Syndication 203: A Waxy Queer Buildup
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia


The title character of 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman' sits at her kitchen table writing in her journal

This column is part of an ongoing series. The previous installment of this series can be viewed here.

Mary Hartman sits at her kitchen table grasping a notebook of pink paper. She dons her iconic prairie minidress with its Peter Pan collar and optimistic shoulders, but her hair falls unraveled from its signature braids offering hints that something is undone. “Dear Journal: What I’ve been thinking about lately is being bisexual. Bi, as in bicentennial, only, a little dirtier.” Probably the most common refrain conjured for TV historians and journalists about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is that the 1976-77 syndicated serial was ahead of its time. But its star Louise Lasser always echoes the same retort: “Mary Hartman wasn’t ahead of its time; it was its time.” And perhaps the show never proves that sentiment better than by inviting us to join her at the kitchen table as she records these thoughts on culture, feminism, and sexuality in the 1970s.[ (( Mary is writing these journal entries for a memoir by Gore Vidal, no less. ))]

In this installment of my series, I discuss the potential that television syndication has offered queerness over the years through a case study of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Whereas the TV history canon we tend to cling to emphasizes the networks and their practice of least objectionable programming, a turn toward histories of local or first-run syndication exposes a very different picture of television’s past. And while there are plenty of decidedly normative syndie shows, queer sexuality, gender, and genre often epitomized the practice of first-run syndication like in hit daytime talk shows where queer people first spoke for themselves as well as in queer darlings like Xena, He-Man, and Jem. While scholars have written sporadically about the queerness of such TV, the unexamined element throughout each that I bridge here is an introduction to how the syndicatedness of those shows encouraged their queerest aspects.


San Antonio Express review of Mary Hartman
San Antonio Express‘s review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman focuses on the eponymous blue-collar housewife, a mother enduring a reality of failed promises—everything from the floor polish that accretes a waxy yellow buildup beneath her feet to a lifetime of unrequited sexual desire and unfulfilled happiness. Piercing through her continuous struggle to reproduce the perfectly gendered life she watches on her kitchen television set, Mary’s ennui bubbles up in involuntary vocalized gasps so heartbreaking and familiar to me as a queer person, it feels like they expose my darkest secrets while shredding me down to the bone. She’s at odds with everything, yet trying not to be.

Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps

Mary Hartman started life as a failure. At the time he pitched the show, creator Norman Lear was producing five of the top ten highest-rated network shows on television. Despite his recorded successes, however, all three networks passed because Mary Hartman was “too weird” with its unstable genre that mixed conventions of the sitcom, drama, and soap opera with Lear’s frank depictions of social issues, specifically here, those related to sexuality. So Lear took it to television’s last refuge of failure, syndication, and there it became a phenomenal success for the mostly independent stations that picked it up. Newsweek called it a “sort of video Rorschach test for the mass audience”[ (( Waters and Kasindorf, “The Mary Hartman Craze.” Newsweek, May 3, 1976. ))] while Ms. Magazine’s review said that its “melodramatic pileup of calamities is outrageous.”[ (( Harrington, Stephanie.“Mary Hartman: The Unedited, All-American Unconscious.” Ms. Magazine, May 1976. ))]

Lear’s network shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude certainly pushed the cultural boundaries of television with “very special episodes,” but his syndicated shows serialized taboo stories into more comprehensive characterizations. Whereas “very special episodes” engender a patriarchal tradition of capturing and restraining potentially subversive content that could challenge a heteronormative order, the serial rarely finishes and a return to sitcom stasis is indefinitely deferred. Mary Hartman’s director Joan Darling once hilariously described this delayed gratification and extended queer time saying “it’s like screwing forever and never being able to come.”[ (( McCormack, Ed.“BB Shot Wounds, Whiplash, Storms of Weeping, Traumas That Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog! They’re All Part of the Real-Life Story of Mary Hartman’s Secret Recipe for Mock Cornball Surprise.” Rolling Stone, March 25, 1976. ))] Without network brass to contend with, in syndication Lear and his writers could really explore experimentation, genre, and identity play.


Magazine cover with Linda Murkland
After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man.

Over the course of dozens of episodes, Mary Hartman alone serializes the coming-out stories of a gay couple, a throuple, and at least three different bisexual characters all eventually leading up to a same-sex kiss shared by Mary and another woman—17 years before Roseanne did it with great fanfare in a “very special episode” on ABC. Lear’s second syndie serial All That Glitters (most often paired with Mary Hartman), meanwhile, featured a trans character in a leading role—an achievement American television would not reproduce for nearly 40 years—granting her 15 episodes to serialize her struggles against the cultural norms of gender identity and sexual liberation in the 1970s with an additional 36 episodes dedicated to her subsequent relationship and eventual marriage.

But for Lear, going for it was as much about strategic programming as it was creative expression. Like the syndie tabloid talk shows before him learned, the easiest way to compete with network budgets was to venture into the kind of programming they never would. Headwriter Ann Marcus even recorded in her autobiography that Lear’s most common direction for them was to “be as outrageous as possible.”[ (( Marcus, Ann. Whistling Girl: A Memoir. Los Angeles: Mulholland Pacific Publishing. 1998. ))] Mary Kay Place, who plays Loretta Haggers on the show, had previously worked with Lear in the writers’ room of his network shows and was struck by the difference between the productions. “Because we were syndicated, we didn’t have the box of Standards and Practices that the networks had … We had freedom to create. We were bad. We were good. But we did amazing stuff.”[ (( Wszalek, Arlene. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: Inside the Funhouse Mirror. Documentary. Authorized Pictures, 2008. ))]

Out from under the watchful eye of a centralized network, its stifling censors, and typical S&P advertisers (as a syndie show filled by local commercial time), the writers answered only to themselves and the syndicating stations, which both Lear and Lasser told me only requested one edit in a 325-episode run. Queer issues and explicit stories about feminism and sexuality became dependable go-tos for garnering more viewers in the 1970s, be they fans or hate-watchers. One station manager reportedly called Lear to cheerfully report, “I’ve got 75 people marching on my station this afternoon to protest Mary Hartman. I love it!” [ (( O’Hallaren, Bill. “A Cute Tomato, A Couple Slices of Baloney, Some Sour Grapes, A Few Nuts …” TV Guide, June 19, 1976. ))]

Every bit as much as the show flourishes in the liminal spaces between traditional television genres, its syndicatedness freed producers and station managers from bearing the network burden of audience ubiquity in television’s famously gendered programming line-up. Although Mary Hartman is typically described as a late-night show, its original local listings don’t exactly bear that out and illustrate how different stations experimented with different kinds of audiences in a television schedule that has always been highly gendered.


Syndicated TV listings for the show
Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

In many markets, it counter-programmed the news or late-night talk shows. But in New Hampshire and San Francisco, it ran opposite Porky Pig, in North Carolina opposite Sesame Street, in Orlando against reruns of Hopalong Cassidy, and in Des Moines it originally took The Mickey Mouse Club’s spot. Mostly missing primetime, syndicated programming like Mary Hartman has to be flexible enough to succeed in a variety of time slots—to function both as narrowcasting and as broader-casting—which make it prime for queer audiences and latchkey kids watching television without parental supervision. As a result, producers of syndie programming commonly explore different kinds of identities and genres for their shows and characters. Xena: Warrior Princess, for instance (which I watched as a teenager on Saturdays after Soul Train) featured a silly parody of the movie Clue in one episode and in the following week, Romans crucified Xena and her ambiguously lesbian partner Gabrielle. Battle on, Xena![ (( Xena: Warrior Princess parodies many different films besides Clue, like Footloose, Groundhog Day, and Indiana Jones). It plays with various genres (dramas, serials, westerns, Kung Fu films, screwball comedies, talk shows, religious, and musicals) and subversively revises important cultural events such that Xena becomes their central figure, including David’s defeat of Goliath, the fall of Julius Caesar, the Trojan War, the wild west, the unchaining of Prometheus, the story of Pandora, the discovery of electricity, the rise of Christianity, and the events of A Christmas Carol, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Odyssey. ))]


image description
Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel.

