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Congress and Your Homework

Congress must not abdicate its responsibility to help all children succeed.

That's Arne Duncan, responding to the proposed Lamar Alexander remix of No Child Left Behind. It's an interesting construction, an inspiring line.

The first picture that popped into my head was an old white guy in a suit, knocking on some family's front door. When a parent answers, he says, "Hello. I'm Senator Bumswoggle, and I'm here to help Chris study for the big algebra test tomorrow."

Okay, that's probably not what Duncan means. But it does raise the question-- what exactly can Congress do to help all children succeed? If we went into classrooms and asked the students, "What do you need from your Congressperson to help you succeed this week?" what would they say?

Would they say that they really, really need to take a bunch of standardized tests? "I think I'm getting better at reading," will say some bright-eyed eight-year-old, "but until I take a standardized test from Congress, I just don't know." Is that what would happen?

Would they say, "Please don't give any more resources to this school. Instead, give the money to some charter operator to set up a completely different school. Yes, I realize they might not let me go to that school, and I'll have to stay in this one scraping by with fewer resources, but I'll sleep better knowing that entrepreneurs have had the opportunity to unleash innovation while making good ROI."
It is sweet that Duncan and Congress want to help. The desire to help, particularly to help those who are most vulnerable, is a basic human impulse, and a credit to every person who feels it. But the desire to help does not automatically confer the ability to help.

Suppose one of my children is injured and rushed to an operating room. I would want to help. I would want to wave a magic wand and fix it, right now. But if I grab a scalpel and dash into the operating theater declaring, "I really want to help. What can I do?" they would have to throw me out, because as someone with zero surgery-related skills, the most useful thing I can do is get out of the way. Even if I am obscenely rich and incredibly powerful, I still don't have the skills.

So if Congress's message to children is going to be, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you" the question remains-- what can Congress actually do to help children succeed?

Not teach the children-- neither Congress nor the Department of Education contains barely any people with skills and expertise in actually teaching children. Congress doesn't know how to build schools or run a sceince fair or assess an essay. Nor would I want to watch a Congressman take a shift or two of lunch duty (okay, I might want to watch a little). With few exceptions, Congresspersons do not know how to do any of the things directly related to helping a child achieve success in school. So they won't help the children succeed that way.

In fact, Congress doesn't even know the individual children that it's talking about. This means that it has no idea what individual strengths and weaknesses the children have. It also means that neither Congress nor Secretary Duncan knows what each individual child means by "succeed." So the actual working with children is best left up to the people who are right there with them-- teachers and parents.That work includes defining and measuring success; Congress lacks the skills and expertise to do either of those tasks.

Congress does have the expertise to deal with the money and politics portion of the picture. Congress can do its part to make sure that every school has the resources that it needs, and Congress has a responsibility to do that honestly, without damaging fictions such as, "We can fund ten different excellent schools for the same money that's now spent on just one." Congress has a responsibility to do its homework, so that it's not making choices based on the lies in charter school PR materials.
Congress has the expertise and skills to make sure that states do not create funding formulas that treat some children like second-class citizens. Congress has the expertise and skills to require that states and school districts remain transparent.

Neither Congress nor the Department of Education has the expertise and skill to determine when a school is failing or what should be done with that failing school. They have been told that expertise in business, politics and money are sufficient to identify and cure failing schools; this is simply not true, any more than my expertise in teaching English means I belong in an operating room or a board room.

Congress's responsibility to help children succeed is not a bad measure. But if we're going to be honest and truthful about the matter, Congress's ability to help children succeed is nearly non-existent. Great responsibility can come with great power, but in this case, Congress's most important power is to step back and let the people with expertise, training and skills do their jobs.

Pause the film. Fast-forward. No, not quite that far.

Stop. Okay. That works.

This is September, 2015. It was early into the semester, and I had free-time before things got hectic at mid-term. I was supposed to be graduating soon, but my life was, as ever, a comedy of errors. Instead of graduation to look forward to, I was hard at work trying to get my superhero novel published. The publisher would go belly-up come April, leaving my book in legal limbo until June 2016, but I don’t know that yet. For now, I had a quiet weekend to spend at home, and I wanted to enjoy it.

