Category Archives: Queer Culture

Weekly Rant: On Queer Progress, Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote about the dangers of downplaying all of the progress that we have made in the fifty year since Stonewall. As I noted, queer people now enjoy unprecedented legal, political, and cultural representation. Companies now court us openly, popular culture shows us ourselves (in some forms, at least), and politicians talk about us on national stages (and one of us is actually running for president!) While this is a mixed blessing, it is nevertheless a sign of just how far we have come, and how powerful the campaign for visibility has been.

Now, I’d like to talk about the flip side of that equation, about just how endangered we are, and how fragile are the gains that we have made. There is no question that now, in the era of men like Donald Trump and Mike Pence, that queer people are in increased danger. For many, it is literally a matter of life and death.

Since I wrote that earlier piece, I’ve come to NYC for the celebration of World Pride and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. While wandering through the exhibitions of Stonewall at the New York Public Library and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, I was struck by the power of what I was seeing. These were the people who sacrificed a great deal, who fought tooth and nail for their equal rights, and I was sometimes moved to tears at the bravery that it took for them to do so.

What really stood out to me, however, was how very quickly the clock seems to be turning back, how the the hard work that those brave people put in is being jettisoned. For make no mistake, it is as bad as you’ve been to believe, if not worse.

We now live in a world where, according to recent polls, people are increasingly willing to express their distaste for queer people. A new Harris poll, for example, showed that even among millennials a startling number of people would be uncomfortable learning that a family member of teacher was LGBTQ. Another recent poll by the PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) revealed a staggering number of people were willing to accept that small business owners should be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people if doing so was in accordance with their religious beliefs. If we thought that the arc of justice bends inexorably toward justice, and if we thought that we had won the war of public opinion, we were very much mistaken. There is much work that we have to do if we do not want to lose the progress that we have made in terms of public acceptance.

We now live in a world where a tragic number of LGBTQ+ youths seriously consider suicide. What kind of country are we building if so many of our young people no longer consider their lives worth living? How can we live with ourselves, if we know that our queer children see no place for them?

We now live in a world where trans women of color are murdered at a truly alarming rate. The fact that this isn’t cause for outrage, that we are not out in the streets every day demanding justice for these women, says something very depressing about how we, as a collective, devalue their lives. People are dying, and it is incumbent on each and every one of us to not only remember their names, but to fight for justice.

We now live in a world where the Supreme Court of the United States, which granted queer people the right to marry, is in control of the conservatives and where one of them has publicly hinted that he thinks that Obergefell should be overturned. Given the fact that the Trump administration–aided and abetted by Mitch McConnell–has radically reshaped the federal judiciary, and given the unrelenting assault that Republicans across the country have lodged in an attempt to undercut marriage equality (to say nothing of access to reproductive care), it is not hard to imagine a future in which same-sex marriage is once again a state issue. In fact, though it might be a bit alarmist, it’s not hard to imagine a resurgent far-right movement attempting to codify their anti-LGBTQ+ animus in law.

So, what’s to be done?

2020 is hurtling toward us like a freight train. If all of us–old and young, queer and straight, moderate and radical–join together to cast out this crop of Republicans who have done so much to turn back the clock. For make no mistake. If Donald Trump wins again in 2020, and if the Republicans maintain their control of the Senate (to say nothing of state legislatures and governorships and the House), we could very well see the complete and total unraveling of everything that we have worked so hard to gain. And if you are foolish enough to think that things can’t get any worse, let me assure you that they most definitely can. When Trumpers scream “Make America Great Again!” they mean nothing less than that they want to see us shoved in the closet. Or, in the darkest scenarios, obliterated entirely.

Fifty years after Stonewall, we have much to be proud of, but there is much that we have yet to do. The most vulnerable among us are daily battered by the awareness that the state and our culture are gradually turning against them, and it is up to those of us who occupy positions of privilege to continue speaking out on behalf of those who do not have that privilege.

However, as I stood outside the Stonewall Inn tonight, on the fiftieth anniversary of that momentous event, I was overcome with feelings: of hope, of joy, and of fierce pride in what we’ve done and what we can do. These are dark days, and we shouldn’t hide from that, but we can bring light back into the world. We must always remember that we are powerful, and we can do anything.

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Weekly Rant: On Queer Progress

Look, queers, we need to have a talk.

When Taylor Swift’s new music video dropped, I only heard about it tangentially at first, mostly because I’m not a huge fan of her pop music (I know, I know, I’m a monster). However, then I watched it, and I found myself caught up in its utopian delights, with its queer stars, its addictive rhythm, and its vivid colors. And, of course, there was the note at the end encouraging viewers to petition the Senate to pass pro-LGBTQ+ legislation.

