The Perfect (Wedding) Assimilationist

‘The aim of assimilationist groups was (and still is) to be accepted into, and to become one with, mainstream culture.’

(Nikki Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, 23)

I’m doing something a bit different by starting out with a quote from some academic scholarship on general queer theory. Whilst its aim is to highlight the history, development and relevant debates within contemporary Queer scholarship, one of the dominating elements of contemporary queer (or gay-male) cinema deals with the notion of assimilation or liberation from the dominant ideologies prescribed by heteronormativity. Those are a lot of five dollar words that simply and complexly highlight the current struggles and battles for equal marriage rights and full acceptance into society. Assimiliationists believe that ‘ tolerance can be achieved by making differences invisible, or at least secondary, in and through an essentialising, normalising emphasis on sameness’ (Sullivan 23). (Bear with me and I will get away from the academic stuff). Contrary to this are the liberationists who believe that we should embrace our differences, shirk heteronormativity and demand our rights regardless of acceptance.

My own beliefs fall snugly in the middle of these two debates, as we need to be accepted based on our similarities, because, after all, we are just humans (though many anti-Gay org.s would say otherwise). Alternatively, there are major differences between us and our straight counterparts. There are even major differences between the many identity formations found under the umbrella Queer, which is what makes it so appealing for many.

Much of this seems tangential to my original statement about new Queer cinema, but the fact of the matter is that much of the independently released queer films centre on the notion of marriage, our obsession with sex and that’s about it. There is a plethora of films that feature an (ostensibly) all white cast, with a specific physical type (very, very rarely do the films deviate from this male figured formula) set into the narrative(s) and how everyone will have someone even though, the sad truth that it may be, this often does not happen.

What initially sparked this thought process was the film The Perfect Wedding (2012):

My initial reactions: bland, vanilla, conservatively queer romcom.

There are a lot of things to say about this film. Most of them are mixed. Some good, some scathing. But I think what I want to focus on most is how this film neatly fits into the pattern of assimilationist texts that have featured in readily available queer cinema. What I’m considering as readily available is that which is on netflix in the US or Europe, on AmazonPrime, or featured on LOGO. There are, of course, many counter examples that highlight our diversity and ability to forego heteronormative practices; however, these films, I would argue perpetuate a certain homonormativity that is predicated upon heteronormativity. In other words, The Perfect Wedding shows that ‘first comes love, then comes marriage…’ We dress the same, we act the same, we are the same as our straight counterparts. Also, the rule of thumb is, apparently, when two gay men enter the same room, they are naturally destined for each other. It also promotes a certain type of man all gay men must want: chiselled, smart, conventionally sexy (the Abercrombie model). This also positions western formations of identity and practice over alternative identities and partnerings.

I’m going to wrap this up as it’s not necessarily about the film, but what the film made me contemplate post viewing. Would love to hear some thoughts.

Twin Personae: Teen Wolf, Sexuality and Split Identity

Something I’ve been meaning to write about are the twins on Teen Wolf.

So, meet Ethan and Aiden:

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These guys are amazing additions to the Teen Wolf pack in season 3. Season 3a saw them more as enemies, whilst season 3b saw them more as companions for Scott and the gang. Back story aside, these guys are interesting for several reasons, and the primary reason to focus largely upon is their portrayal of split sexuality, bi-erasure and their ability to conjoin.

First you have the gay twin Ethan who has been coupled with the only other gay guy on the show Danny:

 

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Meanwhile you have his straight counterpart Aiden and his coupled partner Lydia:

 

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And then you have the powerful combination of Aiden and Ethan united:

 

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When they combine, they literally punch through one another’s bodies and pull themselves together to form one super Werewolf. They are definitely a force to be reckoned with in this show.

But interestingly, this transformation or morphing into one super werewolf provides a different insight into bisexuality. Considering the blatant focus on sexuality within the show’s narrative and its parent company MTV, these twins represent something far more queer than their overt hetero- and homonormativity would suggest. It is as if the bisexual yin-yang, in order to operate sufficiently, must remain separate and active at all times.

Their constant sexualisation through the camera’s oft focus upon their semi nude bodies suggests they are sex symbols; that they are there for visual pleasure a la Laura Mulvey (1973); but, they also represent something newer and less represented in the contemporary mediated form: the male bisexual.

There is a whole host of academic literature surrounding the notion of bi-erasure, which, in simple terms, suggests that bisexuality merely does not exist. It is uniquely a transitory phase towards homosexuality or a return to heterosexuality. Additionally, it suggests that bisexuality is merely experimental in nature and helps one self-identify as rather gay or straight and nothing in between.

