Category Archives: Subjectivity

“Game of Thrones” and Contemporary American Culture

In a recent Slate article, Jack Hamilton claims that HBO’s Game of Thrones largely eschews (and is often downright hostile) to any claims that it has relevance to contemporary society or serves as an allegory for today’s political and social concerns.  While I agree with Hamilton’s larger claim that the series makes for great television and indeed pushes the medium in new and exciting directions in terms of narrative and character complexity, I think it underestimates the series to argue that it doesn’t attempt to reflect or resonate with contemporary American culture.  From the role that women play in violently patriarchal societies to the status of history for the acts and behaviors of the present day, Game of Thrones has a great deal to say about the ways in which our world works.

Although ostensibly a piece of high fantasy (once, it should be noted, one of the most denigrated and critically shunned of all genres, whether cinematic or textual), Game of Thrones, as well as the series of books upon which it is based, draws heavily upon our own history for both its narrative and its dense mythology.  Most notably, the conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters is a highly fictionalized version of England’s Wars of the Roses between the rival royal houses of York and Lancaster.  However, history works in Game of Thrones in a number of other ways as well, many of which are quite relevant to our own allegedly postmodern moment in which History (not the upper case “H”) as a discipline and a way of conceiving the past is dying.  In the world of GoT, the actions of prior generations continue to exert a terrible pull on the present and, it is suggested, the actions of any given character in the diegetic present can and indeed probably will have dire consequences in the future.  This, combined with the series’ obvious debt to medieval European culture for its worldview and its production design, says a great deal about how we in contemporary American culture conceive of the Middle Ages.  In other words, as a place where life was nasty, brutish, and short.  Oh, and sexually violent.

It is precisely this sexual violence, particularly against women, that is the series’ greatest strength and its greatest weakness.  From the horrific death of the prostitute Ros at Joffrey’s demented hands to Jaime’s recent rape of Cersei, the world of Game of Thrones is incredibly dangerous for women (even more than it is for people of both genders).  While GoT’s use of violence can be used to critique the ways in which even modern America’s social fabric harbors extraordinary dangers for women and those who do not perform “appropriate” masculinity, there are times when it drops the ball, participating in the very culture that it serves to critique.  As I have argued before on this blog, Jaime’s raping of Cersei in particular serves as a potent reminder of what can happen when the avowed purposes of a scene (in this case, highlighting the sexual pathology of the siblings, as well as the true darkness at the heart of Jaime’s character) goes horribly wrong.  As such, GoT is a commentary on not only the highly precarious position women–especially those in power–occupy in American society, but also the contradictions and complexities inherent in the representation of sexual and gender violence.

Finally, as Todd VanDerWerff argues in his review of the episode “The Mountain and the Viper,” Game of Thrones has repeatedly shown us a world in which literally no one is safe.  From Ned’s beheading that ended the first season to the trauma of the Red Wedding to the brutal killing of Oberyn Martell, the series has eschewed any reliance upon the survival of its main characters.  Much as American Naturalism argued that the universe does not care about the fate of humans, so the tides of fate seem to sweep these characters along, with even seemingly inconsequential actions having far ranging consequences that can change the fate of a world.  In addition to resonating with our postmodern society in which horrible events seem to have no precise cause, Game of Thrones also resonates with our terrorism culture, wherein all of life is unstable because one (allegedly) never knows when the next attack will come nor whom it will strike down.  Far from making such randomness understandable or assuaging those anxieties, the series instead seems to amplify them, so that, as viewers, we feel constantly on edge, waiting for the axe to fall.

Much as Westeros during Robert’s reign appeared stable while truly rotting from within, so GoT disguises its political commentary beneath the veneer of high fantasy.  There is a reason, I would argue, that both the novels and the HBO series have gained such cultural cache.  Like all good fantasy (including the venerable works of J.R.R. Tolkien), Game of Thrones holds a mirror up to our society and reflects our own ugliness, misogyny, and violence back at us.  While we may go to the series seeking an escape from the harsh world that we live in, we will find instead that the world of Game of Thrones is uncomfortably close to our own.

