Pixarvolt – Animation and Revolt

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

Over the Hedge

Over the Hedge

In contemporary animated feature films for kids, a genre I call “pixarvolt” — meaning animated movies depending upon pixar technologies of animation rather than standard linear animation and foregrounding the themes of revolution and transformation — certain topics which would never ever appear in adult films are central to the success and emotional impact of the narrative. The Pixarvolt films proceed by way of fairly conventional narratives about individual struggle, but they use the individual character only as a gateway to intricate stories of collective action, anti-capitalist critique, group bonding and alternative imaginings of community, space, embodiment and responsibility.

In the one recent film, Over The Hedge by Dreamworks, just for example, the film stages a dramatic stand off between some woodland creatures and their new junk food consuming, pollution spewing, SUV driving, trash producing, water wasting, anti-environmentalist human neighbors. As the creatures awake from their winter hibernation, they discover that while they were sleeping, a soulless suburban development stole their woodland space and the humans have erected a huge partition or hedge to fence them out. The creatures, raccoons and squirrels, porcupines and skunks, turtles and bears, band together in a cross-species alliance to destroy the colonizers, tear down the partition and to upend the suburbanites depiction of them as “vermin.” We only see the humans through the eyes of the woodland creatures and, as in countless other animated features, the humans look empty, lifeless and inert – in fact, unanimated. Over The Hedge (OTH) like other films in the Pixarvolt genre makes animation itself into a feature of kinetic political action rather than just an elaborate form of puppetry. The human and non-human then are featured as animated and unanimated rather than real and constructed or subjects and objects. The band of creatures in OTH make up a complex compendium of the non-human and they even feature a Hegelian possum who plays dead when in danger and explains to his daughter wisely: “Playing possum is what we do. We die so we may live!” Ultimately, this children’s feature offers more in the way of a vision of collective action than most independent films and critical theory put together and the film’s conclusion points to queer alliance, queer space and queer temporalities as the answers to the grim inevitability of reproductive futurity and suburban domesticity.

A short list of films that I would feature in my pixavolt genre would include: Finding Nemo, Shrek 1 and 2, Chicken Run, Babe, Wallace and Gromit, Spongebob Squarepants, Monsters Inc. and Over the Hedge. It would not include The Incredibles, Toy Story, Madagascar or Chicken Little. In the Pixavolt flicks, animated animals or odd animated human-like subjects, like Spongebob, or animated animals like Gromit who live with animated humans like Wallace, all transform our understanding of relationality, morality and social change by inhabiting worlds where common sense leads not to home-owning, or family values, or individualistic aspiration but rather the Pixavolt world is comprised of a strangely radical combination of socialist and anarchist notions mixed with odd translations of ‘animal values.’ The chickens in Chicken Run, a matriarchal group for the most part, recognize that they are not only the labor on the Tweedy farm but soon to be the product; the fish in Finding Nemo understand that the dangers of the deep are less the sharks than the fishermen; Spongebob and his buddy Patrick take on the greedy entrepreneur on the ocean’s bed; the monstrous and pathetic rejected fairytale characters in Shrek form a refugee camp outside Shrek’s swamp and so on.

Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo

Not all animated features fit the Pixarvolt bill. And so a film like The Incredibles builds its story around the supposedly heroic pathos of male mid-life crisis and invests in an Ayn Randian or scientologist notion of the special people who must not suppress their difference in order to fit in with the drab masses; the very recently released Happy Feet, similarly casts its lot in with individualism and makes a heroic figure out of the dancing penguin who cannot fit in with his sick-making, sentimentalist, heart song singing community…at first. Eventually, of course, the community expands to incorporate him but they, sadly, learn valuable lessons along the way about the importance of every single one of the rather uniform penguins learning to “be themselves.” Of course, if the penguins really were being “themselves,” that is penguins, they would not be singing Earth Wind and Fire songs in blackface as they do in the movie, and searching for soul mates, they would be making odd squawking noises and settling down for one year with one mate and then moving on!

