Cara Delevingne’s ‘Peg the Patriarchy’ moment from the 2021 Met Gala undoubtedly missed the mark. Delevingne and Dior both failed to credit the original creator of the slogan, a black, queer sex educator Luna Matatas. Beyond this transgression, Delevingne’s message and its delivery were blatant examples of the contradictory messages often encoded in mainstream depictions of non-normative sexualities. Delevingne clearly thought her stunt was groundbreaking, or at the very least, intelligent and thought-provoking. This begs the question of why, exactly, mainstream representations of non-normative sexualities so often miss the mark, and often do more harm than good.
I don’t know when I first heard the term “toxic positivity” but it was sometime after my father was diagnosed with advancing dementia and before my own initial bout with breast cancer. The concept, though, is relatively simple. Toxic positivity is a kind of cultural obsession with the necessity of positive thinking or the belief that people should always put a positive spin on every experience, even the profoundly tragic. It’s a kind of silver lining run amok: wherein instead of acknowledging the good that can sometimes emerge from the bad, you gild the entire cloud in a precious, glittery veneer of happy thoughts. And American culture is utterly obsessed with it.
In what now feels like a lifetime ago, I was having one last catch up with a mate from my PhD cohort before we both set off for the field. We’d grabbed burgers at a burger bar in Canberra and were nursing a couple of pints. As I returned to the table after a brief visit to the bathroom, my mate said to me, “Ah, Alex, I’m glad you’re back. I was just about to say to Sarah (my partner) that we have so much in common – neither of us originally studied anthropology, both of us are from a development studies background, and we’re both too fat to be anthropologists.”
For some, instructions to wear masks in public places have been an opportunity to chart new courses in fashion or have simply been a minor inconvenience in the effort to prevent the further spread of Covid-19. Alternatively, for others in more libertarian and sometimes conspiratorial groups, the face mask has become a symbol of the overreach of the state. I suspect for many of those reading this blog post the opposition to wearing masks seems deeply irrational and perplexing. Likewise, I have found these sentiments troubling and an affront to my own sense of community and ethics. For myself, wearing a mask has become a way of publicly presenting my commitment to stopping the spread of viruses and an acknowledgement of science and evidence as a guide to public health policy. So how has the face mask become a symbol of such divergent meanings?