Discovering the Wonder and Pleasures of Historical Television

At the recent Film and History Conference, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing the renowned Tom Gunning deliver a compelling talk about the nature of wonder and cinema.  There was something charming and delightful about his obvious love of early cinema, a period that isn’t as sexy as, say, contemporary blockbuster film but which, perhaps surprisingly, shares a great deal in common with it.  While I would love to write about that issue, today I want to think through another set of issues that Gunning’s talk raised for me, namely, is there wonder to be found in television?  If there is, how does it differ from its big-screen counterpart?

At first, I wasn’t sure that it does.  Television seems to work on very different logics—aesthetic, industrial, and political—from film, or at least it used to (though this point is, obviously, debatable, considering the long and intertwined history of the two media).  Then I began to think about historical drama television in particular, as well as recent discourses of quality and complexity (raised by such scholars as Jason Mittell), and I began to think that yes, television (and in particular, historical television), can offer us a particular type of wonder.

In her stunning essay on the Hollywood historical epic (which I highly recommend reading, even if you’re not particularly interested in that genre), Vivian Sobchack compellingly argues that these larger than life films offer spectators a means of being in time, of negotiating a particular way of experiencing ourselves as historical beings.  While the immersiveness and extravagance of a widescreen or CGI spectacle are largely out of the realm of even the most cutting-edge and high-end of TV drama (even Game of Thrones saves its CGI luxuriance for especially important moments), there are other pleasures of television that I think can engender in contemporary spectators a sense of wonder and sense of being-in-time.

There has long been a sense of immediacy to television, situated as it is within our homes, and to some this might suggest that television acts to tame some of the wilder excesses and pleasures offered by the epic film (one of the subjects of my dissertation).  At the same time, however, television also taps into a similar wellspring of libidinal energy and, as Amy Villarejo and Michele Aaron have recently pointed out in their work on the queerness of television, there is something increasingly promiscuous about the act of television viewing.  In an age of DVR and time-shifting, we in the audience are now invited to not only take part in the unfolding of the events of the historical past, but also to actually control how those events happen.

There is, however, still something of a resistance to seeing television in particular as capable of either conveying any sort of historical truth or engendering in audiences a sense of historical experience similar to that of, say, the epic (one of the most high-profile ways of representing past historical moments in the cinema).  Whereas epic films typically last upwards of 3 hours or more that one must watch all at once in a theater (if one wants to get the complete aesthetic experience), television’s narratives are stretched across several episodes (typically 10 in the case of cable, where most historical dramas go to live).  Whereas epics typically utilize all of the technological affordances of the cinema—widescreen technologies, long shots, casts of thousands, technological wizardry—television must make do with mostly indoor settings (though there are exceptions), as well as cheaper special effects.

And yet.  And yet I find myself increasingly drawn to the world of history brought to life on television, and not just because that is where decent storytelling has taken up residence.  Instead, it has something to do with the intermingled pleasure and embodied experience of watching television.  If epic films about the past engulf us as spectators, television history much more explicitly invites us to become a part of the workings of the past, through its evocation of the familiar genres of television, the family melodrama, the soap opera, the costume/heritage drama.  It is a mistake, I think, to dismiss these series as just more fluffy/soapy forays into the aesthetics of the past.  Instead, I would argue, they ask contemporary spectators to take a stance, to engage in exactly the types of unbridled sexual excess that makes so many series, from Rome to Game of Thrones.  I would even extend this to the violence on display on such series as Spartacus, as we as spectators are invited to understand the intertwining of sex, violence, and power in a world that is not our own yet is also a hyperbolized version of our own fraught sexual social world.

To experience the wonder of television is, in a sense, to give ourselves up to the jouissance of a different viewing experience of film.  This is not to say that one is better than the other, nor to suggest that there is not a relationship.  After all, part of what gives series like Rome and Spartacus their cultural capital is their reliance upon tropes and idioms expressed in their cinematic counterparts.  Nevertheless, as history becomes ever more prominent on our television screens, we would do well to consider what types of pleasures and wonders historical television offers us.  At the same time as we find ourselves drawn into the fraught worlds of politics, power, and violence, we must always be aware of our being in time.  We must always remain conscious of both our being in the past and our being in the present.  And that awareness, it seems to me, is one of the greatest of pleasures.

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Review: “The Way He Looks”

Warning:  Spoilers follow.

The other night, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Daniel Ribeiro’s touching film The Way He Looks (original title Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho), a Brazilian film about a young blind man who finds himself falling in love with his best friend.  Based on Ribeiro’s short film entitled Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho, the film is Brazil’s official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.  Who would have thought we would see this day?  We can but hope that it will win the statuette.

