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Queer History

Approaching Queerness in the Viking World

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What do you see when you picture a Viking? Probably a warrior, fairly hairy, a number of tattoos, very strong, something you’d consider to be the epitome of masculinity, right? What if I told you that this idea is probably wrong? What if I told you that queer Vikings existed?

The Viking world was huge and varied. We’re talking about a few hundred years and people in Scandinavia (Norway, Denmark, and Sweden) as well as the diaspora: places such as Iceland, the north of England, Ireland, Normandy, the Volga river, and plenty other places. It’s impossible for this world to have existed without queer people.

But what’s more exciting is that we can spot queer Vikings in the historical record.

The first approach I use to search for queer Vikings is by using terms from within Viking culture. This requires us to understand what Viking gender and society looked like: gender was important in determining roles, and honour was very important. There were clear social expectations on how you should behave, and what retaliation could happen if someone broke laws: think outlawry and revenge killings.

The Viking world had a word in Old Norse that makes it very easy to look for queerness: ergi. This word has a pretty debated meaning, but seems to have the overarching meaning of ‘doing gender wrong’, and more specific meanings including ‘unmanliness,’ ‘female lust’, and ‘cowardice.’ I tend to translate the word to be ‘queer’, because that ultimately seems to be the meaning.

Being called ergi was a big deal. If someone was accused of being ergi, they could challenge the accuser to a dual called a holmgang. In the case of Iceland, the thirteenth century ‘Grey Goose’ laws said that a man had the right to kill in retaliation for being called ergi. This was the same response that was allowed if someone murdered your relative: it was a serious allegation!

Surprisingly, the god of war, poetry, and death, Odin himself, is accused of being ergi a number of times in Norse mythology. In one mythological poem called Loki’s Quarrel from the Poetic Edda, we see the being Aegir hosting a feast for the gods, when Loki storms in, very upset that he hasn’t been invited. He starts insulting the gods one by one, drawing on stories we see from other parts of mythology. When Loki turns to Odin, he says:

‘And you practiced magic

In Samsey,

And you struck on a drum like a sorceress;

In a wizard’s form you travelled over mankind,

And I thought that was ergi (queer) in nature’.

This isn’t the only time this accusation comes up. In the poem Harbard’s Song, also from the Poetic Edda, Odin is disguised as a ferryman called Harbard and is refusing to help Thor cross the river. Eventually, Thor shouts ‘Harbard you queer’ as an insult. This seems to be in reference to Odin earlier bragging about practicing magic and having sex with a number of women.

By practicing magic, Odin is failing to be a man: only women can practice the form of magic known in Old Norse as seiðr. But having sex with lots of women doesn’t seem to be a failing as a man, but it is a failing as a woman. It seems that Odin’s gender is very queer through just these two examples alone!

My second approach uses modern understandings of queerness to explore how these identities could have looked in the past. While queer people have always existed, the way that queerness looked is not static, and we have to be very careful with our language. I would never say that someone from the past is [insert identity here], but I would say that ‘x reflects what we could now understand to be [insert identity here].’

One clear example of this is by looking at the burial known to archaeologists as ‘Bj. 518.’ This burial was found in the Viking Age site of Birka, on the island of Björkö in Sweden. When this burial was first excavated in the 1870s it was immediately assumed to be that of a great warrior: they had been buried with a full set of weapons, two horses, and a full set of gaming pieces, suggesting they were high ranking.

In 2017, our understanding of this individual became a lot more complicated when it was found that the genomic sex, based on DNA, was female. The researchers who made this discovery announced that therefore this was the first confirmed high ranking Viking warrior woman, to huge media uproar.

The thing is, we don’t know that women were ever actually warriors in the Viking Age. It’s possible that this individual is what we would understand now to be a transgender man.

Analysis of grave goods alone lead to circular arguments: it’s why we didn’t know this individual could be a woman for over 100 years. But at the same time, grave goods are also an important construction of perceived identity by the surviving community. There are no items in this grave to suggest that this individual took on a role understood to make them a woman within their community. Instead, it may be that by becoming a warrior, they also became a man, and were understood to be a man by their community.

