Wow! Everyone should read this post, and indeed their entire blog! Although Mingus is speaking specifically to a Queer Korean-American audience, what she says here may be applied to other contexts too. Very powerful!
Wow! Everyone should read this post, and indeed their entire blog! Although Mingus is speaking specifically to a Queer Korean-American audience, what she says here may be applied to other contexts too. Very powerful!
So I meant to post this for Valentine’s Day, but didn’t quite get my shit together in time LOL! But I thought I’d go ahead and post it anyway. It’s something I’ve thought about writing for a while, but only recently did the idiom for it really come together. That was part of the reason I didn’t get it up in time for Valentine’s. But then, just this past week, I was listening to Eve Ensler’s absolutely amazing memoir In The Body Of The World, which I cannot recommend highly enough that people read by whatever modality! (PSA, it’s available in audiobook, performed by the author. Yay!) And although the subject-matter’s different, hearing her way of writing – part poem, part dramatic monologue – really made something fall into place for me. And I could finally hear how to write this piece!
(Note, the section that begins and ends with quotation-marks at the bottom is not my own writing, but rather the words to one of my favourite Unitarian-Universalist hymns that I learned back when I belonged to a UU congregation. I was praying about the desires and concerns expressed in this poem/monologue after finishing writing it, and that hymn popped into my head, feeling like an answer if a strange one. So it felt important to include it here!)
So this past week-end was the 2018 Reclaiming Our Bodies And Minds conference that I’ve been looking forward to all year. And I have to say, this one was particularly awesome! I’m so glad I went! Mind you, I always am. But, as I said, this year especially rocked! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the events on the Friday night because of a very long, rather taxing meeting up at my university (more on that in future posts). Which I was bummed about, as it meant I missed the community fair and keynote! Damn! So I joined up on Saturday for that day’s sessions.
First of all, one of the awesome things about ROBAM is that it’s such a treat to be in a truly accessible space! They had the conference program in Braille and other alternative formats. But best of all, they had PSWs (Personal Support Workers) there who were able to assist me with finding the rooms where the sessions were, finding the washrooms, and finding the food. And accessing them went much more smoothly than last year! Or at least, it felt like it did. And that was such a relief, because it meant that I didn’t have to rely on wrangling random people for help like I usually do! So that meant I was really able to just relax and enjoy the conference rather than worry about how I was going to find the next session, the loo, or the lunch. And on that note, the lunch was delicious!
And then, the actual sessions themselves were some of the best I’ve heard at ROBAM in years! The day opened with a panel on thinking about how we can make spaces and events more truly accessible, shifting from a Disability rights framework to a justice framework, and thinking about accessibility as an intent to be inclusive rather than as a list of items to check off. Then we went into the first split sessions of the day.
The first one was a truly brilliant workshop on politicizing the experiences of loneliness of Mad and Disabled people. And Wow, it’s one I’m going to be thinking about for a long time to come! I went because it struck me as being super relevant to the work I do here with Phantom. But it ended up having relevances beyond that, too, in fact to my doctoral work. Because, much environmental activism these days centres on the idea of relocalizing – lives, communities, economies, etc, and much of the argument for this is that it will cure the epidemic of loneliness created by neoliberalism, or even by any form of capitalism depending on how radical the thinker you’re reading is. But it often seems to me that this desire to relocalize contains a lot of nostalgia, at times even fauxstalgia, that fails to take into account the kinds of loneliness that Queer, Mad and Disabled people experience – loneliness due to exclusions based on differences in communication style, body configurations, desire, cognition, sensory perception, and mental state. And these degrees of difference have, historically, required more than just belonging to close-knit communities with strong social ties to bridge. Indeed, historically, Queer, Mad and Disabled folks have often had to leave the communities they came from in order to find acceptance. But this workshop gave me a great deal to think about in terms of ways of possibly speaking back to this issue! I’ll write more about it in future posts.
Then in the afternoon, there were a couple of sessions on racism, displacement, sacred space, madness, and personal history. They were really excellent, and they also gave me a lot to think about! In particular, they gave me a lot to think about with regard to “unofficial” sacred spaces such as concerts or, for that matter, Phantom, and how these can be double-edged for Queer, Mad and Disabled folks. Because, they’re/we’re less excluded than they/we all too often are in official sacred spaces, but nevertheless there’s still an assumption of heteronormativity among the majority of users of these unofficial spaces that creates exclusions for them/us there too. So that was really interesting!
Then after dinner, there was a fabulous comedy night. Lots of wonderful Crip humour! And it was really great to do so much laughing after the sessions of the day. Because, although the panels and workshops were fabulous, they could be kind of heavy! They touched on a lot of tough issues. So it was great to have some good laughs after all that, and it was a great way to close off the conference! Sadly, there were no events on Sunday.
