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Disney’s Frozen: Gay or Schizophrenic?

Disney’s latest princess film, Frozen, is clearly about repression: the fear that leads to it, the pain it causes, and ways of escaping it.  But what kind of repression are we talking about here?  I will begin by discussing one of the most popular interpretations, which is that Frozen is a tale of gay liberation.  This reading, I will argue, is compelling but limited.  I will then suggest that, if we return our focus to the key dynamic of generalised (rather than sexual) repression, we can see the film as dramatising the arc of psychological damage wrought by intense repression.  While the film can absolutely be taken as promoting standard American individualist teachings about self-acceptance, we can also find in it an exploration of some of the most extreme effects of repression, namely, schizoid and schizophrenic reactions.  While the film teaches the blandly acceptable lesson that you should “be yourself,” it contains a chilling “or else,” in which the film explores one of the most severe reactions to repression: schizophrenia.

When I first watched Frozen, I instinctively read it as queer—and a quick search proved I was not at all alone.  Along with criticism of the film’s whitewashing—including the appropriation of Sami cultural symbols without the inclusion of any Sami characters—and straightforward feminist readings, queer readings of Frozen feature strongly in online commentaries.

Devin Faraci writes, “I think there’s certainly a valid queer reading to be found in the film,” while Eric Diaz is even more definite: “Frozen’s subtext is so gay, it’s barely subtext!”  Elsa “was born this way,” but her parents teach her that her difference is dangerous and shameful, requiring isolation and concealment.  When, in a moment of passion, she inadvertently reveals her difference, she is forced to flee, at which point she learns to love herself, and builds an ice castle which Diaz likens to “She-Ra’s Crystal Castle…In a movie filled with gay stuff…this might be the gayest part of all.”

Fabulous, darling

Fabulous, darling

The song “Let it Go,” with its images of release and dazzling self-discovery, functions strongly as a coming out song, as well as a song about other forms of non-normative self-acceptance.  As Diaz writes, “ ‘Let it Go’ is pretty much the gay kids’ coming out anthem for a generation.  Seriously, expect a whole gaggle of musical theatre kids to belt this number out in audition after audition…for like, the next 30 years.”  By the end of the song, Elsa has shed her buttoned-up look and become a strutting diva in a sparkly cocktail dress, which R. Kurt Osenlund calls “unmistakably drag-esque—a self-styled fabulation.”  This ice queen is hot, and she’s doing it for her own delight.  Some have quite legitimately criticised the unrealistic and excessively sexualised nature of her empowerment, but looking at her, I’m tempted to say that she’s not a woman, she’s a femme.   gay elsa gif

As we consider the nature of Elsa’s gender and sexuality, we must note that, very unusually for a Disney princess (though not so much, perhaps, for a Disney queen), Elsa has no romance plot.  This, I feel, is the most distasteful nudge towards a lesbian reading.  While we could certainly accept Elsa as asexual—as many have suggested—it feels like queerbaiting to read the lack of heteronormative desire as a stand-in for lesbian desire.  A search for ‘asexuality’ and Frozen produces approximately 800,000 results, but a search for ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘queer’ and Frozen yields several million results: clearly, sexual readings are dominant.  Lodged within the reading of Elsa as lesbian, however, is a hint of incest—largely unacknowledged beyond femslash fandoms because it is so inadmissible, despite its obvious subtextual presence.

Sisters doin it for themselves! Oh, ick.

Love for Anna dominates Elsa’s life; Elsa’s icy explosion is motivated by news of her sister’s engagement; Anna’s rescue of Elsa from her tower maps onto a princely quest á la “Rapunzel” or “Sleeping Beauty;” and it is Anna’s love for her sister that saves both of them.  Sisterly love is prioritised through romantic tropes in a film in which the potentially lesbian lead lacks any love interest—except her sister.  Lesbianism, here, becomes either a perversion or a neutered BFF/LYLAS sleepover.

While aspects of the film point us towards a gay reading of Frozen, this interpretation remains incomplete and unsatisfying.  Much more productive is Angeline Daniel Matos’ suggestion that we apply a broader understanding of queer theory, one which is not about sexuality so much as the dismantling of binaries and the “disruption of unnecessary regulations that prevent people from achieving a liveable life.”  This is a strong reading, and one to which we will return.  Nevertheless, I wondered why I leapt to a lesbian reading so easily and stick to it so doggedly—and, indeed, why this has become such a broadly discussed and even accepted aspect of the film.

We make this jump, I think, because the form of repression that our society is currently most interested in is the repression of queer sexualities.  When we watch Elsa in her dynamics of repression and release, therefore, it triggers narratives of closeting and coming out, despite the lack of much further evidence or any follow through.  The gay subtext is present but, I would argue, ultimately stunted and limiting, as any gay subtext will be: a film can only be so liberated if it remains stuck in the celluloid closet.

More important is the underlying dynamic of repression and release.  By focusing on that dynamic, I’ll argue, we can read Frozen as an exploration of one of the most damaging psychological forms of repression: schizophrenia.  In reading Frozen as a story about schizophrenia, I’ll primarily be following R. D. Laing’s theory as developed in The Divided Self.  According to Laing, schizophrenia develops out of a fundamental insecurity: a person feels utterly unable to exist as themselves in the world—they may feel rejected by their parents, or they may develop a sense of themselves as bad and dangerous.

