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Svend Gade’s Female Hamlet and the Deconstruction of the Gender Binary

by Louise ROSZAK

Hamlet as an androgynous figure (0035’37”)

 In the essay The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem (1881), railroad systems expert Edward P. Vining pushed forward a surprising theory: what if the Danish prince was actually “a woman masquerading in a manly part”?[i] His theory was meant to correct what Vining perceived not only as unmanliness, but as gender deviancy. He was perplexed by Hamlet’s merciless rejection of Ophelia, deeming it impossible “that any young man of refined training and possessing any real nobility of character could so scourge the maiden whom he has at least pretended to love”. He was also disturbed by the subtextual erotic bond between Hamlet and his Platonic soulmate Horatio, judging their feelings to be “far greater than is natural between friends of the same sex”.[ii] Interpreting Hamlet as a heterosexual woman wearing men’s clothes therefore enabled him to rewrite the play to fit a more socially conventional gender binary system wherein Hamlet’s failure to act as a revenger and a lover is no longer problematic. As aptly put by Tony Howard, “by listing Hamlet’s crimes against masculinity, labelling them ‘feminine weakness’ and then transferring them to a masquerading lady, Vining exorcised the spectre of inversion”.[iii]

Though never adapted onstage, Vining’s bold reinterpretation of Hamlet’s character and gender identity was famously brought to the screen by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall in 1921, with Asta Nielsen in the leading role. “Based on ideas from the Hamlet saga, discovered by Professor Vining” (01:24-01:35), this German silent movie builds on Vining’s speculations that Hamlet was declared a boy following rumours of her father’s death during his duel with King Fortinbras.[iv]

In this reinvented Elsinore, only Hamlet’s parents and the viewer are aware of her true identity, and are able to see through her paper-thin disguise. However, the film moves away from Vining’s conservative stance and deliberately creates ambiguous situations where Nielsen’s androgynous Hamlet is shown moving seamlessly between gender and sexual categories, making eyes at Horatio (as a woman) in one scene and then being shown fencing with classmates and striking a friendship with Fortinbras (as a man) in another. In this piece, I analyse how Nielsen/Hamlet functions as a proto-queer figure whose purpose is to challenge gender roles and undermine their socio-cultural meanings.

Hamlet falling in love with an oblivious Horatio after they first meet (0012’03”)

Hamlet sealing his virile friendship with Fortinbras with a beer, after a fencing lesson (0017’17”)

Horatio nearly exposing Hamlet’s breasts under her torn-up tunic (0137’24”)

Dressed as a boy, undressed as a woman, Nielsen/Hamlet’s objectified body is at the centre of an erotic game heavily reminiscent of the travesti, historically “a complex erotic game in which gender was assumed, concealed and exposed”.[v] Her masculine clothes contribute to eroticizing Nielsen/Hamlet’s female body, particularly as the movie draws near its end. The ineluctable revelation of Hamlet’s femininity is brought by her being undressed by male characters. Her tunic is torn open first by a dying Claudius clawing at her neck, and by Horatio trying to uncover a swooning Hamlet’s stab wound following her duel with Laertes. As a woman, Hamlet becomes a passive object under the spectators’ gaze, who are made to ogle at her body, more revealed than concealed by her masculine clothes.

However, with her strikingly androgynous look and masculine persona, Nielsen/Hamlet is very much a portrayal of a modern woman, inspired by the cultural emergence of the New Woman in 1920s movies: “a more mature figure than the flapper or shop girl, one who demanded equality on the sexual as well as the sociopolitical front”.[vi] Although she is occasionally shown as being overwhelmed by emotion and unable to act, her Hamlet bears little resemblance to the antiquated ideal of the ingénue, embodied by golden-plaited Ophelia, “a caricature of naivety […] posed in lumbish embarrassment”.[vii] Instead, Nielsen’s Hamlet is presented as leading the investigation on her father’s death, gathering clues (Claudius’s dagger) and questioning witnesses. Strikingly, there are no ghosts in Gade’s movie, which further insists on the princess’s role as “a modern rationalist, a detective”.[viii] hough female, Nielsen’s Hamlet is masculinized, as she is shown in Wittenberg to fence and drink alongside men. Sometimes, she even fulfils the role of an action hero, such as when she snatches Horatio’s sword from his hand to run after Claudius after The Mousetrap. Even more remarkably, she is also the only Hamlet who succeeds in intentionally killing the royal usurper, catching him off guard while he is getting drunk in a tavern, and setting the inn on fire from the inside after he passes out.

The visual contrast between Hamlet and Ophelia (0037’54”)

Nielsen thus becomes an ideal of femininity having reappropriated masculine traits, who is able to emancipate herself from the influence of masculine figures of authority. Unlike Ophelia, she does not obey her father and is not dependent on her lover. Horatio is “passive, supportive[…] [with] full lips, flowing locks and fey costumes (including a white skirt and large bonnet)”.[ix] Moreover, the movie emphasizes his passiveness by turning him into an object of female desire. One scene shows him crying on a bed, touched by Ophelia’s grief; distraught, Nielsen’s Hamlet lets her hand fall to Horatio’s hip, completely inverting the conventional, gendered roles of the sensitive female love interest and the cool-headed, active male protagonist. While Gertrude and Ophelia’s “common factor is that they giddily embrace erotic domination by male power-figures, however ludicrous (Polonius) or primeval (Claudius) they are”, Nielsen portrays Hamlet as “a polymorphic woman in a stereotyped world; her film condemns everyone, female or male, who collaborates with reactionary structures of gender and power”.[x]

At first glance, a female Hamlet masquerading as a man appears to reinforce sexist clichés rather than subverting them, by associating Hamlet’s weakness with a concealed female identity and playing into the constant sexualization of the actress’s body. However, the androgynous identity of Nielsen’s Hamlet seems to challenge heterosexual norms instead of reinforcing them by questioning Elsinore’s patriarchal definitions of masculinity and femininity, and creating ambivalent erotic dynamics between Hamlet, Ophelia and Horatio.

