There Has Been Blood: Horror-Comic Masculinity in The Walking Dead
David Greven / University of South Carolina

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Shocking Season 7 premier of The Walking Dead

The sense of grief and bewilderment many Americans have been feeling in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election and Donald Trump’s emergence as President-Elect was oddly prefigured by reactions to the premiere episode of The Walking Dead’s (AMC, 2010-present) (TWD) current and seventh season, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” The sixth season ended with a cliffhanger: the protagonists led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) are terrorized by Neegan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the leader of the nefarious Saviors, who wields a barbed-wire-covered baseball bat named “Lucille.” Prone to fanciful speech evocative of the elementary schoolyard (“pee-pee pants”), Neegan plays a game of “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” to decide which head of his kneeling captives to bash in. Knowledge of Neegan’s victim was withheld for the premiere, much to the vocal ire of fans. Neegan’s victim turns out to be the red-headed former military man Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). Known for his colorful cussing, Abraham spits out a defiant “Suck my nuts” after Neegan’s first blow. Killing off Abraham seemed like something of a safe choice, since he was not one of the original cast members. But then, after the renegade biker-tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold Darryl (Norman Reedus) attempts to strike back at the enemy, Neegan kills the beloved Glenn (Steven Yeun), an expectant father and one of the original cast members, as his wife Maggie (Lauren Cohan) looks on in indescribable horror. Glenn’s horrific death in the premiere — taken directly from the comic book series that inspired the television show — shocked and enraged both longtime viewers and commentators alike.

Cliff-hanger season finale of The Walking Dead Season 6

What was it about this episode that drew such fire, given the depressing, grim, and often graphically violent nature of this series, surely one of the most downbeat ever to air on television? Many complained about the graphic violence here as evidence that the series had finally gone too far, that television itself had gone too far. Other intensely violent scenes in the series’ history did not attract ire — for example, the nearly murderous fight scene between Michonne (Danai Gurira) and the main season three villain The Governor (David Morrissey), involving head-smashings and Michonne’s blinding of the Governor; the season four finale in which Rick, Michonne, Daryl, and Rick’s son Carl (Chandler Riggs) dispatch a gang holding them hostage, one of whom attempts to rape Carl, a brawl that climaxes in Rick biting into the neck of one of the gang members; the mass-killing in the Alexandria Safe Zone, led by the former Ohio congresswoman Deanna Monroe (Tovah Feldshuh), when the psychotic Wolves descend on Rick’s group and its allies.

An excellent critic, Matt Zoller Seitz, who has always been somewhat critical of the series, condemned the premiere’s “empty violence.” Comparing it unfavorably to the HBO medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding” episode, Seitz faulted TWD’s premiere for focusing on the preening and taunting Neegan and his sadism; he also likened the show’s methods to “a bat to the head. Whunk! Whunk! Whunk! Splat! Goooosh!” Brandon Katz, writing in Forbes, offers a similar critique couched in an analysis of the show’s declining ratings.

If the sixth season left one’s faith in the series a bit shaken, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” provided ample evidence of the show’s enduring relevance. This relevance once again proves to be the series’ depiction of American masculinity as a series of performance styles, a knowing and shifting masquerade. This is not to say that strong women characters have not been a crucial part of the series’ success — I would cite Carol (the great Melissa McBride), Michonne, and the too-short-lived congresswoman Deanna Monroe as stand-out examples. But TWD has been most significant as a critique of American masculinity that eerily evokes historical images and constructions of American manhood while offering insights into masculinity’s contemporary crisis-mode — what could be more relevant? “The Day Will Come,” for all of its obvious machinery, continues this pattern of incisive critique.

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American masculinity and queer subtext in The Walking Dead‘s Neegan

Neither of Neegan’s victims in “The Day Will Come” is typed as gay; indeed, Glenn is expecting a child with his wife Maggie, Abraham has moved from an affair with Rosita (Christian Serratos) to one with Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green). Yet there is ample queer subtext here in Neegan’s scary-funny characterization and his obsession with Rick, whom he seeks to humiliate, subjugate, and possess. Neegan, I argue, is the fulfillment of several years of over-the-top masculinity originating in the outrageous, transgressive teen gross-out comedies that peppered the late 1990s, most notably the American Pie films and their ilk, and extending to horror. Neegan recalls the anarchic, foul-mouthed, sexually provocative Stifler (Seann William Scott) in American Pie (Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz, 1999) and its sequels. Just as Stiffler torments the upstanding and reserved members of the male group that maintain an uneasy relationship with him, so, too, does Neegan harass Rick. This rivalry draws on the comic archetype of The Yankee versus the Backwoodsman, the effete intellectual versus the gleefully uncouth mountain man. The historical precedent for these male relationships is the cheerfully sadistic Brom Bones’ persecution of the solitary pedagogue Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving’s famous 1820 tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

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90s teen comedies and Apatow-style Beta Male humor embodied in American Pie‘s Stifler and Knocked Up‘s Seth Rogan

The scatological aspects of the late-90s teen comedies echo in Neegan’s language and antics, often both sophomore and sadistic at once. The 90s teen comedies ceded to the Beta Male comedies of the Judd Apatow school, which skewed older; the focus shifted to hapless twenty- and thirty-somethings who seemed left out by society yet, in their own sluggish and slapdash way, remained heroic. Neegan fuses these millennial and post-millennial modes of wayward masculinity—the arrested development of the teen comedies, the amusing anomie of the Beta Male—with the emergent, aggressive image of the white working-class male associated at present with the alt-right movement. Neegan’s grandiose narcissism, desire to intimidate, and especially his explicit misogyny align him with constructions of alt-right white males whose descriptions of the kind of woman they despise is best summed up in the phrase “basic bitch.”

