11.12.2012

Of homosexuals and texts


I’m about to embark on a series of posts about queerness in the movies from Morocco (1930) to Weekend (2011), to be titled “The Homosexual in the Text.”  Faithful readers will recognize that title; I’ve used it several times over the past eighteen months or so when writing about the queer characters in such films as Advise and Consent, Flesh Gordon, and Mädchen in Uniform.  Each of the forthcoming posts will be similarly rooted in a discussion of a particular character—some variation on the figure I call “the homosexual”—but will also, hopefully, allow me to wander into other related discussions and ideas.  I thought I’d use this post as a short introduction to the project (about which I’m very excited).   

I should explain that it’s not my intention—as I may have done in my assessment of queer characters in 1970s exploitation cinema—to give these films report cards rating them on how “progressive” or “empowering” they may be in their representations of homosexuality.  I am of the opinion that so-called “negative” representations and the attendant feelings (shame, anger, embarrassment, discomfort) they may conjure up have their own place within critical theory.  In the same way that I don’t believe in the censorship or suppression of patently racist films like The Birth of a Nation, I don’t believe that we should throw out most of pre-Stonewall cultural history because it doesn’t accord with how we as queer people would like to be thought of, or even (more importantly) how we really “are,” whatever that means.  This cultural history is invaluable, even (most of all?) when it is most upsetting to confront, not because it acts as a mirror in which we may see our own real experience reflected back to us, but rather because it often shows us a distorted vision of ourselves.  Confronting these representations can be instructive for political and historical reasons; they can also be personally affecting.  I remember watching Tea and Sympathy for the first time over a year ago and being profoundly moved by it, even as I understood it to be predicated on a certain homophobic fantasy that many viewers might be inclined to simply dismiss as loathsome.  In brief, I think that queer critics—and even casual queer viewers—need to be less reluctant to engage with texts that they may find offensive.  In this sense I am in agreement with Heather Love, who has similarly argued for the value of keeping in touch with negative emotions and the problematic texts that stir them up.

A word about the title: my use of the term “the homosexual” is intended to be somewhat cheeky, a feint toward the psychoanalytic discourse of the early and mid-twentieth century that often attempted to explain homosexuality in terms of a single, imaginary figure, usually presumed male (“The homosexual need not always appear unattractive to women…”, etc.).  I like the idea of examining the characters in these films—each of whom is just as imaginary and constructed as the “real-life” figure known as “the homosexual”—in order to arrive at some deeper understanding of who we ourselves, as queer viewers and critics and thinkers, are.

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