Two Quotations

"If people want to get to know me better, they've got to know my parents and the values my parents instilled in me, and the fact that I was raised in West Texas, in the middle of the desert, a long way away from anywhere, hardly. There's a certain set of values you learn in that experience."—George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., May 5, 2006

"Artaud believed that the function of theatre was to teach us that 'the sky can still fall on our heads.' [...T]he Slapstick Tragedy that opened on September 11th was also a theatre of cruelty and might warrant some utopian explorations. The sky has fallen on our heads, and what we are seeing [...] threatens to blind us. At a time when every cultural practice is reassessing itself and its role, perhaps we will entertain Artaud's mad vision of theatre as a place to encounter the unknown and the unimaginable, a place that teaches us the necessary humility of not knowing."—Una Chaudhuri


Deadwood, Queerness, and Domesticity: Can't Stop Watching It!

For activist purposes, Hollywood does best to serve the “gay agenda” (we of the Left might as well reclaim the expression, eh?) when it offers open and expansive portrayals of homosexuality, of expressions of love, connection, communication, and (com)passion. Yet, there’s still value and pleasure in covert representations and in queer readings of texts that continue to offer repression as their primary strategy for depicting homosexuality. Take my recent preoccupation with Deadwood, for example.

The Western has long been an important genre through which repressed homosexuality thrives. As Brokeback Mountain acknowledges and the montage Jon Stewart unveiled at the 2005 Academy Awards outs, getting a bunch of tough, emotionally challenged men together is bound to result in some hanky panky, however codified.

In more sophisticated terms, Steve Neale, in “Masculinity as Spectacle” (Screen 24.6, 1983, pp. 2-16), argues that “‘male’ genres” of film are “founded upon a repressed homosexual voyeurism.” He notes that “in a heterosexual and patriarchal society the male body cannot be marked explicitly as the erotic object of another male look: that look must be motivated in some other way, its erotic component repressed.” (Note: I also use Neale’s focus to discuss the voyeurism and masculine anxiety in Fight Club: here.) In the Western in particular, there is significant focus on intense rivalries between (two) men, fetishization of phallic weaponry, and what I would call “intimate” violence (two men slugging each other and rolling around in the dirt). Neale discusses how such elements encourage male spectators to adopt an erotic gaze usually reserved for viewing female characters. Though they are not passive, as in the prototypical Hollywood female sex object, the activity of men in Westerns is stylized to be watched, and the line between violent display and sexual display is often thin.

While Brokeback Mountain uses this insight in its overt depictions of homosexual intimacy as a sometimes-violent, emotionally complex and difficult subject, particularly for its homophobic protagonist Ennis Del Mar, Deadwood offers repressed representation, the series being deeply invested in reinvigorating the Hollywood Western tradition. Arguably a “meta-Western,” commenting on the genre primarily through depictions of omnipresent muck, glorification of foul language of a sexual nature (especially “fuck” and “cocksucker” and “cunt”), depictions of women-as-chattel, and unremitting graphic violence, the series does not opt to comment on other generic elements, such as the predominance of whites and heteronormativity. Racism against Asians and Native Americans/Indians we do see, but Indian characters and such commonplace realities of the Old West as African American cowboys and prospectors are nigh invisible (in the first season and into the second at least). And repressed homosexuality abounds through the miasma of machismo the series exudes.

I’m not sure whether the gay overtones in the relationship between Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock are intentional or not. It is possible that the writers are aware of the homoeroticism of the Western and are enjoying it, particularly in the heavy-handed swagger of hyperhetero Bullock. But, in the first episode of the second season, when Swearengen calls Bullock out for his dalliance with the widow Alma Garret and the two end up stripping (ok, Bullock just takes off his gun and badge) and wrestling and punching until they fall off the balcony and land in the mud, one atop the other, exhausted—well, it’s just too queer to miss. (Punching in male genre texts always has violent sexual overtones, as I read it, but the tumbling tumbleweeds way these two roll around just made me laugh out loud. Just admit you want to fuck him, Al, and get it over with.)

I also see homoeroticism in Sol Star’s sidekick hero worship of Bullock, but it’s nowhere near as fun(ny) to watch as Bullock and Swearengen.

There is also a fear of femininity that is part of the repressed homoeroticism of Deadwood. As I read the movement from first to second season, as Deadwood goes from camp to government-controlled county, there is an encroachment of domesticity, represented literally by women who exemplify the figurative invasion of femininity. Steve Neale’s analysis of the Western also includes discussion of gendered codes whereby the male hero must reject literal and figurative domesticity (no marriage or children for the sheriff/marshal, a rugged individualism and need for open spaces). Hence, women represent a threat to Western genre masculinity and must be contained (as hookers, or butch drunks like Deadwood’s Calamity Jane) or gotten rid of (consider Joanie’s threat to Cy Tolliver as she develops a need for independence). (This is also the mechanism of the male gaze, according to Laura Mulvey.)