Another aspect of TWD this season that resonates with trends extending from the 90s teen comedy to the Beta Male comedy and the bromance is a relentless gay-baiting. Homoerotic homophobia informs Neegan’s persecution and humbling of Rick, threats to and taunts about Rick’s manhood. For example, in the seventh season episode “Service,” Neegan and his crew arrive at the Alexandria Safe Zone earlier than planned, demanding the goods owed them and perusing the compound, taking what they please and intimidating the residents at will. Neegan stands so physically close to Rick that each man must have intimate knowledge of the other’s olfactory nature, and he informs Rick that he has “slipped my dick down your throat and you thanked me for it.” Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s devilishly comic performance intensifies the threatening homoeroticism in Neegan’s persona.

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Neegan and Rick: Too close for comfort?

In my previous Flow essay on the series, “The Walking Straight,” published at the start of the series’ second season, I critiqued the show for failing to include or imagine a gay/lesbian/queer presence on the series. TWD has certainly delivered on that front, now boasting several queer characters, including regular cast member Aaron (the wonderful Ross Marquand), part of a gay male couple in Alexandria, and Tara (Alanna Masterson), whose girlfriend Denise (Merritt Wever), a nervous physician slowly coming into her own, was controversially killed last season, joining several other prematurely killed-off TV lesbian characters. (No trans character has yet been introduced, however.) While a discrete study of the series’ queer characters, their treatment and what they bring to the narrative, is needed, I believe that TWD is to be commended for including a visible queer element. And characters such as Daryl, Morgan, Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and others, including Carol (who specifically refutes one character’s assumption that she’s a lesbian), remain suggestively ambiguous in terms of their sexuality.


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The Walking Dead‘s Queer Characters: Aaron and Tara

With the inclusion of the scary-funny Neegan, TWD continues its exploration of the styles of masculine performance, the inability to sustain a coherent performance of masculinity. The allegory of our current political situation in the seventh season premiere episode is unmistakable. The horror clown Neegan pulverizes two characters who represent the stakes of Trump-era politics, the angry white working class male (Abraham) and, among the gentlest of the group, the non-white male (Glenn). Neegan later stages a faux-Abraham and Isaac tableau by making Rick chop off his son Carl’s arm, only to stay the distraught father’s hand at the last possible moment. This is masculinity as a horror comedy, with Neegan as Lacan’s obscene father, toying with his minions and keeping the spoils for himself. TWD has not yet lost its relevance.

Image Credits:
1. Walking Dead Premier
2. Neegan
3. Stifler and Apatow Men
4. Queer Representation: Aaron and Tara

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Dexter, Straight Homosexuality, and the Normalization of the Psycho
David Greven / University of South Carolina


Dexter's ritualistic kill

Serial killer Dexter’s ritualistic murders of other serial killers

The hit Showtime series Dexter began in 2006 and will commence its eighth and final season in June 2013. Based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, the series stars Michael C. Hall, who was so memorable as David, the rigid, semi-closeted brother in a funeral home-family on the HBO series Six Feet Under, in the title role and Jennifer Carpenter as Dexter’s adoptive sister, Debra Morgan (“Deb”). The chief gimmick and hook of the series is that Dexter is a serial killer who kills other serial killers. Dexter’s day job as a forensic blood splatter analyst in the Miami Metro Police Department, leads him to investigate the crimes and the criminals by day that he punishes privately by night. On Dexter, crime is a family affair—Dexter’s detective sister Deb is the Captain of his department, and Dexter’s adoptive father, Harry (James Remar), was a cop who rescued the infant Dexter, crying in a pool of blood, from the scene of his mother’s brutal murder via chainsaw. (The frequent flashbacks of this event evoke both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scarface, which features a chainsaw shower murder). Harry, who appears here in ghostly flashbacks and as a figment of Dexter’s mind, as did the dead father on Six Feet Under, sensed early on—or did he himself implant?—Dexter’s killer instincts. Harry transforms his would-be serial killer son into a different kind of serial killer, one who kills other serial killers instead of innocent people (or animals, as the young Dexter had).

Evoking Hammurabi and the Bible, Harry’s Code, as Dexter calls it, governs his action. The Code dictates that Dexter may only kill an evil person who has himself murdered others. Further evoking the Biblical texts, such as Leviticus with its strict hygienic rules and sub-rules, Harry’s Code dictates the proper forms of killing and disposing of these vile bodies. Everything is stream-lined here, murder baroquely ritualized and pristine. Covered from the neck down in a tightly binding Saran Wrap-sarcophagus, the killer-victims lie on a table much like that in a doctor’s examining room, surrounded by the pictures Dexter has arrayed around them of their victims and of the brutal violence they inflicted. Forcing the killer to recognize, at once, his victims’ humanity and his own inhumanity precedes Dexter’s ritualistic murders of the culprits. With one fell, practiced swoop, he drives a long, silver blade into their hearts, invariably producing the odd effect of one stream of blood pooling on the plastic. This is murder as ritual sacrifice to the patriarchal gods still sternly, if ever more distantly, presiding over our fallen age (one episode in the seventh season made the link to classicism explicit with the killer-of-the-week’s Minotaur-like labyrinth); murder as theater, a staged and stylized tableau. Harry’s Code provides the last bastion of order and discipline in this chaotic present. Dexter is the dutiful son saved from his own perversity by adherence to the symbolic order.

