Hi all! I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to be a guest blogger this week for Fedcan (The Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences) at: http://blog.fedcan.ca/
I’m alongside some great scholars and thinkers like Bobby Noble, Doreen Fumia and Catherine Taylor and feel pretty lucky to be included. This particular entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirit) peoples. Hope you like it!
On Friday, October 4, 2010 the lifeless bodies of 21 year-old Jeanine Blanchette and her 17 year-old girlfriend Chantal Dube were found in a wooded area behind a social services building in Orangeville, Ontario. Immediately deemed a double-suicide by police, the lesbian couple’s disappearance and their eventual deaths drew little attention from the local or national media and even sparser attention from the Orangeville Police Department. In fact the authorities assured the families that the girls had simply run off together and that their disappearance was an attention-seeking attempt at feminine manipulation. After all, girls just do this—they run away. By the time the police decided to begin the search it was too late. Jeanine Blanchette’s cousin, not the police, found the two girls lying together, dead already, nestled in a blanket of trees.
Other than the negligence of the OPP, what I find especially problematic with this story is that when the girls were eventually found their deaths (although understood to be undeniably tragic) were described by the media as losses that were inevitable. Foreshadowable because of the girls’ presumed lonely unhappiness, rather than contextualizing the lives they’d lived together as a young couple the lackluster coverage of their suicides weighed in on the lonely affective dispositions of Blanchette and Dube, effectively creating a narrative that narrowly focused on the girls’ shifty emotional states. It is this odd (non)reaction to these young adults’ deaths that speaks to what I understand to be a western fear of both young lesbianism and negative emotions.
In 2011, an age of presumed tolerance that portends a particular acceptance of diversity (if only a compulsory one), culturally we have taken a turn towards regulating our fear of hyper-emotion (sentiments that are considered excessively depressive and, therefore, unproductive) by obsessing over gleeful, positive emotions. Happiness is most certainly at the forefront. Consequently, unhappiness and loneliness have gotten misappropriated and stapled onto young lesbians while their difficult feelings are being reconfigured as symptoms of more manageable mental illnesses and wayward sicknesses. The suicidal lesbian body, therefore, becomes the new body to dismiss—a place to house the already ramped happy-anxiety that is fast becoming the benchmark of western sentiment.
In response, I seek to make a political space for the unhappy lesbian misfit by exploring the following: how have lesbians become perceived as singular threats whose feelings are dangerous to society’s collective joy? What is at stake politically and culturally by the lonely sentiments that get stuck to lesbians?
In a disturbingly stoic post by Canadian media mogul Perez Hilton he surmises that the reason Blanchette and Dube took their own lives is simple: they were brutally depressed and mentally ill. He states: “it sounds like both these young women suffered quite a bit from depression, and it breaks our heart that despite their best efforts, they couldn’t find the strength within themselves or each other to hold on.” Hilton’s presumptions surrounding the girls’ deaths privileges “our” public “heart” and collective strength while dismissing Dube and Blanchette as a hyper-feminine “them” who were too weak and too melodramatic to fight for survival. In choosing to spectacularize the two girls with two particular close-up photos—each depicting the young women in eerily solemn (in the case of Dube), or hyper-emotional (in the case of Blanchette) affective moments—the girls are presented as though they are actually on trial for being emotive. In not surviving, they failed; Hilton’s near happiness in his personal assessment is distressing.
I also see a troubling and confusing gender bias surrounding the social reaction to queer teen suicide. Not only are lesbians being used as unhappy scapegoats in this current war on rogue emotions, but while lesbian youth are dismissed for being suicidal, gay male youth are being martyred. Focusing attentions around why and how young gay women commit suicide, rather than on changing the ways in which society views their sexuality, social reactions to lesbian suicide passively condemn and shame without introspection. And yet, western society is more than eager to revere and make heroes out of gay, male youth who die by suicide, heralding them as brave victims of homophobia.
For instance, here in Canada in 2007, 13 year-old Shaquille Wisdom took his own life after being endlessly bullied by classmates at his school in Ajax, Ontario. However, the social reaction to Wisdom’s death was scathingly different from public reactions to the Dube and Blanchette suicides. Described by the media as a murderous example of external gay bashing, Wisdom’s death initiated a strong social response throughout Canada as people rallied against what they saw as the growing pandemic of social and cultural homophobia, a rally still ongoing. The idea that a young man would be driven to take his own life at the beginning of his potential left a Canadian public heart-broken, and his death prompted a public outcry for Canadian education reform against homophobia in schools. Moreover, Wisdom’s death became entrenched in the larger conversation surrounding the increased suicidal ideation of queer youth throughout Canada and the US in much the same ways that Jamie Hubley’s recent death has prompted people like Rick Mercer and Bob Ray to start talking about what we can do to combat homophobia once and for all.
