Jeanna Kadlec| Longreads | October 2020 | 3,234 words (12 minutes)
How do you tame a witch? Historically, you don’t: You kill her. Burn her. Hang her. In tales, the witch is often a her. A she-devil, if you will, a woman who sleeps with Lucifer, who is Satan’s mistress, who bears a demonic mark. Read the 15th-century witch-hunters’ Malleus Maleficarum, it’ll tell you. Her very existence, her body itself, is a portal from this world to others, and she must be put down, lest she tears a rip in reality itself.
Wicked witches, the stuff of historical legend and nightmarish fairy tales, inspire a terror that verges on the sublime, that feeling Edmund Burke articulated so long ago — of standing on the edge of a cliff where you feel the simultaneity of danger and spectacular awe. Mountains are sublime. Milton’s Satan is sublime. Sublimity only exists in things that could kill you, which bring you to the edge of yourself. The untamed feminine, then, surely falls into this category: Witches exist on the margins, in the shadows, ever threatening to invade and disrupt the sanctity of the social order.
These days, Disney doesn’t kill witches — at least, not as often as they used to. These days, Disney is interested in the ultimate rehabilitation project: How do you make these archetypal wonders, this sublime femininity, less frightening? Less powerful — particularly to people invested in women and queers behaving in normatively gendered ways?
Frozen came out the year I came out. The film was released in November 2013, one month after I’d sat in a courtroom, a newly out, 25-year-old lesbian finalizing my divorce from my fundamentalist Christian ex-husband. I went to see Frozen its opening weekend and listened to a newly crowned Disney queen with hidden magical powers accidentally out herself after a lifetime of repression (“Couldn’t keep it in, Heaven knows I’ve tried”). Elsa sang “Let It Go” on an icy mountaintop, and my baby gay self sobbed my heart out, sitting alone in a dark theater, at what was obviously a coming-out anthem. I had let go of so many things: my marriage, my faith, a complicated friendship with the woman I was in love with. “Here I stand, in the light of day — let the storm rage on” was a prayer and a promise to myself, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to commit to my own healing no matter what anyone in my life thought.
Some stories get inside you in that way where, later on, it’s unclear if you’ve built your life out of the seed that was the art.
To grow up queer, especially if you don’t have the language or the worldview framework for understanding queerness, can be an isolating experience. It is profoundly strange, to feel unrecognizable, beyond language, even to yourself. This can create a gravitational pull toward characters who, for the first time, hold up a mirror and say, me: you’re like me. This phenomenon of first recognition has inspired an entire category of queer art, like the song “Ring of Keys” in the Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home, sung by the child version of the protagonist (Young Alison) when she sees an older butch for the first time: “Someone just came in the door — like no one I ever saw before! I feel… I feel!”
This was my experience with Jo March, the protagonist of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Read more…
When we call Anne Lister, the 19th century British diarist and adventurer reimagined in HBO’s hit series Gentleman Jack, the “first modern lesbian,” what do we mean, precisely? Critics don’t seem to know. The catchy tagline coined by Lister’s devotees and perpetuated by the show’s marketing is good branding, but makes for a slightly confusing moniker: what is it, exactly, that makes Anne Lister a “modern” lesbian, let alone the first?
The answer goes beyond a casual Wikipedia-esque list of Lister’s propensities and accomplishments that most coverage of the show has thus far relied on. To understand what makes Anne Lister unique, you have to understand how lesbianism and identity were understood in the 1830s — and it’s far too simplistic to say that women with women was simply “unimaginable” for the time, that Lister was completely solitary in her pursuit of as public a commitment as would have been socially acceptable.
Lesbian content was not unfamiliar to 17th, 18th, and 19th century audiences. From lesbian eroticism in pornographic texts such as the psuedonymous Abbé du Prat’s The Venus in the Cloister: or, the Nun in Her Smock, published in 1683, to the trope of a “Female Husband” (which had historical grounding in famous figures like Mary Hamilton) to the romantic friendship of Ladies of Llangollen, who were contemporaries of Lister’s, the idea of women loving (and fucking) women was hardly new, if deeply socially unacceptable. Among women of the upper class with means, Lister was hardly alone in forging her own kind of life. The “first”? No.
Lister was ahead of her time, but not in the obvious way: not because of her desire, or even her willingness to throw off norms. Rather, her desire to live what we would identify as an “out” life (or, as “out” a life as possible) was informed by a distinctly Enlightenment-informed conception of her individuality and her psychosexual identity that would have been more at home in 2019 than 1839. In Lister’s time, lesbian wasn’t the distinct identity category it would later become. Lister’s prescient insistence on a cohesion between her public and private personas — an insistence on her sexuality as a vital component of her identity — was remarkable. Thanks to her diaries, we also have unprecedented access to how she herself thought of her identity and sexuality, as well as an explicit record of sexual activity. Ultimately, this means that Lister is a historical figure made for 21st century consumption, onto whose life we can easily project (if anachronistically) ideas like that of the closet and the difficulty of living an “out” life in Regency England. Read more…