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“The Asian was told to leave. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted. So he had to be carried out on a stretcher.”

16 Apr

On Compliance, Complicity, and Beating Up Asian America.

By Eng-Beng Lim

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For Asian Americans and other professional elites of color who think their class privilege or “whiteness” protects them from the racialized brunt of U.S.-America’s corporate-nationalist wrath, the bloody “re-accommodation” of 69-year-old Vietnamese American doctor, David Dao, on an allegedly overbooked United Airlines (UA) flight might be their “get woke” moment. Just to be clear, it involves police and neoliberal capitalist terror, corporate bullying, and Asian shaming. Dr Dao sustained “a broken nose, a concussion, two knocked out teeth and sinus problems that may require reconstructive surgery.” All for refusing to vacate his seat to accommodate UA’s administrative inefficiency.

But “getting woke” may depend on your level of subscription in the club of denial and complicity. Those with premier benefits might find it hard to relinquish their bad love. For denial has its own rewards, and complicity its wanton rationalization and even perfume.

Membership, afterall, has its privileges. What exactly is the cost of your membership’s privileges? Who is paying the price for your preferred status and clubby jaunt?

“Re-accommodation” is a term used by UA CEO, Oscar Munoz to characterize the forced extraction of seated passengers “randomly” selected by the computer to make space for four crew members. They had to catch a connecting flight that would otherwise be understaffed, delayed or canceled. The flight in question was not overbooked or oversold, as airlines officials originally claimed. That few if anyone is picking on this lie only shows our level of compliance with the fungible language of bureaucratic corporate procedure. We are so inured to gaslighting and alternative truth that a white lie is a just white lie (switch the color and you are most definitely a liar). Let’s give companies and the men who run them the benefit of doubt, and beat the crap out of consumers who do not comply.

Dr Dao was illegally ejected from the plane in violation of 14 CFR 250.2a. that prohibits giving preference to airlines employees over paying customers, especially if they have already been seated. Part of the dispute will hang on whether the employees who are considered “must-ride passengers” can unseat paying customers on a full flight. But it does not get to the spectacular violence against the doctor, and the seemingly inexplicable assault on the American consumer and Asian America. To sort out this mess, let’s start with a quick recap of the world we live in, and an earnest question:

Could it be that the corporatization of the Senate and the vindictiveness of male-centered egos exemplified by conservative and rightwing ideologues like Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and their cabal of mediocre apparatchiks, naysayers, white supremacists, 1 percenters and security thugs now go hand in hand with the thuggery of state-sanctioned oligopolies like UA that operate as their armed, air travel functionary disguised as service?

A nation’s divisions, arrogance and toxicity do not just spring out of nowhere. Their escalation has been facilitated by ultraconservative white supremacist rancor and gaslighting running the spectrum of racism/xenophobia, anti-gay/misogyny, anti-refugee/Islamaphobia. It’s almost mechanical at this point. But that we should entertain the idea that gaslighters are outraged that their crimes are “leaked” to the press rather than being outraged at their crimes is a real kicker. It is a rich ethical perversion that gives perversion a bad name. The vacuous shorthand, “a nation divided,” only compresses the deniability of those who start wars and fires by demagoguery or political poison. Enter the Bully-in-Chief with explicit instructions for his devotees and initiads, which include white nationalist groups:

“Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously.”

“I’d like to punch them in the face, I tell you, would you?”

“I love the old days. Do you know what they used to do to guys like that in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

More than just Trump’s expressive nastiness at his rallies, these opportunistic incitements to violence have a long history in U.S-American nationalist bravura, machismo, belligerence, imperialism and gun culture. But as corporate performatives, it is virtually unheard of unless we examine the violent deeds of corporations as the very enactment of these words.

Yes, those are exactly the words that UA is saying to Dr. Dao who is carried out on a stretcher, and by extension to Asian/America. You know, the time when Asian exceptionalism means you can be legally discriminated against because the law does not apply to you – the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese incarceration camp, just to name two – or, clobbered to death with impunity (Vincent Chin RIP).

Regarding Trump’s incitement to violence, multiple lawsuits filed against him state how “black residents were brutally attacked by a white mob,” including a plaintiff who was “kicked, choked, shoved, punched, scratched and referred to as nearly every racial slur known.” Though the racial violence is specific and contextual, the abuse is also generalizable of Trump’s treatment of African Americans, especially powerful black women like Susan Rice, Maxine Waters and April Ryan. The intersection of race, violence and corporations that has fueled Trump’s business empire and the rise of his despicable Presidential persona is also at the heart of UA’s treatment of Dr Dao.

To put it plainly, it’s about corporations punching people in their faces, sometimes without them knowing because it’s in the gut so to speak, and sometimes in the flesh, knocking them out senseless. The continuing fetishization of choice in this regard is laughable to say the least. Trump’s response to the incident is for airlines to increase the compensation for bumping passengers off the aircraft as if that would create more access and equality for air travel. And lo and behold, United has quickly announced an upper ceiling of 10k for those bumped out of their seats in the future. That is the solution? Some people are excited about how this is an enticing option to game the system. Who do you think will benefit from? The Dr Daos of the world or those “in the club”?

Let’s put it this way, you may think you are choosing or benefiting freely as a consumer but you have no say about the options from which you choose, and how you are treated in practice. When the options are lousy, they are lousier for those at the bottom whether it is U.S. air travel, healthcare or the school system. They are about creating insufferable conditions for the majority so that the super-privileged who can afford Platinum-level service can take up ever more space and resources just because they can. Because corporate entities love revenues more than anything else. Does this sound like a bloviating cheeto-maniac sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and making everyone parse his gibberish just because he can? That’s the kind of treatment we’re being trained to accept from POTUS Inc. which hails from the neoliberal business world where such disciplinary technique, from Walmart to Wall Street, is justified in the name of financializing everything. Cheap prices and ruthless profits rule the day.

Dr Gao’s plea, “I want to go home, I want to go home” resonates in this echo chamber of hell like a desperate, lonely cry in the woods. Like a bad Hollywood movie where a hero played by Harrison Ford/Liam Neeson/Tom Cruise enters an altered realm of reality where he is met by violence and punishment disguised as law enforcement, Dr. Dao found himself stranded in the limbo of the oversold flight. But while the white Alpha male Hollywood hero is always right and always vindicated, Dr. Dao was knocked unconscious for his efforts on behalf of righteousness and dragged unceremoniously from his seat.

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He was told to leave “politely” but he refused as a consumer who paid for his seat. He was given an explanation about how “we [United] have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.” No explanation was given as to why he was not one of the customers that UA wants to get to “their destination on time and safely.”

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Nevertheless, the Asian doctor persisted in defiance of his extraordinary exclusion from the airline’s articulated customer base. So the airlines summoned the full force of airport security, including the Chicago Department of Aviation and Chicago Police Department whose officer promptly smashed his face, rendered him senseless, and eventually carried him out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth. All the doctor could say in the end was, “Just kill me now.”

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Now imagine Senator Elizabeth Warren being carried out on a stretcher for refusing to abide by Mitch McConnell’s controversial rebuke to silence her during the nomination debate about Jeff Session as U.S Attorney General. Or, for that matter, citizen Warren being dragged out like a rag doll through the aisle, her hair disheveled, and her glasses askew on her face as she is rendered incoherent. All because she refused to shut up or give up her seat. Not so long ago, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”?

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For those who missed this political theater, Warren had sought to read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter regarding Sessions’s discrimination against black voters. The meme that went viral encapsulated the public’s response to the blatant sexism of the Senate that voted 49-43 along party lines to shut her up. Degrees of indignity aside, the different scales of violence tell a story of how gender and race are inflected by notions of privilege and proprietary that shape our political and social sympathies. It would be unacceptable for Senator or even Citizen Warren to be taken out the way the body of the limp and anonymous Asian doctor was treated. In fact, the discomfort of witnessing the Asian American doctor’s infantilization and breakdown struck such a raw nerve that reports have eschewed the racial spectacle unfolding before our eyes. He was some Asian man, maybe a doctor, no one was sure, and many commentators cast doubt about him being a doctor at all based, presumably on the way he looks.

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In a sign of the times, a doctor standing his ground on a humanitarian appeal (he had patients to meet the next day) was of no consequence to UA in Trump’s nation where self-serving corporate prerogatives come first. There is a lot more to be said about the terrible entanglements of corporate personhood, profit, policing, and biopolitical regulation. Suffice to say, Dr. Dao’s treatment is not exceptional in the context of ubiquitous bullying and killing across the country. They are only intensifying under the toxic charge of Trump’s administration. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of those being bullied or killed are folks with names like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Danny Chen, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Isabella Cornell and David Dao.

We might return to take a closer look at the scene where Dr Dao is carried out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth, and notice this time a different set of actors laughing in the fuzzy background: Team Agent Orange oligarchs, politicos and airlines executives feasting on their bloodied meat. We might add Dr Dao to the names of those who are targeted for harassment and even gunned down because they refuse (or are perceived to be refusing) to comply with bogus rules, corporate prerogatives, heteronormative policing, and white nationalism. The violence produced at the systemic level between colluding regimes and corporations are enduring and far-reaching.

To what extent is complicity – “the state of being an accomplice; partnership or involvement in wrongdoing” – and especially the complicity of cluelessness, detachment or apathy an alibi of colluding forces? Now more than ever, raising questions about complicity’s new faces is also a crucial inquiry about our moral and ethical coordinates as an American, witness, neighbor, ally and friend not only in the U.S. but around the world.

