Gender Calamity/Gender Possibility: Calamity Jane (1953)

The 1953 musical western Calamity Jane follows an ostensibly heteronormative narrative trajectory in which we see two rebellious young women being tamed and made ready for heterosexual marriage. Wild tomboy and stagecoach guard, “Calam” (Doris Day), gets a makeover and learns how to be a woman, while aspiring burlesque performer, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), gives up on her dreams of being on stage for the love of a man. But this surface narrative is in constant tension and conflict with the film’s high camp celebration of queer rebellion and non-normative desire which conveys an alternative story that, as Eric Savoy argues, questions “the possibility, or even the desirability of a coherent gender role” (151) or, for that matter, the very existence of “true”, or fixed identities.

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In Praise of Fright Night (well, sort of)

The forthcoming remake of Fright Night (1985) has spurred me on to write a post about the original film, which was a favourite of mine when I was a teenager.  I’m aware that this post may largely consist of me rationalising my attachment to a homophobic and sexist film, but what can I say? I loved Fright Night when I was a kid and, when I sat down and watched it again recently, I found that I still loved it almost as much.

For me, as a teenager, Fright Night appeared extremely queer.  It presented a hero who was more interested in spying on the handsome man next door than in consummating his relationship with his girlfriend.  Meanwhile, the handsome man next door lived with another man who appeared to be devoted to him.   The hero’s best friend, ‘Evil Ed’, could be read as the kind of gay kid who protects himself from attack by becoming the class clown (fun fact: Stephen Geoffreys, the actor who played Ed, stars in gay porn films), as could the washed-up, horror film actor, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), who is represented, at least initially, as the nervous, fussy, effeminate gay male stereotype.

Fright Night reinforces homophobic discourses most strongly in the representation of the vampire, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), as the predatory, older gay or (perhaps more accurately) bisexual man and, in 1985 when so many gay men were dying of AIDS, the homophobic metaphor of infection that he carries as a vampire can’t be ignored.  The film also has little to offer feminism.  Charley’s mother is a silly woman (bad single Mum!) who endangers her son, and Charley’s girlfriend, Amy, who is generally submissive to men, ends up as the object of exchange in a classic homosocial triangle through which Charley and Jerry channel their relationship with each other (another fun fact: Amanda Bearse, the actress who played Amy, is a lesbian).  Also, as soon as she’s vamped Amy manifests the monstrous female sexuality that vampire fiction by male authors has traditionally assumed to lurk in all women, and also treats us to some rather exciting vagina dentata imagery.

So far, so homophobic and sexist, but Fright Night is just so clever, so witty, and winks at its audience so outrageously, that I can’t completely condemn it.  It does something interesting is in its presentation of two gay role models for the boys – “evil” Jerry Dandridge versus “good” Peter Vincent.  It’s very unusual to see the effeminate gay man (as Vincent seems to be portrayed) being represented as heroic at all on film, and rather than simply saying that gayness is bad, the film suggests that there are good and bad ways to be gay.  Poor Ed makes the fatal mistake of identifying with Jerry (but you can understand why he does), while Charley is wise enough to hook up with Peter Vincent instead.  Of course this opposition between “good” and “bad” gayness is in itself homophobic, but it’s a little more interesting than a lot of other horror films.  I also feel that Fright Night is, on another level, sort of about homosexuality and homophobia in horror film, insofar as it acknowledges and plays with the gay subtext that is such a longstanding feature of the genre. In particular, it seems to be saying something about the role that the gothic and horror genres have played in telling coded stories about queerness that have been especially attractive to young people trying to sort out their feelings about sexuality.

At the end of the film, Charley still hasn’t managed to consummate his relationship with Amy and still gets distracted by looking out of the window.  You never know, he might manage it after the credits roll, but you can decide that his options are still open.

He’s Here! The Phantom of the Opera!

“The queer is the taboo-breaker, the monstrous, the uncanny.  Like the Phantom of the Opera, the queer dwells underground, below the operatic overtones of the dominant; frightening to look at, desiring, as it plays its own organ, producing its own music“, Sue Ellen Case, ‘Tracking the Vampire’ in Differences (1991) (p. 3).

The other day, an online conversation reminded me of my teenage love of musicals, in particular, my obsession, between the ages of nine and thirdteen, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.  My cooler friends were into Les Miserables, which even I had to acknowledge had a better score than Phantom, but I’ve always had a taste for glamour,  the gothic and, of course, the queer, and on all those fronts, Phantom won hands down.