One of the coolest aspects of the week-end, though, was that I finally did something I’ve been wanting to experiment with for a while but never had the nerve before. But I figured that, if any space should be safe to try it, it should be ROBAM. And it was awesome to find that turned out to be the case! So normally I identify (as female?) and present as very femme. But for a while now, I’ve been strongly tempted every now and then to, as a friend put it, jump the gender fence – not necessarily permanently – LOL I’d miss my girly stuff too much, but every now and then. I’ve come to think of it as my alternate gender alter-ego – a guy called Erik (yes, named for the Phantom). But I’ve never actually presented as that alternate gender alter-ego before. At the conference this week-end, though, I finally decided Oh what the hell and did. And bless the conference folks for being super chill about it, LOL even though I didn’t actually get up my nerve till after I’d registered and so had to ask them to help me alter my name-tag! And it went really well, too. Nobody gave me any crap or weirdness about it! LOL Although, certain people I ran into who knew me kept going on auto-pilot and using my regular name later in the day. I’m not sure if they just weren’t reading my name-tag and going on their memories, or if putting brackets around my “real” name on the tag caused confusion. Pity, too, as the misgendering started just as I was getting comfortable presenting as Erik! So next time I’ll have to register that way from the beginning so that my name-tag’s clean and see if that helps. LOL Although, that’s when I’ll probably get the awkward questions from those particular folks. I ran into other friends, though, who were totally chill and awesome about it. And I really appreciate that! It really helped me get comfortable with how I was trying to present! So overall, it was a good and liberating experience! And it’s one I’ll try again, possibly at next year’s ROBAM, and in other safe spaces where I can find them. Because, it took me almost half the day on Saturday to stop feeling shy and self-conscious about presenting as a guy – LOL or trying to!
Anyway, it was a great week-end. And I’m really looking forward to next year’s conference! I can’t wait to see what their topic will be! And also, for next year I’m really going to try hard not to miss the call-out for papers/presentations (again). Because, I’d really love to present there as well! I don’t yet know what, though. So you’ll have to wait, and come to next year’s ROBAM to find out!
So I meant to post this for VAlentine’s Day, but I got running behind! I wanted to go ahead and post it anyway, though, as it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now. It began, as the title of this post suggests, as a response to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts’ – Disability After Dark’s (see my links page) – episode on Disability and dating. Because, while I agreed with what was said, I also felt that there was another, important way to think about the issue that often gets overlooked.
The podcast episode focussed around the question “would you date a person with a disability”, because that was what came up when Andrew (the podcast host) Googled “disability and dating” in order to see what was out there on the subject. It is a question which many Disabled people, Andrew included, find deeply offensive because of the ways in which it conjures up and draws on really bad stereotypes of Disabled people as “difficult” partners – as extra needy, as burdens, and therefore as requiring extra-special, saintly courage and compassion to date or be a partner to. As Andrew points out, these stereotypes assume that the giving in the relationship goes all in one direction – from the able-bodied partner to the disabled dependent, and that the able partner receives nothing in return but the satisfaction of “doing good”. And he and other activists are absolutely right to call out these ideas! They are really problematic, and frankly insulting to both Disabled people and our partners.
I want to suggest, however, that there is a way in which dating/being a partner to some one with a Disability or Deformity does, in fact, require courage that usually gets overlooked in discussion of the issue. And that is that to date/partner a Disabled/Deformed person is, I would argue, an inherently political act. In choosing to date/partner a Disabled/Deformed person when you yourself are able-bodied, you are choosing to violate a social norm. You are choosing to do something society actively does not want you to do. Mainstream society prefers to see Disabled/Deformed people as asexual/aromantic – as perpetual children, or as hyper-sexual monsters. So by choosing to have a relationship with a Disabled/Deformed person as you would with anyone else, you are refusing both of these narratives (unless either one is your kink, in which case you are choosing to consciously and consensually embrace them for your own purposes). You are choosing to recognize that person as an adult, with an adult’s desires, who is fully capable of consenting to a relationship. And because you are choosing to defy deeply held beliefs and social norms, you will catch flack for it – very much in the way that interracial couples did in my Mom’s generation, or that the first generations of Queer and Trans folks to come out of the closet did! Mainstream society will use all the tools of shame and pressure in its arsenal to try to get you to fall back in line. You will watch your partner face inaccessible spaces, and you will have to choose whether to make a fuss in solidarity with them or keep silent. You will have to choose whether to put your foot down and refuse to go to inaccessible events that your friends invite you to because your partner can’t come too, risking being isolated by them for being such a “kill-joy”. You will have to see your partner be stared at, and you may find yourself stared at pityingly too. You will have people offering you their unsolicited sympathy for your partner’s plight, and for your plight in being stuck with them (though people will rarely phrase it with such overt rudeness). You will have people praising you for your saintly love/patience/forbearance – for your courage in taking on and sticking with such a burden, thus both insulting your partner and (not so subtly) implying that you “could do so much better”. In fact, you may even have some people come out and tell you that you could do so much better, and that it’s a shame to see you throw your life away like this. And they may further imply that you are doing so because you yourself have self-esteem issues.
(Note: all the examples referenced above are things that actually happen to partners of Disabled people, or that I have extrapolated from things my Mom remembers actually being said to or about interracial couples when she was younger, especially to White women dating Black men.)