There were, of course, the explosion of think pieces taking down Swift for any one of the following: appropriation, shallowness, false pretenses, etc., etc., etc. For many, it was far too simplistic, and to see it as some sort of mark of progress for queer people–or, for that matter, to celebrate Swift’s embrace of her queer fandom. To many, it was just another way that popular culture had appropriated and misused queer identity.

To my mind, the logic underpinning these critiques is flawed for two reasons: one, it’s a music video. By a pop star. OBVIOUSLY it isn’t going to be some masterful polemic. Two, and more importantly, it’s followed by a call to political action. While, of course, it’s unclear just how effective that might be, it seems to me that Swift deserves at least a little bit of credit for encouraging her listener’s to become more politically engaged (considering how young those listeners are, and how many of them there are, this seems to me to be very important).

This takedown of Swift is, of course, part of a broader trend within certain circles of queer left activism that I find troubling for both philosophical and political reasons. There are some who find the recent inclusion of queer people into capitalism and the military (as well as other facets of mainstream progress) a problem because it buys into the system rather than overthrows it (to be replaced with…IDK. Nor do I know how, exactly, such an overthrow would take place).

However valid those criticisms are, to my mind they obscure the progress that has been made and how meaningful that progress is, especially for young queer people. I think it’s a good thing that, in some places, the police are actively embracing the queer community (I, for one, would rather have them on our side than against us). And sure, one can be cynical about the ways in which corporations are now cashing in on Pride Month, but again, I would much rather have them in our corner than otherwise (I also love rainbow swag, but I digress). These things are cultural capital, and it matters that we’ve accrued them.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is a lot of room for reform in the world of policing, and I am not by any stretch of the imagination a military apologist. However, I am not in favor of abolishing the police, nor do I think we gain much by relentlessly vilifying them even when they are doing the things that they are supposed to be doing and acting in good faith. To do so, I would argue, de-incentivizes such groups from helping us when we need it most. Why should they feel the motivation to help us in our times of need when we are so intent on demonizing them even when they don’t deserve it?

I would argue that it is more important now than ever to make sure that those who have power (both real and symbolic) understand and embrace our struggles. Every victory we win makes it easier to continue advocating for the bigger goals that we have. The more the mainstream grows comfortable with various aspects of queer identity–even if that’s just seeing rainbows in a store window–the safer and better our lives become.

Nor is this take-down phenomenon limited to the specifically queer left. We have seen time and time again how politicians who, after deep reflection and after processing input from their constituents, have changed their stance on issues only to be reprimanded for doing so. Hillary Clinton Barack Obama, Joe Biden…all of them changed their tune on LGBTQ+ issues for the better, and they were often criticized for doing so. Because, of course, in this hyper-partisan, puritanical and deeply, pathologically cynical age, anything that smacks of flip-flopping or political expediency must in fact be a sign of some inner moral turpitude and is grounds for expulsion from the herd.

Again, this begs the question: why should we expect our elected representatives to change their positions based on our wishes if, when they do, we then reprimand them for doing the exact thing we supposedly wanted them to do? Obviously, we must continue to hold them accountable, to remind them who it is that they serve, but it also bears repeating that we definitely hurt our chances of politicians taking our needs seriously if we insist on scourging them even when they do the things that we ask them to do. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how anyone thinks that this is a winning strategy.

I suppose the takeaway from all of this is that, as few who know me will be surprised to learn, I’m a radical in philosophy but a moderate in practice. That’s because I accept the reality that, whether I like it or not (and I don’t), there are a myriad of people in this vast country whose views about these issues don’t align directly with my own. Having come to that realization some time ago, I now recognize that, if we really want progressive policies to move ahead in this country, we have got to learn how to talk to people who don’t agree with us. We must remember that, for many people, marriage is fulfilling. For many people, serving in the military is a means of financial survival or a genuine act of patriotism (or both). For many people, seeing Pride merchandise is a reminder of just how far we’ve come.

If I could go back in time to a scared 13-year-old T.J., who scoured the world of popular culture for signs of queer existence, who despaired of politicians ever openly declaring their support for LGBTQ+ (let alone seeing an openly-gay presidential candidate!), who wanted to know that it was okay to be who he was, I’d tell him to that yes, it does indeed get better.

I hope that young queer people coming of age today realize how fortunate they are, and I hope that the world continues its march toward progress and equality.

Searching for Studio Style in Contemporary Gay Porn

Regular readers of this blog probably know that I have a longstanding interest in gay porn. Obviously, like many gay men, I have a libidinal interest in watching it (a lot of it is quite hot), but as a scholar of film and queer theory, my interest in it is also an intellectual one (it’s fascinating how porn reveals so much about who we are and how we think about and feel desire). And, if I’m being completely honest, my posts about porn have been some of my most popular, so why not continue writing about it?