Gade’s movie stands out as one of the most daring adaptations of Hamlet with regards to its portrayal of one’s sexual orientation and gender identity as a lot more fluid than meets the eye. At the beginning of the twentieth century, silent movies had a reputation for challenging a stereotypical view of women’s gendered attributes and appearance, which gave them a socio-political dimension. Nielsen was famous for being what we would now call a proto-queer icon thanks to her travesti roles: “as early as 1912 she kissed girls and shaved in Youth and Madness”.[xi] The movie explored what Joan Rivière would later describe in 1929 as “types of men and women […] who, while mainly heterosexual in their development, plainly display strong features of the other sex”, a possible expression of “the bisexuality inherent in us all”, focusing especially on “intellectual” women “who wish for masculinity and may put on a mask of womanliness”.[xii] Because of the political lie she participates in, Nielsen’s Hamlet is forced into an impossible position where she has to pretend to be mildly interested in women in order to successfully pass off as a heterosexual man, while repressing her genuine love for Horatio. Interactions with either Ophelia or Horatio can simultaneously be viewed as the expression of Hamlet’s heterosexuality while being misconstrued as homosexual romance, creating ambiguous situations where the characters’ sexual orientations are blurry.

In the movie, Nielsen’s blurry gender identity is used to explore all forms of sexual desire and gender identity. At first glance, rewriting Hamlet as a woman could be seen as reinforcing heterosexual norms within Elsinore rather than challenging them. Indeed, the only kiss that the couple shares happens on screen after Hamlet’s femininity is revealed, with Horatio finally accepting his feelings once he is certain that they are heterosexual (“Only in death is your secret revealed! Your golden heart was that of a woman! Too late, my love, too late!” 1:46:35-1:46:49). Likewise, Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia is nothing but a decoy to make Horatio jealous, and scenes showing Hamlet about to seduce her systematically reveal princess Hamlet’s true feelings and intentions, often by a close-up on her face while she is biting her lower lip with a sarcastic smirk.      Nevertheless, both of Hamlet’s romantic (or pseudo-romantic) relationships are erotically charged. The imagery of Nielsen kissing Lilly Jacobsson’s fingers, nearly putting them in her mouth undeniably references lesbian desire, which is only reinforced by centring Hamlet’s identity as a woman. Similarly, when Horatio confesses his growing feelings for Ophelia to Hamlet, he does so while “he and Hamlet lie on a sunny bank with his head in his lap like Ganymede and Orlando”.[xiii] The scene deliberately places both Hamlet and Horatio in the role of desirable ephebes, hinting both at Hamlet’s ambivalent gender identity and Horatio’s already dubious heterosexuality. While conspiring against Claudius, Hamlet and Horatio are shown sitting next to each other on a bench, their faces an inch away from each other and almost close enough to kiss. Perhaps even more striking is the end of the movie, in which Hamlet’s gender appears more blurred than ever when it should precisely be revealed. Though Horatio only kisses her once he is certain that Hamlet is a woman, he then covers her body with his black coat up to the chin, concealing her femininity. His final words to Hamlet (“Too late, my love, too late!” 1:46:35-1:46:49) are also ambiguous, since they might be hinting at his having had romantic feelings for Hamlet while he still believed her to be a man.

Hamlet and Horatio’s erotically-charged friendship (0042’43”)

Furthermore, the movie occasionally frames the relationship between Ophelia, Horatio and Hamlet as a bisexual love triangle. During The Mousetrap, Horatio puts down Ophelia’s coat for Hamlet to sit at Ophelia’s foot, cuddling her lap. This is followed by a reaction shot of Horatio’s face, looking at the scene with jealousy. However, if we interpret his friendship with prince Hamlet as homoerotic, then it is unknown who he is feeling jealousy for. If both Ophelia and Horatio participate in Hamlet’s masquerade, then it raises the question of what the ‘mask’ is supposed to hide. Hamlet’s heteronormative identity and desire for Horatio? The latent bisexuality of either Hamlet, Horatio or Ophelia – if not all of them? By sitting at the cross-roads of all gender identities and erotic desires, Nielsen’s Hamlet disrupts the fixity of the heteronormative identity that she only pretends to uphold, as “the love stories depicted in the movie are both hetero-normative and queer: “heterosexual (the heroine loves Horatio), homosexual (Hamlet loves Horatio), heterosexual again (Hamlet woos Ophelia) and lesbian (Asta Nielsen woos Ophelia)”.[xiv]

Due to his/her unstable sense of self, this female Hamlet thus embodies the fluidity of desire in romantic scenes where heterosexual interpretations coexist with queer ones. Not merely a heterosexual woman in men’s clothes, Nielsen’s Hamlet can be seen as a disturber of gender and sexual categories, as he/she strips them of their ascribed social meanings.

Gade’s film questions the audience’s ability to recognize masculine or feminine identity by constantly blurring the lines between the two. At first glance, the femininity of Nielsen’s Hamlet is made obvious to everyone but the other characters, who are the only ones incapable of accurately determining her gender. With the exception of Gertrude and King Hamlet, already in the know, everyone fails to see Hamlet as a woman in spite of how little her costume or manners conceal her feminine identity. In a review, Moving Picture World found the characters’ failure to discover Hamlet’s secret to be incomprehensible, stating that:

It is certainly very impressive to see a human being whose sex is proclaimed in every line of her figure, go through life without her nearest friends suspecting the trick she is playing on them. That every breath she draws reveals she is a woman does not penetrate the skull of the court physician even when he puts his ear to her chest and listens to her breathing.[xv]

Even more absurd is Horatio’s failure to see the princess as anything other than “the male Hamlet he is conditioned to see”, even when she appears in front of him in torn-up clothes that nearly reveal her breasts.[xvi]

Yet, if the movie makes fun of the characters’ selective blindness, the characters’ mistaking of Hamlet as male does not appear to be merely played for comic effect. It rather highlights the ambivalence of Hamlet’s gender identity, which is shown as anything but constant and self-evident. Interestingly, the beginning of the movie shows the princess becoming a prince during a conversation between Gertrude and King Hamlet. Although both characters are aware of Hamlet’s femininity, Gertrude refers to her daughter with the German masculine pronoun “ihn” instead of “ihr” (09:03). This choice of pronoun is surprising if we think of ‘prince Hamlet’ as a constructed, fake identity that must be upheld in public for politics’ sake. Why would Hamlet’s parents refer to her as a ‘he’ when there is no one to eavesdrop on them and learn Hamlet’s secret? Is Gertrude misgendering Hamlet? Probably not, since the prince/princess’s identity is in constant movement. The camera adopts Gertrude and King Hamlet’s point of view by filming Hamlet in a wide shot, showing him as a distant and boyish figure lounging on a wall. Gertrude does not refer to him as a man because she thinks Hamlet is one, but because at that particular moment, Hamlet looked like a man, justifying her being considered as such. When the second shot zooms in to reveal Hamlet’s femininity in a mid-shot, it does not bring to light a mistake on Gertrude’s part, but rather that gender identity resides in the eye of the beholder rather than in a biological reality. Just like Hamlet’s gender identity changes depending on how Gertrude sees him/her, the viewers are always manipulated into viewing him/her as male or female, putting their capacity to read gender into question.