The film explores the experiences of young Leonardo as he attempts to forge an independent life for himself away from his overprotective parents while also contending with the jealousy of his best friend Giovana as he grows ever closer to newcomer Gabriel.  Gradually, as he grows closer to Gabriel, they must both contend with the deepening of their feelings for one another, until at last they admit to their feelings for one another and the film ends with them defying the school bullies by holding hands as they walk home.

Through both its cinematography and its score, The Way He Looks evokes all of the angst and anxiety that young love, especially young queer love, evokes in those who experience it.  However, it does so in a way that never comes across as trite or overdone.  Much like Weekend, another film that relied on solid storytelling and subtle aesthetics to explore the intricacies of gay love, The Way He Looks takes its time with its story, fully fleshing out its characters and their motivations, and it’s clear the the director and writers actually like these characters and want us to as well.  This is not to suggest that they are perfect–even the hero, Leonardo, comes across as somewhat ungrateful to his parents and their obvious concern for him–but they are characters with whom we can not only identify, but whom we can actually recognize as humans.  If (and this is a contentious question) we as LGBTQI consumers of media want well-rounded characters to represent us to the populace at large, then I think this is just the film for that purpose.

Aside from its generous and gentle politics, however, the film also contains a great deal of aesthetic sophistication that grants it multiple layers of pleasure for the savvy queer filmgoer.  Two scenes in particular struck me as poetic in their construction.  In one, Leo pleasures himself while embracing the hooded sweatshirt Gabriel has left behind, and in the other Gabriel stares at Leo’s nude back as he showers even as we, the spectators, are invited to identify with his gaze and with the burgeoning desire that he cannot deny and cannot yet accept .  The composition of the former shot looks as if it could have been lifted straight out of a painting, while also suggesting that desire does not always work on the level of sight, thus allowing the latter scene to explore desire at the visual level.  The visual sophistication of these scenes, and the underlying nuance of the film’s portrayal of visual impairment, allows it to move out of the realm of the purely romantic into the realm of the sublime.

What emerges from this portrayal, I would suggest, is a vision of what the representation of queer love might come to look like now that the acceptance of LGBTQI people has reached a significant high point in many places (remember that Brazil has legalized gay marriage).  It is refreshing to see a high-profile film that does not rely on the queer tragedy trope that haunted representations of us for so long.  Though I love Brokeback Mountain, it too relied on a tragic narrative that highlighted the violence and death that have for so long clung to representations of same-sex love.  This is not to suggest that these representations don’t have a place–we should always remember our history–but instead to argue that we need to diversify what we want to see in terms of representation.

Above all, however, The Way He Looks is a poignant and beautiful testament to the power of young queer love.  As I sat there in the audience with my boyfriend and well over a hundred other queer spectators, I felt my heart swell with joy at the feeling of community and camaraderie that permeated the gathering.  Even now that it’s 2014 and we as a community have won many hard-won battles, I still feel a little tremble of fulfillment when I see gay love depicted on screen and know that there are others in the audience with whom I can share that experience.

“American Horror Story: Freak Show” Review–“Massacres and Matinees”

Reviewing American Horror Story:  Freak Show poses something of a challenge.  What area should one focus on?  The cinematography?  The politics of disability and queerness?  The stunning display of Jessica Lange’s abject femininity and the unsung glory that is Frances Conroy?  Some combination of all of the above?

That’s part of what makes this new season of American Horror Story so compelling.  Part of enjoying this series, I have found, is taking it on the terms that it establishes for us.  And that, it seems, is very hard to do, in no small part because Ryan Murphy’s directorial and authorial persona is so strong and so potent that it threatens to overshadow anything that he produces.  In this case, however, I think it worth dwelling on some of the positive/enjoyable aspects of this week’s episode, “Massacres and Matinees.”

To begin with, this season of AHS shows some remarkable versatility with cinematography, showcasing how camera angles and colour can dramatically (re)shape how we respond to particular environments.  In addition to the numerous canted angles that serve to alienate us and signal to us the distorted and strange world we are being asked to view, I was also struck by the stark and subversive colour arrangement of the tense scene between mother and son pair of Dandy and Gloria Mott.  Only AHS could so compellingly change a seemingly normal upper-class meal into something obscene and subversive.

Jessica Lange continues to channel the haunting and abject spirit of Marlene Dietrich (particularly as she appeared in the noir masterpiece Touch of Evil), and to great effect.  Elsa may be her most deranged yet enigmatic creation yet, and I for one am very excited about seeing in which particular directions this season (which may be Lange’s last) will take her character as she struggles to maintain her control.

