Friday, January 23, 2015

The More It Changes the More It Stays the Same, Latest Iteration

I've had some interesting discussions with people about the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, which has now received several Oscar nominations.  One such discussion was with a straight friend who loved it because, he said, it was so refreshing to see a positive depiction of a computer nerd in a mainstream movie.  I think that's as questionable as the movie's depiction of a gay man, but I suppose he liked it for the same reason many people have liked its depiction of Turing as a socially clueless yet fearful closet case: because they agree that the only way you can win sympathy (or an Oscar) for Turing, as a queer or as a computer geek, is to make him hopelessly miserable and then put him out of his misery.

I would think it even more tragic if Turing had been shown as he apparently was: a gay mathematician who, despite his social awkwardness, could work with others, had friends, was unconflicted about his sexuality, and had a reasonably satisfying sex life -- but was brought down by the bigoted laws of his time and place. To show Turing in this way would take some imagination and creativity; treating him as The Imitation Game does takes the easiest possible way out, by falling back on every toxic stereotype about nerds and queers.

When I explained this, my friend replied that he thought the film "dealt with his sexuality reasonably well," and "didn't make a 'big deal' out of it" and "it was treated as a secondary struggle for him."  He conceded that "If one does a 'queer reading' of the film, I'm sure there are some problems," but he himself "found the character captivating and intriguing and the central tension of his character played well into the film's overall thematic purpose." I agree with that last point, since I think The Imitation Game's "overall thematic purpose" was to win sympathy for Turing by the use of homophobic stereotypes.  (This is not to say that any of the filmmakers were personally homophobic -- no doubt some of their best friends are homosexuals -- but that the way Turing was depicted used homophobic cliches that have long been part of popular culture.)

I think only a homophobic straight person could watch The Imitation Game and perceive it as not making a big deal out of Turing's homosexuality.  Indeed, it makes it into a crucial plot point, when the Soviet spy (whom the real Turing probably never met, let alone worked with closely) blackmails him into keeping silent by threatening to expose his homosexuality.  (Ironically, Turing's superiors certainly knew that he was queer, just as they knew about the presence of a Soviet spy at Bletchley and -- as someone tells the movie Turing -- chose what information he'd pass along to Stalin.  They would have investigated him quite thoroughly before admitting him to the team.)  As for "queer reading," my reading is structurally queer since I'm queer, but it doesn't use any of the concepts or tools of queer theory.  Of course it never occurred to my friend that his "straight reading" brought no agenda to his understanding of the film or of Turing as "struggling" with his homosexuality.

So I wasn't all that surprised when the authors of a new Young Adult science-fiction novel with non-heterosexual, non-white protagonists mentioned (in a "big idea" post at John Scalzi's blog) that "an agent offered to represent it on the condition that we make one of the protagonists straight or else remove his romance and all references to his sexual orientation."  They refused, and eventually found a home for the book at Viking Penguin.  I'm still a bit annoyed by the authors' repeated insistence that writing a story with such characters is "risky" -- there's not enough fiction out there with non-heterosexual characters of color, but there's still quite a lot of it, and "risky" has all kinds of connotations that I think go beyond the chance that an agent won't represent your work because of its content.

The writers also wrote a piece about their experience that was posted on a Publishers Weekly blog, inviting comments from writers with similar experiences, and got a lot of traffic.  (Though the writers didn't name the agency involved, it identified itself and responded, denying the writer's accusation.)  One author wrote that per "editor went through and deleted all gay references between my copyedits and the first pass pages without bothering to tell me.  I pitched a fit and my agent backed me up. The gay character stayed in the novel, as written."  Another commenter declared the need for fiction about Christian gay characters who struggle with their sexuality and ultimately "leave the lifestyle/choose to go on with their lives from a Christian standpoint."  Personally I think it would be interesting to read such a story -- it would be fantasy, of course, but we're talking about fantasy here -- and I wonder why Christian publishers haven't given us some examples already.  I'd even recommend the acquisition of such a book to my public library, and would welcome the change to discuss it here.

Despite the apparent decline in the US and Europe of homophobia and antigay bigotry, to say nothing of structural/systemic heterosexual supremacy, they're still with us.  It's good to be reminded, even if it's frustrating.