nothing like the real thing

Based in Edinburgh and supported by Creative Scotland, Arika is a non-profit organisation staging experimental arts events across the UK, including an ongoing series of festivals in Glasgow exploring the intersection of multi-disciplinary artistic discourse and radical cultural politics. I was gutted to have to miss their last event, but this time around made only slight progress by scoring a late-release ticket to the closing discussion at south-side venue Tramway. Episode 6: Make a Way Out of No Way (named from the African American folk proverb, drawn from Isaiah 43:16) dedicated its weekend to exploring race, sex, sexuality, and gender as social categories versus the reality of lived experience, through a programme of music, film, and performance. Variously tired, jet-lagged, overwhelmed, and overstimulated, the assembled panel pressed on through two hours of in-depth discussion on black identity and experience. An introductory point about the whitewashed, cis-centric narrative of the gay rights movement was perhaps most illuminating, as activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett cited the work of key trans activists of colour Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, firebrands of the Stonewall riots of 1969 now yearly commemorated internationally as Pride. Gossett is currently working on Happy Birthday, Marsha!, a documentary about the important work and friendship the two women shared, and spoke of the mistreatment they suffered as the gay power narrative gained traction; the commercialisation of the movement in their wake; how parades that once ended in public parks now make their way to public houses. This set the tone for much of the discussion ahead: pride and passion in the work being done, but frustration at the enduring widespread sociopolitical and economic hardship of people of colour; the selective solidarity displayed by certain sectors of the lgbtq* community; the minority status within the minority status. At times anecdotal, at times abstract, at times angry, the conversation was passed around the table like a pliant piece of clay, shaped and reshaped by each speaker according to their background, encompassing institutional oppression, gentrification, theology, and molecular biology. The sheer wealth, breadth, and depth of knowledge and experience in the room was dizzying.

The overall theme of the evening was “realness”: a phrase popularised in the mainstream by Jennie Livingston’s pivotal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, a chronicle of NYC’s drag ball scene as it ebbed towards the end of its Golden Age. Beginning with the queer masquerades of 1860s Harlem, ball culture reemerged in the 1920s and 30s with the “New Negro” movement, developing in the neighbourhood’s myriad jazz clubs and speakeasies, where black bohemians and white voyeurs flocked to see Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sing the blues for hot poppas and bulldaggers in their tops and tails. Navigating the Prohibition-era cultural clampdown, the Puerto Rican influx of the post-war years, and the heteronormative ideologies of the 1960s Black Power movement, the scene continued to thrive behind barred doors, centring around competitions of theatrical catwalking categories showcasing the looks, moves, style, and attitude of femmes and butches in turn. In the 70s and 80s, the competitive circuit developed into a house system, with membership based upon personality traits and biographical kinship, echoing the burgeoning street gang and hip hop crew cultures. Here, nominated house-mothers and -fathers preside over family-like collectives, providing guidance, tough love, and understanding to their drag children. Ensuring shelter and safety for generations of homeless, ostracised lgbtq* youth, this community structure became particularly important through the heights of the Western AIDS epidemic, with entrance fees to underage balls waived for the sake of a visit to the HIV testing booth, and safe sex information disseminated by house-parents and respected emcees. Always preoccupied with the luxe spectacle of it all, the ball scene fell headlong into the haute hypercapitalism of the late 80s and early 90s, with houses often named for luxe labels and brand-conscious “mopping” (shoplifting) fast becoming a vital skillset for any serious competitor. Icon Ayana Christian was another member of the Arika panel. ‘Have any of you ever owned a real designer bag?’ she asked. ‘Real genuine leather, with that little card inside?’ The language of luxury goods easily lends itself to the ballroom.