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Dexter visited by the ghost of his adoptive father, Harry

As I have argued elsewhere, the 2000s have radically refashioned the chief image of non-normative masculinity in American media, the “Psycho.” Psychos like Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady in the 1962 Cape Fear or the cannibal psychiatrist serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) oppose normative structures like families, marriage, and middle-class morality. The Psychos of the first twenty-first century decade have not followed suit. Indeed, rather than stand as the enemy of the family and the normative, they have exuded a penchant for upholding family values, a disturbing trend for characters one might imagine to be vehemently opposed to either families or values. (( See David Greven, “American Psycho Family Values: Conservative Cinema and the New Travis Bickles,” Millennial Masculinity: Men in Contemporary American Cinema, ed. Timothy Shary (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012), 143-162. ))

Dexter is the exemplary Family Values Psycho. He maintains his most passionate relationship with his sister, Deb, and with his new family, his wife Rita (Julie Benz) and her children from a former marriage. (Rita was killed by the Trinity Killer, played superbly by John Lithgow, at the end of the fourth season; in the seventh season, Deb, an anguished silent partner made aware of her adoptive brother’s proclivities, has not only fallen in love with him but, by the end of the season, assisted him in one of his killings – a killing that violates Harry’s Code, at that.) One of the most affecting aspects of the first season of the series was its thematization of Dexter’s alienation, which Rita’s own—she had been in a physically and abusive relationship with her ex-husband, and in the first season seems as outwardly remote as Dexter claims to feel—deepened. As he describes in the noirish voiceovers that saturate each episode, he feels like someone with no feelings, and subsequently as someone who must perform his own humanness for others. More and more, these affecting aspects of the series have diminished, with Dexter becoming more and more human, especially, a loving father. Paradoxically, his warm parenting leads him to fall out of step with Harry’s Code, Harry appearing before Dexter to warn him against developing personal ties.

Dexter's sister, Deb

Dexter’s sister Deb, initially a moral center, ultimately compromised by her passion for Dexter

Dexter is a compelling series driven by the deft performance of Michael C. Hall in the lead and the raw, unrelenting emotional anguish of Jennifer Carpenter as Deb. Yet its popularity relies upon a grotesque hypocrisy, a desire to indulge in bloodletting while maintaining a veneer of do-gooder benevolence—the ultimate American fantasy. The various media phenomena spawned by the series, video games and chat rooms with names like “Dexter’s Disciples” and “Dexter’s Kill Room,” reveal far too much about the take-away lessons of the show.

The image of the serial killer as a monster depends upon mythologies of not only his potential for violence but also his sexual incompetence, blankness, or some other form of dysfunctionality, as the example of Dennis Rader, the infamous Kansan serial killer known as the BTK Killer, evinces. These aspects of the serial killer dovetail with cinematic representations of the killer in the slasher genre in particular, whose sexuality, as Carol J. Clover acutely observes, is problematic not because of its perversity but precisely because it cannot achieve functionality on any level. (( Writing about slasher films generally and Jonathan Demme’s film The Silence of the Lambs (1991) specifically, Carol J. Clover finds that “in the long and rich tradition in which he [Silence’s villain, Jame Gumb] is a member, the issue would appear to be not homosexuality and heterosexuality but the failure to achieve a functional sexuality of any kind.” See Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992), 233. )) Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the sexual dysfunction with which killer manhood is associated, broadly and historically speaking, in American culture finds a surprising rebuttal in Dexter.

Defying the Code

Dexter defying the father’s code but reclaiming his hard isolate stoic killer manhood

Dexter is initially presented in season one as sexually inviolate; his relationship with Rita is non-physical and, moreover, she herself, as a result of her abusive relationship with her ex-husband, finds sexuality traumatic. Yet Dexter and Rita do have sex—Dexter seems to be having it for the first time—and from there the series begins to present a radically different version of its protagonist. Far from being sexually dysfunctional, this lean, buffed, attractive, accessible serial killer whose efforts would appear to benefit the common good has no trouble at all, once he has sex with Rita for the first time, performing sexual intercourse, and goes on to do so, and with every indication of skill and success and also demonstrable arousal for both parties, with a variety of women throughout the series, ranging from the femme fatale English woman in the second season to the horribly abused Lumen in the fifth season. Lumen (Julia Stiles) was tortured and gang-raped by a group of male friends led, in their horrific abuse of women, by a self-help guru, the chief villain of the fifth season, whose ferocious male-empowerment mantra is “Take It!” In one scene, after Dexter and Lumen kill one of her attackers, they make love, as if the shared gift of murder has purged her of trauma and them of awkwardness. The gift of ecstatically functional sex rewards Dexter for his outlandish but socially beneficial form of serial killer justice. It’s almost as if serial killer energies, when directed toward the larger societal good, can produce a version of American white manhood that is more desirable, more functional, than many others out there.