Hamlet first appearing as a man from afar (0008’48”)

Hamlet, then revealed to be a woman from up close (0009’26”)

By playing on camera movement and gender-coded body language, Gade’s movie brings to light the act of crossing gender lines themselves. As a silent era actress, Nielsen conveys the character’s gender fluidity through her body language, alternating between a masculine and a feminine style of acting. Tony Howard notes the female grace of her movements: “fencing, she flexes like a ballerina in response to every feint”, which sets her apart from the other, male, characters.[xvii] However, Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet is just as capable of adopting a masculine body language when she crosses to her male persona. In her wooing of Ophelia, she transforms into a male seducer, biting her lower lip, kissing the young woman’s arm and hand, and whispering sweet  nothings into Ophelia’s ear while holding her in her arms in the garden. When angry at Gertrude or Ophelia, Hamlet becomes aggressive and predatory-like, shouting and advancing threateningly on the female characters who back away, frightened by Hamlet’s underlying promise of violence. Always on the edge of the masculine and the feminine, Nielsen’s “appropriation of masculine styles” turns her Hamlet into “a figure of sexual mobility – a figure who destabilizes the polarized opposition between masculine and feminine identities”, and she is framed as such.[xviii]

This is how, instead of showing the viewer a clear crossing to masculinity or femininity, some shots reinforce Hamlet’s gender in-betweenness. The end of the movie particularly blurs his/her gender identity, as the one that is now publicly identified as Princess Hamlet has her true gender once again hidden from the public. Horatio covers the body up to the chin with his coat in what seems like a substitute for Hamlet’s signature turtle-neck, and she is given a military funeral, carried by Fortinbras’s soldiers.  However, the last and lingering shot of the movie zooms in on her face, contrasting her hidden, genderless body being carried away by soldiers in a masculine ceremony with her painted eyelids and half-open mouth in an almost erotic picture of death. The end of the movie therefore restores Nielsen’s Hamlet’s gender ambiguity, rendering him/her an undecipherable enigma for the viewer’s gaze.

The final shot of the movie (0150’13”)

To conclude, Nielsen’s binary-breaking performance is not merely part of the film’s narrative, but is also, to some extent, part of a social commentary on the evolution of gender roles and gender identity. Fully able to socially behave as a man in all matters except those of the heart, Nielsen’s Hamlet arguably does not enforce the biological and cultural differences between men and women, but rather stands out as an androgynous character both trapped and empowered by his/her double identity. By constantly redirecting and manipulating the spectator’s gaze into viewing Nielsen’s Hamlet as feminine, masculine, or neither, Gade’s movie shows the limits according to which we view gender identity as affixed and intelligible, suggesting instead in a precursory way that it might be fluid and reliant on social circumstances, as well as on one’s sometimes inaccurate perception.

[i]      Edward Vining, The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1881), p. 81.

[ii]    Ibid., pp. 57 and 65.

[iii]   Tony Howard, Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 22.

[iv]    All quotes drawn from the English subtitles of Svend Gade, (dir.), Hamlet: The Drama of Revenge (1920-1), reconstructed by the Deutsches Filminstitut in 2007 from the movie’s previously lost original version. All screenshots taken from non-subtitled German version, uploaded on Youtube by Wassermelone (Hamlet (1921) – YouTube).

[v]     Desmond MacCarthy, quoted in Howard, p 40.

[vi]    Lucy Fischer, “INTRODUCTION: Movies and the 1920s” in American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variation, ed. Lucy Fischer (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2009), p. 6.

[vii]  Howard, p. 151.

[viii] Ibid., p. 148.

[ix]    Ibid.., p. 146.

[x]     Ibid., p. 152.

[xi]    Ibid., p. 145.

[xii]  Joan Rivière, ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’ (1929), reprinted in Athol Hughes (ed.), The Inner World and Joan Rivière: Collected Papers 1920-1958 (London and New York: Karnak, 1991), p. 91.

[xiii] Howard, p. 151.

[xiv]  Ibid., p. 152.

[xv]   Moving Picture World (New York : The World Photographic Publishing Company, November 1921), p. 336.

[xvi]  Howard, p. 154.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 145.

[xviii]       Patrice Petro, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 153.

References:

Primary Sources:

Gade, Svend (dir.), Hamlet: The Drama of Revenge (1920-1).

Moving Picture World (November 1921). New York: The World Photographic Publishing Company.

Secondary Sources:

Fischer, Lucy (ed.), American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Howard, Tony, Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Petro, Patrice, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Rivière, Joan, ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’ (1929) in Athol Hughes (ed.), The Inner World and Joan Rivière: Collected Papers 1920-1958. London and New York: Karnak, 1991.

Vining, Edward, The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & CO, 1881.

Louise Roszak is an alumna of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris Saclay. She obtained her agrégation in English in 2021. Recipient of a doctoral contract with the LARCA (UMR 8225)
research centre, she is currently writing her PhD under the supervision of Ladan Niayesh at Université Paris Cité. Her research focuses on post-gender adaptations of Shakespeare from theatrical staging to hyper-contemporary media. A sample of her previous work on Hamlet is forthcoming in an essay co-authored with Ladan Niayesh, “Elsinore (2019) Video Game: An Interactive Experience in Reforming Gender Roles” in Actes des Congrès de la Société Française Shakespeare 41 (2023).

Transnormativity and Trans(gender)nationalism through Transmasculine representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Fandom

Elyan Stenel

 

Transgender characters in mainstream films and TV series are, despite some progress, still rare and often subject to stereotyping. Regularly portrayed by cisgender (non-trans) actors wearing transness like a costume, they suffer the recurrence of evil or tragic trans characters, which promulgates a narrative influencing both trans and cisgender people’s perception of transness.[1]

Transmen and transwomen face equally harmful but, in some aspects, very different issues in regard to representation in the media. Where transwomen are hyper-visible as stereotyped sexualized cisgender fantasies, transmen are invisible and infantilized. As a trans man, I chose to concentrate on the issues faced by transmen and transmasculine people.[2]

Approaching the subject of transgender male identity through the scope of the interpretation of transmasculine characters in mainstream media productions by fans and the portrayal of transmasculinity in fandom, I looked at fanarts portraying a trans-interpretation of Peter Parker (Spider-man) from the Marvel Cinematic universe, and considered the significance of these interpretations along with their place within mainstream transmasculine representations.

