Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – On the Inhumanity of Sexual Categorisation

When people talk about gender and sexuality, they usually do so from within the context of a broad social narrative. Arguably the most popular gender narrative of the day is that we (in the West particularly) are in the process of weaning ourselves off of a particularly toxic and reductive understanding of human sexuality. According to this narrative, we have progressed from what was essentially a tri-partite model of human sexuality (straight male, straight female, and Other) to an N-partite model that allows not only for differences in sexual preference but variations in relationship models, different sexual practices and conceptions of gender that rely upon variables other than genital shape and chromosomal configuration. Under the logic of this narrative, a three-box understanding of human sexuality is repressive and so the more boxes we add to our model, the closer we come to a theory that reflects the enormous complexity of human sexual identity. In an ideal world, everyone would fit into their own universally recognised pigeonhole with nobody left puzzling as to how they fit in or who they are. Though giddily utopian, this narrative is not without its critics.

Back in the 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault began to examine the different ways in which humanity has conceived of sexuality. He concluded that, far from being a historical reality, the above narrative was a construct of the 1960s and that, much like previous models of human sexuality, it contained the embryo of an intensely problematic political programme. Foucault argued that the urge to determine the ‘truth’ about a particular phenomenon and break it down into distinct categories tends to go hand-in-hand with a desire to control the phenomenon. For example, while most people do have a conception of race, their conception tends to be a lot less exacting that the systems created by governments intent upon dehumanising particular groups of humans. Thus, while most Westerners are now content to use the term ‘mixed race’ to describe people of mixed racial heritage, previous generations have used terms like ‘mulatto’ and ‘quadroon’ to determine not only which races were mixed but also in what proportions. Though pointless in the West today, these linguistic categories would have proved extraordinarily useful for societies that practiced apartheid, slavery or any other systematic abuse of different racial groups. Indeed, the first step towards the Final Solution was the creation of a legal framework allowing Nazi officials to ‘objectively’ distinguish between Jews and non-Jews on the basis of their parentage.

Though Foucault stops well short of drawing a parallel between how people used systems of racial classification and how people use systems of sexual classification, he does express profound concern over our assumption that more precise systems of top-down classification are somehow a sign of progress. After all, ‘Octaroon’ is a more precise term than ‘Black person’ but nobody in their right mind would consider it progressive to begin pigeon-holing people on the basis of their having one Afro-Caribbean grandparent. Systems of top-down classification require measurement and basing someone’s identity upon their ability to satisfy objective scientific criteria is intensely dehumanising… we see this not only in the Victorian and Nazi obsession with skull sizes but also in the grotesquely gynaecological language applied to the Trans* community when the need to fit people into pre-existing categories invariably devolves into discussions of genital shape and chromosomal configuration.

Kimberley Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry won awards and captured hearts by drawing the world’s attention to the real-life story of Brandon Teena, who was betrayed, raped and murdered by a group of friends who believed that Brandon had misrepresented his gender. When the film was first released in 1999, many people described it as the story of a woman who ‘passed herself off’ as a man in an effort to reconcile her desire to sleep with women with the universal homophobia of 1990s Nebraska. Since then, awareness has expanded and so most people now think of the film as a tragic story about how an intolerant culture treats transgender people. However, while both sets of readings say quite a lot about our need to impose clear boundaries on ambiguous phenomena, a better reading of the film is to take it as an attack on the process of classification itself.

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REVIEW – Weekend (2011)

FilmJuice have my review of Andrew Haigh’s relationship drama Weekend.