We’re born naked, the rest is drag. –RuPaul

Filmed over seven years, Livingston’s film is a part tender, part ribald portrait of a maligned community on the cusp of being co-opted by the zeitgeist. Greeted with rave reviews and a cull of festival awards, its release came hot on the heels of Madonna’s smash hit ‘Vogue‘, and captured the spirit of the identity politics era, in which every college kid worth their bottle of CKOne belonged to a grassroots activist group designed to their own personal sociopolitical specifications (talk about theatrical catwalking categories). It was around the same time that the whiter, gaucher, downtown Club Kids caused quite the stir on the daytime television talk-show circuit, and it’s fair to imagine that, for most viewers, sightings of a befeathered Pepper LaBeija and displays by voguing godfather Willi Ninja all folded into the same spectacle, selling a scandalising vision of a post-Warhol, pre-Giuliani New York City populated by drug-addled gender-bending cartoon hedonists. In fact, though the two cultures were central to lgbtq* history and the development of postmodernism, and though both grew from the outcast’s fetishisation of fame, fantasy, and fortune, each was deeply rooted in a very different musical and artistic tradition — garage-house and techno-house, disco and punk, glamour and the grotesque, sequins and sci-fi. Without casting aspersions upon the cultural importance of the Club Kids, the ball scene certainly engaged more directly with sociopolitical issues, offering a safe space for the city’s economically and societally disenfranchised to congregate, celebrate, and imagine themselves living a divergent life. Beyond self-expressive role-play, ballroom drag allowed anyone bold enough to step up on that stage to be ‘anything that you’re not, and might want to be — or might want to make fun of, in some cases’. Alongside femme/butch queen and dance rounds at any given ball were categories such as ‘executive realness’ and ‘banjee realness’, with walkers competing to sell themselves to the crowd and judges, to prove they might “pass” in public, as a member of the social sub-group of their choice.

Though many of Paris is Burning‘s stars met with a tragic fate, dying young or in mysterious circumstances, the houses live on, and the ball scene continues to thrive today, albeit in a largely google-unfriendly fashion. Besides the widespread international influence of vogue, the culture has trickled down through popular culture in manifold ways. While pop artists like Beyoncé, Ciara, and Willow Smith have paid homage in their lyrics and dance routines, acts such as Lady Gaga and the Scissor Sisters have been even more overt in their shout-outs. Perhaps the most overlooked torch-bearer of the ball scene was Sex and the City, whose scarlet-headed Stylist-in-Chief Patricia Field had the dubious honour of founding ‘the first white downtown house to walk the uptown balls‘. The influence is evident in Carrie’s commitment to dressing the part (#executiverealness), but the most pointed tip of the hat is in ‘The Real Me’ (402), in which she is called upon to work the catwalk (with disastrous results) before play-strutting around her bedroom to Cheryl Lynn’s ballroom anthem ‘Got to be Real‘ in the episode’s closing scene. Though RuPaul’s background is more Party Monster than Femme Queen, his disgustingly entertaining Drag Race brings the zany humour of the Club Kids together with the unique lexicon and house-mother warmth of the ballroom, borrowing the America’s Next Top Model format to create something of a drag renaissance in recent years. This revival has been compounded by a new wave of queer black artists eager to pay their respects, from fashion darling Zebra Katz of once-ubiquitous ‘Ima Read’ fame, whose live shows feature gimp masks and Njena Reddd Foxxx’s creepily slow-mo’d voguing, to provocative lyrical spitfire Azealia Banks, who mixes voguing and ball lingo with posthuman iconography and post-CK electroclash covers. Despite being one of many subcultures riddled with homophobia, the more mainstream strands of hip hop too seem to echo with the legacy of ballroom. Rap — which grew up in the Bronx before spreading to neighbouring Harlem — is another genre quite uniquely preoccupied with the notion of “realness”: being real, keeping it real, authenticity and legitimacy. As Andrew Marantz writes in a recent article for the New Yorker, examining how this theme has developed through rap’s history, ‘realness in hip-hop has a slippery definition, related to the everyday sense of the word but not synonymous with it.’ While Maranz details the various examples of respected rappers whose backgrounds didn’t quite align with the hood narrative they were selling (Rick Ross was a prison guard?!), the article is essentially an attack piece on Iggy Azalea’s brand of glossy, ebonics-driven pop hop, and concludes that ‘realness, for her, is just another hip hop tic … nothing about Azalea feels real, in any sense of the word.’ There’s absolutely no denying that Azalea is a deeply problematic artist, but what such articles fail to consider is that, despite being a Tupac fangirl, rap for her is more a mode of artistic expression than a dyed-in-the-wool lifestyle. First things first, she’s a performer, and her public persona is infused with drag ball culture, as shown by frequent social media references to being “beat” (done up in flawless make-up), and her sheer glee at being called ‘a great drag queen‘ by RuPaul. Taken in this context, as a pretty young white Australian woman who gets up on stage every night as a flawfree swaggering rap goddess with a deep south drawl, Iggy is the realest: is practising ballroom realness on a worldwide scale. Indeed, the drag ball scene has featured plenty of cis-PYTs through the years, and bald bombshell Amber Rose found her feet there as ‘Paris Karan’ long before she was Kanye’s most infamous ex (now going by ‘Muva Rosebud’ on the internet). Considering the widespread cultural narrative that Yeezy taught her everything she knows, it’s interesting to hear such a ballroom influence in his 2011 collaboration with Jay Z, ‘N*s in Paris’. So good it defies all superlatives, the track is both a celebration of the jetsetting life of the young, black and gifted in the twenty-first century, and an ode to the city of lights as a place of freedom and frivolity for African Americans since early in the twentieth. Through homonymic and homophonic wordplay the song operates on two levels, ripe for reappropriation by the ball scene. The opening ‘Hova’ shout-out — a reference to Jay’s “god of rap” moniker — is voiced in such a way that it could be the ball scene warcry ‘ovaaah’, bestowed upon only the most fabulous of queens. A comment on the disproportionate criticism and ridicule levied his way whenever he acts or even just speaks out on America’s racism, Kanye’s ‘doctors say I’m the illest / cos I’m suffering from realness’ also serves to meld the worlds of hip hop and ballroom, extolling his authenticity, his aesthetic, and his willingness to stick his head above the parapet in one fell swoop. ‘Ball so hard’ is a given. To top it all off, Kanye wears a leather skirt in the promo. Give Jay his due but there’s a reason everybody says that Ye changed the game, Heidi Slimane.

