This Marxist-feminist book chapter* (which I am editing on a daily basis) examines differences between sex-positivity and sex-compulsion in sexualized media, especially sex work. Specifically, it examines how corporations and TERFs use canonical imagery to create sexist arguments, exploiting sex workers while condemning sex-positive artists who seek to liberate sex workers through their own iconoclastic output. The reasons for writing it are largely personal—for me, as a Marxist trans woman and Gothicist, to think about these social-sexual themes relative to my sex-positive output, humanist education and lived trauma.
*Currently intended as a chapter within my upcoming book, Neoliberal and Fascist Propaganda in Yesterday’s Heroes, which touches on notions of body representation in popular American media. If you're curious, the first chapter can be viewed, here.
Artistic Nudity Warning: This chapter thoroughly discusses sexuality in art, including visual examples from popular media and sex work. I limit the extent of my examples' nudity to: women's nipples, buttocks and pubic hair, and a man's flaccid penis. All of my sources come from popular media including movies, but also fantasy artist portfolios, cosplayer shoots, candid photographs, and sex worker catalogues intended for public viewing.
- a visual rhetoric that ideologically reinforces the status quo on a systemic-material level
- something to defend from iconoclasts, precisely because those individuals are seeking equal treatment from the powers that be—i.e., their basic human rights as executed through actual material change, not high-minded ideas that never come to fruition
- deliberately acknowledging the relative privileges and abuses of various groups. Atomized by the elite, these groups must learn to reassemble against a common master— to "form Voltron," if you will (minus the neoliberal trappings)
- combining various schools of thought to work harmoniously towards this union: 4th wave, intersectional feminism; Marxism, ethnic studies, queer studies, Gothic studies, etc.
Glossary and Summary
- Owners, in the academic, bourgeois sense, own the means of mass production, thus individual production. They privatize factories, territory, industrial sectors, the military, paramilitary (cops), and the means to print money. As a consequence, they also own people, albeit by proxy (wage slavery).
- Middle-class ownership is merely an exchange of wages—direct purchases or taxes—for material goods. These goods become something to defend, resulting in a great deal of punching down.
- undermine neoliberal and fascist stigmas against sex workers, including sexism and transphobia
- help sex workers gain relative ownership over their own labor, thus improve their own material conditions through horizontal arrangements of materials and power
- One, sex workers are viewed as advertisements for corporations to sell and consumers to purchase. Human billboards.
- Two, this exploitation is downplayed, while its profitability is celebrated.
- Three, the exploited are generally dehumanized, abjected as demonic sex objects or criminals—to consume without regard for their human rights, deserving only of ridicule, derision and shame.
- Four, it demonizes critics by framing them as standing in the way of American (thus global) consumerism—specifically social activists that seek to upset the current arrangement of power by arguing for basic human rights, including body ownership as an important step towards material equality.
- open aggression, expressing gender trouble as a means of open, aggressive attack (disguised as "self-defense" reactive abuse): "We're upset and punching down is free speech."
- condescension, expressing a moderate, centrist position that perpetuates the current status quo as immutable, but also optimal: "This is as good as it gets."
- reactionary indignation, using sex-coercive symbols (argumentation) to defend their unethical positions: "They're out to destroy your heroes, your fun, all you hold dear (code for 'the current power structure')."
Table of Contents
The body of this chapter has four main sections comprised of eighteen total subsections and a conclusion:
Section One: Sex-positivity
- Illustrating Mutual Consent: Empathy
- Ironic Consumption and De Facto Educators
- Reversing Abjection: Descriptive Sexuality vs Sexual Modesty
- Fetishized Witch-Hunts; Dogma and Economics
- "Real Life": Toxic Love and Criminal Sexuality in True Crime
- Gothic Ambivalence: Wish Fulfillment, Bad Play and Demon BDSM
- Appreciative Irony in Gothic Counterculture Performance Art
- Selling Sex, Fetishes and SWERFs
- Asexuality and Demisexuality: Queer- and Homo-normativity in Sex-Centric Media
- Pigtail Power and Gay Artists: Sex Repulsion in Gothic/Queer Narratives
- Artistic Nudity and Asexual Relationships in Art; Gay Artists
- Trans Discrimination and Ambiguity
- TERFs, or Fascism-in-Disguise
- War Pastiche
- Stonewalling Activism: Neoliberal Rhetoric
- Trans TERFs, NERFs, and Queer Bosses
- Raise Your Fist: Ironic Bosses, Sexy War, and Gender Irony
- Sexist Ire: Persecuting Iconoclasts
Section One: Sex-Positivity
Illustrating Mutual Consent: Empathy
- the relationship between art workers and the bourgeoise who own them through the means of production; but also how the bourgeoise advertise canon while concealing its illusory role-as-Superstructure: the illusion of freedom and ethical treatment for workers
- the relationship between art and the viewer
Mutual consent determines if artwork is sex-coercive or sex-positive. While that might sound obvious, less obvious is what actually amounts to mutual consent in visual terms—especially in sex-positive artwork whose mutual consent won't be visually obvious short of spelling things out. In other words, mutual consent isn't self-explanatory. As Sense8 shows, whether in a gallery or in the workplace where art is often produced, mutual consent needs to be inferred. Any inference occurs through empathy towards or from the sexual content on display as inherently ambiguous.
We've laid out the relationship between workers and the elite as it pertains to art in the workplace (and peoples' respective roles in this unfair arrangement). Now let's further examine mutual consent as it exists in sexualized artwork: as a complex, ongoing relationship between art and the viewer under Capitalism.
As part of a collective effort to defend worker rights, artists foster empathy. However, even when empathy is functionally present, mutual consent—and by extension, bodily autonomy—are difficult to isolate in pin-up art or photography. When genuine empathy is absent, it's not like an activist can talk directly to the sexist image; they can't ask the girl on display if she agreed to be photographed. Even if she did, further context is generally not communicated by the artist, the model or the patron. She could be wearing her makeup for herself versus for the audience, but don't expect the picture (or its assemblage of co-contributors) to communicate that each and every time.
Take this picture of a pretty girl smoking a cigarette. It can be
- an advertisement overtly selling the product (the cigarette, but also the girl, who is a sexual promise to consumers: "smoking makes you sexy" or "smoking gets you laid")
- product placement in a film, appropriated to boost sales
- part of the story in ways that appreciate the mere existence of cigarettes (or their advertisement) as part of the world, not as something to directly sell to the audience
*The imagery from Blade Runner is so famous that you might recognize it without having seen the film at all.
This treatment marked an abusive trend that would haunt Sean for the rest of her career. She would go on to be ignored, distrusted precisely for speaking the truth. Empathy towards her victimized position demonstrates mutual consent was not present. This goes to show how the context highlighting mutual consent must be explained, but also believed. Alas, canon plays an disproportionate role in what goes unexplained, including what is or isn't believed by victims trying to tell their side of things (who tend to threaten corporate profits by blowing the whistle).
Informed Consumption and De Facto Educators
- parody (from Sean Young's earlier Blade Runner photo: "haha, that cigarette is a penis")
- pastiche through parallel spaces (from the same photo: "The world that Sean Young's character inhabits can be a parallel, Vaporwave space that mocks the authoritarian nature of 1980s Capitalism, visually appreciating '80s corporate aesthetics while isolating them from destructive corporate ideology.")
Under sex-coercive conditions, the elite exploit workers by stealing their labor in non-consensual ways. Under sex-positive conditions, sex workers embody critical thought by sexualizing it as a means of communication. They then use this sexualized art to promote empathy for themselves through a mutually consensual arrangement. Self-expression and commodification aren't mutually exclusive concepts; an individual sex worker can still choose to self-fetishize to generate profit (or achieve a desired sex response from a client or partner), improving their material conditions while recognizing and discouraging the sexist nature of sexual objectification at a systemic level.
As we've already touched upon, these power relations are incredibly complex, but also vast. This makes them extremely hard to communicate through single-body images with zero font. This includes pin-up art, but dialogue-lite mediums like erotic video and performance art more generally. For the sex-positive iconoclast, the aim shouldn't be direct communication via pinup art in isolation (even when its bodies are descriptive and appreciative), but something perceived as much through negative reactions towards the troublesome art itself: the sexist audience wringing their hands. "It is not the spoon that bends, but yourself."
This "bending" can be Arthur, King of the Britons, Hernando's homophobic dunce, or your garden variety TERF/SWERF. In either case, the lessons iconoclasts offer stem from emancipatory education as socialized. While iconoclasts are often privileged (Monty Python went to Oxford and Cambridge and Hernando was a professor), the fact remains that anyone can be sex-positive, can express basic human rights through art. Totalitarian societies are generally resisted by rebellious citizens with relatively little material power, but some degree of privilege compared to less unfortunate groups. Given the right lessons, these rebels can help society move away from the status quo, counter-cultivating the Superstructure as sex-positive.
Apart from parody and parallel space, much of this transformative potential lies in the power of the human body as something to describe in material language (which has room for parody and parallel space among sex workers). Few things are as regulated or provocative, especially when said body is "incorrectly" portrayed. In this case, correctness pertains to prescriptive societal norms: what reactionaries think is right. Whether on purpose or by accident, iconoclastic statements provoke these people for a variety of reasons: to change minds, make money or entertain (often all three). This isn't to incense reactionaries in isolation, but involve them the process of consuming and creating art as a larger social process: the process of abjection.
Put simply, abjection is the rejection of assigned abnormalities to cultivate a normalized status. This process isn't a one-way street; it goes in either direction: towards or away from normality. Most of the time, Capitalists abuse the means of production to brute-force the appearance of "normal" through abjection. They maintain this charade for as long as possible, exploiting workers behind a neoliberal veil that shames them and their bodies while keeping them enslaved. The only way to lift the veil is to reverse the process that created it, reclaiming worker bodies and their bodily functions through social-sexual means: descriptive sexuality as something to ironically perform and appreciate through BDSM, kinks, and fetish.
The next several subsections explores atypical sexual performance through abjection reversal and appreciative irony in greater detail. For now, think of reverse abjection as a black mirror that exposes the viewer's abusive tendencies—a handy device when countering the elite's privatization of sexual labor. Privatization is generally normalized through abjection, shaming workers collectively while driving them to work as hard as possible. Iconoclasts reverse abjection to make sexist people self-reflect in transformative ways. This occurs by forcing them into various telling responses that highlight a sex-positive lesson through abjection. Abjection normally triggers a cultural "gag reflex": shock and disgust. The idea is to throw that back at the viewer—to redirect their revulsion towards their own dogmatic beliefs rather than any dogmatic scapegoats. By humiliating the tool of their own mental imprisonment, sexist people can replace their shameful stances with empathic ones. Worker rights, body positivity, and sexist label reclamation overwrite their harmful opposites: worker repression, body shaming and unironic sexist language.
In other words, reverse abjection seeks to undermine anything that normalizes state apathy and violence against marginalized groups. This process occurs not just through sex workers bodies, but any sex-positive artistic role: models, photographers, biographers, illustrators, etc. Like Hernando's classroom, this performative "chain" is holistic, communal: A sex-positive artist, for example, can draw non-cis-het bodies by selecting real-world examples to model for them (so-called palimpsest bodies). Their discerning gaze demonstrates two radical ideas: that gender, sex and performance are
- entirely separate
- highly variable, arbitrary and fluid concepts that individual people can self-mold according to their own desires and preferences, all without infringing on the rights of others (re: positive freedom)
In either case, their combined demonstration occurs through gender trouble created in the real world, not abstract ideas dislocated from material reality. Radical ideas intersect with socio-economic norms, highlighting traditional boundaries that serve as focal points for abjection, which iconoclasts overwrite. For radical ideas to replace cultural disgust, thus have any impact on society at large, they must initially co-exist alongside seemingly incompatible norms before ultimately replacing them. Counterculture.
Said replacement involves a great deal of consumer nuance, but also tolerance. As something to criticize through ironic consumption, problematic sexuality is expelled by a horrifying proposition: that one's nostalgic worldview is monstrous. Sexist people don't see themselves as sexist, but holy and righteous. So this Promethean revelation has to arrive through transformative, underhanded self-reflection (the twist, in writing terms). In this manner, sex-positive artists/models motivate heteronormative consumers to change their problematic consumption habits by creating surprise pathways for iconoclastic introspection. This includes parody and parallel space, but also descriptive/appreciative sexuality in art. All three can alter how canon is viewed, consumed and digested, cultivating an empathetic audience that ultimately favors mutual consent within a larger, sexist world.
Abjection is not without peril; the current power structure will defend itself. For instance, reactionaries generally attack sex-positive critical analysis for being the death of fun, unable to see the paradoxical joy in critiquing what you consume, especially media with problematic sexual elements (the moral panic of 1980s slasher films). These same detractors fail to understand how guilty pleasures* can be safely enjoyed in private (many slasher movies are tongue-in-cheek).
*For me, guilty pleasures include camp, shlock, and trash that fail on purpose, but also less conscious forms of either. However, guilty pleasures mean something completely different in regards to purity culture, which we'll explore more fully in Section Two.
Likewise, private consumption habits can easily become public, making it a question of optics. If this private consumption becomes public knowledge, there needs to be a sex-positive lesson to impart—that is, the iconoclast needs to promote public awareness about the sex-coercive and sex-positive elements being exposed. Neither is black-and-white. They manifest to a matter of degree, requiring their careful exploration on an individual basis.
Sex positivity needs to expand inside sexist culture by tampering with historically sexist media. Sadly, sex teachers are often shamed, but also killed (something we'll explore more towards the end of the chapter) for being sexual descriptive/appreciative (a common reaction to reverse abjection is reactive violence and abuse). But even if sexism were reduced to acceptable levels, educators would still have to remain constantly vigilant, lest history repeat itself. To this, they mustn't combat individual sexists, but the source of those persons' sexism and abject moral panic: Capitalism, but also its assigned champions (neoliberals) and blackguards (fascists).
We'll explore fascists more during the TERF subsection, including how neoliberals defend fascists. For now, simply know that neoliberals more broadly defend the free market, hiding the abject nature of their own illusions in the process. They do this by appropriating feminist ideas of mutual consent, descriptive sexual and cultural appreciation into a "queer friendly" label they can exploit with impunity. Such "stickers" recuperate anti-Capitalist ideas, specifically so the elite can turn a quick, unethical buck. If they can profit by recuperating feminism, including trans-activism, they will, but Capitalism's underlying design remains the same: profit above all else, achieved through sexual exploitation.
Global US hegemony under neoliberalism means that sex-positive re-education must be performed under late-stage Capitalism. Sexualized artwork is already colonized, and any lesson will intersect with material consumption as
- fundamentally unethical
- symbolically loaded/interpreted to enforce profit through various marketing strategies that are inherently sexist
I don't condone the first fact, but individuals also have no power to replace Capitalism on their own (sex-positivity is a group effort). The second fact is merely a reality of dialectics-within-Captialism more broadly. Materials function within competing ideologies that borrow and use the same language to generate profit as a means of visibility. Money talks, even for communists; but so do icons that reliably produce wealth—so-called "money-makers": the butt, boobs, breasts and other parts of the often female body. Meanwhile the penis, and the pleasure it depicts during arousal, penetration, and climax—the "money shot" during the 1970s/80s, the so-called "Golden Age of porn"—is incredibly overrepresented in heterosexual pornography at large (though apparently Willem Dafoe's penis in Antichrist was so big it "confused" screening audiences, "requiring" the director to reshoot the scene with a less-endowed stunt double).
The paradox—of a sex-positive Marxist making money by drawing erotic art/porn—is not lost on me. However, I also understand that we, as individuals, become invisible in the absence of material conditions. I also know that minds are changed through language as already-coded and defended by those in power. Whereas power aggregates to defend material interests for the elite, Marxists-within-Captialism specifically generate wealth as a means to critique formal power ("When in Rome..."): to recode the Superstructure, altering the Base in ways that give workers the means to liberate themselves.
Liberation includes selling direct body positivity to express mutual consent. However, it also involves engagement with body negativity by granting viewers special perspective. The artist explains cultural bias to the audience before directing them at historical markers of persecution. This demonstrates the viewpoint not only as harmful, but one that many in the audience already have.
This second function is our aforementioned black mirror. Sex-positivity uses its reflection to undermine the Patriarchy as an ideological structure, treating iconoclasm as the process of abjection in reverse—to advertise bodies outside the established norm: piercings, tattoos, skin color, hair color, hair length, body hair, muscle, alternate body types, and various other attributes that pointedly cause gender trouble—not to sow discord for the sake of it, but to break the spell of sexist Enlightenment thinking by critically engaging with Modernity. To do this deliberately is to foster Postmodernism—a movement beyond the Enlightenment and its harmful ideologies. This includes violence, formal power defending itself through hostile reactionaries fearful of progressive, emancipatory change.
We've discussed how informed consumption is sex-positive because it highlights canonical abjection as problematic. Let's further examine descriptive sexuality as a means of confronting these problems through reverse abjection.
Reversing Abjection: Descriptive Sexuality vs Sexual Modesty
To be clear, abjection covers a wide range of topics besides just sexuality (social or political xenophobia, gerontophobia, etc). However, sexuality tends to intersect with all of them at various points. This mutability permits numerous interpretations when it comes to monsters, which—through the language of fear in powerful hands—function as compelled signifiers that regulate sex as a controlled substance. This role can be reversed while still being contested by both sides inside an ongoing exchange.
Take Giger's famous creature: Moral panic denotes it as a cosmic rapist, itching to peel away Ripley's pale armor with its dark claws. However, a feminist counterexample turns Enlightenment misogyny against itself: the Archaic Mother argument. Through this vein, Alien portrays the monster (an egg-laying parasite) as female and ancient, but also mightier than mankind. A kind of "wandering womb," this murderous, hysterical entity sits closer to the primordial cycle of life and death: sexual reproduction as entirely irrational, emotional and animal, but also parthenogenic (not requiring a male mate). Personifying this process, the monster actually challenges Patriarchal hegemony by appearing as its oldest, greatest bogeywoman: the Archaic Mother, queen bitch of the universe (who Ripley would defeat in the Americanized sequel, Aliens).
In either case, Gothic performance invokes abjection within an oscillating dialogue about sex and gender made through borrowed terms. While the elite canonize descriptive sex (acts not tied exclusively to biological reproduction and patrilineal descent) as hideous (or empty by framing them as pastiche that anyone [middle class] can consume), sex-positive workers reverse this "gag-reflex" as a moral position within the same overarching conversation: sex purely for pleasure, but also liberation from outdated, coercive norms. The larger, warring dialogue actually invokes positive and negative feelings (attraction and repulsion) through ambivalent markers: the monster, the woman, the castle. Yes, these markers historically convey cultural anxieties and phobias regarding sexuality and the human body as classically forbidden, but they needn't be.
For FOX to even frame the Eighth Passenger as a hideous violator of pure maidens, they have to sell it to an audience whose literacy only continues to climb with better access to publicized information about sex. The studio's sexism involves a highly specific framing that doesn't hold up under intense, humanizing scrutiny—not just the guy in the suit, but their performance as connected to, if not aligned with, monstrous societal norms. Either way, these coerced viewpoints exist as part of the equation when looking at the creature as an artistic legacy (much like Hernando's homophobic student got their ideas from sexist sources). Luckily the creature itself is more ambivalent, inviting interpretations that aren't strictly endorsed by those in power. While the elite funded Alien to invite abjection as a means of sexual control, they can't force moral panic onto critically educated consumers.
Beyond education, part of the reason simply lies in the method of prescription: the invitation to look at taboo things that are commonly sold to consumers as a means of control. By showing the viewer an image that can be critically explored, the elite need an uncritical audience to defend canon. But even those outside of the Humanities can generally observe a curious paradox: Behind the Black Veil, the monster isn't as hideous as they were led to believe. In fact, it's actually quite beautiful ("I admire its purity."), unmistakably sexualized and surreal. Hence all the smoke, mist and darkness to conceal the monster's "real identity" in the original, 1979 picture: the false pretense of a petrifying mirror. This occurs through an obscured, dirty lens, pointed at a forbidden target that's meant to terrify the uneducated. Look at it, FOX argues, but only long enough to keep you scared stupid.
This purity culture is FOX playing with fire. Their prescription—that descriptive sexuality is intrinsically repulsive—only holds up if the audience takes the horror narrative at face value (re: the monster is a cosmic rapist). The room for appreciation cannot be fully suppressed, allowing iconoclastic narratives to emerge through political allegory. Despite Ripley flushing the monster out the airlock—rejecting it like an aborted fetus, attempted rape, or piece of shit—the monster remains ambivalent, displaying a chaotic potential: to be any of these things depending on how it's framed, but also performed. These combined variables guide viewers towards politically desired interpretations, the outcome incumbent on the performer's own agenda.
Now that we've outlined the larger systemic framework abjection takes place, let's examine the abjectors—the elite whose desires course through a particular vein, like Alien's modesty narrative—and the sex-positive performers who use the same ambivalent visual language to reverse the flow of abjection. The latter deliberately give voice to the unspeakable by humanizing historic icons of persecution. They do this by reclaiming "slutty" or "wicked" signifiers, ironically transforming them into sexy fashion statements and other appreciative symbols and spaces* of sexual freedom/material advantage (we'll explore this behavior more in Section Two). Doing so, sex workers disarm their historical function as didactic instruments of public shame and guilt, limiting the elite's capacity for social-sexual abuse under Capitalism.
*For a parallel sexual-positive space, consider Monty Python's Castle Anthrax.
Sex workers achieve reverse abjection by meaningfully presenting themselves as sexually attractive and autonomous cultivators of sex-positive sentiment. Cherry Blossom, for example, is a sex worker who makes her own rules; she has her own Only Fans, and specifically states for all to read: "No hardcore or explicit nude content of my pussy (🐱❌) I work with topless nudes and teasing pics and vids. I love to be cute, provocative and feel comfortable and confident showing my body!" Through her art, Cherry illustrates descriptive sexuality as the setting of personal boundaries. These boundaries outline what she, as an individual performer, is willing to consensually display in the larger social-sexual market. This liberation isn't something to merely describe, but appreciate.
By comparison, sex-coercion sells through prescriptive, non-consensual displays. Sigourney Weaver didn't agree to being fetishized by her male bosses. This tracks with how the elite regulate canon by invoking paradoxical modesty that manipulates target consumers through moral manic: a pure body whose chastity must be preserved no matter what. By presenting sex as "modest enough" and attaching it to lucrative projects, the elite transmute modesty as a neoliberal virtue. A kind of tightrope, the selling of regulated sex then becomes the worship of capital: It reliably makes the elite a profit, but also grants them substantial bargaining power through the spontaneous acquisition of raw wealth.
What's more, this profitability can be advertised alongside media that upholds social virtues in the face of threatened modesty. Alien, for example, earned the studio a lot of money. While people generally remember that, they don't remember how FOX famously refused to pay out, citing a lack of profit. Regardless, the studio had gained themselves a lot of capital to work with (and a future franchise to toy around with). They did this by prescribing sexuality through moral panic as something to unironically consume.
This consumption occurred through Sigourney Weaver as someone to advertise (with her becoming a de facto scream queen of retro-future horror in the process). Except her body is fairly anomalous. She's not a short, skinny woman in the prescriptive sense; she's descriptively tall, square-jawed and flat-flanked. In fact, she looks less like a dainty (and inoffensive) classic Gothic heroine, and more like Charlotte Dacre's Victoria: masculine and violent, ready to throw down. According to Ridley Scott, the company president chose to make Ripley a woman. Progressive optics aside, FOX's onscreen treatment of their lanky debutante sought to further a highly prescriptive modesty narrative: the imperiled maiden of the Gothic horror.
Even so, the filmmakers couldn't hide that Sigourney didn't look the part. Her powerful body looked incongruously masculine, a scrappy cat mom who looks after the crew by actually following the rules (which the elite discourage through efficient profit, seeking scientific discovery as the door to infinite growth: so-called Promethean Capitalism). While FOX checked Weaver's masculine persona by presenting her as highly sexualized (with elements of rape thrown in to stress her nudity as vulnerable and feminine), the producers carefully dodged the NC-17 rating through modest nudity. Not only could Ripley not be naked (as Ridley had originally wanted); her body had to be well-groomed.
According to Scott, Weaver resisted this idea, acting sexually descriptive by refusing to pull up her panties or shave her crotch. This allegedly forced the studio to intervene by censoring the actress's "mom bod" in post: In a bizarre act of efficient profit, they secretly paid someone five grand to painstakingly erase Weaver's pubic hairs—all because they thought the mere sight of those (and not her gentials) might swing the review board in an unprofitable direction!
The box office tally functions as a manipulative takeaway—that censored nudity sells more than blatant, pornographic nudity (regardless of context). The elite then use this sex-coercive lesson to shape consumer attitudes, presenting them with the idea that female bodies—specifically pure, maiden-like, and infantilized female bodies—are lucrative because they're modest. In the process, these same consumers will start to adopt another neoliberal creed: personal responsibility. They see their purchases as empowered, as somehow dictating the movies that get made according to what is or isn't visually acceptable. They police morality through their purchases, enforcing elite hegemony by abjuring descriptive sexuality.
Such prescription is already so common as to be invisible, never mind that FOX concealed their "shaving" of Weaver's crotch. So thorough was their subterfuge that I had no knowledge of the studio's wacky behavior, 44 years later (despite being a huge fan of the movie)! When I deliberately drew pubic hair under Amanda Ripley's panties (see: above), I specifically thought, "Like mother, like daughter"—the irony being I remembered her mother's panties, which the studio had canonized; I had no memory of Ripley's pubes, which the studio had excommunicated (even so, a part me figured I was being too sexually descriptive for those studio prudes).
The reason for all the fuss is that pubic hair is a form of descriptive sexuality and descriptive sexuality automatically includes elements that are abjected from artistic canon. This effects not just canon, but its proponents. Consider the sobering possibility that famous art critic John Ruskin allegedly couldn't perform on his wife because he didn't know women had pubic hair. Even funnier, she (ostensibly) wouldn't shave her hair during their five-year marriage and eventually left him for his protégé, John Millais, who had no problems performing in the bedroom (the two had eight children together).
Conversely, descriptive sexuality also allows for conventional sexualities among sex-positive feminists, which SWERFs will gatekeep. Consider the guest star for Episode 107 of the Alien Minute Podcast, "Women Do Wear Long Johns," who stubbornly argues that Alien isn't sexually descriptive because Ripley should be wearing long johns under her jumpsuit. Her argument? "Because women wear long johns."
This statement not only assumes that men in the film don't switch to panties after they wake from hypersleep(!); it also implies that no woman anywhere in the universe would ever wear girly panties for herself. In doing so, the guest blanket denies sex-positive underwear selection as something to perform onscreen regardless of who's in the audience. So while I agree that the original scene was shot in a voyeuristic way for cis-het men, I also believe it can be appreciated in a sex-positive way in the 21st century while also acknowledging its sexist roots. The guest doesn't even try, stubbornly prescribing modest underwear as something that (all) women wear.
Another way to look at it is authenticity, a form of gatekeeping 2nd wave feminists execute, specifically SWERFs. As Wisecrack asks about Samus Aran, Ripley's videogame counterpart: "Is a woman still authentically acting like a woman if she chooses to wear a bikini?" Sex-positive feminists would say "yes," provided she's choosing to for reasons that empower herself; SWERFs would say "no" regardless of the reasons—a similar approach to burning bras except it's burning bikinis.
We'll examine SWERFs more in the Selling Sex subsection. For now, note how my descriptiveness of Amanda Ripley's hairiness appreciates body hair rather than abjecting it. By doing so, my art also deconstructs the studio's original canon, specifically the canonical notion that pubes are a visual extension of the vagina; to see one is to see the other. Not only that, but the vagina is abject, as well as the vulva, labia* and, yes, pubic hair.
*Linnea Quigley's genitals were infamously concealed by a plastic "Barbie Doll crotch" designed to show her butt, but conceal her labia—all to avoid the unprofitable X rating. Moreover, the film presents her seemingly perfect body as paralyzing to those who gaze upon it, frozen in place while Linnea consumes them with a giant, gaping maw (a metaphor for abject female sexuality and rage).
Canon shames body hair, its disgust towards cultivating heteronormative bias: PIV sex between cis-het men and women according to highly specific body types and gender performances: adult, patriarchal men and young-yet-nubile, infantilized women. While these regulations severely limit sex-positive kinks and fetishes, the official position on female body hair oscillates between conflicted stages of public acceptance and rejection—ambivalence owing to critical positions that seek to undermine canonical attitudes about body shaming more generally.
While the elite use canon to fetishize body hair and appropriate sex-positive examples, the artistic appreciation of pubic hair demonstrates how deconstruction desperately needs an image under Capitalism—more often than not, an image to sell: the sale of sex, specifically that of sex subjects displaying their (often hairy) bodies. I say "subject" because someone choosing to sell their body is different than having that choice made for them by the powers that be: "Sell your body for us, but shave your crotch first (except when it's trendy not to)."