The film tells the story of two gay men who meet in a club and spend the night together. Upon waking, Glenn (Chris New) sticks a tape recorder under Russell’s (Tom Cullen) nose and asks him to give detailed feedback about the sex and the way the pair met. Horrified by Glenn’s frankness and yet compelled to accede to his request out of affection and desire, Russell begins to talk and when Russell begins to talk the one night stand slowly begins to transform into a relationship. Weekend is the story of how two very different people strive to overcome their differences in order to find enough common ground to exist as a couple:

It seems faintly absurd that, in this day and age, we should feel obliged to make the case for why it is that more straight people should watch gay films. Many fans of gay independent film will stress the educational benefits of watching a film about people unlike yourself but this makes it all sound a little bit too much like homework. People should not seek out Andrew Haigh’s Weekend because they feel obliged to be supportive of minority filmmaking or because they want to see something a bit different and exotic. The case for watching Haigh’s Weekend is the same for watching any great film: Watch it because it will help you to better understand yourself. In fact, Weekend is the single most grown-up film about human relationships that you will see this year and that is true regardless of who you are and how you live your life.

Needless to say, I adored this film and recommend it to anyone and everyone who happens upon this blog post. So many films deal in relationships and bndy about words like ‘love’, ‘desire’ and ‘loneliness’ but few actually address what those words actually mean. Weekend is one of those films.

Fright Night (2011) – Even The Straight Boys are Queer

There are some things that female directors do better than male directors and one of them is acknowledging the moral and psychological ambiguities inherent in the loss of sexual innocence.

Consider such mainstream accounts of adolescent sexuality as the Porky’s and American Pie series and you will find teenaged boys that are monuments to frustrated worldliness.  Endless fonts of libidinal energy, these teenagers know all the moves and all the rules but cannot find anyone with whom to put them into practice. In most films, males are either guileless children or frenetic satyrs, there is no middle ground and there is no real sense of psychological transition. Films that should describe a coming of age all too often opt for depicting an age of cumming. By contrast, films such as Lucille Hadzhihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), Katell Quillevere’s Love Like Poison (2010) and Celine Sciamma’s Water Lillies (2007) depict the loss of female innocence as a profoundly ambiguous process, a fall from grace into desire and a movement from protected freedom to vulnerable responsibility.

Cinema’s lack of engagement with the subtleties of male sexuality is also evident in a lot of gay independent cinema. ‘Coming out’ dramas such as The String (2009), Shank (2009) and even Tropical Malady (2004) focus less upon the emergence of homosexual desire than they do upon the process through which apparently straight men come to terms with the social pressures keeping them in the closet. One notable exception to this rule is Tom Holland’s sadly overlooked vampire film Fright Night (1985), in which a teenaged boy finds himself trapped between the sexual demands of his increasingly frustrated girlfriend and the siren’s call of the sexually ambiguous man-next-door. Nowadays, the equation of male sexuality with vampirism is a largely unquestioned part of the genre landscape given that both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Twilight books present adolescent males as dangerously libidinal creatures whose desires must be kept in check lest all hell break loose. This metaphorical Othering of male sexuality is particularly evident in Meyer’s Twilight series as the books feature a male vampire who effectively castrates himself in order to assume the role of an ersatz gay best friend. Once feared and desired in equal measure, the vampiric sexuality of adolescent boys is now house-broken for the purposes of romance, teenaged boys are now expected to sigh and to speak of love but never to demand a hand-job.

Half an hour into Craig Gillespie’s remake of Fright Night, a character expresses absolute outrage at the suggestion that he reads Twilight novels. This fragment of dialogue constitutes a statement of intent: Fright Night is not about dickless pretty-boys; it is about a male sexuality that is red in tooth and claw. A sexuality so terrifying in its primal nature that it even frightens the men afflicted by it.  Far more than a vampire movie or a horror-comedy, Gillespie’s Fright Night attempts to follow in the footsteps of Innocence and Love Like Poison by confronting received wisdom about the adolescent sexual experience. However, the more the movie deconstructs traditional depictions of adolescent male sexuality, the more it struggles to find an alternative to the frustrated satyrs of American Pie thereby begging the question: What is it like to be a teenaged boy?

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The Valley of the Bees (1968) – The Cross or The Cock?