There are many things that I find endlessly fascinating (and, ahem, stimulating) about porn: the erotic component, the ways in which audiences engage with it (particularly in the era of social media), the star system it employs, its methods of distribution. Most importantly for this particular blog post (and the ones to follow), however, is the question of “style.” Now, it might seem counterintuitive to use a word like “style” with a genre like gay porn. After all, to many people, even academics, porn as an object of study exists somewhat beyond the pale of respectable company. To think about something like style would, I think, be to challenge the codes of taste that still govern how we think about pornography, elevating it to a position that perhaps doesn’t deserve.

I would like to suggest, however, that by focusing on the particular styles of various gay porn studios we can learn a great deal about the types of pleasures that they aim to offer their viewers. Given how central gay porn is to many gay men’s experience of the world, to say nothing of how they learn about sex, it seems to me especially important to understand the ways in which they do so. Like the classic Hollywood studios of old, today’s porn studios are very much in the business of cultivating, and catering to, specific tastes among their various audiences. And, as with classic Hollywood, one can get a strong sense of the way a studio views the world, as well as the ways in which they encourage their consumers to do the same.

In a subsequent series of posts, I plan to spotlight several of the gay porn studios that I most frequently watch. Some potential subjects will be TimTales, Sean Cody, Corbin Fisher, GuysInSweatpants, Helix, and RawStrokes (yes, these are all real names of porn studios). Though I have a preference for those “minor” studios that have come up in the last ten years or so to challenge the hegemony of their titanic predecessors, I will, I think, also be focusing on some of the heavy hitters in the industry, if only because they provide such a marked contrast to their newer counterparts.

Each post will focus on the “house style” of a studio. They will focus on issues like cinematography (strange as it seems, most studios can be identified simply by looking at their camerawork), their stars or star types (indeed, the type of model they employ is frequently one major way in which studios differentiate themselves), and the type of sex they focus on (also a significant marker of brand differentiation). Doing so will, I hope, shed some much-needed light on the crucial differences (and similarities) between and among these purveyors of desire.

Queer Awakenings: Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles”

Once upon a time, there was a queer boy in West Virginia who thirsted for a piece of fiction that captured in words his own sense of alienation, his experience of loving others who could never return his affections. Who thirsted, as it were, for something he couldn’t quite articulate in words.

Then he discovered the author Anne Rice–the reigning queen erotic horror–and his entire life was changed. Suddenly he was inundated with a world of blood-drinking creatures that loved and hated one another, a world of salty flesh, gushing blood, and the perilous tides of sexual desire.

Perhaps I hyperbolize a bit, but it is true that Anne Rice’s work was really influential for me at a key stage of my development as a queer person, something that has really come home to me as I’ve started re-reading her books after over a decade away.

When I first dipped into Rice’s work, I actually began with The Mummy. Growing up in a small town with not a lot of exposure to queer culture (let alone queer literature), I saw in this book an explicit depiction of same-sex desire that was like a glimmer of light. It helped that Rice is a genuinely good writer, her books full of a lush, decadent prose that really spoke to me. I’m not sure what possessed me, then, but I decided that I wanted to read some of this author’s other work, to see what all the fuss was about.

Though I had really liked The Mummy and its queer characters, it was only when I read The Vampire Armand, however, that I really began to see in Rice’s books an articulation of my own queer desires and feelings that I had never even knew I needed. There was something about the tortured, melancholy vampire with the face of a Botticelli angel that seemed to call to me, something about the ways in which he moved through the world–so tormented, so agonized, so alienated–echoed my own experience as a queer person growing up in Appalachia.

Weirdly enough, I decided, after finishing Armand, to go on to read The Vampire Lestat. If Armand resonated with my own moody, self-indulgent impulses, then Lestat was the brat prince that I wanted to be. Lestat lived and loved in an open way that was everything I knew I couldn’t be (at least, not until much later in my life). Sure he was selfish and conceited and hopelessly irresponsible–and, to be honest, I was none of those things, at least not to the same degree as Lestat–but those were exactly the things that made him so appealing to me as a closeted queer teenager.

By the time I came to Interview with the Vampire, I found Louis quite tedious, though as I re-read it recently I did see something of myself in Louis, and indeed in the vampires as a whole, who have such a unique perspective on the nature of time. Though they are creatures condemned to live until the end of the world–or until they meet some rather unsavoury fate–vampires are surprisingly aware of the passing of time, of the burden of temporality. As most of you no doubt know, I’m a little obsessed at times with the pressures of mortality, so it’s small wonder that I’d see more than a little of myself in Rice’s most tormented immortal.

As philosophically rich as Rice’s vampires are, it’s really their desires that have been their chief appeal to me. Somehow, through language, Rice has managed to capture the complexities, the agonies, and the ecstasies of desire. Sure, her creations are immortal vampires, but the things they want and crave–intimacy, the loss of identity in the body of another–are the things that many of us secretly want. Her brilliance is in being able to capture these within words, to take us into a world that we never knew existed.

Or am I projecting a bit?