Obviously, I decided to spend it watching Hannibal, instead.

Hannibal aired its last episode on August 29th, 2015. I didn’t watch it. Twitter and Tumblr told me everything that happened in the visceral play-by-play of .gif sets and livetweets. It was a strange, sad feeling. I hadn’t seen the show since early on in its final season because I had, admittedly, broken-up with Hannibal. Our relationship was always tumultuous. You couldn't tell from my collectible vinyl figures, framed prints, tarot card deck, tastefully provocative pin-up calendar, and phone background that I had ever said a bad word to say about Hannibal. That’s fine.

Enrapt by Harris’s cold, clinical, savage world from a young age, I immediately fell in love with Bryan Fuller’s adaptation. Its visual language leaned on the greatest hits of Kubrick and Bergman without being too noisy about it. The cast was superb and the performances were engrossing week after week, folding in a wide swath of character actors, comedians, and dramatic powerhouses.

Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of the tetchy, ragged Will Graham as a vulnerable and earnest man wrestling with madness brought a certain softness to the character. This played in beautiful contrast to Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter, who was essentially Milton’s Satan poured into a three-piece suit. At turns predatory and charming, inviting and toxic, sensual and violent, their romantic (no, that isn't a typo) chemistry was some of the best I can recall on screen.

Did I mention my collection of artwork and toys? To say I’m a fan would be a hilarious understatement.

Then, the second season aired. I may have called the show lethargic and hard to follow, swallowed up by its own internal dream-logic. (These were complaints that more or less resolved themselves upon binge-viewing, when the molasses-slow weekly format went out the window and the nebulous storylines felt more cohesive.) I may have also said something to the effect of “Hannibal is just Gay Dracula now and if Fuller doesn’t stop insisting this is a straight platonic friendship, I’m going to shit bricks.” There were inflammatory Facebook posts, a few pithy remarks on Tumblr, and, disappointed, I stopped watching.

Finally, after a summer spent fuming between seasons, I came back for what turned out to be the final season. With renewed commitment to see the show through, I resolved to hang tight this time. But, once again, wandering off in the middle of Jack Crawford delivering a righteous and satisfying beat-down upon a fully Byronic Hannibal Lecter, I just couldn’t stick with it.

And on August 29th, the show ended. Even though I didn’t see it, and I hadn’t watched the show in months as I muttered criticism under my breath whenever it came up on Twitter, I just felt sad. Pointlessly, stupidly sad, the way you do when something you care about stops existing.

So, taking a deep breath and fueled by a twinging, heart-heavy sort of love usually only reserved for 90s comic book characters and Clive Barker movies, I pulled Hannibal up on Amazon Prime. I spent the entire weekend on my couch with my dog, binge-watching the series from start to finish. It still had all the same warts, of course, as I muttered my catalog of criticisms under my breath while shuffling to the fridge between episodes.

But then, something stupid happened, barrelling into the oblivion of season three: the love story became clear. Finally, and for all the awkwardness of weekly network TV serialization forced onto a dreamy, grotesque gothic romance, finally finally finally. After the legacy of LGBT stereotypes in Harris’s novels as violent deviations from the norm loomed large over the franchise, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter were wrestled from the text as fully-developed queer men. Even after two seasons of muddied language painted Will and Hannibal’s romantic and sexual tensions, in Fuller’s own words, as playful homoerotic subtext and subversion.

This concept of subversion is what always held me at arm’s length from the show during its broadcast. Despite my love for the whole of it and my admiration for those who brought it to bear, having the showrunner insist the homoeroticism was genre subversion rubbed me the wrong way. The show’s conceit of Will wrestling with his own monstrosity, his becoming, had long-since melted away, taking a backseat to Hannibal's ongoing seduction. As was stated within the show, theirs was a courtship of predators, but also debauched lovers. Hannibal preyed on Will, groomed him, and adored him in scenes that parodied the life of Christ, complete with bondage fantasies and visual allusions to male/male intercourse.

In essence, their relationship became a game of gay chicken, a dangerous will-they-won't-they. And I hate gay chicken.

Let me tell you why I hate gay chicken.

