journal of moving images
issue 2 spring 2016
Slate Journal was founded almost two years ago as a platform to showcase the work done by Undergraduate McGill students in film theory and analysis across multiple departments and disciplines. Moving foward, we aim to open up the definition of cinema as a means of breaking it down. As our first cover art gestured to the deconstruction of the filmic apparatus itself, we gesture, with this cover — a digital mutation of a frame from Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), which challenged the definition of cinema in its own time — to an exploration of the moving image in the digital age. This issue departs from a restrictive theoretical framework of film in order to accomodate alternative forms of contemporary media, beginning with classic film analyses of different periods of the 20th Century, and ultimately interrogating the contemporary medium of the music video. This selection of essays highlights the best work in moving image analysis done in the past year at McGill; more importantly, their emergence from different theoretical approaches speaks to the pervasiveness of the moving image as an object of study, and thus the need to keep its definition open to reinterpretation. We would like to thank our writers and editorial team for their hard work and dedication to the project. Slate Journal would not be possible without financial support from the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU), and Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS). David Leblanc & Ben Demers
Politically Responsible, Cinematically Beautiful Anna Quadri and the Aesthetics of Seduction in Bertolucciâ€™s The Conformist by Jackie Halloran Cooper
Embodying the Entropic The Immanent and Ecstatic Postmodern Bodies of Carolee Schneemannâ€™s Fuses by Claire Drummond
Colour Within the Lines Tracing the Animated Closet by Connor Jessome
Queer Trauma, Queer Time Child Sexual Abuse and Queer Futurities in Mysterious Skin by Cadence O'Neal
Spectacle, Capitalism and Modernity The Deterioration of the Individual in Fellini's La Dolce Vita and in Pasolini's Teorema by Liana Cusmano 26
Neon Hauntings Gender, Bodies, and Terrain in Blade Runner by Sophia Larigakis 31
Pious Girls Do it Well M.I.A and the Problem of Subaltern Agency by Saad Rajper
Politically Responsible, Cinematically Beautiful Anna Quadri and the Aesthetics of Seduction in Bertolucci’s The Conformist by Jackie Halloran Cooper ed. Sophia Larigakis
ernardo Bertolucci’s film The Conformist (1970) solicits its viewers with its excessive style as a means to expose the violent consequences of abdicating one’s moral responsibility in postwar Italy. Played brilliantly by Dominique Sanda, Anna Quadri is the film’s primary seductress. By manipulating visual pleasure and erotic allure, Anna constructs herself as a tool desperately seeking to thwart the murderous intentions of the fascist protagonist, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant). The film’s aesthetic form mirrors Anna’s seduction strategy by establishing a mesmerizing mise-en-scène of desire. Both Anna and the film’s aesthetics perpetually alter, and thus draw attention to their respective modes of seduction, encouraging audiences to reflect on their status as
spectators. The Conformist’s astounding beauty — reworking Fascist aesthetic traditions — engrosses its audience to the point that spectators come to retain a haptic and visual memory of the film that is inextricably bound to its explicit political stakes regarding spectatorship and moral responsibility. The Conformist takes place in 1938 on the brink of World War II in Paris, and culminates in Rome, on the night of Mussolini’s downfall in 1943. The film follows Marcello Clerici, a fascist recruit, who is assigned to oversee the assassination of his former professor — and vehement anti-fascist — Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) who is in exile in Paris. The majority of the film unfolds through a retroactive lens. This takes the form of flashbacks to Marcello’s past, punctuating
his drive to Savoy, the planned destination for Quadri’s murder. The flashbacks move through the events leading up to Marcello’s present predicament, in which he cannot decide whether or not to save Anna (Quadri’s wife and object of Marcello’s desire) who unexpectedly accompanies Quadri on route to Savoy. The film’s cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro composes The Conformist with such deliberate attention to aesthetics that critics have questioned the ethics of this excessive construction of spectacle. Indeed, Frederic Jameson suggests that Bertolucci’s “displacement of [a] historical referent into the sphere of ‘beautiful visuals’ [is] designed to invoke [a problematic form of] nostalgia.”1 The film’s aesthetics are visual citations of cinematic styles of the 1930s associated with the expression and propagation of fascist ideology. However, in an interview with Marilyn Goldin in 1972, Bertolucci responds to this question of problematic nostalgia, claiming that there is nostalgia for the Fascist period in Italy, “That’s why I say The Conformist is a film on the present.”2 Thus, the ethical stakes of spectatorship in The Conformist’s are undeniably linked to the perpetuating existence of fascist ideology in Italy in the 1970s. After the Second World War, spectacle and decadence in cinema became a critical issue. Many filmmakers refused to align themselves with the escapist and morally deceptive spectacles that were a fundamental aspect of Nazi and fascist filmmaking.3 It
should be noted that filmmaking was an extremely effective tool used by Fascists for mobilizing and homogenizing the public. Bertolucci’s own inspiration from French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was complicated when, following the political events of May 1968, Godard radically altered his approach to filmmaking. In 1968, the French director formed the Dziga Vertov Group with Jean-Pierre Gorin as a platform to create didactic films with radical aesthetics inspired by the aesthetic conventions associated with Bertolt Brecht.4 In a similar vein, the aesthetic vocabulary of neorealism was a direct rejection of Fascist aesthetics of control. Neorealism focused instead on allowing contingency to leak into the frame, as well as encouraging audiences to reflect on the images presented as they unfold. However, the notion that one must refuse spectacle in order to effectively capture reality is highly contested, even by the leading theorist on traditional neorealist aesthetics André Bazin. Indeed, Bazin claims that “realism in art can only be achieved [...] through artifice.”5 By liberating himself from the austere and critical Godardian style, Bertolucci thrives in creating a spectacular, visually indulgent cinema that is both stunning and politically poignant.6 The figure of Anna Quadri perfectly embodies the blend of startling beauty and actively engaged politics seen in Bertolucci’s aesthetics. This is illustrated by Anna’s ability to transform herself into sev-
eral seductive aliases. Throughout the film, Anna almost never appears in the same way as she did in the previous scene. This is expressed most evidently in her numerous costume changes, which are paired with a natural shift in the way she presents herself. Anna dons at least eight different ‘costumes,’ or ‘roles,’ that emphasize the ease with which she expresses volatility and individuality. The first two instances in which we see Dominique Sanda — playing two different prostitutes — it is unclear whether she is in character as Anna Quadri, or if she is just a phantasm of her. These moments of misrecognition occur in part because we are only given access to these past events through Marcello’s memory. The first prostitute is visible during Marcello’s visit to the minister’s office. Here, Sanda is seen lying on the table in this large authoritarian style office. The next prostitute Sanda plays is in a difference scene, where she is entangled in the arms of Marcello’s overseer, Manganiello (Gastone Moschin). These ambiguous moments of identification, or misidentification, continue for the rest of the film — Anna’s characteristics and style are in a state of constant flux. Anna’s first ‘real’ interaction with Marcello and his wife Guilia (Stefania Sandrelli) — also the object of Anna’s desire — immediately illustrates Anna’s astonishing capacity for seduction. After speaking with her husband, Anna’s androgyny surfaces in the way she carries herself back into the parlor where Marcello and Giulia are waiting. Anna saunters back towards them with her thumbs nonchalantly resting in the pockets of her trousers and a cigarette hanging at the corner of her mouth. As she confidently leans on one arm against a wall, then lounges back into a leather chair, legs wide, Anna locks her gaze on Giulia through a curtain of smoke. This is just one instance in which her deviance from traditional notions of femininity and her fluid sense of identity does not come as a burden like it does for Marcello, the conformist. Indeed, Marcello and his fascist counter-parts do not share Anna’s fluidity in adopting different codes of dress and character. The fascist identity is bound and burdened by the ‘authoritarian uniform’ of a heavy trench coat and hat, which seeks to obliterate any potential for deviancy. The rigidity of Marcello’s suit translates into his stiff mechanical movement.7 The only aspect of Marcello that seems to be constantly shifting is the hidden chaos of his inner psychic state.
Bertolucci’s film presents a dynamic pastiche of sumptuous cinematic and artistic styles. In Millicent Marcus’s chapter on The Conformist, he interprets the camera’s staggering aesthetics as a representation of Marcello’s “abnormal, chaotic mental state.”8 For instance, when Marcello is on his way to visit his mother, he becomes suspicious that a car is following him. The camera modifies to accommodate this shift in tone, by dramatically ‘tipping over’ on its side to create a film noir inspired canted camera angle. Similarly, shortly after Marcello’s visit with his mother, the camera moves low along the ground, accompanying fallen leaves as they are brushed by the wind. These deliberate, self-reflexive stylistic modes highlight the film’s stylistic flexibility, which in turn emphasizes Marcello’s rigidity and refusal to be seen as ‘deviant’ or an ‘individual agent.’ The film’s aesthetic variation and
spontaneity ensnares the audience in new kinds of cinematic seductions. These seductions complicate visual pleasure by demanding a self-awareness and engagement from the audience rather than passive spectatorship. Anna’s exhibitionism and blatant self-awareness that she is being watched — or, of her status as the object of many gazes — only adds to her seductive appeal. One scene that exemplifies Anna’s jouissance in attracting spectators is when she takes Giulia, Marcello and Professor Quadri dancing to the Bal Populaire. Here we see Anna pull Giulia onto the dance floor, where they perform what Millicent Marcus refers to as a “flamboyant tango”— a caricature of seduction.9 Marcus goes on to aptly point out, “[g]iven the nonconformist (or para-conformist) nature of Anna’s desire for Giulia, it is fitting that they should dance alone and that the other couples should surren-
der the floor to them in curiosity and amusement.”10 As Anna and Giulia’s dance comes to an end, we see that several couples have formed a crowd surrounding them. The onlookers’ eyes all converge on Anna and Giulia’s unexpected spectacle of deviance. Spectatorship is itself a spectacle in this scene, drawing further attention to the theatrics of human interaction. The seductive quality of Anna’s exhibitionism is furthered when she not only knows that she is being watched, but powerfully reflects the look back at the spectator. This tension between looking and being looked at is effectively played out in another homoerotic encounter between Anna and Giulia that is witnessed by Marcello. After Giulia’s evening of shopping with Anna, Marcello comes back to Hotel d’Orsay to find Giulia lying on the bed, her otherwise exposed body draped only in an open robe. Anna sits at her feet, arms wrapped around Giulia’s calves, while her hands caress the latter’s legs. As Anna looks off-screen towards the door, suggesting her awareness of Marcello’s presence, her hand slides up Giulia’s body to places that exceed the camera’s tight frame. Between the crack of the door, we are voyeurs in the shadows with Marcello. Soon after, Giulia decides she wants to try on her new dress, but insists that Anna turn around because she is aware of Anna’s desire for her (she says, “you look at me in a way”). Anna turns around and immediately looks almost directly at the spying camera. Initially it feels as if Anna is staring us down, however as the camera pulls back — we see her eyeline match to where Marcello stands. By returning the audience and Marcello’s voyeuristic gazes, Anna effectively implicates the viewer into the film itself by implicitly acknowledging our presence and therefore including us in her seduction of Marcello and Giulia. There are several instances in The Conformist that distinctively mark a shift in the intensity of its cinematography. The mise-en-scène can be regarded as spectrum or scale. At the low end the aesthetics brings the spectator standard visual pleasure, on the other end of the spectrum it rouses its audience with its visually climactic mastery. Bertolucci’s opulent aesthetics effectively engage the spectator in a manner that is similar to Anna’s self-aware seductions. The scene in which Giulia seduces Marcello stands out as an example of how film’s hyper-stylized aesthetic prioritizes our visual pleasure over the narrative logic. The striated lines of Giulia’s dress blend her into a chiaroscuro veil of shadows that stream in through her venetian blinds. The impeccable precision and orchestration of these aesthetics engage the viewer, as opposed to lulling its audience into passivity. The beauty draws attention to itself, demanding the spec-
tator’s constant fascination, in order for them to fully experience and appreciate the film’s artistic decadence. In her text “‘Memory of My Own Memory’: Processes of Private and Collective Remembering in Bertolucci’s ‘The Spider’s Stratagem’ and ‘The Conformist’,” Yosefa Loshitzky notes how the film’s stylistic “excesses” and intensifications, “... emphasize the self-conscious and artificially lush visual tone of the movie and turn it into a pastiche of eclectic cinematic and artistic styles.”11 Bertolucci employs intertextuality as a way of foregrounding the significance of a person’s personal or collective memory of cinematic and/or political history. The exquisite detail and erotic charge of Anna’s seductions create unforgettable traces in the memory of those who watch her. These haptic and libidinal moments captured by Bertolucci’s camera, inextricably bind Anna’s visceral appeal to the political function of the film’s mise-en-scène of desire. Loshitzky aptly notes how the film is filled with examples that show “how sudden, unexpected sensations trigger the explosion of pure memory.”12 While watching the film’s narrative unfold, one must remember that ‘the past’ seen in the flashbacks is mediated through the lens of Marcello’s subjective memory. An interaction between Marcello and Anna illustrates the sumptuous and sensorial quality of these memories. As Anna leaves the hotel after her intimate encounter with Giulia, she walks to her car with Marcello. The tone of the scene is established by its icy blue palette, which is juxtaposed against Marcello’s burning lust for Anna. Pulling her into the crevice of a building, Marcello presents Anna with a parma violet. The camera’s tight framing embodies the closeness of these two characters, yet its continuous horizontal movement — the camera’s resistance to lingering on this closeness — speaks to the complexity of the social and ideological discrepancy that pulls their desire apart. Marcello presses his lips against Anna’s. The kiss lasts only momentarily before Marcello tenses up — he squints and pulls away, revealing a bloody bite mark on his bottom lip. Anna’s seduction is thus both erotic and dangerous. By constructing this ephemeral moment in which pain and pleasure converge, Bertolucci is reminding his audience of the inherent violence in relinquishing responsibility for the past (pain) in an attempt to preserve one’s ignorance and thus one’s well being (pleasure). Therefore there is an explicit political and ethical value that motivates Anna’s seductions and Bertolucci’s corresponding aesthetics that desperately, “... asks that we [spectators] assume responsibility to our own inner promptings, not to the externally imposed ones of the ideologues.”13 Bertolucci emphasizes the ethical and
moral failure of those who fail to admit accountability. In the final scene – that of Professor Quadri and Anna’s murder — we return to the film’s present tense. This temporal leap releases the audience from the lens of Marcello’s memory, thus enabling us to ‘see for ourselves’ for the first time. In this instance, Bertolucci implements an intensified blend of all three modes of seduction, (changing quality, self-reflexivity, creation of visceral memories) with a horrific poignancy. We watch as two cars — Anna and Quadri in one, Marcello and Manganiello in the other — remain motionless in the middle of the road. The assassination commences as the henchmen, all dressed in the same ‘fascist uniform,’ seep out from behind the trees and into a blanket of fog. After Quadri’s violent death, Anna escapes from her car and runs over to Marcello with the hope that he will save her. Shortly before this scene, Marcello recites four lines in Latin (verses written by Hadrian), that only now can be attributed to Anna’s impending fate: Animula, vagula, blandula, hospes comesque corporis, quae nunc abibis in loca pallidula, rigida, nudula, nec, ut soles, dabis iocos. Claretta Micheletti Tonetti’s translation of the poem reads “...guest and companion of the body, now pale,