This is what a feminist looks like.  Or a defensive crazy lady.  Maybe both.

This is what a feminist looks like. Or a defensive crazy lady. Maybe both.

To protect both themselves and others, they build up defensive walls around their ‘true’ nature, striving to keep up a compliant façade.  Away from this false-self, they retreat deep into their own fantasy worlds, where they are omnipotent and they can create their own companions.  A private fantasy kingdom, wholly cut off from reality, is not a viable escape, however: it is fragile, destructive, and unsustainable.  From this summary, it should be fairly easy to see how Elsa’s narrative maps onto Laing’s theory of schizophrenic development.

Frozen readily lends itself to being read as a schizophrenic fairytale, symbolically dramatising the terrors, torments and tactics of the schizoid personality.  Let’s take a moment to trace this narrative more explicitly.  As a child, Elsa accidentally strikes her sister Anna with her ice-magic.

It's all your fault, forever.

It’s all your fault, forever.

Her father is savvy enough to rush them to a troll sage, who cures Anna and declares that Elsa’s powers could become dangerous unless she learns to control them.  Her father, reasonably enough, decides that this means he should lock her away from everyone, including her sister, so that she won’t be able to hurt anyone and no one will ever find out.  Elsa’s self-suppression is thus firmly rooted in guilt and fear, and is explicitly demanded and cultivated by her parents.

Laing has been criticised for what some see as an excessive emphasis, particularly in his later work, on the causative role of parents in the development of schizophrenia—but this royal couple are acting out his theories with a gusto!  Into adulthood, Elsa coaches herself in self-control by addressing herself in second person and mimicking her finger-wagging father: “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see./Be the good girl you always have to be./ Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.”  These commands from her controlling father have become part of what Laing calls her ‘false-self system’.  Her tight, formal clothes, hair and manner are attempts to disguise both her difference and her vulnerability.

Even the castle, closed to the world, becomes an extension of Elsa’s false-self system, recalling an image from Laing: “If the whole of an individual’s being cannot be defended, the individual retracts his lines of defense until he withdraws within a central citadel.”  Her relationship to her true self is so underdeveloped and insecure that she must try to compensate through excessive rigidity.  As Laing notes, however, in such a situation much of the danger comes not from the perceived threat itself but from “the devastation caused by the inner defensive maneouvres themselves.”

Driving all of these desperate, painful operations is Elsa’s fear of hurting her sister.  Love and contact have become impossibly dangerous for her.  Laing writes,

If there is anything the schizoid individual is likely to believe in, it is his own destructiveness.  He is unable to believe that he can fill his own emptiness without reducing what there is to nothing….[His isolation] is out of concern for others.  A schizophrenic patient would not allow anyone to touch her, not because they would do her some harm, but because she might electrocute them….He descends into a vortex of non-being in order to avoid being, but also to preserve being from himself (93).

For Elsa, of course, the psychotic/fantastic manifestation of this fear is her freezing touch: she jolts back terrified as the windowsill bristles with ice beneath her hands, and she flinches away from her parents’ attempted comfort crying, “Don’t touch me!  I don’t want to hurt you.”

Everything you touch turns to gay.

Everything you touch turns to gay.

She absorbs into herself the harm being done to her: the parents whose efforts at care are destroying her become the ones she cannot touch for fear of causing hurt.  Her attempt at courage and love becomes hurtful and desolate.  Anna, the one who most delights her, who literally awakens her, is the focus of the greatest fear, of course: with Anna, she is most herself, and thus it is Anna she can harm most deeply and must shut out most totally.

Trapped within this castle of alienation, even Anna becomes unbalanced through loneliness and isolation.  She attempts to sustain herself through schizoid relationships with the castle’s paintings, which she speaks to, inhabits and sees moving.  Her sister has become, for her, a wall, a closed door.elsa frost roomElsa’s own starved psyche can be seen clearly in the image which closes Anna’s song “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?”: Elsa sits motionless against the door in a room blasted with shocks of frost.  In Laing’s words, “Love is precluded and dread takes its place.  The final effect is an overall experience of everything having come to a stop.  Nothing moves; nothing is alive; everything is dead, including the self” (82).  Pain, fear and guilt freeze her into catatonia.

At the coronation, Elsa’s protective false-self system is shattered by Anna’s impulsive need for contact and connection.  Elsa’s magical rage is precipitated first by Anna’s hasty engagement; then by Anna’s demands for honest (and public) communication; and finally by Anna grabbing Elsa’s hand, tearing away a glove.

Can't touch this!

Can’t touch this!

The gates are open, the castle is full, the foreign prince has claimed her sister, and the gloves are coming off.  On one level, we might even read the sisters as conflicting elements within one person: terrified isolation from the world breeds a ravenous longing for it.  Anna’s instantaneous absorption in Hans is the counterpart to Elsa’s reflexive refusal to be drawn into a dance with the world.  Together, the sisters embody an ambivalence which Laing identifies as typical of schizoid attitudes towards the world:

The abundance there is longed for, in contrast to the emptiness here; yet participation without loss of being is felt to be impossible, and also not enough, and so the individual must cling to his isolation—his separateness without spontaneous, direct relatedness—because in doing so he is clinging to his identity.  His longing is for complete union.  But of his very longing he is terrified, because it will be the end of his self (92).