As awesome Disability scholar and activist Loree Erickson points out in her essay “Revealing Femmegimp” (see my On-Going Annotated Bibliography page for citation info), shame is not merely a private emotion, but a political process. And all the instances described above that the partner of a Disabled person will face, though they occur at a personal level and come from a place of people’s deep personal beliefs, are part of this broader social/political process. They are part of defining who is desirable and who is not, and what kinds of relationships are acceptable. The purpose of these instances of shaming, then, is to get you to dump your Disabled/Deformed date/partner and re/ascent to the mainstream narratives about body-minds like theirs. And it does take great courage, love and commitment to stand up to and withstand that kind of pressure! It takes great courage, love and commitment to look society in the eye, as it were, and say “yes, I know you’ve declared this out of bounds, but I choose it anyway”, and to keep saying that. Indeed, I suspect that the reason so many people do end up dumping their Disabled partners is because they entered into the relationship initially without having thought through the political implications of the choice they were making, and were then surprised by and unprepared for the flack. They entered into the relationship without having really thought through whether they are willing to defy society and leave behind the safety of normalcy, and then found once into it that they were not.
Indeed, one of the things I’ve always found compelling as a Phantom Phan is that this, it’s always struck me, is the very choice Christine faces. This is not set out explicitly in either the original Leroux or the ALW musical. Rather, the story is portrayed, on its surface at least, as a straight-forward love-triangle. Yet to me anyway, the choice described above has always been strongly implicit. And this is one of the reasons why Phantom is at its most awesomely provocative when Christine is played as having genuine, deep feelings for and attractions to both men – feelings that could turn either way depending on the path she herself chooses. There is Raoul, who, though it would be frowned upon socially because of their class difference, is the safe option because there are, at least, cultural narrative precedents for such a choice (Cinderella, not to mention the many opera dancers to whom Leroux makes reference who married quite high aristocrats). Christine and he fit the “Prince Charming” myth. For her to choose the Phantom, however, would mean stepping into his outsider status, and foregoing all the familiar comforts of “normal”. In her time, there were no narrative precedents for the fair maiden choosing the beast that didn’t involve him being instantly and magically transformed into Prince Charming, and there are few such even today. And since he would not be so transformed, were Christine to choose the Phantom, her choice would be met, not merely with disapproval, but with revulsion and pathologization. And she knows this instinctively, because she has internalized these values herself. And in the end, when the Phantom releases her and Raoul, she does indeed go off with the “safe option”. But I’ve always felt that the story, especially as told in the original ALW stage-version, asks those who experience it to think about what choice they/we would make – what choice they/we will make? And it asks us/them to consider that making the riskier choice, the more defiant and daring choice, might, ultimately, be the path with the greater reward. But to make that choice, like any profound act of resistance, does indeed require courage! And as I’ve said elsewhere here, Phantom has always seemed to me to challenge, indeed to dare its viewer to have/find that courage.
So I recently read a brilliant piece by the very awesome writer, artist and Witch Clementine Morrigan on inter-femme competition and’ internalized patriarchy. And it’s ended up giving me a lot to think about in the context of Phantom and Phanship! She was talking about this issue in the context of poliamorous relationships, and how one must unlearn that inter-femme competition in order to make such relationships work. Because, as she points out, femme folks have been taught, in all kinds of subtle and not so subtle ways, that our sole value lies in our ability to attract. But more than this, we have been taught that we are “a dime a dozen” – that those whom we hope to attract have “oceans of us to pick from”, and therefore that we are easily replaceable if we cease to be sufficiently attractive (Morrigan). And as a result, as Morrigan points out, femme folks are pitted against each other in competition for who can perform femme the most perfectly – for who has the best, most “flawless femme skills”. This messaging is especially strong on those femmes seeking masculine folks. But, as Morrigan again points out, because we all live in a broader society which is still deeply patriarchal, Queer communities aren’t immune from falling into this trap either!
In reading her piece, though, I realized that, for my entire life as a Phan, I’ve been in exactly that kind of inter-femme competition with the character of Christine. Moreover, I realized that this is a significant part of the “gender trouble” I’ve found myself in with regard to Phantom. It’s part of what I meant before about getting tangled up, and perhaps a bit lost, in the details of the heterosexual high romantic idiom in which the story is told. Because, Christine is the quintessential presentation of at least a certain kind of femme. Her femininity is unambiguous (long hair, flawless skin, able-bodied/minded, with nothing to compromise or render ambiguous her gender presentation), and she is innocent and girlish. She is the light to the Phantom’s darkness, the innocence to his harsh experience. AND one gets the impression, at least I did, that these qualities are a significant part of what he falls in love with in her (and certainly many Phanfics portray it that way). Thus, as a young, female-identified Phan, I felt that, in order to access the love-story aspect of Phantom (because my great dream was then and, don’t laugh but, still is to meet someone like the Phantom and have them love me as he loved Christine(, I needed to emulate her performance of that kind of femme. I felt that I had to match Christine’s ability to be that kind of femme – to do it as well or better – in order to be desirable to someone like the Phantom.
