Queer Mediations: Thoughts on Queer Media Theory
(crossposed at Orbis Mediologicus)
Queer Media Theory, Cross-Activism, and the Dilemmas of Organic Intellectualisms
A part of me feels its time to post something a bit related to queer issues and the media/mediation on this blog, and a part of me does not. There’s always that weird ‘burden of representation’ thing to take into account. For ages I resisted being the ‘gay guy who studied/taught queer studies,’ but then I came to embrace it when I realized both its philosophical power, but also the fact that it didn’t limit me to advocating for just ‘my’ standpoint in the world. Largely, for me, it became a way of linking my own situation to things beyond me. In particular, for me, queer studies became about race.
Part of this is perhaps guilt, the guilt of claiming some sort of oppression for myself. I get white and male privilege, I live in an overdeverloped country, I love what I do for a living, my family is supportive of me in many ways, and I’m in a city where gays have huge social acceptance. Claiming oppression always feels silly to me. When other gay folks advocate for marriage rights, my first reaction is usually to be pissed off. Because I feel that unless you were against the Iraq war, and unless you advocate for illegal immigrants and for racial and socio-economic justice, that if you only advocate for marriage rights, you’ve missed the most important lesson that being gay has to teach us. That its about oppression, and the structures that perpetuate it. Anyone can advocate for their own cause. But the world will only ever get better if we learn something from oppression. This is what Deleuze and Guattari call the difference between being a subjected minority, and a subject minority. To move beyond wanting your own situation to be better, and to want to change the structure that perpetuates oppression as such.
And of course I want marriage rights, too. I was pissed, but not surprised, when the New York State legislature recently denied me and others in my situation marriage rights. But I’ve heard so many gay men say things like, ‘oh, I’m not political’ during the Iraq invasion. And yet the same folks often complain about lacking marriage rights, while getting white privilege and not being bombed. In New York City, at least, gay men are in some ways a very powerful minority. We need to learn to see beyond ourselves.
But then again, it is also hard to claim being oppressed at all. And I think I suffer the reverse. As I mentioned, I initially fought quite a bit working in the field of queer studies. And towards the middle of my graduate work, I started to really see a way to work it into what I was doing, but on my own terms. For me it was never about joining a club of sorts. Cloning of any type bothers me. No, a lot of the appeal was that ‘queer’ offered me a way to think gender and sexuality via difference, not sameness, and to think race and class and otherness in with my gay and lesbian. Because I never felt I fit into the gay mold, not one bit. But I’m certainly not straight. So queer felt a lot more like home.
Now I find myself more and more resisting doing queer studies work again. I find myself wanting to, well, just be a philosopher. And its certainly exciting to have the freedom, in my current job, to make these sorts of choices. But lately when I do teach queer/ gender/ sexuality studies, it seems more like a part of being an activist. Right now I’m elsewhere.
And this is the odd position of being what Gramsci called an ‘organic intellectual’. It makes me think about Fanon, when he talks about being psychically shattered. I know damn well just how privileged I am. But despite being privileged in so many ways, I still often feel shattered in a way that I don’t think can be reconciled until my culture allows for a space in which I can bring my multiple worlds together. Fanon couldn’t find a way to bring his ‘French’ side, the side that was immersed in French learning and culture, and his ‘Black’ side, the side that grew up in the Antilles and knew its struggle, together, at least until he found Algeria. It was in cross-activism that Fanon found a way to give body to and start to heal the wound. It was in displacement that, to use terms employed by Zizek, he found a way to start to transform his symptom to sinthome, to turn psychoanalysis into worldly praxis. But this doesn’t mean that he would ever be able to heal those wounds in a form that is not displaced onto some other terrain. The solution is necessarily shifted onto other ground – until, that is, the world starts to make places in which one can be both Black AND French. All marginalized folks live this sort of internal separation, fragmentation. I know that I will never be able to be both male and gay, because society doesn’t yet provide a space for that, or rather, society takes its sense that these terms are a contradiction, and projects its issues with this onto those of us who sit at the intersection of these terms. The result is that those who are both male and gay, and in my case, relatively masculinely structured (a whole additional set of contradictions), find themselves always semi-out of place, neither one nor the other, and in each world, a bit not at home.