By the second season, with Will becoming increasingly violent, the Rubicon of murder and cannibalism is behind the audience entirely. He killed, rendered, and ate Randall Tier to endear himself to Hannibal. With soft, romantic music swelling in the background of their dinner scene, no less. He also viciously attacked Freddie Lounds on-screen under the guise of this same ploy. An attack which, while justified by the plot, left the audience with the same, beastly image of Will Graham as a man who dragged women by their hair through the snow and jokingly called them pigs before eating them (as was implied).

Even as he murdered, cannibalized, and attacked people on-screen, Will was redeemed in the eyes of the audience, and Jack Crawford. By hook or by crook, his sins were washed away, and with them any sense of guilt. While Hannibal was a monster that must be punished, Will could do no real wrong at this point, it seemed, because his actions were always righteous. We could now see that, within the logic of the narrative, the true cosmic threat to Will Graham’s perceived purity wasn’t the horrors of violent cannibalism, but falling in love with Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal’s affections were the existential umbrage that could drive Will beyond the pale.

By the show’s own logic, Hannibal Lecter is Gay Dracula: a malignant invading force that perverts and consumes Will, tearing him from Jack’s forgiving acceptance. Will Graham is not the intrepid Mina Harker that Jack groomed him to be, whose dogged adherence to purity and social convention ensured Dracula’s defeat. Instead, Will is Lucy Westenra: something made monstrous, seduced by darkness, that couldn’t be allowed to survive upon transformation.

All of which is fine, by the way. I take no issue with a good, old-fashioned, hero-goes-dark-side narrative. In fact, that’s the kind of melodramatic nonsense I love. However, I do have some bones to pick with the legacy of queer and queer-coded monsters, especially in this franchise, but that’s another essay entirely. In this case, my problem is the uneven approach, and the context of Fuller calling it homoerotic subversion. My problem is Hannibal having sexual a relationship with Alana Bloom and the narrative never treating it with same admonishment. My problem is shrugging off cannibalism in favor of casting queer love as the ultimate source of terror that Will must be saved from.

Queer love as threat, but defanged of its power. Queer love as an empty gun, because Will won’t ever really succumb. Will Graham will dance with that most fraught of devils, but he won’t give into temptation.

Because you can most certainly frame Hannibal-as-show as a deep-dive into Will’s struggle to accept his changing sexual identity. In retrospect, I can see why that’s such a compelling read by fans of the show. Beat-by-beat, the story plays out as a moody, doomed romance - right up until it doesn’t. Therein lies the problem, dream logic, aesthetics, and melodramatic nonsense aside. This is either a relationship, or we’re here having a good time subverting audience expectations. Either Hannibal Lecter is indeed Gay Dracula and Will Graham is Lucy Westenra, or, as Mads Mikkelsen (god bless him) kept insisting while everybody casually joked about homoerotic subtext in interviews, this is a goddamn love story.

(Note: Yes, I am well-aware that since the show’s cancellation, Fuller has been very open on Twitter and at conventions about Will and Hannibal being in a canon relationship, should the show have continued. That’s fine. I’m not calling his statements into question, and I honestly have nothing but respect for Fuller and his body of work. However, as a fan of horror, a writer of horror, and a queer woman, I’m allowed to be critical of the media I engage with.)

Finally, however, upon this viewing, something changed in the context. Finally. this was the passionate, terrible, bloody love story between two men doomed to each other that I knew was present somewhere in the text. Queer men in love, who called it love, even as they carved a hole in the world amid the grand tragedy of it. They were in love, and their love was portrayed as an affirmation rather than a threat, violent though it was. After all, they were still beasts. Wrought from the same awful black stuff that made predators, hiding fangs too sharp to be trusted among things as killable as people.

And even Alana Bloom and Margot Verger were a couple! Not all the queer people were monsters! They could even get married and have babies like everybody else! Would you look at that!

By the time Will and Hannibal were in the Uffizi, seated before Botticelli’s Primavera and contemplating the certainty of their assured destruction, I was breathless. That Sunday night, as I finished the entire series in a single ill-advised marathon, they went over the cliff together, and it was done. Then I ran the last twenty minutes of the episode back and watched it again, to be sure that I had seen it.

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