Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

From the Department of WTF?

I'm not sure what's more WTF about this article from Zouch magazine by Ally Mookerjee, "Queer-Washing Fictional Characters" -- the handwringing over the projection of queer love onto fictional characters, the fact that this is done as if fictional characters don't have sexuality by default unless and until that sexuality is actively erased, or the fact that this is done by a writer who, judging by her Twitter stream, herself identifies as gay. All I can say is huh? on all counts.

I mean, the article is sparked by a simple ad campaign, a fictional break-up between the titular logo/mascots of Mike and Ike candies. So, yeah, after however many decades, the company's pulled a publicity stunt with updated packaging (with either the Mike or the Ike scribbled out), and posts on Facebook and Tumblr where each fictional mascot gives his fictional reason for the split, one stropping off to pursue his art, the other harrumphing away to focus on his music. Like so:

I know it’s hard to believe, but yes – Mike and I split. It is what it is. We just couldn’t agree on stuff anymore. Some call it creative differences? Whatever. The guy is awesome, if you don’t count that he’s color blind. Lime is green dude! Cherry is red, not purple. Get it? Go write some songs since that seems to be where your focus is right now.

So far, so whatever. So far, so what the fuck does this have to do with buttsex?

I mean, maybe I'm missing something in that company site, but clicking around the links, there's not a whole lot I see that isn't wholly interpretable as the break-up a fictional variant of the creative double-acts to be found working in any medium. Laurel & Hardy, Simon & Garfunkel, Dolce & Gabana, Rogers & Hammerstein. The phrase "creative differences" is even right up there in black and white for you.

Oh, sure, the little clip of fake celebrity reactions has a few comments that play to the notion of a romantic relationship, but for the most part... frankly they seem to be deliberately maintaining ambiguity, leaving it a fictional split of the most abstract nature. What's being conjured is no more a "divorce," as Mookerjee has it, than it's the break-up of a seminal musical duo or a big name business partnership. So how the fuck do we get from that notional rendering of a double-act splitting over creative differences to this:

But, what troubles me is to see fictional characters being imbued with a sexual orientation. Couldn’t we have been content with perceiving Mike and Ike as a playful pair instead of a romantic couple; as chums, not lovers?

Apparently there are rose-tinted glasses and butt-sex-tinted glasses, and Ms. Mookerjee seems to be wearing the latter. Because nothing I see in that ad campaign is really "queer-washing" those characters at all, not to the extent of painting them as lovers in the physical sense. Has Ms. Mookerjee ever seen a Pegg & Frost film, I wonder? Has she heard the word bromance at any point in the last half dozen years? For Cock's sake, it's not like the fictional Mike is bemoaning Ike's compulsive use of poppers and male prostitutes, while Ike is spilling the beans about BDSM game-play turned to non-consensual abuse.

Get a grip.

*

With the two subsequent examples -- the Facebook petition for the creators to marry off Sesame Street's Bert & Ernie and the "controversy" over potential readings of Nickelodeon's Spongebob Squarepants and his friends as gay -- now here at least there's a bit more substance to the handwringing over "queer-washing." Viewers are projecting gay romantic relationships onto these characters on the basis of certain signals. But so what? With Spongebob, Mookerjee weasels that "none of these habits and attributes is the acid test of his blunt gayness," but that's not how it works with the ambiguities and quirks viewers are latching on to. Bouncing off pointers to read into the negative spaces isn't like trying to prove Spongebob and Patrick pulled a bank heist in a court of law.

Yeah, so Bert & Ernie sleep in the same bed; so did Morecombe & Wise, so did Laurel & Hardy. The former doesn't mean we must read them as queer. But does the latter mean we must not? So Spongebob's behaviour is often associated with homosexuality; but Peewee Herman without a female love interest would be weirdly camp in much the same way. We're not obliged to read either as gay. But are we obliged to read them both as definitively not gay? Some things that bark are seals rather than dogs. Some dogs don't bark at all. If barking isn't an "acid test" of dogginess, it's still a fair foundation for imagining that the thing in the box just might be a dog.

