Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Month: September, 2010



Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? … And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

–Marianne Williamson

My friend Nigel Gough died. He was 28 years old. As anyone who met him knows, saying he was effervescent and filled with life was no cliché.

I found out from his facebook page. When I read the first comments I thought it must be some kind of mistake, or a sick joke. I only started believing it when I read thirty or so of the heartfelt farewells and found a brief explanation that it was a cycling accident. I had been halfway through writing an email, but how could I finish it then? I couldn’t treat this revelation like a status update or a shared link. Facebook was a completely inappropriate medium for coping with how I was feeling. So I turned off the computer.

 I spent the rest of the day wandering around my neighbourhood. I visited my Grandma, who let me cry for the first time, then went to a little cafe. Drinking a pot of tea and eating bright-pink French macaroons while reading Patrick Dennis’s camp classic ‘Little Me’ became a makeshift tribute to my friend. I was so glad when some of my Guelph friends gave me a call to talk about it. I needed to break it down with people who knew him.

Nigel was an actor. He had performed since he was a child, entertaining his family by dressing up and singing, accompanied by his grandfather on the piano and being involved in school plays. “I played David the little shepherd boy in the Christmas pageant when I was eight years old,” he told me. “And the sheepskin looked really hot!”

Etobicoke School of the Arts, solos at Roy Thompson Hall, bit parts in ‘Queer as Folk’ and his own queer-themed films at the Inside Out Festival followed. He met playwright Sky Gilbert while raising awareness of homophobia in schools, and did his first drag at the age of 18. “It was actually a horrible experience in some ways, because I was the youngest one. A lot of the older drag queens were like, ‘Take up smoking now, it’d be really good for your skin!’”

Despite having followed the traditional star path to Los Angeles, studying film at the University of Southern California, his friendship with Sky Gilbert led him back to Canada and the University of Guelph, where Gilbert taught. A brave, interesting life decision, as he was years older and much more experienced than most undergrads, but he wanted to continue to expand his mind.

Lucky for me, we already had a mutual acquaintance, so as soon as Nigel arrived we became friends. His reputation preceded him, but he was just as charming and inspiring as I expected. Although a hip, sexually-open gay man, there was an old-fashioned gee-golly Dorothy Gale quality to him, which I think he got from his mother and grandmother, who he adored. When we drove him down to Toronto one time, and I told him he’d have to squeeze into a car with my whole family, he exclaimed, “That’s okay. I love grandmas!”

When I went through my big break-up, he was around a lot, offering a sympathetic ear and the wise advice of someone who I knew had been through some tough times in life. He would quote his grandma’s little sayings which had always helped him get out of the “depths of despair”. His favourite was “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

He often smelled like sweet maple syrup.

He was, in many ways, a throwback to the pre-Stonewall gay world of drag, musical theatre and camp wit, which he was why he was perfectly cast in Sky Gilbert’s play ‘Suzie Goo’ at Guelph in 2007. In a blond wig and a pillbox hat, he played the title role, an ambitious young woman in the early-1960’s who turns the table on her sexual-harassing boss by declaring that she’s actually a man. Nigel played her not as an over the top drag queen, but as a friendly and genuine young woman who wasn’t against promoting herself to move forward.

In many ways, that was what Nigel was like. He asked me to write something about the play in the student newspaper to get the word out, and my interview with him and Sky Gilbert ended up as the cover story. I know that he sometimes rankled the people he pushed, but I always excused him by thinking, “Sometimes that’s what the truly ambitious among us are like.”

I never doubted he was going to make it.

We stayed in touch over the years. I stalked him on facebook, getting jealous of the beautiful places he visited with beautiful people. He caught me up on his busy life in little emails, which always ended with “shine on”. He just performed in the Judy Monologues, based on the singer’s recorded reminiscences for the memoirs she never wrote. Despite the fact that it seems like something I’d totally be into, I didn’t go for whatever stupid flakey reason I had that week. I’m beating myself up about that now.

At the end of my interview with him, when he was stressed out from juggling rehearsals and studying, he said he was constantly thinking about the future: “I’m always thinking one step ahead. Even while I’m doing this show I’m thinking ‘what’s next’. Sleeping first, sleeping is the first thing in the future. Writing essays is the second thing. And then I’m looking forward to having the time to veg out, and to just develop my own ideas, and do something I’m going to be proud of. And travel and see the world, before it all melts away on us. I’ve been told that the Alps will only be around for three more years.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” I said.

“Well, I like to think so! I want to get out there, and do much more living. I’ve got so much more life in me.”

I want to say that he already was a star, but stars are distant balls of burning chemicals (“Fire and music,” as they say in ‘All About Eve’). He was a living and breathing person of flesh and blood, one who I wish I had gotten to know more. He was sensitive, highly aware of the people around him, but also hard-working and ambitious. A genius, really. We should all be so confident about ourselves, and know that we too are brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous. Nigel was all of these.  

All I have left to say is live life completely, but be careful; please make time for the people you care about; and dream big.

Shine on.


