Saturday, January 28, 2012

Becoming Real Boys (and Girls)

A P.S. to the previous post, because it was already long enough. In Andrew O'Hehir's review of Weekend he wrote:
I’ve long maintained that gay-straight cinematic equality will finally arrive when a character’s sexuality, however interesting or titillating it may be, is not seen as delivering an important message about tolerance or self-empowerment or some other boring abstraction. I liked both “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Kids Are All Right” a lot, but there’s no doubt they’re both finely crafted teachable moments. The examples I relish are few and far between: Kristin Scott Thomas as the protagonist’s lesbian best friend in “Tell No One,” Kieran Culkin as the title character’s gay roommate in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” Demetri Martin as the gay hero of “Taking Woodstock” (although his character’s sexuality is, if anything, too irrelevant).
This is a textbook case of the liberalism that Martha Shelley addressed in "Gay Is Good", quoted at the end of the previous post: it's okay to be different as long as you aren't different! In fact, let's not even mention your difference, but I'll talk endlessly about my normality, which isn't a difference at all!

It's also where the paradox I mentioned before comes in, the binary of universality/particularity. If I understand the concept, universality and particularity deconstruct each other: a particular person is still a person, a member of the category or species. You can't have an individual if there isn't a group that he or she belongs to, which connects to what I've written before about individualism and group identity. Critics of "the Western concept of gay identity," for example, claim that it encourages individualism, but gay identity entails my recognizing that I am not a freakish singular aberration but a member of a class of people. This is true of any identity. Even if I give you what might be called my individual identity, embodied on my passport, it represents a constellation of identities: my family, nuclear and extended; the community, along with the state, nation, and planet where I live; the species I belong to; my sex; my age; my height and weight, and so on. By pointing to any of these, I am declaring my membership in various groups, not my uniqueness, and my uniqueness is inseparable from, and perfectly compatible with, my being one among six (or is it seven now?) billions.

So, back to O'Hehir's recommendation for equality in films. Yes, we need films with gay characters who are unmarked in the same way that straight characters are unmarked. Audiences, especially straight audiences, will still try to mark them though: Vito Russo reported that, after seeing My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) that another audience member complained, "I don't get it; why were they gay?" Until human beings arrive at some kind of utopia, differences among people will still matter, socially and therefore artistically. One approach has been genre fiction, which enables writers to give gay characters something to do besides "be gay": to solve murders, say, or to fly to distant galaxies. Mysteries are a better case to examine here, because they generally take place now, in the society we know. It's not necessary to pretend that we live in a society where being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered is no big deal: in genre fiction the problems we have to grapple with are not absent or ignored, they're just dislodged from the center of the story by the genre requirement that the story be about something else, like solving a crime. They are still among the complications that the protagonist has to deal with.

I disagree very strongly with O'Hehir's dismissal of social issues as a "boring abstraction": I think that only a straight white male could make that error. (P.S. Well, not quite: any member of a privileged group -- say, a white female, a black heterosexual, a gay white male -- could make it too.) On the contrary, far from being abstract they are stubbornly concrete. There are other ways to handle them in art than treating them as merely "teachable moments." But to pretend that they don't have to be handled is to leave reality altogether. A gay character who never has to confront homophobia, an African-American character who never has to confront racism, a woman who never has to confront sexism would have to live in another society altogether, if not another planet; hence the usefulness of science fiction and fantasy, which can postulate such a society and explore its ramifications. (Despite the series' severe limitations, the "teachable moments" aspect of Star Trek ended after the first few programs of the first season, since part of its point was that it depicted a future where an black woman and an Asian man could serve on a starship without their "race" being an issue the program had to address. Spock's half-breed alienness was something else again, since it was often mentioned and joked about, but it may have served partly as a distraction, a safety valve for the other differences that weren't on the table.)

One of the strangest exchanges I ever had online happened when I advocated specifically gay pop music. It was in a queer online forum, so I was amazed when other gay people jumped all over the proposal, on the grounds that it wasn't universal. How universal do you want to be? I asked: a song will still be sung by a male or female singer. Even that is bad, someone answered: Madonna wishes she didn't have to occupy a female position in her songs... The solution, I suppose, would be the vocoder, an artificial voice. But I'm still struck by the hatred, or at least revulsion, for human bodies and their differences expressed by the people I was debating. They really seemed to want to get rid of human beings and replace us by mass-produced robots that would be perfectly identical to each other. Or maybe (it seemed likely for some of these people) their own internalized homophobia was so intense that they couldn't bear to hear a man singing a love song to another man, a woman to another woman -- or even a man singing to a woman or vice versa. A machine singing to another machine was okay, though. In which case, why bother? How could these people even bear to touch another human body, let alone have sex with one, with its repulsive lack of universality?