A fandom is a community of fans. From music to sports to celebrities, the objects of focus of fandom are endless. The type of fandom I am focusing on is media fandom, specifically transformative media fandom, whose main mode of fan-activity is the creation of fanworks: fanfictions (written stories), fanarts (visual art), fan videos, and more. Through these fanworks, fans intervene in the canon of the piece of media they are dedicated to and one way in which they do so is through the act of queering characters and relationships. The popularity of same-sex fictional couples in fandom[3] has defined fandom as a safe space for queer fans and the exploration of queer identity, as such many queer people, including trans people, turn to fandom to find and create the varied queer and trans content they were looking for.[4]

In this context, I suggest that while these interpretations of the MCU’s Peter Parker are not inherently harmful and do have many positive aspects, they reveal a broader dynamic toward the establishment of a restrictive, exclusionary narrative of the transmasculine experience as the only valid way to be a trans man. Through this approach, I discuss how transnormavity applies to transmen and, building on Jasbir Puar’s works on homonationalism (2007), I propose a theory of trans(gender)nationalism through which “normative” trans people attempt to find acceptance in a system that rejects transness by investing in it and thus participating in the continuing exclusion and abuse of transpeople who cannot or do not want to conform.

Fig. 1: Spiderman holding Captain America’s shield, still from Captain America: Civil War (2016).

 

Transnormativity is defined by Z Nicolazzo as “the belief that there is only one way for trans* people to practice their gender (Boldly Go, 2013),”[5] specifying that it excludes non-binary people and gender fluidity completely as it suggests that trans people can only transition from one binary sex to another. Austin Johnson, in “Transnormativity: A New Concept and Its Validation through Documentary Film About Transgender Men*” writes that transnormativity is:

[…] a regulatory normative ideology that structures interactions in every arena of social life. As a regulatory normative ideology, transnormativity should be understood alongside heteronormativity (Berlant and Warner 1998; Ingraham 1994; Warner 1991) and homonormativity (Duggan 2003; Seidman 2002) as both an empowering and constraining ideology that deems some trans people’s identifications, characteristics, and behaviors as legitimate and prescriptive (e.g., those that adhere to a medical model) while others’ are marginalized, subordinated, or rendered invisible (e.g., those that do not adhere to a medical model) (Jackson 2006; Rich 1980). (Johnson, 466-467)

In “Challenging “Getting Better” Social Media Narratives with Intersectional Transgender Lived Experiences,” Oliver Haimson remarks that “transgender people’s own narratives of their gender transitions and lives are often affected by broader media influences” and notes the existent disparity between these narratives and the real lives of trans people:

These types of narratives—that transgender people’s lives and well-being will and should improve throughout and after transition—are pervasive in the media […]. However, in reality, transgender people face many other life transitions and experiences during and after gender transition (e.g., relationship changes, job changes), as well as intersecting identity facets (e.g., race/ethnicity, class), all of which also affect emotional well-being over time. (Haimson et al. 4495)

Any “step” portrayed as necessary to be trans, such as medically transitioning, can be a personal goal, a source of joy and a necessity for the well-being of many trans people, but it can equally surface as a source of anxiety, a cause of violence, another way to be pressured into conforming.

Recognizing the impact trans representation in the media can have, I consider how these narratives intersect with larger issues through a global popular franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since Marvel started its cinematic universe, which is now an extremely popular international phenomenon and the highest grossest movie franchise in the world as of 2021, its presence in the mainstream media sphere is almost inescapable and its influence is undeniable. Even more so since it was acquired by The Walt Disney Company in 2009, contributing to Disney’s progress toward holding a monopoly in the media industry.

In an opinion piece published in The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s main campus newspaper, Joice, he notes that, “Disney is infamously bad at representation ‒ namely LGBTQ+ representation.”[6] This is an issue with outlying consequences on animated movies, which I would extend to live action movies, TV series and other types of media Disney produces.

——————————————————————————————

Relating to the issue of representation and diversity, the omnipresence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) worldwide brings into focus the connection between Marvel and the American military and the part this link plays in the reproduction of systems of oppressions. Systems of oppressions are perpetuated inside the military itself, some specifically against queer people. The status of trans people in the US military has been particularly unstable. Until 2016, there was a blanket ban on transgender people serving in the military. In 2018, a memo by Donald Trump reinstated the limitations on trans people in the military. This was reversed in 2021 by President Joe Biden, but as laws aiming at reducing the rights of trans people are regularly introduced in various levels of the US legislative system, there is no certainty that such limitations will not ever be reintroduced. It is in this context of imperialism and transphobia that I consider the involvement of the US military in entertainment. Although Marvel might not involve the military directly in the plot of every movie of the MCU, its involvement is noticeable. This is not a setup unique to the MCU and largely predates the franchise.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has a long-standing relationship with Hollywood. It has been working with filmmakers for nearly 100 years with a goal that’s two-fold: to accurately depict military stories and make sure sensitive information isn’t disclosed. In 2018, the Department of Defense even published an article titled “How & Why the DOD Works With Hollywood.” In the section “There can be tension with filmmakers,” the power of decision the DOD wields is directly admitted: “There are compromises on both sides. There’s a point where we just have to say no ‒ ‘It’s either going to happen like this, or it’s not going to happen at all,’” Hyde said, although he admitted it rarely comes to that.”

That the DOD got involved in Marvel movies is not surprising as the superhero genre is well-equipped to promote (or criticize) the military. In “Fighting the Battles We Never Could: The Avengers and Post-September 11 American Political Identities,” Hagley and Harrison argue the whole superhero genre’s popularity that can be connected to 9/11 and the war on terror:

The post-September 11 resurrection of the superhero genre, particularly in film, is a direct response to the feelings of helplessness and terror that Americans experienced in the days and years following the attack. This renewed interest is also a revealing look at the psyche of a nation as it struggled with war, retribution, and its own constitutional and democratic imperatives. (Hagley & Harrison 120)

Fig 2: The Avengers preparing for battle in a New York under attack, still from The Avengers (2012).

 

Taking this context into account, a trans interpretation of Peter Parker that does not question the oppressive, imperialistic elements of his story line within the MCU makes him not just a symbol of transnormativity but an active enforcer of both transnormativity and US nationalism.

