In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: The Silence of the Lambs
Cáel M. Keegan / Grand Valley State University


Buffalo Bill performs for the camera.
Buffalo Bill performs for the camera.

Author’s Note: This column is the second in a three-part series examining instances of “bad” transgender popular culture. In this series, I explore how the demand for “good” transgender representation is shifting the history and aesthetics of transgender media. The first installment discusses The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It was bad from the start.

Unlike other films that contain sensationalist representations of transgender people, The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) has always been considered a “bad” text—having met with vocal queer resistance immediately upon its release (Bloomer). While other bad transgender media objects have become “bad” because they have not aged well under the pressure of recent trans politics, Silence’s badness has shifted: A text that originally seemed to rely on the stigmatization of effeminate queer masculinity today appears to rely on the pathologization of transgender women. This evolution of the film’s perceived “badness”—from homophobic to transmisogynistic—has been driven by the growing separation of sexuality from gender as cultural phenomena, a process that has made transgender identities more clearly distinct from gay and lesbian ones. Today, Silence is understood by many transgender people to be one of the most “significant and impactful examples of pop culture transmisogyny” (Truitt). In a moment saturated with calls for better transgender representation, why bother examining such a banished text at all?

In my first column in this series, I noted how recent “positive” forms of transgender media representation do not seem to be improving political or social outcomes for all transgender people (Keegan). As transgender scholars and artists have pointed out, the rising media visibility of transgender identity appears to be linked with increased policing of and violence against transgender people, especially poor transgender people of color (Stanley). When ACT-UP and Queer Nation protested Silence at the 1992 Academy Awards, they did so on the premise that positive media representations would lead to positive social treatment of queer people. But what if that visibility story is true for some of us, precisely at the expense of others? What if The Silence of the Lambs isn’t simply a story of transmisogynistic violence, but a story about how that violence figured in the process through which gay and lesbian identities secured national belonging?

The Silence of the Lambs follows a young FBI recruit, Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster) as she tracks down Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine)—a murderer who has been kidnapping and flaying women to make a suit of female skin. Starling is tasked with interviewing the psychoanalyst Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) about Bill’s psychological profile. From Lecter, we learn that Bill “believes he is a transsexual” and has likely been denied access to medical transition. Following clues provided by Lecter, Starling locates and kills Bill, earning her place in the FBI. Silence is at once the story of a cop beating a criminal, a Reaganite hangover film championing the FBI, and a feminist tale about a woman rising within the patriarchal structures of the U.S. federal government. The film remains a cultural juggernaut and a mainstay of American horror cinema. 

Given its intensely stigmatizing depiction of trans femininity, The Silence of the Lambs is indeed a very bad transgender object. And yet, it has always also been a story about how one type of queer subject was welcomed into the arms of the state through the sacrifice of another, far less acceptable kind: Starling is the ostensibly working-class lesbian feminist hero who finds and destroys the transgender monster. Silence helps us understand how representations of transgender psychosis were a foil against which late-20th century gay and lesbian normalcy was culturally produced. In a period when queer politics increasingly demanded outness, gay and lesbian identities—including Foster’s—were under intense pressure to exteriorize themselves as representational (Turque). Out gay identity was to have no interiority in which “perversion” could hide. In Silence, we see that perverse interiority transferred to the transgender figure, who replaces gay and lesbian identities as the dark, queer corner of the national imaginary. 

Starling and Bill are a pair: Both desire mobility, but only one is pointed in a direction the state can tolerate. Starling, who is “not more than one generation from poor white trash,” desires upward class mobility through identification with her deceased police father and therefore with the patriarchal law. Bill, her negation, desires downward gender mobility but has been denied institutional access and therefore directly seeks out female flesh. The difference is that while Starling is permitted to abstract her desire, Bill must literalize. If there is one horror at the center of all horror cinema, it is the literalization of white patriarchal capitalism’s actual relations, which is the turning of bodies into objects. Starling must therefore do away with Bill. For such doing, she will be rewarded.


Our first view of Starling.
Our first view of Starling.

Starling wants to fly. Our first image of Starling is of her climbing, rope in hand, up out of the mud—training in her FBI sweatshirt to become an agent of the state. In a later training sequence, she’ll make a fatal error, forgetting to “check the corner” of her field of vision. This is precisely the dark corner from which, later in the film, Bill will emerge. If Starling checked the corners of her desire, she would notice that she and Bill share a connection: Bill is an inverse reflection of her own ambition to cross social categories, to move her body into new meaning. But while Starling goes up, Bill goes down—setting up a filthy basement workshop at the lip of a dry well, a dark reservoir where excess flesh is stored, to be transformed. 


Starling forgets to check the corners.
Starling forgets to check the corners.

The value of Silence today, then, isn’t simply in the importance of Starling as a feminist icon (Marshall), or in the example of Bill as an expression of transphobia (Truitt): It is instead their relation to one another as a formal exploration of which kinds of queerness would be welcomed into national belonging and which would be marked as irredeemable. Silence demonstrates this lesson at the level of both character and montage: Close to the end of the film, Starling follows her own clues to Bill’s location while the FBI races to what we discover is a different address. For a moment, clever parallel editing lets us believe that these exteriors lead to the same interior space. But we are mistaken. Only Starling has gone to the right place.


The incorrect exterior.
The incorrect exterior.

The real transgender horror of Silence is, ultimately, that the inside does not match the outside. Starling enters the house, draws her gun, and begins to descend. In the basement, in pitch blackness, she and Bill will almost touch. Bill will emerge from the unchecked corner and reach out a hand. We will expect Bill to simply kill Starling, but instead there will be a hesitation, a strange gesture from Bill that is almost loving, as if to say: in just this short moment, before one of us is destroyed by the other—be here with me in the dark.  


Bill reaches for Starling.
Bill reaches for Starling.



Image Credits:

  1. Buffalo Bill performs for the camera. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Our first view of Starling. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Starling forgets to check the corners. (author’s screen grab)
  4. The incorrect exterior. (author’s screen grab)
  5. Bill reaches for Starling. (author’s screen grab)


References:

Bloomer, Jeffrey. “When Gays Decried Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme Became an Early Student of Modern Backlash.” Slate, 28 April, 2017. https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/04/director-jonathan-demme-faced-down-silence-of-the-lambs-gay-backlash.html

Keegan, Cáel M. “In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Rocky Horror. FLOW, 28 November, 2019. https://www.flowjournal.org/2019/11/in-praise-of-the-bad/

Marshall, Sarah. “Over 25 Years, Clarice Starling’s Impact on Film Heroines Still Resonates.” Bitch Media, 2 March, 2016. https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/over-25-years-clarice-starlings-impact-film-heroines-still-resonates-hearken

Stanley, Eric. “Unrecognizable: On Transgender Recognition in 2017.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 116.3, July 2017. 605-611. 

Truitt, Jos. “My Auntie Buffalo Bill: The Unavoidable Transmisogyny of Silence of the Lambs.” Feministing, 10 March, 2016. http://feministing.com/2016/03/10/my-auntie-buffalo-bill-the-unavoidable-transmisogyny-of-silence-of-the-lambs/

Turque, Bill. “The Age of Outing.” Newsweek, 11 August, 1991. https://www.newsweek.com/age-outing-202878




Over*Flow: Coronavirus: How Hollywood Studios and Online Video Platforms Are Responding
Roderik Smits / Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF


Online Streaming Platforms
With theaters closed during the current Covid-19 health crisis, streaming platforms have seen an increase in commercial performance and Hollywood Studios have experimented with early VOD releases.