We can never know this individual’s identity for sure, but it is the job of scholars to question every possibility.

The Viking world is so much more expansive than we have given it credit for. By thinking about how queerness can show up in the mythological and physical worlds, we can honour our queer past and gain a better understanding of the Viking Age.

Maybe it’s time to hang up that tired image of the hairy, hypermasculine Viking and embrace the queer magic of the Viking world.

Amy Jefford Franks holds an MA in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies from the University of Iceland, and is a specialist in Viking religion and queerness. They host the podcast Vikings Are Gay, and spoke about their work to Sheffield History students in March 2021. They can be found on Twitter @queertyyr

Cover image: The one-eyed Odin with his ravens Hugin and Munin and his weapons. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66 in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

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‘Always protest’? Drag Race, Pathé Newsreels, and Subversion in Mainstream Media

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RuPaul’s Drag Race sells itself, and has been praised, as a subversive television series. RuPaul, eponymous creator of the drag contest gameshow, has stated ‘true drag will never be mainstream. Because true drag has to do with seeing that this world is an illusion’. British judge Graham Norton recently claimed ‘there’s something dangerous about drag still’. Echoing this, a contestant queen from the syndicated British Drag Race enthused that ‘Drag was always a protest, a political statement’. Drag Race, participants and producers alike insist, is inherently subversive because drag necessarily challenges the gender norms of ‘straight’ society.

Drag Race has also become a mass media phenomenon. A niche show in 2009, its 13th series premiered this year to 1.3 million viewers. Interviewed, like any self-respecting A-list celebrity, by the Muppets and toting both a Simpsons cameo and a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, RuPaul is arguably the most famous drag queen in the world. This begs the question, can drag retain a subversive edge in mainstream media?

To consider this, it is instructive to look at one of drag’s first brushes with mass media in Britain. It was during the interwar period that drag first appeared onscreen, chiefly through cinema newsreels. Newsreels – short non-fiction topical films summarising the week’s current events – were included in almost every cinema programme until the 1960s. To leaven the news, they frequently featured variety entertainment; offshoot newsreels such as Pathetone were evencomprised entirely of filmed music hall acts.

A well-established form of music hall repertory from the nineteenth century, drag soon found its way into the newsreel. Bert Errol amazed cinemagoers by changing into high drag before their eyes in 1922. West-End comedian Douglas Byng appeared in rudimentary drag singing innuendo-laden falsetto across the 1930s. A 1937 item covered a police pantomime, with multiple shots of officers putting on makeup and dresses. In 1939, six sailors dressed as fairies sang and pranced before King-Emperor George VI during a naval inspection.

This seems remarkable at a time when populist paper John Bull ran editorials attacking London’s queer men for transvestism, castigating them as the ‘painted boy menace’.[1] From the mid-1920s, men wearing women’s clothes and makeup became tantamount to being queer.[2] In the 1930s, it is estimated 40 percent of Britons went to the cinema once and 25 percent twice or more a week.[3] To make drag palatable for the mainstream, newsreels had to ensure conventional manliness remained unchallenged and any association with queerness was muted.

As such, newsreels usually placed drag in establishment settings. Byng was a fixture of London’s fashionable set, always filmed in high-end venues like the Paradise Club, laughing with elites more so than at them. Likewise, Errol’s wife helped him change into drag, making sure audiences knew he was a red-blooded heterosexual, wig and high heels notwithstanding. The police officers and sailors returned to their uniforms, drag but a brief interlude (the naval fairies lasted but twenty seconds onscreen) from their ‘manly’ public service. Ensconced in marriage, elite society, and ‘masculine’ professions, queens could not truly send up the establishment when they were often performing from the heart of it.

