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Dr. Chase Dimock

Assistant Professor of English at Broward College and Researcher in Comparative Literature and LGBT Studies

Growing up on the Island of Misfit Toys or: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a Queer Allegory

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The Misfit Narrative and Queer Youth

The narrative of the misfit character struggling to find his place in the world is a well-used trope for popular entertainment because it is nearly universally identifiable and it lends itself to a light, yet redeeming moral at the end of the story. Everyone, in some capacity, thinks of himself or herself as a misfit to some degree and everyone is accustomed to, yet never contesting of, the simplistic message of tolerance and treating everyone equally.

Yet, the story of Rudolph as a misfit takes on a different dimension for the 50 years worth of queer American children who grew up watching the holiday classic every year on television. While these stories about kindly treating those different from us and not being afraid to be different were commonplace in the American classroom with their examples of not being ashamed to wear glasses, have freckles, stuttering, etc., the narrative of tolerating difference resonates differently for queer youth. Unlike the child with glasses who knows he is the same as other children beneath the glasses, queer youth often feel an intrinsic difference—that they inhabit a different kind of body or gender—almost another species of being. The queer youth is looking for more than a little hope that they will be tolerated an accepted; they are also looking for a subject model to emulate, a guide on how to live as a misfit.

For most of the past 50 years, lgbt youth have had to look for subject models in the abstract. Until the past decade, there were few, if any, lgbt identified characters in the media that their family consumed. Unlike today where lgbt youth have a character on Glee or Modern Family to point to in order to navigate their subject position, children of previous generations (including myself) had to look elsewhere for characters and subject models who mirrored their queerness in non-explicitly gendered or sexual forms. Coming into one’s gay identity meant identifying across a variety of different kinds of queerness and cobbling together a sense of how to think and live in a marginalized subject position by observing and learning from other forms of outsider status, like racial minorities, the disabled, immigrants, the poor—pretty much any oppressed class of people who would have some representation in the media.

In a certain way, maturing into my gay subjectivity by identifying through the similar outsider subject positions of others was beneficial because I saw my gayness as united with other disadvantaged segments of the population. It allowed me to see that part of the challenges facing the lgbt world come not simply from sexual or gender difference, but also from how society defines and polices otherness. In contrast, growing up today with gay visibility in mainstream media cuts out some of the grappling and self-invention that the queer youth historically went through in understanding their sexual or gender identity. Now they are given preformed, and usually limited, definitions of what constitutes an lgbt person. There is a greater sense of tolerance and acceptance, but oddly enough, lgbt identity becomes the freckles and glasses of the 21st century. Queerness is written out of lgbt identity as one’s constitutional difference is made one dimensional, aesthetic—like how the oft repeated message of not judging a man by the color of his skin leads children to believe that racism is absurd because it is about an arbitrary difference of physical appearance instead of its true basis in a long history of cultural, political, and economic oppression.

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This is the legacy that the “be nice to those who are different” and “be proud to be different” morals have left modern lgbt youth now that movements like the It Gets Better Project have updated this message for the 21st century. These are fine messages to begin with: on the very basic level, we should indeed be nice to those who are different and be proud of our differences. Yet, just like how the It Gets Better Project became a vehicle for press-seeking celebrities and corporations to dilute its specifically lgbt oriented message with vague assertions of “hang in there kids”, so too does this tolerance fable too often miss the supposed point of its own message. It’s okay to be different, but more often than not, the happy ending of the story is that the misfit learns that their difference is their key to fitting in. Rudolph’s red nose is accepted once it is discovered that society has a use for it and he can fit in at the front of Santa’s sleigh. When the misfit’s happy ending is finally finding a place to fit in within the same social system that had once rejected him, ultimately the moral of the story is to tolerate only minor, superficial differences. The moral of the story declares it is okay to be a misfit by showing how a misfit has a place in society—which renders him no longer a misfit. It is the story of social assimilation—difference is tolerable as long as it fits into the social hierarchy and structure and does not threaten it.

