“Whose futures matter?” Gender, identity, and strategic foresight

I was privileged to be Dr. Pani Farvid‘s guest at The New School’s SexTech Lab this week, talking about how researchers of gender, sexuality, and identity can work with the imagined future to understand the present and challenge its assumptions.

The discussion built on some previous tentative explorations of foresight and identity, which you can read on this site: “Foresight and Cruising Utopia” and “Dots that I haven’t joined yet“.

Another valuable reading is last year’s article “Whose futures matter?“, from a group of foresight practitioners including Joshua Polchar, Özge Aydogan, Pupul Bisht, Kwamou Eva Feukeu, Sandile Hlatshwayo, Alanna Markle, and Prateeksha Singh. I also recommend the OECD’s Alex Roberts‘ piece on “otherness and innovation” from 2017.

José Esteban Muñoz: Foresight and Cruising Utopia

“Queerness is primarily about futurity and hope. That is to say that queerness is always in the horizon.” – José Esteban Muñoz

1: Future blindspots in gender, identity, and sexuality

I’ve been spending most of my time on foresight and strategy for several years now. It’s challenging, lively work, helping people and organisations to look at the future and seek out their blindspots to support better decisionmaking. Often we construct scenarios, imagined future contexts, to inform that work, creating plausible futures which challenge current assumptions and provide a unique vantage point on the present.

Late last year, I wrote about the whiteness of foresight and the ways in which this kind of work, and its practitioners, might be blinkered by lack of diversity.  But those aren’t the only kind of blinkers we encounter when we turn our gaze towards the future.

Before lockdown, I attended a scenarios workshop constructing big global futures, intended to explore fundamental questions about the ways our societies will be organised in decades to come.

The project generated a number of visions of the world in 2050, with huge changes not only to how we live and work together, but even the ways in which technology might be integrated into our own bodies. Yet despite all this radical transformation, people shied away from reimagining the personal relationships which underpinned this world. In the finished scenarios, featuring a number of personas from each imagined future, there was little sense of the ways in which family life and its related intimacies might have changed or been changed by the forces at work in each version of 2050.

Looking around the room at the workshop participants – largely white, European, degree-educated, mostly presenting as straight – I wondered what questions we had refused to ask ourselves, or address, as a result of our own identities and points of view, the life experiences and perspectives we had brought to the workshop by mere virtue of who we were. Read more

The USQ Podcast

The University of Southern Queensland (USQ) has piloted a new podcast at the end of a six-month community engagement project with their School of Information and Learning Services.

The chatshow-style podcast offers a new medium to bring university experts together with a wider audience, to explore new ways of sharing knowledge, and to stimulate conversations between USQ staff and peers in other institutions.

Staff and students from USQ’s radio school joined forces with REDTrain, the university’s Researcher Development and Training Team, to identify USQ researchers who could speak to contemporary issues for a wide audience. We then partnered USQ speakers with peers in museums, the arts, sciences, and other universities to broaden the conversation and stimulate debate.

Three pilot podcasts were recorded in late 2017, with the first episode launching to mark USQ’s Astronomy Festival.

A second edition celebrating women in academia has just gone live.

Visit the USQ podcast platform, Whooska, to hear more.

“And my life never tasted sweeter?” Drag Noir, the Bitch dance, and being a boy

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about adolescence lately. Some of that might be the recent YA vs adult literature debate. Some of it is watching the first crop of teen writers I ever worked with in Parkes reach the point of leaving school. In 2011, five brave high school students committed to the NaNoWriMo novel-writing challenge even though it was exam season in Australia. These days, the Parkes Authorised writers’ group is for all ages, a regular, well-attended part of the town library’s programme.

October 31st is the eve of NaNoWriMo’s November kick-off. But it’s also Hallowe’en, and the release date for Fox Spirit Press’ new story collection Drag Noir. In her introduction to the collection, editor K.A. Laity writes about her childhood dream of being Jim West, cowboy/secret agent hero of The Wild Wild West.

Jim West in THE WILD WILD WEST, from the foreword to DRAG NOIR

He looked slick, fought bad guys, and lived in luxurious style in a train caboose with his pal Artemus Gordon—every week a new location and a new adventure.

But more than that, the look: that snugly fitted suit, short jacket, broad shoulders and black boots. Sure, he did spend a lot of time shirtless and tied up, too. Somehow at the advent of the androgynous glam rock look of the 70s and the nascent punk scene, anything at all seemed possible—at least until my body betrayed me with the double-whammy of adolescent hormones and a thyroid that tipped over into overdrive, hitting my rangy frame with unexpected curves and a bewildered loss of identity.

That surge of hormones denying the androgynous dream brings us back to adolescence. I’ve never quite had that feeling of being forced into a category that didn’t fit me. As I sit fairly unproblematically within the straight white male box, coming to understand my identity has been more about what Eula Biss describes as “the need to acknowledge myself as dangerous.” It’s a slow and inconsistent process of learning how harmful, and how boring, we might be when our identity oppresses others. I read Biss’ words in a Harper’s interview about her book on vaccination; I’m now keen to pick up Biss’ Notes on No Man’s Land and give her thought further attention.

Still, I remember the feeling Laity describes at the tail end of my teens, before my body made the definitive shift away from androgyny.

