by Ami Sanghvi.
Behold the greatest central thesis for an assessment of The Picture of Dorian Gray you’ll ever read in your life:
Dorian is a femboy.
Yes, you read that correctly. Oscar Wilde fans, people who dye their hair a different color every week, and my fellow darling queer folks—rejoice! 婕 Venus Cohen’s “Dorian Dyes His Hair” is a poem that not only officially exists in a world that quite desperately needs it, but also serves to dismantle the heteronormativity forced upon the troubled yet famously glamorous queer-coded protagonist of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Here, Cohen examines the Victorian literary classic under a far more queer-focused lens and draws the story’s corresponding implications directly to the surface.
Dumb and witless, between his ears? Air!
Shelf-stable trophy boy,
Dorian poses, blonde,
“Floodlit, the glossy kiss-pit”
Those of you who have read the novel know that Dorian Gray is aesthetically lovely. He is a man so conventionally beautiful that societal stereotypes demand he be entirely devoid of original thought and any indication of intellectual prowess—in other words, a “bimbo.” Consequently, other men in The Picture of Dorian Gray recognize how pretty Dorian is and, in true patriarchal fashion, proceed to objectify him.
In the book, the painter of the famous portrait of Dorian, Basil Hallward, and his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, are both essentially obsessed with Dorian’s beauty in a way that can honestly only be described as deeply homoerotic. Of course, as readers existing in a suffocatingly heteronormative society, we’re supposed to deny this and assume that there is no blatant queerness to this otherwise curious dynamic Wilde has created. Cohen, however, simply isn’t having it.
Pretty Dorian was wanted, once.
Odalisque, posing, crafted by the hand of Basil
Consumed by the arms of Lord Henry.
Dorian the pretty.
Shortly after locking in this brilliant foundation of the poem, Cohen blatantly slaps the soul of it out onto the page in a way that is so effective it smacks, shocks, and stings you all in the same instant.
How heterosexual can we warp Dorian?
Read that line. Now, read it again. The key word here isn’t heterosexual—it’s warp. That, right there, is the essence of the primary violence inflicted not only upon Dorian Gray, but also queer and trans folk everywhere, every day. This is the atrocity of warping.
Just in case this line didn’t pack enough of a punch (even though it totally did), Cohen then proceeds to follow it up with other, equally agonizing, warp-adjacent phrases. Still, they’re nowhere near finished. By the bottom of the first page, Cohen has already established their momentum. By the top of the second, they are fearlessly wielding it.
Several back-and-forth lines greet us here, shining light on the traditionally feminine nature of Dorian’s beauty. This is a moment of sheer loveliness in the poem, made terribly melancholy only by the shadow heteronormativity insists on casting upon it and, in turn, the subjugated character of Dorian Gray. This description of him, highlighted strategically by Cohen, quickly becomes overwhelmingly but necessarily tragic in the context of this poem. It not only speaks to the devastating reality we all live in, but proceeds to instil fury in its readers for all the suffering this patriarchally heteronormative society causes those who fail to adhere to its unrelentingly cruel constraints.
In this poem, Cohen sandwiches their description of Dorian’s beauty between poetic illustrations of his treatment by those in the novel and bold statements encompassing his treatment by real life readers of the same book. This device swiftly releases Dorian’s tormented character from its purely fictional confines and spits him out into our equally twisted world. Immediately, we recognize that the queer, gender nonconforming Dorian is one of us in a way we potentially never did before. And, as if predicting the reader’s likely sudden realization of how Dorian’s dilemma fits into the reality of our modern-day existence, and the sickening rage we feel upon its impact, Cohen skillfully verbalizes that which, in this moment of raw, unbridled emotion for the reader, suddenly feels impossible to articulate.
How meta, that society has created the Dorian
That Dorian spent all 80,000 words escaping from
Older, wittier, chiseled, tall, dark, handsome--
Enforcers of heterosexual complacency!
If you ever want to experience a writer and a reader melding into a single blob of sheer, antiestablishment fury, look no further than this absolute masterpiece of a poem—signed off on by no other than what appears to be Wilde’s formidable ghost himself.