Of course, it helps that so many of Rice’s vampires are explicitly attracted to those of the same sex. Though they don’t have sex in the same way as their human counterparts, they nevertheless feel the inexorable pull of sexual passion. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that no author in the modern era is as able to capture the exquisite pain of sex better than Rice. Vampires such as Lestat, Armand, Louis, Marius and the rest are constantly caught in the pull between their desire for eternal companionship and the inevitable bitterness and envy that tears them apart.

These days, it’s hard not to read Rice’s work through the lens of camp, and not always the queer kind. The explosion of trashy vampire fiction in the last 20 years or so–much of it pale imitations of the glories that Rice attained–have unfortunately stained her legacy. It’s important to remember, though, that there was a time when vampires actually meant something. Somehow, Anne Rice managed to take this staple of horror film and render it into something achingly beautiful.

Now, almost 20 years after I began my first foray into the decadent and erotic world of Anne Rice, I’ve decided to return to it. There are now rumours that, once again, The Vampire Chronicles will be adapted for the screen, though this time it will be on television. I’m hoping that, since the series is being made for Hulu, that they can give Rice’s work the rich adaptation that it deserves. After the absolute trainwreck that was Queen of the Damned, anything would be preferable.

If this new adaptation reaches its potential, however, it stands a good chance of introducing these amazing books to a whole new generation of queer viewers. Sure, things are certainly better when it comes to popular culture and queerness (sort of, anyway), but there is still a lot of room for the sort of subversive, lush, sensual type of eroticism that Rice manages to capture.

As always, I’m optimistic. Let’s just hope that Hulu doesn’t let me down.

It Ain’t Easy to be a Bottom in Porn

If you spend just a little bit of time poking about the comment threads on porn sites, you’ll learn something pretty quickly: no one likes a bottom. In fact, the bottom in many gay porn videos is sure to become, sooner or later, the object of scorn and ridicule, the abject that has to be cast out of the collective gay male conscious (as epitomized by the online community) in order for that community to still pride itself on its masculine credentials.

This might seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, it takes both a top and a bottom to make porn work, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the message boards. Any time a particular model or individual starts to stake out some territory as primarily a bottom, the comments begin. “Throwing a hot dog down a hallway,” “is there anyone he hasn’t fucked?,” “I wonder how much adult diapers cost?” and so on. It’s really quite insidious at some points, to such a degree that one comes to wonder why it is that people watch porn at all, or why the stars themselves would continue to offer themselves up for the derision of others (besides, of course, the obvious inducement of money). You would also be led to wonder why it is that people bother watching gay porn if all they are going to do is complain about someone having too much sex.

However, it’s not all that unexpected to see so much vitriol poured on the bottoms in gay porn. After all, if pornography is a form of spectatorial fantasy and if, likewise, it is a reflection of the social milieu that produces it, it only makes sense that people would find the bottoms in gay porn to be both the object of desire and derision. When it comes to the food chain in the world of gay men, bottoms frequently occupy the lowest rung, the subject of scorn and often pity. There is a bit of a joke among us queer men that a top that shows up on Grindr is guaranteed a success rate, since bottoms on most dating sites are seemingly a dime a dozen. Another joke is that, once you get on Grindr, you basically have to switch from bottom to versatile if you hope to get laid. It’s something of a myth, but even the most far-fetched myths have more than a bit of truth to them.

Queer theorists from Leo Bersani to David Halperin have remarked on the ambivalent relationship that many gay men have to the sex act that makes them, well, gay. It’s all well and good, in the logic of many, to be a top, for that is behaving like a man. Being all masculine and sticking your dick into things is par for the course for the average man. To be a bottom is, as everyone knows, something of a necessary evil, but it’s hardly something that one should seek out. And if you do, you had best be sure that at least your gender performance matches up with the perceived ideals of male behaviour, even if your position in the boudoir does not. No one likes a flaming faggy queen, after all (one need look no further than the many profiles that say something about “masc seeking masc” or “regular guy seeks same” or “looking for a workout buddy” to see what I mean). And heaven forbid you like musicals, or handbags, or anything else that smacks of acting like a woman.

To embrace one’s identity as a bottom in the world of gay porn is to embrace that abject position, the penetrated. It’s one thing if you are able to evince displeasure at doing it (see also: all the “Gay for Pay” actors out there who look like every moment of gay sex is an agony). But if you dare to show that you enjoy it, and if you spend a lot of time bottoming in front of the camera, then you have unforgivably and irrevocably surrendered your male card. Do not pass go, do not collect $200; you’re going straight to the adult diapers section (and can we talk about the infantilizing rhetoric for a minute. Seriously. There is little to no evidence that lots of sex, sex with big dicks, and even fisting leads to incontinence. This is just another example of gay men internalizing the pernicious logic of homophobia).