I’m not at all suggesting these deaths were not atrocities and horrendous examples of the disgusting power of homophobia. However, I can’t help but wonder here why, for Wisdom and for Hubley, did the media coverage speak tragedy and loss, attributing the death of these boys to the violent hatred of others, while Dube and Blanchette’s deaths were construed as the unhappy inevitability of their personal flaws? In other words, why do we believe external homophobia attacks gay-male teens, while lesbian teens are believed to be the conduits of their own demise?
Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” (IGB) project highlights what I see as a specific example of a cultural forum that evidences a widespread lack of political information, care, and sentiment for young female queers, especially those deemed unhappy. Beginning as an online site where queer and LGBTQ adults could post their supportive video messages to queer youth who might be struggling with bullying and homophobia, Savage’s IGB created a safe space in order to speak out against suicidal ideations. What quickly becomes clear when exploring this site, however, is that while this campaign professes to speak to all LGBTQ youth, young lesbians are being paradoxically hailed by Savage’s project but are never actually the intended audience. Separating the boys from the girls and, more strategically, the rational, successful gay boy from the hyper-emotional, lost gay girl, what emerges is a narrative about lesbianism that suggests its frivolousness.
What I also see within this and other cultural scripts is the continued feminization of unhappiness which points to the ways in which lesbian desire, especially the intimacies between lesbian youth, is rendered both invisible and affectively ugly—sentiments that are not becoming of a good girl. Shockingly, gay male youth are affectively configured as emblems of a stolen happiness whereas lesbian youth are misconstrued as those who might steal happiness and infect it with loneliness. As such, lonely, unhappy girls are neither expected to survive their unhappiness nor thought deserved of survival.
Even in the queer community there seems to be a lack of awareness about lesbian youth, as well as a growing lack of desire to critique the privileging of happiness. Available support networks specifically targeting young lonely lesbians are sparse and often homonormative. While online initiatives similar to the “It Gets Better” project such as Autostraddle’s “23 lesbians, 10 animals, 2 children, 1 message” attempt to compensate for the privileging of white, middle class, gay men in the social media these narratives also create and beckon “happy” lesbian identities to them—dog loving, middle-class, monogamous and devout lovers who revel in domestic bliss, social networking, and corporatization. Narrativizations that promise a return to some lost happiness are in abundance on this site and they are so without any critical thought going into what this happiness is, to whom it is available, or where it resides.
I propose here that what we queer activists and feminists need is an understanding of an unhappiness with happiness, a lonely unhappiness that does not necessitate a sadness with oneself; rather a pleasurable loneliness which addresses the sadness we have with a western politic that uses happiness to oppress others. What is important to remember here is that lonely feelings call into question our stark obsession with western happiness, and our dependency on political policies that choose which affects are beneficial to nationalist discourses and which are threatening to this ideal. I argue here for a loneliness that is neither recuperated as happy, nor a loneliness that validates negativity. Neither of these binaries are fluid enough for this lonely emotion. Instead, I put forth that this beautifully ugly emotion must work to reimagine happiness, a challenge necessary to a reclamation of political lesbian agency.
It is because of its misfittedness that loneliness can be understood as a present, ordinary, everyday affect that lets us know social change is necessary and continual, emotions are powerful, and ethical connections require work, care, and compassion, not empty smiles. In this way it might just be the lonely young lesbian who is strong enough to stir things up, muddying our comfortable waters. Her unhappiness is not something that makes her expendable, and her loneliness within this particular moment can be made political. She can become the agent of radical change.
After all, lesbianism’s power lies in its ability to constantly re-envision itself, never falling prey to a happy stability.
For kids like Chantelle and Jeanine, we can’t forget that.
“It is this odd (non)reaction to these young adults’ deaths that speaks to what I understand to be a western fear of both young lesbianism and negative emotions.”
It is getting annoying yet to have people “comment” simply by restating what you’ve already said?
Thanks for another great post, Melissa. I’m learning so much from your blog.
thank you for reading me lovely. Means much.
Thanks for this. Brilliant!