As pleasurable as it is to watch Lange’s performance, however, I think that Frances Conroy continues to be the unsung star of this show.  Time and again she has proven that she can successfully weave together the demonic and the angelic into one single performance.  Her portrayal of Gloria, a woman clearly unhealthily obsessed with her son (who is himself a perfect example of the 1950s nightmare of the mama’s boy) manages to twist familial bonds into something disturbingly lurid.  The fact that she seems so oblivious to the sinister appearance of everyone’s favourite killer clown (though one could argue that she is clearly aware of his murderous potential), only heightens the sense of alienation and disturbance that we experience.

But what about the series’ politics of disability and queerness?  This episode seems to mark one of the “thesis moments,” when it becomes clear (at least, as clear as this series ever is), about what it wants its viewers to think.  In this case, the political message comes from the mouth of Jimmy, who defiantly (and somewhat desperately) asserts that all they want to be is treated like everyone else (hence their strident disavowal of the term “freaks”).  Yet this is the one thing that they are strenuously denied, as everyone in the town of Jupiter insists on seeing them as not only different, but deviant and dangerous.  And, as is all too often the case, such prejudice turns to violence.  This seems to me at least to AHS‘s attempt to evoke the desire for being treated just like everyone else even while it disavows that possibility.  Who knows?  Perhaps by the end of this season all of the characters will embrace their difference and create a world all their own.

Ultimately, I found this to be a compelling second installment for the season, setting the stage nicely for the things to come.  Again, AHS is one of those series that needs to be taken on its own terms, as nebulous as those sometimes are.  It stridently and yet subtly tries to unsettle the things about ourselves and our culture that we tend to hold the most dear.  As a queer person who is always seeking out ways to disturb and unsettle normativity, I can’t help but see the series as a good thing, even if it doesn’t always succeed as much as I’d like.

The Subversive Pleasures of “The Golden Girls”

When I was growing up, one of my chief television pleasures was The Golden Girls.  Though I was quite young at the time (I was only a year old when it premiered) those four delightful women still stand out as one of my favourite things about childhood.  As I got older, my appreciation for the series grew, as I recognized not only how powerful these women were, but also how queer-affirming the series was in many ways.  Indeed, it provided me with some much-needed solace during the turbulent years of undergrad.

Then came graduate school, and I started to turn my analytical lens on my favourite series, somewhat afraid of what I might find.  To my surprise, however, I found the series even more subversive than I had remembered, and Kathleen Rowe’s influential book The Unruly Woman finally gave me the vocabulary I needed to elaborate upon the series’ subversive gender politics.  Now I not only felt a deep spiritual connection to these women (especially the oversexed Blanche), but now also recognized the ways in which their actions and speech challenge the ideology that dictates what behaviour(s) our culture expects of elderly women.  These four women refuse to accept the limitations imposed by age, maintaining their sexual interest in men, laughing at themselves, and embracing the earthier, more visceral sides of their aging bodies (the numerous scatological jokes made by Sophia are excellent examples of this).  In short, they are everything that we as a culture train women not to be, and in doing so they call attention to the ways in which those expectations are constructed by our culture.

Viewing this series with my students recently, I was amazed at how well this series holds up, and how the transgressive/subversive pleasures it offers continue to pack a political punch even now, 30 years (30!) after it premiered.  After all, we are continually told that we now live in a postfeminist society in which the strident feminism of an earlier generation is no longer needed nor desirable (nor, some would say, “cool” or “stylish”).  The Golden Girls continues to serve as a potent and powerful reminder of the ways in which women can and do challenge the structures designed to police and discipline their behaviour.

Perhaps most subversively, these women actively desire men without sacrificing their closeness to each other.  In one particularly poignant moment in the episode “Brotherly Love,” Dorothy reprimands herself for letting a man (Stan’s cad of a brother) come between her and her friendship with Blanche.  This is a recurring theme throughout the series, as the women turn to each other in their times of greatest need, recognizing in the process the ways in which men continue to attempt to manipulate them.  In a world in which female friendships are constantly thrown over in favour of competition between women, The Golden Girls continues to reminds us of the power that can be obtained when women both recognize and emphasis their closeness to one another.

