By Michael Dean Benton
“Why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us? Why does it give us pleasure? Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our own potentiality.” — John Berger, Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing (1960)
“There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” — Raymond Williams, Culture and Society (1958)
Gender and sexuality are important contemporary political concepts for understanding the constitution of our selves. They are important because they are a key to the production of our sense of self and identity as social beings, because they are experienced by every human being, because all societies seek to regulate what is acceptable in regards to gender and sexuality, and, because myths about gender and sexuality are tools for the control, demonization and oppression of groups of people. My claim for the importance of gender and sexuality as political concepts does not discount class or race, rather it recognizes that even within the hierarchical divisions of classes and races, there are further inequalities built upon perceived gender and sexuality differences (and vice versa). The discriminatory, power-based inequalities of gender and sexuality are even built into our everyday language.
While the construction of gender and sexuality is a serious subject for us to address, it is also a joyous, surprising, creative, and challenging project. Of all the personal illusions I continuously work to dispel, the myths of gender and sexuality are the most difficult; but, for that reason, also the most rewarding and enriching. The difficulty lies in my training from the earliest age to think of myself as a certain gender construct—a tough, heterosexual, working-class male—that must perform a certain rigid sexual role, and adapt the attitudes/poses necessary to be accepted in my early social environments.
From the family to cultural institutions, in the pack of peers and through the ever ubiquitous media, I learned the dreaded consequences of transgressing the social conceptions of proper gender performances and sexual behavior. I could go insane, become a degenerate deviant, be socially ostracized, mercilessly mocked by peers, randomly brutalized or murdered by strangers, and locked up by the authorities. Even my friendly childhood pastor got worked up on the pulpit about fornicators and homosexuals, declaring that they would burn in hell.
These lessons, as also outlined in the documentary films The Celluloid Closet (1995) and Tough Guise (1999), often involved verbal conditioning from peers in which the perceived weak male is called faggot, queer, homo, bitch or girl. The message was clear, your perceived weakness, makes you not-a-man, harden your exterior or you will be attacked. I was a rather small, bookish, quiet kid, who quickly learned that sensitivity and intellectualism made me an easy target for local bullies. I desperately imitated Clint Eastwood’s steely stare, Jack Nicholson’s manic craziness, and countless cinematic bad asses. I had this desperate need to be threatening and tough. When I was 13 I decided I needed to harden my attitude and my body. No more books, no more thinking, no more empathy, as seen in this picture, a future of self-destruction and self-hatred was written all over my 16 year old, 125 pound body.
Further reinforcement was provided by the ubiquitous media. The popular stereotypes in film and on TV of sexual deviants and gender outlaws, those who lived outside the boundaries of accepted behavior, were usually portrayed as self-hating, degenerate outsiders. It was clear in these examples that these choices would lead to a life of quiet desperation, or, of quick extermination. These gender outlaws, like popular Western outlaws, were always at risk of being taken down by self-proscribed regulators of social codes. Like Brandon Teena (Boys Don’t Cry), they were always vulnerable to attack, violation and murder for their perceived transgressions of the social order.
This extreme anxiety led to the construction of a psychological defense system that relied upon a smooth and seamless internalization of social myths about gender and sexuality, so effective that I forgot that I had ever thought or felt differently. Even more disturbing, I have had to recognize that my self-destructive internalization of restrictive sexual and gender roles led to my own complicity in reproducing the violence and oppression of our society. I was no longer the weak, sensitive kid who wanted to create something beautiful; instead, I was the angry, anti-social bully who was going to make others pay for my pain. Like Zachary growing up in the working-class male world of Quebec (C.R.A.Z.Y.), I sought to erase my empathy for others and adopted the hard tough-guise of this world. Slowly, later in life, through the patient guidance of caring people who taught me about love, I slowly learned to recognize my betrayal of my inner self in order to fit into society’s prescribed roles. As I once again began to open myself up to my creative side, I also became very interested in how other artists understand and portray identity issues. This helped me to recognize the warring selves inside me and allowed me to put them into dialogue with each other, with positive role models in my community, and with the cinema I study.
As a result, as a film and media scholar, I have been working with the concepts of gender and sexuality for a long time. This research and writing has led to the development of a course, “Gender and Sexuality: A Contemporary Cinematic Exploration,” Wednesday nights at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning (CCLL) during the month of February. The course is a part of the Lexington Film League’s continuing series of film courses offered at the CCLL.
Cinema provides a unique opportunity for us to explore gender and sexuality. Issues of gender and sexuality have been treated in the cinema from every angle of vision and from all ideological perspectives while retaining the ability to continue to challenge us to reconsider our unconscious assumptions.
The film theorist Sophie Mayer (The Cinema of Sally Potter, 2009: 5-10), reminds us that films take place in the world, not just in the theater, and that films have just as much power as our “real” experiences to construct an understanding of our world. This is because of cinema’s “haptic” effect, which alludes to film’s ability to “touch us,” to make us feel as if we have actually experienced the events on the screen, and its profound ability to cause us to “rethink ways of seeing that link the viewer into the body of the protagonist.”
The multi-media artist, performer and filmmaker Sally Potter explains to Mayer the power of film to initiate critical reflection.
“In the act of surrender to it, what the film experience can offer is the possibility of saying ‘There you are! This is your life: your life is this and more. This is a journey inside your brain, or your experience, or your relationship with people, things, places, spaces.’ It’s not just through identification or projection onto characters, it’s the totality of experience itself being thrown back at you. With the best [films], you come out with the feeling that you took a walk through your own brain and remembered that you were alive in the big, spacious universe that you’re occupying.”