Spongebob & Patrick

Spongebob & Patrick

In Over The Hedge, and other Pixavolts, desire for difference is not connected to a neo-liberal “be yourself” mentality or to special individualism for “incredible” people, rather, the Pixarvolt films connect individualism to selfishness, to untrammeled consumption and they oppose it with a collective mentality. Two thematics can transform a potential Pixarvolt film into a tame and conventional cartoon: family and romance. The Pixavolt films, unlike their un-revolting conventional animation counterparts, seem to know that their main audience is children and they seem to also know that children do not invest in the same things that adults invest in: children are not coupled, they are not romantic, they do not have a religious morality, they are not afraid of death, they are collective creatures, they are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents and they are not the masters of their domain. Children stumble, bumble, fail, fall, hurt; they are mired in difference, not in control of their bodies, not in charge of their lives and they live according to schedules not of their own making. The Pixavolt films offer the child an animated world of triumph for the little guys, a revolution against the business world of the father and the domestic sphere of the mother – in fact, very often, the mother is simply dead and the father is enfeebled (as in Robots, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and Over The Hedge). Gender in these films is shifty and ambiguous (transsexual fish in Finding Nemo, other-species-identified pig in Babe); sexualities are amorphous and polymorphous (the homoerotics of Spongebob and Patrick’s relationship and of Wallace and Gromit’s domesticity); class is clearly marked in terms of labor and species diversity and bodily ability is quite often at issue (Nemo’s small fin, Shrek’s giganticism). While recent animations tend to be all too unrevolting (see aforementioned Happy Feet but also Flushed Away), the genre itself seems to have made a commitment to the quirky, the rebellious and the queer and while Happy Feet danced the new penguin chic all the way to the bank, perhaps there’s another grim and less cheery animation in the making, one where dancing penguins give way to more of the unsettling and perverse animal narratives that we have come to love and trust.

Images

1. Over the Hedge

2. Finding Nemo

3. Spongebob & Patrick

Please feel free to comment.




Modern Love?

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

A Trainer with his Student

A Trainer with his Student

Every Sunday when my New York Times arrives, I tell myself that this week I will not read the column that always, but always drives me crazy. I read the whole newspaper making a careful detour around the Style section but then, every week, having promised myself not to, I turn to the hideous weekly commentary on “Modern Love.” This column records the ups and downs, the byroads and hidden paths of contemporary romance for urban, mostly white, mostly heterosexual men and women. Time after time, a young or middle-aged writer/lawyer/doctor/researcher will write about a recent experience with a spouse/partner/girl-friend/boy-friend/ex that shakes the writer’s faith in modern love but that ultimately confirms the rightness, the unmitigated decency, the oh-so human foibles of hetero intimacy. A boyfriend may be arrogant, self-centered, ungenerous; a husband might stray, pray or be gay; a girlfriend may be too critical, too self-deprecating, castrating; a wife may ail, fail or assail. But at the end of the day, the irresistible course of true love flows directly from trouble and confusion to understanding, new found depths of connection, marriage, kids and wholly unsurprising forms of family.

In recent weeks then, a hetero male has told of the girlfriend who tried to make him hipper by shopping with him; a second marriage in which the second husband is haunted by the first; a former wife coming to terms with her former husband’s homosexuality; a straight woman who falls in love with a gay man; a heartbroken straight woman who learns a lesson in modern love from her plumber, and so on. Week after week the disappointments, the regrets, the conflicts are countered by the unexpected surprises, the joy, the depth of commitment that rewards those who wait and believe and invest in the fantasy of modern, heterosexual love. This is a triumphant narrative, a heroic narrative, and it is one completely at odds with the harsh realities of today’s world of divorce and separation. The column, in short, is propaganda for heteronormativity. Let’s see how this works.

In one of the most popular ever of the “Modern Love” columns, “What Shamu Taught Me About A Happy Marriage,” Amy Sutherland describes how she adapted animal training techniques that she had learned at Sea World for use at home on her husband. As I said, while the “Modern Love” column purports to offer a location for the diverse musings of postmodern lovers on the peculiarities of modern love, it is actually a primer for adult heterosexuality. Occasionally, a gay man or a lesbian will write about his or her normative liaison, its ups and downs, and will plea for the right to become “mature” through marriage, but mostly the column is dedicated to detailing, in mundane and banal intricacy, the roller-coaster ride of bourgeois heterosexuality and its supposed infinite variety and elasticity. The typical “Modern Love” article will begin with a complaint, usually and predictably a female complaint about male implacability, but as we approach the end of the piece, resolution will fall from the sky in the manner of a divine vision, and the disgruntled partner will quickly see that the very thing that she found irritating about her partner is also the very thing that makes him…well, him! That is, unique, flawed, human and lovable.

