A Year in Reading: Davey Davis


As trans writers, we are expected to reduce our lives to narratives (“born in the wrong body,”) and practices (gratuitous deadnaming) that maximize cis titillation. This expectation hamstrings all of us, not only cliche-ifying even the best of memoir but precluding other forms of storytelling. If the world had its way, trans writers would only produce journeys, and two of the most interesting books I read in 2020 wouldn’t exist. 

Indie heroine Torrey Peters sidesteps rather than destroys convention with the hotly anticipated Detransition, Baby (One World, 2021), an intelligent and daring subversion of the bourgeois novel about three Brooklynites—cis, trans, and otherwise—trying to create a queer family of their own. Peters’s mastery of her craft is undeniable in that the world she has created recreates the world around it: Baby presupposes the possibility of mainstream conversations about trans people that are almost as sophisticated as the ones we have amongst ourselves. 

“Whip-smart” is just one of the many flattering adjectives and fawning superlatives people are going to overuse for this wise book by a glamorous, fascinating woman, and who can blame them? Its incisive exploration of chasers, divorce, trauma, queer parenting, and detransition itself is going to play a role in defining the literature of 2021 and beyond. 

You’ll have to wait an additional year for Manhunt (Nightfire, 2022), the electrifying debut novel by horror author and critic Gretchen Felker-Martin. At 500+ pages, Manhunt’s breakneck worldbuilding brings to life a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which a viral plague has transformed all cis men into zombies. Following Beth, Fran, and Robbie, trans people fighting to survive (and, in the cases of Beth and Fran, harvest life-saving hormones from zombie testicles), Felker-Martin’s foul-mouthed, operatically visceral writing style foregrounds the gnarly stuff, rendering the occasional glimpses of beauty all the more precious. You’ll feel like you’ve earned every bit of happiness you can wring from its bloodied pages.

Manhunt takes me back to rainy grade-school afternoons at the Butte County Public Library (Raymond Carver branch), where I would curl up in an empty chair and lose time in Stephen King’s own armageddon epic, The Stand, peopled with plague, demons, and desperate humans. Before now, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book that imagines people like me in the world that comes next. I definitely haven’t read one by an author with Felker-Martin’s talent for interlacing the terrors that trans people face with the redemption we deserve.

The Affliction of Identity: Chelsey Johnson’s ‘Stray City’

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When Maggie Nelson appeared on San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures circuit earlier this year, the first question she was asked was how she identifies her work, much of which masterfully blends of poetry, memoir, and critique.

Nelson refused to play ball. “I’m afraid I’ll have to perform resistance,” she told the interviewer, not impolitely. She summed up “the affliction,” as she referred to it, of the requirement for artistic labels thus: “We all want to know what you are and we want you to stay that way.”

This exchange about genre could easily serve as a microcosm of the demands placed on writers in general, and on marginalized writers in particular. The default perspective on queer women’s writing is their work as extension of their selves, inextricable from the personal, private, and confessional, even if it’s fiction, and even if it defies genre; like the queer women and nonbinary people that produce it, the work is gendered against its will (and probably in ways that are boring and reductive rather than otherwise). It is the norm to demand that the artist account for her art so that it’s immediately legible to conventional aesthetics—that is, affirm for us the ways it fits into our expectations rather than allow it to speak for itself.

As Nelson’s interview suggests, “identity” has become a buzzword (one that’s acquired a distinctly Millennial veneer), but it’s no more a uniquely contemporary issue than “feminism” or “labor.” If you need convincing, look no further than Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel, which dives into this most topical-seeming of issues in the Portland of 20 years ago.

Kicking off with a Dickensian description of the city’s fading grunge scene, Stray City is the story of Andrea Morales, a woman more or less orphaned by her lesbianism who has become one of the transplants, outcasts, and gentrifiers of the radical paradise of late ’90s PDX. Among all the other punks and artists who’ve gravitated to the ostensible progressiveness of northern Oregon, she has enshrined herself in a tenderly wrought chosen family who half-seriously refers to itself as the Lesbian Mafia.

Johnson competently sets the scene through music (riot grrl, homocore) and culture (zines, The Ethical Slut), contrasting it with the straitlaced, middle-class home Andrea left behind. Hers is a lifestyle that can be elevated as “bohemian” just as easily as it can be denigrated as “trashy,” an unstructured punk playground that nevertheless makes far more sense than the bourgeois logic of the homophobes from which she’s fled. In Portland, Andrea belongs, and she’s come to rely on her fellow queers as the family she never truly had.

Until, that is, fresh out of a breakup and aching with heartsickness, she stumbles into the arms of a straight man. You can almost hear the vinyl scratching across the Bratmobile LP. Anyone who’s ever been in a queer scene knows what’s coming next—Andrea’s best friends are in a band called “Gold Star,” after all.

