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“Are You Gay?”: Public Space, the Closet, and the Exercise of Privilege

For my month of posts for this blog, I want to talk about privilege and the way in which it operates in everyday interactions and spaces. We all hear people talk about privilege–and in particular about how it operates as part of and within systems of oppression–but rarely do we actually think about how it affects and manifests in our everyday lives. I intend these four posts to jumpstart a continuing dialogue about both identifying privilege and using that knowledge to help undo it.

During a recent outing to a local restaurant, a couple of friends and I were seated at our table finishing our drinks before heading home for the night. While we were sitting there, chatting amiably amongst ourselves, a highly intoxicated young woman sprawled across our table to procure the menu, then asked us to read said menu since she was too drunk to do so.

Now, there wasn’t anything particularly unusual about this incident at first blush. People frequently intrude into other people’s space when they have had a bit too much to drink. It wasn’t even than unusual for her to note that I had an unmistakable look of disgust on my face.

What happened next, however was, as we academics like to say, problematic.

This young woman, whom I had never met, abruptly inquired, “Can I ask you a personal question” (always cringe-inducing), and having procured my assent proceeded to ask, “Are you gay?”

Yes. You read that right. She asked me if I am gay.

To be clear, I have no problem telling people in public spaces that I’m gay. I have no investment in “straightness,” and I certainly do not have a (conscious) investment in traditional hegemonic masculinity nor in a performance of it. In fact, I actually take a lot of pleasure in performing my queerness and will, in most cases, tell people I’m gay within a few minutes of meeting them. For me, proclaiming my sexuality on my own terms can be a profoundly liberating and empowering act. However, that is a choice that make. It is not one that is forced upon me by someone else.

While I was not upset on my own behalf, I couldn’t help thinking about all of the other people who might have been in my position. What if I was someone who wasn’t even close to coming out, or someone who was struggling with their sexuality or, heaven forbid, what if I were just a man who doesn’t perform masculinity in the way expected of straight men? Had I been one of those people, this moment would have been even worse.

If ever there was a time when Eve Sedgwick’s epistemology of the closet–the idea that the closet remains a structure with which all queer people must contend, either implicitly or explicitly, in their daily lives–was made material, this was it. As Sedgwick explains: “every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not.” In other words, every encounter with a new person demands that the queer person decide:  will I tell this person who I truly am? And what will the consequences be? Do I keep this part of my identity secret, or do I live openly?

This exchange also revealed much about the way in which sexuality and gender remain wedded together in the vernacular imagination, since I’m speculating that it was my failure to adequately perform masculinity that prompted her to ask her question. What was it about me, I wonder(ed) that allowed her to read me as gay? Was it my ever-so-slightly “effeminate” affect and behavior? Was it my voice? My mannerisms? Some combination of the above? Some other affect that cannot be quantified but only felt by those that I come into contact with, something that triggers the proverbial “gaydar” in my fellow human beings? I don’t know the answer, and that in itself troubles me.

What’s more, this incident revealed to me, in a shockingly visceral sort of way, how privilege works in everyday life. This person asked me an incredibly invasive question, and without any sort of self-awareness that what she was doing was in any way intrusive. To her, it seemed perfectly natural and acceptable to ask this sort of question, and it probably never even occurred to her, in this Modern Family, post-Obergefell v. Hodges world, that such a question is itself a form of violence. She just assumed that I would be perfectly comfortable answering her question, and that it wasn’t a form of violation to ask me this in a public space (keep in mind that we had never met each other before this evening). To her, it no doubt seems that all gay men (and probably all queer people) feel comfortable confessing their orientations to complete strangers, regardless of the social setting.

Furthermore, it also forced me to consider:  why did I even feel compelled to answer this question? What was it about the power relations that she established with that question that put me in the position where I felt compelled to answer? After all, I could have just told her, in a matter-of-fact way, that it wasn’t any of her business (which it wasn’t). Part of it, of course, stems from my own avowed investment in owning and displaying my queerness, but part of it also stems from the fact that I was expected to be willing to answer that question without feeling put upon or violated. For that matter, so were my friends, who were also asked the same perplexing question, in a similarly nonchalant manner. Her privilege, unassuming as it was, enabled her to ask this question without a trace of chagrin or discomfort.