My early love of Phantom is an example of how queer kids often cultivate interests that appear acceptable on the surface  of things, but privately rewrite their meaning to meet their own emotional and erotic needs. No one objected to my love of Phantom because an interest in musicals is considered acceptable for white, middle-class teenage girls and because they assumed that I identified with Christine and her romance with Raoul.

In fact I identified passionately with the Phantom himself, the queer figure who lurks underground (and outside heteronormativity) and who exerts a mesmerising power over beautiful women, a figure who isn’t what he appears to be and who hides a terrible secret under his mask where he bears the mark of his ‘queerness’. The Phantom/Angel of Music/Erik allows us to face our fears of being literally unmasked and seen for what we really are.  I even had my own Phantom of the Opera mask and hat.

In attempting to drop a chandelier on Christine’s bland boyfriend, Raoul (see video below), the Phantom in his role as return of the repressed, acts out a queer rage against the dominant discourse.  From a feminist perspective, (and I’m sure there must be cultural critics out there who’ve talked about this), the Phantom can also be seen as an avatar of Christine herself, since the death of Raoul would save her from the fate of a dull marriage to a painfully boring man that awaits her and will undoubtedly end her singing career.  The Phantom may be creepy, but at least he wants to unleash Christine’s creativity and show her what she can achieve.  In gothic and horror fiction, the queer monster often allows women to dally with possibilities beyond heterosexual marriage, but only within the context of a parasitical or vampiric relationship that threatens to destroy them.  For the monstrous queer figure, the attempt to express him/herself through the woman ultimately it leaves him/her voiceless.  If you’re interested, Rhona J. Bernstein’s book, Attack of the Leading Ladies is very good on this special relationship between the monster and the ‘leading lady’.

When I was thirdteen, the Phantom got dumped for Madonna, and when I was fourteen I took up with the Rocky Horror Show, but that’s a whole other post.  For now, here’s the original video starring an unblinking Sarah Brightman as Christine, a rather stiff and awkward Steve Harley as the Phantom, and the most amazing mullet on the guy playing Raoul.  It now looks like a particularly bad Meatloaf video, but I loved it at the time.

A Personal Queer Theory Retrospective

Those of you who’ve been reading my various blog incarnations for a while will be aware that, until last year, I was pursuing an academic career.  When it became apparent that there were few diamonds in that mine (for me at least), I decided to rethink and stopped blogging while I sorted out my life. 

We will draw a veil over that period, but it took me until last month to finally get rid of all the files associated with the academic part of my life and I thought it would be interesting to look at the small pile of scribbled on photocopied essays that I’ve decided to keep from the files labelled ‘Queer Theory’.  

These days, I’m a lot more critical of queer theory than I once was.  Queer theory has been dominated by white, middle-class people and, at its worst, can be elitist, impenetrable, alarmingly divorced from peoples’ real lived experiences, as well as having a tendency to erase the specificity of lesbian experience.

Having said that, some essays still have enough importance for me to be prepared to carry them around with the rest of my belongings as I move from place to place.  In roughly chronological order of publication:  

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“Only Punks Use Knives”: Homophobia and Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Rebel Without a Cause is a film of incredible beauty, tension and menace. I was riveted, even though, as a queer person and a woman, I felt under attack throughout this movie. People will come to different conclusions about the “cause” of Jim’s rebellion, but for the queer viewer, a palpable terror of homosexuality seems to underlie his existence, which is on the edge of total breakdown.

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The Best Queer Theory I read in 2008

Carolyn Dinshaw, ‘Getting Medieval: Pulp Fiction, Gawain, Foucault’ in The Book and the Body, edited by Dolores Warwick Frese and Katherine O’ Brien O’ Keeffe, (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997)

If you’re into queer theory and pop culture, this essay is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.

Pulp Fiction, Medieval romance, Foucault, ‘the anatomy of male bonding – the relationship of homosocial and homosexual male relations’, ‘the centrality of the anus in male bonding, or, more precisely, in the maintenance of patriarchy’, the medieval at the heart of the modern, the perversity at the heart of the straight, the impossibility of essentially being anything, the question of ‘who can act, when, and under what circumstances’, and so much more.

