| Your Gender Is Yours, Proletarian! Queer Representations of Class in Folkbildningsterror

September 2018
by Atlanta Ina Beyer

In leftist debate, queer identity politics and class politics tend to be dealt with separately. In real life, however, things are more complicated, as queer subjects always belong to social classes too. The precarious are neither all heterosexual, nor can they always be assigned to just one of two binary genders. Even in debates about connective class politics, queer perspectives are generally ignored. One problem in determining new class politics lies in the restrictedness of conceptualisations of (working) class subjects. Politics of representation – with their scope from aesthetic to political representation (Schaffer 2008, 83) – play an important part in this: Representation means depiction (Darstellung), conception (Vorstellung), and standing in for someone or something (Vertretung). These meanings are inextricably intertwined, inconceivable individually.

Identity – including class identity, or the ways we can conceive of it – is, as Stuart Hall (1996, 6) put it, constituted through and “within, not outside representation”. Lacking the resources for aesthetic representation, i.e., being unable to produce one’s own image, is often connected to exclusion from political representation (Shohat 1995, 170). This is also a class issue. Against the backdrop of neoliberal austerity policies in Great Britain, cultural studies scholar Rhian E. Jones points out that the currently much discussed crisis of political representation of the working classes is also a problem of their cultural representation. Focusing on the figure of the ‘chav’, as personified for example by Vicky Pollard’s character in the TV series Little Britain, she shows how stereotypical, demeaning representations of a supposed underclass serve to individualise and moralise social ‘failure’. Such portrayals produce an image of a discarded Other, in contrast to which a white, heteronormative, middle class lifestyle ideal is co-constituted. Jones (2013, 20) makes these media representations comprehensible as techniques of neo-liberal governance: They help restrict the capacity for powerful action ‘from below’ (cf. Jones 2013, 20). Emancipatory politics of representation therefore need to produce images of precarious lives that allow for more resistance. They should do this by supporting and strengthening (self-)representations of discarded Others – hitherto unseen in conceptualisations and portrayals of class – thereby making unlikely solidarities across ‘identitarian divides’ conceivable. To that end, currently dominant queer debates and representations, in which class issues seldom feature, need to change as well.

One example of how this could look is the Swedish film Folkbildningsterror (“Popular Education Terror”, 2014). The concepts of disidentification and queer utopia introduced by José Esteban Muñoz offer an interesting perspective from which to trace how the film develops queer representations of class. The queer theorist, who sadly died much too early in 2013, was critical of the narrow political horizons of the US-American gay rights movement of his time. He argued that demands for same-sex marriage and a purely formal, civic equality – which continue to form the backbone of mainstream gay and lesbian politics – aimed to benefit just a small circle of economically privileged queers. Only those persons could expect a better life from becoming integrated within North American (middle class) culture (Muñoz 2009, 20).

In such politics, queerness is understood above all as a sexual identity that is separate from other aspects like race, gender, or class, and thus highlighted as a dominant if not singular marker of difference. Muñoz, by contrast, insisted that queerness be conceived of as a collectivity, as a concrete utopia – a concept introduced by the philosopher Ernst Bloch. As long as the majority of queers continued to lack better futures, since intersecting racialised, classed, and gendered power inequalities were yet to be overcome, the primary function of queerness would have to be as an ideal that could guide action: yet to be reached, queerness nevertheless appears on the horizon as a possibility and promise of better futures (ibid., 1). Muñoz retains the necessarily identity-related aspects of queer politics that are rooted in shared experiences of sexual and gender marginalisation. At the same time, his understanding of queer constitutes an all-encompassing critique of power relations and social domination. In his view, queer aesthetic production is indispensable to thinking beyond heteornormativity, racism, and capitalism. Like Ernst Bloch, he attributes emancipatory potential – ‘a dawning futurity’ (Muñoz 2009, 1) [“Dämmerung nach vorn” (Bloch 1959, 86)] to artistic works, in which, Muñoz (2009, 1) claims, one can often already find blueprints of the worlds promised by queerness (ibid.). Such works, including that of Folkbildningsterror, make it possible to see and feel beyond the restrictions of the present in order to pursue better futures.

Trans-spectres are haunting Europe…

The glitter-punk, colourful queer film alternates between musical, fantasy comedy, and left-autonomous-queer agit-prop. It was developed and shot over three years by a collective of friends and activists from Gothenburg. With a good dose of humour, Folkbildningsterror brings together queer ways of living, activism, working class affiliation, and subcultural chic. The focus is on the trans[1] characters Theo and Cleopatra, as well as a nameless, notoriously anxious rabbit. Theo’s mother is chronically ill but is nonetheless harassed by the employment office. Theo wants to help her, but he also has other problems. In addition to his own stress with the employment office and a lack of future prospects, Theo is preoccupied with thoughts of gender transitioning as well as with unfulfilled romantic desires.

