“Cycles of Grief Go On and On” By Jeanette Powers

 

 

Cycles of Grief Go On and On

In no good world is it right
for a mother to leave behind
two young boys when she dies
or for the family to fight
over her crumbs, her car
the paint by number of a white horse
the hand-painted sculpture
of a monkey, hanging
from a real rope
the raining oil lamp
with the naked woman inside
there’s no justice
in fighting over her wedding ring
while those two boys
sit in pews praying
for their mom.

There is no kindness in giving
your queer granddaughter
a bible for graduation
after fifteen years of her
hiding behind the pulpit
knowing she can’t be baptized
into the faith of her family
and cutting off her college fund
when she’s caught red-handed
with a woman at the movie theater
then sending her out into the world
without a safety net
unable to pray without
remembering being cast away.

For the abandoned
it feels like everyone
is beating on them for their whole lives
and they are the only ones paying the price
it seems like everyone
is just getting away with so much cruelty
dressed up as the Christian thing to do
and we, abandoned through grief,
loss, through being different
find our own solace
and too often in razor blades,
another dozen bottles
always bashing our heads
in prayer against a wall
we can’t find our way out from behind.

Are we raising a generation
of hungry ghosts, sleeping
with clenched fists, ready to punch back
at first waking, unable to be given
an apology they can hear
every reason just an excuse
always believing everyone
is going to be right at our throats
the second we show our self
our rage an impacted tooth
our memory a suppurating ulcer
the only cheek turned, always our own?

 

About the Author: Jeanette Powers: poet, painter, philosopher, professional party dancer and working class, anarchist, non-binary queer. Here to be radically peaceful, they are a founding member of Kansas City’s annual small press poetry fest, FountainVerse. Powers is also the brawn behind Stubborn Mule Press. They have seven full length poetry books and have been published often online and  print journals. Find more at jeanettepowers.com and @novel_cliche

 

More By Jeanette Powers:

Reflections in the Windows of Your First Car

 

Image Credit: Karl Blossfeldt “Dipsacus laciniatus” (1928) Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

“Paul Lynde” By Mike James

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Paul Lynde

Died on an early January Sunday in Beverly Hills. If he’d been born in early January, he’d be a Capricorn. He was a Gemini. During the 1970’s it was popular to tell people “your sign.” Like shag carpet, that’s less popular now. Paul trusted astrology. Call him a man of the times. Call him Liberace without a piano, add a scarf. Geminis love illusions and music. Prefer light blue and yellow. The great talents of Geminis “are in the social realm.” Does that include cooking? Paul Lynde liked to drink white wine while cooking. He loved to cook.

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About the Author: Mike James has been widely published in magazines, large and small, throughout the country. His thirteen poetry collections include: Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), First-Hand Accounts from Made-Up Places (Stubborn Mule), Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle)and Peddler’s Blues (Main Street Rag.) He has served as an associate editor for the Kentucky Review and Autumn House Press, as well as the publisher of the now defunct Yellow Pepper Press. He makes his home outside Nashville, Tennessee.More information can be found on his website at mikejamespoetry.com.

 

More By Mike James:

Grace

Two Ghazals

“It Ain’t No Lie, Baby” By Daniel Crocker

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It Ain’t No Lie, Baby

By Daniel Crocker

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My first boyfriend killed himself. We didn’t call ourselves boyfriends, but we went to the movies together, went to dinner together, and had a lot of sex. Part of the reason we didn’t call ourselves for what we really were is that it was the ’90s and things then weren’t what they are now. More than that I think, even though he was out of the closet, was my insistence that I wasn’t gay. And I wasn’t and am not. I was a bit of a coward, though.

I didn’t realize at the time that there was another option or, as it turns out, countless other options. And who knows, maybe I’m being presumptuous to think that he would have wanted to call me his boyfriend. He was beautiful and wild and unpredictable. He had a lot of suitors. Still, I do sometimes wonder if things would have been different if I, at that time, could have just went all in so to speak.

It wouldn’t be until several years later that I came out to my friends as a bisexual male—something seemingly as rare as a unicorn. That’s when things got weird. Some of my friends shrugged, and said, “So?” That was the best response possible, and I appreciate each and every one of them. Others weren’t sold on the idea. How is that possible, they wondered, you’re married to a woman.

The reaction from my gay friends could be even more baffling. I heard the old standby, “Bi now, gay later” plenty. That one didn’t bother me at first because so many gay men I knew at the time did go through a period where they told people they were bisexual. They were just testing the waters. But, five years later, it started to get a little old. When I agreed to sit on a panel hosted by the university I attended as the “representative bisexual” most of the questions I got were variations of, “What does your wife think about you cheating on her with men?” My relationship is monogamous I said . . . over and over and over.

