Thoughts on “Cuties” (“Mignonnes”) (2020 film by Maïmouna Doucouré)

[Note: I wrote most of this review in October 2020, after I chanced to see this film. It just never felt appropriate to post it in the midst of all the political turmoil and nonsense of recent times. Then I kept forgetting to publish it. I guess I may as well do it now?]

I ended up watching Cuties after defending it to my mother, who had heard a lot of outraged media talking points about it. She suggested we watch it to see for ourselves, and after having done so I felt uncomfortable with myself for having defended it so vociferously. I ended up with a lot of very mixed impressions.

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Posted by on February 24, 2021 in mitchell, Uncategorized


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Inauguration Day (still doesn’t feel real)

I am writing this only a few hours before Joe Biden officially becomes president of the United States, and it still doesn’t feel real to me. I’m just not able to process this fact, and I’ve been wrestling with that for a few days now.

I don’t have answers. The coming days are going to continue to be long and difficult, and an end to the disastrous Trump presidency is not a magical undoing of all the damage he and his administration inflicted. “We survived”, many say, but of course many more didn’t (including but not limited to the over four hundred thousand who have died from COVID-19).

But what I want to acknowledge, briefly, is the collective trauma and abuse we have all experienced over the last four years (both from the administration and their supporters), and the effects of that are going to linger far beyond the change in political leadership. I would be far from the first person to compare the Trump administration to an abusive relationship, to gaslighting, and so on, but nonetheless that is an important lens for processing these feelings as we go forward. For better or worse, it has been a huge source of anxiety, and that’s not going to go away immediately. We’d do better to acknowledge this openly than try to downplay it.

I do have some hopes things will improve, but for better or worse it’s going to be a slow process and we have to keep paying attention. (This is not the time to get complacent, though I certainly don’t begrudge anyone needing a break.)

If you feel weird, if things still don’t make sense, if you find events difficult to process, you aren’t alone.


Posted by on January 20, 2021 in mitchell


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Today was a very stressful day, as I’m sure anyone paying the vaguest amount of attention to news out of the (not-so-) United States can attest. I am writing this, not because I have any particular insight or anything noteworthy to say, but merely because I would feel more uncomfortable saying nothing.

The day started off well, with decisive results in the Georgia runoff elections that have been worrying so many. Warnock’s win over Loeffler was clear fairly early; I was a bit concerned at how close the Ossoff-Perdue race was, but as the day went on and further returns came in it seems to have edged past the recount margin. This is the best we could have hoped for out of those elections, and frankly something of a pleasant shock. Democrats will now have the slimmest possible majority, which means McConnell is out as majority leader (fucking finally) and theoretically it might be possible for them to actually accomplish something. It remains to be seen whether they actually will, but the possibility is there. (For better or worse, a lot is resting on the cooperation of West Virginia’s Joe Manchin…)

Also today came the announcement that Biden plans to appoint Merrick Garland to Attorney General, which seems ironically apropos.

That said, today was also marked by an enormous mob of seditious white supremacists (don’t argue this one, look at all the photos of them carrying Confederate battle flags) storming and successfully occupying the Capitol, interrupting the certification of the Electoral College result and sending the Representatives and Senators fleeing to safety. As I write this, as far as I know they are still on the premises. Similar groups have stormed quite a few state capitols as well; this is not an isolated riot.

I am not exactly surprised to see something like this happen; the right-wingers have certainly been hinting about it long enough, and people like Sarah Kendzior absolutely saw it coming and attempted to warn the rest of us. Nobody with the power to do anything seems to have been paying attention.

This is terrifying, for obvious reasons. I am not sure whether the best term for these people is domestic terrorists, insurrectionists, traitors, or something else, but those phrases at least mark out the general space they occupy. There is ample evidence that this was action was premeditated (among other things, several people present were wearing printed T shirts referring specifically to this event on this date). And their action is supported by the supposed president of the country, who continued egging them on via Twitter until even that company felt obligated to step in (and do the bare minimum, thanks ever so much Jack).

DC police were either unable or (more likely) unwilling to stop them from gaining entry, and I read the Pentagon apparently refused to send in the National Guard. This could have been prevented or stopped. Remember the ludicrous amounts of violent ‘riot suppression’ that were deemed necessary by these fuckheads when there were peaceful protests saying Black Lives Matter? A fraction of that violence should have sufficed to dissuade these cosplaying yahoos (these are the sort of people who love dishing it out but can’t take anything), but for some reason it wasn’t considered (we all know what the reason is, they’re mostly white men and law enforcement is full of fascists and the fascism-adjacent).