 

This is the same problem that lgbt youth face today as society has become more accepting of gay identity and more exposure has been granted to gay characters in the media. There is increasing support for coming out as gay, but because modern lgbt activism has stressed its “normality” as the key to gaining rights, one comes out to a specific idea of what gay sexuality constitutes, including a preconceived identity politics and culture. One may come out as different from the societal norm of heterosexuality, but that child is reinscribed into the system of cultural norms by being expected to adhere to the norms of lgbt identity.  Now that there are uses for the gay man in society (largely stereotypes of the interior decorator, hair dresser, stage producer, though there is no shame in these vocations) he is encouraged to come out because there are non-threatening, economically viable uses for him in mainstream society. His misfit status isn’t accepted or defended, because ultimately society has a found a “fit” for him, that serves the dominant culture.

While the story of Rudolph participates in this discourse of sympathizing with the misfit not by defending the right to be different, but by trying to trivialize his difference, the story is also remarkable in how it identifies the political, cultural, and social roots of how we determine “otherness” in our society while vaguely hinting at a possible alternate social arrangement. Through Rudolph’s story, we can see how the queer subject is constituted through 1. Sexism and the Patriarchal Family System (Donner’s (the father’s) fear that his son’s nose will prevent him from maturing into a proper, heterosexual patriarch) 2. Industry, Capitalism, and the Means of Production (How Santa’s system of production values certain traits amenable to his production of toys) and 3. Through Class and Racial Identity (The Reindeer and Elves as permanent underclasses of laborers with essentialized identities that lock them into their drudgery) Finally, when Rudolph and Hermey band together as misfits, become “independent together”, and visit the Island of Misfit Toys, the film suggests an alternative kinship structure where difference within the social system is not defined against an internal norm, but as a virtue. Yet, the Island of Misfit Toys is a paradise lost, a queer utopia that could have been. They present the possibility of a society based not on prefabricated social roles, but on mutual support of each other’s individuality.

 (Read the full Article on The Qouch)

My Review of Camp Sites By Michael Trask

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The gay community has always had a contradictory relationship with the notion of authenticity. We have delighted in the camp spectacles of drag on stage and marveled at the “realness” of ball culture in Paris is Burning, yet we maintain that to be “straight acting” is the pinnacle of masculine attractiveness and many lgbt rights groups preach assimilation and highlight our “normality” as a political tactic. In Camp Sites, Michael Trask traces some of the origins of this contemporary obsession with authenticity in the lgbt world and its cultural politics to a shift in the culture of leftist politics and American academia from the 50s to the 60s.

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Charging that the New Left of the 60s “drew with surprising frequency on the Cold War culture’s wide repertoire of homophobic suppositions,” Trask argues that “the New Social Movements had such difficulty with the queers” because “the equation radicals forged between authenticity and a meaningful life rendered gay culture’s uncommitted and artificial persons beyond redemption, even if such figures would serve a role in defining countercultural commitment by their negative example.” (1) Trask contends that the Left of the 60s saw the hallmarks of gay existence such as camp culture, male effeminacy, and closetedness as vestiges of the inauthenticity they sought to dismantle as they posited more utopian visions of cultural revolution. As Trask puts it “in the liberal mind, camp followers became so hopelessly beholden to surfaces that they were incapable of taking advantage of the opportunistic gap between appearance and depth, the gap in which realpolitik unfolded.” (8)

(Full Article Available at The Lambda Literary Review)

On Robert Duncan’s “My Mother Would Be A Falconress”

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The following is a reading of Robert Duncan’s poem “My Mother Would be a Falconress” that situates the poem within lgbt history and the author’s fraught relationship with gay identity. The full poem itself can be found here on Poets.org.

