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No place like home: a meditation on the meaning of hotels

Hotel by Joanna Walsh is deft and imaginative, tripping between references to Katherine Mansfield, Mae West, the Marx Brothers and Karl Marx.

“There was a time in my life when I lived in hotels,” writes Joanna Walsh at the start of Hotel – while haunting “a marriage I was soon to leave”. She took up reviewing hotels for a start-up website, half-thinking that by residing in them she would get a foretaste of what it might be like to live elsewhere. An unhappy woman, on the move, looking for somewhere to land, Walsh discovers that hotels are not the home from home they pretend to be but “the opposite of home”. It’s an insight that gives this slyly humorous and clever little book its internal propulsion.

In spite of their myriad comforts and round-the-clock service, the elevation (or is that inflation?) that hotels offer their clients belongs to the realm of fantasy. In truth, observes Walsh, you are neither your ideal self nor your best self when you inhabit a hotel. You are flattened into a being who ceases to have desires, since hotels exist solely to meet and thus neuter them all. You are not so much a guest as a ghost – a “paying ghost”.

Hotel ghosts go through the motions of being at home but are frustrated at every turn. Their rooms are invaded by staff, who primp and clean and leave melting chocolates on the pillow. Anything broken, or eaten, must be paid for. Signs politely remind you that you do not own (and therefore should not run away with) the towelling robes, ashtrays or slippers – although you are explicitly told how to leg it in the event of fire.

Even the minibar is a con – just like the other “gadgets, which resemble, but are unlike, those I have at home . . . I could put my own champagne in the fridge, but it wouldn’t fit,” writes Walsh. It is another reminder that: “The hotel is not on my side, not really.” All this carpet-pulling makes hotels “uncanny” – a term, Walsh reminds us, that Sigmund Freud relished for capturing what one felt when the familiar was defamiliarised.

Hotel is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. Before it came volumes on remote controls, golf balls and drones, while still in the publishing pipeline are those on dust, doorknobs and hair. Though short, at roughly 25,000 words apiece, these books are anything but slight. As the publishers explain, “Each book starts from a specific prompt: an anthropological query, archaeological discovery, historical event, literary passage, personal narrative, philosophical speculation, technological innovation – and from that starting point develops an investigation or inquiry around the object of the title.” In the case of Hotel, Walsh’s provocation is this idea of haunted space, while in one form or another the ideas that shape her subsequent interrogation take flight from Freud: “My suitcase stands in the corner of my hotel room, small and black, square-shouldered as a visiting psychoanalyst.”

Walsh couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate dancing partner, since no one better understood how things are emphatically not what they seem. Words, objects, actions, dreams: everything stands in for something else – something that cannot be articulated directly. Hotels stand in for an unease with home.

Walsh’s prose style is also indebted to Freud. It is elliptical and associative, moving like quicksilver from one thing to the next, as ideas take shape only to dissolve again. This is bold, risky writing but Walsh is deft with fluidity – perhaps because it mirrors the dissolving boundaries that she was grappling with in her life at the time.

An example of her productive sleight of hand is the way in which she moves from writing about Freud’s patient Dora, who was “sick” in a hotel, to the idea that hotels hold out the promise of a cure (like spas and sanitoriums do – symbolic analogues of the hotel and also the hospital), to the notion that checking in to a hotel is already an admission that there is something wrong with you (you can’t live at home). One reason for such restlessness – an avidity to escape home – is that home is work, especially for women, whereas in a hotel you are served, even if your leisure is bought at the cost of someone else’s industry. And so it goes, with Walsh tripping effortlessly and imaginatively from one thing to the next, referencing Katherine Mansfield, Mae West, the Marx Brothers and Karl Marx, but with utter conviction at each step.

I loved Hotel and would read it again for the pleasure of its playful linguistic slips (not all of them Freudian) and jokes. Walsh claims that she wrote it in a matter of months but had lived with it for years. Her long residency (another haunting?) was clearly fruitful. It has bequeathed this small book a big heart.

Hotel by Joanna Walsh is published by Bloomsbury Academic (176pp, £9.99)

The Middlepause by Marina Benjamin will be published next spring by Scribe

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires

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Beyond Moonlight: how Hollywood is still failing LGBTQ audiences

2016 was a bleak year for gay and transgender characters in Hollywood pictures.

How was 2016 for LGBT representation in Hollywood? It was the year Moonlight was released – the breathtaking love story of two young black men that won Best Picture at the most recent Oscars.

Beyond Moonlight, many smaller studios produced thoughtful, empathetic explorations of the lives of gay characters: from Gravitas Ventures’s All We Had and 4th Man Out to IFC’s Gay Cobra to Magnoloia Pictures’s The Handmaiden.

So… pretty good, right?

Not when you look at the statistics, released by GLAAD this week. While a low-budget, independent production managed to storm the mainstream, of the 125 releases from the major studios in 2016, only 23 included characters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. And almost half of those releases saw that LGBTQ character receive less than one minute of screen time. Only nine passed GLAAD’s Vito Russo Test – which, inspired by The Bechdel Test, asks whether characters are treated as real people, or just punchlines. Plus, while many studios claimed characters were gay, they refused to explicitly or implicitly discuss this in the script: take Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann in Ghostbusters.

A closer look at some of the LGBTQ characters we had from the big studios this year underlines quite how bad the industry is at portraying LGBTQ people:

Deadpool, Deadpool
While much was made of Deadpool’s pansexual orientation in the run-up to the film’s release, the only references that actually made it to screen were throwaway jokes intended to emphasize just how outrageous and weird Deadpool is.

Terry, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike and Dave’s bisexual pal Terry repeatedly tries to persuade other characters to sleep with her, often at deeply inappropriate times, and even attempting to bribe one character into engaging in sexual activity. According to this film, bisexuality = hypersexuality.

Marshall, Lubliana, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

This whole film was a mess in its treatment of LGBTQ characters, particularly transgender ones. The very concept of being transgender is here treated as a punchline. Edina’s ex-husband Marshall is described as “a transgender” and treated as a joke, Marshall’s wife Bo claims she is now black, insisting she can change race as her husband has changed gender, while Patsy goes undercover as a man to marry the rich Baroness Lubliana, who announces “I’m not a woman”. Other lines from the film include ““I hate how you have to be nice to transgendered people now.”

Random strangers, Criminal

Remember the moment when two men kiss on a bridge in Criminal? No, me neither, because it lasted approximately four seconds. See also: Finding Dory – which supposedly features a lesbian couple (two women pushing a child in a pram). Literally blink and you miss them.

Bradley, Dirty Grandpa

The black, gay character Bradley only exists in this film as somone for Dick (Robert De Niro) to direct all his racist and homophobic jokes at. But this film doesn’t stop there – there are also a whole collection of jokes about how Jason (Zac Efron) is actually a butch lesbian.

Hansel, All, Zoolander 2

Dimwitted former model Hansel McDonald is now bisexual and involved in a long-term polyamorous relationship with 11 people – his entire storyline of running from them when they become pregnant, finding a new “orgy” and eventually coming back to them – relies on the most dated stereotypes around bisexuality, promiscuity and fear of commitment.

Meanwhile, straight cis man Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a non-binary model named All, who has “just married hermself” after “monomarriage” has been legalized, and exists purely so other characters can speculate loudly over whether All has “a hotdog or a bun” – yet again reducing transgender people to their body parts for cheap laughs.

Various, Sausage Party

From Teresa del Taco to Twink the Twinkie to the effeminate “fruit” produce, these are stereotypes in food form, not actual characters.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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