As bisexuals, multiracial people, and those with fluid genders can confirm, resisting binary identification does more than evade metaphorical capture. Claiming an invalidated identity, or refusing to identify at all, can lead to rupture, even to danger. Andrea has not forgotten the birth family that practically holds its nose when it deigns to interact with her. Nor has she forgotten the repercussions of its shunning, both practical (like everyone she knows, she’s always a paycheck away from destitute) and emotional (“Promise me it is not what I think it is,” begs her mother). In Andrea’s subculture, fucking a man, not to speak of dating one, is more scandalous than selling out for a salaried job with Nike. If she is not really, totally gay, as this dalliance makes her wonder, will she be forced to shred her Lesbian Mafia membership card for good?

The man in question, Ryan, is straight out of a Portlandia sketch: a scruffy musician not into commitment or owning property, he floats hither and yon on tour buses, rootless and futureless. He is kind, but other than his kindness is unremarkable, except for his dogged (though not usually pushy) pursuit of Andrea. Her attraction to him is another matter altogether. She is unable to explain it, even to herself. Least convincing of all is her ambiguous physical desire: “And just as I was thinking, This is so . . . simple, unsure if it was a nice thing or a boring thing, it was over.” Her already-low opinion of straight men—what with their penchant for seeing lesbians “as a porn category”—aside, she continues to sleep with him, igniting the tension that is Stray City’s most compelling feature.

Because there is (slightly) more to Ryan than the taboo he represents. He is an outsider, separate from Andrea’s close-knit queer community, whose intensity (and incestuousness) has started to overwhelm her. It’s no coincidence that Andrea and Ryan share their first kiss on the same evening that she learns her most recent ex has been dating one of her first lovers. The revelation is distressing, if not surprising to those familiar with how queer community tends to function.

“If no one ever slept with anyone’s ex, if missteps and bad behavior disqualified people for life, we would all soon be single and sexless,” Andrea observes, aptly cramming the controversies of “call-out culture,” the double-bind of assimilation, and capitalist precarity into one sequined nutshell. Instead of wading back into the lesbian dating pool, where her ex and a paralyzing number of potential heartbreaks lurk like a school of sharks, she plays it safe, dipping her toe into the Jacuzzi of heterosexuality instead. While it poses an existential risk, sleeping with a man is at least free of intra-community baggage—provided, of course, that that man can be kept a secret.

Experience has taught Andrea that choosing the wrong lover can mean the loss of identity, because identity is not only self-conceived: It’s externally imposed, too. Never once during her relationship with Ryan does she question her attraction toward other women. Rather, it’s her lesbian cred—on which is predicated everything she’s come to see as “home”—that’s on the chopping block. This is a dilemma that’s been dogging her since her college years, where, “[e]ssentialist was an accusation my friends and classmates had flung around liberally in arguments, yet secretly maybe all we wanted it for ourselves in some way or another—to have an essence. To be an identity.” Having spent the majority of her young life struggling to discern just who she is (her connection to her Mexican ancestry, for example, was lost to assimilation when her grandfather left Nayarit behind him and never looked back), Andrea is dismayed at how easily someone like Ryan can threaten all that she has fought to become.

What results is a love affair in its vintage application: a man and a woman who can only be together in secret. Andrea goes to outlandish lengths to make sure no one learns about Ryan, lying to all of her friends and sneaking off on trips so they can be together without getting caught. One wonders over but isn’t surprised by Ryan’s willingness to be treated like an embarrassing skin condition in exchange for intimacy with someone whose warmth for him is chilly at best. As queer women often bemoan, meeting men is easy; it’s meeting other queer women that’s hard to do.

While it’s nominally about the sexual relationship of two people, at its core Stray City is concerned with the family, with monogamous romantic love and all of its auxiliary phenomena. As is the case for the lesbian protagonist of Sarah Schulman’s seminal After Delores, which turns 30 this year, losing a lover is just as traumatizing as losing one’s family, because for many queers, our lovers are our family. When her ex, Flynn, says, “Oh, Andy, you’re my family, you know,” Andrea’s never felt happier in their relationship. Ryan’s gender aside, the appeal of being pursued by someone on whom you needn’t even bother wasting the energy to trust has obvious appeal, especially when Andrea can keep it to herself. Until, of course, the unimaginable happens: She gets pregnant.

In a heterosexist society, bisexual identity is usually both predicated on and nullified by monogamist ideas about “who you end up with.” Stray City evades this trope by not ending at “the end”—when Andrea decides to take her pregnancy to term, the book is only half-over. Her pregnancy doesn’t precipitate a “decision” to be straight or gay or even bisexual. The book cuts to a future, 10 years down the road, when Andrea is in her 30s with a kid, a new woman in her life, and a whole different set of problems: Her daughter, Lucia, is now old enough to start asking questions about the “bio-father” (as Andrea squeamishly describes him) she’s never met.

Andrea and Lucia’s journeys to self-knowing are depicted with humor and compassion, and while the novel’s two Portlands, separated by a decade, are written with loving precision, Stray City nevertheless feels not quite complete. While its second half ends on a hopeful, but decidedly final, note, the first leaves Andrea’s anxiety about her bisexuality (Or homoflexibility. Or queerness. Or whatever.) unresolved. The bisexual boogeywoman that Andrea and her fellow Lesbian Mafiosas fear is the one that does not invest in lesbian community like they do—but neither do they make space for queer women who aren’t cis lesbians, so how can the latter be held to such a standard? “Because to us,” explains Andrea, “bisexual was the earnest white girl in your women’s studies class who had a nice boyfriend and wanted to clock in a little more oppression.”