Sex-positivity demonstrates this choice as an ironic performance, a kind of juggling act where sex workers cater to various cultivated tastes while also setting limits on their own bodies. Whatever they decide, they want to be appreciated for doing so—valued, not condemned, for being ironically empathetic and consensual within historical conventions that treat the demonization and criminalization of sex work as normal. This requires using already ambivalent kinks, phobia-loaded imagery and fetishized performances in ironic, reverse-abjecting ways. Common examples include Gothic media—artwork to sell or perform, as well as general lifestyles tied to descriptive sexuality (which art can imitate or vice versa) like BDSM, kink and fetishization.
To highlight cultural appreciation's function as the final element of sex-positive iconoclasm, we'll examine appreciative irony in Gothic counterculture. However, because these sex-positive ironies challenge coercive historical norms, we'll need to outline what those norms are, first.
Section Two: Sex Coercion
Fetishized Witch-Hunts; Dogma and Economics
As established in the previous subsection, the prescriptive attitudes that demonize descriptive sexuality must be challenged through appreciative irony. However, before we can properly examine the performative nuance of ironic BDSM, kinks and fetishes in Gothic, sex-positive counterculture, the context of this irony needs to be explored through the problematic history it seeks to change: the unironic culture of fetishized witch-hunts. This subsection outlines witch-hunter fetish culture through
- its use of constant moral panic to demonically fetishize both scapegoats and witch-hunters alike
- its overreliance on toxic love and criminal sexuality as an ideological structure enforced through dogma and economics
- rehabilitating abusers and worshipping serial killers in true crime
- fixating on demonic BDSM, kinks and fetishization exclusively as coercive wish fulfillment
- explaining how the chaotic, liminal thresholds of Gothic ambivalence allow future variants to become potentially sex-positive in a counterculture sense
First and foremost, unironic witch-hunts transform hunter and hunted into demonic fetishes. Not to be confused with kink, which denotes atypical sexualized activity between two parties, fetishization is the deliberate act of objectifying oneself or someone else, often in a sexual way. While consensual, negotiated fetishization can happen inside demonized spheres, canonical media purposefully normalizes toxic attitudes against coercively fetishized persons, unironically devaluing their basic human rights. Whether it's nice demons, good witches, black cats (void kitties) or proud, happy sluts, these humanized ironies exist alongside the societal norms designed to control them.
To be clear, witch-hunts aren't single, isolated events; they're an ongoing structure that produces constant waves of terror through fetishized, sexually violent roles: the hunters and the hunted. Their combined, ongoing interactions coercively demonize the control that either has over their own bodies. The "Wish Fulfillment" subsection will focus on the fetishization outcome; this subsection explains the general relationship between the hunters and their unhappy victims: the witches.
"Witches" are more than just Salem teenage girls. As part of a larger system, witch-hunters attack entire communities historically exploited by the elite—women, non-Christians, people of color, and gender non-conforming persons, but also sex workers (which historically includes all of those groups). By presenting these groups as unironic sex demons and criminals, abjection leads to fetishized scapegoats through its base concept: the pitting of the conceptualized self against a binary opposite, which the self rejects and ultimately attacks—not something truly alien, but coded as alien by those in power. Thereupon, canonical scapegoats cannot be loved; canon normalizes reactionary violence against them, collectively associating entire groups with criminal, deviant behavior, often advertising it through infamous symbols thereof.
In this manner, the elite exploit society by keeping it suspicious of itself, using popular stories to control how people respond to each other. Through prescribed ideas of toxic love, witch-hunters self-police inside abject invasion scenarios. Ostensibly hypothetical, these stories threaten actual abuse through vicarious experience: waves of terror. Over and over, fascist calls-to-action obscure leader intent through stochastic violence against a chosen, fetishized target—the underclass—inside moral panics.
Sudden-onset events of uncertain length and grand, nebulous scope, moral panics denote various titular threats: red scares, the yellow menace, black revenge/white genocide, or gay/trans panic (often called Satanic). During the chaos, mob leaders posture as righteous defenders—claiming to protect "true love," children, moral purity and family values from corrupting forces. In truth, they want to scare the population into a state of emergency that worsens over time, stealing their rights and turning them into monsters. As such, these leaders stoke the flames, profiting through destruction by presenting descriptive sexuality as something to hide from, but also seek and destroy.
Whether from established or aspiring parties, the bourgeoise will author whatever they require to exploit their populations. Behind the veneer of morals, liberty and national pride, the cold machinations of war turn violence into profit, maximizing force against a select target through persecution mania. The harder one turns the lever, the hotter the blaze; the hotter the blaze, the more fuel it demands. As people, animals and places burn, profits generate in a violent redistribution of wealth (from a material standpoint, the Holocaust was primarily an action of theft).
Accumulating in the upper echelons of power, the elite transfer these spoils into propaganda, celebrating the affair as a victorious event inside a larger cycle. The world—and by extension, women, children and moral decency—has been saved and must be saved again. In turn, whatever financial dregs trickle down from on high become remembered as "prosperity" by those who survive, conflating the nation's perceived strength with their own neglected well-being.
Though often remembered for their stochastic terrorism and moral panic, witch-hunts live and die through propaganda. Unlike state propaganda, neoliberalism affords the elite a proxy of state control: popular entertainment. In American media, corporations canonize evil—not to abolish, but preserve as good's perpetual foe inside an established order. Stamped and certified, corporate centrism cultivates a sustained atmosphere of caution and fear at a national level. Presenting merely as "fun," their trademarked perils repeatedly scare the middle class into prolonged consumer apathy. Over time, canon renders the underclass increasingly monstrous, canonizing them as sexually depraved and dangerous.
Eventually this scapegoating reaches a flashpoint, destroying the buffer. As Capitalism decays and fascism takes root, fatigue sets in and panic spreads; gradual caution becomes rapid-onset fear, danger and alarm. Once these sentiments reach the lower classes, reactionaries transform into violent monsters—alienated from their own humanity and sexuality as they persecute their fellow workers. Hardly accidental, persecution mania withers social-sexual activism by design—allowing the elite to enjoy a socially divided, sexually confused worker base that cannot unite against them. In the end, fascism defends Capitalism through false revolution: witch-hunters in disguise.
Now that we've outlined the underlying ideological structure of witch-hunts, let's further investigate the fetishizing mentality they promote through intersecting dogma and economics: a culture of toxic love centered around the automatic criminalization of descriptive sexuality.
First, dogma. Prescriptive punishment relies on dogma made within relative institutional language. Just as organized religion employs religious scripture to push descriptive sexuality into taboo spheres, secular canon uses secularized, bad-faith rhetoric inside its own morality arguments. The consequence, in either case, is criminal sexuality. By publicly condemning of sex-positive BDSM, kink and fetish, the elite force people to see, thus think, in black-and-white.
In material terms, toxic love and criminal sexuality arrest mainstream society's cultural development, preventing sex-positive growth through artist, art and consumer alike. Under these conditions, sex-positivity cannot exist and mutual consent becomes a myth; BDSM, kink and fetishes become perverted, twisted by sexist canon that faithful consumers refuse to question. Instead, they regard it with unironic fascination and fearful, repressed lust.
Kinky demon sex, for example, remains paradoxically common under purity culture. Rather than exorcise them, legions of the "forbidden" materialize as fearsome images of demonic sex. Automatically gendered and rapacious, they illustrate patriarchal dominance through ubiquitous scenes of rape: masculine demons, visibly bigger and stronger than their female "victim," punishing the wanton and disobedient for their transgressions against male power. The elite tolerate such perversions because they rob the submissive party of catharsis and rapture, promoting female enslavement. This abolishes sex-positive variants that actually empower cis-women (and other marginalized groups) through sex-positive demonic language.
Canonical demons lack empathic context. For example, any woman who refuses to have sex with her husband (or can't bear children for one reason or another) finds herself surrounded by images of demonic torture and rape—not through mutually consensual enjoyment, but compulsory punishment. Reserved for those who threaten the status quo, its attack disputes their moral character. Disobedient women must be fucking the devil, an evil act; the devil cannot be good because that privilege belongs automatically to cis-het men. As the sole agents of compelled good, white cis-het male privilege intersects with knee-jerk, self-righteous retribution—conducted not by the invented demon, but the inventor making displaced threats towards the women they aim to control.
While purity culture dominates women with exclusively coercive demons and rituals of social-sexual violence, these implements become "guilty pleasures" secretly and hypocritically cherished by people with relative privilege. We'll examine this phenomena more in the "Wish Fulfillment" subsection. For now, let's continue to investigate the material conditions responsible: the economic history that leads to sex-positive demons being criminalized, and how those policing them become more violent through prejudicial material advantage.
Demonization controls thoughts by branding them as sinful. In turn, canon fetishizes witch-hunts through ostensibly secularized witch-hunter language. I say "ostensibly" because organized religion was never abolished in America; it merely lies dormant to varying degrees (depending on where you live). For example, American Puritanism, a Mayflower transplant, offered numerous virtuous end-goals that continue to thrive in present-day America: sexual purity, the sanctity of marriage, and rigid, nostalgic gender roles. Carryovers from England, all were married by Reagan—a Hollywood professional during the 1950s—to neoliberalism.
Thanks to Reagan's corporate know-how and religious theatrics, "virtue" became synonymous with prosperity (code for "elite hegemony"). Meanwhile, austerity politics and personal responsibility offered the elite an effective ideological tool for consolidating state power and wealth around dishonest corporate messaging with a Christian neighbor, not direct overseer. As Margaret Thatcher put it, "Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul." True to form, their collective approach ushered in a return to tradition, setting its sights on theocratic state control by gradually replacing intelligent workers with obedient consumers.
In the meantime, sexual caution and modesty became something to cherish and protect from all manner of alien forces. The emergence of a Christian executive with direct ties to the means of production (through his corporate buddies) allowed these forces to materialize, thus be exposed to American families using mass media as a proxy for state power. Cheap, popular stories became sex-coercive through horror as financially incentivized; "think of the children!" became a regular, widespread appeal, generating waves of terror (a totalitarian tactic) that reliably led to moral panic en masse.
Enforced through neoliberal economics, a glut of cautionary, dogmatic romances helped dislocate descriptive sexuality from everyday experience. In turn, mass media promoted unvirtuous or immodest love (namely sex outside of marriage) as increasingly sinful or dangerous—something connected to society's moral decay as attached to crime, but especially sensationalized, depraved crime. This includes
- singular, fetishized acts of sexual violence (the knife strap-on from Se7en)
- targeted assault occurring through complex abuse, which conditions victims through unequal, nonconsensual power exchange and abuse of unequal power over time—capture, torture and rape; but also grooming interactions, be they targeted or parasocial
- performers of any of these things: sexual deviants, mass murderers, or serial killers, but also groups demonically scapegoated as such by canonical media and its reactionary defenders
These toxic variables mirror the real-life abuses committed by various self-proclaimed defenders of women. These persons do not protect women like they insist; they deprive them their basic human rights and bodily autonomy to make them terminally reliant on men, then exploit, shame and deceive them through power abuse, coercive language and bad-faith rhetoric. In the process, they covet, seek and hunt women—to transform them into ideal victims, while killing or alienating anything that might make this task more difficult.
Clad in outwardly holy attire or truthful personas (re: relative institutional language), sexist men like Matt Walsh amount to perfidious defenders. Not only do they abuse cis-women (and those seen as lesser than cis-women, which we'll explore more in the "Trans Discrimination and Ambiguity" subsection and in Section Four) by lying to women and feminist proponents every chance they get; they abject their hypocrisy onto various scapegoats already punished by a system of demonic, coercively fetishizing canon: "Evil is out there, and we must protect (white-cis) women's purity from its malign influence." Based on real life scenarios, fictional media foments conservative attitudes with a heightened confirmation bias—presenting crime as something to identify by sight. In this fashion, assigned punishers may root out and destroy essentialized targets with impunity.
Coercion is fundamental to bourgeois hegemony. From a material standpoint, hegemony amounts to an ongoing relationship between consumers and media that men like Eichmann habitually exploit. Appealing to the fears of the working class, such persons maintain the status quo through a larger structure, one whose material configurations of power control the means to discuss sexuality (and other taboo subjects) openly and honestly. Instead, the elite's inherent dishonesty materializes through canonical media as a social construct: the fetishized witch-hunt as something to recursively endorse. This relationship reflects widespread cultural attitudes that reliably lead to sexist abuse through the canonical depiction, and unironic enjoyment, of toxic love; as well as a ceaseless fascination with, and exploitation of, criminal sexuality through guilty pleasures, including serial killers, but also coercive BDSM, kinks and fetishization.
Now that we've explored the basic ideological structure that fetishizes scapegoats and witch-hunters, as well as dogma and economics' canonical role in centralizing toxic love and criminalizing descriptive sexuality within this structure, let's move onto to the media cycle itself. We'll examine how true crime certifies criminal sexuality and toxic love as sensational-yet-"real" life events begot from liminal fictions.
"Real Life": Toxic Love and Criminal Sexuality in True Crime
Heteronormative media's punitive nature materializes through recycled, consecutive iterations: true crime. Originally popularized by authors like Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Canon Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, the "murder mystery" genre survives in more modern, canonical forms: TV shows, movies and the 24-hour news circuit. All fixate on awesome, sexy killers or horrific, alien scapegoats. In a bid to preserve societal order as "threatened," true crime argues for us-versus them thinking inside the relative privilige of target demographics: white, cis-het men and women. Their perennial support results from manufactured consent, which the elite attain through cultivated fascinations with various popular tropes—"realistic" writing devices that frequently delve into the sensationalized, supernatural, and romantic.
In fictional stories, the avatars of true crime aren't simply criminal; they're alien and demonic. Regardless, they employ the same didactic function as non-fictional variants: to emblematize and scapegoat societal unrest that threatens the established order. However, the top only punches down, making its emotional appeals highly exploitative. Through true crime, the elite projects assigned qualities onto symbolic criminals or victims, oscillating between them as needed. Powerful authors reify sexy killers and deranged victims, appealing to a kind of dynamic scapegoating—one that uses sexist, bigoted stereotypes to keeps the middle class constantly horny and afraid.
The consequence is predation. By dieting on eroticized fear, priviliged clients grow increasingly apathetic, fetishistic and bloodthirsty towards marginalized groups. Mainstream shopping habits normalize canonical abuse against historical victims, lauding fictional suffering as "essential" inside tales of unspeakable victimhood. Despite parallels to real-life cases, this abuse becomes a vital ingredient that consumers crave—a nightly ritual they refuse to part with. Instead, they resent its absence, demanding routine sacrifices to sate their vampiric appetites. As we'll see repeatedly moving forward, the elite routinely introduce, cultivate and exploit these appetites to distract workers from bourgeois abuse—exploiting workers for their labor, their bodies and their emotions.
Killing Stalking (2016), for example, extends the privileged fascination with toxic love and criminal sexuality to gay men. Historically portrayed as carriers of disease and pedophilic tendencies, Koogi's narrative treats gay men in the usual ways: reprobate and sinister, but oddly delicious (a trope popularized by the neoliberal appropriation of gay sex crime, prioritizing white "thirst" for gay killers over genuine, appreciative empathy for gay victims). Despite the homophobic subtext of fetishistic gay murder and rape, predatory audiences—predominantly white, cis-het women—defend queer/female exploitation purely for its surface level tropes, most notably the physically attractive killer.
Stemming from normalized attitudes exposed to them by canon, the largely female, teenage audience recognize Koogi's markers from famous "romances" like Romeo and Juliet. Never mind that Shakespeare's satire flies right over Koogi's fans' heads; merely the killer's handsome appearance demands redemption, forgiving his mental imperfections until then. Worse still, this clemency mirrors the mentality of actual victims, hoping their tormentors can change mid-abuse when there's no clear evidence for it. Not only does this larger structure invite abuse apologetics through manufactured drama that prioritizes the rehabilitation of obvious monsters; their unearned clemency supersedes actual victim testimony. However, real-world atrocities inflame differently per register, incited by stigmas and fearful biases that keep marginalized groups fighting amongst themselves. The authors of their collective phobias, the elite, become invisible, forgotten.
Scoundrel's bias remains a common defense for the status quo, one that perpetuates harmful stereotypes about descriptive sexuality and abusive relationships in canonical stories. On one hand, canon condemns descriptive sexuality as inherently criminal, a kind of dangerous game that invariably requires the players themselves to be horribly flawed; on the other, it upholds toxic relationships by normalizing their abuse, expecting readers to not simply tolerate it, but forgive the abusers each and every time. Presumably these flaws are cosmetic—a mask for the healer to remove, revealing their wounded, but ultimately human visage. Confirming the abuser's humanity leads to forgiveness, followed swiftly by marriage: "Reader, I married him." This isn't the twist; it's the point.
For these persons, the socio-material arrangement of a hierarchy of control—quite literally law and order, but also dominance and submission as reified through material crime and punishment—invokes manufactured consent. As tolerance becomes worship through commercial endorsement, entitled consumers view the abusive lover as someone to rescue; they worship literal serial killers as apex predators of psychosexual crime—a top performer/earner in said crimes' veneration as something to recreate and sell back to a stupefied audience. This mindset demands sacrifice, callously selected by consumers with varying degrees of privilege. By defending victimization as integral to true crime media, they treat abuse against women and target minorities as run-of-the-mill. This includes the veneration of someone as indefensible as Sangwoo violating someone as vulnerable as Yoonbum—in fictional cases, but also real life examples that play out like extraordinary fiction.
For example, Ted Bundy's paradoxical sex criminal hero worship comes, in part, from society's overblown treatment of men like him as celebrities—famous faces that move merchandise, be it movies, videogames, or trading cards. The worship itself often comes from those historically treated as victims, but also the submissive recipients and givers of prescribed love in popular stories: white women. In seeing his case publicized all over mass media, Bundy's female admirers would have known the kind of power he represented through society at large—the unequal, masculine kind. Bundy's trial resonated most strongly by those already conditioned to receive violence from male authority figures, coming to Bundy's defense as part of an implied social contract: the one between abusive, domineering men controlling victimized, susceptible women.
By normalizing this dichotomy as something to sell, American society would have denied men and women the opportunity and information needed pursue healthier alternatives. Exacted upon familiar proxies or codified scapegoats, these stereotypical interactions actually highlight the disjointed, messy fears of a middle class incensed by various control factors: the mythical killer in their midst, or a convenient scapegoat to pin those fears on. Both reify the socio-material treatment of various marginalized groups present within the "lived experience" of popular horror stories: the true crime circuit.
Biased towards cis-het, white people, true crime compels heteronormative relationships between men and women by worshipping killers. White, straight men protect white, straight women, which popular stories valorize and infantilize respectively through relative privilege. Portrayed as perpetual victims, women exist in stories that disempower them, overlooking or blaming them for their own mistreatment at the hands of exceptionally evil men. Though similar abuse happens to anyone who isn't normal—isn't white, straight, male and Christian—white, cis-het women have just that: white, cis-het privilege. This protects them from the additional prejudices levied against gay men, people of color, trans people, immigrants, Jews, and their various, domestic intersections (we'll examine foreign examples and colonial prejudices in Section Four).
Despite how it disempowers white women compared to white men, the status quo still values white women more than men, women or non-binary people from increasingly marginalized groups. White media historically objectifies these groups, treating them as disposable symbols of white fear, including the fears of white women. Canon links gay men to disease like the AIDS crisis; black men, to rape and violence; immigrants, to labor theft and increased crime; etc. Killers and victims from these groups frequently become one in the same—especially if a crime involves someone wealthy and/or white. For example, if queer victims are killed by someone white and straight versus someone white and gay or someone black of either orientation, the general emotions invoked from white audiences will be neglect, disgust or hatred towards the marginalized side.
True crime illustrates preferential treatment at a socio-material level. The more Bundy abused white women, the more their value went up as precious objects in the eyes of the public; they weren't likened to the killer as Dahmer's victims were. Dahmer primarily killed homosexual black men. Immortalized for his heinous crimes, fans of true crime generally overlook the socio-political reasons behind Dahmer's "success": racial and sexual prejudices exploited by Dahmer to help him kill as many people as possible. Those people were already victims of systemic discrimination, itself part of a longstanding commercial process: a continuous pipeline of serial killers and victims geared towards already-terrified white women to scare them further, making them apathetic, if not downright hostile towards queer persons, people of color, or both.
Alongside Bundy's preferential treatment as a serial killer rock star, Dahmer's depravity and longevity postmortem demonstrate how popular media focuses on the bigoted, oft-racialized, demonic qualities of male killers targeting straight white women. It celebrates white killers for their "lady-killer" looks and abilities; fears black men for their violent, rapacious natures; and ogles gay men for their depraved sexualities, etc. However, although American canon commonly celebrates sexual violence through an assortment of abusers/victims that privileges white female victims, it also traps women inside a spotlight. There, white women endure heavy scrutiny by sanctimonious onlookers determined to "protect" them, even from themselves. This includes not just men scolding women, but women self-policing activism should they dare speak out against their (often white, cis-het) male abusers: their boyfriends, fathers, husbands, employers, etc.
American society loves to blame victims, especially when "they're asking for it." This includes white women putting on a show. Dialectically they aren't being openly sexual to debase themselves and invite criticism; they're trying to survive inside a system that historically controls every material aspect of their lives: "Smile more; show some skin; be nice." Similar to segregation, female submission only guarantees subjugation, not safety from male authorities. By sexually objectifying women and forcing them into sex work, the system reliably leads to worker abuse; worker abuse leads to societal blame towards workers, not the system. This goes beyond the killers themselves, involving the complex social interactions that happen before, during and after highly publicized trials.
Worker abuse also varies tremendously depending on one's race and class. Bundy's trial was the first to be publicized on live national television for its entirety. Had his victims been black, conservative media would have profiled them as masculine, hard-working and sexually aggressive. Because the women were white, the media presented them as
- unemployed, forgetting that women's work often goes unpaid—sex, marriage, childbirth and housework
- infantile deviants, emphasizing their youthful attractiveness as corrupted, misled
- mentally ill, focusing on their misguided lust for a bonafide slayer of white women
These outlier motives can also be gleaned intertextually. Just as parallel erotica sexualizes the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood, Renaissance thought codifies serial killers as lycanthropic. Something of a "werewolf" for these women to court, Bundy's subsequent fandom intimates a patriarchal structure of sexist trauma. Despite high odds of pre-exisiting sexual abuse, playful courtship at the seat of power yields women various forms of performative release. For Bundy's women as past and perceived victims, they achieved cathartic proximity with actual power as an intimate exhibit—one for all the world to see on national television. So common as to be cliché, the audience of the trial (then and now) can immediately recognize the juxtaposition in other forms of unequal, fetishized power, be they fairy tales, camp, or stock photos:
So while hardly ideal—and certainly privileged relative to other, less fortunate groups—these troubled "brides of Dracula" still attained something unusual: the relative power to engage with traditional avenues of sexist violence, but also heal* by finding control over their own bodies and relationships during the exchange. As victims of circumstance coping with daily abuse, none of this would even be necessary if not for the power centers that broadcast their own sovereignty through systems of control. By constantly appropriating popular symbols of sexual violence in media at large—which includes not just the singular event of a trial, but all aspects leading up to it as a mode of existence; i.e., a structure of toxic love—the elite rely on prescriptive canon to bake recursive bias into a popularized reactionary mindset they can weaponize.
*The need to heal exists among groups who are more likely to be abused and ignored under the status quo, leading to various self-abuse fantasies including captivity and rape.
Now that we've outlined the ideology of witch-hunts, explored the economic relationship that drives its prejudices, and examined the outcome of those prejudices through examples of toxic love and criminal sexuality in popular "true crime" media, let's examine one last concept before moving on: Gothic ambivalence and how it allows future media to become potentially sex-positive in a counterculture sense, but just as likely leads to bad play and coercive, demonic BDSM through wish fulfillment.
Gothic Ambivalence: Wish Fulfillment, Bad Play and Demon BDSM
Though Gothic canon is rife with otherworldly sex demons, these ambivalent metaphors point to a more grounded sexism: the abuses that occur through real-life arrangements of power. Within these arrangements, reactionaries respond to a particular set of instructions supplied through various consumer goods that demonstrate their moral superiority as privileged members inside a punitive hierarchy. By selling these products, the elite funnel power through a sexist mode of consumption, citing abusive sex as a ritual whose function is sacred, but also immutable—a means of signifying moral order through binary exchanges inside a society incessantly preoccupied with abject, psychosexual violence. Shameful sex suddenly becomes appropriate when viewed as demonic, criminal, forbidden; normally denied, the rewards it offers through guilty pleasure become a strange carrot to dangle before would-be supplicants: wish fulfillment.
If fetishized-witch hunts supply the ideological language to demonically scapegoat marginalized groups, wish fulfillment drives the whole process. Though not strictly "evil," the satisfying of unconscious desires in dreams or fantasies can be easily manipulated by those in power. For example, if canon codes a subject as outwardly evil, expectations not only allow but demand their unadulterated prurience; if it is prurient, the righteous may punish it brutally. Libidinous personas generally fall into two* basic categories: temptress (feminine) or rapist (masculine). Wicked women despoil virtuous men by leading them towards temptation; male demons rape women to keep onlookers in their place. Both justify physical violence and sexual control against women through misogynistic double standards.
*Variations include: the femme-fatale, succubus, or unfaithful wife; the rake, incubus, or lothario.
For example, demonic rapists are displaced shows of force, threatening good girls with heinous punishment should they misbehave. Violence, normally discouraged in polite society, becomes a wish to fulfill if the conditions call for it. In turn, wish fulfillment may also reverse the punitive function, making it something to play with through coerced guilt. Despite their guilt, those with relative privilege may enjoy the secret function of coercive language, a double standard that skirts the boundaries of legitimate punishment. This grants the middle class a curious alternative: the means to reverse roles in an enjoyable sense (say nothing of the elite), whereupon punishment becomes roleplay through the private exploration of guilty pleasures: playing at (or with) demons and criminals. Provided the broader hegemony remains intact, middle class wives may avoid punishment, while husbands may "spare" or even "submit" to their wives.
The fact remains, such play is a luxury inside a vindictive system that reliably sacrifices the majority (workers) through brutal violence and thought control. Made possible by eternal strangleholds on the press and media at large, those at the top hoard the majority of devilish play for themselves, using their vast material advantages and social authority to keep it secret behind neoliberal illusions. All the while, they privatize Bald Mountain, guiding reactionaries away from their source of plunder with supernatural-themed deceptions: demonic scapegoats. Free from criticism, the holy and the powerful monopolize the language of sin, including its consequent violence and pleasure; they partake in amoral hedonism, enjoying whatever they want—avarice, but also sex with the demonized and animalized: slaves.
Amorality, in this case, amounts to negative freedom for the elite. Conversely, the act—of "monster-fucking" werewolves and other symbols of fearsome, attractive power—is entirely possible as a positive freedom for oppressed workers to liberate themselves. However, their emancipation still requires intelligent performers who delegate good-faith roles through responsible play. By injecting ironic empathy and consent into such spaces, they transform, becoming places to enjoy forbidden pleasures without exploiting anyone at all. This can be a spice, but also a balm. Either way the sex becomes meaningful by elevating it beyond the simply mechanical actions; it can be kinky, fetishized, and unequal, but in mutually consensual ways that avoid actual violence and power abuse. In turn, these qualities of "good play" can be appreciated, savored, and cultivated by all parties involved.
Let's return to the idea of demonic fetishization. We discussed the general cycle of abuse between witch hunters and their victims in the "Dogma and Economics" subsection; now we'll investigate the fetishized states as a socio-material consequence of wish fulfillment through the bad play of coercively demonic BDSM and kink:
- how sexist people—primarily white, cis-het Christian men—are transformed into fetishized objects of monstrous violence
- how their targets are isolated, disempowered, and discredited and sexualized to objectifying extremes
"Good play," for example, remains wholly useless for those who exact institutional violence against others. Representing a public role tied to common attitudes of sexual punishment, these jailers emphasize "bad play" as universal: "Boundaries for me, not for thee," with women generally shamed, and powerful men protected through various double standards than enable future abuse (with people of color, non-Christians and queer persons pushed to the margins). Designed to advertise and prolong abuse as a means of social-sexual control through material means, the structure that enables this abuse not only tolerates sexual violence, but economically encourages its recreation through perverse rewards: It repeatedly turns the next generation into badly educated sex pests.
Here, manufactured scarcity deprives sexist performers of safe, nurturing sex (not just condoms or birth control, but consensual sex, too). They become sex-starved and information-deprived, embroiled within a prolonged state of fearful ignorance beset by "evil." On par with Ambrosio from The Monk (1794), such persons revel in bad play through violent fantasies geared towards achieving sexual control through coercive dominance. Indeed, Matthew Lewis cemented these within Ambrosio himself, a religious man obsessed with raping a woman he barely knew. Hidden virtuously behind a veil, her impeccable modesty bore no protection against the perfidious cleric.
For Lewis, these opposites—Ambrosio's nefarious aspirations and Antonia's besieged virtue—were less imagined hypotheticals and more Lewis satirizing England's social-sexual climate within displaced, outrageous language. Moreover, its patently Gothic nature gave him the means to speak on taboo themes: rape as a material byproduct of violent culture attitudes, not isolated nut jobs misled by the metaphysical devil. Ambrosio even blames Antonia for tempting him, fulfilling the binary of temptress and rapist working in tandem.