rigid, and naked you will meander in emptiness and you will not be jocular anymore.”14 Faced with her imminent death, Anna’s multifaceted soul is emptied out, leaving her as a vulnerable shell of the powerful seductress she once was. Marcello rolls up his window and watches Anna’s distorted face, shrieking in horror, pressed up against it. Loshitzky describes the brutality of Marcello’s immobility, stating that “Marcello’s passivity, and immobility as such is... an allegory of the dangers inherent in the role of the film spectator and, by implication, the role of the ‘observer’ of fascism in action.”15 The car window effectively serves a self-reflexive function that references the spectator’s relationship to the cinematic screen. Indeed, as an audience we feel the weight of our immobility in tandem with Marcello’s, unable to intervene or respond directly to Anna’s cries. In this critical moment, the perspective radically shifts, no longer filming from ‘third person’ (watching the action unfold from a distance), but instead submerges us in the action. Our participatory perspective, however, is not aligned with anti-fascist resistance gazes. Bertolucci instead aligns us with the killers, with Fascism. In a panic, Anna gives up and desperately bolts into the forest in an attempt to escape. The camera shakes as it adopts a ‘hand-held’ aesthetic
while chasing after Anna with the other henchmen. This vertiginous shot shakes the spectator, condemning our inaction and implicating us ethically. Four shots are fired before the fifth and final bullet that ends her life. On the fifth shot, the camera shifts from following the assassin, to becoming him. As Anna elegantly collapses onto the snowy forest floor, we hover over her body, rendered fully accountable for her death by this sharp shift in subject position. Anna’s face is masked in her own blood. The blood, or “red” as Godard would call it, creates a haptic memory for the spectator that eliminates the distance between the responsibility of a witness and the responsibility of an active agent.16 This ‘murderous’ point of view shot continues as we walk away with the band of killers, even as they glance back acknowledging our presence and approving our violent actions. Bertolucci’s ethical and seductive reworking of Italian neorealism’s politics is in dramatic contrast with Roberto Rossellini’s seminal and canonical Italian neorealist film, Rome Open City (1945). By comparing Rossellini’s depiction of Pina’s (Anna Magnani) death to Bertolucci’s representation of Anna’s, one can see how the historical and political crisis has changed since 1945, but in many ways experiences a continuation of fascist ideology. Shot in slow motion, Pina chases after the army truck carrying away her fiancé. As she runs she is gunned down by an unknown source. In the moment of Pina’s death, the camera’s gaze breaks away from its alignment with the Resistance and instead takes up an omniscient perspective, leaving us “confused about the location and identity of the assassin, as well as about whose perspective we are adopting as witnesses to this event.”17 Karl Schoonover states that Rossellini’s aesthetics call out for international aid in the way they display an imperiled body and address a global eyewitness by “transforming seeing from a passive state of consumption into a powerful means of moral reckoning.”18 Instead of using a detached omniscient gaze like Rossellini, Bertolucci positions his audience deep within the film’s ethical dilemma, to stress the critical importance for individuals to not abdicate their social and political responsibility.19 Indeed, Bertolucci claims that The Conformist’s style helps audiences realize that, “however the world has changed, feelings have remained the same.”20 The film underlines that fascism is alive and well in the 1970s, emphasizing a need to entrench audiences in new radical viewing practices. The aesthetic opulence of The Conformist’s mise-en-scène and its microcosmic embodiment in the character Anna Quadri is therefore driven by its ethics. By embracing the spectator in a non-didactic way, Bertolucci encourages individuals to draw on their memory of his film as a way of asserting their moral responsibility.
Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 146 (1984): 68. JSTOR. Web. 02 Apr. 2015. 2 Goldin, Marilyn. “Bertolucci on The Conformist.” Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews. By Thomas J. Kline and Bruce H. Sklarew. U of Mississippi, 2000. 68. Print. 3 Sontag, Susan. “Fascinating Fascism.” New York Review of Books 6 Feb. 1975: n. pag. Rea S. Hederman. Web. 4 Lesage, Julia. “Godard and Gorin’s Left Politics 1967-1972.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 28 (1983): 51-58. <ejumpcut.org> Web. 04 Apr. 2015. 51. 5 Bazin, Andre. “An Aesthetic of Reality: Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation.” Ed. and Trans. Hugh Gray. What is Cinema? 2 (1971): 16-40. Print. 26. 6 Frederico Fellini is another example of a successful Italian filmmaker who embraced spectacle as a means of exploring how it might feel to live during this time, and what the psychological repercussions may look like. 7 Marcus, Millicent. “Chapter 13: Bertolucci’s The Conformist: A Morals Charge.” Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton UP, 1986, 285-312. Print. 296. 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid 304. 10 Ibid. 11 Loshitzky, Yosefa. “‘Memory of My Own Memory’: Processes of Private and Collective Remembering in Bertolucci’s ‘The Spider’s Stratagem’ and “The Conformist’” History and Memory 3.2 (1991): 102. JSTOR. Web. 02 Apr. 2015. 12 Ibid 93. 13 Marcus 311-2. 14 Tonetti, Claretta Micheletti. “Chapter 6: The Conformist.” Bernardo Bertolucci: The Cinema of Ambiguity. Ed. Frank Beaver. New York: Twayne, 1995. 97-121. Print. 109 15 Loshitzky 95. 16 Godard, Jean-Luc. Godard on Godard. Ed. Jean Narboni and Tom Milne. Trans. Tom Milne. New York: Viking, 1972), p. 217. 17 Schoonover, Karl. “Rossellini’s Exemplary Corpse and the Sovereign Bystander.” Brutal Vision: The Neorealist Body in Postwar Italian Cinema. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2012. 117-8. Print. 18 Ibid 110. 19 Marcus 286. 20 Golding 286. 1
embodying the entropic The Immanent and Ecstatic Postmodern Bodies of Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses by Claire Drummond ed. Madeline Kinney
he symbiotic bodies of film and viewer alike are staged and sensationalized within the world of Carolee Schneemann’s 1967 avant-garde pornographic film Fuses. Fuses pictures a symphony of colours, textures, corporeal landscapes and spatial topologies. These elements are fragmented and dispersed throughout the film amongst snapshots of Schneemann and her lover having sex, Schneeman running into the ocean, her cat wandering near a houseplant, strips of burnt and painted celluloid, and moments of her partner and her enjoying a road trip. Images of the mechanical, the intimate, and the everyday are fragmented, confused, and as the title suggests, fused — overlain by splotches of orange,
blue and yellow, perennially superimposed upon one another. Deploying a Foucauldian understanding of power, this essay will play with power as being processual and enacted from moment to moment. I read the film’s represented beings as what Moya Lloyd refers to as the “Mobile Subject” — one who is in a “continual state of flux.”1 In employing Jameson’s conception of an exploded postmodern subjectivity, I aim to navigate the ways in which Fuses illustrates and explores the ecstatic and violent potentialities of the orgasmic body. In the process, I may get lost within the profoundly disorienting experience of the simultaneous world making and un-making of Schneemann’s corporeal collage.
Fuses quite literally fucks with power in staging a sex act wherein it becomes impossible to tell where one body ends and the other begins. The mutability of bodies in the film performs a simultaneous construction and destruction of Michel Foucault’s conception of power in his essay entitled “Method.” According to Foucault, power is in perpetual motion in that it is “exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of non-egalitarian and mobile relations.”2 In Fuses, the camera passes through topologies of grass, cityscapes, the ocean and the body — never resting in one place. Images of bodies and the spaces in which they reside are endlessly superimposed upon one another: where one body ends and the other begins is a boundary rendered leaky — self and other, inside and outside, the lover and the loved. Within this world, you never really know who is fucking who (not whom because delineations between the subject and object of desire in this film are rendered entirely nebulous). Thus these bodies simultaneously enact, embody and confuse power in their ceaseless motion. The body becomes the ultimate point of sensorial intersection between the interior and the exterior. Foucault describes that “the manifold relationships of force that take shape and come into play in the machinery of production, in families, limited groups, and institutions, are the basis for wide-ranging effects of cleavage that run through the social body as a whole.”3 In its use of ceaseless superimposition of bodies upon bodies, and bodies upon public and private spaces, Fuses describes the ways in which the public body violently and ecstatically intersects with private corporeality. The corporealities of the vibrant landscape — the body of the city, the incorporated ocean, and the metal frame of the camera itself come to make love in the film — these beings spasm and shift through processes of relationality. Foucault con-
tinues by asserting that “there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives.”4 The ecstatic moment of orgasm — the aim or objective of sex itself — is suspended throughout this fragmentary short film, ceaselessly being paused, played and replayed. This constitutes a form of non-teleological sex. The act of sex itself comes to be destabilized — it is no longer a linear trajectory leading to climax, but rather a series of broken moments.5 We never really know quite where we are in this cinematic landscape — is that a limb? Is that a cat? The moment that shapes become recognizable, they are gone and have turned into something else. Images of Carolee and her lover in states of rapturous pleasure are interspersed amongst images of the everyday, arousing and confusing the viewer. There is no “making sense” of Fuses — no linear narrative, no lingering upon one image long enough to grasp its details. And so, the mind of the viewer and its always illusory spectatorial mastery no longer matter — rather, the spectatorial body itself as it copulates with the body of the film are what come to matter. Thus, Fuses posits the body as an imminent entity. In her essay entitled “Agency and Resistance,” Moya Lloyd argues that conceptions of rationality and freedom are “products of particular discourses [and] not metaphysical realities,” and as such there is “no chance of transcendence.”6 Thus Lloyd generates space for the possibility of a feminist politics in which “it is precisely the instability of the subject that generates agency.”7 Fuses destabilizes the body of the film and the physical frames that it depicts. The film blows the visceral and cinematic bodies apart in its anti-narrative fragmentary structure — it dismembers the figures it pictures as well as its own intelligibility. The bodies of the images themselves enact a form of intercourse — disparate body parts come together. The image burns under our
gaze — the celluloid writhes and folds throughout, resisting arrest. A conclusive corporeal and cinematic body becomes impossible to recognize: disembodied limbs and sexual organs flash on and off the screen, perpetually interrupted by quotidian scenes, constructing a non-narrative form of filmic copulation. Fuses confuses and confounds the spectatorial body. Lloyd defines the “subject-in-process” as being “a subject that has no essential nature but is constituted in various, always incomplete, ways.”8 One of several versions of the subject-in-process discussed by Lloyd, the Mobile Subject “transgresses the perimeters separating nature from culture; and, in the process, confusing all modes of identity (particularly gender) categorization.”9 The inability to locate this nomadic and multifarious creature is illustrated in the film’s perennial volatility — the bodies it pictures as well as the film form itself refuse to stop moving for its entire duration. The merely “metaphorical” nature of the mobile subject leaves Lloyd wanting, as she struggles with the lack of embodied “mechanisms or process” of subject generation.10 However, there is a way in which
the purposeful occupation of confusion and perpetual motion generates not simply a metaphoric form of materiality, but an alternative mode of existence — an embodying of the postmodern body. The vulnerable and mechanized frames within Fuses demonstrate an intersection between the performative and the visceral body. The cold and metallic body of the camera is ceaselessly interpolated into this disjointed sex act. They make love to the camera while simultaneously making love to each other. Carolee and her partner frequently engage in direct eye contact with the camera itself, tirelessly calling attention to this sex act as just that — a staging of intimacy. According to Jameson, with the death of the bourgeois subject comes the recession of affect, as the subject no longer has a stable subjectivity or self with which to experience the world. Instead, the postmodern subject experiences impersonal intensities and euphoria,11 with a consequent inability to locate itself within its surroundings. The postmodern subject experiences an embodiment of the simulacra — an endless series of copies void of any stable archetype.12
And so this constitutes the “end of the autonomous bourgeois monad or ego or individual” and the “de-centring of that formerly centred subject or psyche.”13 In Fuses, Schneemann’s construction of a hyperreal corporeality calls attention to the superficiality of the image. Virile colours wash over images of the disembodied penis and vagina. Images are played and re-played. The cinematic body of the film itself becomes exemplary of the postmodern body — a series of simulacra — copies upon copies upon copies. But here, this does not matter — regardless, these bodies convulse in the ecstasy of affective intensity. Perhaps the ultimate expression of the postmodern body is the body in a state of orgasm — a complete loss of bodily control. The camera lingers and wanders over its subjects, momentarily stuttering upon different body parts — the camera finds Schneemann’s forehead for a moment and gets lost there, blurring and softening into it. Thus the space of the body itself is rendered what Jameson terms a “postmodern hyperspace” — a locality which “has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively map its position in a mappable external world.”14 This lostness, however, becomes orgasmic — a state of pleasure and play between images, bodies, colours and landscapes. Fuses posits the possibility of a re-imagination of the body and its organs. The ecstatic body, the orgasmic body and the confused body lose the capacity to be situated within their surroundings in being pushed to their sensorial limits. The ultimate expression of the postmodern body comes to be the orgasm — the body in an immersive and dislocating state of ecstasy. There is a close association between orgasm and confusion, as both involve a dissolution of the boundaries between body and space; both involve a form of lostness within the body itself and its various coordinates. The experience of viewing Fuses is one of profound confusion — it becomes difficult to make sense of what is actually happening within this landscape of bodies blown apart. This lack of being able to make sense becomes sensation itself. Perhaps Jameson’s “imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions”15 involves a dissolution between the boundaries between body and space — the body rendered symbiotic in relation to its surroundings, lost within the möbius strip that is the division between interior and exterior. Thus an orgasmic loss of corporeal control comes to be a manner of grasping “our positioning as
individual and collective subjects [who possess] a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial and social confusion.”16 Jameson’s new prostheses are not so far away as one might think — in fact, they might be within arm’s reach. In her essay, “The Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway asks, “why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by the skin?”17 Fuses is composed by decomposition — urban landscapes, rural landscapes, animal and human bodies are sutured together within the filmic body. Skin, both cinematic and corporeal, are no longer barriers, but rather permeable organs. Thus Fuses and its subsequently phantasmagoric viewing experience functions as the construction of a postmodern and post-human corporeality — a manifestation of Haraway’s cyborg — “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” who takes “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries.”18 This purposeful generation and embodiment of the postmodern body offers an immanent and rapturous way of being in the world — a manner of situating one’s self through affect and affection. Lloyd, Moya. Beyond Identity Politics (London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2005) 15. 2 Ibid. 3 Ibid. 4 Ibid. 5 This concept was inspired by conversations had with Tyler Lawson. 6 Lloyd 93. 7 Ibid 98. 8 Ibid 14. 9 Ibid 16. 10 Ibid 17. 11 Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” New Left Review (New Left Review, 1984, Web. 18 Oct. 2015) 63-64. 12 Ibid 66. 13 Ibid 63. 14 Ibid 82. 15 Ibid 80. 16 Ibid 92. 17 Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” 2000 McGill Coursepack. (Comp. Mary Bunch. Montreal: McGill University, 2015) 74. 18 Ibid 50-51. 1
Colour within the lines Tracing the Animated Closet by Connor Jessome ed. Rebecca Alter
Bugs Bunny’s crossdressing in “The Rabbit in Drag,” pop culture scholar Sam Abel notes that animated cartoons are “doubly abstracted from the complexities of real life.”1 Indeed, animation’s formic ambiguities and ability to easily present the impossible allow animated media to be a vehicle for subverting a wide array of societal conventions. When American animation first found mainstream success, it did so within an established filmic tradition of heteronormativity and a closeting of queer subjects. As time passed, queer presence in public consciousness shifted, and challenges to heteronormativity emerged in the form of individual animated stars like Bugs Bunny, as well as homosocial pairs like Yogi and Boo Boo. Eventually, animators introduced explicitly-closeted queer subjects, figures, and themes. Audiences — both mass and queer — read queerness into implicit and explicit animated acts and identities. Throughout American animation’s history, producers and audiences have widened the window into the animated queer closet, accommodating the growing number of people with the ability — and desire — to see through it. In short, the evolution of closeted queer subjectivities traces the history of American animation.