Anna moves seamlessly from inserting herself into romantic paintings to spinning a fairy tale romance with the willingly deceptive Hans, who exemplifies another, non-schizoid form of false-self system.  It is the conflict between Anna’s longing for “complete union,” not only with Hans but the kingdom and the world, and Elsa’s need to protect herself that finally destroys Elsa’s false-self system, exposing her flesh, her powers and her unacceptable truth.

No seriously, I don't wanna talk right now.

No seriously, I don’t wanna talk right now.

From good to bad to mad: such is the typical schizoid journey, according to Laing.  Pushed too far, the poised Elsa explodes with a bristling fence of icy spikes; she is declared a sorceress and a monster, then flees across the sea on a trail of ice.

Her escape into the wilderness can be seen as an extreme retreat into inner space.  Her previous isolation within the castle actually held her in a furious, unendurable state of tense relatedness to the world as she strained to maintain a role and position without revealing her true self.  Running into the wilds is an attempt to reject this unsustainable contradiction.



Once the impossible equilibrium is broken, she renounces all relatedness and surrenders her place in the world.  Fleeing into the wilderness has a deep, global association both with magic and madness, two forces which are often understood to be closely intertwined.  In the wilderness, a person is no longer forced to occupy social roles, the maintenance of which always demands a certain amount of control and dissemblance from even the sanest of us.

Elsa discovers affinities between the wilderness and her inner space: “The wind is howling like the swirling storm inside./ Couldn’t keep it in, Heaven knows I tried.”  At this point, it will be

Smooth Space Princess sez you can't handle these intensities!

Smooth Space Princess sez you can’t handle these intensities!

helpful to draw in elements from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s rather different theories of schizophrenia, which they understand as creating a resistance to social roles and performance in favour of a mode of existence which is wilder, fiercer and more flexible.  In this schizophrenic mode, experience is characterised by ‘intensities’: sensations and forces which flow across the body.  The whole world, the self included, is traversed by flows of intensities: energy which passes, changes, manifests as matter and dissolves again into energy.  Deleuze and Guattari emphasise the connections between this intense schizophrenic self and wildernesses, which they refer to as “smooth spaces.”

The schizophrenic experiences themselves as vividly part of smooth spaces flowing with intensity: electricity, light, sound, water, wind.

In Elsa’s case, her characteristic intensity is ice.  For years, she has kept the flows of ice blocked within her.  Now, in the wilderness, her inner turmoil becomes just another part of the storm, and she feels herself “one with the wind and sky” (“Let It Go”): in this state, her powers can flow out into the world unchecked.  She begins to fully explore the intense potentialities of her condition, racing across this unlimited space, “to test the limits and break through./ No right, no wrong, no rules for me”: she has moved into an amoral creative union with smooth space.

The beauties of a chaotic soul

The beauties of a chaotic soul

After keeping her ‘true’ self walled-up for so long, she finally feels her “soul…spiraling in frozen fractals all around,” as she manifests her internal reality, creating a  soaring, magnificent castle of ice.  Rather than stone and straight lines, she now inhabits the chaotic patterns of fractals, with their partial dimensions.

Here, however, we might begin to sense renewed trouble.  Her freedom has manifested in yet another soul-castle, which, like the castle in Arrendell, establishes powerful solitude.  She has escaped from an unbearable reality into a magical realm in which she is omnipotent—yet she fails to break through any limits; she simply recreates the same palatial isolation that she has always known.  Omnipotence, Laing threatens, can only ever be an impotent fantasy.

arendellAt the same time, her retreat into the wilderness of fantasy is not without consequences, as she believes: Arrendell has been plunged into winter.  The schizoid attempt to replace the real world with an inner world is doomed, Laing asserts:

The individual is developing a microcosmos within himself, but, of course, this autistic, private, intra-individual ‘world’ is not a feasible substitute for the only world there really is, the shared world.  If this were a feasible project then there would be no need for psychosis (75).

Elsa’s ‘psychotic break’ with the kingdom has frozen it.  If we return to the kingdom as a symbol of this queen’s outer self (the ‘public body’ of the queen, perhaps), then her abandonment of external for internal reality has resulted in a catatonic ‘freezing’ of that outer self.  Not incidentally, catatonic schizophrenia, in which the sufferer seems to entirely shut down, becoming unresponsive and even motionless, is also known as ‘frozen schizophrenia.’

The isolation is unallowable: it offends not only repressive norms but any urge towards life.  Elsa’s palace is penetrated first by Anna’s compassion and then invaded by soldiers bent on her destruction—it is difficult, from her position, to tell the difference.

I'm just feeling a little reactive right now.

I’m just feeling a little reactive right now.

She creates a giant snow golem to protect herself—the inverse of her earlier whimsical creation of Olaf, the ‘loveable’ snowman who longs for summer and likes “warm hugs.”  These icy desires for warmth are overwhelmed by her ferocious defensive response: the golem temporarily overpowers Olaf, and Elsa’s icy blasts accidentally hit Anna again, this time in the heart.  In the storming of the ice palace, Elsa’s two classically schizoid fears are realised: she is invaded and shattered, and she also becomes the fatal force she’s always feared herself to be.