A Glorious Feeling

“Love, and a bit with a dog,” Geoffrey Rush, as slimy theatre producer Philip Henslowe, tells William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) in Shakespeare in Love. “That’s what people want.” And while we laugh derisively at the idea of giving the world’s most celebrated playwright such lowbrow advice, the line works because it’s true about audiences to this day. Just consider the many romantic comedies in which one of the leads owns a cute pooch, inevitably humping someone’s leg.

When explaining how Shakespeare in Love beat out critic-favourite Saving Private Ryan for the best picture Oscar in 1999, Entertainment Weekly suggested that the Academy voters chose the film they felt an affinity with, the film about writers and actors. I’d go one step further: Shakespeare in Love, while being set in Elizabethan England, is about not just entertainers, but about entertaining the masses and the movie industry.

Because the film takes itself seriously and has an all British cast (save for Gwyneth Paltrow and then-boyfriend Ben Affleck; the former’s accent much more believable than the later’s) it took a couple viewings for me to notice the many deliberately anachronistic jokes poking fun at the modern day entertainment industry. In one of the early shots, Shakespeare crumbles up a page and throws it at a mug which has written on it “A Gift from Stratford upon Avon”, a joke about present day Stratford being a tawdry tourist trap. Throughout the film, characters deliver lines like “Good title!” or, in reference to a role, “Ned’s wrong for it”, clichés of movie industry talk. And at one point, when a riverboat rower, acting like a talkative cab driver, discovers he has Will Shakespeare in his boat, he tells him “I’m a playwright myself, as it happens…” and tries to hand off a script. Despite the multitude of Shakespearean references, Shakespeare in Love can be seen as Hollywood laughing at itself.

Which is what 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain is all about.  Acknowledged universally as a classic and the quintessential Old Hollywood musical, Singin’ in the Rain lampoons the changes that occurred due to the introduction of sound in movies in 1927. Gene Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a silent film star who has made a series of popular swash-buckling romances with Lina Lamont (the hilarious Jean Hagen). But the days of silent movies are numbered and as The Jazz Singer takes the nation by storm (the first movie with recorded songs and bits of dialogue featured Al Jolson’s remarkably prescient throwaway line “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”) sound technology threatens to expose Lina’s terrible secret: that her voice is a shocking, uneducated shriek. Fortunately, Don falls in love with perky ingénue Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) who can stand in for Lina’s voice, the movie portraying the invention of both sound-technology and dubbing!

Both Singin’ in the Rain and Shakespeare in Love are romantic comedies set amidst the difficulties of staging shows (Singin’ in the Rain about film studios grappling with new technologies, Shakespeare in Love about theatre companies faced with lack of money, violent rivalries and the constant threat of being shut down due to the plague). Both feature love stories between a man established in the industry and a newcomer actress who must be kept secret (Don and Kathy hide their affair from Lina and the studio, Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps, the part that made Gwyneth Paltrow a star, because women are not allowed on stage).

The fact that female roles are to be played by girlish men (“Pip-squeak boys!” as Viola calls them) leads to another commonality: both talented heroines have their stardom threatened by squeaky-voiced usurpers: Lina in Singin’ in the Rain, who tries to force Kathy to dub for her indefinitely, and the “pretty” Sam Gross in Shakespeare in Love, whose high-pitched voice (Shakespeare asks “They haven’t dropped, have they?” while pretending to grab Sam’s supposedly undescended testicles) allow him to play female parts, in this case Juliet.

A subtle homosexual undercurrent is alluded to in both films. That gay jokes would be featured in Shakespeare in Love is unsurprising. Famous homosexual actor Rupert Everett was cast as famous homosexual playwright Christopher Marlow, though the small part, basically a cameo, has not one queer suggestion. Perhaps the makers thought it was too obvious, and the casting would speak for itself. Sam, who wears a dress and blond wig in most of his scenes, is presented as potentially-gay, fulfilling a sissy stereotype by hiding from a sword fight and remarking, after a tryst with a prostitute, “I quite liked it…”, implying it was his first time with a woman. Forced into cross-dressing as well, Viola dons a short brown wig and pretends to be a young man, scoring the part of Romeo opposite with Sam’s drag Juliet. Before Shakespeare discovers her disguise, Viola in full-costume plants a would-be gay kiss on his lips. My friend Jeremy told me of someone who, viewing the film only from the midway point on, missed that Gwyneth Paltrow was a girl and read the love story as queer one until the end.

The fact that Singin’ in the Rain, made during the height of Cold War gay-baiting paranoia and after MGM had already begun reining in the camp fantasies of directors like Vincent Minnelli, features a queer subtext is remarkable, but for the modern viewer it’s difficult to see Donald O’Connor’s character Cosmo, Don Lockwood’s best friend and former vaudeville partner, as anything but a nelly. He and Lina are inexplicably hostile to each other while jockeying for Don’s attention (“You look pretty good…for a girl”). It’s Cosmo who comes up with the idea of using Kathy’s voice for Lina’s, and to demonstrate he asks Kathy to stand behind him and sing while he exaggeratedly mouths along to her voice.

“Well, what do you think?” he asks the incomprehending Don.