It's important to dialectically counter sex-coercive forces with sex-positive opposition—humanizing tutelage from reformed individuals who proactively disarm potential sex abusers before they cross the line. However, it's equally vital to recognize where generational violence originates: from the Base and Superstructure according to bourgeois interference. Popular media is coercively sexual; violence inherent to coercive sexuality manifests through guilty forms of bad play that compel future abuse—genuine material control for the elite, and manufactured control for, and consent from, the middle class.
As we'll explore in the next subsection, sex-positive play reverses this effect, helping participants escape the harmful legacy of sexist norms by playing outside their criminalizing influence. This broadening of one's horizons doesn't descend into madness, but escape from it. It must, lest society overflow with idiotic rapists like Ambrosio—manufactured criminals whose delusional self-entitlement leads to violent fantasies about bad play as its own guilty pleasure. Some activities—like anal sex or consensual voyeurism—even become conflated with crime, polluting the public's understand of regular, healthy sexual activities (we'll explore this phenomena more in Section Three).
As discussed in Section One, guilty pleasures aren't inherently unethical; they become unethical when employed in a sex-coercive fashion, leading to social-sexual violence through a plethora of examples. Social-sexual violence can
- be physical, mental, sexual, or all three
- be familial (child, spousal, parental, etc) or extra-familial (curricular, extra-curricular or workplace)
- happen during an event, but also before/after the primarily violence
This last point addresses peripheral violence, a phenomena that involves: direct abusers through general gaslighting or DARVO; direct enablers, who know about the abuse but keep it secret; and proxy abusers—apathetic, even hostile witnesses or authority figures who blame, shame, or neglect the victim along the way.
When those in power plead ignorance, their collective inaction defends the status quo as an ongoing material arrangement. Drafted along ideological lines, this Superstructure formulates quixotic delusions about sex. In turn, these lend society structure through the Base—canon as something to produce, which prescribes sex-coercive norms that disguise, enable, or downplay social-sexual violence. Whereas all canon demands consumer worship, Gothic canon promotes the reverence of social-sexual bad play present in coercive BDSM, kink, and fetishization.
Canonical bad play reinforces dangerous myths, fulfilling the Patriarchy's wishes through the minds of subservient workers. Women, for example, are entirely mythologized—a lie that treats cis-white* women (or beings perceived as cis-white women) as inherently submissive, entirely sexual beings that require pain to experience romantic bliss and physical pleasure. Not only this, but current or potential wives or girlfriends, especially prurient ones, need pain though disempowerment, humiliation and isolation—administered entirely by patriarchal authorities concerned with gratifying their own sexual urges through sincere power abuse.
*Heteronormativity conflates certain homosexual women with heterosexual "performers" catering to the cis-het male gaze.
Fear and dogma persist within canonical bad play and social-sexual myths. While some involve paid performers in Gothic media, others incriminate their audiences as willing accomplishes. By ingesting and imitating bad play in their own social-sex lives, sexist consumers assimilate a variety of lionized behaviors. Unironically celebrated and widely consumed by the larger public, predatory acts—of male hunters stalking and coveting female prey—have become more than mainstream; they've become nostaglic.
"Every Breathe You Take" (1983), for example, details the musings of a stalker inside a somber, yearning ballad. Penned by a trio of rakish blondes exploiting the hearts of teenage girls, the band sold coercive love back to kids: something to export, to demand, to owe—not just once, in the past, but again in future media like Stranger Things (2016). Known for resurrecting yesterday's musical hits, the show unironically marries ageless, sexist chart-toppers to the next generation, including "Every Breathe You Take." Couched inside prescriptively terrifying scenarios, these re-licensed songs join a larger chronotope, one the old guard may look back on with fondness, but also younger people who "missed out."
Neoliberal fables treat the past as a formula, something to reinvent by constantly depicting it as a special time, a legendary place that once had been and could be again. However, the ghost of the counterfeit is always a tyrant, one whose sexual violence haunts future copies ad infinitum. Neoliberalism cheats scrutiny by celebrating Gothic reinvention as critically blind, reviving the monstrous force lurking behind their glossy curtain: the power of old, dead kings. They repackage this return to tradition with halcyon reverence. Inside its shadow, the present becomes something to escape, a casualty of the mind retreating backward into fascist make-believe.
As Capitalism decays, neoliberal chronotopes decay with them. Mid-rot, the moral virtues they personify peel back, exposing a sexist hierarchy. Tied to the hauntological once-and-never-were, "greatness" becomes a new kind of lie—a fascist pantheon of majestic kings, dutiful maidens, manly warriors, sniveling weaklings (queer people), etc. As part of this "new" order, reactionary customers embody these archetypes by continuously purchasing demonic sacrifices, watching sex workers (actors, artists, prostitutes, dancers, etc) perform stereotypical abuse against historically fetishized groups. Spellbound, they gaze longingly towards a reimagined past, foregoing anything that clashes with their idealized masculine image.
Like Hamlet, masculinity under fascism becomes something to converse with; also like Hamlet, it corrupts who fascists are, slowly driving them mad. The outcome is Promethean—the complete annihilation of individual and bloodline, generally through ignominious slaughter. Collateral and carceral damage are commonplace as well. During the reactionaries' descent into madness, those who play at demons through un(der)paid, stigmatized sex work become trapped—pinned between these ambivalent, taboo symbols' punitive usage and whatever empowering variants that iconoclasts strive to install.
The challenge of doing so lies less in seriously altering the appearance of famous demonic symbols, BDSM rituals and prurient costumes, and more in changing how they're perceived—as ambivalent things to appreciate, not appropriate. This appreciative irony lends the demonized a voice, one that comes through underlying context—the norms historically communicated by imagery during a given performance and how these inform the latter as supportive, or transgressive of, the former. To infer these subtextual connections, the imagery must be dialectically analyzed. While this might seem daunting at first glance, release dates makes for effective timestamps.
For example, when considering 1987 Hellraiser versus its 2022 variant, we can examine how either performance might support or resist the status quo using the same basic costume as something to perform, but also respond to. Neither spell anything out in concrete terms, but the reactions to what's presented (diegetic or otherwise) can be especially telling. The 1987 text argues for a pure, cis-het damsel-in-distress—a middle-class princess/maiden who must survive temptation from a closeted cabal of psychosexual demons. Normally they exist outside decent society. Clive Barker, however, teases their much-feted arrival before finally trotting them out—all to make a larger point about sexual purity and familial relations all too common at the end of Reagan's second term.
Despite their outlandish appearance, Barker's coercively fetishistic, criminalized BDSM demons make a very conservative argument: "Good girls must be defended from dark forces that threaten to corrupt their virginal status." Whether the protagonist was actually a virgin is beside the point; she looks and acts like one according to the basic visual formula: a somewhat spunky daddy's girl with a pure-white persona—one whose greatest rebellions (namely pre-marital sex) occur entirely off-screen. In this sense, the destruction of her house and family stem from a "false" stepmother and evil uncle, their combined deviancy cuckolding the honest, hardworking husband as part of an overarching moral plea: "Be a good girl."
In response, the bereaved heroine dutifully returns to tradition by rejecting the Cenobites the moment she sees them: as the ultimate, underlying cause for her familial decay. These reactionary theatrics align with horror canon, whose entire productions historically abject BDSM. Barker gave this abjection a household name, familiarizing consumers with an unequal power exchange he'd obviously demonized. Reactionaries tolerated Barker's brand because it didn't challenge the status quo; in turn, his tutelage demonically scapegoats BDSM as a pure, alien menace.
Barker's abject BDSM tracks with Susan Sontag, who had already described its unequal power distribution as a "master scenario" ten years prior—a purely sexual experience "severed from personhood, from relationships, from love." It's worth noting, however, that not only does Sontag leave out healthy forms of sadomasochism (as well as bondage or domination); her examples of coercive sadomasochism are conveyed through torturous acts of sexist violence committed by executors of a particular look: "The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death."
Though ambivalent, these performative materials aren't intrinsically fascist—i.e., built on coercive fear and dogma. Sex-positive BDSM occurs through ironic context within historical standards: boundaries of play informed by mutual consent, which genuine abusers (cis-het men) abject. Through the continuation of coercive, demonic BDSM, their fearful, dogmatic teachings amount to "bad play" as something to teach, but also codify. Examples of Sontag's master scenario become celebrated and feared, granting abusers an unfair, unethical advantage over their victims by keeping the latter preoccupied invented dangers; in the process, hierarchal norms become essentialized, compelling social-sexual violence.
While real abusers celebrate this coercive arrangement of social-sexual power relations, they forget that fascism fetishizes its perpetrators and its victims. Self-fetishization makes no difference to a rapist, provided they're the destroyer—i.e., the phallic object that seemingly has agency through eroticized violence. Historically this agency is fleeting outside of their own mind. Boiled down to a blind, self-destructive pursuit of outlandish, one-sided power-exchanges, the killer's inability to stop renders their quest an almost Quixotic-Faustian vibe (the fatal pursuit of forbidden knowledge). They're not powerful, they're pathetic. Barker's evil uncle from Hellraiser fulfilled this aim, chased by vice personified: the Cenobites.
In the 2022 remake, however, the BDSM is more neutral, a teaching of exchange ("Restraint is a myth!"). While not strictly "good," our female Cenobite grants the orphaned heroine a means of negotiation: the ability to choose. Having power within the exchange, she gains the upper hand against a perfidious male lover working for the movie's ultimate male villain. Whilst the Cenobites gut the henchman and skin the boss alive, they're still following the heroine's instructions—taught instructions, by them to her. Updated from Barker's 1987 approach, the 2022 lesson transforms abject BDSM into a more sex-positive variant: a relative means of escape, empowerment and personal growth for the heroine.
Whether abject or reverse-abject, BDSM flows through Neo-Gothic stories, while their ambiguous, material fascination with unspeakable depravity and crime recycles taboo markers of social-sexual violence to oscillating extremes. Through these extreme, Gothic Canon and counterculture depict BDSM, kinks and fetishes very differently. One promotes real historical atrocities (aka true crime) as normalized; the other dislocates the recycled tropes to take on new exquisite life. This counterculture extends to sex-positivity as a means of expressing mutual consent through so-called "gothic" language, while still enjoying the mode's fabled sensations.
Gothic narratives generally operate through compound fear. Through repeated compilement over time, their infamous hoardings of dead symbols routinely intimate an imagined barbaric past, one that denotes special feelings unique to a given iteration. Sex-positive stories showcase how these needn't be as a strict endorsement of sexual control, but a continuous demonstration of the search for new meaning among dated, outmoded language: the search for sex-positive feelings, passion and significance inside ambivalent, historically demonized locales, practices and personas. For example, frisson (the "skin orgasm" felt in terrifying narratives) can be enjoyed sex positively while enticing a heightened awareness for older sex-coercive variants. Because these variants continuously haunt the narrative, de facto educators should fashion iconoclastic replicas that discourage older tyrannies in favor of something new through deeper context: sex-positivity.
This positivity and its context materialize variably per medium. For instance, videogames include feeling trapped inside Metroidvania, embroiled within the complex hauntology of the horror-themed FPS, or animating the miniatures of Gothic pastiche (a theme lifted from Walpole's 1764 novella, The Castle of Otranto). However, Gothic art more generally allows any performers to play with monstrous language—letting not just players to hold controllers, but models to control of their own bodies when making reverse-abject, sex-positive statements. This creative gradient is not simply chaotic, but legion, offering an endless variation of nightmarish-heavenly delights:
Regardless of the exact feelings produced—and whether in pure BDSM scenarios, Gothic media, or some in-between variant—the iconoclasts ironically appreciating mutual consent face a massive challenge: Not only must they deal with with the advanced cultural anxieties surrounding either of these things; they must contend with duplicitous reactionaries seeking to control the complex, fearful attitudes orbiting them. Using outrage as a cloak, reactionaries prevent sex-positivity as an open discussion. By keeping playful sexuality on a short leash—one held by the elite, the traditional, and the strong—they use fear and dogma to discourage deviations from their harmful notions of "playful" sex; in doing so, these bullies normalize fringe psychosexual violence—and its dated, toxic treatment of gender—pushing both into the mainstream.
Traditional power arrangements aren't simply manipulative, insofar as they wed automatic, normalized violence to coercive BDSM/Gothic practices announced by dogmatized aesthetics (treated as fascist when they don't need to be); they target vulnerable parties drawn to power and regression as a healing technique, leading to future abuse in bad-faith examples. To end the cycle of harm, sex-positive professionals and amateurs must rescue BDSM (and its historical victims) from the fetishized Nazi, encouraging an empathetic understanding of the practice.
Empathy occurs through appreciative irony used by good-faith performers. While sex and pain can still be on the table, they shouldn't be automatically supplied nor harmfully violent (as historical examples often are). This fact alone should be valued, in part because it goes against the status quo's tendency to abject anything sexually descriptive—not just BDSM, but kinks and fetishes more broadly.
Appreciative irony in Gothic counterculture aims to maintain visual ambivalence while simultaneously venerating sex-positive social-sexual behaviors, positions and personas. For example, is the above example sex-positive or -coercive? It has no monsters, blood, nor overt Nazi imagery. There are no sinister-looking men to pore over, no shoddy backgrounds or implements of torture to suggest a lack of consent, forced sex and automatic violence. Yet even if there were, few images can say whether they meet the criteria when presented inside a vacuum.
The fact remains, mutual consent isn't self-explanatory and neither is BDSM; nor are kinks, fetishes or Gothic counterculture at large. Instead, the missing context of their appreciative irony and ambivalent visuals must be explored like any other media—dialectically and by empathetic, actively informed consumers, creators, and/or producers. Not only must these persons be sex-positive in a mode loaded with sex-coercive stereotypes; they must contend with reactionaries looking to abject social-sexual activism within this mode, including its desired outcomes.
These outcomes include active empathy, informed consumption, and descriptive sexuality, which Section One has already examined. Moving into Section Three, we'll explore the final aspect: cultural appreciation—specifically the appreciative irony of sex-positive performance art, including how Gothic counterculture actively resists the coercive historical norms outlined in the previous subsections: abject moral panic, fetishized witch-hunts, true crime, and the "bad play" of coercive sex demons.
Section Three: Grey Area
Appreciative Irony in Gothic Counterculture Performance Art
This subsection explores appreciative irony in Gothic counterculture performance art and how it supplies power to historically oppressed groups. Performance art is anything that requires performance, with general performativity including social-sexual roles illustrated by art of all kinds: illustrations, photographs, video, and live performance. Though actively sex-positive, Gothic* counterculture performance relies on appreciative irony towards BDSM, kink and fetishes, which are historically wedded to ambivalent, phobic imagery and rituals historically associated with criminalized behavior. There is no immediate visual difference between sex-positive or sex-coercive examples. Instead, context differentiates them—namely the presence of irony as something to perform. By appreciating mutual consent, descriptive sexuality and informed consumption as things that sexism historically abjects, sex-positive performativity becomes ironic in opposition to sexist norms.
*Gothic, here, includes more than "goth" subculture and its various musical and clothing styles; it also includes the myriad stories told through movies, videogames, novels, etc.
The rest of this subsection explores appreciative irony in the professional and amateur art of Gothic counterculture. We'll start with professional examples, but first need to consider professional art's troublesome relationship to corporate production and how this limits its potential to be fully ironic in a Gothically appreciative sense.
Corporate shareholders dictate cultural production as something to advertise, generally through scripted performances loaded with sexist stereotypes. Even when it lacks strictly "Gothic" visuals, BDSM in canon displays the same sex-coercive bias normalized in Gothic canon: abusive female doms. Even The Boys (2019) does this, showcasing an evil, Russian dominatrix conspicuously subjugating Frenchy, the subby French boy she coerces into performing serialized murder. He's not bad; she made him do it, all while making him wear a collar to mirror his childhood abuse. Not only does this appropriation play off geo-political stereotypes—the docile, prurient Frenchman and the Russian she-wolf—it's showered in abject gore and checked by an American "paragon": the alcoholic, self-serving Queen Maeve (itself a stereotype of Irish people).
Unquestionably off-brand, Maeve's irony remains curiously unappreciative: For one, she likes to flaunt her power against smaller, nonconsenting people. To the writers' credit, Maeve never physically abuses her lovers; she still remains unattractively pushy towards her human, female ex, and loves emasculating Hughie every chance she gets: 'You really need a neon sign, one that says, "I'm a sub; rawdog me."' Eventually the story emasculates Maeve, blinding her in one eye like Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre before reducing her to a vulnerable, non-superhero state. Here, Maeve doesn't learn to use her unequal power so much as it's taken away from her entirely. She only changes when the show forces her to, ejecting her from the narrative in the same breath.
Prior to exile, Maeve's irony lacks sex-positive appreciation because it centers peripheral, self-depreciation around countless implied failures. She's a fuck-up side character who drowns her woes in booze and boys, entirely without merit or joy. Even so, her disgruntled, tough-girl performance lacks the Gothic ambivalence of Castlevania's Lenore, who openly deceives Hector to imprison and emasculate him; or 50 Shades of Grey's titular lothario, who continuously violates his negotiations with his BDSM partner (and was originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction).
While Lenore and Christian feature positive, protector-based elements, their central relationships remain conspicuously toxic, built on lies and broken trust. By comparison, Maeve doesn't lie. However, she also doesn't relate to anyone in a romantic sense. A perpetual loner, her story starts after the romance is dead, en medias res. So while appreciative stories highlight genuine trust as vital to healthy BDSM, Maeve barely shows what healthy BDSM looks like. Instead, she lacks appreciative irony as a functioning dom with one or more healthy relationships. This paucity intimates the broader material relationship present between professional media and sexual appropriation: critical restraint.
Akin to classic Simpsons episodes biting FOX's hand, The Boys can only chew so hard until Amazon reins them in. This substantially limits whatever irony they can perform in regards to BDSM, kink and fetishes (within Gothic language or not). Far more common is the "safe" method: the default manufacturing of coercive variants on a massive scale—cheap, dangerous knockoffs that encourage manufactured consent towards sexist ideas about gender and sexuality. Composed of popular tropes and symbols that survive into 2022, these larger misconceptions originate from unironic interpretations of famous ironies—Shakespeare's tale of woe in Romeo and Juliet (1597) or later, Austen's satirical voice in her 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice ("It is a truth universally acknowledged...").
Over time, these interpretations have become canonized, eclipsing the original satire; as such, they treat toxic love as something to uncritically devour. By swooning over romanticized abuse, their readers fail to grasp how Shakespeare or Austen needled dated, abusive standards in their own eras: prescriptive, surface-level appeals towards love as spontaneous, but also fixated on physical beauty or extreme wealth—where death following one's separation from raw passion is normalized inside the minds of impressionable, horny youths, be they girls of marrying age or eligible bachelors expected to propose.
As something to perform, irony exists within a lengthy historio-material process of authors embroiled within sexist consumer culture. The Boys was hardly the first, but the latest in a longstanding Western tradition that normalizes the celebration of romantic abuse in professional media. For example, Shakespeare and his contemporaries' works coincided with a rising English identity structured around toxic love. By the late 1700s, mounting pressure to feed the British market with fresh suitors and debutantes all but exploded; artifice became something to embrace by large groups of young middle-class people thirsty for knowledge on manners, modesty and love.
Consuming blind pastiche from various popular genres, hungry English readers soaked up information wherever they could. This included appropriative material centered on sexism themes, which informed the real world and vice versa: the moral panic of neo-Gothic novels. So popular and sudden was this "Gothic craze" that Austen parodied it in Northanger Abbey (written in 1803 but published after her death in 1817)—a story written about Catherine Morland, a girl whose curious life mirrors the very Gothic novels she ravenously devours.
This consumption lacked universal appeal, and generally was rejected by the more serious (and pretentious) Romantics. Regardless, peak Victorian abjection helped these novels flourish under a growing middle-class expected to repress whatever prurient activities were regularly happening between cis-het persons. In the face of mounting tensions, sexist canon manufactured consent through prescriptive ideas, codifying an immutable gender binary whose various roles fed back into the practice. Indeed, Morland's story plays out much like a gothic novel—a direct consequence of those books affecting her life in parallel ways: making the formulaic promise of sex and danger seem delicious to a "princess" who views them as mysterious and intoxicating.
The Neo-Gothic Revival was hardly unified, with many schools and strains emerging in the following decades. Nor did it stop, leading Angela Carter to write, "We are living in gothic times" nearly two centuries later (and nearly 50 years ago). Regardless, many BDSM scenarios in canonical literature stem from Gothic horror, which famously injected the Ancient Romance into commonplace, "novel" (quotidian) formats. Morland's peril is basically spoof, the nosy heroine consigned to a solo carriage ride—at night, without protection(!)—back to her family. More earnest examples generally pitted their moral positions on sex and love against settings of extreme terror, horror, abject sexuality and numinous sensations—often tied to murder, ancient castles, black magic, and spectral burial sites.
While the Graveyard Poets would have enchanted these places with an unshakable feeling of supernatural otherworldliness, exact cultural attitudes are a deeper context that carries imperfectly into newer generations. Or, as Marx himself put it: "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." Usually only the tropes survive—ghastly predicaments like live burial, cannibalism, infanticide or ritual sacrifice; but also taboo sexual themes like incest, rape or necrophilia. While these notions can seem dated, superstitious and absurd, they endure remarkably well through Gothic pastiche, which tends to slap them together devil-may-care. Modern conservatism exploits these Old-World variables, crafting cheap horror stories that code viewers along sexist-reactionary lines.
As we've established, Gothic canon fetishizes unequal power exchange and descriptive sexuality to stereotypical, rapacious extremes—not simply about power, but power abuse. Sacred yet cheap, these scandalous, fear-mongering myths cannot be avoided or ignored; instead, marginalized professionals and amateurs must reclaim through active, appreciative irony that appreciates sex-positive examples of unequal power exchange. In turn, appreciative irony becomes a force to challenge its own absence in the Gothic mode—canon, but also bad-faith, sex-coercive examples tailored by reactionaries.
First, you have the scream queens—cis-women who play the sexy heroine under attack, surviving sexism in fairly conventional ways (the perils of the middle class, cis-het white woman, a centrist position reinforced by Gothic pastiche). However, performative irony extends to increasingly persecuted positions. Witches, trans people, and other social outsiders/targets—once reliable objects of abject ridicule, fear and punishment—suddenly become cool, fun, and sexy within hauntological positions. Through their newfound appreciation, these reverse-abjections remain haunted by their historical function: as sex-coercive symbols of fear.
However, inside parallel spaces, performative irony simply allows sex-positive performers activists to reclaim their use through parody and pastiche (a concept we'll continue to explore throughout the remainder of this chapter): the imperfect recreation of things that came before infused with new, sex-positive meaning. To this, ironic performers of canonical monsters like Medusa, Wednesday Adams and the xenomorph frame sex empowerment as a legitimate position—reclaiming the agency of their marginalized users by presenting as something sex-positive for society-at-large to emulate, but also empathize with: Witches—be they figurative or literal—shouldn't be burned at the stake, the kinky sex they have and BDSM they perform should be mutually consensual, and their testimony regarding their own victimization shouldn't be dismissed automatically.
Appreciative emulation isn't homogenous; it's performative and, like a Halloween costume, occurs according to varying degrees of commitment. Furthermore, whether professional-grade or amateur, these performances inevitably fall under various levels of scrutiny. Not only does canon already exist; the elite employ a variety of tactics to keep canon relevant. We've already discussed
- how moral panic operates through prescribed phobias
- how abjection can be reversed through descriptive sexuality
- the historical context inside Gothic canon that sex-positive irony grapples with—regarding BDSM, kink and fetishes, but also the dialectical constraints imposed on performative irony in canonized forms
So while Gothic canon is historically fetishized—systemically appropriating marginalized bodies for profit—performer irony allows for active, personal engagement inside a system designed to materially benefit the elite. Worker who become ironic performers can self-fetishize to materially benefit themselves, thus gain the potential to challenge the current social order through cultural appreciation. Even if their creative output is visually ambiguous—i.e., doesn't spell out mutual consent at first glance—the context needed to infer its existence can be identified by the sexist backlash (and ironic adoration) it receives: the so-called "gag reflex."
If we're dealing with Gothic symbols, this backlash may present as confused; the attackers will oscillate, not quite knowing what to think or how to behave. Consider how reactionaries paradoxically worship the loved-feared monster mom from Resident Evil, Lady Dimitrescu. By extension, they cannot help but worship towards the many professional and amateur sex workers who bring Lady Dimitrescu to life—most notably cosplayers.
An already-complicated character, Lady Dimitrescu threatens patriarchal norms created by abjection while simultaneously empowering marginalized groups through reverse-abjection. This duality leaves reactionaries with a troubling paradox: a vampire Amazon queen/giant Hippolyta that must be checked by masculine force, while simultaneously nurturing and gratifying her would-be attackers' repressed sexual urges: the kinks and fetishes of cis-het boys and men. What's more, their gratification occurs through ironic performers who receive an unusual amount of socio-material power during the exchange and after.
In Postmodern language, this theater plays out "inside the text." Abjection occurs through in-game action, our Bond-like protagonist suffering the evil queen's fetishized abuse before destroying her bloodline and exposing her "true" ugly form: the Archaic Mother. Reverse abjection occurs in the real world, cosplayers
- returning Lady Dimitrescu to a human shape
- restoring her power within the social-sexual exchange
- presenting the ambivalent imagery and activities in a sex-positive, appreciative light
The power relations can stay lopsided, kinky and fetishized, provided they grant our queen perceived authority over a very thirsty audience. The power she holds over them isn't abusive, but nurturing and mollifying towards the audience's pre-coded, abuser tendencies. With it, cosplayers restore balance through a different kind of gaze; not one of fear, but love, using it to pacify viewers into realms of total, emasculating worship: "Step on me, queen!" became less of a command, and more of an eagerness to please and serve her highness as someone to relate to through sex-positive BDSM. Such reverence must be conditioned—taught over time by sex-positive instructors rewriting canonical norms through appreciative irony.
In this sense, Lady Dimitrescu isn't simply the in-game character, but a motherly persona adopted by professional and amateur cosplayers looking to advance their own sphere of influence in the material world. By dressing up as someone feared and loved in an Oedipal sense, female cosplayers carried a sense of Gothic power in the smitten gaze of their male admirers. Female cosplayers rode the wave, but also extended it, creating a rising tide that raised all ships. Meanwhile, Capcom returned their investment long before the game hit shelves, recuperating sex-positive ideas to turn a profit: Monsters sell; sexy (female) monsters sell better.
Granted, there's definitely a market for sexy male monsters, too (Lucifer, Lucifer; Alcide Herveuax, True Blood; and Sephiroth, FF7). However, such roles quickly run the risk of feminizing men in a non-heteronormative way—not only visually (especially Sephiroth), but performatively. The latter happens when a story—instead of centralizing men as universal clients—decides to makes them servants servicing unusual clients: women, homosexuals, trans people, even demons. This needn't be overt sex work, but generally functions like sex work through abjected content.
As something to conceptualize queer persons within boundaries of enforced constraint, gay abjection is less about queerness being monstrous in a physically dangerous sense, and more that it challenges the current order of things through humanizing appeals—an ideological threat to the status quo. It's the primary reason Andrew Tate can continue his grift, provided he tows the conservative line. By condemning Lil Nas for ostensibly receiving anal sex from the devil during a music video, Tate is dog-whistling to sexist, racist homophobes through a moral purity argument—literally crying "thinking of the children" while condemning male-on-male anal sex. This homophobic rhetoric intersects with racism through abject heteronormative standards about androphilic anal sex—i.e., sex "with the actual devil" as an overt, immoral stance.
Tate's attack on Nas is heteronormative because it conflates the anus—specifically the male anus as penetrated by a male object—with abject devilry. Double standards regarding anal sex demand that Tate condemn Nas, who very clearly isn't female. This is because heteronormativity venerates sexual reproduction centered around male pleasure. For this reason, it appropriates lesbian sex and female anal sex, conflating them with PIV sex by proximity with the vagina, female anus and female sex organs as owned by men, a priori. Said ownership ensures that sexual reproduction is always an option, while also framing any rejection of it as a kind of guilty pleasure: temporary male disempowerment by avoiding one's reproductive duties, versus female empowerment through bodily autonomy as something take back from men.
However, because androphilic anal sex belongs to male bodies where no vagina or reproductive organs are present, any mutually consensual sex acts occur entirely for physical pleasure not owned or controlled by heterosexual men. Heteronormativity prejudice stresses the feminine paradox of gay men as automatically hysterical. Imposturous and broken, their alien, dirty anuses are entirely incompatible with sexual reproduction, thus heteronormative male pleasure at large. As such, androphilic anal sex becomes something to deny in any artistic statement, hiding it from children and adults by coercively demonizing it. Meanwhile, these same gatekeepers embrace female anal sex as an acceptable trespass, a guilty pleasure that won't threaten the heterosexual cycle of arranged marriage: PIV sex, childbirth and nuclear parenthood as inextricably linked to heteronormative values.