The Coronavirus has a damaging effect on many businesses, but Netflix, Amazon and other online video platforms are among the few businesses that have seen an increase in their commercial performance.

With cinemas closed and attention taken away from theatrical releases, online video platforms have never played such a dominant role in our lives. This is a temporary moment in time in which video platforms put themselves firmly in the spotlight as content providers of new film releases.

But while the majority of new film releases would normally enjoy an exclusive run in cinemas, how do video platforms take over the work of cinema exhibitors and release those films online? And what role do distributors play? I analysed how Hollywood studios have responded to current developments in the cinema exhibition market, focusing on their release strategies in the US, the UK and Germany.


What has changed?

The cinema release for many films distributed by Hollywood studios has been pushed back or cancelled completely. As a result, they have started to develop early release strategies on video platforms for some of their films.

Universal Pictures was among the first studios that decided to respond to changing circumstances. They released films such as The Invisible Man and Emma in cinemas in the US, the UK and Germany just before the Coronavirus began to spread internationally. But when cinemas closed by mid-March 2020, they developed an early release strategy for both films on video platforms.

Similarly, films from other Hollywood studios, such as Sony Pictures’ Bloodshot, Warner Bros’ Birds of Prey, and Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog, were given an early release on video platforms in the US, the UK and Germany.

The table below demonstrates when these various films were originally released in cinemas. They were scheduled to remain in cinemas for the length of the standard theatrical release window, which is three months in the US, four months in the UK and six months in Germany. However, they have been on show for a period of between one and five weeks before they became available online.


Table 1: Theatrical Release Dates (Source: IMDB)

Studio Film US
 
UK Germany
 
Warner Bros Birds of Prey 7 Feb. 2020 7 Feb. 2020 6 Feb. 2020
Paramount Sonic the Hedgehog 14 Feb. 2020 14 Feb. 2020 13 Feb. 2020
Universal Pictures Emma 21 Feb. 2020 14 Feb. 2020 5 March 2020
Universal Pictures The Invisible Man 28 Feb. 2020 28 Feb. 2020 27 Feb. 2020
Sony Pictures Bloodshot 13 March 2020 11 March 2020 5 March 2020

Such films will now remain available on video platforms only for a period of at least several weeks. The release will subsequently open up to the DVD/Blu-ray market, the television market and potentially a re-release in the theatrical cinema market.

Hollywood studios are also developing new release strategies for films that have not yet been shown in cinemas. Some of their films are rescheduled for a conventional release in cinemas in the Autumn, while others are currently released on video platforms. Universal Pictures, for instance, organised a straight-to-VOD release for Trolls World Tour in the US and the UK earlier this month, and the same strategy is developed for the release in Germany later this month.


How have video platforms responded to changes?

New film releases are not yet available on subscription services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, but on a range of transactional services, where audiences can rent (for 48 hours) or buy them for a premium price, usually $19.99. In the US, they are available on transactional services such as Amazon (TVOD), iTunes/Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Sony PlayStation and Vudu.

Some of those video platforms have also responded to the new situation, whereby they operate as exclusive content providers of new film releases. Amazon, for instance, created the category ‘Prime Video Cinema’ for their transactional platform, where audiences have access to the ‘home premiere’ of the various films described above. Other platforms have developed similar strategies by creating special categories for such films: for instance, Google Play has ‘Home premieres & more.


Cinema releases on Amazon in the U.S.
Cinema releases on Amazon in the U.S. (April 17, 2020)


What are the wider implications for transactional platforms?

Commentators foresee that release patterns for Hollywood films will revert after the global health crisis, with films being released in cinemas before they will be available online. But this is also a moment in time in which transactional video platforms can demonstrate to Hollywood studios that they can generate economic value for their films.

While growth in the market for online viewing is often associated with the popularity of subscription platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, transactional platforms have yet to prove that they can generate significant economic value for films.

The current situation offers opportunities for transactional platforms to put pressure on conventional release strategies. It will therefore be interesting to follow how their release strategies for home premieres develop in the next months.


Can they learn lessons from Netflix?

Netflix has for several years developed exclusive premieres on their platform for most of their original productions. Their programming strategies are designed to make their own productions visible on the homepage.

Big-budget productions often appear prominently, in large format, at the top of the Netflix homepage for one or several days. But they also appear visibly in the various categories through which audiences browse on the homepage. For instance, I observed that they often appear in special categories such as Netflix Originals, New Releases, Popular on Netflix and/or Trending Now. In some cases, they appeared prominently in three or more special categories at the same time.


The Netflix Homepage
The Netflix Homepage often privileges new release big-budget productions

Transactional platforms have of course also developed programming strategies to make some productions more visible than others. However, home premieres do not always have the same prominent position on those platforms. I observed, for instance, that the category of films for home premieres is often placed below other special categories. In addition, home premieres appear less frequently in other categories on transactional platforms.

What this suggests is that transactional platforms prioritise visibility for other types of film content over home premieres. That might be temporary if they need to commit to pre-arranged terms for the placement of other types of films. But if this situation isn’t temporary but structural, they might miss an important opportunity because they will benefit from changing film release patterns in the long run.



Image Credits:

  1. Online streaming platforms
  2. Cinema releases on Amazon in the U.S. (April 17, 2020) (Author’s Screen Grab)
  3. The Netflix Homepage often privileges new release big-budget productions




From Crazy Rich Asians to Netflix: The “Rebirth” of Romantic Comedies, pt. 2
Katherine E. Morrissey / San Francisco State University


Author's screenshot of the Romantic Comedy category on Netflix
Screenshot of the Romantic Comedy category on Netflix

Author’s Note: This column is the second in a three part series about the supposed death and rebirth of romantic comedy film. In this series, I am tracing the romantic comedy’s shift from medium-budget Hollywood staple into a digital streaming genre.

In 2018, the media conversation about romantic comedies shifted. That summer, one Thrillist headline declared, “The Rom-Com Returns: How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Netflix Revived a Beloved Movie Genre” (Zuckerman). In August 2018, Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) was number one at the domestic box office for three weeks (“Crazy Rich Asians”). An adaptation of a 2013 Kevin Kwan novel, the film grossed $174.5 million at the domestic box office (“Crazy Rich Asians”). That same week, Netflix released their To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018), an adaptation of a 2014 Jenny Han novel. While exact numbers on Netflix content are hard to come by, the company reports the film is “one of our most viewed original films ever with strong repeat viewing” (Netflix).

Both of these films feature Asian-American heroines, an important step away from the rom-com’s traditionally white protagonists. However, both films are clearly aligned with the more conservative neo-traditional approach I discussed in my previous column. More than anything else, these films intrigue me because of how and where they were successful. Crazy Rich Asians did well domestically but disappointed overseas. To All the Boys was a success on Netflix, not in movie theaters. Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys indicate two new distribution strategies rom-com creators are experimenting with: rom-com as global media franchise and rom-com as a digital streaming genre. These films remind us of the genre’s ongoing struggles: Efforts to decouple romance from its white heterosexual defaults and efforts to construct romantic comedy films which work as global products with long-term digital lives.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians struggled overseas, earning $64 million at the international box office (“Crazy Rich Asians”). This is significant given the initial bidding war surrounding the project. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, book author Kevin Kwan explains the project was seen as an opportunity to reach the Chinese market (Sun and Ford). As the first book in a trilogy, the story also had potential as a larger franchise. However, when the film eventually made to China it did terribly there, earning only $1.6 million (“Crazy Rich Asians”). Numerous reasons have been cited for this: The film’s Chinese premiere was delayed until late November. There was a disconnect between the film’s pan-Asian cast and the story’s Singaporean characters. Finally, the film celebrated the “crazy rich” during a time when the Chinese economy was slowing (McGregor). These are just some of the reasons why the film may not have done well in China. Ultimately, however, the film’s struggles overseas raises questions about the viability of romantic comedies in Hollywood given the current focus on film franchises that promise international box office success.