In Terrorist Assemblages (2007), Puar introduces the concept of “homonationalism,” defining it as a “dual movement in which certain homosexual constituencies have embraced U.S. nationalist agendas and have also been embraced by nationalist agendas” (Puar 32). She argues that current US nationalism, while based on heteronormativity, now also relies on “homonormative ideologies that replicate narrow racial, class, and gender national ideals” (Puar 33). In the chapter “Sexuality of Terrorism,” she explains that the terrorist figure is racialized and sexualized in ways that are outside the acceptable norms of multiculturalism and considered perverse. This creates a binary system of “‘‘you’re either with us or against us’’” (Puar 38) that reinforces what is deemed acceptable. Through the war on terror, some queer people found acceptance in US nationalism, leading to what is Puar calls homonationalism, a contraction of “homonormative nationalism.” Homonationalism produces what Puar describes as “contradictions inherent in the idealization of the United States as properly multicultural heteronormative but nevertheless gay-friendly, tolerant and sexually liberated society […]” (Puar 39). Akin to Puar, Paola Bacchetta argues that the “USA, formed through violence, now sets itself up as the beacon of freedom for the world” (Bacchetta & Haritaworn, 130). She further interrogates:

Who is left behind when social movements in the North attempt to go global? As LGBT movements and sexuality studies are turning to race and the Global South, who can speak for sexual and gendered subalterns? Who’s genders and sexualities gain value, visibility and universality, and whose are patronised, particularised or marginalised in international LGBT rights “connectivities” […]? How many single-issue agendas around gay marriage, gays in the military and hate crime benefit a small handful of professionalized activisits, often white gay non-trans men, in the Global North […]? (Bacchetta & Haritaworn, 128)

Expending the concept of homonationalism to transgender identity could be confusing as the term transnationalism already has a meaning unrelated to gender. However, since transnormativity exists alongside, intersecting with homonormativity, it is coherent that a trans(gender)nationalism exists as well, and that through this trans(gender)nationalism a number of acceptable stances and norms for trans people are produced, shared through media productions and get replicated in fandoms. Through trans(gender)nationalism, trans people can conform themselves to embrace nationalist ideals and pretend to be full citizens, not in legal terms but rather socially. Especially in the US with the prevalence of the concept of American exceptionalism which claims that the United States is inherently different and better from other countries, the participation in the promotion of the country through nationalism is heavily supported. As trans people invest in a system that rejects them in an attempt to find acceptance and belonging within it, they consolidate the hardship it implements for those who are entirely excluded from it. Non-binary people, fat trans people, trans people of color, disabled trans people, trans refugees, trans immigrants, poor trans people, indigenous trans people, older trans people, trans Muslims, the list is endless. And even for the most privileged, for the white, thin, young, healthy and wealthy trans people, the possibility of being rejected by the system is omnipresent. Trans(gender)nationalism is intrinsically exclusionary.

Transformative media fandom does not have the same power when it comes to representation that mainstream media does. Despite its growing visibility, it is still a marginal phenomenon. As such, putting the responsibility of “good” representation on fandom rather than on mainstream media would be unfair to fans and would not have a large impact, but that does not mean that the way fandoms represent marginalized identities cannot be criticized. Any community, including fandoms, cannot become a safer space for trans people if it excludes people of color, older people, migrants, disabled people, people from outside of the United States, and other historically excluded minorities. There are, in fandom like in society, always possibilities of change and progress.

Elyan Stenel completed a Master in English Studies at the Université de Paris Diderot in 2021 and is currently working on applications to PhD programs to continue his research. His research focus is queer and transgender identities viewed through the lens of popular culture and fandom. He can be contacted at: es.stenel@gmail.com

Works cited

Bacchetta, Paola & Jin Haritaworn. “There are Many Transatlantics: Homonationalism, Homotransnationalism and Feminist–Queer–Trans of Colour Theories and Practices.” Transatlantic Conversations, Routledge, 2011, p. 127‑43. doi:10.4324/9781315550305.

Hagley, Annika & Micheal Harrison. “Fighting the Battles We Never Could: The Avengers and Post-September 11 American Political Identities.” PS: Political Science & Politics, vol. 47, no 01, January 2014, p. 120-24. doi:10.1017/S1049096513001650.

Haimson, Oliver L. “Challenging “Getting Better” Social Media Narratives with Intersectional Transgender Lived Experiences.” Social Media + Society, vol. 6, no 1, January 2020. doi:10.1177/2056305120905365.

Haimson, Oliver L. et al. “Rethinking (and Retheorizing) Transgender Media Representation: A Roundtable Discussion.” International Journal of Communication [Online], 14, 2020.

Johnson, Austin H. “Transnormativity: A New Concept and Its Validation through Documentary Film About Transgender Men.” Sociological Inquiry, vol. 86, no 4, November 2016, p. 465-91. doi:10.1111/soin.12127.

Nicolazzo, Z. “‘It’s a Hard Line to Walk’: Black Non-Binary Trans* Collegians’ Perspectives on Passing, Realness, and Trans*-Normativity”.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 29, no 9, October 2016, p. 1173-88. doi:10.1080/09518398.2016.1201612.

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times: Tenth Anniversary Expanded Edition. Duke University Press, 2017.


[1] The roles of the tragic transgender characters in the movies Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and The Dannish Girl (2015) earned Academy Award wins for the cisgender actors portraying them, illustrating the critical and commercial success of this type of narrative.

[2] The scarcity of trans characters is noted in the 2019-2020 Glaad Media Report: “Of the 488 total regular and recurring LGBTQ characters on scripted primetime broadcast, cable, and streaming programs, only 38 (eight percent) are transgender, and they appear on only 28 shows. […] Of the 38 characters counted in this report, there are 21 transgender women, 12 trans men, and five non-binary characters.” (Where We Are on TV 2019-2020. Glaad Media Institute, p.28-30, https://www.glaad.org/sites/default/files/GLAAD%20WHERE%20WE%20ARE%20ON%20TV%202019%202020.pdf.)

[3]The relationship tags on the Archive of Our Own, an online fanfiction archive, demonstrates the popularity of same-sex relationships in fandoms, with, as of February 5th 2022,  4153910 works tagged with “m/m”, indicating they contain a relationship between two men, and 769079 works tagged with “f/f”, relationships between two women, for a total of 4 922 989 works containing either or both gay male and female relationships. In contrast, there are 2109506 tagged with “f/m”, referring to a relationship between a man and a woman.