Sutherland’s essay is true to form and after complaints about her beloved husband’s execrable domestic habits, she settles upon a series of training techniques for him by placing him within a male taxonomy:

“The exotic animal known as Scott is a loner, but an alpha male. So hierarchy matters, but being in a group doesn’t so much. He has the balance of a gymnast, but moves slowly, especially when getting dressed. Skiing comes naturally, but being on time does not. He’s an omnivore, and what a trainer would call food-driven.”i

The resolution of the problem of “Scott” in this instance depends upon the hilarious scenario within which Sutherland brings her animal training techniques home and puts them to work on her recalcitrant mate. Using methods that are effective on exotic animals, Sutherland manages her husband with techniques ranging from a reward system for good behavior to a studied indifference to bad behavior. Amazingly, the techniques work and, what’s more, she learns along the way that not only is she training her husband, but her husband, being not only adaptable and malleable but also intelligent and capable of learning, has started to use animal training techniques right back on his wife. Modern marriage, the essay concludes in line with the “modern love” ideology, is an exercise in simultaneous evolution with each mate adjusting slightly to the quirks and foibles of the other, never blaming the structure, trying not to turn on each other and ultimately triumphing by staying together no matter what the cost.

Amusing as Sutherland’s article may be, it is also a stunning example of how, as Laura Kipnis puts it in Against Love, we maneuver around “the large, festering contradictions at the epicenter of love in our time.” And as Kipnis’s book argues, we tend to blame each other or ourselves for the failures of the social structures we inhabit rather than critiquing the structures (like marriage) themselves. Indeed, so committed are we to these cumbersome structures and so lazy are we about coming up with alternatives to them that we bolster our sense of the rightness of heteronormative coupledom by drawing on animal narratives in order to place ourselves back in some primal and “natural” world. Sutherland, for example, happily casts herself and Scott as exotic animals in a world of exotic animals and their trainers; of course, the very idea of the “exotic,” as we know from all kinds of postcolonial theories of tourism and orientalism, depends upon an increasingly outdated notion of the domestic, the familiar and the known, all of which come into being by positing a relation to the foreign, the alien and the indecipherable. Not only does Sutherland domesticate the fabulous variation of the animals she is studying by making common cause with them, she also exoticizes the all too banal setting of her own domestic dramas and in the process, she reimposes the boundary between the human and non-human.

A Family Shares a Kiss

A Family Shares a Kiss

The essay as a whole contributes to the ongoing manic project of the re-naturalization of heterosexuality and the stabilization of relations between men and women. And yet, Sutherland’s piece, humor and all, for all of its commitments to the human, remains in a creative debt to the intellectually imaginative work by Donna Haraway in Primate Visions; Haraway, of course, reversed the relations of looking between primatologists and the animals they studied and reminded us that, first, the primates look back and second, that the stories we tell are much more about humans than animals. She wrote: “Especially western people produce stories about primates while simultaneously telling stories about the relations of nature and culture, animal and human, body and mind, origin and future.”ii Similarly, people who write in the “Modern Love” column for the NYT, these vernacular anthropologists of romance, produce stories about animals in order to locate heterosexuality in its supposedly natural setting. And in Sutherland’s essay, the casting of women and men in the role of trainer and animals also refers indirectly to Haraway’s reconceptualization of the relationship between humans and dogs in her Companion Species Manifesto.iii While the earlier cyborg manifesto had productively questioned the centrality of the notion of a soft and bodily, anti-technological “womanhood” to an idealized construction of the human, the later manifesto decentralizes the human altogether in its account of the relationship between dogs and humans – and refuses to accept the common wisdom about the dog-human relationship. For Haraway, the dog is not a representation of something about the human but an equal player in the drama of evolution and a site of “significant otherness.” The problem with Haraway’s vivid and original rewriting of the evolutionary process from the perspective of the dog is that it seems to reinvest in the idea of nature per se and leaves certain myths about evolution itself intact.