Still from Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)

Don’t get me wrong, Crazy Rich Asians did important work in the North American market, disproving the tired industry claim that a film with a predominantly Asian cast won’t sell. However, Crazy Rich Asians was a test, it was an experiment in selling a rom-com across a range of global markets. In that sense, the experiment failed.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Netflix reports To All the Boys was one of their “most viewed original films ever” (Netflix). A sequel, P.S. I Love You (Fimognari, 2020), will be released in February 2020 and a third film is anticipated (Takeuchi). Netflix launched To All the Boys as part of their “summer of love” campaign (Andrews; Feldman; Fern et al.; Grady). This set of roughly 11 different films included Set it Up (2018) directed by Claire Scanlon, Catching Feelings (2018), a South African romantic comedy written and directed by Kagiso Lediga, and the Chinese romantic drama Us and Them (2018) directed by Rene Liu. These films featured celebrities well-known to American audiences (for example, Taye Diggs and Lucy Lui in Set it Up), but also included less familiar international actors and directors. The overall mix of stories encompassed conventional romantic comedies, serious romantic dramas, and films like Like Father (Miller, 2018) which focus more on the relationship between a woman and her estranged father.

One of the most interesting features of To All the Boys is the larger range of Netflix content it’s a part of. Rather than relying on one individual film to draw viewers into theaters, Netflix relies on a database populated with many different films to attract many different subscribers from around the world. Since 2018, the number of romantic comedies on Netflix has continued to proliferate. However, when you consider the mix of titles included in summer of love or look at the mix of films included in Netflix’s romantic comedy category, it is clear that Netflix constructs and understands genre taxonomies differently than media scholars might. When the Netflix database loads its list of romantic comedies, international boundaries and time periods are ignored. Here, strict adherence to the “meet, lose, get” plotline is not required.


Still from To All The Boys I've Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)

One of genre’s traditional cultural functions has been to mediate cultural tensions. Popular genres air social grievances, then work to resolve these frictions and lead their characters towards compromise. Traditionally, this cultural conversation happened en masse as large audiences engaged with individual stories. Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys represent two ways contemporary media enters a broader cultural conversation. The Netflix version of romantic comedy, as a malleable category that can be personalized to mean many things to many people, is the version of romantic comedy that fits more cleanly within emerging media distribution and consumption patterns.

I’d love to point to the version of romance on Netflix and say, “Look! We’re diversifying romance!” However, it’s important to be careful here. To All the Boys represents another experiment with selling romantic comedy. It’s part of Netflix’s efforts to make its content feel personalized, to market itself in a range of different countries, and to offer the illusion of endless choice and variety. In actuality, Netflix has a limited set of products to offer its subscribers. Part of the genius of Netflix is the way the interface is designed to offer a seemingly infinite array of products while also appearing tailor-made for each individual customer.

Media industry demands for globally market-safe franchises signal long-term problems for the romantic comedy in movie theaters. However, the success of To All the Boys suggests an important move for romantic comedy, one away from movie theaters and onto smaller screens. In my next column, I will discuss another recent rebirth of romantic comedy: the rom-com film retold as a streaming series. Specifically, Hulu’s 2019 adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral (2019–).



Image Credits:

  1. The Romantic Comedy category on Netflix. (author’s screenshot)
  2. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
  3. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)


References:

Andrews, Jared. “What Netflix’s ‘Summer of Love’ Does Right.” Vox Magazine, 29 Aug. 2018, https://www.voxmagazine.com/arts/what-netflix-s-summer-of-love-does-right/article_b068be4a-aa26-11e8-9f14-f329abf8193a.html.

“Crazy Rich Asians.” Box Office Mojo, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/title/tt3104988/?ref_=bo_se_r_1. Accessed 25 Jan. 2020.

Feldman, Dana. “It’s The Summer Of Love: Netflix Releases 6 New Original RomComs.” Forbes, 20 June 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/danafeldman/2018/06/20/its-the-summer-of-love-netflix-releases-6-new-original-romcoms/.

Fern, Marriska, et al. “Netflix’s Summer of Love Movies to Binge-Watch.” Tribute.Ca, https://www.tribute.ca/news/netflixs-summer-of-love-movies-to-binge-watch/2018/07/12/. Accessed 5 July 2019.

Grady, Constance. “Netflix Bet on the Long-Ignored Romantic Comedy This Summer. It Paid Off.” Vox, 17 Oct. 2018, https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/10/17/17989242/netflix-rom-com-summer-to-all-the-boys-ive-loved-before-set-it-up.

McGregor, Tom. “Commentary: Why Crazy Rich Asians Was the Last Movie China Wanted to Watch.” CNA, 7 Dec. 2018, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/why-movie-crazy-rich-asians-flopped-in-china-dismal-showing-11004954.

Netflix. October 16, 2018 Shareholder Letter. https://s22.q4cdn.com/959853165/files/doc_financials/quarterly_reports/2018/q3/FINAL-Q3-18-Shareholder-Letter.pdf. Accessed 10 July 2019.

Sun, Rebecca, and Rebecca Ford. “The Stakes Are High for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ — And That’s the Point.” The Hollywood Reporter, 1 Aug. 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/crazy-rich-asians-how-asian-rom-happened-netflix-1130965.

Takeuchi, Craig. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 3 to Start Shooting in Vancouver in July.” The Georgia Straight, 24 June 2019, https://www.straight.com/movies/1258756/all-boys-ive-loved-3-start-shooting-vancouver-july.

Zuckerman, Esther. “The Rom-Com Returns: How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Netflix Revived a Beloved Movie Genre.” Thrillist, 23 Aug. 2018, https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/rom-coms-return-netflix-romantic-comedies.




In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Rocky Horror
Cáel m. Keegan / Grand Valley State University


Image 1: Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne.
Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne.

Author’s Note: This column is the first in a three-part series examining instances of “bad” transgender popular culture. In this series, I will explore how the demand for “good” transgender representation is shifting the history and aesthetics of transgender media.

Let’s be honest: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975) is a bad transgender film. 

Despite America’s ongoing cultural fascination with Rocky Horror, which continues its run as the longest theatrical release in US history (Schwab), the 1975 cult classic is much-maligned in current transgender politics. As the transgender community has gained a new cultural voice in the past decade, we have also taken issue with the legacy of media purporting to represent our identities and experiences: Transgender activists and audiences have rejected earlier modes of story-telling that pigeonhole us as murderous villains or tragic victims, and we have demanded greater authenticity in writing, casting, and direction. The emergence of mainstream transgender identity politics has resulted in a new set of conditions that must be met for transgender media to be considered “good.” 