Within the realms of film and television, much historical discourse positions queer subjects within a closet, into which discernible viewers — whose numbers grew over time — could see. American LGBT activist and film historian Vito Russo’s 1981 book, The Celluloid Closet, is one of the foundational texts for studying queer invisibility within film. The book (and subsequent, posthumous documentary film) centres around normative-American societal attempts to force queer subjects into invisibility.2 Russo notes how queer silence in film reflected queer silence in wider American society, stating, “America was a dream that had no room [to depict] such [queer] things on screen.”3 Even when queerness did appear, Russo argues, it did so as a “dirty secret,”4 pushing it into a closet. In his 2003 book, Screened Out, film scholar Richard Barrios builds off of Russo’s work, calling it “invaluable” and “painfully pertinent to the late 1970s,”5 though not as pervasive by the 2000s. Noting queer (and queer-sympathizing) audiences’ ability to read closeted queerness within films, Barrios argues for a quietly-visible queer presence in films readable almost exclusively to a queer audience, stating that visible “glimpses that survive” helped to communicate “sometimes covert
messages of those for whom it all truly did matter.”6 Indeed, queer audiences often read closeted messages into overtly-heteronormative films. Film scholar Harry M. Benshoff’s 1997 book, Monsters in the Closet, explores how classical Hollywood horror narratives, though favouring heterosexual romance, nevertheless presented queer subjects in their “monster” figures.7 Benshoff argues that audiences queered the monsters due to their similarly-outsider perspective. Indeed, he states that the queer viewer, like the monster, “situates him/herself outside a patriarchal, heterosexist order and the popular culture texts that it produces.”8 Further, queer subjects — perhaps due to their perceived vulnerabilities — were often identifiable in these films as “victims, passers-by, or the monsters themselves,”9 adding yet another empathetic edge to queer portrayals, regardless of their on-screen legibility. Walt Disney Pictures’ entrance into American public consciousness sparked the “golden age” of American animation, animating the same heteronormativity and closeted queerness established within the Hollywood system. Much of the company’s early-to-mid-century works centred around heterosexual romance, including Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Lady and the Tramp (1955). Both Snow White and Cinderella feature not only heterosexual romance, but also heterosexual romances with passive females awaiting rescue from the active male: Snow White lays waiting for the prince’s kiss,10 while Cinderella remains trapped inside her home awaiting her prince.11 Lady and the Tramp similarly features heterosexual romance (albeit between two dogs), ending with the happily-ever-after consummation of the American family unit, as the dogs begin a family.12 In her article, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” gender sociologist Carrie L. Cokely explores how heteronormativity is integral to Disney’s identity, noting how “much of the magic that is produced by Disney is entangled with notions of romance, true love, and the white wedding.”13 Within such heteronormative presentations, queer invisibility is a nearly-inherent feature. Cokely argues that the possibility of queerness is not only invisible, but removed entirely in instances such as “seven male dwarfs who live together in the woods and who, the film makes explicit, are heterosexual.”14 Because of this intensely-heteronormative mode, early Disney animation features very little space for (even closeted) queer readings. Bugs Bunny provided the first major challenge to the heteronormativity of mainstream American animation. Debuting in the Oscar-nominated A Wild Hare in 1940, Bugs rose to prominence throughout
the “golden age” as the star and mascot of Leon Schlesigner Productions (which later became Warner Bros. Cartoons).15 Unlike fellow animated — and explicitly straight — stars Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat, however, Bugs challenged heteronormativity with acts of crossdressing, drag performance, and simultaneous displays of heterosexual and homosexual desire. Indeed, Bugs famously performs a female alter-ego, complete with a dress and lipstick, to evade male hunters Elmer Fudd and Elvis Buzzard.16 While in this disguise, Bugs often kisses the men, a complicated act displaying multiple forms of sexual desire. In the 1998 book, Reading the Rabbit, film and media scholar Kevin S. Sandler explores the “realness” of an animated character’s acts. Sandler argues that “when Bugs crossdresses as a woman, ‘realness’ exposes itself as artifice.”17 Indeed, these sexual expressions
mix in these instances because “viewers… must read Bugs Bunny as both ‘male’ and ‘male cross-gendered female’ in order to understand the gag:”18 Bugs uses his celebrity status as a tool for subverting animated heteronormativity, forcing viewers to simultaneously believe and doubt his gendered performance to participate in “the gag.” This over-performance of gender thus operates as an important tool for queer closeted representation, as Bugs enters the realm of camp. In his article, “The Rabbit in Drag,” Sam Abel argues that “it is this [celebrity] power position that enables Bugs to be a camp artist.”19 Because viewers are so enamoured with Bugs as a larger-than-life animated figure, they accept his ability to transgress societal conventions. Further, the animated form itself affords Bugs even more power to subvert structures of gender and sexuality, due to animation’s status as a fluid form of ambiguity, in which the impossible is readily made possible. Indeed, in “The Same Thing We Do Every Night,” gender scholar Jeffery P. Dennis argues,
“the very fluidity of the cartoon form allows the medium a unique place for the subversion of not only gender but friendship, love, desire, and identity itself.”20 Bugs’s power position and animated form, while giving him the power to perform queer acts, therefore also make such acts ambiguous, able to be embraced differently by audiences queer and straight. Following American animation’s “golden age” came a long evolution of the homosocial-bonding cartoon, a form open to closeted-queer interpretation. When William Hanna and Joseph Barbera left MGM in 1957, they sparked a new wave of animated homosocial pairings in American animation with Ruff and Reddy.21 Unlike past confrontational pairs like Tom and Jerry, Sylvester and Tweety, and Bugs and Elmer, Ruff and Reddy not only cooperate with one another, but live together.22 Such homosocial closeness inherently included a potential for queer readings, a potential which expanded with the duos that followed. Yogi and Boo Boo, another Hanna-Barbera duo, became the faces of the company, and similarly feature a potential for closeted-queer readings. The two not only live together, but share a bed.23 Dennis argues that Yogi and Boo Boo “transgress each of the permissible constellations of signs for same-sex dyads in the 1950s (and to a great extent even today).”24 By the 1970s, audiences readily noticed such potential for queerness within these homosocial bonds. Indeed, Dennis notes how “the increasing visibility of gay identities in the external culture added romantic partnerships to the conceivable codings of same-sex dyads; that is, many viewers had the contextual tools to speculate about whether the partners were ‘really’ gay.”25 This increased public awareness of queer potential within animation lead to a dramatic drop in such homosocial cartoons. Amidst this trend, however, The Smurfs — an American-European co-production — persisted as a major homosocial cartoon in America, centred around an entire village of male-presenting humanoids. In his article, “Socio-Political Themes in the Smurfs,” pop culture scholar J. Marc Schmidt negotiates Smurf Village as a “homotopia.” Schmidt explores how the Smurfs procreate in a non-heterosexual manner, feature an all-male governance, and do not pursue any romantic relationships with Smurfette, the one female-presenting Smurf.26 Further, he argues for the existence of visibly-queer Smurfs, stating that Vanity “is the kind of gay archetype commonly presented by the straight entertainment industry,” while “Hefty and Handy are gay archetypes in the same vein as the Village People, with their extremely iconic masculinity, exaggerated to the point of camp.”27
After the rise of homosocial children’s cartoons, and the queer readings they inspired in older viewers, The Simpsons emerged in 1989 as the most-successful (and longest-running) American animated television series of all time, catering more heavily to an adult audience, and regularly playing with queer visibility throughout its twenty-seven-year history. Most explicitly, the show focuses on such issues as homophobia, celebrity sexual visibility, and same-sex marriage. Indeed, viewers and critics alike applaud the show’s presentation of such issues. The 1997 episode, “Homer’s Phobia,” features Homer’s first encounter with a visibly-gay man (voiced by gay camp culture celebrity John Waters). The episode received praise from audiences both mass and queer, winning an Emmy and a GLAAD Media Award. Further, The Baltimore Sun ran an article on the episode in 1997, interviewing Waters himself who said “[f]or ‘The Simpsons’ to do a gay episode is politically incorrect in a funny good way.”28 In identifying The Simpsons’ ability to handle topics in a “funny good way,” Waters connects the show to his own work as a queer camp film icon. Similarly, LGBT newspaper The Advocate called the episode “television’s next classic ‘gay episode’.”29 The show’s temporal placement within American history, as well as its form as an animated sitcom, played into its presentation of queer subjectivities. In “Whole World’s Gone Gay!,” cultural studies scholar Matthew A. Henry explores The Simpsons’ temporal placement within queer history, arguing that when it started, in 1989, it was within a period of shifting “erasure of gayness from everyday life [leading] to the erasure of gayness within the television world.”30 In its prime, however, Henry argues that the show fit into the “gay vogue” of the 1990s.31 Though show-creator Matt Groening himself called for improved queer representation on television,32 other sources have similarly criticized queer visibility in The Simpsons, concerned with the show’s commodification of queer culture and its participation in celebrating queerness merely because it’s “hip.”33 The Simpsons’ overly-masculine patriarch, Homer, represents the show’s most-contested case of closeted-queer subjectivity. The show presents Homer as a satire of the stereotypical masculine American father, a lazy and angry alcoholic, whose love for his wife and family overcomes all. Homer constantly escapes the space of the home for homosocial spaces such as Moe’s Tavern and the Power Plant. The show usually presents Homer as so outwardly-straight that, upon revealing that the show would pull a character from the closet, show creator Matt Groening comfortably joked that it would be Homer.34 Emphasizing his
point, a 2004 Toronto Star article stated “the lovable lunkhead is likely the only one whose sexuality won’t be questioned.”35 Years into the show’s run, however, the show began exploring the boundaries of Homer’s overtly-straight exterior. In the 2003 episode, “Three Gays of the Condo,” Homer escapes the home to the homosocial space of an apartment he shares with two gay men. In this episode, Homer makes homosexually-suggestive comments (such as “you’re just riding his butt and not in a good way”), dances wildly in a gay bar, and kisses a man.36 Responding to this kiss, Homer tells the man “I’ll only hurt you,” suggesting an attraction to him, but a commitment to living as a closeted, straight-presenting man.37 While some argue that the show mocks the possibility of same-sex desire,38 Homer is the most mocked character in the show, as the show seeks to satirize the figure of the overly-masculine, straight American father, ashamed of his closeted-queer tendencies. Indeed, Homer shows disgust towards queer invisibility, saying “I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals flaming”39 and remarking that a gay man “should at least have the good taste to mince around and let everyone know that he’s that way.”40 While these comments seem merely homophobic at first glance, when considered alongside the constant clues of Homer’s hidden queerness, they appear more self-effacing. Homer is not only embarrassed of his sexuality within the world of the show, but as a celebrity outside of it. He states that “it doesn’t matter what someone’s sexual preferences are, unless they’re a celebrity, in which case it’s DISH DISH DISH,”41 inviting audiences — but not Springfieldians — to speculate about his sexuality.