In fact, Donna Haraway herself seems to be invested in the “modern love” paradigm of seeing animals as either extensions of humans or as their moral superiors. As Heidi J. Nast comments in a polemical call for “critical pet studies,” a new disposition towards “pet love” has largely gone unnoticed in social theory and “where pet lives are addressed directly, most studies shun a critical international perspective, instead charting the cultural histories of pet-human relationships or, like Haraway, showing how true pet love might invoke a superior ethical stance.” iv Nast proposes that we examine the investments we are making in pets and in a pet industry in the twenty first century and she calls for a “scholarly geographical elaboration” of who owns pets and where they live and what kinds of affective and financial investments they have made in pet love and finally who lies outside the orbit of pet love. As she remarks: “Those with no affinity for pets or those who are afraid of them are today deemed social or psychological misfits and cranks, while those who love them are situated as morally and even spiritually superior, such judgments having become hegemonic in the last two decades” (896). Like adults who choose not to reproduce, people with no interest in pets occupy a very specific spot in contemporary sexual hierarchies. In her anatomy of pet love, Nast asks “why, for example, are women and queers such central purveyors of the language and institutions of pet love? And why are the most commodified forms of pet love and the most organized pets-rights movements emanating primarily out of elite (and in the US, Canada and Europe) “white” contexts?” (898). Nast’s account of pet love indeed registers the need for new graphs and pyramids of sexual oppression and privilege, new models to replace the ones Gayle Rubin produced nearly two decades ago in “Thinking Sex” to complicate the relations between heterosexual privilege and gay oppression. In a post-industrial landscape where the size of white families has plummeted, where the nuclear family itself has become something of an anachronism, where a majority of women live outside of conventional marriages, the elevation of pets to the status of love objects certainly demands attention. In a recent song by radical rapper, Common, he asks: “Why white folks focus on dogs and yoga?/ While people on the low end tryin to ball and get over”? Why indeed…it’s all for modern love.

Notes
i Amy Sutherland, “What Shamu Taught Me About A Happy Marriage,” “Modern Love” Column in The New York Times, Sunday June 25, 2006.

ii Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science (NY: Routledge, 1990): 5.

iii Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003).

iv Heidi J. Nast, “Critical Pet Studies” in Antipode (2006): p. 896.

Image Credit:

1. www.underwatertimes.com

2. www.montana-wedding-photographer.com

Please feel free to comment.




Children Playing in Hollywood

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

Little Children movie poster

Little Children movie poster

Todd Field’s Oscar nominated feature, Little Children, received rave reviews in 2006 for its careful depiction of the hopes and fears that nestle beneath the surface in suburban heterosexual America. In the film, a veneer of serene family life quickly gives way to reveal a shadow world replete with sexual menace and fascinating perversity. In fact, the promise of Little Children lies in its apparent commitment to exposing the hypocrisy of bourgeois suburban Christian morality. And, pedophilia serves, at the beginning of the film, as a marker for the witch-hunting propensities of white “neighborhood watch” societies and lets the viewer believe that the film’s narrative thrust involves a hard and long look at the inadequacies of heterosexual marriage and the lengths to which suburban heteros will go to find scapegoats for their own deep wells of loneliness.Little Children tells three interlocking stories: in the first, Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslett) sits apart from the other suburban mums at the local playground and marks her distance from their parochial and repressive enforcement of social norms. Pierce, as her name implies, can see through the judgmental stance of the mothers and unlike them, she is not afraid to admit to her dissatisfaction with marriage and motherhood. When an attractive stay at home dad, Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) appears at the playground, her interest is piqued. Sarah is unhappily married to an older man, Richard (Greg Edelman), who spends his spare time absorbed in internet porn. Again, as his name implies, Richard is purely and simply a dick and we are at a loss to understand why Sarah has married him. Brad Adamson, on the other hand, also carrying an allegorical name implying some kind of oedipalized masculinity, is a law student married to a cold and driven wife, and he is struggling to hold on to some fragment of his youth before disappearing into the career she has fantasized for him. Finally, in this suburban Greek drama, enter Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), an odd looking and shy middle-aged man, newly released from jail for pedophilia. Ronnie (notice the childish name) lives with his mother in a dark house full of childhood dolls and miniatures and he is persecuted by a neighborhood cop who retired under suspicious circumstances and who now makes it his duty to spy on McGorvey and warn the neighborhood against him.

Critics like A.O. Scott in the NYT and Carina Chocano in the LA Times were wild about this film and praised it for the beautiful camera work, the melding of menace to coziness in its sunny settings and the subtle and intelligent dissection of suburban dysfunction. The film, however, is actually a strangely crude and ultimately hateful confirmation of the very same moral structures that it seems at first to be critiquing. To my mind this weird cycle by which the very conditions of unhappiness at the start of the film become the resolution at the end, the diagnosis becomes the cure, is representative of the narrative code of many liberal Hollywood films, like American Beauty for example, and it allows very conservative cultural texts about sexuality and domesticity to pose as radical and alternative ones.

