Friday, January 13, 2006

words for things

So, I've been thinking a lot about identity (specifically, mine; this is a personal blog after all), and how it's shaped by culture and location and media. Media, especially--books, tv, magazines, movies, music, blogs. Words and what they name. There's an Emma Donoghue story called "Words for Things", about the teenage daughter of an Irish aristocratic family in the 18th century, who falls for her governess. There's a scene where she steals the dictionary in her father's library and looks up words, like "tribad" and "tommy", to try and understand herself.
I'm sitting and wondering how I do the same, find words for things in my life; I remember the first time I bought a copy of Girlfriends, in that small town bookstore, trying to be inconspicuous. Kind of similar to that scene in Donoghue's story, both of us terrified of getting caught (I wasn't out to anyone at that point), a little thrilled by our own daring, excited and nervous at what we might find, and driven, most of all, to see our reality on paper. When I read queer or lesbian literature I'm looking for a reflection of myself in addition to what I usually seek in books (new and different ideas and people, challenging or comforting concepts, anything that teases my brain really). When I read magazines I'm looking for all those things as well, plus fluffy entertainment, but in addition to that, I'm looking for community. Books are solitary, intimate; when I connect with a novel--like the scene in Mrs. Dalloway when Sally kisses Clarissa, for instance--it's a very personal moment. But magazines have a more relaxed, chatty, informal atmosphere I crave too, since I haven't really got the support of a queer community in reality.
Paris is my main source for feminist and queer magazines here; and I'm realizing how incredibly lucky I was back home, even if I was stuck in a very Catholic Red State, to have a bookstore five minutes away, with a wide selection of magazines for me. Paris is great--it's fucking Paris, after all--but it's a three and half hour train ride away. So when I go to Paris I always stop at the LGBT bookstore Les Mots à la bouche and buy up as much queer reading material as I can carry back, and then I make them last. I was kind of down on the mainstream dyke mags back in the U.S., Curve and Girlfriends, as kind of fluffy and irrelevant to my life. They're fun, but I wanted something more. But like Joni Mitchell says, you don't know what you got till it's gone, and since I've been in France I've discovered how important they were to my sense of identity and connection. So I pick a copy of each, plus the British equivalent Diva, when I hit Paris. They're still a little on the fluffy side, but there's a great deal to be said for just having a magazine in your hands that acknoweldges your existence, where you don't have to do any translation (literal or figurative) to make it apply to you. And I remembered what I really love about them--the advice columns! I spent my childhood reading Dear Abby and Ann Landers in the papers, and now I have Curve and Girlfriends to supply the lesbo equivalent: "Lipstick and Dipstick" (love advice from a femme and a butch), "Ask Fairy Butch", "Mr. Lonelyhearts". Girlfriends gets major props for having FTM transman Patrick Califia dispense lesbian romance advice. That's so cool. Reading lesbian advice columns, even though my own experience of lesbian relationships and community is pretty limited (debauched excursions into Parisian dyke bars notwithstanding), gives me insight into how other dykes live their lives, meet each other, fall in love, break up, make up, dress, work, play, handle the million subtle questions and challenges that my straight friends here never have to consider (oh lord, have I got a post about that. Stay tuned.) "How do you deal with this? What do you think about that?" Plus, voyeuristic gossip about other people is always amusing.
I discovered two more magazines (well, three, but I'm saving that one for later) over break: Girls Like Us and Scumgrrrls. GLU is this swank, shiny lesbian quarterly from Amsterdam and I just can't make my mind up about it. One the one hand, it has the Curve effect times ten. It's talking about a world that's just on a different planet from me. When I picked it up I thought "Girls Like Us, i.e. Dykes With Money" (one of these days I'll do a post about class and all my confused musings on it). It's got Peaches on the cover in a re-shoot of a Gia Carangi photo. The editors gush about Gia in their intro: "She is the woman we had in mind as a figurehead to represent the magazine." Well that counts me out right there, and a hell of a lot of other dykes besides. "Gia--inspiration for a whole new breed of lesbians." I personally don't get my inspiration from supermodel lesbians who make money reiterating patriarchal beauty standards and then o.d. on heroin. But then I haven't seen the movie, so what do I know. The first page is an ad for Armani, which didn't help matters. There's an interview with one of those avant-garde artsy dyke power couples in Amsterdam (they do video installations), a series of self-portraits and photos, all of it terribly sophisticated, I guess, I don't really know what's going on in them, that left me mildly bored. I like the fluffy interview and photo shoot with Leisha Hailey though. It's not all that interesting, and gives me the feeling of being on the outside, looking in through the window. Why do I care? Oh wait, I don't.