[4] Lothian, Alexis, Kristina Busse, Robin Anne Reid; ““Yearning Void and Infinite Potential”: Online Slash Fandom as Queer Female Space.” English Language Notes 45.2, 2007, p. 103–111.

Rose, Jonathan A. ““My Male Skin”: (self-)narratives of transmasculinities in fanfiction,” European Journal of English Studies 24.1, 2020, p. 25-36.

[5] Nicolazzo, Z. « ‘It’s a Hard Line to Walk’: Black Non-Binary Trans* Collegians’ Perspectives on Passing, Realness, and Trans*-Normativity ». International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 29, no 9, Oct. 2016, p. 1175.

[6] He, Joice. “Opinion: Disney’s Growing Monopoly Breeds Uniformity in Animation.” Daily Bruin, 12 April 2021, https://dailybruin.com/2021/04/12/opinion-disneys-growing-monopoly-breeds-uniformity-in-animation/.

The Patriarchy Drove Them to it: Feminism and Gender in The Wilds

Anne Sweet, Université Paris Sorbonne Nouvelle

“It’s about a bunch of women who get stuck on an island and it will want to make you binge-watch,” was how a student in my TV class quite enthusiastically recommended The Wilds (Amazon Prime Video, 2020-) to me before Spring Break. Ah… The students in my TV class… In our world of filter-bubble targeted content, they direct my attention to that which I would not otherwise notice, and for that I am forever grateful.

Stuck in lockdown, and needing a bit of mindless diversion, I decided to have a look at The Wilds. Upon viewing the first episode, it seemed to be a banal series, a Lost (ABC, 2004-2010) derivative featuring moody teenagers. Unimpressed, my husband rolled his eyes, and sighed, “Ah, the young, why are they so miserable?” However, this series is what Jason Mittell would call a “drillable text” with multiple mysteries inciting the viewer to be a “forensic fan”[1] and want to solve them: how the young women ended up on the island, how they get off of it, and what happened to them to render them so maudlin. My attention thus engaged, I continued watching, and found there is a twist, quite a major one, as this series is perhaps the most overtly feminism-based series I have ever seen and perhaps that ever was.


In the past, using the words “feminism” and “feminist” in a series was considered almost as bad as using the “F-Word” in terms of potential offense to viewers. Feminist messages were often conveyed through representation, symbolism, and metaphor, and by showing empowered women leading by example, but the word “feminism” was rarely spoken and the movement rarely directly acknowledged.[2] In The Wilds feminist discourses and issues are not only directly and overtly featured in the plotlines, but the words feminist and feminism are actually spoken, and repeated. This makes the series quite distinct from many others featuring a female cast, and quite exceptional in its depiction of gender and gender issues. It is an interesting example of the way streaming platforms are targeting niche audiences, rather than mass audiences. It also interesting that the show is broadcast on Amazon, a commercial capitalist giant, in light of the fact that women are still considered to be the motors of retail-consumer capitalism and are desirable target shoppers.[3] Yet what version of feminism is being sold to them?


In The Wilds, the young women (mostly high school students) are not actually alone on the island but were unknowingly put there on purpose as part of scientific experiment to demonstrate that women are the superior sex. The study is orchestrated by a social scientist called Gretchen Klein, a nefarious villainess who has deceived the young women and their families to trap the girls on the island and who also spouts feminist rhetoric at the drop of a hat. While the series is a drama, at times, it feels as if it descends into mockery. And the question that went often through the mind of this media studies scholar when viewing the series’ feminist (or “feminist”) messages was, “What on Earth?”

First, before examining the more dubious aspects of the series’ feminist and gender politics, it is important to note that the series can in some ways be innovative, and was even created by a woman, at a time when gender parity behind the scenes in production has still not been achieved.[4] The Wilds is part of a recent trend that Sandra Laugier defines as “a second wave of feminist series” that appeared in the wake of #MeToo and give viewers a framework for conceptualizing feminist issues, picking up where the first wave of feminist series of the late 90s-2000s left off.[5] Within that trend I have noted a second wave of both Girl Power series, and other sorts of series featuring empowered girls and young women. As part of the second wave of feminist series, The Wilds embraces many of the values of the fourth wave of feminism, notably body positivity, inclusivity, and LGBTQIA+ rights. It features a large cast of women who are of different shapes, sizes, ethnic groups and sexual identities. The young women are smart, physically fit, capable and can survive in nature. They can hunt, purify water, build fires, and construct a shelter. They are violent, they kill things, and they fight. Yet, as their life stories rollout in flashbacks, we learn that they are not merely moody adolescents but that they were all victims of trauma. Many are on the edge of losing their sanity, if it is not already too late. The reason for this, Gretchen Klein clearly states, is the damage done to them by the patriarchy and patriarchal society, and that is why these women in particular were chosen for her study.

TV series can be pedagogical in nature and attempt to educate people about society and societal issues.[6] Through the girls’ back stories, the series deliberately brings to light many contemporary women’s issues. Dot is exhausted from the burden of being a caregiver. The love of Nora’s life is killed by fraternity hazing, a particularly brutal patriarchal ritual. Rachel, who is told she has grown too big to compete in her sport, becomes bulimic. Many of the women are victims of toxic masculinity. Martha, as an 11-year-old, was molested by her doctor. Leah, as a 16-year-old is seduced by a man in his thirties, and then coldly dumped and driven mad from the shock and grief. Toni’s life blows up after she reacts violently to being accosted by some drunk men in a parking lot. Fatin catches her adulterous father sexting other women. While some of the storylines can seem clichéd and well-trodden, the fact that the women are all connected by (and selected for) their patriarchal victimhood is not.

The interest for the viewer is in identifying with each character, understanding her pain, and how it relates to her actions in the present. This fact that the women’s plights are linked by patriarchy is openly revealed belatedly in the series, explicitly detailed by Gretchen Klein. But, at the beginning, it passes a bit under the radar. Thus, the viewer relates to the characters and the stories, first, before the feminist shoe drops, and is almost “tricked” in a way into identifying with a feminist narrative, and potentially caring about women’s issues. Yet larger feminist issues like gender inequality and discrimination are not tackled, and the storylines repose upon the personal rather than the political, and essentially upon issues of male cruelty that most people feel are wrong, whether feminist or not. Thus, there is a certain lack of depth to the feminist issues that are being exposed, and in that way, Amazon is taking few risks.