Moreover, newsreels always framed drag as comedy. Ian Green has argued comedy allows latitude for contentious topics. Yet, because comedy resolves in laughter, it curtails earnest critique.[4] David Sutton likewise concludes comedy as a genre is ‘the appropriate site for the inappropriate, the proper place for indecorum’.[5] Comedy is establishment-condoned critique, safely dissipated in laughter. All the above acts, awash with puns and gags, aimed to make cinemagoers laugh, not challenge their gendered assumptions. Far from a challenge to the status quo, then, interwar drag acts could only enter mainstream media as safe entertainment bereft of queer connotations.

This is not to say drag culture could not be subversive. For queer men to wear women’s clothes and attend drag balls was certainly a brave and subversive act in the interwar period, one that provoked the British establishment.[6] The interwar life of Quentin Crisp is representative of the defiant subversion that came from wearing cosmetics.

Yet, as Jacob Bloomfield has shown, drag onstage was not inherently controversial and remained a staple of popular theatre.[7] Similarly, filmed drag acts obviated controversy in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience. In fact, looking at newsreel drag items reveals a legacy of conservatism for drag acts in the mainstream.

The producers of Drag Race would like to make their show the heir to the counterculture of drag balls and gay bars. Yet, in many respects, itis the mainstream heir to newsreel variety acts. Like newsreels, Drag Race is foremost comic entertainment, more inclined to jokes than politics. What little gender discussion there is occurs in the fleeting moments between farcical gameshow skits. The only challenges presented are to the competing queens’ dignities.

Like Pathe’s producers, RuPaul has espoused a profoundly conservative view of ‘true’ drag. Through transphobic comments, he has stressed drag as the exclusive province of gay men. Thus, much as newsreels removed any ‘controversial’ association with queerness, so Drag Race has placed strict limits on what drag represents and who can perform it.  

A look at the history of drag in newsreels reveals that to project drag through mass media is not inherently subversive. Whether in Pathé or on BBC3, being produced as mainstream entertainment severely curtails any potential for real subversion of societal norms such as gender. Former drag performer Paul O’Grady, carping in 2017 about Drag Race, contended that his drag persona Lilly Savage ‘belonged in a pub, especially a gay bar, where you could rant and rave’.  Considering drag’s relationship with popular media, perhaps it is only in niche subcultures that subversion can truly flourish.

Conner Scott is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research seeks to explore the role of British newsreels in everyday life, and how they (re)presented the cinemagoing public to itself on a weekly basis between c.1919-c.1939.


Cover image: Manchester Pride Parade 2019. A group of five drag queens representing BBC’s ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ on pink stage, Manchester, 24 August 2019. Used courtesy of Goncalo Telo for non-commercial, educational purposes. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/manchester-uk-august-24-2019-pride-1489347011

[1] Matt Houlbrook, ‘“The man with the powder puff” in Interwar London’, The Historical Journal 50.1 (2007), pp. 147-49.

[2] I use the term queer as it was the most common self-identity of interwar men who had sexual and emotional relationships with other men and avoids the anachronism of gay. See Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London, 2005), p. xiii.

[3] Annette Kuhn, An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory (London, 2002), p. 2.

[4] Ian Green, ‘Ealing: In the Comedy Frame’ in James Curran and Vincent Porter (eds), British Cinema History (London, 1983), p. 296.

[5] David Sutton, A Chorus of Raspberries: British Film Comedy 1929-1939 (Exeter, 2000), p. 60.

[6] See Matt Houlbrook, ‘Lady Austin’s Camp Boys: Constituting the Queer Subject in 1930s London’, Gender and History 14.1 (2002), pp. 31-61; Houlbrook, Queer London.

[7] See Jacob Bloomfield, ‘Splinters: Cross-Dressing Ex-Servicemen on the Interwar Stage’, Twentieth Century British History 30.1 (2019), pp. 1-28.

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How Not to Erase Trans History

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In recent months history has been at the forefront of social media politics. One such blow-up was the debate about whether people of colour could be found the Roman Empire. There is plenty of evidence that people of colour did exist in the past, and did many amazing things. But what about trans people? Did they exist in the past, and if so how would we know?

At a first glance things don’t look hopeful. The media image of trans people is of someone magically transforming from a man into a woman with the aid of sophisticated modern medicine. Terms like Transgender, Non-Binary, and Gender Identity didn’t exist in the past, so how could anyone have “identified” as such?

