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“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.

Captain Marvel!

Ms Marvel from The Superheroes Special Edition - British Home Stores

So you’ll have seen the announcement that Marvel is finally going to give us a female-led superhero film in Captain Marvel, due July 2018. I’m pleased, of course, that they’re making space for a badass, awesome woman to be the lead in a Hollywood superhero franchise, especially one tied to the current Marvel money train. But also because Captain Marvel – then Ms. Marvel – is one of the first superhero comics I read.

Back in the mid-eighties, the department store chain British Home Stores put out a hardback annual called The Superheroes Special Edition, filled with old Marvel reprints. My mum bought me a copy as a present; I read it over and over, put a glittery name label on the inside cover, and took it into school. I remember the X-Men facing off against Sentinels, the Fantastic Four pitted against alien dopplegangers, and the Silver Surver fighting the Abomination – all supremely awesome to the five-year-old mind.

But my very favourite story came from Ms. Marvel #5. In it, New York magazine editor Carol Danvers has a premonition that a “Super-Truck” of radioactive cargo is going to be attacked. Carol has to transform into Ms. Marvel, an alien alter ego with a separate personality from Carol’s. Not only is she at war within, but when she goes to protect the truck, Ms. Marvel is mistaken for a villain and attacked by another superhero, the Vision.

Ms Marvel #5 - Day of the Doom Wagon

I remember being captivated by this story. A superhero who was at war with her secret identity; a superhero who had to fight “proper” heroes who didn’t trust her; a superhero who uses trickery to triumph – as in the page at the top of this post, in which Ms. Marvel sets a trap for the Vision. With stories like this, I took it for granted that of course girls could be superheroes too – not just token characters, but strong protagonists facing complex challenges. Ms. Marvel was unquestionably cool in the same way that Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch and Dinah from the Demon Headmaster books were. I have to thank my mum for buying me all of these books and introducing me to all of these awesome characters. Thanks Mum!

I’m really pleased that kids who grow up with the next generation of Marvel movies, boys and girls alike, will also see Carol Danvers battling baddies and saving the world.

Aussie high school librarian Tracy Dawson discusses feminism and media literacy with a team from Auckland Libraries and Auckland University of Technology in this blog post, XXUnmasked.  You can read a group discussion about comics for girls at Comics in the Classroom: Supporting Female Students, part one and part two. And I wrote a bit on the limits of grim male superhero characters at Here Comes Your Man: Time For Some Smiling Superheroes?

How To Be A Big Evil Head: Fun Palaces from the Supervillain’s Perspective

Louie Stowell's secretly heroic supervillain-in-training, Mandrake DeVille

Louie Stowell’s secretly heroic supervillain-in-training, Mandrake DeVille

Louie Stowell, who contributed author videos to the Parkes Library Fun Palace earlier this month, has written about the experience of being a Big Evil Head, projected across continents and timezones in the name of fun and supervillainy.

Check out Louie’s report over at the Fiction Express blog.


Alice Munro, Nobel-winning YA Author? On “Lives of Girls and Women”

Boys’ hate was dangerous, it was keen and bright, a miraculous birthright, like Arthur’s sword snatched out of the stone, in the Grade Seven Reader. Girls’ hate, in comparison, seemed muddled and tearful, sourly defensive. Boys would bear down on you on their bicycles and cleave the air where you had been, magnificently, with no remorse, as if they wished there were knives on the wheels. And they would say anything.


The things they said stripped away freedom to be what you wanted, reduced you to what it was they saw, and that, plainly, was enough to make them gag. My friend Naomi and I told each other, “Don’t let on you heard,” since we were too proud to cross streets to avoid them. Sometimes we would yell back, “Go and wash out your mouth in the cow trough, clean water’s too good for you!”

- “Changes and Ceremonies”, in Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women

Alice Munro is the most important writer in my life and that makes her hard to talk about. I’ve been trying to find the words since just before she won the Nobel Prize last year. They’ve been piling up in my hard drive, my inbox, in blog drafts and the Notes app on my phone.

Things came to a head when the recent debate about adults reading Young Adult (YA) fiction flared on the Internet. I had no sympathy for people who think YA unworthy of adult readers. But it was almost too easy to take up cudgels against literary snobs without acknowledging the strangeness of a world in which it’s all the rage for adults to read books explicitly not aimed at them.

In the ensuing squabble, I felt that other questions were barely touched.

