John Lennon – Imagine


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“Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom
and the people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit
and there will be no thieves.”

From Chapter 19 of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

In a recent survey conducted on behalf of the book series, Little People, Big Dreams, it was found that 15% of children aged six to 16 had never heard of John Lennon and a third of them did not know why he was famous. Imagine, the most well-known of his solo offerings, is one of the reasons why Lennon was famous not just as a member of The Beatles.

Imagine by John Lennon is not, as the title would suggest, a song about imagination. It is concerned with reality without the imposition of human preconceptions. The means of achieving peace it advocates is not idealistic dreaming, but rather the unlearning of several ideas that have been invented by humankind, and which have become so entrenched in society that it is difficult to imagine a world without them.

“Imagine there’s no heaven…”

This is a strange line to open a song about a desired world peace. Surely heaven is a positive idea, or, at least, not detrimental to society? Lennon, however, is not singing about a utopia. He is proposing a world that no longer needs heaven because life is enough. As Douglas Adams said: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

The first verse continues:

“It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky.”

Heaven and hell are the concepts in the song most demonstrably the imagined creation of humankind. The existence of these posthumous destinations for the soul can be neither confirmed or denied because nobody can experience death and return. Lennon is arguing that without the expectation of reward or punishment in the afterlife, people would instead focus on the importance of the journey and living in the moment because life, which it is much harder to argue against the existence of, is all that matters: “Imagine all the people living for today”.

He expands on this theme in the second verse with the line “and [imagine] no religion too”. Like heaven and hell, religion is also the invention of the human mind. (If you are religious, at least admit that the religions you do not follow are such). Religion can have both good and bad consequences. It follows the line ‘Nothing to kill or die for’, so the emphasis is on the negative effects, such as religious fighting, but since he is imagining ‘Above us, only sky’, it is not only these but also the positive repercussions, such as being a good person to get a ticket to paradise, that he imagines not existing.

The second verse begins with the line “Imagine there’s no countries.” Countries are also the invention of humankind. The world is just the world and it is only people that have divided it up into separate entities like a spherical blue-green cake. The world we live in has countries only because of a consensus that they exist, and even then, the boundaries are unstable. Look at Russia reclaiming Crimea in 2014, the fighting between Armenians and Azeris over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, and the revelation that President Trump enquired about purchasing Greenland from Denmark in 2019. Sometimes there is no consensus: Kosovo, Israel and Taiwan are all unrecognised by some states.

If this is hard to accept because the idea of countries is so ingrained in how people view the world, a passage in Book III, Chapter VII of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, when the world population is reduced to less than 100 people journeying from France to Switzerland, might help explain it:

“We first had bidden adieu to the state of things which having existed many thousand years, seemed eternal; such a state of government, obedience, traffic, and domestic intercourse, as had moulded our hearts and capacities, as far back as memory could reach. Then to patriotic zeal, to the arts, to reputation, to enduring fame, to the name of country, we had bidden farewell. […] To preserve these we had quitted England–England, no more; for without her children, what name could that barren island claim?”

Without people, there are no countries. Of course, Lennon is not imagining a world without people but with “all the people living life in peace”. What he dreams of is a world not without humans, but without the delineated borders of countries created by humankind.

The line “Nothing to kill or die for” follows this after “It isn’t hard to do”. Take, for example, the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: The two belligerents are fighting over control of the enclave to say “that region is in my country”. If there were no countries and borders imposed on the world by humans, such fighting would never take place and there would be nothing to kill or die for.

The final verse begins with the line “Imagine no possessions”. Possessions do not exist without the human belief in ownership. There are things, and who owns them is, like the borders of countries, a matter of popular consensus and legal definition created by governments, rather than unmitigated truth. The line reminds me of a verse in the Billy Bragg song, “The World Turned Upside Down”:

“The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain.”

Lennon is asking the listener to imagine a world without the concept of ownership. As the quotation from the Tao Te Ching at the beginning of this piece says: “Throw away industry and profit/and there will be no thieves.”

There is a concept in Taoism called ‘Pu’, most commonly translated as the ‘uncarved block’ but which is perhaps better translated as ‘unworked wood’ or ‘unhewn log’. It refers to natural simplicity without any unnecessary complication or human interference. (It has other connotations, but this is the most relevant to Imagine.) What Lennon is actually asking the listener to do is to return to this state of being, before humans imagined these notions; the afterlife, religion, borders, countries, the concept of ownership, and possessions; to perform a miracle and uncarve the block of life by undoing the layers and layers of concepts humankind has constructed and sewn into the fabric of our perception.

Imagine, therefore, is not about imagination. It is about a reality unencumbered by the intervention of human preconceptions. The children who do not know who John Lennon is, whose minds are yet to be ‘carved’ by the preconceptions of their ancestors, are perhaps the ideal form of this concept, the people who could grow up to make Lennon’s dream a reality. Can you imagine that?

Confederate Band Names in the Court of Public Opinion


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“What is history? Any thoughts, Webster?”

“History is the lies of the victors,” I replied, a little too quickly.

“Yes, I was rather afraid you’d say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.”

 – Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Lady Antebellum and The Dixie Chicks have ditched the Confederate allusions in their names and become, respectively, Lady A and The Chicks.

The word ‘antebellum’ refers to the period before a war and commonly to the years preceding the US Civil War. It is often used in the phrase ‘antebellum South’ to refer to the Confederate states and to describe a style of architecture then popular in the region, particularly on plantations where slaves were worked. Given these connotations, it is no surprise the band chose to remove it from their name.

The change of appellation, however, has resulted in a conflict with the Seattle-based African American singer, Anita White, who has been using the name Lady A since the early 1980s, first as part of Lady A & The Baby Blues Funk Band and then in her ensuing solo career. Upon hearing about the change, Lady A (the singer) responded“It’s an opportunity for them to pretend they’re not racist or pretend this means something to them. If it did, they would’ve done some research.”; “now [they] want to take my professional name and brand.”; “I don’t even know how much I’ll have to spend to keep it.” In the American songwriter article, Paul Zollo wrote: “Given that the world knows what that A stands for, to many this change does little more than add extra insult to this ongoing injury.”

Lady A (the band) then apologised and the two parties held talks about co-existing. On receiving the contract offer from Lady A (the band), Lady A (the singer) said “I’m not happy about it. […] Their camp is trying to erase me.” She submitted a counteroffer that either the band would choose another name, or that she would change hers for a $5m fee plus a $5m split between Black Lives Matter, Seattle charities, and a legal defence fund for independent artists.

Lady A (the band) have now filed a lawsuit against Lady A (the singer), which, as Natalie Maynes of The Chicks has said, is ‘kind of going against the point of changing their name’. I would agree with Lady A (the singer): In an effort to eradicate the Confederate reference from the title, they have appropriated the name of a black singer, sued her to use it, and have retained the A as a reminder of what it used to stand for. The tokenism of the gesture implies they believe black lives matter but their actions suggest they think the voices of black musicians do not.

The word ‘Dixie’ also refers to the 11 states that comprised the Confederacy. The Dixie Chicks said they had wanted to change their name “years and years and years ago” but were finally roused to action after they saw someone on Instagram refer to the Confederate flag as “The Dixie Swastika”. Emily Strayer of The Chicks said she saw the image and thought “I don’t want to have anything to do with that.” In contrast to Lady A, The Chicks also reached out to a New Zealand duo of the same name requesting permission to share the moniker and received their blessing. The group also removed the whole word rather than reducing it to an initial, but that may just be because a band called The D Chicks has other unwanted associations.

There were warnings that changes like this had been coming. The band Confederate Railroad were removed from the bill of the Ulster County and Du Quoin State Fairs in 2019, officially because they used the Confederate flag in their logo, but most likely because of their name’s link to the antebellum South. In an interview with Rolling Stone, lead singer Danny Shirley espoused this view, saying he had no intention of changing the name and that the removal was because “You had one political blogger bring it up”.

The larger question in all this is why terms like ‘Dixie’, ‘Antebellum’ and ‘Confederate’, words associated with the side that lost the US Civil War, found their way into the names of bands in the first place. One answer is that the popular perception of what the words meant when the bands were formed has changed: Confederate Railroad are the oldest, starting out in 1987, The Dixie Chicks in 1989 and Lady Antebellum most recently in 2006.

You can trace the change in attitudes through the evolving perception of what the Confederate flag symbolises. The earliest nationwide poll to ask what the Confederate flag symbolised to the public was in 1992, when 69% of all Americans saw it as a symbol of Southern pride. The previous year, a poll of Southerners found that whites thought the flag was a symbol of Southern pride, while blacks thought it was a symbol of racism. As Shirley notes in the Rolling Stone interview, “To us, we were taught that [the Confederate] flag means you like the part of the country you come from.”

But times have changed since Shirley was taught. In June 2020, a poll found that 44% of Americans saw it as a symbol of Southern pride and 36% as a symbol of racism, while a separate survey the following month found that 56% saw it as a symbol of racism and 35% of Southern pride, with those from the South reflecting the national averages at 55% and 36%. Despite the considerable difference in responses, both show that recognition of the flag as primarily symbolising Southern pride has declined over the 30 years.

It is not known whether this change in understanding of what the Confederate flag, the Confederacy and associated terms signify will prove to be a continuing trend or simply a blip. I do not expect the defence of such things ever to entirely disappear: History may be written by the victors, but the self-delusions of the defeated have a tendency to persist.


Jeffrey Lewis – Keep It Chill! (In The East Vill)


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“No, my prophecy will come bright, charging full at the eastern rays of the sun!”

 – spoken by Cassandra in Agamemnon by Aeschylus, as translated by George Theodoridis

On 24 March 2020, the singer Jeffrey Lewis posted a video of the song “Keep It Chill! (In The East Vill)” to his YouTube channel. It was a solo piece on acoustic guitar written in response to the COVID-19 outbreak reaching New York and the subsequent shutdown. Just over three months later, many of the worries and fears he enumerated in the lyrics have become eerily prescient.

In the third verse, Lewis predicted that rats are ‘gonna run out of things to eat’ because there’s ‘no one in the street’ and ‘it won’t take long ‘till they’re a billion strong.’ There were more sightings of rats after the implementation of the lockdown in both New Orleans and New York, and the reopening of outdoor restaurants and other eateries in the Big Apple has brought a surge in visible rat activity.

The verse continues with the lines ‘They’re sure the food they’re missing’s/now stored in out kitchens,/so look out, here they come!’. In the UK, a report by Aviva found that there had been a 42% increase in rat infestations for JG Pest Control between January to March 2020 (Q1) and April to June 2020 (Q2), a 120% increase in rodent-related callouts between Q2 2019 and Q2 2020, and that residential rodent cases for the first half of 2020 was equivalent to 90% of cases in the whole of 2019.

Lewis finishes the prediction with the lines ‘So each virus life we save/is gonna die in a mighty rat tidal wave’, which has not happened yet, thank goodness, and may never happen. Recently, however, the first case of tick-borne babesiosis was diagnosed in England. Babesiosis is a disease ticks acquire after they have fed off infected cattle, rodents or deer and then pass onto humans with bites. At present, there is no evidence to suggest this case was because of rodents, but the aforementioned increased human proximity to rats will likely lead to the spread of other diseases.

In the second verse, Lewis forecast that ‘the teeming hordes that can’t take no more is gonna loot the stores and then they’re coming for us’. Following the police killing of the African American George Floyd on 25 May 2020, there was widespread civil unrest that included, but was not limited to, looting, although the vast majority of it was peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. The section is concluded with the line ‘there’s blood that’s gonna spill’, and (graphic content warning) blood did spill, but from police brutality rather than rival looters.