The satirical jokesters at Saturday Night Live suggest that in Trump Nation, complicity is a political pathology for sale in a seductive package. Their metaphor is a bottle of perfume. In an episode that indicts Ivanka Trump for her foxy agendas, Scarlett Johansson’s hyperbolic portrayal of Ivanka vamping it up for a line of perfume makes clear the businesswoman’s product placement comes before the public office she holds (to everyone’s incredulity). One can only wish the public’s wishful projection for Ivanka to be the progressive women’s voice ought to have ended in a recent television interview where she declared, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”

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Complicity’s feminine two-face (Johansson is herself accused of being complicit in Israeli settler colonialism for defending Sodastream’s factory as legitimate in the illegal settlement on the West Bank) blurs the good and the bad with no commentary on women’s participation in compulsory whiteness, colonial violence and clueless privilege. What looks good and desirable, like Ivanka or the perfume, might help to obfuscate what is making the lives of the disenfranchised even more miserable.

It is nonetheless a club that draws many members, including bourgeois apologists of color, other white liberal allies, and the pinkwashing homo-matrimonial types who want to smell nice. Everyone in this club is trained to love an arsenal of amnesia-inducing denials and blindspots: “I cannot see what you see,” “It doesn’t rise up to that,” “I need more information,” “They did nothing wrong,” “He was belligerent,” “He’s an illegal,” “Who cares?”

To be complicit is to approve the collusion of corrupt power, money, and imperial projects. It is to give your tacit approval of using violence, harassment and assault on people to protect corporate mandates and personhoods, the belligerent police-military state, and colonial whiteness at all cost. The stakes are higher as bombs matching the egos of a bumbling and bloviating team in the White House are being detonated in Syria and Afghanistan to legitimize their violent and morally bankrupt worldview. To speak out as many did on the plane where Dr Dao was assaulted is to reject the normalization of complicity as our moral code.

As we bear witness to the return of an angry U.S. police-military state and the increasingly swampy topography of corporate malfeasance and assault, how many of us will turn a blind eye or do nothing at all?. How many of us will be caught in the victim-blaming, smear campaign against the next “Dr Dao,” or be bought off by the new 10k reward for bumping off passengers?

Do people care? Over 240,000 comments and 550 million views are recorded a day after Dr Dao’s assault on China’s Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter), not counting the millions of views on related YouTube videos. United Airlines’s share price has dropped, and calls to boycott the airline are stronger than ever. So, yes, people do care and they make a difference.

The centrality of the question of complicity tells us we are desperately, urgently needing a salvageable moral and ethical position to live and to flourish in Trump’s America. This is an America where witnessing violence against a neighbor seems to have become a sport, where apathy and cluelessness are quickly becoming the new alibis of complicity. It gives new meaning to sitting tight with privilege in the face of trouble, and sometimes a face says it all:

Calm Guy As Asian Doctor Screams

Screenshot of a widely circulated video of an unidentified man sitting calmly as Dr. Dao screamed in the background.

WHITE MEN BEHAVING SADLY by Jack Halberstam

22 Feb

White Men Behaving Sadly

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At the end of a year in which men behaved badly, madly, and even gladly, how appropriate that an Oscar contending film appears in which men behave, yup, sadly. Indeed all the ladly behaviors that make up the repertoire of white masculinity have culminated in this – a film where we finally understand why the white man is sad, why everyone else is bad and why despite being sad because everyone else is bad, he learns to be a dad.

Manchester by The Sea (directed by Kenneth Lonergan) is a self-indulgent but pretty picture in which Affleck the Younger, Casey that is, mopes around for a full hour onscreen before we understand that something terrible has happened to him. His brother dies but that barely merits a tear from our sad sack chap. So could it be that he has a really bad job as a handy man that puts him in the way of verbal abuse from women and people or color and even an episode that comes close to sexual harassment from a woman of color? No, the sad white man mostly just takes the abuse and keeps on keeping on. He soldiers on because he is a white man behaving sadly and that is what white men do. So what is the terrible thing that has happened to Casey Affleck to make him move around in the world like a zombie, silent and brooding, angry and resentful. Well, spoiler alert, let me explain. Lee Chandler (played by Affleck the Younger), we find out in flashbacks, once had a wife and some kids. And he was a good man. And he behaved gladly and sometimes even a little badly. Like, one night he had his buddies over and they made too much noise. So his wife broke up the party and made them go home. Sulking, Lee makes a fire in the living room and then steps out into the night to get some more beer. By the time he gets home, his house has burned down with his children in it and only his wife escapes.

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After an episode in the police station where you think that maybe he might be charged with something, manslaughter perhaps, he finally wigs out about what has happened and tries to grab a police officer’s gun, presumably to kill himself. The police politely restrain him and he is released to his brother’s care. Well, wow. So he burned his own house down and waved a gun around in a police station and lived to tell the tale because…sad white men’s lives matter and so accidently burning your kids and waving a gun at cops is not a big deal and just requires a little TLC! Don’t you get it? He is hurting and we are expected to cry for him because it is all so sad…for him! Not for his wife, not for those kids, not for his brother, but for him. All the bad things that happen around him, are his bad things.

Why are white men so sad? Well, in this film, they are sad because women are fucked up shrews and alcoholics who drag them down, give them heart attacks and, for god’s sake, try to talk to them and offer them food. They are also sad because they work for very little money and do the worst jobs in the world. They clean other peoples’ toilets, fix their showers and live in small garrets alone and with very bad furniture. Poor sad white men. This sad white man also has to take on the burden of parenthood after his brother’s death. His brother left his only son in Lee’s care and Lee and the boy tussle about girls, sex and authority until Lee learns to see the boy as his heir, as another white man who should enjoy his adolescence because soon everything will be taken from him too.

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Yes, reader, this is a film made to measure for the coming Trump era, a time when white men can stop being sad, feel very glad and grab lots of pussy with impunity. Like Trump’s entire campaign, this film does not need to trumpet its white supremacy because this doctrine is embedded in every scene, it saturates every shot, it controls the camera and it lives in every hangdog moment that Lee Chandler spends staring silently off into space. Whiteness, the film tells us, is part of the frayed beauty of America and its power hangs in the balance in a world where bad things can and do happen to white men…even when they themselves cause those bad things to happen! Indeed, off screen Casey Affleck has been cast as a serial sexual abuser and while accusations of sexual harassment brought Black director Nate Parker’s Oscar hopes to a sordid conclusion, Affleck’s history with sexual harassment suits barely merits a mention. This film gives us a clue as to how powerful white men see the world, women, love, loss and violence – it is all one tragic narrative about how hurt and misunderstood they really are.

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The world of “Manchester by the Sea” is the world imagined by white men in an era when a Black man was in the white house and women held public offices at many levels. It is a world where the white working class man has no power – he dies young (Lee’s brother), he lives alone (Lee), he cannot even enjoy spending time in his basement with other white men. His wife treats him badly and then later, after the tragic event (that he himself caused) his Black boss and his female customers abuse him. The white world of Manchester by the Sea is elegiac, brimming with a sense of tragedy that exceeds the events on the screen and asks us, begs us even to find a reason for why things should be this way.

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There are great tragedies written about women who have killed or been forced to kill their children – think of Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved who takes a hatchet to her baby rather than relinquish her back to slavery. Think of Medea who kills her children to take revenge on her husband and their father, Jason, for leaving them. Think of Sophie in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice who must choose to let one child live and the other die upon entering Auschwitz. These stories show infanticide as a deliberate action taken as part of a sacrifice or to prevent something worse than death from happening. No such logic underwrites Manchester by the Sea – the death of the children is almost gratuitous, it means nothing in the film except as its function as the source of irreducible melancholia for the white man. This same melancholia does not affect his wife (played by Michelle Williams) who quickly marries and has another child. There is no set up in the film to show us the bond between Lee and his children; there is little that explains the melancholia – is it guilt? Anger?

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While critics fall over themselves to give this film an Oscar, we should ask what the film is really about. If this film is an allegory then it is a perfect symbolic landscape of the territory that ushered Trump into office – the film sees the world only through the eyes of working class white men. It sees such men as tragic and heroic, as stoic and moral, as stern but good. The film knows that the tragedy from which the white man suffers is of his own making but nonetheless the film believes that the tragedies that they have created happen to them and not to other people. This is the same logic by which Dylan Roof took the lives of nine African American church-goers in South Carolina while claiming to be defending white people from Black criminality and it is the logic by which Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded fourteen others in Isla Vista near UC Santa Barbara in 2014. Rodger left a manifesto behind that represented him as a victim of women who had sexually rejected him. It is the logic of every lone white gunman in America and while the media depicts these killers as mad and marginal, American cinema romanticizes them as sad and solitary. Obviously, Manchester by the Sea is not about a serial killer who turns a gun on innocents and yet innocents do die by his hand and rather than seeing this as a tragic narrative about white male narcissism or about the dangers of centering one group in a complex society, we are asked to read the film as just another story about white men behaving sadly.

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And now, in Oscar season, we prepare to watch the films that celebrate white families, white song and dance, white grief, white music go up against films about Black families (Fences), Black grief (Moonlight), disaporic displacement (Lion), and win or lose, we can hear the storm troopers outside on the streets. Films that a few months ago just seemed to be about sad things or happy things, now appear in a new light and become part of our national tragedy in which all attempts to make diversity mean something, to resist systems that criminalize communities of color while representing white crime as law and order, to rethink sex, are quickly dismissed as identity politics, political correctness or authoritarian feminism. It is time, apparently to make America great again, to cater to the sad white man, to feel his pain, to lift him up and dry his tears. White men have been sad for too long apparently, now it is our turn.

Moonlight, the Sea Body, and the Color Blue by Macarena Gómez-Barris

3 Nov

moonlightIn director Berry Jenkin’s new film Moonlight (2016), the intimate view on Black queerness astonishes. While the film is a painful coming of age story, it is also a lively rendition of alternative frameworks of embodiment where the powerful ocean, or sea body, is omnipresent and rendered as a space of longing, transgenerational memory, migration, and witness represented by water and light. During a recent viewing of Moonlight with a group of friends at Lincoln Center, I was surprised to find myself so completely absorbed in the filmic experience as to feel saturated by the film’s sensuality, or what Laura Marks’ might call its haptic sensuality “where even small events are arenas for a universe of feeling” (2002: p.1).

