The Self Evident Truth Project, Lily Rose Depp, and the Never-Ending Media Fuckup of Discussing Women’s (Bi)sexuality

You know how they all like rainbows. All of them.

Bisexuals all like rainbows. All of them. Also pink. And the more esoteric varieties of macramé. That’s how you can spot them.

My friend just posted this piece, which ostensibly praises Johnny Depp’s daughter, all of sixteen years old, for the way she “just came out in a pretty inspiring way”. The tone of ‘pretty inspiring’ strikes me as remarkably patronising: ‘OMG, like, a teenage girl could be inspiring! It’s sooooo cute, and I’ve never heard of Malala Yousafzai!’ As my friend observed, this article is basically sleazy gossip dressed up as LGBT activism. Lily Rose Depp has, apparently, been part of an instagram project featuring photos of people who identify as anything other than completely straight. Now, don’t get me wrong: that’s lovely, and awesome, and the message is brilliant. It’s always a good thing to remind people not to assume heterosexuality. And this is a nice, celebratory way of doing that. I like it a lot. What I don’t particularly like is the way the article frames this particular ‘story’ (if you want to call it that). The journalist, Ashley Percival, writes:

“Lily … is yet to speak about her sexual orientation in her own words, or clarify where she considers herself on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning and Asexual spectrum.”

Now, first off, Lily isn’t actually required to speak ‘in her own words’, instagram being a visual medium. She’s not being coy. She’s participating in a project that’s visual. But, just by phrasing it this way, Percival makes it sound as if Depp is keeping something from us, or (hint, hint) perhaps as if she’s not quite sure of herself. In contrast, to say she’s “yet to … clarify where she considers herself” implies that the sixteen-year-old has a fixed idea of her sexual orientation (did you, at 16? Good for you). It implies it’s her human duty to explain to us where on that spectrum she is. Which, to me, rather misses the whole bloody point of talking about a spectrum and making an instagram project welcoming everyone on said spectrum without distinguishing, but what do I know? The point is, this combination of sly insinuations that a teenage girl’s sexuality is entirely our business, combined with the subtle hints that Depp might be unsure of herself, form a familiar pattern. And Percival’s conclusion follows that pattern, in case we miss what’s being implied here:

“In recent months, Cara Delevingne, Kristen Stewart and Miley Cyrus have all spoken about their sexually fluid orientations, after beginning relationships with women.”

Have they really? I had a google. Stewart and Cyrus have both said things along those lines, but what about this?

“My sexuality is not a phase. I am who I am” – Cara Delevingne, Huffington Post, 17/7/15.

Remarkably, this doesn’t look like ‘fluidity’ to me. Nor does it look particularly as if Delevingne decided this ‘after beginning relationships with women’.

Another Huffington Post article – they’re not coming out (snurk) of this well, are they? – lambasts Delevingne for, erm, seeming to like men and women and therefore not being a very good lesbian. Delevingne, who’s expressed her sexuality in the most concrete, ‘don’t tell me who I am’ terms, gets slapped down for it. Partly, this is purely economic, like the trash media’s treatment of Jennifer Aniston’s shockingly long period of being a happily unmarried woman. It’s good for magazines to sell endless cycles of speculation about heartbreak and marriage; it’s boring to suggest that she might just be enjoying life. So too here: if we can run non-stop ‘is she or isn’t she?’ stories, so much the better. But there’s something else going on. In the Guardian a few days ago, Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote a piece titled ‘Not Gay, Not Straight, Just Thinking Outside the Box’, which managed to use the term ‘bisexual’ just once. In the context of the phrase ‘bisexual or bicurious’.

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Bisexuality is not inherently more ‘fluid’ that homo- or heterosexuality. I doubt your average bisexual person is attracted to more people than your average lesbian or straight woman; I’ve met plenty of lesbians and straight women who have much less of a narrow ‘type’ than some bisexuals.

Why am I wittering on about this? Well, it’s a nice outlet for my irritation. I do find these articles irritating, and I do think implying a teenage girl has a duty to ‘clarify’ her sexuality to anyone is repellent, and I do want to shake the next person who writes a puff piece subtly implying women who date women do it because they’re waaayyy confused in their tiny ladybrains.