In the fourth verse, Lewis refers to President Donald Trump as the ‘orange clown who runs DC’ and provides a list of actions he expects the leader to take. This begins with the President seeing ‘there’s perfect cause to declare martial laws’. Although he has not, in fact, declared martial law in response to the civil unrest, he has taken it upon himself to use a military general for a photo opportunity, threatened to deploy the National Guard, and sent federal agents in unmarked vehicles to detain protestors. So, while martial law itself has not been invoked, everything but martial law has been.

Later in the verse, Lewis sings that ‘all his Klu Klux kranks/patrol the streets with tanks/saying “Behave and you’ll be spared!”’. The use of ‘Klu Klux kranks’ to make reference to the Klan carries with it the connotations of racism the police have been accused of, and their anonymity, hiding under the hood, also anticipates the anonymity used by the officers in unmarked vehicles.

Lewis follows the ‘perfect cause to declare martial laws’ with ‘and pause elections indefinitely’. On 30 July 2020, the President tweeted: ‘Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???’, saying it will be the most ‘inaccurate and fraudulent’ election in history because of ‘universal mail-in voting’. Although later in the verse, Lewis opines that ‘you can’t send mail out’, the coronavirus outbreak means that a lot of people will be choosing to post their ballots. In Nevada, for example, lawmakers are looking to provide every registered voter with a mail-in ballot, much to Trump’s chagrin. The President has dangled this proposition of a rescheduled poll, and although the constitution clearly states that only congress has the power to authorise it, it would not be surprising if he attempted to carry out such a threat.

Another thing Lewis expects Trump to do is ‘call the banks’ and say ‘let’s all join ranks/unless their money might get shared’. The $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed in the senate on 25 March 2020 included a provision of $500bn for businesses in what was criticised as a ‘corporate slush fund’, as well as $400bn in loans for small businesses to be made available through banks and credit unions, which resulted in ‘larger companies with connections to major national or regional banks’ getting ‘priority treatment’. It did, however, include sending cheques to individuals, so Lewis’s fear that ‘you won’t get no bailout’ proved to be unfounded, but not far off, given the unprecedented increase in unemployment and the lapsing of rent protections paving the way for mass evictions.

Lewis also worries that “if the internet’s not a memory yet/it’ll get surveilled outright at will’. On 29 May 2020, President Trump signed an executive order targeting Twitter after it fact-checked one of his tweets. A lawsuit against it has been brought by the Center for Democracy and Technology, claiming the order could ‘discourage other platforms from exercising their free speech rights’. Add Trump’s intention to ban TikTok from the US to the mix, and the internet is not just being surveilled, but the wild west of the world wide web is becoming increasingly regulated.

Despite all of this, Lewis ends the song on a happy note, claiming there is a chance humanity will take ‘total warning about global warming’, that the shutdown will ‘slow greenhouse gases’ and ‘makes things greener and the whole world cleaner’. He also says there could be a ‘full-on call for healthcare for all/and better safety nets rolled out’. The hope is that these calls are answered and, unlike Cassandra, the warnings are heeded, because Lewis’s future-telling hit-rate of ill omens in one song is frighteningly high, so there is grounds for optimism that his harbingers of happier times will be too.

Emmy The Great – Dandelions/Liminal


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“Funny, although [Malaya] was going through civil war, in lots of ways it was more straightforward than Hong Kong. You’d know where you were most of the time. Not really like that here, is it?”

“No, it’s all about layers here,” I said.

“Layers. That’s a good word for it. Layers.

 – John Lanchester, Fragrant Harbour

Emmy the Great’s Dandelions/Liminal, the first single released from her upcoming album, April, is about the final stages of a relationship when you know the end is coming but some of the embers of that first flame still glow. It also examines the dichotomy between societal expectations on the one hand, the natural world and intuition on the other, and the blurred edges between them.

The forward slash in the title gives the song three potential names: it can be either Dandelions, Liminal or Dandelions/Liminal. Dandelions is a concrete noun, while liminal, which can mean either a transitional or initial stage of a process or occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold, is an abstract adjective. This is a reversal of the expected grammar: an adjective is usually put before a noun to describe it. It also means the title itself has a certain liminality to it, unable to settle on either word or both.

Emmy The Great was born in Hong Kong, a fact mentioned in both the press release for the single and an interview on Sunday Morning Live that aired on 19 July 2020. Having also lived in the UK and New York, Emmy occupies a liminal space where she is able to sing in both English and Cantonese. I first heard her sing in Cantonese when a friend of mine, Laura, and I went to see her at the Village Underground, and Laura identified one song as a version of Faye Wong’s cover of Dreams by The Cranberries featured in Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 film, Chungking Express.

Hong Kong, which was a British colony until 1997, is a liminal space, sitting, historically, if not geographically, on the threshold of East and West. As a special administrative region of China under its ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy scheduled to last until 2047, it is in the process of changing jurisdiction. At present, with the controversy over its National Security Law, democracy protests, and threats by the Chinese Government to stop recognising the British National (Overseas) passport, it is also a battleground between Western, especially English-speaking democracy and control by the mainland.

The artwork released alongside the single is a diptych of historic photos of Hong Kong, taken from the vantage point of Hong Kong Island and overlooking Kowloon across Victoria Harbour, a natural division within the territory of Hong Kong itself. The photos overlap, so that the leftmost edge of the first photo comprises the rightmost edge of the second photo. This is the same structure as the title, with the word/photo you expect to be on the left appearing on the right. There is also a picture of what I assume is a dandelion on the left-hand photo, although it is hard to tell, and a clash of the natural world and urban settlements in both, but more distinctly in the right-hand picture.

The very first line of the song, ‘Oh it was terrible the trembling/back when the leaves were turning brown’, introduces this idea of liminality. The first clause is backed by tremolo strings, reflecting the trembling in the lyrics as they slide back and forth across the notes, while the second recalls the process of autumn, one of the subjects Emmy has said the album was about in a pinned Tweet.

But there is also the overlap between societal expectation and natural intuition, as demonstrated in the first verse after the first chorus. It opens with the desire to have a leisurely riverside stroll, but undercuts it with the question, ‘Isn’t that what people do?’, transforming it into a romantic ideal the couple is attempting to imitate without the underlying affection required to rekindle those spontaneous early days.

The next line, ‘You say we’ve lost touch with Mother Nature’ follows perfectly on from this, because the natural experience has been subordinated to societal expectation. By the time the final line, ‘And I say, I need to call my mother too’, comes around, we’re back completely to societal convention, away from intuition and without a mention of the natural world, as Emmy needs to use technology to fulfil what is expected of her.

An earlier couplet, ‘Let us dance a little more/they’re playing music in the store’, also deals with the way these two ideas interact, as the primal need to dance is changed once you realise that they are in a store, where that urge is not expected to be satisfied.

In fact, the other person in the song, her lover, acts as a sort of proselytizer for natural world. The three times they communicate are a note to say they are leaving town, saying that they have lost touch with Mother Nature, and that their official line is that heartache is healthy for the body. The last of these is followed by Emmy singing ‘If pain is healthy for the body, baby, you too could have a body like mine’, referring to a real advertising slogan used for several products, most notably for bodybuilding. The ‘official line’ becomes blurred because, depending on whether or not heartache is healthy for the body, the following line could be a validation of their outlook or a sarcastic joke.

This verse also introduces backing vocals singing ‘da da da da da da da’, which, aside from being much more interesting to hear than to read, is the first syllable of dandelions, the other half of the title, repeated as if literally scattering all over the place. Various other text painting techniques are used throughout to evoke this scattering.

The first time Emmy sings ‘scatter all over the place’, the first four syllables are quavers or half-notes, taking up a period of half a beat, and the fifth note, the second syllable of ‘over’ lasts for a dotted crotchet, or one and a half notes. The ‘the’ lasts for one quaver or half note and ‘place’ lands on the first beat of the next 4/4 bar.

The drum pattern also changes during the singing of this phrase, with the snare drum now landing on the first beat, the second half of the second beat and the fourth beat. All that has really happened is that one beat has been dropped and another moved half a beat, but the effect is that the backing seems stretched out, reflecting the scattering, which is further emphasised when combined with the rhythmic pattern of the lyrics.

The second time Emmy sings ‘Scatter all over the place’, the pattern changes. The six notes of ‘scatter all over the’ are stretched equally over the four beats in a set of crotchet triplets. The effect of this is that the words themselves seem to scatter over the beat. The fact that it is a different pattern of notes singing ‘scatter all over the place’ to the previous one calls further attention to the randomness of the scattering dandelions.

This scattering is also reflected in the final passage, where Emmy sings ‘Don’t give me anything except your time’ and a chorus of voices sings ‘scatter all over’. The chorus then echoes ‘your time’ and Emmy takes up ‘scatter all over the place’, so that the words themselves switch places to echo the scattering of dandelions.

The song combines this series of liminal motifs; the bittersweet twilight of a relationship, the inevitable passage of time, the natural changing of the seasons, intuition versus societal norms; into a song that slides effortlessly between conflicts. A breakup song without a breakup is difficult to categorise, to the point where it has a choice of titles, but that’s the point. It’s about the porousness of boundaries, the liminal spaces between layers. That’s a good word for it. Layers.

Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America – The 1975


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“Of footprints left behind Him, in the earthly path He trod,
And how the lowest may find Him, who straitly walk with God,”

From “The Object of a Life” by G. J. Whyte Melville

In The 1975’s Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America, lead vocalist, Matty Healy, and guest artist, Phoebe Bridgers, take on the personas of people who are concealing their same-sex attraction because it conflicts with their Christian beliefs.

The theme is set out in the opening two verses, where Matty’s character says ‘I’m in love’ twice because he is in love with both Jesus Christ and a boy he knows. In trying to reconcile these supposedly incompatible feelings, he concludes in the opening line of the chorus that ‘fortunately, [he] believes’.

This establishes the idea that he is ‘lucky’ to believe in God. Finding it fortunate to believe in God when it creates a guilt about his same-sex attraction suggests that other people are unlucky and unfortunate not to believe, because they will not have the guidance of God to cope with their feelings.

The line, ‘Searching for planes in the sea’, is likely a reference to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing and was never found, even after a thorough search of the oceans it was most likely to be in. The reference means he is searching for something elusive and almost impossible to find, a solution to his dilemma, an answer from God. The quest is ‘ironic’ because planes do not belong in the sea, but also because the searching itself may be for something that is not there to find.

In the third line of the chorus, the characters sing that ‘soil just needs water and a seed to be’, or to exist as a living thing, which in this context also represents the water of life, the Holy Spirit that is needed to nourish the seed of a soul. But, the characters ask, if they turn into a tree, can they be the leaves? What they want to know is whether they can change, whether this part of them they feel but do not want to admit to the outside world, will pass like the leaves that fall away. If they receive the holy spirit, will they be able to alter who they inherently are, what they want to become?

The line in the second verse, ‘for I am just a footprint in the snow’ is a reference to a poem of disputed authorship called ‘Footprints in the Sand’. In the poem, a believer looks back on his life, represented by the titular footprints, in the company of God. For most of his life he sees two sets of footprints in the sand because God walked beside him. When he was at his most desperate and in need of help, however, he sees only one set of footprints. He questions whether at these times God had abandoned him, but God replies that ‘it was then that I carried you’.