The problem, of course, is that I could not then and cannot now perform that kind of femme without having to seriously contort and distort myself. So from the beginning, this inter-femme competition was one I was set up to loose. And not just because of the hirsutism! Although, that has ultimately been what has forced me onto the long and difficult journey of trying to get out of that space. And indeed, I want to thank Clementine Morrigan for addressing this issue! I’d never thought about my struggles with the character of Christine in these terms before, and doing so now has been enormously helpful and liberating! Because, as I said, the hirsuitism has only been the final straw – the thing that made the conflict impossible to ignore. But long before it showed up, trying to perform Christine’s type of femme forced me to choose between my desire for love and my own history. For although I do share with Christine the problem of having remained extremely sheltered well into adulthood (a sadly common problem among Blind and low-vision people because of lack of access(, unlike her, my experience was not one of a care-free idyll. Certainly my childhood home was, thank God, a place of love, safety and support, and indeed my refuge. But my experience outside of home was one of repeated trauma due to medicalization, bullying, and ableism (especially in the education system but also beyond), pierced at intervals by the beauty and joy of music. And this history lead me, when I came into Phanship, to identify much more powerfully with the Phantom than with Christine except as his love object! Indeed, except for one year when my then boyfriend went as the Phantom and I as Christine, I always went “in drag” as the Phantom for Halloween. But not completely in drag! My long hair was tied back, but it was still visible and femme. And as weird as people found that, I wouldn’t have had it any other way! But I didn’t know what to do with that in terms of the love-story, and at every time of year other than Halloween I worked very hard to present as Christine.
As can be seen from the above, though, in order to perform Christine’s type of femme I had/have to split off my identification with the Phantom’s pain, outrage and resistance from my desire to be his love object. Not to mention having to hide or “correct” the various body-mind “abnormalities” that made/make it increasingly difficult to look the part of the ingenue! And as my level of vision dropped, as my CP became more noticeable on account of its side-manifestations (a bent and twisted spine and what I now suspect to be mild dysarthria), and, of course, as the hirsutism appeared, such concealment and splitting off became increasingly impossible. Although, I still tried! Because, of course, I still dreamed of finding someone like the Phantom. AND I didn’t see how that was possible if I wasn’t a Christine.
After reading Morrigan’s piece, however, as mentioned above, I’ve come to recognize in this exactly the kind of inter-femme competition she’s talking about! Like fashion-models or movie/TV stars for so many of my femme peers, Christine became for me the gold-standard of femininity with which I had to compete if I hoped to attract the man of my dreams. It left me comparing myself to her, and, of course, finding myself lacking. It left me fearing that, unable to measure up to that standard, I would be excluded from the love-story.
Realizing the role that inter-femme competition with Christine has played in my life and Phanship has been enormously helpful and liberating! And, as I said above, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Clementine for her article that’s been such a catalyst for me in beginning to work this through! So now my task is to work to unlearn that patriarchal conditioning and liberate my Phanship from it. Because I’m not Christine! I’m no ingenue. I never truly was, and I never will be (although, don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful dresses, beautiful hair and roses as much as the next femme!). So now I have to explore what it really means to be a PhantomFemme – a femme-identified and presenting person who knows and understands the Phantom’s darkness because she’s been there (although, thank God, not to the extremes that he suffered), who shares the Phantom’s drive to resist and carve out a space of dignity and empowerment, and who also shares the Phantom’s deep romanticism and desire for passionate love. And as part of that, I have to teach myself to imagine the love-story in new ways. Though, I freely admit that I don’t have a clear sense, yet, of what those new ways might be!
* Note: Sadly, the piece to which I refer here is only available at present to those who support Morrigan on her Patreon, though I hope she will eventually republish it elsewhere. For now, though, I highly recommend that you join her supporters if you can, so you can read this piece and more of her awesome, inspiring and liberating writing!
So my favourite part of Phantom (apart, of course, from the Final Lair for sheer emotional impact) is and has always been the title song – The actual song called “The Phantom of the Opera”. It’s the song that first lit the fire of my obsession, even before I actually saw the show live for the first time or knew really anything about the story. Eventually seeing the staging of that scene (which I could do in those days) only added to the thrill and made me love that particular part of the show even more. But it was the song itself that I loved first.
It’s always struck me, though, that this never seemed to make sense to anyone but me. It always seems to have struck others, even other Phans, as strange that I should love that particular song so much. As one friend asked me, “I thought the whole show meant everything to you?” And it did/does! I did and do love the whole show! It’s certainly not like I loved the song separately from the rest of Phantom. I can see, perhaps, how you could if you’re just a fan of particularly amazing theatrical moments, because that scene is an especially brilliant achievement in theatre craft! But that’s not what was going on in my case. I loved all of Phantom and still do! But somehow, that song has always been a particular focus of my obsession. It’s always seemed to somehow encapsulate what I love about the ALW stage-version in particular, and about the whole POTO idiom in general. But until very recently, I couldn’t articulate why.
I think now, though, that the reason I’ve always loved that song, and, indeed, why it was what got my Phanship started, was because, in it, I had my first taste of another world being possible. It gave me my first taste of what liberation might be. It’s always felt, to me, like a moment of possibility – not one actually realized in the story itself, but one always left open simply by it’s presence in the show! That is, that song presents a moment of possibility which is not cancelled out by the way the story ultimately plays out, even if it remains unrealized in the narrative as presented. Indeed, a great deal of Phantom’s power for me comes from the juxtaposition of this moment of possibility – the “what could have been” – with the tragedy of the Final Lair – the what all too often is. Nevertheless, the presence of that song means that that possibility is always left open to be taken up again!