Yet the encroachment of femininity reaches beyond literal female characters to a more generalized anxiety/fear of the domesticity that femininity signifies in the genre. Swearengen’s fear of losing power and control over Deadwood is significantly greater when he faces the domesticating government than entrepreneur Cy Tolliver; Bullock is far more threatened by the arrival of his wife and child than any other dangers in Deadwood; and even Calamity Jane can only shout “cocksuckers!” at the stagecoach that brings new whores (to be managed by a Madam and not a man) as well as Bullock’s wife to town.

Interestingly, the character most impacted by this change in town is Alma Garret. She has spent much of her time in Deadwood first drugged by laudanum then peering out of her window, gazing at this masculine space and wanting to be part of it; yet being told, repeatedly, that his is not her place. First, her husband keeps her cloistered (hence her escape via drugs). She does not love him, but more importantly, he also symbolizes her entrapment by gendered norms. When he is killed, she experiences a desire to live beyond upper-class feminine norms, and begins to do so. Though saddled with a child—a heavy domestic dose—prostitute Trixie provides the opportunity to shed this sudden maternal role (an option generally available to upper-class women) but also to see beyond other traditional feminine behavioral norms for women of privileged class. Alma wishes to venture forth into this non-domesticated world. At first, she uses Wild Bill Hickok then Seth Bullock as her “agents,” living vicariously through their freedom (something Calamity Jane is also permitted through her dress and crass manner—though she has her feminine vulnerabilities). But as she decides to stay in town she is asserting a feminist resistance to gender norms. She is still too mired in gender and class norms to do everything herself, so Bullock serves to rid her of a conman father who uses her femininity against her to attain his greedy ends and to give her access to sexual pleasures beyond the marriage bed.

My main point here about Alma, however, is how domesticity returns from without to threaten her budding independence. Through the symbolic arrival of Bullock’s wife and child, Alma is staggered by the changes coming to Deadwood. The domesticization of the town does not threaten her as overtly as it does Swearengen and Bullock, but approach of civilizing influences in which she may be expected to return to her “proper” feminine role are definitely a key tension as season two begins.

Though I am still routing for a more developed and satisfying role for genderbender Calamity Jane, as I watch the second season on DVD, Alma appears to be the most dynamic and gender complex character in the series. Well, unless Al keeps getting queerer.


Doctor Who: Bi TV

I’m a longtime fan of Doctor Who. Like most Americans, Tom Baker is the first/best Doctor I’ve watched, but I think Jon Pertwee is fabulous and I liked the final 80s episodes with Sylvester McCoy, too. Though the body count was always high when the Doctor was around, there was also this fabulous escapism—go anywhere anytime and anyone could be the Doctor’s “assistant,” even me. Ridiculous cyborgs and robots like the movement-impaired Daleks and the gold-challenged Cybermen plus silly rubber masked extra-terrestrials from everywhere and anywhere just added to the fun.

The new incarnation of Doctor Who (first season just now airing in the States) does a superb job of retaining the old “feel” while adding some new flourishes—primarily in the areas of character development and relationships. First, the Doctor tells us that the entire Timelord “race” has been wiped out. So now he’s even more of a loner and renegade. Second, he’s flirty.

It’s delightful to see the very charismatic Christopher Eccleston play the Doctor with such working-class-boy-made-good chutzpah, excited like a child when he saves lives instead of destroying them (a great comment on the death toll of many a past Doctor’s life) and impishly flirtatious with his assistant Rose, the sweet blonde who’s even more white trashy than her predecessor Ace, and other young women he meets.

At the moment, though, I most want to praise the new Doctor Who for the character of Captain Jack Harkness. Reminding me a lot of an even flashier “Ace Rimmer” (Chris Barrie’s alter-ego from the British SF sitcom Red Dwarf), John Barrowman (whom I know best as a singer—his work in the Sondheim revue Putting It Together and part as Cole Porter’s lover in De-Lovely come to mind) is wonderfully hyper-competent and out-flirts the Doctor repeatedly (much to the Doctor’s dismay). Best of all, in the first season, he’s entirely and openly bisexual in his attractions, flirting with equal pleasure with women and men. I particularly loved the moment when he created a helpful diversion by chatting up a group of WWII pilots. Even when the Doctor finds Captain Jack an annoying nuisance (with obvious streaks of jealousy of his attractiveness to Rose and everyone else he meets), he never shows distaste for his omnivorous sexual attractions. I find this a delightful way to depict a future where bisexuality can be taken for granted.

Can’t wait for season two to air!*

*Yes, I know Captain Jack is getting his own show in England as I type... I'm guessing it won't make it to US television (or beyond a first season)--he's not the lead character type, imo, but let me know if anyone out there sees it.