(An amusing, if irritating aside: some time ago, a friend of mine remarked that men only bottomed out of service to their partner, not because it actually felt good. At the time I was still a virgin, and I felt this clawing fear that maybe my friend was right. Maybe I was fated to never enjoy sex as a bottom! Naturally, that proved to not be the case, and I very much embrace my identity as a bottom. I tell this story because it reflects the misunderstanding that there is something shameful, painful, and/or innately more disgusting about anal sex. Let’s be real. Penetrative sex is a rather disgusting act in all of its forms, but there is much pleasure to be had, so we should let go of our hangups and not force our own assumptions on other’s behaviours).

And of course it goes without saying that porn bottoms who dare to do the unthinkable and get into topping are setting themselves up for all sorts of vitriol and dismissal. After all, how could na avowed bottom, one who is good at what he does, possibly be…versatile? It’s almost as if people are something more than just the positions that they occupy in the bedroom. There are boat loads of specific examples I could cite that have been subjected to this sort of scrutiny, but among the most prominent are Johnny Rapid (a very prolific performer who never fails to draw the ire of many commenters, despite his twinkish beauty and reasonably good performances), Armond Rizzo (don’t get me started on the number of jokes that have been made about his sphincter), and Travis of Corbin Fisher (everyone loves to hate on him when he attempts to top). Unless you’re very very lucky in gay porn world, once you become a bottom, you’re basically a bottom for the rest of your professional life. I mean, you can try to switch off and on, but chances are you’ll be met with hostility.

All of this is not to say that the tops in gay porn don’t come in for their share of criticism from the “fans.” For tops, though, the question involves less shame and more impatience if they refuse to bottom, or if they do that they don’t enjoy it, or that they can’t keep a hard-on. It is only the last of these complaints that’s truly comparable to the sort of shame that’s loaded onto the bottoms in gay porn, who are made to be the scapegoats (in the classical sense) for all of the shame that gay men seem to collectively feel for their desire to bottom.

I would go so far as to suggest that it is precisely this collective shame that explains why so many commenters on message boards reserve their greatest vitriol for bottoms. If, as Leo Bersani said some time ago, there is a certain suicidal ecstasy of embracing the role of the penetrated, then there is also a deep and almost frenzied fear of that position. Small wonder that that so many gay men continue to project that shame and sense of collective abjection onto those who most visibly and publicly give in to that suicidal ecstasy. The fact that a similar discourse does not (and perhaps cannot) surround the prominent tops in gay porn suggests, to me at least, that it is the innate vulnerability of the bottoms that render them so prone to this sort of dismissal.

As a bottom myself, I find all of this tremendously frustrating and hypocritical, just as I find it infuriating to see so many gay men disavow any traces of femininity. Heaven forbid, after all, that we show any trace of anything that doesn’t fit into the dominant model of hegemonic masculinity, that we embrace a certain measure of vulnerability. And perish the thought that we try to think outside of the box that automatically equates bottoming with passivity or misery or try to find other ways of thinking about the sexual positions we occupy.

What’s to be done about all of this, you’re probably asking right about now? Well, to start with, gay men can get over their fixation with appropriate gender behaviour. Dispense with the “straight acting” gay bullshit. It’s so 2004. We can also stop projecting our anxiety about our own sex positions onto porn performers. There are already enough problems in the world, without unloading them onto men who are, when all is said and done, just trying to make a living.

And, finally, in porn as in sex, sometimes we just need to relax, enjoy the ride, and embrace the pleasure.

Dissertation Days (17): Headaches

Much as it pains me to admit it, this has not been a very productive day on any front. I managed to eke out some progress on Chapter 3, though I did nothing at all on Chapter 4. I had a bit of a pet emergency (Beast, my kitty, had an asthma flare, so a large part of the day has been spent fretting over here; she’s doing much better, thankfully). I also developed a splitting headache, so that ruled out a lot of work progress this evening.

Still, I did manage to do some copy and paste from earlier drafts of the chapter, so the section on queerness, Nero, and Quo Vadis is starting to slowly take shape in a coherent form. I’m still struggling to bring together the strands of queerness, colour, and the terrifying nature of history, but I think I have the avenue I need.

I’m trying to avoid a huge theory info-dump right in the middle of the discussion. I think I’m going to have to just winnow out any theoretical references that aren’t directly relevant to what I’m doing, and relegate the others to a footnote. I also have to find a way to bring together my discussions of queer theory in general and the queer film theorists that I’m also working with.

I think that I need to focus on just the queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton and her notion of the queer child and Lee Edelman’s notion of jouissance and the death drive. Now, if I can only make sure that they mesh with both my arguments about chromatic history, I think I’ll have something significant to say about how this film imagines history (I also have to make sure that it fits in with the preceding discussion of S&D and D&B). Lots of balls in the air. I do like a challenge.

Sigh.