My oldest friend, a guy I grew up with, went to church with, love like a brother, had one of the hardest times believing it. His dad was a preacher. Once, when we were young, we were having a conversation about homosexuality in my bedroom. He had not yet come out of the closet and wouldn’t until his early twenties, but it was something we’d talk about now and again. Maybe he was seeing how I would react, but I believe him when he says he just hadn’t been able to admit it to himself yet. We lived in a community that was violently homophobic.

“Look,” I said. “If I was gay I’d march up and down the street telling people. There’s nothing wrong with it.” I don’t know where I got this attitude. Not from my parents, any adult I knew, and certainly not from my hellfire and brimstone church. A church where, mind you, I made the mistake of wearing an earring. The preacher, looking right at me the entire time, went on a rant against homosexuality before saying, “When I was a kid, if a boy had an earring it meant one thing. It still means that today.” Amens all around.

I think what my friend meant when he told me I wasn’t bisexual was that he really expected, if I were, that I would be marching up and down the street telling people. I still love him. He’s incredibly accepting of who I am. We’ve been friends for thirty years. We Skype on Sundays to watch a classic episode of Doctor Who—a tradition started when we’d watch it Sunday nights on PBS. But, I digress. However, I wondered that if he, someone who knew some of the men I had slept with, didn’t buy it, why, I thought, would anyone else?

Continue reading

“Different From the Others: LGBT History Month and the Almost Century-Old Legacy of an Early Gay Rights Film” By Chase Dimock

A still from Anders Als die Andern (1919)

 

 

October is LGBT History Month, and this year it is as important as ever to study our past. With all of our recently won civil rights and our dramatically increased visibility in society, the LGBT community sometimes assumes that the features of our culture and the values of our politics are recent inventions. Conversely, sometimes we make the opposite mistake and assume that LGBT people of the past (even before the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender first came about) thought of themselves and the community exactly as we do today. These misconceptions are primarily due to the fact that American culture has closeted LGBT history for so long. We learned little to nothing about the history of the LGBT community in school and have thus been denied the benefit that comes with studying history or even being aware that we have a history. I remember, as a teenager, reading gay poet A E Housman in my English textbook, not knowing that his poems written about his male “friends” were actually addressed to the men he loved romantically. It was more important for those who created the curriculum and standards for our education to lead us into misunderstanding the material than to risk admitting to young people that men could love other men in the 19th century or today for that matter.

Having a history is an essential part of having a cultural identity. A history explains where we are in the present and allows us greater insight into the direction in which we are heading. It reminds us that ideas, values, and expressions do not materialize out of nothing; they are the product of the collective communal action of the people over time. This history is always evolving and our story is never finished being told because we are constantly discovering more about it. Finally, knowing our history cautions us against the uncritical belief in a progress narrative. It is easy to assume that we live in the most civilized and enlightened of times and that progress inevitably arcs toward justice. In reality, civil rights are often a cycle of advancement and blow back. Social action is usually greeted by an even greater and opposite repressive reaction. We cannot afford to presume that our current social standing is permanent or that it will naturally improve in the future.

This insight that studying LGBT History grants us is featured in the first film to seriously discuss LGBT identity, Anders Als die Andern(Different From the Others) made in Germany in 1919. Directed by Richard Oswald and co-written by and co-starring legendary sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, the silent film tells the story of a music teacher in love with an adult student. He falls victim to blackmail and in despair, he looks for answers. A quack offers a cure through hypnotherapy, but when that fails, he seeks out Dr. Hirschfeld’s advice. Hirschfeld assures him that his inclinations are normal and that it is not homosexuality that is shameful, but rather, it is our intolerant society that deserves scrutiny. I don’t want to go too far into the plot because I would rather you watch it for yourself. 

 

One reason why this film is an important part of our cultural legacy is that it reminds us that many of the same basic issues we confront today were part of the same struggle 100 years ago. Grappling with a culturally enforced notion of “difference,” dealing with the disproportionate rate of depression and suicide among LGBT people, and finding access to queer friendly counsel and health care are still difficult parts of the coming out process. Yet, much has changed since Hirschfeld’s time. The idea of sexuality as distinct from gender identity was still evolving. Most psychologists still subscribed to the inversion model of the homosexual man as “a woman on the inside” and a homosexual woman as a “man on the inside.” Hirschfeld himself proposed the idea of the homosexual as a “third sex,” though he later revised that idea after further work with his associates. Continue reading

Bernie Sanders’ Gay Pride Day Proclamation and the History of LGBT Advocacy

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Bernie Sanders’ Gay Pride Day Proclamation and the History of LGBT Advocacy

by Chase Dimock

The above image is of Bernie’s declaration of a “Gay Pride Day” in Burlington, VT in 1985. I was born in 1985, which means that this man has been advocating for my civil rights my entire life. As we near the democratic primaries, I believe it is important for the LGBT community to consider the value of such a long history of support. I don’t want to vote for a candidate that only chose to recognize my humanity when it became politically expedient. I want to vote for a candidate who has been standing up for me since day one.