The idea that trans people are characterised by full transition from one binary gender to the other has, for many decades, been pushed by the medical establishment. However, in recent years treatment protocols have become much more relaxed and patient-centred, allowing for a greater variety of identities.

It may seem that non-binary trans identities are something very new. However, a cursory glance at history will find the artist Claude Cahun openly rejecting both binary gender categories in the early 20th century. Looking beyond the history of Western cultures, the world is full of people who place themselves outside of the gender binary. Throughout South Asia, Polynesia, and various Native American cultures we find social structures allowing people to cross gender boundaries. These traditions appear to date back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

A recent BBC radio programme, “Inside Transgender Pakistan”, highlighted the debate in Pakistan between those who embrace the Western model of full binary gender transition, and those who adhere to the traditional hijra culture, whose members see themselves more as a third gender. What we can learn from this is how trans people come to understand themselves, and their place in society, is highly culturally contextual.

The “Caitlyn Jenner model” dictates one particular way of being trans. The existence of non-binary people shows that not all Western trans people fit this mould. (See, for example, Trans Like Me by C.N. Lester). In other cultures, a third gender model may be more acceptable, but that doesn’t preclude some individuals having a more binary-gendered understanding of themselves.

Foucault had a point when he claimed, in his History of Sexuality, that the idea of the homosexual, and its cognate, the heterosexual, are late 19th-century inventions (terms coined by Karl-Maria Kertbeny). People from the past did not talk about their “sexual orientation”. This did not preclude them from indulging in same-sex relationships.

Did people from the past who transgressed gender boundaries see themselves as having a gender other than what they were assigned at birth, even though the word “transgender” hadn’t been coined? Without testimony we can’t be certain, but we can see what others say about them. The 1st century Jewish scholar, Philo of Alexandria, talked about:

“Those of them who […] have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs” (On the Special Laws 3:42).

Philo is talking about the Galli: the devotees of the goddess Cybele, who underwent ritual castration and lived the rest of their lives as women. Apuleius portrays a group of Galli as what sounds to us like highly camp, sex-mad drag queens (The Golden Ass 8:26-30). Then again, Apuleius was a satirist, and any trans woman will instantly recognise his characterisation from modern TV comedy shows.

The Galli don’t get to speak for themselves. Almost all we know about them was written by well-to-do Roman men. That Patricians should look down upon the Galli is not surprising. Exactly the same happens to trans women today.

Women historians can be more open to understanding. Lynn Roller, an expert on the Cybele cult, has likened the behaviour of the Galli to modern-day hijra, and Gwendolyn Leick has speculated that similar cults may have existed in ancient Mesopotamia.

The argument that modern medicine is a defining characteristic of trans identities is often used to claim that modern trans people are an entirely separate category from anyone in the past who may have transgressed gender boundaries. Past cultures had no knowledge of plastic surgery, and could not synthesise hormones. This does not mean that medical intervention did not take place.

Roman medicine understood several different methods of castration. It seems likely that only a minority of the Galli had their penis removed. However, the removal of the testicles would have acted as surgery and a primitive form of hormone therapy as it deprives the body of testosterone. The creation of human eunuchs dates back at least to the Assyrian empire and possibly much earlier.

How, then, are we to identify and understand trans identities from the past? It is important that we should not fixate on modern Western concepts of what being trans is about (especially if those concepts are fast becoming outmoded). What we can do is focus on behaviour.

Historians who are not trans may not fully appreciate the level of risk and commitment involved in gender transition, particularly when there is no legal protection, and no religious cult you can join for support. It is not easy to live full-time in a gender different from that you were assigned at birth.

During the American Civil War, many people assigned female at birth fought in the armies of both sides, presenting as men. Their reasons were many and various; including wanting to be with loved ones, and being desperate for a paid job. They undertook massive risk beyond that of simply being a soldier. Only a small number, such as Albert Cashier, continued to live as men after the war. That difference in behaviour, while not proof of identity, is highly significant.

