This by my awesome colleague Bridget Liang. Very important read!
So I know I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve been super busy with the holidays, school and the podcast, not to mention a housing hunt! But I wanted to post this for Valentine’s Day because it’s about love, though not of the kind conventionally understood as romantic.
For the past couple of years now, there’s been a vigorous debate within the world of climate activism over the best way to motivate people to take action. In particular, there has been a vigorous debate over whether positivity or fear is more effective. Do you emphasize the positive – the fact that we already, now, have everything we need to transition off of fossil-fuels, and thereby build up people’s hope and enthusiasm? Or, do you emphasize the danger – the increasingly dyer scientific warnings, the horrific visions of the future if we don’t change, and try to scare people into “waking up” and taking action? I would argue that both sides of this debate are, with all respect, wrong. Neither positivity nor fear is what’s needed. Positivity alone is too weak a motivator for the kind of massive, whole-scale transformation called for by the climate crisis. The crisis literally requires that we change everything – our economy, our agriculture, our transportation and travel habits, everything. And change that sweeping can be as scary as exciting. It will therefore require something stronger than just positivity about the fact that it can be done to help people push through the fear, leave behind the devil they know, and become active in the transformation.
Using fear, meanwhile, can backfire in two distinct ways. First of all, as has been frequently pointed out, it can have the effect of shutting people down, so that they become even more inactive and disengaged. But also, though far less discussed but of equally great concern (or it should be) to activists, is that while fear can powerfully motivate people to fight for their survival, it can motivate people to do so in very nasty ways. Because, when people are afraid for their survival, unless they already have a very strong, very well developed and embodied ethic/politics/spirituality/practice of radical compassion in place, they tend to fight ruthlessly, doing whatever they feel they must in order to assure that survival. It tends to create a “lifeboat” mentality, in which those other than “their own” are felt to be in competition for survival resources and thus a threat. And so people fight xenophobically and cruelly. This is a big part of the reason why times of crisis provide such fertile ground for fascists and other right-wing demagogs. And I don’t think we want a “life-boat” mentality to inform climate politics!
Rather, as Naomi Klein beautifully shows in her three most recent books – This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs the Climate (2014), No Is Not Enough (2017) and The Battle For Paradise (2018), by far the most courageous, determined, but also generous and open-hearted struggles for transformation come neither from positivity nor from fear, but from love. Often, they come from love of place, love of animals, love of children/grandchildren and their future, or love of cherished ways of life (farming, fishing, subsistence hunting, Indigenous traditions). These struggles tend to invite allies in to help defend what is beloved rather than seeing strangers as threats, and to forge common links with others engaged in similar struggles. This has even allowed groups once antagonistic to each other (settlers and Indigenous people, ranchers and Vegan activists, BIPOC and white allies, youth and elders, etc,) to come together to resist extraction projects and demand climate justice (see Klein for some amazing examples). And this has even lead to the beginning of powerful processes of healing from historical trauma (see again Klein,)!
To some extent, the role of love in motivating struggle has been understood by activists as campaigns to get people to “fall in love with nature” show. What has not been grasped yet, it seems to me, is the necessity to activate people based on what they already love rather than trying to get people to love what you think will activate them. We need to not only meet people where their knowledge is, but where their hearts are. We need to not only help people see how what they love is endangered by climate change, but how what they love can be transformed through politicization, and thus be carried forward into a new, just, sustainable world. Because, if people believe that the transformation will destroy what they love every bit as much as climate change will, they won’t fight. They’ll go into despair instead. And they will cling desperately to the old civilization even as they know it’s destroying the planet, preferring to “go down with the ship” then to loose what they love dearly – basically, nihilism. And/or, they will join the struggle, but half-heartedly, held back by ambivalence.