In the song, the lyric follows the line ‘I’m in love but I’m feeling low’. The narrator is also at his most desperate and in need of help, but he is only one footprint. There is a greater ambiguity here, for the song exists in a world where God does not explain himself: The single footprint could be because God has abandoned him, or because God carried him, or because there is no God. The fleeting nature of life is further emphasised by the sands of time being replaced by the more ephemeral snow.

Another deviation from the poem’s analogy is that in the song the footprint does not belong to him but IS him. In the poem, the footprints represent the stages of the believer’s life. In the song, Matty’s character is saying is that he is just a stage in his life that will pass; not at a stage, A stage.

An ancient Greek philosopher called Heraclitus is famous for saying that you can never step in the same river twice. This is true because the water you are stepping into is constantly changing. It follows that people, composed of the same star-stuff as everything else, are also constantly changing. Matty’s character realises this, and although there is hope in the possibility of change, he also realises the insignificance of his being, which results in him feeling low about his love.

Phoebe Bridgers’ verse is also about sublimating her same-sex desire. She is ‘nice’ when her beloved, Claire, ‘comes round to call’ but will ‘masturbate the second she’s not there’, which adds a second so-called sin. The word ‘nice’ was also used in the first verse, where Matty sang that Jesus is ‘so nice’. The repetition suggests that when Claire comes around, the Phoebe Bridgers character is acting in a godly way, which she immediately stops doing when Claire leaves.

Although it is not mentioned in the lyrics, the year 2005 is part of the title because it was a pivotal year for gay rights. In the UK, the home of The 1975, it was the year that civil partnerships between same-sex couples were introduced, while California, the birthplace of Phoebe Bridgers, became the first US state to legalise gay marriage. It was therefore not just a confusing time for the characters in the song, but also for the statute books. In the UK, partnerships between same-sex couples were legally recognised, but marriages, the domain of the church, were not. Part of the US had accepted gay marriage, but other parts still held out. It also might explain the second part of the title, “God Bless America”, because a part of America had accepted gay marriage while the UK still had yet to do so.

The sound of the instruments being set up at the start of the song create the illusion of immediacy, as if the characters are desperate to articulate their current dilemma. The acoustic guitar also lends the tune a confessional tone. There are muted trumpets in the background, partly representing the trumpets of God and the angels, but because they are muted, also capturing the inability of the two characters to fully express their feelings.

When you think of a duet, especially by singers of opposing genders, you tend to think of love songs: Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”, Dolly Parton and the late Kenny Rogers’ “Islands in the Stream” and Elton John and Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, the latter of which features one of the most famous gay musicians in history, but is still about a heterosexual relationship. In this instance, there are two people of opposite genders singing about their longing for someone of the same gender, subverting the expectations of such a duet.

In short, The 1975’s “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” is a duet between people who are not lovers but share the same internal struggle, a confessional about concealing your own nature and a song of praise caveated by several reservations. It is a mess of contradictions, but by embracing these, it articulates a difficult struggle and becomes a beautiful representation of the truth.

The Emoji Code by Professor Vyvyan Evans


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“meanwhile the people are dead in their droves
but nobody noticed

well actually

some of them noticed.
You could tell by the emoji they posted.”

– Kate Tempest, From ‘Europe is Lost’ in Let Them East Chaos

Sometimes when I go to my local supermarket on my lunchbreak, I pass a shop selling emoji-shaped backpacks. It is a marker of how ubiquitous they have become that they have escaped the confines of the digital realm and can now be sold, bought and worn as an accessory IRL (‘In Real Life’, for those not savvy to internet abbreviations.).

In The Emoji Code, Professor Vyvyan Evans explores this pictographic phenomenon and posits that Emoji, (capitalised when referring to the system as a whole and not when referring to individual symbols,) rather than substituting for a language, is primarily used in the same way non-verbal gestures, expressions and paralinguistic signals (grunting, coughing, intonation etc.) are used in face-to-face communication. Perhaps a further distinction between physical cues in face-to-face and vocal cues in telephone conversations would have been nice, but since it is not central to the argument, the omission is not a problem.

Evans is very good on historical context and how language is always in flux but I would have liked to have read a comparison to the change between face-to-face conversation and the invention of the telephone, which seems to me the most pertinent previous linguistic transition, as the removal of any facial expression or gesticulation from communication to only words and paralinguistic signals.

He uses plenty of examples and research, with perhaps a little too much reliance on the former, but I doubt there is a wide variety of statistical data available and the anecdotal evidence is, however, illuminating. It is useful to know that some emoji have different meanings in different languages, like that the hands ‘praying’ in the UK would mean ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in Japan.

Another invaluable insight I discovered from the book, among many others, is that anyone can nominate an emoji, that ‘An individual Chinese-American businesswoman has as much influence as […] an American corporate food-giant.’ Professor Evans states that persons living or dead are not eligible for consideration as emoji, but I know that the footballers Neymar Jr and Paul Pogba were promoted as having them, although they may just be downloadable ‘stickers’ without a Unicode character, so I would venture they are not true emoji. If that is the case, they should not be presented as such in the media. Whether the system will continue to be as democratic as Professor Evans declares it is anyone’s guess.

Because of the resistance to change from those who the author refers to as ‘language mavens’, the book often reads like a defence of Emoji use, focusing on the benefits and none of the downsides. I’m not saying he’s in the pockets of a hypothetical ‘Big Emoji’, but Professor Evans appears to be firmly entrenched on the pro-emoji side.

He points out that Emoji is usually used at the beginning or end of a sentence and is therefore used as a form of multimodality. He mentions people who are actually substituting language with Emoji, such as the artist who rewrote Alice in Wonderland using only the symbols and a journalist who wrote an article the same way, but these are exceptions to common usage. He rarely includes examples where people use single or few emoji, as referred to in the quotation above, where a single emoji is hardly an adequate display of feeling. They may be comparatively rare, but because of the huge amount of usage, might constitute a significant number.

One particular bugbear of mine is the use of the smiley face emoji with tears coming out of the eyes. Like the preceding internet abbreviation for ‘laugh out loud’, lol, which was often used when the person had not actually laughed out loud, how many people are actually crying with laughter when they use this emoji? Is this hyperbole an advantage in communication because it cannot be misconstrued and accurately represents their interior emotion, or is it a disadvantage because it inaccurately depicts the state of the sender? At the present time on, this particular emoji is the only one to have been used over a billion times. If that many people were actually crying with laughter, we could probably solve any impending water crisis with desalination equipment and the tears of our joy.

What it doesn’t examine is the cause for the lightning-quick proliferation of emoji.  My (admittedly speculative) guess would be that although it is not as expressive as video or face-to-face communication, it is more expressive than text, and although they were more convenient than video, previous emoticons and pictograms were not as convenient as text. I would venture that, when the latter obstacle is removed, and each emoji, with some combinatory exceptions, inhabits a single Unicode character and is displayed as an option for predictive text, it is no surprise that Emoji, with its happy synthesis of expressiveness and convenience, has enjoyed such popularity.

In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which has aspects of speculative fiction, he explains that videophones never took off because people were too vain to get made up for video calls and would often be distracted during the conversation, which led to them being less popular than the telephone, where the illusion of attention can be maintained. I wonder if something similar is not also happening with emoji. After all, they don’t need to get ready and they never seem distracted.

It is possible you may even be limiting your digital emotional vocabulary by not using emoticons. In the epigram at the beginning of Tony Harrison’s ‘v.’, there is a quotation form Arthur Scargill: ‘My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.’ Whether there will be a circumstance in which your life depends on your power to master emoji is up for debate, but that they are useful is hard to question.

On the whole, The Emoji Code is an excellent primer on a young subject and I can wholly recommend it. I expect there will be a more detailed analysis soon, but for now this serves as a great introduction. I have definitely moved from regarding them as occasionally useful symbols to invaluable as a means of modern digital communication and will probably start using them more, which, if not the book’s aim, is at least the effect.

But I’m still not buying a backpack.

Georginio Wijnaldum and the Bullet Header


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“One of the things I did that would indicate my apartness, if it even had developed at that point, was that I would announce baseball games. I remember walking along the street with my cousins, announcing the game, and one of them just slapped me in the back of the head and said ‘shut up’. That didn’t last very long, my sports announcing.”

– Don DeLillo, Interview in The Guardian

If you put your hand over your mouth and say ‘Ronaldo’, it sounds like you’re saying ‘Wijnaldum’.

How I came to discover this scintillating revelation I am unable to disclose because a magician never reveals his secrets and a thirty-one-year-old man never wonders what it would sound like to hear the announcers on an AM radio across the street, places a hand over his mouth to simulate such an imaginary noise and then pretends to join in with the commentary. I am not Don DeLillo indicating my apartness, if only because there are presently no cousins in the vicinity to do me the service of slapping me in the back of the head, about which important organ the majority of this blog concerns.

In the much-anticipated fixture between second-placed Liverpool and third-placed Manchester City at Anfield yesterday, a high-scoring result was expected due to both sides’ lethal attacks and porous defences. The immutable Law of Murphy dictated there would actually be only a solitary goal scored by Georginio, or Gini, Wijnaldum, who I now prefer to think of as the gagged Ronaldo, with what was described by more than one commentator as a ‘bullet header’.

The beautiful game is replete with militaristic terminology – aiming, attacking, armies of supporters – err, – Arsenal – and that’s just some of the As. (Ed: You can’t make both these jokes, the one suggesting you’re struggling to think of examples and the other contradicting the first by suggesting there’s a plethora.) (I can and I will. The reader will understand my inconsistency is sincere.) (Ed: Okay, but on your head be it.) (Ha! That’s good. I’m gonna include this whole conversation.) This particular example of martial lingo infiltrating the parlance of the country’s most popular sport has always struck me, like the bullet that fortunately never has, as particularly misguided.

First, let’s dive like Steven Gerrard definitely never did into a bit of what I shall call ‘footymology’, a portmanteau of ‘football’ and ‘etymology’. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘Header’ meant executioner or headsman in the mid-fifteenth century, while ‘Bullet’ with its present meaning as ammunition was first used in English in the mid-sixteenth century, meaning that if a time-traveller from these earlier ages heard the phrase ‘bullet header’, he would think it referred to a person whose occupation was shooting people’s heads off, which is a ridiculous role for a footballer. Everyone knows that’s the manager’s job.

When a footballer strikes a ball with his feet, it is called a ‘kick’. When a goalkeeper is unable to catch a ball, he will often scramble to parry it away with his hands, and that is called a ‘punch’, or if he does not have ‘command’ of his arms or the necessary foresight, he will ‘fumble’ it away, or flap at it like the man who was nicknamed ‘Flappy-Hands-Ski’.

If a goal comes off the shin, the player has shinned it, but it is not called a shinner, or if it is it is only to disparage the goal. If a player uses his chest to knock the ball down he has chested it, but it is not called a chester, partly because that sounds stupid and partly to avoid confusion with the Roman city where Hollyoaks is filmed. Shinned or chested are used as verbs but only because the action is unnatural. To the best of my knowledge, nobody goes into hand-to-hand combat with the intention of shinning or chesting someone as far as I am aware, but if there IS such an obscure martial art, I imagine practiced by Zlatan Ibrahimović in order to score dangerous and skilful goals that get disallowed, then I would very much be interested in enquiring further about it. When there is a handball, the questions usually asked are whether it was intentional or whether the hand or arm is in an unnatural position, but clearly your head is never in an unnatural position, unless you have been the victim of the aforementioned ruthless time-travelling bullet-header from the Renaissance.