Of course, the series isn’t perfect, and it remains unclear to me, even now, just how much it challenges patriarchal ideologies.  The series does end, for example, with perennial spinster Dorothy being married off and leaving the house.  However, I’ve come to realize that it is almost as important to continue finding those points of contention and tension within mainstream culture that pose a challenge, however temporary those challenges might be.  This is not to excuse the shortcomings of the series just because I love it (though that is, I must admit, quite tempting), but instead to argue that there always limitations to just how subversive a text produced by the mainstream media can be.  Part of our job as critics and as consumers, I would argue, is to continue finding those points where the cracks in the dominant ideologies that structure our everyday lives are made evident in these cultural texts.  They might not be perfect, but they can at least give us a glimmer of what is possible if we continue to struggle against the forces, both explicit and implicit, that continue to oppress us.  The Golden Girls, for me, is just one such text.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some binge-watching to do.

Gay Assimilation and the Burden of Being Queerly Different

Recently, during a meeting of a queer studies reading group, I engaged in a spirited debate with a colleague about the advantages and disadvantages of assimilation.  He was not convinced that assimilation poses the dangers that many queer scholars such as Jack Halberstam and David Halperin have argued that it does.  Another colleague, one whom I know to be tremendously affirming of queer lifestyles, worried that it was unfair to expect her queer friends to continue to shoulder the burden of being different, wondering if it would perhaps be easier if, indeed, they were allowed to assimilate peacefully into the mainstream fabric of American culture.

While I respect these points of view and can even understand where they come from, I want to argue against them, and vociferously so.  In my view, the mainstream of American queers has not only resulted in a perilous amnesia about the queer past, but also a vehement disavowal of everything that once made queer life so vibrant, messy, and exciting.  As the great Michel Foucault reminded us so long ago, repression tends to beget the very instances and behaviours it seeks to repress.  Thus, it is almost as if, now that the tools of repression have begun to lose their edge and queer life has become for many much less overtly perilous, there is no longer an implied imperative to live queer life as if it may end in the next moment.  Without repression, it would seem, there is no longer an imperative to live and resist queerly.

The other danger that I believe exists in the very marrow of assimilation is the denial of the acceptability of any difference, even among those who ostensibly share one’s sexual orientation.  The same-sex marriage movement continues to organize its rhetorics around an implied “other,” the sexual deviant, the non-monogamous and sexually promiscuous homosexual that must be disavowed in order for same-sex marriage to gain much-needed credibility and acceptability among the straight, white, middle-class citizens who continue to be the arbiters of public cultural and political taste.  When queer people, especially queer couples, proudly announce that they are just like everyone else, what they really mean is that they are buying into the system of monogamy and all of the trappings that go with it, while simultaneously disavowing the acceptability of those who do not.  Even queers, it seems, create their own hierarchies of acceptability.

Of course, perhaps the most pernicious effect of assimilation is the ways in which it manages to convince its adherents to buy so completely into the logic of neo-liberalism and late capitalism.  If only, the logic goes, gay people can become consumers and participants in patriarchal capitalism–settle down, raise children, work hard, buy goods and services–then they will be fully accepted into the fabric of American society and all will be well.  Of course, the things that make American society so deeply divided, rampant and systemic racial and economic inequality among them, remain crucially un-examined and de-emphasized, precisely because those are nodes of crisis where the logics of of neo-liberalism that undergird assimilation are most clearly laid bare and made susceptible to critique.

All of this is not to argue that queer life was somehow better under the former repressive regime.  Certainly, there have been many gains that we should not give up, especially the ones that make queer life infinitely safer than it was even when I was growing up a decade and a half ago.  Even I, cranky radical queer that I am, would not give away the hard-earned legal gains that have made steps toward seeing queer people become equal citizens under the law (though the questionable status of the law itself is worthy of its own blog post).  However, I do want to argue that we should not so easily give up the practices of queer life–resistance to normativity, sexual, economic, racial, and gendered–that so many queers throughout the last century have developed.  Being accounted as “just the same” as everyone else is, in the end, just another form of oppression, however affirming it may appear.  Rather than seeing difference and resistance as a burden that only some have to bear, perhaps it is time that we see it as an opportunity in which we can all share.

“Outlander” and the Gendered Branding of Starz

There has been quite a lot of buzz surrounding Starz new series Outlander, based on the bestselling series of historical/fantasy/science fiction/romance novels written by Diana Gabaldon (the question of genre is a vexed one where this series is concerned). Anne Helen Petersen of BuzzFeed and Willa Paskin of Slate have both pointed out that the series, unlike other high-end cable productions, actually seems to cater to a female spectator.  This is no small thing in the cable world, which is regularly saturated with fare that, while offering some pleasures to women, is very obviously created for and consumed by an assumed (straight, white, middle-class) audience.  At the same time, however, Starz’s executives and the series’ showrunner have also made it clear that they want to appeal to more than just the female components of the audience, with a concomitant desire to distance this novel from the romance appellation into the more esteemed (and less critically derided term) “great drama.”  Heaven forbid that we have a series that is a straight-up historical romance (one need only look at the critical reception of CW’s Reign or Showtime’s The Tudors to see what happens when a series does that).