These are some of the thoughts I took into the Arika round-table. What I brought away was an understanding that realness is a far more complex, political concept than I’d realised, tightly woven with notions of safety, survival, and catharsis, rebelling against the hegemonic strictures of the world we live in. While in the media and common culture lgbtq* people of colour are ignored and invisiblised, paradoxically in public spheres they are highly spectaclised, unable simply to walk down the street without risking the wrath of bigots and law enforcement agencies. In their ballroom walk, competitors at once take control of this hypervisibility, basking in the spotlight, while living out a fantasy of blending, passing, getting out from under the glare. Realness mediates the idealised self, the “true” self, and “reality” as defined by our culture. In living out these fantasies onstage, competitors escape the persona thrust upon them by society and socialisation, not by rejecting the narrow categories but by subverting them, proving them as fictions. Nevertheless, they do buy into these fictions, enjoying a brief taste of the attached privileges not afforded to them in real life — affluence, respect, adoration of the masses. Through realness they finally do feel real; feel recognised as valid social beings. What I brought away was leading advocate and Legendary House-Father Michael Robertson Garçon’s call for fury; filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s words on rejecting the idea of ‘difference as a basis for pressure’; poet-educator Fred Moten thinking aloud on ‘difference without separation’ and asking sound tech to restart the track, this time from the top, ‘this is Aretha‘. In a poignant moment, theologian Charlene Sinclair talked of the strangeness and difficulty of always discussing racial issues ‘under the white gaze’ at such events; Moten replied ‘I don’t care who is looking — look on, white people.’ I’ve spent the past four days reading over my notes with about twenty-five tabs open at any one time. Next year I’ll be sure to book early.

three short essays on the power of love

I. THANK YOU AND GOODBYE

Frankie Goes to Hollywood released debut single ‘Relax’ in October 1983. In January 1984 it finally hit number one. Then we all know the story. Mike Read, Radio 1, Top of the Pops. Widespread condemnation. Single of the Year at the Brit Awards in ’85 (can we ever imagine living in a world so slow?). Number one follow-up single, number one album. Infamy beyond the band’s (management’s) wildest dreams. In this original extended mix of third single ‘The Power of Love’ — which also hit the top of the charts for one week in November ’84 before being ousted by the Live Aid juggernaut — over lush string orchestration, actor Chris Barrie recites the DJ’s sputtered live-on-air rant. The barely-held self-righteous fury of that farewell. To be sure the band were courting controversy, and made its first million in those short twenty seconds, but they also came face to face with the thinly-veiled culture of institutional homophobia that decreed a mere glimpse of their desires, fantasies, and lifestyles unfit for social consumption.

To live in a world where one self-prescribed arbiter of moral culture can feel such a right to censor creative culture. Doesn’t it make you want to grab hold of the internet and never let go?