Perhaps the most significant plotline is that of Shelby, a blond southern belle and beauty queen, the epitome of ideal standards of beauty and feminine behavior, and whose last name Goodkind is symbolic, as she seems perfectly poised, kind, and well mannered, even if others on the island find her conservative Christian values hateful and despicable. However underneath the façade of perfect evangelical Christian, Shelby is hiding the fact she is attracted to women in order to conform to her father’s and her community’s moral beliefs which hold that homosexuality is wrong. After Shelby’s father catches her kissing her best friend Becca, she ends the relationship, which causes Becca—another victim of toxic masculinity, who is already on edge from having been the recipient of her adult stepbrother’s sexual advances—to commit suicide. The island frees Shelby from all of the constraints put on her by her conservative family and church, and she enters into a sexual relationship with Toni. But even if the island seems to have somewhat healed her, massive damage has also been done. The men who interview her after she leaves the island note that her file mentions that she has dissociative personality disorder, and they wonder which personality she will show when they interview her. When she appears, her is head shaven, and she is dirty, and seems unhinged. The ideal version femininity she displays at first on the plane, and then on the island, is thus officially debunked as not only a masquerade, but potentially as a manifestation officially diagnosed mental illness. Thus, on the surface the series would be seem notable in bringing to light LGBTQIA+ characters and issues, and it would seem as if Amazon was showing little fear of consumer backlash from its conservative customers in the Red Belt States. However, the fact that Shelby is potentially mentally ill leaves the possibility open of an alternative reading of her predicament for those who wish.

The feminist potential of the series takes a hit in another way. It is important to note that the most feminist character of all is Gretchen, who is also the villain, which thus associates militant feminism with evil. Most of the girls do not identify openly as feminist, even if, before they ended up on the island, they were bound for a feminist retreat called “Dawn of Eve”, which is highly symbolic as Eve is arguably the first victim of patriarchy. In many Girl Power and girl-centered series of the 90s, there was a tension between the cool, young, trendy heroines of the third wave and the older women of the generation of the second wave, who were depicted as kooks, criminals or bad mothers, and absolutely not to be admired, which could also be read as a glorification of youth in a consumerist society.[7] In The Wilds, once again the young are the heroes of the piece. Yet this now demonstrates a tension between the third and the fourth waves, whereas it was once between the generations of the third and second wave (and in the series, older and gray-haired women are almost completely out of the picture—I cannot recall one who had a speaking role). Gretchen seems like a relic, and behind the times in her feminist and academic thinking. Her blowout, nice suits and stiletto heels, which she acknowledges are patriarchal rubbish but make her legs look good, show her as a fashion-plate of another era. While third-wave is debatable as actual movement, it definitely associated with a particular cultural moment of representations women in popular culture whose empowerment is linked to consumerist discourses, fashion and spike heels, which were notably made popular as an expression of “fabulousness” by Sex in the City (HBO, 1998-2004), a series which valorizes the non-inclusive, patriarchal high-fashion industry and toxic masculinity in the form of Mr. Big. Yet by emphasizing the “good” young people, over the “bad” older lady (and not by representing truly older women, or even older-looking women at all), The Wilds is still aligning itself with a certain set of patriarchal and consumerist discourses concerning youth and beauty.

Gretchen emphasizes the power of women, and her goal is to scientifically prove that women should be in charge of the world through her research in order to save the world. In real-world contemporary academia, her study would be considered problematic. The premise of her research is proving that men and women are inherently, fundamentally and irrevocably different, and that women are the superior gender, whereas much of current gender research and thought would lean towards examining gender as a social construct, ending discrimination, and promoting equality. Moreover, Gretchen’s research sublimates the non-binary, as does the series. She clearly separates people and their behavior into the binary categories of male and female, ignoring the concept of the gender spectrum. And, while some of the characters are lesbian or bisexual, all of the female characters are very clearly cisgender. While the series potentially possesses some LGBQTIA+ positive aspects, in ignoring the existence of different genders, it falls flat and seems out of touch. When asked if she hates men, Gretchen says no and that she even loves some of them—an important point to make as feminists are often derided as misandrists. Yet Gretchen is also shown to be a victim of patriarchy. Her son is a criminal, arrested as one of the perpetrators of the very hazing incident that killed Nora’s boyfriend. Gretchen says she tried to do everything, right to make him a good man, even reading him Adrienne Rich’s poems, and yet the lure of the patriarchy was too strong. He joined a fraternity, became a toxic male, and was subsequently lost to her. Thus, if Gretchen, seems a bit over-the-top, to the point of almost being a mockery of feminist and feminism, patriarchy has also unhinged her as it has the young women in her study.

The patriarchy drove them to it—to violence, to rage, to despair, and to extremes. The Wilds presents a dark, yet poignant, feminist message, unlike any other. One I find questionable, superficial, and at times corny, yet at the same time intriguing and raising many questions for further research…   



[1] Jason Mittell, “Web-only Essay: Forensic Fandom and the Drillable Text.” Spreadable Media web site (no publication date), http://spreadablemedia.org/essays/mittell/#.YIsn3C8Rp0t [Consulted: April 29, 2021].

[2] See, for example, Anne Sweet, “’Unreal’ Gender Messages in Late 90s Women-Centered Action Dramas,” TV/Series 1 (June 2012): 209-224, https://journals.openedition.org/tvseries/1205 [Consulted: April 29, 2021].

[3] A web site for a communications agency called “girlpowermarketing” [sic.] interestingly features some key statistics on its home page, including the fact that women are still the main shoppers and key purchase decision-makers for the household, including for what can be considered as traditionally male products [Consulted: April 29, 2021].

[4] For more data on this, see the statistics gathered by the annual Boxed In study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at the University of San Diego, https://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu [Consulted: April 29, 2021].

[5] Sandra Laugier, “Sur la deuxième vague des séries américaines féministes,” AOC, November 3, 2020, https://aoc.media/critique/2020/11/02/sur-la-deuxieme-vague-des-series-americaines-feministes/ [Consulted: April 29, 2021].

[6] See, for example, Divina Frau-Meigs, Médiamorphoses américaines dans un espace privé unique au monde (Paris: Economica, 2001).

[7] See, for example, Karin Beeler (2007), “Old Myths, New Powers: Images of Second-wave and Third-wave Feminism in Charmed” in Investigating Charmed: The Magic Power of TV, ed. Karin Beeler and Stan Beeler (London : I.B. Tauris, 2007), 101-111; see also, Anne Sweet, Le Girl Power en question dans Xena: Warrior Princess et Charmed: Enjeux sociaux et  commerciaux dans des politiques de genre, doctoral thesis archived at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2014.