Some time ago, my brilliant colleague Melissa posted a brilliant piece on this blog about the power of gay male privilege, and what strikes me about my own encounter is how it is the inverse of her experience. Rather than being the recipient of said privilege, I was now being subjected to someone else’s. It was one of those increasingly common moments when I recognized that privilege works in all sorts of ways, not all of them immediately obvious. If we are truly invested in making this world a more just and equitable one for all citizens, we need to start by calling out these moments of privilege for what they are. If I could go back and redo that night, I would have informed her that it was none of her business, reclaiming my agency from her privileged grasp.

But I didn’t, precisely because it never occurred to me to do so.

And that truly disturbs me.


T.J. West III is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English. His dissertation, tentatively titled History’s Perilous Pleasures:  Experiencing Antiquity in Post-War Hollywood Film, explores the historico-biblical epic and the ways in which it attempts to mitigate the terrifying nature of modern history through an appeal to the ancient world. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

 

The Greatest Show on Earth!: The Historico-Biblical Epic, Excess, and the Sublime Historical Experience

A few weeks ago, when I published my post on Game of Thrones and its theory of history, one of my colleagues asked me about the nature of excess–of violence, of sex, of things (clothes, sets, technologies)–that typically stand as one of the hallmarks of the epic genre. At what point, she asked, does excess simply overwhelm the viewer, force them into a state of suspension, of sensory/sensual overload that causes them to disengage? I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the function of excess in terms of historical representation. I’ve come to believe that the genre of the epic, perhaps more than any other type of historical film or television series, allows for an experience of the strangeness and otherness of the world of antiquity. Following in the footsteps of such scholars as Vivian Sobchack, I suggest that the historical epic provides contemporary spectators with an experience of the past that exceeds questions of accuracy, and allows them to know (or to attempt to know) the past in a way that exceeds language and disrupts the discipline imposed by traditional historical discourse.

In the post-war period, and increasingly in our own, the epic has sought out religious subjects in its articulation of what the antiquity looked like and how it worked. In the historical world produced in the epic film, religion is  intricately tied to the body and sexual desire. Conversion is a key site for this intersection between bodies, sex, and religion. The act of conversion takes many forms: moving from pagan to Christian; or, in the case of pre-Christian figures such as Samson, from sexual desire to union with God; from the world of the flesh to that of the transcendent spirit. These transcendent conversions are paradoxically predicated on leaving behind one form of sexual desire while inhabiting another: for example, as men are led to abandon the licentious women of Rome for the allegedly chaster women of Christianity. Such a transition, however, carries with it its own danger:  the process of conversion involves a measure of jouissance, a perilous pleasure that reminds us of the body even as it seeks to transcend it. Indeed, the very essence of religious conversion often manifests in these films as a form of excess, often of emotion, as in the case of Richard Burton’s almost hysterical performance as a converted centurion in The Robe, or as in the excesses of fleshly, sublime agony of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  Religion intersects with history here to allow us to encounter the terrifying too-muchness of the past, to confront a world terrifying in its overwhelming scale.

In the epic, spectacle always bears with it a double valence. On the one hand, epic spectacle inundates us with the pleasures of the visual:  Nero’s Technicolor robe in Quo Vadis, the digitized Colosseum of Gladiator, the truly breathtaking long shots of Exodus. On the other hand, epic spectacle challenges us by asking to suspend our attention to narrative and to fixate ourselves on the pleasures of the visual.  These objects call to us, ask us to encounter a world that provides a means by which we can escape the poverty and the banality of our everyday lived experience through the history’s epic visuality and sensuousness. What is more, they also ask us to abandon our current subjectivity, to inhabit that previous, precious moment–if only for the time that we watch the text. Again, these are elements of the past that cannot be contained within words or within narrative, either in the films themselves or in the academic study of history. That extra-linguistic, extra-narrative element of the epic is the source of the power they have and the experience they provide of a past-ness (even if, again, the politics associated with that past-ness are not to our liking).

For all that narrative attempts to control the excess it utilizes to bring the world of antiquity to life, it also creates for modern spectators a sense of the past as a place just beyond the realm of linguistic representation. Epic film proposes a different way of engaging with the world of antiquity, one that does not rely upon words or closure to bring us an experience of that world. As Robert Rosenstone so memorably puts it, historical film “forces us to live in a most uncomfortable sort of world—a world in which we cannot control or contain our past with words; cannot tame its full meanings within the discipline of a discourse because the meanings themselves—encoded as images as well as words—ultimately elude words.” What he refers to as the unruly meanings of the past trouble us even as they excite and pleasure us.

