparently is/was being a young cishet white woman in the US during this era. In this post I want to think about a recent iteration of abject feminism in the UK: the TV show Fleabag.

I was ready to dislike Fleabag because I’d seen the version Phoebe Waller-Bridge originally performed as a one-woman show at Soho Theatre in 2014 and truly hated it, but like many others I ended up being captivated by the TV adaptation. In any case, the point of my consideration of the show isn’t its aesthetic merit but its function as a kind of abject autotheory. This framing is hardly a novel one; the protagonist of the show herself confesses: “I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” I think of this line as something of a knowing wink to critics, who obediently rushed to the task of pointing out that, actually, the representation of these abject qualities in a (white bourgeois cishet) woman is a feminist gesture! This familiar claim is the central tenet of abject feminism: if your show depicts white cishet bourgeois women as abject, then congratulations, your show is feminist.

Both seasons of Fleabag featured many of the tropes of abject feminist cultural production: self-destructive straight sex; the degraded, “gross” and suffering female body; substance abuse; the abdication of responsibility for cruelty via trauma and self-harm. Anal sex is a perennial motif and it is with this act that Fleabag begins. A handsome man shows up at the protagonist’s apartment and—in spite of his handsomeness and sweetness—her decision to have anal sex with him is meant to signal her abjection. In this heteronegative set piece, the dissociative anesthetic provided by the protagonist’s confessional dynamic with the camera numbs her to the pain of anal penetration but also the pleasure of it, too. Compare this setup to the climactic sexual encounter in the second season, when she has loving, missionary, presumably vaginal sex with the Hot Priest but blocks the camera’s access to the scene. It is in this latter moment that the protagonist is redeemed from abjection and restored to a feminine ideal, someone for whom sexual pleasure is so completely private and internalized that no one can know for sure if it’s even happening.

Returning to the first episode, the punchline that concludes the scene and triggers the comic momentum of the series consists of the protagonist turning toward the camera and asking: “Have I got a massive arsehole?” This is the tightrope walked by abject feminism: blunt in its depiction of anal sex without relinquishing the prudish sentiment that anality is degrading and scandalous. What makes this position possible is the underlying logic that—despite what TERFs would have you believe—abjection is not integral to white cishet women but to other forms of womanhood and femininity. The categories of women likely to be disproportionately associated with anal sex and subjected to derogatory jokes about loosened assholes are, after all, trans women and sex workers. Similarly, the echo of anti-blackness in the joke of a “massive arsehole” or the racialized aspect of this abjection-via-anality should not be overlooked. Drawing on work by Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman and Kathryn Bond Stockton, Jennifer C. Nash has made a case for the “synonymity” of blackness and anality, a connection that illuminates “how black sexuality, for example, is imagined as dirty (and here, I mean not just metaphorically but literally); how black sexuality is posited as a formation akin to the ghetto: toxic, filthy, and nonreproductive; and how black sexuality is imagined as wasteful.” In other words, anality becomes another route through which blackness and black sexuality are constituted as abject.

This is not, of course, to posit blackness or anality as necessarily abject (or to refuse the possibility of “counter-intuitive power” within abjection) but rather to be clear about how these ideas function in the social order of racialized gender. When a white cishet woman having anal sex is so clearly presented as a marker of her abjection—as it is in the first episode of Fleabag—we ought to think critically about how such women play with abjection in a way that is too commonly read as a devastating feminist commentary on women’s subjugation when it actually confirms white bourgeois women’s detachability from the abject. Here’s another example: later in the first episode (I’m sticking to this one because there are actually too many examples to pick from the series as a whole), the protagonist ruminates on her financial woes and possible solutions to them, one of which is letting “a banker com[e] on my arse.” (The ass again! God forbid someone should come on it.) She continues: “I don’t want to justify the banker man with a proper mention so I’m not going to talk about him or how I do sometimes wish I could admit to not having morals and let him come on my arse for ten thousand pounds but apparently we’re not supposed to do that. So I won’t. Even though I could.”

Here the protagonist oscillates chaotically, initially distancing herself from what she perceives as the degrading, morally bankrupt act of exchanging money for sex before parading her scandalous proximity to it—only to then reaffirm the initial distance while emphasizing that she “could” inhabit this abject position if she wanted to. This donning and shedding of abjection like a sweater on a weird weather day betrays a false, appropriative affiliation with actual sex workers that simultaneously degrades/distances them by implying that exchanging sex for money equates to “not having morals.” The commonly-voiced idea that heterosexuality is barely distinguishable from sex work has resulted in a lot of civilian straight women getting very cosy with the idea that they “could” exchange sex for money even if they “won’t.” When toying with abjection in this capacity is framed as a heroic gesture of feminist relatability, it becomes clear how dangerous the canon of abject feminism can be for those women whose actual subjugation enables white bourgeois cishet women’s continual enshrinement.