“Good” transgender media is media that casts transgender actors as transgender characters. It is media that is written and directed by transgender creators. It is media that allows transgender characters to be more than just narrative or political tokens. “Good” transgender media is authentic, progressive, and diverse. Good transgender media is Pose (FX, 2018-present), not Boys Don’t Cry (Peirce, 1999). It is Tangerine (Baker, 2015), not Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983). Good transgender media is media that makes us visible, but in the right ways—specifically because they are not the bad, old ways we endured during the bad, old days, before we had a marginal amount of control over how we were represented.

And yet, as “good” transgender visibility has risen, so too has the violence directed against transgender bodies: Five years after Time magazine heralded Laverne Cox’s role on Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-19) as a transgender civil rights “tipping point” (Steinmetz), anti-transgender murder and hate crimes are on the rise. Rights and protections that were provisionally extended to us during the Obama era have been dramatically and intentionally rescinded. Transgender people have become the new (old) gender scapegoats of a whiplash conservative retrenchment, carried out at a dizzying pace. 


Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine, 2014.
Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine, 2014.

In this context, one has to wonder about the relative value of media visibility: Of what value is cultural recognition, when it can so easily be weaponized against us? Or, as transgender studies scholar Eric Stanley puts it, “What are the stakes of familiarity, when familiarity breeds contempt?” (p. 609). The bad, old days are back, with a vengeance: Welcome to the New Bad Era.

By the standards of “good” transgender media, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is most certainly bad. Not only does the 1975 film feature a cisgender actor (Tim Curry) as the transgender/cross-dressed Dr. Frank N. Furter, but it represents that character as deranged, sexually manipulative, and violent. Although the film has become a staple of 21st century pop nostalgia, Rocky Horror is often excoriated in transgender communities for its seeming citation of these stereotypes, which by the late 1970s had become entrenched in American popular culture as well as in certain strains of feminist discourse. 


Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter.
Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter.

Janice Raymond’s infamous claim in The Transsexual Empire (1979) that “all transsexuals rape women’s bodies” (104) comes four years after Rocky Horror’s release, but the elevation of anti-transgender feminist discourse in our current moment makes it difficult to not view Rocky Horror as a citation of those attitudes. Richard O’Brien, the genderqueer/non-binary creator of the original Rocky Horror stage musical, recently intensified this suspicion of the film when he stated that he agreed with feminist Germain Greer that transgender women could not become women, but were instead “an idea of a woman” (Duffy). 


The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.”
The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.”

All of this means that Rocky Horror epically fails the current representational and political standards of “good” transgender media. The critiques of Rocky Horror and O’Brien that transgender women have made and continue to make are justified and necessary. But still, there is something about this film that exceeds its apparently transphobic address.

As a transgender person, I’m not supposed to appreciate Rocky Horror. And yet, I do. Why? 

The film was perhaps my first encounter with anything that might be called “transgender” representation, and even today I find myself returning to it over and over again, trying to grasp its strange politics. If we look closely, we find that what at first glance looks like a nonsensical film about an insane cannibalistic transgender scientist who tortures innocent people is simultaneously a story about a transgender alien (Dr. Frank N. Furter) who has left his home planet looking for a place where his queer desires will be accepted. He travels from planet to planet, but they are all the same, and he is consistently rejected. Finally, he lands on Earth and discovers how to create life. He uses these powers to create a human companion for himself, Rocky Horror, but this cross-species relationship offends the aliens from his home planet, who kill him. The film ends with a lament about how Earth, without the transgender figure of Frank N. Furter, is “lost in time, and lost in space/and meaning.”

If we set aside our modern instincts that Rocky Horror is representationally “bad” and examine these deeper features of its narrative, we find that the film ingeniously inverts the medical discourses of transgender pathology that were developing in the mid-1970s: In the film, Dr. Frank N. Furter has seized the means of gender production from the hands of the medical industry, and has produced his own “monster”—the ideal, white cisgender body of Rocky. This is a reversal of the classic story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, which has often been used to symbolize the relationship of surgeons to transgender people. In Rocky Horror, the transgender creator is granted the power of scientific knowledge, while the cisgender body is reduced to the speechless object of his desire.


Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed.
Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed.

This reversal is indeed terrifying and revolting, precisely because it places the transgender subject in control of gender and sexuality. We witness the resulting mayhem through the perspective of the chaste, heteronormative couple—Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon)—who fall under Dr. Frank N. Further’s thrall and are “transduced” into gender non-normativity, queerness, and sexual liberation. Rocky Horror thus reverses the process of gender transition, producing trans bodies (Brad and Janet become copies of Frank N. Furter) from cisgender ones.


Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline.
Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline.

This very radical transgender politics often goes unrecognized by audiences, I would argue, precisely because the film’s representational address appears to be transphobic.

Is Rocky Horror bad? If we wish to limit the archive of transgender media to objects that primarily uphold the standards of positive representation, then yes, it’s pretty bad. But if we’re willing to consider a less comforting and more confusing archive, then we might find room for The Rocky Horror Picture Show—a film with a now-alien politics that looks very unlike our recent efforts to make transgender life normal, included, respected.

Perhaps the actual question is, do we want to be good?



Image Credits:

  1. Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine, 2014. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter. (author’s screen grab)
  4. The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.” (author’s screen grab)
  5. Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed. (author’s screen grab)
  6. Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline. (author’s screen grab)


References:

Duffy, Nick. “Rocky Horror Star Richard O’Brien: Trans Women Can’t be Women.” Pinknews, 8 March 2016. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/03/08/rocky-horror-star-richard-obrien-trans-women-cant-be-women/

Raymond, Janice. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. MIT Press, 1979.

Schwab, Katherine. “After 40 Years, Rocky Horror Has Become Mainstream.” The Atlantic, 26 September 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/09/after-40-years-rocky-horror-has-become-mainstream/407491/

Stanley, Eric. “Unrecognizable: On Transgender Recognition in 2017.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 116.3, July 2017. 605-611.

Steinmetz, Kathy. “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Time, 29 May 2014. https://time.com/135480/transgender-tipping-point/




Terrence Malick’s Architecture of the Domestic
Travis Warren Cooper / Butler University


still from Knight of Cups
The expansive minimalist home in Knight of Cups.

Hollywood is notoriously hard on modern buildings. Homes in the modernist architectural idiom take a thrashing on screen. Domestic structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lautner, among others, double on film as the abodes of drug lords, murderers, assassins, wife abusers, voyeurs, serial killers, criminal masterminds, and playboys.[ ((On Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lautner homes in film, see Schleier, Merrill. “A Place of No Return: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Undomestic Ennis House in Film,” pp. 123-138, and Jon Yoder, “Vision and Crime: The Cineramic Architecture of John Lautner, Archi.Pop: Mediating Architecture in Popular Culture, edited by D. Medina Lasansky. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 45-58. Such negative associations have been so prominent that Single Issue Magazine titled one issue Evil People in Modernist Homes in Popular Films. New Haven, CT: B. Critton, 2010. Thom Anderson also explored the theme in his 2003 documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself.))]

These experimental homes, in glass and steel and concrete, often personify in films by extending their inhabitants’ identities. In John Hughes’s Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (1986), the A. James Speyer-designed house is the anthropomorphic stand-in for Ferris’s best friend’s father who is more concerned with status and materialism than his own family. Architect Hagy Belzberg’s Skyline Residence, which stars as the bachelor pad for Ryan Gosling’s role in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), mirrors in its reflective facades the contemporary dandy’s shallowness, self-obsession, and consumerism.[ ((At their most benign, modern homes in films offer dramatic backdrops for loss and trauma, such as in Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs (2015) and Tom Ford’s A Single Man (2009). At the other end of the emotive spectrum, e.g., Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967), modern forms are not dark and dangerous, per se, but comical and silly in their structural novelty.))]