To fully understand what these 30 years of advocacy mean to me, it’s important to contextualize what standing up for LGBT rights entailed in the 80s. In 1985, the LGBT community was struggling through one of its great tragedies, the AIDS epidemic. In the four years since its first documented case in 1981 (then called the “gay cancer” and later “Gay Related Immune Deficiency”) AIDS ravaged the community and claimed thousands of lives. The AIDS epidemic spurred a public panic. Little was known about the disease or its transmission other than its association with gay men as its principal victims. Just days after Bernie Sanders signed this proclamation of a “Gay Pride Day”, Ryan White, a teenager from Indiana who contracted the virus from a contaminated blood treatment, was expelled from his school due to fears he could be contagious.

While the American people’s fears stirred into a frenzy, the government’s response to help those affected by AIDS was notoriously slow. Despite thousands dead, President Reagan did not even mention AIDS until months after Bernie’s proclamation. The modern Gay Rights Movement born in the late 60s had achieved some small victories for LGBT rights through the 70s, but the AIDS epidemic threatened to erase their advances and reinforce the bigoted view of the gay man as both mentally and physically ill. Advocating for the humanity and dignity of LGBT people in the middle of the AIDS crisis meant standing against an overwhelming surge of hate, ignorance, and fear. While I applaud all allies who today advocate for LGBT liberties as courageous individuals, I must say that to do so in a time when gay men were stigmatized as plague rats and evangelists referred to AIDS as a gay punishment, required not just courage, but a bold, almost radical commitment to the belief in the principle of equality.

Yet Sanders’ statement went beyond simply stressing the humanity of these men and women. Sanders asserts “lesbians and gay men are making important contributions to the improvement of the quality of life in our city, state, and nation.” To Sanders, they were not just victims to pity, but integral members of a society that was being diminished by the great loss of LGBT talent and leadership due to AIDS. We preach tolerance in America, but mere tolerance is insufficient to deliver equality. Tolerance is just the act of allowing someone to exist. The AIDS epidemic could never be conquered through tolerance; it required compassion and an appreciation of the lives of those touched by it.

Though one could contend that the stakes of supporting LGBT rights for a mayor in Vermont were considerably lower than for a higher profile politician, it’s important to note that Sanders faced considerable opposition to his proclamation. When Sanders signed a letter of support for Burlington’s first Gay Pride celebration in 1983, the measure was met with protest. According to Paul Heinz:

Opponents, such as Alderman Diane Gallagher, a Ward 6 Republican, questioned why the march required official recognition.

“Can’t you just go out and have your party and enjoy yourselves and make your point without asking the city to have a proclamation?” she asked.  (Seven Days)

Letters to the editor were less cordial in their disapproval:

Some of them went after Sanders — particularly in letters to the editor published in the Free Press.

The mayor’s “support for ‘gay rights’ and the city’s support is giving this town a bad name,” Burlington’s Patrick McCown wrote. Essex Center’s Stephen Gons questioned why the city wouldn’t designate a day for Nazis if it was willing to do so for gays. (Seven Days)

Along with his 1985 proclamation of a Gay Pride Day, Sanders and the Board of Aldermen passed a housing non-discrimination ordinance. In a letter to the community, Sanders explained his support:

“It is my very strong view that a society which proclaims human freedom as its goal, as the United States does, must work unceasingly to end discrimination against all people.

I am happy to say that this past year, in Burlington, we have made some important progress by adopting an ordinance which prohibits discrimination in housing. This law will give legal protection not only to welfare recipients, and families with children, the elderly and the handicapped — but to the gay community as well.” (Scribd)

It is this kind of thinking about LGBT rights- the ability to see how issues like housing that are not directly related to sexuality or gender still uniquely affect LGBT individuals- that makes Sanders such a promising candidate. The LGBT community is intersectional, meaning that its members are affected by all of the other forms of discrimination present in our society. LGBT people come from all walks of life, thus issues about race, social class, immigration, and religion among many others are LGBT issues. It is crucial to understand how issues not specific to gender or sexual identity affect the cause of LGBT equality. LGBT people need access to education, health care, and a living wage. The right to marry a partner of the same sex is important, but LGBT people struggling with poverty need leadership committed to vision of social justice that sees us as whole individuals affected by all aspects of American politics and not just as an interest group defined by a single cause.

