Friday, April 11, 2008

Protesting Too Much

If I hadn’t already seen Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs (Columbia, 2007), I’d have been surprised that straight critic Robert Eberwein’s Armed Forces: masculinity and sexuality in the American war film (Rutgers, 2007) could be published by an academic press today. Besides, I’d already noticed that gay (and lesbian and queer, whatever) academics are capable of amazing foolishness on the most basic matters. It’s important to remember that even in the most ostensibly progressive milieu, including the self-avowedly radical, human sexuality still inspires terror, which in turn begets confusion and incoherence.

Disavowing bigotry and embracing Diversity are not enough; they’re barely a beginning. Many people in America believe that because some people protested 40 and 50 years ago, and some laws were passed, and almost everyone pays lip service to equality and fair treatment, we have put racism / sexism / antigay bigotry behind us. Most people would rather see change as something that happens to us and our society by magic, overnight, rather than something we must make happen, over long periods of time, with weary vigilance and self-scrutiny.

Eberwein’s main interest is male bonding in American war films, though his argument also applies to male bonding in other genres. His target is those critics who find ‘homosexuality’ in such bonds, and especially in triangles where two male friends find themselves competing for the love of the same woman; his aim is to advocate “that criticism move beyond this figure and acknowledge the problems that attend schematizing human relationships” (34). He’s adamant “against using strict dichotomies (heterosexual or homosexual) to categorize complex relationships” (53). And who, in this post-Kinsey, post-modern age, would disagree with that? Certainly not me. Opposition to dichotomies and binaries is being worn very high in academia this season.

Putting that principle into practice, though, is harder than you might think. Eberwein doesn’t really want to get rid of dichotomies. For him the strictest one is between male love that’s “sexual” and male love that isn’t, and gosh, he’s real strict about it:

The male friendships [in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)], presented most intensely as Jim embraces his dead comrade Slim, whom he designates a “buddy,” have nothing to do with male sexuality, which throughout the film is presented unambiguously strictly in heterosexual terms [20].

[T]he somber tone and religious dimension [of a scene in A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992)] neutralize any homosexual dimension [42].

Their heterosexual rivalry simply cannot be read as displaced homoerotic fraternal desire [45, referring to Hell’s Angels, (Howard Hughes, 1930)].

[Love Me Tender (Robert Webb, 1956)] is not in any way readable as a narrative that supports the homosocial-homosexual continuum [46].

The love at the center of the relationship is absolutely not erotic [48, re All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930)].

[Sucking pot smoke through a gun barrel in Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)] This is not fellatio. Both [Sheen and Dafoe] are unambiguously heterosexual [119].

I cite Sedgwick and the two reviews because I think the film [Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001] specifically denies a homosexual / homosocial reading by making both men fathers [180n9].

Oh yeah, right, homosexual and bisexual men never become fathers. Of course, it may well be that one reason for “making both men fathers” in the film was to establish their heterosexual bona fides, but this would be persuasive only to a mindset which assumes a strict homo/hetero dichotomy. From commercial entertainment such dichotomies are to be expected, but not from a critic whose express aim is to break them down.

Eberwein cites Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men (Columbia UP, 1985) as the source of what he calls a “homosexual / homosocial continuum”, but he either hasn’t read her, or has misunderstood her, as shown, for example, by his calling a “continuum” a “dichotomy.” (In fairness, the same appears true of many of the people who cite her favorably.) Sedgwick also sought to break down strict dichotomies, but dichotomies have a way of popping back up and knocking you over just when you thought you’d knocked them down.

I’m not saying that any of the films Eberwein discusses should be read homoerotically, though “should” and “can” are two different matters. I even agree that Vito Russo, whose groundbreaking catalogue of homosexuality in Hollywood film was tremendously important, wasn’t always a reliable critic. But Eberwein’s homophobia makes him even less reliable. He bases many of his readings on such crude stereotypes that it would take a heart of stone to read him without laughing. In addition to ‘fathers can’t be fairies’, there’s this:

The reviewer [of Air Force (Howard Hawks, 1943)] for Variety spoke about the bonding: “The affection of the crew of the ‘Mary Ann’ is genuine, manly and sentimental. It points to a type of team-work which may well be construed as a pattern for all Americans in the manner in which our team-work, on the home front and at the battle fronts, will achieve the ultimate victory.” The important aspect of this review comes in the suggestion that “affection” can in fact be “manly.” That is, the two are not mutually exclusive, and the union of these will lead to victory [44].

Um, Professor Eberwein? “Homosexual” and “manly” aren’t mutually exclusive either.