And what is that “what could have been”? For me, the sense of wild possibility in that song comes from its giving the listener/audience-member a tantalizing glimpse of the relationship that might have been between the Phantom and Christine. And perhaps this was so because I first heard that song out of context? I knew it was from Phantom when I first heard it, but very little other than that. All I had to go on was the “thumbnail” of the story that my Mom and Godmother had given me some time before. Two elements of that “thumbnail”, though, powerfully caught my attention: the idea that the story of Phantom had to do with getting to grips with a “deformed” face even through initial fear of it, and the idea that this song portrayed the moment when Christine has “almost gone over to the Phantom” as my Godmother put it. To which my immediate reaction was to wonder why she (my Godmother) seemed to be functioning on the assumption that there was something wrong with Christine “going over to the Phantom”? And perhaps the best way to say it is that this lack of any other information allowed me to hear the song as what it would have been like if, in fact, Christine had gone over to him in joyful defiance of what society thought she should do. And what I heard, listening to it that way, was something far more radical than I had language to articulate at the time! Although, I sensed something of how radical it was by my gut instinct that such a relationship would really freak out “normal” people.
To me, then, the “Phantom Song”, as I then called it, gave me my first taste of what I would now call Crip desire – desire for another, not in spite of “deformity”, but embracing it in every sense of the word. You might have to work through shock, fear or even initial revulsion to fully embrace that desire, but you do it because you know that what and who waits on the other side of that is something and someone awesome! And hell, the shock and fear become part of the desire even as you push through them to love. Because, there are also some decidedly kink elements to what I heard in that song! Although, of course, back when I first became a Phan, I didn’t have the repertoire to understand it as such. But you can definitely understand the Title Song from POTO as portraying a “power exchange” type of relationship, in which the Phantom takes the part of the dom and Christine the submissive! But, of course, its also all fully consensual, too – “In all your fantasies, you always knew that man and mystery were both in you”. And there’s also an element of switch there. Because, in defying what society says she “should” do and “going over to the Phantom” anyway, in choosing to embrace that Crip desire and love the Phantom including the face society has deemed ugly, she performs a powerful act of both self-liberation and liberation of him! It’s a relationship that takes courage on both of their parts – his to find the courage to let her see his face, and hers to push through that initial reaction of fear/revulsion to re/embrace desire, and hers also to defy society’s prescription against her loving/desiring the Phantom. It’s a relationship where both have to be very strong, but also very vulnerable in ways I didn’t even have words for then but picked up implicitly from that song!
And it’s those elements of kink, courage and mutuality that create the awesomeness! Because, in a conventional liberal version, the ideal would be to work through to where the Phantom no longer needs to wear his mask. But that’s not quite what I heard/hear in that song! Because, the Crip desire described above loves him in embrace of his “deformity”, yes. But it also recognizes his mask – his Phantom persona – as an integral part of him as well, forged through is struggle to exist with dignity in spite of society’s judgement and exclusion of him, not merely as an outer disguise to be unravelled to get to the “true” person “underneath”. It recognizes both his Phantom persona and him unmasked as true expressions of who he is, and therefore both are equally desirable. Indeed, they are “in one combined”, to use the words of the song, and cannot be separated in any meaningful sense!
The cool thing about it, though, is that none of these ideas were conveyed to me didactically. They were and are performed for me in the music itself – the melody and accompanying orchestrations – and lyrics of that song. I could feel that relationship through the music, and thus begin to imagine it through that song’s evocation. Perhaps even invocation? That is, I could imagine it as much as a ten-year-old can who has no language or vocabulary to articulate in words the kind of relationship they’re perceiving the possibility of!
In those early days of my Phanship, when I imagined this relationship, in my own mind I played both parts. I’m having to re-teach myself how to do that now, though. Because, in the years since, that very radical first imagining got kind of lost, tangled up in the Victorian-esque, cisgendered, Straight high romance trappings of the idiom in which the story is told. That has, paradoxically, been one of the pitfalls of filling in the details of the story from that “thumbnail” with which I started. But I’m trying to re-learn! Because, I think, in re-learning how to embrace both roles of that relationship for myself lies at least part of the answer to the gender trouble (to borrow Judith Butler’s term) I’ve had as a Disabled, Deformed (Hirsute) Phan. But that’s not easy! LOL Especially since female hirsutism was not how I pictured the “deformity” in the equation back in those days (I became a Phan, ironically, before that became an issue for me). So it involves a lot of re-imagining, and learning how to imagine in new ways!
And of course, the radical relationship who’s possibility I perceived when I first heard that song, and that I’m trying to re-learn to imagine now, is not the one that actually develops between the Phantom and Christine in the story, regardless of version. Indeed, even in Phanfiction, I have yet to find such a radical, convention-refusing relationship portrayed. Most E/C Phanfics (stories that get the Phantom and Christine together romantically), at least as far as I’ve seen so far, bring their characters into a relationship that replicates hetero/homo-monogamous, “vanilla” ideals as much as possible. Nevertheless, by having that song as an integral part of itself, the ALW stage-version leaves that moment of possibility for something more radical defiantly present! Thus, the Title Song from Phantom was my first taste of the transformative power of resistance to oppressive norms, systems and structures. Because, as alluded to above, I sensed even in those early flashes that the kind of relationship I heard there would require the courage to say “no” to a society that would want to discourage both parties from pursuing such a relationship. And to find that courage, to say that “no”, would be an act of defiance and resistance to the enforcement of “normalcy” (to borrow Deaf scholar and activist Lennard Davis’s concept). Yet to take that stand would lead to something awesome and transformative! Thus, it would be no exaggeration to say that that moment when I first heard the title song from Phantom made me an activist. It performed/s for me the possibility of a different world, and holds out an exciting challenge to make that world real!
