A story from the trenches of academia:
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of guest lecturing in a colleague’s class during a unit on queer studies. When I asked her what she wanted me to do with her students, she was amazingly generous and told me I could assign them whatever I wanted and the same went for the actual lecture in terms of content and methodology. Super excited about the prospect of teaching on a topic I was really passionate about, I assigned some readings on constructions queer trauma as well as excerpts from Annie on My Mind, which is a one of the first young adult novels to tackle the issue of homosexual desire in a non judgemental and non “this is just a phase you’re going through” type of way. This might not seem like a huge deal now in an era of shows like Glee,The L Word, and Will and Grace, but when the book was originally published in the early 80′s; as such, it was a revolutionary text that many young women (and probably young men) used as a way to cope with the trauma of being young and queer in a world that well, isn’t exactly rolling out the rainbow carpet any time soon (at least in America).
Anyway, as I gave the lecture all was going accordingly to plan: the students answered my questions eagerly and easy, I felt comfortable in front of them, and I could tell they were interested. However, midway through I decided to throw a game changer into the equation. I asked them to raise their hands if they liked the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. They all did. I then asked them to start naming other popular romance movies. I got the following list: The Notebook (more than a few times), The Vow, P.S. I Love You, and a few others. Someone may have said Titanic, but I probably blacked out at the mere mention of it. I then asked the students, “If you identify as straight, how does it feel to be able to go to the movies and see these types of plots on the big screen?” Some of them replied that they felt that it gave them hope for romance in their own lives, especially if they saw the films when they were young. Others said that it depended on their relationship status: if they had a boyfriend (female students), the films were fun, but if they were single the films made them sad because they felt they were missing out on something important. It was at this point where I told them, “It feels really good to see ourselves on screen – but, there are those of us who have never gotten to see ourselves during a normal trip to the movies. We’ve never had that transformative high school/young adult experience of recognizing our desires or even images on film.” The class was instantly silent. I had stumped them.
Remember a few weeks ago when I talked about If These Walls Could Talk 2? This is why that film, particularly the sex scenes, are so important outside of any physical reaction we may have to them on a visceral level. For some of us, this movie gave us images we needed to see but couldn’t find anywhere else: seeing relationships on screen as a miniature human is important and shapes us no matter who we are or what we think is sexy or beautiful.
This all leads me to my larger question and point at hand: how do we construct heterosexuality on screen and what is the affect of this super saturation of straight desire in all of our media? Obviously it goes without saying that I know most people are straight and the dominant group will always have the largest stake in any type of media production, which is why I’m focusing on it here. And I want you all to know that I love and respect straight people, straight desires, and most importantly straight relationships. Some of my best friends are straight. Momma Fraud and Miniature Sister Fraud are straight too and I love them more than I love bow ties, and we all know that’s a lot. BUT I think there is a sharp difference between showing relationships, desires, and romance semi-realistically and creating an unattainable gold standard full of problematic notions about what love, sex, and bodies should look like. How many of us REALLY look like Brad Pitt or Olivia Wilde? Umm, like none of us, and it doesn’t take a degree in psychology or gender studies to know that shit fucks with everyone regardless of gender. Furthermore, how many of our relationships resemble Allie and Noah, our friends from The Notebook?Lastly, how many of our relationships feature unhealthy obsession and paranoia masked as devotion à la Twilight. Hopefully none of us on that last one. However, what do we do when all the relationships we see in our media aren’t real and function as fucked up teaching tools that tell us how “hetero-love” should look and feel, especially when we are young and using films and television as a guidebook for life?
Some of us would rather look like moody 16 year told boys who abuse Myspace
In my attempt to deal with this question, I turn to a short case study: American Horror Story, particularly the relationship between star-crossed teen lovers Tate and Violet.
When I told you guys last week that I would be writing on American Horror Story in some capacity, I knew I wanted to discuss the FUCKED UP dynamics between Violet and Tate as a way to discuss a larger problem that feminist rock star Adrienne Rich named “Compulsory Heterosexuality.” Rich was writing back in the 70′s when everyone was getting their consciousness raised and second wave feminism (you know, the women who fought for Roe vs Wade, marched on Washington for equal pay, and generally didn’t take shit from any haters) was at its peak. Rich herself says:
“When we look hard and clearly at the extent and elaboration of measures designed to keep women within a male sexual purlieu, it becomes an inescapable question whether the issue we have to address as feminists is not simple “gender inequality,” nor the domination of culture by males, nor mere “taboos against homosexuality,” but the enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economical, and emotional access.That quote comes directly from Rich’s essay on the topic entitled, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”
Google it if you want to read the entire piece, it’s a wild ride.