This is very serious. This is, let us be clear, a coup d’etat. I do not particularly expect it to be successful, but it does not need to be to cause a great deal of damage. As such, it is imperative that the incoming Biden administration take this seriously and prosecute those involved to the fullest extent of the law. (And this includes “president” Donald Trump. It appears there are going to be attempts at impeachment and/or invoking the 25th amendment, finally, in these last 14 days of his administration; I don’t know if I dare to hope there will actually be some attempt to hold that man accountable for anything, but this sort of behaviour needs to have consequences because the next person to attempt it will not be nearly so inept as Twitler. The question about that is why the fuck did it take this long, why the fuck is this the line that had to be crossed? For fuck’s sake.)

It looks like the Senate are back in session to finish the certification, at least.

I will stop here because I don’t know what else to say. Here are a few pieces on the subject over at Freethought Blogs I thought worth reading: One Two Three Four

Loten here with an update some hours later (Mitchell is probably asleep, at least he had better be). It’s over, for now at least. Four of the mob are dead, and there are reports of at least fourteen policemen injured – many of these thugs had tear gas and body armour, and two bombs were found and removed from the nearby Democratic and Republican National Committee headquarters. There have been more than fifty arrests so far.

Congress have reconvened and are in the process of confirming Biden’s election despite yet more Republican attempts to stall, and the Democrats have two confirmed wins in Georgia to give them the majority so desperately needed. Trump has been banned from Twitter for 12 hours, Facebook and Instagram for 24 hours and Snapchat for some length of time as well with orders to delete some of the worst messages or face permanent suspension, as well as Youtube removing at least one video. While this is a pathetic token gesture at best, it’s also as far as I know completely unprecedented and for that alone it’s a good start. There has been universal worldwide condemnation.

Biden has also explicitly termed this ‘insurrection’, ‘assault’, and ‘bordering on sedition’, and we can hope he follows up and takes action.

This whole mess has also led Pence and McConnell to grow spines, which is probably the most surprising thing (I doubt anyone thought they actually had limits to what they were prepared to swallow), and at least one Republican senator – Kelly Loeffler, runner up in Georgia – has changed their stance and backed down as well. As with just about everything else he’s ever said or done, this has blown up in Trump’s face. Imagine my surprise.


Posted by on January 7, 2021 in mitchell


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Hench: A Novel (Natalie Zina Walschots, 2020)


This book has been on my to-read list for a while, ever since I happened to see the author in some Twitter conversation earlier this year (I don’t remember the context, for better or worse). Anyone who’s known me for any length of time is probably aware that I love stories that subvert expectations and explore the perspectives of characters who normally tend to be glossed over (villains, servants, etc), or which attempt to interrogate tropes through the lens of “what if we take it seriously and let reality ensue”. I also tend to enjoy what I’ll call “competence porn”, which it looked like this might be (it is). If anything, this book seemed too perfectly designed to push my buttons so I worried it might be too good to be true, but I was cautiously optimistic nonetheless.

I finally got around to reading it (in more or less one sitting) this week, and, well. I did end up having some quibbles here and there (as I tend to do; I’ll get into them later in this review), but overall I can’t help but say I absolutely loved it. It feels weird to say something so explicitly positive, but it’s true.

Hench is an ambitious book (especially for an author’s first novel) that is willing to engage with a lot of complex and charged topics and unabashedly take sides, while remaining fast-paced and entertaining, and it genuinely impressed me. It is also very refreshing to see a story like this in which the main characters have no powers and the narrative is firmly on their side. We need more books like this.

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Posted by on January 1, 2021 in mitchell


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Things We Like: Tasting History with Max Miller

In the interest of getting back to posting about more enjoyable things, let’s talk about something we’ve both been having a lot of fun with. If you don’t know about it yet, and you have any interest whatsoever in cooking shows, history, or dad jokes, take a look at Tasting History on youtube.

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Posted by on November 21, 2020 in mitchell


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Can I get off this emotional rollercoaster yet?

I left things in kind of a bad place with last week’s post; I don’t regret anything I wrote there, but I’ve been feeling guilty about not writing a followup. At the same time, things have been changing so quickly and impactfully that I’ve had no idea what to say.

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Posted by on November 10, 2020 in mitchell


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The View From the Brink, Redux

I write this on Monday, 02 November 2020, the day before “Election Day” in the US, or more accurately, as we wind to the close of an election that has been in progress for over a month, and which I hope against hope will not be the last election we see in this country. While I am for obvious reasons an anxious mess (even more than I am the rest of the time, I realise this is a narrow distinction to parse) I think it’s worth writing something to capture this moment in time, because regardless of the outcome(s) things are at best about to get very strange. It didn’t seem appropriate to say nothing, though I can’t imagine this is going to be very coherent.