In Radio 2’s recent series The People’s Songs, hosted by the wonderful Stuart Maconie, contributors of all ages and backgrounds from around the United Kingdom reflected upon the music and culture of post-war Britain, and the soundtracks of their lives. (Unfortunately it seems all the episodes have been de-iplayered for the time being but they’ll pop back up eventually.) My favourite instalment by far was ‘Smalltown Boy‘, about the creative evolution of post-Bowie pop queerness, heavily featuring Bronski Beat, the Communards, Culture Club, and the all-reigning Queen. The glaring omission, however, was Frankie. Though it’s entirely possible the band have blocked the BBC’s use of their track to this day, to fail to refer to the incident even in passing while rhetorically cheering on the gay rights movement and popular representation was a huge misstep. To claim to be crystallising modern British culture in fifty choice records without pointing an elbow at one that remains in the top ten bestsellers of all time is quite ridiculous.

‘The Power of Love’ carries all the weight of that prejudice, down through the decades. It’s my favourite Christmas song, and never fails to make me super-emotional the first time I hear it each year. After so much hatred, to sing a song about love and only love.

II. THE POWER OF LOVE AS VAMPIRE NARRATIVE

In November 1991, days before the death of Freddie Mercury, Frankie Goes to Hollywood lead singer Holly Johnson was diagnosed HIV+. One wonders if he might have been even peripherally aware of the disease when writing ‘The Power of Love’. It was in 1981 that US media began to report on a “rare homosexual cancer”, and that the first known case of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome was discovered in the UK; July 1982 when Terrence Higgins suffered one of the first British AIDS-related deaths. Though prefiguring the terrifying heights of the western AIDS pandemic then — certainly predating any real understanding of the cultural and imaginative ramifications of the disease — in the wake of what was to come, I can’t help thinking of ‘The Power of Love’ as a kind of gay (im)mortality anthem.

I’ll protect you from the Hooded Claw
Keep the vampires from your door
When the chips are down, I’ll be around
with my undying death-defying love for you

Though on one level evoking a kind of wilfully childlike (and therefore ultimate) version of heroism, particularly in tandem with Penelope Pitstop’s shapeshifting foe, the invocation of vampires in this context is culturally significant. Vamps are fundamentally queer beings, bonding bodily and fluidly with members of any sex indiscriminately, living literally in the shadows of normative society. The first wave of vampire literature in the west came toward the end of the eighteenth century, with the most enduring tale unarguably being Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), in which a homosocial band of brothers unite against the lascivious foreign bearer of a blood-borne plague that renders the infected incurably subhuman. Though syphilis is never explicitly mentioned in the novel, Stoker does name-check field expert Jean-Martin Charcot, and captures wonderfully the moral (and mortal) panic of the pre-penicillin era, when upto a fifth of London’s population fell victim to this highly-stigmatised sexually-transmitted infection. Indeed, Stoker’s death certificate suggests that his untimely death in 1912 was caused by complications related to the disease. That the vampire genre saw a resurgence in popularity around the early 1980s cannot be interpreted as mere coincidence. If, per Joseph Campbell, ‘myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths’, the same can be said of society’s nightmares, which tend to manifest in its monster du jour. As Katia Yurguis writes, After AIDS we found ourselves once again in ‘an era when fear of possible infection restrains human interaction, and concepts such as sex and blood have become synonymous with death’.

Preaching the vital importance of the ideal over the material, Johnson’s lyrics in ‘The Power of Love’ laud the sublime purity of love in the face of life’s dangers and darknesses, the necessity of believing in one’s own beauty and worth — despite what the world might have you believe. The vampire figure remains ostracised from society, will never regain “human status” among the living. But in invoking him, rather than monstrification of the HIV+, we might find a way to subvert the AIDS narrative, transmogrifying it from a story of tragic hypermortality to one of supernatural strength, immortal invulnerability, undying death-defying love.

III. THIS TIME WE GO SUBLIME

Half-comprising a selection of bizarre cover versions, including ‘Born to Run’ and ‘San Jose’ (!), Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984) is an underdeveloped album that sadly doesn’t live up to its incredible conceptual title. While still evoking the sweaty hedonism of the band’s debut single, the name pays direct homage to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan‘ (1816), a poem written from an opium-drenched dream, and which is in fact quoted in the record’s spectacular title track: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree. Wordsworth and Coleridge are commonly acknowledged as important figures in queer study, by virtue of their Romantic ideal of homosocial friendship, and Kubla Khan’s walled green, with all its ‘fast thick pants’ and ‘mighty fountain momently…forced’ certainly makes sense amongst FGTH’s highly-charged homoerotic aesthetic. Indeed, in the queer canon, the garden is often situated as a gay space (seemingly traceable to Jesus and Judas’s kiss in Gethsemene), with artists from Oscar Wilde to Derek Jarman bringing it front and centre in their work. (One might also note that the meticulously manicured lawn and pathologically preened rose garden are staple symbols of the dark-rooted repression of the unexamined, ultra-normative life.) This symbolic reclamation is interesting when compared to the Romantic glorification of wild untamed nature, stretching off to the horizon; per Jarman, the garden is not nature in the vein of ‘Constable and Samuel Palmer’s Kent’, but ‘modern nature’, cultivated nature, adapted nature, queered nature.


Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986) // American Beauty, Sam Mendes (1999)

 

For the Romantics, nature was the ultimate expression of the sublime: the overwhelming sensory experience of witnessing gestalt perfection, the ecstasy of the majestic spectacle tinged with the terror of infinity, the anxiety of unknowability. This preoccupation followed Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which works to outline a theory of the sublime, offering nature’s beauty as proven presence of the divine — something larger, more grand, than humankind. This religiosity is reflected in ‘The Power of Love’: in the Christian iconography of its video, the invocation of the Lord’s Prayer in its original mix. But rather than singing to the glory of God and nature — rather than making ideological amends for the body-centric, queer-as-in-fuck-you, bdsm spectacle of ‘Relax’ — ‘The Power of Love’ develops its rapturous hedonistic abandonment to holy proportions. This time we go sublime / lovers entwine: divine, divine. For Holly Johnson and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the sublime is to be found Between Men. In love that indeed now holds the promise of not just pleasure and pain, but very real danger.

Society’s nightmares manifest in its monster du jour. In Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), another story famously shorn from a dream, Mary Shelley forewarns of the danger of man [sic] meddling in the affairs of God/nature, and arguably of woman-as-childbearer — creating monstrous life by scientific means. In the original iteration of the “myth of progress”, technological advancement is symbolised as fire, which is stolen from Zeus and delivered to humankind by the “fore-thinking” titan Prometheus, freeing the mortal realm forevermore from its reliance upon the whim of the immortal gods. (That Prometheus is a recurring referential figure in the literature of the Romantic period illuminates the anxious preoccupation with the link between the divine and the mortal; with the notions of subjection and agency in a time of great religious and political upheaval.) In supplanting god with man (more accurately: men) in ‘The Power of Love’, Johnson effects just such a cutting of the divine apron strings. What’s more, his lyric keenly evokes Promethean evolution in its vivid refrain — a love that feels like fire, with tongues of fire, that burns with passion while also healing. Baptismal flames, cleaning, purging the soul.

Despite its firm place in the Christmas canon then (and the beige, chronically hetero opine of Gabrielle Aplin’s 2012 hit cover version) ‘The Power of Love’ might in fact also be read as a deeply subversive queer anthem. Thematically linked to the secular, to the profane; to the death of the divine, in favour of the flesh.

this modern love

The first two series of Channel 4’s Misfits is amongst my favourite television of all time. Perfectly cast, cohesively plotted, with its own definite aesthetic and a meticulously crafted fictional world, it went so quickly and so drastically downhill with the Christmas Special that I simply refuse to acknowledge the existence of further episodes. Ostensibly the story of five apathetic ASBO yoofs struck down by a supernatural storm that gifts each with a superpower, with each instalment we encounter yet another case of someone affected by the storm, with superpowers ranging from the sublime… to the guy who can control milk. This entertaining premise cleverly serves to despecialise the main characters, hugely undermining their superhero status, and adds a nicely Eerie, Indiana-esque sense of ‘we’re all mad here’ weirdness. Further though, it lends a notion of narrative development while allowing the main story arc to tread water a little when necessary — acknowledged self-consciously by the protagonists burying bodies, digging them up, then reburying them at the exact same spot over the course of three early episodes.

An especially brilliant, un-explicitly-announced touch is that each character’s superpower channels the crime that landed them in community service in the first place, in turn echoing a central aspect of their personality and approach to life. With Nathan ever-adamant that he was simply caught ‘eating pick n mix’, the eventual discovery of his new-found immortality is a particularly perjink comedic pay-off, reflecting his bloated sense of entitlement and belief that the rules of society, and the very concept of consequence, do not apply to him. The story I was most eager to see unfurl however was that of Alicia, a pyt whose power is to engender a visceral amorous reaction in any man who touches her. Pulled over for drunk-driving, she had attempted to seduce a police officer by fellating her breathaliser.