In his best-known work – The Essence of Christianity (1848) – the Bavarian philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach argues that religion is a form of psychological projection as humanity created God as a means of externalising such basic human values as benevolence, love and the ability to do as one pleases. Religion is the process through which values are stripped from individual things and rendered abstract for the purposes of worship and contemplation. God is nothing more than Man; he is the projection of our inner nature and our most basic desires. According to Feuerbach, this process has become increasingly problematic over the years as people now prize the abstract construct over the values themselves. God was supposed to be a means, but now he has become an end.

Frantisek Vlácil’s film Údolí vcel (a.k.a. The Valley of the Bees) is an examination of what happens when people project their desires onto abstract entities only to forget that these entities are not actually real. Set in medieval Bohemia, the film tells the story of one knight’s love for another knight and how, by projecting that love onto God, something as simple and human as wonderful as love can be distorted into something truly monstrous.

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REVIEW – The Gymnast (2006)

Does a ‘beautiful’ film necessarily have to have amazing cinematography?

Despite really rather pedestrian lensing, Ned Farr’s The Gymnast is beautiful film.  Filled with well-thought out visual motifs and built around a series of stunning pieces of aerial performance art, the film not only calls into question traditional conceptions of beauty but also traditional models of self-actualisation.  Is being honest with yourself and the people around you really all that is needed in order to be happy?  This film about a lesbian coming out of the closet late in life suggests that some outings are more equal than others.

Videovista have my review.

REVIEW – The String (2009)

As someone who watches quite a bit of GLBT cinema – without actually being either G, L, B or T – I am often struck by the way in which gay indie film directors present coming out as a very simple moral question.  Most GLBT films frame coming out as a question of personal honesty and self-actualisation.  According to these films, people are in denial until they are not, at which point they come out and it is up to their friends and families to deal with it and by ‘deal with it’ I mean ‘accept it unconditionally’.  Indeed, GLBT cinema traditionally presents the ethics of coming out as purely a question of acceptance.  If you accept your friend/relative/former partner then you are morally good, if you do not then you are morally bad.  But what of the morality of living a lie?  what of the morality of turning people’s lives up-side down so that you can finally be honest with yourself?  Surely these are not simple questions.

Mehdi ben Attia’s film Le Fil addresses the social repercussions of coming out in a way that most Anglo-American GLBT films refuse to do.  A loving satire of upper-class Tunisian society, The String asks whether hypocrisy really is a worse option than social isolation.

Videovista have my review.

The Kids Are All Right (2010) – It’s a Woman’s World… Thanks to Men.

In September I wrote a piece about Debra Granik’s excellent Winter’s Bone (2010) examining the film through the prism of what the theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls ‘Kyriarchy’.  Kyriarchy is a concept designed to move discussions of prejudice and social dominance beyond the kind of simplistic oppositional dynamics that have for too long dominated this area of political discourse.  According to Kyriarchy, dominance is not a question of GLBT vs. Straight, Black vs. White, Male vs. Female or Catholic vs. Protestant but rather a patchwork of ever-changing power relations between all kinds of different groups.  According to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, the face of human oppression takes myriad forms.  It is always changing and yet always present.  Winter’s Bone demonstrates not only that women can be complicit in the oppression of other women but that men can also find themselves forced into a particular social role that they may personally find oppressive and intolerable.  In Granik’s Ozark mountains, men are violent and psychotic because that is what they are expected to be.  If you are not violent and psychotic then you are not a real man and if you are not a real man then you might as well spend your time playing the banjo.

As it deals with the poorest of the poor, it is easy to characterise Winter’s Bone as a depiction of a life that is particularly and unusually hard and so to conclude that the patterns of social dominance represented in the film are somehow an exception to the more normal and healthy gender relations that characterise the rest of society.  This is simply not the case.  The Ozark mountains may well make social dominance a matter of life and death but the same patterns of social dominance present on those bleak mountainsides play out all across our society.  Right up to the top.  The universality of Kyriarchal rule is elegantly demonstrated by the sexual politics of Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right.

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