But it’s more than that. Focusing on the individual – as the media does with young women celebs – tends to obscure the wider structural issues. If we make out that Depp’s sexuality is a nine days’ wonder she ought to ‘clarify’ to us, then her project illustrating the normality of that sexuality is undermined. If we insist on lumping together Delevingne, who represents herself as distinctly un-‘fluid’ in her sexuality, together with other women who comfortably uses that term, we’re doing a disservice to all of them. On this blog, I almost always end up talking about how women are silenced, how women’s voices should be heard more often and more clearly. But here, for once, I’m glad I’m talking about a silence. Depp doesn’t have to ‘clarify’ her sexuality – to herself, to anyone else, to the public or in private – because the project she actually chose to spend her time on is making the visual point that this sexuality doesn’t require any explanation. As the organisers of the project point out, it’s a Self Evident Truth.

Coda

Jem Bloomfield just commented on twitter (correctly) that in this sort of context, ‘fluid’ tends to mean ‘amenable to male desire/gaze’. This is a commonly acknowledged point about the way popular stereotypes of bisexuality are gendered (bisexual men are not usually seen as ‘fluid’ but as ‘closet gays’). But it also reminded me of the network of images I have in the back of my mind when people talk about ‘fluidity’ in the context of sexuality and gender, and why I have such a kneejerk reaction against the term. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra – which I studied, and loved for A Level English – there’s a beautifully balanced architecture of binary oppositions associated with the eponymous lovers: Rome and Egypt, military and romantic, pragmatic and sensual … and, of course, land and water. Cleopatra’s whole being is fluid sexuality; her downfall is her watery failure to stick to her guns.

I love this play, and I love Cleopatra, who I’d strongly argue (pace Mrs Young, and thank you for putting up with me) is the hero of the play. I also love the reading, which I didn’t know of at the time, of her handmaidens Charmian and Iras as lesbian (or bisexual?) lovers. But Shakespeare, like other men before him, is associating female sexuality with fluidity in a distinctly negative way. Fluidity is both slippery and passive: it lacks firm presence and it washes away. Ultimately, like Egypt, it allows itself to be invaded by Roman masculinity; like water, it is defined by the solidity around it, not by its own presence. In this respect, then, when we stereotype bisexual women as ‘fluid’ in their sexuality, we’re buying into a wider stereotype of all female sexuality as defined by (male) heterosexuality and in need of masculinity to control it and give it boundaries. Thanks, but no thanks.

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If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor, She’d Kick Judith Butler’s Arse

The Toast just published a piece titled ‘If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor‘, and it’s awesome.

In general, The Toast is awesome, and particularly their medievalism, and particularly their medieval feminism, so, really, you should go read it and you should not be surprised it’s awesome. But, for once, it’s also wrong like a wrong thing. Laura Moncion speculates:

“If Julian of Norwich were your professor, she would be good friends with Judith Butler. Sometimes you would hear their uproarious laughter coming from Julian’s office. You’d peek in and find both of them in front of the computer, watching cat videos together.”

No. No, this is Not Right.

Judith Butler, you see, writes pretentiously dense musings on gender which (I strongly suspect, if only I could ever concentrate for more than three seconds on her tortured use of the English language), boil down to ‘let’s write “epistemology” more often and make sure we don’t exclude any men from the feminism’.

Julian of Norwich is the sort of person who, living in a tiny cell and in a culture where you write things out longhand, rewrote her entire book in order to make it clearer. Judith Butler is the sort of person whose rewritten introduction to Gender Trouble is so obfuscatory it requires its own explanatory notes.

Julian of Norwich is the sort of person who, if Margery Kempe applied to be her grad student, would leave you in no doubt of the power relationship. She’d have Margery meet her for coffee and she’d let Margery fangirl at her, and she’d write her a list of books to read. And Margery would go away thinking they’d had a real meeting of minds, but she would also instinctively know never to send Julian her rough drafts at 11pm with I just sorta wanted to know what you think of this emails. Julian would write quietly professional references for Margery.