And thus, it makes sense that there is ambivalence with being a queer organic intellectual. Who wants to have to work on queer issues, being the pigeonholed representative? But then if you don’t, is it because you are denying your culture and community? But if you only work on queer things, you are in some sense not stretching yourself. To be a queer philosopher is to always be two things at once, and neither properly. Of course, who am I to complain – at least I can be open about this, as so many in the past could not
I guess the point I am trying to make here is just how frickin’ odd it is to be both incredibly privileged, and yet realize just how much being gay still, after all the advances in society, still sucks. Here is an example. Much of the impetus for this post came from watching the James Cameron Mitchell film Shortbus. Not only am I probably the last person in New York to see this film, but I’m probably the last person working in queer studies to see this film. And it is a film with many problems. Sometimes the acting is bad, as is the script, and there’s even a touchy-feely montage at the end. Bergman it aint.
But there’s something in this film that I’ve so rarely seen elsewhere. And that is a real gay male couple portrayed in a way that felt real to me. The relationship between Jamie and James was neither star-crossed, forbidden, or stereo-typed. It wasn’t horribly tragic nor particularly extra-ordinary. In fact, it was completely ordinary. And it wasn’t played by straight folks, who honestly nearly never seem to get how it is to portray gay emotions on screen. Brokeback Mountain had some wonderful acting, and Jake Glyllenhall and Heath Ledger did a great job at portraying two very sexually repressed guys who cared for each other – as friends. But not for a moment did I see anything gay about the movie. And in fact, I think one of the few decent portrayals of gay men on film is Val Kilmer in Shane Black’s 2005 Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Of course, he wasn’t sexual in this film, but he was neither under nor over done. But even Gus van Sant’s Milk, well, no matter how much better Sean Penn and James Franco were than the standard representations of gay men, I still felt they were missing something, well, essential.
There was something really real however, about Jamie and James in Shortbus. And in the film in general. I have rarely seen a film that wasn’t porn actually portray bodies in an honest way. And the film is truly queer, not gay, it portrays the ways in which people from so many walks of life don’t yet, in Deleuze’s terms, ‘know what a body can do’. The body is ‘our’ primary mediation it the world, it is our primary ‘object’ (to quote Schopenhauer), and our ‘primary image’ (to quote Bergson-Deleuze) – it mediates us as much as it is us, and yet, we as a species have so little understanding of what this means, or could mean. The fact that BDSM is so marginalized in our culture, despite the clear chemical relation between endorphins, sex, and pleasure, is one tiny implication of this. We still see the genital as the primary locus of sexuality!
But getting back to Shortbus, I really think that the fact like a film like this is novel, that it is one of the few films to deal with the body openly, well, it says something about our culture. We truly are, as Foucault said, modern day Victorians. And of course there are many good reasons why sex is dangerous, and why people need to be safe, and this film doesn’t really deal with this much. But there are so many ways to explore the body that fall under the rubric of safe sex. As a culture we have so far to go in this department. The fact that the film starts off with male nudity, and has as much, if not more, male than female nudity, is shocking. Male nudity is still the big unseen in contemporary film, particularly in Hollywood, while a woman’s breast shot is nearly required for an R-rated film. We as a culture are terrified of the phallus revealed to be what it is, simply an organ, what Lacan had the temerity to call a ‘flap of flesh’. Its time we as a culture began to move past this taboo.