At the same time, this world of plenitude and excess, this past that holds so much visual/visceral appeal to the contemporary modern spectator, must also eventually be disavowed for us to enable to function as modern subjects. This simultaneous attraction and rejection produces what historian Frank Ankersmit has termed a sublime historical experience. In order to know that world, in order to make sense of the impossibly distant and fragmented world of antiquity, we must return it to the realm of language, to our historical understandings that underpin so much of our relationship to the past. And yet, paradoxically, some measure of that excess always remains, haunting our collective imagination, a perpetual reminder of what has been given up in order for us to become who we are today.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

History’s Fiction Problem: “Selma” and the Value of Fictionalized History

In a recent piece for SalonAndrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg take aim at both Selma, the newly released film about the activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through Selma, they critique Hollywood more broadly for its lack of anything truly meaningful to say about history.  In the process, they also dismiss seemingly all (or at least most) historical fiction. They suggest that there is a measure of historical truth that historical fiction can obtain—but only if it remains firmly ensconced in the responsible, well-trained hands of those housed in the discipline of history.  Fiction’s tendencies to romanticize and to provide narrative closure, they seem to suggest, works against a nuanced appreciation of history.

Skepticism from trained historians is nothing new; historical fiction has increasingly earned the ire of many historians.  Such critiques almost invariably revolve around questions of “accuracy,” as historians ruthlessly pick apart the novels, films, and television series for every incident that is not “how it really was.”  Burstein and Isenberg voice a common desire among many of those who study history, for they suggest that in films “romantic truthiness supplants history.”

Such a critique overlooks so much of the richness and complexity that fiction, in film, in television, in novels, in poetry can offer to readers trained to be able to see it.  True, there are many flaws in these expressions of history, but isn’t it time to stop pretending that they don’t have any historical value, or that they don’t have a particular vision of the truth to offer?  Isn’t it more productive to study the ways in which these texts work, to look at conventions of narrative and other aesthetic considerations, to situate them in their political moments—not just to find out what they say about their present moment, but about how that moment understands history?  Work like Burstein’s and Isenberg’s poses the danger of foreclosing on any possibility of appreciating and studying these texts in all of their complexity, and shores up the already incredibly tenuous distinction between fiction and truth as if one does not have something to say about the other.

I currently teach a course entitled “Race and Literary Texts.”  Part of my intentions while designing my syllabus was to include fiction that helped to make clear to my students the ways in which history, the accumulated sediments of past actions and processes, continue to intrude on the present.  Utilizing texts ranging from Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy to Richard Wright’s Native Son, my pedagogy emphasizes reading literary texts as theoretical texts. We take them seriously as theories of history, and draw out the ways in which they articulate historical visions. This is an incredibly rewarding experience, as we negotiate the ways in which writers, poets, directors, and studios grapple with the how to engage with the intractable problems posed by the past.

For our first close reading activity, we read the vexing poem “The Change,” by Tony Hoagland.  I love and hate this poem, for it represents so much of what I will attempt to convey to my students this semester.  In this poem, the speaker observes a tennis match between a white European and a young black woman from Alabama, secretly hoping that the former will win. Through the match, he wrestles with the intractable nature of history, of momentous (and, to the speaker at least, cataclysmic) social change.  While I condemn the poem’s obvious racism and white paranoia, I can’t help but acknowledge the ways in which it seeks to articulate a theory of history, to wrench a measure of intelligibility out of the chaos and terror of historical change (to riff slightly on Philip Toynbee’s famous statement about good writers grappling against the intractableness of modern English).  When the speaker says:

There are moments when history

passes you so close

you can smell its breath,

you can reach your hand out

and touch it on its flank

one can almost feel him grappling with the idea of history as experience, of the individual come face to face with the terrifying nearness of forces over which he has no control.  The line breaks struggle formally to come to terms with the effects of history, with the sense that a moment is simultaneously passing and has already passed.  Indeed, by the end of the poem he seems to have done so: the last phrase “we were changed” echoes like the closing of some door. The mantra forms a powerful reminder not only of the contradictions of history–as both ongoing process and recollection of the past–but also of the exclusionary power of “we.”  This is in many ways an elegy for white hegemony, and while I find it personally repugnant, I acknowledge that it does offer truth about history—even if it’s one with which we vehemently disagree.