Read within the contemporary context, the word “gay” in the second line “and I, her gay falcon treading her wrist” sticks out awkwardly and causes the line to stumble to its conclusion. To flat out declare that a character is gay in 2013 would violate the sacred creative writing principle of showing instead of telling. A mainstream audience from 1968 would have made no such pause. After all, the theme song from “The Flintstones” promised its 1960s audience that they would have “a gay old time”. But, queer men and women of the era, or those heterosexuals in the know, would have paused and wondered whether or not Duncan was sneaking in a double meaning, perhaps even making this one three-letter word the key to unlocking the troubled source of the complex relationship between mother and child depicted in the poem.

From Duncan’s notes on the genesis of the poem (marked above in MAPS as Virginia Wallace-Whitaker), we know that the association of the term “gay” with a sexual connotation was deliberate. Yet, Duncan stresses that with using “gay”, he wants to evoke the history of the term as a signifier of sexual liberation and being “free from any structure”, before it was attached specifically to homosexual men. Citing the French poet Baudelaire’s use of “gai” in his poetry as inspiration, Duncan declares, “Gai” could be taken over by the gay liberation because it originally meant you were sexually free, not paying attention to whether your sexual partner was male or female, not checking out the charge for it.” The Stonewall Riots launched the modern American gay liberation movement one year after the publication of this poem, and the term “gay” would be introduced to the public as the preferred term for a homosexual male. Promoting the term “gay” was a rhetorical tactic that sought to disassociate modern gays from the clinical history of the “homosexual” as a psychologically disturbed and genetically inferior being and to reinforce the pursuit of open happiness and pride, previously assumed to be unachievable to the melancholic, outcast homosexual.

(Full article at Modern American Poetry …scale to bottom of page)

A Few Queer Notes on Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”

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Without its title “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”, the queer space of O’Hara’s poem taking place on Fire Island could pass easily undetected without the image of hoards of tanned men partying on the beach evoked at the mention of the now famous gay resort. Although the poem itself has little to say explicitly about sexual identity or its attendant politics, I believe that it benefits from being situated in the specific context of Fire Island’s history in the lgbt community. Today, Fire Island is a famous summer vacation spot populated heavily with gay men during its high season. While the 21st century discos, raves, and circuit parties on the island today make it a carnival atmosphere, in the time of Frank O’Hara, Fire Island was more of a traditional east coast village of summer homes—just prominently populated by queer men and women. Fire Island was an especially popular destination for gay writers and artists. In her ethnography of the resort, Cherry Grove, Fire Isla, Esther Newton mentions the legend that W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood once attended a party at the famous Duffy’s Hotel dressed as Dionysus and Ganymede. Whether this is true or not, it establishes the space Fire Island occupied in not just gay culture, but also gay literary history, as a space that nurtured and inspired queer expression. Since even before O’Hara’s stay, Fire Island has had a place in the gay imaginary as a queer oasis—an escape from the bigotry and obligatory discretion of urban life. Along with promising romantic liaisons (however brief their durations) Fire Island was also a rare space of queer domesticity where gay men and women could live almost like their straight counterparts in the suburbs and residential communities outside the city.

(Read more at Modern American Poetry…scroll to the bottom of the linked page)

The Nightinghouls of Paris: Robert McAlmon’s Queer Paternalism and The Twilight of the Expatriate Movement

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My new article on Robert McAlmon is now available in the edited anthology Paris in American Literatures: On Distance as a Literary Resource, through Roman & Littlefield Press.

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Here’s a link to the book on Amazon as well.

 

My Review of “New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut” By B. Ruby Rich

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When B. Ruby Rich coined the term “New Queer Cinema” in 1992, she was referring to an exciting moment in film when a wave of young queer filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, Isaac Julien, and Todd Haynes burst onto the film festival circuit with gritty, experimental films like My Own Private Idaho, Looking for Langston, and Poison that unflinchingly portrayed the provocative and uncomfortable realities of queer identity and existence. As Rich herself describes the movement:

“Emanating from a (mostly) new generation, the NQC embodied an evolution in thinking. It reinterpreted the link between the personal and the political envisioned by feminism, restaged the defiant activism pioneered at Stonewall, and recoded aesthetics to link the independent feature movement with the avant-garde and start afresh.”