I struggled with this myself for a long time. Because, although I deeply believe that Phantom is a story about social justice, I feared greatly that the aesthetic, especially of the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage-show, could not be continued without the big-city, capitalist infrastructure that originally produced it. But that aesthetic is part of what I love about Phantom. And oddly enough, I feel a deep connection between the aesthetic and the social justice (more on that in future posts). I felt very much on my own, however, in finding my way out of this impasse, because I did not feel that I could talk about it with fellow activists. Most of the activist I know express their politics through aesthetics of simplicity, and so I feared that they would not be any too sympathetic to my love of the high-romantic aesthetics of Phantom (an attitude with which I do have prior experience, so that fear does not come out of nowhere). Thus, although my Phanship and my anti-poverty and Disability activism have been a strong fit with one another right from the start, for a long time I feared that my Phanship and my climate activism were incompatible. Because, I feared that the necessary social and economic changes to transform us to a degrowth society would destroy Phantom just as much as climate change itself would. I wanted to believe that there was a way to carry it forward – that that destruction wasn’t inevitable, but I couldn’t see how yet. And the message I felt coming from climate activism was, not meeting me where my heart lies and helping me figure it out, but “put away childish things, leave behind such a relic of white, heteropatriarcal, bourgeois consumer-capitalism, and fall in love with nature instead and thereby embrace simplicity”. Not that anyone has ever said this to me directly, but it seems to be very strongly implied in the messaging of much climate (and other) activism. But I have never found that terribly helpful, and I suspect I’m not alone there! Because, you can’t just stop loving what you love because some one says you should, even some one you admire and respect. You love what you love for reasons, even if those reasons don’t always make sense to others!
Now, I have recently begun to see a way out of this dilemma, and not by renouncing my Phanship either! I have begun to see a way that Phantom, in all, or at least most, of its high romantic splendour, can be transformed so that it can be carried forward into a post-carbon, degrowth world. Though, no, I won’t give away what that is just yet! And certainly the time and energy spent wrestling with this issue didn’t stop my climate activism. I worked for a habitable planet and a society based on climate justice, and hoped that Phantom might be preserved even as I feared that it wouldn’t. But it did hinder my climate activism. It made me ambivalent, and therefore less effective then I might otherwise have been. And I suspect that there are lots of others out there in a similar position – knowing that climate change is a crisis, wanting to do something about it, wanting to make the world a better place, but fearing that the things they love will be lost in the transformation.
I think, then, that we need to do four things if we truly want to get people mobilized and active:
1. We must learn to tell the difference between love and consumption simply to fill the void of an alienated life. For example, a lot of people would likely read my Phanship practices as mindless, addicted consumption. And they certainly do involve a fair bit of buying stuff I’ll unapologetically admit! But there’s so much more to it than that, as anyone who reads this blog or listens to my podcast can hopefully tell! I would argue, then, that the difference (or at least one of the key differences) is that, like for so many Phans/fans, my/our love for Phantom/whatever our passion is inspires me/us not only to consume, but to create as well – blogs like this one, Phan/fan art, Phan/fanfiction, Phan/fan crafts and jewelry, etc,. (I haven’t yet done Phan art or crafts, but I know lots of people who have! And the same most definitely goes for folks in other fandoms, too.)
2. Help people understand how what they love is endangered by the climate crisis itself, and by the underlying societal problems that created and drive it.
3. Without dissing, shaming, talking down or condescending, help people politicize what they love by making the critical tools available in a friendly, safe and supportive way. For example, although I had an instinct that Phantom was inherently political from the beginning, I couldn’t articulate why or how until I almost literally stumbled across intersectional Critical Disability theory. But once I did, that opened Phantom up to all kinds of explorations of its political possibilities that I wish I’d had access to years earlier! Also, though, support those who already do have a politicized understanding of what they love, even if it’s not yet well articulated. “Jedi Knights for Justice” (no, sadly that’s not actually a thing that exists that I know of) should be welcome at any climate rally or march, as should be “Phans for Social Justice”! (No, that latter doesn’t actually exist either, but it’s something I’d love to start!) Yet all too often, pop-culture fans see activists as super-serious people who’ll give them dirty looks if they come in their fan/Phan regalia, and activists see pop-culture fans/Phans as frivolous, narcissistic and juvenile – a highly unproductive impasse! So we really need to move beyond those stereotypes and start coming together to discover how all the things we love can power us into a just, equitable and sustainable future.