I think what MTV and Teen Wolf have done is extremely fascinating and progressive should you read Ethan and Aiden as two parts of a single whole. Their transformation then suggests that bisexuality is something that, when looked upon from an outsider’s perspective is both monstrous and unlikely (thus the only time they combine is when they have already transformed into a werewolf and further morph into a super werewolf). It is something only supernatural transmogrification can permit and not something modern, natural society accepts; thus, we have a great dichotomy between the supernatural world and the normal world in Teen Wolf, and that is why it does remain that way. Moreover, upon de-transforming, the twins separate into their own disparate selves and [accepted] sexual identities. That is further when they become symbols of sexiness and powerfully lust-inducing figures.

My final observation of their symbolic status can only be explained through an immense spoiler. So, my warning to you, is that if you haven’t seen the finale for Season 3, and you intend to watch it soon, please do not read the next paragraph. This is your ending here. Take away what you will from my bisexuality observation of Ethan and Aiden and question the manner in which these two characters live in tandem with one another (they can even feel the other’s physical pain!).

As for those that will not have the following information spoiled, what I find extremely intriguing is that the straight half (Aiden) dies. Why I find this extremely telling is that, the old saying about bisexuals is that bi women end up with men and bi men end up with men. That maxim (for want of another word) is one that was also taken from the fabulous MTV soap opera Undressed. If that is the most common claim about bisexual men, then it only makes sense to read Aiden and Ethan as such and that the straight half must die upon entering into a relationship with a male partner. Now, this may be pure speculation, but, in terms of bisexuality, I would argue that the same-sex attraction would never leave even during an opposite-sex relationship; however, I would not argue the same for the opposite situation. But like I said, I may be perpetuating a negative stereotype or may have a completely skewed understanding of bisexuality, but it might be 100 percent accurate or hogwash for that matter.

 

Anyhow, if you have any comments or suggestions, please do so!

Westboro Baptist Church or the Argent Family

So I’ve just finished watching the first episode of Teen Wolf season 2. It was intriguing for several reasons. But as the narrative in popular discourses suggest, there is a battle enraging throughout the West, and particularly within the United States, about how the LGBTQ community and the non-allied religious groups can/should coexist. What was striking particularly about this episode was the introduction of Gerard, the ostensible Patriarch of the Argent family:

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This is a photo of Gerard and his son Chris Argent, AKA Allison’s father.

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And here’s a picture of Fred Phelps, reverend and founder of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Whilst I may be uncovering a tenuous metaphor or allegory between the WBC and the Argent Family, it is an interesting parallel to note. I’m not going to use this as a forum to bash the WBC and Fred Phelps, particularly under the present circumstances regarding his encroaching demise (click on Fred Phelps picture to read the article about his impending death), I will say that if this link is true post episode 201, then the werewolf serves an intriguing purpose. Their narrative world revolves around the binary of normal vs. werewolf, much the same as the WBC has dichotomised normal versus queer; the former being the notion of right and good versus the latter being evil and kill-worthy. Consequently, these binaries leave a lot of room for grey area, which is particularly interesting in regards to the numerous soldiers’ funerals the WBC have protested in front of and in terms of the show, those characters who accept into society the werewolf (see Stiles and Scott’s friendship, which also parallels the friendship and acceptance between Danny and Jackson).

I look forward to unearthing more parallels between LGBT identity and representation through the use of the werewolf on this show.

 

‘Looking’ at Gay Men

Recently, there’s been a whole lot about Girls and how it’s supposedly reshaping the way we look at womanhood and popular feminist issues. A lot of scholarly attention has been put on the Emmy award winning show starring Lena Dunham. Thus enters Looking. This is another attempt at redefining and renegotiating new queer identity. With the immense success of Queer as Folk in the early 2000’s, followed by The L Word, we were left high and dry for something that ‘portrays’ the LGBT community in neither a positive or negative light, rather through the idea of normalcy.

I watched the first episode a few minutes ago and I had to comment on some of the concerns I have about the show. Namely, have we moved beyond traditional stereotypes and accepted new ones? Is being ‘gay’ and identifying as such a new ‘normalcy’ as is suggested in The New Normal or Modern Family? Do we just blithely accept whatever LGBT media that is produced by mega TV corporations such as Showtime, HBO and ABC? And though this will certainly be an unanswerable question for the near and not-so-distant future, but how will this show have an affect on the perception of gay identity, masculinity within the queer community and gay rights in America? Does this show add anything new?