Fiction, whether in the form of the printed word or the moving image, can offer us meaningful and powerful insights into the workings of history.  As Brittney Cooper puts it so forcefully in her own Salon take on the question of historical storytelling in Selma:  “being more accurate does not mean one has told more truth.  Read any Toni Morrison novel and you’ll learn that novels often tell far more truth than autobiography. DuVernay tells us many truths in this film about the affective and emotive dimensions of black politics, about the intimacy of black struggle, about the spirit of people intimately acquainted with daily assaults on their humanity.”  To continue to overlook these texts’ engagements with the past is to do both the texts and us a grave disservice. This shouldn’t stop us from critiquing those theories of history that continue to marginalize and disenfranchise those who have long been excluded from power, of course.  But it’s time that, instead of constantly critiquing and wringing our hands, we move into doing something more interesting and more fruitful: to engage in a more thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the relationship between fiction and history.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

Nasty, Brutish, but Definitely Not Short: Game of Thrones and the History of Power

It might seem counter-intuitive to talk about a fantasy television series as having anything meaningful to say about history. But Game of Thrones‘ self-conscious evocation of the medieval world, as well as the fact that so many of its storylines are drawn from historical events in our own world, suggests that it does indeed have something it wants to tell about history—about the ways in which individuals engage with the social and cultural forces that seem to move times, societies, and cultures forward. In the clip shown here, Petyr Baelish, the corrupt and ruthless Master of Coin, explains to Varys his vision of the world and the rules that govern the way it works.

In essence, chaos provides cunning and ruthless people the ability to rise to the top; not for him the illusions and grand visions of a just society. Power, and the ability to seize it, are the things that matter most to Petyr, and indeed to many of the characters of the series. Baelish’s words could also just as easily describe the vision of history that the whole series articulates (and to an even greater extent A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic fantasy novel series upon which it is based). In this framework, the sense and order that we attempt to impose on the past are necessary fictions designed to paper over the bloody, visceral, and terrifying truths that remind us as viewers and readers of our fleshly mortality.

The St. Sesbastian-like body of the prostitute Ros, pierced by the arrows wielded by the supremely sadistic Joffrey, in many ways stands as the ultimate expression of Game of Thrones’ theory of history. The actions of the great and powerful, the Lannisters, the Tyrells, the Targaryens, the Starks, become the ones recorded in the great books of learning. The lives of those affected, their bodies left broken and bloody, even the very narratives of their deaths utilized for those who seek their own aggrandizement, are a potent reminder of the price of history. They are the grisly detritus of the actions of these lords and ladies and kings who wield the power. The spectacle of Ros’s death is an unpleasant and viscerally shocking reminder of just how violent and unsettling history can be. For women and the poor, who have little agency or voice of their own, their bodies become the only way they can communicate their historical presence.

The series constantly begs the question: who is to blame for this horrific and chaotic state of affairs? Eddard Stark, for not doing the pragmatic thing and joining his force with Renly’s, thereby possibly averting the civil war, his death, and the ruin of his family? Robert Baratheon, for so many things: his bitterness at being forced to wed a woman he didn’t love, all for political expedience, his mistreatment of her (which leads to her successful plot to kill him and plunges the kingdom into chaos?), his unwillingness to take an actual hand in governing? Varys the Spider, the eunuch who has secretly plotted to bring back the exiled Targaryens, all the while claiming that he only wants what is best for the kingdom? All of the above? None of the above?

In this world, everyone is guilty and yet all are, paradoxically, somewhat innocent. At least, their actions can in part be explained by the forces, social, cultural, personal, that undergird and seethe beneath the surface of Westeros, that always threaten to burst free and plunge everything into chaos. The actions of the past are not contained there, discrete and easily deciphered, but instead continue to mold the present. Characters frequently find their actions circumscribed by the legacies left them by their parents, or by ancestors who have been long dead. The political chaos that erupts from the second season onward is just as much a result of the wars of centuries past as it is of the actions taken by the characters in the present.

Game of Thrones attempts to do away with the neatly defined explanations for what causes significant political and social change. The many competing plot-lines that nearly constantly intertwine and intersect with one another create an incredibly complicated skein of cause-and-effect that make it nearly impossible to impose some sort of large, explanatory meta-narrative on the events that unfold. All that can be said with any certainty is that the world that emerges from the convulsions of the end of the previous era is one characterized by even more political and social violence than the admittedly bloody ones that preceded it.