But just as we are getting somewhere with this fear, one that today we might identify as biphobia, the novel switches gears, splitting its focus to include Lucia and her own story alongside Andrea’s. The question of the latter’s sexual identity is absorbed into Lucia’s search for the person who contributed one-half of her genetic material, a shift that feels unsatisfyingly abrupt.

In an ideal world, just as we would allow writers’ work to speak for itself, so would we allow queer women to the be the arbiters of their own identities and experiences. Andrea knows what she is, and what’s more, she wants to stay that way; in my opinion, anyway, her lesbian identity isn’t invalidated by her relationship with a man.

But Johnson falls into the very trap that she lays for her protagonist: Andrea is more driven by the fear of a complicated identity than by a desire to understand herself better, and as a whole, Stray City exhibits this same hesitation. Instead of diving into the existentialist rupture Andrea’s shifting identity presents, Johnson lets the trail go cold, leaving us with a resolution that, while no less lovely, is as cloudy as the Portland skyline.

Feminism, Glenn Close, and the Curse of the Crazy Woman

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As we learned from Misery, the story of the woman who holds a man captive can never be a glamorous one. Over the course of Stephen King’s 1987 novel, we’re led to understand that Annie’s insanity—her insecurity, her obsession—is inextricable from that which makes her unlovable, a given long before she ever stumbles across the luckless object of her affections, her favorite writer, in the wreckage of his car. Dowdy and deranged, Annie forces him to rewrite his final novel according to her whims, crooning, “I’m your biggest fan,” over his tortured body.

And indeed, what could be beautiful or romantic about a woman with the violent upper hand, the muse forcing herself on the artist—never mind that the gendered inverse (see: Scheherazade’s dilemma) is the stuff of literature? A story about woman holding a man against his will, especially if she seeks to exploit his creative labor…Well, that’s just crazy. And for women, crazy, as we all know, is not a Good Look.

While Glenn Close boasts a career spanning more than 40 years and dozens of awards, including six Oscar nominations, she’s still best-known for her portrayal of Alex, a woman who attempts to murder her married lover in a fugue of jealousy and rage. The story of Alex—otherwise known as 1987’s Fatal Attraction, the film for which Close received one of those six nominations—is one whose histrionics and gendered ableism have brought with it both critique and dismissal in the three decades since its release. And though Close herself has undoubtedly continued to thrive, she also hasn’t been able to escape its shadow.

Such a legacy may sound like a curse—but then, Close does crazy so well. This spring, she returned to Broadway to reprise the starring role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of Sunset Boulevard, and she’s as captivating onstage as she is in her best movies. Once more, she takes on Norma Desmond, the silent film actress fixated on her past glory from the shadows of obscurity, still ready for her closeup decades after the world has moved on to talkies (and to younger leading ladies). The plot ignites when Desmond hires screenwriter Joe Gillis to doctor the script that she’s convinced will spell out her big comeback, and though his capture isn’t quite as obvious as the one masterminded by Misery’s Annie, his gradual (co-)dependence on his new benefactress proves to be just as deadly.

Since Boulevard’s original film release, the role has become famous for its tragic, hysterical femaleness, and is for that reason vulnerable to one-dimensional renderings of empty, and even harmful, stereotype. But despite this, Close somehow succeeds in recreating a character whose humanity permeates the Palace Theatre, like a furious cloud of gold that envelops audience all the way up to the nosebleeds.

Close is good, almost distractingly so. As an audience member, I spent as much time enjoying the production as I did wondering just how she does it. Is it the suppleness and subtlety of her craft, for which James Lipton once praised her on Inside the Actor’s Studio? Is it the way she injects even the most heartrending of Desmond’s dramatics with narcotic, knowing camp? Is it in the way her presence, as commanding as her voice—its raw power somehow undiminished as the 70-year-old scales countless flights of stairs over the course of the 200-minute show—so masterfully balances bottled panic with profound and searching pain? Whatever the reason, only a seasoned artist could embody the crazy woman, a figure infamous for her unwantedness, without sacrificing an ounce of soul, or a whit of glamour.

Her performance is all the more remarkable considering the fact that humanity is not something the crazy woman is typically afforded, as critics of Fatal Attraction were quick to point out. This archetype, the creation of a society in which a woman who desires (what she doesn’t have; what she shouldn’t want; what is inconvenient or dangerous for male authority) must be institutionalized, silenced, or worse, is deep in the bedrock of our culture. Though Alex and Norma embody slightly different kinds of failed female revolt—the former as a woman professional, the latter as a woman artist—both are in conversation with hysteria, one of the 19th century’s most prevalent (and most gendered) diseases of the West. On film and in subsequent stage adaptations, Boulevard’s subtextual warning that women’s ambition, creativity, and desire for sexual fulfillment are the causes of unhappiness and undoing still comes through loud and clear. After all, the original film, released in 1950, starred a woman who was born in the heyday of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a pioneer in the study of nervous conditions who urged Charlotte Perkins Gilman to treat her hysteria by abstaining from her work as a writer, and to “never touch a pen, brush or pencil,” as long as she lived.