Recently, The Human Rights Campaign, the most influential LGBT organization in Washington, formally announced the endorsement of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the race for the democratic nomination. For those who have long followed the HRC, this was of little surprise because they have a history of supporting the establishment and focusing on a narrow view of LGBT issues. In 2011, The HRC awarded Goldman Sachs their “Workplace Equality Innovation Award.” (Huffington Post) In doing so, the HRC sent a clear message that their advocacy was aimed only at the interests of the most privileged of LGBT people. In praising the protections given to the handful of LGBT people who participated in Goldman Sachs’ predations on the American economy, they ignored the thousands of LGBT people who lost their jobs and homes due to the irresponsible greed of poorly regulated investment banks.

The HRC-Goldman Sachs-Clinton relationship represents a disturbing turn in LGBT politics toward the interests of the privileged over those of the community’s most vulnerable members. Goldman Sachs and other corporations used LGBT protections like domestic partner benefits to maintain the veneer of benevolence and progressiveness in the hopes that we ignore how their corporate greed has undermined many of our other civil liberties.

When I hear Sanders explaining his arguments about issues like overhauling the regulation of our financial institutions, I hear someone who is opening a space for my liberties as an LGBT person. When Sanders criticizes Citizens United and argues against the influence of big donors on the political process, I see someone who is committed to making our representatives more accountable to us. LGBT issues will be better heard and addressed when our voices aren’t drowned out by the Koch Brothers and the Sheldon Adelsons of the world. When Sanders argues for better access to education and free admission to college, I envision a better educated population less prey to the bigotry that often accompanies ignorance.

Sanders’ support for a Gay Pride Day in the 80s is just one small part of an overall philosophy of government attentive to the complicated ways in which different populations are affected by political decisions. It is one thing to voice one’s support of LGBT people, but it is quite another to demonstrate an understanding of how LGBT inequalities are generated by our political system and how they uniquely affect our community, especially when it means criticizing entrenched economic behemoths. It’s the difference between condemning an evil versus studying the roots of what causes that evil to develop. Marriage Inequality did not create homophobia, but rather marriage inequality was a symptom of homophobia caused by a nation living in an unequal system. It is Sanders’ commitment to addressing the economic, political, and social roots of inequality that will most benefit the future of LGBT rights.

A Review of Molly Beth Griffin’s Silhouette of a Sparrow

Griffin_Sparrow

 

A Review of Molly Beth Griffin’s

Silhouette of a Sparrow

by Jeff Moscaritolo

 

On your next trip to a bookstore, check out the YA section (if you weren’t already planning to), and conduct the following experiment: Find the books targeting female readers. You may notice a pattern—covers that feature female figures, dressed fashionably (sometimes in fantasy/period garb), with long, windblown, straightened-then-curled hair. Their bodies are thin and seductively posed, sometimes alone, sometimes alongside a dashing male figure, sometimes almost-kissing said male. Oh, the toils of needing boys. In many cases, these attractive female bodies are effectively faceless—their faces are turned away or hidden in shadow or cropped out entirely—and when they do have faces, the lips are plump, the eyes seductive, and floating near them are saucy captions like Love will kill us all or Is true love worth the ultimate sacrifice? Now, these books may well contain progressive, non-problematic messages—admittedly, I don’t tend to read them—but perhaps a book design pattern this blatant points toward a problem in (some) YA literature: Female readers being told how to be sexy for men.

For this reason, novels like Molly Beth Griffin’s Silhouette of a Sparrow are especially important. The story, set in 1920s Minnesota, follows sixteen-year-old Garnet who, while spending the summer with relatives in the resort town of Excelsior, encounters a vibrant and impulsive flapper. They become fast friends, and Garnet, a proper, rule-abiding young lady, soon finds herself lying to her aunt and cousin and sneaking out to spend time with Isabella.

Though Silhouette of a Sparrow is “meant” for young adult readers, its relevance and lyricism make it a poignant read for adults as well. By juxtaposing Garnet’s family life—that of postwar wealth and Victorian-esque stifling of female independence—against her growing romance with Isabella, Griffin weaves a coming-of-age story that is as nuanced as it is poignant. Her hero glimmers with youthful wisdom and honesty, and her lyricism leaps from the page. The book opens:

I was born blue. Life ripped me early from my safe place and thrust me into the world. It was all so astonishing that I forgot to breathe.

This is a character who, from birth, has been acted upon forcibly by “life.” Yet as her dramatic summer unfolds, Garnet begins to claim her own agency—“I was free from the confinement of ‘home,’ free from idle hours and dull company and mundane work”—and, in doing so, realizes the impact agency has on her self-understanding (a struggle that is, of course, deeply rooted in sexuality).

Throughout all this, Griffin engages the symbolic imagination through Garnet’s hobby—making cut-outs of the many birds she sees. When describing her silhouette-cutting process to Isabella, Garnet says it’s about seeing and deconstructing boundaries. “You have to see it differently. You have to follow its edges and know that it’s an egret only because it isn’t water or sky or beach.”