In serving the marginalized schedule and the oddball audience, syndication itself has been analogous to queerness in many ways. It is liminal, flexible, on the outskirts, in between, bordering, surrounding, apart from, and peripheral. It can seem silly, forgettable, unworthy, but also scandalizing and debased. It can and does transgress or subvert ideologies and intervene in cultural discourses. It can defy categories even as it can also cement them. While neither Mary Hartman nor All That Glitters were the first scripted syndies, they did beget a number of genre-bending, glittery, and excessively provocative programming that characterized much of the syndie offerings proliferating in the 1980s and early ‘90s. And while we are quick to herald the queer pioneering of streaming television today, a cultural history of syndication reveals a kind of synergy between syndication and queerness that streamers are really borrowing—from their numerous reboots to pick-ups of network rejects and even based-ons like Glow. Syndie TV was not so much ahead of its time but of its time and like regular television, only, “a little dirtier.”



Image Credits:

  1. “Episode 177” from DVD boxset of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s screengrab)
  2. San Antonio Express’ review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship. (author’s personal collection)
  3. Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps
  4. After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man. Cover of the author’s copy of TV Showtime from The Cleveland Press, Apr. 29-May 6, 1977. (author’s personal collection)
  5. Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s graphic)
  6. Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel. Picture from https://xenagateguard.tumblr.com/post/75102795836/xena-gabrielle-baby-eve


References:




The Homogenized Queerness of Historical Television
Britta Hanson / University of Texas at Austin

Borgias 6
A queer seduction in Renaissance Italy on The Borgias between Micheletto (Sean Harris) and Pascal (Charlie Carrick).

How much does historical representation matter? On television, it is in a grey area at best.[ ((Aspects of this topic were originally presented at the Film and History conference in Madison, Wisconsin and QGRAD at UCLA. My thanks to all those who gave feedback there and elsewhere.))] Although many historical series are conceived of as prestige productions, their fidelity to the eras they depict is hardly by-the-book.[ ((As one measure of prestige, 18 of 32 Emmy nominees for the Drama Series Emmy in the past five years (2012-2016).))] In a much discussed, example, The Tudors decided that Henry VIII didn’t need to grow round as he aged. With the exception of the occasional diehard historian, though, most audience members don’t see significant harm in these changes – and perhaps rightly so. The setting, historical or present-day, is ultimately a stage on which the characters and stories play.

If we change the question to how much LGBT representation matters, though, the stakes are exponentially higher. In spite of increased numbers of LGBT characters on television overall, the quality and diversity of their representation remains spotty at best, with the Spring 2016 “Kill Your Gays” [[http://ew.com/article/2016/06/11/atx-bury-your-gays-trope-lexa-100/]] epidemic serving as just one recent example. [ ((4.8% of series regulars in 2016-2017 were LGBT, a 60.4% increase over 2011-2012, according TO GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV reports.))]

It is at the intersection of historical and LGBT representation, then, that we find a curious (or, shall we say, queer) niche: same-sex-oriented characters in non-modern contexts.[ ((Given the brevity of this article, and the paucity of representations in that category, I will not be discussing transgender experiences, although I wish to stress the importance of and need for such representations on the air.))] While little explored, these kinds of representation are arguably even more important than contemporary portrayals of queer experiences.

Yes, portraying modern, everyday queer experiences has great socio-cultural importance. But it’s also important to remember that, historically, the nature of queer experiences have been an especially difficult to track. Across many periods and cultures, people who pursued same-sex attraction often faced dire ramifications for their actions, legal or otherwise. This illicit connotation means that, while historical accounts do exist for the eagle-eyed researcher to find, the archival record of queerness is often hidden from view.[ ((See the revised preface and introduction of Jonathan Ned Katz’s landmark collection of primary sources, Gay American History (New York: Meridian, rev. ed. 1992) for further discussion of the trials of writing queer history, as well as that history’s diversity.))] By depicting queer figures in history, then, television has the power to break through this seeming invisibility, and give queerness a voice where many assume it had none.

These historical same-sex experiences, though, are far from equivalent to the present-day concept of homosexuality. Indeed, the Western concept of binary sexual orientations – i.e., of homosexuality and heterosexuality as mutually exclusive and immutable categories of personhood is of radically recent vintage.[ ((Most historians of sexuality more or less support Foucault’s argument that, in the Western context, the contemporary understanding of a “homosexual” as a “species” of person did not begin to take shape until the nineteenth century. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1976), 43.))] And neither this nor any other unified definition of homosexuality has applied throughout history. Quite the opposite: the meaning and experience of same-sex desire has shifted radically across periods and cultures.

Yet many historical television series apply our contemporary understanding of gender and sex to their period, ignoring the ideas unique to that era and culture. This trend is most obvious on shows set in the distant past, beyond the easy recollection of our parents or grandparents. A sampling of such shows featuring queer experiences is in the chart below. By applying a homogenous, contemporary framework to the varied past, these series provide a misleading portrayal of the ever-shifting concept of sexuality in culture.

Distant-Period Series Chart

For example, The Borgias follows the titular clan’s schemes for ever-greater power across the Renaissance Italian city-states. Renaissance Italy was relatively tolerant of same-sex relations, generally speaking. Men often did not marry until their thirties, and then took brides barely in their teens. In this culture of bachelors, sexual relationships often formed between older and younger men.[ ((See here and Laura J. McGough, Gender, Sexuality, and Syphilis in Early Modern Venice: Disease that Came to Stay (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 27.))] The practice became so common that one reformer moaned that “[t]here is no distinction between the sexes or anything else anymore,” and “to Florence” was slang for sodomy in sixteenth-century Germany.[ ((Judith C. Brown and Robert C. Davis, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy (New York: Routledge, 1998), 150; Katherine Crawford, The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010), 11.))]

Borgias Website 4

Borgias Website 5
The Borgias‘ website frames Micheletto as a tragic figure.

The Borgias does not reflect this historical reality, instead portraying a binary conception of sexual orientation, as well as an idea of undifferentiated intolerance of same-sex actions. Micheletto (Sean Harris), an assassin for the Borgias family, tells his lover Angelino (Darwin Shaw) that the latter’s impending marriage “will be a lie.” Angelino replies that he must proceed anyway, given the punishment for their relationship would be to be “disemboweled and burnt.”[ ((The Borgias, Season 2, Episode 5.))] What’s more, the show’s website describes Micheletto as having a “sexual orientation that has no place in Renaissance Italy.”

A similar transposition of contemporary ideas occurs on Reign this time to Elizabethan England and France. At this time, neither country thought of “homosexuals” as a defined minority (in fact, that term had yet to be invented).[ ((Alan Bray, “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England,” History Workshop, 29 (1990), 1-19.))] That era of Christianity considered sex between members of the same sex sinful largely because it could not lead to reproduction. Thus “sodomy” was more closely linked to “debauchery” than “homosexuality.”[ ((See N.S. Davidson, “Sex, Religion, and the Law,” in Sodomy in Early Modern Europe Tom Betteridge, ed., Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002.))] Yet on Reign, when Mary, Queen of Scots is told that her lady’s suitor prefers men “in bed,” she immediately understands this to mean that he is unfit to marry a woman. The lady in turn unequivocally rejects him, as she sees any romantic connection between them as impossible: “I’d be living a lie forever with no chance of happiness.”[ ((Reign, Season 1, Episode 15.))]

Reign 2
Reign’s Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) shows shock and instant understanding of a man who “prefers men…in bed.”

A more subtle, but still troubling, example occurs on Taboo, set in 1814 London. Georgian London was home to molly houses or clubs, where men met to make romantic connections as well as to cross-dress. At this time, “molly” meant an effeminate man, but did not necessarily connote same-sex interest.[ ((See Morris B. Kaplan, Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), and Charles Upchurch, “Liberal Exclusions and Sex between Men in the Modern Era: Speculations on a Framework,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 19.3 (2010), 409-431.))] It is significant for a practice so specific to a historical queer subculture to get representation on television.[ ((Molly houses have also recently appeared on Ripper Street and Dracula.))]

When Delaney (Tom Hardy) discovers Godfrey (Edward Hogg), a childhood acquaintance, at one such club, however, their conversation is still shaped by modern ideas of the closet and gay male identity. Delaney remarks that Godfrey “hasn’t changed” since they knew one another, and Godfrey replies that he was formerly in love with Delaney, a fact Delaney “of course” knew, and the experience of which was “torture…exquisite.”[ ((Taboo, Season 1, Episode 3.))] Thus, Godfrey is not understood as merely effeminate, but as having always been imbued with gay male identity, a fact readily apparent to all around him. His association “straight” boys was torturous because crossing the divide between the two categories was wholly impossible.

Taboo 2
Godfrey (left, Edward Hogg) admitting his hopeless love for Delaney (right, Tom Hardy) on Taboo.

