Kristen Cochrane examines Fire Song, a new film that recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and discusses the way that gender identities are portrayed in film.
In the late queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick talks about the idea of “nonce taxonomies.” Nonce is an infrequently used word “for the time being,” and taxonomy refers to classification, but this expression is a helpful way to think about how we classify things for the time being. Right now, some classify sexualities as gay and straight. Many are completely willing to accept that there is anything besides straight. But for some of us, we know that ways to define or categorize our sexualities changes drastically over time.
The third gender or gender variance of two-spirited peoples can then be confusing, especially within a culture (like the United States’ overarching culture) that tells us what to desire and how to present ourselves. For centuries, indigenous tribes in North America and across the world have had two-spirited peoples, individuals who embody both masculinity and femininity. And even then, this category is reductive—basically, there aren’t just two gender identities, right? We can be genderfluid, genderqueer, or agender, among other identities. Shockingly, to our Euro-centric, puritan standards, this was not a problem, but was welcomed into indigenous communities. Many two-spirited people were healers and visionaries, or other trusted figures. When colonization of indigenous peoples in North America occurred–in other words, when mass genocide and other deceitful tactics were committed (e.g. botched treaties where land was taken and where children were abused in residential schools)–being two-spirited then became something to be ashamed about. Fundamentally, any gender or sexual fluidity was thereby unacceptable due to the Christian, imperialist values of European settlers (think Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump, but worse).
So when I saw Fire Song on the Toronto International Film Festival’s roster last week, I was intrigued. A queer indigenous story? The film was a six-year labour of love by indigenous, Edmonton-born Adam Garnet Jones. It’s his first feature, and the film deals with suicide, gender identity, sexual orientation, and incest, among other complicated topics. The film follows Shane (Andrew Martin), who is visibly uncomfortable with the idea of being sexual with his girlfriend. Meanwhile, we discover that Shane has had to hide his relation with David (Harley Legarde), an aspiring healer who is increasingly frustrated with Shane for keeping the facade of a heterosexual relationship, and for resorting to petty criminality to pay for his upcoming tuition. Shane’s mother Jackie (the prolific, indigenous, Canadian actress Jennifer Podemski) is depressed and bedridden following the suicide of Shane’s sister, but becomes stronger as the narrative progresses. It’s with the help of Roberta (Ma-Nee Chacaby), Jackie’s mother, that Jackie is able to emotionally recover. Roberta also tells Jackie, in a non-judgmental way, that an elder in another community once said that Shane would be two-spirited.
It is worth bringing up that indigenous children are not born two-spirited, but can then become so, and that’s okay. Incidentally, Ma-Nee Chacaby identifies as two-spirited in real life. Her character even explains to Jackie that too much male energy is bad, adding “there has to be a balance, you know that, eh?”
Suicide and queer identity struggles are something director Adam Garnet Jones knows well—he is gay and had thought about suicide when he was younger. It was only thanks to the arts that he was able to get out of that state of mind, which shows how representation and visibility is vital, especially when legacies of colonialism meet homophobia, heterosexism, and racism.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her previous essay for Slutever, “A Brief Hitory of Period Art.” HERE :)