We can also note here that Kristoff mirrors Elsa’s tendencies, although without the same psychotic intensity.  One Tumblr user, Frozenmusings, has joked that Kristoff is “boarderline schizophrenic” (sic) because he speaks ‘for’ Sven the reindeer.  This joke is extended when he introduces Anna and Olaf to his family: a field of rocks.  Olaf, himself a figment of Elsa’s psychosis, actually whispers, “He’s nuts!” and advises Anna to make a run for it.  This is an odd moment.  Although we, the audience, know that the rocks will become trolls, Kristoff begins speaking to them, apparently holding a conversation, before they have actually assumed their troll forms.  Once they do manifest, their flood of greetings suggest that they were not actually party to the earlier ‘conversation’.

This momentary dissonance highlights a schizoid strangeness within Kristoff: a solitude and suspicion of others, as well as a preference for relating within fantasy worlds, speaking more readily to rocks or his reindeer than to other people.

Nothing wrong with talking for your pets in funny voices.

Nothing wrong with talking for your pets in funny voices.

As he sings in the persona of Sven, “people will beat you and curse you and cheat you/Every one of them’s bad except you” (“Reindeers are Better than People”).  The trolls, who are the very embodiment of energetic social engagement and communal embeddedness, recognise his relationship with Sven as odd, listing one of his flaws as “That thing with his brain, dear./His thing with that reindeer/Is a little outside of nature’s laws” (“Fixer Upper”).  Deleuze and Guattari also note that the schizophrenic is a psychological orphan, rejecting the Oedipal restrictions of ‘mommy-daddy-me’: schizophrenics speak of being their own parents, of being parentless, of manifesting out of swarms, out of the wilds.  Thus, we find Elsa the orphan and Kristoff the orphan raised by a pack of magical rocks.

Unapproachable? Him?

Unapproachable? Him?

Even these rock people are warmer, by far, than Kristoff, who first appears coated in snow and whose trade in ice is no accident: note how he regards Elsa’s ice palace with a connoisseur’s admiration.

These isolated souls, however, are, according to Disney, just in need of some loving acceptance.  Of Kristoff, the trolls sing that “His isolation is confirmation/Of his desperation for human hugs” (“Fixer Upper”)—a line which also, incidentally, stresses the need for human rather than magical relatedness.   You cannot settle with a family of rocks or a kingdom of snow.  In this Disney telling of schizoid healing, for Elsa as well as Kristoff, the resolution is swift, neat and—internally—almost effortless.  They must suffer imprisonment and betrayal, and battle across icy wastes—as their coping mechanisms fall into collapse—but once the power of Anna’s love manifests itself, Kristoff finds the courage to open his heart, and Elsa’s false-selves and isolating fantasies melt into loving connectedness.

private flurry

Are you sure you wouldn’t rather let him melt?

She opens the kingdom to beneficial contact, and she has gained a creative control over her intensities.  She is able to provide Olaf, that avatar of her childish desire for summer and hugs, with just the right degree of separateness to facilitate his experience of warmth while maintaining his individual integrity: “My own private flurry!”  She no longer has to escape into the wilderness to move freely: rather, she is able to temporarily transform the city square into a smooth space across which she and the citizens can delightedly glide.  As Matos writes, this happily ever after is facilitated by a broad queerness: binaries collapse, so that hot and cold, public and private, can coexist.  The binary becomes, instead, a polarity: the yin and yang which not only can coexist, but must, in an intimate interdependence.

To Thus, Frozen escapes from the sterile tensions of contradiction to the magical fertility of paradox—“A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice,” to quote Coleridge.  What does this conclusion suggest for schizophrenia?  Love, compassion and acceptance are, clearly, the antidotes to repression and the guilt and hate it breeds.  More deeply, though, the ‘cure’ for madness may be a communal embrace of it.  The Duke of Weselton, who demonizes Elsa as a monster or witch must himself be expelled: Arrendell’s opening and thawing depends on its embrace of magic and madness, and the paradoxical joy and wisdom this can bring.   



Possessed by the European Spirits

What is happening when people talk about the supernatural?  What does it mean to talk about ghosts, witches and spirits?  While these things seem otherworldly and strange—in fact, precisely because of their otherworldliness—they are often a good way of talking about real concerns.  They can provide people with a way of understanding traumatic pasts, as well as dealing with overwhelming tensions and transformations in their current lives.  The supernatural gives us a space, close by but very removed, in which to act out and explore forces which we don’t dare look at straight on.

The traumas and transformations that we understand through the supernatural may be personal, but the supernatural can also provide a way of confronting historical trauma or contemporary social changes.

One very clear example of this is the sudden manifestation of ‘European’ spirits within West African spirit cults during the colonial period.  The appearance, behaviour and histories of these ‘European’ spirits provided people with a means of imitating, interrogating and integrating the colonial powers.  The details of these spirits, known as Turawa, are given in Matthias Kring’s chapter, “On History and Language of the ‘European’ Bori Spirits,” in the book Spirit Possession: Modernity and Power in Africa.  Here, Kring focuses on the Turawa as they appear in Kano, Northern Nigeria (made famous by the attacks of Boko Haram).