David M. Halperin, ‘Deviant Teaching’ in A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies, edited by George Haggerty and Molly McGarry.

Starting with Dante meeting with his old teacher in Hell in The Inferno, the essay traces the phobic connections ‘between sodomy, teaching and literary studies, a conflation so powerful and so toxic that the political fallout from it continues, seven centuries later, to pollute the professional lives of English professors who happen to be gay men and queer theorists who work in the field of literary studies’ (p. 5).

Instead of simply bewailing this damning association Halperin does what the best queer theory does with such problems:

my inclination is to work with it and to inquire into its historicity, its conditions of emergence, its ideological contingencies, the complex discursive processes by which those three orders of meaning have become irretrievably crossed and the possible reuses of such a crossing for and by a scholarship, a paedagogy, and a politics friendly to queers (p. 9).

There follows a discussion about the education of boys from the tribes of New Guinea to the American rite of passage movie Shane. Halperin concludes that we have to confront our fears about gay men and the education of the young head-on because:

We can only defuse those fears if we are willing to analyse them, to understand them, to figure out where they come from, what their institutional bias is, and – perhaps most important of all – how they are connected systematically to the social and discursive structures that organize our culture (p. 37)

Thank you also to the kind person who sent this to me.

Ellis Hanson, ‘Queer Gothic’ in The Routledge Companion to the Gothic edited by Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy (London; New York: Routledge, 2007).

This essay is mainly of interest to me because I like queerness and the gothic (and Ellis Hanson), but I’m adding it here because it happens to include a helpful description of queer theory:

By queer theory I mean the radical deconstruction of sexual rhetoric as a form of resistance to sexual normalisation.  Although it takes as foundational its insights into the instability of language and the historical contingency of sexuality, queer theory is not a unified doctrine or political agenda, but a highly mobile practice of imminent critique that draws its form and content from the shifting rhetoric of sexual politics. It interrogates the oppositions that have traditionally characterised sexual politics, in particular such familiar oppositions as heterosexuality/homosexuality, masculine/feminine, sex/gender, closeted/out, centre/margin, conscious/unconscious, nature/culture and normal/pathological, to name a few (pp. 175 – 6)

Some more good Queer/Gay Studies reading here and  here.


Thought for the Day from Judith Butler

“The violent response is the one that does not ask, and does not seek to know. It wants to shore up what it knows, to expunge what threatens it with not-knowing, what forces it to reconsider the presuppositions of its world,”

Judith Buler, Undoing Gender, p. 35.

Reading – Two Books on the History of Sexuality

Andrew Elfenbein, Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

This is my book of the month.  It puts forward an exciting argument, is very well researched and gets extra points for being readable.  I’m reading it because I’m interested in tracing the different narratives which have gone into the making of modern homosexual identity as a category of knowledge.  According to Elfenbein, genius is one of those narratives and he sets out to explore the origins of this association:

‘The cult surrounding genius has created an analogy between the situation of the alienated, marginalized artist who rebels against social norms by shattering conventional gender categories and that of the homosexual man or woman in a homophobic world’ (7).

The first chapter looks at the way male geniuses became associated with excessive “feminine” characteristics (sensibility, imagination, passion) in the eighteenth century, an association which placed them in uncomfortably close representational relation to the contemporary construction of the sodomite: ‘There was always the lurking suspicion that the sublime excessiveness of genius might lead to less conventional sexual possibilities’ (32).  The second chapter is about the very queer eighteenth-century ‘genius,’ William Beckford, and the third is about William Cowper, an eighteenth-century poet who despite (or perhaps because of) his apparent queerness became popular as a model for domestic life in the Victorian period.  Elfenbein doesn’t leave female geniuses out of the picture and the next two chapters are on Anne Damer and Anne Bannerman, but I haven’t got to them yet.