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Posted by on November 2, 2020 in mitchell


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Victim Mentality, Intersectionality Failure, Oppression Olympics (& of course TERFs)

A part of me is reluctant to publish this, because who the fuck is Mitchell Bender that anyone should give two shits what they think about something like this? It’s not like I’m a billionaire with a massive cultural platform giving me an unearned perception of authority, or anything like that. I’m nobody more than a person with opinions. I don’t fit neatly into the cis-trans dichotomy either (down with dichotomies!), certainly not in a way that entitles me to any kind of authority on these issues: I am agender but pass as cis male, and therefore am a recipient of privilege on this axis in nearly every way that matters. I want to disclaim that up front so that anyone who feels that disqualifies me from this conversation can stop reading now. That said, the angle I want to approach this from is one I haven’t seen much of in the overall discourse, and I think it’s important.

Also, it’s a predictable cycle at this point: Rowling says some bullshit, it gets spread around and then against my better judgment I feel compelled to reply (although this essay is about more than just her). To be honest, I’ve spent most of today in a bizarre haze comprising utter fury and panic attacks, while working on this.

I want to talk about underdog worship, and how it factors into this conversation.

We have a cultural tendency to fetishise and root for underdogs (I was going to say “in the US” and I do think it’s stronger there, but as this conversation is actually about Britain, I’m forced to admit it extends beyond and pervades Western culture more broadly). I don’t think this is a particularly controversial observation. The easiest way to garner sympathy for a cause or a person is to portray them as embattled, victimised, threatened, outnumbered. As an underdog up against a vastly more powerful enemy. In a vacuum I’d say there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and it’s probably better than the alternative of defaulting to rooting for the powerful, rooting for authority… but in practice what this means is just that authoritarians find a way to play at being underdogs, because in so doing they establish plausible deniability about their authoritarianism and people feel comfortable supporting them. (I think this mechanism may actually be behind some of Trump’s support, incidentally. This is one of the very few things I think he’s legitimately good at. For certain definitions of ‘good’.) With these cultural predispositions in place, if the underdog is always the hero, then it’s sufficient to merely establish oneself as an underdog (and thus strip heroism of all other meaning). This often ends up being very effective rhetorically.

This perversion of the underdog leads to things like arguments about “playing the victim” or “playing the race card” – people who think that’s a thing genuinely seem to believe that “look, I’m a disadvantaged minority” is a set of magic words that forces someone to agree with you and give you what you want. (How many times have you heard a wealthy, well-connected white person jealously bemoan affirmative action in this way?) Which is just not how anything works. (Full disclosure, I’ll admit that a younger and more foolish me absolutely thought this was how things worked.)

You may notice that the same powerful people who use this kind of victimhood rhetoric are very quick to accuse people who have actually been wronged of “playing the victim” in order to silence them; whether this is disingenuous, or just because they’re so used to being disingenuous they can’t conceive of anyone being otherwise, I leave as an exercise for the reader.

If you believe that is how the world works, Oppression Olympics are a natural consequence. If you’re the most oppressed, you’re the most credible and everyone has to listen to you! You get all the cards! (All the trump cards, I almost said, but that feels like it means something different now).

And yes, even some more sensible beliefs can lead into Oppression Olympics if we’re not careful, and that is a problem. For instance, slogans like “believe victims” or “believe women” – which is a reaction to the fact that women and victims are so often disbelieved by default – can easily be misinterpreted as “nothing a victim/woman says can ever be false”. Or the fact that individuals are experts on their own lived experience and oppression: this is true, and important, but easily misused by bad-faith actors to manufacture credibility.

This is, of course, not how it actually works. Marginalisation establishes credibility about that particular axis of marginalisation. Being marginalised does by nature confer expertise about that subject. But people have a tendency to (whether good-faith or not) interpret this as “marginalisation establishes crediblity, full stop”, and then assume this credibility is transitive when that’s just not how expertise works. So “I was sexually assaulted, therefore I have some authority to speak about the experience of sexual assault” becomes “I was sexually assaulted, therefore my credibility cannot be questioned when I write a fact-free screed about transgender people”. This just doesn’t follow. It’s a complete non-sequitur. It’s the same phenomenon as Nobel Syndrome: the Nobel is an indicator of very specific expertise in one area, but this gets overinterpreted as “genius omnidisciplinary expert” and people take seriously an engineer’s belief that vitamin C is a panacea or the suchlike. Oppressed individuals are experts on their lived experience of oppression. They are not magical truth-machines who can say nothing wrong on any subject.

This kind of rhetoric is a blatantly manipulative attempt to manufacture credibility and force acquiescence, and I find it despicable. (Yes, among other things, I’m talking about J.K. Rowling using her experience of spousal abuse and sexual assault to establish her authority to disparage trans people.) It’s important to understand this tactic so we can identify it in action, because it’s often very effective.