But then GLU turns around and gives me photos of baby dykes just hanging out in Stockholm and New York and Brazil. And a killer interview with Michele Aboro, an English boxer who lost her contract because she was too butch:
They wanted me to be more feminine in my everyday life. I don't mind that for a photo shoot because that's a totally different ball game. I don't mind putting on make-up, I'm not scared of a dress. But in my everyday life, I'm not going to walk around in high heels and a dress and make-up because it's not the truth...I don't want to sell my soul for a bank account.
They talk about women and sports, homophobia, invisibility, and gender play. Michele Aboro is so incredibly cool and interesting. Now I'm dying to see the documentary about her. GLU follows up with an archive of covers of lesbian media from the 70s and 80s: feminist newspapers, radical and socialist and separatist newsletters, art and erotica magazines; with a list of "Titillating Titles" of even more lesbian magazines and newspapers--my favorites are Amsterdames, Lesbianaires (I'm going to be a lesbianaire when I grow up), Tigermädchen, Lickerish, and the very unsubtle Holy Titclamps (I should get a cat and name her that. Or start using it as an expression. "What the fuck" is worn out). To finish off GLU reprints excerpts from New Women in Rock, articles about Girlschool, The Slits, The Raincoats, The Roches, Joan Jett. This is just the first issue of GLU, and I think it's just not sure what it wants to be. When it's not boring and alienating, it rocks.
But it doesn't rock nearly as much as Scumgrrrls, a tri-lingual (English, French, and Dutch) "100% Feminist Energy" magazine from Brussels. It's got the punk rock feel of a zine. They take their name from the SCUM Manifesto and the riot grrl movement, stating
In a climate where most young women shun the F-word and pseudo-/antifeminism is the media trend, Scumgrrrls wants to bridge the gap between the generations and in the radical tradition offer a new forum for feminist analysis, critique, humour and creativity.
Now that's what I'm talking about. Female politicians in Afganistan, women DJing, the history of riotgrrrl, an interview with Lesbians on Extasy, gay parenting, books about body image, the Intelligent Design movement in the Netherlands (dear god.), the tensions between queer theory and feminism, the endlessness of coming-out. The English translations are a bit shaky, now and then, but I'm hardly put out by that. Scumgrrrls has a collaborative, communal feel to it, the "rage, anger, action, energy and passion" (from the intro) that I love in Bitch and Bust and Off Our Backs. Now I don't have any feminist community here, and there ain't a whole lot of protesting I can do; but I've been a part of feminist group, small and embattled though it was, and I've stayed up late making posters and baking cookies for fundraisers, held meetings and taken minutes and sent emails, signed petitions, slept on buses, marched in the streets, got cold and wet and yelled at, and that has a much larger part of my identity, and the way I think about myself, than lesbian supermodels and Hollywood actresses do. It feels good to have that part of myself recognized and validated, for once. Because mostly, to everyone here in France, I'm the nice American language assistant, who speaks decent enough French, and maybe she dresses a little funny now and then, but she's sweet. And with the other assistants I sometimes feel like the odd one out; we get along and hang out and have a great time, but I'm always aware of having to adjust my conversation to suit them; whenever you're surrounded with straight people, you have to switch gears and operate in their world. Though between me and Matt and Val we're a fairly queer bunch. I'm not sure how to explain it. Maybe it's the false sense of intimacy that develops between expats thrown together in a foreign country; sure, we've got a language in common, but we don't really know each other.
Which is why I hoard these magazines, GLU and Curve and Girlfriends, whatever their merits or flaws. Lord knows I'm used to it, but it's hard to be alone and isolated; and these magazines provide space and room to breathe, to exist for a little while without the self-conciousness of being closeted or in the minority, the oddity. They provide words for things I can recognize, things that are mine, words that aren't used to obfuscate or hide or pass.


At 8:57 AM, Blogger Winter said...

Another great post! I've never really been into magazines, although I'm now very keen to lay my hands on a copy of Scumgrrrls. Diva is the main one over here and I don't like that very much. But, I do horde lesbian books. I remember the first one I got in a second hand book shop: Sarah Schulman's Rat Bohemia. Sigh. It lived up to my expectations.

At 8:24 AM, Anonymous roro said...

I personally don't get my inspiration from supermodel lesbians who make money reiterating patriarchal beauty standards and then o.d. on heroin. Dude, speak for yourSELF.

As Winter said, great post! Clearly, I'll have to expand my magazine reading beyond Bitch. . .

At 12:49 AM, Blogger Andygrrl said...

lol roro, like I said, I haven't seen the movie, so maybe you know something i don't...;-)

At 5:21 AM, Anonymous roro said...

Haha - no. I HAVE seen the movie, which is what made your inspiration comment so brilliant. It sums up the entire film, and my response to it, in one simple sentence. Except that she didn't o.d., but died of the AIDS, due to the heroin. Which you probably already knew. It were a cheery little number, that one.


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