While these differences in presentation versus history seem more extreme in distant-period shows, they are still significant in more recent-set historical series.[ ((See here for a list of twentieth-century period programs featuring queer experiences.))] The Halcyon is set in London during the Blitz, a city and time with a fast-developing queer subculture, but which still did not entirely sentence “gay” and “straight” persons to opposite sides of the fence.[ ((For more on the historically distinct queer subculture of early-twentieth-century London, see these books.))] On this show, when the clandestine affair between a well-to-do man and a waiter at his family’s elite hotel is discovered, their discoverer states that, “in my experience, a man doesn’t choose who he falls in love with.”[ ((The Halcyon, Series 1, Episode 6.))] It is perhaps possible that he would have turned a blind eye. It is very unlikely, though, that he would have used the twenty-first century “love is love” and “born this way” rhetorics, and that the couple would have readily understood such language, thus naturalizing it as part of that historical environment.

At first glance, this argument may seem an inconsequential quibble over historical accuracy, akin to the squabbles over Mad Men’s typewriters. However, these representations have much more dire effects than a Remington.[ ((The intention of the writers in making these choices is too big a question for this study, although some preliminary thoughts on the matter can be seen here for further consideration of this issue.))].

First and foremost, these representations homogenize queerness. Queer characters are presented as equivalent to modern homosexuals, with little room spared for bisexuality or any other form of queerness. The place of same-sex experiences within culture is shown as entirely undifferentiated, essentially one long slog of oppression and tragedy. While different types of oppression were the reality in many eras and places, leveling all historical periods minimizes the unique struggles of those who lived through those eras. It is a pity to obscure the multiplicity of ways in which same-sex experiences were navigated in specific environments, and how queer people carved out their own subcultures.

Furthermore, by creating this faux-modern, unvarying slate of queer characters and experiences, these shows frequently fall back on today’s standard queer tropes, most of which reinforce negative stereotypes. The “tragic queer” and “kill your gays” appear constantly: i.e., queer sexuality is a burden that causes personal unhappiness, misfortune, and even death. The seemingly-accepting man on The Halcyon quickly resorts to blackmail. On The Borgias, Micheletto discovers his new lover Pascal (Charlie Carrick) has been selling his secrets. The Borgias order Micheletto to kill Pascal, after which Micheletto flees the city in grief – and permanently exits the show.[ ((The Borgias, Season 3, Episode 9.))] Men seeking sex with other men are shown as predators and rapists (Outlander) or straight men in a easily-dismissible, one-time “experiment” out of “curiosity” (Da Vinci’s Demons).[ ((On Outlander, Captain Randall rapes Jamie in the first season, and the Duke of Sandringham is essentially a villain, revealed to have been secretly orchestrating the misfortunes of the protagonists. Granted, the author of the original book series, has described Randall as a “pervert” and “sadist” as opposed to having a sexual preference, but this distinction is not clear on the show itself. And despite historians’ near-certainty of Da Vinci’s sexual preference for men, on Da Vinci’s Demons, he prefers to sleep with women, with his one-time male-fling a failed experiment.))]

This homogenizing trend is significant beyond the confines of historical series. Rather, it points the broader ability of media to win praise for fleetingexclusive gay moments,” no matter how brief or problematic.[ ((Queer audiences also fall into this trap, such as when the queer media outlet NewNowNext.com (formerly AfterElton.com, now owned by the queer-focused Logo channel) celebrated the scene of queer erasure cited above in Da Vinci’s Demons, for despite the damning context, it contains a kiss between men.))] The question should not merely be quantity of representation, or even quality. As trite is may sound, it is about equality: queer characters should be constructed with equal care as their straight counterparts. Bickering about historical television may seem silly. But given that these shows’ audiences care enough to rage over Henry VIII’s haircut, they must take a stand on an issue with much higher stakes, and demand halfway-decent historical queer representation.

Image Credits:
1. The Borgias (Showtime, 2011-2013), Season 3 Episode 7 (author’s screengrab).
2. Chart created by author.
3. The Borgias official website (author’s screengrab).
4. Mary, Queen of Scots on Reign (The CW, 2013-2017), Season 1, Episode 15 (author’s screengrab).
5. Godfrey and Delaney on Taboo, Season 1, Episode 3.

Please feel free to comment.




Miniskirts and Wigs: The Gender Politics of Cross-Dressing on Lip Sync Battle
Britta Hanson / University of Texas at Austin

Channing Tatum breaks out his version of Beyoncé for his rendition of "Run the World (Girls)."

Channing Tatum breaks out his Beyoncé to perform “Run the World (Girls)” on Spike’s Lip Sync Battle.

On January 7, 2016, Channing Tatum blew up the internet. He strutted onto Lip Sync Battle’s stage wearing a voluminous blonde wig and a tight black mini-skirt to faux-sing “Run the World (Girls),” with Beyoncé herself joining in at the number’s end. The performance became a viral sensation, and the episode itself an all-time ratings high for Spike. (( Rick Kissell, “‘Lip Sync Battle’ Sets Spike Network Ratings Record,” Variety, January 12, 2016, http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/lip-sync-battle-sets-spike-ratings-record-1201678032/ )) This overwhelming popularity was not because of the excellence of Tatum’s dancing, but because of its gender-bending presentation.

Tatum’s performance is only one of many times that Lip Sync Battle has blurred traditional gender roles; in fact, the majority of LSB’s episodes contain some form of gender-bending, and the performers who do so almost always win. Judith Butler taught us years ago that gender is inherently performative, and that drag in its many forms has a powerful subversive potential. (( See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990). Granted, Lip Sync Battle does not embrace drag culture, only allowing cross-dressing in a comical way, but I argue that even the mild form of cross-dressing LSB hosts is still potentially subversive. )) Yet LSB presents an intriguing paradox: while it hosts a plethora of non-normative performances, the show ultimately reifies gender binaries, and places its stars squarely back in their “original” gender. (( Notably, the show’s attitude mirrors what Chris Straayer identifies as the “temporary transvestite” genre, which depicts constant transgression while constantly reminding the audience of the character’s “original” gender. See Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientation in Film and Video (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 46-50. ))

The show’s structure is simple. Two stars (usually of TV-based fame, but sometimes musicians or film actors) lip sync to two songs each, with the winner decided by the in-studio audience’s applause. Because the music is always a prerecorded, familiar pop hit, the star’s responsibilities are limited to mouthing the words and, more importantly, presenting the most outlandish physical display possible.

The measure of this outlandishness is directly related to the subversion of the star’s image. The sweet, demure Anne Hathaway won her battle by clamoring onto a life-size wrecking ball in her underwear to perform Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” Cross-dressing is treated as another method of going all the way for the competition. Justin Bieber, after performing Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” while affecting femininity, including comically swaying his hips and even stroking competitor Deion Sanders’ chin, explained afterward that “I just totally committed! Full commitment.” Occasionally stars embrace the subversive nature of their performance: former NFL player Terry Crews, after dancing to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” half-naked accompanied by baton twirlers, said he found inspiration in his wife and four daughters: “sometimes you just need to access your feminine side,” he exclaimed to wild cheers from the audience.

Terry Crews accessing his "feminine side" during his performance of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles."

Terry Crews accessing his “feminine side” during his performance of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.”

But LSB as a whole does not foster such open-mindedness: instead, the program carefully positions its performances as temporary aberrances in the stars’ lives. Stars must constantly reestablish their personas, as Richard Dyer explains, and LSB allows them to act out who they are, or are not. (( See Richard Dyer, Stars (London: BFI, 1979), 20. )) So while the most popular performances involve macho men – professional athletes, rappers, action movie stars – wearing dresses and wigs, the show works hard to show that the stars’ costume and dance choices have no bearing on their “real life,” which means demonstrating that the stars are irrefutably heterosexual and cis-gendered.

LSB employs several strategies to corroborate its stars’ straightness. Most simply, host LL Cool J will ask the star to discuss how unusual this was for them, such as when comedian Gabriel Iglesias told Cool J that dressing as Donna Summer required him to shave for the first time in five years. Other times, the spouse of the performer also appears on the show, with their shocked reaction to their partner’s gender-bent performance serving as an external guarantee of heteronormativity. (( For example, when Iggy Azalea performed Silk’s “Freak Me,” complete with grabbing her crotch and miming sexual intercourse, her then-fiancé Nick Young stated adamantly that “She don’t do that…she don’t do that to me!” )) Throughout, Cool J and color commentator Chrissy Teigen model the acceptable reaction to these antics. Cool J, a rapper, is often quietly disapproving, while Teigen, a model, spends most of her time evaluating how sexy (or more often unsexy) the performers are in their adopted garb. (( And that garb itself is often intentionally ridiculous, with Deion Sanders’ wig for “Like a Virgin” more closely resembling Einstein than Madonna. The few occasions when such costumes are not ridiculous, as in Jim Rash’s form-fitting P!nk costume, often leave the hosts unsure how to react. )) These strategies taken together are meant to signal that these performances cannot possibly be taken seriously. (( While the length of this piece restricts me from discussing male versus female cross-dressers in detail, female cross-dressers on LSB often work even harder than the men to reestablish their gender identity, with their second, non-drag number usually being hyper-feminine: see Jenna Dewan-Tatum’s “Pony” and “Cold-Hearted” or Kaley Cuoco’s “Move Bitch” and “I’m a Slave 4 U.” ))

Jim Rash's "seduction" of Joel McHale to "Something He Can Feel."

