Monday, October 26, 2015

Orphan Black and the Queer Identity Game

By Kelly Cogswell

Thanks to that devil Netflix, I'm now hooked on Orphan Black, the sci-fi series in which Tatiana Maslany plays a slew of cloned women who are caught between the evil scientists who created and study them, and the religious fanatics that want to see them all dead. You could read the whole show as a deconstruction of identity, or a smorgasbord of it, with plenty of nature and nurture jokes thrown in.

Acting at this high level always raises questions about just what a person is. Do we have some essential, and immutable kernel of self that finds expression in how we speak and move, and how we choose to live our lives, or is this thing we perceive as "I" an arbitrary collection of ticks that we've picked up from the world around us that practically anybody can mimic, if not sustain?

Comics do it all the time with spot on impersonations. In Orphan Black, Tatiana Maslany transforms herself so persuasively into a dozen or so separate clone characters, sometimes even going all Shakespearean in pretending to be one clone pretending to be another, that she's an argument for the internal diversity of humans, our capacity to adapt.

Technology obviously plays an important role in making all her characters seem simultaneously real, but the key is the acting which is done without benefit of the fancy make-up and prosthetics that we've all seen in movies from the Nutty Professor to The Saint. With just a pair of glasses, a headband, or a wig, or nothing at all, she changes the body language, and accent, but goes beyond these obvious tricks to allow the intelligence inside to shift, creating a new personality, a new character without getting so clever you're pulled out of the show to applaud her craft.

I marveled at that scene in an early episode in Season 1 when British con artist Sarah was meant to visit her young daughter, but asked Canadian Soccer Bitch Alison to stand in. We saw the character Alison seize on Sarah's externals like many actors would do, embracing her lower class British accent and tougher, street-wise gestures, only failing to erase her own fakely open expression. To convey both characters at once, the actor Maslany carefully allowed Allison's character to peek out of Sarah's usually skeptical eyes, and to reveal herself around the mouth.

Afterwards I wondered about the relationship of our bodies and brains. How one shapes the other. How life shapes us. How society does. From the acceptable expressions on our faces to the ways we dress and walk.

Maslany of course is an exceptional actor. But all of us are malleable to some degree. We don't just "perform" gender, but class and race. Culture, nationality. We go to work speaking Standard White English in Standard White America, but at home suddenly become more black, or Latino, or Asian, or white, rural working class with a ferocious twang. We code-switch, shifting word choice, accent, even tone of voice not to mention our clothes. Of course, some of us become more butch. Some more femme. Here in France, I've discovered that I keep my face more still like Parisians do. I sit differently on the subway. Speaking a different language, even my gestures change. I become some other version of my self that seems equally true.

I think this malleability is why we like to play so much as kids, trying on roles with Halloween costumes and our parents clothes. Bit by bit we construct something we can live with, a premise that Orphan Black plays with, joking about the fake happiness of the suburbs, but also dressing up Sarah in Clash tee shirts for a little rock and roll street cred. In fact the show is also a kind of mediation on acting and identity, and socially imposed norms. The clones weren't just created in a lab, but by the languages and neighborhoods and societies that shaped them. And of course, their own choices as well.

I consider it a reminder to be wary of any homo or trans activist claiming that they deserve rights because they were born that way. Because the only true response is, kind of. You were kind of born that way, but so what? We all contort ourselves to survive. The only argument about rights that really persuades has to do with that old-fashioned thing, democracy. It doesn't matter who I sleep with, what clothes I wear on what body. Either we're equal, and we're free, or we're not.

And yes, I know, that by asserting our "fluidity," I seem to be contradicting my usual pitch to accept intransigent labels like lesbian. But I haven't changed my mind. Organizing for social change requires broad strokes and words large enough to make multitudes visible. More than one thing can be true.

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Suffragettes," Women and Slaves

By Kelly Cogswell

Just this week, the makers of the film "Suffragettes" were slammed as colonialists and racists for daring to compare the states of women and slaves, not just by using Emmeline Pankhurst’s phrase "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave" in the script, but plastering it on promotional tee-shirts that cast members like Meryl Streep had the gall to wear.

Like these critics, I was extremely uncomfortable with the group photo. To my American eyes, all those white faces grinning over the slogan somehow made slavery seem like a choice for those stupid blacks, rather than a condition they were forced into. Using this in promotional materials in 2015 when the horrors of the "peculiar institution" are increasingly revised and diminished, wasn't the greatest choice.

This summer, though, I was at some academic event where white French philosopher Monique Wittig was likewise condemned as racist and colonialist for apparently comparing slavery and the subjugation of women. Since then I've been wondering if the knee-jerk condemnation of this comparison is due to an expectation of racism from white feminists, or if it is also related to just what we think slaves were or are.

For instance, I saw the TV miniseries Roots as a kid, so for years I'd hear the word slave and think of a muscly LeVar Burton in chains, and standing on the auction block. Gradually, I learned to identify slavery's legacy in the shooting of unarmed black men, most recently in Chicago's housing policies for the black community, deepening my understanding of slavery, but only its U.S. version.

But at it's most basic, what is a slave but a nonperson who cannot own property, but is property? And like a shovel or a horse, a slave is not paid for her work, has no control over her body, the pleasure she provides, or the offspring she bears. Rather, a slave, like any other possession, is subject to the will of the master. She can be discarded, mutilated, or killed without consequence, having no legal standing in her own right, but only in regards to her owner. And it is often his violence or threat of it that keeps her in her place.

Using those definitions, Wittig would have been perfectly correct to acknowledge points of comparison, especially coming from France where most women didn't sit around in caf├ęs smoking cigarettes with Sartre. No women could vote in France until 1945. They weren't even given legal majority until 1938. They didn't have the right to have their own bank account without their husbands' authorization until 1965. And only won the right to abortion in 1975. Domestic violence remains a huge problem.

My own grandmother grew up in rural Kentucky, had four kids and told me how incredibly relieved she was when a kind doctor tied her tubes. The women around her were just baby-making machines. They churned out one each year until they were died and were replaced by the younger version. Violence was common. And as much as my mother hated my father, she told everyone gratefully, "At least he didn't beat me."

Like race-based slavery, the free labor of women (of all races) is essential to national and local economies, free household and agricultural labor, free child care. Most importantly, in terms of comparison, it is still often justified as a kind of divine right, the man only acting as caretaker of an inherently inferior being, who is spiritually and morally deficient, not to mention less intelligent than a good horse. Besides, God said it's okay.

And as with race-based slavery, the legacy of women as property continues to pervade every aspect of our lives, not just in social, political and economic inequalities, but in the continual, daily, persistent subjugation of our female flesh from petty harassment on the street, to rape, intimate partner violence, even murder. Women get killed all the time, especially when they try to leave their abusers, to be free. The largest difference -- our deaths are so common, nobody bothers to hold a demo, or take to the street.

Without being identical, the similarities are there if you look for them. Maybe we don't want to. We've already forgotten or never knew just how bad women had it. And how far we still have to go. I only learned a couple of years ago that in the U.S. women couldn't get credit cards in their own names until 1974 -- when I was in the third grade. It was about that time that individual states began to recognize marital rape, though it didn't become criminalized across the country until 1993, and even now is rarely prosecuted successfully, because, well, the vestiges of woman as property remain.

As we increasingly reconsider the legacy of slavery, it's worth remembering that early U.S. suffragettes were often abolitionists as well, finding both allies and common ground.