The original line read, “Great, what are you doing this evening?” a joke far too overtly queer for the censors. It was changed to the more mildly flirtatious “Enchanting. What?”

And I won’t even go into the campy fifties-does-twenties costumes and Lina Lamont’s drag queen potential.

Gay men have played significant roles in the entertainment industry, both onstage and behind the scenes, since (at least) Elizabethan times, but they must be cleared off the stage in order to focus on the central heterosexual pairing.

At the opening of their new film, ‘The Dancing Cavalier’, the audience believes Kathy’s voice as Lina’s, but shout out requests for a live performance. In order to sabotage Lina, Don orders Kathy to sing behind the curtain for Lina to mouth along to. Halfway through the number, he yanks open the curtain, exposing Lina as a counterfeit talent, and she exits the stage, her career presumably over. (Sadly, this would be the highpoint of Jean Hagen’s career as well.)

Kathy, runs from the stage, allowing Don to deliver the classic lines, oft-quoted by my family, “Stop that girl! That girl running up the aisle! That’s the girl who’s voice you heard! She’s the real star of the picture!” The audience dutifully follows Don’s orders (he is a movie star, after all) and Kathy turns around, tears picturesquely running down her cheeks. Don begins singing ‘You are my Lucky Star’ as Cosmo races into the orchestra pit to conduct their accompaniment (the queer character literally moved offstage in order to romantically help out the leads).  The film ends with a heavenly chorus and a poster featuring Lockwood and Selden as cinema’s new It Couple, their real life love authenticating their screen romances.

The climax of Shakespeare in Love is also about opening a show: in this case, the first performance of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Although forced to marry the pudgy Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), Viola sneaks into the theatre after her wedding to watch the play she’s spent weeks rehearsing. But just as Lina’s voice almost proved the downfall of ‘The Dancing Cavalier’, Sam’s voice threatens to ruin the play. It has suddenly changed (perhaps his testicles finally dropped) and he now speaks with the up-and-down warbles of a teenage boy. Luckily, Viola knows “every word” of the play. At the last second, they stop Sam from entering (here, the queer character is literally yanked off stage, never to be seen again) and Viola gets to play Juliet opposite Shakespeare’s Romeo. Delivering lines that he wrote about their love, Shakespeare and Viola are brilliant as the “star-crossed lovers” (especially now that all that goofy cross-dressing has been disposed of, we’re to think) and bring the audience to a standing ovation, during which the pair, breaking character as two corpses, rise and kiss passionately.

Both films work as comedies sending up the pretensions of theatrical folk (Affleck’s pompous actor Ned Alleyn is not dissimilar to Don Lockwood’s self-important star) but ultimately both convince us of the magic of the theatre: Singin’ in the Rain leaves you tapping your toes like in a musical, while I have never watched Shakespeare in Love without wishing I was also on stage. They allow us to laugh at the pretensions and phoniness of plays and movies while reminding us why we still love them.

The endings of both films suggest that a fictional love story, be it ‘Romeo or Juliet’ or the musicals that Don and Kathy are to set star in, is made that much better, that much more authentic , if accompanied with a real love story offstage. It’s lovely to think that Shakespeare, a man estranged from his wife, actually felt those glorious feelings he wrote about, even if it means inventing an entirely made-up history.

Even though we know that plays and movies are fictions, we want to believe there’s genuine emotional behind the curtain and camera lens, that happy endings continue after the applause end and the credits roll.

Báthory’s Báth of Blood

Elizabeth Báthory was a late 16th and early 17th century Hungarian countess who spent most of her life in her hill-top castle Čachtice, in what is now Slovakia. She is believed to have tortured and killed over 600 young women, mostly offspring of local peasants, although some were daughters of lesser-aristocrats sent to Čachtice to learn courtly etiquette, and she wasn’t above the occasional moon-lit abduction.

The torture of the victims anecdotally featured severe beatings, burning and mutilation of hands, biting, sexual abuse, fatal operations, starving and freezing to death. The bodies were believed to be buried in mass, unmarked graves, but the killings weren’t particularly secret: stories of the atrocities spread very quickly.

In 1610, the countess was arrested along with four servants charged with being accomplices. Supposedly, they found one young lady dead and another in the process of dying when they arrived at her castle. Although her servants were charged and put to death (said to have had their finger nails pulled out and be burned alive, an ironic torture-for-torture), it was worried that sentencing the countess would damage the reputation of Hungarian nobility (oh no!). They considered sending her to a nunnery, possibly the worst idea in the history of the world (but would have made a great horror flick) before settling on house arrest.

The Báthory Countess lived out the rest of her days in a few rooms in her castle, from which the legends of the “Bloody Lady of Čachtice” spread outward, eventually becoming, along with Vlad the Impaler, one of the main inspirations for vampire myths.

So why did she do it? Many legends feature the Countess bathing in the blood of her victims in order to retain her youth and beauty. One story had her discovering blood’s rejuvenating effect after slapping a servant girl across the face so hard that she bled, and noted that where the blood splattered her skin felt so silky soft. (I’d like to see an Andie MacDowell L’Oreal commercial like that!)

