Friday, July 22, 2016

The representation of gayness and not-gayness

Macklemore released a poignant song a couple years ago called "Same Love," which is also sort of hilarious if looked at the right way.

It's poignant because it celebrates gay rights, including lyrics decrying the homophobia of hip hop culture and a refrain by a female singer that goes "My love, she keeps me warm."

Macklemore himself is not gay -- the song would lose a bit of its meaning, in fact, if he were, because then he'd be writing it out of self-interest rather than a magnanimous impulse to fight hatred.

The funny part is his insistence on establishing that he's not gay in the song, which could read as problematic if the mere existence of the song weren't proof of his tolerance. The opening lyrics of the song go:

When I was in the third grade I thought that I was gay
'Cause I could draw, my uncle was, and I kept my room straight
I told my mom, tears rushing down my face
She's like "Ben, you've love girls since before pre-k."

It's just these four opening lines, and then the man born as Ben Haggerty never returns to the topic of his own sexuality. But they do read enough like a denial that the guys from Lonely Island thought they'd make a great subject for parody. Though I have not yet seen Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping -- and I can't even tell if it's going to get an Australian theatrical release, especially after the poor U.S. box office -- I understand it contains a song with similar lyrics to "Same Love," except Conner4Real inserts the disclaimer "not gay" in the middle of nearly every verse. It's a perceptive observation, as when I encountered this song for the first time myself (within the past year -- I bought the Macklemore CD for my wife two birthdays ago), I too was struck by just the tiniest bit of hypocrisy on the rapper's part.

This is all a way of backing into what I really want to talk about today: Whether movies that present apparently gay subject matter must actually be "gay."

The topic came up in reference to Swiss Army Man, and it came up in an email conversation with a friend who had also seen it (and liked it, but not as much as I did). Some of the following discussion assumes that you also have seen it, but I don't know that it necessarily spoils anything -- unless you consider the fact that Daniel Radcliffe is not as dead as he originally seems to be a spoiler. In which case, oops! Sorry.

There are a couple scenes in Swiss Army Man that register as gay on a textual level, but subtextually may be referring to something different -- or may not be. My friend and I disagreed about what that something different was, and whether it was even something different.

Even if you haven't seen it, you already know from the trailers that the castaway played by Paul Dano, named Hank, develops a friendship with the corpse played by Radcliffe, name Manny. What you may not know is that the film is unafraid of staging it as potentially more than a friendship. There's a lot of physical imtimacy, generally, in the movie -- as might be assumed in a scenario where one guy has to carry the other around -- but the intimacy also becomes emotional, and sexual.

In one instance, Hank dresses up as the girl on the bus that Manny thinks he remembers from a picture on his phone. Not only does Hank totally commit to the feminine persona, embracing it as more of a second skin than a costume, but the scene ends with Hank and Manny leaning in toward one another in the familiar fashion of incipient lovers locking lips for the first time. The kiss is aborted when Hank's balance shifts, serving to awaken him from his reverie, and to make him reconsider the wisdom of his impulse.

For those dissatisfied with that bit of coitus interruptus -- or at least kissus interruptus -- don't worry, because Hank and Manny do get it on later. And by "get it on" I mean "kiss." It's an underwater kiss that causes fireworks to go off -- in a rather literal way.

I didn't interpret this as Hank loving Manny. I interpreted it as Hank loving himself.

So I guess I am going to spoil a bit more of Swiss Army Man, if you still want to turn away at this late hour.

It doesn't take any analytical skill at all to realize that Manny is, in many ways, not a separate person, but an external manifestation of Hank himself. When we meet Hank at the start, Hank is about to hang himself out of the desperation caused by (what we think is) loneliness and starvation on a deserted island. Coincidentally, that's when he sees Manny. Sure, Manny might actually be a body washed up on the shore, and with all the jokes built into the things that his body does, his physical actuality is well asserted. But more likely is that it's Hank seeing into his own "future," as it were, as he contemplates taking that plunge off that cooler and hanging himself. Hank is moments away from being Manny in a very literal sense -- a corpse.

If you look at it purely in that way, then Hank's love for Manny is a growing love for himself and for his own life -- a desire, then, not to actually commit suicide.

My friend doesn't think that. My friend thinks that the moments when he's almost kissing Manny, and then actually kissing him, are the moments when he's setting himself free from the way he represses his homosexual desires, the very desires that may have led him to this suicidal place to begin with. There's a reason, so says my friend, that we see the gay theme returned to repeatedly. In a sense, Swiss Army Man is a further exploration of the way we know teenagers wrestle with their owns sexuality and the way they contemplate killing themselves when they are bullied. "It gets better," the movie hopes to tell us.