When these European Turawa spirits possess (or ‘mount’) an adept of the bori cult, they mark themselves out from other spirits through their manner and their language.  These spirits are all military men, relate to one another through rank and chains of command.  When they manifest, they “transform the dance ground into a military drill ground,” sometimes roping spectators into the manoeuvres.  They are linked with sunglasses, cigarettes, booze, toy guns, whips and ball point pens.  Spirits speak their own languages—the Turawa’s sound a lot like gibberish French and English.  They speak the local language, Hausa, with sloppy grammar and nasal accents, peppering it with French and Pidgin English (à bon, I beg!).

These spirits first erupted in 1925 in Niger as the Hauka, startling military spirits whose appearance alarmed both traditional authorities and the French colonial forces.  With their European-style drilling and marching, they seemed like a potentially insurrectionary force.  The local district commissioner, Major Crochichia tried to crush the movement by seizing and imprisoning sixty Hauka adepts, forcing them to publicly admit that the spirits were not real.  Shortly after their release, a new spirit appeared: the ‘wicked commander’ named Krosisya.  The Hauka quickly spread throughout West Africa.  The ‘wicked commander’ reveals the potential for subversive mockery within the supernatural, as well as a process by which the oppressor’s force can be performed, claimed, and owned—for Krosisya has remained a prominent spirit, and one now often used in anti-witchcraft practice.

When Kring interviewed the spirits (through their ‘mounts’) about their history, they recounted dream-like versions of European history from a West African perspective, with particular focus on the First and Second World Wars.  For example, one spirit tells Kring, “At the time when you had trouble in your cities, when you hand your uproar, well, we took it (as if it were) our uproar.”  What’s striking here is that the ‘European’ spirit speaks from the perspective of the West Africans who were drafted into the colonisers’ armies.  The Nigerian possessed by a European spirit speaks as one of the many Nigerians who really were seized by European powers, or—more correctly—as a Nigerian who internalised British propaganda, who genuinely entered into British thinking: “we took it as our uproar.”  Within this, however, there is a demand for recognition of African service, or rather, historical agency and ownership: “we took it as our uproar.”  When the Nigerian is possessed by the European spirit, it enacts colonialism, but it is simultaneously an act by which the Nigerian claims, possesses and transforms those European powers.  There is a subtle negotiation of power at work here.

Since independence, the Turawa spirits have remained prominent, but they have undergone significant changes.  One spirit is known as Jamus-‘bata k’asa, ‘Germany—destroyer of land’, a line taken from British Second World War propaganda.  Recently, this spirit has become involved in road construction: as he explains, he must destroy the land with his bulldozers in order to build roads.  Indeed, the German presence in northern Nigeria is mostly as construction engineers, including those involved with roads.

There has been a deeper change in the Turawa since independence: most of them are no longer Europeans but Africans who have “adopted the military drill and ‘European’ customs in ‘European’ military barracks built on African soil.”  One spirit explained that he had begun as a cook in the European spirits’ barracks, where the Europeans gave him eggs and biscuits.  He was so taken with their ways that he decided to adopt them himself.  Although Kring does not provide us with enough detail to be sure of this, it seems entirely possible that this transformation could have provided a means for Nigerians to comment on the corrupt, violent and unpredictable role of the military within Nigerian society, both under the military dictatorship, but also under civilian rule.

The ‘foreign’ spirits are not limited to Europeans.  There are also Fulani spirits—although Kring does not mention this, these represent an earlier wave of conquest, in which during the 19th century the Islamic Fulani invaded and conquered the Hausa, establishing an empire (the Sokoto Caliphate) which was in turn co-opted and absorbed by the British Empire (the birth of the policy of ‘indirect rule,’ as developed by Lugard).  There are also ‘pagan’ spirits, presumably representing the indigenous religions which were displaced by the Islam brought by the Fulani.  In one story, a Fulani spirit ruler befriends a pagan spirit chief.  The Fulani is so delighted by his pagan friend’s life of drink and sex that he renounces Islam and becomes a pagan spirit instead.

The spirits, who live in their own city, speak their own languages, and have their own complex lineages and histories, are a parallel to the humans that they possess.  They perform power relations—conquests, conversions and colonisations—while also allowing a transformation of those relationships, at once shadowy and overt.  It allows for power plays which are open yet at least half-protected by their apparent removal from reality.  Also, perhaps, through possession (which, as we’ve seen, goes both ways), these powerful forces—whether Fulani, European or military—can be translated into powers, which can be summoned, channelled and harnessed.  Made less dangerous, made more comprehensible, made more useful.  Possessed.

Ian Khama Seeks “Tall, Slim and Beautiful” Wife

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a presidency and chieftancy must be in want of a wife—but not if she’s fat.  Such, at least, is the case with Sir Ian Khama, president of Botswana.  Unmarried at 57 and described by ABC News as “one of Africa’s most eligible bachelors,” Khama has announced that, although he is still too busy running Botswana to search for a wife, he will assign his presidential aides to find him a suitable match.  His main criteria, he said, was that she be “tall, slim and beautiful.” Ian Khama

Then, pointing at the Assistant Minister of Local Government, Botlhogile Tshreletso, he said, “I don’t want one like this one.  She may fail to pass through the door, breaking furniture with her heavy weight, and even break the vehicles shock absorbers.”

