Tag Archives: LGBT

My Little Pony Women

I must give dues to my brother for this title – which cries out to be a spoof.

For 20 years, I considered that Louisa May Alcott’s 1860s classic of a New England family was very worthy of one: saccharine self giving, bucolic innocuity, inoffensive innocence, all heading towards the only telos for these female penned classics: early marriage – or death.

Like so many of the repeatedly adapted literature – the latest screen offering is no 3 in 25 years, and the second in only 2 – the title could so easily be confused: My Younger Sister, Wives and Daughters, and tellingly, the sequel of this saga – Good Wives. And yes, this sort of story appeals to the (my little) pony loving girl who wants to grow up to find a good loving neighbour to marry and to produce foals of her own.

Fed up of the pure-so-as-not-to-offend classics, I was perturbed when this turned up on a book group reading list 2 years ago. I cringed often. The opening dialogue is what modern writing schools deride as exposition – giving information via clunky dialogue. I fished out the 1994 film, which I mercifully found second hand for only 50p, and expected to return it after a single viewing.

But I discovered from that book group a different Little Women. Having just seen the new Greta Gerwig film, I have further sought out the alternative, if not real readings of LM Alcott.

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SPOILER ALERT

When I first read the book, before seeing any adaptations, I saw much of Jo in myself and hoped for a Teddy. In realising that Jo was not destined for this lovely friend, but an older foreigner (I couldn’t imagine being or loving a 40 year old at half that age), I stormed across my university corridor to throw the book at my friend. Gabriel Byrne in the soon following film didn’t assuage that feeling. What was Louisa up to? She’d set up the romance we all wanted and then gave this man to the snub nosed vain younger sister. It was like comparable Anne of Green Gables not getting Gilbert. The Canadian TV with Megan Follows dangled an older man at her whilst away – who’s not in the novels – but she swiftly turns him down and back on course to her childhood friend. But not Jo.

There’s much in common in these east side of North America tales: female writers with the same initials living in a rural close community; semi autobiographical vignettes creating a long running series; an imaginative impassioned heroine striving to be good, and a childhood male friend who’s always loved her, but needs to move away and dabble in other romance to come back to marry her.

And – a scary dose of scarlet fever, replete with brow mopping, and a memorable tragic death.

For me, there really is one Little Woman – the other three sisters are backdrop to Jo, foils and catalysts to her character.

The writing advice both Anne and Jo are given by their male friends is to drop the fanciful racy stuff they’re churning out, and write what they know…local tales about and for local people. Something I took on board, but I see more kindred now in the pirate adventures of sinners who may or may not repent…

I discovered in 2017 that Little Women’s writing advice is the opposite of what LM Alcott wanted. She preferred her pirate stories to the best known tales (there are many others) which she called ‘moral pap’ – exactly what I had come to see them as. Louisa (May we be on first name terms) grew up in a community which practised Transcendentalism, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Louisa’s father was visionary but poor. Amos Bronson Alcott persuaded his publisher to take his work if his daughter gave him the ‘moral pap’ for girls she had been persuaded to turn out (instead of her colourful preferred genre). So Little Women was born out of family loyalty and financial need. Louisa’s racier work was published under a pseudonym. (Amen sister!)

Louisa didn’t marry and didn’t want Jo to, but her publisher and her public demanded it for all of the girls – save Beth, who died too soon. On lesbian website After Ellen, a 2007 piece by Browne points out that a later character in the story, Nan, remains single to pursue a career. This same article states that Little Women took 43rd place in a LGBT book list, surprising the author, and me… but then, it made sense…

Jo March is boyish and does not behave with the decorum expected of a proper young woman – much to her older sister’s chagrin. Jo often says she’d like to be a boy, and dresses as one in the Pickwick Society meetings and charades. It might be that in her era, women had such little rein that she may have simply perceived that being male gave her more options. (Her neighbour shows us that rich men also had reins.) Jo is possessive over her sisters, but marriage can feel a kind of loss to a long running closeknit set up. But then there is the quote from Louisa about having loved many women and no men, and one wonders if this isn’t so much a modern queer eye but actually what was intended. I note that unlike Anne Shirley, Jo March is not allowed a female bosom pal. The companion Jo does have is a brotherly one. They play silly juvenile games – unfitting for these old before their time Little Women. Louisa didn’t want the relationship with Teddy to be a prelude to marriage and felt that Jo would turn Laurie down. It took me two decades to agree.

