This, totally!!! Phantom in a nutshell!!!
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!!
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!
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!
LOL Yes, I know, on top of everything else I’m trying to do. But it’s a case of “if what you want to hear isn’t out there, do it yourself”! And for a long time now I’ve been really craving a good podcast that explores Phantom and Phanship from the kind of intersectional, but Disability-centred, perspective that I try to do here. Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing interviews with POTO actors and with Phan artists! And I’d love to do that stuff myself if/when I get this up and going. I’d just dearly love to hear/have a show offer a deeper analysis as well, though, given how incredibly rich Phantom is in its layers of meaning!
But, although I listen to a lot of podcasts, I’ve never attempted one before myself. And I’m so not technical!!! So I’d definitely love some advice, from those of you out there who’ve done this already, on how to get it up and going (ahem, on a budget which is, at present, non-existent). Like, I know, or at least I think, I can record episodes that are just me alone talking in Garage-Band, and edit them together with an intro and outro the same way I edit my songs. But is it OK in terms of podcast etiquette to pre-record like that, or are you expected to do all or most episodes live-to-air? Also, I gather WordPress has a widget for uploading podcast episodes to a page. But apparently you have to use an ftp to do the uploading? I’ve never used one before, and I have no idea if they’re accessible! LOL I barely understand the concept in fact. So I feel a bit out of my depth! I’m hoping I can use that widget on a sub-page of this site to post episodes, because, A, that would keep everything nice and straight-forward rather than having tons of separate identities floating around, and B, LOL I can’t afford a whole separate domain and hosting right now! But we’ll have to see how it goes as I figure out how all this shit works LOL!
Anyway, I’m hoping to get that started some time this year, maybe even this summer if I can. So stay tuned! And any of you experienced podcasters out there, 🙂 would love some guidance! Thanks!
So a week or so ago, while reading through my Twitter feed, I came across the following tweet from the official Phantom twitter, @PhantomOpera, which represents the show worldwide (although the London, Broadway and U.S. tour productions do all have their own). And I really wanted to respond, because I found it really disturbing coming from an official voice for the musical! But I knew I couldn’t possibly condense why into 140 characters. I really wanted to say something, though, because I didn’t think this should be left without a response! It was part of a discussion on why the Phantom comes out for curtain-call in his full costume, including the hat and mask, when both have been removed during the Final Lair. And @PhantomOpera’s answer was that they wanted to end the show with his “iconic” look rather than his “broken” look, to which another discussant asked if they thought the Phantom is broken. To which @PhantomOpera replied, and this is what I find problematic:
“A little bit. I think the character behaves less refined when he doesn’t have the wig & mask & that’s not a good image to end the show with”
You can (I hope, if I’ve done this right) find the tweet in question here, and you should be able to call up the rest of the discussion from there.
What I find so problematic about this tweet is that it, in fact the whole discussion at least as far as I saw, equates the Phantom’s revealed “deformity” with his being “broken” as though there were some inherent correlation between the two. It makes this correlation by suggesting that he is less “broken” when he conceals his deformity in order to appear more “refined”. And this is classic ableism! Yes, the Phantom is broken, and, yes, he does have low self-esteem (see further tweets in the discussion which describe the wig and mask as props to bolster the Phantom’s low self-image). But this is not “just” because his face is “deformed”. That’s how ableism operates, though. It locates brokenness in the individual body of the person with the bodily/mental/cognitive difference, and, therefore, treats depression, self-esteem issues, feelings of isolation, etc, simply as part of their “condition”. It treats those feelings/psychological states as part of the person’s individual set of problems rooted in their bodily “deficiency” rather than as legitimate responses to the way society treats them. Thus, the “cure” is understood to be to make the person as “normal” as possible so that they can love themself and fit in, not to change society at large to one that can accept them. This is because, to put it baldly, ableism believes that it is the person’s body that is wrong, not society’s inability to embrace them. And therefore, it maintains that to change society would be neither possible nor, in fact, desirable. Thus, in the case of this tweet-discussion, then, it seems to be suggesting that the Phantom’s self-loathing and depression derive from his having a facial “deformity” rather than from society’s exclusion of him – an inevitable, if tragic, reality (Christine’s ultimate acceptance of him being a one-off, miraculous exception) which, if he were “sane”/”well adjusted”, he would have learned to accept. And the phrasing that he “behaves more refined” when hiding his “deformity” implies that his doing so is a good thing – a step toward “normalcy” even if he is, ultimately, too “broken” to achieve it fully.