The result of this kind of infighting and jockeying for position on the marginalisation ladder is a destruction of solidarity amongst groups who should be united in opposing the systemic power structures that disadvantage them all, which directly benefits that system. Many of those promoting such infighting obviously know this and are doing it deliberately. This is why we need concepts like intersectionality to properly understand the interactions of multiple axes of oppression. You can’t condense this down to a single axis without losing so much relevant information as to render things meaningless.

This is also how you get a bunch of incredibly privileged authors and journalists with huge platforms (and who still have those platforms despite any supposed “cancellations”) writing and/or signing a whiny open letter in Harper’s Magazine complaining that people dare to criticise them and occasionally be heard and how this is a betrayal of the principle of FREEZE PEACH. Here are a few good responses. (Note: there’s some sketchiness here, some of the signatories seem to have been unaware of what they were signing or what company they were keeping in doing so.) They want the power of the bully pulpit without the responsibility to be accountable for what they say, and they believe that framing themselves as victims is the route to maintaining that power. The sad thing is that there’s a lot of cultural scaffolding in place that makes that likely to work.
This is a perspective that requires a significant amount of privilege and ignores the impact this ‘dispassionate’ debate has on the people actually affected by the issues in question. Note too how certain people involved (cough cough) immediately turn on and attempt to bully their fellow signatories and their critics as soon as they take a step out of line.

This isn’t about “freedom of speech”. What they want is freedom to abuse and freedom from criticism. “Cancel culture” objections only ever go one way.

Here’s some more context at Digby’s: This isn’t only about trans people, it’s also about explicit fascism. This is power positioning itself as powerless to in actuality entrench that power. It’s incredibly sinister. It’s the well-known abuse tactic of DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender), writ large and aimed at the entire population. (Here is Fannie making the same point. “Overlords posing as underdogs” she calls it, which is precisely right.) And as Sam Wilkinson notes here, this comes at at time where peaceful protests are being met with state violence in the US, yet the threat to free speech is insufficient deference to the powerful? We see you.

It is also worth recognising the subtext of the Harper’s letter, as Katelyn Burns points out here: a preponderance of the signatories have come under criticism specifically for transphobia, to the point that it’s impossible to read the letter as the general statement it purports to be. This is a letter explicitly advocating for “freedom of speech” in order to spout bigotry and specifically against transgender people.

Loten here with a friendly reminder: the ‘constitutional right to free speech’ that bigots love to whine about means that the US government does not have the right to arrest its citizens for criticising them. (I’m sure Trump cries himself to sleep every night over this.) Nothing more. Discriminatory hate speech in all its forms is still a crime, people still have the right to disagree and shout you down and call you out for being an asshole, nobody has an obligation to provide a platform for people to spout bigotry and you can and will be banned from any platform that does not support your hate. Free speech does not imply freedom from consequences.

All that said, to return to Rowling for a moment, I do think there may be a sense in which she could be legitimately a victim in the context of TERFism being a cult (please follow these links, I don’t say this out of nowhere). Bear with me a moment. Observe that her beliefs have been growing more and more extreme over time, and every time she speaks out on this. So let’s imagine this scenario for a moment: at one point, she was merely ignorant, and may have held some beliefs that were naively sympathetic to transphobia (as many people do who haven’t thought about the issue). TERFs noticed this and targeted her for recruitment, couched their beliefs in language that made them sound reasonable, and encouraged her to say transphobic things (things she may not even have noticed were specifically targeted at transgender people, even). This naturally drew in criticism, which led to her thinking of herself as an embattled victim (“I just said vaguely reasonable things, like ‘sex is real’! why is everyone dogpiling me?”) and doubling down. This is when TERFs really come in with the love-bombing and establish themselves as the only ones she can trust, the underdogs fighting against a clearly massive and powerful enemy: you can see how powerful the enemy is by how numerous they are and how vociferously they condemn your bigotry! Go forth, brave warrior of TERFdom! We know this is a tactic they use. And Rowling has been, objectively, a fantastic get for them, in giving their beliefs an enormous platform and using her fame and popularity to gain political influence. She has done so much damage to the discourse around this subject and advanced their agenda incredibly effectively. So I do think there’s a high probability that she was targeted for radicalisation and it worked. This is not an attempt to excuse her from responsibility, far from it, but I do think it could be important to recognise that the problem neither begins nor ends with her, and that if she’s capable of recognising what was done to her by this movement, that might be a viable off-ramp she could take. I won’t hold my breath, though.

