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Dracula, Disney and deconstructing gender: Unsex Me Here

Gender

Dr Sasha Garwood, teaching associate at the School of English, University of Nottingham, on how her new podcast with CN Lester tackles media assumptions about gender and sexuality.

It’s no secret that lockdown has resulted in people consuming a lot more media than they might in a world where socialising was feasible. Novels? Old movies? Box sets? Netflix? Disney+? Online gigs and performances? Gaming? Theatre livestreams? Interactive Zoom murder mystery evenings? Bring it. But what impact might all of these have on the way we experience the world and each other, and what assumptions might we be absorbing while we’re watching?

To explore these questions, apply academic insights into gender and sexuality to popular culture in an accessible way, and swear a lot because surely we as a culture should all know better by now, I took the millennial option of trying to set the world to rights in 40-minute increments. Yes, a podcast. My new podcast Unsex Me Here grew out of what would have been a two-hour lecture on ‘Gender and sexuality in the media’ at the University of Nottingham. With teaching all but cancelled, it seemed apparent that a far more interesting approach would be to sit down with the excellent musician, author, and activist CN Lester (over Zoom, naturally – no public health protocols were disturbed in the production of this content) and discuss issues in sexuality and the media over coffee and peppermint tea. 

An interdisciplinary academic based at the University of Nottingham, I research gender, sex, and food as a nexus of cultural anxieties from the early modern period to the present day. My first book, Early Modern English Noblewomen and Self-Starvation, looked at how women used food refusal to negotiate questions of gender, power, autonomy and agency, and because I’m an idiot who doesn’t like an easy life, my next one’s looking to be about Edwardian masculinity.

CN is a leading LGBTI activist whose critically-acclaimed book Trans Like Me was published in 2017, and who currently consults with arts institutions including the Barbican and the Tate Modern about trans inclusivity. Between us, we know far too much obscure trivia about gender and sexuality in a historical context, and are constitutionally incapable of switching our brains off. 

Thus, Unsex Me Here covers a lot of ground, sometimes at implausible length. With a broad remit of thinking about ways in which culture constructs gender and sexuality, we explore what the impacts might be – in fact, have been – on our thoughts and experiences and identities. Who gets to make media about marginalised groups? How do you do so respectfully if you’re not a member of the minority concerned? 

The first episode is an exciting double bill outlining a list of issues and clichés for those of you who maybe don’t discuss queer studies on a daily basis. It covers everything from heteronomativity, bodily dimorphism, cisnormativity and queerbaiting to Evil Queers and bi invisibility. We then decided it made more sense to theme episodes around particular bits of media we like (or…don’t). Extra information, slides and shownotes are provided on Padlet.

We note approvingly how the recent BBC series Gentleman Jack, about 19th-century lover of women Anne Lister, represents queer sexuality with a respectfulness and authenticity that’s all-too-often conspicuous in its absence from portrayals of sexuality between women. In our Sherlock Holmes episode, we explore our favourite adaptations of the Holmes mythos, the multiple signifiers of Bohemianism, and complain about queerbaiting in the BBC’s Sherlock. Moving to Dracula, we lament the complete inability of all adaptors thus far to capture the transgressive, ambiguous and threatening queer undertones of Bram Stoker’s 1897 noveland how that relates to contemporary understandings of the vampire. 

Forthcoming episodes will tackle mermaids, pirates, Cabaret, early modern drama, and more. Why, for instance, do Disney princesses have eyeballs bigger than their wrists? What’s the connection between Hans Christian Andersen’s tortured romantic life and 2015 Polish horror-musical The Lure? Who was the best Sally Bowles, Liza Minelli or Judi Dench? If that sounds like your bag, then come on over! 

Dr Sasha Garwood is an interdisciplinary scholar with an English literature background and social history expertise. Her research focuses on gender, sex and food as a nexus of cultural anxieties from the early modern period to the present day. You can follow her on Twitter @Skull_Beneath.

CN Lester is an academic, musician and leading UK trans activist, who works as an educator and consultant for organisations such as Channel 4, the BBC, Huffington Post and to universities and unions across the country. They can be found on Twitter @cnlester.

Cover image: Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson by Sidney Paget. Published in The Adventure of Silver Blaze, in The Strand Magazine, December 1892, with the caption ‘Holmes gave me a sketch of the events’. Public domain.

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