These negative
depictions, together, convey deviance in various degrees and intensities from
middle-class American norms. Hollywood visualizations mark the designs in the
public gaze as different, dangerous, and negatively other.

Layering his criticism in a rich haze of
philosophical visuality, director Terrence Malick’s filmic oeuvre extends this
tradition of suspicion.

In Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017), Malick reproduces the refrain of domestic modernity’s abjection. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls and the expansive minimalist homes they constitute are commentaries on the excesses of inhabitants. In Malick’s films, inhabitants range from music industry moguls to Hollywood elites. Homes that show up briefly, including Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House (a.k.a. “Case Study No. 22”) in the Hollywood Hills and The Floating Box House in Austin, serve as little more than superficial stages for Bacchanal revelry.

Tree of Life (2011) likewise
circulates the rhetoric of modern design’s deviance. An architect himself, Sean
Penn’s character works in a skyscraper, surrounded by soaring glass walls, and
steel-framed edges. As in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), the
modern city engenders moral confusion and is detrimental to kinship bonds. The
protagonist lives in an austere, glaringly white modern abode, the domestic
antithesis to the memories of close-knit, suburban Texan neighborhoods that center
the narrative. The minimalist house, an architect’s residence
through-and-through, signals wealth and status even as it connotes a sense of alienation
between the inhabitants.


The architect's minimalist home
The architect’s minimalist home.

The film’s central narrative opens with the protagonist’s parents, played by the Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt duo, after the kids are adults with homes of their own. The parents now live in a midcentury modern house replete with natural wood and populated by iconic Eames furniture. This home is not the white and glass of their designer son’s place in the city. The parents’ house, with its Scandinavian vibe, is warmer and more domestic than the sterile minimalist alternative. In this case, modernism signals taste made possible by upward mobility over time. The Scandinavian structure also contrasts the suburban home that is the implicit star of the show.


Midmod Scandinavian Interior
Midmod Scandinavian Interior.

Before making movies, Malick studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford. He made the pilgrimage to see Martin Heidegger in his remote Black Forest cabin in Germany and published an English translation of his Vom Wesen des Grundes (The Essence of Reasons).[ ((Tucker, Thomas Dean and Stuart Kendall, eds. Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014; Maher, Jr., Paul. One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick. St. Raleigh, NC: Lulu Enterprises Incorporated, 2013.))] In Tree of Life, however, the auteur is as much in conversation with Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of everyday life as he is with Heidegger’s phenomenology.

Tree of Life is a litany of the everyday. The film is a circular narrative told through the view of one family. Children play outdoors and run through suburban streets, returning home in the evenings. Malick is nothing if not attuned to the rituals of quotidian Americana. The imagery moves in a hypnotic cycle: the home, the yard, the street, the home, the field, the forest, the home, the river, the pool, the church, the home. Natural imagery, characteristically Malick, takes up a lot of real estate in the story. But the domestic sphere is the narrative axiom of the film. In Malick’s impressionist style, scenes flit outdoors to indoors, from streets and yards to bedrooms and kitchens, always returning, again and again, to the dining room and table.


Confrontations at the dinner table
Confrontations at the dinner table.

The table is the film’s symbolic center (as it is the home’s). The table signifies the family and acts as a microcosm of the larger social world. The table scenes do not simply gesture nostalgically to pre-digital suburban life and simpler times. The table is the site of struggle between foundational tensions—the very stuff, if we take seriously Malick’s juxtapositions of mundane life with cosmological phenomena, that fuels the expansion and development of the universe.

In Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), Bourdieu writes of the place of bodily comportment and table etiquette in everyday social life. To paraphrase his account, a parental figure commands their children’s attention at the dinner table: Sit up! Sit straight! Hold your fork and knife correctly! But table manners are only one element. Bourdieu argues that an entire world-making, an inculcation of worldview, occurs through the most primary of instructional etiquette.[ ((Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977, 94.))] The architecture of the home, in other words, is a moral space that enables and constrains embodied actions. For Malick, as with Bourdieu, the table is a symbolically thick node in the hierarchy of social power. The table has constant recourse to society at large. The home is a microcosm.

In Malick’s
magnum opus, cosmological struggles play out in the everyday life of this single
American family. In cyclical stretches of imagery, first one, then another of
the children challenge the social order by defying the father. In each instance
of hierarchy momentarily upset, the father responds violently. He meets the contests
of authority through visceral performances of toxic masculine angst and
aggression.

In one moving scene, the eldest son acknowledges to his father: “It’s your house. You can make me leave if you want.” The father and son are not, to be clear, discussing the house as an architectural entity. For Malick, the house is a metaphor. And even a single structure, to recall Charlie Kaufman’s meta-existentialist epic about a city-in-a-city, can be a synecdoche.

Given his status as a skilled raconteur, the Heideggerian traditionalism through which Malick recycles Hollywood’s rejection of modern homes is predictable. There are brief vignettes of wonder and perhaps the slightest hints of a hard sort of beauty in his depictions of urban sharpness and verticality. But for Malick, in the end, modern architecture conveys status, alienation, complexity, confusion, sterility. One critic aptly describes the matter, writing that “for Malick, the modern world is the fallen world.”[ ((Hawthorne, Christopher. “Critic’s Notebook: Woody Allen, Terrence Malick Engage in Architectural Nostalgia.” Los Angeles Times, 19 June 2011), https://www.latimes.com/ entertainment/la-xpm-2011-jun-19-la-ca-hawthorne-notebook-20110619-story.html.))]


Glass and verticality in the city
Glass and verticality in the city.

The film’s conclusion offers a surrealist vision of the afterlife in which the linear logic of time and space erodes. The son who has passed away appears as he did when he was a nine- or ten-year-old. Multiple versions of the family members are present. The viewer observes the eldest son observing himself, one of several selves of memory past.


Domestic imagery in the afterlife
Domestic imagery in the afterlife.

Even in Tree of Life’s final moments, architecture continues to command a presence. The mother stands at the threshold of her children’s childhood home: the modest vernacular structure, a humble example of folk classical, perhaps working-class Victorian.


Vernacular suburban home
Vernacular suburban home.

The modern homes, Scandinavian nor minimalist, are nowhere in sight. The domestic architecture of the childhood home claims the place of the American axis mundi.[ ((In The Myth of the Eternal Return (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005): 12-17, Mircea Eliade argues that temples, palaces, and other institutional sites constitute axis mundi, that is, liminal spaces wherein heaven and earth converge. Malick inverts Eliade’s depiction of sacred spaces, apotheosizing the humbleness of domestic Americana.))]



Image Credits:

  1. The expansive minimalist home in Knight of Cups. (author’s screen grab)
  2. The architect’s minimalist home. (author’s screengrab)
  3. Midmod Scandinavian Interior. (author’s screen grab)
  4. Glass and verticality in the city. (author’s screen grab)
  5. Domestic imagery in the afterlife. (author’s screen grab)
  6. Vernacular suburban home. (author’s screen grab)


References:




From Crazy Rich Asians to Netflix: The “Rebirth” of Romantic Comedies
Katherine E. Morrissey / San Francisco State University


Crazy Rich Asians (2018) Movie Poster
Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)

Author’s Note: This column is the first in a three part series about the supposed death and rebirth of the romantic comedy film. In this series, I will be tracing the romantic comedy’s shift from medium-budget Hollywood staple into a smaller-budget Netflix and digital streaming genre.