What Makes Effective Historical Fiction

I’ve been a fan of historical fiction for most of my life.  There is something enchanting about a well-written and well-researched novel that can not just transport you to another time and place, but actually make you feel the ethos and the atmosphere of the time.  Although few historical novels accomplish this feat exceedingly well, there are a few.  As an avid reader and aspiring writer of the genre, I’ve developed a few thoughts on what I believe makes for effective historical fiction.  This is not to say that historical fiction that does not necessarily do these things is ineffective; it is merely to suggest that historical fiction that employs these strategies is, in my opinion, effective at creating a particular type of relationship between the contemporary reader and the past moment being depicted.

As I have already suggested, I understand the historical past as being fundamentally and inescapably different from the present.  This is not to say that there are not points of similarity.  Instead, it is to argue that the structures of thought and means of making sense of the world were not the same as they are today, and that it is often a mistake to assume that people in ancient Greece, for example, conceived of homosexual behavior as an identity in the same way that contemporary Western culture does (this argument is more fully laid out in the groundbreaking work done by classicist and queer scholar David Halperin).  Effective historical fiction, rather than just plopping down contemporary American heroes and heroines in a past time, actually attempts to create characters that live and engage with their world in a way that is at least somewhat similar to that of how we believe people in that period might have behaved.

The historical novels of Mary Renault are an excellent case of historical fiction that manages to capture the strange, alien nature of the past.  Her prose often features a syntax that is subtly different than our own, and when I read her work I often find that there are passages that, because of her prose and the foreignness of the worldview of her characters, require some re-reading to gain a full understanding of what is actually happening.  Though this might be a turn-off for some readers, I actually find it a compelling reading experience, as it allows me to get a glimpse, however, brief of a way of speaking and a worldview that is different from my own.

Just as traditional historiography forces (or should, anyway) us to think about the role that the past has to play in the development of the present and the future, so historical fiction, if done effectively and with an eye to difference, can make us think critically and deeply about our relationship to the world that has come before.  Once we acknowledge that there are deep and sometimes insurmountable differences between the past and the present, we can begin thinking of new and more exciting ways of engaging with the world that came before us.

The Queer Pleasures of Disney Villains

Upon a recent watching of the excellent YouTube video “The Spell Block Tango,” it occurred to me (as it does often), about just how queerly pleasurable Disney villains have always been.  From the sophisticated and cultured queerness of Scar to the over-the-top drag villainy of Ursula the Sea Witch, Disney villains consistently lend themselves to queer appropriations and queer pleasures, opening up spaces of engagement with the allegedly (heterosexual) family friendly fare that is constantly purveyed by Disney.

The Disney animated features canon abounds with figures of queer villainy.  A few examples include:  Ursula (who was, in fact, designed after famed drag performer Divine), Prince John (voiced by Peter Ustinov, who also played the obviously queer and simpering Emperor Nero in the epic film Quo Vadis), Jafar (who we are all is more in love with Aladdin than he is with Jasmine), Gaston (anyone who is so macho and in love with his own heterosexuality has to be queer), and Scar (with the deliciously divine British voice of Jeremy Irons, how can we not take a lot of queer pleasure out of this villain with the “lion’s share” of brains), and Maleficent (who, though not queer, has such a stunning sense of fashion that we can’t help but take a measure of queer pleasure in her).

On one level, all of these characters are simply fascinating, especially when compared to the often lackluster heroes and heroines that populate the Disney landscape (they may be pretty to look at but, for the most part, they are rather bland characters).  In their over-the-topness and their elaborate costumes, to say nothing of their punchy dialogue, these allegedly “evil” characters offer themselves up to the queer viewer as a source of camp pleasure, in that we as gay viewers take pleasure in the artifice and the catty cruelty that these characters so often exhibit.  It’s not that we don’t like Ariel and Eric, or Jasmine and Jafar, it’s simply that their heterosexual romance does not offer the same pleasure as that given us by the characters who exist outside of these heterosexual circuits (however, this does not mean that queer viewers cannot inhabit the position of a Disney princess and desire the prince).  To some extent, whether consciously or unconsciously, we know that those queer characters on screen are our screen likes and our screen egos, and so we identify with them, even as we know that we are not supposed to (they are the villains, after all).