Of course, the character that epitomizes closeted-queer subjectivities within The Simpsons (and perhaps in all of American animation) is Waylon Smithers, loyal assistant to — and homoerotic pursuer of — his senior employer, Mr. Burns. Smithers represents the definitive closeted-queer subject, ineffectively closeted both to the other citizens of Springfield and to audiences at home. The show repeatedly hints to his placement within a queer subculture within Springfield. In “Three Gays of the Condo,” for example, the show places Smithers within the gay district in which Homer’s apartment is located, rollerblading along the sidewalk in rainbow-patterned shorts.42 As Homer stops to confront Smithers, a group of men call to Smithers from a passing streetcar, shouting, “hey Waylon, who’s the bear? Is that the Mr. Burns you’re always talking about?”43 Further, the show repeatedly positions Mr. Burns definitively as the object of Smithers’s homoerotic desire. In the 1994 episode, “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” Smithers’s computer starts up with an audio clip of Mr. Burns saying “you really know how to turn me on, Smithers.”44 Due to this consistent veiled-closeted positioning, viewers have long been aware of Smither’s queerness, with a 1997 Advocate article calling Smithers “the series’ closeted regular.”45 Further, upon the show announcing it would cast one character out of the closet in 2003, most assumed it would be Smithers.46 Indeed, gay Toronto City Councillor Kyle Rae asked the Toronto Star about “that assistant guy to the plant owner” when wondering who the closeted Springfieldian could be.47 Smithers is thus an explicitly-closeted animated celebrity. Some argue this constant closeting relegates Smithers’s
queer identity to mere fantasy,48 as well as the fact that his homoerotic desire is impossible due to Mr. Burns’s age, appearance, and demeanour.49 This argument cheapens the consistency and diversity of Smithers’s homosexuality, however, seeing as he lives within a queer subculture and shows signs of homoerotic connections with men other than Burns. Further, the show’s producers announced in 2015 that he is indeed coming out,50 refuting any argument that Smithers’s queerness could only be a “fantasy.” As a show thriving on its ability to be topical, and emerging in the wake of The Simpsons success, South Park featured a closeted-queer figure from the show’s start during the “gay vogue” of the 1990s. The show centres around four boys, whose teacher, Mr. Garrison, embodies and explodes the stereotype of the closeted gay man. While remaining explicitly in the closet for the show’s first three seasons, Garrison often uses his alter-ego hand-puppet Mr. Hat (later, Mr. Twig) to communicate his closeted feelings. In the 1998 episode, “Summer Sucks,” Mr. Garrison explains how Mr. Hat fantasizes about Green Bay Packers quarterback, Brett Favre.51 The show subverts the offensive stereotype of queer (or closeted-queer) subjects coming from a history of sexual abuse by presenting Garrison as a queer subject scarred by a lack of childhood trauma. In the 2000 episode, “World Wide Recorder Concert,” Garrison confronts his father for never molesting him as a child.52 At one point, the school’s guidance counselor, Mr. Mackey, confronts Garrison’s father about the lack of abuse, stating “he thinks you didn’t molest him because of some flaw in his looks or personality.”53 Throughout the show, both characters and audiences alike were well aware of Garrison’s closeted position. In the fourth season, when Garrison finally does come out of the closet,
neither characters nor audiences react with any surprise. Indeed, in the 2000 episode, “Fourth Grade,” Garrison lives in a cave and confronts his “gay self.”54 When he returns to South Park to confess he’s gay, his fellow teachers merely state “oh, you finally admit it” and joke that “we don’t hire gay people.”55 Upon coming out of the closet, Mr. Garrison becomes an explicit representation of a variety of queer acts and identities. Garrison engages in purposefully-subversive queer acts as a means of personal gain. Indeed, Garrison’s first major homosexual partner is Mr. Slave, a cliché leather-clad gay man, whom he engages with in a master-slave sexual relationship. Mr. Slave accompanies Mr. Garrison to be his “teacher’s ass” in the 2002 episode, “The Death Camp of Tolerance,” in which Mr. Garrison inserts a gerbil into Mr. Slave’s asshole in front of the students, with the intention of getting fired for being gay.56 In her 2007 book, Terrorist Assemblages, queer theorist Jasbir Puar briefly explores South Park’s negotiation of Garrison and Slave’s sado-masochistic relationship, noting how Garrison uses “sexual performativity to escalate discomfort and elicit disgust from his fourth-grade students.”57 Puar explores how Mr. Slave functions as a tool for Garrison’s exploitation of queerness for cultural capital, stating “Mr. Slave personifies the raw materials extracted and imported for Mr. Garrison’s regenerating usage and ultimate gain.”58 Garrison later crosses boundaries of gender as well as sexuality, transitioning to a woman, becoming Mrs. Garrison in the 2005 episode, “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina.”59 She seeks, at first, to live life as a straight woman by continuing her relationship with Mr. Slave. But, when Mr. Slave rejects her for being a woman, she begins a series of lesbian romances, despite reacting negatively at first to a woman confessing attraction towards her.60 Eventually, though, Garrison transitions back to being a man in the 2008 episode “Eek! A Penis!”61 Garrison is thus a character embodying a wide array of subversive gendered and sexual identities throughout the course of the show, and by presenting this extreme example of gender fluidity, South Park not only presents multiple queer subjectivities, but also pushes the limits of the animated queer closet. If the 1990s “gay vogue” brought out explicitly-closeted queer subjectivities, then the 2000s and 2010s only continued to widen the range of queer visibility and readings within American animation. Like South Park, many major animated shows and films have explored explicit representations of queerness. Indeed, children’s programs such as Steven Universe (2013) and Adventure Time (2010) both feature lesbian
women as major characters, while the latter also features gender-swapped episodes, crossing boundaries of both sexuality and gender. Even shows without explicit queer subjectivities have received more queer readings due to the animated form and wider understanding of queerness throughout American society. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, for example, is more famous for its massive male fanbase than for its actual content. The show epitomizes the animated form’s ambiguities leading to queer readings, as the show’s adolescent — and adult — male fans (known commonly as “bronies”) read ambiguous aspects of the show as queer. In “What Bronies See When They Brohoof,” American folklore scholar Bill Ellis notes that “the lack of biologically-defined gender in the series effectively ‘queers it’ in the eyes of the brony fanbase, since all six [horses] could reasonably embody any imaginable sexual orientation.”62 The history of American animation features within it a history of the closeted-queer subject’s visibility. Beginning with the heteronormative-enforcing cartoons of Disney’s early work and ending with the explicitly-closeted — as well as just plain explicit — queer subjects in South Park and other recent animated films and television shows, the animated window into the queer closet continues to grow. As queerness becomes increasingly ingrained in American-public consciousness, queer presence grows within American animation. Indeed, the possibilities for queer representation in American animation are as limitless as the form itself. Abel, Sam. “The Rabbit in Drag: Camp and Gender Construction in the American Animated Cartoon,” The Journal of Popular Culture Vol. 29, Issue 3 (Wiley Periodicals, 1995), 184. 2 Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1981), xi 3 Ibid xii. 4 Ibid xii. 5 Barrios, Richard. Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall. (New York: Routledge, 2003), 5. 6 Ibid 14. 7 Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 4. 8 Ibid 6. 9 Ibid 14. 10 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, directed by Ben Sharpsteen (1937; New York: Walt Disney Productions, 2001), DVD. 11 Cinderella, directed by Clyde Geromini (1950; New York: Walt Disney Productions, 2005), DVD. 12 Lady and the Tramp, directed by Clyde Geromini (1955; New York: Walt Disney Productions, 2006), DVD. 13 Cokely, Carrie L. “‘Someday My Prince Will Come’: Disney, the Heterosexual Imaginary and Animated Film,” Thinking Straight: The Power, Promise and Paradox of Heterosexuality. ed. Chrys Ingraham (New York: Routledge, 2004), 168. 14 Ibid 168. 15 Ibid 168. 1
Sandler, Kevin S. Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 169. 17 Ibid 167. 18 Ibid 165. 19 Abel 184. 20 Dennis, Jeffery P. “‘The Same Thing We Do Every Night’: Signifying Same-Sex Desire in Television Cartoons,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 31.3 (Heldref Publications, 2003), 132. 21 Ibid 133. 22 Ibid 133. 23 Ibid 134. 24 Ibid 136. 25 Ibid 135. 26 Schmidt, J. Marc “Socio-Political Themes in the Smurfs,” Pop Cultured, June 2, 2011. Accessed December 5, 2015, h t t p : / / w w w. p o p - c u l t u re d . n e t / s o c i o - p o l i t i cal-themes-in-the-smurfs/ 27 Ibid. 28 “People and Places,” The Sun, February 15, 1997, 2. 29 Frutkin, Alan. “Homer’s sexual panic,” The Advocate, February 18, 1997, 53. 30 Henry, Matthew A. “‘Whole World’s Gone Gay!’: Gay Identity, Queer Culture, and The Simpsons” The Simpsons, Satire, and American Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 109. 31 Ibid 110. 32 Ibid 112. 33 Dennis 132. 34 Mudhar, Raju. “Springfield’s coming-out party; Cartoon to reveal gay character And it might not be Smithers,” Toronto Star, July 28, 2004, 3. 35 Ibid 3. 36 “Three Gays of the Condo,” The Simpsons, April 13, 2003. 37 Ibid. 38 Dennis 134. 39 “Homer’s Phobia,” The Simpsons, February 16, 1997. 40 Ibid. 41 “Three Gays of the Condo,” The Simpsons, April 13, 2003. 42 Ibid. 43 Ibid. 44 “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” The Simpsons, February 17, 1994. 45 Frutkin 53. 46 Ibid. 47 Mudhar 3. 48 Henry 109. 49 Dennis 133. 50 Holpuch, Amanda. “The Simpsons’ Smithers to finally come out as gay, producer reveals,” The Guardian, September 28, 2015. 51 “Summer Sucks,” South Park, June 24, 1998. 52 “World Wide Recorder Concert,” South Park, January 12, 2000. 53 Ibid. 54 “4th Grade,” South Park, November 8, 2000. 55 Ibid. 56 “The Death Camp of Tolerance,” South Park, November 20, 2002. 57 Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 244. 58 Ibid 247. 59 “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina,” South Park, March 9, 2005. 60 “D-Yikes!,” South Park, April 11, 2007. 61 “Eek, a Penis!,” South Park, April 9, 2008. 62 Ellis, Bill. “What Bronies See When They Brohoof: Queering Animation on the Dark and Evil Internet,” Journal of American Folklore Vol. 128, Number 509. 2015. 300. 16
Queer Trauma, Queer Time Child Sexual Abuse and Queer Futurities in Mysterious Skin by Cadence O’Neal ed. Claire Drummond
isual culture depicting queerness in relation to childhood sexual abuse often falls into dichotomizing and simplistic stories in searching to identify and control a linear cause-and-effect developmental path. Intervening in this discourse, Gregg Araki’s 2004 film Mysterious Skin focuses on the lives of Neil and Brian, two boys between whom a connection is forged by their baseball coach at a young age. Araki uses unconventional flashbacks to inexplicitly but omnipresently address the connections between childhood sexual abuse and sexual development. Using a multidirectional dysnarrative masked as linear, Araki implicitly refuses simplistic and assimilationist “Born This Way” arguments which disavow the possibility of connections between queerness and sexual abuse. Simultaneously, he constructs characters whose lives are not solely and simplistically defined by their trauma in such a way that presents them as without resistance or agency. Engaging with film theory of flashbacks, psychoanalytic theory, queer theories of temporality, and contemporary queer writings on trauma and sexuality, this paper examines the film’s political and theoretical implications. I propose that Mysterious Skin queers mainstream conceptions of trauma and time, allowing for unresolved child sexual abuse and queer futurities to coexist without clear causal connections. Further, a refusal, in this paper and in the film, to propose broad sweeping answers to the questions of sexual identity, allows an unforeclosed future to exist, giving queers the possibility to exist beyond prescribed identity categories.