The historian Robert Rosenstone has compellingly suggested that the filming of history is “about loss of control; loss of sense; loss” (236). Game of Thrones, whatever its flaws and however troubling its representational politics, nevertheless challenges its viewers to come to grips with this powerful, almost sublime, sense of history. In a world that seems to live in a perpetual present (to riff off of Jameson’s claim), Game of Thrones stands as a potent reminder of the unsettling nature of history and that, I can’t help but think, is a good thing.


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

Who’s That Lady?: Women’s Historical Fiction and the Writing of Female Subjectivity

If you type the search term “women’s historical fiction” into Amazon, you will (as of this writing) receive over 25,000 results, with authors writing women-centered fictions set in almost every conceivable historical period. I use the term “women’s historical fiction” deliberately, as this specific sub-genre pays particular attention to the experiences of women in various historical eras.  Although the “Great Man” theory of history continues to exert quite a powerful hold on the public historical imagination, popular authors–authors such as Philippa Gregory, Stephanie Thornton, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Michelle Moran– have inspired large and devoted readerships, and their works seek to evoke in contemporary readers an understanding of the struggles, and the triumphs, that women experienced in the past.  In doing so, they also articulate a theory of women’s history centered on the tension between female agency and subjection.  These works of history offer frames of intelligibility through which contemporary readers can experience the workings of history and the lives of the past.

While this genre is as diverse as might be expected, their covers typically fall into broadly two types.  The one (increasingly common) features a woman, with her back turned to the viewer, sometimes, but not always, overlooking a cityscape.

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The other, almost as common, typically features a woman gazing out at the viewer. Typically these women are not (as a rule) portrayed by famous or recognizable faces, but instead by unnamed models.

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The anonymity of these women stands in marked contrast to films and TV series, in which the historical personage is, in many cases, overshadowed by the star text of the actress portraying her.  Here, the lack of a specific star persona opens up the figure for appropriation and identification on behalf of the viewer. Through this anonymity, these covers invite the viewer to identify with the woman on the cover, to view her as their narrative surrogate, to either join with her as she gazes in ownership (longing?) at the city below her, or to see the historical gaze returned, an exchange between past and present.

The narratives of these novels also focus on historical female subjectivity, typically drawing out the experiences of a female figure frequently eclipsed by her male counterpart, such as a husband, king, etc.  Anne Boleyn (as well as other women of the Tudor court) is a perennial favorite, as are other women of the Early Modern period, but women from the ancient world have also become the focus of several notable sequences, such as the “Empress of Rome” books by Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray’s trilogy on Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of the (in)famous Cleopatra VII, and Stephanie Thornton’s narratives about Theodora and Hatshepsut.  The women of these novels frequently experience the hardships of their patriarchal worlds, subjected to the cruel, and often sexual, whims of the powerful men in their lives.  While the narratives remain focused on individual subjects, they do at least gesture toward the systems of oppression that have historically disenfranchised women, in the process showing the ways in which these women, despite the social, cultural, and personal forces arrayed against them, nevertheless manage to persevere and rise to the top of the social and political hierarchy.

At the same time, however, these novels frequently resolve the plights of these women by introducing the marriage plot.  Thornton’s novel The Secret History, centers at least in part on Theodora’s marriage to Justinian.  However, even within this traditional resolution scheme, these novels articulate a particular vision of the subjectivities of historical women.  They strike a balance between providing contemporary readers a suitably satisfactory conclusion to their narratives via both the romance plot and the agency these women possess, and drawing attention to the world of the past in all of its squalor and suffering, peeling away layers of respectability to reveal the messiness of the past.

Furthermore, these novels emphasize the importance of abjection and suffering for women of all classes, and this suffering is key to the historical visions these novels evoke.  Whether they are aristocrats or peasants, empresses or nuns, the women of these novels must constantly contend with a world that does not value their lives or their experiences.  As a result, they must frequently battle and claw their way into the upper echelons of power.  The Theodora of The Secret History, for example–easily one of the most (in)famous ruling women of history–begins life at the bottom of the social and political hierarchy and must endure numerous setbacks in her ascension.  Within the first 100 pages of the novel she experiences the death of her father and her youngest sister, the necessity of becoming an actress and a prostitute, an unwanted pregnancy, and grindingly abject poverty.  Like the other heroines of women’s historical fiction, however, this suffering grants meaning to their eventual triumph and, ultimately, the sense of historical being these narratives create.  Modern readers gain a sense of the fundamental unfairness of this suffering, and it is this evocation of melodrama that grants these novels their emotional–and, I would argue, intellectual–force.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.