Moonlight is not an easy viewing experience, not only because of the homophobia that is directed against Chiron (Alex Hibbart). It is also because the shy nine-year old rarely experiences relief from multiple forms of violence and subjectification that brutalize his psychic and physical form. The film is indeed organized around how Chiron’s Black queer personhood is conditioned by the drugs and violence of Reagan-era Miami and by the taunting racialized violence of adolescent masculine becoming. In a moment of janelle-monae-moonlight-compressedexteriorizing others prejudices, Chiron thoughtfully turns his head and asks his mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali) “What’s a faggot”? Even though he is the local drug dealer, and regularly supplies to Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris), Juan is also a gentle protector and ally. After exchanging glances with his girlfriend Teresa, exquisitely played by Janelle Monáe, Juan responds to Chiron’s startling, yet knowing question with a simple and profound statement, “It’s something people say to make gay people feel bad.” Teresa becomes a resonant presence in the film. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Chiron, aka “Little,” returns to Teresa’s house to eat, sleep, and to generally find a cocoon within an environment that otherwise offers little respite. With an ethics of care that is carried out with a playful tinge of an island accent, Teresa figures as the source of acceptance, hope, and loving support, especially within a US landscape where “being oneself” is anathema to a culture that devours and disposes of its Black queers.

If Teresa’s care for Chiron represents a rich portrait of island relationality and the ability to address differential power and political economies of difference through non-reproductive intimacy, there are several other moments in the film where Miami is thoroughly infused by what Jacqui Alexander refers to as diasporic crossings (2006). For Alexander, feminist and queer crossings are a site for trans-generational memory, where historical and layered crossings force open a reckoning with the embodied meaning of the sacred, and, the spiritual dimensions of experience. Amidst a hardened world where the worst forms of structural violence impose themselves upon Black queer bodies, there is an excess that looms large in the film, one that cannot be absorbed simply by naming Moonlight a coming of age story. Alongside and as a direct witness to Chiron’s story is the aliveness of the sea, the body of water that stretches between the Caribbean Islands to the Biscayne Bay, and it too becomes a protagonist in the film.

 

Whether as a view from the window, or lapping alongside Little and Kevin’s sexual encounter, or as an enveloping presence as Chiron first learns to swim, in a palette that moves between midnight black to light turquoise green the oceanic touch and feeling is never far. Describing the “newness” of Moonlight in a review for the NY Post, David Kaufman recently said, “There has literally never been a film like it.” US cultural criticism often contains this kind of hyperbole and ethnocentric management of racialized and gendered representations.342734c3-f1dd-4f41-b25b-a4fd6c07d71a We might counter such exaggerated declarations by noting Karim Aïnouz’s extraordinary Madame Satá (2002), a film that chronicles the life of legendary Queen and performance artist Joao Francisco, or point to the Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate (1993), directed by Tomás Guitierrez Alea and that complexly considers queer nightmares, although admittedly race is scantly addressed in the film. It may be true that Moonlight is different from many of the recent Hollywood films that feature Black masculine subjects, such as Nate Parker’s The Birth of the Nation and 12 Years a Slave, as The NY Post compares. And, it’s true that Moonlight clearly shares important resonances with Pariah (2011), whose cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed uses blue and pink hues in novel ways. However, if we considered a broader world of filmmaking and influences, a more apt comparison might include f5ff4fb3-49bd-4f13-8bdb-f2692e1fd77fGirlhood (2014), director Céline Sciamma’s coming of age film about a French immigrant young woman growing up in public housing in suburban Paris. Both Moonlight and Girlhood share how race, sexuality, desire, and vulnerability are central to the experience of living on the margins, and how every day violence in the lives of Black youth compounds the need for embodied modes of escape. Similar to Moonlight, where the color blue is a filter, a costume, a painted wall, in Girlhood blue functions as a contrast to the overseen use of murky palettes. In dominant representations, dull and mutated tones visualize “the margins,” “the inner city” and “the outskirts” as spaces of lifeless blight. To counter such conventions in both films the color blue, in all its shaded richness, becomes the medium for a parallel narrative of an outside to extreme pressure. In short, the color blue offers the potential space of freedom as the imaginative and the intuitive. In the case of Girlhood, a vibrant and pulsating blue infuses the most important scene in the film, a scene that is organized around a beautiful and exuberant dance amongst friends to Rhianna’s song “Diamond.”

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In one of the most moving and much discussed scenes in Moonlight, including in Tavia Nyong’o’s piece posted on this blog, the camera lingers on undulating waves and Chiron’s black body as his head is gently cradled by Juan. Teaching Chiron how to swim, the two Black bodies float alongside and entangled with each other in a lingering choreography of embodied sensation, floating between jade and shimmering waves. At various points during the scene, the camera half submerges underwater, capturing limbs and embodiment both above and below the water’s changing surface. This submerged visuality is not only about the camera’s dipping below the overlay of human relations, or about forgetting the conditions of violence that surround Chiron. Instead, the scene of non-scripted intimacy offers another way to see Chiron’s supposed submission to the world of hetero-masculine tauntings. Juan teaches Chiron how to swim for himself in the sea, as the camera lingers over the touch of Black skin and the mesmerizing mutation of turquoise green waves. Indeed, the pastel tones and lush colors reflect the light of Miami, but also the dreamlike quality of what Jenkins has referred to as the “beautiful nightmare” that is this city. Drying off at the end of the scene, Juan reveals to Chiron that he is from Cuba, where there are a lot of Black people, despite the fact that you don’t see them here, an allusion to the visibility of white Cubans in Miami’s elite political and economic machinery. Through the blue-green glistening sea, we are reminded of the Middle Passage, its histories of collective death and commodification, but also the sea as a quintessential site of freedom.

The sea is visualized a dozen or more times in the film, as a lingering presence, a witness of adolescent sexual exploration, and as Little’s return home. Coming back for a visit to Miami in adulthood, Chiron meets up with Kevin, his adolescent friend and with whom he shares the powerful memory of teenage desire and touch. At a restaurant by the sea where he works, Kevin prepares Chiron a special dinner. Chiron asks, “Oh, you Cuban now?” “Only in the kitchen, papi,” Kevin responds. Given the ever present ebb and flow of the sea and the hovering moonlight, Kevin might have added “also by the ocean.” Within the arc of small exchanges and moments that are filled with dreamlike potential, the Caribbean is threaded through the main narratives of Moonlight. a589d215-eee2-4d80-ac7c-5249ada39747

In this sense, ocean water might be read as a powerful symbol of the Orisha and goddess Yemaya. In Santeria, Yemaya is the source of all, the constantly mutating and transforming force that is both protector and the mother of all life that rules over the seven human figures of the pantheon. Given the Yoruba-based worship that traverses Caribbean and Brazilian Afro-diasporic memory (Yemanjá in Brazilian Portuguese), Yemaya represents a powerful and even queer force of the natural world, untamable and in constant mutation and represented by the sea. In an early scene that takes place within Juan’s mother’s apartment, the ceramic and humanized figure of Yemaya is dressed in a blue and white robe and sits upon a simple shelf in the backdrop, a symbol of Paula’s possible immigrant and diasporic roots. In fact, the color blue as sea, in the openings towards the sky, and as painted walls within domestic spaces, as well as at Chiron’s high school, is so prominent as to become the powerful symbolic language of what might be called a “blue cinema” that color adjusts, to invoke Marlon Briggs brilliant documentary, for Black diasporic visuality and memory. Even amidst the alienating and violent environments that Chiron is exposed to and must survive within, the spiritual symbolic of the African diaspora explodes in the most of the scenic backdrops. Thus, while Moonlight inhabits the conditions of structural violence, it also invokes its spatialized transits — between the Caribbean islands, the economies of empire and sexual tourism, the non-spaces of historical memory. Meanwhile, the color blue, the sky, the ocean become the means of metaphorical escape. This secondary symbolic level, is where the director touches other dimensions of experience that pass through Black diasporic cultural memory and embodiment, reaching into the shadowy and liquid transits of the Caribbean basin and the trans-Atlantic. With the title “Moonlight,” other cosmologies are subtly made apparent, the reflection of the sea tides, the references to other ways of knowing, being, seeing and thinking that find routes out of hyper-visible political and material operations.

Moonlight exceeds the frameworks that criminalize queers, diminish Black life, and individualize the logics of racialized gender as determining of particular outcomes. Moonlight is the other space, the parallel world of ancestors, the shadow world, the porous line between living and dead, the drowned and floating worlds as histories of crossing and being otherwise. And, it is also the Orisha world where all is not ruled by the human condition, all is not tamed by capitalist materialism, and all is not predetermined by the structure of violence that forces Chiron to become a muscular man who dare not touch another man, even well into adulthood. The moonlight of the film is cast on Black male bodies, that during adolescence find their intimacy with each other. And in the last scene of the film, holding each other by the light of the moon is the moment of release and of finding one’s own and another’s sense of belonging.

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From Sister George to Lonesome George? Or, Is The Butch Back? By Jack Halberstam

16 Jul

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While as recently as a decade ago, many butches could still be found in their natural habitats – dyke bars and softball teams – and while some could even be spotted in the wild, in recent years, their numbers have declined leading some scientists to predict their eventual disappearance. Indeed, like the passenger pigeon or Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise that died in 2012, the butch seemed like a category whose time had passed – a relic, a fossil, a victim of cultural climate change and an irredeemable symbol of past times that a new generation was eager to forget. But, in a kind of miraculous adaptation, the butch, like the Eurasian beaver or the Dalmatian Pelican, seems to have trembled on the brink of extinction and…made a remarkable recovery!