She’s a bit of a Sugar type, and there’s a lot that could be said about the fact both characters are mixed-race, that Alisha even had to be female at all, and that her power only seems to affect straight men. It would have been a really nice development to see this storyline queered in some direction — in fact, sexual diversity is something this show generally lacks. Having known the gist of Alisha’s character in advance, I was sorry to find that her power wasn’t going to be something she could control, yet was still “channelling” an aspect of her personality, ie. she can deny it all she wants but in the end, unequivocally, she’s asking for it. It’s difficult not to read her flatly in these terms. That it wasn’t a simple kind of Hogwartsian love potion was a bit of a shock too. These incidents, taking place at least once per episode, are very adult, incredibly violent, and deeply unsettling to watch. The men don’t just push themselves upon Alisha physically (in many instances succeeding so far in their attack as to be left, after her escape, completely perplexed by their flustered state: open flies, exposed erection) but begin instantly to ream off everything they’d like to do to her — “to” being the operative word. Sometimes absurdly humorous (Simon the sociopathically awkward penguin’s ‘I want to rip off your clothes and piss on your tits’), sometimes pathetically literal, these utterances are never, ever sexy, even when they do in fact lead to sex on her terms. Against all odds, despite a flurry of attacks, despite her lack of agency in terms of her effect on these men, Alisha somehow retains ultimate control, always managing to evade her attacker, always escaping. In one instance even, while being pinioned by two men, she manages to shake herself loose of their rampant grip. You have to wonder at what that’s supposed to be telling us.

I do think there is a really interesting discussion going on here about the concept of consent. At a seniors’ dance at the community centre, when Alisha is partnered with an old man (who duly gropes her) and is later again attacked by a policeman, probation worker Sally intones ‘you seem to have quite an effect on men. You are a very beautiful girl.’ Alisha is adamant however: ‘it’s not my fault if they can’t keep their dicks in their trousers.’ It’s a bold statement against rape culture, but of course at first glance it would appear that this is simply not true. She is undeniably invoking their lust, albeit by supernaturally-gifted means, against her (conscious) intention. They simply, and literally, cannot help themselves. But I suppose there is a question as to why these men are touching her in the first place, a question of male physical dominance over women, the unconsented manipulation of the female body. Despite the men’s evident discombobulation after the fact, Curtis’s assertion that when he was having sex with her while bewitched he was not himself, as much as her superpower is an amplification of her own attitudes to her sexuality and potency, the sentiments expressed by these men are amplifications too of their legitimate latent desire and violence-laced fantasies.

In Muriel Spark’s novella The Driver’s Seat, young office-worker Lise sets off on holiday alone to find “the one”. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that she is in fact trying to find the man who will eventually rape and kill her, actively seeking him out, the whole thing portrayed as a sort of twisted, inverted love story. “I knew it from the minute I saw you.” Whenever she is alone with a man we are simply waiting for her to be attacked with claustrophobic dread, willing her not to go with him, to run. Similarly, Alisha’s being raped seems an inevitable fate she is coursing toward, with every attack becoming more and more terse to watch as we wonder if this will be the man to “finish the job”. It’s a strange effect which makes us complicit in her attack, almost willing it into being — makes her a self-evident victim, a victim even before she is a victim. Spark’s title largely arises from the notion of Lise-as-woman being uncharacteristically in control of her destiny and her relations with men, but in key scenes we also see her literally behind the wheel, and it’s an interesting parallel that driving seems such a large part of Alisha’s character. Bearing her original crime in mind, she is the only character who can summon up a car when required; in fact seems to be the only one of the five protagonists who can drive. The two-man attack by Curtis and Ben, from which she escapes, takes place in the latter’s car.

In Spark’s final scenes, as Lise “forces” her “suitor” to “consummate” their relationship (again, the feeling is that this is a private desire he is publicly repressing, that she is drawing it from him, permitting it in him, as does Alisha to her would-be “suitors”) it is he who becomes the victim figure, subjected to her desire for sexual death. It is evident that Curtis is appalled by Alisha’s knowingly brandishing her power in order to bed him, believes himself to have been taken advantage of, finally naming it as rape only in the verboten Christmas special. Here we see woman as sexual aggressor, as raper of men — the show’s fantastical element offering this role reversal that, for varying physiological reasons, is largely unrealistic irl. It is when Alisha relinquishes her power only for it to be snapped up by wayward priest “Jesus” that we begin to see it in starkly sinister terms, particularly when he touches and incites her (she once again, against all odds, manages to escape). Curtis is Alisha’s victim, she did rape him, and so what does it say that he then broached and maintained a relationship with her? Why does it feel so instinctively lesser a trespass when the sex roles are reversed?