And this desire to make a great drama, it seems, poses somewhat of a problem for Starz which, along with Showtime, has always occupied the enormous shadow thrown by the heavyweight HBO.  Few of its original series have lasted more than a season, two notable exceptions being Da Vinci’s Demons and Spartacus (both of which, it should be noted, focus heavily on male exploits and gazes).  For all that Spartacus was a ratings success for the network, it never quite managed to get out of the trap of being largely derided as low-brow, frothy entertainment, due in no small part to its pandering to the perceived lowest common denominator through a great deal of explicit sex and violence.  It would seem, then, that Outlander is Starz’s attempt to harness a presold commodity and, utilizing its own branding efforts, finally break free of its low-culture efforts into the genuine realm of quality TV.

These discussions, particularly the commentary from the executives at the network, also highlight the ways in which TV remains a highly-gendered medium, both in terms of the stories told, as well as in how they are marketed and understood by the executives who approve them.  Almost every major TV series that has gained the distinction of quality–Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Fargo–has focused on the alleged trials and tribulations of white men, and the networks on which they are found, AMC, HBO, FX, have also accrued a reputation for catering to male audiences.  With rare exceptions, it is only when series and networks cater to the fears and anxieties of an assumed male audience that they are able to break away from the low-culture stigma that continues to cling to the medium.  To dare to focus on female subjectivity, still less to make a woman the central character of the drama, threatens to alienate male audiences in a way that focusing on a male character does not, it seems, run the same risk of alienating female spectators.  As we continue into the alleged golden age of TV, it’s worth noting that, in that age, it is men who, at all levels, get to call the shots.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Starz, in its attempt to solidify its brand identity and create a competitor for Game of Thrones, has decided to cater to this male audience, especially by making such public statements about its desire to draw in those same viewers.  This is, of course, no surprise, considering the desperation with which Starz wants to reach the same level of cultural esteem of its competitors.  What better way to do that than to try to cater to both the built-in female audience for Gabaldon’s work and also the allegedly pickier male viewers that certainly won’t tune in to watch a woman’s story, no matter how compellingly or lushly told.  Now, if there were boobs and political intrigue involved (Game of Thrones style), then presumably they would.

What makes Starz an especially interesting case, however, is the way in which it also utilizes history as a means of granting to itself the gravitas necessary to elevate itself to the upper echelons of premium cable programming.  The representation of history itself has a vexed relationship to quality and to masculinity–one of the key ways in which historical films and TV series are denigrated by the critical public is by branding them melodramatic, a sinister and sly way of denigrating femininity–so it should come as no surprise that Starz has attempted to beef up the first few episodes of Outlander by focusing more on the politics and scheming, in addition to the aforementioned emphasis on female subjectivity.

It remains to be seen whether Starz’s experiment in genre-blending will succeed in its desired goals of gathering in a male audience and setting the brand apart from, or at least being able to meaningfully compete with, that already established by HBO.  Even if it fails to draw in the male audience, if it manages to woo the female (and, I might, add, gay male) audience demographic that makes up so much of Gabaldon’s fan base, that should still garner the series’ enough ratings to make the adventure worth it.  Given critical predilection for male-centered dramas (and general dismissal of romance, especially its historical strain), it remains somewhat less certain that it will manage to gather the same accolades (Emmys and whatnot) that have been showered upon its male-drama counterparts.  One need only look at the continually-snubbed The Good Wife to see what happens to series that dare to focus on women rather than men.  Hopefully, however, Outlander will be a game changer in more ways than one.  If we are lucky, we might finally get a top-notch premium cable drama that is not only quality, but also manages to remain tightly and insightfully focused on the historical subjectivities and experience of women.

“Broke Straight Boys”: The Intersection of Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Amateur Gay Porn

It’s no surprise that many gay men (and much gay male pornography) is obsessed with straight men.  There are many reasons, both historic and cultural, for this long-standing erotic attraction for, as David Halperin has eloquently argued in his book How to Be Gay, part of what constitutes contemporary gay male identity and sexual desire is precisely an erotic attraction for the masculine, and in our culture nothing represents masculinity better than the machismo-enshrouded figure of the straight man.  Love or hate him, he remains a haunting presence in the American cultural and social imaginary, infusing even the gay community with a sometimes-noxious and toxic infatuation with masculinity and a concomitant rejection of the feminine.