Unfortunately, more work is probably not in the offing tomorrow, as I have more family obligations. Sometime, probably early next week, I should be able to get back into something of my normal groove.

Until then, I fear that the installments of Dissertation Days will be as sporadic as the actual progress I’ll be making on my chapters. Still, I’m going to carve out each piece as I can, and that will have to be good enough for now.

In my book, any progress is good progress.

Dissertation Days (13): Breakthroughs

Somehow, it seems that revision and incremental writing seems to take so much more energy and time than producing new material. It’s one of the bitter ironies of writing a new chapter draft. As a result, it took me several hours to work my way through a mere few pages, but luckily I had some substantial breakthroughs.

This came about as I was finishing the section on queerness and communist subversiveness. It actually provided me with the final piece of the puzzle that I needed, so that I can finally make a compelling and (I hope) original point about the way in which Nero’s queerness in Quo Vadis works as an expression of the pleasure of terrifying history. There’s nothing like a bit of collective queer fantasy to encounter the ineffable nature of history, am I right?

Still, despite the fact that today was a bit of a slog, I made good progress today. The queer section is pretty much done in its broad contours, and the same is also true of the section on colour. A little more fine-tuning might be needed to make sure that that section is ready for submission, but overall I think it does the work that it needs to do.

Since this is a pretty large and complex chapter, I’ve found that I’ve had to use a bit more signposting than I usually do, just to make sure that the reader is able to follow my logic and understand why I’m including the evidence that I do. It does pad out the chapter, but I personally think it’s helpful to have those rhetorical bits when you’re dealing with a 40-50 page piece of academic writing.

I’m quite happy with the way that this day turned out, really. The queer section was a hot mess this morning, and now it feels like it actually works in the chapter as a whole. Not too bad, if I do say so myself. Now I don’t actually feel bad about not doing any work tomorrow.

Yes, you read that right. I am indeed taking off tomorrow. Then it’s back to work on Monday to finish up the close reading sections of both Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba. Once those two sections are done, the home stretch will finally be in sight. What a glorious feeling.

It’s going to be a great day. I can feel it.

TV Review: “Feud”–“Abandoned!”

I’m running a bit late with the reviews of FX’s Feud, so in the interest of giving the finale the appreciation it deserves, I’ll have to make this one a bit abbreviated.

I thought this episode, as a whole, was a fitting lead-up to the finale, in that we see the toll that this whole set of affairs has begun to take on both women. Joan falls deeper into a form of self-pity that eventually becomes destructive, while Bette has to contend with the fact that her daughter has begun to see her as truly the worst sort of mother.

Lange is one of those truly extraordinary actresses who can combine, in one scene, a mixture of vulnerability and strength. Whether that is how the real Joan Crawford would have acted is for me somewhat beside the point. When she confronts Bette after being left behind during filming, one can sense in Lange’s performance that powerful sense that she has endured so much at the hands of a system that really couldn’t care less about her. However, her great strength is also her greatest weakness, for she is prone to seeing sinister motivations, even where none exist. And as the last scene reveals–in which Joan is left screaming in a hospital room, abandoned by both the film studio and by Mamacita–Joan winds up being the worst victim of her own machinations.

The bitter irony of the entire ugly affair, of course, is that each actress possesses the thing that the other desires most. Bette has all of the acting power, the acknowledgment from all of her peers and from the establishment that she is one of the greatest craftspeople to grace the screen. Joan, however, is already acknowledged as the more powerful star and the greater beauty. Each, in a tense exchange, recognizes a piece of herself in the other, and they also acknowledge, in their gestures and their performance, the enormous weight of Hollywood history that weighs on them and on their present relationship. They are both victims of the system, and the real tragedy is that they don’t really have a meaningful way of communicating that to one another.

On a bit of a random note, I’m still not quite sure what to make of B.D. I can’t tell if I’m annoyed by her because the actress is terrible (which I think might be true), or is it a reflection of the fact that the real B.D. was also pretty awful? Maybe, on reflection, it’s a bit of Column A and a bit of Column B. It might even be the unique combination of the two that makes her such an utterly unappealing and insufferable character. However, it’s also worth pointing out that she has a lot to complain about. True, we’re meant to identify with and align ourselves with Bette, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that she really is something of a tyrant–even if she is a benevolent one–to her daughter.

I want to close out with a brief discussion of the best line of the episode (and possibly the series): When Olivia is asked by the interviewer whether she felt that she had ended Joan’s career by taking her place on Charlotte, she responds that no, “Time did that. All on its own.” Wow. If ever a line will go down in the annals of bitchy invective infamy, it will be this one. It comes out of the mouth of Olivia, of course, who has her own subtextual feud with her sister Joan Fontaine. Despite its venom, there is a note of truth to it, one that Olivia was also in a position to recognize in the 1970s.

For all of its flaws, Feud does make clear that time, inexorable, destructive, crushing, is truly the enemy of us all.