4. Get really super creative, and help facilitate people’s being able to imagine the things they love transformed so that they no longer depend on the fossil-fuel economy to exist. This will require a lot of creativity and “outside the box” thinking, because many things seem so deeply imbedded in the current system that it is hard to imagine them any other way (film, television, fashion, big rock ’n roll, etc,). But if I can figure out how to imagine a post-carbon ALW Phantom, then surely it can be done for other things people love as well!
These four inter-related recommendations are by no means the final answer to how to mobilize the world for the struggle for climate justice, though I hope they are at least a start. But certainly the task they’re components of is a significant part of that answer! Because, as we all surely know, there is no more powerful motivator than love! It can change lives, and it can change the world. People don’t sell out what/who they love for a better deal no matter how “irresistible” that deal is made to sound – as various fossil-fuel companies have found out when trying to get Indigenous communities to agree to let pipelines and other extractive projects into their lands (see Klein). And this position baffles and stymies the power-structure who only understand greed and competition (see Klein). Moreover, people will risk and sacrifice everything for what/who they love, up to and including safety and even life (see again Klein’s work for amazing and inspiring examples). As Naomi Klein says in This Changes Everything, “love will save this place”. Indeed, I would argue it is the only thing that can, but only if people believe that their love can carry them forward into a world transformed for the better. If they believe their love is doomed, though, then they will feel doomed as well and act accordingly. And that would be a vast and unnecessary tragedy when, if we can but activate the great love people already have for their particular piece of the world, we really do have the power to change everything! But as has been said at every climate march since the massive one in New York City in 2014, “to change everything, we need everyone”. So we’d better make sure we don’t exclude anyone!
Naomi Klein (2014). This Changes Everything. Simon and Schuster.
Naomi Klein (2017). No Is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. Penguin Random House (which division varies by country).
(Note, outside of the U.S. it’s published as No Is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.)
Naomi Klein (2018). The Battle For Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes On the Disaster Capitalists. Haymarket Books.
Note, all of these are available in unabridged audiobook as well.
So I’m going to do a podcast episode on this at some point. But because today is Trans Day of Remembrance, I wanted to take some space to talk about my own gender journey. Because, although today is about remembrance, it’s also about breaking silence! And I suspect that I’m often read as a cis ally because I can (sometimes) pass for cis female. So I want to add my voice to those of other Trans-spectrum folks today speaking to and for our realities and existence! Because silence, stereotyping and erasure are part of what cause us to need a Trans Day of Remembrance. They’re part of what create the conditions that enable so much violence against Trans people, including poverty and hyper-precarity. And I’m one of those folks with the privilege of it being relatively safe to be out – which is definitely not the case for way too many people. So I sort of feel like I have a responsibility to do so! That great slogan from the AIDS crisis: “silence = violence”.
Part of the reason it’s taken so long for me to be out, though, is erasure. For the longest time, I literally didn’t have words for my experience of gender. And finding them has been a long (and I suspect on-going) struggle! This is partly because, growing up in the 80s and 90s, for most of my formative years, I had no idea there were options other than girl, which I was assigned at birth but increasingly didn’t fit in the traditional definition of, and boy which didn’t fit either! And then, even when I started to learn about Transgender, I didn’t know any Trans people personally, so what I knew came from media. And that gave me a very rigid, narrow picture of what Trans was – a straight-forward transition from your assigned gender to your felt gender, based on feeling that you were “born into the wrong body”. The only other models I had were androgyny/gender-blending. Basically, all the gender narratives I knew told me you had to choose girl, boy or neither. It took me a long time to find models of, and words for, moving back and forth between two genders. I’d heard of gender-fluidity, but, the way it had always been presented to me, it sounded like blending genders rather than moving back and forth between them. Indeed, it wasn’t till I heard a certain episode of the awesome Off The Cuffs podcast that I realized gender-fluid could mean that, and had an example of some one living it. And I was like “You can do that? It’s a legit thing? Really? Oh Wow!”.