All this matters if, following Kay Gabriel’s brilliant proposition, we view gender as an accumulation strategy and reorient the object of feminist/queer/trans liberation away from the abolition of gender signification and toward the abolition of gendered abjection. With such a goal in sight, it becomes obvious that playfully exaggerating, appropriating, and otherwise toying with categories of abject experience deliberately obscures the real social order of racialized gender. (And I really think it is deliberate—I was going to have a whole section reading Fleabag’s abject feminism alongside the currently and continually resurgent problem of UK transphobic feminism, but this post is already too long.) “Women are born with pain built in,” Kristin Scott Thomas’s extremely hot but misguided lesbian character tells Fleabag in Season 2. In reality women are not born with anything “built in” nor do we all have the same type of relationship to powerlessness, wretchedness, and pain. Some of us are more “abjectors” than debased, a fact that abject feminism cannot help but inadvertently convey even as it dwells in the spectacle of white women’s suffering and falsely renders us ethical nonactors in the process.

(This is a work in progress, sketches for a part of my heterosexuality project that deals with abject feminism. I have a lot more to read and think about and would welcome any suggestions, ideas, disagreements, etc. ❤ PS thanks to Maxi JD Caspar Julian and others with whom I have lately been Deep in the Discourse.)

pretty straight, pretty conventional

In an essay published as part of Post45’s recent cluster on Sally Rooney, Claire Jarvis claims that the plot of Rooney’s novels is that “straight sex is not a disaster.” She writes: “Both Marianne and Connell find pleasure in their pretty straight, pretty conventional sex: they’ve tried other things, and they haven’t liked them as much. The sex is good! Which is only a problem if you think their sex should be bad.” The “you” at the end of this quotation is a little accusatory, scolding the queer or heterofatalist reader for their rigidity of thought in preemptively deeming all heterosexual sex “bad.”

A minor internet scuffle broke out among those who felt addressed by this “you.” Some accused Jarvis of positing Rooney’s straight sex as queer, which led her to rightly respond that this is in fact the opposite of what she argued. Of course, the crime Jarvis was really being charged with was daring to suggest that heterosexual sex could be redeemed (even if only in the pages of someone else’s book). By redeemed I mean made ethical, maybe radical—at least “good.” This redemptive function has become the primary meaning of “queer” in much of literary studies and the broader world—hence the slippage in the critique of Jarvis’s essay.

As Sarah Brouillette incisively observes in her own contribution to the cluster, in Rooney’s brand of heterofatalism* “heterosexual love is faulted […] but in a way that often serves to justify it further, since it is now entered into with wisdom and irony, and without naivety about its limitations.” There are many reasons why a straight person might come to have a hetero-negative orientation, but the particular ironic and cynical stance Brouillette describes is, I think, often produced by climates wherein straight people are compelled to occupy a relation to queerness, such as the North American academy. As Jarvis writes:

A new teleology has crept in to replace the old one, and it is as insidious as the one it replaced. It goes like this: sex is a structure that must be mastered, and that mastery looks like a progression from vanilla straight sex into something queer. Queerness is capacious and always an improvement on the straightness that came before. Gay, lesbian, bondaged, be-butt-plugged, poly-, it’s all better for you politically and aesthetically than the leaden heterosex that you grew up thinking was synonymous with plot.

I sympathize with this frustration. The fact that straight academics are practically mandated to enshrine queerness and perform a relation to it that they do not actually have is silly, counterproductive, sometimes amusing, and often annoying. On the other hand, it’s wrong to suggest that the over-reification of “gay, lesbian, bondaged, be-butt-plugged, poly-” sex within academia is “as insidious” as homophobia. (I’d say there are even traces of homophobic disdain within this list of sexual adjectives, particularly “be-butt-plugged,” which reinscribes non-normative sex as grossly/comically excessive, but whatever.)

That Rooney synthesizes a redemptive treatment of heterosexuality with a fatalistic one is part of why her books are so popular. Everyone wants it both ways: the cynical satisfaction of knowing that heterosexuality is a disaster and the possibility that they personally might prove the exception to the rule. For straight women, this reflects the paradoxical promise of heterosexuality itself. The aim is to fulfil the generic category of heterofemininity to an unusual or extraordinary degree—itself a contradiction between convention and specificity—in order to earn a prize that is both ultra-conventional and extremely rare: the heterosexual good life. Becca Rothfeld writes about this contradiction in her review of Normal People; Nan Z. Da summarized it brilliantly in a talk she gave on genre, surveillance, and literary criticism in LA this February: “Women make themselves interesting in order to achieve the privilege of becoming uninteresting.” (I hope I got that right—I wrote it out in my notebook while she was speaking.)

As demonstrated by other essays in the cluster—particularly those by Brouillette and Jane Hu—seeking to lift the curse on heterosexuality via Rooney’s novels will not work. Can the bourgeois world of Normal People (or that of the academy) redeem heterosexuality? No—only the abolition of the carceral state and racial capitalism could do that. (Straight culture as it currently exists would not survive such a transformation, but who knows if some version of heterosexuality might?) If queerness has any redemptive power, it is because of the abolitionist impulse it once harbored, which we hope is in the process of being restored after such protracted efforts from gays and straights alike to extinguish it.

*I started using heterofatalism instead of heteropessimism to make totally clear that there is no parallel between heteropessimism and Afropessimism. This is not to chide anyone else; if people use heteropessimism it’s my fault because I originally wrote it that way. Hetero-negative as in sex negative also works, Jane Ward used heteromiserablism which I like too… there are a lot of options.