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From the Broadway musical based on Alison Bechdel’s memoir of growing up butch with a closeted gay father, Fun Home, to Lea Delaria and the consortium of butches (what is the word for a group of butches? A Charm? A Pace? A Kennel? A Brace? A Barren? A Murder? A Parliament? Or, my favorite – a Bale? I am going with bale of butches) in Orange is the New Black, from Charlize Theron’s turn as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max to the hockey playing tomboy in Inside Out, we would seem to have a bale of butches in popular culture right at the very moment that the category has supposedly gone out of style.


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Are the new representations of butches ghostly after-images of a recent past that has come and gone and taken its place within a pantheon of gay and lesbian histories relegated to the past by the recent triumphalism of the gay marriage era? Or, conversely, are they harbingers of a new future of gender variability that has expanded beyond man and woman into a wide ranging set of expressions of the gendered body? Is butch back or was it never gone? Has butch been around long enough to become trendy? Or, in an era of unprecedented visibility for transgender embodiment, does butch represent an obstinate fragment of an older paradigm, still capable of generating both fascination and fear?

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 27:  Amelie Mauresmo of France plays a backhand during the women's singles third round match against Flavia Pennetta of Italy on Day Six of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 27, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

It was less than a decade ago at Wimbledon that French tennis player, Amelie Mauresmo was accused by Lindsay Davenport of “playing like a guy” and then described by Martina Hingis of being “half a man.” Now Mauresmo is the super effective coach for a male top ten player – Andy Murray. And, only six years ago, South African runner, Caster Semenya was subjected to a clearly racist “gender test” when her unapologetically athletic appearance led to suspicions about her masculinity, drug use and so on. Now, on the current world cup winning women’s soccer squad there are several visibly butch players and plenty that are openly queer. How, then, did we leap, in the last year or so, from uniform expressions of disgust, suspicion and dismay directed at the masculine female form to empathy, recognition and even acceptance?

17mag-17talk-t_CA0-blog427In an interview in The New York Times Magazine in May of this year, Alison Bechdel, who appeared in the photograph accompanying the piece dressed in a very smart tailored suit, was asked:

“In “Fun Home,” you wrote about becoming a connoisseur of masculinity at a young age. Today a young person like you would be more likely to identify as transgender than gay. Is the butch lesbian endangered?”

Well, first of all, great question!! Second, wow, in The New York Times? Really? Third, well, is the butch endangered? Bechdel answers adroitly:

“I think the way I first understood my lesbianism, before I had more of a political awareness of it, was like: Oh, I’m a man trapped in a female body. I would’ve just gone down that road if it had been there. But I’m so glad it wasn’t, because I really like being this kind of unusual woman. I like making this new space in the world.

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So, is butch the designation of a new space or an old space? The article is ambivalent and implies both that butch is an old-fashioned form of identification that is in danger of being eclipsed by transgenderism and that it is a “new space in the world.” And maybe that captures perfectly what shall hereafter be known as “the temporal paradox of the butch” – it is out of time and ahead of its time and behind the times all at once. Butch is simultaneously a marker of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag” or “the visceral pull of the past on the supposedly revolutionary present” and of certain forms of what Juana Maria Rodriguez terms “sexual futures.” The uncanny, uncertain, dislocated and indefinable terrain of the butch competes with our sense of the stubborn, recalcitrant, unmoving and unmoved essence of the butch. Butch was supposed to fade away as a category precisely because it encapsulated the ugly, the dowdy, the backward and the tragic (Stone Butch Blues not Stone Butch Ecstasy), but its calcified intransigence may actually have equipped the category for survival!

A close friend sent me the clip of young Sydney Lucas singing “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (thanks GG!). The show-stopping song, penned by the incomparable Lisa Kron, that has thrilled audiences on Broadway found an even larger audience when Lucas performed it at the Tony’s awards this year. While singing children are nothing new and generally kind of irritating, lesbian-themed Broadway shows and songs about youthful identifications with butch women are as rare as gay men on football teams or straight ladies in the power tools section at Home Depot. So, this song and this musical had few cultural traditions upon which to draw. Amazing then that the song is so effective, so moving, so…emotional!

“Ring of Keys” tells the story of an encounter between the young Alison and the adult butch who walked into the diner where Alison and her closeted father were eating. Sydney sings:

Someone just walked in the door, like no one I ever saw before, I feel…I feel…

I don’t know where you came from, I wish I did, I feel so dumb… I feel…I feel.

Your swagger and your bearing and the just right clothes you’re wearing.

Your short hair and your dungarees, and your lace up boots and your keys, ohhh, your ring of keys!

“I know you,” she sings, “you’re beautiful…no, you’re handsome”! This song is just so…it’s…I feel…I feel…Ellipsis in the song conveys the unspeakability of this articulation of butch cross-generational identification. There are no words for such affect, no precedents for generations of butches past who may also have seen strong, gender-queer female-bodied women and who may have wanted to claim them. As novelistic descriptions by Leslie Feinberg and others of just such ghostly encounters between adult, abject butches and the young proto-butches who want to find their likenesses in the world demonstrate, in the past, the butch adult would have been more likely to spark terror and fear in the young queer’s heart than adoration, acceptance and identification.

What the young Alison feels for the anonymous butch who crosses her path has no words, cannot be culled from any archive of feelings, gay or straight, and so is captured in that open mouthed, soundless wonder that punctuates the song. The mouth, open and silent, mimics the ring of keys that say everything without speaking, that jangle a noisy song of their own without words, that say butch in a way that ordinary language could not.

The success of Alison Bechdel’s work, long overdue and so well deserved, both exemplifies and contributes to the evolution and repopulation of butches. Butches can now be found in sports and in the arts, on the soccer field and on Broadway, on TV (Orange is the New Black) and in movies. Only 7 years ago, we had an entire TV series, The L Word, that represented butchness as “the B word” that dare not speak its name. Despite the fact that the character of Shane (Katherine Moennig) drew heavily on the history of butch sexiness, she never could claim that history, name it or own it. And when a butch character was introduced, Moira played by masculine of center actor Daniela Sea, they quickly transitioned to trans leaving the category of butch stranded like a missing link, like a bad memory to be Pousseypromo_croppedexpunged from queer representation.

But now, in Orange is the New Black, Lea Delaria’s character “Big Boo,” has the letters B-U-T-C-H tattooed on her arm and is not the only butch on the prison block either. Black butches on the show, including Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) and Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) represent a much longer history of non-traditional Black genders that may or may not be captured by the term “butch” at all.


Game of Thrones has its own bale of butches including Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) who represents a tall, strapping, princess-saving heroic knightly butch, and Arya Stark (Massie Williams) a renegade princess turned sword fighter and monk. For more comic butches, think Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) of Glee who plays a gloriously mean, bully butch athletic coach competing with the Glee club for school funds.

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The butch is, to continue our wildlife conceit, neither fish nor fowl. But to introduce another rhetorical device, the butch is neither cis-gender nor simply transgender, the butch is a bodily catachresis. The Greek word, catachresis, means the rhetorical practice of misnaming something for which there would otherwise be no words (I feel I got this formulation from bullyblogger pal Tavia Nyong’o but not sure from where). Butch is always a misnomer – not male, not female, masculine but not male, female but not feminine, the term serves as a placeholder for the unassimilable, for that which remains indefinable or unspeakable within the many identifications that we make and that we claim. For Derrida, catachresis captures the inherent linguistic instability in all signifying practices and for Spivak it names the inherent colonial violence lurking in the practice of naming and identifying, systematizing and translating. And so, in this era of LGBT rights and recognition, let the butch stand as all that cannot be absorbed into systems of signification, legitimation, legibility, recognition and legality.

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Even as the butch seems to be back in circulation, I do not think this representational presence is a marker of social acceptance, rather, the butch, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, survives or fades away depending upon the levels of toxicity in the air. Unlike the canary however, and now I wish I had never introduced said bird in the first place, the butch thrives in toxic conditions and fades away in the clear air of apparent freedom. The butch is back, in other words, and here the butch is not canary like at all, in fact forget the damn canary, because we need a reminder that recognition is NOT freedom, that the absorption of the few at the expense of many others is not liberation and that the illegible, the unassimilable, the inconsolable, the illegitimate multitudes still await a coming emancipation. The society that embraces the butch will be ordered in a way that we cannot yet imagine. Our current social order, after all, with or without gay marriage, with or without mainstream images of transgender bodies, is the one that rendered the butch as the anachronistic, useless, dowdy misfit in the first place.

To quote a smart rapper, don’t call it a come back, we’ve been here before. Butches have flickered in and out of cultural visibility for at least the last hundred years. They have survived wars, economic depressions, homophobic panics, gentrification, petrification, Andrea Dworkin and Camille Paglia, stupefaction, French cinema, the 80’s, and both film versions of Sex in the City. Despite flannel shirt shortages, shifting fashion trends towards androgynous looks, the trendiness of transgenderism, a severe height disadvantage in relation to many femmes, and new levels of emotional sensitivity in queer communities, the butch has survived and lives to wear another ring of keys.

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Whether, in the future, the butch will hit a rough patch in the evolution of sexual ecologies and die out like the Golden Toad, or whether the butch has the capacity to replicate under precarious conditions remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, live or die, the butch, represents a piece of queer history that remains unspeakable and unspoken and all the more resilient for it.