I think that’s why it pisses me off so much that, in the Gerik (the 2004 film), changes in the Phantom’s and Christine’s joint back-story, and to certain lyrics, make that song feel out of place and inappropriate rather than integral to the story. Because, without that song to offer a taste of an alternative, there’s no counter-balance – no challenge – to the tragedy of the Final Lair in which the “abnormal” and “maladjusted” is left alone as the perfect cisgendered, Straight, white couple (Christine and Raoul) sails off into the dawn/sunset/whatever. No wonder the Gerik’s play-out is the song “Learn To Be Lonely”! Whereas, the stage-version offers, perhaps unintentionally? the possibility that a different world – a different ending – is possible. Indeed, the stage-version has always felt to me almost like a dare – a dare to step outside of what society tells you you “should” do and be, and whom society tells you you “should” love/desire, and make that different world and ending to the story a reality. Alas, it’s a dare I have to admit I haven’t taken up as bravely as I’d have wanted to. But, thankfully, it’s always there to be taken up and tried again! Because, of course, even through all the alterations of the Gerik and the Lawrence Connor production (more on that later), the Phantom Title Song’s still there in all its original glory and wonder!
Note. I’ve once again put the words “deformed” and “deformity” in quotes when not capitalized to signify their being socially constructed ideas rather than “Truths”. When Deformity is capitalized and not in quotes, however, it signifies a chosen political identity. I’m aware, however, that most of the activists I’ve come across, at least so far, choose the term Disfigured instead. I use Deformed, both capitalized and not, because that is the term used in Phantom and in the Phan community.
Note 2: This post is adapted from the third chapter of a work that I recently wrote as part of my doctoral studies (no, not my thesis yet), entitled Through the Mirror, Behind the Mask: A Journey of Disability, Queerness and Liberation Phanship. I hope, if it’s cool with the powers that be in my faculty, to publish it in the decently near future. So watch this space for when that happens!
A powerful and painful piece because it’s so damned true! I experience this every time I have to ask a sighted stranger to guide me somewhere, fill out forms for and with me that ask for very personal information because the forms are in formats I can’t read myself, etc. And of course, I experience it every time a sighted stranger comes up to me and asks me how long I’ve been Blind and what caused it, questions there’s no way to answer without going into my personal history! Mingus is absolutely right. It feels as oppressive as it is! And she does a brilliant job of laying out why it’s oppressive!
Source: Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm
So I feel that I ought to come clean about this, because I’ve been living a lie for a long time. Oh I’m “really” Disabled. That’s not the falsehood. I truly am Blind, truly do have CP, and truly do have other issues as well. The lie is that I’ve ever been truly independent – that I’ve ever truly grown up. I don’t mean learned how not to need help with certain aspects of dayly life. I mean that I’ve never taken charge myself of organizing how those needs were going to be met, even while having some very grand ambitions for what I want to achieve in life.
Now, granted, I’ll give myself that there are some valid reasons for this lack of taking charge of my own needs. I have a lot of very early trauma from medicalization. And this was later compounded by ableist bullying, which I experienced from peers, even some teachers (especially the “special” teachers who worked with me in primary school), and from some of the teachers and residence staff at the school for the Blind I eventually went to. So I’ll be the first to admit that, by my teens, I was really messed up! Getting therapy in highschool helped, especially since I was particularly blesffed in my shrink. No offense to my later therapists, but she was the best I’ve ever had! Even so, though, it’s only recently, through the work I’ve been doing in Critical Disability theory and politics that I’ve really begun to get to grips with that stuff and it’s effects. At the same time, though, there were some bad reasons for my lack of independence. Thanks to my Mom’s academic background I had the resources to at least know as much as that my attitudes, actions and behaviours were being effected by the trauma I’d experienced, even if the exact mechanisms by which it did so would take longer to tease out. And yet, even with this ammo, I didn’t struggle against the effects of my trauma as hard as I could have and should have. If anything, I kind of wallowed in them!
The result was that, for all of my teens and twenties, andfor much of my thirties, I’ve basically lived some of the worst disability stereotypes. I was lazy. Yes, lazy. And worse, I regularly used my disabilities to get away with it. Others could do things faster and more efficiently, so I let them. Oh I’d “to sometimes make a half-hearted offer to help out, but I didn’t mean it, and was perfectly happy when it was declined. In fact, I usually didn’t get around to even making such offers until whatever work was already well under way, by which time it was basically done so there really was nothing left for me to do. And I did this both out in the world and at home. As a result, my Mom, a single mom no less, ended up literally being the servant – doing all the housework, and making breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, even when she had to work outside the home as well. And I had a sense of personal entitlement that let me feel that it was perfectly OK for me to exploit Mom’s labour this way.