Randolph Trumbach, ‘The Heterosexual Male in Eighteenth-Century London and his Queer Interactions,’ in Katherine O’ Donnell and Michael O’ Rourke (eds) Love, Sex, Intimacy and Friendship Between Men, 1550 – 1800 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

This is a radically anti-essentialist account of sexual history.  Trumbach seems to have no truck with any notion of inherent sexual orientation – however that might have been conceived in the past – and puts across a view of sexual desire as entirely socially determined.  He argues that until 1700 in most of Europe (but especially the Mediterranean) it was perfectly normal for men to have sexual relations with both men and women.  According to Trumbach, sexual relations were not determined by gender, but rather by hierarchies of age and were structured in terms of active and passive roles.  It was acceptable for an adult man to have consensual sexual relations with an adolescent boy until the boy became an adult and took on an active role himself.  A small minority of men took on passive roles throughout their lives and they were held in profound contempt often working as male prostitutes.  This is all interesting, but the essay inadvertently draws attention to the way trans history has been appropriated and rendered invisible by lesbian and gay history, a trend which is very problematic in that it creates an impression that trans identities and subjectivities suddenly appeared in the twentieth century and have no real history before medical technologies became available.  Trumbach mentions male-bodied people who, in the early modern period, dressed constantly as women, took women’s names and in some cases even constructed artificial vaginas.  He appropriates this evidence to his argument about the development of sexuality, but what he’s talking about here sounds much closer to what we now consider transgendered identity to me.  Part of the essay also goes too far for me in terms of the kind of material it appropriates to the history of homosexuality.  Trumbach describes a case in which an adult male raped a boy of twelve.  The man behaved in a way very similar to what we associate with modern paedophiles, luring the boy to his rooms, abusing him, giving him money and trying to persuade him keep it a secret.  As far as I’m concerned this is a form of behaviour now known as paedophilia and needs to be considered as part of a different history.  Still, I found the essay stimulating.

I also carried on with my Bray and Haggerty from last week and re-read a chapter from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.

Three Books on the History of Sexuality

Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (Gay Men’s Press, 1982).

This is a very influential social constructionist account and I’m currently re-reading the whole thing. Bray argued that homosexuality as a category of identity could not exist in the Renaissance because it wouldn’t have made any sense in the early modern period and ‘identity without a consciousness in time is impossible’ (11).

‘To talk of an individual in this period as being or not being ‘a homosexual’ is an anachronism and ruinously misleading.  The temptation to debauchery, from which homosexuality was not clearly distinguished, was accepted as part of the common lot, be it never so abhorred’ (16 – 17).

It still holds up as a fascinating read.

Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century (London: Cassell, 1994)

Sinfield is a hardline social constructionist when it comes to homosexuality and very readable and persuasive with it.  In this book he argues that effeminacy was not strongly linked to homosexuality until the trials of Oscar Wilde when the popular stereotype

He gives a summary of the social constructionist argument:

‘sexualities (heterosexual and homosexual) are not essential, but constructed within an array of prevailing social possibilities […] Sexual identity depends not on a deep-set self-hood (though it may feel otherwise), but on one’s particular situation within the framework of understanding that makes certain, diverse, possibilities available; which makes some ideas plausible and other not.  This is the ideological network that we use to explain our worlds. Ideology makes sense for us – of us – because it is already proceeding when we arrive in the world; we come to consciousness in its terms […] The constructionist argument is generally indebted to the work of Michel Foucault, who argues that the big shift in homosexual identity occurs when the person who engages in same-sex activity gets perceived as a personality type. So far from repressing sex, Foucault brilliantly observes, the Victorians went on about it all the time; it became a principal mode of social regulation. In the process of this discursive proliferation, the ‘homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life form, a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology … The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species’’ […] Hence the answer to the question that seems suddenly to have hit the agenda: ‘Was Shakespeare gay?’ He couldn’t have been, because lesbian and gay identities are modern developments: the early-modern organization of sex and gender boundaries, simply, was different from ours.  However, by the same token, he couldn’t have been straight either, so present-day heterosexism has no stronger claim upon him than homosexuality’ (11 – 13).

Charming as Sinfield is, as a writer, I’m not convinced that effeminacy was a de-coupled from ideas about sex between men (until Oscar) as he wants to prove in this book.  I’m enjoying reading about it though.

George Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (1999)

I like reading Haggerty. He has a rambling style and is an interesting close reader. This book looks at masculinity as a contested concept in the eighteenth century and argues that a certain sexual sensibility emerges in this period (1 and 2).  A lot of people talk about sodomy but Haggerty wants to bring ‘love’ back into the picture:

‘The “love” that cannot be expressed – “dare not speak its name” – because that is what is really threatening. Two men having sex threatens no one. Two men in love: that begins to threaten the very foundations of heterosexist culture’ (20).

I think he’s a bit of a romantic too.