This is one of those books that entices and involves while simultaneously having real potential to do some good in the world. Floating casually among books with simplistic, privilege-reinforcing romances, this LGBT young adult novel asks the sophisticated questions: “Do we all change when we try to attract a lover? Do we all try to be more beautiful, or more bold, or more intelligent, or just more brilliantly ourselves?”

Molly Beth Griffin, Silhouette of a Sparrow, Milkweed Editions (winner of the Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature), 2012: $16.95.

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Jeff Moscaritolo holds an MFA from George Mason University. His short fiction has been published in Paper Darts, Carve, and Indiana Review (forthcoming). He lives and writes in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Growing up on the Island of Misfit Toys or: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a Queer Allegory

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Growing up on the Island of Misfit Toys

or:

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a Queer Allegory

By Chase Dimock

The Misfit Narrative and Queer Youth

The narrative of the misfit character struggling to find his place in the world is a well-used trope for popular entertainment because it is nearly universally identifiable and it lends itself to a light, yet redeeming moral at the end of the story. Everyone, in some capacity, thinks of himself or herself as a misfit to some degree and everyone is accustomed to, yet never contesting of, the simplistic message of tolerance and treating everyone equally.

Yet, the story of Rudolph as a misfit takes on a different dimension for the 50 years worth of queer American children who grew up watching the holiday classic every year on television. While these stories about kindly treating those different from us and not being afraid to be different were commonplace in the American classroom with their examples of not being ashamed to wear glasses, have freckles, stutter, etc., the narrative of tolerating difference resonates differently for queer youth. Unlike the child with glasses who knows he is the same as other children beneath the glasses, queer youth often feel an intrinsic difference—that they inhabit a different kind of body or gender—almost another species of being. The queer youth is looking for more than a little hope that they will be tolerated and accepted; they are also looking for a subject model to emulate, a guide on how to live as a misfit.

For most of the past 50 years, lgbt youth have had to look for subject models in the abstract. Until the past decade, there were few, if any, lgbt-identified characters in the media that their family consumed. Unlike today, where lgbt youth have a character on Glee or Modern Family to point to in order to navigate their lgbt subject position, children of previous generations (including myself) had to look elsewhere for characters and subject models who mirrored their queerness in non-explicitly gendered or sexual forms. Coming into one’s gay identity meant identifying across a variety of different kinds of queerness and cobbling together a sense of how to think and live in a marginalized subject position by observing and learning from other forms of outsider status, like racial minorities, the disabled, immigrants, the poor—pretty much any oppressed class of people who had some representation in the media.

In a certain way, maturing into my gay subjectivity by identifying through the similar outsider subject positions of others was beneficial because I saw my gayness as united with other disadvantaged segments of the population. It allowed me to see that some of the challenges facing the lgbt world come not simply from sexual or gender difference, but also from how society defines and polices otherness. In contrast, growing up today with gay visibility in the mainstream media cuts out some of the grappling and self-invention that the queer youth historically went through in understanding their sexual or gender identity. Now they are given preformed, and usually limited, definitions of what constitutes an lgbt person. There is a greater sense of tolerance and acceptance, but oddly enough, lgbt identity becomes the freckles and glasses of the 21st century. Queerness is written out of lgbt identity as one’s constitutional difference is made one dimensional, aesthetic—like how the oft repeated message of not judging a man by the color of his skin leads children to believe that racism is absurd because it is about an arbitrary difference of physical appearance instead of its true basis in a long history of cultural, political, and economic oppression.

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This is the legacy that the “be nice to those who are different” and “be proud to be different” morals have left modern lgbt youth now that movements like the It Gets Better Project have updated this message for the 21st century. These are fine messages to begin with: on the very basic level, we should indeed be nice to those who are different and be proud of our differences. Yet, just like how the It Gets Better Project (in spite of itself) became a vehicle for press-seeking celebrities and corporations to dilute its specifically lgbt oriented message with vague assertions of “hang in there kids”, so too does this tolerance fable often miss the supposed point of its own message. It’s okay to be different, but more often than not, the happy ending of the story is that the misfit learns that their difference is their key to fitting in. Rudolph’s red nose is accepted once it is discovered that society has a use for it and he can fit in at the front of Santa’s sleigh. When the misfit’s happy ending is finally finding a place to fit in within the same social system that had once rejected him, ultimately the moral of the story is to tolerate only minor, superficial differences. The moral of the story declares it is okay to be a misfit by showing how a misfit has a place in society—which renders him no longer a misfit. It is the story of social assimilation—difference is tolerable as long as it fits into the social hierarchy and structure and does not threaten it.