Jim Rash’s “seduction” of Joel McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel.”

When a performance breaks these careful restrictions, the show is thrown into chaos. One of LSB’s lowest-rated episodes featured three total gender-bent performances by competitors Jim Rash and Joe McHale. The most notable of these was Rash’s self-described “seduction” of McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel,” during which he straddled McHale’s chair and proceeded to caress and shimmy all around him, while McHale grimaced horribly. Despite his scowling, McHale commented afterward that “someone is going to need to wipe off” his seat, and that this sort of thing happens “all the time” on Community, the show both men act in. Cool J and Teigen seemed flabbergasted. Teigen asked Rash if he had ever done “all of that” before, to which Rash replied, “don’t worry about it.” In this way, Rash, who has refused to comment publicly on his sexuality, indirectly linked himself to homoerotic practices in his own life, and McHale, who is heterosexual, indicated that his active participation not only in their on-stage interaction, but in similar events in their professional lives. Thus both performers actively embraced a subversive gender position, although McHale, after his own performance in drag, acknowledged that their actions were outside the norm: “thank you for letting me shorten my career in front of you,” he shouted to the audience.

Group Shot

Chrissy Teigen, Jim Rash, LL Cool J, and Joel McHale pose after Rash and McHale’s final, cross-dressing performances.

What then, is the ultimate effect of all this gender confusion? For the stars, very little. As long as they carefully delineate their performance from their star persona, this exercise merely signals to casting directors that the star is capable of playing many (gender) roles outside of their normal type. The most immediate benefit is to the network. LSB airs on Spike, a channel which has recently attempted to expand viewership from an exclusively macho-male demographic to one that includes female viewers and attracts co-viewing as well. (( See the original description of their brand when the channel relaunched under that name in 2003: “TNN network can call itself Spike TV,” USA Today, July 7, 2003, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/television/2003-07-07-spike_x.htm )) Network president Kevin Kay commented that LSB was picked up because “it felt like the perfect show to help launch that rebrand.” (( L.A. Ross, How Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Lip Sync Battle’ Launched SpikeTV’s Rebrand: ‘Right Swing at Right Moment’, TheWrap.com, April 16, 2015,
http://www.thewrap.com/how-jimmy-fallons-lip-sync-battle-launched-spiketvs-rebrand-right-swing-at-right-moment/ )) For the network, too, LSB is meant to be a step outside of its box, but not a complete leap.

David Greven argues that our “new queerly-inflected mainstream movie practices” have the potential to open up “safe zones of polyvalent pleasures.” (( David Greven, Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 17. )) This is far too utopic a vision to extend to Lip Sync Battle. There is certainly potential for breaking the strict boundary between male and female in the show’s constant cross-dressing. But as we have seen, the show shuts down any subversive possibility as effectively as Tatum wore his wig.

Image Credits:
1. Promotional image for Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 1, originally aired January 7, 2016.
2. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 5, originally aired April 23, 2015.
3. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
4. Promotional image from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
Please feel free to comment.




Contours of the Closet: Conceptualizing Straight / Gay on Teen TV
Wendy Peters / Nipissing University

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Finn and Santana on Glee

On teen TV, the closet is often invoked when a character transgresses the boundaries of heterosexuality but does not announce with pride: “I’m gay.” In this column, I highlight narratives and dialogue from the 2010-2011 seasons of 90210 and Glee in order to explore the gendered boundaries that mark the thresholds between straight, closeted and gay. By paying attention to narrative framings of same-sex sexual activities and the closet, it is possible to see how sexuality is conceptualized differently for male and female characters. While any same-sex sexual activity gets the male teens summarily kicked out of heterosexuality, the female teens have a rather different relationship to the straight-closeted-gay logic.

On 90210, Teddy is well established as a heterosexual “player” who has sex with many women and eventually “settles down” with one girlfriend. In the following season, Teddy has one drunken sexual encounter with an openly gay man, Ian. [ (( 90210 S03 E03 ))] At this point it is possible to interpret Teddy’s sexuality as straight, gay, queer, bisexual, changing or fluid, just to name a few options. After Teddy insists that he is not gay, Ian states unequivocally: “Look, just because you can’t deal with who you really are, don’t take it out on me.” With this one sentence, Ian tells Teddy and the viewers that Teddy is gay. The dialogue instructs the viewer that this single sexual experience is more meaningful than all of Teddy’s prior sexual encounters with countless numbers of women. With this one drunken sex act Teddy has transgressed the limits of heterosexuality and is narratively re-categorized as closeted until he comes out as gay later in the season.

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Teddy the Player on 90210

On Glee, Dave Karofsky is a football player primarily known for bullying members of the Glee Club. After a full season of threats and intimidation, Karofsky suddenly kisses Kurt, a gay teen he bullies. The kiss signals to viewers that Karofsky may not be quite as straight as we may have believed. [ (( Glee S02 E06. ))] Once again, the post-kiss dialogue invokes the closet when another gay character, Blaine, tells Karofsky: “It seems like you might be a little confused and that’s totally normal. This is a very hard thing to come to terms with and you should just know that you’re not alone.” One kiss tells Kurt, Blaine and, in turn, the viewers that Karofsky needs to come to terms with the “fact” that he is really gay. Although he resists, the narrative makes it clear that Karofsky will no longer be regarded as straight by anyone “in the know.” He is narratively trapped in the closet until he comes out many seasons later. In contrast to Teddy’s active hetero-sex life on 90210, Karofsky was not shown to be interested in women prior to kissing Kurt. Yet narratively, he is presumed to be straight. Such a narrative assumption tells us a lot about how straight masculinity is imagined in mainstream popular culture. He is assumed to be heterosexual not based on romantic or sexual relationships with females, but because he is a white, masculine, homophobic “jock” who has zero sexual contact with other men. The burden of sexual proof lies entirely outside of his taken-for-granted heterosexual masculinity. One kiss ostensibly “proves” that Karofsky is gay, while no sexual evidence is required to suggest that he is straight. Unlike Teddy, Karofsky’s heterosexuality is completely unsubstantiated in the sense that he is presumed straight for over a season without visual or narrative evidence. But, like Teddy, his heterosexual masculinity is revealed to be so fragile that it takes only one impulsive kiss to come undone.

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Karofsky kisses Kurt on Glee

In contrast, Santana and Brittany on Glee have sex for an entire season without being characterized as lesbians or even closeted. Santana has a boyfriend, Puck, and tells Brittany: “I’m not making out with you because I’m in love with you and want to sing about making lady babies. I’m only here because Puck’s been in the slammer for about 12 hours now and I’m like a lizard. I need something warm beneath me or I can’t digest my food.” [ (( Glee S02 E04. ))] While these young women have transgressed the boundaries of heterosexuality applied to their male peers, the narrative does not hold them to the same standards. There is enough room in heterosexuality for these young women to have sex with each other without dumping their boyfriends or “coming out.” In the first season, there is never any clear narrative insinuation that they must be closeted because they are “really” lesbians. For Santana to narratively shift into the closet, she tells Brittany that she has “all of these feelings” for her, but these feelings are bracketed, euphemistically, with “I can’t go to an Indigo Girls concert… I just can’t.” [ (( Glee S02 E15. ))] It is this declaration of heartfelt affection—delivered well into season two—that finally causes Santana’s sexuality to be narratively reframed as lesbian, yet closeted when she says “I can’t go there” (even though she wants to). When it comes to Santana, the threshold between heterosexuality and the closet is less about having sex with Brittany and more about expressing sincere feelings of love. Meanwhile, Brittany shirks the whole straight-closeted-gay logic entirely by simply and humorously identifying as “bi-curious.” [ (( Glee S02 E18. ))]

Image 4 Santana and BrittanyImage 5 Lesbian

Brittany and Santana on Glee

Relatedly on 90210, Adrianna—a white character who had a brief sexual relationship with a woman in a prior season—tells her straight, white, female friends that “everyone should have one lesbian experience in their lives” and they all gamely agree. [ (( 90210 S03 E03. ))] Once again, when sex between young feminine women is casual they are not immediately “lesbian,” even if they are having a “lesbian experience.” Heterosexuality appears to be more expansive for these young, white and feminine women as they are permitted, and at times even encouraged, to have sex with women as a matter of due course. They are not immediately regarded as closeted and do not seem to be subjected to the same assumption that any same-sex sexual activity means that they are really gay.