Neither of the verbs ‘punch’ or ‘kick’ seems to bear any etymological relation to the extremity performing the action in question like the word header does. The hyphenated ‘head-butt’ or just the second half of that word would seem the closest without using ‘header’ but they are simply never utilised: Nobody except Zinedine Zidane in a World Cup Final head-butts in football, and using the sole word ‘butts’ sounds anachronistic and needlessly filthy. (Had I the time and inclination, of which I have far too much of the former and less than a little of the latter, I would create a highlight reel of ‘bullet headers’ to the soundtrack of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”, making sure to include an accidental ‘bullet header’ own goal under the line “And a round thing in your face”.)

Nobody hits a bullet free-kick or bullet penalty, no defender makes a bullet tackle and no goalkeeper bullet punches the ball. The action of a header is not a bullet. If anything the ball is a bullet, the header is the shooting of a shotgun, but ‘shotgun header’ is probably too on-the-nose, or whichever other part of the head from which it is controlled, usually the forehead.

What a ‘bullet header’ implies is a swift and straight trajectory. As far as I am aware, although the bullet’s design may assist with the speed and direction, the gun is very much necessary for these to have any effect. I expect nobody has ever died from having a bullet thrown at them. If anything, the speed and trajectory are related to the barrel of the firearm. ‘Barrel header’, however, sounds like it’s either been rolled in off slanting platforms like the kegs launched at Jumpman by Donkey Kong or luckily gone in like a dipsomaniac managing to get his key in the lock first time.

This leads us to the problem of how best to describe what has previously been called a ‘bullet header’ if shotgun header is too violent and barrel header sounds too clumsy. I therefore propose removing the human volition from the phrase and replacing it with something that is naturally quick and direct: the meteor header.

If you take nothing else away from this blog, let it be this: If you put your hand over your mouth and say ‘Ronaldo’, it sounds like you’re saying ‘Wijnaldum’, and yesterday he scored a meteor header.

The Cyber Effect by Dr. Mary Aiken


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*I have received a copy of this book as part of a goodreads giveaway*

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The Cyber Effect is a welcome but broad overview of the consequences the rapid expansion of the internet and its accessibility has had for modern psychology, and by extension society.

Although Dr. Mary Aiken often repeats her mantra that the technology itself is neither good nor bad, barring sections of the Cyber-Romance chapter, occasional proposed solutions and the call to arms in the concluding remarks, the majority of the book focuses on the negative effects. The bias is perhaps understandable as Aiken has advised several investigative bodies on cybercrime, has clearly seen some horrific things and is very good on potential remedies. The sections are illuminating, well-written and easy to comprehend, but I wished it had been balanced a little more by the positive attributes like community, charity and crowdfunding. Though I suppose these have been espoused enough elsewhere, the book does create the impression that we are living in the worst of times when, as Dickens says above, it always appears to be both the best and worst of times and a period of great change.

As a consequence of this, Aiken seems certain that the invention of the internet has changed everything and is an unprecedented social experiment. This is evidenced by the Aiken’s tendency to adapt words to include prefixes like ‘cyber’ or ‘techno’. Obviously her subject is ‘cyber’, but personally I think this is overplayed as I do not think there is much new under the sun. It is the prevalence of the medium that has exacerbated certain psychological traits that have always existed. What is unprecedented is the scale rather than the psychology, which, as many of Aiken’s historical examples show, is very much precedented.

Having recently read Lucy Worsley’s ‘A Very British Murder’, I was struck by the similarities between the introduction of the internet and the urbanisation and mass migration to cities during the industrial revolution.

There were several references in the chapter “Frankenstein and the Little Girl” that reinforced this idea to me. Aiken refers to how industrialisation affected child labour and how laws were eventually implemented to protect them as they need to be with the internet. She quotes John Suler as saying “You wouldn’t take your children and leave them alone in the middle of New York City, and that’s effectively what you’re doing when you allow them to go into cyberspace alone.” But New York City has the NYPD to protect its citizens, while early 19th Century London didn’t even have a Metropolitan police. The escalation in crime eventually led to its formation. Obviously I am not advocating that it is okay to leave a child alone in NYC because of the NYPD but rather that the internet, like the growing urban cities of the past, is generating a level of crime that is going to require the creation of a special group tasked to protect people online. The Metropolitan Police have recently set up such a unit, but it is hardly enough to tackle the scale of the problems. She refers to the Bystander Effect, or Diffusion of Responsibility, which is the idea that the more people who witness a crime or emergency, the less likely anyone is to help or respond. Have you ever seen someone in distress in a public place and walked on by? Policing the internet faces the same issue.

Perhaps nothing solidified this correlation to urbanisation for me as much as the story of the two girls who committed murder in the name of Slender Man. You would think such a story would be incredibly modern. One murder some propose as the first of Jack the Ripper’s took place 2 days after the stage play of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde took place in London, some theorising that he drew inspiration from this. Aiken notes the influence of the film Child’s Play on the murder of Jamie Bolger. You could bring up other examples: the Aurora shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises or the man who was inspired to buy ricin from the Dark Web after watching Breaking Bad. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Life imitates Art more than Art imitates life.”

A recent study has even suggested the media reporting on mass shootings actually increases the amount of mass shootings in the following days through the contagion effect. Behavioural contagion often studies crowds, which became more prevalent during periods of urbanisation. I am reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd”, in which a man seems to be constantly part of the crowd. Maybe if Poe were alive today he would have written a story called “The Man of the Internet” about a man who seems to be constantly on the internet. The original story even has an epigraph from 2 centuries earlier, from “The Characters of Man” by Jean de La Bruyère: “This great misfortune, of not being able to be alone.” Perhaps Wordsworth might have begun a poem about the city “I wandered lonely in a crowd.” Sherry Turkle’s TED Talk on being “Connected, but Alone” has the same resonance.

The psychology of the internet is very similar to the concerns people voiced about urbanisation: the proliferation of anonymity where people previously had known the whole community, the disinhibition provoked by this and the accessibility of a wide variety of experiences, not always morally virtuous. Maybe it was because psychology was not yet a discipline when mass urbanisation was happening we do not have the concepts that could be derived from that, but it wouldn’t surprise me that had psychology been an accepted discipline before mass urbanisation that Aiken would have amended the words to begin with ‘urban’ or ‘metropolitan’.

I think some of the psychological effects go back even further. Here’s a quotation put into the mouth of Socrates by Plato in his Phaedrus:

“Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”

Doesn’t that description sound like somebody describing the malignant misinformation of the Internet nowadays?

As Jorge Luis Borges wrote in “Borges and I”, the written self and the actual self are always different. Such is it with the cyber self and the actual self. The section on “Cyberchondria” notes how the internet can exacerbate health concerns, but there is a precedent for this as well. At the beginning of Jerome K Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”, the narrator goes to the British Museum to find out what his ailment is and diagnoses himself with everything except Housemaid’s Knee. It is a clear case of hyperchondria similar to that described in The Cyber Effect, and Aiken mentions Gray’s Anatomy as previously being potentially used for such a purpose, as well as the fictional example of Hungry Joe in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

If we are going to refer to the prevalence of the current problem as ‘cyberchondria’, should we not also retroactively refer to the hypochondria influenced by books as ‘bibliochondria’? If we refer to Munchausen by Internet should we not also refer to Don Quixote as suffering from Munchausen by book? If we refer to the ‘technosomatic effect’, should we not also refer to the bibliomatic effect?

One final minor bugbear: Aiken at one point says “All gathered knowledge of human civilisation is available by using search engines” or will be, but this is hyperbole. There are things in printed books that are not on the internet yet and may never be because of disinterest, people who choose not to record things, or some other factor and all the while information is constantly expanding.

The Cyber Effect tackles such a wide range of issues that I think it is invaluable as a source of information about the psychological repercussions of the internet, but it is far from comprehensive and I wished some subjects had been explored in greater detail. However, as you can see from the above, it was incredibly stimulating and thought-provoking, often with explanations that make you feel like you’ve turned toward the light from Plato’s cave. It has whetted my mental appetite and some subjects I will investigate further, so despite the aforementioned personal gripes, I would recommend it to anyone who wants a little insight into where the world with is wide tangled web that has been woven might be heading.

*This review has also been posted on goodreads*

The Hateful Eight




It has been over a month since my last post. I apologise again for this. I do not know how regularly I will be able to keep up the blog but I intend to keep doing it. Just be warned that the updates may be more erratic than originally intended. Here is my latest piece:

Inverting the Tempest

*Spoilers are to be expected*

“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”

– Robert Frost

Part I: Correspondences

While contemplating the theatrical nature of Quentin Tarantino’s latest release, I noticed it bore striking similarities to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The more I thought about it, the more apparent they became. What surprised me most, however, was that the similarities seemed to correlate so perfectly and the differences seemed so absolutely diametrically opposed as to appear intentional. Below I shall lay out these similarities and differences, followed by more speculative arguments on what this might mean and why Tarantino would have chosen to invert The Tempest and contemporise it with The Hateful Eight.

Prospero’s Books and the Lincoln Letter

The Tempest opens with the eponymous storm, which is revealed in the second scene of the first act to have been caused by Ariel at the behest of Prospero. The magician’s power comes from his books, the volumes that he prizes above his dukedom, which were smuggled to him by Gonzalo when he was exiled. Caliban, when advising Stephano how to overthrow Prospero, knows this:

“First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command”

J Middleton Murry notes in his essay ‘Shakespeare’s Dream’ that “There is but one accident in The Tempest, the accident which brings the ship to the island.” Everything after that, including the masque, is his work.

The first chapter of Tarantino’s film shows Major Marquis Warren managing to hitch a ride on The Hangman John Ruth’s stage. Later on, Marquis states that the reason John Ruth accepted him as a passenger was because of the letter from Lincoln, which it transpires he forged. Prospero gets his initial power from books of magic and Marquis gets his initial power from a counterfeit letter from the President. Daisy’s early act of expectoration on the letter is comparable to Caliban’s advice to Stephano to possess Prospero’s books in order to remove his power.

As above, it could be argued that there are only two coincidences in The Hateful Eight; John Ruth’s stagecoach coming across the stranded figure of Marquis, his deceased horse and three bounties; and that same stage coming across the apparent new Sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix. Although it is remarked upon by Ruth as being suspicious, it turns out to be simply chance. Not everything after, however, is the work of Marquis. This is the difference between a master of magic and a mere man.

Prospero keeps his power until the epilogue, but Marquis loses the power he gets from the letter at around the halfway point, when Chris Mannix exposes the letter as a fake. John Ruth then calls it a dirty trick and says it hurt his feelings. He has lost respect for Marquis. As soon as this happens, however, Marquis goes over to General Sandy Smithers and manipulates him into trying to shoot him so he can kill him in self-defence. He uses his mastery of language to try and showcase his power in order maintain control over the rest of the haberdashery’s inhabitants.

The story he relates is like a Tarantino film in miniature. You are not sure if he is serious, the language verges on ludicrous and it uses shocking imagery to provoke a reaction. It is worth noting that although Marquis has lied about the Lincoln letter and within the story lies to the General’s son about giving him a blanket if he performs fellatio on him, he is convincing enough to evoke a reaction from Smithers. His mastery of language is so great that even while he is relating his ability to deceive, he is actually believed. Please note that I do not say his story is a lie, just that all his previous actions would act as evidence to the listener that he would most likely be lying.