And its time that we as a culture started to show some real gay relationships on TV and film. The fact that Jamie and James in Shortbus hit me as the first real gay couple I’ve seen in a film, well, this says something. Most gay films focus on either tragedy or coming out, or they are light romantic comedies. And much of this is because the small gay film industry out there also feels the same odd ‘burden of representation’ issues I mentioned earlier. A film either is a gay film, or not, and rarely can it just have a real, imperfect gay relationship that is part of a larger narrative, as it is in Shortbus. In many ways, this film is about the emotional revelations that James and Sofia, and the relationship between James and Jamie is simply a part of the overall ensemble. And this is precisely what helps it to be real. Its not that main focus, and yet it has to be there. How nice it would be for there to be a film in which the action hero ‘just happened’ to be gay. But that can’t happen, not until there’s a new world.
And this brings me to the impetus for this post. The fact that we have tons of openly gay characters in mass media now doesn’t mean we have any real gay relationships depicted in the mass media. Of course, perhaps it may seem shallow to need these things, or maybe it would seem that only young queers coming out of the closet in the middle of the country need these sorts of things, but once they get to a place like New York City, one would think that the need for these things would cease. Why would grown men need something more than Will and Grace, and instead, something like Jamie and James?
Because, in fact, straight people an take for granted that they have roadmaps on how to be in love, and all the difficulties and roadblocks of what goes along with that are mapped out, like a combinatory, on all sides. We never got to go through the damn immature as it may be Lacanian mirror stage that most hetero folks get every day from all sides and from birth on, the narcissistic fantasy (which you need before you can try to traverse!), of seeing a desired image of yourself out of which to fashion a self-image. Rather, from Adam and Eve to Romeo and Juliet to every damn film made by Hollywood, it is all about ficitonalized and fantasized, abstracted and exaggerated versions of the foibles of sex and love between men and women. And while I’m still convinced that straight folks still have very circumscript notions of what a body and relationship can do – as I think is the very point of a film like Shortbus – queer folks have it at a whole different remove. I must say, I have no idea what a real gay male relationship looks like, at least, beyond the ones myself or my friends have been in. I don’t know how two gay men get old together – for this we need oral history, and reading between the lines of the censorship of archives past. And so many of us queer folk still don’t know what queer adolescence could be like. Its still something we each have to make up, on our own, as we go. As much as Lacan continually inveighs against the lure of the imaginary, queer folks are still often deprived of it, even as adults, despite all the great gains we’ve made.
Which is why Jamie and James blew so surprised me to see on screen. These men aren’t sterotypes of hetero masculinity, nor are they the stereotypes of what gay mean are always imagined to be by a hetero-imaginary. Of course, maybe this has quite a bit to do with the fact that James, played by Paul Dawson, is modelled in many ways on the director James Cameron Mitchell, who is gay. And in fact, the actors playing Jamie and James are in fact long-term partners in real life. Which of course brings so much of it home. Until minoritized groups truly take control of the means of image production, we will never have a more democratic cultural imaginary. And this goes so much for porn as well, the large majority of which, for the world, is still produced in the San Fernando valley in Southern California, directed by white men. Its time for a big change.
And at least some of that is begun in a small way in Shortbus. For one, the sex depicted, at least after the slightly over the top opener, is pretty damn realistic. Its silly. You actually see guys giving head to each other, and stopping to talk in between. Its not porn, and its not ‘normal’ amounts of nudity, its just, well, kinda much more natural than that. And James Cameron Mitchell’s character is genuine in a wide variety of ways. His suicide issues are not because he is gay, but also, not necessarily completely beyond this either – the issues are, realistically, overdetermined. And he is masculine without being butch, sensitive without being femme. He is his own amalgam. And furthermore, we see him in position which I believe might be an onscreen first for non-porn cinema – we see him putting himself into ‘missionary position’ – on the bottom – putting his legs back getting ready to be fucked. For a director to put himself into this most vulnerable of positions (the vulnerability of which becomes a major theme in the film) is truly quite new. It takes back the gaze from its assumed heterosexual activity. It brings the viewer in, so to speak. And afterwards, he is still our non-stereotyped James, still trying to work things out with his non-stereotyped Jamie. Neither of them is Jack from Will and Grace any more than they are the two butch repressed guys from Brokeback. Something much more interesting is going here.