So, what are the politics of all of this?  Is there something problematic about the fact that so many Disney villains are so explicitly coded as queer and that, significantly, so many queer viewers seemingly find pleasure and identification with these evil characters?  Are we as queer viewers buying into the pernicious cultural myth that we are somehow a pestilence and a disease upon the body social?  Of course, if we were adopting the ideology that comes with these images of queerness in Disney popular culture, then that would certainly be the case.  However, I would argue that something far more complex is at work here.  As Brett Farmer convincingly argues in his noteworthy book Spectacular Passions, gay male audiences frequently identify with the tortured and doomed young man (he uses the notable example of Montgomery Clift) not because they see themselves as fundamentally doomed or tragic, but because they recognize in that particular figure the social forces that have resulted in his particular victimized status.  In a similar fashion, I would argue, queer viewers see in the Disney villain not simply an unadulterated and incomprehensible evil, as seems to be what the films themselves want us to take away, but instead a character who is, like the queer viewer, the victim of social oppression. The fact that so many Disney villains are denied backstories—we do not know anything about Ursula, for example, except that she was banished and exiled, for crimes that remain unexplained—allows a space for queer viewers to appropriate these villains and give them stories that make their alleged evil an added level of intelligibility through a queer lens.  In sort, gay men are wresting control away from the narratives themselves, understanding these characters as far more complex, captivating, and ultimately understandable than would seem to be the films’ intention.

All of this is not to suggest that all gay men engage with Disney in quite the same way.  Indeed, there are gay men that specifically do not like Disney or that “grow out of it” and cease to take pleasure in it after their childhood days are over.  However, what I hope I have shown is that Disney does offer queer viewers a multitude of pleasures that exist outside of the normal channels through which mainstream viewers take pleasure in these films.  This issue was brought home to me recently in one of the classes I teach, in which a student responded with dismay to my suggestion that, as a queer viewer, I took pleasure in the fact that the lion scar was so obviously coded as queer.  To her, it seemed incomprehensible that such a thing as queerness could have an influence on the cherished memories of her childhood (she did not say this in so many words, but the insinuation was clear).  In a world in which heterosexuality is still the privileged norm, and even more so in the case of Disney, queer viewers have to find new and challenging ways to engage with the popular culture that surrounds them.

Of course, Disney has not remained unaware of the fact that their villains have fan followings of their own, as the upcoming Maleficent film, as well as rumored projects about a Cruella de Vil and a wicked stepmother film, attest.  One can but hope that these films will continue the proud Disney tradition of making villains that are just as fascinating, if not more so, than their heroic counterparts.  And it can be equally hoped that they offer up similar, and perhaps even more poignant, queer pleasures.

Why Straight Audiences Don’t “Get” Gay Films

While I was visiting my parents recently, I had the distinct pleasure of watching the classic film The Uninvited, a ghost film that tells the story of a brother and sister who move into a haunted house and find themselves in the middle of a domestic melodrama involving adultery, ghostly apparitions, and the unnamed (and unnamable) specter of lesbian desire.  One character in particular, Miss Holloway, exhibits the typical qualities of classic Hollywood cinema lesbianism, including an overwhelming and excessive desire for a dead woman (as occurs in the film Rebecca), as well as a certain predatory attitude toward a younger woman (alleged to be the daughter of Miss Holloway’s dead friend but in reality the product of adultery).

When I mentioned to my mother (with whom I was watching the film), that the character was clearly a lesbian—assuming that she would be able to read the codes of Hollywood as easily as I could—she responded with a fierce denial.  The character was not a lesbian asserted, and I hardly dared to point out that Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca was one as well, since it was fairly obvious by then that she would also disagree with that assertion.  This exchange led me to reflect upon the ways in which historic audiences respond to particular films in particular ways, picking up on the codes of viewership that Hollywood utilizes to express desire.  When that desire happens to be homosexual, and if the film happens to be made during the period of classical Hollywood, the viewing strategies historic audiences utilize can be quite different.