Greta Gerwig, who made Ladybird and is partner of Noah ‘Squid and the Whale’ Baumbach, has brought the alternative reading to the fore. Laurie is played by an actor known for a same sex relationship role (Timothee Chalamet from Call Me By Your Name). Saoirse Ronan’s Jo seems distinctly tomboyish and her haircut, picked up in Timmy Timato’s parody, is a choppy ‘dykey’ style – cf the very different crop on Winona Ryder.

I’m uncomfortable with the implication that being non gender standard or like the opposite sex is synonymous with being gay or trans. That’s something I write against in my own novels. Neither Jo nor Laurie have same sex potential companions to demonstrate or deny this thesis.

This version also brings out the writing dilemma for Ms March, reflecting Ms Alcott’s. She’s made to give an unsatisfactory ending regarding the German professor, as well as standing up to publishers wanting to pay her pittance and take the copyright. This made me cheer in the cinema, although I also know that paid writing and acclaim come far too soon to writers in fiction.

It focusses less on the other aspects of March/Alcott life, which the Gillian Anderson film did pick up: Jo discusses Transcendentalism with Prof Bhaer, which he points out is an old German philosophy; Meg March is ribbed for not wearing silk because her family deride the child labour used to make it; and Susan Sarandon opines about women’s roles in hers as Marmee. I think there’s even a critique of the medical world: rich patriarch neighbour turns up announced with his personal physician for Beth, but the doctor can’t do anything both his methods put Beth more at risk.

Marmee March is sent for, and not only a mother and sisters’ love and care aid Beth, but she knows to draw the fever out by the feet with natural remedies.

Aunt March represents the world that is being critiqued and broken free from. Money, decorum, right by privilege… No wonder this aunt chooses vain, money loving Amy to be her globetrotting companion over Jo. Aunt’s death isn’t hugely mourned – she’s just got a house to make into a school to begin a new kind of education – like LM Alcott’s father did. No film really dramatised the real reason that Amy was punished and removed from the local school. The book says that the girls were governed by love alone, which is extraordinary for the day. Yet love can be a manipulative source – pleasing Marmee or Father to do good and strive towards perfection is as much a bit in the mouth as fear and punishment.

Note what little role Father plays… he’s absent even when he’s present again. This is a Women’s family, with a female head – who gets her slippers prewarmed – and a matriarch ruler Aunt, whereas next door, it’s the Laurences who are the male refraction of that: a repressive, rich household with a kind heart against a poorer, freer, less conventional clan.

Father is given a bigger role in the BBC/Masterpiece version of 2017/18 – the writer working for 2 decades on his book, which I sympathise with, but his daughter gets her validation through quick publication and fees, even when it’s not her best work or what her heart’s in. Research has made me wonder if I don’t have more sympathy for Amos Alcott than his daughter. Even the author of the website about him criticises Amos Bronson Alcott, but these detractors are applying their own conventional materialistic standards to a man who flouted the glory and profit ridden institutions who line their pockets. I found him intriguing and extraordinary, and perhaps it is unfair that his daughter – who conformed by churning out the stories her public but not she wanted, putting earnings first – is better known than her trailblazing philosopher and educational pioneer father. Whatever Louisa felt about him – she satirised his Fruitlands farm experiment – or the likes of Harriet Reisin who made a book and film about the family, Mrs Abigail Alcott stood by her husband and the purity of his principles. And for that, I admire both parents.

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I’ve written before of Kate Winslet’s roles being often about the corset coming off, or in the case of Marianne Dashwood, putting it on. I think that many stories, women’s period especially (yes I know what I’ve just written) are about that dichotomy. Which is Little Women?

Jo and Laurie are both beasts not living like Aunt March’s dog – good, squeaky, housetrained creatures all for show and taking orders. Marmee is the tamed Jo, in whom Jo’s spirit still resides.

Beth comes pre-tamed, and thus can leave the world early, having attained the goodness that her sisters need to continue to work on for some years yet. The ideal of Transcendentalism, selfless, ungrudging Beth accepts illness and death without fear or regret. Meg is proper, and quickly accepts the life that most women then – and til recently – wish for. Although not rich, she becomes wife and mother whilst young, leading the others towards what could feel like compromise. Meg is to Jo what Diana is to Anne Shirley – yoking herself to roly poly Fred Wright/John Brooke in dull domesticity, not a marriage we’re meant to get excited over. They both stay local whilst our real heroines start travelling.

I’m still struggling with these books, for its queer queer portrayal as much as its ideals, which includes that swift publication and earning are preferred over keeping to one’s principles. And I’m still perturbed that Little Women with its central thesis of abnegation remains so popular. Maybe I’ll be assembling some plastic ponies in front of a video camera after all.