Let’s see how Little Children manages to sneak normativity into the plot as resolution for the problem of the community enforcement of …normativity! The schema of the film works almost off a blueprint for psychoanalytic family structure: Sarah does not want to be a mother to her daughter and her husband does not want to be a husband to his wife. She fails to be mother, he fails to be father and in fact, in their first encounter in the film, she catches him masturbating in his study setting her up as the castrating mother to the naughty auto-erotic son. Brad does not want to be a father to his son but would rather remain a son (Adamson) and he watches teenage boys skateboarding in the evening when he should be studying, longing for the freedom implied by their flights through space and time. Ronnie cannot transition from being son to his mother to being a husband to an adult woman (as we witness in a painful date scene) and he regresses into boyhood as soon as he re-enters his mother’s house. Seemingly, the problem here is heterosexuality writ large with its imprisoning structures of normative gender and its suffocating modes of domesticity. People get married for all the wrong reasons, the film implies, and the society insists that they replace their parents by becoming them.

Brad and Sarah at the pool

Brad and Sarah at the pool

And the first half of the film does indeed begin to unravel the social compulsion to conform, externally enforced and internally incorporated, that produces judgment, anxiety, fear and desire as its monstrous byproducts. The scene at the neighborhood pool, where Sarah and Brad are bathing in the sunlight of their newly ignited desire and where poor Ronnie is pegged as a predatory pervert and treated like a shark in the water, dramatizes the collision between fear and normativity that produces both the pervert and the conditions of his desire. But all of the tension of that scene, all of the criticism that it directs at the moralistic parents who use the notion of protecting their children as an alibi for outrageous behavior, disappears instantly when the cautious sympathy that the viewer has developed for Ronnie is erased by the revelation that he is not a suspected pedophile who is being unfairly treated but a real pedophile who also hates adult women and deserves our contempt and the violence of his neighbors.

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie’s descent from wronged innocent to hideous pervert is matched in the film by the shift of sympathies away from the adulterous duo, Sarah and Brad, and towards the happy families that these infidels have disrupted. The porno obsessed Dick and the frigid Kathy suddenly seem like tragic victims of the selfishness and greed of their dysfunctional and adulterous spouses. While Sarah and Brad were the victims of their marriages when the film began, at its denouement the film refuses to make them the heroes of their adultery. So, if adultery is not the escape and the cure for a bad marriage, what is? Apparently, returning to the bad marriage is the only answer that the film can offer, oh and “grow up.”In the film’s crazed resolution, Sarah and Brad have decided to run away together. Sarah goes to wait for Brad in the playground and we see her willfully say goodbye to her daughter, choosing sex over family, desire over nurturing, her own happiness over the child’s. Brad leaves his home too but stops on the way to the playground to watch the skateboarders. In the meantime, who should enter the playground but our abject third, the perpetual outsider, the inhuman pervert against whose desires, Sarah and Brad and their spouses all seem pure, of course, Ronnie. Ronnie, we think, wants to hurt Sarah and a tragedy seems to be in the making. But no, goodness and truth, thank God, win out over perversity and evil and so while Brad hurts himself in the skateboard park trying a stunt for which he is too old, Sarah witnesses the self-castration of Ronnie. He looks up at her from the bench upon which he sits, lifts his hands from his crotch and reveals a bloody mess and a knife. Could anything be more blatantly Freudian than this diagnostic manual ending? The man who still thinks he is a boy falls off his skateboard and hits his head, when he comes to he realizes he loves his wife and in that moment he becomes a man. The woman who wants to be a daughter rather than a mother sees in Ronnie the disasterous results of poor parenting and rushes home to her child and her porno husband. The poor pervert who cannot become a man and wants to harm children serves as a warning to all who stray even a little way from the domestic lair in suburbia: if you cannot grow up and reproduce a replica of your parents’ home, his character implies, you will do horrible things to innocent people. And if you cannot control your impulses, you must be castrated.

Sarah and her child

Sarah and her child

The plot summary I have given here surely does not sound like the same film that critics hailed as “quietly devastating” (Peter Travers) and “intelligent” (A.O. Scott). And yet, I have not embellished the plot, its conceits or its imagined solutions to the problems introduced by each character. Why would critics see this sophomoric understanding of desire and domesticity as complex, intricate and subtle? And why raise the topic of pedophilia as a way of discussing suburban witch hunts only to transform it into a trope for what is wrong with suburban heteronormativity? In the end, we are asked to believe, there is nothing wrong with the family, nothing faulty about hetero marriage, the only problem in suburbia is indeed the lurking pervert who wants to harm you and your children. In a security age, perhaps, we cater to existing fears and we are complicit in creating new ones all so that, apparently, in the end all we can ask is that the state protect us from the very thing that it has manufactured as the cause of our alarm.

Image Credits:
1. Little Children movie poster
2. Brad and Sarah at the pool
3. Ronnie and his mother
4. Sarah and her child

Please feel free to comment.