Patricia White makes this point explicit in her excellent study Uninvited:  Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, in which she argues that lesbian desire and lesbian characters often haunt the edges of cinema, simultaneously constructing and inviting lesbian encoding while also disavowing such viewing strategies.  As a feminist and may male viewer several generations removed from the film The Uninvited, I come to experience of watching it equipped with certain viewing strategies, some more subversive than others, that my very straight-identified mother and, by extension, other mainstream heterosexual viewers, do not.  Trained to know that gay people are seldom named as such in classic Hollywood films, I must look for them at the margins where, as White puts it, they continue to haunt the text of the very films that seek to strenuously to either marginalize or destroy them (again, the case of Mrs. Danvers comes to mind.  At the end of Rebecca she is consumed by the fire that she has set).  Thus, although Miss Holloway can be read by “straight” audiences as just a friend who is devoted to the memory of her beloved companion, I know that the film is really doing something else here, that there is something more than just friendship going on here.  Whether the film entirely intends me to or not, I find myself drawn to the lesbian character and reading her as such, investing her with those very qualities that make her appealing as a representative of same sex desire on screen, even if the film wants me to read that desire as inherently pathological and destructive.

What is really striking, however, is the resistance that my mother exhibited to this particular reading strategy.  Nor is she the only one who has had such a response to queer readings of allegedly straight films.  This was brought home to me in a very powerful way when one of my students responded negatively to my assertion that Scar, the villain of The Lion King, is queerly coded and may offer gay viewers a non-normative node of pleasure in an otherwise very hetero-oriented film.  There is a strong ambivalence and often downright resistance of straight culture to appropriations of its icons for gay purposes and this is especially true when one considers the accusations and rumors of the homosexuality of various actors.  There are still those, for example, who take great umbrage at those who assert that Cary Grant, that paragon of romantic masculine heterosexuality, may have actually been a little less heterosexual than is commonly assumed.  Even those who are “okay” with homosexuality still feel threatened by the possibility that their beloved icons, whether they be favorite childhood characters or favored Hollywood stars, may be tainted with the stain of the love that dare not speak its name.

Naturally, all of this has begun to change with the advent of more “well-rounded” or “developed” roles for gay characters, though we still remain conspicuously absent, or at least downplayed, within much Hollywood cinema.  There is still a sense of in which we are, as Patricia White puts it, the uninvited, excluded from the dreams that the cinema produces for the heterosexual mainstream consume base.  While there may be more of us on screen, we still are the “other,” the irregularity against which the “normal” heterosexual viewer measures itself.  All of this is not to suggest that there are absolutely no straight viewers who can pick up gay or lesbian subtexts in films, whether of classical Hollywood or later minting.  The strategies of queer reading can be learned and practiced by those whose lived experience is not necessarily structured along homosexual lines (indeed, some of the best queer readers I know are straight).  However, I would argue that the stakes for those viewers are less intense and weighted than they are for gay audiences, who still have to struggle and really work to find their own desires and screen likes represented in mainstream film.  We have over a century of neglect and repression within cinematic representation to deal with and overcome, and that is a very long process indeed.  Unlike some, however, I do see hope on the horizon in terms of the ways in which LGBT people are represented in film.  At this point, however, I think it is still far too early to tell what the future will hold nor, significantly, do I think that those of us in the LGBT community are yet entirely sure what it is that we want to see in our screen representation.  But that’s a post for another day.

What’s Your Position?: The Politics of Top and Bottom in Gay Sex

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex.  Sex is about power.”

—Oscar Wilde

It has become something of a truism that sex is political.  Whether it be the Republicans attempting to assert control over women’s bodies or those same Republicans attempting to criminalize homosexual acts, the act of sex has become a fraught political weapon in the ongoing war between the parties.  Gay (anal) sex in particular has occupied, and continues to occupy, a particularly vexed place in the American cultural imaginary since, almost invariably, it involves one man submitting his body to the penetration of another.  And, in Western culture, especially those indebted to the Greeks and Romans, anal penetration poses a fundamental disturbance to the alleged inpenetrability of normative masculinity.  Penetration, in the minds of many men, is the ultimate expression of indignity, the ultimate degradation and destruction of their masculine subjectivity (witness the fact that male/male rape or other sexual assault is often used as a means of breaking down male prisoners of war).