The truth is that a lot of TERF beliefs can sound superficially quite reasonable and even obvious, if you don’t know better (I’ve fallen prey to this a time or two before myself). They’re designed to. It’s a specific kind of biological essentialism that cloaks itself in the language of science and scientism, while conveniently also lining up with the (basic, oversimiplified) model of genetics that gets taught in schools or to curious children, and ignoring actual science that says things are a lot more complicated. The thing about models is that they’re useful, but ultimately, they’re simplifications designed to render the phenomena they’re modelling more comprehensible. The TERF model of gender, in which there’s XX and XY and nothing else, and those have a one-to-one correspondence to all the features we expect in the two buckets of traits we’ve decided to call male and female, is the biological, sociological, and psychological equivalent of spherical cows in a vacuum. It is trivial to find real people who do not fit into this model, at which point the TERF answers “the model is right, let’s force anyone who doesn’t fit into it anyway”, in contrast to the sensible answer which is to say something like “a model that fails this often is no good as a foundation for a society, let’s work on making something better”.

I’m probably going to lose some people here, because superficially this sounds a lot like I’ve gotten the roles backwards. Doesn’t gender transition necessitate forcing a noncompliant person into one of two boxes in a binary model? retorts the TERF. (Sometimes this is phrased in terms of transgender people living as “caricatures” of their gender.) The answer is no for a variety of reasons. Gender transition is a decision people make for themselves, usually after a great deal of careful thought and introspection and consultation with actual experts on the subject (where available). Gender transition does not, in fact, necessitate perfectly shaping oneself to fit the box (though some do; in some cases, that’s because they’re trying to thread the needle of unethical medical gatekeeping, but sometimes it’s just because that’s who they want to be), and in fact many people transition into nonbinary states. Transition only looks like the enforcement of binarism to people who are sneaking in binarist presuppositions. (Bimodal does not mean binary)

Gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and transgender people just want to live their lives in the way that feels healthiest and most authentic to them. That’s it. Standing against them is a small but influential lobby that is divided between the actively malicious and willfully deluded, plus whatever naive elements of the general public they manage to convince: a lobby with a vision of status quo compliance on the one hand, and invisibility or nonexistence on the other. And they want to frame anyone speaking out against this as oppression. We must not be gaslit by this.

The other conclusion I’ve been reluctantly forced to accept is with respect to Harry Potter fandom (which feels much less important, but I think still needs to be addressed). I think my previous stance of “let’s reclaim what was good about the work and the fandom from the author, let’s not let her ruin this for us” may have been naive. I do think, in principle, there is value in subversion of authorial intent with respect to problematic works. Flawed but compelling writing does cry out to be fixed, and there are some spectacular examples of doing just that, I’ve read quite a few of them over the years.

At the same time, some things may be beyond saving. I’ve tried reading Potterfic recently, and it feels like it’s all turned to ashes; it’s just not working for me any more. I’ve made attempts to return to working on the deconstruction, and it just feels wrong. I can’t ignore who she is; I can’t unsee all this toxicity and hate long enough to get enjoyment out of her creations. A creator’s beliefs leave their mark on the creation, whether intentionally or otherwise (something I hope our deconstructions have helped point out over the years), and I just don’t want to spend any more time in her head.

Lindsay Ellis, in a recent video on this, compared Rowling to Orson Scott Card, and I realised that I’m not nearly so conflicted about him despite the fact he may have been an even bigger influence on me (albeit a negative one: in my adolescence, I built an entire moral philosophy out of things I’d “learned” from his works, and later had to unlearn and dismantle literally all of it). I’ve also occasionally looked to see if anyone has attempted fix-it fanfics of Card’s works, and there just isn’t anything. Perhaps this is just because he had a different sort of audience, but I can’t help interpreting it as a message that any such attempt would be doomed to failure. There’s just no fixing it, because the problems are so deeply ingrained that altering or excising them destroys the story in its entirety. Ellis argues that reducing our engagement with Potter fandom is the best way to make Rowling less relevant, because that’s the direct source of the power and influence she’s wielding, and I can’t find an argument against this. It may, in fact, just be time to let the fandom wither. It’s had its time in the sun.

As such, this is also an announcement that a continuation of our deconstruction (which we haven’t updated in four years, Christ, what is time any more?) is so incredibly unlikely as to be nonexistent. I tried; I swear I tried. But this is the last straw for me. The mere thought of reading Rowling’s words, even with the intent of tearing them apart, fills me with dread and misery. I’m sorry, but I can’t do it any more.