Read more

Arts and Edges: Australian creativity at the centre and periphery

Arts and Edges banner - from the Regional Arts Summit @raasummit on Twitter

Arts and Edges – from the Regional Arts Summit @raasummit on Twitter

I was sad not to be able to attend the Regional Arts Summit in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia this year – despite best efforts, we couldn’t square it with all the projects currently on the go at Parkes Library.

Earlier this year, I was privileged to keynote at VALA, the biennial culture, libraries, and tech conference which took place in Melbourne. I spoke about opportunity and equity in Australian libraries, trading my Hugo Boss for a miner’s uniform on stage to make a point about arts access outside Australia’s big cities.

Working in Parkes has opened my eyes to the challenges that rural, regional, and marginal communities in Australia still face in gaining access to arts and culture – both as audiences, and as creators in their own right.

In Parkes, we’ve designed events like the Central West Comics Fest to reach out beyond an arts-event circuit that focusses on state capitals, and give regional creators, fans, and audiences their due.

Some of the Twitter coverage from Kalgoorlie was relevant to this work in Australian regional libraries, especially contributions from Curtin University librarian Teresa Bennett – @kalgrl on Twitter.

You can find out more by checking out the #RAASummit hashtag on Twitter, listening to summit coverage on ABC Radio National, and visiting the Regional Arts Summit site.

You can read text based on my VALA keynote here and watch a video of the presentation by entering your email at the VALA website.

The Regional Arts Summit in 2016 will take place in Dubbo, just down the road from my friends at Parkes Library. It’s going to be a great time for Central West New South Wales. I look forward to seeing an Australia where the culture scene goes further in embracing the sharp edges and strange delights of life at the margins.

Celebrate All Monsters! Emmet O’Cuana, Carol Borden, Frank Collins

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Parkes, and life is grand, so I thought it might be a good day to share three great writers with you. These are all pop-culture pundits whose essays make excellent weekend reading.

Emmet O’Cuana – Challenger of the Unknown

From "The Suburbs" by Emmet O'Cuana, Sean Rinehart, and Tim Switalski, in Outre 3: Xenophobia

“The Suburbs” by O’Cuana, Rinehart, and Switalski

Emmet is a Melbourne-based comics writer, critic, and occasional radio host who has interviewed me on a couple of occasions. Each time he forced me to question my opinions and raise my thinking to a new level. The first time our chat ranged from Star Crash to Kierkegaard; the second he asked smart and challenging questions about the live-action zombie games I’d been running in Australia and New Zealand.

My favourite pieces by Emmet are still forthcoming – he wrote an insightful chapter on comics creator Grant Morrison in Darragh Greene and Kate Roddy’s Grant Morrison and the Superhero Renaissance, plus a great essay for the comics site Sequart which made me re-evaluate James Robinson’s Starman, a comic which I love and thought I knew everything about. Watch out for them next year.

In the meantime, you can read Emmet’s work and find links to all he’s published and recorded over at his own site.

Carol Borden – Nothing Ape Is Strange To Her 

Planet of the Apes image from Monstrous Industry

Carol has featured on my site a few times before. She quietly produces meticulous, poetic criticism, taking apart icons from the past and present to examine what it means to be human. I’ve previously raved about her writing on Mario Bava’s Danger:Diabolik (“If we had a lesbian cinema that took Danger: Diabolik as its starting point, I, for one, would be much happier”) and on Superman as a positive burlesque of masculinity:

I’ve come to see Superman’s greatest powers as not his strength or heat vision, but his restraint and his theatricality both in restraining that power while pretending to fight as hard as he can and in passing as Clark Kent. As I see him now, Superman is always performing one way or another.

Carol is an editor at The Cultural Gutter, a website devoted to “disreputable art in all its forms”. In pulp fiction, old movies, cartoons, and comic-books, she excavates nuances of gender, identity, and cultural power. She compares Adventure Time’s hapless Lemongrab with Frankenstein’s monster; to discuss Planet of the Apes, she paraphrases the Roman playwright Terence: “I am Ape. Nothing Ape is strange to me.” Her latest piece in this vein looks at Dracula and even finds something new to say about the near-exhausted topic of vampires…

Frank Collins – May Not Be Used Where There Is Life

Sapphire and Steel - from Frank Collin's MovieMail column

Frank writes on classic television for British site MovieMail, and at his own site Cathode Ray Tube. I’ve long had a fondness for old television shows, but through Frank’s chronicle of twentieth century telly I discovered obscure gems like the fourth-wall-breaking Strange World of Gurney Slade.