The most important place to begin is to negotiate identity representations as portrayed in the first episode. They’ve established a leading cast, but the clear protagonist is Patrick (a rather ominous name for myself). He’s a white, middle-class, well educated, attractive 29 year old guy who is trying to make something for himself in the overwhelmingly stereotypical gay city San Francisco. It begins with him ‘cruising’ in a park. Already there’s a red flag for me. This is a show that highlights the path to sex and sexual release. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it constantly reiterates the gay community’s obsession with all things sex. Granted, it was a failed attempt, but the threesome (sorry for the spoiler) doesn’t make it any less so. Even though I’ve never been, is everyone in San Fran gay? I mean, I know it’s a prominent destination and residential paradise for gay and lesbian folk, but it just seems like every character with a shred of dialogue is either a fag hag/fruit fly (for the women) or a gay man. Sure, they are making attempts at ensuring diversity is well represented in all facets of the narrative, but how common is it for gay men to hit on one another on the metro? I thought Grindr had taken hold and all forms of public communication were off unless they agreed to a sexual encounter. Am I wrong? because if I am, I will gladly admit it.

These are my initial reactions to the show, and whilst I’m not opposed to it by any means, and think it’s great entertainment, I fear we have simply recreated Queer as Folk with more diversity and less ostentatious players. Did that need to be done? There was something so charming about the overt campness of QAF. This is not to say that QAF was without its faults, but Looking seems to be a hipster version of what gay life is today. It glamorizes life in ‘the big city’, which Patrick makes clear on his date with ‘the doctor’ (he says, “I thought it would be so easy to meet cool people in San Fran”). He doesn’t seem particularly distraught with his situation, and he makes light of the vast array of men available. The date was a veritable disaster. And Patrick admits to his failings as a potential boyfriend (his longest relationship, which is later questioned, was six months!). Whoa… where are all the right wing haters who lambaste us for our inability to maintain a loving relationship. It sure wasn’t reiterated when Agustin and Richie have that threesome with that random gay guy who just happened to show up at the right time to seduce a couple. Just to clarify, I’m not judging them for having the threesome, and I’m not campaigning for the return of 1950s heteronormative narratives (one man, one woman and two kids with a resolvable conflict and the balance restored), but this show literally took everything the right has been saying about us and threw it back in their faces.

This brings up the larger question of what types of media we should be creating to show what it’s really like to be gay. Sure being gay is about finding someone of the same sex. Being gay is also about learning to be one’s self and negotiated the homophobic world we live in. It’s also about being able to acclimatise to the turbulence of quotidian mundanity (that seems oppositional, but it’s purposeful). But I don’t think us constantly throwing our sex lives in the face of others is the way forward. To be honest, I’d rather have a show with gay men just sat on a couch talking about nothing (which is more a reality) than what we do behind closed doors. Show us in a gay bar standing around awkwardly while the stereotypes flaunt themselves embarrassingly on the dance floor (which I’m sure many comment on, because I know I do when I’m there). Show us trying to make sense of going to the grocery store with our partners, negotiating what we will have for dinner, how people constantly ask us if we are brothers, or best-friends, and then zoom-in on the awkward situation created by that old woman who can’t grasp that we could possibly be romantically involved. Those are the real daily interactions. And it doesn’t need to be masked through comedy (I’m talking about you Modern Family).

Longhorns or Long Stereotypes

Longhorns (2011) directed by David Lewis is a film I’ve had on my Netflix queue for ages.

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From the cover you can see its laden with all sorts of stereotyping about gay men, their bodies and a fetishisation of the hyper-‘masculine’ cowboy figure. But not only that, its relationship to the über-‘masculine’, Texas-centric UT Austin plays into the wet dreams of many-a-viewer.

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What Lewis tried to do is to recall the success of Brokeback Mountain (2005, Ang Lee), but failed in the process. He even tried to put the story in the context of the homophobic 80s to give it that something else, but again, he failed. What he managed to succeed at is falling into the same pitfalls of most other white gay films: using sexuality as a means to blur identity and soft-core porn. While this is not necessarily problematic, it adds nothing new to the genre of LGBTQ films. More importantly, it further entrenches the LGBTQ community into the ceaseless debate surrounding our obsessions with sex and how our meaning revolves around that sex, which ultimately pins our identity as amoral and not worthy of the public’s attention. Of course, I don’t agree with the idea that the LGBTQ community is solely obsessed with sex, no more or less than heterosexuals are (point in argument: the porn industry), but films such as these rely on hot men having sex with other hot men as their main selling point.