It is important to be open about motive. If we assume that all gender transgression is a “deception”, or that cross-gender behaviour can only be evidence of sexual preference rather than gender identity, we are erasing the possibility of trans people in the past. Where the cross-gender behaviour is consistent, we have to have an explanation as to why the subject is taking so much extra risk.

We can also look at the social structures in ancient (and modern non-Western) cultures that make space for people to transgress the gender binary. That we find these identities in so many different cultures is surely evidence that being trans is a fundamental part of human nature, and what we have is a long history of society’s attempts to come to terms with that.

Cheryl Morgan is a writer, publisher and broadcaster. She is co-chair of OutStories Bristol, an LGBT* local history organisation. She has delivered papers on many aspects of trans history and trans characters in literature, and is a regular speaker at LGBT* History Month events. You can find Cheryl on Twitter @CherylMorgan.

Image: Claude Cahun, self portrait [via Flikr].

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The State of Marriage – Progress or Decay?

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On the surface, 2017 represented a peak in a progressive movement to reform marriage around the world. Marriage and family law – and the social practices from which they stem and to which they contribute – have seemed to become more and more similar across the world over time. And marriage appears more equitable, for people of all genders and sexual orientations, than ever before.

In Germany and Australia, same-sex marriage was finally legalised after years of resistance. Meanwhile, across the Middle East and North Africa, in Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon, new laws were introduced which meant that rapists could no longer be exonerated upon marrying their victims. And in India, the Supreme Court voted to outlaw the Islamic practice of talaq – unilateral divorces issued by husbands who declare talaq three times, which brought India’s policy on Islamic divorce in line with that in most other countries.

Not least, 2017 saw the crescendo in a long-standing global debate about marital age, which has often focused on the rights of girls. Germany banned marriages involving minors – and also decided not to recognise most underage marriages conducted abroad. The United States, where marriage as young as 10 years old is allowed in some states, has seen a legislative movement and broader social pressure against the practice.

For reformers, these changes to marriage law signified progress, as older norms about heterosexuality and patriarchy gave way to new values. For critics, by contrast, the changes to marriage across the world in 2017 denoted moral decline. Despite the apparent gulf between these critiques, they nonetheless pointed to a common theme: marriage was seen as a marker of civility.

How one married – or dissolved their marriage – denoted one’s status as both civilised and modern. Indeed, recent developments in marriage have been tied to the modern history of imperialism and statehood and the specific understandings of civility associated with each.

That history unfolded over three main points: around 1800, with the Napoleonic wars and the spread of civil law codes across Europe; over the course of the nineteenth century, and culminating around 1900, with the age of empires and the spread of laws and norms through imperial connections; and, over the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty first, with the rise of new international organisations and social movements and the new language of human rights associated with both.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the collision of war, state building and Enlightenment thought drove a boom in the writing of new law codes that placed marriage and the family at their centre. Perhaps most significantly, in 1804, France introduced comprehensive rules on marriage and divorce as part of its civil code, largely as a reaction against the radical changes introduced as a consequence of the revolution a decade earlier.

The French code civil assumed that the family was both monogamous and based on the rule of men; any other family structure was potentially uncivilised. The code and the thinking behind it would have a tremendous impact across Europe and around the world. It was transported throughout the continent and across France’s expanding empire by Napoleon’s troops, and it shaped legal systems elsewhere, such as in Ottoman Egypt.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, similar ideas about marriage continued to spread around the world in large part due to Europe’s expanding empires. And, these ideas were shaped by encounters between imperialists and their subjects which helped to confirm notions about a chasm between civilised and barbaric marital practices.

Earlier observers like Montesquieu had looked around the world in the eighteenth century to decry polygamy and child marriage. By the late nineteenth century, a concerted movement against these practices took shape, as in the British outcry over the 1884 case of the Indian child bride Rukmabai as well as through the efforts of missionaries.

And yet, imperial authorities also argued that colonies would need to allow for local differences in marital practices, through a system known as personal status law, because the various cultures – and especially the various religions – around the world seemed so different that they could not be reconciled.