Mysterious Skin opens with soft, haunting music and an opaque fog occasionally flecked with gentle falling shapes. As the fog clears, a young boy lies in a thin layer of dry cereal. This, like many flashbacks featured in the film, is deceptive. Rather than provide answers to the questions raised by the film, it sustains their contradictions, unsettling a viewer who might expect a comfortably linear narrative. In many analyses of the film Mysterious Skin, the storyline is described in a simplistic, sequential nature. For example, S.F. Said describes it as “a heartbreaking tale of how two teenage misfits get to be the way they are.”1 I wish to oppose the assumptions of claims like these. Interpretations of the film as a narrative with clear beginning and end points mirror the current context of public discourse on homosexuality. Though a full analysis of the historical processes leading to the present context of gay rights activism is outside the scope of this paper, a short overview is necessary in order to situate Araki’s work. Psychological and political institutions have historically tried to connect child sexual abuse to homosexuality in order to cement its sickness or deviance in the public mindset. Integral to this was a formation of the homosexual as a pedophilic figure. If child sexual
abuse caused homosexuality, then the elimination of pedophiles could stop the spread of the “disease.” Additionally, if homosexuality had an environmental cause, it followed that it must also have a cure. These developments, much more insidious and long-term than I have portrayed them, resulted in a response of huge numbers of gay activists and their “allies” insisting upon a biologically deterministic cause of homosexuality. As opposed to queerness being caused by traumatic events, queers are “born this way.” These processes have allowed for requests for tolerance based on arguments that nobody would have chosen a life of homophobic abuse; if sexuality were a choice, we would choose to be “normal.” This disavowal of any possible connection between sexual abuse and homosexuality presents its own issues. Some queer theorists and activists, for example, have raised the issue of the unavoidable reality of childhood sexual abuse among queers. Ann Cvetkovich, for example, bemoans the fact that “the primary connection made between lesbianism and incest [in much self-help and lesbian literature] consists in disavowing the connection.”2 How can we both reject the medicalization and pathologization of our communities, and be honest and open to multiple truths about our pasts, presents and futures, and the traumas that sometimes connect them? In what follows, I will offer Mysterious Skin as one example of media that provides an opening for these complex conversations to happen. Araki deploys flashbacks in an unconventional way throughout Mysterious Skin. Maureen Turim’s Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History provides a useful overview of the filmic technique of flashback in cinema. Turim notes that “the flashback juxtaposes different moments of temporal reference. A juncture is wrought between present and past.”3 The flashback is simply, Turim explains, “an image of a filmic segment that is understood as representing temporal occurrences anterior to those in the images that preceded it.”4 The flashback, then, relies somewhat on the assuredness of linear time. For as much as it seeks to disrupt time’s progression, the flashback requires the knowledge that time has progressed from a certain point in order to be able to flash back to it. A conventional flashback functions to offer an explanation for a previous event that has caused or contributed greatly to a state of being
or series of events in the present. Though on the surface this may be the case, engaging more deeply with the subject matter and framing of Mysterious Skin reveals the way that the inevitability of causation can be queered through the use of flashbacks. Turim’s claim that flashbacks create a juncture between past and present is also important to examine, because as I will reveal, Araki’s use of flashbacks in Mysterious Skin can also be seen to reinforce the continuity and indistinctness of past and present. The functions of flashbacks in Mysterious Skin present a challenge to the conception that flashbacks always reinforce the linearity of time. In fact, it is necessary to examine the meanings of the flashbacks in relation to the film as a whole in order to understand whether their function is truly an explanatory or causal one. Particularly, as I will elaborate, Araki’s film delicately alters the certainty of sexual trauma’s effects on sexuality. The flashbacks to the boys’ abuse by their coach function less as explicit explanations of the boys’ present states, and more as examples of the incoherent coexistence of present and past. The representation of the two boys’ similar treatment by their coach followed quickly by a return to a present in which the boys both lead such obviously different lives necessitates a questioning of the ability to track development or progress, even in hindsight. Simplistic understandings of sexual development are not simply prevalent in discourse on queerness. Steven Angelides’ “Feminism, Child Sexual Abuse, and the Erasure of Child Sexuality” critically examines feminist interpretations of child sexual abuse and reveals that they rely on ideas of childhood asexuality and subsequent supposed linear development toward a fixed adult monosexuality. Angelides’ intervention into the question of trauma and age stratification is useful for an examination of trauma temporalities and queer development as they are represented in Mysterious Skin. Angelides notes that in some feminist thought “childhood and adulthood are separated by sexuality, rather than bound together by it, and the (psychoanalytic) idea that child sexuality inextricably informs adult sexuality is repudiated.”5 This line of thought also allows the denial that sexually traumatic events experienced, for the first time, in childhood could have effects, however unpredictable, on one’s adult sexuality/sexualities, because the two developmental stages are seen as distinct rather than flowing in and out of one another. Just as sexualities are impossible to predict the paths of, so too are the functions of trauma. Angelides’ analysis of Sigmund Freud’s notion of deferred action with regard to sexual trauma is a useful lens through
which to view the nuances of Brian and Neil’s complex characters. Angelides explains that “as Freud pointed out […] ‘historical symptoms can only arise with the co-operation of memories.’”6 By this, Freud means that hysteria is not universally caused by sexual abuse. Following, hysteria can be caused by traumatic events not understood as sexual abuse, while sexual abuse does not always result in hysteria. This intervention opens the theoretical possibility for Brian and Neil to have had very similar interactions with their baseball coach in childhood, while having interpreted, processed, and responded to them differently. The flashbacks to their early sexual interactions then do not function to explain how they became who they are at the end of the film, because they cannot coherently do so. There is no formula to predict how hysteria, or in the case of the film, trauma, triggers, or sexuality, will follow from sexual abuse in any case. Interestingly, however, Brian’s character seems to challenge Freud’s claim that hysteria can only arise with the cooperation of memories. Brian’s flashbacks often take the form of false, fantasized accounts of alien abduction. However, even this lack of easy cooperation of his memories with his reality does not stop him from experiencing psychological and physical pain. While he has no clear recollection of the sexual abuse until the last scene of the film, throughout it he experiences nightmares, nosebleeds, bedwetting, and blackouts that he attributes to those moments he lost during the abduction/abuse. Thus, even without a full understanding of one’s sexual abuse, it can have effects, direct or indirect, on one’s life. Brian’s discussions with Avalyn, a woman who also believes herself to have been abducted by aliens, can further reveal the shaky causality of trauma. On their first meeting, Avalyn says to Brian “there are many of us and we all have this drive to know what happened.”7 It is useful, though of course intentionally speculative, to read this quote as a metaphor for queers and queerness. Avalyn’s statement that “we all have this drive to know what happened” can be understood as reference to the common search by/for queers for a sort of origin story, a reason for being the way that we are. Likewise, for those of us with sexual trauma in our history, Avalyn believes that
“most every little thing we do stems from our being abducted,”8 or, then, from our abuse, assault, whatever we call or avoid calling it. Mysterious Skin intervenes in this intersection of the search to know the reason for queerness, and the realization that sexual abuse influences the trajectories of affected lives. In Avalyn’s mind, the way she is, and everything she does, has been caused by her abduction – and finding out what happened is a way to entrench that belief. It is not this simple for Brian, however, and the differences between the two abductees do not stop there. Later in the film, when Avalyn comes to Brian’s home and makes aggressive sexual advances upon him, Brian’s rejection has important implications. It points out firstly that his sexual abuse as a child is having clear but indefinable, unpredictable effects on his desires and choices for sex at this age. Secondly, it
highlights the fact that although Brian and Avalyn both still believe themselves to have had similar traumatic events — the truth of Avalyn’s abduction is never revealed — their current lives are not as similar. Sexually, we see Avalyn making unwelcome advances upon a panicky, refusing Brian. In this scene we see Brian reject Avalyn’s advances, and begin as well to reject her theories about his trauma, and therefore its causality. Continuing from his contention that not all childhood sexual acts are inherently traumatic, and that psychological trauma is a dynamic and interactional process,9 Angelides calls for us to queer prevalent understandings of sexuality, which rely on a “linear and sequential model of age stratification premised on distinct chronological, spatial, and temporal stages of biological and psychological development.”10 Integral to this dominant model is an understanding of adulthood and adult sexual identities “as enduring end products of the transitional phases of childhood and
adolescence.”11 Instead, Angelides claims, “sexuality involves not a chronological unfolding of distinct stages of sexual development but an interminable interplay between these stages.”12 Childhood experiences inform adult experiences, while adult experiences frame understandings of childhood acts. The past continues to flow into the present, and vice versa, rendering impossible a sequential explanation of development. The disproving of adult sexualities as necessarily fixed or final further supports my position that neither biological essentialism, nor abuse causation arguments can explain all queer people’s experiences. For, if we take seriously the mutability of adult sexuality, generalized claims that rely on an identifiable conclusive orientation cannot do justice to all stories. What would it mean to embrace the unpredictable coexistence of childhood sexual abuse with queerness, without seeking answers or an antidote? Ann Cvetkovich’s book interrogates the formation of lesbian public cultures around trauma associated with incest. After asking “Does Incest make you Queer?” Cvetkovich states: “as someone who would go so far as to claim lesbianism as one of the welcome effects of sexual abuse, I am happy to contemplate the therapeutic process by which sexual abuse turns girls queer. I introduce the word queer to suggest the unpredictable connections between sexual abuse and its effects, to name a connection while refusing determination or causality.”13 Cvetkovich’s experience-informed narration of sexual abuse and queerness also implicitly rejects a fixed developmental endpoint. Her careful exploration of the many forms “queerness” can take allows her to understand sexual abuse as able to turn girls queer, with queer meaning multiple and constantly shifting things. Queerness, one of many possible “results” of sexual abuse, is itself an opening of sexual possibilities and does not determine or foreclose changes or returns. Having examined the complex interplays between sexual abuse and queerness presented by
Mysterious Skin, I will now turn to a short exploration of the film’s implications for queer futurities. As the film ends, Neil says “I wanted to tell Brian it was over now, that it was all going to be okay, but that was a lie [….] I wished with all my heart that we could just leave this world behind, rise like two angels in the night and magically disappear. ”14 Neil’s inability to tell Brian his pain was over, or even that it could end, was also a refusal to disavow a future for the two of them. In addition, and significantly, the narration of the scene as if it is a flashback reassures the viewer that the story does in fact continue. The only way for Neil to tell this story and speak about it like it is the past, is for there to be an after. The viewer is again unsettled and invited to question their understanding of the timeline, for this scene is at once the two boys’ past, present, and future. Araki’s characters are simultaneously aware of the lack of an unencumbered future and unable to stop propelling towards and away from trauma into the temporal and sexual unknown. Trauma is not something that decisively occurred in isolation in the past. Instead, it clearly pushes and pulls them, while they push and pull back against and within it. Carla Freccero explains, “the past is in the present in the form of a haunting. This is what, among other things, doing a queer kind of history means, since it involves an openness to the possibility of being haunted, even inhabited, by ghosts.”15 This does not mean, however, that we do not influence the ghost, allow it only limited space in our bodies, or resist moving with it as it tries to determine our futures. Mysterious Skin’s use of nondeterministic flashbacks is a rejection of the strict terms of debate around queerness and sexual trauma. The rejection of “born this way” arguments is not a polemic shift to a view of free will and unassailable agency. Rather, the film’s negation of biological determinacy is simply an allowance for the possibility of self-narrations that fall within and outside the terms of dichotomous debates. Though not an argument for queerness as a conscious choice for all, Mysterious Skin does function to create a space for narratives of choice to exist in accounts of queerness and sexual trauma. Mo Torres’ piece “Another Way: How I Chose to be Queer,” can be seen as an example of one of these possible accounts. Though not engaging explicitly with sexual abuse, Torres explains how his marked rejection of the current state of things, and a prearranged future for his manhood, came in the form of a choice to be queer. In his words, queerness was a coming of consciousness, a decision unconscious to me, but a choice nonetheless.
A realization. An action. […] So when I say to you, ‘I’m queer,’ I’m not trying to explain my sexual preference, psychological disorder, or a natural fact. That’s just my way of saying, ‘I can live this life better‘16 I do not propose that queerness, for Neil or Brian, is a conscious choice. As I have noted, there is no clear fixed conclusion to their sexual developments, nor is it useful to map Torres’ language of choice onto their sexualities in the way that essentialist arguments have been. Rather, the decision to continue propelling into the unknown is, I think, a queer one. Neil decides against telling Brian their problems will be resolved, and so creates space for Brian to move in his own way: he rejects, for them both, a definitive end point a disappearance into the night. As Evangelos Tziallas explains, in his interpretation of Mysterious Skin, “the audience will never know if Brian is gay or straight, and they will never know if Neil will ever develop emotional attachments to other people or Brian will develop sexual attachments to others.”17 However, Tziallas then states, “Brian and Neil (who are emotionally repressed) lack the ability to explore the full potential of their sexuality.”18 On the contrary, in my view, this indeterminacy of sexual identity and the trauma that Tziallas believes to emotionally repress them, actually provide the foundation for a future in which boundless possibilities for sexualities exist. No “full potential” is necessary to be reached, for in any future they are headed to there is, as I have explained, no ideal or fixed end point. The belief in a full potential, and an arrested development caused by sexual trauma, still relies on a linear model of sexual development. Neil and Brian’s sexualities are not stable or fixed at the end of the film. Neil and Brian seem aware of this fact, as well. Neil’s manifest but unlabeled queerness, and Brian’s unspoken a/sexuality are not defined, negated, or specified at the close of the film. Thus, what is “queer” about the futures of Neil and Brian is not any “[identification], and thus [stabilization of], the meaning of an event and a person.”19 We are not able, and should not be able, to pinpoint any final sexuality, or even sexual trajectories, for the two characters in identitarian terms. Instead, Neil’s and Brian’s futures are left open and rife with possibility. This does not mean they are “free” in any sense of the term. Neil makes it very clear that it would not “all be okay” for him and Brian. Awareness of an encumbered future can coexist with a hope that the future will be surviv-
able, that it will offer possibilities which enable thriving. This is a queer call to oppose the opposition of utopia and negativity. The two can harmonize, and within them trauma and queerness; past, present, and future coexist. Gregg Araki’s film queers time to allow for new ways of theorizing trauma and sexuality. Neil and Brian, two boys whose divergent yet codependent stories share only similar sexual experiences with their baseball coach, are able to complicate the presumed linearity of sexual development. Araki, through the use of flashbacks to reveal the fluid co-mingling of past and present, intervenes in dichotomous debates around sexual abuse and queerness to oppose the terms of the debate itself. By employing psychoanalysis and queer self-narration, I have revealed how his film unveils the possibility of a queer future for the boys. The lack of fixedness of finality of sexual development following sexual abuse is precisely what allows for a future with the possibility of choice. As a deliberate continuous tribute to the film, this paper has refused to fall on a fixed conclusion of the implications of Araki’s work. Rather, in revealing the openness of the future proffered by the film, this paper too offers the possibility for choice in future theorizations of Mysterious Skin, queer cinema, sexuality and trauma. Said, S. F. “Close Encounters,” Sight and Sound 15, no. 6 (2005): 32. 2 Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003, 90. 3 Turim, Maureen C. Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History, New York, NY: Routledge, 1989, 1. 4 Ibid. 5 Angelides, Steven. “Feminism, Child Sexual Abuse, And The Erasure Of Child Sexuality,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10, no. 2 (2004): 154. 6 Ibid 156. 7 Mysterious Skin, directed by Gregg Araki (2004; Venice: Tartan Video, 2005), DVD. 8 Ibid. 9 Angelides 157. 10 Ibid 163. 11 Ibid. 12 Ibid 164. 13 Cvetkovich, 90. 14 Araki, Mysterious Skin. 15 Freccero, Carla. Queer/Early/Modern, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 194. 16 Torres, Mo. “Another Way: When I Chose to be Queer,” UC Davis: Prized Writing (2008), accessed October 17, 2014. 17 ziallas, Evangelos. “Looking Beneath the Skin: Reconfiguring Trauma and Sexuality,” Stream: Culture, Politics, Technology 1, no. 1 (2008):36. 18 Ibid. 19 Freccero 74. 1
In Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita,
gossip columnist Marcello Rubini navigates the decadent social scene of Rome. Immersed in the culture of a new, modern Italy, he searches for fulfillment in an empty spectacle that leaves him disillusioned. The family in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema is similarly traumatized by the arrival of a mysterious visitor. Operating in a film that places argument above narrative, the visitor clashes with the capitalist ideology that has estranged the individual from family and community values, forming a bourgeois identity completely devoid of meaning. Characterization, camera movement and composition mark several key scenes in the two films to advance the films’ ideological agenda. In La Dolce Vita and Teorema, Fellini and Pasolini respectively suggest the deterioration of the individual, who is prey to a spectacle rooted in capitalist modernity that estranges the new bourgeois from traditional values.