I guess my point is really, gay male oriented films are obsessed with sex (at least the contemporary ones). While sex is definitely a huge part of who we are, there are other attributes that gay filmmaking could focus on, but for some reason it is not being done. The major ‘hits’ in the last few years for specifically gay filmmaking promise scenes of graphic sex (see the Eating Out series). I’m just failing to understand how that can be the sole focus of these films when there are real issues to be dealt with amongst the LGBTQ community and the wider public. More importantly, if we want to focus so much on sex, let’s focus on how this obsession is leading to a body image crisis that may even be surpassing female body image issues. Admittedly, this is not an academic piece, but I found a fascinating article that encompasses these exact sentiments I’m expressing. In his article “The Gay Male Gaze”, Mitchell B. Wood highlights current research surrounding gay male dissatisfaction with their body-image, citing that:

Several studies over the last decade have examined body dissatisfaction among gay males, lesbians, straight males, and straight females. Of all four groups, gay men report the highest levels of body dissatisfaction (Strong, Singh, & Randall, 2000) or show levels of dissatisfaction comparable to straight women and lesbians (Beren, Hayden, Wilfley, & Grilo, 1996). (45)

If these issues persist amongst gay men, then why do gay men go out and create these semi-pornographic films that only perpetuate negative notions of healthy and attractive body image? It’s as if hardcore gay pornography were not enough. Perhaps it works as a compensation for the lack of innovative story lines in gay porn, or maybe we really are that sex obsessed as Michael (Queer As Folk [2000-2005]) claims:

The thing you need to know is, it’s all about sex. It’s true. In fact, they say men think about sex every 28 seconds. Of course, that’s straight men. Gay men it’s every nine. You could be at the supermarket, or the laundromat or buying a fabulous shirt when suddenly you find yourself checking out some hot guy. Hotter than the one you saw last weekend or went home with the night before, which explains why we’re all at Babylon at one in the morning instead of at home, in bed. But who wants to be at home, in bed? Especially alone, when you can be here, knowing that at any moment, you might see him. The most beautiful man who ever lived. That is, until tomorrow night. (http://queer-as-folk.hypnoweb.net/episodes-/saison-1/episode-101/script-vo.60.353/)

Michael’s claims are LOADED with stereotypes and LGBTQ commonalities, but there is a reason this show was watched and obsessed over by the LGBT community. These other films have worse distribution and a more restrictive audience, I agree, but there is something eloquent about bouncing quality acting, hard-hitting issues and sex and sexualisation within a television show. These films lack, and it’s a damn shame. They could be so much more than they are.

 

If you want to read “The Gay Male Gaze” here is the citation:

Wood, Mitchell J. “The Gay Male Gaze.” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 17:2 (2004): 43-62.

Hellbent: A Queer Occurrence

Slasher has gone through many phases, cycles, changes from its early inceptions to the present day. These films have a varied founding, with conflicting ideas of their origination (some saying with TCM or Black Christmas in 1974 and others pointing to Hitchcock’s Psycho). Whatever the case may be, there have been many imaginations of the formula. Hellbent (2004),

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directed by Paul Etheredge,

is a re-imagining of the horror subgenre, not in that it does something new with the narrative structure, rather it plays with notions of gender and sexuality.

One commonality amongst many slasher films is the final girl. Carol Clover coined this term in 1993 in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws, which, simply enough, identified that there was typically one surviving female character who was ultimately victimised and terrorised until she is either saved by a man or saves herself. Hellbent reinvents the final girl by shifting her gender to a male character, thus creating the final boy.

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Not only is the final surviving character’s gender altered, but so too is his sexuality. What remains, then, is a semblance of the same heroic male figure who must sacrifice himself in some form for the final victim’s survival.

What Hellbent has done, however, is not change solely the final surviving character, rather, the entire stereotypical character pool has undergone a sexuality shift. Where they haven’t shifted, however, is through the fetishisation or sexualisation of the minoritised body.

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As you can see in the photo above, both men are figured as sexual objects to one another. But through their positioning, we understand that the final boy is looking at/lusting after his male, shirtless, counterpart. Not only is this preconfigured through editing and positioning, but it is also configured through the accentuated lighting, which highlights in darkness an idealised/fetishised male physique. Moreover, we can even move as far to say that, through our identification with the final boy, we the viewers are meant to fetishise the sexualised male. However, this is not meant to be a critique of filmic practices, rather an exploration of their alteration to queer an arguably heterosexual subgenre. I do find this an important step of progress in filmmaking, considering that, since the release of this film, there have been several new installations of queer horror.