To be fair to the series, its seventh season (2012) is an admirable attempt at a moral reckoning, far too late in coming but nevertheless admirable. It focuses on Captain María LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez)’s efforts to exonerate Doakes for Dexter’s crimes and to prove that Dexter is The Bay Harbor Butcher of Season 2. (In the first two seasons of the show, the second especially, Dexter’s nemesis is a black detective, Sergeant James Doakes, played Erik King, who senses that there is something not quite right about Dexter. Dexter imprisons Doakes at one point, but it is the raven-haired English woman who kills him.) In the shared murder, by Dexter and Deb, of LaGuerta in the final episode of the season (“Surprise, Motherfucker!” airdate December 16, 2012), the series finally took its own premise and the moral perfidy of its protagonist—which engulfs the once-morally-upright Deb—seriously. Dexter’s killings, Code-bound or not, are morally unjustifiable. Deb cannot participate in them without losing her soul in the process, no matter how malevolent the usual run of victims might be. In the killing of the inconvenient LaGuerta, Dexter and Deb both irredeemably cross the line even of the vigilante ethics that dominate the series.

Gay Sirko

Sirko, the gay villain of Season 7: Straight Homosexuality

The seventh season also does something actually quite rare for genre series – it features an explicitly gay character in a prominent role. The odd rapport between the deeply brutal but surprisingly eloquent and thoughtful Isaak Sirko, a Ukranian crime boss played by Ray Stevenson, and Dexter takes the series to a new level of probity in its analysis of the motivations for and the varieties of evil. Moreover, as played by Stevenson, Sirko, while the conventional gay-killer, also offers an unconventional version of this type, there being nothing stereotypically gay about his character. Indeed, Sirko’s love for a young man who also works for the crime ring is represented as his one redeeming feature. Before meeting Sirko, Dexter killed Sirko’s lover once he discovered that he had killed a young woman; Sirko vows to kill Dexter, but the two end up being unlikely allies and even something like friends, with Sirko offering Dexter caring advice about how to live life to the fullest before he dies.

Significantly, even though a bond develops between the gay Sirko and Dexter, there is no homoerotic tension between them whatsoever. Indeed, we never Sirko him with his handsome homicidal young lover, never see their interactions even in flashback, and only have the evidence of Sirko’s declarations of ardent love to go on. So, ultimately, even when homosexuality is explicitly represented in the series, it is an obscure phenomenon. Sirko, and the series handling of the character, exemplifies the new form of “straight homosexuality,” which represents a willingness to depict major characters as gay without typing them as anything other than heterosexual. The characters are gay in name only.

Brian Moser and Dexter

Shadow of a doubt: homoerotic intrigue and murderous brotherhood

As with so very many genre productions, however, implicit and coded and allegorical representations are a different matter. There is a palpable homoerotic tension in the series, and it chiefly emerges within the scenes of Dexter’s interactions with non-white men, like Doakes, who is, at once, justifiably and irrationally suspicious of Dexter; with Senior Assistant District Attorney Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits) in the third season, with whom Dexter believes, for a time, that he has forged his first real friendship; and, especially, Dexter’s biological older brother Brian Moser (alias Rudy Cooper, “The Ice Truck Killer,” played by the hypnotically handsome Christian Camargo), the main villain of the first season and Dexter’s dark double.

The almost aching homoeroticism of the relationship between Dexter and Brian Moser undergirds and deepens all of Dexter’s relationships with other men, especially non-white men. As played by Carmargo, Brian Moser (who returns in dream/fantasy form, like Dexter’s father, in a later season for one episode) also suggests an ethnic masculinity. (He resembles the Hispanic Steven Bauer, best known as Al Pacino’s right-hand man in Scarface). Given that Dexter is, among other things, a fantasy of a white male potency that can triumph over the perceived hyper-potency of the non-white—much like James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels featuring Natty Bumppo, his male Indian family, and his male Indian enemies—its homoerotically charged racialized masculinities and racial conflicts return us, as so many 2000s works do, to the earlier scene of American history, to Cooper’s vision of a white American masculinity that rejects sex in favor of what Leslie Fiedler called the true marriage of males, the interracial union of a white man and a non-white man that represents a break (for the white male) from the demands of the private sphere of woman, family, and the home. In Dexter, however, Cooper’s model is radically renovated. Dexter successfully achieves functional heterosexual desire and prowess early on in the series.

Straight homosexuality allows for the representation of gay characters without the complexities and difficulties of introducing non-heterosexual characters into often quite heterosexist narratives would entail. It also allows interactions between male characters to be tinged with, even steeped in, homoerotic “tension”—as the scenes between Dexter and his serial-killer brother Brian Moser are—without there being any real threat of homosexual “behavior.” As I discussed in my Flow article on The Walking Dead, we have entered a new era of homoerotically charged but resolutely heterosexist depictions of masculinity, heterosexist in that the males are always presented as unquestionably heterosexual because the question of queer desire can be broached. (It is inconceivable that any of the male protagonists of series like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, or Dexter could ever have their heterosexuality questioned.) Straight homosexuality allows a series to register and acknowledge the undeniable, visible presence of queer sexuality in our current moment without succumbing to its apparent seductions.

Image Credits:

1. Dexter’s ritualistic kill
2. Harry’s Ghost
3. Dexter’s sister, Deb
4. Defying the Code
5. Gay Sirko
6. Brian Moser and Dexter

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Strike Through the Mask: Male Faces, Masculinity, and Allegorical Queerness in Breaking Bad
David Greven / University of South Carolina

Inter-generational styles of masculinity

Breaking Bad serves up contrasting and inter-generational styles of masculinity, which converge in a fantasy of masculine violence.