The ‘multicultural zoo’ in Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other (2019)

Laura Carter, Université de Paris, LARCA-UMR 8225

Bernardine Evaristo’s 2019 ‘fusion fiction’[1] novel Girl, Woman, Other introduces several familiar narratives about postwar education in Britain: the ‘golden age’ of the grammar school, the myth of education as a route to social mobility, and the ‘failure’ of the comprehensive school. In each of these cases, Evaristo repositions the narrative by revealing them through the eyes of (mostly) girls and women of colour. In this blog post, I’ll explore the place of the secondary school in Girl, Woman, Other. Moreover, in the interdisciplinary spirit of LARCA’s Gender and Sexuality Studies research group, I’ll also suggest a few things that historians might learn from Evaristo’s fictional, intersectional, and intergenerational perspective on the postwar secondary school.

Just like in most stories of everyday life set in twentieth-century Britain, school days feature prominently in Girl, Woman, Other. We first catch glimpses of the New Cross girls’ grammar school where Amma and Shirley are the only two black pupils in the 1970s. They forge a lasting connection through this shared experience of schooling, despite the vast personal and political differences that will develop between them. One semi-fictional London secondary school in particular, ‘Peckham School for Boys and Girls’[2], is our mooring point as we follow the lives of the interconnected suite of characters in the novel. This Peckham school is the ‘multicultural zoo’ of my title, a racial slur used by teacher Penelope to signify its shift from white working-class uplift to postcolonial, multi-racial education.


The school is a co-ed comp, where Shirley, first introduced to readers as an ambitious young black teacher, begins her career in the 1980s and where she encounters racist Women’s Libber Penelope, who is already mourning the loss of her 1970s dream for the comprehensive school. It’s also the site of Carole and LaTisha’s troubled school days of the early 2000s, by which point the school is on the brink of failure, plagued by knife violence, drugs, and teen pregnancy. This view across the decades is particularly powerful in driving a key message of Girl, Woman, Other: for this particular set of characters, secondary school is a site of almost universal disappointment.

This disappointment comes in various forms. Carole finds the strength within herself to move past her horrifying experience of rape and turns to Shirley (by this point known, at best, as the ‘School Dragon’) as a mentor. Carole uses the school exam system to attain upward social mobility first via the University of Oxford and then the City of London. But there is no warm and fuzzy place in her heart for her old school, indeed Carole’s awkward encounter with Shirley at book’s end suggests how plainly functional institutions (and their staff) are in Carole’s self-narrative. As a highly intelligent and highly successful black woman operating in all-white spaces, Carole’s inner drive and well-honed survival tactics lift her out of poverty and trauma, at great personal cost with respect to her Nigerian heritage. This is quite different to the celebrated narrative of the white working class, upwardly-mobile grammar school boy, who returns home to pay his social and cultural capital forward.

We meet Carole’s one-time friend, LaTisha, also climbing the ladder of social mobility (in her words ‘on the move’), working her way up the management hierarchy in a local supermarket. At their comp, LaTisha was part of what 1970s sociologists would have called the ‘counter-school’ subculture. LaTisha makes some very poor choices, but she is also highly intelligent, evidenced by her precocious, but logical retorts to each ‘senseless’ school rule she encounters. The school fails her too, by presenting her black girl future as a fait accompli. The school has no resources, no energy, no willpower to accommodate LaTisha’s complex social and emotional needs, and she’s unwilling to assimilate to the ‘good girl’ codes like Carole does.

As we learn from both Penelope and Shirley’s narratives, the social justice mission of the comprehensive school is a faded memory by the 2000s in this corner of South London, and the long-standing racialisation of social problems located in the comprehensive school is a burden that girls like LaTisha must bear at the beginning of the new millennium. Earlier echoes of this shift appear in snippets of LaTisha’s father’s story, a first-generation immigrant pupil from the Caribbean who found himself thrown in the ‘Sin Bin’ for speaking patois (presumably in the 1970s).

Shirley and Penelope, the two teachers, are also deeply disappointed by the secondary school they work at. For Shirley it’s the educational reforms of the Thatcher governments that curtail her pedagogical freedoms in favour of box ticking and league tables, whilst Penelope sees multiculturalism as a monster that swallowed second-wave feminism whole within the school gates. This shared disappointment leads to a cautious pact between the two women (they are ‘work friends’ according to Penelope), suggesting how age might work to reconcile white and black feminisms. But their alliance isn’t forged in a shared, positive commitment to intersectionality. Instead, the bleak landscape of the late-century, failed comprehensive school in which they both toil as older, disillusioned teachers bridges their cultural divide.

Racial justice becomes less important to Shirley as she grows older and faces fewer daily micro-aggressions in the staffroom and classroom. At mid-life, she finds personal satisfaction more in the material and emotional spoils of family life, settling for occasional, individual success stories like Carole’s, rather than the structural, political changes she yearned for as a newly-minted teacher. Shirley is essentially a conservative character; she embraces her embourgeoisement and nurtures a little germ of nostalgia for the Butler Act of 1944.

The intergenerational framing of Girl, Woman, Other brings the racialised and gendered aspects of English comprehensive education between the 1960s and 2010s into sharper focus in ways that are quite helpful to historians to think with. For example, Evaristo strongly foregrounds sexual harassment and sexual violence towards girls by both peers and teachers, an issue that historians might find difficult to reconcile with a still rather fixed narrative of postwar British history in which ‘comprehensivization’ is aligned with progress. Secondly, Penelope’s racist caricature of the school as a ‘multicultural zoo’ signals the rich, discursive history of multiculturalism in British education that remains to be excavated.

Finally, the black and mixed-race characters found in this book are excellent, if sometimes composite, avatars for thinking about how individuals might have negotiated the mixed ability, co-educational, and multi-racial spaces of the postwar comprehensive school. To succeed, Carole must assimilate and credentialize, LaTisha must fulfil her ‘teen mom’ destiny, and Shirley and Penelope must relinquish their respective social justice missions. This combination of pragmatism, alienation, and a hint of possibility are useful starting points for mapping the social and emotional landscape of the British comprehensive school since the 1960s.

 

[1] Possibly modelled on Warwick Park School in Peckham, an 11-16 mixed comprehensive which closed in 2003 and became an academy.


[2] Bernardine Evaristo, ‘Words of Colour’ Waterstones Library Bristol Takeover, 10 March 2020 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mu8Yo6i6VdU].