Recent historians have questioned this theory, arguing that ‘female vanity’ as a motivation for murder demonstrates the traditional inability to accept masochistic violence from a woman. Similar to Lizzie Borden, who is thought to have gotten off because jurors couldn’t accept that a young woman would violently murder her family for no reason, the fact that the Countess may have had no rational motivation may be the most bone-chilling part of all.

Kept alive due to her aristocratic title, and rescued from sexist stereotypes by modern historians, Elizabeth Báthory’s gender has helped evolve her image once again, becoming cinema’s go-to sexy vampiric chick, from cheesy 1970’s slasher films to European erotic art house, recently played by Julie Delpy in 2009’s The Countess. Because the facts of her life are inseparable from the myths, each century’s version of Báthory says far more about the ongoing reconciliation of femininity and violence than it does about the actual historical personage.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about the Countess until she was named as an inspiration by Montreal designer Jose Manuel St-Jacques in my interview with him for WORN. He described his designs as the “proper attire for a virgin-hunt right before a bath of blood.” Click here to see pictures and read the whole interview, along with those of five other designers.

C is for Cleavage


Katy Perry, of the neon costumes and bubbly voice, makes total sense as a guest star on Sesame Street.  (Unlike her Dadaesque rival Lady Gaga, who wore a dress made from massacred Kermit the Frog dolls which I’m pretty sure the United Nations recognized as a Crime against Puppetry.)

In the clip, Perry wants to play dress-up with Elmo but, being the diva that he is, he waffles and runs away. She then launches into a version of her song ‘Hot N Cold’: “You—Want to play—So I wore—Dress-up clothes…”   

Suddenly, Katy Perry’s carnival clothing style makes perfect sense: this whole time she’s been trying to play dress-up with Muppets! And when your play date is covered in fluorescent fur naturally, you know you got to bring it.

Anyways, the scene was posted on youtube and some parents voiced concern about Katy’s cleavage, particularly in the running sequence. Despite the fact that she’s wearing a sheer top, and that without a bit of skin she would be unrecognizable as Katy Perry, the producers went all “Yes–and then No” and shelved the number.

How disappointing to Katy, Elmo and all the little gay toddlers out there! Perry’s boyfriend comedian and sex maniac Russell Brand (a reporter recently suggested the two be nicknamed ‘Krusty’) already tweeted “Today’s episode will not be brought to you by the numbers 34 and the letter D.”

I heard an intriguing thought about it on MTV Canada, of all places, when the host asked if a less-busty woman would have been criticized for the same outfit. “Was Katy Perry dropped because of her body type?”

They’re just boobs, people. They’re not a big deal, but Americans have a habit of freaking out over them. Remember Janet Jackson’s Nipple-gate? In France, topless ads are in supermarkets and porno sold openly at newsstands. I’ve heard that First Lady Carla Bruni attends charity banquets stark naked.

And most children have already seen boobies. At least, their moms’.

That’s all I have to say about this, but I felt I had to note the story. The overlapping of Katy Perry, ideas about sexuality, and the Muppets is right where I want to be.

Ode to Artz Haüs

The Gang outside Artz Haus


When we pulled up outside Artz Haüs at the University of Guelph that sunny, late summer day, a girl in a blue peacock costume greeted us. The Orientation Volunteers (OVs), all matching in blue t-shirts, were singing songs and screaming chants in-between lugging the boxes of the shy newcomers up flights of stairs. I had worn a crisp white shirt that day, a safe and uncontroversial choice which was a metaphor for this new era in my life: pristine and fresh and blank. That day, I didn’t know if going away for university, which I had been dreaming of since grade nine, would be a halcyon Golden Age or disappoint my high expectations.  

Artz Haüs (so named in the 1990’s because, according to one OV, “German was considered cool…?”) was in Maids Hall, a small three-story residence which had at one point housed domestics. For how important Artz Haüs would eventually become, I ironically ended up there because of a fluke: my first choice on my application had been to be in a history ‘cluster’. But because almost no boys applied for the residence vaguely dedicated to artsy students, they had placed me in at second choice. Thank God they did. As a result, I didn’t make any history friends until fourth year, but I lived with people I hope to know forever.  

I had been bullied a bit in high school, but was mostly just ignored. Artz Haüs proved to be different the minute I arrived.  

“You’re Maximilian?!” the OVs excitedly asked. “We’ve been waiting for Maximilian!”  


I soon learned that all of our names were written on construction paper toads and water lilies tapped to our doors, and the OVs couldn’t believe that someone actually had my name. I was famous already.  

Another piece of fortuitous luck was that my roommate, Tristan, never showed up. Throughout the dizzying O-Week I half-expected to come back to my room (which was on the first floor, with an ivy-framed window looking out on the lawn and the slope towards the campus’s main walkway; one of the most beautiful residence rooms ever, my Dad claimed) and find a stranger with suitcases, angry at me for taking the right side bed. Then we heard that Tristan wasn’t coming, and my new friends and I sighed with relief: our late night conversations on my bed, snugly sleep-overs and occasional ‘capers’ (good natured pranks) would continue.  