The romantic comedy is back! At least, that’s what many critics have declared, following the box-office success of Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) and the media buzz around Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018). Apparently, the rom-com had been dead and is now reborn. The reality, however, is more complicated. The supposed death of the rom-com was less a death and more a morphing and rebranding. Since the 1990s, romantic and comedic story elements have been mobilized across a number of different films and categories that critics, industry, and audiences are reluctant to label romantic comedies.

Why this reluctance to notice the changing shape of romantic comedy? For industry, the issue remains, in part, a marketing issue. Calling something a rom-com comes with risks and threatens the product’s ability to attract mixed-gender audiences. For media scholars, the issue is twofold. First, we are still dealing with resistance to investigating (or enjoying) feminized and supposedly middlebrow popular media. Second, and perhaps more important, many scholars are trained to police the boundaries of genre taxonomies. As such, many look for the most normative examples of a genre and overlook the outliers. For the past 15 years, romantic comedy has been appearing in all sorts of places. However, these romantic comedies do not always fit the “neo-traditional” romantic comedy mold that dominated in Hollywood over the course of the 1980s and 1990s.

Recent shifts in the content and distribution patterns for romantic comedy can only be fully understood when we also consider two important factors: One, the rom-com’s historic role in shoring up white middleclass heterosexuals as the default for romance. Two, the technological, industrial, and economic changes that began unfolding in Hollywood over the course of the late-90s and continue to affect Hollywood production and distribution patterns today.

Where did it go? Distribution Patterns and Neo-Traditional Rom-Coms

Over the course of the 80s and 90s, romantic comedies were widely viewed as a reliable bet at the box office. This was due, in part, to their lower production costs. Romantic comedies didn’t earn as much as the major Hollywood blockbusters. However, as “medium budget” films, they also cost significantly less to produce and had solid domestic and international returns. Runaway Bride (Marshall, 1999), with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, cost $70 million and earned $309 million worldwide (“Runaway Bride (1999)”). Runaway Bride, Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993) and You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998) are examples of what Tamar Jeffers McDonald calls the “neo-traditional” romantic comedy (2007). These films overwhelmingly feature white, straight, cis-gender, and middle-class protagonists. They also emphasize “imprecise nostalgia,” tend to intertextually reference past romantic comedies and dramas, and deemphasize sex (McDonald 136).


You've Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway
Bride (Marshall, 1999)
You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway
Bride
(Marshall, 1999)

These market-safe neo-traditional stories served as industry counterprogramming in the 1980s and 90s. These were “films that would appeal to that segment of the audience not usually attracted to the male-oriented ‘tentpole’ films” (Radner 117). Rom-coms in the late 20th century were a useful pallet cleanser, counterprogramming to entice audiences not explicitly hailed by the bigger blockbusters.

However, between 2000 and 2009, there were significant economic shifts in Hollywood and the ownership of major studios.[ (( For more see “New Hollywood, New Millennium” by Thomas Schatz (2009) and Hollywood in the New Millennium by Tino Balio (2013). ))] More emphasis was placed on large-scale media franchises spread out across the various production/entertainment arms of media conglomerates. This left much less room in studio budgets for stand-alone medium-budget “chick flicks.” The films that survived were crafted to appeal to more mixed-gender audiences. For example, a cycle of more bro-friendly, raunchy, kinda romantic-comedy films followed the success of the Farrelly Brother’s There’s Something About Mary (1998). Examples of this cycle include The 40-Year- Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005) and Knocked Up (Apatow, 2007). These films reflect an effort at rebranding and eschewing the “chick-flick” label more than they do a radical departure in rom-com content.

The “Other” Rom-Coms

A quieter and more significant morphing in the rom-com genre began in the 1980s and 90s. During this period, the romantic comedy was being “remodeled for (and appropriated by) niche audiences defined by ethnicity, sexual orientation or age” (Krutnik 130). Frank Krutnik tracks a series of innovations in the genre, including an increasing number of romantic comedy films focused on African-American characters and same-sex relationships (2002). Many of the films Krutnik identifies were not marketed as romantic comedies. Instead, they tended to be positioned as African-American, Black or urban comedies. Or, they might be labeled queer, art, or independent cinema. (For example, Booty Call [Pollack, 1997] or The Best Man [Lee, 1999] and The Wedding Banquet [Lee, 1993] or Better Than Chocolate [Wheeler, 1999].) Were these films romantic comedies? I say yes. Would everyone in the audience or industry want to call these films rom-coms? I doubt it.


The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)
The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)

In 2013, Tatiana Siegel at The Hollywood Reporter declared that the rom-com was, essentially, dead. And, in terms of the neo-traditional rom-coms that  audiences became accustomed to in the late 20th century, that certainly seems to have been true. However, just because one dominant type of romantic comedy faded from view, that doesn’t mean romantic comedy film actually died. In 2014, Vanity Fair reporter Kate Erbland issued a correction. The rom-com was not dead, it just was “no longer the playground of big studios.” Erbland points out two things: 1) the genre was alive and well in the indie film market and 2) when major studios did make rom-coms they were typically “aimed at black audiences.” Think Like a Man (Story, 2012) and About Last Night (Pink, 2014) are two examples of successful romantic comedies featuring predominantly black casts from the 2010s.

These titles are just a few examples of a less recognized but important strain of romantic comedy films that has been steadily remodeling the romantic comedy format since the 1990s. Romantic comedy films were made in the 2000s and 2010s, but they weren’t always fitting into the neo-traditional rom-com mold. Industry, critics, scholars, and audiences seem to struggle with explicitly labelling these films romantic comedy. I suspect this reluctance to label has a lot to do with what we expect the people in a romantic comedy to look like and the audiences we assume a rom-com will cater to.

In my next column, I’ll talk about two films that have been hailed as marking the “rebirth” of romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. I’ll focus on why these two films were hailed as the return of the rom-com and use these films to trace an ongoing transition in the rom-com’s form and in its distribution patterns.



Image Credits:

  1. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
  2. You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway Bride (Marshall, 1999)
  3. The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)


References:

Balio, Tino. Hollywood in the New Millennium. 2013 edition, British Film Institute, 2013.

Krutnik, Frank. “Conforming Passions?: Contemporary Romantic Comedy.” Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, edited by Steve Neale, British Film Institute, 2002, pp. 130–47.

McDonald, Tamar Jeffers. Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. Wallflower, 2007.

Radner, Hilary. Neo-Feminist Cinema: Girly Films, Chick Flicks, and Consumer Culture. Routledge, 2011.

“Runaway Bride (1999).” Box Office Mojo, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=runawaybride.htm. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Schatz, Thomas. “New Hollywood, New Millenium.” Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies, Routledge, 2009, pp. 19–46.




Ghostbusters, Queef Jokes, and a Woman’s Right to Make Noise
Alexis Carreiro / Queens University of Charlotte

Flow Column Image 01

Actual depiction of men who don’t think women are funny.