This is the same problem that lgbt youth face today as society has become more accepting of gay identity and more exposure has been granted to gay characters in the media. There is increasing support for coming out as gay, but because modern lgbt activism has stressed its “normality” as the key to gaining rights, one comes out to a specific idea of what gay sexuality constitutes, including a preconceived identity politics and culture. One may come out as different from the societal norm of heterosexuality, but that child is reinscribed into the system of cultural norms by being expected to adhere to the norms of lgbt identity.  Now that there are “uses” for the gay man in society (largely stereotypes of the interior decorator, hair dresser, stage producer, though there is no shame in these vocations) he is encouraged to come out because there are non-threatening, economically viable uses for his labor in mainstream society. His misfit status isn’t accepted or defended, because ultimately society has a found a “fit” for him that serves the dominant culture.

While the story of Rudolph participates in this discourse of sympathizing with the misfit not by defending the right to be different, but by trying to trivialize his difference, the story is also remarkable in how it identifies the political, cultural, and social roots of how we determine “otherness” while vaguely hinting at a possible alternate social arrangement. Through Rudolph’s story, we can see how the queer subject is constituted through 1. Sexism and the Patriarchal Family System (Donner’s [the father’s] fear that his son’s nose will prevent him from maturing into a proper, heterosexual patriarch) 2. Industry, Capitalism, and the Means of Production (How Santa’s system of production values certain traits amenable to his production of toys) and 3. Through Class (and Possibly Racial) Identity (The Reindeer and Elves as permanent underclasses of laborers with essentialized identities that lock them into their drudgery) Finally, when Rudolph and Hermey the elf band together as misfits, become “independent together”, and visit the Island of Misfit Toys, the film suggests an alternative kinship structure where difference within the social system is not defined against an internal norm, but as a virtue proper to itself. Yet, the Island of Misfit Toys is a paradise lost, a queer utopia that could have been. They present the possibility of a society based not on prefabricated social roles, but on mutual support of each other’s individuality.

1. Sexism and the Patriarchal Family System

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 12.16.23 PM A child is never born as a blank slate. Not only does he begin life with unique genetic traits that will influence his course of life (including the proclivity toward what we call homosexual desire and gender feelings) he is also born into a subject position preconceived by his parents, and by association, their social position. As the son of one of Santa’s reindeer, Rudolph’s identity is already predetermined by his sex and social position. This is the legacy of patriarchy: his manhood, future vocation, place within the reindeer community, and concomitant beliefs and values are all formulated for him before he has the ability to understand any of it because he was conceived in his father’s image to become a patriarch himself.

Rudolph’s nose frightens his father because it jeopardizes his and his son’s position in the social hierarchy of the North Pole. Homosexuality or queerness is denigrated in the classic patriarchal system because it assumes that with the homosexual’s refusal to sexually reproduce, (though this is not always the case now) that the homosexual will then refuse to reproduce the social relations of patriarchy. Rudolph, the queer child, understands early in his life what the expectations are for his life, and while he cannot quite understand what they mean in the broader picture of society, he can already sense he is failing to meet them because of his difference. Queerness is always constructed as a failure to maintain an unquestioned norm, and that this queerness is some how unnatural.  Yet, if we are a culture that presumes a certain individual self-fashioning, that we have the ability to choose parts of who we are, then to the contrary, nothing could be more “artificial” and “abnormal” than to have such social expectations from outside foisted onto a child and to judge him by them before he can understand them as an individual.

The film shows us how the patriarchal system that mandates heterosexuality is far from normal or natural, but rather, how it is a product of learning to become a man and performing manhood in a fashion legible to the social definition held by peers and elders. We see this clearly in the reindeer games scene, where Rudolph, with his nose concealed behind a black prosthesis, begins his lessons in learning how to fly (and impress the does in the process) through the tutelage of a gym teacher charged with “making bucks out of [them]”. Masculinity is revealed to be not a completely natural attribute, but instead something that one learns to signify according to cultural codes. The process of becoming a man is thus contingent upon performing manhood convincingly in front of women as other males watch and become envious of one’s successful performance of masculinity before women.

Although it is presumed that the point of exhibiting masculinity is the end goal of attaining a woman, the woman is revealed to be only the signifier of one’s masculinity in the eyes of other males. Rudolph demonstrates his superior talent in flying, bolstered by his confidence after Clarice tells him she finds him cute, but when his prosthesis falls off and his nose is revealed, the other young deer, the coach, and Santa himself recoil in horror and then mock him as unfit to be a future member of the sleigh team. Despite the ridicule, Clarice comes to comfort Rudolph and restate her interest in him. However, her approval alone does not console Rudolph and he decides to run away. If the true objective of heterosexuality (as it is imposed on us as a cultural institution) was to simply develop a coupling with a woman, then Clarice’s approval would be sufficient. However, what the scene of ridicule and shame reveals is that normative heterosexuality is not about the mere coupling of man and woman, but about being able to signify one’s normality and agency to the rest of the world through the woman. Rudolph is queer even though he has won the affections of a female because in this classic patriarchal structure, the female is a mere signifier of normality, an object that does not have the power to recognize and validate the man in of herself. Rather, the man is validated through other men who evaluate him through his possession of a woman as an element of his manhood.