But even in the 21st century, Desmond still exists in the crosshairs of the 20th, an unsettling bridging of contemporary and Victorian gender dynamics. Regardless from which perspective she’s viewed, she’s still forced to star in the spectacle of her own artistic destruction, and as the villain, to boot. Such is her due, for the woman who is too needy (which means she believes she deserves happiness); too self-obsessed (though that same brand of self-obsession is how Boulevard’s Joe aims to fight his way to stardom); or too selfish (another quality that Gillis, played almost dandily by Michael Xavier, can unquestioningly deploy), no success goes unpunished.

More revealing than the spectacle of the crazy woman are the ebbs and flows of her presence in popular culture. At the moment, the cynical rehashing of old classics and dreamscapes for new entertainment is all the rage. One of the most prominent characteristics of the so-called Golden Age of Television is its mobilization of nostalgia, exhuming artists overlooked or misunderstood because of their gender (as well as other identities; nothing, least of all the crazy woman archetype, is untouched by the ravages of white supremacy). Slowly but surely, we’re beginning to revisit geniuses once dismissed as too narcissistic (Nina Simone), mercenary (Joan Crawford and Bette Davis), or selfish (Eartha Kitt) to be taken seriously. Though an incredible boon to the viewers of our time, none of this, of course, does Desmond, and the dead women she represents, any good: After all, it was the unforgivable sin of insanity, and not her own artistry, that garnered her a place in the celluloid pantheon.

The spectacle of female humanity was recently addressed by Jess Zimmerman in her brilliant Role Monsters series with an essay on the rapacious, relentless harpy. “In isolation,” writes Zimmerman, “female ambition is laudable, the kind of thing asset management firms make statues about. In context, it’s considered monstrous.” Even now, at a time when American women can ascribe to feminism with comparatively little fanfare, insisting on one’s own humanity as a woman is still an act of monstrosity—one with which ugliness and craziness, the two things that women are supposed to fear most, is always elided.

With Sunset Boulevard, Close returns to the stage at a time in which women and non-cis-male people across demographics are watching a reinvigorated assault on hard-won rights and liberties. While the monstrosities of misogyny and sexism play out in daily life, her embodiment of a woman made monstrous by her desire for better feels a lot like bearing witness. Curse though it may be, it’s also Close’s most beautiful legacy.

Scissoring, Othering, and ‘The Handmaiden’

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When it came out in 2005 — midway through my senior year of high school — Brokeback Mountain rocked American culture. For all its critical acclaim and star-studded cast, the media seemed to fixate on the most titillating feature of the “gay cowboy movie:” two men falling in love and having sex. From news coverage to late-night talk shows to viral videos, you couldn’t escape the sophomoric parodies any more than you could the predictable conservative outrage

A decade later, Carol drummed up a respectable amount of excitement of its own. Fans of lesbian pulp fiction were thrilled to see the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt bucking the long history of unhappy endings in stories about lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. The fanfare, however, was mostly just that; what little controversy, or heterosexual hilarity, it generated was buried under its accolades and award nominations.

The advancement of American LGBT rights in the decade between these movies is certainly one explanation for the differences in their reception (though I can think of plenty more). Since Brokeback Mountain premiered, same-sex marriage has been legalized, and 17 states have adopted legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing, or public accommodation; even non-binary genders are inching toward legal recognition. For depicting two working-class men falling in love against the backdrop of rural America, Brokeback Mountain was considered truly transgressive. Ten years later, Carol was merely a long-awaited boon for lesbian cinema.

Regardless, even in 2016, a mainstream movie about gay people isn’t exactly standard, and I was looking forward to The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s lesbian-revenge fantasy par excellence. A fan of Park since my sister turned me on to the Vengeance Trilogy as a teenager, my lofty expectations for his newest erotic thriller, inspired by Sarah Waters’s Victorian-era novel Fingersmith, were tempered by my own reservations as a queer movie-goer in the midst of an upswing in mainstream stories about queer people. As movies like The Danish Girl have demonstrated, it’s become popular to render female LGBT experiences — particularly those of trans women — for trendy but toothless Oscar bait. Any follower of Park, however, knows that progressive brownie points are not among his priorities (if you’re thinking about the sexually predatory female prisoner in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, you’ll know what I mean). In his hands, I wondered, would Fingersmith be worthwhile, or would the story just get bogged down in all that male gaze? For that matter, as a white American with a limited knowledge of Korean cinema and culture, would I even be able to tell the difference? As opening weekend approached, I vacillated between high hopes and dismal apprehension.