By the end of the Second World War, many had come to question whether cultural differences should be honoured when it came to marriage and the family even if this meant that human rights might be endangered. The rights of women and children, in particular, took centre stage in these discussions, shaping the wording of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and subsequent international conventions.

Over the course of the 1970s, as new social movements latched onto the language of human rights to defend their causes, it became increasingly clear that rights to and within marriage and the family would be redefined on a global scale. Accordingly, courts began declaring certain marriage practices void when they seemed to undermine human rights.

This was the case, for example, in December when the European Court of Justice ruled that European countries could choose not to recognise talaq divorces carried out abroad – alongside other ‘private divorces’ that were seen as undermining their own moral codes – even if they had been conducted legally at the time.

By the end of 2017, it seemed that marriage had been made more progressive and equal for many around the world. And yet, the reforms to marriage continue to be shaped by specific notions of civility and modernity that have circulated over the last two hundred years and have been shaped by efforts to build nation states and empires.

These ideas could be found, for example, in both the heteronormative assumptions behind the movement to legalise same-sex marriage and in arguments against the legal recognition within Europe of foreign marital practices like talaq or the marriage of minors. Not least, while marriage seems to have become more progressive than ever before, in some ways, it has become less accessible. As couples increasingly choose not to marry due to difficult financial and social circumstances, to a certain extent, marriage has become the preserve of the privileged.

Julia Moses is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield and currently based at the University of Göttingen’s Institute of Sociology as a Marie Curie Fellow, where she leads the EU/Horizon 2020 research project ‘Marriage and Cultural Diversity in the German Empire’ (MARDIV / Grant #707072). She recently published Marriage, Law and Modernity: Global Histories (Bloomsbury, 2017) and is currently completing a book titled Civilizing Marriage: Family, Nation and State in the German Empire.

Image: Child in white wedding dress, November 2015 [Via WikiCommons].

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Finding Jesus in Video Games

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Christmas is a time when Jesus becomes prominent in our media consumption. However, you may not be aware that Jesus appears not only in films that explore his birth and death, but is also widely present in the trope of the Christ-figure in film, television and perhaps surprisingly, video games.

Video games have matured since their early days when they were perceived as entertainment made for children, and specifically male children. Nowadays the UK video game market boasts a population of 3.2 million people, and was estimated to be worth £4.33bn in 2016. There are 2,175 active games companies in the UK, and here in Sheffield we have over 40 active games companies. [1] The use of historical people or events—and the more or less accurate ideas people have about them—is widespread in video games.[2]

Christ-figures in older games

Christ-figures have been a part of gaming history since the early 80s with games such as 1981’s Ultima, and later in the 90s-00s with iconic video game character Gordon Freeman of Half Life (1998) and JC Denton in Deus Ex (2000). However Christ-figures are most prominent in role-playing games (RPGs) and games in which the player can ‘embody’ the player-character. Unlike in film, Christ-figures in games are often women, and some are also portrayed as LGBT characters.

Final Fantasy X (2001)

Final Fantasy is a long-running series of RPG/Science fiction games made by Japanese studio Square Enix. They are well known for their immersive and dynamic worlds, their long play time, and their very specific set of in-game tropes. In 2001 their tenth instalment was released, Final Fantasy X, which featured Yuna, a female Christ-figure. Yuna is a Summoner who, by sacrificing herself, has the power to defeat a gigantic monster named Sin. Yuna can be identified as a Christ-figure not only through this intended sacrifice, but also by the “priestly” actions she performs, as well as through motifs such as a battle against corrupt governments, dedicated disciples, and her ability to walk on water.

Mass Effect (2007-2017)

The first game in the science fiction Mass Effect series featured an interactive narrative in which the player could control the character of Commander Shepard. Shepard was one of the first Christ-figures within games where players could chose to play them as LGBT. This was a massive step forward in video game design, let alone depictions of Christ-figures in media.