The assembled politicians, including Tshreletso, apparently laughed, although critics are now calling for Khama to apologise.  According to ABC, the remark is seen as particularly offensive “in a country known for short, heavy set women.”Bothogile Tshreletso

Seretse and Ruth

Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams with their children

If this is the case, then Khama’s insulting joke takes on an interesting historical dimension, recalling the international racial scandal that surrounded his parents’ marriage.  Ian’s father, Seretse Khama, was eventually elected the first president of Botswana—but only after he was barred from chieftaincy and exiled from what was then the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland for marrying a white English woman, Ruth Williams.  Their marriage was opposed not only be the British but, far more strenuously, by the established forces of Motswana society, led by Seretse’s uncle, the chief regent Tshekedi Khama.  One of the reasons they gave for opposing Seretse’s marriage to a white woman was that their mixed race children would look down on their people as ‘kaffirs’.

Is it possible that we hear an echo of this fear in Ian Khama’s dismissive joke?  ABC’s reportage certainly writes racial element into the story.  For, while readers might be shocked by Khama’s crassness and his personal attack on a member of his government, they would not necessarily be surprised by his preference for “tall, slim” women.  The report, however, racialises these characteristics, reads them as code for “not a local woman, not a Motswana woman.”

Interestingly, Ian Khama’s grandfather, Sekgoma Khama, was also resistant to marriage and, like his son, fell in love with a woman of another race.  In Sekgoma’s case, this woman was Masarwa, also known as San or “Bushmen.”  The nomadic Masarwa, who are lighter skinned, were dispossessed and enslaved by the Motswana.  Sekgoma’s father, Khama the Great, forbade him from marrying his Masarwa lover, but rumours persisted that Seretse was half Masarwa (apparently you could tell because he had a big bottom).

Racism against the Masarwa was still an active and vicious element of Botswana society in the 1970s, as documented by the novelist Bessie Head.  Head, a South African refugee who lived in Botswana, was herself half black and half white, like the president Seretse Khama’s children.  Despite this, Head’s colour led people to identify her as a Masarwa—as “a Bushman dog.”  Head treats this racism in her novel Maru, which describes the marriage of a Batswana chief to a Masarwa teacher.

Head addresses it from another angle in her novel A Question of Power, which tells the story of a mixed-race refugee’s schizophrenic breakdown, during which she is tormented by hallucinatory visions exploring race, sex and politics.  This novel is a strongly autobiographical account of Head’s own schizophrenia, which involved obscene and frightening delusions about president Seretse Khama.  A crisis came when she publicly accused Khama of incest and murder.  Although Head obviously changed and adjusted her own delusions when writing A Question of Power—in part to protect herself from libel—it seems likely that Seretse’s role corresponds at least in part to the character Sello, a wealthy local leader who becomes, in her vision, an African nationalist in a brown suit (much like the one Seretse Khama wears on brown-inked banknotes and stamps).  In this evil Brown Suited incarnation, Sello marries Medusa, a woman who is remarkably “tall, slim and beautiful.”  Medusa is a poisonous racist, a xenophobic proponent of African Nationalism who marks the ‘coloured’ Elizabeth as hideously other—and yet, with her white mini-dress and long, flowing waist-length hair, Medusa herself is clearly not uncomplicatedly ‘local’.  Medusa attacks Elizabeth for not being black enough, for not being woman enough—and for being too fat.  Elizabeth is also marked out by not being married, and there is also a suggestion that she may be homosexual (as, indeed, a Huffington Post commenter suggested Ian Khama might be).

In Ian Khama’s crude joke, we can trace a whole tangle of historical and cultural threads.  There is the recurrent anxiety over a Khama’s failure to marry or marry appropriately.  And appropriateness here implies racial lines.  There is his grandfather marrying too late, courting a ‘bushman dog’.  His father, rumoured to be mixed race himself, marrying a white woman.  There are the worries that their children, including Ian Khama, would see themselves as racially superior—yet the same racial mix was widely regarded as being racially inferior, too like the Masarwa.  There may also be a whisper of homosexuality (or perhaps asexuality).  And all this, of course, doesn’t even begin to touch on fat politics, or on differing cultural standards of beauty and the ways in which these are complicated by globalisation.


The Formal Body and the Subtle Body

Deleuze and Guattari say that we all are at once an organism and a Body without Organs.

Buddhists say that we have at once a formal body and a subtle body.

As far as I can see, the formal body=the organism and the subtle body=the Body without Organs.

The difference is between an external and internal perspective.  The organism, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is the ‘organ-isation’ imposed on top of the Body without Organs.  To be an organism is to be all internally subdivided into self-contained little organs which can be anatomised, worked on surgically, diagramed and colour coded.  Metaphorically, it is to have a socially embedded identity.  Your organism is that you which can fit into a form: write your name in block capitals, and then tick the appropriate boxes for sex, race, age, profession.  And don’t leave the house without your wallet and your pants!

Similarly, the ‘formal’ body or matierial body is that which has form, which has matter, which can be perceived by and exists for others.  And it corresponds to an ego.  It’s all very self-contained and relatively stable.  The organism and the formal body are neat, and from there we can easily move into a modern Western fixation on the polite body versus the grotesque body.  The polite body farts silently and pretends it wasn’t me.  The grotesque body shits explosively and has a big laugh about it.