Tate's attack becomes racist through the content of the video itself—the actual devil, not simply as a dark figure, but a literal man of color. In Gothic canon like Zofloya (1806) and Rosemary's Baby (1967), white author classically depict Satan as a threatening agent, despoiling women and steering them from virtue. Stories like these intersect with the broad racist trope of the rapacious black man, which has demonized men of color in real-life (the Wilmington Massacre of 1898) and in historical fiction outside of Gothic media (Birth of a Nation, 1915). Unanchored from a particular approach, Andrew Tate dogwhistles to a racist crowd through basic moral statements, puffing up his "virtue" while abjecting homosexual men of color through dated, popular tropes.
By comparison, Nas' music video appreciates black kink through a transgressive, counterculture response. By having two gay men consent to anal dry-humping (as opposed to oral, which would be harder to show in a music video where both actor's faces need to be showing), Nas' celebrates homosexuality amongst black men dressed up in devilish attire, rescuing the trope of the devilish black man as a rapist of white women. Combining his rap-star status' material advantage with the overnight exposure of a smash-hit music video, Nas tips the scales in a sex-positive direction, humanizing multiple, intersecting scapegoats in the process: black men, Satanism, anal sex (which not all gay men have), sex workers, BDSM and homosexuality (also note his non-fascist usage of the black-and-red color scheme).
Culture war through moral panic generally manifests in a lopsided treatment of feminine, servile gender and sexuality—with sex-positive variants becoming unimaginable in the shadow of pejorative stereotypes. Even when they're not explicitly queer, forays into unconventional male servitude under Patriarchal sexism become queer-coded caricatures by the elite, framed as fantastical (non-existent make-believe) or fatal. So-called "realistic" fantasy endorsing status quo heteronormativity by violently murdering its token queer standouts in short order. Often before they're killed, the parading of so much disposable man flesh is generally played for laughs—callously supplied to thirsty straight women leveled at queerdom as something to appropriate (re: Killing Stalking).
Regardless of which, canon transmisia and homophobia uphold minority abuse through appropriated queerness, passing it off as genuine representation in the process. "Genuine" examples only prolong harmful stereotypes in media that keep minority groups oppressed, usually according to a hierarchy of relative privilige inside an incredibly recent market. Slow to expand, said market originally focused on cis-women, which it barred from expressing sexual desire and unprompted romantic affection well into the 20th century. Women in classic gothic novels, for instance, weren't simply cis-het; they were generally passive, compelled into roles of dark imagination (the Radcliffean School of Terror), but also modesty and emotional fragility when facing the so-called "dreaded evil" (which, like the woman's faint-hearted response to it, would've been highly exaggerated and overhyped):
Nowadays the market has moved beyond cis-women to include queer and trans people. However, they have only just begun to appear in mainstream Gothic narratives as something other than the monster, token queer, or perpetual victim. But even in these cases, the characters don't exclusively appreciate queer people descriptively (Cyberpunk: 2027, Ghost in the Shell, Terminator: Dark Fate); they're also fetishized—appropriated for cis-het men by cis-het men (or girl bosses). There's also TERF logic regarding queer appropriation, which we'll explore in Section Four.
Now that we've examined Gothic irony in professional and amateur art, let's quickly look at some everyday examples—not sex cosplayers using kinks, fetishes, or BDSM inside a social-social exchange, but everyday people dressing for themselves.
Despite canonical worship of various powerful female beings, sexism rejects the general principles behind sex-positive fashion statements. This includes those made by everyday people, regardless if they're professional artists or goth (though perhaps being inspired by either of these things). Regardless of whom, fashion statements are still gender roles. Moreover, when they aren't canonical—that is, aren't directly catering to sexist consumers in a globally prescriptive sense—their performers will invariably experience sexism far more hostile and open from reactionaries: moral panic.
This hostility proliferates because the status quo invariably treats women—or people perceived as women—as constant performers. This means that any woman (cis-het or queer) who appears in public will always have an audience with expectations and entitlement. Her clothes don't need to be goth/monster mom cosplay to garner unwanted attention; in fact, they don't need to be sexy at all. She will be watched regardless—by sexist men, but also sexist women. This happens because women, unlike men, are sexualized by default—in real life as informed by material examples of popular conventions. Reactionary women will defense these rules regardless of the harm they cause.
By comparison, emancipatory women will strive to expose the harm as symptomatic, then cure it. The performer's agency stems from her choosing to perform for herself, an amateur who loves makeup or pretty clothes despite the threat of sexist control (therefore violence). These decisions are ironic because they are informed, deliberately setting a precedent beyond the status quo. By facing inevitable risk in emancipatory fashion, the performer is choosing to actively rebel over the passive victimhood guaranteed by the status quo (Gothic heroines are historically passive). This counterculture resistance can be something to appreciate.
In this manner, live performers become iconoclastic images. Easily divorced from context (see: above), the performer's underlying decision only becomes clear when she is visibly confronted, thus forced to defend her position. In this street interview, the person being questioned declares that no one told her to dress the way she does. Instead, she proudly tells the interviewer she wears these clothes for herself, in spite of the sexist world she lives in telling her not to. Her performance consciously engages with a sexist audience to demonstrate positive freedom not just for herself, but anyone exploited by sexism.
The woman demonstrates this freedom in several appreciative ways. She appreciates or assigns positive value to
- making the money required to wear the clothes and wanting to showcase her wealth by wearing nice clothes.
- liking the clothes and how they look, wearing them for herself.
- advertising sexiness as a choice by choosing to display herself in an openly sexy manner.
This patriarchal, sexist control extends to the sale of actual sex: fucking. There's nothing inherently sexist about selling sex, nor the people doing it. This includes buying and selling sex, whether one is the consumer, the product, or the producer (or all three). Marginalized peoples and privileged dissidents love sex, including an anarcho-communist like yours truly (I'm a total slut, your Honor). To see what is potentially sexist (or sex-positive) about selling sex, we'll have to go in for a closer look...
Selling Sex, Fetishes and SWERFs
The sale of sex is a hotly-debated issue. So-called "working girls," for instance, were historically owned by men, leading 2nd wave feminists, specifically SWERFs, to treat sex work globally as enslavement. Under the proper conditions, however—conditions that admittedly didn't exist on a wide scale in the 1970s (or before)—the sale of sex can actually
- provide freedom of sexual and gender expression, including mutually (albeit relative) consensual fetishization
- liberate sex workers by letting them claim ownership over their bodies. By doing so, they seize the means of individual sexual image production (much of the world's sex work today is conducted online), generating wealth to improve their own material conditions. Yes, companies take a static, 20% cut, but the terms are dictated individually by sex workers who can set their own rates in a larger market. This success is relative, of course, workers being incentivized by Only Fans to earn more (with those who do so often marketing their success—i.e., the top "1% on OF" status).
So while it's a truth universally acknowledged that sex sells, it's not enough (for a Marxist) so say that most people "just enjoy sex." Rather, the heightened reliability of sex-as-lucrative is enforced through compulsory means by fetishizing targets of sexism into sex objects.
Canon as a means of control stems from the Patriarchy—specifically sexist norms ratified during the Enlightenment through the emergence of Cartesian thought: dualism, or the separation of the body and the mind. Dualism has had many sexist consequences. Chief among them is that men are framed rational and women are not. Men know best, men deserve best; they are the universal client among the worker and owner classes. This sexist division (called "the creation of sexual difference" by Luce Irigaray) is inherently exploitative—a lopsided, colonial binary that conflates sex and gender to specifically benefit the elite. It historically exploits women—or people forced* to identify as women—excluding them from the socio-sexual-economic benefits the elite reap for themselves.
*The cis-gender binary treats the man-male-masculine:woman-female-feminine dichotomy as the sole, universal state of affairs (elevating it to a natural order). Anything else is anathema, alien, worthy of attack.
Social activism is also a process that is made in steps, with earlier steps being taken by those with relative means. Cis-white women certainly had more means than more marginalized groups did at the time, but tended to make arguments that only took things so far. 2nd wave feminists not only prioritized white cis-women over other women; they generally critiqued sexist mediums or institutions that represented white cis-women as a target commodity/audience. Conversations pertaining to trans women or women of color generally had to come from elsewhere.
As a result, 2nd wave feminists didn't routinely stress queer distinctions towards individuals they themselves called "women." Simoine Beauvoir famously wrote "woman is other" in 1949, leaving others to put in the legwork for trans persons; Laura Mulvey described it specifically through the act of looking: the male gaze, illustrated not just by icons, but the cinematic gaze showing viewers what to look at (the female body) and how (voyeuristically). While a good first step towards addressing sexism in general, the rhetoric of either remains grossly inadequate regarding racism and transphobia.
What's important to note is that whether biologically female or not, those deemed women are treated as the non-subject, the sex object. Historically this has occurred in movies and books that tended to exclude trans people by default (we'll explore this more in the next section):
- making them invisible by ignoring their existence or conflating them as cis-women
- making them conspicuous by inaccurately portraying them as inhuman, often as criminals or demons
Trans or not, women are fetishized against their will, turned into sexual property. However, the same condition is applied to anyone who exhibits traditionally feminine characteristics within the colonial binary: AMAB/AFAB (assigned male/female at birth) homosexuals, crossdressers, and yes, sex workers (whose so-called "female" or "feminine" nudity is seen as vulnerable, thus deserving of exploitation within the status quo).
Sellers of sex can be workers or owners. To this, it's not the sale of sex that's bad, but the means of selling sex in ways that are unethical. The marketing of sex—vanilla, as well as kinks, fetishes and BDSM—as sold and controlled by the owner class is unethical because it takes control away from the owner of the body by making that worker's body—or images of their body—as property owned by someone else. Canon.
For example, if a cis-woman or trans woman makes an Only Fans account to own her labor, she's one step closer to owning her own body. To this, a model, photographer and artist are generally one in the same. This rationale extends to all aspects of production from a labor standpoint: diet, clothes, sets, lighting, filming and marketing. Such control is relatively ethical because the woman, even when catering to fetishists, is still vying for equality and ownership over her own body (and the labor profit it affords) within an inherently unequal system.
Conversely, if a banking company denies Only Fans the right to process credit card transactions, the elite are effectively owning the means of production, including the body of the woman and all the money she can generate with it. Consensually ambiguous activities (re: fetishes, kink, BDSM) automatically become non-consensual through unequal power relations the worker did not agree to. Called "negotiation" in BDSM language, workers do not consent to be sexually exploited by the elite, forced into coercively humiliating positions.
The difference between privatization and mutual consent is not visually immediate. Certainly the existence of non-traditional variants in sexual media affords sex workers the means to express themselves sex-positively through historically sexist language. The sexism, here, is less about content and more about a lack of mutual consent: Some people like to be humiliated, if it's their choice. However, owning the means of production constitutes not just the elite forcing workers to do sex work, then stealing their labor as profit; it includes body theft and image theft, too. It's no different, in concept, than Disney recursively treating Mickey Mouse (and other canon) as their intellectual property in perpetuity. This is called privatization, and capitalists do it by design.
As we'll see moving forward, SWERFs aren't against all sex work. Most reject unethical sex work in the abstract (sex trafficking). But many more will defend heteronormative sex roles commonly expressed through gender language (even fetishes) while also abjuring emancipatory sex work. Rather than critique Capitalism, SWERFs demonize sex workers for "enslaving" women. Unbeknownst to them, privatization, from a material standpoint, enslaves everyone, including SWERFs. On par with a prison warden giving a particular gang protection from his guards, the status quo grants SWERFs special rights for defending canon by attacking ideological enemies of the state (it also conceals the structure of state sexism and its nature as a prison).
The process is meant to discourage iconoclasts, turning marginalized groups into conspicuous targets that can be readily treated as sexual property within sex work as corporatized. Such biases makes sex work "easier" for women, in the sense that it's expected of them and they have a large customer base. It also gives SWERFs something to reliably attack. This goes to show that sexism is not uniform. AFABs who identify, thus conform, as women face less prejudice than those who don't, say nothing of persons of color or trans people (or both), let alone if they do sex work (which many do because they're poor and trying to survive).
Moreover, much of this bias is complicated by the natal and gender-performative ambiguity of the human body and its overarching signifiers. We'll explore some of these ambiguities relative to trans people and the unique discrimination they face, next; as well as asexual "ace" persons and the parallel gradient they occupy.
Asexuality and Demisexuality: Queer- and Homo-normativity in Sex-Centric Media
Heteronormativity compels erotic/reproductive sex, a process that alienates anyone who isn't a white, cis-het Christian male. For example, Beauvoir's infamous expression, "Woman is other," frames otherness within female sexuality. However, heteronormativity also alienates queer people. By likening them to sex, it anchors queerness to normalized, compulsory roles of sexual reproduction. For queer people, escaping these roles has become a fight to be heard, a "loudness war" during sexual discussions. As noisy bigots control discussions about sex, the act of having sex and feeling euphoric about it dominates sex-positive proceedings—so much so that many authors of sexuality*, myself included, often forget about the other aspects of sex-positivity and queerness: the asexual side; i.e, not having sex, or choosing to have it despite feeling indifferent about it.
*For example, even the sex-positive milestone, It's Perfectly Normal (1994), frames sexual attraction and activity as normal. Though continuously banned throughout the past three decades (even being featured on Matt Walsh's hateful polemic What is a Woman? in 2022), the book barely-if-at-all delves into people who feel sex-repulsed.
Heteronormativity tends to compels erotic sexuality inside a ludic, audio-visual scheme, so much so that American canon describes the path to sex in literal baseball terms. "Scoring" amounts to PIV sex between traditional cis-het "players" (which often results in pregnancy). For traditional "players" of American "baseball," snuggling isn't even on the board. 1st base is kissing and touching are. What's more, their existence on a numbered list heavily implies progression towards increasingly sexual activities: kissing to heavy petting to straight-up fucking.
For some ace persons, though, cuddles aren't just a surrogate for 1st base; they're home base. This happens because many ace people/semi-ace (aka demisexual or "grey ace") people prioritize gender performance* and emotional intimacy over compulsory erotic sexuality. This extends to non-normative queer persons who reject the heteronormative tropes of reproductive sexuality in canonical and counterculture stories—i.e., the neoliberal, homonormative appropriation of the "two moms/two dads" trope into a parenting scheme: gay parents raising straight children (so basic and overused as to become stereotypical "queer bait" in popular shows like The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, 2019, or Wednesday, 2022).
*In theatrical terms, performance is often thought of as "acting," denoting a fake or forced quality. However, in terms of gender, performances amounts to genuine expression of one's legitimate, authentic self—their chosen gender and orientation through various coded behaviors.
However, before we discuss asexuality and demisexuality in terms of queer-normative media (media that frames queerness in a sexual light), I want to go over the basic distinctions surrounding either. Both are orientations, denoting entire or partial asexual attraction. Conversely heteronormativity canonizes sexual attraction, reifying sexual orientations to diminishing degrees of normality. For example, a homosexual cis-man's orientation is semi-typical because, despite being attracted to other men, the attraction is still sexual. Sexual attraction—its tension, build-up and eventual release—are legion in popular narratives. The marriage, the affair, the coming-of-age kiss, etc—all exemplify sexual orientation as paramount.
Often, sexuality takes precedence even in queer narratives, often with unintended side effects. I'll briefly highlight how using The Matrix (1999) as an example. Then, I'll examine the broader ways that queer canon and counterculture alienate asexuality by normalizing sexuality in popular stories. In the two subsections after this one, I'll explore ways in which Gothic media repels these advances and how asexuality manifests in art.
Many queer narratives radicalize sexuality through a sexually queer stance: "Don't listen to these hypocrites, Neo," says Mouse from The Matrix. "To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human." By arguing that sexual impulses are intrinsically human, the speaker inadvertently dehumanizes ace people—either entirely for individuals who don't experience sexual desire at all, and partially for those who feel sexual attraction, albeit to an atypically lesser degree, or only in one particular way but not another.
Put another way, The Matrix is, at best, queer-normative—predominantly sex-centric and laden with heteronormative themes. I wouldn't attribute strict malice to the directors—two trans women outwardly presenting cis men when the film released. However, they still materialized a heavily conventional story sprinkled with queer potential that they deliberately sexualized. Likewise, while the Wachowskis' transness was and always is valid, a difference nonetheless exists between them as individuals and how they visibly appear through their work. Despite having changed visibly over time, both sisters appeared as men when The Matrix released, were credited as men, and helped materialize various heteronormative and homonormative themes in their movie.
So while the Wachowskis are and were trans, the hatching of their trans "egg" wasn't materially obvious inside a queer-normative magnum opus. The sex-centrism of their heroic story remains textually apparent despite Lana calling The Matrix a trans metaphor post hoc (saying what fans had already determined years prior). Despite the affirmation, her movie decidedly lacks an asexual focus, making heteronormative sexual arguments in monomythical language: Neo and Trinity's destined love story, sealed with a kiss (and later consummated in the sequel very erotically) through a larger hero's journey stuffed with action clichés.
Though officially "out" as trans, The Matrix' call-to-action visualizes in thoroughly sexual language. So does its enduring legacy as sexualized canon. Inspired, no doubt, by The Matrix Reloaded's (2003) infamous rave scene, future efforts like Sense8 celebrate queer existence and rebellion as united through sexual acceptance. Over and over, the message remains constant: "Queer rebels love sex." Often, group sex, apparently.
While group/solo sexual activity and rebellion is valid (this whole volume is about it), popular stories like The Matrix shape the material world that asexual persons belong to, prescribing social-sexual norms through queer-normative/potentially appropriative stories. By attempting to explore their stories as part of, or against, these norms, the rest of this subsection will attempt to illustrate asexuality and demisexuality as groups historically alienated by canon and counterculture alike. Asexual orientation is rarely acknowledged or explored in academia, let alone as central to adult-themed narratives.
Although it's possible to depict asexuality using the same basic body/social language of sexual spheres, I think the focus remains on sexuality in popular stories, even when challenged through queer counterculture. For either, "adult" means "nubile," of age/related to adult sexuality activity. For example, my dialectical analysis concerns sex positivity and coercion, but refers to variables of either in "social-sexual" terms. Because ace people exist inside sexually-dominant societies, I want to discuss asexuality in relation to social-sexual terms—less through a pure lack of sexual markers, however, and more according to what makes asexuality its own thing: reclaiming of one's body through agency as a choice to have sex or not if that's what one needs to feel empowered.
The Reapers from Black Butler (2008) illustrate this choice well. For Grell Sutcliffe, empowerment arguably comes from dressing snazzily and performing in queer ways through the thrill of sexual tension, not sexual consummation. Yes, the chainsaw is visibly phallic. However, Grell predominantly teases our heroes with it. What if doing so is entirely the point? Making their performance entirely about physical sex stymies asexual potential within queer narratives, foisting fucking onto the narrative when it should be up to the viewer to interpret the imagined outcome to all that sassy, fabulous sword-crossing.
The fact remains that sexual empowerment isn't exclusively about having sex. While queer movements often stress the reclaiming of sexuality from the patriarchy as a means of liberation, reclaiming the body as an asexual site is perfectly legitimate, too. However, whereas 2nd wave feminism and legitimate Gothic critical theory have been around since the 1970s (the latter generally regarded as an intellectual backwater until then), asexual theory remains relatively new and misunderstood within the humanities. A general misconception, then, is that ace persons don't have appetites, don't experience sexual pleasure at all, or are somehow sex-negative (against the idea of mutually consensual sex). Quite the contrary, they have appetites, but experience them within a gradient that allows them to orient along divergent lines.
I would go a step further and call these categories neuro-divergent—an robust orientation that, while certainly subject to potential change, isn't automatically going to. Rather, it manifests through self-discovery and experimentation amid changing circumstances, including the brain as neuroplastic. The aim, here, is to highlight compatibility. Normally the expression is "sexual compatibility," but asexuality is equally present in this equation, if not more so. Equally fluid, asexuality—like sexuality—pertains to bodies and brains that change over time yet have more fixated characters like hereditary components, fetishes, and trauma markers.
Therefore, it would be a mistake (and tremendous insult) to infantilize or pathologize ace people for "not liking sex" like their sexual inliers do. Not only do sexual impulses canonically manifest as childlike and violent (re: Ambrosio), but ace persons are as adult and healthy as anyone; they just don't prescribe universally to standard "adult" material—i.e., erotic sex—every waking moment. They certainly don't want to be automatically demonized for who they are and expected to change because they don't fit the standard.
This being said, asexuality manifests uniquely per person. Someone I know, for example, is grey ace. They avoid sex given the choice, because they associate it with violence—something to do to survive; and yet, they're almost vampirically allergic to cuddling as a display of affection. The end result is violent sex with strangers, which feels the best in terms of erotic pleasure, and a total rejection of sex with people they know and care about intimately. For them, the scenarios are night-and-day, but afford them relative agency based on what they know about themselves. They don't feel the need to change; it's simply who they are and they're cool with that.
All the same, they feel broken because post-coital affection is so often sold to the public as a universal love language. Their tastes and habits clearly diverge with this habit, leading to the informed consumption of media with problematic elements: guilty pleasures that cover rape and degradation as something they can consume—not because they condone abuse, but because they attain agency by revisiting trauma through fictionalized variants. In their case, an entire genre (exploitation) allows someone whose asexuality stems from trauma to make empowering decisions about what they privately consume. It parallels their ability to decline sex through the asexual aspects of their orientation.
At the same time, not all ace people are traumatized in the criminal sense. Some are neurodivergent, born literally with different brains that place them on the autistic spectrum. While existing here can be intense and differentiate them from non-autistic people, it's not an illness; it's a neurodivergent condition. So is asexuality in this context. They shouldn't have to change just to fit into heteronormative society's neat little box. So while sex is important for a great many people, it isn't transcendental. To argue otherwise is to compel sex, which leads to violence against unwilling participants.
Canon or counterculture, the presumption of sexual consumption is near-universal in popular stories. While the myth of the closeted bachelor or castrated nerd tries to sexualize ace-potential intellectuals (often with queer overtones), the function is sex-prescriptive. Though famous characters like Sherlock Holmes and Varys the Spider aren't explicitly stated as ace, the possibly is no less likely than them being gay or straight (so-called homo- or queer normativity enforcing a heteronormative role onto queer and ace characters). Sex isn't the end-all, be-all for Sherlock and Varys, who choose devote their lives towards what actually interests them: mysteries, puzzles, espionage.
It's not that either cannot be queer/ace. However, they're often assumed to be straight, or at the very least, sexual, because heteronormativity normalizes sexuality. It either sexualizing everything or focuses on sex as something that's missing or incorrect within outliers and exceptions. The fact remains, some canonical heroes feel more ace, regardless of what's said about them officially. While coding the perpetual bachelor as gay is undoubtedly standard behavior even inside queer circles, exclusively doing so denies ace people some semblance of representation. Intersectionally it makes far more sense to investigate, "Does this character actually care about sex at all?" than try to forcefully pin a sexual relationship on them. In situations where both interpretations work, vying entirely for one over the other risks breaking into unnecessary in-fighting.
These interpretations are challenged by the gradient between sexual and asexual persons. While I want to examine predominantly asexual persons, I also want to inspect "grey" or demisexual persons. My goal in doing so isn't to survey each and every variant, but introduce a parallel gradient that, while being interwoven like a helix into sexual norms and counterculture, frequently goes completely unnoticed in either circle. Their mutual alienation of asexuality comes from work within social-sexual dramas with eroticized and romanticized components. While bigots sexualize queer people, queer people also seek to liberate themselves through ironic sexualized variants.
Either case leads asexual persons to be seen as anomalous within both groups: a lack of something that is popularized by both forces as "best in life"—sex. Even Monty Python called sex "the meaning of life," its own satire echoing a regressive form of reactionary politics: tying everything to biological sites and markers, including sexual reproduction (the joke, the plot, the drama—all of these things have to be about sex; we'll see TERFs doing this in Section Four). Yet even satirizing this trend tends to focus on sex, ironically ignoring the fact that many in the queer community would rather focus on things other than sex and genitals, if only part of the time.
Sexual consensus varies within canon and counterculture. Canon tends to frame asexuality as being inherently dishonest, but also confused about and out-of-joint with their bodies (though especially their genitals) to the point that being ace amounts to simply lying about not liking sex. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), for example, reinforces virginal status as a source of shame that must be overcome with marriage and sex. It treats the revelation as tragically stalled, but obvious after the fact: Sex feels good.
The fact remains that sex doesn't always feel good. Even if it's consensual, the activities that transpire between two incompatible persons will be, at best, unmemorable; at worst, disastrous. Moreover, even if they are compatible, sex is often asymmetrically experienced and enjoyed; i.e., doesn't feel the same for both sides (simultaneous orgasms can happen, but remain tremendously oversold in canonical media). This is doubly true for asymmetrically compatible couples where one side is ace, the other not. Even if both parties are experienced, comfortable and on good terms, the ace side will experience sex differently than the non-ace side. This goes for cuddles, foreplay and the act itself.
Cash, from Heartbreak High (2022), for example, initially comes off as transphobic, rejecting the sexual advances of openly trans person, Darren. Not only does the show hypersexualize Darren's transness (which, to be fair, communicates the pent-up sexual frustrations of many trans people who cannot find romantic partners); neither Darren nor Cash understand that Cash is asexual when he only wants hugs and kisses in the bedroom. When Cash and Darren's individual needs come into conflict, neither can talk about it because they don't have the words. Their uneasy confusion comments on a larger lack of understanding and dialog about sexual incompatibility between ace and non-ace people even within the trans community (which again, thanks to queer-normalization, tends to be oversexualized).
To this, canonical and iconoclastic sexuality both enforce sex as a universal commodity. Sex compulsion within heteronormativity denies the potential for
- persons who are capable of profound human connections despite orientating as asexual, thus uninterested in the commodification of sex
- people, even sexual people, to enjoy sex purely through artistic means—i.e., partially or entirely detached from erotic bodily function or notions of courtly love, etc.
Consider the famous line by Shylock, the Jewish moneylender from The Merchant of Venice (c. 1598): "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions." Just as Jews remain equally human as Christians, ace people are no less human than non-ace people are; nor is their own humanity somehow refuted by lacking eyes, or other senses/organs, including genitals. Genitals tend to function as a humanizing marker. Whereas straight groups link gender to biological sex, queer circles tend to emphasize sexuality through body-centric language regardless of gender. So asexual people often materialize through a lack of sexual attraction or feelings, a lack of genitals often presents as queerly sexual in appropriative fiction.
Varys, for example, is both eunuchized and queer-coded. Yet his queer coding often comes off as homocentric in Game of Thrones, the writers exacting homophobic tropes they sexualize by default. While "gayness" entails far more than mere orientation (and equipment), gender performance and gender identity are also more idiosyncratic than orientation as levied through the reductive historical standard: the "instructional manual" approach to one's family jewels, even when the person no longer has them or otherwise doesn't use them "correctly." Describing Varys as "gay" or "queer" is more common that calling him ace, despite calling the asexual interpretation making more sense inside the text. Instead, he's sexually "broken," forced into the role of a chatty, sexless spymaster due to an injury, not his orientation.
While Varys' default sexualization-by-default demonstrates a tendency to sexualize people using their birth gender and sex, the haunting of one by the other, post-castration, implies larger pro-sexual biases outside of the story:
- the myth of asexuality as manmade: an inherent form of castration
- the heteronormative treatment of ace-potential men, including eunuchs, as gay through service: the protectors of cis-het palaces and their cis-het harems (whereas female castration still allows AFAB persons to sexually reproduce, just not experience sexual pleasure)
Though commonly exuded by the audience, these arguably extend to the actor himself, who performs Varys in ways that feel stereotypically gay from a visual standpoint, especially the effeminate body language and colorful attire. Meanwhile, his dialog might explain the lack genitals; it remains altogether different than stressing his asexuality as an actual presence regardless of his castration.
Despite being open about his condition, Varys feels gay in relationship to what others say about him. This includes other characters, but ultimately their dialog is written by the screenwriters. They choose the show's focus, which, regarding queerness, feels homo- and genital-centric: Queerness is homosexual and it's identified by sight, or testimonies that express his neutered status in visual terms. While playing doctor is an old means of confirming someone's in-group status or sexual purpose (expertly parodied by Jon Jolie's "Show Me Your Genitals"), Varys revealing "his gash" becomes homophobic by effeminizing his lack of genitals in a sexualized manner.
This happens inside and outside the show. Littlefinger likens Varys' "gash" to an exposed vagina, forcing standard homophobic coding onto Varys despite him not having the equipment (or inclination) for sex. However, audiences taught to recognize gayness and identify it as sexual by sight can recognize this coding. By "claiming" Varys for themselves, even gay viewers can commit possessive, territorial acts of queer acephobia that lead to marginalized in-fighting.
Apart from genitals and homosexual tropes, though, modularity poses its own categorical challenge—with some ace persons favoring romance and others casual sex, and others still liking neither but enjoying emotional vulnerability. Some treat sex like a handshake, while others see it as courtly and dear. Others still focus entirely on emotional connections (alterous) instead of romantic or sexual ones. A lack of any of these interests doesn't cheapen the individual, nor their connections with others. They simply characterize the narrative in neurodivergent ways, even if the story leans into sexualized tropes.
We'll examine some of these tropes next, including how the Gothic (and adjacent stories) allows for distinctly asexual narratives by rejecting automatic sexuality in counterculture narratives.