Eberwein also declares that “love between men needn’t be compartmentalized as heterosexual or homosexual” (33), but I’m not sure how “love between men” could ever be “heterosexual.” (He’s referring here to a passage he quotes – twice! – from Donald Spoto, who’s saying something rather different.)

Admittedly, homoeroticism is to a large extent in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a given reading is fag-baiting by a reader uncomfortable with same-sex affection, as in Jane Tompkins’s “Female ‘screen’ characters, who are really extensions of the men they are paired with, perform this alibi function all the time, masking the fact that what the men are really interested in is one another” (West of Everything: the Inner Life of Westerns, [Oxford, 1992] p. 40). Sometimes the fag-baiting is obvious, as in the frequent reactions to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films: even though Jackson toned down the affection between Frodo and Sam compared to the books, many males had fits of giggles over it, while others indignantly defended the Hobbits’ virtue. Remember too how many scholars (both gay and straight, homophobic and gay-positive) read the nocturnal initiation scene from the Secret Gospel of Mark as a “sexually charged climax.”

A few years ago some collections were published of old photographs showing men being affectionate with each other: Russell Bush and Ron Lieberman’s Affectionate Men (Macmillan, 1998), David Deitcher’s Dear Friends (HNA Books, 2001), John Ibson’s Picturing Men (Smithsonian, 2002; new edition, Chicago, 2006). I was surprised when reviewers in the gay press simply took for granted that all the men depicted in the photos were gay. Some surely were, others probably weren’t, but it’s impossible to be sure in most cases, and it doesn’t really matter since I view the photos as a gay man who’s as interested in affection between males as in sex. But then consider the image below (via), one of a series of Cannon Towels ads that ran in Life magazine during World War II. (Click on the image to, um, make it bigger.)

Is this ad homoerotic? Eberwein quotes a writer, John Costello, who thinks so: “An indication that public attitudes to the taboo of homosexuality were also shifting came with the appearance of homoerotic advertisements in American magazines, which began featuring male ‘pinup[s]’ such as those for Munsingwear underwear and Cannon bath towels.” Eberwein is sure it isn’t: “I believe the opposite is the case. The very fact that naked men are shown cavorting demonstrates they are not homosexual. … In contrast, the Cannon advertisements present a celebration of male sexuality” (71). Once again Eberwein is confused: whether or not the men depicted are “homosexual” (and Costello didn’t say they were) is irrelevant to whether the ad is “homoerotic.” Both beg the question of what “homoerotic” means: does it mean “attractive to homosexual males”, or “depicting or suggesting sexual acts between males”, “depicting a homosexual male”, or something else? And last time I checked, male homosexuality was a subset of “male sexuality.”

But both of them are half right, half wrong. The ad is certainly a ‘pinup’: its flaunting of bare male skin has no purpose except display. Look at the sculpted bodies; a photo of a group of real GIs bathing in the river wouldn’t exhibit such uniform perfection. Notice the strategically placed head, dead center, which figleafs one bathing beauty’s pubic hair. I’d bet there was a gay art director involved somewhere, but I’d also bet that straight women (the ostensible target audience of an ad for towels) enjoyed this image too. It’s startling to realize that it was published in the 1940s, but I don’t agree that it signaled a softening of public homophobia, given the antigay crackdown that erupted right after the war.

I’ll happily agree with Eberwein that “that not every buddy film is necessarily about” covert male homoeroticism; does any serious critic claim otherwise? The trouble is that in practice he won’t concede that any buddy film is about it. When he discusses gay characters in post-Code war films, he’s palpably more comfortable because They are clearly demarcated in those films and there’s no need – he thinks – for coding: if a character isn’t labeled a queer, he must not be one. He gratefully cites Richard Dyer’s paper on the prison-escape film Papillon (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973) because Dyer argues that “a nonsexualized love between men is possible” (47) and that the gay character “Maturette and his … admirer in the hospital, in part function as a model for what Papillon and Dega’s relationship is not” (Dyer, The Matter of Images, Routledge 1993, 127). Without disputing Dyer’s argument (I haven’t yet seen Papillon), I notice that once again Eberwein assumes a clear dichotomy between the sexual and nonsexual, violating his own stricture “that human beings function in multiple registers and … occupy complex overdetermined spaces” (24).

So, I find Armed Forces depressing: after decades of study of homosexuality in cinema and public culture, there are still critics who are unable to deal with the complexities of human sexuality. At least there are others – including Richard Dyer, whose work I’ve been reading lately with great pleasure – who don’t share Robert Eberwein’s incapacity.