Bioshock Infinite (2013)

Irrational Games’ Bioshock: Infinite told the tale of ex-soldier, now Private Detective, Booker DeWitt. Set in 1912, the player controls DeWitt as he journeys to the fictional city of Columbia, a place steeped in religious zealotry, racism and danger.

DeWitt himself, along with the lead female characters of Elizabeth and Daisy Fitzroy can all be read as Christ-figures. Elizabeth is a literal damsel in a (metal) tower and Daisy is a radical revolutionary. All three characters are determined to take down the theocratic leader of Columbia, Zachary Hale Comstock.

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Sadly, whilst Infinite attempts to present an anti-American Exceptionalism allegory, in the end it fails when (similarly to Final Fantasy X), it restricts female characters by not allowing them to carry out their heroic sacrifices. Both Elizabeth and Fitzroy (who is killed by Elizabeth) take second chair to the player-character of DeWitt, who sacrifices himself in a scene that resembles a Christian baptism ceremony.

Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)

Inquisition is made by the same studio behind the Mass Effect series, BioWare, and like Mass Effect, Inquisition features a lead character that can be read as a Christ-figure. As much as Mass Effect flirted with the Christ-figure trope by referencing the “good Shepard”, Inquistion is less subtle with its references. For example, the promotional art for Inquisition featured the cast of game characters in an image that reinterprets Leonardo di Vinci’s L’Ultima Cena (the Last Supper).

Inquisition_members

As well as this clear reference to the life of Jesus, Inquisition makes repeated references to Jesus through the game’s narrative (a heroic saviour figure who must use their ‘God-given’ abilities to save humanity), and its promotional materials which suggest themes of leadership and courage.

Inquisition, like Mass Effect, provides the opportunity for players to play as lesbian, gay or bisexual. These romantic story lines, however, are often prone to problematic stereotypes (such as gay narratives that portray homosexuality as inherently negative in the eyes of family members). Despite this, Inquistion is one of the most diverse Christ-figure games within the ‘blockbuster’ genre of AAA games.[3]

The presence of Jesus in video game media (as himself or in the Christ-figure trope) suggests that the view of the historical Jesus as an example of sacrifice and heroism through altruism still has importance in our collective cultural narratives. While many of the games that feature a Christ-figure still rehash negative stereotypes, they are continually pushing the Jesus trope into new and interesting pathways.

Emily R Marlow is a 2nd year WRoCAH (AHRC) funded PhD candidate at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at the University of Sheffield. Her thesis looks at Jesus & Christ-figures within video games. Her research has covered games such as Bioshock: Infinite, Mass Effect, DragonAge: Inquisition and The Witcher 3.

Header image and image 1: DeWitt and Elizabeth in Bioshock: Infinite [via Flickr].

Image 2: Promotional art for Dragon Age: Inquisition, reinterpreting Leonardo di Vinci’s L’Ultima Cena (the Last Supper) [via FANDOM].

[1] “The Games Industry in Numbers” Ukie.org, [https://ukie.org.uk/research] accessed 13/12/2017.

[2] See, for instance, this recent discussion about the role of World War II history in the popular game Call of Duty: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/41848521/why-call-of-duty-ww2-bosses-wont-shy-away-from-history

[3] A “triple A” game is a game released by a mid to large sized games company, it is used to designate a games’ quality of production and promotional release.

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A Genealogy of Bisexuality; Androgyny, Behaviour, and Suspicion.

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People can be very quick to dismiss the idea of bisexuality as a phase, as greedy, or in some way invalid. This biphobia results from a lot of (sometimes purposeful) misunderstanding of bisexuality. But what do bisexuals mean when they say that they’re bisexual? Amongst bisexual activists and scholars, bisexuality commonly means the sexual or romantic attraction to people of more than one sex or gender. Bisexuals might experience changes in their sexuality over time, and that the way in which people experience sexual and romantic feelings might change wildly from person to person and gender to gender.

But bisexuality didn’t always mean this. In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century psychoanalysts and biologists like Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, and others used the word bisexual to refer to a particular conflation of gender and sexuality. The belief at the time was that anyone who was attracted to someone of the same sex had the brain of a different gender in the wrong body.