The subtle body is the body as experienced internally.  With a throbbing headache, the subtle body has a huge head, for example.  The subtle body of an amputee may still have that limb–the source of terrible phantom pains.

The Body without Organs is that in you which is not contained by and in fact protests against all of the labelling of identity.  Rather than self-contained organs, we have all those permeable membranes, arranged in patterns but pulsing, linked with flows, sparking with electricity.  There is the you that gets lost, that gets high, that goes mad, that slips free of all the organisation.

The subtle body of Buddhism is, it seems, less a thing in revolt.  There are pathways laid out for it, and there are maps and diagrams drawn for it.  The chakras are an anatomy of the subtle body, of the paths by which intensities move through the body.  Tantric yoga is a way of working with the subtle body, getting the intensities to flow in a certain way, and coming to understand an absolute connection between the self and the other (so much so that there seems to be no division).  It’s a way of stepping out of a contained formal body into a subtle body that embraces and transcends dualism.

The Body without Organs is a 20th century Western coming towards the subtle body.  And it is a subversive thing, a thing which it’s hard to talk about and understand.  This is clear from the way that Deleuze and Guattari write about it.  They write about the BwO of the drug user, across which intensities of cold circulate, freezing the spinal column, approaching absolute zero.  Or the BwO created by a masochist program–sew up my arse, put a bit in my mouth and beat me with a crop so that waves of pain will flow across my BwO and that I may become a horse.  The schizophrenic is the BwO par excellence, so that Napoleon, God and Anastasia become names by one can designate zones of intensity–not so different from chakras, really.  When Bessie Head writes that Elizabeth is becoming Isis and David and Al Capone, she’s mapping Elizabeth’s subtle body.

The trouble is, of course, that the BwO (versus the subtle body) isn’t so well hooked up to cultural apparatuses in the West, and if one dismantles the organism in a hurry and all alone, that’s a very dangerous project.  You can bring the whole structure crashing down on you.  You might go out of your mind and not come back.  Head’s Elizabeth gets way far out of herself, all the way to heaven an hell, and it makes her suicidal–she needs the interventions of hospitals twice.  It’s not that those hospitals understand what’s going on at all, but they give her an anchor and haul her back from the extremes of her demented journeying.  And so, although they don’t seem very aware of Buddhism or Hinduism and the close equivalents there, Deleuze and Guattari urge caution, careful practice, when one is constructing a BwO.  What are the forms of Buddhism (the various ‘yanas’), after all, but practices, methods, tools?

She and Harold Weren’t Getting On

Bessie Head’s A Question of Power is a famously autobiographical novel about the mental breakdown of Elizabeth, whose chidhood and current circumstances closely resemble Head’s own.  In letters to her friend Randolphe Vigne, she says that he’ll see plenty of her son in the book (as the “small boy”) and asks if he’s recognised their mutual friend Pat Rensburg as “the Eugene man.”

Given these broad parallels, there’s a difference between Elizabeth’s fictional life and Head’s biography which seems very cheeky indeed.  Elizabeth and Head both leave South Africa following the breakdown of their marriages…

Elizabeth’s husband is a Buddhist gangster just out of jail who is bedding every woman in the neighborhood and has a white boyfriend as well.

Head’s husband, Howard, was a journalist and activist and, according to Vigne at least, a relatively quiet soul compared to the hot-tempered Bessie.

Ouch, Bessie Head.  Ouch.

Schizophrenia, Cancer and Viruses: Splitting, Othering and Crossing

[Some thoughts on schizophrenia, cancer and viruses–and how they can be read as different models for understanding our relationship to the world.]

Schizophrenia, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is the quintessential madness of capitalism.  The processes of this kind of madness are the processes fundamental to capitalism, taken to the extreme.  The schiz- is the splitting apart.  An internal splitting of self from self, as capitalism divides selves from selves, self from action, process from product, use value from exchange value.  If we follow Laing, the schizophrenic self is subdivided–not necessarily into ‘split personalities’ but into an exaggerated version of internal and external reality.  Between inner ‘truth’ and outer performance, until they correspond hardly at all, speeding towards the limits of alienation.  From these processes of splitting, a fantastic momentum is acquired.  Schizophrenia is a process of restless motion and appropriation, taking on all the personas of history, all the tribes of the world.

If schizophrenia is the madness of capitalism, then cancer is surely its disease.*  Cancer is the result of a certain type of cell growing uncontrollably, reproducing (more splitting) when it should be stopping or dying.  Cancer is the body gone monomaniacal.  Barbara Ehrenreich, describing her experience with breast cancer in Bright-Sided, has a wonderful line about the cancer cells being little fantatics of “Barbara.”  Cancer is what happens when part of the body forgets itself as part of the body, breaks the pattern which connects.  Any ‘self’ that we have is only that: a pattern which connects, interlinked processes, balanced flows.

Cancerous cells not only divide, they invade and they spread.  It is the self which forgets itself and attacks itself, and in the process, the self becomes ‘other.’