“This film never was meant to be political. But, ridiculously, it became just that.” – Paul Feig (( Feig, Paul. “What I Learned About Being a Woman This Year (Guest Column).” The Hollywood Reporter. December 8, 2016. ))

From the time that Paul Feig announced he was rebooting Ghostbusters in 2014, the online backlash was almost immediate and the project was under constant scrutiny. At first, gender-swapping the four male characters with female characters was the main criticism. That one change was enough to send hardcore fans of the original films into a tailspin and their accusations covered the project (and the Internet) in a sticky coat of misogynistic, nerd boy nostalgia. As the project progressed, however, it received additional (and legitimate) criticism about casting the three Caucasian actresses as scientists and the one African American actress as a New York City subway worker. Then the movie opened and some of the critiques shifted to the queef joke early in the film.

Flow Column Image 02

Ghostbusters (2016) criticism on Twitter

In the scene, an oddball scientist played by Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live’s first openly lesbian cast member), plays audio of supernatural sounds for a colleague and a fart noise is on the recording.

Flow Column Image 03

Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann

After playing the noise, she asks, “is it more or less disgusting if I tell you it came from the front?” The joke is absurd but not insignificant. It’s also one of the various factors that (despite Feig’s disbelief) makes the film political.

All human bodies make noise, but it is socially acceptable for some human bodies to make more noise than others. For example, fart jokes have a long and varied history in entertainment and popular culture. In “The History of the Fart Joke,” Gogo Lidz charts the progression of fart jokes from Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, and Mark Twain, to Blazing Saddles, Monty Python, Austin Powers, and Anchorman [ ((Lidz, Gogo. “The History of the Fart Joke.” Newsweek. October 4, 2014.))]. Farts, of course, are universal and occur in both men and women but in pop culture, it’s usually men who get to make the most noise. However, anyone who thinks fart jokes are funny should think queef jokes are funny too, because it’s a similar sound; it just comes from a slightly different location. Yet that isn’t always the case. Unlike fart jokes, queef jokes have a less prominent place in popular culture.

All-male comedies written by male writers with jokes unique to the male experience (see: dick jokes, “blue ball” jokes, early morning erection jokes, erections-at-the-wrong-time jokes, caught-in-a-zipper jokes, etc.) are far more common than all-female comedies written with female writers that include jokes unique to the female experience (aside from childbirth). [ ((This points to a much larger discussion about the explicit and implicit representation of vaginas in films and comedy. However, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) took on vaginas, queefs, and childbirth in their episode Eat, Pray, Queef. In it, one of the characters says “You think farts are funny. Why not queefs?” and the other character replies “because babies come from there.” This suggests that it is difficult for audiences to simultaneously think of the vagina as a sexual object, a comedic object, and a “sacred” object capable of symbolizing motherhood—all at the same time.))] This may be one reason Katie Dippold, one of the head screenwriters on Ghostbusters, had to fight to keep the joke in the script. According to Dippold, “It’s not like I thought that one day I would be fighting for a queef joke, but it was a big debate… Fart jokes have been in movies for years. If the only thing offensive about this is that it comes from the vagina, I’m like, ‘That’s on you!’”[ ((Diehl, Matt. (July 12 2016) “Katie Dippold, the Hottest Comedy Writer in Hollywood,W Magazine online.))]

Silence and noise, when strategically deployed, are both political; they represent a refusal to accept social norms and may be used as a form of protest. According to Mary Chapman, author of Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism, “early twentieth-century suffragists’ radical deployment of noise as a mode of political self-expression was in many ways a reaction both to these proscriptions against women’s public utterance in nineteenth-century America and to the opportunities presented by the changing context of the modern public sphere.” [ ((Mary Chapman. Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism. Oxford University Press, New York: 2014: 33.))] It is, of course, an overreach to compare a woman’s right to queef with a woman’s right to vote, but they are, in fact, related.

Body politics (the practices, policies, and social control of the body) are politics, so it matters which actors’ bodies get to make noise and which don’t — and which bodies are cast in which roles. Therefore, does the queef joke “save” the film as a feminist film? No. Of course not. The film itself is mediocre and the casting criticisms are valid. Sure, casting Melissa McCarthy as one of the lead characters makes economic sense. Out of the other three actresses, she is the biggest box office star. Based on her success with Spy (2015), it made sense to give her top billing. Hollywood films are risky and expensive to make so to offset that risk, they chose an actress who has a strong fan base and a proven track record to lead an ensemble cast. However, Leslie Jones could have easily played either of the other scientists instead of being relegated to the subway worker. So, in that regard, while the film might destabilize gender stereotypes, it simultaneously reinforces racial stereotypes. As a result, the Ghostbusters queef joke is only a small victory. Sure, it reinforces women’s right to make noise (from whatever hole they please), to be noisy, to refuse to shut up and conform and stay silent — but feminism gains little if it’s at the expense of other groups.

Therefore, a related question is not only who gets cast in which roles but, who is allowed to make noise in those roles and who is not? Which bodies? And specifically, what kind of noise and from where? As in, which body “gets” to queef on film and how will it be received? As Leigh Cuen points out, “In the few instances of films openly referencing queefing, the jokes are usually made at women’s expense. Take, for instance, a queef joke in the Ben Stiller movie The Heartbreak Kid, in which the vaginal puff is meant to show how unromantic married life can be.” [ ((Cuen, Leigh. (2016) “This ‘Ghostbusters’ Joke Is Starting a Convo About the Last Taboo In Women’s Sexuality.”))] The distinction between the Ghostbusters joke and The Heartbreak Kid joke, as Cuen points out, lies between laughing with women rather than laughing at them. So perhaps in 2016, quirky McKinnon is the safest choice for this joke. Would critics of the film have disapproved of the queef joke coming from Jones as the only African American woman in the cast? Or McCarthy because she’s “plus-sized?” Would it have been perceived as a way to de-sexualize them in comparison to their peers? From which body is a queef joke the funniest? The raunchiest? The most grotesque? Which bodies are audiences more likely to laugh with — rather than laugh at? In her book, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, Kathlee Rowe “investigates the power of female grotesques and female laughter to challenge the social and symbolic systems that would keep women in their place. More often, the conventions of both popular culture and high art represent women as objects rather than subjects of laughter.”[ ((Kathleen Rowe. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. University of Texas Press, 1995: 3.))] In Ghostbusters, McKinnon is in on the joke. She delivers the punch line and is the subject of the laughter — not the object. In this way, the queef joke may function as a social barometer — indicating how far we’ve come as a society in laughing with women rather than at them and accepting a (slender, blonde, white, lesbian) woman’s right to make noise.

However, true progress in the history of queef jokes will come when more diverse bodies (fat, brown, queer, trans, disabled, etc.) are allowed to make this kind of noise in mainstream Hollywood films — and be the subject, not the object, of the joke.

Image Credits:
1. Women Aren’t Funny
2. Queef Joke, Author’s Twitter screen capture.
3. Kate McKinnon, Author’s screencapture.

Please feel free to comment.




Stasis, Change, and Televisual Comic Book Film Franchising
Derek Johnson / University of Wisconsin-Madison

The “televisualization” of the comic book film.
Looking back at the year 2014, Mark Harris of the sports and pop culture blog Grantland recently characterized Hollywood as haunted by superheroes, unable to break its cyclical dependence on formulaic sequels even as that franchising threatens to “poop all over everything.” Such overwrought, doomsday reflection on the “toxic” and “annihilating” creative atmosphere within the blockbuster-driven film industry is anything but novel. Over at Antenna, Brad Schauer has explored the ways in which critics lamenting the supposed end of narrative in Hollywood position themselves as the “last bastion” of good taste in opposition to the audiences of comic book films, and his research more broadly has revealed the long history by which science fiction and other franchise blockbusters have been dismissed by critics. So I’d add very little here to merely take Harris to task for keeping that story running. But where Harris does make an extremely valuable contribution to our understanding of contemporary Hollywood—in need of both further exploration and further critique of the kind Schauer might call for—is in his realization that the contemporary comic book blockbuster has given film an increasingly televisual quality.