Naturally, Park delivered with predictable complexity: The Handmaiden managed to meet all of my expectations, both optimistic and otherwise. Intricate and visually stunning, with an airtight cast of expert actors who brought love, lust, and heartache to life with consummate skill and pitch-black humor, it was everything I could have hoped for from Park as a director and writer. Recalling the erotic texts hoarded by the villainous Kouzouki — a Sade-ean nobleman obsessed with Japanese culture, and our protagonists’ greatest enemy — The Handmaiden plays out as a reverse palimpsest. When laid across the first act, the second reveals and then resolves, in the same graceful motion, the story’s dark subtext; is that a heart beating beneath the tatami of subterfuge, or is something far more sinister trapped down there?

Everything in this movie about lesbians was perfect, with the exception of the lesbian sex itself. As the mysterious noblewoman Hideko and her would-be con-artist ladies maid Sookee (played by Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-Ri, respectively) came together for the first time, my girlfriend and I began to squirm in our seats, and not in a sexy way. The camera bouncing frenetically over their bodies, their first tentative kisses swiftly transform into hysterical scissoring, culminating in an impressive display of immediate sexual mastery, the likes of which are tough to swallow, even when taken into account alongside the film’s other larger-than-life elements. Park’s work in the bizarre has long bordered on the magical, but within this revenge fantasy (in which the second word carries as much weight as the first), it’s hard not to be reminded of a certain genre of “lesbian” porn made for straight men — defined by foreplay-less arousal that somehow morphs into screaming orgasms over the course of a few seconds — and even harder not to snicker at such transparent tourism. In The Handmaiden’s final scene, we watch Hideko and Sookee, again unaided by foreplay, or even a little lube, rapturously inserting fist-sized ben wa balls into themselves before beginning to scissor yet again, the chimes inside them sounding like some victorious invocation of #LoveWinning.

Though impressed by the movie in every other respect, my girlfriend and I walked out of the theater rolling our eyes. What is it with straight people, especially straight men, and scissoring? Among the many sexual acts that queer women perform with each other, this one seems, at least in our experience, to be the one that fascinates them the most. More than strap-ons, fisting, or cunnilingus, it holds a space in the straight imagination that manages not only to reduce us to what’s between our legs, but to even limit the sexual possibilities therein. It was certainly distracting enough to make it difficult for an alternative analysis, one entertaining Hideko and Sookee’s sex as a calculated artistic choice, rather than mere fetishization. Was this highly stylized porniness perhaps in conversation with, or a foil for, The Handmaiden’s themes of Japanese erotica, sexual deceit, or femme resistance to colonialism? Who could know for sure?

It’s a distraction I’ve been mulling over since my very first queer relationship. When I came out, I was living with two straight guys, who were nice enough, for bros. So when one of them began to tease me about scissoring — demonstrating, with the index and middle fingers on both his hands, how two lesbians go about having sex: by repeatedly mashing their crotches together — I took it in stride. He wiggled his substantial eyebrows to show me it was all in good fun, and though I felt uncomfortable, I always laughed it off.

That bro continued to make those jokes until I moved in with said girlfriend a very unadvisedly short time later, and we began seeing far less of each other. By then, my discomfort with his sense of humor had expanded, because as it turned out, my girlfriend and I didn’t actually engage in scissoring (or tribadism, as the act has been known historically). Though curious and confused, our newly queer sex was also exciting and experimental — and yet it never included the very act that the two of us had been reduced to by that man, and many others. I knew it was something that porn actors did, but I also understood that porn didn’t necessarily have anything to do with reality.

And that was just the thing: other than porn, there were few cultural resources that I could draw from to learn what this whole queer sex thing was really all about. Desperate for information, I spent my baby dyke years immersed in a variety of queer communities, both online and off. I also assigned myself cultural homework, burning through my college library’s DVD selection of Lesbian/Gay movies. This gave me welcome exposure to indispensible queer cinema like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Happy Together, but I found little enough about the kind of sex that people like me were having.

This isn’t to say that, outside of porn, the practicalities of intercourse are being served up on a platter to young heterosexual people, even these days. But for straight people raised in straight households, almost all examples of intimacy, affection, partnership, romance, and even implicit sexuality are performed by heterosexual adults. In schools lucky enough to have it, sex ed is unrelentingly cisgender and heterosexual — and why shouldn’t it be? Beyond school, the mechanics and textures of acceptable sex that are hinted at, or performed, in the non-XXX discourses that make up our society’s art, religion, and culture, are nearly as straight.

Overcoming the suffocating sense that there is a right way to do sex is daunting for most. For queers, and for queer women and non-male people, it’s especially hard. Whether you’re looking for a model of what to be, or for something less didactic — representation, for example — there still isn’t much out there if you don’t have the benefit of a queer community, or access to queer art, queer literature, and the study and research by and of queer people, all of which is niche by definition. That presence is undeniably spreading in the mainstream, but it’s an uphill battle, and one taking place on a front that was demonstrably fiercer when I was newly queer (which wasn’t all that long ago). Back when the Internet was still relatively new, back before I had discovered the cornucopia of queer experiences to be found in on sites like Tumblr, like many queer people, I had only porn. Some of it was wonderful and eye-opening and educational; a lot of it reinforced oppressive power structures and behavior, which I internalized harmful ways[1]. Either way, it was all I had.