Child Porn and Octavia Butler's Fledgling

I’m currently on page 73 (of 319) of Octavia Butler’s last novel Fledgling. When I finish it, I may blog about how much the novel shares with all of Butler’s other works, other vampire novels, and dark fantasy romance such as Christine Feehan’s Dark series. For now, I just want to comment a bit on how the novel deals with age, consent, and morality.

Butler’s protagonist, the amnesiac Renee/Shori, looks 11 but is actually 53 (still a child in vampire—or, as they call themselves, Ina—years). I won’t go into too many plot details, but suffice it to say she gets involved with Wright, a 23-year-old human male (i.e. bites and unintentionally compels to become her companion). They begin what Butler calls a symbiotic relationship. This is a central core to all of Butler’s fiction, and I cannot help but think about it alongside my knowledge of the author’s relatively solitary life. Her fiction often suggests that it takes outside forces to bring people together and keep them together. When not dealing with outright enslavement, the most intense relationships in much of her writing are about beings compelled to stay together. Often it is alien chemistry that does so or an absence of other viable options. Rarely do two characters meet, fall in love, and stay together.

Now, in Fledgling, Butler pushes an interesting envelope with her symbiosis theme, as she has this pre-pubescent-seeming vampire gal have sex with Wright. She enjoys giving him pleasure through her bites—and the particularly sensuous licking of his neck—but also through sex. Wright definitely expresses concern that he’s being seduced by a flat-chested, pubic-hairless girl, but he absolutely takes the elfin "child" into his arms and does the deed. Butler makes sure to make our heroine the aggressor, to show Wright’s discomfort, and even to make jokes about it. The word “jailbait” is used (an understatement!); and, when Renee/Shori meets another of her kind (so far he says he’s her father), he taunts Wright with reference to how others might see his relationship with this apparent pre-teen.

The first sex scene between them is, so far, the only one described at all, and Butler is, as always in her fiction, hesitant to describe sex graphically. (I repeatedly feel she simply does not understand love or lust; like Orson Scott Card, I get the feeling that passion escapes her entirely or turns her off.) But choosing to depict sex between consenting people who are not both adults is a risky proposition and I have mixed feelings about it. In choosing a protagonist who appears so young and also has amnesia, is Butler offering commentary on our current obsession with stopping child porn? (I read the current administration as using child porn concerns to further its McCarthy-esque invasions of privacy, but let’s leave that lie for now.) Is Butler pushing boundaries, intentionally depicting something that makes readers uncomfortable in order to challenge a current trend to censor rather than analyze? Is she commenting on the Christian Right’s hungry brush that tars a wide path of everything it deems “obscene” or “immoral”? Or is she, less politically but very typically for Butler, just messing with our easy reliance on rigid, overly simplistic categories (adult/child, moral/immoral, human/other)?

In any case, the opening of the novel did make me uncomfortable, and I’m sure intentionally so. Furthermore, however, it also made me angry. Following the Lenny Bruce quotation I cited earlier in this blog, I am frustrated by what we deem smut and what we deem “literature” and who can get away with what and how. If it’s “literature,” then you can describe an 11-year-old female body writhing on top of a 23-year-old male one. Yes, Butler must quickly explain that she’s not really 11 and she’s not even human, but she still has this guy fuck a kid before our startled eyes. (My husband is reading the novel Aztec right now and comments that it, too, contains sex with children, in this case because it is relying on historical evidence that the Aztecs did this.)

By contrast, if Fledgling or Aztec emphasized sex as central to the novel and was brought to a publisher of erotica, it would never have made it to print. There'd be no passing the huge “NO UNDERAGE SEX” warning. They also have NO BESTIALITY, NO RAPE, and other prohibitions, upholding these to stay in business in a difficult cultural environment, like those porn sites that now have to keep consent forms for every nude photo they post.

This reminds me of another literary/porn anecdote: about 10-15 years ago, a publisher issued a reprint of Samuel Delany’s pornographic novel Equinox. At the time, I found it excessive and in no way arousing, full of sex with minors, questionable consent issues, and very unsavory (unwashed) characters. (And now I can’t find my copy to see how I'd read it today.) What I remember most is an editor’s note that preceded the text, stating that the ages of every character had been increased by 100 to address concerns with child porn and consent! So the kids were now 110, the adults 142, etc. It was simply absurd, but also an interesting way to address the issue of censorship. We couldn’t publish the book as written (and originally published in 1968), so we had to do this stupid thing and pretend they’re all longlived aliens!

In the end, I’m not sure whether Butler—who always depicts lovers with big age differences where the woman is much younger than the man (Lauren was 17 to Bankola’s 45 in Parable of the Sower, if memory serves)—is making political/social commentary, trying to make readers uncomfortable as a psychological strategy, or just exploring the nooks and crannies of her own psyche. However, as always, she does make me think. Not a bad contribution to human existence, especially in this day and age.