In addition to my total lack of initiative in starting to pick up the housework, though, that sense of entitlement allowed me to feel totally justified in refusing to in any way push my comfort-zone, my very narrow comfort-zone, in order to get the help I needed in other areas. I didn’t trust “helping” agencies because of my experiences of custodialization at the school for the blind. But, instead of going to them anyway because I needed the help, and, if their was crap, getting involved in political struggles to change it, I simply refused to have anything to do with them. i was uncomfortable asking for help from my peers because, when I made half-assed, disorganized efforts at doing so, it seemed to put me in the “little kid charity-case” category rather than that of potential friend material. So, instead of trying harder to ask for help in an organized manner that would come across as competent and mature, I simply refused, once again falling back on Mom’s labour. So, every time I needed or wanted something read, I got Mom to read it (I had a scanner and OCR software, but it read so poorly in those days that I often simply didn’t bother with it). Likewise, every time I needed to travel a route I didn’t know, Mom would “have” to take me. And this became an increasing problem as, as I dropped sight and my other impairments became more noticeable, way-finding became increasingly difficult. And, instead of finding ways to break out of the social isolation I was experiencing, even if it meant getting involved in programs at CNIB or other Disability organizations because I was having so much trouble making friends among my sighted and able-bodied peers, I simply let Mom take care of all my needs for company – so much so that, at one point, she calculated that we were spending approximately 45 hours together a week.
As a result, Mom has hardly had any life other than being my full-time care-giver since I stopped attending the school for the blind and came home to attend the school for the arts, that is, since I was 14. She has not been able to have a social life of her own, or to get her own enterprises up and going, even though both of us badly needed her to be able to in order to get out of poverty. As bad or worse, though, has been that her often hidden labour has allowed me to present an illusion of independence and competence to the outside world. I have looked like I was getting out there and building a life, when, in fact, I wasn’t. I continue to rely on Mom for my logistical needs (grocery-shopping, other shopping, travel, reading, etc,) andfor my social needs, even a decade after ostensibly moving out on my own – to the point where, when Mom would come to “visit”, in addition to quality family-time, she would once again cook all the meals, do all the house-cleaning I’d neglected, shepherd me around to whatever events I wanted or want to go to, and fill in my social needs too. And these “visits” would be every week-end when she lived in town (even when she lived across town from me and travel was really difficult for her because she doesn’t drive), and they’ve turned into three, four or more week extended ?hotel-stays” in which she gets to be the hotel staff for me since she’s moved further away. And it’s wearing Mom out. Over the years, she has literally begged me, if I’m going to need that much of her help and support, to live with or near her so she can provide it to me without it totally wiping her out. But, once again, I’ve always refused, wanting to cling to the illusion that I’m managing independently. But I’ve also always refused to transform that illusion into reality either, the other way I could stop exhausting her.
So why am I writing all this? I’m doing so because I felt it was important for me to finally stop hiding my wrongs, stop hiding my lack of real independence behind Mom’s hidden labour, and come clean with my communities. As those of you who know me know, I’ve long been an ardent supporter of the rights and aspirations of people with Disabilities. Indeed, I consider myself a Disability activist, although, given what I’ve confessed here, I’m not sure I deserve that honoured label. Because, I’ve been engaging from a place of hipocracy. I’ve been attending the rallies and events and spouting the rhetoric while taking the easy way out with regard to my own independence. And worse, I’ve supported Disability and Feminist ideals while knowingly exploiting another’s labour. And I’ve always been afraid my Disability communities would discover how much I’ve relied on Mom’s labour, and either think me incompetent for not having figured out how to do better by now, and or recognize me for an ass-hole who confirms every bad disability stereotype they’ve been trying so hard to disprove and fight against. So I thought it was time to finally out myself! Because, I’m trying to stop being that ass-hole
– to really grapple with how to get my needs met, and how to live really independently instead of just the facade of it. And it seemed to me that it was important to begin that process by a little long over-due honesty.
Ouch! But so true. It’s the lesson of Nevel Longbottom, though. Isn’t it? (paraphrasing Dumbledore) “It takes courage to stand up to your enemies. But it takes even greater courage to stand up to your friends!” So let’s all help each other cultivate that courage please? A really important start would be to creat circles of support for those who have friends or, especially, relatives that they’re going to have to confront. This can be really scary, especially for those who fear isolation. But knowing you’ve got a circle of supportive friends to whom you can go to decompress/debrief/just plain not feel alone after you’ve pissed off your other friends/family can make all the difference in whether some one has the courage to stand up or not!
Source: Charlottesville was my Fault
So a while back, I was re-reading (well, re-listening to actually, since I experience it through audiobook) my original Leroux Phantom, and I noticed something I hadn’t before. Actually, it surprises me that I hadn’t till now! Because, when I think about it, it’s likely been a key reason why I’ve always gravitated more toward the stage-version than the Leroux novel. LOL Sorry Leroux purists! And don’t get me wrong. Of course I recognize Leroux as the source of it all – the original, and I love it for that as well as for its own particular way of telling the story. But it’s always been the stage-version that’s most powerfully fired my love of Phantom, and, as I said, I think I now know a key reason, which as to do with the way the two versions handle the issue of “normalcy”.