A few of us went to a sex talk at the Wellness Centre at the end of O-Week and, on viewing a diagram of the diverse types of butt-plugs which was passed around, most of which had names which described their shapes (‘Arrow head’, ‘Pearl Necklace’), giggled uncontrollably when one was inexplicitly named ‘Tristan’.  

“So that’s why he never showed up!”  

Whereas I was never going to be comfortable with my sexuality at high school (or, I should say, my high school was never going to be comfortable with it), at Guelph it was like the world changed overnight. This was the Will and Grace/Queer Eye for the Straight Guy era and everyone seemed to think it was cool to know a gay guy. Sans roommate, my room, which eventually acquired a sofa, became the unofficial first floor lounge, and my identity splattered everywhere. Pages cut from Vogue, retro album covers and a shirtless poster of Justin Timberlake graced the walls and I weighted down the bookshelf with crap (so much so that it fell on my head; in hindsight, I should’ve sued).  

Being truly comfortable with my friends and my environment for the first time (as well as able to change outfits as often as I felt like), Max the Clotheshorse was born. I would return from pilgrimages to Value Village with heavy bags of tweed jackets, boy scout shirts and obscure Tee’s, having become, at least in my mind, an experimental and witty fashion-plate, a gay boy Carrie Bradshaw.  

I kept my door always open and my motley crew of friends (not dissimilar to the eccentric and eclectic Muppet gang) got in the habit of dropping by just to hang out all afternoon or evening. Our conversations on my bed were so involved that some nights I had to change into pyjamas, turn off the lights and crawl under the sheets in order to kick people out. We talked for hours and hours, about things serious and frivolous, inventing much-referenced inside jokes as we went. We were so green, what did we have so much to talk about? I wish I had kept notes.  

It was not a perfect year. Inevitably with fifty people living in close quarters, there was drama and some fights and events which seemed like the most important thing ever at the time, but in hindsight you wonder why you were upset at all. I remember being really sad sometimes, probably dwelling on not having a boyfriend (big surprise), but now I consider it the best year of my life. The Max you all know, either through friendship or just reading this blog, took shape in that little house at Guelph. Without it, I don’t know who I’d be.  

The spring when we moved out was very emotional. Although I was coming back for a second year at Artz Haüs, and planned to stay in touch with all my friends, we knew it would never be the same. But endings often help you see something clearly for the first time: it was only as we packed up our stuff in the mockingly cheerful sunshine, took down our posters, signed yearbooks and pretended to study for exams, that a lot of us recognized what a truly great year it had been. 

Although I’ve had many adventures in the years since, they some how feel a bit less real than the events of that formative time. Perhaps that’s just what our mind does with memory… 

We all love bashing social networking, but facebook at least makes it easier to keep in touch with people you used to see every day but now live provinces, sometimes countries,  away from. But emails are devilishly easy to ignore, and I’m scared to death of growing farther and farther apart from friends who shaped an amazing year and made me who I am.  

All things must end, but can (facebook) friends last forever?    

The Art History club. We ate dinners before class together, often Chinese food, which we, inspired by Team Girl Squad, called “MSG!”
Probably on a “Pit run” (there was always licking going on)
Me dressing like our Program Facilator Mark, Mark dressing like Me, feat. Tommy Mosher in background
Room 110 was the shit


Amanda and I
Dressed up as the Transgendered Queen of Hearts for an Alice in Wonderland themed formal, with Lauren and Jen


The Gang


Pretty in Scarlet

My apologies, Loyal Readers, but I have been suffering a recurring cold, which has me, instead of updating my blog and finding a much-needed job, laying on the couch, drinking orange juice-spiked ginger ale and watching reruns of Dawson’s Creek. Yesterday I caught the episode in which Dawson and the future Mrs. Cruise FINALLY declared their love for each other, slow-dancing at a random wedding, while the ‘bad one’ Abbey plunges to her death off the pier, because she was drinking with the future Mrs. Ledger and because, like, she’s the ‘bad one’.

It’s not a radical thing to say that I didn’t relate to the physically-mature, over-articulate teenagers of Dawson’s Creek. I read recently that high school TV shows and movies work because it’s a time and place of a lot of dramatic ‘firsts’, but most of my firsts came later in university. For many of us high school is simply the awkward waiting room between childhood and the freedom of college. The inability to relate to the problems of the popular kids was practically the thesis of the cult hit Freaks and Geeks, whose very first shot featured a football player telling his cheerleader girlfriend “I love you so much, sometimes it scares me,” before the camera panned down below the bleachers to the “geeks” the show would actually follow.

The good news is, it’s getting better. It’s only fitting for the decade which saw video games, Star Wars and vinyl-collecting become anti-cool cool, that the outcasts would soon be the heroes. Usually, it’s awkward guys, like Michael Cera and Jonah Hill in Superbad. (Jonah Hill went after the unbelievably-cool Jules, played by Emma Stone, and I remember thinking, “That girl could be a star.”)