This emerges quite clearly in the world of so-called amateur gay pornography, of the sort produced by such much-vaunted and celebrated studios as Corbin Fisher and Sean Cody, as well as some of the lesser luminaries such as Broke Straight Boys.  What makes the latter studio so compelling is the way in which it manages to encapsulate and draw upon so many different strands of gay erotic desire (including the rough trade figure that has long been a staple of gay pornography and erotica of various kinds) as part of its brand identity.  What emerges from this gay pornography studio is a compelling, and slightly disturbing voyeurism of the vexed figure of the straight male willing (and able) to do anything for the right amount of money.

Of course, the website’s agenda is spelled out in its very title, which draws explicit attention to the indigent status of its stars.  This attention to the financial vulnerability of its performers–many of whom are both explicitly and implicitly coded as traditionally masculine–seems to undermine the very stability of the masculine attributes that it otherwise fetishizes.  Appearances can be deceiving, however, and I would argue that it is precisely the confluence of gender, class, and sexual desire that comprises the visual and fantasy pleasure to be gained from this particular website.  Though its models are not as uniformly muscular or gay-clone-esque as those of some of the higher end studios (such as the aforementioned Sean Cody and Corbin Fisher), that actually works to make BSB’s models both more “realistic” and, perhaps surprisingly, more desirable.  To paraphrase a clutch of comments on various message boards, most of the models look like actual boys that you might pick up at your local gay bar.

Due perhaps in no small part to its own branding efforts–and in spite of its own claims to being the web’s #1 gay porn site–Broke Straight Boys has gained something of a reputation for producing and featuring pornography that, to paraphrase commentators at the WayBig Blog, looks like it came out of a trailer park.  The comment threads attached to the website’s updates frequently contain derogatory remarks about the studio and the quality of its products, and yet, it has clearly managed to gain a substantial enough following to warrant the forthcoming TV series that purports to offer a reality-TV perspective on the internal workings of the studio and its stable of stars.  I would argue that this can at least partially be explained by the particular niche that BSB seeks to fill, one that is studiously underserved by both Sean Cody, Corbin Fisher, and other more self-consciously high-level studios.

This niche is one in which Broke Straight Boys provides the pleasure of the attainable and the everyday, while also drawing upon those things that gay pornography has always attempted to provide for its ever-diversifying consumers.  In an era in which what constitutes gay culture and gay identity is, like many other categories of social identity, increasingly fractured and in flux, BSB also highlights how unstable even gay desire can be.  What’s more, it also illuminates the ways in which studio branding in the gay porn industry can have a significant and potent effect on the types of erotic pleasures being mobilized by these purveyors of visual erotica.  Not all gay pornography, it would seem, is made equal.

At the same time, however, there is a darker side of this branding identity that needs to be acknowledged.  While there is something seemingly perpetually appealing about the straight-to-gay transformation (commonly referred to as gay for pay within the industry), it also caters to a slumming mentality among gay male audiences that is worthy of sustained attention and critique.  What the comments sections on discussion boards call attention to (among many other things) is the unfortunate appeal to a masculinity made vulnerable to the vicissitudes of economic privation.  While this may be appealing as fantasy (and we can fervently hope that it is, though the unfortunate statistics regarding porn stars, economic instability, and suicide paint a different picture), we should also be aware of the disturbing contours and drives that undergird those fantasies.  Is it really so appealing to see financially strapped straight men paid to perform sex acts?  How is this any different than the economic exploitation that occurs when women are engaged in pornographic exploitation?

What emerges from this website, therefore, is an uncomfortable reminder of the contradictions and strains that continue to operate at the heart of gay male pornography and gay male sexual desire more generally.  In order to gain a more complete understanding of the complexities involved in the pleasures offered up by different pornography studios, we need to also understand the intertwining of class, gender, and sex that constitute those pleasures.  While many such entertainments attempt to make us forget what goes into their production, BSB is often forthright, actually making a point of mentioning the amount of money being offered.  In addition to seeing this as part of the fantasy scenario being constructed by the studio, as audiences and spectators we should also use this as a valuable opportunity to think about our own complacency in the exploitation of male sexual labour, as well as the consequences such exploitation has for an understanding of gay male culture’s contradictory relationship with hegemonic masculinity.

Opening Credits and the Aesthetics of Television History

Upon recently re-watching the HBO series Rome, I was struck anew at the complex artistry that underlies the opening credits.  While the series itself raises numerous questions about the representation of history within the medium of television, it is the opening credit sequence, more than anything else in the series, that adequately evokes something of the strangeness and alien sensibilities of antiquity.  This also made me think about the function, both aesthetic and ideological, of some of the other popular historical (and pseudo-historical) dramas that have become such an important part of the programming line-ups of premium channels such as HBO.