Image 6 Gia and AdriannaImage 7 90210

Adrianna and Gia on 90210; Girls from 90210 at the beach

In part, these differing conceptualizations and boundaries mirror Western constructions of female sexuality as unimportant except in relation to reproduction and largely defined by emotional attachments, especially for white women. By this logic, these white and fair-skinned female adolescents’ sexual experiences with each other are depicted as largely inconsequential, especially when divorced from romantic love. Feminine and fair-skinned lesbians—it seems—are narratively marked by romantic love for another woman and not “simply” having sex with women. In contrast, white and masculine male sexuality is characterized as active, intentional and consequential. For these young white men to kiss or have sex with another man is shown to be so meaningful that their heterosexuality is immediately and unequivocally called into question. Arguably, their sexual transgressions against the normative Western boundaries of masculinity, heterosexuality and whiteness are so complete that they become what philosopher Michel Foucault described as another “species”—a homosexual. Further, these representations implicitly enact erasures and it seems probable that televised depictions of non-white young men, poor or working-class teens, masculine females or feminine males might reveal starkly different boundaries of heterosexuality given that each is freighted with distinct assumptions of “inherent” hypersexuality, passivity and queerness.

These narratives afford a more expansive and queer sexuality for young women while clearly restricting young men to the hetero / homo binary, with no room at all for sexual fluidity. If sexuality is conceptualized on the Kinsey scale from the exclusively heterosexual zero to the wholly homosexual six, then white and masculine male sexuality seems to occupy the decisive and restrictive end points. It is privileged as rational, agentic and consequential, while also being characterized as highly unemotional, disciplinary and limiting. In contrast, feminine and fair-skinned female sexuality languishes and takes pleasure in the expansive middle ground. It is meaningless and inconsequential in the absence of a male, yet thoroughly indulgent of a wide range of pleasures and experiences. As scholars and activists have noted, incarnations of the closet depend on the assumption that people have a “true” sexuality and tend to reify the “heterosexist assumption that individuals are straight until and unless they disclose an alternative sexual orientation.” [ (( Ross, M. B. (2007). Beyond the closet as raceless paradigm. In E. P. Johnson & Mae G. Henderson (Eds.), Black Queer Studies: A critical anthology (162). Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ))] In these teen TV examples, the “true” sexuality of white and Latina women makes space for sexual activities with men and women, while marking the boundary of straight / gay as a difference characterized by romantic love. Same-sex sexual activities between feminine women are, in some sense, downplayed and discounted—dramatizing femme invisibility onscreen. In contrast, the “true” sexuality of these young, white and masculine men is dramatized as exclusively straight or gay, and the threshold between the two is largely sexual in nature. [ (( Further analysis of how the 2010-2011 season of teen TV depicted the closet in terms of race and class can be found in: Peters, W. (2016) Bullies and Blackmail: Finding Homophobia in the Closet on Teen TV. Sexuality & Culture (iFirst, February 5 2016). ))] The one-kiss rule that governs these young men’s sexuality sends them straight to gay with little to no regard for their thoughts and feelings, or capacity for non-binary sexualities.

Image Credits:

1. Finn and Santana on Glee
2. Teddy the Player on 90210
3. Karofsky kisses Kurt against his will
4. Brittany and Santana on Glee
5. Santana and Brittany—Lesbian
6. Adrianna and Gia on 90210
7. Girls from 90210 at the beach

Please feel free to comment.




Girl as Sign: Epistemology of the Shōjo
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Ayanami Rei

Ayanami Rei in Neon Genesis Evangelion

The 1995 anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (hereafter NGE) is probably the most heavily marketed and referenced production in the entire Japanese animation industry. The show documents the struggles of Ikari Shinji, who, despite being chosen to battle aliens, is a crybaby who constantly depends on his female colleagues to rescue him. This portrayal of masculinity is subversive in the context of the genre with which NGE is typically associated: shōnen (“young/adolescent boy”), a type of anime and manga (comic books) centered around male heroism.

Given NGE‘s cultural impact, Shinji’s story must have struck a chord with its intended audience: young men who are under immense pressure to achieve culturally-defined success. But there is another way in which NGE portrays this gendered anxiety. It is channeled through the character of Ayanami Rei, Shinji’s colleague. Despite not being the protagonist, Rei has become a character archetype in Japanese media in the wake of NGE‘s success, with many later works featuring female characters with her physical and emotional characteristics. If Shinji symbolizes a failure to perform idealized masculinity, or the anxiety about this failure, what does Rei’s cultural influence represent? There must be a name for that which codifies Rei – the projection of male anxiety through female subjectivity.

pop star in shōjo fashion

Pop star in shōjo fashion

The name is shōjo. Literally translated as “young/adolescent girl,” shōjo transcends genre and occupies a distinct space in Japanese visual culture. Characterized as “selfish, irresponsible, weak, and infantile,” the shōjo image has become pervasive to the point of defining the Japanese national character in the postmodern era, perhaps not coincidentally conflating with the colonial construction of Oriental passivity. But shōjo culture also functions in specific ways in Japanese contemporary society, enabling not only female identification but also, more significantly, male identification.

Originating in late nineteenth-century Japan, the modern concept of shōjo emerged in a period of rapid economic change as single-sex girls’ schools were established to fulfill a rising demand for labour. Books and magazines designated “for girls” became popular and helped to define an identity of shōjo during Japan’s modernization. [ (( Treat, John Whittier. “Yoshimoto Banana Writes Home: Shōjo Culture and the Nostalgic Subject.” Society of Japanese Studies 19, no. 2 (1993). )) ] By the late twentieth-century, the concept of shōjo has been rearticulated as both a phenomenon of Japanese consumer culture and a model of Japan, which to some critics meant a state of passivity, commodification, and narcissism. Others have defined 1980s shōjo culture more ambiguously; their attitudes toward the shōjo image appear ambivalent, and they also remark on the ambiguity of that image: it is whimsical, elastic, and in a state of “floating.” [ (( Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture.” Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003. 201-27. )) ]

Shojo Beat

Shojo Beat magazine cover

The overall picture of shōjo-ness that thus emerges from these views is of a slightly troubled, dreamy, yet somehow seductive vulnerability, occupying a space of sexual inactivity and potential between childhood and adulthood. Because this tension is essentially what constitutes the shōjo subjectivity, scholars have argued that the shōjo is its own gender, “neither adult woman nor girl child, neither man nor woman.” [ (( Quoted in Orbaugh, 204.)) ] The non(re)productive space it represents could be seen as a potential site of resistance to the nuclear family as a function of industrial capitalism. The discourse of the shōjo, then, appears to be as rich and contradictory as the sign itself. The shōjo is passive, but also transformative; uncertain, but potentially liberatory. As a main form of girls’ entertainment, shōjo anime and manga have always been more than a reflection of societal concerns about young women’s sexualities. In marketing shōjo-ness to girls, producers of such entertainment encourage girls to consume images of themselves as commodities, identifying them as both consumers and the consumed. [ (( Prough, Jennifer S. “Material Gals: Girls’ Sexuality, Girls’ Culture, and Shōjo Manga.” Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shōjo Manga. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011. 110-34. )) ] In other words, shōjo media produces shōjo culture and young women’s desires rather than simply reflecting them. However, attempts to achieve shōjo-ness could also be argued to represent a desire to fulfill a constant lack—unreachable beauty, freedom from adult sexuality and family duty—which drives the consumption of shōjo-related fashion products, such as Hello Kitty goodies. [ (( Shen, Lien Fan. “The Dark, Twisted Magical Girls: Shōjo Heroines in Puella Magi Madoka Magica.” Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. 177-88. )) ] Consuming these products is the easiest way for the female subject to embody shōjo and its non-reproductive, static yet promising qualities.

