This, totally!!! Phantom in a nutshell!!!
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.
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 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!
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.