Roz Bellamy is a writer whose work has appeared in The Big Issue, Daily Life, Huffington Post, Junkee, Kill Your Darlings and other publications. Roz has contributed essays to Living and Loving in Diversity, an anthology of Australian multi-cultural queer adventures, and Going Postal: More than a Yes or No. which was published by Brow Books on the one-year anniversary of the announcement of the ‘yes’ vote. Roz was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize in 2014 and won the Stonnington Prize for poetry in 2016. They’re a PhD candidate and casual academic at The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society based at Latrobe University and in all their spare time Roz is also the new deputy online editor at Archer Magazine and invites you to send them your pictures. Roz Bellamy:
*Audience cheers and claps*
I discovered my first problematic faves at my grandparents’ house. Their home was my hideaway, a place where the outside world couldn’t reach me. Nana and Popsie had a bedroom for me and my sister tucked away at the very back of the house. It had cupboards filled with art supplies, cans full of silly string, paper dolls with fashionable forties outfits and more importantly, shelves of books.
It was in these bookshelves I discovered Enid Blyton’s stories. I was fascinated by the Magic Faraway Tree – I hope there are some people here who are into the Magic Faraway Tree –
Oh, yes, yes!
There’s probably something very queer about that tree. Good, good, good. Which the children would climb and they would find different lands at the top of the tree. As a child the thought of climbing a tree – not that I could, I wasn’t very much of a tomboy – climbing a tree and finding a different world at the top was incredibly alluring. I’m sure many of us feel that way right now about earth and kind of wish we could climb up a tree and maybe access another planet.
There are a few weird things about those books in hindsight. The first is what I have since identified as the ‘cousin comes to stay’ trope? The slightly creepy relationship between protagonists and their cousins. In ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’, cousin Dick comes to visit Fanny and co.
It’s possible that Blyton wanted to hint at something vaguely incestuous there and the visiting cousins was the only socially acceptable cover for having a person of the opposite sex in the bedroom. It’s a way to explore their characters’ nascent sexuality. A gateway drug, if you will. I personally prefer the more forward, Judy Blume approach to sex in books. Scandalous or go home.
Another thing that felt odd was ‘the land of take what you want’, which I now realise is capitalism. Like a lot of children’s and young adult books, political ideology was presented in a joyous, innocent way. ‘Help yourself kids, take all the lollies you want from the shop! All to your heart’s content!”
You didn’t have to think about who was making those unlimited lollies, and what their life and working conditions were like. That wasn’t something I really had to think too much about as a child. So the unlimited toys and lollies seemed pretty wonderful. But now I think about the young readers who always went without, probably a bit different for them.
The characters loved using the word ‘queer’, even if their worlds were terribly straight. Despite the word meaning something pretty different at the time, there were some things that were pretty queer in those stories. There was the tomboy, George, let’s hear any George fans – yes, George, George in The Famous Five, who set little queer hearts ablaze. There was also a butch George in Nancy Drew.
*Someone in the audience says, ‘woo!’*
Um, yes, thank you. Actually, when I mentioned my topic for tonight to Marisa, who will be speaking a bit later, they mentioned the very gay midnight picnics at Malory Towers and I had to quote Marisa, who said, ‘sure it was just food at those picnics’. Yeah…
Describing a character as a tomboy in these books was definitely a euphemism for dyke. Now, I found the utopic nature of these worlds very appealing. Despite the conflict occurring in their lives, the worlds that they lived in seemed pretty damn great. Nature was untouched by humans, everyone had happy families and enough food in their bellies and existed in isolation from the cities and towns. I didn’t read any further or more critically into this world. My British grandparents who supplied the Trixie Beldons, Enid Blyton and Gerald Durrell books seemed convinced of the wonders to be found in Britan and it’s quaint villages. So I also became besotted. These books were my holy texts for most of my childhood and adolescence. The world around me, while privileged, had problems. Bullies, cruelty. So I clung to these utopic worlds where the good guys didn’t just make it through but saw justice.