In my previous Flow column, I discussed the AMC television series The Walking Dead (2010-present) and the lack of queer representation on this series as well genre television shows as a whole. I also suggested that an allegorical queerness informs The Walking Dead, one that principally emerges, or takes the form, of a denatured, destabilized straight male identity. The lack of queer representation is counterbalanced—but neither addressed nor exculpated by—the queering of straight masculinity.

This essay and the previous one flow out from my current book project (in process), Ghost Faces, a study of masculinity in contemporary film and television. Post-millennial masculinity is informed by several factors. Chief amongst these is the extraordinary visibility of queer sexuality, and of alternative and non-normative sexualities and gender identities, that inform the current moment. The genealogy of this visibility can be dated back to the early 1990s and the emergence of the term “queer” itself; once a term of homophobic abuse and now a re-appropriated rallying cry for a new kind of gay and lesbian identity that, to begin with, eschewed the terms “gay” and “lesbian” in favor of queer and its multivalent possibilities and affiliations. Masculinity of the present reflects the remarkable shifts in the gender and sexual domain; straight masculinity must now always proceed from the basis of an undeniable awareness of queer life, not only of its existence but also its open, energetic, heady display. Along with queer visibility, the rise of post-feminism (a decidedly ambiguous term) has radically reshaped conventional masculinity. Sex and the City-style female sexual consumerism has made men—male bodies in particular—sexual commodities, on constant display and ripe for delectation. The image of the heterosexual male both reflects market concerns and the wide-scale broadening of the desiring gaze. (Steven Soderberg’s 2012 male stripper movie Magic Mike and Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), notable for its display of the full-frontal male nudity of its star Michael Fassbender in the early scenes, amply reflects the attention to both female and gay male audiences. Sadly, neither of these films is particularly good or progressive.)

Death's Head Turtle

Danny Trejo’s head on a death’s head turtle: a parody of masculine violence

I argue that film and television works have made the Male Face a metaphorical canvas for these shifts and their attendant anxieties. One particularly resonant image of masculinity recurs often in the films of the 2000s: a male face that has been rendered distorted or otherwise altered, that signifies either blank impenetrability or fiendish, mocking cruelty. The strange, uncanny, twisted, or denatured male face, indelibly figured in the first Scream (1996) film, prominently emblazons such films as Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001), with its protagonist’s encounter with both his own face and that of a nightmarish, leering rabbit-man; 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002), with its protagonist’s alternately triumphant and self-hectoring rant in the mirror, a sustained encounter between himself and his reflection; The 40 Year Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, 2005), with its climactic close-up of its protagonist, now triumphantly post-orgasmic (Steve Carell), right before he bursts into song (to celebrate the resolution of the narrative problem signaled by the title, he sings “The Age of Aquarius”; all of the other main male characters sing portions of the song as well in an extended musical sequence; Catherine Keener as the woman who ends the forty years of sexual solitude is notably absent from the singing, perhaps indicating that she has little reason to celebrate herself and that her main function has now been accomplished); Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011), with a revelation that its protagonist is, in actuality, little more than just a face; Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake, aforementioned; Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011), which not only focuses intently on Ryan Gosling’s impassive but intensely intense facial expression but also tropes the idea of masculinity as a mask, literally representing the criminal protagonist, a stunt double among other occupations, wearing a mask, and not just for diegetically justified reasons; and Magic Mike, which figures its protagonist’s “turn” toward a moral and properly heterosexual life (i.e., a life in which he is no longer a male stripper for female audiences, and certainly not for gay male audiences, never shown in the film) through a sustained close-up of his face, his expression at once aghast and resolved. Television also makes use of the face as shifting symbol of masculinities, as I will attempt to show in a reading of the AMC series Breaking Bad (2008-present). What’s behind the face as a symbol for men? Especially when we consider that it is the woman’s face that, throughout film history, has been not only the cinematic face, but the figural representation of the cinema itself? (( First, we think of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) championing the silent era of which she was a legendary star: “We didn’t need words—we had faces.” Clearly, it is Norma Desmond’s hypnotic face, in the film clips of her days as a young and lovely silent star and in her present hypnotic spectacle of theatrically defiant older age, that embodies the force of this line. Then there is the long, long close-up of Greta Garbo at the end of Queen Christina. One of the first film books I ever bought was called They Had Faces Then, a study of the classic Hollywood star. It focused exclusively on women’s faces. ))

Gus Fring

Gus Fring represents a new kind of villain: the ethnic killer dandy, a clinically neat, polished, murderous immigrant

On Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston), having been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, gets involved in the drug trade with a former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), ostensibly in order to ensure his family’s comfortable financial future. A chemistry genius, Walter creates an especially desirable and lucrative form of methamphetamine. A formidable villain introduced in the second season and dispatched in the fourth, Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) hides his drug-trade empire behind his establishment-identity as the owner of a successful chain of fried-chicken fast-food restaurants (Los Pollos Hermanos). Poised, polished, and extremely precise, Gus wears immaculate corporate-casual clothing at work and immaculate business suits when interviewed by increasingly suspicious detectives; he looks every inch the exemplary manager as he presides over his various stores, smiling in avuncular fashion at his ethnically diverse employees as he instructs them in chicken-frying techniques. The character, “a Chilean national,” would appear to represent a fading, Old World-South American gravitas and dignity. At the same time, the character is an emotional blank, able to stab one of his errant employees in the neck with unblinking, silent efficiency as Walter and Jesse gape in terror.