When unpopular girls are portrayed they are either angry and shrew-like, flipping the bird to the entire school (like Kat in Ten Things I Hate about You or Janice Ian in Mean Girls) or desperately want to be part of the ‘in crowd’, waiting for the popular boy to escort them to the prom in their refashioned pink 1960’s gown (Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink).

This is why Emma Stone is so refreshing in Easy A, playing a girl who’s ignored at school but, at least initially, doesn’t seem to care. Like Ellen Page in Juno, here is a high school heroine who seems aware of a bigger world outside of high school, one in which the opinions of the jocks and the cheerleaders won’t matter one bit.

Stone plays Olive, a teenager who is smart and funny but doesn’t have many friends. Some critics questioned whether a girl as interesting and pretty as Emma Stone would really be unpopular in high school, which only shows how long since they graduated: being different and well-spoken, especially for girls, doesn’t exactly ensure high school popularity. The only company Olive seems to have is her tart-tongued best friend, who refers to her as “bitch” and seems to have wandered out of Regina George’s entourage.

But Olive seems pretty comfortable with herself. In my favourite sequence, she spends all weekend at home in her bedroom with a music-playing greeting card. When she first opens it, she recoils from Natasha Bedingfield’s ‘Pocket Full of Sunshine’, but in a hilarious montage she gradually gives into the song, painting her nails with her dog, singing it in the shower and eventually using a hairbrush all karaoke-style, giving herself up entirely to the infectious beat. Who hasn’t spent weekends like that? She’s having a great time, not waiting by the telephone for some boy to call or the popular girl to take her shopping.

Olive even enjoys hanging out with her family, curled up on the couch watching DVDs like real teenagers do with their parents. But, given that her parents are sex-talking Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, who can blame her?

Pressured by her gossipy friend, Olive lies and says that she lost her virginity to an older college guy. Almost instantaneously, she becomes the school skank and finds herself preferring notoriety to invisibility. Inspired by her reading of The Scarlet Letter, she sews a read A on a series of reconstructed corset tops (kudos to the costume designer, they are sexy in a classy way) and takes pleasure in egging on the school’s prickly Christian club.

Of course, once the lies start they are very difficult to stop, and Olive finds herself taking pity on her gay friend and helping him spread the rumour that they slept together. Rather than motivated by popularity or a boy, as Lindsay Lohan was in Mean Girls, several times Olive is moved to degrade her own image by good, old fashioned sympathy. The film warns against going too far for others and of the fine line between rumour and reality: if everyone thinks you’re a slut, is there any difference from actually being one?

As in Mean Girls, a dark-haired, chin-clefted hunk with a heart of gold turns up periodically, with no real connection to the plot, but with the obvious purpose of supplying a predictable happy ending. One wonders if film makers sincerely think that if the credits roll and the heroine’s single, we’ll leave the theatre thinking she’ll die alone.

I related to Olive as someone who was funny and interesting in high school but was never going to be popular. While Olive gets her perfect John Hughes ending (there’s even a musical number!) for most of us social outcasts it’s good enough to know that high school doesn’t last forever and that there’s a whole big world of ‘firsts’ out there.

I Shop therefore I Gay

While I’m all over the WORN blog, my absolute dream would be to get a story in the actual magazine. I entered my internship thinking I had all sorts of ideas, I quickly became insecure that none of them were good enough. WORN only comes out twice a year, so we have to be very strict about what goes to print. I eventually remembered that queer history was the focus of my Masters and that, as the first gay male intern, it would also be good representin’ if I wrote something about gay men and clothing.

So here’s what I’ve got so far, and to help me get moving on it (the pitch is due in October) and to act as a sounding board, I’m going to tell you what I’m thinking.

The stereotype that gay men like clothing and fashion is so entrenched in our culture that we rarely question it, and at times act as though it is somehow biological. Remarkably, the persona of the Oscar Wildean dandy from the end of the 19th century still holds sway. Daniel Harris, in his amazing book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture,  which heavily influenced the way I think about all this stuff, argued that shopping and clothing was a more economical way of asserting snobbish queer sensibilities than art-collecting or going to the opera, the preoccupations of the aristocratic dandy.

“We have devised an ersatz aestheticism that we cultivate, not only through our involvement with the arts, but through our involvement with department stores, through shopping, the purchase of expensive toiletries, vintage wines, fashionable clothing, and designer accessories like Rolex watches and Ralph Lauren eyewear. The display of our refinement as consumers…easily replaces the display of our refinement as art lovers. In the course of the twentieth century, homosexuals have turned the aestheticism of art and culture into the aestheticism of products, the commodities that spill out of the Macy’s bags constantly swinging from the arms of the urban homosexual, a figure laden with the spoils of his spending sprees, an image that has largely replaced that of the monocled fop twirling his cane and sniffing the carnation in his lapel.”