As I said, I find the above really disturbing, especially from an official voice for the show! Because, to me, Phantom is and should be about countering and resisting ableism. Yes, the Phantom is broken, but not by his face. He is broken by a lifetime of marginalization and exclusion by a society that’s decided his face is too different to be accepted. He is depressed, yes, but because of a lifetime of being told he’s unloveable because of his “deformity”. He behaves in a deranged and violent manner because he can’t take it any more – because Christine’s fear and seeming rejection, coming on top of this lifetime of experience, were the straws that broke the camel’s back. This doesn’t excuse his behaviour or make it OK. But it does put it into its social and, yes, political context. His problems do not inhere in him. They do not inhere in his face. They were created in him by a society which ranks people’s worth – which ranks people’s very right to exist and survive – according to their ability to measure up to a standard based on the young, White, able, “healthy”, cisgendered, preferably “beautiful” body.
But the answer to that is not to conceal the brokenness. It is not to mask oneself to try to measure up to the very standard that excluded you! As the Final Lair itself suggests, it is to recognize the social, psychological and spiritual harm done when we marginalize and other those who do not measure up to that narrow ideal, and begin to make reparation. That is why that line “Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known? God give me courage to show you you are not alone!” (Act II scene 9) is so powerful! Admittedly, the gendering can be way problematic – a discussion I’ll definitely have here at some point because it’s absolutely necessary. But, even so, it is the moment when Christine recognizes that it is society that has done this to the Phantom, not his own inner nature. And it can, as I have argued elsewhere, be read almost as an apology on the part of her whole society and an attempt at reparation! And this is also what makes the Phantom’s choice to then let her and Raoul go free so powerful too – not because he has refused that reparation out of some recognition that it’s really all his own psychological fault or problem. But, rather, exactly because he has accepted her reparation. He has recognized and accepted her compassion and, with the strength that has given him, taken at least a small step toward refusing to buy in any more to society’s dehumanization of him. He has finally understood that Christine simply loves the other guy, and that her not loving him romantically truly has nothing to do with his face. And that understanding, combined with her compassion for and comprehension of how he has been marginalized, gives him the strength to stop behaving in a dehumanized way – to stop passing on to her and Raoul the violence he himself has endured.
Considered this way, then, I would argue that the Phantom with his “deformity” and brokenness, yes, but also re-found dignity revealed is exactly the image with which to end the show! And I wonder how audiences would respond, given this, to him coming out for curtain-call unmasked and without the wig, or perhaps to re-unmask while taking his bows? Because, I suspect that audiences would get it, and that that could actually be really powerful! At the very least, though, I’d like for those who represent the show – actors, crew, media spokespeople, etc., – to understand the Phantom’s actions and behaviour in their proper context, and to please not use ableist tropes to present the character as exotically tragic or tragically exotic. Don’t re-marginalize, either the Phantom, or those of us for whom his story resonates as our own!
Note: I’ve put the words “deformed” and “deformity” in quotes to indicate that these are socially constructed concepts that derive from the belief that there’s only one “correct” way for a face to look. Recently, however, I have seen a number of activists reclaiming the word “disfigured” and using it to make the same argument with regard to both congenital and acquired facial differences. Because, as they point out, both are othered for their differences in appearance, and in both cases that stems from the idea that there is only one proper and pleasing human figure. And I totally cheer on these activists’ awesome and courageous work! Indeed, I recently heard the term “facial equality” coined by one such person, which I absolutely love! I use the language of “deformity”, however, because that is the term used in the show (Act 1 scene 10, Act II scene 2) and which, therefore, has tended to be used in the Phandom.
Note 2: The above might, perhaps, make it sound as though I am arguing that the Phantom is better unmasked because that is the “truth”. But that is not quite what I mean to convey. Indeed, I love the Phantom in his full regalia and, in fact, find it smoking hot, especially when played by an actor with the right voice and stage-charisma! But, to me, though I suspect to other Phans as well, the power of his “iconic” look does not come from the fact that it hides his “deformity” and makes him more “normal”. Because, in fact, it does neither. It neither makes his mind and heart less broken by the exclusion he has suffered, nor does it allow him to successfully “pass”. However, and this is something I’ll discuss more in future posts, because it is an attempt to claim dignity even without being able to successfully pass, the Phantom’s Phantom persona and, therefore, regalia can be understood as a form of resistance. And that, for me, is what makes it so potent.