scene, now populated by individuals who talk without speaking, sustaining a spectacle that estranges them from traditional concepts of friendship, family and loyalty. Fellini sets the foundation for this in the film’s opening scene. The opening shot of La Dolce Vita is of a helicopter carrying a statue of Jesus flying over ancient Roman aqueducts. With this composition, Fellini juxtaposes modernity and tradition in a way that lays a foundation for the entire film. Marcello will have to contend with individuals enthralled by modern spectacle — exemplified by new technology and cinema itself — that estranges them from traditional values, such as the importance of family and religion. Although Marcello and his photographer friend, Papparazzo, are documenting the transfer of a religious statue to the Pope at the Vatican, the international seat of the Catholic faith,
Spectacle, capitalism, and modernity The Deterioration of the Individual in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and in Pasolini’s Teorema by Liana Cusmano ed. Hannah Feinberg
As Marcia Landy explains in Italian Film, “the Italian cinema reveals itself as engaged in a social fiction but a necessary one, relying on a narrative that perpetuates itself in terms of the ‘people.’”1 Marcello is a paradoxical figure in La Dolce Vita: he is a part of the people thanks to his engagement in the spectacle of boisterous partying and gawking at celebrities — something he is obliged to take part in because of his profession — but his disillusionment with the social scene in 1950s Rome sets him apart from his peers, aligning him more with the viewer. The camera offers the viewer an outsider’s perspective of the spectacle; among his peers, only Marcello possesses the selfreflective skill that allows him to recognize that all the parties, dances, evenings and intellectual conversations are a performance designed to obscure an existential lack of purpose and direction. Modernity has brought on the deterioration of the social and cultural
they convince their helicopter pilot to pause so that they may converse with several young women sunbathing on the roof of a nearby building. The admiration and pursuit of the sexed female body is part of the spectacle that distracts them from their immediate assignment, as well as, in a larger sense, from cultural and religious values that play such an important role in the fabric of Italian society. The conflation of these different elements coexisting in the same space indicates a conflict that the film ultimately does not resolve. As a crucial post-neorealist film, La Dolce Vita unleashes “‘the powers of the false,’ where conventional notions of truth, virtue, heroism, good and evil, and, above all, the real and the artifiactual are put into crisis, and where the possibility of a more complex relation to the world is possible.”2 These conflicting elements are at play throughout the entire film, beginning with Marcello’s interaction with the bikini-clad women.
Light, carnivalesque music replaces the industrial sound of the helicopter in the film’s soundscape the moment the women appear in the frame, highlighting their importance and setting them apart from the men in the helicopter as a part of the spectacle they hope to indulge in. Captured from above, from the helicopter’s point of view, the women appear small and vulnerable, despite the appeal they hold for Marcello and his companion. In addition, the camera’s rapid movement towards them, accompanied by the strident whine of the helicopter, is almost aggressive. The pursuit of the spectacle of visual and carnal satisfaction is an intense endeavor that will be replicated several times throughout the film, most importantly by photographers’ frenzied attempts to capture international movie stars. It is also significant that, in this scene, Marcello is unable to communicate effectively with the women. Although they understand that the statue is going to the Pope, and that Marcello wants their phone numbers, the fractured conversation is representative of the way Marcello will botch his attempts to connect with his lovers, his father and the young waitress Paola in the rest of the film. With this opening scene, Fellini lays the foundation of a film obsessed with modernity and the destructive effect it has on the individual, who finds himself utterly lost in the meaningless pursuit of spectacle. The film’s famous Swedish-American actress Sylvia represents modernity, and her arrival in Rome is one of the most significant scenes in La Dolce Vita. The horde of photographers and journalists racing toward the camera at the airport recalls the camera’s treatment of the rooftop women from the helicopter’s point of view in the opening scene: individuals collectively assault the object of fascination in an attempt to be a part of the spectacle. They fill the frame, a jostling, frenzied mess of faces, arms, legs, cameras and flashbulbs as Sylvia exits the plane. Sylvia herself plays the role the photographers expect, making the theatrical gesture of exposing her body to the camera, but she is not reducible to her flesh. When the photographers ask that she take her glasses off, she firmly refuses to expose her eyes — the locus of her face and access point of her identity — in a way that allows her to preserve her dignity but also to be objectified on a corporeal rather than personal level. Sylvia makes an abrupt gesture of refusal, keeping her glasses on, before quickly returning to smiling and blowing kisses, using her body to perform feminity for the journalists. They refer to the actress as a ‘bisteccona’ — an objectification and commodification of the film star’s flesh. In this scene, the film’s treatment of Sylvia promotes the “visualization of the feminine figure as the incarnation
of fascination and desire.”3 Fellini treats the character of Sylvia as a representation of the spectacle, embodying sexuality and artificiality. This in itself is also an allusion to the modern cinematic spectacle; modernity and cinema are equated in this sequence. The many shots of the frenzied photographers, and of the performative actress they consistently objectify, indicates an agitated propulsion into the modern world that is defined by artificiality. The film’s final scene is set on a beach, between land and sea: a liminal, evocative space of transition. Here, the spectacle is evidently the enormous sea creature that the fishermen have dragged out of the ocean. Marcello and the party goers evaluate it: “It’s a monster,” “Is it male or female?” “Why don’t we buy it?” “Would you sell it?” Haggard and disillusioned, Marcello alone is unimpressed; he remarks not on the size, origin, value or mystery of the creature — that which make it a spectacle — as his peers do, but rather questions where it is ‘looking.’ For three long seconds, the camera is focused on the creature’s empty, unseeing eye to drive the statement home. Marcello’s question is an allusion to his own relationship with modernity; he has been looking, searching, seeking meaning in the parties, events and encounters, and found nothing in the spectacle to satisfy him. Now, freshly hired as a publicist and party organizer, he has completely surren-
dered to the spectacle in his role as an entertainer, as a passive object of other’s gaze. Once he goes off on his own to sit in the sand, only the voice of the young waitress, Paola, whom he met earlier, allows for a potential shift in consciousness. The first time the viewer sees Paola in this scene, she is very small and distant in the frame; the composition presents a distance that Marcello could easily cross, but refuses to take action against. In the following shot, Paola is alone in the frame, although dwarfed by the sheer vastness of sand and sea. Alternating medium of shots of Paola and of Marcello, interspersed with long shots that highlight the distance between them, emphasize Marcello’s detachment from the youth and optimism that Paola represents. As Waller explains, “the separation is used to suggest a certain closeness between the two characters, but
separation sequences alternate with shots including both figures to suggest a simultaneous distance.”4 The lens and angle demarcate a clear connection between the two individuals, and the interruptions in their exchange are underlined by the sounds of the wind and surf. However, these interferences are not valid explanations for Marcello’s incomprehension of Paola’s signals; he can see her, he could even walk over, but he does not.5 In the end, Marcello shrugs and walks away, defeated. He must confront his own existential emptiness, not knowing who he is or what kind of world he lives in, and even crossing the distance that separates him from Paola would not have been enough to achieve this. La Dolce Vita thus ends on a dark note, casting an unfavorable light on the spectacle of modern society that leaves the film’s protagonist empty and disillusioned. Fellini’s film realizes the potential of cinema “not merely as a narrative medium but as a means for realizing its power to generate thought,” suggesting that spectacle and superficiality deprive one of faith, meaning and creativity.6 Fellini uses Marcello as a vehicle by which to represent the deterioration of the individual in a modern society that departs from creativity, religion and meaningful connections between people. Pasolini similarly broaches the nefarious consequences of capitalism in a film that condemns the bourgeoisie in the same way Fellini condemns the spectacle.
In Teorema, Pasolini moves away from narrative and more towards a cinematic argument or essay. In contrast to La Dolce Vita, the shots in Teorema are static and devoid of movement. Pasolini comments on changing cultural conditions by recounting the experience of the bourgeois family — a class that has emerged from capitalism and modernization — that is thrown into chaos by the arrival and departure of a mysterious young man. Pasolini alludes to the spiritual desert of capitalism not only with images of the desert itself, but also by offering the viewer the ways each family member reacts to the visitor’s departure. His absence brings to the forefront the social and emotional barrenness of the father, mother, son and daughter, who each confess their feelings to him upon his departure in different deserted ways.
The echoing, chanting music and the visitor’s silence are constants in the four confession sequences, which are also tied together by their similar structure and dynamic. This reinforces the distress that the four family members have in common, a devastation that what gave their lives meaning will be taken away, plunging them back into a capitalist, bourgeois hell that they had not recognized and now cannot escape. They also share a reaction to sexuality; they all have had sexual relations with the visitor, which seems to be the only thing to have an effect on these otherwise impenetrable people. The context of their confessions also share points of commonality, in that they reveal how deeply the visitor has affected them and leave the family members emotionally raw and vulnerable. All four of them are actors in the spectacle of capitalist modernity, and the visitor has forced them to reevaluate their performances as members of the bourgeoisie. Pietro tearfully confesses in the bedroom, where he and the visitor had sex. He is distressed by how his sense of self has been irreparably damaged, and by how he will now be at odds with himself and the bourgeois society he lives in. Lucia explains that the visitor filled the void inside her, dispelling the nothingness of the middle-class housewife she had not been aware of until it disappeared. Odetta tells the visitor that he cured a sickness in her, making her normal in her attitude and approach to men who ostensibly want her to play the role of wife and mother, like Lucia. Paolo touches on destruction, explaining that the visitor destroyed in him a sense of self that previously afforded him civil and social security. The father and son are concerned with society, mourning the loss of their identity, while the mother and daughter lament a lost fullness. Pasolini may be commenting on gender roles within the bourgeois family, but the deterioration of the individual is common to every character, and the visitor himself could be said to stand in for a coming to consciousness that divorces the individual from himself, leaving him unable to cope with the empty ideals that previously defined him. The visitor is in the same frame as the family member confessing at least once in each sequence, highlighting the link between them and his effect on them as individuals. In close ups, the camera also fixes on the visitor’s ambiguous expression, emphasizing his arresting blue-green eyes. The visitor is mysterious and inexplicable, but his effect on the family is undeniable. He has neither redeemed nor condemned the family; they were always living in a kind of capitalist and isolated hell, estranged from the community and from one another in an enormous mansion, unable to express emotion or engage in meaningful pursuits.
The family members are regulated by strong institutions, such as the school, the church and the factory. The visitor upsets this capitalist structure when he disrupts what Pasolini presents as a problematic anthropological mutation; in his representation, capitalism murders one’s humanity and renders him spiritually barren. The visitor arrests this process, leaving the family members devastated when he departs. Capitalism resumes — the difference this time being that they are now aware of it. Only the maid, Emilia, is less affected by the visitor; she is not a member of the bourgeoisie and therefore not as susceptible to the visitor’s mysterious appeal. However, she is not impervious to his presence. After he leaves, she returns to the rural community where she was raised, an environment that connotes the pre-modern in stark opposition to the modern setting of the rest of the action in the story. Towards the end of the film, Emilia is suspended high in the air, as the members of her community look on incredulously. The miracle aligns her with the family members; all of them
are tied together by an element of the sacred, whether it is Emilia’s miracle, Lucia’s return to the church where she was assaulted, or Paolo’s stumbling walk through the desert in the final scene. Later on, Emilia asks a community member to help bury her on a construction site. The environment — well established by a long shot at the beginning of the sequence — suggests a temporal dimension that is simultaneously archaic and modern. Emilia further underlines this tension when she brings water to the earth with her own body in a powerful mythical gesture — she cries tears of rejuvenation, of spring. This archaic burial, set in the industrial construction site, underscores the tension between the modern and the traditional. The extreme close up of Emilia’s tearful eyes and the quick pan to the puddle of water that her tears have made in the earth emphasize the sacred nature of her action and suggest that this display of faith and emotion is what is missing in the lives of the bourgeois family members. The burial scene also allows for a smooth transition to the final scene of the film, where the biblical desert, notable for its absence of water, is the site of Paolo’s emotional experience.