An important and popular stream of shōjo entertainment since the 1970s is the yaoi genre, which exclusively features male homosexual romance. This subgenre of anime and em>manga is predominantly produced by and circulated among women. Although the subjects of these comics are obviously not girls, it is possible to consider them as having shōjo qualities: many of the men are portrayed as beautiful and androgynous, and most importantly, they are young and non-reproductive. [ (( Nagaike, Kazumi. Fantasies of Cross-Dressing: Japanese Women Write Male-Male Erotica. Leiden, Neterlands: Brill Academic Publishing, 2012. )) ] Another aspect of shōjo-ness in yaoi is the communities of women that revolve around it and share these fantasies amongst each other. The creating and sharing of yaoi, more specifically, serves to enhance the shōjo community by staging a particular way for the shōjo to address one another and identify each other as shōjo, thus highlighting their shōjo characteristics and reaffirming their shōjo identities. [ (( Nagaike, 94. )) ]

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Example of a yaio magazine

While a complex examination of yaoi is outside the scope of this discussion, I want to emphasize a few aspects about the phenomenon. One reason that women writers and artists may
have turned to the depiction of male homosexual relationships is the limitations around writing stories about sexually-active (and reproductive) women, such as pregnancy, which symbolizes a point in one’s life when one stops being shōjo. [ (( Orbaugh, 212. )) ] Focusing on young, non-reproductive men is a way to explore romantic and sexual relationships without having to engage with the realities of womanhood in Japan. In this sense, yaoi’s presence reflects the anxieties women have about their social situation. But another reason for its popularity may be its success in enabling women to project their own femininity onto the male characters. In the process of this projection, women not only come to identify with the characters but are also able to identify themselves. In other words, their shōjo status is validated through both objectifying the male characters and “entering” the body of the objectified.

If yaoi is a space for women to fantasize about the possibilities of being the Other (to their own “Other,” so to speak), does the same space exist for men? If shōjo is a screen for the projection of male anxieties about female adolescent sexuality, what are the mechanisms that allow men to take unto themselves the image of the shōjo and identify with it/her? A further examination is needed of the ways in which the cultural production of shōjo enables male identification. [ (( I’m aware that I have been talking predominantly in the gender binary. My intention is not to erase the experiences of those who see themselves in characters that aren’t necessarily of their own gender (assigned or otherwise). As it will hopefully become clear in my subsequent columns, I’m merely trying to demonstrate that this process of identification operates in a specific way in the context of shōjo media, as it is circumscribed within patriarchal hegemony. )) ] For now, we have established that shōjo is a phenomenon that has material implications on the ways in which subjects navigate the structures of patriarchy.

Image Credits:

1. Ayanami Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion
2. Pop star embodying shōjo fashion
3. Cover of Shōjo Beat magazine
4. Cover of a yaoi magazine

Please feel free to comment.




Orientalized Masculinities in Contemporary Australian Cinema
Jane Park / The University of Sydney


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Lovers Sandy and Hiromitsu in Japanese Story.

On my final night in the U.S. before moving to Sydney last year, I finally got around to watching Romper Stomper. While Geoffrey Wright’s film about Aussie skinheads didn’t provide the most cheerful picture of my soon-to-be new country, I was struck by its viscerally engaging style and its representation of Asian characters. As many critics noted upon its release in 1992, Romper Stomper sucks viewers in with its active camera and pumping soundtrack, positioning us, albeit ambivalently, alongside the skinhead youth whose story is clearly foregrounded. Unsurprisingly, few critics had much to say about the role of the peripheral Asian figures that frame the movie: the Vietnamese immigrants in the opening who are beaten up by the white supremacist gang and soon avenged by angry members of their own community and the impersonal Japanese tourists in the end who snap pictures of the gang leader as he is being murdered on the beach by his best mate.

These framing scenes provide iconic images of two forms of Asian presence in contemporary Australian cinema. The first is that of the Asian tourist (usually Japanese) who is welcome as long as she or he ultimately returns home. As Asian Australian film scholar Olivia Khoo convincingly argues, this figure must die if she or he stays in Oz, functioning ideologically as a necessary sacrifice used to further the inner development of the white protagonists. ((Khoo, Olivia. “Telling Stories: The Sacrificial Asian in Australian Cinema.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 27 (1-2): 45-63.)) The second image is that of the Asian immigrant (usually Vietnamese, Chinese or Lebanese) who, depending on the context, embodies either an economic and cultural threat to the (implicitly white) Australian nation or reaffirms its tolerant multiculturalism. Much like the dialectical binary of the model minority/gook articulated by Asian American historian Robert Lee, both positions render the racialized immigrant a conditionally white citizen who is expelled or otherwise punished as a foreign contagion as soon as she or he threatens to usurp the privilege of those in power. ((Lee, Robert. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. 180-204. ))

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How do Australian screens represent the masculinity of the Asian male?

What really surprised me is the central role that these iconic figures play as love interests to Anglo-Australian women in two fairly recent commercially successful and critically acclaimed Australian films. In Sue Brook’s Japanese Story (2003) Hiromitsu, a Japanese businessman enthralled by the outback has a (literally) short-lived affair with Sandy, an urban professional forced to be his chauffeur who herself is out of place in the harsh and stunning landscape. And in Rowan Wood’s Little Fish (2005) Vietnamese Australian drug dealer Johnny returns to Australia, ostensibly gone straight after a few years in Canada, hoping to resume his relationship with ex-junkie Tracy, who is trying unsuccessfully to start her own business in Cabramatta, the “Little Saigon” of Sydney.

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Tracy in Cabramatta

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Asian men rarely appear as romantic partners for anyone, and especially white women, in Hollywood cinema due to still prevalent stereotypes of the feminized, desexualized or otherwise emasculated Asian male in the U.S.–stereotypes rooted in the history of Chinese male immigrants who were systematically ghettoized, forced to take feminized domestic jobs, and prevented from forming families thanks to anti-Asian exclusion laws. ((Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2010.)) For this reason, I was interested to see how a romantic relationship between an Asian man and a white woman would play out on the big screen in Australia, a Western nation in the Pacific that draws culturally on Britain and the U.S. and economically on its Asian neighbors.

Sadly, both films fell short of my perhaps unrealistically high hopes. Outside the radical acknowledgment that Asian men might actually be desirable to white women, Japanese Story and Little Fish use the same tired tropes and techniques to represent sympathetic Asian characters as selfless “caregivers of color” to borrow Cynthia Sau-ling Wong’s phrase and thus unwittingly reveal the power hierarchies that continue to structure white fantasies of the exoticized and eroticized Asian “other.” ((Wong, Cynthia Sau-ling. “Diverted Mothering: Representations of Caregivers of Color in the Age of ‘Multiculturalism” in Glenn, Evelyn Nakano, Grace Chang and Linda Rennie Forcey, eds. Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency. New York: Routledge, 1994. 70.))

The new twist on an old formula is the clever way in which these films successfully masquerade as anti-racist, colorblind narratives. Japanese Story appeals to white liberal audiences by showcasing the development of a taboo interracial relationship between a white woman and an Asian man, which can only happen in the liminal space of the road and the indigenous wilderness. While the film is beautifully shot and there are some funny and poignant moments of connection between the characters, it is difficult, as a Korean American female viewer, not to notice the blatant ways in which Hiro is orientalized, functioning as the compliant male Lotus Blossom for the ambiguously butchy Sandy, who seems to see in his smooth skin, lean physique, and poor English an alternative, more manageable masculinity to that of the big, loud, and dismissive Australian men who ignore her throughout the film. No surprise then that she dominates her submissive Asian lover in bed, literally putting on his pants before she mounts him in their first sexual encounter. Hiro takes the traditional position of the woman in the scene: he remains absolutely still as the camera follows her gaze to look down at him. Tellingly, when he finally takes sexual initiative, kissing her rather than being kissed, he unexpectedly and inexplicably dies after following her playful instructions to jump into a lake.

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Addictions and contagions.

In contrast Little Fish plays down Johnny’s racial difference even as it consistently plays up his cultural difference as a hybridized Vietnamese Australian. None of the Australian reviews I read of the film discuss the interracial aspect of the romance between Tracy and Johnny, and while most comment on its “authentic” setting, the implicit connections between the Vietnamese immigrant community and its association with drugs and gang violence is not discussed because, as my Australian colleagues informed me, this is already a given for the target audience of the film–most of whom would never venture into Cabramatta except for the occasional food tour. Likewise, the racial and cultural difference that Johnny embodies and that constitute the backdrop of Tracy’s working life is coded implicitly as a contagion, much like the drugs that form the central motif of the film. Tracy is still, it seems, addicted to the dangerous drug that is Johnny. Her family warns her to stay away from him yet she compulsively calls him (and he always comes running) only to flee from him for no discernible reason. On a more positive note, Johnny unlike Hiro, takes a more equal role in lovemaking and amazingly lives to see the end of the movie. I suppose that is something to celebrate. Yet I can’t help but feel a bit sad and perplexed that at a time when so many Asian countries have entered First World status, a mixed-race man is president of the United States, and the Australian prime minister speaks Mandarin, this is what we can claim as progress for representations of Asian people on the big screen.