As a kid, dressing up had been everything to me. Spaceman, spy, Indiana Jones, whatever could be cobbled together from party masks and old clothes in the attic. My earliest memory is jumping off the (very low) roof of our back garden’s buried World War II bomb shelter dressed as Batman. I remember going to school for Hallowe’en dressed as a witch; my mum had a moment of inspiration, cut through the point of the plastic hat to make a flip-top lid, and filled the insides with exposed “brains” made from red paper and bubble wrap. It was my all-time favourite dress-up and I’ve loved Hallowe’en ever since.

Mum stayed cool with this proto-drag as the years went on. There’s a photograph somewhere of my little brother and I in her old clothes, lip-syncing and pretending to be the girls from ABBA.

In my teens this sense of dressing up and trying on new identities became more my own, not just play shared with a parent. The stakes grew higher as adulthood bore down on us.

I remember being in the pub, brown suede jacket, satchel, a metal Miss Selfridge heart from a girl’s sandal pinned in the lapel; a kind of lingering Indiana Jones get-up. I remember a guy from school telling me that with my hair worn long, I looked just like Heather Graham. I savoured the conflicted feeling that showed in his eyes.

Some of us at the all-boys’ school cultivated an air of camp, deciding which girl you’d have been in The Craft and having earnest discussions about whether Madonna’s voice coaching for Evita, which seemed to have affected her vocals on Ray of Light, had spoiled the Material Girl’s vulgar edges. The gym I went to had stacks of magazines for people to read while on the cross-trainer. Men had FHM and Loaded, women had stuff like Vogue. I would make a big show of reading copies of Marie Claire; the women were hotter and the articles better.

I remember a friend invented ‘the Bitch Dance’, which involved us pantomiming the lyrics of Meredith Brooks’ 1997 hit – “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I do not feel ashamed” – but if there were a soundrack to all this, it was probably Mansun’s “Being A Girl”, complete with its brilliant video:

Some of my campness was protective camouflage; a lonely teenager’s fear of socialising, a way to hide from the supposed obligations of being an eighteen year old boy. Some of it was the late 90s trend for androgynous indie musicians. Some was using a performance to keep from saying what you really felt. But it was also a feeling of potential, exultant display, the feeling that Laity reminds us of when she quotes RuPaul: “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”

Such a useful, powerful line that. Drag is every choice of clothes. It is signification, is language, is the art of conveying meaning. Think of Roland Barthes: “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” (LH Johnson writes beautifully about her love for that quotation). Drag is everything that we use to communicate with the world.

The years go by, the body thickens and changes, the clothes I choose now speak a more conventional language. At thirty-four, the space marked masculinity is, in some ways, an increasingly comfortable – or at least taken-for-granted – fit.

Hell, one of the lads in the “Being A Girl” video grew up to be Danny Dyer.

As I grew up, I had the luxury of nestling within a category which society more or less gives licence to behave as it wishes, straight, white, and privileged. If I stepped outside to play dress-up, I could always step back if things got scary. Hence why exploring identity can mean recognising oneself as vulnerable as well as dangerous.

I’ll still take any excuse to dress up, though. MC’ing the Dark Night library burlesque season last year, I tried to get a haircut based on Lois from Dykes to Watch Out For, but ended up with this:

I still savour the fact that all dressing is drag. That there is potential for expression, subversion, art, and play in every choice we make. But I also hope that getting older means listening better, and noticing when people are being hurt by the categories life imposes on them. It means remembering that RuPaul line not just as a manifesto for exultant display, but also one that guides compassion.

We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.

Matt in Hallowe'en dressup

For more on gender and identity, check out my last blog on the Captain Marvel movie and female heroes of children’s literature, which will also lead you to further links on gender and comics.

You can read about Auckland Libraries’ Dark Night festival, “a guerrilla festival of burlesque, literary, and cinematic events that question, celebrate, and challenge sex and sexuality on page, stage, and screen”, at the US Library Journal website.

A couple of years back I got my manly-man cousin watching the TV show Justified, and he bizarrely described the lead character played by Timothy Olyphant as an “effeminate, modern-day Clint Eastwood.” I wrote about Justified, masculinity, and the modern-day cowboy at Role/Reboot in 2012. The Cultural Gutter‘s alex macfadyen, who wrote the fab How To Be A Man in Four Hours, also wrote on Justified here.

Matt takes on the modern cowboy in TV’s “Justified”

When I ran workshops for high schoolers at the University of London, I always encouraged the students to discuss gender roles. Whenever possible, I included sessions on Angela Carter, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, and the great Leonora Carrington.

Timothy Olyphant and Erica Tazel star in TV's Justified
Two different faces of the US Marshals in Justified

This week, I’ve got a new piece up at the culture and gender site Role/Reboot, discussing the TV show Justified.

In ‘The Marshal and His Women’, I ask if this sharply written show will have a positive impact on definitions of masculinity, or merely perpetuate the same old stereotypes.

You can read my thoughts on Justified at http://www.rolereboot.org/life/details/2012-01-the-marshal-and-his-women-can-tvs-justified-reboot-t

For more on Angela Carter, see my review of a 2010 youth theatre adaptation of her collection The Bloody Chamber, at http://thefairytalecupboard.blogspot.com/2010/05/guest-post-matthew-finch-on-playbox.html