The metaphor of the desert in the final scene is more than a representation of barrenness, it may in fact be a pathway to salvation. The Temptation of Christ saw Jesus spend forty days in the desert and resist the Devil’s temptations on his journey to salvation. Pasolini leaves the ending of Teorema ambiguous, leaving unclear whether Paolo, and by extension, his family is saved or damned. The sequence begins with Paolo very small in the frame, dwarfed by the surrounding landscape as he is in the vast, overwhelming force of social, cultural and political forces at play in the rest of the film. He is naked in a natural environment untouched by society or industry, which would suggest a symbolic, redemptive return to one’s true self, but the scene is dominated by Paolo screaming; the camera follows him as he walks through the desert, naked, alone and screaming, filling the frame. Pasolini offers the viewer this dynamic, immense and unexpected field of action,7 where the desert could represent the spiritual barrenness of capitalism, but Paolo’s scream could also be a metaphorical purging of the evils of the modern world. The charged space that is the desert is an appropriate site for these tensions, and the film’s ending is ambiguous. Like Fellini, Pasolini comments on a modernity that he condemns for the way it prompts the deterioration of the individual. Marcello is affected by the spectacle and its artificiality, the bourgeois family by a visitor who draws out the dehumanizing effect of modern capitalism. Both films critique modernity for the way it complicates the individual’s relationship with family, community, sexuality and religion. La Dolce Vita and Teorema engage with these key issues to illuminate a cultural consciousness, as well as changing economic and cultural conditions.8 Fellini and Pasolini treat cinema as a means to advance their ideological agendas, impressing upon the viewer that the individual is subject to deterioration when exposed to a spectacle, rooted in a modernity shaped by capitalism, that isolates him from traditional concepts of family, community and spirituality. Landy, Marcia. Italian Film. Pittsburgh: Cambridge University Press. 2000. 1. 2 Ibid 15. 3 Ibid 5. 4 Waller. Marguerite R. “Federico Fellini: Contemporary Perspectives.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2002. 110. 5 Ibid 111. 6 Landy 15 7 Ibid 2. 8 Ibid 17. 1
Neon hauntings Gender, Bodies, and Terrain in Blade Runner by Sophia Larigakis ed. Genevieve Citron
in a perpetually buzzing, flickering neon mise-en-abyme, Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner takes place in the haze of Los Angeles, 2019. The film’s shiny future vision is stained by pervasive nostalgia for a political time far closer to the film’s production present than its embodied temporality. Baroque and Romanesque Revival architectural corners and parapets peek between blinding neon signs. In a nightclub, women are adorned with mesh veils and balance cigarette holders between their fingertips just as they did a century ago. The nostalgia in this futuristic imaging is latent in the film’s politics as well as mapped onto its surface landscape. Scott’s Los Angeles 2019 is steeped in Reaganite institutional hegemony, racialized anxieties about globalization, as well as visual concordance with, and nostalgia for, the female body as institutionally and visually bound by oppressive politics. Blade Runner’s particular dystopic landscape is predicated upon the de-familiarization of Earth as we know it. This Earth is no longer desirable for human habitation. In pursuit of “off-world colonies,” the Tyrell Corporation has cloned humans — “Replicants” — to use as slave-colonizers. However, Nexus-6, the newest model of Replicants, have gone rogue and returned to Earth. Blade Runner (Replicant “retirer”) Rick Deckard is forced to hunt them down and kill them. Just as architecture is never devoid of
signification or of discourse, the female body is always a site upon which a complex politics is at work. The nostalgic-dystopic politics of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner are mapped explicitly onto the film’s neon-lit landscape, and are articulated through the bound or bloodied female bodies that inhabit it. Scott’s film opens with an establishing shot that serves to disorient rather than — as is an establishing shot’s formal purpose — orient the viewer. The iconic urban sprawl of Los Angeles, shrouded in darkness, is multiplied tenfold. Towering, coiled obelisks spurt flames into the black-red atmosphere. It is the familiar landscape of Los Angeles rendered strange, uncanny, disturbing. It establishes little more than disorientation — an unmooring of a known place from its visual tether. The infinite, burning urban sprawl in Blade Runner’s establishing shot sets a visual precedent for the rest of the film’s mise-en- abyme. The term ‘mise-en-abyme’ translates directly to “putting into abyss.” The term is expressed visually and formally through seemingly infinite mirroring, or a shattering of intelligible space. It serves both a disorienting and de-stabilizing purpose. The effect of mise-en-abyme — a formal technique expressed in a multitude of ways in Blade Runner — is not dissimilar to the way in which dystopia distorts and disturbs images of the familiar.
The Oxford English dictionary defines dystopia as “an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible.” In his essay “The Cinematic City: Between Modernist Utopia and Postmodernist Dystopia,” Nezar Alsayyad emphasizes the meta-entanglement of dystopia and utopia crucial to understanding or imaging either “no-place.”1 Alsayyad proclaims that there cannot be a “utopian city without a dystopian vision...all dystopias have embedded in them a utopian dream.”2 Blade Runner’s “embedded... utopian dream” is intertextually manifest.3 The building which serves as the setting for much of the film is a decrepit version of The Bradbury Building (built in Los Angeles in 1893) whose architecture was itself inspired by Edward Bellamy’s 1887 utopic science fiction novel Looking Backward.4 Alsayyad remarks that the utopic vision embodied by Looking backward is one of “a rosy future where Victorian family values were preserved and held together by saccharine-sweet male-female relations.”5 Blade Runner’s dystopic re-rendering of a utopian architectural bastion does not merely bridge a Los Angeles of the past or present with a filmic vision of the future. It is also, importantly, an intertextual allusion to a Victorian-conservative utopia. Like all doubles, utopia and dystopia are two parts of one whole, bred from a similar creative-destructive impulse. Blade Runner’s landscape is declared textually as dystopic; it is a fragment of a world explicitly declared undesirable by floating advertisements exalting “the off-world colonies... a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.” Earth, abandoned by all those able to leave (presumably those with the economic means) is visualized here as a transformed, perpetually dark and damp Los Angeles. The film’s temporality is established by futuristic iconography: flying cars, mammoth glittering structures and an overabundance of neon. Los Angeles 2019 is bereft of its iconic palm trees, as well as any other signs of natural life; an owl and a snake — the only ‘animals’ in the film — are declared “not authentic.” Urban planning — be it fictional or otherwise — is never merely practical. There is a power dynamic written into all city streets; architecture is never devoid of signification. The film’s postindustrial dystopic landscape is inflected heavily by what Timothy Yu describes in his essay “Oriental Cities, Postmodern Futures” as “continuing fantasies of — and anxieties about — the Orient.”6 The heavily populated, neon-lit, rainy streets of Los Angeles in Blade Runner bear a much stronger resemblance to an East-Asian metropolis than anywhere on the American West Coast. The majority of the neon signs that cover virtually every
visible surface of the landscape are in Chinese characters or Japanese kan’ji. Those who occupy service industry or blue-collar jobs (including manufacturing Replicant eyeballs in an ice box of a room or selling noodles on the street) in this film are all of Asian descent, in stark contrast to the all-white cast working higher class jobs such as police officers and genetic designers. In his essay, Timothy Yu claims “the Orient is the necessary space within which imagining alternatives to Western modernity becomes possible.”7 In Blade Runner, these “[imagined] alternatives” do not hold utopic potential.8 The film’s status as a dystopia infects its globalized landscape with a profoundly negative association. The film’s pairing of a dystopic rhetoric with visual signifiers of East-Asian capitalism underlines an “[anxiety]” about a globalized future.9 The future feared most by the white middle class is shown in the film to be one wherein ‘Eastern’ signifiers have seeped into — or contaminated — ‘Western’ spaces. Blade Runner’s future anxieties thus run along racialized lines. In his chapter “Brave Homelands and Evil Empires,” Stephen Prince laments the aesthetic and political merging of film and advertisements — of capitalism and “art” within a Cold War and post-Cold War context. To illustrate this, Prince cites a Diet Pepsi ad that directly preceded screenings of Top Gun, claiming that this Emblem of consumer culture... [is] fused with the military apparatus at a seamless audiovi sual level as the ad makes the kind of connections between political ideology and domestic life which are the essence and function of the Cold War.10 Blade Runner’s landscape serves a similar purpose within the text of the film. The neon mise-en-abyme that characterizes the visual terrain and the flashing blue and red lights of police vehicles are “fused... seamlessly.”11 The lights that indicate a heavy police or military presence in Blade Runner are simply one set of many neon lights in Scott’s landscape; the police neon
is camouflaged in the vicious mosaic of neon consumer capitalism. The police are thus visually inconspicuous in this landscape. The effect of this is a Panoptical reiteration of the police’s omnipresence in this version of Los Angeles 2019 — they could be anywhere, and thus they are everywhere — and therefore a further visual iteration of the dystopic schema. The film’s visual submersion of neon police vehicle lights with the constant buzzing neon lights of late consumer capitalism grounds the film in a Reaganite context. This fusion of a visual landscape that embodies consumer capitalism with a stealthy police omnipresence suggests a reimaging of a future heavily influenced by Ronald Reagan’s “conservative agenda,” whose “[concern]...[was] with preserving the authority of traditional social institutions” such as the military.12 These prominent elements of Blade Runner’s visual and rhetorical landscape — a mise-en-abyme of neon capitalism, racialized anxieties and Panoptic surveillance — are further iterated in and articulated through the body. The human form is obsessively replicated in Ridley Scott’s mise-en-scene. The apartment of genetic designer J.F. Sebastian (located in the dystopic version of The Bradbury Building) is littered with humanoid figurines and mannequins. Human-like, motionless figures are silhouetted in a repeated shot of the building’s entranceway. J.F. muses to Pris (another Replicant Deckard has been assigned to kill) — “I make friends, my friends are toys, I make them.” The toys J.F. surrounds himself with are all influenced by the human form but often deviate uncannily from it. They appear stunted in growth, are missing limbs, and have distorted features, and their mechanical marching is reminiscent of wind-up toys and the military. Near the end of the film, when Pris is hiding from Deckard in J.F.’s apartment, she disguises herself among
the non-human figures that populate the apartment. Her already “non-human” form is made even more mechanical by its juxtaposition with the other figures in J.F.’s toy mausoleum. Replicants are engineered by the Tyrell Corporation, a company whose motto is “more human than humans.” As Eldon Tyrell himself explains to Deckard, the newest Replicant model — Nexus-6 — is engineered to have a shorter lifespan and is implanted with memories. These memories are visually supported by photographs given to the Replicants. By granting the Nexus-6 Replicants a “past,” the Tyrell Corporation is creating “a cushion for their emotions,” which then helps the company “control them better.” Rachael, a Replicant with whom Deckard becomes enamoured, believes herself to be human. This ignorance of her own “difference” renders her harder for Deckard to identify as a Replicant using the formerly reliable “Voight-Kampff” test. She is more human — based on the test criteria — because she believes herself to be. The perceived integrity of the human form — that it reflects some kind of inner definably “humanness” — is dismantled in all its Blade Runner iterations. The female body is a landscape of its own in Scott’s film. As viewers we do not encounter any “human” females in this film, however the film’s choice to gender certain Replicants female is highly significant. The first “woman” to appear in the diegesis is an enormous moving billboard of a geisha placing an unidentified object into her mouth. The billboard alternates between this shot and a close up of her mouth. Already here the female body is visually amputated. The geisha — arguably a symbol of women existing or performing for male pleasure only — is cut up by the formal technique of the close-up, and re-rendered as only a mouth. This geisha image is a telling introduc-
tion to the female body in this film. Rachael — arguably the most developed ‘female’ character in the film — exists iconographically as a symbol for outdated gender politics. At the beginning of the film, Rachael’s attire is distinctly reminiscent of the early 1940s. She wears skirt suits with wide, sharp shoulders, fur coats, and her hair is pinned up in a “victory roll.” Even the texture and timbre of her voice harkens back to the voices of early film movie stars. As she starts to grow attached to Deckard, she lets her dark, curly hair out of its pins, and dons a high-necked, white dress. In a shot where she is seated at a piano, she bears a striking resemblance to the Victorian women in the sepia-toned photographs Deckard has in his apartment. Her transition from mysterious, independent figure (coded by her futuristic suffragette-era attire) to a woman willing to risk her life and autonomy for a man (coded by Victorian-era regalia) politicizes Rachael’s body in a way Deckard’s male body never is. Rachael’s body is draped in temporal signification — her physical adornments harken back to eras that embody far more “regressive” gender politics than an image of the future might hope to articulate.
Out of the Replicants Deckard is assigned to “retire,” two are female (Zhora and Pris) and two are male (Leon and Roy). All of these Replicants die at different moments in the film, however, the way in which their respective deaths are filmed differs depending on their coded genders. Leon’s death is the least spectacular of all — he is shot by Rachael just before, it would appear, he was about to kill Deckard. In contrast with the camera’s disinterest in Leon’s death, Roy’s death is a spectacle of martyrdom. Just before dying of “natural causes” — his ‘lifespan’ is depleted — Roy gives a speech about the transience of memory. His death is steeped in dramatic convention — slow motion, and biblical references — he sets a white dove free in an allusion to the myth of Noah’s Ark. These lend both his life and “retirement” transcendental significance. When Pris and Zhora are killed, their deaths are, like Roy’s, spectacular. However, these female Replicants are not lent any divine signification nor theatrical martyrdom. Their bodies, not their consciousness, are rendered spectacle. Specifically, the female body in death is here an erotic spectacle.