And this lack of language, unfortunately, caused Phantom and my Phanship to inadvertently become part of this erasure of my gender. Though, I hate to say that! But it’s true. Because, of course, the story of Phantom is very much told in a cis, gender-binaried, hetero-romantic idiom. The masculine Phantom loves the super-femme Christine. So, as I’ve talked about in a previous post, without language to articulate an alternative, that set up a feeling that I had to choose. It’s only recently dawned on me that being/doing both, and/or moving back and forth between the two is actually an option. And in truth, I’m still figuring out how the hell that works, especially in terms of the love-story! Straight? Queer? Femme for femme? Masc for femme? POli so I can access both sides of the love-story? Yeah, I’m still confused on that score.
But of course, as a Phan, naturally I want to express my gender/s through Phantom! Because, just as Phantom has profoundly shaped and informed my Disabled identity, so too has it profoundly shaped my sense of gender – both desire and presentation. The first model of masculinity that really powerfully impacted me was the Phantom, especially of the ALW stage-musical, and especially as portrayed by Colm Wilkinson! And I learned how to do Femme from Sarah Brightman’s Christine, especially during Angel of Music and the Title Song as I perceived them! But to figure out how to do both, or to move between them, meant Queering the story in ways I’m only beginning to have the tools to do. In particular, the challenge, for me at least, is to Queer the story so that it becomes fully accessible to folks like me without sacrificing the romance – the “story of deep, dark, dangerous, passionate love” to quote a documentary on the Toronto production – that’s so central to Phantom, and is so much a part of what resonates so powerfully with us Phans!
And this latter work is critically important, because Phantom is a story about the terrible mental and spiritual consequences of exclusion and marginalization. But it also, as I’ve argued elsewhere, contains a powerful call to action to end that marginalization and exclusion, and to heal the trauma caused by it. So it seems to me that it’s critically important that we Phans not allow Phantom itself to contribute to the silencing and erasure of people on account of their colour and/or their lack of conformity to the gender binary! I’m heartened, though, that I’m starting to see this be done. In particular, I’ve finally started to come across well-written Phanfics that explicitly seek to “gender-bend” the story, and others that less explicitly take up other areas of intersectionality. But there’s a lot more need and room for further creative Queering!!
LOL So once again I haven’t posted in ages! Again, sorry about that. But as usual I’ve been busy, and not only with school! Although, definitely with that. But mostly, I’ve started a new project!
So I mentioned a long while back that I was thinking of starting a podcast of my own. Well, I finally took the leap and did! LOL And as will surprise no one, it is, of course, on Phantom of the Opera. It’s called In This Labyrinth: The Phantom of the Opera In Erik’s Times and Ours, and it’s very much the kind of stuff I do here. Like here, I bring together my Phantom obsession and my passion for Disability-centred intersectional analysis. So so far, I’ve done episodes on how the Leroux novel and Lloyd Webber stage-musicals treat the concept of normalcy, the ableism in the Gerik (the 2004 movie of Phantom) based on the blog-posts I’ve done on that topic here and elsewhere, why I find the Title Song from Phantom so thoroughly awesome (again based on some of the analysis I’ve done here), how Phantom shaped my Disabled identity and continues to do so, and most recently on Phanship and obsession. And next up is one on the Phantom and/as Red Death in the Masquerade scenes in Leroux and ALW, and how those scenes put an unintentional? Disability-political twist on the original story by Edgar Allan Poe that they’re based on. So I’m really excited about that! I was, of course, hoping to have that one up by Halloween. LOL But keeping to schedule has been interesting! Though, of course, I keep trying.
