Review: Booksmart

Booksmart follows Molly and Amy, best friends on the cusp of graduating high school, who realise they’ve almost completely let the high school party experience pass them by. The night before graduation they have two goals: 1) go to a rager hosted by one of their classmates and 2) get Amy to kiss the girl she’s been crushing on.

 
Booksmart is a ridiculous, fun, smart romp reminiscent of Superbad and its kin. The tropes are familiar: an awkward nerd with a crush and a highly-strung future leader with no time for dating, go out and make a set of poorly planned decisions and things go awry very quickly. Unlike its predecessors, Booksmart doesn’t have hyper-masculine, dirty boy humour, despite sex being an important component of Amy’s character development. It felt revolutionary to watch this kind of film without endless dick imagery or stupid dildo jokes. The topic of female masturbation is broached, but it’s done in a sensitive and funny way, without the meanness or sense of shame of other comedies like this. Female friendship is a cornerstone of the film and much of the driving force behind its comedy. The film goes out to break much of the stereotypes surrounding female friendships: Molly and Amy are sex-positive (there’s a scene where the two of them watch lesbian porn in the back of a Lyft that made me laugh and cringe in equal measure), they care about each other, and most importantly the emotional crux of the film, their big fight, is not about a boy they’re both trying to sleep with.

 
I enjoyed Molly as a character and her growth was both funny and heartwarming, but seeing a character like Amy is breath of fresh air. Amy is an out lesbian who is crushing on a girl she’s not sure is interested in other girls. It was so nice to see a queer character who was not struggling with her sexuality and her own identity but with the very teenage experience of having a crush on someone. There was also a sex scene between Amy and another girl that wasn’t hypersexualised but awkward and kind of sweet and very funny. Amy is the kind of lesbian storytelling we need more of – her queerness isn’t ignored but it’s also not the only aspect of her personality.

 
The only criticism I have of this film is the relationship between Ms Fine, the girl’s teacher, and a student who has repeated the seventh grade three times. Technically the student was twenty and of legal age and Ms. Fine was a young teacher, but the relationship still sat wrongly on what was otherwise a sharply feminist film. Reducing a comedy actor Jessica Williams, who played Miss Fine, to a lonely teacher who sleeps with a student seems like a waste of talent and opportunity.

 
I really enjoyed this film and I’d recommend it to anyone. Hopefully it’s the first of many female-led coming-of-age movies.

 


Words by Riana Kinlough

5 stars

Racing the Sun

44330028Reading Racing the Sun by J.R. Koop was like taking a deep breath of fresh air. Set in a Southern Asian inspired fantasy kingdom and with a queer love story at the centre, this Young Adult work is bright against its heavily heteronormative, and predominately Western-based peers. After the soul is stolen out of her secret lover’s chest by a sorceress bent on resurrecting the Ashen God, Rahat must race through the dangerous jungle to save both her lover and her kingdom.

Koop’s writing flows easily and is very fun to read. Her characters and their relationships, especially between family members, are engaging and well-formed. The passages with the faerie, Qaidra, were some of the book’s best they provided much of the lore and world-building background for the work. Qaidra is a being that has suffered and the glimpses into her past were sharply drawn and helped flesh out the faerie into a strikingly memorable figure. That said, I do think the world of Abrecan  could have done with a little more world-building in terms of the lore of the Gods and the significance of the faerie Rapture; at times it felt as though the author expected you to be privy to the inner workings of the world without the full breadth of that insider knowledge quite making it to the page. However, the world-building that was present was rich and interesting – Koop clearly has a vivid, active imagination and lots of love for the things she creates.

The politics of this novel – Rahat and Iliyah, her lover, are both of the ruling class but cannot be together: instead Rahat is promised to Iliyah’s brother to unite their kingdom – add tension to the plot and a desperation to Rahat that endears her to her readers. Although, again, I would have benefitted from a tiny bit more of an explanation about the things that prevent Rahat and the girl she loves from being together, especially given the reason for their separation – Iliyah’s service to a God as a dream weaver – proves to be easily dismissed at the end by the powers that be.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which felt like a good mix of Neil Gaimen, Garth Nix, and Audrey Coulthurst. There’s lots to love in Racing the Sun: the rich world of Abrecan; the sweet love story; the love and encouragement between family members; the unusual range of creatures and beasts (I loved the mechanical horses, they were my absolute favourites); the adventure. This novel is a refreshing addition to the YA genre, and I am excited to see what Koop produces next.

Four Stars.


 

Words by Riana Kinlough

Big Rough Stones

Big Rough Stones

Margaret Merrilees

Wakefield Press 2018


An awe-inspiring testament to the feminist movement in Australia, particularly South Australia and Victoria during the 1970s and 80s, Big Rough Stones follows the women of a collective throughout their lives together.