Although initially this power play does succeed, it suffers a temporary setback because Marquis has been distracted and has not noticed someone has poisoned the coffee. When this happens, he is quick to make sure the suspects line up against the wall and try to regain power. The threat of being shot is similar to the way Prospero uses the threat of torturous cramps on Caliban and the conspirators, Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban, as well as confining Ariel back in a tree. It is also akin to when Prospero lines up Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian and uses his instrument, Ariel, to gather the usurpers around an imaginary feat and deliver the following speech:

“You are three men of sin, whom Destiny,
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in’t, the never-surfeited sea
Hath caused to belch up you; and on this island
Where man doth not inhabit; you ‘mongst men
Being most unfit to live. I have made you mad;
And even with such-like valour men hang and drown
Their proper selves.”

Notably, Gonzalo is also on the stage, just as Chris Mannix is, but it is the three suspects that are gathered into one place. In the scene from the play, Sebastian, Antonio and Alonso draw their swords but to no avail. In the scene from the film, all three suspects have been stripped of their guns and Mannix then switches to the role of Ariel, being supplied with a gun by Marquis.

Unfortunately, Marquis  is also unaware that Jody is hiding in the basement, which results in him getting shot in the crotch. Despite this, he manages to persuade Jody to come out from his hiding place by threatening Daisy. It is another example of him using language to show his power. When he suddenly speaks in slow motion, it is because he has lost his power, which came from his language.

The next rebellion comes from Daisy, who tries to use the storytelling to provoke a reaction as Marquis did, getting Chris Mannix to kill Marquis, claiming that the whole gang is on its way and will kill them both unless he sets them free.

However, Marquis has done enough, because he has managed to persuade Chris Mannix that Daisy is lying about the gang and thinks that all that’s left of the gang is in the haberdashery. Daisy’s reasoning with him turns out to be as futile as Caliban cursing Prospero by saying “All the charms/Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!”, as the person/people who are expected to help are all dead.  Combined with her constant slurs it is clear that she does not have the mastery of language that Marquis possesses. The protest only results in Mannix and Marquis cooperating to hang her. This reminded me of Caliban’s speech in The Tempest:

“I must obey: his art is of such power,
It would control my dam’s god, Setebos,
and make a vassal of him.”

Mannix idolised General Sandy Smithers, but he has been controlled by Marquis.

In Act V Scene I of The Tempest, Prospero promises that he will “drown” his book once all his work has been done, essentially meaning he will give up his magic when Ariel has guided them safely back to Italy. At the end of The Hateful Eight, Chris Mannix requests the Lincoln letter from Marquis and he hands it to him. Mannix reads it, says that the final sign off is a nice touch, acknowledging the power of his language despite his opinion of his race, and then scrunches it up and throws it on the floor. This is a depiction of Marquis giving up the power he has exercised over the course of the film.

Eight Years Away From American Slavery

Slavery is a subject of Shakespeare’s final play that became a more prominent interpretation with the advent of postcolonial criticism. Notable examples of this are Aimé Césaire’s adaptation, Une Tempête, (which features Prospero as a white slave master, a mixed-race Ariel and Caliban as a black slave,) and Octave Mannoni’s Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonisation.

The Tempest was written in 1611, eight years before the first slaves arrived in America. The Hateful Eight is set approximately eight years after the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, and so there are no slaves. Marquis, however, does share some traits with Caliban, although he is considerably wilier about his use of them.

Caliban is a native of the island, the only person born there, and showed Prospero:

“All the qualities o’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile”

He also makes promises to Stephano:

“I’ll show thee the best springs; I’ll pluck thee berries;
I’ll fish for thee and get thee wood enough.”

“Let me bring thee where crabs grow;
And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts;
Show thee a jay’s nest and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmoset; I’ll bring thee
To clustering filberts and sometimes I’ll get thee
Young scamels from the rock.”

The only person who has any familiarity with Minnie’s Haberdashery within the timeframe of the film is Major Marquis Warren. (Obviously Minnie, Sweet Dave and Six Horse Judy are familiar, but they appear only in a flashback and are all dead by the time the action starts). He is a ‘native’ to the haberdashery in the same way that Caliban is a native to the island in The Tempest.

Marquis notices a sweet on the floor that should not be there, that the stew must have been cooked by Minnie and that Sweet Dave is not in his chair. He also questions Señor Bob’s claim that Minnie left him in charge because he knows that she used to have a sign that said no dogs and no Mexicans, which she only took down because she started letting in dogs, and that Minnie did not allow hats, a rule that many of the haberdashery’s inhabitants seem to have flouted.

The important difference here is that Marquis withholds his knowledge of the haberdashery from those who might abuse it to gain power over him, while Caliban uses it to try and persuade people to side with him, even a drunkard and a fool. It begs the question, in a world without slavery, does Caliban become Prospero?

The Tempest And The Blizzard

Why is The Tempest called The Tempest when the tempest in the play, even though it sets up the rest of the action, is only the first very short scene?  Frank Davidson’s essay ‘The Tempest: An Interpretation’ points out that “In the books of philosophy and psychology of the day a not unusual symbol for the passions is a tempest.” Earlier in the piece, he notes that all the revolts in the play “save that of Ariel, who can act under the direction of reason, originate in uncontrolled passions: ambitious desire, anger, hatred, youthful love, cupidity.”

Tarantino inverts this symbolism by using a blizzard which, as the above poem does with ice, he uses as a symbol for hate. It also sets up the action but its presence continues throughout the film.  In the play, Prospero’s allaying of the wild waters is an early example of how his actions lead to serenity. In the film, all the major characters are suffused with a perpetual hatred that cannot be changed. Thus, the blizzard continues.

This symbolism is apparent from the opening scene of the film, which features a carving of Christ on the cross, a representation of the ultimate act of love, covered in snow. Just in case the distinction was not clear enough, Oswaldo even has a speech about the dispassion of justice, countered by John Ruth’s hateful maxim: “You only need to hang mean bastards, but mean bastards you need to hang.”

The Last Shakespeare Play, The Eighth Tarantino Film

The obvious question then presents itself: Why is The Hateful Eight called The Hateful Eight when there appear to be more than eight hateful characters? (I do not count O.B., who does nothing that could be considered hateful.) One answer is because it is Tarantino’s eighth film, as he lets you know when the title appears. This depends on the viewer counting the two volumes of Kill Bill as one film, which it was originally intended to be. However, there is a ninth ‘hateful’ character: Jody. He is Daisy’s brother and part of the only familial relationship of the film. I have a theory that this is a joke by Tarantino and that the two siblings represent the two volumes of Kill Bill and therefore count as one of the ‘Hateful Eight’. Shakespeare would never be drawn into such a cheap thing as to reference his own career in a play, right?

Maybe not: Near the conclusion of his essay, ‘The Shakespearean Superman’, G. Wilson Knight comments the following:

“Prospero has been on the island for twelve years; and it is roughly twelve years since the sequence of greater plays started with Hamlet. Before that, Ariel had been imprisoned in a tree for another twelve years; again, roughly, the time spent by Shakespeare in his earlier work’.

Both works draw us toward looking at them as a stage in their creator’s career, as part of their oeuvre. There is also another possibility as to where Tarantino took the title from, although I think it is probably more a coincidence than an intentional homage. Charles Lamb, in his 1811 work ‘On The Tragedies Of Shakespeare’, writes:

“to have a conjuror brought before us in his conjuring-gown, with his spirits about him, which none but himself and some hundred of favoured spectators before the curtain are supposed to see, involves such a quantity of the hateful incredible, that all our reverence for the author cannot hinder us from perceiving such gross attempts upon the senses to be in the highest degree childish and inefficient.”

Obviously there is no magic in The Hateful Eight, but replace it with violence and the comment could easily be made of Tarantino’s film.

The Hateful Eight is also divided into eight sections (six chapters, a prelude and an interval) and, as stated above, it could be set eight years after the Civil War. A possible abbreviation for the film, H8, is an internet slang term for ‘hate’. A neo-Nazi symbol for ‘Heil Hitler’ is 88 because H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, something Tarantino would probably have come across in his research for Inglourious Basterds if he had not already come across it when naming the gang The Crazy 88’s in Kill Bill. I would like to point out that I am not claiming Tarantino is a closet Neo-Nazi; just that it ties in to the theme of hate.

Chapter 3 and Act III Scene III

Here I would like to elaborate on the correspondences between Chapter 3 of The Hateful Eight and Act III Scene III of The Tempest. I have already outlined how the general narrative of the film bears striking similarities to the play, but this is a point where a specific scene has resonances.

I have explained the action that takes place in Chapter 3 above, when Marquis tells his story to the General. In the scene of the play, there is a ‘solemn and strange music’ in the stage directions. Similarly, the story in the film is soundtracked by Señor Bob playing the piano. Ariel creates the illusion of a banquet that the onlookers believe is real, just as Marquis creates a story so convincing that it is depicted as a flashback. When the banquet vanishes and Ariel appears, the conspirators draw their swords but Ariel makes them too heavy to hold to show his power:

“Your swords are now too massy for your strengths
And will not be uplifted.”

Despite their behaviour, Prospero’s servant is merciful. When the General goes to shoot Marquis, however, Marquis kills him before he has a chance to. Marquis does the opposite of Prospero’s motto in Act V Scene I, that “The rarer action is/In virtue than in vengeance.” Note also that the action comes after they have been eating stew at the table, as it does in the play after the usurpers have discovered the banquet and watched it disappear. The correlation here is that the usurpers have tried to dine on the feast before them, believing they have power, but it is pulled away from them, just as Marquis has seemed to lose power to Chris Mannix, only to regain it instantly via his linguistic power.

In The Tempest, the effect it has on those who witnessed the apparition is explained by Gonzalo:

“All three of them are desperate: their great guilt,
Like poison given to work a great time after,
Now ‘gins to bite the spirits. I do beseech you
That are of suppler joints, follow them swiftly
And hinder them from what this ecstasy
May now provoke them to.”

Similarly, those who witness the killing of the General spend some time debating the legality of what has happened, except for Marquis, who sits on his own knowing he is in the clear. Also worth nothing is that, in The Hateful Eight, this is the point where a literal poison is put into the coffee and begins to work upon the drinkers.

Premonitions of Hanging

 At the beginning of The Tempest, Gonzalo prophesies that the boatswain was born to hang in order to reassure himself that he and all aboard will not drown. At the end of the play, the boatswain turns up and the ship is intact courtesy of Prospero’s magic, proving Gonzalo’s speculation correct.

At the beginning of The Hateful Eight, Marquis states that “When the hangman catches you, you hang.” Obviously he did not realise that John Ruth would die before the execution could be carried out, but at the end he and Chris Mannix perform the hanging that would have taken place, and so he proves himself right.

 Westing (By Musket And Sextant)

Shakespeare wrote The Tempest at a time when the exploration of an uncharted globe by the British was contemporary. In order to write a contemporary version of The Tempest, it would therefore seem most logical to adapt it to the exploration of the universe and space travel but Forbidden Planet had already done it. For an American, the great uncharted territory of their history was the Wild West. Also, Tarantino is not just contemporising it: He is also inverting it. This is why I suspect the date in which the film is set to be approximately eight years after the American abolition of slavery: Because The Tempest was written and first performed approximately eight years before the first slaves arrived in America.

Daisy And Miranda

Daisy is the only woman in the time-frame of The Hateful Eight excluding the flashback. Miranda is the only woman in the time-frame of The Tempest excluding reminiscences. Miranda’s name means wonderful or admirable and she plays the part of a noble, beautiful and virtuous woman. Daisy’s name is the most commonplace of flowers and she is an outlaw who first appears with a black eye and becomes more bruised and covered in blood as the narrative progresses. Her continuous usage of the n-word is anything but virtuous.