One criticism I will give this film is that it is overly indebted to negotiating gay male stereotypes, which I find as a gay man to be at times frustrating. Etheredge obviously has in mind a vision to combat negative stereotypes often attributed to homosexuality, however he does not do so effectively with all of them. In fact, through this attempted negotiation, he perpetuates them further, entrenching the gay community into frivolity, capriciousness and promiscuity. The final boy is not the chaste figure the final girl presents, even though this is not so much an issue. What is an issue is that the final boy is easily provoked into sexual relations, a signal that even the most ‘moral’ of gay men are not moral. I admit that sexual interactivity is important to become visible, but not through weak characters. I’d rather see man whores who are proud of their various partners than a character forced into something. Moreover, it positions the final boy as a feminine character, moving away from an independent queer ideology that can be read from the final girl.

My final thought is this: I appreciate the efforts of the film and enjoy it as a film, but as a film that trumpets itself as ‘the first gay slasher’ it really needs to take a page out of Sleepaway Camp (1983) and focus on more non-normative affects of sexuality and identity.

The Outs

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the recent trend in queer filmmaking is the web series. While this is not particularly new to queer film/television, nor to the internet, there is a rawness to this series that is unlike many others. Currently, there are several major Queer-oriented web series running (see Hunting SeasonEastsiders for example) that touch on issues of gender and sexuality, particularly Hunting Season, which elaborates on gay promiscuity and the desire to be in open relationships, etc… Naturally these are all pervasive issues amongst LGBTQ audiences, especially with our visibility in the public realm. However, The Outs takes a new approach to Queer identity, intertwining comedy and drama to deal/negotiate with our staggering issues. That is why I have chosen to focus on this particular series, with its heavy fan following, yet minimal visibility in the ‘straight world’. Just as us queers are moving from the periphery to the centre stage, web series such as these are becoming increasingly popular, as television and film does little to entertain the possibility of queer as normal.

We have been represented outside of our own filming initiatives as either the problem or the gay best friend (GBF [2013] focuses on the ‘gay best friend’ and the high-fashion bitchiness that is oft associated with the ostentatious queer). Yet, our stories very rarely feature in prominent films, and if they do, much like the women of the 50s and 60s in cinema or with people of colour, they are always under protection by the straight counterpart. We have very little agency within our own lives, which is perpetuated further in not having our own feature films premiered at standard cinemas throughout the world. Moreover, and more often than not, many of the actors who portray prominent gay figures such as Harvey Milk in Milk or the fictional ones in Philadelphia, are often portrayed by self-defined heterosexual actors, i.e. Tom Hanks, Antonio Banderas and Sean Penn. While I applaud their courage and desire to become visible warriors for the LGBTQ struggle, why do we continue to adhere to the ‘straight world’s’ conventions that to be normal is to be a white, heterosexual male or female. This is even an issue in feminist films and Black Cinema. We need to take things in our own hands and create what should be created, that advances our cause, displays our strife and combats homophobia and inequality at all costs. Surely artistic endeavour makes public change, or else there would be no regulation by the FDA in meat packing plants if it had not been for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. 


This brings me full circle to The Outs. The series begins with the aftermath of an affair. It is a sordid affair, because the infidelity ruins not one, but two relationships. As the story unfolds through the six episode series, we come to learn that best friends Oona and Mitchell are the recipients of that scandal. We see them grow as friends and overcome their heartbreak, but what we also see is an intimate portrayal of the normal queer. Film and television have often foregrounded the damaged ex (female), the result of her partner’s infidelity, and her succumbing to the pain and her eventual regrowth into a powerful character. Rarely is the same shown in feature films for LGBT figures. Their relationships are often of convenience and left underdeveloped. Typically, as in Clueless, the gay figure is on the fringes of coupling normalcy. The Outs does not shy away as Oona and Mitchell regain their footing and deal with the torment of infidelity.

But, the series also portrays the cheater in equally as much turmoil as the ex. He is victim to meaningless sex gained through the creation of a vicious smart phone application, undoubtedly referencing Grindr, that locates men looking for other men to meet, date and fuck. Jack meanders Brooklyn, releasing his frustration and sadness at the loss of his partner to his infidelity, but also coming to terms with the immense unhappiness his long lasting relationship left upon him. He and Mitchell both knew they should have severed ties long before the incident, but as with all couples, whether straight or same-sex ones, we commit not for love but for comfort. This is only a recent development in the world of queer web series and few LGBTQ films, but not at all existent in mainstream ones for us queers. I won’t ruin the series by unfolding too much of the plot, but will say that it is a must see.

I will say it will fall victim to the same type of criticisms often applied to Girls, because it does not feature much diversity in terms of the relationships and prominent characters. However, I do not believe that this lacking makes the show any less relevant. It actually leaves open the possibility for shows to negotiate and explore LGBTQ inter-racial relationships and issues of racism and sexism within the community itself.