Focused on one particularly fiery lesbian, Ro, the novel looks back on her life, her achievements, her failures, and her relationships while firmly establishing her opinions—both those she put on and those she kept to herself. Ro spent her life pioneering to be a loud and proud lesbian who didn’t conform to the patriarchal power structures that guided and continue to guide the lives of a number of women.

Ro is dying, and in dying she wants to realise her dream of becoming a writer, even if she might have left it too late. She’s always wanted to write about her experiences being a lesbian and being involved in a number of protests and rallies. While she laments her writing dreams, she also looks back on her life, giving the audience glimpses into her past, in a natural and sometimes non-chronological order.

While the novel revolves around the character of Ro, we also get to know her friends and ex-lovers, in particular the love of her life, Gerry. Gerry is a country woman, self-sufficient and alone in the Victorian farmlands, living where there would have once been a dairy farm. She is stoic and capable, and somehow taken by Ro, who is very much loud, obnoxious and opinionated (even when contradicting herself).

The book works retrospectively, separated into four parts titled: “Now”, “A While Ago”, “A Long Time Ago”, before returning to “Now”. This shows how times have changed, how ideas from Ro’s youth have continued to inform her thinking, and how her opinions have changed as she grew older.

It was wonderful to read such a powerful, loud, book by a South Australian author and see familiar places such as Adelaide, Kingston and Grange. To hear about women living together, helping one another, and fighting for what they believe in. It was fascinating to hear about the protests, rallies, picnics, and meetings that would have contributed to the transformation of everyday life for women in Australia today.

Margaret Merrilees debut novel The First Week won the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2013. Fables of the Queer and Familiar was published in 2014 and was also broadcast around Australia as a radio serial.


3/5 Stars

Big Rough Stones is available for purchase from Wakefield press here.


Words by Kayla Gaskell

Our Giddy Aunts: Queer Readings of Mentors in Children’s Fantasy Fiction

With the recent revelation that Dumbledore, our favourite gay wizard, won’t be all that gay in the next Fantastic Beasts movie, I think it’s fair to say that the tide has finally turned; J. K. Rowling’s table-scrap representation is no longer enough. Readers are no longer satisfied with post publication declarations that an unaddressed, unimportant character might have been Jewish or something. This is not effective or accurate representation.

The thing we should keep in mind, however, is that J. K. Rowling wasn’t brave or unique in codifying Dumbledore’s queerness. She was just tapping into an unconscious trope that has been in children’s fantasy fiction since the very beginning.

Explicit queerness in children’s fiction is relatively new. The conscious and unconscious link of homosexuality and sex is an old and tough link to break, and is even tougher to get past a gatekeeping adult public. Children are not in charge of what gets published; adults are. It is these gatekeepers that are as capable as being whipped into a panic – like the one that saw the demise of the Safe Schools program – that decide whether or not queer characters see any representation in children’s fiction. Forgetting, of course, that children’s fiction is all about characters just like the bullied queer kids of real life. Children’s fiction is all about the ‘other’.

Children’s fantasy is filled with ‘others’, like Ged from Earthsea, Morrigan Crow from the Nevermoor series, or the inescapable example Harry Potter. Then there are those who might be completely of the ‘normal’, but find themselves feeling like ‘others’ because they’re in an entirely new world, such as the queer icon Dorothy in Oz, the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve from The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Alice of Alice in Wonderland.

It’s not uncommon for children to feel this way about themselves – approximately 1 in 4 children reported being bullied at school in 2009. This is particularly key for children who may be struggling with sexuality or gender, feeling different for a reason poorly explored in the fiction around them.

Even without bullying, growing up is difficult, and the process of changing from child into adult is a metamorphosis that overwhelms even the best of us. It is here that books become a key in figuring ourselves out through sympathy and empathy, relating our feelings of ‘otherness’ with those on the page.

These ‘others’ find themselves in places and situations that are impossible to the uninitiated. They require guidance and teaching to understand their otherness. In real life we have our parents to fulfil these roles. But it’s usually the case in fiction that these characters that give guidance don’t have the familial attachment of ‘parent’. They are the tertiary adults, who fulfil the role of parent without the prejudice and judgement that entails.

Perhaps it’s just that writers have bad relationships with their parents, but rarely – if ever – does the most important guidance required to see these characters through to the end of the narrative come from parents. It might be because the characters are orphans, or the parents are absent – both of these tropes are mainstays of the genre. Fiction for children lends itself well to wise older characters, because children’s fiction is filled with outsiders needing guidance, yet it seems that when parents are present, children don’t go on adventures.

