Thursday, September 25, 2008

One-Sided Representation

Sorry to have been a slacker about writing for this site. Events have been crowding in, and things will get even more complicated (though I hope fun), so I better prove I’m still here while I can.

Among the many cultural events offered this month in London, two have evoked a lot of commentary. Matthew Bourne, choreographer of the transvestite Swan Lake and a dance version of Edward Scissorhands, was back at Sadlers Wells a couple of weeks ago with an updated ballet on Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, where little blond Dorian is a metallic hustler on the make. The other event is Tate Britain’s massive Francis Bacon retrospective. Works by gay artists in the limelight, hmm, so far so good. But maybe this is a convenient moment to raise a question that has always puzzled me: Why do the most celebrated works about gay experience invariably show bizarrerie, edge, nastiness, violence, and doom? (I’m going to put aside the issue of art depicting lesbians because I’m not fully qualified to comment.) The range of contemporary gay experience is very wide, from yeoman farmers to suburban MDs to high-ranking commanding officers. But over and over, the wild-side or downright repulsive aspect of gay experience is used as subject matter: psychopathic killers (How many works has Jeffrey Dahmer inspired? I’ve lost count, but they include, get this, lyrics for a musical written by Thom Gunn); mortal illness and suicide; sex addicts, S&M devotees, and betrayers (Even Tony Kushner's excellent Angels in America includes a scene where a man leaves his dying partner’s hospital bed and goes out to the park for an anonymous quickie with a leather clone; prison rape and sexual slavery in the slammer; transvestites (by far the most popular with straight audiences because cross-dressers are always represented as being harmlessly funny, in fact, endowed with hearts of gold, which is by no means the case in general; molesters of the underage, especially priests (meanwhile, the majority of such cases are between so-called adult men and little girls); wife betrayers, woman haters, and even gynocides (cf. Hitchcock’s Psycho); barflies, steam-bath wraiths, “cottagers,” or disco bunnies; or just lonely, pitiful miserabilists, unable to be straightforward about their sexuality. The message is clear: If you want to be successful using gay subject matter, paint a nasty picture, and you’ll be exalted as prophetic—also, as the height of fashion. (And, covertly, as a valuable discourager for a “lifestyle” the majority barely tolerates and whose disappearance they would applaud.)

Am I exaggerating? Add to the works mentioned above these savoury masterpieces of the cinema and television screen: Rope, The Boys in the Band, Visconti’s The Damned, I, Claudius, Naked Lunch, Oz, Queer as Folk, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Paris Is Burning, Will and Grace, any number of episodes of Law and Order, Brokeback Mountain, Amores Perros. The typical gay work of fiction ends in a murder and/or a suicide, sometimes hopeless alcoholism or addiction. In the Eighties, a variant was death by AIDS-related causes. Cut from the sheet-draped remains, and down comes THE END with a triumphalist thump. Of course I’m not saying that these subjects should never be dealt with. I’m asking why only the extreme and negative can become the subject of a work about gay experience. “Oh, well, you can’t make works of art about happiness.” No? There are in fact many such, about happy loves between men and women, family life, the achievement of various kinds of liberation (especially the subjects drawn from African American experience). Where is the gay Much Ado about Nothing, Pygmalion, The Thin Man? The gay North by Northwest? Where is the gay Bill Cosby Show? The gay One Hundred Years of Solitude? As for somber or tragic narratives, there could be stories involving gay people where the central crisis had nothing to do with sexuality, but some purely external problem, like war, poverty, a natural disaster, or the death of a beloved (non-gay) relative. I would love to see a film about gay experience in contemporary Africa or Brazil or Lebanon, involving people at the bottom of the economic ladder. I would love to see a TV special on gay health workers (nurses, MDs, psychotherapists, heads of clinics in developing countries). As for the predator padres, they’ve had plenty of coverage. What about the gay priests who never harmed any child, who were self-sacrificial and beloved of their congregations? For example, the gay priest who was killed while administering to the injured during the bombing of the World Trade Towers. If we turn to history, we’ve had a lot about Wilde. Why not something now about Edward Carpenter or Magnus Hirschberg? The British Museum currently has a show about the Emperor Hadrian, so why not a film based on the Yourcenar novel? Why not a film about Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson? Give the murderers a rest for a while!

To return to the intro to these pages: I think Francis Bacon is overrated. Begin with his subjects. Who isn’t tired of sex being represented as though it mostly resembled a thick rasher of porcine muscle and fat writhing in the saucepan over what must be hellish heat. Or if not that, decomposing cuts of mutton. It must all have seemed a lip-smacking bit of sensationalism in the late Fifties and early Sixties when Bacon made his first splash--an emetic sneak-peek into the arcane world of johns and rent boys. By now all the chic shock has worn off and we’re left with pictures whose color is haute boutique or smart spa, whose use of picture space is banal (including the silly line-drawing cubic schemas that pretend to be an important compositional feature but never prove they are); and design organization that makes nothing active of blank swathes of solid paint. Can’t we just say it? Bacon was a gay man in a time when even consenting adults could be imprisoned for their private lives; he was an addicted alcoholic and had other psychological problems; his partner committed suicide. That is all sad and regrettable and mostly not his fault. No doubt he regarded his work as a way to exorcise personal demons. But that is not necessarily a value for us. This is not major work. Opinion stated. Thanks for your attention.


Ray said...

Where’s the gay “Much Ado” ...? you ask.

I’m not sure where it fits in your list – probably nowhere – but the 1985 British film “My Beautiful Laundrette” (sic) might be one answer, albeit a quirky one.

johnemilvincent said...


Would be great to catch up, sorry about the old email, I can seem to shake it.

Better is


Alfred Corn said...

I'm not sure who I'm answering, Ray, but, yes, I like that film, too. The question that keeps coming to mind is this: Why is it that so many films and plays about gay experience feature cross-dressers? Though I've liked drag performers I've seen, I don't have any cross-dresser friends, in fact, have only twice in my lifetime met any face to face. Like most minority groups, they tend to keep unto themselves. And checking with other gay friends, I find the same thing. Most of us do not know cross-dressers or know them only slightly. Given this fact, why are they so prominent in works about gay experience? Of course cross-dressers are perfectly within their rights to dress as they please. But I haven't been fascinated enough by the phenomenon to go to great lengths to seek them out as friends, nor is there any interest on their part in me. And the fictional/film exploration of the phenomenon seems, so far, not especially in-depth.

Alfred Corn said...

Ray: Now that Janet has written to me about you, I know who you are, and welcome. To go back to your earlier post about accents, of course I think they are a fascinating linguistic study. But it seems a mistake to give an individual a low rating just on the basis of vowel and consonant production. That's all I meant. And I certainly yield to your superior knowledge of speech patterns in these Isles. A question for linguists: Why does English have so many variants, and wide variants at that? Even leaving aside former colonies. I don't believe there are so many different Spanish accents or French or German. Although it's true that no two persons speak with exactly the same accent. Skilled linguists even so claim to be able not only to name the city but also the street where a particular accent originates. I'm only an amateur and not that far long but enjoy knowing what I do.