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.


Stavner said...

Was Calamity Jane really butch?

Elyce Rae Helford said...

From the little I've read, she dressed in men's clothes (though did not try to pass as a man) and is best known for hard-drinking and riotous behavior.

Butch the Grump said...

Carumba! So many words. I think the Steve Neal "repressed homosexual voyeurism" model is a now stale. It was always more self-serving than true: finding a role for homosexuality within a context that denied its existence must have seemed a coup at the time. In my opinion, the imagery of westerns is actually based on the same pre-adolescent identity matching that fueled Superman and today's superheros. The joy of the western is that if offers an escape from sexuality. Of course homosexuality can perform that function too.

Elyce Rae Helford said...

I definitely buy the latency narrative for (some) superhero texts and other male-dominated fictions, such as the original Star Trek. But just as Kirk and Spock can be read as pre-adolescent boys in their clubhouse, the characters' relationship has also inspired more GAY fan fiction than any other kind of Trek fan writing. This, to me, signifies that we have a both/and situation not an either/or -- as you note in your final line.

zack said...

Al chooses not to penetrate bullock in the end of the tumbling match -- what are your thoughts on that? Is it just because people are watching or because the villain must have some ambiguously twisted homoerotic lifemate on the other side of issues? Did you read the New Yorker's review of the series? Now admit it... it's not just a foul-mouthed college boy-thing, but this season might be the last.
p.s. my friend had doane as a prof. last semster... she's apparently a very bitter but great lady.

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