The question comes down to how you read a story (be it on film, in print, or some other medium). It's summed up very well in the story Nicola Griffith tells -- I quoted it here -- about the agent who couldn't understand why Griffith's second novel was about lesbians too.
"Well," she said, "in Ammonite Marghe had a girlfriend because she had no choice, poor thing. But why does Lore like girls?"

"Because she's a dyke, Fran," I said, and I fired her.
The SF grandmaster Poul Anderson once asked, derisively but in all seriousness, why you'd want to put a woman character into a story except as a love interest. Stories are about men: women are merely accessories. Marge Piercy satirized the idea in a way that comes uncomfortably close to reality (as satire should) in a fictional review by a male reviewer of a book of feminist poetry (from her novel Braided Lives [Summit Books, 1982], 400):
Miss Stuart's seventh volume of poetry is crammed with reductionist simplistic snippets of women's lib cant. In describing a series of male/female encounters in which women are injured, raped, maimed, Stuart is unsympathetic to male needs. Individual poems stress only the woman's role and anguish, instead of taking a balanced view. Only the poems about good sex transcend this morbid polemical bias. When we men denigrate women, compare them to mud, death, meat, sows, sloughs, sewers, traps, toilets, when we equate them with mortality, contingency, nature, when we put down women who put out and women who don't, we are merely being universal. Miss Stuart is guilty of special pleading. In art there can be no special pleading for women. Her poetry is uterine and devoid of thrust. Her volume is wet, menstruates, and carries a purse in which it can't find anything. -- Sydney Craw
(Which reminds me: it's about time I reread all of Piercy's work.)

The theme also turns up in the stories African-American pioneers in science fiction like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany have to tell about white editors who couldn't accept black characters in stories unless the stories were about race, which could only (and conveniently) be a very small subarea of the genre. The iconoclastic white editor of Analog sf magazine, John W. Campbell, rejected Delany’s 1968 novel Nova for serialization, “explaining that while he pretty much liked everything else about it, he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.” Campbell was famous for his rationalism, and for publishing stories critical of religion; but his daring went only so far. A few years later, another white sf editor told Octavia Butler that “he didn’t think that blacks should be included in science fiction stories because they changed the character of the stories; that if you put in a black, all of a sudden the focus is on this person. He stated that if you were going to write about some kind of racial problem, that would be absolutely the only reason he could see for including a black.” A black character couldn’t be Everyman, let alone Everywoman, but a white character, no matter how atypical, could. It was okay to allegorize race by using robots, extraterrestrials, or genetically-modified chimpanzees to represent The Negro Problem, but an actual, concrete person of color as communications officer -- or, The Force forbid -- captain of a starship? What would be the point of such extremism?

By now there have been a good many movies in which a character's sexuality is not seen solely "as delivering an important message about tolerance or self-empowerment or some other boring abstraction," though it may deliver such messages as well. I think O'Hehir's examples are carefully chosen to be marginal, and they reflect the way he sees gay characters, not the ways they can be seen. Yes, I have seen glbt movies which I thought were excessively preachy, though that could easily be due to my inability to read them differently; or it could be Sturgeon's Law. But if you decide at the outset to view a film that way, you may miss what else is going on in it. A favorite example of mine is Torch Song Trilogy, which probably owed some of its popularity as a Broadway play and as a film to its preachiness, but Arnold, the central character, is first of all a character, a person with a story to tell, a person worth knowing, not despite but including all his differences. Or consider the pre-New Queer Cinema independent film Parting Glances, with a gay male couple at the center, and a Person With AIDS nearby, surrounded by their straight friends and co-workers -- just like Keep the Lights On as Andrew O'Hehir describes it!

Are these characters (and many others) universal? Only if they succeed in being particular first.

As Martha Shelley pointed out in "Gay Is Good," heterosexuals are our litmus test. We're human beings among ourselves until they turn their liberal gaze on us, trying to decide whether to let us in to Universality. But it's not their decision to make.