In her essay “Her Body, Himself,” Carol Clover contrasts depictions of male and female deaths within the realm of the slasher film. She asserts that “the murders of women... are filmed at closer range, in more graphic detail, and at greater length” than “the death of a male.”13 Unlike the male, the female in the throes of death is a graphic, erotic body spectacle. While Blade Runner is not a slasher film, it nevertheless reproduces the formal schema Clover outlines. This is evident in the scene where Deckard stalks Zhora at her job in a nightclub and, after chasing her through mirrors, glass and neon, shoots her multiple times. As she falls, Zhora’s body becomes ghostly, almost transparent, cut into shards and refracted multiple times in disorienting glass reflections. She dies in slow motion, wearing only undergarments and a transparent raincoat spattered — like a butcher’s apron — with her own blood. The camera lingers on Zhora’s collapsed body in a pile of glass, her legs askew as in the slasher genre, “[fascinated] with flesh or meat itself.”14 Zhora’s flesh, though not “human,” but deliberately gendered female, is put on visceral display. Similarly, when Deckard kills Pris, she is cinematically rendered an erotic, bloody spectacle. Pris is shot, like Zhora, in slow motion. She then writhes on the floor, bleeding from her chest, naked-looking, her screams ricocheting across the walls and into the next scene. In Carol Clover’s examination of the “Final Girl,” she suggests that the last living female (in this case, Pris) “is at her most effective in a state of undress, borne down upon by a blatantly phallic murderer, even gurgling orgasmically as she dies.”15 The murdered female as erotic and fetishized spectacle in the throes of death is clearly a trope that extends past the slasher genre. While the two murdered male Replicants die quickly or as martyrs, the deaths of their female counterparts are extended graphically and viscerally eroticized by Scott’s manipulation of the film apparatus. Scott’s Blade Runner is a haunting. The landscape of Scott’s dystopic Los Angeles 2019 — blackened by perpetual nighttime, damp with rain, fizzing with neon — is informed by nostalgia and populated by ideological ghosts. The female body is an erotic phantasm reflected in shards of glass. Human creators are haunted and inevitably destroyed by their own creations. The film’s visual terrain — and its articulations in human-like bodies — places the film in the middle of a temporal tug-of-war. Utopian intertexts and visualized nostalgia, both spectral presences, are at perpetual odds with Scott’s dystopic vision of the future. As a genre, science fiction holds distinctive radical potential. Sci-fi pivots primarily on a future ‘space’ linked delicately, at the very least, to contem-
porary Earthly human experience. In this way it functions as a ‘queering’ of “the world as we know it” in a similar way to fictional incarnations of dystopias and utopias. The radical potential of sci-fi lies in the possible re-imagining — or obliteration — of the socio-economic, patriarchal base of contemporary human life. The most radical science fiction goes beyond a critique of the present, and moves into the creation of new, previously unimaginable, paradigms. The landscapes of 2019 Los Angeles and the female bodies who inhabit it are certainly politicized, but not to a radical, paradigm-shattering extent. Their respective terrains are written over with yearnings for a resurrected, conservative past and racialized anxieties about an uncontrollable future. The ideological poltergeists that wreak havoc on Scott’s future visions undermine Blade Runner’s radical textual potential. Alsayyad, Nezar. “The Cinematic City: Between Modernist Utopia and Postmodernist Dystopia.” Built Environment 26.4 (2000): 271. Web. 2 Ibid. 3 Ibid. 4 Ferrell, David. “The Bradbury Sparkles as Jewel in City Landscape.” Los Angeles Times (2002): 2. Web. 5 Alsayyad 271. 6 Yu, Timothy. “Oriental Cities, Postmodern Futures: Naked Lunch, Blade Runner, and Neuromancer.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 46. Web. 7 Ibid 47. 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid 46. 10 Prince, Stephen. “Brave Homelands and Evil Empires.” (n.d.): 71. Web. 11 Ibid. 12 Ibid 70. 13 Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations 20 (1987): 35. 14 Ibid 32. 15 Ibid 42. 1
PIOUS GIRLS DO IT WELL M.I.A and the Problem of Subaltern Agency by Saad Rajper ed. Kathlene Whiteway
M.I.A’s 2012 music video for Bad Girls has
been praised for its progressive portrayal of women in hijabs and niqabs. Music journalists have read the images of veiled women driving cars and drifting as a shout out to the women to drive movement, an ongoing initiative led by Saudi Arabian women as a gesture of resistance to the law of the sole country in the world which strictly prohibits women from driving motorized vehicles.1 By showing the veiled women in the video occupying public space and participating in activities they are typically barred from, the video, directed by Romain Gavras, aims to break down stereotypes of veiled Muslim women as docile or passive subjects. By resignifying the veil as both modern, and as a source of power, Bad Girls tries to give agency to Muslim women through the subversion of norms. However, as Gayatri Spivak points out in her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak,” the process of representing subaltern subjects with the aim to give voice often gets misconstrued and complicated at the hands of ideology. In this essay, I will provide a reading of Bad Girls which takes into account the presumptions and ideological underpinnings of M.I.A’s project of representing Muslim women as subjects with agency. Following the theoretical framework laid out by Saba Mahmood in her book The Politics of Piety, this essay will adopt the notion of detaching agency from the goals of progressive politics in order to locate Bad Girls within the larger project to understand Muslim women using “normative liberal assumptions about human nature” which inevitably locate agency in the political and moral autonomy of the subject.2 Drawing on Mahmood’s claims about Muslim women’s participation in the Islamic Revival movement as a type of
ethics and political project, I will illustrate how M.I.A’s attempt to give voice to Muslim women ultimately falls into a trap similar to the one that liberal white feminism does; It speaks for as opposed to the lived realities of Muslim women. By pandering to a Western audience that sees Muslim women as oppressed by their religion, M.I.A has misattributed “forms of consciousness or politics that are not part of their experience — something like a feminist consciousness or feminist politics.”3 Ultimately, Bad Girls fails to let the subaltern speak because it operates under a liberal framework of agency that does not apply to historical and social conditions of Muslim women. The failure of M.I.A’s project therefore lies in its implied Western audience. The video is wrought with Orientalist clichés and stereotypes about the Middle East recognizable to Western viewers, for instance the collapsing of a whole continent into an unidentified desert, the stereotypical image of Middle Eastern geography.4 Though modernity is hinted at through the glamorous cars and remixing of traditional abiyah, it is still framed in a pre-modern setting filled with symbols of antiquity such as the stallion. The video tries to fight dominant narratives about Muslim women as submissive and docile in Western media, principally by refusing to enact the veil as a sign of women’s oppression and by showing Muslim women engaging in acts they are prohibited from. However, in doing so, what is offered is merely a different narrative about Muslim women, one that does not necessarily allow Muslim women to create their own. Even as it provides a slightly modified narrative, it still operates under a Western framework which tries to gain recognition for Muslim women through liberal ideas of agency.
Because Bad Girls, released on Noisey for Vice, speaks to a Western audience, it must operate under the language and presumptions of the West.5 To show that Muslim women are not oppressed it must, by its own logic, address specific concerns of the West, in this case the veil and the lawful ability to drive. This process does not allow Muslim women to have a voice because it discounts any experience of Muslim womanhood that does not fit into this project of recognition. Muslim women in this video can be understood as occupying subaltern status, which as Gayatri Spivak influentially put it in her 1983 essay, “[i]n post-colonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern.”6 The subaltern is not synonymous with the oppressed, but rather delineates those outside of hegemonic discourse. Muslim women are outside the hegemonic discourse between the West and the Muslim world as their voices are not represented under the male-dominated discourse of organized Islam, nor can they be heard through the often imperial discourse of Western feminism. In addition, Mahmood has included Third World feminism when she questions if “commitment to the ideal of equality in our own lives endows us with the capacity to know that this ideal captures what is or should be fulfilling for everyone else.”7 The ideal of Western feminist equality cannot be fully incorporated into an Islamic understanding of the world precisely because of the larger argument that feminism in its various factions is unable to account for the kind of equality sought by non-secular subjects. Muslim women become subaltern because there is no hegemonic discourse through which they can be heard. Spivak’s central claim that the subaltern cannot speak points to the way in which subaltern subjects must adapt themselves to hegemonic modes of knowledge and communication in order to be heard. They must understand their interests through the discourses which create their subject position. Spivak highlights the ways in which attempts at representing the subaltern fail because they impose onto the subaltern external forms of knowledge. Bad Girls tries to speak for Muslim women who occupy a subaltern status but ultimately fails because it imposes a liberal conception of agency onto them and reifies their actions into a type of politics recognizable to western audiences. In The Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood brilliantly interrogates the presumptions underlying contemporary attempts to understand Muslim women in relation to Islam, specifically through the lens of feminism. She suggests that Muslim women provide a fundamental contradiction:
why would such a large number of women across the Muslim world actively support a movement that seems inimical to their ‘own interests and agendas,’ especially at a historical moment when these women appear to have more emancipatory possibilities available to them?8 Mahmood goes on to note that this is a contradiction explored by both conservatives and progressives wherein both sides assume that there is “something intrinsic to women that should predispose them to oppose the practices, values, and injunctions that the Islamist movement embodies”. In The Politics of Piety, Mahmood is concerned specifically with the mosque movement, and women who participate in cultivating an ideal virtuous self as defined by Islam. She states that the “[p]ious subject of the mosque movement occup[ies] an uncomfortable place in feminist scholarship because [she] pursue[s] practices and ideals embedded within a tradition that has historically accorded to woman a subordinate status.”9 Mahmood’s project is to unearth the assumptions that seem to make the embrace of the mosque movement by Muslim women into a contradiction. In order to do so, she critiques liberalism, specifically the normative assumption that through the virtue of human nature, all human beings have an innate desire for freedom and will assert their autonomy when allowed, ultimately suggesting that agency leads to acts which challenge social norms rather than acts which uphold them.10 These assumptions privilege the notion of agency, that is, “the capacity to realize one’s own interests against the weight of custom, tradition, transcendental will, or other obstacles.”11 These liberal assumptions, integral to Bad Girls project of giving voice to Muslim women, come from Enlightenment ideals which originated in the West which are insufficient to understand the historical and social position of Islam and thus to women’s relationship to it. Mahmood argues that it is not possible to “identify a universal category of acts — such as those of resistance — outside of the ethical and political conditions within which such acts acquire their particular meaning.”12 Bad Girls is unable to avoid the universalization of resistance as an act. Instead, through the enactment of the term “bad girl,” the video frames resistance for Muslim women as the explicit rejection of piety. The rejection of piety is an important tactic of feminist resistance in instances where the previously stated liberal assumption about human nature holds true and structures society. However, the figure of the “bad girl” can only hold qualities of resistance inside a space of ethical and political conditioning which privi-
leges liberal understandings of the self. For Muslim women who see the cultivation of piety as an integral practice to articulating a sense of self, identifying as a “bad girl” is not a form of resistance. The Muslim women in Bad Girls engage in practices of resistance which are intelligible to Western audiences. By representing veiled women dancing in presumably public space, the video tries to resist the normative assumption that the veil is a signifier of docility. Instead, by making the veil not only modernized but also aestheticized in connection with hip-hop culture, Bad Girls distances the material object of the veil from its symbolic qualities. The presence of these women driving cars is the most explicit political critique the video makes and the one picked up most enthusiastically by the media. In the video, resistance emergences as a rejection of norms, explicitly of piety. This supposed resistance disregards the cultivation of piety as a type of politics in itself, and ultimately frames Islam as system to be fought in order to be happy, as opposed to a system in which one can achieve happiness. I evoke the concept of happiness as Mahmood takes it up in relation to the Foucauldian notion of ethics as “those practices, techniques, and discourses through which a subject transforms herself in order to achieve a particular state of being, happiness, or truth.”13 Mahmood turns to Foucault’s definition of ethics because “it conceives of ethics not as an Idea, or as a set of regulatory norms, but as a set of practical activities that are germane to a certain way of life.”14 This definition opens space which does not immediately rely on a universalization of ethics and instead allows ethics to be thought as local and particular, creating an opening for a conceptualization of agency that moves beyond the binary where the only two options for a video like Bad Girls is to enact norms or
to subvert them. Mahmood’s reframing of the idea of docility becomes relevant at this point. She says: Although we have come to associate docility with the abandonment of agency, the term literally implies the malleability required of someone in order for her to be instructed in a particular skill or knowledge — a meaning that carries less a sense of passivity than one of struggle, effort, exertion, and achievement.15 The cultivation of piety through the Islamic revival movement should not be seen merely as an excavation of agency for Muslim women, but rather as a way to reconceptualize agency as it relates to the ethical and political conditions within which these acts acquire their particular meaning.16 In Bad Girls, being “bad” or rejecting piety is seen as a way of gaining agency. This mode of thinking assumes a universalist conception of what ethics and resistance look like, and what they can do. This is symptomatic of a larger trend in Western media which frames Muslim women as requiring salvation. Though Bad Girls attempts to complicate the narrative of Muslim women in-need-of-saving and distances women in the video from Islamic ideals of female piety, it is course not able to escape the Western discourse of Muslim women in a post-9/11 world. The video still implicitly configures Islam as a threat, and is therefore unable to conceptualize a type of resistance or agency for Muslim women within Islamic practices. Mahmood puts it thus: Analysts often explain the motivations of veiled women in terms of standard models of sociological causality (such as social protest, economic necessity, anomie, or utilitarian strategy), while terms like morality, divinity, and virtue are accorded the status of the phantom imaginings of the hegemonized.17
Like much well-meaning and intended progressive analysis which form the objects the study in Mahmood’s book, Bad Girls falls into a trap of relegating agency as something always outside of the theological doctrine of Islam. These attempts at progressive conversation surrounding veiled women often ignore the complexities of religious desire in favor of political and social desire. The veil can of course gain symbolic importance as a form of social protest, but to assume this is the only way Muslim women who are veiled can achieve agency is universalizing and incorrect. At this point, it seems to me that the weight of the depiction of Muslim women as either progressive or reactive in M.I.A’s video for Bad Girls is beside the point. Rather, what I have tried to bring forward in this paper is the volume of the collective ideological assumptions which underpin the video’s portrayal of Muslim women. I have outlined the ways in which the video fails to speak to the lived experiences of Muslim women by ignoring the role that Islamic ideals of piety play in determining a sense of agency within the practice of Islam. Bad Girls attempts to give a voice to the subaltern while ignoring its own role in disallowing the voice of the subaltern from being heard. It should be noted that even though M.I.A is a woman of color from the Third World participating in the white, male dominated music industry, her ability to make a widely circulated, high budget production shows that she, as a producer of artistic content, is included within hegemonic discourse. For M.I.A., perhaps being a “bad girl” through resisting the norms of the Western music industry is a form of resistance related to the expression and cultivation of agency. However, this does not
mean that being a “bad girl” is a universal form of resistance for veiled women. Kreps, Daniel. “How M.I.A. Captured the Wild Car Tricks in ‘Bad Girls’ Video.” Spin, 19 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2015. 2 Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 2005. Print.14-5. 3 Ibid 8. 4 Principle photography for the video was filmed in Ouarzazate, Morocco. 5 Slater, Luke (3 February 2012). “Watch: New M.I.A. video for ‘Bad Girls’”. Drowned in Sound. 6 De Kock, Leon, and Gayatri Spivak. “Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literatures 23.3 (1992): 29-47. Print. 46. 7 Mahmood 38. 8 Ibid 2. 9 Ibid 3. 10 Ibid 5. 11 Ibid 8. 12 Ibid 9. 13 Ibid 28. 14 Ibid 28. 15 Ibid 29. 16 IRM is a movement that focuses on more dedicated study of Islam through the reading and embodying of Islamic texts. 17 Mahmood 16. 1
(Works referenced) Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2013): 783-90. Ethics Forum: September 11 and Ethnographic Responsibility. Web. 13 Dec. 2015. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Can the Subaltern Speak? Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988. Print.
co-editors in chief david leblanc & ben demers
editors rebecca alter genevieve citron claire drummond hannah feinberg madeleine kinney sophia larigakis kathlene whiteway