Judith Butler is the sort of person who would take on Margery Kempe as a grad student and talk about her to you in your supervisions, so you ended up knowing more about Margery’s sex life than you wanted to know, and wouldn’t be able to look at Margery over coffee because Judith would have told you about that embarrassing time at the departmental party when John and Margery were having a bad time. Then you’d see her pop up on facebook telling Margery she’s questioning the practice of masculinist oppression with her new relationship status. She’d encourage Margery not to bother redrafting her thesis. Just hand it in! Tell them the letters are not shaped or formed like other letters, but self-constructed in a dialogic matrix of anti-universalising commentary on being and becoming! Margery would never get a postdoc and would languish on the fringes of academia wondering where it all went wrong and whether Judith really meant it that time they both got tipsy and Judith admitted yes, sometimes I think it might just be the patriarchy that’s the problem too.

But the main thing (as anyone who works on medieval religious culture knows) is that Julian, and Margery, and Richard Rolle, and pretty much anyone who was writing at all, makes Judith Butler look about 600 years out of date. Butler’s big issue is gender essentialism, by which she means, what does it mean to be a ‘woman’, who gets to be in that category, how is it socially constructed and why does it continue to be an important concept.

You might expect that Julian, writing in late medieval England, would think about gender as a binary thing, an innate and fundamental difference between men and women. You do find bits of her work where she associates femininity with the body and the emotions, with nurturing and caring. Christ, writes Julian, is mother-like in that Christ “ is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh”. Christ took on ‘sensuality’ – not the modern word, but the medieval word meaning senses, feelings, capacity to experience bodily and emotional life – and this act of mercy towards humanity is a maternal act.

But Julian doesn’t just imply that the loving and nurturing elements of life are innately feminine. In medieval interpretations of sexual reproduction, the female role is simply to carry and nourish the foetus – medieval science taught that the actual spark of human life, the soul itself – came from the man. This basic axiom gives rise to a web of misogynistic implications, from the idea that creative genius is innately male, to the idea that women are vessels for life rather than active participants in its creation. You shouldn’t underestimate the impact of it: it’s the idea that lies behind contemporary anti-abortion rhetoric and the pervasive belittling of intellectual women alike. And Julian utterly rejects it.

I … accepted the fact that our substance is in God; that is to say that God is God and our substance is a creature in God. For the Almighty Truth of the Trinity is our Father, for he made us and preserves us in himself; the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our mother, in whom we are enclosed; the lofty goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us.

We are enclosed in the Father, we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit. The Father is enclosed in us.”

Here, Julian is trying to get at what Butler would call epistemology: the study of the truth of things. But her image of enclosure is maternal – she’s explaining the relationship of truth to human understanding in terms of pregnancy, of containment of one body within another enclosing body. And yet, you notice that while God is imagined as a maternal figure who encloses humanity and gives meaning to humanity’s understanding of ‘substance’, of human nature, humanity is also pregnant with God, enclosing God, sensing God as a woman feels the kicks and movements of a foetus in the womb.

This is part of Julian’s highly radical imagery of space, which famously includes her vision of the entirety of creation pictured as if it were a tiny thing, the size of a hazelnut in the palm of her hand. But, while her ideology of space is radical because it invites us to confront our ideas about magnitude, it’s also radical because it forces us to think about how somatic experience measures what we think about truth and gender. Julian’s experience is deeply rooted in her female body, and the language she uses to grapple with epistemology is something like a questioning version of écriture féminine, female writing. She imagines God as female and male, and human struggles to conceptualise God as a process that overspills the cultural boundaries of masculine and feminine activity. But she’s also incredibly simple and direct about the limits of understanding, and that’s where I think she and Judith Butler would never see eye to eye. Julian knows when something is too big a concept to reduce, and she doesn’t try to speak around the issues.

I’m not seriously trying to argue that Julian of Norwich can be separated from the profoundly misogynistic world of late-medieval England, or that she invented gender fluidity, the concept of performativity, or any other buzzwords of the Judith Butler fan club. The point, really, is that the idea of challenging a fixed, static, binary model of gender is, in itself, a piece of ahistorical arrogance on the part of scholars. Medieval interpretations of what we might call ‘gender’ or ‘sex’ or ‘gender identity’ are hugely varied, hugely nuanced, and hugely incomprehensible to us now. We can find ideas that seem to confirm our prejudices – stereotypes of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ – and we can find ones that seem, excitingly, to suggest twenty-first-century sensibilities trapped in genderfluid, queer, non-binary medieval bodies. But we’re being wise after the fact. Before we start assuming it’s new and exciting to ‘trouble’ stable conceptions of gender, we need to question whether it’s already been done.