Two decades later, Rich’s “Director’s Cut” revisits New Queer Cinema and the evolution of lgbt film through the turn of the century. Where Vito Russo’s work ends in The Celluloid Closet, B. Ruby Rich’s New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut takes up the mantle to document the last few decades of cinema when film itself came out of the closet.

Composed as a collection of essays, the book proves valuable as a resource on queer film history. Along with new essays that weigh in on the comprehensive history of the movement, argue for the international inclusion of Latin American, European, and Asian films, and forecast the future of queer fim, Rich also includes articles published decades ago that capture the political controversies and audience reactions to NQC as they happened. We get both the hindsight of 20/20 and the radical zeitgeist of the moment preserved as it was. Thus, Rich’s book is also a history of the past three decades queer culture and activism as it was projected on screen and debated among the audience. Rich takes us through “the arrival of AIDS, Reagan, camcorders, cheap rent, and the emergence of ‘queer’ as a concept and a community” that informed the politics of NQC. Along the way, Rich details the battles over the media representation of lgbt identity waged at the film festival circuit, from the censorship of external foes like Jesse Helms and the Moral Majority who branded NEA fellows like Haynes government-subsidized pornographers to the internal controversies dealing with stereotypes and queer narrative tropes: murderous lesbians, the man living with AIDS as “victim”, and images of cruising, drug abuse, and violence that many thought damaged the cause of lgbt rights.

(Read the full review at The Lambda Literary Review)

“No, Psychoanalysis is Not Against Gay Marriage” or How Psychoanalysis Supports Queer Inquiry

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As I write, the French parliament is embroiled in a protracted debate over President François Hollande’s push to legalize gay marriage and adoption in France. The controversy regarding the bill has swept through French society and the regular cast of conservative political and cultural interests such as the Catholic Church and the xenophobic right-wing parties has emerged in demonstrations against it. Yet, one unlikely voice of support for the bill came out last month as Jacques-Alain Miller, representing the psychoanalytic community, authored an op-ed in Le Point titled, “Non, la psychanalyse n’est pas contre le mariage gay”. I say this is “unlikely” not because it would be unexpected for a psychoanalyst to support lgbt rights, but because it is uncommon for psychoanalysis to weigh in on current political issues. In this article, Miller (who is Jacques Lacan’s son-in-law and one of the most widely published analysts still active today) does not come out in explicit support of gay marriage, but instead lambastes the conservatives who have misrepresented and instrumentalized psychoanalytic research and theory in their campaign against gay marriage. As Miller promulgates, “we Psychoanalysts are obligated to declare that nothing in the Freudian experience will validate an anthropology that is authorized by the first chapter of Genesis.” (my translation)

While it is important in the context of the gay marriage debate for scholars to publicly dismantle the pseudo-scientific and unfounded sociological claims made by conservative interests, I find that Miller’s short, five paragraph article also makes a profound, if unintended, argument for how the basic concepts of psychoanalysis are congruent with research in Queer Theory. Miller’s article comes out against the abuses and misinterpretations of psychoanalytic concepts and practices that led the ill-informed to pathologize or inject moral approbation against homosexuality based on poor readings of Freud, Lacan, and other luminaries of psychoanalysis. Miller makes a bold statement against any kind of normative moralizing and instead stresses the fluidity of gender, sex, and desire as a guiding feature of psychoanalytic practice and research. The article serves a double purpose of both defending against socially regressive misuses of psychoanalysis and clarifying the basic concepts and practices for queer scholars and activists who have been mislead by pop-psychology or misinformed critics. Here, I have translated key elements of Miller’s text for an English-speaking audience because I believe his points brilliantly illustrate how psychoanalysis has granted me and other scholars of Queer Theory illuminating language and discourse for the  study of queer identity and desire.