Sex, Love, Television (Pt. 2)

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

This is part two of a two-part column, click here to read part one.

Even if queer politics are not at the forefront of the series (Desperate Housewives), a gay male aesthetic indeed is discernible in the show: Edie Britt, for example, resembles a drag queen with her excessive femininity and femme fatale demeanor, and many of the male characters are drawn along the lines of certain macho stereotypes that one might find in gay porn. But the dialogue of the series is also extremely camp, often to the point of parody. In many exchanges, the women trade lines like drag queens at a beauty contest: for example, Gabrielle asks her husband in the middle of one of their fights: “Why are all rich men such jerks?” Right on cue, he answers: “The same reason all beautiful women are bitches.” Or when Susan asks Edie if she believes in evil, Edie quips back: “of course I believe in evil, I work in real estate.” And when Gabrielle runs out of credit on her teenage boyfriend's credit card and he tells her she better take back the shoes she just bought, she warns him: “Return the shoes? I can't talk to you when you're hysterical.” The camp tone, obviously, enhances the appeal of the show, it leavens the dark themes of murder and infidelity and it livens up the interactions between the women. But, again, it also distracts attention away from any real radical feminist potential and it deflects all possibilities of genuine intimacy between the women.

Edie Britt

Edie Britt

Interestingly, then, especially given its interest in all kinds of so-called sexual perversity from male homosexuality to sado-masochism, there is one topic that the show, despite its supposedly gay agenda, never approaches – namely, lesbianism. Perhaps because the intimate relationships between the housewives are so central to the show's success, and therefore must never even hint at desire between the women, but also because the overt feminism must not ever tip into a devastating critique of heterosexuality itself, the L word is simply never mentioned.

But if the desperate housewives did decide that heterosexuality, like motherhood, domesticity and marriage, was not all it was cracked up to be, then perhaps they would be guest stars on Showtime's breakout hit, the internationally acclaimed The L Word, created by Eileen Chaikin. Like Desperate Housewives, The L Word has had tremendous international success, especially in Western Europe, and like Desperate Housewives, The L Word has spawned numerous viewing parties: enthusiastic lesbian viewers in particular gather to watch every new episode in bars and pubs and at house parties. The L Word has even inspired parody skits including a full-length film titled The D Word (referring in English to “dyke”). In fact, as the parody film implies, The L Word may well have more in common with Desperate Housewives than it does with other queer texts given its commitment to the soap opera format and the appeal that it makes to the broadest possible audience.

While Desperate Housewives lures in male viewers with sexually naughty themes (it is apparently extremely popular in Australia among men), The L Word panders to the male viewer by constantly triangulating romantic and sexual scenes between women with a male viewer, often explicitly a voyeuristic male viewer. In one story line, one of the women's male room mates sets up a web cam to watch what happens in her bedroom; and in another, a bisexual character's boyfriend is present during her interactions with women. In a really memorable scene, a lesbian couple, Tina and Bette, who are trying to get pregnant, pick up a lucky stud who thinks he is walking into the fantasy of his life but quickly realizes that the lovely ladies who have brought him home only want his sperm. This precipitates a ludicrous scene of recriminations in which the stud feels used and delivers one of the more political speeches of the series about sexual integrity! The L Word in Season One, in fact, gave up far too much time to this kind of male rage and in its deliberate bid for the hearts and minds of the 16-25 male viewership, it ignored its own queer spectators.

Bette and Tina

Bette and Tina

Some queer viewers have also critiqued The L Word for its heterosexualization of the characters. Very few of the women, in other words, actually look like lesbians (within a fairly broad range of expectations for what a “lesbian” might look like), none of them have a masculine appearance, and most of them would not look out of place on Desperate Housewives! In fact, lesbian comedienne, Marga Gomez famously wrote that the predominance of “hot” and feminine women on The L Word is not an aesthetic problem — they look good and are fun to watch — it is more, for her, a question of “dyke feng shui.” As she puts it, “you only see plain dykes in the background when the hotties go to a dance.” In other words, queer audiences want a bit of balance – a hot lady with her plain, butch/androgynous/slightly less feminine but equally hot counter-part. On heterosexual soaps like Desperate Housewives, after all, you get bitches, virgins, ingénues, adulterers, cads, nice guys, sensitive men, assertive women…you get a range of characters, in a range of gender roles, hooking up in a variety of combinations. The L Word, in its rather blatant attempt to give the stereotype of the dowdy dyke a very wide berth, tries to give us one airbrushed and properly feminine look and in the process it underestimates its very sophisticated and, by now, very committed queer fans.