Pigtail Power and Gay Artists: Sex Repulsion in Gothic/Queer Narratives
Though often sexualized, Gothic stories commonly divorce viewers from sexual enjoyment, forcing them to see the world through a sex-repulsed, asexual lens. In therapeutic terms, this can be likened to "clinical detachment"—not a flaw, but a unique perspective about commonplace things (sex and gender) that remains tremendously useful in any friendship. I want to examine this phenomena in Gothic and queer narratives, namely the tropes of the female detective and the gay artist.
Before I delve into these ideas, I want to highlight the nature of asexuality within amatonormativity—narratives and relationships that socially and legally prioritize and valorize central, exclusive, amorous relationships. So while Jane Austen—a novelist renowned for her amatonormative focus—prioritized sense (reason) and sensibility (emotions) in her titular novel-of-manners, one could divorce both elements from a story of love-making and still have a profound, impactful narrative. Indeed, Austen's own stories—even her Gothic ones—do this, pointedly revolve around romantic courtship and emotional bonds, pushing physical sex to the purely imagined. Imagining sex becomes a choice, should the reader want to. If not, her novels remain utterly flush within other goodies: sarcastic italics, silly pranks, quaint gambling rituals and free indirect discourse.
Extend the same liberties to pointedly ace or demi persons. In a highly sexual world with legions of symbols interpreted in typically sexual ways, how might an ace person detach from these norms and still have something human and profound to say? Indeed, ace people have relationships; theirs are simply social-sexually divergent from the prescribed behaviors present within heteronormative canon, chiefly marriage, childbirth, and a social-sexual division of labor between a colonial binary.
Diverging from this arrangement frequently calls for a curious heroine: pigtailed female detectives dressed in black—intensely nun-like, thoroughly profane, and bored to death by prescribed love. Whether ace or grey ace, the female detective rejects compulsory sexuality (the societal endorsement of sexual desire as natural, normal and rewarded) on every register, though especially physical appearance:
Wednesday Adams from Wednesday exemplifies the female detective, vocalizing her disdain for sexual love: "I'm not like you, Mother," she says. "I will never fall in love, get married, have children." And yet, despite her solemn vow and funeral, pigtailed appearance, she's comfortably herself, repulsed socially and sexually by others. Meanwhile, her colorful, blonde-roomie (the kitten variant of a lycanthrope) is utterly distressed at the prospect of never meeting anyone: "I don't want to die alone!" the girl whines. "We all die alone!" Wednesday replies. Tears are useless, compunction a far worse ally than a deft sword hand, scrappy rejoinder or well-placed scorpion kick.
Wednesday rejects love as a prescriptive device, but still exudes an uncanny ability to bond with others, especially those who feel out of place. She doesn't cry, hug (though she eventually learns to) or wear colors; she plays the cello, writes novels, and chews the fat—the perpetual rebel enamored with Romance. A lesser story might tease a conventional relationship down the road, but Wednesday couldn't care less. Indeed, the whole story revolves around her behaviors while single, marching clearly and confidently to the beat of her own drum.
Though quick to call bullshit, Wednesday remains surprisingly moral behind the amoral veneer. She cites chivalry as "a tool for the Patriarchy" and calls the pilgrims "religious fanatics bent on genocide." And while she can't initially comfort her unhappy roommate the way she wants her to, she opts for her own brand of comfort: the brutal honesty of a sex-repulsed ace person.
To be clear, Wednesday's entirely capable of performing sex. She just doesn't except when it suits her—i.e., helps advance her asexual goals, namely the veneration of outcasts' basic human rights. And if she did make love in pursuit of these humanitarian goals, she would be totally in control, divorced from erotic euphoria (not entirely unlike Elphaba Thropp, Gregory Maguire's queer-sexualized variation of an arguably trans character, which we'll explore more in Section Five). She's the sort to keep her eyes peeled, even during sex:
Simply put, Wednesday is a social-activist sleuth who uses sex to get at the truth. Initially frigid, she ostensibly warms to a local cutie named Tyler. Unbeknownst to us, she's always on the case, and treats the school like a perpetual crime scene. This makes all her potential "suitors" subjects to be ruled out, including Tyler. Sweet and innocent, but with a violent past, he's a tough nut to crack. To get close to him, Wednesday accepts his advances, eventually kissing him(!). She weilds an excellent poker face, though, being subtly and brutally honest inside a dangerous game-inside-a-game: "You're making a mistake," she tells him, before they smooch.
Wednesday appears to be warning Tyler—to back off, thus avoid getting attached to someone who undoubtedly will break his sweet innocent heart. Only later do we learn the deeper meaning of Wednesday's words: "You're making a mistake, my enemy." Tyler isn't innocent, you see; he's the killer. By presenting himself as outwardly banal and romantic distracted, Tyler aims to woo the detective investigating his own crimes. This makes his disguise two-fold and premeditated. He knows Wednesday is trying to find the killer and is using sex to intentionally throw her off the scent. Eventually his hesitation to kill her outright leads to his downfall: Wednesday's onto him, using the same deceptions to deceive the deciever, but also the audience. Touché.
More to the point, Wednesday—an ace person—is using sex to solve the mystery in Gothic panache: fatal attraction amid a lovers' duel, where cooler heads prevail against a perfidious caller. By staying detached from carnal pleasure, she remains a better detective than her sentimental roomie. This helps her stay one step ahead of Tyler, whose powers of affection Wednesday must visibly resist. She's still human, just capable. By controlling her emotions in the dogged pursuit of truth, she triumphs, saving her own life and a great many other peoples' lives, too. I would say this happens by accident except she's always on her guard. Her family taught her to be prepared since she was young.
Though not strictly of the Gothic school, Mattie Ross from True Grit (2010) conveys similar degrees of sex-repulsion through another formulaic genre: the Western. Despite being treated like a sex object (one whose sexualization and eventual maturity is assumed and automatic), Mattie frankly couldn't care less about sex or marriage. Yes, she's fourteen and fixated on her father's revenge, but there's plenty of room for heart-winning personality and spunk. Framed as a shrewd, precocious governess, Mattie arms herself with education, money and guns; she rides with the boys and dreams of adventure.
Despite all this, Mattie cares nothing for marriage or sex when the deed is done. Instead, she grows into a spinster, vocally dismissing marriage and fondly recalling her time spent with aging gun hands and Texas rangers. She loved them like she loved her daddy: with grit. Throughout the film, the trueness of Mattie's grit is questioned, but eventually accepted by the men. Yet, despite proving herself capable in the realms of violence and assistant pathfinding, Mattie remains Mattie. She isn't Rooster Cogburn, La Boeuf, or any of the other men. However, nor is she patently "manly," undermining Queen Elizabeth's famous idea of the simple gender swap: "I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king!"
In Mattie's case, the cold spinster trope would have been historically framed as modest, gay or unattractive—the unmarried governess who raises students like surrogate children. While hardly threats to the reproductive order, the same cannot be said for the crones of "hag horror." Historically men punished women for not wanting to sleep with them. To facilitate this purge, they created moral panics, announcing their victims as a public menace: physically hideous viragos who ate babies. To this sexuality might be something to escape altogether. Unlike their coercive counterparts, though, sex-positive matriarchs teach women to fear or "repulse" reproductive sex, often with masculine bodies.
Barbarian (2022), for example, conveys sex-repulsion by presenting the hag as an Archaic Mother—an infantile, superhuman "breeding mare" that rages against patriarchal men. Here, reproductive sexuality becomes something to fear—a gruesome process inside the castle-like house, one where rape and incest extend the patriarch's counterfeit bloodline. Over several generations, the curse wanes, the weakened, dying king unable to control his latest hag. Manufactured underground, she wanders the crypt-like halls, warning the next generation against potentially dangerous men.
Here, the monster is also the victim, straining asexually to communicate a deeper horror between daughters and mothers: There is no difference to the killer, who forces teenager girls into surrogate daughterhood and motherhood. Protecting the heroine from men like the patriarch, the old hag cannot tell the difference. The heroine rightfully fears her, the hag wrong about one man, and then another, but not the last, gouging his eyes out like Oedipus Rex. Her idiotic violence denotes her as the ultimate victim, murdering a potential threat to warn the heroine of the ultimate threat: men as the abusive owners of women. So great is this abuse that the hag cannot survive, the heroine putting her down like a rabid dog.
The film is certainly over-the-top. Yet, to call it dumb would ignore the conversation it has about sexuality—something to escape from, told in sexual terms through asexual motive. Simply put, it's a complex performance, one told through lights, camera, action, but also cross-dressing and makeup. The character was played by a man covered in prosthetics:
Indeed, Barbarian's crossdressing meta-narrative mirrors pre-Renaissance art, using male models to represent women's bodies. While certainly performative, it allows for various asexual stories to be told through sexual tropes. This has all the makings of a profoundly queer-ace narrative interested in the beauty of physical form—not the veneration of sexual reproduction, but nude art and cross-dressing as asexual. Examining the behind-the-scenes for Barbarian tells another story, one that reframes sex repulsion through an asexual meta-narrative—not simply a cautionary, Gothic tale about challenging the established reproductive order, but a neurodivergent mode of being.
Before we move onto trans ambiguity as its own thing to appreciate in sexual and asexual ways, I want to briefly outline asexuality in nude art—"artistic" nudes, but also the trope of the gay artist diverging from homonormativity by relating to persons of different genders asexually.
Artistic Nudity and Asexual Relationships in Art; Gay Artists
Asexuality as neurodivergent from heteronormatively is touched on through Barbarian's behind-the-scenes. That's a meta-narrative; I wanted to highlight asexuality in textual, overtly ace/grey ace examples: the idea that nudity isn't inherently or automatically sexual and how this revelation weaves into famous narratives throughout popular fiction that often leave nudity out entirely. One trope in heteronormative stories that approaches asexuality in art is the homonormative trope of the gay artist, usually a gay man painting a female model.
First, a point about nudity in asexual works. Should it appear, ace persons tend to treat nudity in the "artistic" sense; i.e., not inherently sexual. The art in It's Perfectly Normal, for example, artistically celebrates the human body as sexually and morphologically diverse. Nevertheless, the book, despite frequently depicting the human body as a site of sexual reproduction, also illustrates it as something to appreciate unto itself—enjoyed artistically by artists/non-artists alike, regardless of how they orient:
Divorced from sexual activity, Emberley's figures demonstrate how artistic creations—when viewed independently from erotic displays, or at least erotic mindsets—can separate the human body from an artist's personal orientation or published work's stated goal. In his case, this happens even while communicating the human body with various stereotypical looks, minus the dogmatic messaging that frequently goes along with them:
- Skinny female bodies are less "charged," libidinous or fertile—unable to visually convey sexuality through nubility (which historically has racialized characteristics: the trope of the sexually voracious woman of color, explored by Jean Rys' Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966).
- Thicc, busty, female bodies are likened to fruit, ripe for plunder and fertilization.
- Skinny male bodies "lack" virility, while muscular male bodies are more sexually potent
- Disabled persons in general lack the desire or the means to have sex
Another important thing to remember is that asexuality doesn't rule out the general possibility of sexual nudity in asexual stories. In fact, few stories are exclusively about ace characters, increasing the odds that sexual attraction will be discussed or explored in some shape or form. But from a phenomological perspective, the enjoyment (or repulsion) of sex and nudity stays different per individual. Sometimes, this overlaps, leading to outright conflict or commensal arrangements (where only one party benefits, but harms neither).
Grey ace persons, for example, can have sex with someone for whom sex is profoundly erotic, while they themselves view it more indifferently—like playing cards or watching TV. Conversely, a hilarious, dialogue-heavy drama like Stein's Gate (2011) invokes rich and engaging performances, all without the heavy-handed heteronormativity of something as marriage-focused as Back to the Future (1985). There's still sexual tension in the story between certain characters, and Mayuri Shiina herself works as a busty catgirl hostess at an otaku bar. For her, the job is simply being cute, divorced from eroticization. Though she and Rintaro Okabe have a largely chaste relationship, it feels especially touching despite a total lack of sex or nudity.
Meanwhile, The Last Unicorn (1982) tells a surprisingly mature and somber tale that includes love, but remains primarily engaged with characters unconcerned with romantic, nudity or erotic love: Schmendrick cares about magic; Molly, about Robin Hood; the Unicorn, about reunion; Haggard, about unicorns. Only Prince Lear, Haggard's son, cares about sexual love, which he innocently discovers with Amalthea in her human form. Their combined tragedy involves the finding and death of romance—an intense experience, to be sure, but one that ultimately merges inside a potluck of persons relating back and forth about a great number of things.
Disparate stories like Stein's Gate and The Last Unicorn demonstrate how easily ace and non-ace people co-exist. The struggle lies not in potential, but in reminding audiences that ace experiences are just as valid and worthy of communicating inside popular stories. Forget making love, whatever happened to fucking? What about holding hands? Having one's heart race at feeling seen and understood by someone to whom they feel attracted, including non-sexual examples? Laughing at each other's misfortunes, triumphs, struggles? None of these things are mutually exclusive, but they are unique per person when relating to other people. Artistic expression should allow for all of them to exist side-by-side, not in opposition.
Furthermore, stories with ace potential invite examination of characters historically examined a particular way—sexually. However, if Tolkien's hobbits can be viewed as gay in modern times, it's hardly a stretch to see them as ace. The same potential extends to pigtailed girls-in-black, solving mysteries (the trope of the teenage detective, a la Nancy Drew); the Archaic Mother trope and various hag personas; the sexually indifferent or repulsed; or even gay artists drawing women purely for their beauty as something to appreciate asexually.
A good example of this last point is the gay artist from As Good as It Gets (1997). However, while the movie nicely illustrates an asexual scene between artist and model, it still performs this through a gay servant/artist trope: Helen knowing her watcher is an artist who won't have sex with her. There's safety and consent, helping her "loosen up" and be more sexual around her future partner, playing by Jack Nicholson.
Though not conducted through immediate sexual attraction, the scene still feels homonormative whenever the artist—ecstatically sketching Helen's body—effusively pays her cliché compliments like "You're the reason [straight] cavemen painted on cave walls!" The implication is that she, a straight, cis-woman, is where his latent gay, male inspiration erupts from. While it's certainly possible from an asexual standpoint, defaulting to a female muse without explanation remains problematic: It expects straight audiences to intuit the gay artist's asexual point of view, when in reality they'll more than likely project a heteronormative male stance on the woman's body according to the gay artist's bombastic praise. He's a gay proxy for straight eyes.
Furthermore, by making the artist homosexual to start with, the writers don't even broach asexuality as its own unique thing: nudity as not inherently sexual. Plenty of sexually-orientating artists can appreciate the male and female body without wanting to have sex with it; and while the trope of the female muse is already incredibly overused in artistic circles, just as many don't orient sexually towards the women they feature in their works. For every Pablo Picasso declaring "sex and art are the same thing," you have Derek Jarman celebrating the androgynous wonder of Tilda Swinton, and elsewhere though even less known, ace artists telling their own stories.
Regardless of whom, ace revelations occur through novel interpretation operating as a mode of experience. Be that experience personal or vicarious, opting in or out of sexuality occurs depending on subjective epiphanies: what someone learns about themselves over time. "I'm ace!" is as valid as "I'm gay!" or "I love Steve!" or "Boobs don't turn me on, but they sure look nice!" The journey and discovery therein are entirely the point.
Trans Discrimination and Ambiguity
Conservative powers funnel humans into rigidly prescriptive gender roles—roles that fascists will increasingly police through hate, emboldened by opportunistic billionaires making online spaces less safe for queer people. However, we'll explore trans genocide in Section Four. For now, let's examine the many ambiguities that make the queer community targets of genocide.
As a larger social-sexual system, heteronormativity is multi-registered, favoring a superior group over an inferior group on various levels. For example, while cis-women are coded as inferior to men (and have been for centuries), trans people are coded as inferior to cis-people, which intersects with white women liminal status as "priviliged, valuable" sex objects compared to people of color. This compound bias (and its subsequent discrimination) is cumulative, compounding if the trans person also happens to be AFAB, non-Christian and non-white.
Neoliberals and fascists handle this treatment differently. Fascists reject trans person legitimacy outright by aggressively denying them their chosen gender identities. To the fascist, a trans person is false, a woman or man pretending to be something they are not. Meanwhile, neoliberals have historically profited off transphobia, using the free market to decide "correct" ideas through "neutral" consumption ("free" meaning privately owned by the elite, whose canon they encourage the middle class to consume).
In either case, trans discrimination includes inaccurate representation through "correct" bodies (and behaviors) and "incorrect" bodies: Normal people have normal bodies, normal sex, and normal genders; trans people do not, are instead fetishized as sexual deviants, criminals and monsters (Buffalo Bill, Norman Bates, Ray Finkle) in canonical works. Disseminated through mainstream media and enforced on a societal level, this binary is ontologically prescriptive; audiences see what they are meant to be—the self as defined by objects the viewer is meant to identify with, while also reacting negatively towards objects they're meant to abject.
Hate groups and corporations encourage heteronormativity by abjecting trans people inside the minds of their target audiences. The resultant biases are lucrative—meaning they're easy for the elite to produce, maintaining the status quo for as long as possible. Even so, Capitalism is hierarchical in nature, incumbent on a sexist language system. While Neoliberals use this system to turn a profit (whether through colonies, corporations, or slave labor) anywhere and everywhere, fascism use the system to colonize itself, effectively entering a state of decay (or rather, decaying under crisis). Like a vat of toxic waste, this condition can last for years (the Third Reich lasted for twelve), but remains highly charged and dangerous throughout.
We'll examine that more in the TERF section. For now, remember that normalized people looking at sexualized imagery (canonical or not) are meant to see a fixed binary form they're meant to inhabit within amatonormative/compulsory sexual spheres. Trans persons, by comparison, are shapeshifters; they can change or deviate away from normative markers and forms. For example, one of the first signs I was trans can be found in my juvenilia. As a teen, I wrote about a shapeshifter goblin named Glenn that could turn into anything (inspired partly by Frog from Chrono Trigger). Glenn had the natal body of a short, ugly (by human standards) male goblin, but chose to turn into a green-skinned human girl. Thinking about the character in hindsight, I realized that I was trans even back then but didn't have the language for it!
However, concrete discretion and information scarcity deprives heteronormative people of critical-thinking skills (and makes trans-potential people feel stupid and alien). This faulty analysis occurs due to underlying biases encouraged by those in power—in part because mainstream canon is designed to inaccurately represent the everyday struggles, and actual identities of, trans people. Not only are consumers not trained to think critically about canonical media; they're conditioned to react violently towards individuals already demonized within these stories.
This interpretive failure happens on various levels. The author of the image can be sexist, or the gaze of the beholder can be sexist. And generally the author is someone who learned their trade by looking not just at bodies, but transphobic body imagery (a kind of fetish in its own right) repeatedly sold to them through canon. Viewers learn to legitimize themselves by defending canon, seeing trans people either as gender-confused in the process, or as monsters deserving of punishment. This includes fetishizing them as a means of social-sexual dominance, castigating them publicly but consuming them in private (see: Nick Fuentes and cat boys).
This policing isn't homogenous, but it is hegemonic—applied unevenly across various marginalized groups according to the same base concept: enforce the status quo. Under this status quo, trans people are the perpetual victims, the state of exception for which anything goes. They do not exist—becoming either fully invisible or demonized—and anything can happen to them. Like zombies, how they are abjected depends on who's abjecting them: cis-het white men or women, cis-het people of color, various religious communities with built-in stigmas towards queer people, cis-queer people, and out-and-out TERFs.
Nevertheless, trans people are not space aliens. They share the same physiological and gendered components as those attacking them (and many of them enjoy canon, albeit ironically). Consider vaginas. AFABs own vaginas because vaginas belong to their bodies, which are their own (according to natural human rights, anyways). Those in power and seeking to exploit the bodies of others will train society to interpret the human body (which can be naturally ambiguous) and their imagery (which can also be ambiguous) in highly concrete ways.
Take Ms. Chalice from Cuphead (2017): Short of looking under that skirt and checking for ourselves (which would be rude), the game cannot distinguish if Ms. Chalice actually owns a vagina, let alone how they identify (despite being called "Miss," a title is not explicitly one's gender, the possible exception being Mug Man—a reference to Mega Man, a highly sexist series in its own right). Regardless, the characters are coded as male/man and female/woman according to their performative aspects (their clothes, body language and makeup).
If we wanted to be descriptive, here, we would need to allow all possibilities to occur, not just prescriptive ones. What if Ms. Chalice was an AMAB trans person, and Cuphead and Mug Man were AFAB trans persons? This playing with body language might seem minor, but it remains inherently deconstructive, thus iconoclastic. To merely change the heroes' presumed genitals without changing anything else about them would generate a considerable amount of gender trouble all by itself. Sexist norms would be threatened because sexist systems leave no room for nuance.
For example, if Ms. Chalice wears a dress, they must have a vagina; if they have a vagina, they must do their duty (to have babies); if they refuse or don't have a vagina, they must be a traitor or an impostor. The problem is, impostors can depicted in a plethora of ways: the transphobic trope of the rapacious man-in-disguise, the homophobic trope of the gay pedophile, the misogynistic trope of the man-hating lesbian. These slurs are legion, but all serve the same, underlying goal: Defend the status quo.
Sex-positive individuals are faced with a colossal problem: Canonical bodies belong to an institution that colonizes everything around it, discouraging iconoclasm in favor of so-called "perfect" bodies. This means that whatever utopian paradigm shift we want to impose has to occur within the means and materials of society as it exists presently (we'll examine this concept briefly for the moment, then examine it more fully in the "Bridging Gaps" section).
The canon of the present uses ambivalent imagery that I, as iconoclast, seek to alter. I don't want to ban the use of sex, for example; I want to change how it's perceived. As chapter so far has illustrated, the historio-material function of these complicated symbols—specifically when utilized by state agents and capitalists forging American propaganda—is often sexist. However, it doesn't need to be. Even so, we've yet to explore in greater detail how moderacy treats iconoclastic alternatives. This judgement includes those who corporations historically pander to: cis-het men, but also moderate feminists.
Sexist men are the obvious, traditional example. For instance, sexist male gamers function as entitled clients. In believing that videogames are made exclusively for them, Gamergate types think that videogames should be made a particular way. Whenever they aren't the center of attention, they act slighted or betrayed by companies who dare to cater to other demographics in search of profit. This includes corporate appropriation. Fascist men can't tell the different between moderate feminism and genuine sex-positivity.
The reason for this conflict is that capitalists (those in power) care about profit, first and foremost. Fascists often desire power but do not have it; they view profit as secondary to the means of population control: rigid social hierarchies that control sex and gender. As such, male gamers not only vote with their wallets through canonical indignation; they perform the conservative online grift of acting besieged, fostering attitudes surrounding canonical media and who should be making it. This includes the act of overcorrecting any corporate media that attempts to appropriate sex-positive themes: reactionary sexism as a return to tradition, one that fetishizes the girl boss by turning her into a hypersexualized worker that pleases male clients in the most cartoonishly ways possible:
However, fascist men aren't the only source of reactionary angst. Neoliberalism allows moderate feminists to be sexist, too—TERFS, but also a variety artistic slogans and symbols of "equality" to channel bigotry-in-disguise: appropriated feminism as a kind of disguise, wellspring and stonewall. This lineage of moderate deception, proliferation and inertia can be reviewed across older generations of feminism, which were (and are) regressively more racist, homophobic and transphobic. Any victories they gained are also fraught with compromise—moderate concessions that ideologically reject positions more radical than themselves. While neoliberalism is already genocidal, its moderate concessions lead to fascism and overt genocide.
Section Four: TERFs, Fascism and Genocide
Before we proceed, a note about moderacy: Over the next five subsections, we'll examine moderacy as it ties to social-sexual activism. We'll start with TERFs, outlining their deceptive/fascist nature before examining how it, along with their endless consumption—of war pastiche and neoliberal dogma—continuously informs TERF centrism; from there, we'll move onto enbyphobia in binary trans women, NERFs; and lastly we'll explore the role of the girl/queer boss in selling war and how to respond to it differently than TERFs do: in a sex-positive way.
Note: Out of these five subsections, the next three cover deception, pastiche and stonewalling as it ties to TERF behavior. Like neoliberalism and fascism, these are not discrete categories; they intersect and must be discussed interdependently as part of a larger issue. Each subsection will try to illustrate this reality while focusing on a primary topic.
TERFs, or Fascism-in-Disguise
As stated during the introduction, TERFs are fascists-in-disguise. Described as such by Judith Butler, the genderqueer icon notes how TERFs are "one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times." They will not be there to help, but commit genocide against trans people as a marginalized group. Indeed, as cryptofascists, TERFs deceptively posture as moderates under neoliberalism, an ideology that aids and abets the very reactionary abuses Butler fights against: "racism, nationalism, xenophobia, [carceral] violence, [femicide and the] high rates of attacks on trans and genderqueer people." TERFs commit all of these through a variety of disguises and deceptions, which we'll explore now.
The biggest disguise that TERFs use is the feminist label—false feminists posing as "radical." False feminism can take many forms. While the remainder of this chapter focuses on female TERFs, a brief word about male TERFs: Moderate feminism disguises reactionary politics by appropriating bodies through an inclusive façade. Whether male or female, it then adds further disguises to the already moderate mask and reactionary core, sporting concentric veneers than lean further and further left. We'll explore these "gobstopper masks" more in the NERF subsection. For now, just know that TERF "false feminism" extends to cis-feminists of either biological sex (while excluding intersex people, of course).
Like their female counterparts, male TERFs act in bad faith. This stems from dogmatic ideologies funded from the top down. Sexist dogma and Capitalistic hegemony intertwine through materialized ideals that advertise the arrangement. In turn, the benefactors of Capitalism financially incentivize TERF habits, empowering individual agents by granting them the basic means to make trouble. It doesn't need to be an explicit agreement if the ideology and structure are already in place; the entire relationship can be plausibly denied regardless of what occurs. Meanwhile, TERFs thrive on obfuscation—muddying the waters through reactionary "leftism." Just as emancipatory feminism interacts to varying degrees with artistic expression and various workers' rights, reactionary abuse also intersects through multiple comorbidities.
For example, Ian Kochinski truly runs the toxic gamut, a
During the debate, Kochinski carefully frames his racism as "reasonable," but also "not actually racism" by dressing up his reactionary outrage in moderate language. Such disguises didn't stop Kochinski's fans from harassing Flowers for months while Kochinski looked other way. That's the whole point: to create an unsafe environment for activists that doesn't immediately announce itself. By sporting multiple disguises, suppressing activism, and collaborating with open reactionaries, Kochinski highlights the general TERF MO at an individual level. At the systemic level, Neoliberals cover for fascists, which cover for Capitalism through a tenuous, complicated alliance of perfidious, multilayered distractions. The elite require these distractions—and the complex socio-economic circumstances that bring them about—to hold onto power.
Under Capitalism, the elite treat wear as a means to an end: efficient profit and infinite growth through mass exploitation. This invariably leads to the cultural and literal deaths of entire peoples (often along ethnic, but certainly cultural, lines). For profit to continue, war must pass prolonged moral scrutiny through complex concealment. Not only must the elite use Liberalism (fighting for democracy and freedom) and neoliberal illusions/dogma (war is a business that keeps America strong, thus prosperous for everyone) to conceal genocide from activists; they must conceal Capitalism's inherently instability as a genocidal system structured around vertical power.
When Capitalism inevitably enters crisis, neoliberals shift blame from the elite onto a conspicuous destroyer persona: fascism (or Communism, which we'll explore in the Bridging War subsection). Imperialism does this easily enough against foreign enemies. However, fascism's violent dogma isn't relegated to faraway lands; it appears domestically within disgruntled, often privileged, workers. These malcontents include soldiers, but also business owners, landlords, actors, and so on. They must be disguised while still being able to do their jobs. However, classic fascism cannot disguise these groups effectively because it abjures female warriors and executives by consigning AFAB people to women's work (cooking, cleaning, childbirth and sex). To compensate, neoliberalism hides fascism by appropriating feminism at home as grafted onto cultural exports with moderate personas: TERFs.
Moderacy conceals reactionary cores, the former being discarded in times of crisis, but also retreat. When moderacy is in effect, TERFs use their expanded rights and material advantages to whitewash war. Predicated on vengeful dogma dressed up in sensible manners, TERFs use neoliberal moderacy to
- conceal open fascism on the homefront
- disguise war, genocide and "peace through strength" as reasonable positions to uphold
All the while, they demonize a non-violent group: trans people.
By presenting violence as reasonable, TERFs meet trans people with varying degrees of condescension and open force. In doing so, they weaponize feminism to attack the elite's political enemies. While this extends to anyone whose politics aren't bourgeois, the TERF focus remains on trans people. Adopting girl boss (or male ally) personas to gaslight and gatekeep them with, TERFs gatekeep gender and sexuality more broadly through a cis-supremacist stance that centralizes cis white women.