I agree with you that this phenomenon of the young girl who kills other people’s joy with her wayward emotions is a huge cultural trope – one which doesn’t get much attention. Although I think you’re right that it has particularly attached itself to girls who have same-sex attractions, I think this kill-joy emotionality is attached to women deemed mentally ill more generally. For the chapter I just completed, I was reading a bunch of stuff about Sylvia Plath, and everything I read kept talking about how tragic her life was. Why did committing suicide make her whole life tragic? Culturally, she is often summed up, it seems, by her suicide attempt (captured in The Bell Jar) which seen as a foreshadowing of her eventual suicide. All of the things in-between these events end up swallowed up by the remembrance of her hopelessness. I also read a bit about Plath’s son, who committed suicide a few years ago. There’s an insistence on claiming his suicide as directly related to his mother’s, despite it occurring some 40 years later. It’s like they want to think of some gloomy Plath, reaching out of the grave to indefinitely pluck the joy out of those to those who knew her.
I also have been considering lately how this queer loneliness gets medicalized. I know, in my own history as a young teen in the mental health system, that my bisexuality was considered a part of my “unstable self-image,” and that the professional who treated me saw this instability as the primary barrier to my mental health. Nobody ever asked me whether it was my bisexuality itself that made me unhappy, or my feeling of being ostracized because of it.
As you can see, this piece was really thought-provoking for me!
I plan to keep working to politicize my own mad, queer loneliness.
Wow! This is a fantastic comment about killjoys– of which, Phebe, you and I are two! I totally agree with you that women deemed mentally ill are always already presumed to be the killjoy and the downer at the party who sucks happiness dry. With Plath, like Woolf, her eventual suicide gets summed up as inevitable for sure. Everything I have read points to this as well, and when I was writing about these two young lesbian girls (Dube and Blanchette) the same tactic was being used by the media: they were depressed and so their death was preinscribed. They were doomed because of their doom and the world can now sigh in relief that the killjoy has left the room. Disgusting. What seems most troubling about this narrative is that we tend to follow it willingly, believing in the inevitability of hopelessness. I love the image you invoke of Plath sticking her arm out of the grave to “pluck the joy” from her son and those others who knew her, as though “unhappiness” is contagious. I have much to say about the contagion of loneliness, and the scientific treatise out there surrounding that theory, but I’ll simply say now that the idea of the contagion of “negative” affects is fueling a lot of western, neoliberal agendas. Many make money off the suffering of others (we all know that), but now many are making money off of the fear that the suffering of others will infect the “happy” amongst us. Wherever they are!
Your experience in the mental health system is angrifying to me. The fact that your sexuality might actually have been making you joyful and pleasured while the judgment of the public dealing with their own anxieties surrounding bisexuality was leaving you undone should have been discussed. If only we had a time machine. But I am so excited that we can keep working to politicize our mad, queer loneliness’ together. I look forward to your thoughts anytime.
Thank you for your interesting and thought provoking post and the opportunity to comment!
I think the western fear of Lesbianism is inherently tied to the fear of the feminine. We live in a time where the male archetype is dominant. This domination has influenced how women think, how they behave and what they value. I believe the feminine movement is fuelled by a masculine energy. I believe the paradigm is beginning to shift towards the female archetype. Any change of this magnitude creates fear and an effort to hold onto what is familiar. But we have a long way to go. Women in the Western world are are still underpayed, unappreciated and devalued as compared to men. What makes Lesbians any diffferent?
Thanks for your comments Nadya. I agree with you certainly that there is a fear of femininity afoot throughout western, political discourses. However, there also seems to be a fear of masculinity as well, especially if gender is being queered. Where I’m from, it’s not the feminine lesbian that’s shun — in fact, she’s fantasized about more often than not — but the lesbian who challenges gender roles. For instance, the “butch” lesbian, or the gender queer person in high school no longer gets away with being called a tomboy as I did as a wee thing. Their appearance seems more threatening today for some reason. Their challenge of femininity and masculinity gets touted as sick or dangerous. Thus, while there are many sources out there who are citing the decline of the male archetype, and the male himself (see The Atlantic’s latest issue for a fun read!) what seems to really be stirring the pot is not the loss of men, and rise of women, but those people who queer the gender stereotypes that are attached to sex. What makes lesbians different, I think, especially young lesbians is that they are not only being dismissed because they are “women” or “not-woman enough” in a lot of cases, but because they are deemed not fit–physically, mentally, or socially–to be in our world. They’re seen as less than human, too melodramatic and lonely to contribute anything other than failure. What do you think?