Loten can attest that I was having panic attacks while writing this, and felt the need to out of the blue assure her that I still loved her. So much of our relationship has been formed and developed in the shadow of Harry Potter that part of me is afraid it will be impossible to untangle. I do think we’ll get through this fine, though, don’t worry about us. You’d think it would be easier for anti-fans like us…

I can confirm. It’s his brainweasels talking, we’re okay. You may think he sounds melodramatic here, but we met via Harry Potter fanfic and most of our early conversations and friendship were entirely rooted in Harry Potter. Luckily there’s more to it than that…

I’m just angry at Rowling deciding to evolve into Graham Linehan Mark Two and forcing us to reckon with this again and again. It’s not like we didn’t know she held some pretty terrible and regressive beliefs before, but now we know exactly how important they are to her and that she intends to put them into practice. That’s a step too far.

I’m not sure I have more to say at this point, except that I do want to promote various links that have come to mind in this discussion (and which I couldn’t fit naturally into this piece).

Zinnia Jones at Gender Analysis has done an in-depth debunking of Rowling’s claims in three parts (interspersed with some well-aimed Harry Potter snark), this is extremely well-researched and comes with the highest recommendation I can give. [one][two][three]

Some video links:
Breaking down Rowling’s transphobic essay” by Jessie Gender on youtube
TED talk by Emily Quinn, “The way we think about biological sex is wrong” (an intersex perspective)

Jim Sterling gives the best retort to “TERF is a slur”: “In gaming terms, the attempt to redefine TERF is akin to EA calling loot boxes ‘Surprise Mechanics’. I am happy to start referring to TERFs as ‘Surprise Bigots’ if they find that less offensive.” For a more detailed explanation of why TERF is not a slur, see this article by Hailey Heartless.

Here are two threads on sexism (not transphobia, just plain misogyny and gender/sex essentialism) in the Harry Potter books, these aren’t new observations but these are both laid out quite well and I appreciated them.
Z.R. Ellor on how every female character in the HP series is judged in terms of maternity and/or her relationships to men
Alexandra Erin on the genderedness of “witchcraft and wizardry

Ana Mardoll unpacks the claim that transition is conversion therapy and the misunderstandings inherent in TERF worldview necessary to believe that for those who aren’t well-versed in how TERF rhetoric functions

Katherine Cross on transphobia in Britain and how it straddles the liberal-conservative divide, leading people to have difficulty processing it

A few threads on Rowling’s degree of political influence (she was cited by US Republican senators as a justification for transphobic legislation!). We’re not picking on her just because she’s an author who says nasty things, but because of her unmatched global audience.

A few pieces on how this conversation affects trans men specifically, and their deliberate erasure:

Andreas Avester, “Defining Women as People Who Menstruate

Evan Urquhart, “JK Rowling and the Echo Chamber of TERFs

A few more I thought made important points:

Katelyn Burns, “When Biology Becomes a Cover for Anti-Trans Bigotry

Alyssa Gonzalez, “My ‘Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria’ was anything but

Captain Cassidy, “JK Rowling and the Measuring of a Woman

Dr Sarah, “To JK Rowling: A Reply to your Letter on Transgender Issues


Hi folks, Loten here – this isn’t just Mitchell. He’s said pretty much everything that needs to be said, and as a front line food retail worker during a global pandemic (which isn’t over yet, please continue taking precautions as much as possible) I simply have not had the time or the energy to spare for Rowling’s privileged poisonous whining.

For my part I’m not exactly sure where I lie on the gender spectrum but I don’t think I fit the cis definition, though I pass for cis female, and I am definitely non-cis in other ways. (Rowling doesn’t see me as a ‘normal’ woman anyway, since I’m fat and therefore virtually another species, and I’m possibly infertile so that’s another strike against me.)

My own opinion? “An it harm none, do what thou wilt.” The existence of non-cis people, whether it be gender, sexuality, neuroconformality, mental health or any other metric, does not hurt me in any way (I mean, how could it?), so why on earth wouldn’t I be willing to support them, wish basic human rights for them or even merely acknowledge that they are real and should be allowed to choose their own identities? I don’t have to understand someone in order to support their right to exist. I have no idea why these things matter so damn much to people who are not actually affected by them, but those people need to learn when to shut up and step out of the way.

And as Mitchell stated above, this is the official end to our Harry Potter coverage. We’ve spoken before about how unprepared we were. What was supposed to be a fun, wistful look at the myriad flaws in an entertaining series turned into the sad, angry realisation that there’s very little that isn’t one vast flaw, and we want to preserve what little positivity the series still holds for us. It’s okay to still enjoy the books. It’s just very, very difficult.

If anyone feels the urge to comment with dogwhistles, bigoted rhetoric or frankly stupid dribbling… don’t. I promise we don’t care.


Posted by on July 9, 2020 in mitchell


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Sigh. Guess I have to talk about Rowling being a TERF again.