Of greatest concern to Harris about the film industry of 2014 is the way that it replicated itself into 2015 and beyond, as made most tangibly clear by the carefully planned futures of the DC Comics and Marvel Comics film franchises. Each company made spectacular announcements throughout the year revealing the titles of dozens of comic book films to be produced by the end of the decade. As Harris writes, the film industry of 2014 is all about “creating a sense of anticipation in its target audience that is so heightened, so nurtured, and so constant that moviegoers are effectively distracted from how infrequently their expectations are actually satisfied. Movies are no longer about the thing; they’re about the next thing, the tease, the Easter egg, the post-credit sequence, the promise of a future at which the moment we’re in can only hint.” Despite his doom and gloom, Harris provides here an extremely useful perspective on narrative aesthetics in contemporary media franchising. Much as I have argued that media franchising applies the logic of episodic production long central to US television to a host of other entertainment industries, Harris conceptualizes this promise and anticipation of the future as a televisionification of blockbuster film. “TV knows how to keep people coming back, which is its job, every day and every week, and is a quality that, above all others, the people who finance movies would dearly love to poach,” Harris writes. While the specific episodic logics that have long been a part of comic book form can be seen to have their own transformational effects on television (as argued by Alisa Perren), Harris’ insight encourages us to look in parallel to television studies to understand what is happening in the industrial embrace of the comic book film.

Marvel film slate
The Marvel film slate through 2018 is announced.
While Harris’ invocation of television seems meant to evoke a sense of monotonous, economically determined, illegitimate, and above all risk-averse form of cultural production to justify his claims about creative bankruptcy, television scholars might consider the case of comic book film franchising with somewhat more ambivalence. Yes, we have long known that episodic television is an especially risk averse and particularly repetitive cultural form. Yet TV scholars like Jeff Sconce have considered what it might mean to be creative within that context. Thinking about the challenges of ongoing, episodic production and above all the need to generate episodic difference amid the reuse of series and generic formula, Sconce argues that the “true art in the algebra of televisual repetition is not the formula but the unique integers plugged into the equation.” ((Jeffrey Sconce, “What If: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition (eds. Lynn Spiegel and Jan Olsson, pp. 93-112. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 105.)) In this way, television studies can prompt us to think about franchised creativity as something that comes as much in response to repetition as something annihilated by it. Creativity in that sense might be a little less celebrated and magical, and instead a more negotiated struggle through which formula support both stasis and change at the same time.

Harris’ essay seems to focus only on stasis. He looks at the production slate for Marvel Studios and sees the extension of a 2014 formula (itself an extension of what’s proven successful in years past) to the next several years of blockbuster filmmaking through 2020. He sees the replication of that formula as a reason to be concerned for all “the movies that aren’t getting made.” And he’s right. The Marvel films are nothing if not formulaic, and the crowding of the blockbuster market by comic book films like here https://grademiners.com/dissertation-chapters —to say nothing of what blockbuster emphasis in general means for quieter independent projects and untested ideas—is a concern about diversity of voice and perspective that cannot be waved away by a conversation about the art of repetition. But Harris’ invocation of television means we have to think about the unique integers demanded by repetition too.

DC slate
The DC Comics film release line-up through 2020.
Of course Harris is willing to admit that with the huge number of comic book films being
produced, the odds are that one or two “good” movies will “sprout up.” Instead of looking at such instances as anomalies in an otherwise homogeneous sea of carefully managed production, though, we might think about them as important parts of franchising logic—the variance and “unique integers” necessary to keep the formula fresh and, especially, to adapt that formula to new audiences and tastes. More than anything, Harris seems troubled by the “Stalinist” way studios have planned out the road to 2020, introducing one new comic book hero or property after another to be run through the same blockbuster franchise formula. For DC, Superman vs. Batman will lead to Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman; for Marvel, Avengers: Age of Ultron will lead to Ant-Man and Captain Marvel. Yet there’s something permitted here in the plugging of all these different integers into the same formula that earlier moments in the franchising of comic book films did not. The promise of a future represented by Grademiners.com these extended production slates depends on a commitment to gradual, cumulative narrative change and the exploration of new characters to replace the old (no more rebooting in order to tell the exact same story again, a la Sony’s Spider-Man film franchise; though the breaking news that Sony will allow Marvel to reunite Spider-Man and The Avengers suggests one last reboot may be required there before Marvel commits to integrating the character in their long-term, future-thinking strategy). That promise of cumulative development may ultimately go undelivered, but it imagines Hollywood franchise filmmaking as something ideally balancing formulaic stasis with iterative dynamism.

Captain Marvel
Carol Danvers, also known as Captain Marvel, is set to make her big-screen debut in 2018.
While glacial, these dynamic shifts have political importance too. How might the stability of the formula allow a broader range of experimentation in imagining power and who gets to wield it in these popular fantasies? Even if formulaic, both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel represent a shift in industrial logic as to whom the subjects and audiences of blockbuster franchising might include. Make no mistake—this is a shift based in market analysis and calculated risk assessment, but nevertheless one that should be recognized as something other than simply more of the same. Unfolding over time across a decade of industry strategy, franchising is a site where we can see glacial changes in corporate culture, logics, and lore. As Joss Whedon so eloquently quipped in describing Marvel’s post-Guardians of the Galaxy confidence in the extension of its franchise formula, “If a raccoon can carry a movie, then they believe maybe even a woman can.”

Wonder Woman
A publicity still for Wonder Woman, directed by Michelle MacLaren and slated for a 2017 release.
With this in mind, my point is not that we should celebrate Marvel for offering change in the most cynical, managed, and risk averse way possible. Instead, it is to point out that the persistent presence of almost imperceptible change helps us put in new perspective the concerns that Harris and others have about the movies that aren’t getting made. Because franchise formulas do change, they can be applied to new markets and new audiences. Five years ago, moviegoers had to look well outside of Marvel’s offerings to find strong female heroes at the center of a film narrative; five years from now, strong female heroes dissertation help will have become one of the many unique integers plugged into the Marvel formula, and that formula may have become the most profitable, risk averse place for that kind of content. If successful, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman may create a larger market for fantasy narratives focused on women (and hopefully made by women), but at the same time they may cement the overall Marvel film franchise as a one-size-fits-all formula that can be adjusted to suit all audiences (and producers). We might similarly think of the Ghostbusters franchise as one of many new potential containers for comedians like Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. Our critical concern for media franchising, therefore, should take a page from television studies (and in this case, feminist television studies) to be equally attuned to formulaic mutability as the potential for creative stasis.

Image Credits:

1. The “televisualization” of the comic book film.
2. The Marvel film slate through 2018 is announced.
3. The DC Comics film release line-up through 2020.
4. Carol Danvers, also known as Captain Marvel, is set to make her big-screen debut in 2018.
5. A publicity still for Wonder Woman, directed by Michelle MacLaren and slated for a 2017 release.

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