Let's examine cis-supremacy as something to disguise—which TERFs help achieve—before looking into the larger geopolitics. First, TERFs remain cis-supremacist even when sanitized by corporations. Many are materially elevated, hence look normal, safe, and Americanized. Even so, moderacy merely hides more severe forms of control and dogma: fascism. When moderate, TERFs are effectively "mask-on" cryptofascists. But even reactionary TERFs still wear a mask—"half-on," you might say. This is because fascism achieves its goals through deception and normalized violence. So does neoliberalism. Both conceal and normalize genocide. They just do it differently. In Gothic terms, they abject genocide, spouting a ceaseless deluge of material and rhetorical deceptions across American politics at home and across the world. Only when total war becomes acceptable does the mask fall away entirely.
In either case, canonical indignation remains the universal response to emancipatory activism. Moderate TERFs simply operate in a more selectively vindictive and tempered manner than reactionary TERFs (who lack the moderate veneer), favoring moderate condescension over open aggression when punching down against trans people. However, there's no concrete line dividing neoliberalism and fascism. Neither is a political party but an ideology expressed through material conditions across a broader socio-economic spectrum. Through this spectrum, the two historically exploit the world as covert business partners. While fascism tends to sit inside neoliberalism (which owns the means of production), both disguise parallel motives through idiosyncratic obscurantism: Some have power and some seek power. This overlap leads to a continuous outpouring of visual chaff: disguise pastiche.
Disguise pastiche isn't intrinsically canonical. Ironic consumption and production, for example, disguise ulterior sex-positivity to conceal themselves from bourgeois reprisals. However, pastiche in broader material terms includes fascism and neoliberalism, which both engage in activism suppression maneuvers disguised as canonical indignation and self-defense. Modern cryptofascists include the so-called American Patriotic Socialists. Like those weirdos, TERFs offer "false revolutions" (a core component of fascism) that help detract criticism against bourgeois power while hijacking socialist language, rendering it critically inert.
Those with more privilege perform fascism against those with less, party leaders or capitalists pitting reactionary workers against even more vulnerable targets, all in the name of old money and power (fascism is historically enabled by billionaires, a narrative playing out in real-time through Elon's normalization of fascist rhetoric on Twitter). Just as mutual consent isn't self-explanatory and requires context through dialectical analysis, so do the many disguises of fascism-inside-neoliberalism. Material conditions beget history as a series of disguises. When studied, these remain ambiguous in ways the elite can reliably use as a personal cloaking device. Kind of like Where's Waldo? except for the bourgeoise hidden by Nazis (which, as the rest of the chapter shall explore, are endemic to capitalism) hidden by the bourgeoise.
The fact remains that the elite have always owned the means to expose fascists and prevent war. Instead, they globalize war to capitalize off its genocidal borders. In neoliberal terms, this prolonged exploitation relies on several factors: the veneer of self-superiority pitted against an essential foe (fascism), and a game partner who will throw in the towel by starting a war they cannot hope to win (the Axis powers, for example, lacked the material means to defeat the Allies). This grand exchange isn't strictly agreed upon in advance; it flows around giant power structures (nation-states), unfolding organically between hegemonic capitalists improvising alongside their lesser counterparts outside of the United States. Like a jazz solo.
Also like jazz, the ensuing chaos is less random than it appears. Through the theater of war functioning as yet another disguise, the American elite (then and now) posture as the Greater Good (a model codified in comic books during WW2, leading to the so-called "myth of the Good War," which Saving Private Ryan  helped rescue shortly before the War on Terror began). They then offer their evil enemies a de facto position: to be the punching bag of a bigger, better equipped bully. While this might seem like a raw deal, fascist leaders and rogue dictators (CIA plants) escape brutality by exploiting their workforce. By turning workers into soldiers (a form of militarized labor) who can die for a cause, the elite (on either side) enjoy the material benefits reaped from worker exploitation.
As the collective beating unfurls on the global stage, war becomes something to sell in various forms—raw military goods, but also through militarized artwork. This commercialization of war helps ensures that global US hegemony continues through Imperialism as something to whitewash through neoliberal propaganda. Neoliberals disguise fascism by
- hiding its function inside a large material system: the logical byproduct of Capitalism-in-crisis
- framing American Imperialism as the exclusive "better" option
As crisis nears—which it invariably will—social-sexual activism becomes something to recooperate. This includes feminism. By using feminism as a disguise, the elite further global hegemony behind a false variant appropriated to serve bourgeois needs: TERFs.
As bad faith performers, TERFs can present as mask-on, half-on, or mask-off; as urbane neoliberals, vengeful fascists or some in-between variant. Even so, the covert practices of either ideology vary by degree and flavor, not function: to defend and conceal the elite's continued material advantage. TERFs tend to be moderate, adopting neoliberal dogma and centrist argumentation (more on this in another subsection) to appear normal on the outside. The Boys critiqued this material reality by having Stormfront appear as female. The showrunners' aim wasn't to achieve "equality" by letting girls play Nazis; they were showing how Nazis operate in neoliberal spheres, concealing themselves by fooling the audience: with the moderate material language of appropriated inclusivity.
Stormfront's deception cautions against fraud: Once fascism formalized, she would merely drop the act—surrendering her active, heroic role to become Homelander's Nazi broodmare (two man-made, procreating super beings straight outta Victor Frankenstein's nightmare). She's not trying to preserve the status quo; she wants to push it further to the right.
To be clear, not all TERFs are closet Nazis patiently for their moment to discard a top-layer and dismantle human rights wearing their true form. Many buy into the good-versus-evil schtick as unironic consumers, embracing neoliberalism's assigned values first-and-foremost. In either case, intent doesn't matter, material outcome does. First, whether moderate or reactionary in rhetoric, TERFs continuously defend Capitalism and war as the rational position through their political positions, which their artistic purchases/creations laterally endorse. Meantime, these actions serve as political action disguised as neutral consumer activity.
Second, all TERFs scapegoat trans people, levying condescension and open aggression against them. This selective retribution places TERFs within a larger structure that commits, tolerates, or encourages active genocide on the world stage—often through acts of revenge dressed up in righteous, Enlightenment-era dialogue. To maintain their role in this collective charade, TERFs employ obscurantism through transphobic prejudice with dogmatic origins (trans women are "men playing dress-up"). In this sense, they presents themselves as "true activists," and sex-positive individuals as perfidious rabble-rousers harmful to "true women everywhere." For TERFs, trans people constitute a "fake" category, while the artists who illustrate them (erotic or otherwise) undermine the status quo through cultural appreciation: Draw Ms. Chalice with a penis and you erase "actual" women.
In other words, TERFs antagonize sex-positive iconoclasts through DARVO obscurantism They abuse others, gaslighting and gatekeeping them from a position of feigned persecution—playing the victim. For example, while iconoclasm generates gender trouble through reverse abjection, many out-and-out sexists call this process "political." Unlike Hernando from Sense8, TERFs devalue emancipatory politics by denouncing "TERF" as a slur against them, a false witch hunt they can codify through unequal material conditions aligned with heteronormative power. By silencing alarms about their harmful behavior, this is just another disguise, one often presented in more benign language: gender-critical "feminism."
On the surface, TERFs demonize emancipatory activism for simply being wrong. In truth, this goes far beyond simple disagreements. To suggest otherwise is—you guessed it—yet another mask, and that's exactly what TERFs do. By presenting themselves as "merely disagreeing with trans people" through competing ideas, TERFs are pointedly distracting the public from their true aim: to exterminate trans activism, thus erase trans people, defending the status quo from worker liberation as a material threat. There is no compromise regarding ideas that are mutually exclusive. Fascists and anti-fascists cannot co-exist because fascism installs a hierarchy that intentionally kills a select group inside of itself.
TERFs don't merely disguise themselves. They obfuscate social-sexual activism into a poisonous form. By framing trans people as bad actors inside a reasoned debate, TERFs either rob them of legitimacy by calling them mentally unsound, or display them as harmful outsiders (usually some kind of invader threat: zombies, demons, aliens, bugs, etc). By removing trans agency and painting a target on them, TERFs invite violence against trans people, opening them up to increasingly brutal (and disparate) forms of self-defense by bad-faith feminists. It makes no difference whether TERFs swing the cudgel or look the other way while someone else does; they still encourage systemic violence through intrinsically dishonest means backed by capital.
Consider the TERFs of Great Britain (aka TERF Island). J. K. Rowling is their chief, the corporate girl boss claiming to speak for "all women" (including trans men). Not only is this a lie; Rowling appears strong and TERFs love her for that, including how she spreads bias through widespread, unchecked media visibility (novels, movies, tweets). In doing so, Rowling and her followers frame trans people (and the sex symbols that represent them) as inherently false, gaslighting them by downplaying the abuse as a "simple disagreement," not actual genocide. TERFs will even court known fascists to facilitate this myth—teaming up with strange bedfellows against a perceived "Greater Evil" to defend "true feminists'" hard-fought "gains" (the "This is as good as it gets" argument).
To this, TERFs self-deceive, disguising their own killers. It doesn't matter that fascists will eradicate TERFs once they are in power. Fascism cannot tolerate anything that threatens their racist, sexist, xenophobic dogma, but TERFs fail to realize this for the same reason that all agents of fascism do: Like neoliberalism, fascism lies to those it professes to aid, destroying them in the process. Though not a Marxist, Foucault likened this process to an Imperial Boomerang and it starts with the promise of great rewards. Over time, the structure gradually colonizes itself, starting with the most marginalized—an underclass—and gradually cannibalizing its own soldiers, from most to least marginalized.
All fascists are victims of fascism, including its fatal promise of endless strength. Polite, urbane, deliberate—TERFs are fascists-in-disguise; they might think themselves safe, fighting for true equality through reasoned arguments (i.e., Rowling: "women are a biological class" is on par with "the moon isn't made of cheese") and appropriative brand recognition. This selective shell of reason won't keep them safe from fascists; it isn't actual armor that can deflect bullets or knives—more like armor in the Radcliffean sense: swooning in the face of danger to protect a fragile mind from obliteration.
This self-destruction originates from emulating vengeful strength. Because TERFs idolize strength, they hate sex positivity more than they hate open fascists. Both ideologies view the present through the esoteric language and outmoded symbols of an imaginary past (what fascists call "greatness"): a warped fantasy doesn't intersect with the dialectical complexities of the here-and-now. It's precisely this here-and-now that must be considered when being an iconoclast—phrasing sex symbols and gendered language descriptively and appreciatively to foster empathy towards marginalized groups.
This being said, bodies (or images of bodies) can be interpreted as representing actual persons according to ideologies that fundamentally disagree on shared language—especially gendered terms like "men" and "women" (to the point that non-binary transactivists will deliberately say "transmasc" or "transfemme person" instead of trans man or trans woman). With this kind of duality in effect, someone's politics can be incredibly difficult to ascertain according to their outward appearance, all but requiring picket signs to spell things out. For the sex-positive protestor actively punching up, this can actually make them a target of moderate-directed reactionary violence punching down:
TERFs love strength, seeing themselves as the victors who won the war. They want actual activists to examine sexualized media through their lens: "the correct way." However, as stated during the introduction, there's a difference between being correct within the norms of a particular group and being correct according to the idea that people have basic human rights. Fascist hierarchies are incompatible universal human rights. As a result, TERFs gatekeep trans activists because most trans people believe that human rights apply to everyone (excluding NERFs, but more on them in a bit).
The sex positive iconoclast recognizes that sexualized media can be ethical—i.e., can uphold the rights of everyone while also being sexy at the same time. Certainly it's not a human rights violation to like sex, or to even advertise sex as something fun; it is a human rights violation to induce compulsory heteronormativity in bad faith. By endorsing the racial and sexist pseudoscience of fascists, this is precisely what many TERFs embody (even if they are cis-queer)! However, their compulsion also results from sexist norms in popular media that go beyond the obvious examples.
TERFs treat overt sexism as something to reject. While that's certainly a good starting point, their activism promptly stops there. Rather than accurately represent marginalized groups, TERFs abject the consequences of their moderacy onto foreign targets. They do this by voting at the ballot or with their wallets, endorsing a sexist Superstructure through the intersection of political action and material diet. Said diet embraces ideological habits pandered to by neoliberal appropriation: the girl boss, specifically the noncorporate "war boss" form popularized through war pastiche.
Sexism under Capitalism is warlike; TERFs frequently adopt this warlike attitude through girl bosses. While the corporate girl boss personifies corporate, political and public leadership with geopolitical ties, the girl war boss competes through team-based displays of strength. In doing so, she actually kills enemies of the state and of corporations (specifically targets of US neocolonialism, becoming neoliberal/fascist canon in the process). For this reason, TERFs love her. She is strong and cis, another disguise to hide their bigotry behind while also abjecting genocide behind the normalized consumption of war.
We'll explore girl bosses' explicit relationship to selling war in another subsection, including queer appropriation. For now, just remember that iconoclastic art has to be more than "empowering" in the way TERFs generally view power—not through the individual agency of capable team players that serve the elite, but as something that exposes elite abuse through these same actors. In doing so, iconoclasts can demonstrate how canonical war appropriates teamwork, using the competitive language present in war pastiche to discourage cooperation against the powers that be: a united worker front, historically called rebellion.
For example, an iconoclast can't just show a woman with a sword killing an orc, demonstrating her team as good and the orc's team as bad; they have to tell the story of the entity described as an orc as it actually existed—as a worker, a slave, a subject to imperial rule. In other words, the past, present and future oppressions of a human people need to be described. For this to happen, there need to be good orcs and goblins—meaning, sadly, victims of US Imperialism (aka, "the highest form of Capitalism"). D&D doesn't allow for this, structuring racial conflict along moral lines that players police through violent competition.
Now that we've outlined how TERFs disguise fascism, including its relationship to neoliberalism and genocide, let's examine the TERF relationship to all of these things commodified: as dutiful consumers of war pastiche.
War pastiche parallels political stances on actual war as something to parade in front of viewers (who, in turn, parade their relative wealth by showing canonical media not as something to criticize, but to flaunt and endorse). Not all TERFs love war pastiche the same, but their general attitudes mirror some of its most famous examples. We'll examine some of those now.
War pastiche exploded in the 1980s under Reagan. After the Cold War, the Soviet Union collapsed after adapting neoliberal policies post-Destalinization. Emerging the "clear victors," American became free to remake history through the materialization of increasingly vague and cartoonish bad guys: an endless chain of made-up villains that American civilians could fight at any age, acclimating new generations to future wars. As a concept, war became perpetually commodified and celebrated, presented by America the reasonable course of action. TERF mentalities grew alongside them, a moderate feminism forged through neoconservative war.
Moderate expansion owes much to neoliberal dogma, chiefly the binary of teamwork to enforce us-versus-them thinking enacted through violence. Actions aren't moral, teams are. This grants the good team free reign—to kill, enslave or otherwise abuse the bad team with impunity. Far from abstract, this ideology actively materializes through consumer goods: canon, which that parallels larger material realities present within the status quo. TERFs genocide trans people by abjecting and attacking them, all while consuming media that promotes a similar genocidal mentality in fantastical stories.
These stories parallel American Imperialism and its geo-politics. For example, paramilitary agents monopolize violence to ensure state control, performed by police officers on domestic grounds or by mercenaries on foreign soil. In either case, the inhumane, illegal nature of their actions (except in police states, which legalize police abuse) "veil" the state of exception as shielded by valorous language. TERFs will celebrate this worldview, calling it "as good as it gets" with their wallets; iconoclasts will call it like it is—a monopoly they can expose, thus critiquing Capitalism's perpetual sale of war on all fronts, including toys, TV shows and videogames (we'll explore neoliberal videogames more fully in another chapter).
These conversations occur through a gradient of political purchases. Fascist reactionaries lament moderate consumerism as the Liberal betrayal of traditions, while moderacy laments sex-positive emancipation as a betrayal of compromise. Both stances are canonical, materializing through mainstream consumer goods consumed uncritically. In seeing these goods take non-traditional shapes, however, fascists and moderates will respond with relative canonical indignation, announcing as loudly as they can that someone to the left of them is hypocritically consuming entertainment with war inside it(!): Fascists will shout, "Look at those moderates, playing soldier!" However, both they and moderates will collectively denounce iconoclasts: "Look at those doves, playing with soldiers!"
The problem is, neoliberalism injects war into most products, often to sexualized extremes. Yet even iconoclasts can privately and ironically enjoy war pastiche. This includes watching warrior barbarians or space pirate ladies kicking ass—either through out-and-out guilty pleasures, but also war allegory that humanizes sexy rebels: anti-war/-totalitarian stories like The Terminator (1984) or Star Wars (1977). What iconoclasts will not do is unironically endorse canonical war, including girl bosses' moderate function within said canon: as personifying military action levied against real-world groups deserving of colonial retribution.
That's the difference between Corporal Ferro in The Terminator compared to Corporal Ferro in Aliens (1986). Same name, same Vietnam helicopter pilot helmet, same director, and both are killed onscreen. However, the context for their struggle is radically different: One is a mute, desperate freedom fighter combating systemic oppression under totalitarianism; the other is a snarky military pilot, spitting catchy one-liners while upholding neoliberal revenge on the fantasy plane. For sex-positive people, though, Aliens is a guilty pleasure because it's tremendously exciting despite its poor disguise* (as Vietnam propaganda). Simply put, it's fun to watch... provided you turn off your brain and don't think too hard about what the characters actually represent.
*Like Heinlein before him, James Cameron hides the Red Scare rhetoric by disguising the Communists as killer bugs from outer space. Cameron admittedly loved Star Wars but curiously excised its anti-totalitarian allegory. Top Gun: Maverick (2022) would repeat this formula 36-years later. Communism stripped of its real-world iconography (called displacement, which I explore in my chapter about Cameron's military optimism).
Beyond guilty pleasures, TERFs and iconoclasts differ in what they consume/create as it ties to views on strength and sexuality. This includes historically fetishized content tied to war, like sexy orc women. To be sex-positive, an artist will need to recognize and correct the historically racist trope behind* demonically sexualizing persons of color (which orcs represent). They can do so by humanizing orcs and other go-to war villains, reverse-abjecting them through descriptive and appreciative language. This won't take away the iconoclast's ability to feel sexy or turn them into less of a person; it does make them less TERF-like, hence less racist, xenophobic and fascist (all qualities that unironic war pastiche helps encourage).
*Oft-times, problematic historical markers are obscured through decades, if not centuries, of consumption. The so-called "ghost of the counterfeit" is that which haunts something that has largely become a series of increasingly neutral copies: Orcs are the historical targets of the state canonized in fictional media like D&D and LOTR.
While these types of intersectional, anti-war analyses remain difficult for TERFs to stomach, their personas of strength can still outwardly resist coercion. This yields various ironies that set them apart from out-and-out fascists. For example, while a TERF won't enjoy being a pinup-style "war Barbie," she probably won't think twice about being a classy swordswoman. The reason owes itself to performative sexism, but also an assimilation fantasy that amounts to class elevation: an aristocratic woman-of-means with a killer hat-pin or rapier that acts violent towards criminals (the poor) or cartoonishly obvious sexists (old-timey oil barons, Marlon Brando, Don Draper, etc).
However—and I know this from experience—TERFs can tolerate less gentrified personas with more sexualized components. They might not actively relish a strict pin-up of a traditionally sexy orc woman, but will happily embrace one that's more "correct" according to their bellicose standards; i.e., if the orc (or redheaded, alcoholic, lusty barbarian: a racist Celtic trope perpetuated by the English) is unquestionably sexy-but-tough. Here, the TERF will mark her for a tomboy (or butch lesbian) and probably not complain—especially if she looks like a savage, brutal fighter. My ex called this status "being capable," a person who can handle their shit; in neoliberal language, this means enforcing US foreign policy (the money for all those toys has to come from somewhere).
In war pastiche, TERFs love to endorse orcs because they reinforce the myth of the "violent savage" through a kind of middle-class slumming: normalizing police violence by performing as violent people of color who need policing (see: every Blizzard game ever). It maintains the status quo similar to Ripley vs the xenomorphs or Samus vs the space pirates. It's literally cops-and-robbers or cowboys-and-Indians thinking dressed up as "pure" (meaning "dislocated") fantasy. Us-versus-them.
I keep empathizing "us-versus-them" because TERFs purchase appropriated feminism in bad faith. In doing so, they preach equality from an uncritical position of gatekeepers that use systemic conflict to maintain the status quo (and its material inequalities) everywhere. As centrist thinkers, TERFs "centralize" conflict by equalizing both sides—not in appearance, but as part of a rigged system they support through continuous purchases. Keeping in line with the TERF tradition of disguise, the free market they endorse is merely another lie—one told through war pastiche that invariably maintains order through conflict as something to sell. These stories parallel state apologia, which conceals or downplays exploitation—outright genocide, for non-citizens, and a police state (to varying degrees) for citizens.
War pastiche has good teams and bad. TERFs and fascists, despite appearing different, are actually on the same team: team bourgeoise. While TERFs hate their assigned enemies (fascists) performatively, they openly despise anyone who undermines their orderly view of conflict as a structure. This is why you see TERFs (usually middle-class women) punching down at trans people; the elite have instilled TERFs to divide and conquer through a deliberate, prescribed fear of the underclass. This fear manifests inside popular centrist media (much in the same way racism works in America, the state; or how xenophobia works in American geo-politics the world over).
"There is no outside of the text." Indeed, centrism bounding from war pastiche amounts to a reactionary stance because it denies actual change in favor of perceived change: propaganda victories. For TERFs, these "victories" are enough. Sadly such "wins" are bogus: As the state passes policies that rob people of their human rights, capitalists paper over these abuses with neoliberal illusions: centrist myths that depict everything as fine, which become the normal way to perceive things beyond our regular scope of vision. These stories present their victories as somehow translating to real life, when really they just keep things the same by whitewashing societal inequalities perpetuated by the elite.
For example, Junker Queen—aka Odessa Stone—becomes queen of Junkertown by defeating its patriarch in gladiatorial combat, touting some kind of "special victory" that trickles down for everyone around her. It's literally bread-and-circus pastiche, changing nothing at a systemic level: Odessa is queen of the arena and the arena isn't going anywhere. Her tenure isn't going to change anything because her desire to be violent through team-based gladiatorial sports is a defining part of her character. It's literally her character's ludic role in Overwatch 2.
Now that we've outlined war pastiche in relation to TERFs, let's explore the nature of this pastiche through Odessa—as a mechanism that leaps from Captialism and its dominant ideologies: neoliberalism and fascism. Odessa is a girl war boss, a blend of fascist and neoliberal ideas through appropriated feminism. She demonstrates the fact that, while TERFs tend to present as moderate, they will only do so until Capitalism enters crisis; this crisis happens through frontier/colonial war as the unstable venue of endless profit, exploiting vulnerable parties on the geo-political stage. Brutal mercenaries like Odessa play a vital role in this process, recursively initiating war through vengeful original stories.
While Odessa embodies the contract killer with an axe to grind, she postures as a "feminist" liberator uplifting Junkertown from patriarchal rule. This liminal stance tracks with how neoliberals and fascists "argue" on how to articulate war, largely differing through presentation. Neoliberals favor the Greater Good argument; fascists fabricate betrayals and demand revenge. Under Capitalism, each ideology mythologizes home defense against a variety of recursively manufactured enemies, often to absurd (and vague) extremes. This absurdity extends to the "defenders," who walk the line between self-defense and pre-emptive aggression. Defense of the nation always leads to genocide through abjection of a total enemy.
Odessa checks all of these boxes. First, offers Junkertown a sacrifice, ousting the wicked king for the Greater Good. Becoming its much-touted savior, she continues her revenge killings at and around Junkertown, wearing her "accomplishments" as war trophies—an act Blizzard deliberately whitewashes by having Odessa dress in abstract gore, cartoonish metal skulls that help disguise her genocidal nature: a violent killer who slaughters the wasteland's indigenous population. Butchering "feral" people endemic to a foreign, "desolate" place, Odessa is an avatar of death who wears her victims bones. What's more, she passes herself off as "one of them," a "white Indian" strapped in leather, covered in spikes, and swinging knives and axes. Through this native persona, Odessa seeks to transform the land by developing it away from its natural state through an improved version of the Junker King's arena: hers.
Not only is Odessa a caricature of racist, genocidal vaudeville; she's explained to have had no choice in carrying it out. Exiled by an evil king at a young age, Odessa takes to her newfound role as a willful, hungry scrapper. Eventually claiming the top dog rank through brute force, she survives to avenge her exiled family's death, killing the Wastelanders responsible and revenge killing a great deal more through collective punishment (on par with John Brooder from Bone Tomahawk).
While this violent past serves to explain her racialized bloodlust, the game displaces human racism by having Odessa discriminate against a robotic underclass inside a system of competitive persecution. When Odessa eventually triumphs, she replaces the king as the system's top-performer. She inherits his arena and its bards, who praise her victory in ways not unlike Lord Humongous or Immorton Joe: through rock and roll. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss..." As such, Odessa triumphs in a world where only the strong survive.
Odessa's no liberator, though. Instead, her origin story presents an imperial whitewash, the "colonist" having settled "empty" land (robots are not animals, let alone people); in doing so, she scapegoats anyone rightfully against the state, the colonized "omnics" presented as pure, "feral" evil that must be completely destroyed. By proudly celebrating Odessa's origin story as an unrivaled, genocidal slayer—one who is unapologetically racist—Blizzard appropriate girl-boss feminism, dressing up Australian settler colonialism as centrist science fiction.
Consumers worship this patent absurdity without question. However, Blizzard's Ozzie rock opera pales in comparison to the utter bombast that is Gloryhammer's "The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee." I want to examine the latter as it outlines the base mechanics of origin stories in incredibly simple, rock 'n roll language (a musical genre that was historically taken from people of color and appropriated to a white audience).
The premise for Gloryhammer's song is simple, stupid and violent: The good city of Dundee suddenly finds itself under attack by an invading outsider force, the evil wizard Zargothrax and his... *checks notes* ...army of undead unicorns. Schlock aside, there's no history to speak of, the good land deliberately emptied of anything that might suggest genocide and conquest committed by its noble rulers. Presentation-wise, we're left with a clean, simple binary: a good team that did nothing wrong and a bad team that wrongs them in every way possible. This makes the hero's mighty oath—"I will make Zargothrax die!"—something to enact with impunity.
Such black-and-white framings are not only possible in neoliberal/fascist stories; they're normalized. Their war pastiche pointedly dichotomizes relations between the oppressor and oppressed, flipping the script by constantly creating cartoonishly evil villains that simply appear ex nihilo. Fascists would treat Zargothrax as the scapegoat. In neoliberal terms, Zargothrax is the fascist-from-somewhere-else, making the prince of Dundee functionally American. America needs cartoon villains like Zargothrax (or Red Falcon, Skeletor, Cobra, etc) to justify American totalitarianism on the global stage; moreover, American needs blackguards that act "worse" than America, generally announced by various normalized color schemes: purple for royalty, red for Communism, and black for fascism. The visible results don't reject fascism; they depict fascism as a visible threat to do battle with forever.
Endless war makes legitimate rebellion against America impossible. Zargothrax can't be a sympathetic villain, let alone a victim. War canon depicts evil's relationship to good as inflexible, with zero room for nuance. However, to ensure that war also never stops, neoliberals also make war canon flexible. Teams can exchange members according to various military roles, personifying these roles under competing banners. Those under the good banner can even wear purple, black or red if they want; their team can ally with former enemies, including fascists, to defeat a common foe. So long as "good" triumphs over "evil."
Alongside commercialized or geo-political examples, these moderate arrangements play out laterally through socio-political platforms like Twitter. For example, the LBG Alliance allies against trans and non-binary people, framing them as enemies of progress achieved by moderate, centrist politics. Said "progress" is really a form of centralization tied to capital advertised through political pamphlets. Not only do its members use DARVO obscurantism against their political enemies ("We're not Nazis, you're the real Nazis!"); they describe their own positions as "scientific" (code for "state-endorsed") and under attack by ideologues from the Right and the Left, while also masquerading as a charity group to front their hostilities. Forget neoliberal, these are fascist tactics, dyed-in-the-wool.
Regardless of where and how these warlike activities transpire/materialize, any smaller offense becomes sanctionable provided it serves the Greater Good: furthering the profitable narrative that American is morally good, hence justified in its violent acts. This violence can be from America, or from allies of America (the West/Global North: Great Britain, France, Australia, etc) materially legitimized by the global superpower. Behind this chessboard of jingoistic façades lurk the bourgeoise, whose hegemony remains unthreatened. By profiting from war and continuously selling it back to the public, they market "good war" as synonymous with prosperity for everyone (i.e., the LGBA fights the good fight; trans people do not).
This, of course, is total bullshit. Capitalism is prosperous for the elite, who hoard their wealth through a top-down material system that justifies its own abuses by hiding them behind material illusions. While neoliberals rely on fascists to survive, both ideologies create villains and heroes that obscure genocide as endemic to Capitalism. Neoliberal enemies are simply evil, whereas fascist enemies are fierce, dangerous and weak. Defeating either materially benefits the elite by deliberately altering people's collective understanding of history—by funding the very stories the Base consumes. By using fantasy-as-Superstructure (a page taken from Tolkien's fantasy canon, published after the establishment of the Western and Eastern Blocs), neoliberals erase or severely weaken allegory critical of the nation-state. In doing so, they validate the latter as sovereign, but also eternal.