As Desperate Housewives enters a new season, even the most avid fans can see trouble on the horizon. Any show that has several characters in comas at the same time, for example, has clearly run into a few narrative dead ends. And as time passes, the homely voice-overs by the very dead Mary Alice cease to provide a clever frame for the show's multiple mysteries and congeal instead into a rather moralistic, pious and smug soundtrack for the all too familiar parade of soap opera themes that the show will now trot out. And yet, it must be said that the international appeal of shows like Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives and The L Word, obviously, can be chalked up to many factors including intelligent dialogues, interesting story lines made more interesting by totally unlikely scenarios involving murder and betrayal, and much credit can be given to the warm and vigorous acting skills that all the women bring to their roles. At a time when Hollywood has very little use for women of a certain age, perhaps television is where women over 40 go to find roles beyond the bitter mother-in-law, the predatory divorcee or the lonely spinster. You will find all three of these roles in the soap operas too but at least in shows like Desperate Housewives and The L Word, women and queers get to win sometimes, and when they do we shouldn't be surprised to find ourselves in a topsy turvy moral universe where sin lies in playing it safe and virtue comes from daring to be desperate.

Image Credits:
1. Edie Britt
2. Bette and Tina

Please feel free to comment.




Sex, Love, Television – Part 1

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

Desperate Housewives

Desperate Housewives

This is Part 1 of a two-part column.

On Sunday evenings in George W. Bush's America, a place where more than half of the population does not believe in evolution, where many of those same people go to church regularly, where abortion may soon be outlawed, and where gay marriage is unthinkable, millions of god-fearing viewers pull up a chair on Sunday nights to tune into the latest episode of Desperate Housewives. What, we might ask, draws the average American viewer–someone likely to have a strong sense of the sanctity of marriage, an abiding belief in the importance of pre-marital abstinence and a rigid moral outlook–to a show about infidelity, teenage promiscuity, scandal, secrecy, murder and deceit? Indeed, as a new season is underway on Desperate Housewives and as the suburban ladies brace themselves for the new scandals that will rock their unusually violent and perverse suburban world, it is perhaps good to take a moment to ask: what is the appeal of this most American of soap operas both in the US and internationally? And why, would Laura Bush announce that she is not only a fan of the show but a desperate housewife herself!?

Following in the footsteps of other wildly popular primetime soaps like Melrose Place and Knots Landing, Dallas and Dynasty and building upon the more recent legacy of Sex in the City, Desperate Housewives offers viewers a combination of sex, family secrets, murder mystery and romance. Like Knots Landing, it builds its drama around a tight-knit community in a mythic suburban setting, and like Melrose Place and Dallas, the otherwise ordinary characters manage to embroil themselves in an unusually high number of extremely unlikely events ranging from murder to suicide to kidnappings, double-crossings, prostitution, money-laundering, conspiracies, intrigues and mad, passionate, illicit affairs. Like Sex in the City, Desperate Housewives offers viewers not one or two protagonists but four female leads and their male counterparts, and like Sex in the City, the show casts each of the women in some archetypal–the career woman, the vixen, the cynic, the romantic–role. The conceit of Sex in the City was that these women–smart, professional, urbane–did not need men in order to feel complete and instead chose to take their chances in the world of dating. This conceit wears thin quickly since the entire show is about the women's relationships with men and it becomes obvious by about Season Three that everyone of them will end up married and pregnant.

And when they do — they may turn into desperate housewives. Like the ladies looking for love and sex in the city, the women of Wisteria Lane are all smart, all self-motivated and all wise to the not-so-mysterious ways of men. Like the Sex in the City women, they also represent a range of rather predictable heterosexual femininities: the desperate housewives range from Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), the creative type and single mom to Bree Van Der Kamp (Marcia Cross), the uptight, Republican stay at home mom, and on to Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), the imperfect, often harried and always out of control mom, and finally, to Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), the gorgeous trophy wife with no kids and no desire for kids. The cast is rounded out by Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), the original “perfect but desperate” housewife who kills herself in the show's opening minutes and Edie Britt (Nicolette Sheridan) the voluptuous and predatory real estate maven.