I didn’t want to write about J.K. Rowling’s transphobia again, and considered myself to have said all I wanted or needed to on the subject the last time this came up. That said, the discussion has been raging over the last few days, and I feel guilty for not having said anything.

Let’s get this out of the way first: The Sun’s interview of her abusive ex-husband, in which he brags about assaulting her, is unacceptable and unwarranted (and I shall not be linking to it). That said, I don’t know why anyone would have expected better from the Sun, nor why anyone thinks mentioning it is a defence of her. It’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time: we can condemn both of them. The Sun doing this appalling thing to Rowling does not in any way excuse her for the appalling things she herself has said about trans people and the harm that those words will do.

While Rowling’s manifesto of transphobic dogwhistles is certainly more substantive than anything she’d said on the subject before, most of it is not surprising given what we already knew she believed. The danger, I’ve seen argued and I think I agree, is that a lot of her rhetoric is superficially plausible and may look convincing to people who know little about the subject (as most TERF rhetoric is designed to be), and she has a very large platform due to her fame and wealth, so it’s likely to be widely read.

The other aspect is that her tweets and manifesto came at a time when they distract from widespread civil unrest that actually seems to be having an impact for once. The protests against police brutality and systemic racism set off by the murder of George Floyd are incredibly important, and Rowling managed to divert the media attention to herself instead. Even if this is a mere coincidence, it shows incredibly bad judgment and a certain degree of narcissism; if not, it looks like a deliberately racist act.

It is, however, an encouraging sign that so many members of the Harry Potter movie casts have spoken out against her, including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Evanna Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Rupert Grint, Katie Leung, Bonnie Wright, Noma Dumezweni and I’m sure others I’ve missed or am failing to recall at the moment. Kudos to them for doing this. It doesn’t erase the damage Rowling’s words have done, but I hope that it at least helps mitigate it a bit for those transgender fans who are hurting right now.

I want to highlight a few things I found noteworthy in this conversation:

First: this thread (unrolled version) highlights an incredible irony, which I’ll summarise, but I highly recommend reading the entire thing because it’s wonderful. This line is quoted:

“‘Harry, your eyesight really is awful,’ said Hermione, as she put on glasses”
—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, chapter 4, “The Seven Potters”

This is from the scene in which multiple people use Polyjuice Potion to transform into Harry. As the tweet puts it, “At this point in the narrative, if you’ll forgive me for putting it so bluntly, Hermione has a penis and testicles.” Her body is currently identical to Harry’s (even to the point of his myopia), and we know Harry is cis male. Yet Rowling instinctively knew to continue using “she” for Hermione, because her gender identity didn’t change despite not matching her current physical configuration.

(On the subject of pronouns, it’s also… interesting, let’s say, that in the awful Silkworm scene involving Pippa which has been rightly criticised so often, which comes up every time this issue gets discussed, Rowling’s narrative gets her pronouns right. She wrote a scene in which a stereotyped trans woman is villainised and threatened with prison rape, but she got her pronouns right. If anything, Rowling’s transphobia has gotten worse since then. She’s not learning, and if anything she’s being radicalised.)

This is beyond just Rowling – I’ve definitely seen other transphobes instinctively use the correct pronoun for a binary trans person, only to then “correct” themself in order to deliberately misgender them. They already know.

Second: once you start looking for it, transphobia isn’t hard to find in Harry Potter canon. For example, look how Rita Skeeter is described [quote source]

“Skeeter was described as having blonde hair set in elaborate curls that contrasted oddly with her heavy-jawed face. She wore jewelled spectacles studded with rhinestones, and had thick fingers ending in two-inch nails, painted crimson. Her blonde curls were curiously rigid, suggesting it was styled with the magical equivalent of hairspray. In addition, she had penciled-on eyebrows and three gold teeth, as well as large, masculine hands. Her bright scarlet painted fingernails and toenails were usually likened to claws or talons.”

Hyperfeminine presentation. “Heavy jaw”. “Masculine hands”. It reads like a litany of dogwhistled stereotypes. Rita may or may not actually be trans, but this certainly looks like she’s coded that way. And beyond that, I saw someone point out that the rest of Skeeter’s character starts to look more sinister, in that she transforms her body to sneak into places where she doesn’t belong and spy on children. That sounds very similar to the bathroom invader nonsense.

Third: what I didn’t know about “Robert Galbraith”

Robert Galbraith Heath is apparently the name of a psychiatrist who pioneered gay conversion “therapy” and was extensively involved in human experimentation (not to put too fine a point on it, torture).