Iconoclasts don't simply expose how neoliberal stories obscure systemic abuse; they reveal and condemn the poisonous, centrist ideologies that encourage direct abuse, its political endorsement, or apathy when it occurs. This includes TERFs, whose hatred for the patriarchy has become performatively insincere, all while hating trans people's actual guts.
Stonewalling Activism: Neoliberal Rhetoric
Apart from disguising fascism and endorsing actual war through war pastiche, TERFs emulate neoliberals in a third way: using their stonewalling rhetoric to enable trans genocide. Already afraid of the middle class, TERF anti-activism stems from the neoliberal's other weapon of choice: words, but especially political incrementalism. Incrementalism is a deliberate, moderate hindering of emancipatory policies through a rhetoric of veiled threats—that barbaric regression will inevitably occur should attempts at more equal change be met. Whether through feet-dragging or downright stonewalling, neoliberals belittle emancipatory activists, claiming the latter "doesn't understand politics." All the while, they court their covert allies, fascists, for all to see.
Without changing anything material, neoliberals love to present reasoned arguments as being "automatically victorious," a stating-of-the-obvious that renders evil obsolete inside a debate circle that anyone can attend. Historically this doesn't track; the free marketplace of ideas, much like geo-politics, is merely a slippery slope fallacy that reverts to structures of power along material lines. Workers pay the price, suffering genocidal abuse under relapsing fascism while neoliberals go to war. Meanwhile on the debate stage, moderate superiority traps these same liberal hawks in a cycle of embarrassing rebuttals, telling the overt racist they're wrong when the racist person is only there in bad faith. It's all for show, a cycle of debate pastiche designed to make moderates appear reasoned against someone worse than them a priori.
This rhetoric whitewashes genocide as a present, ongoing event, rewriting oppressed histories into increasingly sanitized, lucrative forms. Those who challenge this process are defamed as morons or enemies of the state. In turn, endless consumerism upholds the neoliberal virtue of orderly conflict, which normalizes genocide by commercially translating it into good teams and bad teams of any sort —not just signature baddies, but nostalgic* positions of war that individual consumers can emulate as vicarious champion units thereof, killing their evil counterparts in droves: nameless ninjas, karate dojos, power rangers, pirates, top gun graduates, etc. All the while, lateral political discussions unfold about war as something good that must occur. War is eternal, competing through moral positions tied to material conditions. Through this ceaseless back-and-forth, good defeats evil through two outlets: superior violence and dogma projected through the global consumerism already mentioned.
*We'll explore this nostalgia in an upcoming chapter on neoliberalism in vintage/retro videogames.
TERFs employ all of these rhetorical and material schemes in their own war on workers. Like neoliberals, TERFs also court fascists, helping disguise them not just by normalizing them, but through continual appeasement framed as honest debate. Through debate, TERFs use neoliberal illusions and incrementalism, making concessions that fascist dogma will tolerate. This includes tolerating sexist media (or sexist interpretations of sexualized media) that fascists produce. Fascists will accept TERF aid in bad faith because they want to achieve official power. Once this happens, their generosity will vanish; they will betray their former allies by revoking TERF concessions and installing a fascist hierarchy in their stead.
Courting fascists stonewalls activism. By doing so, TERFs are fascist themselves. To this, it's important to view sexist media as potentially fascist, and fascist sexism as something to recognize in seemingly more moderate forms, each working at various speeds to keep things the same, thus guarantee fascism. Remember that preservation of the status quo variably leads to Capitalism-in-crisis. However, regardless of when that occurs, some groups are invariably imperiled before the boiling point. In other words, only white cis-het people are slow-boiled alive (as Three Arrows points out regarding the slow descent into fascism in the United States versus the Weimar Republic); trans people are placed directly on the burner, feeling the heat from the start.
TERF moderates disguise this reality—and fascism's endemic nature within Capitalism more broadly—through a variety of full- and half-masks. This means proudly displaying as girl-boss lesbians, swordswomen, and suffragettes; and using dogwhistles. As such, their moderate veneer of outward good manners and activism-in-the-abstract becomes the perfect disguise for violent reactionaries to hide behind, endangering trans people in the bargain. This is not an accident; TERFs intentionally target trans people to demonstrate their fealty to the powers that be, attacking the latter's political targets in exchange for clemency (which is really just a brief reprieve) but also financial rewards.
These mercenary tactics manifest within the trans community through a curious paradox: enbyphobia, specifically binary trans enbyphobes (discrimination against non-binary people by binary trans people). We'll explore this enbyphobia next, specifically through queer bosses like Natalie Wynn, Hunter Schafer and Buck Angel.
Trans TERFs, NERFs, and Queer Bosses
Queer bosses are moderately queer. Not always trans, but always centrist, they usually attack non-binary people. Since non-binary people often identify trans, this makes binary trans enbyphobes specialized TERFs (...NERFs?). Towards enbys who don't see themselves as transgender, queer bosses are simply enbyphobic. Many trans enbyphobes, like Hunter Schafer, are transmedicalists or align with their position (Schafer, in the Roman tradition of agreement, gives a trans enbyphobe like Piggy Taiwan the thumbs-up—a display of solidary against in-group opponents asking for their basic human rights): the notion that "individuals who identify as transgender, do not experience gender dysphoria, and have no desire to undergo a medical transition are not genuinely trans." However, one of the biggest NERFs (at least in terms of material status, if not overall transmed conviction) is not an out-and-out transmedicalist, just an ally of one: Natalie Wynn and Buck Angel, respectively.
Gaslight, gatekeep, girl boss; this moderate trifecta serves as the obstacle course for many-a-climbing activist. However, these weren't simply Natalie's obstacles on the road to fame; they became her modus operandi post-success. Her current function is that of a binary trans girl boss, specifically a queer boss—more committed to the preservation of negative social order (and the disorder it reliably engenders through fascism and marginalized abuse) than positive social justice for all queer people. She achieves this order by performatively criticizing her assigned, obvious political enemies (re: cis-TERFs) while functioning identically to them within her own subgroup: provoking in-fighting within the trans community through the creation of us-versus-them teams. Binary trans people versus non-binary people instead of binary trans and non-binary people versus the elite.
The rest of this subsection specifically criticizes Natalie's defense of Buck Angel and Natalie's moderate political views more generally. Buck Angel is an abusive enbyphobe who, by her own admission, is a transmed; she divorced Karin Winslow in 2003, outed her, and harassed her for over a decade (as late as 2014). Knowing this, Natalie still worked with Buck in 2019, defended their collaboration a year later in her famous "Canceling" video, and played defense for Buck during a Guardian interview in June, 2021. Worse, this interview was done after Essence of Thought's follow-up response in March, 2021, which details Natalie's enbyphobic in far greater detail.
In other words, Natalie has never apologized for her collaboration with Buck, nor decried Buck's transmed position as harmful. Quite the contrary, she openly worships Buck as a fashion icon (which explains Natalie's bias as someone myopically fixated on style). Natalie's blind eye towards enbyphobia, while not overtly practicing it herself, still encourages enbyphobia by downplaying its severity. Through her disproportion influence, she uses continuous inaction, condescension and professional-level gaslighting to cultivate an unsafe atmosphere, one where authority figures like Natalie publicly defend an infamous abuser living within the trans community.
To be clear, not everyone with an axe to grind with Natalie is a genuine party with actual concern, and real victims might even lack the ability to articulate their problems fairly or well. This includes binary trans transmedicalists like Piggy angrily stressing that enbys should listen to black trans people as a hyper-marginalized group while also blaming enbys for trans oppression. Piggy does this instead of seeing the genuine, bigger threat: conservative moral panic and neoliberal moderacy.
Infighting and misplaced anger aside, the onus is still on Hunter Schafer and Natalie Wynn, as public intellectuals, not to be enbyphobic. They are enbyphobic, helping foster bias against enbys through performative leftism that creatively and socially shows signs of political moderacy. For Natalie, her open condemnation of Rowling becomes performative in relation to her curious inability to condemn Schafer, Buck or herself; and both she and Schafer target the same minority within their own base by covering for each other. For any binary trans moderate, the negative freedom of institutional order takes on a binary trans face, enforcing the former through elevated material conditions the bourgeoise weaponize against an assigned political foe: enbys. The elite don't need to hand out direct orders; they merely need to incentivize them through capital, specifically Natalie.
Even so, binary trans moderacy ("Natalie is a queer boss") remains a difficult issue to discuss, in part because it involves gender issues that are tricky to quantify. To expose Natalie's neoliberal habits in relation to these, we'll have to get down to brass tacks...
For starters, enbyphobia effectively requires a distinction that many cis-TERFs will not make, and is generally practiced by binary trans people or cis "allies" against enbys. Indeed, Natalie herself shows that NERFs will punch up against cis-TERFs while also punching down against enbys, making enbys something of a universal target. Another challenge lies in documenting abuses committed against various trans subgroups, one where crime statistics—a concrete practice—attempts to quantify people who identify according to semi-fluid definitions: what a non-binary person is versus a binary transgender person (versus the victim's testimonies versus their various attackers' motivations and [mis]understandings about their respective targets' identities, etc).
Binary trans people are just that—binary. As a statement within broader gender politics, non-binary people represent a complex gender spectrum that allows for a variety of stances:
"An adjective describing a person who does not identify exclusively as a man or a woman. Non-binary people may identify as being both a man and a woman, somewhere in between, or as falling completely outside these categories. While many also identify as transgender, not all non-binary people do. Non-binary can also be used as an umbrella term encompassing identities such as agender, bigender, genderqueer or gender-fluid" (source).
Some of these stances are more radical (relative to the colonial gender binary) than others, but that's not really the point. Sex-positivity is already radical, and should really aim to expose sexist abuses committed by persons who hold positions of power, regardless of which camp(s) they belong to.
This includes positions within the larger trans community like Natalie and her own veiled enbyphobia. Compared to cis-TERFs, she's a binary trans moderate, one whose centrist positions compete—but also semi-align—with cis-moderates. Both are financially incentivized to commit Capitalist exploitation against a common victim: enbys, but also poor people (enbys, along with gender non-conforming people in general, tend to be poorer on average thanks to additional financial challenges that cis-het people do not face).
All of this means that Natalie—despite being far more radical and leftist than Rowling—still sponsors a left-leaning position that centralizes herself: a binary trans woman sitting to the right of enbys by virtue of her attacking them from a materially priviliged position. She punches down, TERF-style, against people who can't materially challenge her—specifically as a NERF whose phobias disproportionately affect non-binary trans people, but also binary trans people who absorb her bias and claim it for their own.
The whole point of a microcategory like NERF is to highlight moderacy regardless of where it occurs, including how moderates fortify their material position within ironic groups (re: the trans community). We'll explore how Natalie does that in just a moment. For now, let's examine the base premise: Socio-economic elevation occurs through positions of conflict, wherein moderate rhetoric sows class oppression on descending rungs. "Chaos is a ladder," right? The difference—between functioning as a pedagogue for the oppressed (which can still be a lucrative position under Captialism) versus appropriating struggle for profit—is how one behaves with their improved material conditions.
Natalie is not only loquacious regarding her elevated material position (focusing on herself rather than platforming others, especially enbys who might have a bone to pick with her); her dialog is functionally moderate. Yes, she's done much to raise general trans awareness. This sex-positive trait co-exists alongside her enbyphobia as something Natalie exploits for material gain. Just like Rowling enacts feminism in bad faith by "bravely" attacking other feminists (re: trans people or allies of trans people), Natalie is a powerful binary trans woman who harms the LGBTQ+ community by failing to go after its greatest foe: the elite. She does so by arguing for their very existence, ensuring her own material security as someone aligned with capital the way any moderate is. Laterally.
As a white, binary trans moderate, Natalie is useful to those in power because she engenders marginalized in-fighting as orderly. Not only are moderates inside or relative to the United States historically white, thus privileged in various ways that allow them to socially elevate; they also punch down or encourage punching down as part of the process. This "Great Chain" includes white cis-TERFs like J. K. Rowling punching down against all trans people, but also white, binary trans enbyphobes like Natalie and Buck Angel against non-binary people; they just do it differently than Rowling does, albeit with the same emotional restraint, self-superiority and material advantage (the formula for moderacy-in-politics more broadly). You don't see either of them actually owning up to anything after Piggy invokes trans people of color as the state of exception; they simply side with the idea that someone other than them is to blame, socializing scapegoats and doomed folk, then privatizing the rewards of already being famous themselves.
While moderates target marginalized groups, marginalized moderates like Natalie, Buck and Schafer use their own base to defang class warfare by pitting marginalized groups against one another. Even if this isn't intentional beyond a reasonable doubt, the function remains disharmonious towards the oppressed seeking positive freedom for themselves. Moderates specifically use material advantage to claim de facto ownership over a particular base, whose victimization they champion in dishonestly performative ways. This isn't always framed as, "My group is more marginalized than yours." However, when presented as something to debate with other marginalized groups, we arrive at the troublesome presence of teams enforced by the promotion of wealthy de facto representatives with bourgeois class interests that supersede the needs of workers. Natalie doesn't have to self-appoint herself as leader of the pack. From a financial-visibility standpoint, she simply is.
The problem with team-based rhetoric is that it leads to class abuse through the preservation of order—a divide-and-conquer strategy that weaponizes capital by turning potential class allies into class enemies. This means the real victims aren't people like Natalie; it's marginalized peoples at large—reduced by political conversations into good teams and bad teams and catalyzed by their performative leaders to in-fight unproductively. Feelings of alienation towards these leaders shouldn't surprise anyone. Not only does this representation often fail; the representatives themselves frequently exploit the represented. Maybe don't take all these donations if you're going to use the money primarily on yourself and your brand, Natalie?
The truth is, cis-women are marginalized, but less so than binary trans people, who, in turn, are more marginalized than cis-women, but marginalized differently than non-binary people (all while racial and religious discrimination intersect with gender discrimination). Are trans women "more numerous or visible" than non-binary people, thus more likely to be confronted for upending their assigned binary gender roles? Are non-binary people "more radical" than binary trans people for refusing to binarize to begin with? It's honestly difficult to measure, but also totally beside the point. Victimhood isn't a contest with a clear-cut "biggest victim." Legitimate abuse needs to be accurately described, acknowledged, and condemned whenever and wherever it occurs, while actively seeking to expose the elite as the true vampires worldwide.
To this, Natalie's enbyphobia has become actively harmful, using her wealthy position to deflect valid criticism coming from within the queer community at large. All the while, she continues to enjoy the obvious material perks afforded by a besieged "fortress" position (a castle isn't just under siege; it's a cushy place): She'll attack Rowling but defend Buck Angel in the same breath, raking in $50k/month on Patreon purely through how she's perceived: as someone defending herself, her castle, her hill to die on. Unfortunately it's not just her hill; power under Capitalism aggregates through financial incentive, including class division generated by defensible positions* that align with capital.
*Natalie, Buck and Schafer blame enbys for systemic trans oppression while also serving as trans-canonical figures, aka queer bosses. Not only is holding their moderacy accountable taking a stand against capital as an oppressive system for trans people; if you're a curious, concerned cis-het person looking in, you might get called an outsider who should mind their own business.
About that. As Bad Empanada rightly points out, Natalie's more of a symbol of wealth and power than an active iconoclast at this point, an anomalous success story in the trans community that refuses to accept genuine criticism when she's actually wrong. And despite her being a far cry from Margaret Thatcher, Natalie's lengthy and self-indulgent polemic on class envy antagonizes the poor in a very neoliberal way: worship of the owner class through moderacy as a besieged political position. Thus, her perceived radicalness wavers in defense of wealth as something to unironically perform (as Marie Antoinette, her throat slashed and spilling martyred gore) while victim-blaming the poor, saying they literally "envy" the rich*. She's taking money from her own base to demonize critics within the same group, offering herself up as some kind of consolation prize (the neoliberal propaganda of "false hope").
*Also known as the narcissist's refrain: "You hate me because you want to be me." This is a common TERF tactic.
I'm all for weaponizing material conditions against the elite; Natalie turns them into a form of self-worship, alienating her base while lionizing the elite as something to perform: "Don't call me bougie; I'm way beyond bougie." Sure, it's tongue-in-cheek psychomachia, but we don't "gotta hand it to Natalie." Though funny, chic and stylish, her work functions as bourgeois apologia dressed up in high production values that valorize historical owners—all practiced by someone who happily takes her fans' money as tribute.
Yes, tribute. I seriously doubt Natalie spends $150k per video (averaging four videos per year). Worse, what little she does "give back" through content can feel rather classist (see: "Envy") and vain: "Look at how nice my costumes are, my sets, my bathtub. Envy me." Even if fans do envy her, consider how their alienation is a consequence of Capitalism—the giant, trans-oppressive system Natalie has ridden to the top. Other influential binary trans women certainly exist, but few if any approach Natalie's level of visibility and material success. Worse, she actively defends her privilege, acknowledging it as proof of her correctness versus calling it what is: a definite blind spot that requires radical empathy with those more oppressed than she is.
Rather than acknowledge her white privilege as problematic like Jessie Gender does, Natalie weaponizes her success to canonize herself, becoming the binary trans girl of the online Left (many of whom are "leftists" functioning as liberal centrists). While not strictly "tokenized" through a direct employer, Natalie uses her self-fashioned glamor to certify herself as her giant fanbase's perpetual darling. This jives with the neoliberal tactic of party shielding with appropriated minorities: "Attack me and you attack the only legitimate (materially elevated) representation your community has!" Not only is the token character's position "precious"—i.e., precarious and materially endangered—it also grants the elite a marginalized persona to destabilize potential dissenters with.
Ignoring Natalie's neoliberal leanings (the worship of the rich by socializing blame), her arguments about cis-TERFs remain true. However, not only are these arguments low-hanging fruit; they can easily be dismissed and discarded by TERFs (cis or trans) and enbyphobes looking for ammunition against non-binary people as an oppressed group. If you're as rich and well-connected as Buck Angel is, you can easily ignore everything Natalie says except her enbyphobic comments; and if you're as rich and well connected as Natalie is, you can easily afford to ignore whatever consequences result from Buck Angel (or anyone else looking to dogpile) using their disproportionate influence over online discourse to blow up your enbyphobic rhetoric.
Natalie's ostentatious wealth and continued desire for flippant, moderate glibness (versus structuring her points around academically-sound arguments that actually hold water) show more than usual why left-leaning artists working as de facto educators need to be incredibly conscious about what they say publicly. Alas, Natalie does what she does because she wants to, not because she's ethical. To this, she isn't negligent just for the sake of performance; she's tailored for ready public consumption, purposefully branding herself as radical while still being a lush, sardonic aesthete openly defensive of the rich, but also enbyphobic personalities. She's rich, supportive of bourgeois politics, and enbyphobic, making her no-brainer polemics against Rowling, however correct on paper, somewhat dubious and apathetic in practice—a performative sleight-of-hand that, whether through bad faith or not, kind of poisons the entire well (the extent of this poison is open to debate; its presence is not).
Natalie's enbyphobia affects an incredibly small group, but so do many so leftists online who shrug their shoulders at whatever falls under the current state of exception. But even if this were all Natalie did, bigotry is bigotry and she still needs to be challenged, not worshipped, for refusing to change her moderate enbyphobic position when criticized. The problem is, Natalie's position on class attitudes, specifically the envious poor, extend well beyond enby people. Worse, she cultivates this narrative through a particular visual brand as canon. Not only does she hand-wave the poor using this brand; she uses it to repeatedly gaslight another highly marginalized group within the queer community. If this doesn't merit criticism, what does?
This prolific and varied centrism isn't singular to just Natalie, but instead involves a "better masks" mis-en-abyme that encompasses content creators across the broader political spectrum. If out-and-out Nazis are mask-off, then American/American-aligned alt-righters, traditional conservatives, liberals (moderate Republicans) and the performative "Left" (re: TERFs, economic white supremacists) represent a spectrum of political masks, often stacked on top of each other.
While these "gobstopper" (concentric) disguises face progressively leftward—deliberately tailored to match the financial incentives afforded by a political market expanded by dissent—all of them remain centralized positions with a conservative core; they preserve the status quo at a systemic level. This includes Sam Seder's Neocon past and continued material defense of American Imperialism; streaming giants Destiny and Kochinski, whose variable centrism Bad Empanada lovingly refers to as the Clout Human Centipede, but also serve as the AMAB side of our aforementioned TERFs; and anyone else who dresses up right-leaning material positions through activism relegated to the moral abstract (a frequent neoliberal tactic) through so-called "ex-fascism," fascism by proxy or marginalized moderacy dressed up as hilarious theater.
Before we move on to potential solutions in the next subsection, let's quickly summarize TERF moderacy with enbyphobia included.
At the beginning of the chapter, I quoted the trans maxim: "If you scratch a transphobe, a fascist bleeds." The same is true of scratching neoliberals, including TERFs. They might think they're not fascist when appealing to fascists. It won't change the fact that TERFs engender the worst sort of sexism imaginable by normalizing persons who will happily wipe them off the map. This makes TERFS functionally fascist, a kind of "false friend" to the automatic targets of fascism, trans people. To determine which is worse—out-and-out fascists or closeted ones—I'll simply quote MLK, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
TERFs present as seemingly benign icons—like swordswomen, lesbians, and suffragettes—not genuine, sex-positive symbols of equality, but sexism-in-disguise. The same idea applies to gender and enbyphobia performed by so-called allies like Kochinski. At best, these disguises amount to neoliberal illusions that hide bias to varying degrees (re: Thatcher, Rowling and Wynn); at worst, it invariably turns fascist, aggressively targeting the state's enemies. This includes inaccurate metaphors lifted from dystopian stories.
For example, TERFs demonize cis-women who support trans people (and sex workers) by calling them "handmaids." A deliberate misreading of The Handmaid's Tale (1985), this conflation makes about as much sense as calling a trans person's home a "joy division" (the sexual slavery wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the 1955 novel, House of Dolls). The point isn't accuracy at all, but a pejorative label that helps establish a reliable pattern of reactive abuse (abuse that provokes a genuine self-defense reaction from the victim, whereupon the expectant abuser "self-defends" in extreme prejudice). Trans people and those who aid them are painted sexual criminals who can be attacked, penned in and goaded until they snap.
The threat, here, is cyclical and two-fold: First, Neoliberalism valorizes Capitalism by hiding its true function: to enslave the majority (workers) and profit off their labor. The subsequent societal collapse (a built-in feature of Capitalism) allows strongmen to ascend to formal seats of power by pointing the finger at scapegoats—Jewish people and communists, but also trans people. This alleviates some of the pressure put upon neoliberals, who regain control by calling fascists "the real enemy." Rinse and repeat.
Whether neoliberal or fascist, TERF/enbyphobic rhetoric is inherently bad faith. This requires the audience (us) to scrutinize their untrustworthy arguments (and the canonical apologia inside). Just as we'd double-check Pepe if the source image came from 4Chan, giant corporations merit just as much scrutiny if not more. We'll examine the latter next, specifically the relationship between neoliberals and fascists, each of them using "boss-like" heroes to sell war to American audiences: girl bosses, queer bosses, and traditional male bosses.
Section Five: Activism and Consequence
Raise Your Fist: Ironic Bosses, Sexy War, and Gender Irony
This subsection examines traditional and ironic bosses in The Boys, The Rings of Power, and Sense8, as well as Ellen Ripley from Aliens. It also examines queer bosses and how to use critical (sex-positive) queerness to subvert the fascist and neoliberal traditions present in famous, warlike bodies (all of the above, but also Conan the Barbarian).
Neoliberals and fascists operate in conjunction, serving as the good and bad teams under Capitalism. Whether they're profit-obsessed elites, or power-hungry individuals seeking elite status, both are sexist salesmen of war. Each sells war through empowerment, specifically the framing of "boss" positions as elevated under Captialism. Unlike TERFs and other bosses aligned with capital, sex-positive artists promote universal basic human rights while discouraging sexism. They raise their firsts to "punch" Nazis and neoliberals—not literally in the face, but in their dogmatic, canonical propaganda.
This raising-of-the-fist occurs by retooling war as an act of rebellion against bourgeois tyranny. Artistic activists own the act of punching up as a conscious form of informed rebellion, directing worker solidarity against normalized violence and those who encourage or perpetuate said abuse—to show the world what fascists and neoliberals really are: complicit abusers.
There are many, many variants of the raised fist in art. Its historical purpose is antifascist—pitting true rebellion against "fake rebellion" by reifying an emancipatory cause as something to sloganize: through body language. Nonviolent resistance articulates that which the elite historically frame as violent: worker solidarity, but also counterculture displays of active, prolonged resistance. Art prolongs resistance by holding up better than fleshy bodies do. More to the point, when treated as acts of rebellious strength, they lift people out of violent ways of thinking while still living inside oppressive systems that encourage mental imprisonment.
Using de facto reeducation to punch up, sex-positive artists bridge gaps—seeking to change indoctrinated people by bringing them over towards a more humane and egalitarian way of thinking about sex. By speaking to sexist people in variants of their own language—chiefly through the boss as a symbol of performative strength—the iconoclast promotes a specific kind of gender trouble: gender irony (called "parody" by Judith Butler). For example, strength iconography includes physical displays of action personified—war-like bodies, but especially boss-like bodies. Iconoclastic variants undermine canonical norms through ironic gender performances regarding strength: ironic girl bosses, queers bosses, and masculine champions.
On a surface level, these ironic counterparts can pass for canon. This is useful within social activism, but also traditional modes of neoliberal consumption, which activists subvert. Centrist audiences "tune in" more often if an action hero postures equality by presenting as female and capable—a scrappy tomboy who can "handle her shit" by being violent, or rather, by looking violent. The problem is, no space is truly parallel, requiring ironic heroes to exist perilously close to their toxic, violent predecessors.
Art imitates life in this respect: In The Boys, the show's Nazi posterchild, Homelander, isn't just a danger to America's enemies (who die far away from the cameras); dressed up in fascist American regalia, he's a clear and present danger to everyone working near him, a perpetual rapist, xenophobe, and murderer. Meanwhile, Starlight—the materially-elevated, cis-het tomboy—is forced* to wear girly clothing (the "taming of the tomboy" trope). She's clearly not butch, deliberately selected by Vaught Enterprises for her "ability" to pass as femme once inside her uniform through a naturally "femme" appearance (conventional biological markers being arbitrary coded as femme by the elite).
Starlight isn't the most victimized character, but she is the most visible. Because she's less marginalized than the show's people of color (foreign or domestic), she isn't automatically killed on the spot like they are. Instead, she's the Gothic heroine, forced to survive under Homelander's "loving" gaze. But despite having privilege, the show also acknowledges Starlight's genuine, lived abuse, contrasting her mother's abusive stage instructions to Homelander's. Both consciously violate Starlight's consent, favoring ideas they promote through false pageants: the pretty child, the perfect girlfriend, the power couple.
Homelander's fascist persona and origins comment on the very social conditions that give rise to him in sexist art. While both are man-made, Homelander represents heroic media as monstrous. Already aberrant, he becomes increasingly dislocated, a confused extension of his patriarchal makers' warped psyches. In terms of arrested development, equally undeveloped audiences are exposed to killer baby they can not only project onto, but emulate. Moreover, Homelander's violence isn't limited to himself, the product, or even his faithful, apathetic fans, the consumers; it pours from the ubiquitous worldviews that make either of them violent: the cult of strength and the cult of profit.
From cradle to grave, these mentalities dehumanize workers long before they set foot inside the workplace. Fascism embodies strength as dogmatic, using symbols of strength to imply gender performance as a kind of show of force. Dichotomized, these displays force anything unmanly into the state of exception. This includes women (cis or queer), but also people of color, atheists, non-Christians, sex workers, drag queens, immigrants, the mentally ill, autistic persons, the elderly and ethnic minorities. Obsessed with profits, neoliberals expand the purview of sales, granting cis-het, cis-queer and trans women the right to push minorities around: "gaslight, gatekeep, girl boss."
Working under Capitalism, The Boys is relatively parallel. Its cis-het heroine, Starlight, is the show's ironic girl boss. Originally working for Vaught Enterprises, she wears their costume and puts up with Homelander's open-secret abuse. However, she eventually rejects her girl-boss role as Homelander's co-worker, rejecting neoliberalism's attempts to commodify fascism by presenting it as "harmless" through Homelander as something to sell full-tilt. Whereas Vaught tend to ignore Homelander's frequent (and heinous) workplace abuses, Starlight speaks out, becoming a social activist in the process, an ally of the oppressed working from a position of relative privilege.
In a meta sense, Starlight also uses her "star power" (sapped from Vaught's studio cameras) to achieve a brief propaganda victory over Homelander, knocking him off his feet in season 3's finale. Had the camera's actually been rolling, they could've filmed him running away like Richard Spencer, thus broken the fascist spell of an invincible, besieged superman tucking tail. Alas, Homelander's material advantage is frightfully real. His superpowers may be a metaphor for male privilege, but his "star power" headspace is even more idiotic than Ashley Williams'. He's bought into the theater, thinking himself a god among insects, many of whom worship the ground he walks on: Starlight cannot defeat all of them alone.