As a result, many queer theorists have postulated that passive anality is, whether consciously or subconsciously, a strike at the heart of hegemonic, phallic/impenetrable masculinity.  Indeed, this serves as the basic argument of Leo Bersani in his landmark and highly controversial essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?”  While I agree with Bersani and other theorists that passive (and yes, I realize the loadedness of this term) anality is a potentially subversive strike back at the tyranny of hetenormative masculinity, it seems to me that what gets left out of this equation is the “top” partner in this exchange.  What role does gay topping have in this schema?  While it can be argued that the penetrated “bottom” is engaging in a subversive political act by taking another man into himself and surrendering to the mingled pleasure and pain of penetration, can the same be said of the “top”?

At first glance, it might seem that the top in a gay sexual encounter is merely replicating the very phallic masculinity that male homosexuality is supposed to challenge, for it could be argued that the top is merely slipping into the role of the penetrator, i.e. placing himself into the position of the “man” in the encounter.  However, I would argue that something much more complicated and potentially politically subversive is going on here.  It is necessary to remember that, in consensual gay sexual encounters, both parties enter into a (often unspoken by no less potent and binding for all of that) contract.  The bottom knows that he is relinquishing a certain amount of power to his top, and the top, in turn, knows that he has in his hands that kind of power.  There exists, therefore, a very fragile balance of power between the two sexual partners in the moment of coupling that, ultimately, can form an intensely powerful emotional bond between both of them.  It takes the normal trade of power that is inherent in any penetrative sexual act and heightens the stakes and, in so doing, enters into a different circuit of desire than that in which much heteronormative/patriarchal sex circulates.

But, I can hear some of you objecting, don’t people who identify solely as “tops” tend to be those same people who so strenuously disavow femininity in other gay men?  Aren’t those who proclaim themselves “bottoms” (or, the rare subspecies, the “power bottom”) automatically falling into the position of the woman?  To this I would say, no, not necessarily.  There are a number of important things to remember here.  First, just because one person is penetrated and the other is penetrating does not necessarily mean that the one being penetrated has rendered himself feminine (although this is entirely possible, and indeed be a point of identification/community between gay men and women.  I would hasten to add, however, that this a perspective that only some gay bottoms would adopt).  Second, to merely assume that top/bottom map easily onto male/female is to inject a decided note of heteropatriarchy into what is decidedly not a heteronormative sexual arrangement.  That is why, for many gay men (and women), the question:  so who is the husband and who is the wife? is so incredibly insufferable and offensive.  It is attempting to enforce a particular kind of logic on a system in which such a logic has no place.

Thus, there exists within gay sex a subversive political potential on a number of levels, though not all gay men will partake or indulge in these particular perspectives, and some may do it at some points and not at others.  There are an infinite number of possibilities when it comes to gay sex, and there are many gay men out there who actually adopt a versatile position, moving fluidly between different positions of power.  Thus, I do not want to suggest that all gay men are automatically subversive.  However, I do want to suggest that gay male sex has the potential to be subversive, whether one adopts the position of the top or the bottom in a particular sexual encounter.  What is more, we as gay men need to not only become aware of this fact, but firmly claim it as our own particular set of practices, rather than letting the opposition compose the narrative for us.

Ultimately, I have to conclude that gay desire and sexual practice, whether they manifests themselves via the top or the bottom position, have within them a subversive political potential.  After all, though we may hate it, we still live in a heteronormative, patriarchal world, where phallic masculinity and hetero-penetrative sex is still the norm.  Gay men, even those who do all that they can to disavow any feminine aspect of themselves, occupy a vexed position in this world (which may go at least part of the way toward explaining why they do everything they can to avoid being known the dreaded “f” word).  Gay male sex, then, may serve as another weapon our continual struggle against the inequality that still remains structurally built into the world in which we live.  And if we can have fun while doing it, that makes it all that much better.

What We Mean When We Ask “Are You SURE You’re Gay?”