So I’ve been meaning to post this for a while too. I started it over on my other blog, but it struck me that it’s relevant here as well! So I thought I’d post links to the posts I did over there so the discussion’s accessible here too. 🙂 Hope you all find it interesting and useful!
Anyway, as those of you who are Phans know, probably the most controversial thing ever to hit the Phantom community is the so-called Gerik, aka the 2004 movie adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (Gerard Butler, who played the Phantom in the film,+Erik, the Phantom’s name in the original novel = Gerik). LOL Phans either love it or hate it! Though, all of us do have to give it credit for bringing lots of new young Phans into the Phandom. And thank goodness they don’t stop at the Gerik but, with the typical rabidity of new Phans, quickly familiarize themselves with other, better incarnations of the story – the Leroux and Susan Kay novels! LOL You can probably tell from the above which camp I’m in?
Yes, the Gerik bothered me immensely from the very first time I saw (heard) it, but it would take me years – literally – to fully unpack why. What struck me most was the contrast to the way I reacted when, after seeing the Gerik, I saw the stage-version again! The Gerik brought me down. It deeply depressed me. Whereas, the stage-version gave me the same powerful sense of what the Eastern Orthodox call “bright sadness” – sadness, but with the uplift of a powerful message of hope – that it always has. But, as I said, it would take me a long time to process why I reacted so differently – to begin to articulate what it was that bothered me so deeply about the movie. And I have to give my Mom huge credit for helping me finally work that through too! She really likes the Gerik! And it was in arguing with her, struggling to articulate why I increasingly disliked it, that I was finally able to put the problem in words. Actually, to put it into one word: ableism. For, what I ultimately realized was that the Gerik, through the changes it makes to the Phantom’s and Christine’s back-stories from the stage-version (among other things), takes the critique out of POTO, leaving the 2004 movie to present an almost Disney-like parable in support of a cisgendered, straight, able-bodied, sanist normate (to use Disability scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s term for that construction of the Western ideal subject). In effect, the Gerik took POTO and made it ableist! And this was a horror to me because, for me, Phantom, and especially the ALW musical, has always resonated as a call to exactly the opposite – a call to resist the normativity that allows society to get away with excluding people like the Phantom!
So I did a comparative analysis on my other blog to show, from the texts of the two works, how this is so – what it is about the changes in the Gerik from the stage-version that make it ableist. And I thought I’d share that analysis here, because it strikes me as very relevant to what this, my main blog, is about too! 🙂 Feel free, though, to ignore/bracket off the overt Christianity if that’s not your thing. I am a Christian (though admittedly an eclectic and, by some standards, heretical one), and my understanding of the Gospel message very much informs my Phanship and vise versa! But I totally get that that’s not so for everyone. So this first post simply compares the Gstage-version and the movie, focussing on the ways in which changes to the Phantom’s back-story serve to deflect the social critique so powerful in the stage-version of the musical. Then, in this second post, I focus on what those changes, as well as alterations to Christine’s back-story and to their joint back-story, do to the love-story that is at the heart of Phantom – in particular, at how they tame it from the radical power that it has in the stage-musical. Finally, in this post, I explore what those changes do to the Final Lair – the final scene of the stage-version and the penultimate scene in the Gerik (from the end of the song “The Point of No Return” to “It’s over now the music of the night”) – and how they alter its meaning. And no, that’s not a typo! The posts really do skip from “Tale of Two Phantoms part 2” to “Tale of Two Phantoms part 4”. No fear, you haven’t missed one! I skipped ahead and wrote part 4 so I could get it posted without having written part 3 yet because I felt it was so important. So stay tuned for part 3, either over on Phantom of the Cross or here! Actually, stay tuned for it on both, as I’ll definitely post a link either way.
Anyway, I’ve been meaning to post that for a while. I hope it’s useful, and that it gives you all lots to think about – whether you’re a Phan or not, a Gerik Phan or not, or an old-school stage-version Phan like me!