Unlike Starlight, Vaught only speak out against their prize creation when profits are threatened. But they only provide empty lip service, not genuine criticism. They can't abolish fascism because they rely on fascists to survive; hence, their moderate allowances are generally at "half-odds" with fascism, which gatekeeps minorities through an attempt at racial purity that hypercolonizes canonical works. That is, fascist fandoms enact Foucault's Boomerang by scrubbing already-famous works of any minorities, strawmanning their long-dead authors with fascist dogma in the process.
For example, fascist fans tried to gatekeep people of color and queer people by review-bombing The Rings of Power (2022). However, the show's own mixed-bag of problematic content* and broader marketing strategies demonstrate how fascism and neoliberalism go hand-in-hand: the selling of strength to oscillating demographics. Amazon depicts Galadriel as a total girl boss in the neoliberal sense. She's gaslit and gatekept by her fellow men, stubbornly show them up by stomping the seemingly invincible snow-troll. Lobotomizing it with her dirk, Galadriel presents wild-eyed and driven, a girl boss haunted by trauma.
*Tolkien may not have been openly racist; his post-WW2 novels still laid the us-versus-them groundwork that neoliberals use to whitewash war, including fascism. Even if the potential for sex-positive interpretations exists, these must still compete with sex-coercive ones. Think of it as competing dialog tied to symbols without intrinsic meaning. Charlie Chaplin treated his mustache as part of himself; Hitler famously copied it to give himself momentum; and Charlie eventually made fun of Hitler for it by playing Hilter. In other words, Hitler's cunning use of propaganda eclipsed Charlie, forcing Hitler's American idol into a competing dialog with fascism: the mustache as colonized. The same logic applies to Tolkien's orcs. Even if they were author-intended dogwhistles or not, fascist fans will be treating them as such.
Unlike Joan of Arc—a victimized figure of peace who refused to wield a sword—Galadriel's trauma is fascist because it constantly pushes her towards violent displays of force tied to crisis and revenge. By proving her assigned enemies to be weak and strong (and Sauron as that invisible terror she uses to justify her continuous, totalitarian hypervigilance), Galadriel achieves the coveted girl-boss persona by swinging a sword, but also by slaughtering her mighty adversary with graceful, twirling movements that thoroughly outclass the boys in terms of raw kill count and enemy size ("That still only counts as one!"). Like Xena the Warrior princess, these dancer-like attacks achieve traditional masculine results. However, Galadriel's victories are far more bloody and vindictive, making her less like Xena and more like Conan, daring Crom to count the dead.
Though plainly murderous, Amazon's Galadriel is neoliberal by simply being a soldier woman (something out-and-out fascism wouldn't allow). She's also conventionally attractive in ways that promote spurious emancipation under a neoliberal yolk. Not only is Morfydd Clark a dead ringer for Cate Blanchett (tall, blonde and pale); she's also granted license to be sexy in ways denied to Blanchett. This makes her an Amazon (excuse the pun) ripped straight from the 1970s, closer to Frazetta's Eowyn than Jackson's towering queen. Yes, Galadriel's masculine, full-body armor (and tough-girl persona) evoke Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose
All the same, her seawater-soaked dress breaks the spell, showing us the soft, sexy body underneath that armor:
Note the suggestion of elvish pubes(!), but also Galadriel's complete indifference towards the male gaze (the actor's and the audience's). More than traditional "Nordic" beauty idealized, Galadriel doesn't give a fuck, is emotionally unavailable towards a coded love interest. Like a Conan paperback, this "sexing up" of Lord of the Rings feels hauntological, ripped from an earlier time that never quite was: the neoliberal girl boss. It's also a billion-dollar "gamble," one designed to pressure consumers into watching the only big-budget LOTR spinoff in town. Amazon manipulates the market through privatization, appropriating the neoliberal notion of marrying female softness to "manly" strength unironically.
While masculine female strength within soft bodies can certainly be something to appreciate, it can also be unambiguously sexist. I certainly value strong women, including Amazons. I've researched them independently for academic purposes, have written about them outside of school (see: "War Vaginas"), and explored them extensively in my artwork and fantasy writing. However, while I do like Frazetta as a guilty pleasure that—like an aging Gandalf towards a younger Bilbo—helped give me a much-needed push out the door, the tagline for my erotic art website literally reads "Hard Women & Soft Boys in Videogame Fan Art." It's iconoclastic because it specifically advocates for sex-positive female/feminine strength (and genuine sexual expression through pornographic displays) in ironic genders, not just cis-women.
By comparison, The Rings of Power showcases sexist female masculinity—the toxic notion of "acting like a man" while crystalizing the woman as a heteronormative sex object, but also a military marketing strategy. As the bourgeois authors of this narrative, Amazon are selling the military through heteronormative sex. This perpetuates a cycle of dehumanization, one that historically turns cis-het men (and cis-women in neoliberal stories) into hypermasculine killers bent on "insect politics" (discussed more in the previous chapter) and toxic gender views more generally.
Equally hostile, Galadriel sees everything orcish in front of her as "pure evil," deserving of state-endorsed murder. As Amazon's gorgeous poster girl of war, she markets empowerment through a position of state-certified strength, specifically the license to kill as coldly beautiful, but also female. This girl-boss mentality appropriates multiculturalism more broadly by spearheading tolerant recruitment standards with Girl Power™: "Anyone can join." Iconoclastic strength would criticize this view by actively trying to end the cycle of abuse as profitable to the elite, exposing the hideous unethicality of Galadriel's mercenary violence being tied to men with deep pockets and vested interests. To this, ironic strength is its own kind of performance, one that undermines the status quo through sex positivity as something to present to normalized consumers (anyone accustomed to canonical consumption) post hoc.
Sun from Sense8, for example, is strong despite patriarchal adversity. Not a furious sexpot, she's a small, capable boxer, one the system and her family punish for daring to fight because she enjoys it (not to serve the state). Sun is an appreciative and sex-positive character, granting women (cis- or queer) the option of doing things purely for themselves. Viewers conditioned to appreciate martial displays of force can learn this about Sun, thus question the very performative violence sold to them through canonical media like The Rings of Power.
Equally ironic is how Sun lacks any pre-exisiting trauma that drives her towards quests of mad, endless revenge. She desires revenge, to be sure, but it comes later in life. Meanwhile, Galadriel appropriates Amazons in the standard neoliberal fashion as a victim of childhood angst, specifically the weight of familial death heaped upon her fragile mind. This neoliberal call to war coercively recruits abused women into violent soldier roles, generating an army mentality against whatever target the state seeks to exploit under Capitalism, specifically Imperialism. "Build me an army worthy of Mordor," except it's Galadriel stubbornly recruiting a host of bloodthirsty elves. She's a hawk, not a drove.
Patriarchal sexism historically presents peace as "womanly," making Galadriel not just a hawk in dove's clothing, but a hardened killer inside a soft, womanly body. The Rings of Power borrows this "return to war" strategy from James Cameron, whose Aliens has an equally beguiling Ripley as its heroine. First, Vasquez calls Ripley "Snow White," denoting her relative outward softness when compared to Vasquez. Cameron writes Vasquez as a Latin street criminal hardened by poverty (a consequence of Capitalism, not Communism):
Like Drake, Vasquez is younger then the rest and her combat-primer was the street in a Los Angeles barrio [a Spanish-speaking sector of an American city, generally with a high poverty level]. She is tough even by the standards of this group. Hard-muscled. Eyes cunning and mean (source: the movie's original script).
He also hectors Vasquez through the platoon loudmouth, who teases her for being a bit "too manly":
Despite how either physically appears, Ripley and Vasquez remain women in a man's world. Their place in this world is deliberately neoconservative: Both are furies who bring about an American return to tradition, waging righteous war against American's past geo-political enemies, the Reds.
Neoconservatives are liberal hawks who despise war protestors and promote peace through strength, including neocolonialism and proxy war. They originated out of the 1960s; Cameron merely revived them by selling Reagan's America bloody revenge set in outer space. Unlike Star Wars, Aliens frames America as morally good, the colonial marines retaliating against the wicked xenomorphs, who are ultimately blamed for starting the war. They draw first blood, viciously sacking Hadley's Hope (the fictional counterpart to Saigon) and cocooning the colonists (an abject metaphor for Communist re-education, purposefully tied to an insect lifecycle that "kills" its victims); the brutality the marines visit upon them afterwards is just deserts, quite literally "the punishment one deserves."
In general, traditional superheroes
- tend be warlike and vengeful, even if their original authors were not
- treat war as attractive
- are sexy but also ubiquitous in mainstream markets designed to sell superheroes
By returning to tradition through neoliberal propaganda, Ripley is a traditional superhero who metes out state-sponsored retribution. When unironically portrayed, such "war bosses" demonstrate coercive heteronormative gender performativity. In particular, they market traditional female gender roles as "strong," thus sufficient for even more masculine-performing cis-women: Be superheroes, ladies... by having babies, or protecting them as "natural-caregivers." Ripley certainly did, with Cameron retooling neoliberal critique (Alien) into neoliberal pastiche by making our intrepid space trucker a bonafide killer-for-hire, but also a champion for "correct" motherhood.
Ripley's reformation easily outshined her original pro-labor role because it aligned with hegemonic corporate interests. This "decision of the market" (strategic manipulation by the elite passed off as mounting prosperity through deregulation) helped spawn endless waves of war pastiche that Americanized fans popularized in movie theaters; they also brought this pastiche into an exciting new medium: videogames, specifically the shooter (for examples, refer to my chapter on military optimism in videogames inspired by Cameron's Aliens).
Obviously this proliferation of a gun-toting, pro-life superhero poses a serious problem for anyone pro-choice, anti-gun, and anti-war, but especially for people who ovulate in any of these camps. They don't want to be "powerful" in the traditional, sexist sense; i.e., bearing children, but also defending the practice to the proverbial death by becoming an Amazonian girl boss like Ellen Ripley.
It's not the Left you have to convince, though; it's the pro-lifers, the future fans, the war-hawks-in-the-making. When pressed, they'll describe videogames like fireworks: loud, but harmless. Such media acclimates the consuming public to war as nostalgic, but also omnipresent—the celebration of an indifference to war because its universal presence has become not just normalized through neutral, benign theater, but holy. To bridge the gap, you have to retool pre-exisiting visual language through sex-positive counterparts specialized to show audiences an alternative more ethical than fascists, but also centrists and their neoliberal fantasies: an escape from tradition through a gentler Ripley—not the state's dragon-slaying paramilitary agent, but a Marxist virago who combats the true big evil: the bourgeoise, sexist warts and all.
This comes with risks, mind you. My ex—I'll call them Jim—threw me out over my political views (a rather punishing maneuver given I was financially dependent on them). This might seem isolated from politics, but it's not: Jim is a relatively well-to-do neoliberal TERF/SWERF who defended the likes of J. K. Rowling, Bill Gates and Joe Biden* over the course of our relationship. Jim also looked down at sex workers and erotic art (including mine), claiming this "erased feminism" by having women cater to a sexist male audience by prostituting their bodies in a "normal" way (Jim was fine with sexual expression as long as it appeared bad-ass or monstrous: "monster fuckers").
*I once told Jim that if Biden wanted to actually do something meaningful, he should pass a Constitutional amendment that legitimizes trans and non-binary people instead of opting for executive orders that can simply be undone in the next election cycle: "Trans men are men, trans women are women, non-binary people are valid." Jim hated this idea, calling it "impossible" and telling me, "Well, at least he's doing something!" They also thought that Rowling as the first billionaire author (and female author, to boot) somehow merited praise, ignoring her TERF politics; and lauded Gates for his billionaire philanthropy while ignoring his privatization of the 90s computer market and his dubious connection to Jeffery Epstein.
And yet, despite liking tentacle dildos (which is fine), Tool music videos (which rock), and Rammstein (whose allegory and social critique they felt was moderate enough to be legitimate), Jim deemed my writing "masturbatory." "You're not George Orwell!" they loved to remind me. Jim went on to describe me as "indulging in fruitless academic exercises to pointlessly self-aggrandize," taking serious contention with me daring to critique heroic narratives—as if those demonstrate meaningful change for legitimately oppressed groups! Trans people will still be oppressed regardless of how many times Ripley bitch-slaps the Alien Queen.
For all its military bombast, though, it's interesting how subtle Cameron's allegory could actually be. Early in the movie, Ripley says she isn't a soldier, even being referred to by Lieutenant Gorman as "just an advisor." Writing about Aliens for years, I already knew Ripley was a paramilitary agent. However, I didn't pointedly notice the advisor codewords furtively signifying this position until several months ago. This is fitting: Vietnam advisors generally functioned as covert mercenaries through the Phoenix Program, coding themselves as peaceful. Meanwhile, their pseudonyms helped them violate international law by infiltrating warzones and committing war crimes.
These crimes were hardly accidents; they specifically demonstrated American hegemony as something to continuously reinforce, specifically their monopoly on violence as globally criminalized through the duplicitous and manipulative language of war. Using these tactics, American "advisors" served bourgeois interests through the CIA manufacturing state-sanctioned killers—either by murdering communist agents directly or setting up a US-sponsored regime in the south of the country (a base of operations). Behind this theater of opposing forces with discrete, unambiguous roles were the elite, shamelessly exploiting millions of people for profit. The entire cause was treated as righteous, tied to wholesale destruction of a pure evil by a pure good without the cloak of neoliberal cinema as codified by Reagan's tenure.
Eleven years later, Cameron whitewashed Reagan's own abuses by reinventing the past. This retro-future revenge fantasy repackaged the state-authored deceptions of yesterday as neoliberal propaganda to consume in the present. Instead of overt "anti-communism" fanfare, Cameron gave the 1986 public a bugs-and-marines pastiche ripped from 1959*—literally us-versus them rhetoric, with the good guys struggling to colonize empty space (the space bugs having no valid claim) until Ripley caps off the propaganda victory in spectacular fashion: defeating the communist leader in a grand, whirlwind duel.
*Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel, Starship Troopers, framed communists as a pseudo-arachnid hivemind species, the author pushing for nuclear war against Communist China.
As the girl boss to root for, Ripley is central to Cameron's spell, but also under it. She's easily the movie's most violent character, but also its most celebrated—a more sexualized and violent Rambo serving the same basic role: "just" killing bad guys (something Nintendo would replicate with Samus Aran). She's also the most delusional and emotionally confused, never seeing herself as working for the big bad company despite her becoming their greatest champion: the warrior poster mom who kills everything in sight. Simply put, she was the baddie of the '80s.
However, Ripley is also the movie's biggest lie to us, the audience: Her so-called "empowerment" stems from antecedent trauma, caused by an abusive parent company that recruits her through brute-force coercion: gaslight, gatekeep, girl boss. The board gaslights Ripley by denying her testimony and calling her crazy. They gatekeep her by taking away her license, which forces her to work menial labor until she cracks. Then, after she signs up out of sheer desperation, they transform her into a girl boss. Transformed, Ripley explodes, an instrument of pure vengeance whose violent quest eventually leaves her homeless, unemployed, and by the third film, utterly bereaved.
In other words, Aliens Ripley is no less freed of the company's abuses than Alien Ripley. It's an empty concession where the elite surrender nothing. Not only is the power Ripley "gains" heavily scripted and fake; it's also standard-issue recruitment fare: false hope that romanticizes U.S. foreign policy and its treatment of women in the military (the men in the movie fare far worse, ground to a collective pulp, something marketed to pro-military dudes everywhere: the myth of the beautiful death).
For a more detailed examination of Aliens as neoliberal propaganda, please refer to my first book chapter, "The Promethean Quest and James Cameron's Military Optimism in Metroid."
Having grown up on Aliens and Super Metroid, I felt comfortable in critiquing either franchise, consuming them ironically. Alas, deprioritizing the unironic consumption of neoliberal theatricality was entirely unthinkable to Jim (despite being the one to introduce me to Ken Burn's 2017 anti-war documentary, The Vietnam War). They loathed my Marxist reading of popular media specifically because it denuded the neoliberal spell covering everything Jim consumed (they refused to call Aliens neoliberal propaganda, categorizing it as a "bad metaphor"). Without their toys to distract them (including D&D, which is heavily structured around racial conflict), they might have to actually acknowledge the material inequalities enforced by the ruling class on everyone else, including Jim.
Simply put, Jim was the middle-class "Karen." Conflating materials goods with the means of production, they favored Ripley the unironic paramilitary "advisor" over Ripley the exploited space trucker because Cameron's version was "as good as it gets." Never mind the absolute chain of recursive tyrannical subterfuge begot from this moderate worldview. George Bush Sr. described it as "the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order, a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations."
Spearheading this continual lie is a pantheon of heroic personas: powerful-looking men and women, but also token minorities. For Jim, this included not just girl bosses, but queer bosses—butch lesbians or bisexual warrior women like Zarya, the Russian weightlifting soldier from Overwatch (2016):
I'm not for terminating hero fantasies outright. But I am an iconoclast, humanizing various outlier groups by framing traditional heroism (and its archetypal, warlike bodies) as dubious. This framing quires ironic girl and queer bosses to contrast with. For example, I can generate a lot of gender trouble simply by drawing someone who is fem and masc, who isn't a superhero—or at least, isn't acting like a superhero; i.e., they aren't murdering everything around them (see: above). Maybe just have them peg a femboy consensually instead? Make love, not war, people (except class war, amirite?)!
Iconoclastic artwork like mine uses ironic gender trouble to open people's minds to a new kind of existence, one generally consigned to the nadir of xenophobia in American society (or anywhere that sexists call home). It specifically happens through abjection, granting the victims of sexual and gender division the right not only to exist, but thrive. To reject sexism by throwing its harmful divisions back in sexist people's faces. This can potentially change minds; it's certainly not a given—and it certainly didn't work with Jim, my ex—but I'd argue it's still worth a shot.
John Lennon once wrote,
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man [clearly Lennon's imagination is limited by his own sexism, but at least he tries]
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
Now imagine Conan with a pussy. It's not hard to do, but gonadic alteration still leads to a great deal of gender trouble in heroic art. Or rather, purist Conan fans can't imagine him with a pussy anymore than Christofascists can see Jesus as a person of color. "Conan's a guy!" they'll cry—i.e., he has a penis, he must have a penis. Never mind that I can draw Conan with a pussy faster than you can blink. For added fun, I can even have him identify as a trans man(!). Or keep the penis and have Conan gay or identify as a transwoman. The sky's limit, really.
The radical creativity and consumption of an ironically gendered and sexualized Conan not only flies in the face of the original author, Ron E. Howard, who was racist and sexist; it insults those who uphold his fascist ideas: his fascist fans (it's possible to like Conan and not be bigoted, but those who actively defend Howard's sexism are bigots). These bristling reactionaries will defend Howard's problematic canon by beatifying the very hero that personifies his hyperbolic gender norms—their gender norms.
Generally this stance is ontological—i.e., "Conan is cis-het!" Such claimants likewise abject alternatives by treating them as anathema. To these persons, I'm not an iconoclast (which to acknowledge would belie their adversarial function as canonical gate-keepers oppressing me); I'm just a silly person who gave Conan a pussy (which is different from Red Sonya, who represents the '70s idea of a patriarchal girl boss: conventional eye candy and warlike in ways that uphold* the status quo). Conan needing to have a penis will quickly eclipse anything else about him, and erase alternatives by shading them as inherently vile, twisted and demonic.
*A sex-positive Amazon would be William Marsden's Wonder Woman, whom Marsden specifically crafted in ways that undermined the Amazon as a patriarchal tool. While the inevitable subjugation of traditional Amazons warned Athenian women not to "act like men," Marsden's protagonist demonstrated women as sexually empowered—to socially elevate themselves, but also serve as counterculture icons with BDSM tendencies.
The iconoclasts who author these ironic, sex-positive alternatives are generally scapegoated by fascist warmongers, whose lethal abuse neoliberals downplay through moderacy. We'll explore this concept next, and why persecuted groups choose to make decisions that invariably lead to punishment.
Sexist Ire: Persecuting Iconoclasts
Because iconoclasm invites persecution by defying the status quo (what Elphaba calls "gravity"), it is invariably performed by marginalized groups or their champions. Being neoliberal/fascist, TERFs function as canonical gatekeepers, reacting in bad-faith towards those who defy the social order. Generally this involves two basic steps: self-persecution, followed by self-defense with extreme prejudice. Apathy and murder, basically.This perfidious theater justifies the TERF's lethal response, granting them the right to be as cruel as they want. The victims of their treachery can be authors who generate counterculture media, but also trans persons who author their own, chosen genders. Both are iconoclasts, but sometimes iconoclasts select their gender identities and make media:
Iconoclasm isn't merely a choice, but something that goes beyond the individual. Contrary to popular opinion, a trans person does not choose to be trans—rather, does not choose to experience the overwhelming gender dysphoria* that pushes them away from their assigned gender identity (or some other catalyst if dysphoria is not the reason). Nor do they choose the discrimination and unequal punishment that results. Their biological sex, their assigned gender and the socio-economic forces that compel sexual and gender standardization—all are accidental parts of a broader sexist world the trans person is born into through no fault of their own.
*The psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.
Trans people still have agency and they still make choices; these simply involve societal conditions beyond their control. By shaping their personal identities as they see fit, their decisions inevitably lead to persecution. The same concept applies to authors and illustrations, which often represent actual people. The iconoclastic act—of deliberately reshaping a hero's morphology beyond the established norm—is akin to choosing one's own sexual/gender beliefs in a non-prescriptive manner. Its mere existence challenges the status quo, leading to gender trouble.
Consider Gregory Maguire's Wicked (1995): The story is about Elphaba, a trans character whose ambiguous identity was pre-selected by Maguire, the author. Being gay and married, I'm not surprised that Maguire writes Elphaba's own choices as melding inextricably with her persecuted status: She's a witch—a symbol already martyred by patriarchal sexists in the real world—but also someone described has having chosen her sex and skin color: "Perhaps little green Elphaba chose her own sex, and her own color, and to hell with her parents."
Maguire's writing Elphaba as trans makes the novel far more iconoclastic than it might be otherwise. Yet, despite Maguire's deliberately iconoclastic Oz, Wicked nonetheless launched his career. People liked the story (or rather, they liked the musical based off his work, which sanitized everything to G-rated extremes and launched Wicked to bestseller fame 10 years after it was written). The question is, why?
Prudence. For all his creative risks, I think Maguire was actually pretty careful in his approach. Yes, he famously humanized the Wicked Witch of the West, giving her a name and a past. He also deliberately framed her as sympathetic, if not strictly good. By his own admission, though, he deliberately wrote things to be ambiguous. In doing so, he plays it fairly safe. There's plenty of naughty ideas, but nothing definitive that would alienate him concretely.
This caution isn't impossible to understand. The "friends of Dorothy" method and similar "passwords" involves a careful amount of concealment to avoid overt hostility from straight people. And while Maguire may or may not have been using that strategy in no uncertain terms, I can't help but detect a whiff of it in his Wicked novels. Rather than patently excoriate the Wizard and those in power, there's a great deal of imperfect, sideways criticism.
For example, much like Sean Young lashing out against Hollywood, Elphaba lacks that "pure" victim status, instead being framed as someone outrageously angry. Maguire chose this on purpose. Perhaps, it was to illustrate the confusing nature of intersectional politics. Nevertheless, Elphaba, is absolutely the victim, a trans person who chose her skin color and sex, only to be killed ostensibly by her own father (the Wizard, who might have sired Elphaba by raping her mother). Maguire's decision to not only understate this, but also intentionally confuse the facts, feels pretty toothless from a critical standpoint.
Maguire also cared less about failing to deliver a pre-existing image that people had a very clear idea of, and more about transforming everything around it. He did so at length, making Oz as different from the 1939 film (or Baum's earlier novels) as Elphaba herself was. In other words, he didn't break into someone else's church and desecrate the icons inside; he built his own church out from bastardized language. There's a buffer, a disguise that hides what he's doing.
Public outcry on Facebook is one thing. The problem is, the destruction of iconoclasts differ historically from the destroying of icons. Yes, there's the vandalistic approach of pulling down of statues—i.e., to efface the Lost Cause Myth (which is good; the Civil War was about slavery and Southern Pride is a racist dogwhistle). But history frowns equally upon the humanist iconoclast: the artist or thinker who plays with icons in literature, "destroying" them by transforming them into something new. Like Toxie (see above)!
Privileged authors like myself (I identified as cis-het when I drew Deet) experience less risk than more marginalized groups. The more marginalized you are, the more your iconoclastic notions affords you genuine, lethal punishment. Some ridicule those in power, including their bodies. But some iconoclasts are trying to merely stand up for the rights of others by creating documents that defy the social order.
For example, when Nazis protestors raided the Institute of Sexology in 1933, they burned 20,000 books that argued for the rights of trans people, homosexuals, and women (a world first, at least by post-Enlightenment standards). I can't say if Magnus Hirschfield intended to make an overt political statement. Nonetheless, his practice painted a giant target on the institute he oversaw. When the Nazi attacked, it wasn't defense of a besieged community against an alien menace; it was a pointed attack by fascists against marginalized communities fighting for equality under an inherently unequal system.
Historical Nazis are easy to attack thanks to American neoliberal propaganda. However, most practicing Nazis are crypto-fascists. This isn't to say they're invisible. It just means they don't call themselves Nazis. Jordan Peterson is an incredibly visible thought leader who doesn't call himself a Nazi; he's still trying to flip the script by comparing consensual gender-correction surgeries to Nazi Germany. In other words, he's functioning like a Nazi by attempting to bad-faith criminalize gender equality in the fields of medicine and the humanities.
Fascists are easy to critique; they're Nazis. However, Neoliberals are just as bad because they
- permit Nazis to exist
- open the doors of power to Nazis
- look the other way when Nazis break shit and kill people
This includes TERFs. Not all TERFs are cis-het women; the gender-critical movement includes the Manosphere, and bad-faith Feminists can be male, cis-queer, or even trans (re: NERFs). Regardless of one's biological sex, many TERFs are still "mask-on," normalizing Nazis as people to respectfully debate in the free marketplace of ideas. TERFs are like the neoliberal dad from The Neverending Story (1984) reasoning with his fanciful son, Bastian. Bastion's dad tells him to grow up and accept things the way they are.
Such urbane bosses regulate the control of art as the very extension of those they seek to manipulate through social-sexual-economic means: workers depicted through sexualized art, but also sex work as a means of economical control. TERF politeness gives way to SWERF rhetoric that flows in a fascist direction: "Don't give Conan a pussy or make Skeletor a communist trans woman. Be nice to Nazis [the gatekeepers of gender and sexuality]." These SWERF gatekeeper mandates are dangerously similar to book-burning as a form of media control. So much so that, when things reliably get worse and marginalized communities suffer from Capitalism-in-crisis, TERFs will either turn a blind eye, cover it up, or fan the flames.
To call this "gaslighting" feels morbidly appropriate: And "where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people."
History is littered with the scorched remains of fascist victims, colonized behind the veil of neoliberalism. Made of silk, the fire starts at the edges. It devours the outliers first, moving inward as it consumes every alternate mode of gender and sexual expression. Femboys and catboys become extinct—not just their anathema images, but the associate victims as well.
What follows are any non-normative person or identity you can think of: trans people, enbys, ace persons—on and on down the line, until homosexuality and gender performance are a myth, and cis-men and cis-women are all that remains, divided along strict, uncompromising lines. Soon, these fringe atrocities will creep inwards, ravaging the center (re: Foucault's Boomerang). Those in the middle aren't fireproof; they merely have to wait longer before they're burned alive.
Sexual hierarchies subjugate to infantilizing extremes. Rendered deaf, dumb and blind, those under them become hopelessly dependent and trapped, oblivious to anything outside their cages. Alas, the disappearance of iconoclastic language doesn't erase the threat, only the ability to discuss it clearly and openly. The exceptions to these boundaries still exist; they simply become invisible, including the atrocities committed against them.
Those with power will be there. From on high, the bourgeoise lord over the entire trap, installing its boundaries to impose their will upon "lesser" individuals. Such negative freedom is universally toxic, spelling the premature end for so many people's lives. This includes the tyrants! Trapped inside their glorious fakeries, these fatal authors fall upon their own swords, dying ignominious deaths. It's such a fake, short-sighted existence, brutal and misleading when it doesn't need to be. It's easy to think of Hilter dying in this fashion, while so many capitalists watched from relative safety. However, the shadow of climate change will consume them, too.
I'm not saying punch CEOs, TERFs or Nazis (though if you did, I wouldn't complain); individual cases of physical violence are far less important than striking them where it hurts: their propaganda. This requires parallel space, ironic consumption, parody and reverse abjection, but also de facto educators conveying mutual consent, descriptive sexuality and cultural appreciation through counterculture art. Combined, these factors can
- denude the fascist as a killer-in-disguise
- break the neoliberal spell by demonstrating the Symbolic Order as an arbitrary construct, exposing the bourgeoise—and Capitalism's Promethean hierarchy—as the ultimate foe
- humanize other groups through sexual alternatives to the establish norm
- deromanticize the TERF infatuation with us-versus-them violence
About me: My name is Persephone van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!
I'm an artist and a writer. If you're interested my work and are curious about illustrated or written commissions, please refer to my website for more information. If you want to contact me about a guest article, please use this contact form or reach out to me on Discord (vanderWaardart#5394)!
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