In the same essay, Harris, like many other scholars, focuses on the desire of gay men to find each other as the motivation for a lot of gay culture. From cruising at bars, dropping cinematic hints (“Are you a Friend of Dorothy?”), and even attending Judy Garland concerts simply as an excuse to “act gay” in public, explanations of gay traditions have often focused on identifying oneself to others, either for sexual or communal reasons. This has also been the case with gay fashion, be it leather and jeans, pink mohair sweaters or the legendary colour-coded handkerchief symbols. (And, okay, I can’t really get into this here, but apparently a houndstooth bandanna sticking out of your pocket means you’re into biting, and if you stick a doily back there, you like doing it in public restrooms! Amazing!)

But what about shopping for one’s self and dressing as a means of asserting identity, as sociologists now think about it? Cara Louise Buckley wrote “In the transition from modernity to post-modernity, the notion of an essential self…has been displaced by a far more fragmented, fluid, and contingent understanding tied to image, style, looks and hence consumption.” So, it’s not so much ‘I Shop therefore I Am’, as Barbara Kruger’s photo has it, as ‘I Am because I Shop.’  

Rather than focus on who gay men were trying to attract with their clothing, I would consider clothing, consumption and fashion as an important step in their development of a gay identity, both personally and collectively.

And there’s no escaping the seventies, the decade when queer culture crossed-over,  gay politics went mainstream and people were encouraged to come out of the closet en masse. The 1970’s are to gay men what the 1770’s are to American patriots: a founding era whose traditions, style and legacy are still drawn upon today.

In Forging Gay Identities; Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco 1950-1994, Elizabeth Armstrong presents a useful breakdown of the three phases of the gay rights movement: the early, conservative ‘homophile’ activism of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the radical leftist revolution of 1969 and the early seventies, and the ‘lifestyle’ era of the mid-seventies onward, in which homosexuals (mostly white, middle-class gay men) asserted their identity through shopping, clothing, music, clubbing and interior decorating. I would use Armstrong’s framework and place clothing and fashion into the context of 1970’s gay identity formation, arguing that dressing up has been an essential aspect of accepting one’s homosexuality and coming out of the closet for many gay men since.

What I’m still wondering about is whether I should focus mostly on the 1970’s and make it a historical piece, or if all that should be the background leading up to a series of interviews with gay guys now. It might make sense to focus on the seventies, but I would have to do a lot of primary research (scanning every copy of The Advocate from that era, say, for articles about fashion and photos and illustrations of clothing). On the plus side of doing interviews, I off hand can think of twenty gay guys I could ask about clothing, their personal style and their shopping habits, but with no guarantee of useful answers.



Mad as Hell


People are angry. Or at least they are according to those in the media, who love recounting drama more than a fourteen-year old Twitterer. In the States, newspapers and TV anchors crow about the ‘insurgent’ Tea Party protestors ad nauseum, continuing to legitimize a movement, which supposedly wants smaller government but didn’t blink an eye at Bush driving the country into debt, as grassroots despite the essential financial support from shadowy billionaires who stand to make fortunes more from lowered taxes and deregulation.

Helped along by the over-caffeinated 24-hour news cycle, a frustrating forgetfulness has descended like fog down there (the United States of Amnesia, Gore Vidal has called it) as this midterm election has voters wanting  to ‘punish’ the Democrats for not quickly-enough cleaning up the mess that Republicans left by…electing Republicans. According to CNN jabberers, party affiliation often doesn’t matter: an incumbent in the House or the Senate represents ‘Washington’ and the ‘status quo’ and voters just want to ‘clean house’.

Because they’re angry.

And we shouldn’t feel smug up here. The man who is currently at the top of the polls for mayor of Toronto is largely running on anger; anger over the disappointments of Miller’s tenure; anger over taxes and waste at City Hall; anger over the TTC and bike lanes. You could easily believe that this was a horrendous place to live instead of one of the best in the world. But when people have their baser instincts indulged they turn to leaders who act as angry as them.

We all know what it’s like to be angry. Getting into an argument with a friend or family member, you feel hot in the face, your emotions increase exponentially and hurtful words spill out of your mouth at an uncontrollable rate. Although you sense it happening, you’re unable to stop all logic and reason flying out the window.

It’s the right moment to pause, take a deep breath and remind yourself what’s really important. It’s not the time for making a sound and well-informed decision about who you should vote for and the future of your city or country.

Angry voting results in angry politicians; ones who would rather grandstand and shout than work with their opposition, and who will continue to tap into voters’ childish emotions rather than encouraging us to see something bigger than ourselves.

Being ‘mad as hell’ only leads to one place.  

Yes S/he Can!


For those of you who missed this during the election, here is drag queen legend RuPaul as both Barack and Michelle Obama. What I love most of all is that he looks more like the First Lady than the President!

Something about Rob Ford


For the first time in my adult life I don’t know who to support in an election. And I’m not the only one keeping the Toronto mayoral race at arm’s length. The candidates have been so uninspiring, the issues so dry and the entire scene so depressing, made more so by councillor Rob Ford’s lead in the polls, that it’s been easier just to turn away. This is wrong. There is no less at stake in a dismal election; indeed, there is often more. Not knowing about the candidates and who to vote for is an opportunity in disguise, a great chance to learn new things and take a chance.