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What I think of Christians at Pride

There was quite a noisy group at my recent most local LGBT etc Pride, who now have a prominent stall. They have their own uniforms – a T-shirt with a slogan which matches their banner; and then a self styled one of rainbow dog collars… for these are Christians, and several are clergy.

On one hand, it’s to be applauded that this group is there and is trying to be visible, despite the fact that some other Christians criticise them. I also overheard a flag clad woman holding the hand of another comment: I hate it when the Church tries to join in with our day.

And I – a woman on the outer edges of both worlds – understood that.

The Christians in the parade want to say: we accept you, LGBT+ people. (Often they mean just gay… I’m not sure churches have got their heads round all the letters yet.) They acknowledge that Christianity and other faiths have hitherto persecuted their gay siblings – and some still do.

I’d like to point out that the notion that same sex love as being something to decry and exclude over has come from faith groups.

Many of those who still judge homosexuals are those with a conservative faith.

So one could say that the need for Pride came out of religious prohibition, which influenced laws and morals and medicine, so that what denounces LGBT people can be traced to faith roots.

Hence, it’s brave but ironic that there is a Christian presence at Pride.

Sadly like many, I have experienced struggle in coming to terms with not being heterosexual, especially as a woman of faith. I’ve written and published a novel about it, which is available to buy from many online sources, called Parallel Spirals. There will be a sequel.

I happen to know that many of the people on the Christian stall and march are not LGBT. They’re allies, but they have not experienced the challenges of the realisation that you are other, and that otherness may not be welcome. They have not sat in a pew (or sofa with a smoothie, if you’re that kind of church) wondering if the message of God’s love and theirs will still apply if this church really knew them and who they loved. Would they still get a hug (or even a handshake) in the peace; would they still get an invite to homegroups or youth or elder groups or those endless barbecues or garden parties if the truth about them was known? Would they still be allowed their positions of leadership if it was known what they were really like? Do these church people know what it’s like to earnestly search scripture to see if they really are condemned? NO YOU AREN’T, by the way!! Do they have to hear exhortions about the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman and the inevitable family you’re supposed to have, and feel nervous and excluded? Have they had to put up with people who have – almost for granted – what you don’t, and tell you that you can’t have it – namely marriage and family?

Of course, nongay people in church have other kinds of suffering and misfitting, and it might allow them to have great empathy and solidarity with the people that Pink Pride is about. I’ve heard people speak of other kinds of otherness… it’s not only LGBT people who feel a sense of not fitting, if not exclusion, in their faith communities.

But some seem to be presumptious and patronising. Is it fair to say it’s like white people in a Black celebration saying “We weren’t slaves ourselves, but we do know how you feel”? Of course it’s their way of saying – you never should have been, and we stand with you to show we’re not part of that. We see the well-meaning as much as we might cringe at the execution.

It’s also easy for the oppressed to allow no outsiders to sympathise. Am I angry at men against  violence against women in White Ribbon? Have I not applauded those who stand with something they’re not? Would I not march in solidarity with something  I care about, and be put off if I was told that I had no right to, as I’m outside the oppressed group?

I observed this tribe within a tribe with bemusement, oblivious to how their rainbow stickers and collars seemed amongst the outre costumes, squirting their God’s love like bubbles to passers by with the proffering of a gay positive sticker and a few words…but these little interactions felt like that delicate transient rainbow film.

Or actually, was that bubble the start of a new idea, a new relationship?

So am I saying that Christians shouldn’t have a stall at Pride? Am I saying that their well intentioned solidarity is wrong? No…but am am saying: your message has to be relevant and congruent and consistent, and be aware of how it looks from the other side. Don’t pretend you easily understand when you don’t… But actually, you might. And yes, I do think my novel can help with that. Listen to LGBT people and hear their stories. It will mean really chatting – often in a way that you can’t at fast moving, raucous Prides – and really sitting with them, being prepared to follow up, and to hear how LGBT+ people feel about faith and church and what it’s done to them. And to put it right and show a better way. As I know you can.

And actually, I’m quite touched that a group gives up its day to show that solidarity for something they aren’t, risking censure from both sides, and to transform the view and relationship from judgement and exclusion into love and welcome.

 

 

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Are gay groups the voice of the gay population?

In a word, no. I’ve never liked the word lesbian or queer but I do include bi women. I can’t speak for trans or men but I suspect some of them will agree.