Fifty Shades of Zzzzzzzzzz by Jack Halberstam

25 Feb

fifty-shades-of-grey-movieHalf way through the erotic snooze fest (no seriously, the woman next to me was snoring 10 minutes in!!), Fifty Shades of Grey (FSOG), our eponymous hero presents his lover to be with an offer she can’t refuse in the form of a multi page contract. While conventional courting material used to include roses and chocolates, in our neo-liberal world order, romance is now filed under “C” for “consent” or “contractual” depending upon your location. The contract that our heroine receives in FSOG, lists the sexual activities that Mr. Grey proposes for them to undertake along with check boxes in which she can indicate her preferences and disinclinations. Lawyers and bureaucrats might be salivating at this point, but for the rest of us, this seems like an emphatically decent proposal with very little frisson.

new-fifty-shades-of-grey-poster__oPtThe heroine of FSOG, Anastasia Steele played by a winsome if vacant Dakota Johnson, goes over the contract line by line while biting her lip—her signature (and only) sexy move—and, after putting her newly earned English literature degree to work in decoding the document in front of her, surface reading it if you like, she gives her suitor his answers. Yes, she will agree to light whipping, some bondage, the use of slings and even the use of some designated sex toys. But, and our respect for her is supposed to grow at this point, she has some very clear limits. Thinking back to readings from her Gender Studies classes, she remembers that in all negotiations around sex, there are trespassers and line drawers. She will draw the line, she tells Mr. Grey, at “anal fisting.” How about “vaginal fisting?” he counters. Heroine bites lips and makes her decision. No, that is also off limits, and she scratches the item off the list.

Somehow, of all the nasty, filthy, deliciously perverse things that human bodies can do to one another, fisting becomes the sign of going too far. Fisting, of course, has often been linked to queer sex and it indicates a phallic order that exceeds the penis and offers in its place a larger and more dexterous limb. When fisting is the furthermost limit that a sex film can imagine, you know you are in the gray zone alright – not the gray zone of limits pushed and desires tangled, but the gray zone of boredom, banality and avowedly vanilla sex. Having dispensed with the nasties – here represented, and it is worth repeating, as fisting — our sharp, shiny, heroine, Ms. Steele, has onlyFRANCE-ARTS-FIAC one more question: “what is a butt plug?” What is a butt plug? Really? That is your only question here? Not: wait, what? Does our sex really require a contract? Or, I don’t see anything here about water sports. Or, how about, how much are you paying me? No, the lovely and newly deflowered Anastasia Steele has only one remaining, lingering concern …what …is ….a…butt…plug? A butt plug, dear lady, is a plug you put…wait for it…in your butt!

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And so we are off and running in the race to drop a blockbuster smack into the middle of a long winter and a hyper commercialized valentine season (yes, it is now a season. But, Valentine, let’s not forget, was a saint who was killed for marrying Christian couples – hence our definition of romance is linked definitively to Christian marriage, not to mention male martyrdom and female subjugation!). But Fifty Shades of Grey also drops smack into the center of a highly charged national conversation about sexual assaults on campus, on which, more in a moment.

The movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey promised dynamic sex, the subjugation of a feisty if inexperienced woman, the allure of a dominant man, but it delivers only a series of pre-queer theory lectures on BDSM and has less effect, I am willing to bet, on the libidinal urges of its audience than an episode of The Golden Girls – and I mean no disrespect here to that glorious and lusty project of octogenarian girl power.

Fifty-Shades-Of-GreyBy the time Mr. Grey, played less winsomely and way too wholesomely, by Jamie Dornan, finally gets Ms. Steele into a kneeling position in his play room awaiting her punishment, we have dispensed with contractual foreplay, we have been teased with silk ties, perfectly laundered shirts and sex toy shopping in a hardware shop, and we feel as an audience that we too by now deserve something – pleasure, punishment, light torture, whatever it is, get on with it! But alas we get nothing close to the Pasolini style torture we have been promised. All that transpires…trigger and spoiler alerts in full affect…is a little spanking, a lot more lip biting, a few feathers, six (count them) pats with a paddle and a whole lot of cross cutting to make the whole deal seem energetic.

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Fifty Shades of Grey, one is tempted to say, is Last Tango in Paris without the butter, without the sex and without Brando and Maria Schneider…What it does have, however, are great aerial shots, lots of hard torsos and soft core lenses, some nice car porn and way too much chatter. But this is not a movie review, partly because FSOG is barely a movie! The question towards which I have inched, for anyone who cares to answer or is still reading, is this: what is the relationship between a widely shared and expressed, seemingly white, cultural fantasy of male domination and female submission, and the epidemic of sexual assault accusations on college campuses across the
U.S. right now?

Of course, it is entirely possible that the two phenomena, sexual assault charges, new laws aroundEntire-Playhouse consent in California, and fifty shades of sex play, have nothing at all to do with each other. One is, after all, about the violent and disastrously non-consensual interactions between young men and
women, and the other is about fantasy and a narrative of consensual engagements between a wealthy man and his aspirational and virginal lover. And yet…And yet, there is certainly more to our odd sexual climate in which a popular romance involving BDSM and selling 100 million copies worldwide sits uncomfortably along side statistics indicating that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in college! This weird historical juncture seems made up of part sex panic, part paranoia, part patriarchy, part Peewee Herman (I am not sure which part is Peewee but I sure hope he is in there somewhere).

In September 2014, California became the first state to adopt a law that requires college students to confirm that they have consent for sexual interaction. This law has been dubbed the “yes means yes” act counteracting the date rape rule of thumb that “no means yes and yes means anal” as some fraternity brothers have it. I would like to amend the nickname into “no means no, yes means yes, and maybe means pass the butt plug.” I would also like to designate February as the month for “inviting your fraternity boyfriend to provide oral sex on demand” and March as “take your boyfriend to your gender studies class” month. And as for April, the cruelest month, maybe in April we can begin the Anus Monologues and all think about why “anal” anything and everything has become short hand for punishment, pain and the yuck factor.

No, but seriously, what do we make of the trend for (misrepresented) BDSM in romance fiction and the multiplying charges of sexual assault among college women? As many letter writers to the New York Times Magazine noted in their responses a few weeks ago to a long article about a soured relationship between a male instructor and a female student at Stanford University, the article appeared online with ads for FSOG popping up in the margins. The article in question tells of a relationship that was once completely standard on college campuses (and I am not saying this approvingly necessarily), that of a young female student and a slightly older instructor/TA/professor. Many of those relationships in the past were quickly legitimized through marriage and whatever impropriety may have presented itself in the early moments of the relationship were swept to one side with the explanation of “true love” and so on. Until, that is, the professor replaces his once-student-now-wife with another student-soon to become-wife. In the NYT’s piece,The Stanford Undergraduate and the Mentor a 21 year old junior got involved with her 29 year old mentor, dated him on and off over the course of a year and then, when the relationship soured, she accused him of forcing her to have sex with him. The case, which involves lots of romantic texting, lots of he said/she said back and forth, and lots of accusations and counter-accusations (he assaulted me/she is mentally unstable) is still in the courts.

The New York Times’ piece, like the much ballyhooed Rolling Stone piece, “A Rape on Campus,” before it about accusations of sexual assault on the University of Virginia campus has no answers about sexual assault on campus, only more questions. I am willing to bet that the real problem in the US at any rate in relation to sex on campus has everything to do with limited sex education for high school students, lots of alcohol, and lots of very bad sex. No doubt there are guys who just don’t care whether the woman they are with actually wants to have sex with them, and no doubt there are women who consent and then regret their decision and make assault charges. But ultimately, the problem cannot be legislated one lawsuit at a time. What we need, IMHO, is a robust model of feminism for all genders, a clear program for sex education in high school and some kind of national discussion about what’s wrong with heterosexuality!

So, before wrapping up this rambling attempt to make sense of the confusing and treacherous terrain of sex in college, romantic fantasies and realities and the heterosexual fear of and fascination with the anus, let me just close with three arguments, ok, people always say three, so I will go for four:

Kink1. We should really be asking not what would I do under these circumstances, as either the accused or the accuser, but more importantly, what would James Franco do? I am surprised in fact that, despite his rumored homosex proclivities, his time spent taking queer theory courses at Yale and his role in many a Judd Apatow film, that Franco has not become the designated spokesperson for what’s up with college students and sex. No doubt once he is finished restoring sex scenes to various queer classic films, he will step up and offer us a book, a poem, an installation or even a film on Fifty Shades of Ass Play.

2. Could the real problem be not just bad people taking advantage of naïve people but sheltered people having lots of bad sex with lots of cheap alcohol thrown in for good measure? Can it really be true, as some have asked, that college women are the most vulnerable population when it comes to sexual assault? What do we leave out of the picture when we focus on college campus scenarios to the exclusion of say sexual assault in the home, sexual assault of sex workers, sexual assault of queers? I don’t know the answer to these questions but I think Professor Amy Adler, a law professor at NYU and a smart and creative commentator on sex and the law might – ask her!

3. What is a “butt plug”?

4. And finally, because four questions/conclusions are a bare minimum, can we all stop the violence now – no more horrendous clichés about virgins and powerful, rich, young and handsome men; stop propping up the worn out narratives of heterosexual love and sex; someone shut James Franco up or down; and next time, if you want me to pay lots of money for a two hour snooze fest, please let there be fisting.

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By the way folks, there is actually a pretty good BDSM film out there by Peter Strickland involving two women who play out a series of erotic fantasies of control, domination and submission. The Duke of Burgundy (2015) is beautifully shot and has a credit for the “lingerie manager” so you know it is on the right track. With scenes involving constraint, coffins, golden showers, stilettos, stockings, punishment and delay, the film makes BDSM less of a party trick, less about the equipment and more about repetition, waiting, suspense and reward. Ditch the hen parties on their way to FSOG and take your date to a real film.

And that’s all I have: no haters, just laters baby!