Image Credits:

1. Lovers Sandy and Hiromitsu in Japanese Story.
2. How do Australian screens represent the masculinity of the Asian male?
3. Tracy in Cabramatta.
4. Addictions and contagions.

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

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Queering Justin

by: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty

Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty

Just type in “Justin” and “Ugly Betty” into a search engine and you will find hundreds of digital spaces where this secondary character is being discussed by a range of communities that include general fans of the show, Latinos, the press, and queer communities. Although America Ferrara is the unquestioned star of the show, Mark Indelicato’s performance as Justin has become a point of conversation and a growing reason to watch the show, establishing the possibility for fandom across communities. If Ugly Betty bet its success on the possibility of ethnic and racial crossovers (Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and Anglos are all invited and represented), Justin’s character is also delivering a sexual crossover. He is special. And he is visible.

How many secondary characters are the central focus of newspaper articles in the LA Times (Jan. 31, 2007), USA Today (Feb. 8, 2007) and Chicago Tribune (Nov. 16, 2006)?

Justin is perhaps the most radical Latino representation in television today. He is a young brown boy, growing up working-class in Queens, NY, who performs his gender in a disruptive, excessive, intertextual fashion. Take this scene from Season 1, Episode 5

The Halloween episode begins with Justin coming down from his room, dressed as a sailor and quite ready to perform as Gene Kelly in On the Town (1949, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly). Justin’s exuberant rendition of Kelly’s tap dance is gender bending at its best. Not surprisingly, the debates on the blogsphere are about whether he is queer, gay, or simply happy to love fashion, musicals, and the theatre. Considering the narrow ways in which Latino masculinity is constructed in America-if I hear the term Latino and macho in the same sentence again I shall faint-Justin’s disruption of gender norms is a refreshing reminder of the possibility to narrativize Latino males in both entertaining and complex ways. I am a fan.

As a scholar, one thing fascinates me: most of the discussions that are going on about Justin, which include declarations by producer Silvio Horta, chatter in television and queer communities, interviews with Indelicato himself, point to the careful way in which Justin’s sexuality is being managed. The problem is this: Justin is twelve, and at that age he would be the youngest gay character in television. In addition, because gayness has been discursively constructed as a sexual identity that implies sexual activity, if gay, Justin would have to be one of the youngest sexual actors in television (outside of narratives of abuse). The issue of Justin’s sexual identity is tricky. How to manage it?

Justin

Justin

Horta, the Cuban-American-gay executive producer, is careful to point out that Justin, at twelve, is a pre-pubescent boy whose behavior should be interpreted as gender, not sexual, performance . Thus, Justin’s infatuation with musicals and fashion should not be read as sexual behavior, which, Horta proposes, should be linked to hormones. Absent hormones, viewers ought to see Justin’s behavior as evidence of gender bending. Although this approach by the producer should not be surprising, given the potential risks for flack associated with portraying an openly gay 12-year old boy, similar explanations of Justin’s behavior can be found in the blogsphere, where fans have debated whether Justin should be call gay or simply “different.” Some side with Horta, and believe that he is not gay because he is too young. Others think that Justin is gay, thus crossing the line between gender and sex. Even in these cases, Horta’s style of biologically defining gayness is part of the discourse around Justin. Fans may acknowledge that Justin is gay, but they recognize that this ascription is at the moment based on gender, not sex. However, it remains a matter of time. These fans tend to see Justin’s biological homosexuality as practically inevitable. Many are discussing when the coming-out story will happen, taking for granted Justin’s evolution as a sexual being attracted to other boys.

What fascinates me is how through both the official explanation of Justin’s behavior and taste (exemplified in Horta’s position) and the queering of his future, Justin’s present is understood as asexualized because of biology. He is either not gay because he is not pubescent (Horta), or he is not yet gay because we are yet to witness his sexual attraction toward other boys (most fans’ position). In these instances, sexuality is understood narrowly as sexual behavior directed toward others, or sexuality is understood as behavior regulated by reproductive biology, with biology circumscribed to the pubescent hormonal rush. These ways of thinking about sexuality can serve dangerous purposes. One, they deny children’s sexuality, a position contrary to knowledge coming from medicine, biology, and developmental psychology. Most famously, the work of Freud and Kinsey sustain that sexuality and desire are normal elements of childhood. Second, by linking sexual behavior to pubescent gland activity, they vindicate the notion that heterosexuality and homosexuality should be understood in relationship to procreation. This in turn reproduces the notion that desire is hormones, a boorish position that belies the important insight that desire is always socially constructed. Lastly, the many commentators on Justin’s development err on assuming a person his age is pre-pubescent, most research placing it between ten and eleven.

Betty and Justin

Betty and Justin

All of these little errors of fact are not coincidental. They are culturally constructed and do their part at reconstituting our current system of sex and gender. They are part of the mental schemas that we use to think sexuality and gender and are clearly limited. These schemas tell us that masculinity and femininity are the product of biological determinants. As many researchers of sexuality have pointed out, this has led to the common assumption that because sexuality is linked to biology, it is thus not cultural. Accordingly, male behavior, including violence, rape, competitiveness, and promiscuity, are often explained in relationship to testosterone, thus exonerating patriarchy. This same hormonal schema informs the supposition that most children in television are heterosexual, although we never see them acting as sexual beings. All we see, or want to see, is gendered behavior. This is the same schema used by fans who think that Justin is not yet gay, but will become gay. Curiously, this assumption rests on Justin having exhibited cultural stereotypes about queerness. At this point, the schema shows its ugliest head, for sex and gender become interlinked only through rigid stereotypes, and whatever fluidity gender and sex may have as culture and as biology (which is also culturally constructed) is lost.

Works Cited:
. Ryan, Silvio Horta on “Ugly Betty”: Write what you Know, Chicago Tribune

Image Credits:
1. Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty
2. Justin
3. Betty and Justin

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Trauma Time: Family, Community and Criminality in Close to Home

The Cast of Close to Home

The Cast of Close to Home

There is something very odd about Close to Home, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced CBS legal drama about midwestern prosecutor and new mother Annabeth Chase. Just what gives it its singular feel is hard to pin down; at first I attributed it to the fact that it displays some of the same kind of postfeminist incoherence on view in recent films such as The Stepford Wives and Down with Love. Later I began to notice how consistently the series seemed to match Kathleen Stewart’s description of contemporary US culture in terms of a formulation she designates as “trauma time.” For Stewart, “trauma time is a haunted peripheral vision that demands hypervigilance” and “community and the public are entities that come into existence in the face of risk or at the precise moment that crime and criminal elements become visible as surrounding presences.”1

Close to Home, which consistently wins its Friday night timeslot, is described by CBS as tearing away “the façade of suburbia to reveal that sometimes quiet and tranquil streets can hide the darkest of crimes.” While perpetuating a trend in recent series television toward new acknowledgements of the simulation of community (despite the geographical specificity in its rendering of Indianapolis, this is just as ersatz a locale as Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, or Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane) it also invests its sense of place with ominous tones generally atypical of female-centered dramas. Thus, the flag draped over a white picket fence to close the credit sequence bespeaks standard-issue patriotic familialism but the sequence also includes an aerial view apocalyptic sky reminiscent of the urgency of SUV ads.

Similarly conflicted is the series’ portrayal of prosecutor Annabeth Chase which participates in a broad representational trend toward the depiction of motherhood as the all-purpose site of female subjectivity. Yet it twists this formula by suggesting that Annabeth’s motherhood constitutes a workplace asset and renders her uniquely perceptive about/sensitive to the dilemmas of suburban female experience. Newly returned to work after the birth of her daughter, Annabeth’s prosecutorial interventions are carried out in the name of an idealized female maternity.