In the fourth season, however, Gus is humanized in an unexpected and jarring manner. Associated with nebulous crimes in his native country that make him notorious to those in the know, he emigrates to Mexico in 1989 and after that to the United States. Transplanted to the more colorfully explosive Mexico-drug-world, Gus and his South American gravitas stands out. Mexico is always contrasted in this matter against the region in which the series is principally set, the alternately suburban and desert-strewn Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gus emerges as an index of these loaded, potentially racist, certainly conventional regional and social distinctions. As a symbolic character, Gus seems meant to convey both racial-ethnic loss and mourning —the pains of immigration, assimilation, and self-made multicultural identity—and a new type of murderous menace, the ethnic killer dandy, a clinically neat, polished, murderous immigrant. (This type is analogous to the explosively violent black male intellectual, as I have discussed elsewhere. (( For an analysis of the figure of the violent black male intellectual, see Chapter 5, “The Seething Skin,” 97-117, in Greven, Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek: Allegories of Desire in the Television Series and Films (McFarland, 2009). )) )

Queer Gus

Regeneration through violence in a genre setting–the queer Gus has access to violent male potency

Exemplifying his conformance to a working-class-immigrant version of classic American self-made-man values, Gus’s taciturn, compact elegance comes to suggest a kind of wordless mourning over his cultural displacement. If his backstory evokes the trope of racial passing, what is interesting is the extent to which it also suggests a narrative of sexual passing. Though he frequently, in conversations with his employee Walter, talks about the importance of family, Gus is never shown with one. Gus emphasizes, in his rigid words about duty to one’s family, what a man must do. “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.” (( Amanda Lotz discussed this scene as well in her insightful paper “We Must Be Outlaws: The Unbearable Burden of Straight White Men,” on what she calls the new cable television “male-centered drama,” given at the American Studies Association Annual Conference. San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2012. I was on this panel, “Mediating Masculine Hegemony in the Modern American Empire,” along with Lotz, Brenda Weber, and Anna Froula, who organized it. ))

As his backstory reveals, Gus’s maintained his closest emotional tie to a young, gifted drug-maker he discovered and adopted in Chile; this young male protégé is killed, in a flashback scene, before Gus’s eyes during a meeting with a rival Mexican drug-kingpin named Don Eladio (played by Steven Bauer, who, not incidentally, played Al Pacino’s best friend in Brian De Palma’s 1983 film Scarface. Tony Montana ends up killing his best friend, the clearest sign that he has hit his lowest point). Gus is shown to be uncharacteristically devastated by the young man’s murder, which appears to motivate Gus’s serious turn to crime, violence, and vengeance. Don Eliado’s henchman, Héctor “Tio” Salamanca (Mark Margolis), a villain from a previous seasons, dispatches Gus’s “partner,” a word used here, I would argue, for its gay associations. Gus’s love for his young murdered partner doubles key aspects of the Walter-Jesse relationship, blurring the oedipal and the homoerotic.

To add to the homoerotic valences of Gus’s “back story,” Héctor pisses in a swimming pool before Don Eliado appears, and contemptuously—or flirtatiously?—sneers at Gus for “liking what he sees.” In the present action of the series, the aged, ruined Héctor, who cannot speak, reduced to wordless if rabid rage, sits in his wheelchair in a nursing home, able to move only one finger, which he uses to tap on a bell to signal his needs. He must endure endless visits from the now middle-aged Gus, who consistently tortures the old man with news of the assassinations, at Gus’s vengeful hand, of Héctor’s various family members.

The Male Face

The Male Face as metaphor: with half of his face blown off, the fastidious villain is still keeping up appearances

Given the large number of thematic valences that attend his character—the possibilities of racial and sexual passing, the contrast between Old World and New, exemplified by Gus’s natty fashions in contrast to Walter’s plain, nondescript ones—the means of Gus’ expulsion from the narrative are just as interesting as every other aspect of his characterization. Working with the elderly drug-criminal Héctor, who once tried to have him and Jesse killed but who is more deeply Gus’s hated rival, Walter rigs it so that the Gus is blown up in the old man’s room in his nursing home. (The bomb is attached to the bell that the old man taps until the bomb explodes.) After the explosion, Gus walks with dignity through the swirling smoke. Standing outside the room, he readjusts his tie and regains his composure, as if the exploded bomb were a squirt of ketchup on his clothes. The camera pans from left to right—and when it does, we see the harrowing aftermath of the explosion on Gus. The right side of his face has been blown off, leaving only sinew and bone. Gus then collapses to his death. This episode, the last of season four, is aptly titled “Face-Off.” These instances of face-focused masculinity—no doubt film-goers and television viewers can cull several more, and I am not even referring here to the innumerable relevant males of the comic book genre, masked and otherwise—reveal something about the analogies genre film and television make between male personas, faces, and the senses of horror, violence, and ambivalence.

Image Credits:

1. Inter-generational styles of masculinity
2. Death’s Head Turtle
3. Gus Fring
4. Queer Gus
5. The Male Face

Please feel free to comment.




The Walking Straight: Queer Representation in The Walking Dead
David Greven / University of South Carolina

Male-male intimacy

Male-male intimacy on The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead, a thrilling, somber zombie show that is AMC’s biggest ratings draw, presents an image of a bleak zombie heartland America in which very few human being exist. Overrun by the titular creatures, this America is mostly empty and depopulated, barren, a vast, sprawling, and desolate landscape. In the second season episode “18 Miles Out,” the dark, hotheaded Shane (Jon Bernthal) stares out from a car window at an immense field in which one solitary walker makes his lurching way; on the way back, Shane sees the same zombie, still moving in the same indefatigable and hopeless manner. The cyclical, neverending hunger and blankness of the zombie is once again an apt metaphor for a mindlessly consumerist America, recalling George A. Romero’s great bleak satire Dawn of the Dead (1978).