A lot of these texts fit into what I now realise there’s a name for, thanks to tumblr, called The Problematic Fave. The term was actually coined in 2013 by yourfaveisproblematic.tumblr, if you wanna check it out later, and the website’s aim is to draw attention to “problematic shit your favourite celebrities have done”.
Blyton’s books were problematic in lots of ways. Some were obvious, like gender roles, golliwogs, xenophobia. But some were more subtle. Like so many things in the western world, books made being white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied and Christian seem like the norm; not just the status quo but essential and immutable. Why would you dare to question it? I certainly didn’t think to question it until I unlearned a lot of things I learned at school.
As an adult, my two faves, Scully in the Xfiles, and I’m sure, yeah, there’s going to be Scully enjoyment here – and Carrie in Homeland – work for the FBI and the CIA. The showrunners love to put attractive people in the uniform of really problematic institutions. It’s like being encouraged to lust after the most disturbing costumes on Halloween.
There’s a TV trope I fall for every time: the unconventional, feisty femme agent. They tend to be sexy in a way that is uncomfortable for a viewer on the far left of the political spectrum. I’m left wondering, uneasily, why do I have a thing for FBI and CIA agents?
And these TV shows are high on the problematic scale. I’ve watched the X-Files as a moody teen and as a moody adult. The show depicted the problematic nature of the FBI but also brought conspiracy theories back into the mainstream. It made conspiracy theorists appear brave, with Mulder the obvious hero for chem-trailers, anti-vaxxers and false flaggers.
Now Homeland, my current problematic fave has really outrageous depictions of countries in the Middle East. It actually ended up in the news when three street artists who had been commissioned to do the sets to make them authentic at the refugee camp deliberately painted the following: ‘Homeland is racist’, ‘Homeland is a joke, and it didn’t make us laugh’ and ‘#blacklivesmatter’ on the sets. Which was only found after post-production, which is pretty great.
I remember feeling torn the first time I realised that some of my favourite writers, many of whom are members of marginalised communities, are problematic faves. I’ve quoted dreamy lines of poetry on social media only to realise how many of my faves are transphobic. It’s always painful to read that yet another writer is actually on that problematic fave list. And marginalised people are often held to a higher standard for their behaviour. Which can seem unfair. It bothers me because many artists on the problematic fave list are often doing important work alongside their problematic decision-making.
Now, I’m not justifying their sentiments, they’re pretty awful. But there are some positive things alongside the problematic; the reason that these texts are our faves in the first place. So, in The X-Files, Mulder’s obsession with the truth taught me that I didn’t have to accept the dominant narratives at school and in society. In Homeland, Carrie’s bipolar disorder is handled really sensitively, which has been enormously helpful during my own diagnosis.
Like most avid readers, and especially those trying to escape reality, I have always used fiction to process my lived experience. Personally, I think it’s less important to label the text problematic, rather we should find it problematic that so many texts sit unexamined for the most part.
Now when those Blyton children climbed back down that faraway tree, they didn’t talk to their parents about the weird shit they saw up there at the top. They would come back after seeing some really interesting things with Moonface, and a much wider world and just as many of us who read books or watch tv or films encounter worlds beyond our own. We turn off Netflix and go to bed, we shut the book and feel kinda queasy. We don’t engage in, though, in the sustained way that these texts – even the crap ones – require.
I like to think back to the soft, cozy bed at my nana and popsies, where I fist stuck my face in those books and became engrossed in strange, quirky and complex worlds. It’s where I learned that books, even the incredibly problematic ones, can help you process, help you forget, help you feel less lonely, and even help save your life. I think about TV shows like The Unit, Law and Order: SVU, Mad Men, Little Britan, The L Word, Pretty Little Liars, that I became addicted to, despite some disturbing storylines, themes and relationship dynamics. So much of my twenties was spent watching problematic tv. But I think problematic faves offer us something, a way to understand more about ourselves and the world around us. I like to revisit my problematic faves and engage with the feelings that they bring up. Why they made me feel good, and why they made me feel so uneasy. And I believe that it’s there, in that place, that good feeling and that uneasiness, where learning, growth, and change happens.
*Audience cheers and claps*