As I have argued elsewhere, one of the functions of effective historical fiction is to evoke, in some measure, the foreignness and difference of the past, and this is something that the opening titles of Rome do to a greater degree than allowed by the narrative demands of the series itself.  Featuring numerous types of graffiti and a haunting score, Rome’s opening sequence seems to skitter away from any attempts to pinpoint its exact meaning or to fit it neatly into our own expectations for artistic representation.  Holly Haynes has compellingly written that the opening credits, and the series itself, evoke the contradictory pleasures of the exotic and the everyday.  If the visual arts can serve as a barometer of how a given culture conceives of itself, these opening illustrations provide a fragmentary glimpse of a culture whose sensibilities are quite different from our own; not just exotic (with all of the problematic politics that entails), but alien and even, I would argue, uncanny.  By relying on ephemera such as graffiti, these images not only evoke the fragmented nature of our knowledge of antiquity but also allow us to get as a close as we can to a phenomenologically different experience of the distant past.  In that respect, they rely on an aesthetic more akin to Fellini Satyricon than I, Claudius and as such call for a for a nuanced and (drawing on Haynes again) contradictory relationship to Roman history.

The opening credits for The Tudors could not be more different.  Unlike Rome, the sequence has much more of a direct relationship to the material presented, with each of the characters presented, typically with a posture or a prop that suggests their role in the narrative.  While it does not evoke the strangeness of Early Modern culture, these images, as lush as they are, evoke the aesthetics that The Tudors consistently relied on throughout its run.  Just as importantly, they also evoke the ethos of the series’ vision of the past and of history, i.e. a vision characterized by the (sometimes) uncomfortable and pleasurably tight coupling of politics and sexuality, all of which is highlighted by the sensuality of the visual image.

Finally, Game of Thrones.  Yes, I know it’s not technically historical, but both the series and the novels upon which it is based draw extensively from history in our world, both for narrative and for worldview.  In this case, the opening credits (arguably some of the best produced in recent television) provide viewers with an overhead view of the continents of Westeros and Essos.  In creating and relying upon this particular aesthetic, Game of Thrones’ opening credits reveal this series’ investment in a historical consciousness that construes history, both recent and distant, as a convoluted and complex skein of individual events and actions that, while connected, are not governed by any overarching logic.  There may be causality in this world, but there is no explanation.

All of this is not to say that the actual narratives of these series don’t matter; quite the opposite.  However, what I want to suggest is that the opening credits sequence, far from being tangential to the historical vision offered by contemporary historical drama, is actually an essential part of the viewing experience, priming viewers for the vision of the past they will soon encounter and offering a particular viewing position from which to experience history.

Review–“Belle”: A Costume Drama Meaningfully Depicts the History of Slavery

There is a moment in the film Belle where the titular character stares at a painting in which a young black man looks–adoringly?  powerlessly?–up at a white man.  This poignant moment crystallizes many of the issues this thoughtful costume drama raises, including and especially the vexed status that people have colour have occupied in Western society, at once on the margins of representation and yet situated squarely at the center of political and social discourse.  Throughout, Belle effectively utilizes the conventions of the costume drama–the emphasis on female subjectivity and point of view, the conjoining of the personal and the political–to effectively lay bare the convoluted, complex, and paradoxical position that people of colour, especially women, face on a daily basis.

The film centers on Dido Belle, the illegitimate, bi-racial daughter of an English noble whose uncle, William Murray, is the Lord Chief Justice.  Both illegitimate and black, Dido finds herself caught in a paradoxical position within 18th Century English society.  Gradually, however, she finds true love with a vicar’s son while also exerting her influence on her great-uncle, who ultimately renders an important court decision that rings the death-knell of slavery in England.

The key issue of visual representation is a recurring one in the film:  from the time she is a child, Dido remains aware of the marginal status that people of colour have in her society.  They may appear in paintings, and they may even attain their freedom, but they are still below the white people with whom they share the world.  Thus, it is all the more remarkable when William commissions a painting of Elizabeth that will include Dido as a figure in her own right rather than just a support for her white cousin.  Dido, rightfully, recognizes this is a significant step on her great-uncle’s part, an indication of his growing commitment to a measure of racial equality.