Who does this leave? Teachers. Old women. Grandparents. Distant relatives. In many cultures, they all fall under the same word. It may have fallen out of fashion now, but that categorisation applies in English too – in short, we’re talking about aunts and uncles, informal or otherwise.

What better word is there for the adults that assume the role of parent in the absence of parent? There are honorary aunts and uncles abound in the real world. Why not in imagined worlds?

The word ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’ does not denote responsibility per se, but it does open the possibility of care. An aunt or an uncle is usually a temporary presence, but with opinions and power the same as any parent. In real life, as in fiction, an orphaned child might find themselves with an aunt or uncle.

The concept of gay aunts and uncles is not a particular new or interesting idea. It is a prevailing theory as to why homosexuality hasn’t been bred out of any population. In fiction, their presence mirrors the real world. If queer people exist to support the lives of children, then more than a few of the children supported in fiction get a little help from their queer aunts and uncles.

Children’s fiction is – for obvious reasons – devoid of sex. The only evidence that anyone has sex in the sanitised world of children’s fiction is the children themselves. This is not to say that the world of children’s fiction is devoid of sexuality – adults may be partnered, children may (and often do) have love interests, and male/female pairings are often implied by proximity.

If there’s any more egregious display of enforced sexuality, it’s in old fashioned children’s fiction. It creates love interests by convenience and proximity by pairing the nearest boy (of similar age) to the nearest girl. It’s not just something applied to the children in children’s fiction, either, but adult framed love isn’t integral to children’s fiction. Indeed, love interests aren’t key to children’s fiction at all. Alice, for example, had no need for love interests.

However, in a world where characters have enforced romantic inclinations, what happens where there is an absence of romance? What happens when a character that could easily have a heterosexual partnering – and has a convenient and proximate heterosexual partner – has none? Why are perfectly loveable characters single?

This happens frequently in children’s fiction because it’s not necessary to explore adult feelings. But adults reading children’s fiction can’t help but wonder about the inner lives of characters. Who does Dumbledore love?

The absence of relationships is as questionable as the presence of them, because for a long time, representation of any queer characters – happy ones, anyway – was illegal.

The absence of relationships isn’t the only evidence, of possible queerness. The circumstantial evidence is as varied as it is flimsy, but it’s no less flimsy than a knowing glance between two Valkyries in 2017’s Thor Ragnarok. Queer people have been forced to see representation where there’s questionable evidence and word of God for decades. Who would have known that Mrs. Danvers was apparently a lesbian without this handy Wikipedia article?

Fiction is filled with flamboyant bachelor uncles, and interesting albeit reserved bachelorette aunts. Flamboyance and extravagance are stereotypes now, but in previous years they could be seen as cultural markers. Dumbledore was extravagant and weird. What is flamboyant if not a bird that catches fire? Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci and Howl, though both textually heterosexual, were both flamboyant and extravagant in an era when the term metrosexual was uninvented. In the Nevermoor series from Jessica Townsend, we have the extravagant flouter of rules, Jupiter North. These are, of course, male stereotypes. The female stereotypes are little murkier.

The maiden aunt trope is one based in reality, and one that is replicated in many children’s narratives. When healthcare for women started becoming a Thing, so was Incredibly Deadly War, leaving many women widowed or without husband. How many of these women were happy to do without we will never know, but their presence has endured in fiction, even outside of the realm of children’s fiction. The Austen novels are nothing without their maiden aunts.

Of course, many of these women – in real life at least – lead unpartnered lives as wholesome heterosexuals. But there are innumerable queer women who would have found this arrangement invigorating, either because they preferred the same sex or preferred no partnership whatsoever. The maiden aunt could be seen as a miserable character, or they could just as easily be fulfilled and happy without a man.

Outsiders in their own worlds, they provide an anchor for ‘others’. These flamboyant uncles or interesting aunts provide a glimpse into the future for characters that are otherwise incapable of imagining a future as an ‘other’.

In real life, the adults we see as children are the adults we believe we can become. The most normal of which are usually our parents, and possibly our grandparents. If our families are large, we might see a deviation from the parental norm through our extended relatives – our aunts and uncle, our cousins and niblings, adults that don’t need to exist in a nuclear family unit to be happy and healthy adults.

When J. K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was gay in 2007, there was a short silence and then burst of applause at Carnegie Hall. Applause for representation? Or an acknowledgement of something that has always been there?


Words by Mark Tripodi

Mark is a writer and comedian. He is a host on Radio Adelaide’s Pride and Prejudice and The Range. He also hosts The Piecast.