I try to put an episode out twice a month. I thought about doing only once a month, LOL but I knew from my own experience with my favourite podcasts that, if I were the listener, having to wait a whole month between episodes would drive me up the wall! So I decided to do twice a month instead. But thus the delay in posting here. Because, especially on top of school and my teaching assistantship, that schedule can be a challenge to keep up with!!! In spite of that, though, I’m really loving doing it!!! And I’ve got lots more (hopefully) interesting episodes planned for the future. And I’ve even got them more or less scheduled into the new year! Though, of course, there’s room for flexibility. I’ve got a bunch of book and Phanfic reviews planned, plus episodes on the “good girl/bad girl binary” in Phantom, Phantom and economic precarity, mothers and fathers in POTO, and the similarities and differences between Phantom and the classic Beauty and the Beast legend (especially as depicted by Disney)! And I hope to do one on POTO and the famous Beauty and the Beast TV series eventually, especially since I gather there was, at one point, a significant overlap between the fandoms of the two. But believe it or not, I haven’t yet seen the series, so, alas, that’ll have to wait till I do! And of course, I plan to do episodes on race in Phantom, and on other aspects of how gender plays out in the various versions too. So stay tuned for all of that!
Additionally, I really hope to do interviews! Because, of course, while I bring my own perspective and experience, there’s a great diversity out there in the Phandom. And I definitely can’t speak for all of that! So I’d love to have Phans who come from perspectives other than my own – at intersections other than my own – on the show. That’d be very awesome indeed, and make it much more interesting for listeners!
Anyway, so that’s what I’ve been up to. Don’t worry, though, I haven’t by any means abandoned this site, my other writing or my music! LOL It’s just a bit hard to squeeze everything in. So don’t be alarmed if there are longer than usual delays between posts here and/or updates on that other stuff! Because, school kind of has to take priority, and beyond that, the podcast’s taking priority right now, too. But I definitely plan to continue with my other projects as time and energy permit!
If you want to check my new podcast out, though, which, of course, I sincerely hope you do, you can find the show’s website at the link above. And it’s also available on iTunes and Google Play now as well! So, if you like what you hear, and again I sincerely hope you do, I’d be ever so obliged if you could subscribe in iTunes and drop a rate and review. That would be enormously appreciated, as it will help more listeners find the show! You can, of course, also like/follow the show on Facebook, and on Twitter at @ITLPodcast. There’s also a Facebook group, in addition to the page, for sharing and discussion. So by all means join there too, and I very much hope you all enjoy the podcast!
So I thought I’d mention a couple of gigs that I’ve got coming up that I’m very excited about! First of all, I’ll be performing once again at the Open Tuning Festival this Saturday (June 9). For those in the Toronto area, I’ll be on at 5 PM in the garage behind KOP’s Records at Bathurst and Bloor (see the schedule on the Open Tuning website for details). I’ll be the fourth or so act on the program at that venue this time!
Then, next Saturday on June 16, I’ll be singing again at a fund-raiser for my union local, CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) Local 3903. It’s the local that represents the teaching assistants, contract faculty, and graduate assistants at my university, and the fund-raiser is to support the strike we’ve been on for 14 weeks now! We’ve been struggling for a fair and decent contract, and to push back against precarious working conditions, especially for the contract faculty. You can read all about it at here! Anyway, as you can imagine, the length of the strike has seriously depleted our funds. So we’re doing lots of things to raise money to continue the struggle, including this event! For those in town, it’ll be at the Glad Day Bookshop at Church and Wellesley on the evening of the 16th. And I’ll be contributing some of my songs to the effort, which I’m very excited about! For those of you not in town, there’s a GoFundMe campaign that folks can contribute to. And we’d be hugely grateful for whatever support you can give!
Anyway, apologies for not getting these posted sooner. In fact, though, because of the way this year’s been going for everyone involved in organizing these events, they’ve only just come together! So I really hope in-town folks can make it to one or the other!
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 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!