Cinema incorporates the other arts, and makes unique use of our senses to engage our experienced memories causing us to reflect on our embodied feelings.
Cinema constructs a set of memories that work in conjunction with our experienced memories to create a sense of the world. With that in mind we must recognize the extremely influential power that cinema, and popular media in general, have to proscribe rigid, naturalized, unquestioned gender roles and sexual expressions. These controlling narratives support privileged modes of being in the world that dominate our choices on how we should be and relate in the world. This is why it is important to explore challenging films that contest these dominant and repressive constructions of proper gender roles and sexual expression.
Probably the most challenging film I have taught is John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006) because it is such an honest and direct portrayal of sexuality, unlike any contemporary American film. The first time I watched it by myself I actually blushed during the first ten minutes of the film. I had a close friend get angry at me for telling him to watch it. I have had students walk out of class during the national anthem scene, yet no film I have ever taught has generated such amazing discussions of what it means to be a human in our current society or so many thoughtful, researched papers. As I worked with this film I began thinking what is it in our society that makes the honest direct portrayal and discussions of gender/sexuality so controversial for some and so invigorating for others? Put in dialogue with films like Fatih Akin’s German/Turkish film Head-On (2004), we also began, as a class, to wonder who was performing the true drag, Justin Bond expressing himself honestly in a dress in Shortbus, or the wild Cahit and Sibel masquerading as a traditional monogamous couple in order to allow her to escape her repressive family structure.
This is how I began working on developing a course to explore how contemporary international cinema has portrayed gender and sexuality. The “Gender and Sexuality: A Cinematic Exploration” course will be structured around an introductory section; followed by three groupings of contemporary international films: 1) The Politics of Love; 2) Unruly Bodies; 3) Queerying Gender and Sexuality. My choice to avoid typical Hollywood films is a conscious decision to explore unique examples that may not be familiar to most people. Also, by developing an international sampling of films, it allows us to understand the broader movement to challenge and change naturalized conceptions of gender roles, loving relations and sexual expressions. More popular Hollywood examples that reinforce rigid gender roles will, of course, be referred to as touchstones for exploring our examples from contemporary films.
Un Chien Andalou
(France: Luis Bunuel, 1929)
(USA: Garry Marshall, 1990)
(New Zealand/Australia/France: Jane Campion, 1993)
Boys Don’t Cry
(USA: Kimberly Peirce, 1999)
(USA: Steven Shainberg, 2002)
(USA/Germany: Bill Condon, 2004)
(Senegal: Ousmane Sembene, 2004)
(Canada/USA: Ang Lee, 2005)
I A.M. a Sex Addict
(USA: Caveh Zavehdi, 2005)
(USA: Zack Snyder, 2006)
Don’t Look Down
(Argentina: Eliseo Subiela, 2008)
The introduction will be a discussion of the main concepts, questions, and theories framing the course through the images and themes of the feature films listed above. We will also watch various short experimental films exploring gender roles and expressions of sexuality.
The Politics of Love
In the Company of Men
(USA/Canada: Neil LaBute, 1997)
(UK/USA: Sally Potter, 2004)
(Germany/Turkey: Fatih Akin, 2004)
The themes of this section will be that “relationships are always political”: The consequences of the competitive nature of sexual conquest as framed by a hyper-masculine discourse (In the Company of Men); how perceived racial and class differences come into play to disrupt and complicate traditional gender/sexual roles (Yes); the challenge for second-generation Turks in Germany, who are redefining and resisting their culturally prescribed roles, and the consequences of their transgressions (Head-On).
(France/USA: Michel Gondry, 2001)
(Argentina: Lucia Puenzo, 2007)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
(Romania: Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
The themes of this section will be the “disruptive body”: The way in which a self-defined, advanced, “civilized” Western industrial culture rests its assumptions of cultural superiority on the extreme control of bodily functions (Human Nature); how science seeks to definitively control and define gender/sexuality through biological determinism and the problems that erupt from individuals that exist outside these deterministic boundaries (XXY); how patriarchal-authoritarian societies seek to control the bodies of their citizens, especially women’s reproductive systems, and the dangers that this poses for those that seek to evade this control (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days).
Queerying Gender and Sexuality
But I’m a Cheerleader
(USA: Jamie Babbit, 1999)
(Canada: Jean-Marc Vallée, 2005)
(USA: John Cameron Mitchell, 2006)
The themes of this section will focus around “journeys”: The use of satire to queer perceptions of what is normal gender/sexual behavior and the lengths that society will go to reinforce conforming gender identity and sexual expressions (But I’m a Cheerleader); how the repression of one’s innermost feelings can lead to destructive violence and self-hatred; how a conforming society teaches those that are viewed as sexually different to deny their identity (C.R.A.Z.Y.). And finally, in a Post 9-11 world how do we move beyond the limited and repressive sexuality of a fearful, fundamentalist American culture? Is polyamory a healthy alternative to a sterile sexual culture (Shortbus)? The course will be offered every Wednesday night from 5:30 to 7:30 P.M. during the month of February.
To find out more about the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, visit their website, http://www.carnegieliteracy.org/pdf/CCLLwinter2010.pdf. Benton’s class is part of the Lexington Film League’s continuing series of film courses offered at the CCLL. For more information about their series, visit http://www.lexingtonfilmleague.org/workshops.html.