Queer Classics: “Moonlight” (2016)

After waiting impatiently for several weeks for Moonlight to make its way to Syracuse, it finally arrived, and I have to say:  this is one hell of a film. Though it was not what I expected, that does not mean that I didn’t enjoy it. Indeed, it’s probably the best film that I’ve seen this year (as cliché as that sounds).

A meditative and aesthetically sophisticated film such as this one is notoriously difficult to summarize in terms of plot, but in broad strokes it is a coming-of-age story told in three parts. Each segment of the film opens with a simple word:  Little, Chiron, Black, each representing a stage in the main character’s evolution. Throughout, he has to contend with the broken relationships that characterize his life, from his drug-addled mother Paula to his love interest and childhood companion Kevin. Throughout, he seems to struggle with a profound sense of alienation and isolation from the world around him, though he does experience brief moments of genuine human warmth, particularly when he meets Teresa and Juan (Janelle Monáe and the inimitable Mahershala Ali, respectively), who provide him some measure of stability and genuine human caring.

This is a profoundly intimate film, both in terms of its narrative–which remains wedded to Chiron’s perspective throughout–but also in terms of its cinematography. The camera remains sometimes perilously close to its principals, wedding us to their perspective in a sometimes physically unsettling intimacy. It’s not so much that the spectator necessarily feels that they are necessarily there; instead, it’s a feeling of being physically connected to the characters.

Thus, it is precisely this visceral closeness that allows us as viewers to get a sense of how important touch is to Chiron’s sense of himself. It is through his body that Chiron manages to escape his profound sense of loneliness and alienation. The film also pays particular attention to fluid, and there are two scenes in which semen plays a prominent role, and each time the camera pays attention to the contact between the body and the fluid, a surprisingly sensuous (and not prurient) attention to the powerfully erotic pleasures of the flesh.

It is through his body that Chiron–chronically silent and taciturn–manages to express himself. Indeed, it is precisely touch that gives him his one truly meaningful and intense connection with another person, when he and Kevin share an erotic experience on the beach. Unfortunately, the flip side of that dynamic is that Kevin is later manipulated by schoolyard bullies into beating up his erstwhile friend, a bitter experience that deeply scars both young men. However, there is no question that it is Chiron who bears the deepest psychological wounds, scarred both by his friend’s betrayal and by his mother’s obvious homophobia.

As Black, he appears muscle-bound and gruff, and the film makes it clear that this emphasis on increasing his bodily mass and strength are his responses to his troubling youth and to the impotence he felt throughout those formative years. Tormented by those around him for his perceived queerness, he has turned to using his body as a shield against a world that seems determined to crush and beat the “softness” out of him. The camera lingers on his musculature and on his mannerisms, demonstrating again and again that the formerly shy and meek youth who finally broke when betrayed by his friend has transformed into a hardscrabble drug dealer on the streets of Atlanta. Beneath that, though, one can still see glimmers of Little and of Chiron, a yearning for the intimate human connection that he has all-too-infrequently found in his life.

Though the film is, for the most part, deliberately paced, it is punctuated by moments of emotional release and satisfaction, as when Chiron takes a chair and brutally attacks the bully who incited Kevin’s act of violence. It is an intensely satisfying moment (as evidenced by the woman beside me in the theater, who cheered quite loudly at that particular moment). These moments, like their more tender counterparts, enable a feeling of bodily empathy with Chiron, allowing us to experience a similar moment of embodied empowerment, a reclamation of agency that has been consistently denied him.

The performances, of course, are the emotional heart of the film. As any good student of film knows, casting can either make or break even the most well-written of films, and in this case the actors are uniformly excellent. Though it is easy to despise Chiron’s mother Paula for her by turns brutal and manipulative treatment of her only child, Naomie Harris brings a certain tragic pathos to the role, imbuing the character with alternately frantic energy and depthless despair. While she is not the main focus of the narrative, she does nevertheless show her own development as a character, moving from an absent-minded if loving mother to a gradually more abusive and manipulative drug addict. However, even she is not beyond redemption, and the scene in which Black finally has the chance to offer his mother forgiveness is one of the most wrenching in the film.

The three actors who portray Chiron each deserve accolades, for each brings something distinct to the table, allowing us to see the shifts in his perspective as he grows up. Alex Hibbert, who plays Little, is that oh-so-rare gem, a child actor who has genuine depth and complexity. For his part, Ashton Sanders (who plays Chiron’s teenaged self) brings a certain tortured reserve to a youth plagued by his own personal demons, his fledgling desires, and the aimlessly malevolent taunts of many of his classmates.