These bathroom icons have clearly found true love.
However, let me pull a Kanye and interrupt my discussion right here for a second and acknowledge that Rich looks really hateful and kind of like a man-hating bitch. BUT, what we need to remember is that times were different forty years ago. Women got treated like objects in the workplace, they couldn’t open credit cards without their father’s or husband’s signatures (Momma Fraud told me that one), and lesbian sex got thrown aside as “advanced cuddling” (I’d like to challenge anyone on this last one, I’m pretty sure last time I checked there was quite a bit of work involved). Rich is frustrated, sad, and angry because life for women was pretty shitty and she sees a lot of that shittiness tied to the beliefs that heterosexuality and how men treat women in heterosexual relationships and interactions. A lot of dudes back in the day were dicks and treated their wives horribly (some men still do) and Rich is like, “Yo, ladies, you don’t have to take that shit if you don’t want to, heterosexuality and our ideals/rules for it are socially constructed, open your minds to something else.” For some women that something else meant realizing they were queer. For others it was the radical decision to work outside the home. For others it was having female friends that meant the difference between feeling hopeless and alone to feeling great and like they had a voice somewhere, anywhere. Think about Sex and the City and all that girl talk/friendship going on, that’s all based on Rich’s ideas and its super important even today.
You can still think she is a man-hater, but now you at least can make an informed opinion her and her work.
Maybe Rich was right all along
Okay, back to American Horror Story.
Tate and Violet being typical lovestruck teens
As I am with a lot of my opinions, I am going to openly say I strongly dislike the construction and depiction of Tate and Violet’s relationship, despite my love for the show in general. Ryan Murphy paints them as a modern day Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers to their rotten cores (And yeah, we adults know the relationship is fucked, but that’s not my central concern here as you all will see in a bit).
Tate is a ghost (who died in the 90s when a SWAT team gunned him down after he shot up his high school…sweet, right?) who Violet thinks is alive and well and just so happened to wander into her father’s office for some psychotherapy. Violet is the depressed and suicidal daughter of Tate’s therapist Ben (who, since he works outside of their house, it is easy for her to run into him). Ben really wants to keep them apart because he thinks (and knows) Tate is kind of bat shit insane. This makes their desire to connect even stronger. Their love is framed as live affirming and transcendental despite the fact Tate is a manipulative bastard and essentially prays on Violet’s weaknesses through stalking and obsession. And yes, there are many layers to the creation of this relationship within the show. Does Tate know he’s dead? Could Tate really have raped Vivian (Violet’s mother) to get her pregnant with a demon baby? Can ghosts and humans have sex? It’s a barrel of fucking psycho monkeys on PCP all up in the plot. However, what really bothers me about their relationship is the sheer number of teenage girls who latched onto them as a couple and routed for the sex offender Tate to stay with mess Violet. There are entire tumblrs devoted to this (SHIT, you know a cultural movement is real when it hits tumblr) and it makes me really upset. Plus, in a more real life example, all the 16 year old kiddies I worked with this summer wouldn’t shut up about how romantic Tate and Violet were. It is at this point where knowledge of feminism, compulsory heterosexuality, and generally not being an idiot all converge to create a perfect arsenal of dealing with what happens when teenagers and young adults are fed this kind of relationship lie and how to handle damage control.
Feminism helps us tell kids that you can be all that can be, but you’ve got to respect others and actively understand their autonomy and space (aka, not lingering in someone’s room when they aren’t there or reading their texts). Awareness to compulsory heterosexuality offers us the ability to tell our teenage friends that not all relationships are supposed to be like they are on TV and that a lot of bad things happen to both girls and boys when they start drinking the kool aid that dictates certain types of straight relationships are the only way to effectively have a boyfriend or girlfriend. It also gives us the ability to discuss alternative relationship models and queer desires as legitimate and healthy life directions. When adults are conscious to both of these conditions as well as how media constructs gender and sexuality in shitty ways, we are able to pull our younger children, siblings, students, and/or employees (the ones we are close to) aside and point out behaviours we see happening that may not be the healthiest. No, we don’t need to be the gender and sexuality police, but part of not being a dick means looking out for others and of course, not repeating bad patterns we learn from the media ourselves.
Of course there was no discussion of safe sex, don’t be like them! Be smart!
Remember, we at Fraud or Freud aren’t about consuming everything that is fed to us because we’ve got some serious taste. Not only does that make us conscious consumers, but also it makes us smart; and since this isn’t high school, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that also makes us cool… maybe even ice cold.