All the action happens on an almost claustrophobic studio set, and the four women, their variously messed up children and their long-suffering husbands, play dramatic set pieces about the exasperation of motherhood, the undependable nature of men, the neuroses of single women and the dangers of female promiscuity. Audiences, presumably, watch the show in part because the choreography of these crises is familiar to them: they recognize the thrust and parry of lovers' threats and promises, the give and take of husbands and wives balancing the quota of household labor, the daily drama of parents and children battling for domestic control. And if the more mundane aspects of life in the suburbs come tied to the high drama of unsolved mysteries, slowly simmering romances and perverse sexual practices, well perhaps this just satisfies a basic human urge to believe that underneath every serene and possibly dull surface lies a dark, disturbing and deeply intriguing well of secrets.

Presumably 24 million viewers in the US, and millions of others elsewhere are not drawn to Desperate Housewives for its political messages, and yet, a wholly unexpected but extremely welcome aspect of Desperate Housewives has to do with the quite overt commitment it makes to some version of TV feminism. In Sex in The City, of course, Carrie and her urban friends also delivered smart speeches about female autonomy but the feminism of Desperate Housewives is a little different since it has to cover topics like housework, divisions of labor, custody battles and pre-nuptial agreements. The most feminist narrative line in Desperate Housewives probably involves Felicity Huffman's character Lynette, a reluctant stay at home mother who has given up a high powered corporate career to satisfy her husband's desire for a large family. The show's creator Marc Cherry claims that he based this character on his mother, who told him later in life how difficult it had been for her to raise three children. In the show, Lynette gets addicted to her children's attention-deficit-disorder medication, loses control of her kids and struggles to stay afloat. She, more than any other character, with the possible exception of Susan, the single mom, regularly accuses the men in her life of being sexist and she gives viewers regular doses of liberal feminist ideas about equality and sexual objectification. Of course, the show makes sure that these feminist outbursts are rendered as individual responses to domesticity rather than as part of any collective enterprise to transform heterosexual life!

Carrie

Carrie, Sex in the City

Furthermore, many of the feminist moments on the show are also saturated with moral outrage, reminding us that this is the version of feminism that finds fellowship with the Christian right rather than the version that advocates the complete dismantling of the nuclear family. And so, for example, one of the more feminist scenes in the first season involved the openly Republican, devoutly Christian Bree Van Der Kamp and it manages to link feminism to the denunciation of pornography. Bree follows her wayward son one night to a strip club and then berates him for objectifying women saying, “Andrew, I'm curious. When you fantasize about this woman, do you ever stop to think how she came to be on this runway? That's someone's little girl. And that someone probably had a lot of dreams for her. Dreams that did not include a thong…and a pole…”

The somewhat camp rendition of Bree's anti-porn speech reminds us that the show's feminism, like the feminism on Sex in the City, is far from the radical feminism of bra-burning, international sisterhood and it is both consistent with certain religious anti-porn positions and actually filtered through not a female consciousness but a gay male lens: the creator of Sex in the City, Darren Starr, and the creator of Desperate Housewives, Marc Cherry, are both openly gay men. And it is this gay male influence more than anything that must be credited for both the inclusion of a low-level but fairly hard hitting feminist discourse and the limiting of that feminist point of view by camp and ironic punch lines which take the edge off the seriousness of the critique. In other words, audiences don't mind a bit of feminism as long as it comes with a lot of irony, camp humor and no real commitment to female bonding. Camp feminism, in the end, advocates for freedom alright but, as we see in the show, it is the freedom to shop, the freedom to hire a maid, the freedom to sleep around that is paramount…here, freedom's just another word for one more pair of shoes…

Many critics of Desperate Housewives have blamed the show's licentiousness and unsavory nature upon the “gay agenda” of Marc Cherry, and this despite the fact that according to some reports, Cherry is a conservative Republican. In fact, Cherry's framing of many of the perverse themes of the shows within a rigidly moral framework may well be one reason for the show's popularity across the political spectrum. American audiences in particular seem comfortable with themes of sex and violence as long as they come packaged as a morality play within which bad people get punished and good people get rich. But most Republican and Christian critics of the show do not find common ground with gay male Hollywood types and so while they may secretly enjoy following the dramatic developments on Wisteria Lane, in public they will cast the show as part of some gay conspiracy to corrupt, seduce and convert its audiences. If only!! While we are still waiting for the fabulous popular TV show that is capable of converting mass audiences to radical politics and unconventional genders and sexualities (Desperate Queer Revolutionaries anyone?), we can still acknowledge that the right wing identification of gay male influence in Desperate Housewives may be accurate.

Susan and Edie

Susan and Edie, Desperate Housewives

Part 2 will appear in the next issue of Flow.

Image Credits:
1. Desperate Housewives
2. Carrie, Sex in the City
3. Susan and Edie, Desperate Housewives

Please feel free to comment.