Much of the talking is done by community leaders, and it’s not the voice of many of us. Note I don’t call rainbow people a community – I think we are diverse and it’s like calling women a community. There are communities about being LGBT etc but not all of us answering to those letters are in them, or feel part of them. We feel in general that a few are speaking for the whole and that those who attend Pride and similar meetings are not reflective of the non-straight population, and so are not the best place to find out what our needs and views are.

I have heard it said publicly that gay people don’t like the gay section of the libraries, bookshops etc. I’d like to counteract that by saying – thank you to those who have one for making books about gay issues easily findable. However, the books and films are of a particularly ilk – often small press/indie film studios which are low quality and the women are quite often depicted as butch and in the gay scene. I’d like to see the much broader range of books about gay people double shelved so that they’re in the main section so everyone can discover and enjoy them, and they are displayed somewhere so gay people can browse easily (same with films). By putting gay books in a gay corner, it means they get a small circulation and so are not very viable. And isn’t (or shouldn’t) the point of many gay media materials be to integrate and be better understood with/by wider society?

I’d like to illustrate with an example from two film festivals, both in the same city over the same summer. The Lesbian and Gay one showed in a 30 seater screen in the arts cinema as one off showings at obscure times, all to ‘visible’ lesbians, and you’d probably feel uncomfortable trying to go to a movie if you didn’t match the sexuality/gender. Then I went to two films at the International festival, also about gay women. The multiplex large auditoria were packed with all kinds of people. As the female filmmakers said in their Q and A, it is a story about love for everyone – but they just happen to love each other. People had come to see a good story, not a ghetto special interest film. Things like Brokeback Mountain and Tipping the Velvet prove how well a gay storyline can do if shown to a wide audience.

I’ve also heard it said that the angst ridden storylines are not reflective of us. Again, I’d like to contradict by saying that sadly for many, it is real and this is ongoing due to the community itself as much as the (happily improving) outside world. I don’t think that all the storylines should be about suffering, but generally – stories are about conflict and tension – it’s what makes them. (I say this as a writer working on publishing a book soon on this kind of subject). First love, coming of age, personal epiphanies are the stuff of stories for everyone. It’s something we can all relate to, but like a religion, it’s true that the content needs to go beyond the initial stage and reflect the rest of lives (ie sermons about conversion don’t help you move forward spiritually once you have come to faith). But for many, it is a vital and ongoing stage that happens not just to teens but people at all ages (also to friends and families).

I don’t have a problem with being gay being classed in the issue section of books; it is one, sadly, for many. And even if all society accepted it, it’s still confusing and it is helpful to know you are not alone and where to go for support should things be hard for you. And that as sexuality is fluid, it’s not a case of come out and that’s it – I say it’s pin not nail the tail on the donkey, and it’s nice to have books and films which reflect those changes too.

What has been hardest for me (and others I know) is the sense of otherness from the rainbow community. Instead of coming home, it feels like another group to have to conform to or be other there too. Despite the talk of diversity, I’ve found the gay communities I’ve met to tacitly expect conformity and to be as didactic as any religious group I’ve been part of. And many have also had prejudices, eg “real lesbians not bis”!!

I feel strongly that being gay (or trans etc) is not an identity, it is not who we are, but just one aspect of our personalities. I have found so many of the rainbow gang want it to be the distinguishing defining factor, the thing we most put forward about ourselves.

And I sense a lot of anger and prickliness from LGB etc people during this transition to greater societal acceptance, and I think that is counterproductive.

It’s also more complex than being simply an existential statement – sexuality and friendship and their changing boundaries are fascinating and not always compatible with the definition of “fact”.

I too would like to see positive resolution to any stressful story, but I also think expecting to be embraced in the short timespace of a teen novel is unlikely, sadly, for some. I know people who’ve been waiting decades for their families to come round, and I’d rather equip people to handle that not everyone is supportive from the start than to expect it and be surprised when it doesn’t happen; but to obviously encourage wider society to offer that support from the outset.

I think we are in a transitional time and there’s often clunkiness and imbalance while things change, just as equal opportunities and political correctness goes too far, they are trying to address important matters. I think some gay people are expecting too much of a change too soon, and if they came out long ago, or benefitted from more supportive modern attitudes, it might be that they cannot understand the need for some of these story lines. I’d ask them to be patient as society continues its vast shift towards acceptance.
I’d also like to ask that communities don’t dish out otherness and judgement to their own. Rainbow colours really are about the whole spectrum, so we should move on from simply shades of pink to embracing and listening to all the shades, instead of creating a double bind that causes marginalisation and confusion to continue, even in countries where diversity is openly celebrated and protected.

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