 

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Transparent (2014): The Highs, the Lows, The Inbetweens

7 Jan

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I was willing to go with the non-trans casting of the excellent Jeffrey Tambor for the role of the father who comes out to his children as a woman later in life. I was willing to overlook the stereotypes of lesbians as domestic snuggle bunnies blissed out on home improvement and less interested in hardcore fucking; I was even willing to tolerate the dweeby brother who, despite being a deeply irritating human being, manages to pick up one interesting lady after another. But the final straw for me, late one night, deep into a binge watching cycle of Transparent, was when Dale, a transman, struggles to get his sex toy out of its child proof packaging in anticipation of hot sex with his fem date, Ali, and then drops his dildo on the floor. In that moment, I felt my faith in the series slipping away as fast as Ali’s desire, and when she turns to leave, giving up for now on the potential of a heated and sexy exchange, turning her back on the fallen Sparkle Unicorn tool, I was ready to go with her. But, like any good binge watcher, I continued watching, being lifted by its high notes, disappointed by its low blows, and somewhat entertained by everything in between.

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220px-Solowaydirectorsphotocrop1-1Transparent, created and directed by Jill Soloway, received much acclaim for its first season. Rolling Stone credited it with “making the world safer for trans people”; Out dubbed it as the first show to properly handle not only transgenderism but also bisexuality; and, The Advocate called Transparent, simply, “great television.” Telling the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family in Los Angeles that falls apart and regroups around the patriarch’s revelation of her desire to live as a woman, Transparent covers a lot of new ground for television. The acting is uniformly great in this show, and its refusal to trade only in positive images of trans people–never mind Jews, lesbians, female rabbis, and butch security guards–makes it a unique media event in the history of queer representation. In a nutshell, the show gets a lot right, but as a footnote, it also makes some rookie mistakes. Now, some four months after its release, after allowing the dust it kicked up to settle a little, let’s reassess the highs and the lows of Transparent.

The Highs

  • The Writing – “No one has ever seen me except me” (Maura). The challenge with Transparent lies in its ability to represent a specific trans experience without making it representative of all trans experience. The show manages to convey, with some subtlety, the relief of coming out, the stress of feeling exposed, the sadness of being late to the table. Maura is a multifaceted character and a uniformly talented cast backs her up.With a writing team that includes the great Ali Liebegott and a consultant team that includes Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Transparent made the wise decision to work with trans people’s own narratives rather than to cleave faithfully to Jill Soloway’s autobiographical story. Soloway’s experience with her father’s transition still forms the spine of the piece but it is well rounded out with a clutch of other stories about aging, sexual experimentation, addiction, sibling tension and so on
  • Transparent7.5The HumorFour out of Five Pfeffermans Now Prefer Pussy.” When Ali (Gaby Hoffman) explains to her siblings Josh (Jay Duplass) and Sarah (Amy Landecker) that her date for the “Trans Talent Show” is the handsome trans man across the room (played by Ian Harvie), Josh first struggles to incorporate more new information about gender flexibility and then blurts out the line of the season: “Four out of Five Pfeffermans Now Prefer Pussy.” It is a great line and like much of the humor in the show, perfectly delivered. Eschewing the sit-com laugh-line humor for a more self-deprecating style that mixes defeat and disappointment in healthy doses with wry self-awareness, Transparent actually hits a few new notes for comedy.
  • The Acting – Jeffrey Tambor really draws out the fine shading of his character and while the siblings perform their hysteria (Amy Landecker as Sarah), paranoia (Jay Duplass as Josh) and neurosis (Ali) to the tee, some of the best acting falls to the minor characters like Ian Harvie, Judith Light and Carrie Brownstein. Brownstein’s show stealing turn as Ali’s best friend in love with both Ali and embroiled sexually with her brother, was magnificent. And both Harvie and Light are totally convincing and more in their roles.tumblr_ncji0riq271r4aenjo5_500
  • The Brutally Realistic Appraisal of the Fucked Up Family: Davina to Maura: “In five years you are gonna look up and none of your family are gonna be there. Not one.” Resisting the Hollywood-ready narrative of the ever-expansive family network that bends and bows to embrace the good and the bad of its flawed members, Transparent is willing to dig into the fragility of family ties. Family, the show reveals, hangs too much upon the pathetic alibi of blood bonds and longevity and these connections, dependent as they are upon custom and routine, cannot incorporate new information well. Family, more often than not, is convenience, parasitism and laziness, a group of people stuck in hell and too idle to leave. And queer community, at least prior to the installation of gay marriage, offered one important alternative to biological bonds. One of the greatest contributions made by Transparent, indeed, lies in its willingness to expose the rotten core of American family life and offer alternatives even if they come in the form of bad sex, infidelity and addiction!

The Lows

The Writing – while mostly I loved the writing, there are numerous missteps. In one episode, for instance, Syd tells Ali she is a “vaginal learner” (huh?), “you have to stick stuff in there to see what it feels like…” And, in another, Sarah asks her ex husband, Len, whether her tits were “too overwhelming” for him. Later, in much telegraphed post-breakup sex, Len tells Sarah that, since she is now with a woman, she must be missing his cock. And so on. These interactions seem to be playing to another audience, a straight audience perhaps, an audience who often has to be instructed in what Len calls “dildo-ology” or in the variations within the category of transsexual. Who can argue with a little pedagogical push, but when push comes to shove, the show seems to orient too much to a straight audience, the one most identified with sleazebag Josh, and most invested in familial stability.

The Pathos – I am all for a little pathos. Hell, I am all for a lot of pathos especially when it is used judiciously to spring a coming out narrative out of the mine field of clichés and to place it in the all too human terrain of loss. But sometimes, Transparent divvies up and distributes the pathos in ways that make it seem like simply part of the terrain of transgenderism. Pathos, we all know, is the foundation of heterosexuality, maybe of all sexuality, but in the show, sometimes, especially in the trans-talent episode, pathos seems to be the hallmark of trans life and this despite the deep and wide and magical archive of queer performance scenes that the producers all participate in and could have drawn upon. Given the incredible contributions to art, film and performance made by Drucker and Ernst and considering the eclectic writing career of Ali Liebegott, there is just no reason that the drag show had to be so bad, so sad, so pitiful.

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The Trans Sex Scene

And so, we circle back around to the Sparkle Unicorn in the room, the dildo on the floor, the trans sex scene that never happened. Ian Harvie has answered questions about this scene in various interviews and has insisted, rightly, that the scene must be considered in context. The scene is intercut with a failed sexual interaction between Josh and the female rabbi, Raquel and so the theme of the episode is detumescence. This is all well and good but while Josh simply fails to get it up, Dale cannot handle his dildo, and the banter between Ali and Dale leading up to the failed sex scene is kind of cringe worthy. The “shave-your-pussy” scene just seems like one major buzz kill.

501B2753.CR2 Ultimately

So, in between the highs, the lows and the lousy, there is much to admire in this new series and while I am still waiting for a dildo-sex scene to rival the one that Kim Peirce shot for The L Word back in 2006, I have faith that the Sparkle Unicorn will survive its fall from grace and return to offer a real lesson in sex, gender creativity and magic.

You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma

5 Jul

by Jack Halberstam

I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, The Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”

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Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity “you can have eggs, bacon and spam; spam, eggs, spam and sausage; or spam, spam, spam and spam!”); silliness, non-sequitors, caricature and an anarchic blend of the serious and the satirical. And, humor is something that feminists in particular, but radical politics in general, are accused of lacking. Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation and perceptions of harm or offensive have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship and name changes.

feminist_humor_fbDebates among people who share utopian goals, in fact, are nothing new. I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room. People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.

Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems. Needless to say, for women of color feminisms, the stakes have always been higher and identity politics always have played out differently. But, in the 1990s, books on neoliberalism, postmodernism, gender performativity and racial capital turned the focus away from the wounded self and we found our enemies and, as we spoke out and observed that neoliberal forms of capitalism were covering over economic exploitation with language of freedom and liberation, it seemed as if we had given up wounded selves for new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes. Of course, I am flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements. But I am willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.

 

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At this point, we should recall the “four Yorkshire men” skit from Monty Python where the four old friends reminisce about their deprived childhoods – one says “we used to live in a tiny old tumbledown house…” the next counters with “house!? You were lucky to live in a house. We used to live in a room…” And the third jumps in with: “room? You were lucky to have a room, we used to have to live in a corridor.” The fourth now completes the cycle: “A corridor! We dreamed of living in a corridor!” These hardship competitions, but without the humor, are set pieces among the triggered generation and indeed, I rarely go to a conference, festival or gathering anymore without a protest erupting about a mode of representation that triggered someone somewhere. And as people “call each other out” to a chorus of finger snapping, we seem to be rapidly losing all sense of perspective and instead of building alliances, we are dismantling hard fought for coalitions.

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Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place! In The Life of Brian, Brian finally refuses to participate in the anti-Semitism that causes his mother to call him a “roman.” In a brave “coming out” speech, he says: “I’m not a roman mum, I’m a kike, a yid, a heebie, a hook-nose, I’m kosher mum, I’m a Red Sea pedestrian, and proud of it!

And now for something completely different…The controversy about the term “tranny” is not a singular occurrence; such tussles have become a rather predictable and regular part of all kinds of conferences and meetings. Indeed, it is becoming difficult to speak, to perform, to offer up work nowadays without someone, somewhere claiming to feel hurt, or re-traumatized by a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on whether or not the “damaging” speech/characterization occurs within a complex aesthetic work. At one conference, a play that foregrounded the mutilation of the female body in the 17th century was cast as trans-phobic and became the occasion for multiple public meetings to discuss the damage it wreaked upon trans people present at the performance. Another piece at this performance conference that featured a “fortune teller” character was accused of orientalist stereotyping. At another event I attended that focused on queer masculinities, the organizers were accused of marginalizing queer femininities. And a class I was teaching recently featured a young person who reported feeling worried about potentially “triggering” a transgender student by using incorrect pronouns in relation to a third student who did not seem bothered by it! Another student told me recently that she had been “triggered” in a class on colonialism by the showing of The Battle of Algiers. In many of these cases offended groups demand apologies, and promises are made that future enactments of this or that theater piece will cut out the offensive parts; or, as in the case of “Trannyshack,” the name of the club was changed.