There is no character in The Tempest like Daisy, but there is one who is part of Stephano’s song in Act II Scene II:

“The master, the swabber, the boatswain, and I,
The gunner and his mate
Loved Mall, Meg, and Marian and Margery,
But none of us cared for Kate.
For she had a tongue with a tang,
Would cry to a sailor, “Go hang!”
She loved not the savour of tar nor of pitch,
Yet a tailor might scratch her where’er she did itch.
Then to sea, boys, and let her go hang!”

Both Miranda’s and Minnie’s names begin with the same letter as those who are loved and Kate is set up as the antithesis. Daisy’s relentless use of the n-word to Marquis and her urging of Chris Mannix to kill him is comparable to Kate crying ‘Go hang!’ to a sailor, although obviously sans the race hate, and her ultimate fate is that which Stephano wishes upon his subject.

Daisy also possesses some of the traits of Caliban. Her racial abuse of Marquis is reminiscent of Caliban’s lines to Prospero:

“You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!”

The blood and bruises that slowly amass over Daisy’s face also reminded me of a production of Titus Andronicus I saw in which by the end the entire stage was covered in blood. It is worth nothing that that play, initially criticised for being too unbelievable violent, was reappraised as being more realistic following the horrors of the Twentieth Century.

Sea-Changes and Stagnation

 In The Tempest, music is often used to change people’s perceptions of what is happening. The first instance of this is the famous song about a ‘sea-change’ that Ariel sings to Ferdinand, which makes him think that his father has perished in the storm. In The Hateful Eight, the song Daisy sings when she is playing the guitar almost has the effect of changing John Ruth’s opinion of her, but subverts it. She begins by singing a few verses about how many things she would rather have happen to her than be condemned to Botany Bay. John Ruth seems to admire this melody, and it reinforces his idea that what is happening to her is just punishment, as well as suggesting she has some feelings of which he was not aware. When she continues at his request, she begins a verse about escaping to Mexico, and he reverts to his original opinion of her, signified by treating her as he did before and smashing her guitar.


 Both The Tempest and The Hateful Eight feature people playing games of chess. In The Tempest, it is partly a representation of the battle between the “civilised” white magic of Prospero and Ariel and the natural black magic of Sycorax and Caliban, and partly, in the way that Ferdinand and Miranda flirt over the board, shows how two dynasties have been combined.

The symbolism in The Hateful Eight is very different. In part it is a representation of the Civil War that has just taken place, in part an indication of how poor the General is at power plays because Sweet Dave always beats him, and partly representative of the racial hatred in the film. Señor Bob’s inability to remember how the pieces move represents his role as a pawn, rather than a player in the power games going on.

Tarantino also plays with black and white symbolism in other areas. The stagecoach that John Ruth first appears in has one white horse leading the way. There is one black person within the duration of the film. A white horse is the colour of Death’s horse in the bible. Does Tarantino presage that Marquis has led the rest of The Hateful Eight to their deaths?

Sycorax’s Isle & Minnie’s Haberdashery

Tarantino also inverts the setting of The Tempest. Whereas in the latter, they are on an island in the open air and none of the action takes place indoors, in the former most of the action takes place in an enclosed room in Wyoming, a landlocked state.

Several commentators have referred to the island in The Tempest as Prospero’s Isle because throughout the duration of the play he is the de facto ruler, forgetting that the island is Caliban’s by Sycorax his mother.  Sycorax is dead by the time Prospero arrives, however, just as Minnie is by the time Marquis, John, Daisy and OB arrive.

A haberdashery is also the perfect symbol for a place in which lying is so predominant. It makes me think of the lines from Walter Scott’s epic poem, Marmion: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practise to deceive!” Shakespeare also used a handkerchief as a symbol for Iago’s deceit in Othello. It even occurs in Prospero’s most famous speech in The Tempest, when he says “Like the baseless fabric of this vision” and in the etymology of fabrication.

 Back To Basics: The Classical Unities and 70mm Film

 The Tempest is anomalous among Shakespeare’s plays as it rigorously adheres to the classical unities of action, time and place. The whole thing takes place within the span of a day and on or in the vicinity of the island. All the actions are the result of Prospero’s planning. The Hateful Eight does likewise, with the exception of unity of action, which passes from one person to another but is mostly maintained by Marquis.

There was also probably considerable use of special effects in The Tempest, made possible by Shakespeare and his company moving to the Blackfriars Theatre in 1608. One of the reasons Tarantino may have chosen to film The Hateful Eight in 70mm is because he wanted to be make it more believable. Any effects he uses are to show off the details of real human faces and the spaces they are in. The change of theatres for Shakespeare was comparable to the advent of digital technology. If Tarantino wanted to imitate The Tempest, he could easily have used some visual trickery, but he wants to circumvent any potential for this by using the supposedly outdated film technique.

O.B. And The Boatswain

In the opening scene of The Tempest, the boatswain orders his noble passengers to be calm and Gonzalo takes comfort in the fact that such insubordination means he is destined to be hanged rather than drowned. In the opening scene of The Hateful Eight, O.B. is almost the complete opposite, deferring Marquis’s request for a ride to his fare, the hangman John Ruth, who ‘paid a pretty penny’ for privacy.

The alteration is partly due to the structural differences between the social foundations in which each work was written: Shakespeare was writing in a Britain where titles elicited reverence, while Tarantino was writing in a capitalist America where money matters. O.B. is also not quite as invaluable to the success of the journey as the boatswain, as evidenced by the way he is treated.

Coincidences?: Confederates and Confections

 There are a couple of correlations between Shakespeare’s play and Tarantino’s film that I cannot help but think are coincidences. Firstly, there is this speech from Prospero:

“You do yet taste
Some subtilties o’ the isle, that will not let you
Believe things certain.”

There is a note in my Norton Anthology of Shakespeare that relates the following:

““Subtleties” were also sweet confections shaped like castles, temples, beasts, allegorical figures, etc., and arrange like a pageant.”

Minnie’s haberdashery is full of “sweet confections”, but they are not arranged like a pageant but placed in jars. This could be Tarantino countering the magic with the reality of things but I would be surprised. If it is intentional, props.

Another Prospero speech:

“I had forgot that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates
Against my life: the minute of their plot
Is almost come.”

The ‘confederates’ reminded me of the Confederacy, the losing side of the Civil War who plot against John Ruth and Marquis’s life. I suspect this is just an accident of language.

Part II: Symbolic Speculations


God and Humanity

 In the same G Wilson Knight essay as quoted above, he states that “Prospero manipulates his own plot like a god.” There is an argument to say that he manipulates the events like God himself. He executes his plans without seeming to act; he accepts and acknowledges as his the perceived evil of Caliban as part of his own version of divine providence, much as Satan is part of the Almighty’s masterplan; he releases Ariel as though he is the soul escaping from the body; he unites Miranda and Ferdinand as a kind of Adam and Eve; and he allows everyone to return to his Milan, where everything will apparently be happy ever after in the manner of the afterlife.

I am not the first person to extrapolate such an analogy: In “Shakespeare’s Dream”, J Middleton Murry writes:

“The island is a realm where God is good, where true Reason rules; it is what would be if Humanity – the best in man – controlled the life of man. And Prospero is a man in whom the best in man has won the victory. […] The island is a realm, then; controlled by a man who has become himself, and has the desire, the will and the power to make other men themselves.”

No such spiritual relation can be made to the characters in The Hateful Eight. Marquis is very much a fallible human, but imbued with a peculiarly American version of self-reliance. There is no such thing as omnipotence or omniscience in Tarantino’s world. Marquis rules not by magical will but by persuasion and violence. Spiritual benevolence has been inverted into physical malevolence. Evil and hate have become a part of everyone instead of confined to one supposedly malign influence. What is left behind is not the soul, but a scrunched up piece of paper and several bodies, the only proof that Marquis was ever there, as humans try to leave art to achieve some kind of ersatz immortality. Everybody dies and there is no afterlife. It is perhaps a reflection of the current prevalence of atheism that such a comparison could be made.

To adapt and invert Murry’s claims about the island and Prospero, it could be argued that the haberdashery is a realm where God is absent and hate rules. It is what it would be if the worst in man had won the victory. It is controlled by a man who cannot make other people themselves, but can manipulate their innate natures and sometimes end their lives.

 Kings and Presidents

 Shakespeare was writing when James I was King. The monarch had already shown an interest in magic and had written a book on witchcraft. It was important for Shakespeare to write plays that would interest the King as they could be requested to be performed at court at any time and, in 1613, The Tempest was performed for a royal wedding. It would have been very pleasing to the King who, along with his wife, was very fond of masques, to see a benevolent ruler using white magic to ensure prosperity. The King, it must be remembered, was supposed to be appointed to rule by God. In the same way that Prospero’s books granted him power, 1611, the year The Tempest was written and performed, the King James Bible, the book he patronised, was completed. In a way, his own power came from a single book, the Bible.

Tarantino is not writing for anybody but his audience, but it is notable that the protagonist of the film is a black man whose power comes from a piece of paper in the same way that Obama’s presidency is reliant upon the constitution, a document not divinely inspired but composed by men. A president is also considerably less omnipotent than a King, and so his power must be constantly retained, as Marquis retains his. The falsity of the Lincoln letter makes this analogy not entirely work, but it did remind me of the many calls for Obama to release his birth certificate and then the allegations that it was forged.

Further evidence for this theory, however, involves the haberdashery being a metaphorical representation of America as at one point it is divided between into two regions, the north and the south, but by the end such boundaries are meaningless. Marquis’s name, also, refers to a ruler of the borderlands, suggesting he is in some way a ruler and wielder of power in the Wild West setting. His surname is an artificial enclosure for animals, so his name could be interpreted as ruler of the haberdashery, which contains the ‘animals’ that are its inhabitants. He has a military rank, just as the President is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Arguably, his rank in the Union Army, Major, is eight ranks below the President’s.  His name could therefore be translated as Major Ruler of the Haberdashery, a kind of microcosm of Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States of America.

There is also the possibility that the ‘Hateful Eight’ of the title could return to Obama’s two terms, or eight years, as President, not because of his actions, but because of the increasing racial tension in the States, which has led to the popularity of Donald Trump as a potential candidate for supreme leader of the free world, and the constant criticism Obama has endured.

The Writer and the Theatre, the Director and the Film Set

Many people have commented on the remarkable similarities of Prospero and Shakespeare. Coleridge was the first to make this analogy. Murry, in the essay quote above calls Prospero:

“To some extent, an imaginative paradigm of Shakespeare himself in his function as poet; and that he does in part embody Shakespeare’s self-awareness at the conclusion of his poetic career.”

G Wilson Knight even goes so far as to say that “The Tempest, patterned of storm and music, is […] an interpretation of Shakespeare’s world.”

The speeches that are most commonly asserted to be allegorical for Shakespeare retiring from the theatre is the one in which Prospero gives up his illusions in Act IV:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

As well as this one from Act V Scene I:

“But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.”

So much has been written on this subject that it is difficult to choose the most apt quotation. Suffice to say that Prospero has often been seen as Shakespeare, Ariel, his books and staff as his Art, and the island as his stage.

Tarantino has more than the role of a writer as he is also a director. He cannot merely wish something to happen, write it down and make it so. That is just the beginning, as the writing of the script could be seen as analogous to Marquis’s writing of the Lincoln letter. He has control in the first chapter, entitled ‘Last Stage To Red Rock’, which could be read as a pun on a theatrical stage. After that, when it comes to filming, he must expand his vision and constantly strive to retain his power over what happens as Marquis does when he arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery. The haberdashery is not entirely isolated like Prospero’s island or Shakespeare’s stage because, like a film set, it is subject to the vagaries inherent in the process of filming. Eventually, when Tarantino dies, all that will be left of him are his films, which are crafted to include bits of dialogue to make them more believable, just as Marquis leaves the letter. As Chris Mannix says at the very ending of the film about the line “Old Mary Todd’s calling, so I guess it must be time to go”, it is a “nice touch”.