The zombies here are also a metaphor for a new and profound—stemming from 9/11, no doubt, and George W. Bush’s Presidency, certainly—social disillusionment in the nation. The entire second season was about the loss of a child, a young girl named Sophia, the search for whom was also clearly a metaphor for the search for hope. She turns out to have been under the noses of the protagonists the entire time—what remains of hope lives in a barn, and is a zombie child.

Nevertheless, for all of its fairly intensely sustained bleakness, The Walking Dead is primarily about survival and the creation of new kinds of social arrangements. The main characters of the series—and for the most part, despite the inevitable deaths, most of these have remained on the show—are, generally, former strangers who have forged new and unshakable bonds due to the mayhem. While arguments and tensions abound, the group of survivors whose plight we follow are a remarkably tight-knit group, a motley crew that recalls the stock 1940s bomber movie, consisting of recognizable “types.” These types also evoke conventional tropes of the Western genre, which The Walking Dead emulates at every turn, very much a key example of what Robert B. Ray has called “the concealed Western.”

To get to my thesis right away, The Walking Dead painstakingly represents different racial and ethnic, religious and cultural types. While its track record on African American characters is wobbly, the current season features the potentially spectacular presence of the black woman warrior Michonne (Danai Gurira), a legendary character from the comic books who wields a sword and walks around with two zombie slaves literally attached to her hip (clearly, a volatile piece of representation that will need continued attention). While the show’s track record on strong women characters is generally hit or miss, they have certainly been present. The series also features an Asian-American in a prominent role, the Steven Yeun’s hot-rodding Glenn.

Glenn

Glenn, played by Steven Yeun

What the series does not have in any way, shape, or form is an explicitly queer character. Given that the zombie genre often presents its survivor heroes as a representative swath of humanity, the omission of any queer characters is somewhat surprising and certainly disappointing.

Many Westerns privilege the family as the chief social structure, and show this family as threatened, endangered, torn asunder. At the same time, the narrative strives to restore the family. Marriage emerges as a key structuring principle in this regard, being what leads to family and remains at its center and allows it to function. As Laura Mulvey has shown, using John Ford’s classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) as the model, the Western often pits a terrible villain against two heroes; one hero is a loner who maintains ties to the land and goes his own way, while the other is idealistic, socially conscientious, upstanding, and married. (( Mulvey, Laura. “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946).” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New York UP, 1999. 122-131. ))

The Walking Dead replicates this structure fairly closely, if we read the zombies as the terrible villain, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a small-town sheriff who now uneasily leads his group of survivors, as the upstanding family man who embodies the law, and Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), who had been Rick’s police officer-partner, as the increasingly turbulent loner. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s classic paradigm of triangulated desire applies here beautifully, as both men war over one woman. This woman, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), Rick’s wife and mother to their son Carl (Chandler Riggs), is an interesting, tough-minded character in her own right, widely disliked by the fanbase but, in my view, an appealingly idiosyncratic presence.

When Rick was believed dead (he had been shot right before the zombie crisis began by a would-be prisoner, and Shane blames himself both for the shooting and for leaving Rick in the hospital, now overrun by zombies, to die), Shane protected Lori and Carl, and with them eventually joined the survivors we get to know. Rick, not dead after all, eventually meets up with Shane, Lori, and Carl; it is not until the second season and a great deal of anxious, brooding handwringing that Lori finally tells Rick about the affair that she had with Shane when they all believed Rick had died. By this point, Rick and Shane are no longer friends but close to enemies; by season two’s end, Shane tries to kill Rick, but Rick kills him instead.

All monsters are queer metaphors, to one degree or another, existing as they do outside the social order and persecuted by it. One could read the zombies as the queer element of The Walking Dead, a group of society’s rejected and disenfranchised. Moreover, once bitten by a zombie, you become one, which might be read as a variation on the theme of the corrupting influence of the predatory homosexual.

Rick

Rick, the embodiment of the law

I am going to argue that what makes The Walking Dead a queer show is its queering of masculinity, specifically the character of the aptly named Shane, who recalls the loner hero of the classic Western. The most highly charged dimensions of The Walking Dead along queer lines are now no longer part of it, of course, since Shane was killed off at the end of season two. Especially as played by Bernthal, Shane as well as the Rick-Shane relationship and the triangulated desire for Lori, are all rendered in a suggestive manner for queer interpretation. As Bernthal plays him, Shane, emotionally volatile, dark, hirsute, wiry, has a palpable carnal edge and edginess, an almost overripe sensuality within his muscled physique and his ardent, angry, embattled personality.

As I have argued elsewhere, masculinity in contemporary film and television is usually represented as a split between two heroes, “double protagonists,” one of whom is a narcissist, the other a masochist. (( Greven, Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009). )) Shane is the narcissist here, morally upright and troubled, Rick the masochist. But in many ways these roles bleed into each other, as well; certainly, Shane comes to seem quite masochistic as well as he pines for the increasingly remote (though later troubled and lovelorn) Lori.