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As reductive as such responses to aesthetic and academic material have become, so have definitions of trauma been over-simplified within these contexts. There are complex discourses on trauma readily available as a consequence of decades of work on memory, political violence and abuse. This work has offered us multiple theories of the ways in which a charged memory of pain, abuse, torture or imprisonment can be reignited by situations or associations that cause long buried memories to flood back into the body with unpredictable results. But all of this work, by Shoshana Felman Macarena Gomez-Barris, Saidiya Hartman, Cathy Caruth, Ann Cvetkovich, Marianne Hirsch and others, has been pushed aside in the recent wave of the politics of the aggrieved.

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Claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or even merely represents the theme of the original painful experience. And so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark. Where once we saw traumatic recall as a set of enigmatic symptoms moving through the body, now people reduce the resurfacing of a painful memory to the catch all term of “trigger,” imagining that emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle –as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.

k5715Fifteen to twenty years ago, books like Wendy Brown’s States of Injury (1995) and Anna Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (2001) asked readers to think about how grievances become grief, how politics comes to demand injury and how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity. But, newer generations of queers seem only to have heard part of this story and instead of recognizing that neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change, some recent activists seem to have equated social activism with descriptive statements about individual harm and psychic pain. Let me be clear – saying that you feel harmed by another queer person’s use of a reclaimed word like tranny and organizing against the use of that word is NOT social activism. It is censorship.

In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one. In queer communities, some people are now committed to an “It Gets Better” version of consciousness-raising within which suicidal, depressed and bullied young gays and lesbians struggle like emperor penguins in a blighted arctic landscape to make it through the winter of childhood. With the help of friendly adults, therapy, queer youth groups and national campaigns, these same youth internalize narratives of damage that they themselves may or may not have actually experienced. Queer youth groups in particular install a narrative of trauma and encourage LGBT youth to see themselves as “endangered” and “precarious” whether or not they actually feel that way, whether or not coming out as LGB or T actually resulted in abuse! And then, once they “age out” of their youth groups, those same LGBT youth become hypersensitive to all signs and evidence of the abuse about which they have learned.

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What does it mean when younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s (who in their childhoods had no recourse to anti-bullying campaigns or social services or multiple representations of other queer people building lives) feel abused, traumatized, abandoned, misrecognized, beaten, bashed and damaged? These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for “safe space.” However, as Christina978-0-8223-5470-3_pr
Hanhardt’s Lambda Literary award winning book, Safe Space: Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, shows, the safe space agenda has worked in tandem with urban initiatives to increase the policing of poor neighborhoods and the gentrification of others. Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence traces the development of LGBT politics in the US from 1965-2005 and explains how LGBT activism was transformed from a multi-racial coalitional grassroots movement with strong ties to anti-poverty groups and anti-racism organizations to a mainstream, anti-violence movement with aspirations for state recognition.

And, as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.

Is this the way the world ends? When groups that share common cause, utopian dreams and a joined mission find fault with each other instead of tearing down the banks and the bankers, the politicians and the parliaments, the university presidents and the CEOs? Instead of realizing, as Moten and Hearny put it in The Undercommons, that “we owe each other everything,” we enact punishments on one another and stalk away from projects that should unite us, and huddle in small groups feeling erotically bonded through our self-righteousness.

I want to call for a time of accountability and specificity: not all LGBT youth are suicidal, not all LGBT people are subject to violence and bullying, and indeed class and race remain much more vital factors in accounting for vulnerability to violence, police brutality, social baiting and reduced access to education and career opportunities. Let’s call an end to the finger snapping moralism, let’s question contemporary desires for immediately consumable messages of progress, development and access; let’s all take a hard long look at the privileges that often prop up public performances of grief and outrage; let’s acknowledge that being queer no longer automatically means being brutalized and let’s argue for much more situated claims to marginalization, trauma and violence. Let’s not fiddle while Rome (or Paris) burns, trigger while the water rises, weep while trash piles up; let’s recognize these internal wars for the distraction they have become. Once upon a time, the appellation “queer” named an opposition to identity politics, a commitment to coalition, a vision of alternative worlds. Now it has become a weak umbrella term for a confederation of identitarian concerns. It is time to move on, to confuse the enemy, to become illegible, invisible, anonymous (see Preciado’s Bully Bloggers post on anonymity in relation to the Zapatistas). In the words of José Muñoz, “we have never been queer.” In the words of a great knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “we are now no longer the Knights who say Ni, we are now the Knights who say “Ekki-ekki-ekki-ekki-PTANG. Zoom-Boing, z’nourrwringmm.”

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Friends With Benefits + The Kids Are All Right = Friends With Kids

29 Apr

By Jack Halberstam

We all know that Hollywood movies emerge out of a, shall we say, limited gene pool of ideas; and when that pool runs dry, the stumped screenplay writers just shuffle the jigsaw puzzle pieces of accepted story lines around until they come up with apparently new narratives. This is clearly what happened with the recent Jennifer Westfeldt film Friends With Kids. Touted as an independent, edgy ‘ensemble comedy,’ this film actually shows what happens when very straight, very sheltered straight people get a hold of a few strands of rather radical queer ideas about love, intimacy and reproduction!

Touted by David Edelstein in a feature in the New York Magazine as “the best breeder movie in years” (we might also dub it the only breeder movie in years and hey, when did “breeder” become a part of the hetero lexicon?), Friends With Kids asks a question that queer people have asked often and with much more curiosity for years: namely, do people have to be married to have kids or are marriage and child rearing actually like oil and water, a recipe for a greasy mess with the capacity to neither lubricate nor hydrate!

 This film comes up with a solution to the separation of sex and reproduction problem by offering us Julie (played by Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott), good friends who enjoy a wide-ranging and affectionate friendship with each other while dating others and watching their friendship circle drift off into marriage and child rearing. When neither Julie nor Jason falls in love with an appropriate partner at the designated time of life for such things, they watch with horror as their friends’ relationships fall apart and their sex lives wither on the vine under the pressure of child rearing.

 One night, after a particularly unpleasant dinner party with their coupled and bickering pals, Julie and Jason ask whether it could be possible to have babies together without the intimacy, marriage and bickering. An idea is born and since they have affirmed many times that while they love each other, they are not attracted to one another, what could possibly get in the way of this perfect arrangement? They will get to date promiscuously but still have some stability in their lives; they will get the baby and the chance at parenthood without dragging the diapers and the spit up into their sex lives; they will get to have their cake and eat it too.

While this idea strikes Julie and Jason and their rather humdrum friendship circle as wild, original, evil and impossible, in actual fact the notion of the companionate marriage is as old as the hills.  The reason it is on no one’s radar is because it is one of those many under-studied forms of lesbian sociality where we will find it under the heading of the Boston marriage.

The Boston marriage, which is essentially what Jason and Julie propose to have – was a term used in the late 19th century to describe households made up of women living together independently of men. Whether or not these relationships were sexual has been a topic of much debate, but they were certainly long lasting, amicable and they allowed women financial, emotional and practical independence at a time when middle class women were defined by their relationships to their husbands.

Because of the ways in which heteronormativity assigns credit for all things good to heterosexuality and blame for all things bad to the gays and lesbians and trannies, heterosexual marriage has been cast as unquestionably right and good, even when it lacks sex and includes physical violence, and lesbian companionate relations have been cast as unquestionably wrong even when they are sexual and stable. Also, as we saw in The Kids Are All Right, one of the formulaic films that provides plot pieces for this mash up of rom coms and social issues movies, when lesbian long term relationships lose their libidinal energy we talk of “lesbian bed death” (not just bed death notice, lesbian bed death), but when hetero couples run out of steam, as the Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig couple do in Friends With Kids, this is simply a failed marriage – leaving us with the impression that most marriages succeed!

Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig as Ben and Missy are actually the most convincing couple in the film – they enter the movie panting from mid-dinner coital exertions and they exit alone and bitter. Sounds like a Tennessee Williams play except that when queer relationships fail, even in dramas penned by queers, it affirms the essential corruption of the queers. When straight people fail, they are just not trying hard enough. And so, Ben and Missy, whose relationship falls apart with as many sparks as it initially came together (so to speak), are represented as a bad combination of the bitchy woman and the resentful male partner – that this combination is actually the foundation of most forms of domestic white heterosexuality is never confirmed by the film which wants to desperately hold on to the idea of a perfect union of man and woman, good and bad, black and white, domestic and wild.

And so, to that end, we are offered an ideal couple in this not so romantic and not so funny rom com: Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd). Leslie may be a tad bitchy and naggy but Alex absorbs all darts and arrows that she flings his way and does the manly thing – he fights fire with love and compassion. Because he yields and bends to her need to blame and nitpick, and because she accepts his limitations, ineptitudes and laziness, they are the perfect couple and they even have sex!

So, if Friends With Kids steals one set of narrative arcs from The Kids Are All Right – alternative domesticity, Boston marriage, the separation of child rearing from heterosexual domesticity—it steals another from Friends With Benefits. Another gay film masquerading as a straight film, Friends With Benefits asked whether two hot young things could have sex but not intimacy, a good time at night and beat a hasty retreat in the morning, blow jobs without blow backs…? The answer of course was…sure they can…for a while… and then guess what? Mother nature takes over and what man and woman has put asunder, nature will reunite – and so if Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis just want to roll around in their undies looking hot for and hour and 20 minutes, that is all well and good, but a rom com demands a marriage and so sex leads to intimacy leads to love leads to….

And so it goes in Friends With Kids – the couple with no chemistry, no interest in each other sexually, no grounds for love or marriage, the couple who were so cold on each other sexually that they knew they could raise a kid together without any complications…guess what…they fall in love! Despite having subjected the audience to one of the most awkward and therefore actually interesting sex scenes in cinema during their insemination romp, the couple who couldn’t suddenly become hot for one another, just like that! For the viewer who has suffered through long spans of dialogue offering up one watered down queer critique after another of domesticity, heterosexuality, long term relationships and nuclear parenthood, the resulting romance is offensive, insincere and totally unbelievable. And this, ultimately, is why straight people should leave the queer theory to the queers – once they have boarded the runaway train of alternative desire, they realize that they desperately want to go home and leave everything exactly the way it was.