So when, as a baby dyke, my ignorance butted up against the monolithic ignorance of heteronormativity, of the story being told about me and my sexuality through the myths and generalizations and creepy “jokes” of straight people, I was at a loss. Was that bro telling me something true about myself, or something false? Was he seeing me as I was, or was he not seeing me at all? In watching the love story of Hideko and Sookee, by turns tender and tempestuous, unfold over the course of The Handmaiden, I had that same feeling of confusion. Was this attributable to cultural differences, and the whiteness of my own gaze, or even to Art gone over my head? In feeling as if I wasn’t being seen, and therefore taking this story about lesbians all too personally, was I committing an erasure of my own?

Like all rhetoric, the concept of “visibility” tends to flatten the real issues affecting those living on the margins. The public debate surrounding the civil rights of trans people and the assimilation of national LGBT organizations (which despite their growing power seem loath to serve the interests of anyone other than white and cis gays) are just two of the many issues that counteract the often overwhelming mandate to be seen. In the 21st century, “We’re here, we’re queer!” feels less like a rallying cry, and more like an exhausting redundancy.

This isn’t to say that visibility, a humanization of us in the general culture, hasn’t benefitted certain queers (in many ways, myself among them). But for others, that being seen is not always a blessing, especially when it doesn’t come with other tangible benefits. When I think of the maelstrom of anger targeting trans teens who just want to use the bathroom, or of Chelsea Manning’s nightmarish struggle for humane treatment, let alone gender-affirming medical care, I’m reminded of Michel Foucault: “Visibility is a trap;” at the very least, it’s a mixed bag. Still, ask me to choose between a man threatening to rape the gay out of me and an immature college boy who can’t imagine how queer women might fuck without a dude present, and without hesitation, I’ll take the latter.

As I gradually came into my own as a queer person, absorbing the shibboleths and inside jokes of the various communities available to me, I noticed that for many queer women, scissoring was rarely a neutral issue. I can’t count the times I’ve heard a queer woman exclaim that female frottage is a myth, a fantasy catering to men, and one that betrays straight people’s limited understanding of what sex between two queer people is, or could be: If “normal” heterosexual intercourse means connecting “corresponding” genitalia between a cis man and a cis woman, surely homosexual intercourse between (implicitly cis) women is an attempt to approximate that. Needless to say, scissoring in practice is actually a lot more complex than the crotch-mashing in my bro friend’s “joke,” or even as it’s depicted in The Handmaiden. Having done it myself, I should know.

It’s probably unwise to rely on art for information, let alone representation. It’s probably equally unwise for those who haven’t yet seen this movie to trust my interpretation rather than see it for themselves. My personal distaste for their lovemaking doesn’t outweigh the gravity of Hideko and Sookee’s wrenching toward self-actualization, as Jia Tolentino describes it in her excellent review of the film, but neither, I think, does it negate the movie’s tribadism problem.

Park is known for his earth-shattering plot twists, and The Handmaiden has several. But its greatest maneuver is that it manages to completely to skirt and subvert cliché, and yet simultaneously fall into its trap completely. It turns out that othering, as a machine that makes myths of other people, is also a double-edged sword, an implement far more treacherous than a pair of scissors.



[1] Although I’d like to be clear that neither his harm nor this reinforcement is limited to pornography as an industry, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Instagram and the Pornification of Food


Over the lifetime of the last generation, pornography has saturated our culture — or so the line goes. It’s an argument you’re likely familiar with; pearl-clutching declarations of porn’s ubiquity are neither new nor unique. Though the word “pornography” has been used by English speakers since before the American Civil War (and although the depiction of human sexuality is itself a prehistoric practice), representatives of every point on the political spectrum — from religious conservatives to radical feminists — will have you believe that, in recent years, it has managed to diabolically ooze into every crevice of our lives.

If you’re hesitant to take this claim at face value, there’s certainly evidence to support it: the billions per year generated by the global porn industry; the appearance and normalization of (mainstream) porn’s tropes, themes, and styles in (mainstream) culture; and the gradual decline in the mutual exclusivity between Porn and Real-World Legitimacy, at least for certain kinds of people. An example of the latter are women whose “legitimate” careers have been based on a foundation of heretofore taboo sexual labor — like Kim Kardashian, who launched her multimillion dollar superstar brand all from a home movie (or what’s been framed as one, anyway).

Just look at the word itself: “porn.” Plosive and punctuated, the epithet has become a modifier, its traditional meaning — “traditional” here applying to content, rather than to medium — diluted. “Porn” is now a shorthand for the visual consumption of just about anything you might like to look at — particularly if doing so evokes the kind of gratification that feels at once visceral and indulgent — from the great outdoors and litters of puppies to haute couture and perfectly applied makeup.

Whether or not pornification is an actual phenomenon, the ascent of food porn shows us that our consumption of sex is mirrored in the way we consume other things. As #foodporn has climbed into the millions across social media, the inevitable comparisons between it and the more familiar kind of indulgence has shed light on internet users’ anxieties about the human body.

At the moment, I follow around 300 Instagram accounts. That means my feed doesn’t refresh enough for me to see new content every time I check the app, which I do a lot. Luckily, there’s the Explore feature, which suggests images and accounts based on my activity, like the accounts I follow and the type of content I view, double-tap, and search for.