What we have in The Walking Dead, then, is a resolutely non-queer show in terms of content that has some deeply queer elements in formal terms that include acting styles. The Walking Dead is an exemplary instance of the queering of masculinity that has characterized male representation in the past two decades.

This queering of masculinity is a subtle but palpable one. For example, in the opening shots of “Save the Last One” (2.3), written by Scott M. Gimple and directed by Phil Abraham (original airdate October 30, 2011), a shirtless Shane stares at himself in the mirror, and proceeds to shave off his hair. This episode reveals that Shane killed Otis, a member of the farmhouse community that the survivors join in the second season.

Shane and Otis

Otis’ death with Shane

The killing of Otis is both terrifying and a moral muddle. On a deer-hunting mission, Otis accidentally shot Carl; Shane and Otis volunteer to go to the high school, overrun by zombies, where a medical team had been set up and medical supplies, such as a respirator for the dying Carl, might still be found. As will be revealed by episode’s end, Shane, limping from a fall, and Otis, medical supplies in hand, are desperately fleeing from hordes of zombies when Shane decides to shoot Otis and thereby both save himself and Carl, Otis’s body serving as a distraction to the zombies that allows Shane to escape and also to bring back the supplies.

The scene of Shane shaving is the aftermath to the killing of Otis but the start of “Save the Last One.” As the start, it casts a queer light over the entire episode, which includes a scene between the the main heterosexual couple, Rick and Lori, in which they debate if children belong in this world any longer. The series usually begins with a prologue that is then followed by the opening credits of the series each week. This episode’s version of the prologue is entirely dedicated to the scene of Shane’s saving, but an entire discourse of Shane’s character and relationship to the other characters and to the series is created through montage.

First, there is a shot of a showerhead from which water spews that seems to be turned on without the agency of human hands. There is then a shot of a framed mural, a scene of an idyllic country setting with the words, “Wherever you wander, wherever you roam, be happy and healthy and glad to come home.” There is a shot of bloodied overalls on a toilet seat, with a gun resting on top of them. Then, we get intimate shots of the backside and arms of a muscular strong man, and see him shaving off his hair with a razor. It is revealed that the man doing the shaving is Shane.

The shot of the showerhead, at this point, cannot fail to remind the audience of Psycho (1960) and of the bathing and soon to be murdered Marion Crane. If Hitchcock’s legendary scene is a shockingly stylized representation of horrible violence, it is also a sexually charged scene that derives its transgressive allure, especially for its era, from the promise of seeing a beautiful young woman in the flesh. One also thinks of Brian De Palma’s frequent variations on the scene. Here, though, there is no beautiful young woman, but, instead, a hot dark muscled guy with a brooding intensity, alone. The mural with its homespun design and saying is an ironic counterpoint to the scenes of zombie mayhem all around the characters, from which the farmhouse seems like a respite. But it also provides a counterbalance to the strange, sultry, threatening presence of Shane, emphasizing his outlier status in the cozy heterosexual familial world.

The shot of the bloodied, removed clothing on the toilet seat alerts us to the fact that someone has disrobed, while the gun on top of them signals murderous phallic potency. Someone is naked and loaded. When we do see that it is Shane in the mirror, there is an odd effect created by the fact that he is breathing heavily and audibly. I would argue that altogether the scene has a masturbatory intensity and evokes autoerotic self-regard.

Shane in Mirror

Shane looks at self in mirror

Clearly, a great deal more needs to be said about this episode, to say nothing of the series and of the question of queer representation. To emphasize Shane’s almost pansexual allure, he is paired up with Otis, who in physical terms makes for a striking contrast. Otis is portly, shambling, not conventionally attractive, and not athletic, as he informs Shane openly when they try to escape from the zombie-packed school gym. There is a similar maneuver in Lasse Hallström’s Casanova (2005), starring Heath Ledger and the titular seducer. Either to emphasize—or to diminish and thereby render safe—the immense sexual charge of Ledger in the role, the film pointedly juxtaposes the seductively handsome Casanova against a wealthy man from Genoa, Paprizzio (Oliver Platt), whose vast girth and physical unattractiveness are emphasized repeatedly. I would argue that such physical mismatchings are designed to quell the homoerotic tension that might be made too apparent in male-male pairings.

At the same time, the relationship between Shane and Rick, a handsome man in distinct ways, deepened by the theme of triangulation, is another potentially site for queer pleasure in the series. Other characters, shown to be variously solitary and cut off from the group as well, such as Laurie Holden’s Andrea and, especially, Norman Reedus’s Daryl Dixon, a fan favorite, are potentially readable as queer. While Andrea and Shane hook up at some point, Daryl has never been shown to be motivated by sexual interest in any other character, including Sophia’s mother, Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), who clearly feels for Daryl. In the opening episode of season three, their flirtation is brought up but is largely played for laughs and left notably non-committal.

For now, let me suggest that The Walking Dead is in keeping with genre shows generally in having no queer characters. Shows as varied as Star Trek, Alias, Fringe, Smallville, and Breaking Bad never feature queer characters. What they do at times feature is queer allegory and stylization and the destabilization of gender roles. The questions to raise are why queer genders are so prevalent in genre shows, and is this queering of gender sufficient in the absence of anything more explicit?

Image Credits:

1. Male-male intimacy on The Walking Dead
2. Glenn, played by Steven Yeun
3. Rick, the embodiment of the law
4. Otis’ death with Shane
5. Shane looks at self in mirror

Please feel free to comment.