Cancer is the pathological emergence of self/other.  The body (this pattern of flows) is a multiple unity.  Yes?  There is no splitting of finger from hand from wrist from arm.  A red blood cell, a neuron, a bone cell–they are diverse manifestations of an underlying unity, their shared DNA.  They are ‘one’ with each other and with the whole body in the same sort of way, I believe, that Buddhism suggests we are ‘one’ with the universe.  But the cancerous cell is the cell which has no sense of its unity with or connection to the other cells of the body.  Not realising that any one cell is coextensive with every cell and thus is everywhere by being just where it is, the cancer cells invade and spread.  They already were their neighbouring cells, they already were the blood and the lymph–but no, they’ve gone all literal, so they take over, they replace those cells with endless copies of themselves.

When you can’t recognise connections, you start playing the game of Self and Other, and it’s a fundamentally destructive game, in which nothing makes so much sense as invasion and colonisation.  Wordsworth’s daffodils colonising every classroom in the Empire, just as Starbucks and McDonalds colonise the city corners now.  The cancer spreads its disconnection, its mad heedless growth.  And of course, the products of that growth, the world which capitalism’s disconnected growth has created is the world in which we ourselves become cancerous.

And what is the opposite of cancer?  What’s the opposite of the self-obsessed, self-consuming self?  The part which refuses connection to the whole?  I reckon it’s the virus.  Yes, the virus also spreads and invades and destroys (and yes, viruses cause some cancers), but the dynamic is very different.  The virus is an agent of radical interconnectedness.  It’s an agent of crossings, existing on the border between living and non-living.  It’s that which can only live through and within another.  And cell membranes are made to receive them, to welcome them in, and when they welcome them, they welcome god knows how many creatures all at once.  Because, you see, viruses are promiscuous; they like to mingle.  They mingle DNAs.  It’s called horizontal gene transfer, the process by which a virus brings scraps of genetic material from one organism to the other, one species to another to another.  Spreading genes not by sex but contagion–not lineage, not mommy-daddy-me, but a wide, strange mixing.  It’s the Island of Dr Moreau in there.  The infected cells, on a genetic level, engage in a process of becoming: becoming-bird, becoming-pig, becoming-monkey, whatever.  And our bodies, well, the pattern is very complex, and it’s much more than just the diverse manifestations of a single code.  The unity is much more polychromatic.  Our bodies are complex interkingdom ecosystems, and even our own mitochondrion seem to be bacterial collaborators.  Viruses speak to our radical interconnectedness , the artificiality of divisions between self and other, self and world.  The body is permeable and constantly permeated on every level.  It is an ecology through which organisms flow.  These flows can engage the body in becomings–potentially enriching, potentially disruptive and destructive–which demonstrate our fundamental, inescapable openness.

*I’ve just seen that John McMurty has written a book called “The Cancer Stage of Capitalism,” and an article to which JSTOR is refusing me access–I apologise for these thoughts being carelessly researched and probably derivative!

Connie, Sally and Priscilla: Gay Slang in South Africa

South African gay culture has produced a rich range of slang terms which has been called a ‘gay vernacular.’  Although of course many South African gays will have never used or may actively dislike and avoid these slang terms, they are intriguing indicators of a vibrant subculture. Gerrit Olivier includes a long list of terms of slang terms based around alliterative female names in his essay “From Ada to Zelda.”  It’s a list which is predictably rich in sexual terms (Annie anus, Sally suck off), but there is also the wonderfully concise Celia, which means “offering a cigarette by way of camping.”  Apartheid’s racial categorisations are evident in the range of terms designating gay men of different races: Iris for Indian, Golda for Jewish, Wendy for white and Zelda for Zulu.  There are also flashes of homophobic violence and repression: codes for beatings, murders and cops.  Coated and claimed in cute slang, painful or forbidden words are hidden, passed safely, owned.

Ada: the buttocks area
Annie: the anus
Bella: to be beaten up; someone who beats up homosexuals
Celia: offering a cigarette by way of camping
Connie: moment of orgasm/ejaculation; condom
Debra: depressed; depression
Delia: drama queen
Deloris: delirious; mad
Fiona: wanting or having sex
Gail: to chat
Hilda: unpleasant or ugly (person)
Lily: the law; the police
Maureen: murdered
Milly: mad
Priscilla: police officer(s); the law
Tilly: masturbate; also ‘Tilly Toss-off’

(All terms and definitions quoted from Oliver)

My favourite slang terms, however, are drawn from a South African government report on gay culture, drawn up during an attempt in the 1960s to pass more draconian legislation against homosexuality, part of a general Apartheid push for increased control of all spheres of life.  The report contains information gathered through undercover police infilatration of the gay scene, and boy is is it top-secret stuff: ‘dilders’ are wielded by ‘butch’ lesbians and “uniform members of the police are known as ‘morons.'”  Shh, don’t tell nobody!  (Incidentally, while gay activism managed to curb the harshest excesses of the proposed legislation, dildoes were banned.  When dildoes are outlawed, only outlaws will have dildoes.)

Works Cited

Olivier, Gerrit.  “From Ada to Zelda: Notes on Gays and Language in South Africa.”  Defiant Desire.  Ed. Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron.  New York, London: Routledge, 1995.  219-224.

Retief, Glen.  “Keeping Sodom out of the Laager: State Repression of Homosexuality in Apartheid South Africa.” ibid. 99-111