We’ve all either heard or it said it.  Upon hearing that our gay friend doesn’t like musicals, or has never seen The Golden Girls, or doesn’t like and/or has not heard of Judy Garland, we inevitably ask that unfortunate person, “are you sure you’re gay?”  Now, most of us probably say this in good fun, and most of us are guilty of it (even as we pretend outrage when someone else says it), but the important question is, what do we mean when we ask it?  (Let me be clear at the outset that this post will mainly deal with gay men, as it is that experiential position with which I am most familiar.  I welcome gay women to share their experiences in the comments section).

As with any expression that gets bandied about, it raises a host of questions that have multiplicitous and often contradictory answers.  The simplest answer is this:  when we ask someone if they are sure they are gay, what we are really asking is whether they have been adopted into or trained in the ways of gay culture.  Not whether they, in fact, desire and have sex with men, but whether they have, as it were, learned what it means to be gay, i.e. learned the ropes of what constitutes the gay way of life.

As numerous scholars—including such queer theory luminaries as David Halperin, Alexander Doty, Steven Cohan, and Brett Farmer—have observed, gay men, as a result of their marginal place in 20th (and, to a lesser extent, 21st) Century culture, have developed strategies for appropriating straight mass culture in ways that make it meaningful for them.  These have, typically, included such “gay” staples as Judy Garland and her films, the Hollywood and Broadway musicals, glamorous female stars like Dietrich, Crawford, and Davis (if you don’t know their first names, you might not be, ahem, gay), and female-centered television series such as The Golden Girls and Designing Women.  Though obviously and primarily intended for straight audiences, these texts and personas have become objects of gay male worship, to the extent that liking them has come to be equated with being gay, or at least to having a gay sensibility (after all, there’s no law stating that a perfectly heterosexual man can’t love Judy or Dorothy or Bette as much as a gay man).

“Gay” has, however, come to assume an ever-increasing number of cultural functions and desires, including fashion, design, and all things tasteful.  Again, part of the reason may be that these professions were often relegated—and by this I mean the dominant, patriarchal culture saw it as such—to women or those who, because of their gender performance (not, necessarily, their object choice) failed to live up to the masculine standard.  What better way to make one’s way in a patriarchal/homophobic world than to master those arts that have been denigrated as beneath the notice of the masculinist dominant order?

Of course, all of this has begun to change, as gay men have become increasingly visible and increasingly mainstreamed.  There is a persistent denial of “gayness” within gay male culture, which usually translates, in the world of online dating at least, into:  “Masculine guy here.  No fems or queens.”  Read:  DON’T REALLY BE GAY, ‘CAUSE I’M NOT THAT, DUDE.  I MAY DIG OTHER GUYS, BUT I’M A REAL MAN, NOT A PUSSY FAG.  As has happened numerous times in the past (as David Halperin notes, this was a common sentiment among young gay men in the 1980s), there is a persistent disavowal of femininity in the gay male community, and that usually includes those trappings of gay life that have, for better or worse, usually served as identifiers and signifiers of precisely that collective cultural identity.

All of this is not to suggest that gay men have to do these things.  It is merely to point out that it is and has been a strong current in gay male culture for most of the 20th and, for some, the 21st.  And, more importantly, that we should not forget and should definitely not condemn this way of life as being somehow abhorrent.  Hard as it may be for these “straight acting gays” (and I hope my loathing of that term shines through the quotation marks) to comprehend, there are still those of us who like to sing along to showtunes, worship the ground that Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford walk on, and even enjoy Glee and The Golden Girls.  And, believe it or not, some of us also enjoy typically “masculine” pursuits as well.  Hell, some of us even like sports and, gasp, even play them.  And all while singing a line from Chicago and thinking about our nice outfit that we’re going to wear to the theatre, too.

Thus, although it may be offensive/irritating when people ask the pointed question “Are you sure you’re gay?” in many ways the question captures the complexities of contemporary gay identity.  This is not to suggest that gay male subjectivity has not always been complex and contradictory; it is to suggest, as David Halperin does in his recent book How to Be Gay, that there is a cultural initiation.  Perhaps we—and by “we” I mean straight, gay, queer, and everyone else—would be better off accepting the multiplicity and the sheer diversity of lived gay male experience.  Or, at the very least, we should be a little more self-reflexive about what we mean when we ask that most dangerous and irritating (and, let’s face it, most gay) of questions.