It is Trevante Rhodes, however, who really steals the show as Black, Chiron’s final iteration. This is, in many ways, the most inscrutable and mysterious of the character’s iterations and for that reason it is the most compelling. All of Chiron’s past traumas seem to roil beneath the surface of clenched exterior. As we learn during his reunion and rapprochement with Kevin (played as an adult by André Holland, who brings a certain frantic, almost desperate, energy to the character), no man (nor anyone else) has touched him since their erotic encounter on the beach. Black is a man who has struggled, and never quite succeeded, in finding a place in an unfeeling world. His eventual physical reunion with Kevin, in which he at last finds physical connection, is a powerful affirmation of his journey to fulfillment.

Moonlight remains a haunting film precisely because it is so piercing in its glimpse into Chiron’s psyche. Growing up a queer of color in America remains a struggle for many, and it is especially acute for men, for whom the burdens of traditional masculinity are sometimes almost too much to bear. Indeed, the screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney has spoken eloquently on those burdens, and his acute sensibilities for the particular struggles faced by black men have found their way into the script and the characters that inhabit this world.

What strikes me the most about the queerness of this film, however, is how unspoken it remains. It writhes beneath the surface of the narrative, a key component of Chiron’s identity, yet one which he rarely explicitly expresses. It emerges in some of the most unlikely moments, as when he has his erotic encounter with Kevin, and when he later dreams about him before their fateful reunion that concludes the film. It is a poignant reminder of how queerness–tender, beautiful, sensuous–can provide meaningful connection and intimacy in even the bleakest and most unfriendly of worlds.

Book Review: “The Sorcerer’s Daughter” (Terry Brooks)

Though I finished Terry Brooks’s most recent book some time ago, I’ve just now got around to writing my review of it. This book, The Sorcerer’s Daughter, focuses on two parallel plots:  one traces the adventure of Leofur, the daughter of the malevolent sorcerer Arcannen, as she attempts to rescue her friend Chrysallin. The other, unsurprisingly, follows Paxon Leah as he attempts to save a Druid delegation pursued by Federation soldiers.

There is much to love about this rather slim, briskly paced novel. Most of the characters are ones that we have met in the previous two novels, but it was quite refreshing to see both Chrysallin and Leofur get their own narrative arcs. Brooks has always excelled at blending together firm characterization with well-laid plots, and The Sorcerer’s Daughter is no exception.

I have been reading Brooks’s work for over twenty years, and even now I’m still astounded at his marvelous ability to conjure spaces and places that are truly, viscerally terrifying. The Murk Sink, the lair of a particularly nasty witch, is one such place. Full of monstrous creatures whose size dwarfs anything that we’ve seen in quite some time (Mr. Teeth is a particularly terrifying creation, precisely because he is such an unpredictable and deadly leviathan). Though this world may be our future, it is a terrifying future, one filled with creatures the likes of which we cannot, at this moment, imagine.

All of this reinforces the sense that the world of the Four Lands continues to exist in an unstable relationship between chaos and order. On the one hand, the possibility of a rapprochement between the Druids and their allies on the one hand and the Federation on the other implies that this world might at last find a measure of peace. On the other, forces such as the sorcerer Arcannen continue to pose a threat to this order, the dark lure of chaos always lurking just around the corner.

What interested me most about the novel, however, was its remarkable queerness. I mean this not only in reference to the same-sex couple that appears (albeit briefly) in the novel, but also to Imric Cort’s experience as a shapeshifter. To me, at least, the inner turmoil that Cort repeatedly faces was the emotional heart of this novel, as he struggles with the sense that he is not who he should be, that he always has to keep a part of himself hidden from the rest of the world. Any queer person (by which I mean LGBTQIA+) knows this experience well. We live in a heteronormative world, and we are always conscious that the way we are exists as the flip side of everything that culture tells is “normal.” In this novel, Brooks manages to capture this sense and while Cort is, strictly speaking, “straight,” his experience is certainly not. Just as importantly, his relationship with Leofur does not “cure” him of his shapeshifting tendency; instead, she is an anchor that allows him to be who he is without guilt or self-hatred. It really is a stunningly beautiful relationship that Brooks has crafted here, perhaps one of the most emotionally resonant and complex that he has ever created.

If I have one complaint about Brooks’s latest outing, it’s that I wish there were more of it. In this concluding novel of this informal trilogy he has given us a satisfactory conclusion to a number of the ongoing trials of Paxon, but the ending is bittersweet. I actually find it rather refreshing that Brooks avoided the easier path of a happy romantic ending for his hero, opting instead to show us that, sometimes, life does not quite end up as we would like it to. Instead, we must sometimes rely on our friends to see us through those dark points in our life.

All in all, I would say that The Sorcerer’s Daughter nicely sets the stage for the epic showdown that seems to be looming in the near future. Now that we know, per Brooks’s own words, that the chronological end of Shannara is near, we can get a clearer sense of the final trajectory. Perhaps, finally, the people of the Four Lands may find some level of harmony and peaceful coexistence.

But then again, perhaps not.

Only time will tell.