(Read the rest at The Qouch)

My Review of ‘Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal’ By J. Jack Halberstam

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From the Flower Power protest songs of the 60s to the socially conscious hip hop of groups like Public Enemy, popular music has long had the capacity to voice the desire for social revolution in rhythm and melody. In Gaga Feminism (Beacon Press), J. Jack Halberstam makes a case for Lady Gaga to be considered in these terms for the potential of her masterful subversion of gender and sexual norms to bring about a possible “end of normal” altogether. Describing the project of gaga feminism, Halberstam explains, “Gaga feminism proposes to be a new kind of gender politics for a new generation, a generation less bound to the romance of permanence (in the form of marriage, for example), more committed to the potential of flexibility (in the form of desire, for example), more tuned in to the fixity of power relations (in the form of capitalism), and less likely to buy the broken ideologies of uniqueness, American dreams, inclusivity, and respectability.”

Now, what exactly does any of this have to do with a pop singer in a meat dress? For Halberstam, the popularity of a decidedly avant-garde performer devoted to surreal spectacles that blur the line between homo/hetero and male/female signals a moment of potential transformation, perhaps even revolution, in the way we conceive of gender and sexual politics;

(Read the rest at Lambda Literary)

Why Don’t You Come Up Sometime and Queer Me?: Reclaiming Mae West as Author and Sexual Philosopher

  

We know Mae West as an actress, a sex symbol, a cultural icon, a comedienne, a master of the one liner and the double entendre. What we don’t think of Mae West as is an author. It has been largely forgotten that Mae West got her start on stage, in a series of salacious plays she wrote for herself in the late 20s. West was by then a veteran of the Vaudeville circuit appearing mostly chorus line gigs and bit parts. But when she grew tired of waiting for the right part and her big break to come around, she decided to write her own roles. With early plays such as “Sex” and “Diamond Lil”, West invented the vamp persona that defined her career over the next five decades. If we think of Mae West as playwright and an author that wrote the character that she ultimately became, then we can view her iconography as its own meticulously plotted text and her careful crafting of figure and image as a finely formulated semiotics of the body. If we think of Mae West as an author, then her pithy one-liners and double entendres transcend the ephemera of comic relief and reveal her as one of the most astute observers of sexual and gender politics of the modernist era. If we think of Mae West as an author, a quote like “I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing”, becomes an insight into gender performativity. Her quote “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution”, becomes a critique of the state’s power to enforce heteronormativity through marriage. And finally her quote “If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would search for the double meaning” becomes a post-modernist play on the endless veils of irony and metaphor that obscure and inflate every day speech. It is this Mae West as author and sexual philosopher who put her text into her curves, that I want to recover and illuminate.

While West marketed herself as an object of heterosexual desire, she not only understood her appeal to a gay audience, but she also engaged with the newly emerging gay community in her plays. Thus, I want to also think about Mae West as queer theorist—as an interpreter of queer sexuality who saw the newly visible figure of the homosexual in society as a product of power relations—a figure determined by the interplay of institutional powers, medicine and the law, and his own creative power to define himself. For this, I turn to her 1927 play, “The Drag”, a text centered on the question of the male homosexual’s position in society. Unlike her previous play, “Sex”, which launched her into notoriety and stardom on Broadway, “The Drag” was not a vehicle for self-promotion as an actress. Mae West did not write a role for herself. Instead, “The Drag” sought to cash in on what contemporary scholars have called “The Pansy Craze”, a period in the 1920s when female impersonators appeared in mainstream stage shows and the Jazz age youth went slumming at gay bars and drag balls. The “pansy”, often known as the “fairy”, was a figure that created gender confusion; a male that interwove signifiers of masculinity and femininity on his body. He paraded feminine mannerisms, walked in high heels with a swish, and even used feminine pronouns, but he was not a trans-woman. The fairy became the dominant image of what was termed the “invert”, before “gay” hit wide usage two decades later; a biological male with the soul of a woman on the inside.

(Full Article Available at The Qouch)

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