One of the film’s first scenes shows Theo in a small room with two doctors. As in an interrogation, they harass him under the cold light of a single light bulb with questions: Did he play with dolls or cars in October 1991? What is his star sign? They discuss his gender identity on the basis of haphazard scraps of information. Theo is shouted at: He must decide ‘what’ he is. The doctors collapse in hysterical laughter, which merges into a mobile ringtone: “The Internationale” anthem. Theo wakes up; fortunately, it was just a dream. But the employment office is on the phone, summoning him to an appointment to make an “action plan” to find a job. If he doesn’t attend, he will lose his benefits.

Wearing a pink tulle dress, transwoman/drag queen Kleopatra Caztrati stops a car in a rainy Swedish landscape and gets in. The driver starts up a conversation. He wants to know whether she’s an artist. She’s not a “real woman”, or is she? She gets out again shortly after. Striding across tarmac, fields, and railway tracks, she sings the first electropop song of the musical:

The ghost of Europe is shifting shape.
As one of several unknown factors, I have arrived
soft as a southern breeze, heading for a storm.
Because now, the times will shift.
Synchronise your fights my friends.
Shoulder a piece each of the horizon.
Our Big Bang is now.

According to director Lasse Långström, the film was created as a response to the electoral victory of the right-wing conservative variant of neoliberalism in Sweden. There, the Sweden Democrats took just under 13 per cent in the 2014 parliamentary election. Folkbildningsterror is an attempt at an intervention, a call for a turnaround and change of times, as Kleopatra’s song makes clear. The film is directed against the slandering and discrimination of minorities, as well as against proposed legal reforms that aim to dismantle the welfare state. The situation calls for quick action – “we must be swift” – and the coordination of different struggles. Europe’s spectre (an allusion to the Communist Manifesto) has changed its shape. The lower classes will rise: their time has come. But, unforeseen by Marx and Engels, the transwoman/drag queen, too, has risen as an “unknown factor”, giving the wretched of the Earth a new and hitherto unknown face.

Kleopatra offers to help Theo with his plan in return for allowing her to move in with him. She is new to the city and has no money. But his “plan” proves to be greater than anticipated: when Kleopatra does a tarot card reading for him, it shows an endless struggle between the haves and the have-nots, as well as the Swedish Social Democrats, who have betrayed the lower classes. “They’ve cleared the way for the right wing to sell out our public welfare”, Kleopatra interprets the cards. “You have to do something,” she says to Theo. He’s still laughing: “What am I gonna do – save the welfare?” But that’s exactly what becomes the mission, which leads the two to team up with the above-mentioned rabbit shortly after. The rabbit needs their help in order to free his rabbit comrades and all the other animals from the zoo. They form a kind of urban guerilla group. But their cooperation is not free from conflict. The rabbit is sick of leftists who justify the slaughter of his rabbit comrades by redefining them as “working class food”. For her part, Kleopatra criticises the polarising distinction of ‘nature’ versus ‘artifice’ that is implicit in the rabbit’s arguments.

More and more people join to support the cause. Help is offered, for example, by transwoman Lilith, who plays a leading role in the local BDSM[2] community, and has magical powers. On the condition that she may spank Theo’s behind, she promises to jinx Margareta, the employment office agent who harasses his mother. To do so, she needs a lock of Margareta’s hair. In Theo’s kitchen, Kleopatra, Theo, and the rabbit are shown plotting a scheme to obtain the hair. The poster hanging above the kitchen table shows the figure of an angel, with the famous last sentence of the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world, unite!”

Beyond the thought divide: Queer(ing) visions of the class war

Despite its fantastical elements, Folkbildningsterror remains close to a portrait of a subculture. As it increases in size, the group debates (in plenum, of course), what to do next. They discuss the pros and cons of militant action and decide to go underground. In order to break the symbolic nexus between weapons and cis-masculine violence, they agree that anyone who uses a weapon must also wear a dress. Preparations are underway to occupy a factory, to kidnap the Swedish minister of immigration, to wreak revenge on the chairman of the Swedish social security authority – who is to suffer all the chronic pain that afflicts Theo’s mother – and to free the animals from the zoo.