The Explore feature’s algorithms are constantly suggesting that I look at posts and accounts in which human bodies prominently feature. If I hang out in the app long enough, this parade of corporeality can get overwhelming, though I don’t have anyone but myself to blame.

Though I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way, even if you don’t get burned out on all those internet bodies, you have to admit there are a lot of them on the app, clothed and naked alike. (Instagram’s user agreement forbids nudity, which has resulted in the #FreeTheNipple campaign, as well as a lot of creative circumventing of the rule.)

For some reason, the anxiety caused by these images isn’t quite bad enough to outweigh the pleasure (Charge? Thrill? Dopamine high?) they bring me. I could unfollow all the punks, the activists, the sex workers, the artistically and casually and provocatively unclothed, the yogis, the straight-edgers, the addicts in recovery, the #TranformationTuesdays, all the people undergoing or pursuing gender transition, weight loss, sobriety, muscle-building, or spiritual fulfillment, the people whose bodies figure prominently, if not principally, in their Instagram presence — but then I wouldn’t have anyone to follow.

That’s what I used to think, anyway. As much as I enjoyed (or felt compelled to use) Instagram, I began wishing I could scroll through it without being reminded of my own subjectivity, that I could just submerge myself, purely as an observer, among images that evoked feelings similar to the ones I felt while consuming other human bodies, but that didn’t make me feel guilty as I inevitably objectified them.

Is it pornification that has troubled the categories of acceptable public nudity, marketing, creative expression, and self-documentation? That has warped the distance between selfie, personal brand, transactional performance, and art? Is it pornification that has created this embodied sprawl across this particular user-generated platform, and others? And what relationship, if any, does this destabilization have with the social media anxiety we hear so much about?

In the midst of this Instagram ennui, it happened: A friend tagged me in a post made by a food porn account. It was a photo of a deep-fried ball of mac n’ cheese mounted on a home-rolled ice cream cone and drizzled with ranch dressing. More joke than comestible, my friend’s find was a gastronomic outrage. Rather than laugh (or shudder) and move on, I was intrigued.

I followed the account that posted that image, but not before going back several months into its history, liking its photos and devouring the videos of fat, sugar, and bread being put through an Inquisition-style gauntlet of rendering: plunged into vats of oil and dipped into bowls of melted cheese, only to be frozen, breaded, and then dipped again. Of course, Instagram began to suggest similar accounts, and I followed more and more. With hundreds of thousands of followers (at the moment, the tag “food porn” itself is over 92 million strong), I was just one in a multitude of users who check in daily to see what’s new in the world of pornified food.

Food porn is nothing if not diverse, encompassing everything from hi-res photos of thousand-dollar-per-plate French cuisine, to homemade mini-docs on how to make the perfect bowl of phở, to a gif of that moment the dressing, cheese, or chocolate drizzle — the icing on the cake, as it were — melts onto the completed dish. Despite this, whether amateur or professionally produced, a creation process viewed via video or a photo of the final product, food porn is all about looks. Scientists call the natural desire to look at food “visual hunger,” and the internet has become one means by which to satisfy (and by some accounts, to pique) this craving. Of course, by the very nature of the medium, the “goodness” of food is more about its visual appeal than how it actually tastes.

This principle, naturally, is foundational to human porn. The performance itself, rather than the quality of the sex, is what’s being consumed (although for many porn producers, including those that define their product as “feminist,” the sexual gratification of their performers is part of their brand). We see the importance of the visual in human porn featuring a penis as exemplified by the all-important cumshot1. The cumshot is replicated in Instagram food porn, not with the actual consumption of the food but rather its literal destruction by human hands. With these hands, croissants are torn apart, sandwiches split open, cakes ruptured in a deluge of their own innards. The humans attached to these hands are rarely seen. Interestingly, some videos limit even the amount of human intrusion that these hands present. Instruments for handling and holding food — and in this case, destroying it uneaten — are the viewer’s prostheses. It’s only in that moment of destruction, when the hands are tearing apart their delicious victim, that they are intended to be visible.

The general invisibility of the creators of Instagram’s food porn accounts means that whether they eat the food that they post can’t actually be known. From “eater-on-the-street” type accounts that document their owner roaming a major city in search of its best meals, like the thenaughtyfork, to accounts whose content is generated by user submissions, like gastronogram, the curators behind the meals are often almost unseen, precluding any opportunity to watch them consume their own content. This trend holds true for all classes of food porn accounts, from the proprietary ones of world-class, five-star restaurants, to the kind whose almost-nihilistic embrace of bad-for-you meals come across as distinctly Millennial in tone.

Though its star might have risen on Instagram, across social media, and within the popular purview, food porn is actually much older than its faddishness might belie. Is food just the next subject to be seized upon within, as Chris Chitty has described in his Marxist theorizing around sex, our “profoundly pornographic … postmodern attunement of the world”?