Frank’s current MovieMail series tracing the history of British TV sci-fi showcases his critical strengths: erudition, insight, and elegance. Frank can capture the essence and wider resonance of a TV show in a single descriptive paragraph, as he does here for the wildly different Red DwarfSpace:1999, and Sapphire and Steel:

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That’s all for today: three clever souls thinking out loud about the stories we tell ourselves on the page and screen. Go check them out, if you’re looking for a Sunday read. And have a great weekend!

Comic Book Dice: A Sequential Storytelling Game

Comic Book Dice is a playful 3D adaptation of Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s “Panel Lottery”, a comic creation activity for all ages.

I first trialled this activity at a youth event for the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Manila, Philippines, and subsequently ran it with high schoolers in Parkes, New South Wales, hosts of the Central West Comics Fest.

You’ll need cardboard cubes, drawing materials, and a picture featuring three character models. Abel and Madden use these figures:

Read more

Always Blow On The Pea: Hanging Out, Problem Solving, and Action-Adventure

I’ve just finished working on a Fun Palace in Parkes, New South Wales – Australia’s first. Taking place in public venues like museums, theatres, and libraries, Fun Palaces invite people to explore art and science on their own terms. In Parkes, that meant letting the community try their hand at games devised by local kids and teens.

Much like our zombie, time travel, and giant monster events, all the effort was in the preparation. If you set up the activities right, participants don’t need much from you on the day. Their own fascination draws them in – and keeps them engaged.

Preparation for something like this includes obvious stuff – admin, logistics, testing the games. Last year, we even managed to boil down the process to six bullet points. What gets missed in that brief version is the inspiration and writing phase, which involves a lot of long walks, daydreams, and listening to music. As David Mamet once said, writing is to hanging out as tasting food is to cookery.

I’ve always cherished that line. It’s one reason why, alongside Fun Palaces, I recorded a podcast about Transformers with Neill Cameron and Daisy Johnson this month. It let me hang out in the world of pop culture while planning for Parkes. That kind of thoughtful immersion is a vital underpinning of the events I run, because in many ways pop culture is the folk culture of this mediatized world. I think very hard and probably way too much about how to mine the media for ideas when creating events and opportunities to play in public spaces.

Today I want to talk about how action-adventure, that most popular and often least profound of genres, can be a fruitful source of inspiration. That’s not just because even the dumbest slam-bang narrative drips with messages about gender, society, power and culture. It’s because the very business of action-adventure is problem solving.

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Fun Palaces 2014 launch in Parkes, Australia

We’ve had an amazing start to the Fun Palaces weekend here in rural Australia. So far, since our doors opened, over 260 people have come to try their hand at the challenges we devised together with local kids. That’s great numbers for a small rural community.

To see how we got to this point, check out the previous posts on making games with your community and adapting tabletop roleplay for your library.

You can check out pictures from today at Parkes Library’s Instagram account…and there’ll be more from Australia’s first Fun Palace tomorrow!

Parkes Fun Palaces: Tabletop Supervillains

It’s the big day! Three hours from now, Australia’s first Fun Palace opens in Parkes Shire Library, New South Wales.

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Games designed and built by local kids and teens will be on display for the community to have a go over the holiday weekend. There’s also a chance to try Parkes Library classics like Paint Like Michelangelo, a dinosaur dig, and a few more surprises besides.

Events have a supervillainous theme this year because many of our activities were inspired by British author Louie Stowell’s book The School For Superheroes, so we’ll also be rolling out a superhero-themed tabletop roleplaying game. We helped local teens to devise, design, and test this game, which is quick to learn, easy to play, and inspired by the work of sci-fi writer, activist, and journalist Cory Doctorow.

The game will be available for the whole community to play in or out of the library after the Fun Palace closes, and we’ll aim to share both the game and our design process online as soon as possible. In the meantime watch @parkeslibrary and @drmattfinch on Twitter for the latest updates over the long weekend!

In the meantime, let me leave you with a personal favourite from our pre-launch photo gallery.

The Parkes Shire Library is sponsored by a number of organisations including Charles Sturt University…which led to this glorious caption card on one exhibit of the kids’ games.

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