2. Industry, Capitalism, and the Means of Production

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There is a telling exchange between Rudolph and his father that hints at the origins of his father’s judgments of conformity when he first imposes the prosthetic black nose on his son. Rudolph complains that the prosthesis is uncomfortable and Donner retorts, “There are more important things than comfort, self respect! Santa can’t object to you now!” Although Donner reacts to Rudolph’s nose in personal horror and disgust, the true origin of that sentiment is product of the norms set down by a higher authority. As the factory owner, controller of the means of production, and resident 1%er of the North Pole, Santa has the power to shape the culture and ideology of the inhabitants of the land who are dependent on his near monopoly on local industry in order to make a living.  It is never clear why Santa at first disapproves of Rudolph’s nose, but of course, once he realizes during the storm that his nose can guide his sleigh and save his industry, he convinces everyone that something he once treated as a deformity is now a virtue.

When Rudolph is given the lead position in front of the sleigh at the end of the film, Donner states that he knew Rudolph’s nose would be a good thing all along, thus changing his personal set of values based on the opinions of the man who controls the means of production, for whom virtues and values revolve around what is good for his industry. Thus, in a Marxist way, the story illustrates the power that those who control the means of production have in manufacturing public ideology, with the power to change cultural norms based on what is expedient for production. What was once denigrated as queer and shunned can be ingratiated back into society as a virtue based on its profitability.

3. Policing Class (and possibly racial) Identity

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Are the reindeer human? Are the elves human? They seem to possess conscious, self-aware minds, the symbolic capacity of language, and the ability to social organize in a civilization, but they both seem, as well, to occupy a permanent underclass status at the North Pole. The entirety of the Reindeer community revolves around pulling Santa’s sleigh. They are animals living in caves, yet they possess the capacity to reason and communicate like a human. We see the same situation with the elves. They clearly possess human qualities, yet all elves are expected to work mindless assembly line jobs with the exception of Hermey who pursues a desire to perform intellectually satisfying labor as a dentist. Even Rudolph, with his cruel treatment as a misfit, upholds the status quo that he become the member of Santa’s team that all reindeer are predestined by the culture to become. Only Hermey questions the unexamined norm that a certain racial (if we can think of elves as a race) or species identity biologically predisposes the individual to the subservient and oppressed status of their people.

Rudolph’s non-conformity is biological. Hermey’s non-conformity is a product of intellect, but he is treated as if there is something constitutionally wrong with him when he declares he does not like making toys, that he is sick of making the fastest RC cars and would rather become a dentist. The essentialism instilled in the proletarian class of elves by the dominant culture makes them feel as though their place at the bottom of the chain of production is somehow written into their genes. Instead of raging against the system of production that ensures their subservient status, they berate and bully Hermey for aspiring to perform non-mechanized labor and pursue scientific knowledge as a dentist Hermey is a misfit simply because he possesses class-consciousness and defies the essentialist construction of the elves as a permanent class identity.

The bullying that both Hermey and Rudolph endure illustrates how often the bully is himself in a position of oppression and limited power. Bullying then comes from an individual or group that represses thoughts of their limited agency by taking it out on a weaker individual. The bully hates the misfit because the misfit is a living, breathing symbol of his own limited power on the grand scale of society.

In both Donner’s treatment of Rudolph and the fellow elves’ treatment of Hermey, the film illuminates the role that industry and capitalism play in creating cultural norms and values, constructing essentialisms of identity, and leaving those in the oppressed position to police each other. Queerness as a degraded quality is set by those who realize (perhaps unconsciously) that a figure that does not fit into the norms of production has the capacity to question its logic. By marginalizing and subjugating the queer, those who produce culture eliminate voices of dissent through the policing power of the very group that shares that misfit’s struggle. Only when the misfit has become too powerful or too inconvenient to ignore do capitalism and what Adorno called the Culture Industry, offer a place of enfranchisement, safely locked within the system of production.