Food and cooking were popular long before the internet, and remain as much in legacy media, especially TV. But there is no American cooking show that doesn’t have at least a whiff of narrative, the pretense of an ongoing relationship between the host and the audience as the former introduces old recipes, develops new ones, pits contestants against one another in a battle of skill, or explores the local color that informs this or that regional cuisine.

With food porn, especially as found on Instagram, the cuisine is stripped of narrative and reduced to the visual, and then reduced again — like a hearty consommé — by repetition, including subsequent, nearly identical images. Although there are plenty of visual recipes for classic dishes or old standbys, there are just as many that function as filler, in which the food being “made” can only be described as such by its loosest definition (Can slathering a store-bought cookie in Jif creamy peanut butter actually be termed “making food”?).

But on Instagram, food porn images are inextricable from the commentary posted below them. Sometimes an explanation or reflection, but just as often a string of emojis, hashtags, and requests for shares, the text below the picture is where the user will often find the food porn account owner(s) gleefully acknowledging the naughtiness of indulgence. From the self-deprecation of DudeFoods creator Nick Chipman, whose Instagram account has 26,000 followers and features the hashtag #EatLikeShit and jokes about the effects that food like the Double Decker Mac & Cheese Stuffed Bacon Weave Taco will have on his health; to the coyness of Jessica Hirsch’s CheatDayEats, which supplies exercises for “when you want to work off” your fry-stuffed pastrami Reuben po’ boy or sprinkle-festooned Nutella milkshake, a food porn account without a gendered, and inherently fatphobic, wink toward its own guilt is hard to find. Though it betrays an anxiety about how food affects our bodies, this playfulness is safe to express because, unlike with human porn, there is no stigma around enjoying this content.

In comparing human and food porn, the difference between shame and guilt is key. For Americans, the phenomenon of the eating disorder, the so-called “obesity epidemic,” and increasing wealth disparity — and thus, food insecurity — are all hot-button issues. In this context, and much like human porn, the licentiousness of food porn is intrinsic to its appeal. Yet indulging in it has a distinctly different moral flavor from the triple-X. When it comes to the food porn narrative, the concerns about America’s cultural “addiction” to human porn don’t seem to come into play. There seem to be few, if any, qualms about food porn’s potential to desensitize viewers to actual food, thereby making them dissatisfied with the food they do have and causing them to value it less.

The same, of course, can’t be said about critics of human porn and its dubious negative effects. That’s because the question of human porn’s badness unspools in a labyrinth of directions while seeming to rely on a single given: It harms women, both as performers and as a demographic, because of the way it affects male porn viewers2. According to some, this harm has grown to epidemic proportions. Released only last month, the draft of this year’s Republican platform declared pornography to be a “public health crisis” that must be stopped from damaging American children.

In light of the arch guilt performed by food porn creators and consumers, the cultural mandate of shame in consuming or performing in human porn is perhaps the most significant way in which our consumption of sex differs from that of food. Despite food porn’s many joking references to the adverse effects of gluttony (not just on Instagram, but across platforms), you’ll never see a “Fight The New Drug”-style campaign targeting vegan chilaquiles, because enjoying food porn is the opposite of controversial. Publicly supporting human porn (let alone porn performers), however, is so politically dangerous that even the cartoonishly amoral Donald Trump has promised to crack down on it in the event he wins the general election.

Why do we want to consume anything that we see online, particularly when this consumption, to varying degrees, seems to cause such anxiety? This question recalls one voiced by Cari Romm in her Atlantic piece about what food porn does to the brain: “What’s the appeal in ogling what you can’t have?”

What, indeed? Why is it that these unattainable bodies and foods are still compelling to us, and in such parallel ways?

I’ve been watching human porn on the internet since 2004 or so, less and less over the years — not because I think porn itself is unethical, but because I’ve become aware that consuming porn without paying for it is. And while I happen to be of the opinion that efforts to censure or criminalize human pornography are rooted in whorephobia and misogyny, I still think there’s something to the idea that certain ways of consuming porn — porn of all kinds — has the potential to affect us in negative ways.

It’s impossible to discount the perplexing intersections of power dynamics — whorephobia chief among them — that complicate our feelings about human porn; but I suspect that this drive toward visual consumption creates a conflict that is unique unto itself, a breed of anxiety that is distinct from all of the other ones we feel, or are told to feel, about it. Because if pornification is indeed real, then its object is not limited to the human body, but rather can be anything that we crave. Pornification, then, is when desire, rather than its object, becomes the primary drive for consumption.

The appeal of the internet is, or used to be, its ability to unburden us of the physical. But the rise of food porn hot on the heels of human porn suggests a breed of body anxiety than can only be redirected, rather than eliminated. Beneath the very real concern that desensitization — to sex, to violence, and yes, to food — will make us less open and responsive as humans, lies a bedrock fear, the crux and key to pornification’s terror and appeal: How will I satisfy myself when this is no longer satisfying?

1 It’s worth noting here that all kinds of bodies are capable of ejaculation, and it’s not only cis male performers that enact cumshots.

2 Few of these same critics to be concerned about porn’s effects on non-heterosexual male performers or consumers.

Image: Flickr, L.A. Foodie