In the meantime, Theo receives a letter from the gender investigation authority. His application to transition has been rejected. Kleopatra tries to comfort him. They go for a walk, and she deconstructs the binary-gendered world using exaggerated Butler-esque terminology: “All the violence aimed at our bodies is an attempt to uphold the system that categorises us as women and men.” As they reach Gothenburg’s Museum of Art, she opens her pink handbag and lets packets of tablets rain down upon Theo. “Testosterone, oestrogen. Take it all!” she cries and runs towards the steps of the building, then turns back again to say: “Or, you don’t need to take anything!” The scene then unfolds into one of the film’s most spectacular musical numbers. Wrapped in a black and gold cloth, with her hand gently resting on her cheek, Kleopatra begins to sing as more and more figures with bare upper bodies and black angels’ wings emerge from behind the arches of the museum’s façade. They stride onto the steps and start to form a kind of choreographed army. It is no coincidence that they bear a certain resemblance to the figure of the angel on the poster in Theo’s kitchen.

“Hear the angels of trans liberation, Your gender is yours, proletarian”, sings the choir. The trans angels are no petitioners: “We will combat the identitarian and validational charity. We’ll uncover society’s torments, not be preserved in minority.” The politics of recognition with its mere political concessions are not enough for them. Instead they unmask identity as a kind of force.

The film’s characters disidentify with dominant representations of queer and class identities. José Muñoz uses the term disidentification to describe a practice employed by many marginalised subjects to resist normalising discourses. Because they cannot or do not want to completely adapt to hegemonic notions of identity, part of their everyday experience is that aspects of their identities and life experiences remain hidden in the social fields in which they move. As an (aesthetic-)political strategy, disidentification means opening a third position between identification and counter-identification, a position in which identities can be narrated anew, so that they can contribute to the emergence of counter-publics and resistance.

Trans positions –  which remain marginalised even in queer (political) discourses – and precarious queer living situations are central themes of the film. Queer and trans needs are formulated as class needs as well, as part of the struggle for the good life for everyone. In so doing, the film charmingly illuminates diverse queer subcultures. Unafraid to laugh at itself, with a shrill anarchistic aesthetic style reminiscent of John Waters or Bruce LaBruce, the film celebrates the unruliness and quirkiness of queer ways of life. At the same time, varying differences among the protagonists are negotiated. The characters work together despite manifold disputes, and they cannot be reduced to one-sided notions of queer or class identity. They want everything, for everyone, and for free: free love, free choice of gender and access to hormones, a self-determined life instead of exploitation, disciplining, state-sanctioned harassment, and pathologisation. The film represents different forms of precarity, experiences of violence, exclusion, marginalisation, and exploitation, and thus makes it possible to collectively reflect upon them. With tongue-in-cheek humour, but nonetheless to be taken seriously, other forms of collectivity take centre stage. The protagonists are not interested in getting married. Instead, they protest together against transport ticket inspections, employment office harassment, machoism, and deportations. They fight for a utopia that surpasses the limits of the (old) welfare state: an actual “welfare society”. Rather than adapting to the limited options of the here and now, they insist upon alternative ways of being together in the world, and ultimately upon a better world. For a brief moment in time, despite the authorities’ persecution, the group explores this new welfare society in the premises of the occupied factory, celebrating free love and the good life for everyone. The queer utopia that is put forward in Folkbildingsterror is a vision of a new kind of solidarity across social divides – across different experiences, identities, and positions.

Translated by Pip Hare and Joanna Mitchell (lingua•trans•fair)

References

Bloch, Ernst, 1959: Das Prinzip Hoffnung, Kapitel 1–32, Frankfurt/M.

Hall, Stuart, 1996: Who Needs Identity?, in: Hall, Stuart, du Gay, Paul (eds.), Questions of Cultural Identity, London, 1–17

Jones, Rhian E., 2013: Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender, Alresford

Muñoz, José Esteban, 2009: Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, New York/London

Muñoz, José Esteban, 1999: Disidentifications. Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, Minneapolis

Schaffer, Johanna, 2008: Ambivalenzen der Sichtbarkeit: Über die visuellen Strukturen der Anerkennung, Bielefeld

Shohat, Ella, 1995: The Struggle over Representation: Casting, Coalitions, and the Politics of Identification, in: De la Campa, Román/Kaplan, E. Ann/Sprinker, Michael (eds.), Late Imperial Culture, London/New York, 166–177

Notes

[1]    Trans is a term used to refer to a broad spectrum of people whose gender identities do not (fully) correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth.

[2] The overlapping acronym encompasses the erotic practices bondage and discipline (B/D), dominance and submission (D/S), sadism and masochism (S/M).