Dido is a refreshingly self-aware heroine, showing a piercing awareness of the contradictory nature of her class position.  Blessed by her father with a substantial fortune that renders her an heiress in her own right (in contrast to her white cousin, who is almost penniless), Dido’s racial status means that she will find it difficult, if not impossible, to find a husband that will match her status.  This, in turn, means that, like spinster Aunt Mary, she will be condemned to a life without a man which, in 18th Century English society, is not at all a pleasant prospect.  Belle thus highlights the impossible position that Dido occupies as a result of her gender, her race, and her class, all of which continue to act together to put her in an increasingly untenable position.  Though she is privileged because of her wealth and her class status, her gender and her race intersect with that position to imprison her, as she reminds the vicar’s son when he asks whether her refusal to join him for dinner with the rest of the family is a rejection of his class status.  Dido pointedly reminds him that it is a reminder of her own.  The vexed and vulnerable status she occupies is made even more apparent when a potential suitor for her cousin (played by a sneering Tom Felton), sexually assaults her, in the belief that her raced body is for his consumption.

Yet for all of its attention to politics, the film also points out the immense strength to be found in the bonds between and among women.  Dido remains staunchly loyal to her cousin, even though Elizabeth is not always grateful for it.  Perhaps most powerfully of all, Dido develops a bond with her uncle’s freeedwoman servant, their bonds forged out of a mutual awareness of their liminal status as free women of colour in a society that does not yet have a place for them.

Thus, though it occasionally veers into predictability, Belle nevertheless points out the necessity of an intersectional understanding of social problems.  Gender, race, and class do not operate as isolated phenomena, but instead are mutually constitutive.  As such, it is a poignant reminder of the ways in which these structures and systems continue to have their effects, even in a supposedly post-racial society.  Furthermore, the film is a powerful testament to the fact that Anglo-American media culture may finally be on the verge of being able to talk about the long, horrible, and troubled history of slavery in ways that can be both meaningful and thought-provoking.

“Maleficent”: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I debated for quite some time over whether I wanted to post a review of Maleficent.  Having been thoroughly underwhelmed upon first viewing, I wasn’t sure that it would be worth my while.  However, after some greater thought, I have decided to corral my scattered thoughts about this very scattered film.  Let me state at the outset that I was very excited to see this film as I, like many others, have always thought Maleficent was Disney’s most brilliant and compelling villain.

The Good

As other critics have noted, there is a great deal in this film for both feminists and queers to enjoy.  From the film’s central message about the primacy of female bonding and the dangers posed by psychotic and unrestrained masculinity to the obvious queer appeal of Maleficent (as channeled through Jolie and her costumes) and the story’s emphasis on alternative families, there is much, thematically, to like about this film.  It forthrightly pushes up against all that we have come expect from Disney, and that’s definitely a good thing.

The Bad

However, there were some quite noticeable shortcomings that undercut my pleasure in the film.  If there was one thing that I found signaturely lacking in this film, it was a truly deep awareness of its animated predecessor Sleeping Beauty.  Lush in both its visuals and its sounds, this is a film that well-deserves its place as one of the most aesthetically mature and complex Disney animated creations.  Unfortunately, much of this beauty is either lost or left under-utilized by Maleficent.

Take, for example, Maleficent’s entry to Stefan’s castle.  In Sleeping Beauty, the entrance is as exciting as it is visually well-executed, and Maleficent (voiced by the inimitable Eleanor Audley) manages to alternate between languorous sarcasm and biting venom with aplomb.  All of this seems to have been lost on the writers and director of Maleficent who, while keeping some of the lines and the general gist of the events, subdues everything to the point of blandness.  All of the sound and fury of the original animated film is here reduced to something bordering on the banal.

The Ugly 

There are also some truly cringe-worthy moments in this film, as well as some definite missteps in terms of visual design.  Among the latter, perhaps the most egregious is the decision to have Maleficent possess wings.  While I can understand the aesthetics that this enables–her joyful flight through the Mores is visually spectacular–to me it felt strange and even somewhat ridiculous (especially the earlier scenes).

Perhaps worst of all were the three fairies whose names, I might add, were needlessly changed from their earlier iteration.  Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, three of the most dynamic characters in Disney animation history, here become bumbling fools who barely manage to keep Aurora alive.  And they’re not even cute bumbling fools but are instead cardboard cutouts that, while intended as comic relief, end up being annoying distractions.

While I remain disappointed in many aspects of Maleficent, I am still glad that it was made.  When we take into account the recent phenomenal success of Frozen (which has some of the same themes), it would seem as if we may be witnessing a watershed moment for Disney and perhaps for Hollywood as a whole.  However, I have my fingers crossed that the studio’s live-action adaptation of Cinderella, featuring Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine, will do more justice to its villain-turned-hero than this film which, ultimately, does not live up to the reputation of its title character.