Yet Annabeth’s return to the workplace is initially complicated by her distress at having lost out on a promotion because she won’t work the long extra hours required. Close to Home accepts rather readily that Annabeth must pay a penalty for her two month maternity leave and relishes the prospect of conflict between Annabeth and her new boss Maureen, a single woman who acknowledges that she’s “made this job [her] family.” Close to Home thus initially exhibited a postfeminist propensity for setting women in conflict with each other and a studied avoidance of systemic/institutional critique. Although it has backtracked lately on its representation of female workplace competitiveness, the series continues to stress Annabeth’s role in focusing our judgment on a variety of women who abuse their sexuality, spurn their family commitments or neglect to honor the series’ highest value, motherhood. Since its inception Close to Home has attracted an unusual level of attention by critics who consistently read it as a barometer of shifting cultural norms around women and work. Writing in The New York Times,
Ginia Bellafante recently noted that while Annabeth is a “careerist permitted full access to all of her womanly inclinations,” she also “would seem to be the one working mother in the country exempt from the double shift.”2

One of the series’ most interesting features is its contingent and provisional conceptualization of neighborliness, communal safety and cohesion. When in the pilot an abused wife and mother reveals that her husband kept the family hostage in their home for two years one of Annabeth’s colleagues skeptically responds, “In this neighborhood? I don’t think so.” But here and henceforth it becomes clear that there is indeed a crisis of social neglect within suburbia. In keeping with the series’ anxious juxtaposition of Annabeth’s idealized family life with the proximate criminal “outside,” shots of the imprisoned family’s burning home are intercut with warm scenes of Annabeth bathing her daughter at home on a neighboring street. Through strategies such as these Close to Home vividly enacts a televisual equivalent of the aporia that characterizes many domestic cinematic narratives which exhibit a “nostalgia for an untainted sense of belonging” while “the impossibility of achieving that is also the catalyst for fantasies about recuperation and healing.”3

Twin Towers

Twin Towers

Accordingly, Close to Home rigorously schools its viewers in the belief that happy domestic scenes (except those set in Annabeth’s own household) are deceptive. Annabeth and her colleagues face case after case of domestic disorder and her job continually requires her to prove in court the falsity behind apparently happy family lives. Since its broadcast premiere in autumn, the series has featured plotlines including:

• an outraged wife killing her husband when he decides to end their marriage despite her
accommodation to his desire for sex with multiple partners;
• a neighborhood prostitution ring comprised of unfulfilled housewives
revealed to be doing its networking through the local school system;
• a surgeon killing his wife at the point when she is about to bring to light his dependency on prescription drugs. The surgeon pins the crime on a young black man his wife had been mentoring, telling Annabeth and her team that his wife “was never very good with boundaries and she was always bringing her work home with her.”

All of these crimes take place, it is suggested, in close proximity to Annabeth’s home, producing the effect of a simultaneous romanticization and excoriation of suburbia across the series. At home where Annabeth typically retreats after the jury brings in another verdict in her favor, her husband is always available for reassuring and congratulatory conversations and the couple’s home and infant daughter are viewed in lambent scenes of contentment. It seems clear that Close to Home needs a traumatic context in order to stage the pleasures of domestic felicity. At the same time, its intense aesthetic overvaluation of family and domesticity make these scenes of Annabeth’s home life seem dreamy and unreal. Unwittingly or not, this new female-centered legal drama reveals how deeply any formulation of “family values” is dependent on its others.

Notes
1 “Trauma Time: A Still Life,” in Histories of the Future. eds. Daniel Rosenberg & Susan Harding, Durham: Duke U P, 2005, pps. 333 and 337 respectively.
2 “The Crime-Fighting Working Mom,” The New York Times Dec. 15, 2005, p. B1.
3 Elisabeth Bronfen, Home in Hollywood: The Imaginary Geography of Cinema. New York: Columbia U P, 2004, p. 21.

Links:
Close To Home

Image credits:

1. The Cast of Close to Home

2. Twin Towers

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Playboy Feminism? Hugh Hefner and The Girls Next Door

The Girls of Girls Next Door

The girls of Girls Next Door

Right-wing websites have condemned E!’s reality show, The Girls Next Door, for “normalizing pornography,” destroying marriage and seducing children. Other likeminded forums (such as Free Republic) present a variety of marginally different viewpoints condemning the show, mocking Hugh Hefner as alternately the worst kind of libertine or assailing him as asexual and his magazine as insufficiently erotic.

These screeds hardly mesh with the show, which centers not on male sexual potency but female friendships, desires and the minutiae of Hefner’s girlfriends’ everyday life. Despite its success in winning over female viewers, Girls plays with significant ideological contradictions as it tries to address the prevailing popularity of the Playboy bunny image with a new generation of women while trying to remove any taint of sexual exploitation from its girls.

At least superficially, the girls are what one might expect — buxom, scantily clad platinum blondes. Each is carefully distinguished in several ways, most crudely by her rank that combines her longevity with the seriousness of her relationship with Hef. Girlfriend number one, Holly, is the most serious and maternal, fond of strangely retro pearls and argyle sweaters or micro miniskirts and revealing cocktail dresses. Bridget, girlfriend number two, is an ersatz 1960s sex-kitten who is studying for her second M.A. Like Holly, she knows Playboy’s history, the rules of the bunny dress, stance, and bunny dip and hopes to embody the soft retro-femininity and self-reliant, public womanhood incarnated in either the older Playboy bunnies, or, possibly, in later reworkings of these images. Kendra rounds out the trio, presenting a more contemporary incarnation of the Playboy pin-up. She is all surface, an embodiment of the most standardized male fantasies, the girl we are supposed to laugh at, not identify with.

Kendra’s superficiality and her lack of interest in Playboy’s past helps foreground the show’s own historical discourse around women which sees these earlier bunnies as a contested but noteworthy advance in feminine life. The show plays with the possibilities inherent in this older Playboy image where women are at the center of a glamorous world and men are accessories, playing with it as a locus of both feminist and feminine empowerment in contrast to today’s more superficial sex objects. In contrast, current centerfolds are presented as synthetic, easily substitutable and banal (like Kendra). Holly and Bridget’s oddly mannered and costumed presence speaks to their efforts to forge their own identities through nostalgic reappropriations of Playboy’s latent nuggets of feminine possibility, and significantly, both girls also have degrees and career goals beyond life in the Mansion. Following in the steps of Helen Gurley Brown and later post-feminist appropriations of beauty and fashion, they strive to stage and take control of the feminine self in public, in the process displacing the masculine gaze. Holly and Bridget also intervene in the centerfold’s avowed address to men, placing themselves as both Playboy’s subjects and objects, with Bridget repeatedly stating that she read her father’s Playboy as a child.

This kind of feminine nostalgia and utopianism structures the show, suggesting both its debt to 1960’s culture and marking its inscriptions of feminine possibility. Its innocent vision of friends harmoniously living together in what seems like a sorority house gestures towards both true love and idealized female friendship. In what might be an image carefully crafted for a (female) TV audience, Hef appears to be monogamous: he shares his room only with Holly and they discuss having a child. While she cannot hide her distaste for former long-time girlfriend, Barbi Benton, Holly is not jealous of Bridget or Kendra, who have their own rooms and appear to see Hef as a father figure and mentor, not a lover.

Indeed, this show is structured as a quintessentially feminine text. Like other such fictional archetypes (such as Sex and the City, Valley of the Dolls, The Group), it features collective female protagonists, focuses on female friendship, plays with the inherent sense of possibility and diversity within feminine identity and offers its own self-analytical discourse. It thus invites not a male gaze but feminine conversation and empathy, positioning the leads not as (Hef’s) girlfriends but as girl friends, who are there for each other, with Bridget and Kendra providing company for Holly, relieving the pressure on an aging Hef.

Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

It is perhaps not surprising that most of the show’s viewers seem to be women. The Playboy website even sells non-erotic tie-in cotton underwear to girls (one pair is printed with “Beauty and Brains”). Sex seems beside the point — even the online Playboyphotos of the girls are strategically (if bizarrely) airbrushed to remove sexual characteristics that address a more prurient male gaze. While at one level, this returns us to the kind of feminine reworking of the Playboy centerfold exemplified in Bridget’s childhood desires, it also highlights the show’s conflicted and ultimately problematic vision of female sexuality. In disarticulating the girls from their sexual desire and yet maintaining their physical status as voluptuous pin-ups, the show presents another somewhat regressive image of feminine sexuality, even as it strives to present a feminine voice.

Source
James L. Lambert, “TV Porn Alert” Girls Next Door,” printed in both
Agape Press, November 23, 2005, and WorldNetDaily, Friday, November 25, 2005.

Image Credits

1. The Girls of Girls Next Door

2. Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

Links
E-Online, Girls Next Door
Playboy, Girls Next Door

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