Again, it is possible Rowling chose the name Robert Galbraith by coincidence and did not know this (Galbraith is a surname that people still have), but it seems unlikely, given Heath was by far the most prominent, and if she had done a cursory Google search of the name before choosing it as a pseudonym he would definitely have come up. So we’re required to believe either (a) she picked a pseudonym and didn’t bother doing any research on the name at all, or (b) she saw this history and said “yes, this is definitely the association I want”. Neither of these are a good look.

Fourth: on underlying bigotry and how to engage with literature

Let’s not pretend that this is the first time we’ve learned Rowling has bigoted views, nor that transphobia is her sole offence. There is a deep social conservatism underlying all of the Harry Potter books, which I hope I’ve managed to point out instances of over the years. They are deeply fatphobic. The goblins are an anti-semitic stereotype. The portrayal of house-elves reiterates a common apologetic for slavery, as well as implying activism is naive and foolish. There’s Cho Chang.

The books aren’t even feminist, despite Rowling’s pretensions. From the beginning you have the narrative that maternal love is inherently magical and special, most women are discussed in terms of their roles as wives and mothers, and so on. Love potions exist and are never condemned, to the point they’re played as a joke; this culminates with Cursed Child presenting a supposedly sympathetic character (Ron) as an advocate for date rape.

The supplemental material doesn’t help either; recall the discussions of cultural appropriation and racism against indigenous peoples in “history of magic in North America”.

(And one of the reasons I’ve spent so much time defending Slytherin over the years is that not to do so would be to go along with the books’ conceit that some forms of bigotry are correct.)

I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my point. None of this is to say that you can’t enjoy the books, but (as I’ve said before) it is important not to ignore these things. I won’t tell anyone not to read HP Lovecraft, for instance, but to do so without noting his incredible level of racism and that it’s a fundamental theme in his work is extremely irresponsible. Lovecraft fans, to their credit, know this, and tend to be willing to engage with it.

Harry Potter has become such a cultural touchstone, for better or worse, that I understand the desire to read it and know about it. I’m glad I’m not a parent, and don’t have to wrestle with the decision of whether or not I want to give these books to my children. What I would say is, go ahead and read them, but unpack the implications rather than ignoring them. I’ve written about this before. At the same time, I would also say don’t read these and ignore works from authors whose work is less problematic, and especially seek out writing by authors of colour and authors who aren’t cishet, so that this isn’t the only view they get.

I am also not going to tell anyone they can’t continue engaging in fandom activities. As I’ve argued before, fanfiction is inherently conversational, any piece of fanfiction is by mere fact of its existence a response to the source material and that’s part of the beauty of it. Interpreting works in a way that runs counter to the author’s intent, and using them to explore these issues in more nuanced ways, can be very valuable and even therapeutic.

The author isn’t dead, but we can work to kill her. (Note for any alarmists reading this, I obviously don’t mean this literally, but in terms of the literary concept of “death of the author”. Please don’t physically harm anybody.)

I do think it’s imperative to stop purchasing the books and merchandise. Stop giving Rowling money, she already has far more than any one person should.

Here are a few recommendations for reading/watching on the subject:

Ashley Miller did a point-by-point rebuttal to Rowling’s manifesto at the Orbit.

Here is a very thoughtful and in-depth video essay on the subject by Sarah Z, I second pretty much everything she says here; I’d say if you follow only one link from this post, make it this one.

Here’s another good one by EssenceOfThought, who is a nonbinary trans person.

I can’t link to everything valuable I’ve seen in this conversation, there’s been so much over the past few days, but I think all of these are worth it.

That said, by writing about this I recognise that I too am contributing to the problem of distracting from the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and institutionalised racism. Please don’t ignore them, nor let the media get bored and downplay them. They are continuing to happen and still need all the support they can get.


Posted by on June 13, 2020 in mitchell


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Spotlight: Laline Paull’s The Bees

First and most importantly, I hope everyone’s keeping safe and well during this hellish time. You won’t see much of me (not that you did anyway) since as a supermarket worker I’m still at work and it’s been just a little busy, but I thought I should throw out a quick recommendation for everyone who’s at home and in need of something new to occupy themselves for a while.

The Bees, by Laline Paull. This book is weird as hell, in all the best ways. It’s the story of a bee hive, with all the different castes of workers and their different roles, the drones and the queen. They go about their normal lives, foraging for nectar and pollen, feeding the larvae, clearing away the dead, fighting off wasps, going into semi-trance to survive the winter.

And at the same time it’s also the story of a cult-led society that’s almost dystopian, with religion and ritual and drugging pheromones used to control and enslave the population. It’s similar to Watership Down if that was set almost entirely in Cowslip’s creepy warren. It’s an interesting story in its own right and there’s this nice subtle touch of unacknowledged horror that I really enjoyed.


Posted by on March 22, 2020 in loten


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