My friend may be right, and by saying "my friend my friend my friend" I am certainly not trying to demonstrate that I think his position is ridiculous. In fact, his position is the furthest thing from ridiculous.

But, to bring it back to Macklemore, something that's about being gay does not itself have to be gay. Or maybe isn't even about being gay, just because it has stuff in it that seems to be gay.

Rather, I think that the writer-directors of this film -- Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, credited as "Daniels" -- want to show how gay friendly and gay forward they are without needing it to be a function of their self-interest. They want to get credit for being progressive, and I don't mean that in a way that suggests they are greedy about being praised by those from the liberal and queer communities. What they want is to make a movie that openly flirts with gay ideas as just a normal part of self-discovery and artistic discourse, not as a central theme, because it's not concerned about being thought of as gay, or even welcomes the associations because it doesn't give a squirt of piss if someone thinks it is gay. They want to go one step better than Macklemore, in other words.

It's interesting, though. As a pair of men who are directing a movie together without being related to each other, they must get questions about whether they are in a partnership that's more than just business. Is this them saying "I'm not gay, but I like gays?" Or is even saying that beneath them because it acknowledges that it's anybody's business but theirs? (And I checked; they aren't gay.)

There's kind of a lot to unpack here. Both Hank and Manny pine after the character they call Sarah, whether that's actually her name or not -- she's played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. One of them apparently had the experience of seeing her on the bus and falling in love with her on sight. So much so that he surreptitiously photographed her and became sort of obsessed with her. Kind of the very definition of being straight, right?

Except maybe not. Hank mentions at one point that the thing that drew him to her was that she looked so happy. That isn't the typical reason listed for falling in love with someone. Usually it's that they're pretty or nice or funny. Someone happy is not necessarily someone you want to be with, although it certainly helps. It's someone you want to be -- especially if you are not yourself happy. Especially if you yourself are suicidal.

But there's a possibly gay wrinkle here. We also see a photo of Sarah with her husband. That's also a photo on the phone, and also a photo Hank/Manny has looked at before. Maybe he wants to be Sarah because he wants to be with her husband. Maybe.

And is it any coincidence that he's named Manny? Okay, now I'm really stretching.

Looking back on this post, it just seems like a bunch of rambling about gayness and not-gayness without any real point.

Well, maybe you'll find the point I feel like I didn't quite make, somewhere hidden in here.

Maybe my point is that Swiss Army Man can be what either of us thinks it is, or five other things, because great art is malleable and can fit itself into the worldview of the person viewing it. Great art means different things to different people, and not only allows multiple interpretations, but actually invites them.

And I do think Swiss Army Man is pretty great art.


Wendell Ottley said...

Haven't seen Swiss Army Man yet, so I can't speak directly to what I think its or isn't trying to do. I have heard "Same Love" lots of times and can speak on that a little.

For whatever reason - societal grooming, the need to declare our masculinity, hetero-elitism, the tiniest bit of homophobia, or something else - we often can't help but make it known we aren't gay, especially when speaking in support of something deemed "gay." That impulse was probably doubly strong in Macklemore when recording the song for reasons both internal and external. Internally, he is a hip hop artist and before that he was a fan. As much as I love it, it is a very homophobic genre. Being seen as gay has been, in no uncertain terms, being seen as inferior. Right or wrong, no rapper intentionally pulls himself from his own pedestal. Even those who seem to be self-deprecating do so as a way of taking away the power of others to insult them. And for a kid who likely grew up hearing that homosexuality is wrong, that experience is likely pretty normal. Externally, he probably just didn't want to face the barrage of questions about his own sexualitgoes he hadn't made it clear.

All of that is my long-wnded way of saying I understand and don't have a problem with those opening bars and understand why he included them. Then again, I'm not gay.

See what I did there?

To the larger issue, I do not think a piece of art that deals with gayness has to necessarily be a "gay" piece of art. The same goes for other things, too. A movie with black characters doesn't have to be about being black, or movies with female protagonists have to be feminist.

Thanks for writing such a thought provoking piece. Great job!

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Wendell! You sure know how to give a blogger warm fuzzies.

I definitely appreciate the analysis of hip hop as I don't have the depth of knowledge that you do. And I should say, since I'm not sure I effectively said it in the piece, that I don't have a problem with the way Macklemore (oops, spelled his name wrong, will go and fix that) clarifies his own sexuality -- I basically made note of it and moved on. It was only when I heard the nature of the parody in Never Stop Never Stopping that I realized that other people had noted it as well -- more than noted it.

I do hope you get the chance to see Swiss Army Man. I found it pretty magical.