Conclusion: Tarantino Turns The Tempest Tragic

Given the amount of similarities between The Tempest and The Hateful Eight, I find it hard to believe this was not Tarantino’s intention: To invert it, turn it from romance to tragedy, and contemporise it even when he was setting it in the past. The Tempest has retained its place as one of Shakespeare’s best works by virtue of the malleability of its meanings. Even if it was not Tarantino’s intention, the above speculations on what Tarantino might be trying to say with The Hateful Eight show that it is equally adaptable to different interpretations and, although reviews of it have been mixed so far, I think it is a mark of a work of art that will stand the test of time.


The Danish Girl




Please accept my apologies for the lack of a post last week, but the following took a little longer to write because it is longer than usual. It is also a very sensitive subject and I did not want to treat it lightly. With that out of the way, enjoy.

The Stories We Choose To Tell

*Spoilers are to be expected*

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please.”

– Mark Twain

I was hesitant to transcribe my thoughts on The Danish Girl for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, my reference for depictions of trans men and women in the media is largely a single book: Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. Would I just be regurgitating her opinions and applying them to the film? If that was the case, why should I not just recommend the book and suggest people see the film to find out for themselves whether it fails or succeeds to render an acceptable portrait of Lili Elbe? A quotation from Julian Barnes seems particularly appropriate to this dilemma:

“If all your responses to a book have already been duplicated and expanded upon by a professional critic, then what point is there to your reading? Only that it’s yours.”

That is a good point: The reading IS mine. Serano does not cover a few of the things that I have concerns about, and I strongly disagree with her solution to the present problem of trans representation: That artists and academics should stop appropriating transsexual identities and experiences until such time as most people are familiar with their work. I dislike the implications of this. Many people have a paucity of experience watching films by women directors. Should that mean male directors should stop casting women at all? The “slippery slope” argument is often misused, but take this to its logical extreme and the only films anyone would make would be those written, acted and directed by only themselves. It would be a considerable hindrance to the advancement of art.

Secondly, have I any right to offer an opinion on how trans people are represented in the media when they can clearly speak for themselves? Well, no, no I don’t. The current onslaught of transphobic sentiment following proposals to remove gender from UK ID, however, make it important for as many people who support the trans community to voice their opinions, to try and stop the malignant spread of misinformation peddled by, and I use this word advisedly, hatemongers. Hopefully it will come across in the ‘respectful, non-exploitative’ way Serano thinks possible when trans people have such a presence in the media that they are unable to be drowned out by cissexual voices.

The Portrayal Of Trans Femaleness As Artificial

“It is their [the media’s] intent to capture trans women in the act of putting on lipstick, dresses and high heels, thereby giving the audience the impression that the trans woman’s femaleness is an artificial mask or costume.”

This is a quotation from Whipping Girl, from The Fascination With “Feminization” section of Serano’s chapter “Skirt Chasers: Why The Media Depicts The Trans Revolution In Lipstick And Heels”. The Danish Girl has several scenes of this nature, including one where Gerda is shown in the act of putting lipstick and eyeliner on Lili, but the one that stands out is when Lili takes the place of Gerda’s model and is shown putting on a pair of stockings, followed by Gerda telling her that she is putting them on the wrong way round. Choosing to show Lili in the act of putting on female clothing and choosing to show Lili’s ignorance at how to put on the stockings gives the impression that her femaleness is fake.

The Danish Girl is full of these clichéd trappings but at one point tries to get around this problem by having Lili stand in front of a full-length mirror, look down at her penis, push it back between her thighs and cross her legs. It is likely this is supposed to suggest an element of disgust at her male organ and therefore be a portrayal of her gender dysphoria. Such a claim is backed up by a scene in which Gerda reaches toward Lili’s genitals and Lili stops her, as if she is upset its existence has been acknowledged. A similar thing happens when Henrik does the same thing. It is apparently quite common for trans women, rather than putting things on to emphasise their femaleness, to take things off in order to conceal their maleness. However, the same problem persists because she is shown in the act of hiding her maleness and therefore showing that her femaleness is artificial. To avoid this problem, it would have been preferable to have shown her with her legs crossed already, not looking down at her penis at all, then she would not be seen in the act.

In an interview with Radio 4, Eddie Redmayne talks about seeing paintings of Lili as a man, wearing “incredibly high starched collars” and “tight tailored suits”, describing them as “a sort of exoskeleton of masculinity”. He continues that “it was about her peeling off these layers as she found herself.” This would have been a great thing to have seen, but it does not come across in the film at all. In fact, the clothing choices had exactly the opposite effect. Casting a trans woman in the role would have made more sense, as it would emphasise the unnaturalness of the gender she was assigned at birth.

After Lili has died, Gerda and Hans go to the bog near where she grew up. Gerda watches Lili’s scarf fly away in the wind and Hans tries to retrieve it. Gerda stops him, telling him to “let it fly.” Why would you choose an article of clothing as a metaphor for Lili’s transcendence if not to suggest that her femaleness was mostly about appearance?

In the afterword to the novel, David Ebershoff writes: “Lili was an artist – her greatest creation was herself.” I find the phrasing of this sentence disagreeable because it suggests Lili “created” herself, when it would be more accurate to describe the process like the attributed quotation of Michelangelo’s: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Lili had herself inside her, and she discovered her.

Part of the problem is the story that has been chosen. It is the story of someone in the act of discovering her inherent femaleness and therefore makes it seem artificial.

The Description Of Trans Femaleness As Natural

One of the oddest parts of this particular portrayal of Lili Elbe is that she is shown to have nosebleeds on a monthly basis accompanied by cramps. This is obviously put in to suggest that Lili’s femaleness is natural. However, although I appreciate its symbolic intent, I think it marginalises members of the actual trans community, who do not suffer these symptoms, and therefore may feel that this manifestation of her femaleness makes her an exceptional case. Most trans women do not get such blatant physical clues and the fact that they do not menstruate has been used to argue that they are not “real” women.

Lili does say a few things to try and get the point that her femaleness is natural across: “When I dream, they’re Lili’s dreams”, “You helped bring Lili to life, but she was always there. She was always waiting”, and “God made me a woman. The doctor was curing me of the sickness that was my disguise”. It is a problem I often have that filmmakers rely too much on dialogue to get their point across, contradicting how something is actually portrayed, and it reared its ugly head again here. Gerda’s words try to convey the same point: “I know it was Einar [I married], but really, it was you [Lili] and me.” The line rings false because she had no idea about Lili being a woman until the latter modeled for her.

Prepubescent Perplexity

In The Danish Girl, the only formative experience of Lili Elbe’s childhood we hear about that could be construed as a hint she might be a woman inside is a kiss she shares with her friend Hans while she is wearing her grandmother’s apron. Confusion about sexuality is a common side-effect of gender dysphoria, so there is no harm in including this. Crossdressing is obviously part of the trans experience and is enticing because of what it represents. The harm comes from the exclusion of any hints in her early life about gender dysphoria itself, as if being a trans woman is only a matter of sexuality and clothing, which is plainly wrong.

Laura Jane Grace, the trans lead singer of the punk band Against Me!, said in an interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast that one of her earliest memories was when she was four or five years old, watching Madonna in front of the television and feeling a sense of identity. At around five or six, Serano had dreams where somebody would tell her she was a girl and remembers thinking she did not belong in the boys’ bathroom. You will notice that neither of these early signs of gender dysphoria relate to sexuality or clothing.

The book the screenplay has been adapted from, which also contains the kiss between Lili and Hans, contains the protagonist’s memory of being caught in her mother’s wardrobe. This is also problematic because by making it about the clothes it suggests the trans experience is about presentation rather than innateness, artificiality over sincerity.

At a time when many trans men and women are misrepresented, the lie by omission perpetrated by the film is complicit in pushing a false impression, intentionally or not.

The Myth Of Autogynephilia

I may have used some words that you have had to look up. I am sorry for that. In this instance, however, I will save you the trouble, because it is hardly in common usage. Essentially, autogynephilia is the supposed sexual fetish that somebody assigned male at birth has for being a woman. It was based on dubious evidence and has been debunked as an explanation for trans women, yet some people still believe it exists. However, echoes of the idea do slip into trans depictions, and such is the case with The Danish Girl.

When Gerda discovers that Lili is wearing one of her undershirts, the couple suddenly have their most passionate encounter in the whole film. In general, feeling more at ease with yourself and confident would lead you to be more sexually proactive, so again, I do not see any problem in including this. That there is a difference between this and the autogynephilic presentation of their souped-up carnal activity, however, is not made clear until Lili is asked by a doctor whether she and Gerda have regular intercourse and she answers that they have had less since she started dressing as a woman. The misleading scene is therefore corrected, but it would have been simpler for the audience to understand if it had not been included it at all.

Ciswashing History, Ciswashing Geography

One unfortunate side effect of choosing this particular story is that it inadvertently suggests that gender dysphoria, or at least the active pursuit of trying to deal with all that entails, was a phenomenon that began in the twentieth century and is therefore a societal invention. In the whole of Europe, there is only one doctor who is sympathetic to Lili, and he has only met one other person like her before. This minor reference does little to suggest the true extent of trans people in history.

Perhaps as a result of the current prevalence of comic book adaptations, and perhaps because I know the phenomenon of the comic book superhero started around this time, I could not help thinking that it played out like an origin story: “Einar Werdener was just an ordinary man until one day he was asked to model for his wife’s painting. It granted him untold powers of femininity. He found a doctor with the experimental technology to become Lili Elbe, the Tremendous Transsexual!” It is like Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, or, more accurately, like Einar Werdener being bitten by the femininity bug. Although there are hints about her inclinations prior to the event, (She picks up an item of Gerda’s clothing, strokes a series of ladies clothes as she walks past a rack, stares longingly at Gerda untying the laces of her boots and corrects Gerda’s lipstick,) it comes across as something that she only discovers about herself when she puts on the clothes to model for her wife, which does not tally with the trans experiences quoted above.

So the problem for the filmmaker becomes, if you are going to tell this atypical trans story, how do you show the loneliness of feeling her situation is unique, the lack of any touchstones to guide her, and at the same time contextualise it?

Perhaps the answer lies in another film about gender politics that was released last year. Before the credits rolled at the end of Suffragette, it showed a list of countries and the year in which that country’s women won the right to vote, up to Saudi Arabia in 2015. It reinforced that feminism is an ongoing project. Obviously with trans men and women there is no such concrete statistic to measure their march toward equality, but there should have been something to show this story was not a new one.

Perhaps a list of people in history going as far back as Eliogabalus, who is said to have offered half the Roman Empire to anyone that could make his male genitals female, or some allusion to other cultures. There are examples of complicated gender identities that precede this particular story from across the globe: Native American two-spirits, third-gendered Polynesians, and the Bugis people of Indonesia, who have five separate genders. These are just suggestions and neither of them are perfect, but I think there needed to be some such acknowledgement that transgender individuals were not created in central Europe in the interwar years.

Doctor, Doctor, I Feel A Little Queer

Over the course of the movie, Lili sees several doctors who variously diagnose her with schizophrenia and homosexuality, or prescribe a lobotomy or radiation treatment, until she finally comes upon one who is willing to believe that she is a woman inside. The reception she gets and the treatments she receives are disheartening to say the least. However, showing these examples of poor treatment for gender dysphoria does have the probably unintended effect of making the audience think that as a society we have made considerable progress, that thankfully such things could never happen again.