Ok, so in a perfect world, where I had a sabbatical, time to spare, no deadlines, I would pen the perfect masterpieces: The Friends Are All Right and Kids With Benefits. In the first, a queer culture of friendship replaces domestic marriage and nuclear families and new experiments in social world-making pop up everywhere. Friends share space, homes, kids, resources, health care access and probably sex…And in the second, kids cease to be the precious and pampered pets that this society demands and produces and they fight for their independence from families! Or else we could just settle for Kids Are Ok, Friends Are All Right and Go Get Your Own Benefits, a rom com involving space aliens who settle on earth and try to date lesbians…actually that IS the plot of an awesome film I just saw titled Co-Dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same by Madeline Olnek…try coopting that Hollywood!! Watch this space for a quick take on lesbian space alien films…coming soon. Peace out.

The Summer of Raunch

16 Jul

By Jack Halberstam

Did anyone else notice how comedies, I hesitate to call them “romantic,” let’s say “sex comedies,” have become absolutely pornographic nowadays? And I don’t really mean pornographic in a good way, as in “no holds barred, sexy, fun, overturn a few taboos and have a good laugh” pornographic. I mean teenage boy, obsessive dick humor with fart jokes, erection jokes, shit jokes and period jokes thrown in for good measure. While critics and bloggers are celebrating the new “bra-mances,” the female equivalents to the bro-mances that received a boost this summer with Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher, the bra-mances are as low as the bromances when it comes to sexual humor. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not mounting a prudish objection to low, low-w-w-w, humor in general, I was as amused as the next dude by the penis sight gags in Austin Powers, the off-color jokes of Borat (“I want to have a car that attract a woman with shave down below”), even the hair-gel scene in Something about Mary tickled my fancy. But, in the genre of sex comedies, a little bit a raunch goes a long, long way. Nowadays, we have graduated from a few nudge nudge wink winks with a bit of how’s your father to a lot of fingering, blow jobs, cock rubbing and ball licking!

No doubt the Judd Apatow comedies are in part to blame for the new raunch and for the rise of the nerd as sex god. But there was something very sweet (if unbelievable) about 40 Year Old Virgin and at least in Superbad the adolescent humor belonged to adolescents rather than 40 year old men.  But Apatow is definitely to blame for opening the floodgates from subtle sexual innuendo to all out porno-comedy.

The new sex comedies are formulaic in every way (not in and of itself a bad thing) and they build on character archetypes, broad raunchy humor, bad guys and worse guys, bad girls and clueless girls, lots of drugs and alcohol and some kind of far-fetched scenario (guys wake up in Vegas with a tiger in the room; guys try to kill their bosses; girls try to engage in some female bonding; father in law inadvertently take a super-viagra drug etc. etc.) that allows everyone to engage in lots of extra-marital, perverse and often homo-sex before everything returns to normal again.

Every film in this genre has to build to a “laugh until you cry scene” that provides a payoff for the cycle of gross, porno jokes. These scenes have to be way over the top – they consist of envelope pushing scenarios in an extended play format, replete with bodily fluids and long gross-out sequences. Think of the nude wrestling scene from Borat as the quintessential “laugh until you cry” scene. And then look at its counterpart in Bridesmaids, which strove to be the mother of all gross-out scenes and but maybe went over the top at going over the top. In Bridesmaids, the gross-out scene played with the tropes of disordered female embodiment in general, and focused therefore on food, on binging and purging and with a kind of involuntary bulimia – following an ill-advised dinner for their hen night, the bridesmaids head for a dress fitting and in the pristine chamber of virginal white gowns, they, one by one, throw up and shit uncontrollably in the grips of mass food poisoning. While audiences busted a gut at these scenes of digestive mayhem, for me they were beyond grotesque and humiliating to boot. While there was lots to laugh at in Bridesmaids, this scene did not deliver for me on a comic level.

And of course, as some critics have already commented, the bra-mance is not exactly leveling the playing field of hetero-sex comedy. While the bromance is all about the bros being bros with their hos and not with their whiny wives, the bramance is also all about the bros – the ladies all talk about guys, whine about them, bitch about not getting laid, bitch about how they get laid and mostly, they bitch about each other. The bromance allows the guys to snuggle up together while figuring out how to get out of whatever dilemma confronts them. The bramance provides a stage for bride wars, for out and out girl hates girl battles with a few romantic interludes thrown in for good measure. Which is not to say that some of the bramances are not very, very funny; just that the humor continues to come at the expense of women and not men. And of course, as per usual, there is plenty of off-color humor in these films in the form of racial stereotyping (see the Jamie Foxx character in Horrible Bosses or the Asian gay hysteric in The Hangover) all of which adds to a kind of post-political correctness expression of gloves-off white male anger and disappointment.

So, in case you think I am being too easily shocked by the new raunch, here are a few lines from recent sex comedies:

Guy to friend: “you know what the best part about having gay dads is?

Friend: “What?”

Guy: “They are never gonna eat out my ex-girlfriends?”

Friend: “You and your dad are tunnel buddies, huh?”

Or…

Woman to Guy she is having sex with: “Your balls are so smooth…!”

Guy to Woman he is having sex with: “Cup my balls…oh yeah!”

Guy to Woman: “I made you this to help sooth your womb” – hands her a CD

Woman: “It’s a mix…Even Flow, Red Red Wine!”

Friend: “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”

Woman: “You made me…a period mix?”

Friend: “That’s so romantic.”

Woman: “I am gonna suck your dick like I am mad at it!”

Guy: “I am gonna rock your vagina.”

Father in law to son in law: “Focker, there is no way I’m going into an ER room with this thing. Now you need to stick me and you need to stick me now! I’m having a dick attack! Stick me!” (Son in law sticks a needle into his father in law’s erect penis while watched by his 7 year old son who has come to see what is going on!)

It is not just that the material is crude and made for youporn, it is also that these new sex comedies imagine men as the victims of unwanted sexual attention from voracious women. And so, Jennifer Aniston recently played a sexual harasser in Horrible Bosses (“Come on, slap my face with your cock!”). Melissa McCarthy played a butch sexual harasser of men in Bridesmaids (“I’m glad he’s single because I am going to climb that like a tree.”) And when they are not playing sexual harassers, very hot women in sex comedies are begging for sex “with no strings attached” or playing “bad teachers” and begging for sex or being flattered into a quick hook up by guys who feed them outrageously flat lines like: “Are you a model?” It is as if we have gone through the looking glass here from a world where a wardrobe malfunction led to massive national paroxysms of outrage and horror to a world where a wardrobe malfunction will humorously lead to a lots of boob shots, a quick blow job followed by some anal and a few jokes about poop shoots.

These films raise a lot of questions for me: have we gone too far? Are they funny? Do heterosexual people really talk like this on a regular basis (“your balls are so smooth!” really? “I am gonna rock your vagina!” Vagina?? “I’ve made you a period mix…” Awesome)? Is Hollywood, in a last ditch effort to reach the much desired 15-25 year old males group, manning its script writing sessions with 15-25 year old males? While the gays are getting married, singing duets to each other on Glee and other mainstream TV shows, the straights are telling each other about how they want to “hit that,” and dumping marriage for some lost weekends with foul-mouthed sluts. It’s a topsy turvy world and while I am all for some raunch, for lots of raunch even, is it too much to ask something be left to the imagination?

Frida and Anita

20 May

by Tavia Nyong’o

Frida & Anita from Liz Rosenfeld on Vimeo.

Frida & Anita, the new film by Liz Rosenfeld, had it’s Berlin premiere last night at Moviemento, to a packed house of friends and fans. The 20 minute short, which stars Les Margeaux and Richard Hancock as its respective titular stars, is a queer reverie of an imagined romantic encounter between Frida Kahlo and Anita Berber, one that never happened and perhaps couldn’t have, but which, in its very impossibility,  illustrates the performative premises of all nostalgia.

Rosenfeld draws her viewer in with the devices of silent film, like jerky intertitles, which are coupled with luscious technicolor cinematography (by Samuel Maxim and Imogen Heath). Frida and Anita meet in a Weimar-era lesbian nightclub that is also a present day queer bar, habituated by many of the actors themselves. As the film progresses (or, like night and day in bohemian Berlin, ambles) the period frame shifts and dissolves, as the characters Frida and Anita merge with their present day incarnations in Hancock and Margeaux. The two (or is it four?) trade philosophy, politics and sex in three languages.

Margeaux is positively the döppelganger of the teenage Kahlo, in the days before her accident, strolling around in her father’s suits with an air of proletarian insouicance. Hancock conjures Berber out of thin air, literally, drawing upon the most subtle of movements to evoke her presence, not on the basis of gender imitation, but rather through a kind of queer transubstantiation.

The screening was a community event, with many of the cast and crew in the audience. It was accompanied by a variety of shorts by those who had contributed in some way to the film. Highlights included Screen Tests by Sam Icklow, which featured the filmmaker romping around in various post-Warholian scenarios with bosom buddy Eric; Imogen Heath‘s meditative The Poetics of Porn which seemed, among many other things, to be a paean to dendrophilia, Tom Weller‘s witty Maikäfer flieg, in which the filmmaker documents the fluctuations in his vocal range over the two year period that he was taking testerone and gender transitioning by singing the same children’s song about a “Cockchafer fly”; and original contributions from Leila Evenson, Christa Holka, and Hancock himself.

Frida & Anita is the first of a trilogy of films about Weimar and queer nostalgia. The second is already in the can, and the final one will be shot this coming summer. DIY filmmaking at its finest, and, at this pace, its fastest!