If you’ve heard of any of the candidates, you’ve heard of Rob Ford, city counsellor from Etobicoke North. An active supporter of the Salvation Army and high school football, Ford is a Mike Harris right-winger, no friend of unions or bike-lanes, who has promised to clean up the city while cutting taxes. He also has enough scandals to sink a regular politician, but he remains buoyant.

It doesn’t seem to matter to his supporters that he referred to Asian-Canadians as “Orientals” who “work like dogs” and “are slowly taking over”; that he said that Toronto shouldn’t let in more immigrants as “it’s more important that we take care of the people now before we start bringing in more”; that he agreed with a evangelical pastor that same-sex marriage could “dismantle” our civilization; that he said that roads are built for cars not bikers and when one dies his “heart goes out to them” but it was their fault; that, about a proposed transgendered grant program, he said “No. 1, I don’t understand a transgender…is it a guy dressed up like a girl or a girl dressed up like a guy? And we’re funding this for…We’re giving them $3,210?”; and that he dismissed the universality of the AIDS threat by claiming that “if you’re not doing needles and you’re not gay, you won’t get AIDS, probably.”

My problem is not just that I disagree with him. How can someone who wants to be mayor of one of the most multicultural diverse cities in the world be so ignorant and, worse than just that, smugly and indifferently so? How can you not know or care that it’s the hard work of new Canadians that has, rather than be a strain on our resources, kept Toronto’s economy growing? That cyclists, by reducing car pollution in our already smog-choked city, are helping the environment for everyone? And, if you don’t know what transgendered means, look it up.

Columnists like Christie Blatchford have made fun of lefties for foaming at the mouth over a possible Ford victory. I wish I could take it so lightly. Some of his supporters don’t agree with him on everything, but like the idea of a Toronto mayor who’s gutsy and ‘straight-talking’. But a mayor is not a king (or a Conservative Prime Minister): he can’t just do whatever he wants. The mayor’s fate is tied up with a dysfunctional city council, a majority who would hate Ford as soon as he took office.

Mayor Ford would result in a Toronto of wars; a war between the city and the province (who will not shill out more money, despite Ford’s saber-rattling); a war between City Hall and unions; a war between drivers and cyclists; a war between suburban and downtown voters; a war between immigrant groups, artists and queers asking for funding from people who don’t know what transgendered means. All this in a city which already looks like a war zone.

The other candidates, so far splitting the centre and left votes, are flummoxed about Ford’s support and appear to be lost on how to stop him. Brian Topp in The Globe and Mail superbly summed up his campaign so far:

Mr. Ford is a very smart, superbly tuned, disciplined and determined right-wing populist who knows exactly what he is doing. People who attack him as a buffoon underestimate him, and help his campaign by building his brand among the kind of voters he is targeting. He is speaking to the 30-35 per cent of the electorate who are always there for right-wing candidates in Toronto…People who resent Toronto’s elite (although Mr. Ford is that elite’s avatar). People who believe that by cutting the $2-million city councillors spend staying in touch with constituents, Toronto’s $7.8-billion budget will be healed. People who believe that by cutting taxes, there will be more revenue. People who believe that by electing a mayor whose brand proposition is a relentless assault on the honesty and integrity of his city council colleagues, we will have a mayor who can get better results from those colleagues.

Seems unlikely to me. But Mr. Ford doesn’t need to persuade me, or anyone like me. He just needs to hold his franchise, while the two-thirds of the electorate who see the world as a more complex place split their votes between three or four other candidates. Mr. Ford is running a well-scripted, right-wing minority, Karl Roveian, modern U.S. Republican-style campaign. He is seeking to reproduce Stephen Harper’s minority victory in Toronto.

I caught Ford’s closing remarks during one of the endless debates last night. (Another problem with this election has been the multitudes of debates and how early the campaign started. Only the media wants to think about a city election a year before it takes place!) Ford said that he was the only candidate who had both public and private sector experience as a business man, and that this gave him credibility on balancing the budget. He then mentioned his wife and kids, called himself a “family man” and claimed that we desperately needed a “business-oriented, family man” in City Hall. Why? Was this possibly a dig at his main opponent, the openly-gay George Smitherman? Very Karl Rove indeed. Bringing up his ‘family man’ status for no reason is especially odd when you learn that Ford’s wife once called the cops on him and charged him with assault, although she later dropped the charges and he was exonerated.

(Two can play at Rove’s game.)  

There’s still time. A couple of the other candidates may drop out and throw their support behind a leading Ford opponent. The newspapers keep reminding us that nobody pays attention to elections during the summer and so the poll numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. But Ford’s core support will stay solid. There are Toronto voters who are conservative, who don’t like taxes, who don’t ride bikes or take the TTC and see Chinatown and the Pride Parade not as celebrations of diversity but as evidence that the Canada they grew up with is disappearing. I get that, and I understand that they want what they think is best for the city too.

But the city’s many problems are not going to be fixed by a bully. Some politicians, the good ones, win by bringing people together, others by tearing people apart. Toronto elected David Miller partly because he was against the Island Airport bridge; let’s not elect a man who will burn all bridges between the diverse communities that make this city a vibrant and wonderful place to live.