Except it ignores the fact that there is still a lot of progress to be made. Surgeries are prohibitively expensive in the US and NHS waiting times are extremely long in the UK. Dr James Barrett, speaking on Victoria Derbyshire’s television program, confirmed it was extremely common for GPs to try and talk their patients out of any procedures and cited one case where a doctor simply told them that the NHS “didn’t do this sort of thing”, which was patently untrue. Choosing the story of Lili Elbe shows that some progress has been made, but parceling the narrative into a feelgood film will not spur people to action.


One mark of Lili’s success the film tries to convey is that she “passes” as a woman. The problem with this is that it puts the onus on the trans person to somehow “prove” their gender, rather than on the cissexual community to accept it. Would you ask someone who was gay to prove their sexuality by affecting exaggerated camp mannerisms? No. Would you say they were not gay if they did not comply? No, because you do not get to choose their sexuality, and you do not get to choose their innate gender. Just because somebody does not conform to your idea of something, it does not mean they are not that thing.

On a couple of occasions, Lili is referred to as “pretty”. When Hans explains kissing her, he says that Lili was wearing her grandmother’s apron and she “was just so pretty, I had to kiss him.” At another stage, after Lili has begun wearing women’s clothes, Gerda asks her “When did you get so pretty?” and she replies “I’ve always been pretty. You’ve just never noticed before.” I found both of these scenes uncomfortable because attractiveness of appearance should not never be a factor in her receiving validation as a woman.

To one person she meets at a soirée, Henrik, she does not “pass”, although it is not revealed until much later in the film that he is a homosexual and was attracted to her because he thought she was a man. He says something like “We’re the same, you and me.” Although that turns out to be completely wrong, so it does not work out.

Hyperfeminisation In The Public Stage

Also in his interview with Radio 4’s The Film Programme, Redmayne talks about the trans women he spoke with for research going through a process of hyperfeminisation early on in their transitions, “perhaps wearing too much make up or clothes that are too feminine.” He points out that in the paintings of her, “Lili’s femininity is very mannered, very stylised, and the makeup is quite extreme, which hopefully, as the film plays out, begins to disappear as she finds herself and becomes more comfortable with who she is.”

This reminded me of a quotation from Whipping Girl. In the Demystifying Femininity and Unlearning Masculinity section of Serano’s chapter, “Crossdressing: Demystifying Femininity and Rethinking Male Privilege”, she states “the public stage of my crossdressing was really the only time in my life when I did go out of my way to emulate how some women looked, walked, talked, moved, and so on. I found that this increased the likelihood that I would be gendered female, which was my overall goal, and also ensured my safety.”

Although Redmayne clearly knew what he was doing, the gradual change from overt femininity to just being herself does not come across in the film. The only time I can recall her acting less feminine is when she dons a sort of suit and short hair as she walks through a park. A couple of Parisian thugs shout the word lesbian at her and then proceed to attack. When she realises she is being called a lesbian, her first reaction is to smirk, because she has been gendered female, but she becomes frightened when she realises this endangers her. Serano notes in the above quotation that her stage of hyperfeminisation “ensured her safety”, and following this incident, Lili reverts back to such a stage.

In the same interview Redmayne speaks of a conversation he had with a trans woman who related this stage to adolescence, a period when people make mistakes and are finding themselves. I know plenty of cis people who are around the age of thirty and still stuck in a perpetual adolescence, still making mistakes and finding themselves. Whether Lili would continue in this vein or not is a matter of her own personality. What irritated me about her reversion to hyperfemininity is probably best summed up by a quotation from Jeff Winger in the pilot episode of Community, when he is talking to Troy about whether he should continue to wear his high school football jacket at college:

“Listen. It doesn’t matter. You lose the jacket to please them. You keep it to piss them off. Either way, it’s for them. That’s what’s weak.”

Obviously part of it is concern for her own safety, but would someone strong enough to go out into the world dressing for herself really be cowed into dressing for other people by this encounter? It actually comes down to the story they have chosen to tell. It consists of only one trans woman, and she ends up becoming sort of an emblem for an entire diverse community. Having more than one trans woman would have solved this. They could have had one who passed through the stage of hyperfeminisation and one who did not; one who was intimidated by abuse in public and one who fought back; or one who saw it as a reason to try and be accepted as female in public and one who saw it as a reason to continue to dress how she pleased.

The Last Person I Expected To Be Talking About

At the beginning of The Danish Girl, there is a character trying to sell one of Lili’s paintings by saying: “I wouldn’t say he’s the best landscape artist in the Denmark, but he’s in the top one.” He is then swiftly mocked for using such a joke by Lili and Gerda.

You may recognise the quotation as a version of Brian Clough’s “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one” reworded to fit the context. It is so well-known that I wondered why anyone would dare include something so similar.

Was it a knowing wink? Tom Hooper also directed The Damned Utd, which was about Clough’s tenure at Leeds Utd Football Club, so he definitely knew the source. Was it an inside joke for those familiar with that part of his oeuvre? Was it that they thought nobody who knew about Clough would go and see this film, that the Venn diagram of Danish Girl audience members and football supporters had no overlapping circles? That surely could not be true, it would be so cynical. Was it the worst of both worlds: Was the presumption that wives would drag their husbands to see the film and it was thrown in to appease them? Because of the sheer absurdity of these two options, I  hope it was the first one.

Have You Seem My Penis?

“I am rather disturbed by the fact that so many people – who are neither medical professionals nor trans themselves – would want to hear all of the gory details regarding transsexual physical transformations, or would feel they have the right to ask us about the state of our genitals. It is offensive that so many people feel it is okay to publicly refer to transsexuals as being “pre-op” or “post-op” when it would so clearly be degrading and demeaning to regularly describe all boys and men as being either “circumcised” or “uncircumcised.”

Serano again, from the chapter “Coming To Terms With Transgenderism And Transsexuality”. At least The Danish Girl does not delve too deeply into, and I apologise in advance for the following phrasing, the ins and outs of her medical procedure, but her ignorance about whether she will be able to have children after the first surgery does seem out of place. You would think that would be one of the things she would have asked.

Choosing to have her surgery as the climax of the film feels inappropriate. The sensationalist biography of Lile Elbe has her beginning her surgeries half way through the book. You could argue that having it as the turning point is worse. I prefer it, however, because it does not treat her operation as if it were the pinnacle of her journey and because it allows us to see how she has not really changed, how she was always the same woman. Making the operations the climactic event is like staging a nativity play that culminates with the circumcision of Christ because he could not be the true messiah with a foreskin.

I am now going to seemingly contradict myself and focus on the surgeries, but only because the filmmakers saw fit to make a change to what actually happened. In the film, Lili gets a fever and dies after her second operation. In reality, she died because of complications from her third operation, which was the insertion of a uterus so that she could have children. I know that this was not the same operation because Lili asks the doctor whether she will be able to have children, and he replies that they need to take it one step at a time. It is an interesting change to make and I can see why they did it: Removing the third operation makes her story closer to that of trans people nowadays. Blurring the truth, however, trivialises how much she misunderstood her condition.

Passport To Womanhood

When Lili is on her way to Dresden, she looks down at her passport with a picture of her as Einar and his name written underneath it. I can only assume there is a missing scene because in reality, Denmark issued Lili Elbe a new passport with her new name and her true gender. This does not get mentioned in the film, not even in the text at the end. I think the omission of this fact was a mistake, especially given recent debates about ID. The Danish King also annulled their marriage so Gerda could marry again. This does not get mentioned either. The text of the epilogue only states that Gerda would continue to paint pictures of Lili for the rest of her life. The film completely ignores her second marriage and as a result, it comes across as a love story when it was really a friendship. This is the other problem with the line Gerda says that was quoted above: “I know it was Einar [I married], but really, it was you [Lili] and me.” In reality, it was not.

In the Capitalizing on Transsexuality and Intersexuality section of the chapter “Ungendering in Art and Academia of Whipping Girl, Serano criticises Jane Anderson, writer and director of the HBO film Normal for using a trans woman as a plot device and then relying on her imagination to portray the character. With The Danish Girl, at least we know Eddie Redmayne did his research, even if it did not come across, but there is also the uncomfortable problem of Lili’s transition being used as a sort of plot device to play out the drama of a married couple overcoming adversity and becoming friends.

Know Your Role

“After twenty years of exploration and experimentation, I eventually reached the conclusion that my female subconscious sex had nothing to do with gender roles, femininity, or sexual expression – it was about the personal relationship I had with my own body.”

From Serano’s chapter, “Blind Spots: On Subconscious Sex and Gender Entitlement”. I have used the above quotation specifically because of a scene in The Danish Girl in which Lili explicitly takes on the socially expected role of a woman for the period, when she starts working at the perfume counter of a department store. Questioned by Gerda as to why she would want to take such a job instead of painting as she did when she went under the name Einar, she replies: “I want to be a woman, not a painter.” It is an adaptation of a line from the Dusk section of Man Into Woman: “For I do not want to be an artist, but a woman.” The idea that she ‘wants’ to be a woman does not fit with other lines as much as if she had said, “I am a woman, not a painter”. In the film, Gerda is clearly annoyed by such a statement, and replies “People have been known to do both.” The problem is that Lili’s interpretation of what it means to be a woman is different from Gerda’s, and it includes conforming to the traditional gender role defined by the society she is living in. This is not to devalue her interpretation, as all cis women probably have differing views on what it means to be female, but is perhaps a mark of the period in which it is set, before the great surge of feminist writings later on in the twentieth century.

The other role it is apparent that Lili wants is that of a mother. In a conversation with Hans she encourages him to marry and have children because it is so important to her. That she is unable to fulfil this role is a tragic aspect of her character.

True Story, Biased Biography, Fictional Novel, Adapted Screenplay

One of the most interesting problems The Danish Girl has is that it feels behind the times. There are obvious reasons for this: The story is old, it has been reinterpreted through a biased biography and the novel came out in 2000. Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon started working on an adaptation in 2004 and had a completed script in a couple of years. Whipping Girl, the book I have quoted from extensively, came out in 2007.

The most interesting problem, and one that I think will become more and more common with the speed of communication possible in the modern era, is that the length of its time in development made its representation of the trans experience passé by the time it was released. 2015 was a banner year for trans visibility, if not necessarily for comprehension, prompted most prominently by Caitlyn Jenner coming out in the April. Filming of The Danish Girl began in February 2015. By the end of 2015, Jenner was named as a TIME Person of the Year runner-up, Collins English Dictionary had named transgender as one of its words of the year and Rush Limbaugh has been fooled into thinking tampons for trans women that simulated menstruation were a real thing. I thought The Danish Girl would have a synchronicity with the zeitgeist, a modern outlook on the trans experience, even though it was set in the past, but it did not. It just felt staid.

The Stories We Choose To Tell

There are so many variations on trans perceptions and experiences that choosing to tell only one story will almost necessarily alienate some part of the community. Choose to tell the story of a trans woman, you sideline the experiences of trans men. Choose to tell the story of a heterosexual trans woman, you may fail to evoke empathy from trans lesbians. Choose to tell the story of someone who has sex reassignment surgery, you risk failing to connect with someone who does not intend to undergo such a procedure. Choose to tell the story of a transgender pioneer from history, there will be some part of it that people going through the contemporary trans experience will be unable to relate to.

There are many stories that need to be told about trans people, but I do not believe this was one of them.