In the Leroux novel, Erik (the Phantom) expresses a strong desire for normalcy. He expresses the wish to “live like everyone else” (chapters 22, 23 and Epilogue of Damatos translation) – to have “a nice, quiet little flat with ordinary doors and windows like everyone else, and a wife inside whom I could love and take out on Sundays and keep amused on week-days” (chapter 23). And indeed, the house on the lake, the furnishings of which are frequently described as bourgeois common-place, seems to be trying to replicate a “normal” man’s house as much as possible (chapters 12 and 26 of Damatos translation). The only unorthodox spaces described as being in Erik’s house are his own room, which is done up like “a mortuary chamber” (chapter 12), and the “torture chamber” (chapters 22 through 25). But these spaces seem to come less out of a defiance of “normalcy” than from a desire to punish himself by living like the corpse he has always been told he looks like (chapter 12), and to punish and discourage intruders (chapters 22 through 25). It is also expressed in his work on a mask that will make him look “like anyone”, i.e. with a “normal” face (chapter 22).
In the stage-version, however, this desire for “normalcy” is downplayed if not dropped. The Phantom here certainly expresses a desire for love and compassion, and a wish to be lead and saved from his solitude (Act I scene 6, Act II scenes 8 and 9). But he does not express the desire to be “like everyone else” that the Leroux Phantom does. Moreover, his lair in this version (in the original staging at any rate) is not an attempt to mimic a “normal” home, but rather a temple to “the Music of the Night”. And indeed, in the lyrics to that song, he puts forward an alternative to the harsh, daylight visual standards of physical beauty that have excluded and marginalized him, offering instead an aesthetic where sound is paramount, and where visual assessments are softened by candle-light. True, he wants acceptance. He wants some one “to see, to find, the man behind the monster” (Act I scene 6). But he wants this at least somewhat on his own terms. Thus, the stage-version Phantom can be read as being OK with not being “normal” as long as he’s not alone in it – as long as he’s not driven into maddening isolation by exclusion and marginalization.
And now that I think about it, I begin to suspect that this shift in the approach to “normalcy” is a key reason why the ALW stage-version was the version of Phantom to be the one to spark Phandom to life, not just in me, but in so many others born since the 1970s. Many of us were othered, especially in the education system. We were bullied or just plain excluded, either by our peers, our teachers or both, for having a Disability/being Queer/being Trans/being “weird”/etc. But, in us, that didn’t inspire us to want to conform and be “normal”. Because, in the people who othered us, especially the authority-figures, we saw, up close and personal, what society calls “normal”. And we didn’t like what we saw! It looked to us like what J. K. Rowling would later call being a muggle – rigid conformity (to dress-codes, to codes of behaviour based on able bodies and minds, to racism, to soul-destroying work environments, to consumerism, to sexism and what we would now call the gender binary) and a deadened imagination. And unlike our parents, we were the generations born post civil rights, post Black power, post Stonewall, post second-wave Feminism, post the beginning of the Disability rights movement. And while we weren’t exposed directly to these movements yet (that wouldn’t come till we escaped, er, I mean, graduated from highschool because, back then, we didn’t have the internet to easily and safely, i.e. privately, seek those movements out ourselves), we got their echoes. And those echoes told us it was the “normal” mongers that were wrong, not us.
Thus, when Phantom first opened back in 1986, it resonated powerfully with those of us engaged in these struggles, especially since it found many of us just as we were heading into our teens. Indeed, for many of us, the ALW Phantom provided the symbolic language with which we expressed and waged these struggles. We related to the Phantom’s experience of being excluded for his differences. But, like him as portrayed in the stage-version, we want/ed to be accepted for who we were/are – to offer alternative ways of being and find people to share them with, not to solve our exclusion by burying or excising parts of ourselves in order to be “normal”.
I think this is part of why so many old-school stage-version Phans like myself have such a strong negative reaction to the Gerik (the 2004/5 film adaptation of the Lloyd Webber musical). As I’ve argued elsewhere, the changes it makes in the story shift it’s message from that of the stage-version. Instead of calling out society for excluding and othering the Phantom on account of his not being “normal”, the Gerik criticizes the Phantom, and Mme. Giry who helped him make his home in the opera house, for his “failure” to have been “properly socialized”. It argues that what the Phantom needed was, not to be accepted for himself, facial difference, “madness” and all, but to learn to fit himself into “normal” society as best he could, and find there whatever place it would grant him. But Phans of my generation know that argument way too well. We got it from our teachers, guidance counsellors, our peers, the medical and other “helping” professions, and even, in some cases (though I’m thankful mine wasn’t one of them) from our parents. Many of us have tried that route, too, in response to their pressure. We’ve tried contorting ourselves into the shapes and appearances society wanted in order to be accepted. Many of us tried it for years or even decades before giving it up because, A, it doesn’t work – you’re never fully accepted because you can never be your whole self – never let your guard down lest your “abnormalities” show. And B, some part/s of yourself always have to remain disavowed and suppressed, hated because they keep you from fully fulfilling the societal ideal and, as you think, being fully accepted. Oh yes, we know well the mental, spiritual, psychic, and sometimes even (though, again, I’m grateful that not in my case) physical violence of that path. And it really, really pisses us off to see our beloved Phantom, the story and character that saved so many of us by inspiring us to begin to fight for our own liberation, turned into, A, eye-candy, and B, an apology for the “normal” mongers! That is not the message of the Phantom so many of us fell in love with on stage and in recordings. His was and is a song of resistance!