The Island of Misfit Toys as a Lost Queer Utopia

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When Hermey and Rudolph unwittingly meet one another as they both run away from the oppressive conditions of life in the North Pole, their bond based on mutual outsider status suggests the possibility of an alternative model of social relations not based on essentialized gender, class, or racial identity and status. Hermey and Rudolph agree to be “independent together,” based on the fact that Hermey does not mind Rudolph’s nose and that Rudolph does not mind that Hermey is a dentist, although he has no concept of what a dentist is. The idea of difference in their relationship is not monstrous or threatening—Rudolph is not phased by Hermey outing himself as an identity that Rudolph does not comprehend because he recognizes the more important way in which they are similar.

The idea of being independent together is obviously phrased as a contradiction—yet in synthesizing two supposedly opposite states of being, the contradiction is not on Hermey and Rudolph for desiring such a model of a relationship, but it is instead a reflection on society’s binary thinking that presumes one cannot be independent, different, queer, and be engaged in a community or relationship at the same time. We saw previously that in the North Pole, living in society meant subservience to specific roles based on one’s gender, class, or racial identity both in the community and in one’s own household. Independence and individuality is arrested for the sake of fulfilling one’s social roles. Queerness is then the state of individuality that calls attention to the desires suppressed by the constraints of one’s social role, and its oppression is the product of its threat to damage the structure of the social system by going against them.

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 6.56.24 PM Yet, the independent together, dentist and red-nosed reindeer relationship suggests that queerness and difference need not be threatening to a sense of community and mutually beneficial personal relationships. Rather, it illustrates that part of the basic unhappiness of the individual in civilization is in his attempt to find meaningful relationships within traditional systems of kinship, labor, and culture that require him to repress certain parts of his self and contort his identity to fit the paradigm of the role through which he can gain recognition. With Rudolph and Hermey, there is no predetermined relationship schema, no essentialized roles, just mutual recognition of the other’s right to individuality and the desire to create a relationship that supports each others’ desire. Their pairing implies the possibility of an alternate form of kinship and community and the right of the individual to seek and define their own form of community and define relationships outside of tradition.

This is where I come to the Island of Misfit Toys. At first, when Rudolph and Hermey arrive, they have a sense that perhaps they have finally found a place where they can truly belong. If an entire community equally shares the concept of being a misfit, then perhaps everyone can live together equally. Without a norm with which to fit into, the idea of being a misfit could be erased entirely from the culture. Yet, nobody on the Island of Misfit Toys is happy with their misfit status. They possess community, a common identity and desire, a support network, yet this functional culture makes none of them happy.

As it is explained to Rudolph, Hermey, and the audience, this base unhappiness is due to the fact that “a toy is never happy until it is loved by a child.” Once again, we come back to the psychological problem of recognition—specifically that individuals seek happiness, fulfillment, and love by being recognized by certain authorities that they grant the power to recognize them on those terms. Just as Clarice’s affection is not enough to keep Rudolph at home because he seeks the recognition of other men, so too is the community among other misfit toys not enough to make them happy because they seek the recognition of a child. Toys are literally fabricated for the specific amusement of a child, engineered to be useful based on whether or not the child finds the toy engaging. The same can be said for the psyche of the individual who does not question the cultural ideologies that have inculcated in him as a child, the need to find recognition in certain forms of authority.

What child could love a pistol that shoots jelly?

What child could love a pistol that shoots jelly?

The child instinctively seeks the recognition of a parent, and as they emerge into society, that desire to find recognition from a paternal or maternal figure is projected onto social institutions such as the government, industry, the church, etc. Patriarchy is not just the rule of one’s father, but the way in which institutions operate paternalistically. The inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys never question the source of their need for recognition, much like how many queer individuals continue to seek recognition and approval from institutions that want little to do with them.

The misfit toys miss the opportunity to find mutual recognition in each other and to appreciate how their community can rectify the kinds of ideology that resulted in their degraded status as misfits. In this allegory, there is a message for the modern lgbt community—that if it questions the basis of the oppressive norms of a society that calls them outcasts instead of desiring to fit in at the cost of assimilation, it can build the forms of recognition and “independence together” to create forms of relationships that avoid the oppression of traditional social roles.

Yet, the moral of Rudolph stops short of this possibility. Non-conformity is presented as the root of unhappiness, and the moral of the story is ultimately that normal people should work to be accepting of the abnormal so long as they don’t disrupt the status quo of gender, class, and race too much. Rudolph, Hermey, and even the Abominable Snow Monster eventually find a place in the society of the North Pole once the powers that be realize that their abnormalities can be put to productive use for Santa’s industry.

Even misfits have a place in society. I can agree with this sentiment, but not as the film intends. Misfits do have a place in society, and that is to critique its abuses, to agitate for the reformation of oppressive social and political institutions, and to think creatively about alternatives.  Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer points at the possibilities of using the figure of the misfit to examine to roots of the abuses people face in modern society, and it is for this reason that it can be used to teach about the production of otherness and the experience of queer identity.

(This article was original featured on The Qouch)