What does a real gay relationship look like? The fact that I’m so blown away by seeing one real seeming gay relationship on film is indicative of just how absent this is from media. And I don’t think most straight folks understand what the world would be like without seeing the combinatory of straight love permutations played out on screen around them at every minute, and in every novel. But how are gay relationships different? What do they feel like? What are the permutations, and ones which are not simply carried over from mixed and matched parts of female and male heterosexual roles? Who the hell knows. I certainly don’t.
Which leads me to a very odd source to end this blog post. One of the most interesting representations of queer parenthood I have seen on TV to this day is the episode from the cartoon Futurama (by Matt Groenig and David X. Cohen) in which the male alien Kif gets pregnant. Kif originally comes into the series as a pathetic pushover who is pushed around by his annoying boss (Captain Kirk parody Captian Zap Branigan), but as the series progresses, Kif’s wishy-washy attitude is revealed to include a very sensitive loving side as he falls in love with the character Amy Wong. Despite the fact that Amy is very concerned about looking really feminine, it’s clear that she’s the ‘man’ in the relationship, with many laugh lines about how cutely sensitive Kif is, and how this makes him a perfect boyfriend for Amy, particularly in relation to how truly ridiculous the macho Zap Branigan is in comparison.
What is truly interesting, however, is Kif gets pregnant. Kif’s species of smooshy alien goes into a period of heat, and then whoever they touch may give them DNA during the correct period. Kif is accidently impregnated by the DNA of a friend Leela, a particularly butch and strong yet heterosexual woman, whose hand he touched when their spaceship was in danger. But his species differentiates between the genetic mother of the babies, and their ‘Fan Fan Ru,’ or the emotional love of the person who conceived them, which is of course Amy. At first Amy runs away, afraid of the commitment to ‘motherhood,’ despite the fact that Kif is the one with the enlarged belly, completely reversing the stereo-typical male-female roles. What’s more, Leela has only one eye, because she was born to parents who are mutants, and many episodes play up her ‘oddity’ and ‘butchness’ as well, with the irony that despite having only one eye (and thus limited depth perception), she is still the ship’s captain. With all this at play, at the end of the episode, Kif give birth, and both Leela and Amy help his many tadpole-like babies make it to the pond where they will then have to fend for themselves and grow and mature.
Animation provides a medium in which that which cannot easily be portrayed in live-action can be done, and Futurama‘s animated future allows the creators to pursue one of the most interesting depictions of a queer family of choice I have ever seen on screen. And it is here where I see the future. There is nothing outwardly ‘gay’ about this episode, but it is queer from every single side.
In one of Foucault’s few clear statements about the subject, he famously said that to be gay one had to ‘reinvent the world from A to Z’. And despite all the privileges that gay white men get, this is also true. And there is something in common between reading Genet, Jamie and James, and Kif. There is something here that allows us to begin to start to piece together a queer-counter-combinatory of types of selves, of the fragments of a world of possibility. If the hetero one is overdeveloped and stale, the queer ones are yet to come into existence. We have yet to figure out what queer can do.
Of course, and to reiterate, if queer doesn’t spur us to cross-activism, to fighting against oppression by race and class, via globalization and capitalism – then we have learned little from being screwed over by the powers that be. Unless we find common cause with whoever has been fucked by the system, and fight to change that structure, well, then we are part of the problem. But as long as we learn that lesson, it is also sometimes nice to wonder what it might be like to have some images, some roadmaps, some hopes and dreams of what our other, non-traditional types of relationships can do. To dream – that for a year, every Hollywood film would have a male hero and male love interest – and next year, that switches to two women, and then two transfolk . . .
Imagine what it would be like. The sheer ridiculousness reminds us of just how much there is to do. The fact that Shortbus and Kif can amaze me is symptomatic thereof.