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So, someone who we would consider a lesbian today was actually seen as a woman with a man’s brain, and would have been called an invert. Bisexuality was seen as an androgynous combination of sexuality and gender, and psychoanalysts like Freud believed that bisexuality was the base, immature, level of sexuality, which people would mature out of to become heterosexuals or homosexuals.

In the mid-twentieth century, sexuality studies saw a new school of thought where sexologists were more concerned with contextual sexual behavior of individuals, as opposed to dissecting the way in which their attractions developed. Alfred Kinsey is one of the most famous sexologists in this new tradition of scholarship. 1

Alfred_Charles_KinseyKinsey developed the Kinsey Scale, a system of measurement which suggested that the majority of people were not exclusively heterosexually-behaving, or exclusively homosexually-behaving, but rather somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Kinsey presented bisexuality more as a system of behavior, not necessarily linked to individual or social identities, but linked to acting on libido, circumstance, and attraction at particular points in time.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, lesbians and gay men began to visibly and subversively fight for their basic civil rights within the United States. Bisexuality became more of a social identity, with individuals choosing to claim their identities more and more. However, due to internal pressures within the LGBTQ+ groups, bisexuals were often thought of as traitors due to the perception that they benefited from heterosexual privileges that lesbians and gay men could not access.

Consequently, bisexual voices were silenced, either by pressure from the LGBTQ+ community, or due to bisexuals ‘passing’ as heterosexual, lesbian, or gay, depending on their social contexts. Within the LGBTQ+ community, bisexuality was seen as a neither-here-nor-there identity, possibly even traitorous given the association with heterosexuality and normative culture. As a result, bisexuality was met with suspicion, leading to bisexuals hiding their sexualities and thus finding little community and validation.

At present, bisexuality is slightly more socially accepted. No longer seen as linked to gender, bisexuality is considered to be a sexual orientation in the same way that being gay, lesbian, or heterosexual is seen as a social identity. Although bisexuals still experience biphobia, bi-invisibility, and monosexism, there is a growing bisexual community that supports and validates one another.

Bisexuality is also increasingly being brought into the conversation within LGBTQ+ organisations and equality campaigns. The representation, acceptance, and validation of bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation, all serves to benefit bisexual inclusion and bisexual mental health. However, the remnants of previous schools of thought are still seen, woven into responses to bisexuality. Common narratives around bisexuality include;

The need to accept bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation is critical to improving bisexual mental and physical wellbeing, which currently is significantly worse than lesbian and gay mental and physical wellbeing. Perhaps the next great understanding of bisexuality can incorporate a more lackadaisical approach; it doesn’t matter how you define yourself if it makes you happy and well. You are valid, and your feelings should not need to be quantified to someone else to be justified.

Rosie Nelson is an ESRC funded Sociology PhD student at the University of Bristol. Rosie adopts a critical queer theoretical lens to interrogate the construction and maintenance of a bisexual identity amongst British bisexuals. Rosie’s particular research interests revolve around the way bisexuals interact with gender, gender expression, social location, coming out, and institutional representation. You can find Rosie on Twitter @roropanolo.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

For more on the history of bisexuality, please see:

Angelides, S., 2001. A History of Bisexuality, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Eisner, S., 2013. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, Berkeley: Seal Press.
Garber, M., 1997. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life, London: Penguin Books.
Harrad, K., 2016. Purple Prose: Bisexuality in Britain, Portland: Thorntree Press.
Klein, F., 1993. The Bisexual Option, New York: The Harrington Park Press.

If you would like access to any support related to the content of this blog, please see:

www.stonewall.org.uk
www.bisexual.org
www.bisexualindex.org.uk
www.biresource.org

Header Image: Bisexual Pride Flag [via Wikicommons]
Image: Female Bisexuality Symbol [via Martin Strachoň / Wikimedia Commons]
Image: Alfred Charles Kinsey [Via Wikicommons]

Notes:

  1. Kinsey’s sexuality studies considered the sexual behavior of American men and women.
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