When Curtis and Alisha decide to be together, they acknowledge that their relationship can’t ever be a fully consummated one. Only much later verbalised though is the fact that, for all anyone knows, Alisha will never be able to participate in sexual contact ever again. The show goes to great lengths to prove Alisha can still be touched “by proxy”, with the barrier of clothing, glass, other man-made materials. If only there existed some barrier by which it were possible to have sex without skin-to-skin contact… Why the instant assent to mutual masturbation without so much as a nod to the concept of contraception, clothed contact, et al? This is something that also nagged at me in the late, great Pushing Daisies, where this kind of ingenuity was employed, but only to romantic (not sexual) extent. When protagonist Ned touches a dead body once he brings it back to life, but touch it twice and it will wither once more. If he doesn’t retouch it within a minute, someone else in the vicinity will die in its place. Largely abiding by these rules, well-versed in self-denial and loss, Ned allows himself two exceptions: beloved pet labrador Digby and childhood sweetheart Chuck. Each becomes a mainstay in his life, albeit touchable only by-proxy, and he and Chuck quickly develop a romantic relationship, albeit unconsummated and in many senses only tacitly recognised.

Charmingly woven with long doting looks and evident adoration/obsession as it was (did anyone ever actually use the word love?), it was an utterly lustless show, with nary a sex scene or even passionate clinch in the course of its run. Though I irritatingly can’t find any of the stuff I read at the time, there were certainly theories abound that the romance of the central characters lent itself to some radical readings in terms of sexual theory: that Ned could be read as a queer character (Chuck?), that his story was an allegory for the cultural effects of AIDS. For my part, I’d argue that the distance between Chuck and Ned is an instance of fetish, the barriers invoked and ingenuity involved in their affecting togetherness a factor in their mutual desire to be together at all. The only other vaguely sexual couple in the show, if memory serves, was that of Emerson and his schoolmarmish dog-trainer, who seemed to maintain a similarly click-happy control over her beau: again, a fetishistic element. In a strange sense then, though sexless, Pushing Daisies is a show absolutely about sex: about wanting and (not) having. About the uncrossable, insatiable, existential distance of desire. Fetishising that distance, it compels the viewer to draw emotional stimulation from those small moments in which that distance might be broached: relishing the supernatural imposition that keeps the two lovers apart because their dedication to defying it viscerally proves their devotion to one another.

Obviously I’m not trying to say that conflicted lovers are in any sense a new phenomenon, but with Alisha and Curtis, the girl called Chuck and the Piemaker, we see that tried and true sitcom standard of unrequited/impossible love turned up to eleven. To bring a couple quickly and painlessly together (no ‘you deserve better’, no ‘I need to figure out what I want for myself’, no ‘I’m afraid of how much I love you’), to have them be emotionally available and openly together and to want to be together and yet to be painfully held apart, to have physical technicality be the issue and not emotional or moral conflict — that’s different. A very special kind of self-administered pain in the guise of greater pleasure. As viewers, what is that kind of dynamic sating in us? Why, as a fan-garnering trope, is it picking up speed? It’s a situation that we know, by its very definition, can never be resolved in any lasting way (Alisha’s selling off her power notwithstanding, and I maintain this was a bit of a cop-out ex machina). Where with most star-cross’d lovers we maintain a tight oscillation between wanting them to be together and enjoying the doleur exquise of their being kept apart, by investing in Curtis and Alisha, or Ned and Chuck, we are buying in wholesale to that hopeless want; even fetishising it for ourselves as some kind of romantic ideal.

It is universally accepted that Alisha’s superpower is by no means a gift, that it cannot possibly work to her advantage, and yet it — fuckability, per Ariel Levy — is a much-lauded attribute in our contemporary culture. What does it say that sex is now most evidently symbolised as a weapon, as an onslaught? That we are fetishising the obstacles that hold lovers apart; romanticising the barriers that allow them to be together? That we are beginning to idealise relationships where sex is an impossibility, where tactility is rendered extinct? Where intimacy is enacted from afar, ‘staring at one another and wanking ourselves off’.