One can open that box to some extent though -- or check with whoever put the barking thing in there at least, for what that's worth. Mookerjee quotes the creators and producers here, appeals to Hillenberg's authority, his assertion that Spongebob is "asexual." But we should bear in mind that the Spongebob controversy came from Christian evangelists attacking the cartoon as promoting homosexuality, and note that Hillenberg's denial of gayness is not the straight-ironing certainty those bigots were looking for -- because hello... asexual. That's what the A in QUILTBAG stands for. It's one of the atypical orientations included under "queer" because, you know, queer != buttsex.

Hell, Hillenberg's talking gender as much as orientation here -- the biological asexuality of the Porifera phylum. It's not that we must not sully this chaste kid's cartoon by projecting non-normative sexual orientation onto it -- as if that would make it any less chaste -- rather that such norms are intrinsically at odds with an anthropomorphic sponge that can reproduce by budding, for Cock's sake. Spongebob isn't a cisgendered male, either heterosexual or homosexual. The issue isn't gay viewers queer-washing him. Asexual and gender-atypical, he's about as queer as you can get, and Hillenberg's defence against right-wing nutjobbery only insists on the freedom for him to be such. It's a rejection of the ugly bullshit spewed by those whose buttsex-tinted glasses lead them to piously prejudiced censure. They're not queer-washing; they're so profoundly homophobic they see phantom faggotry everywhere, and their aim is to eradicate it. I can't help but hear an echo of their perennial "Think of the children!" pleas for purity, their revulsion at the so-called "sordid," in this from Ms. Mookerjee:

Spare them their cute innocence, please. Why can’t we allow them to lead lives, uncomplicated and unmarred by sexuality?

No, spare them your expurgations and bowdlerisations, your prejudices masked as morality, your abrogation of ethical judgement, your saccharine, sanitising, pseudo-righteous exhortations in which the concern for chastity somehow only kicks in when it's buttsex we're talking.

But we'll get to that.

*

So, with Mike & Ike painted as partners of the most generic sort, and Spongebob an essentially queer character challenged by bigots seeking to suppress "homosexual propaganda," we're left with the Facebook petition about Bert & Ernie as the only legitimate example of this terrible lamentable "trend toward queering just about everything." This is the nearest thing to a solid example in the whole article of the dread influence of "identity politics" tarnishing the precious icons of childhood.

Not that it's that near. I mean, the majority of signatories on that petition, I'd hazard, probably don't count as "extremists," have probably never heard the phrase "identity politics." The majority, I'd hazard, are likely just hip kids and codgers of the 21st century, straight and queer alike, who like the idea not as cold warriors of political correctness, but as common-sense post-pomo humanists. I'd lay odds that most can and/or do just totally see Bert & Ernie as gay, and have way more of a problem with NOMnuts who freak at that reading than they do with making that the official narrative.

Ask those signatories about why they signed, and my money's on most of them shrugging: it's Bert & Ernie; it would be so sweet if they got married; and it would be kind of an awesome fuck you to NOM. That's "cute innocence" for you, that attitude right there, in a slacktivist gesture of support for marriage equality made, more than anything, because that wedding just seems... a heart-warmingly sweet idea.

Sadly though, that wedding is not to be, because in the world where fools are still walking around in their buttsex-tinted glasses, an ugly attitude utterly opposed to that true cute innocence is just too predictable. If such fools can see homosexual propaganda in Spongebob, it's not hard to imagine the bile they'd spew at Bert & Ernie getting hitched. And so instead we get Sesame Street's shrewd side-step, which Mookerjee applauds:

“Bert and Ernie are best friends.” Even though they’ve been anthropomorphized and do exhibit human traits and frailties, “they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”

I call shenanigans. I can appreciate the practical reasoning behind the cop-out, but as close as this might look to Hillenberg's "asexual" rationale, it is a complete cop-out in contrast. Spongebob is poldered in his own little world of asexual and genderqueer weirdness, of sponges and starfish and crabs; but the weird world of the muppets is one with a whopping big instance of sexual orientation at the very heart of it. Like Kermit and Miss Piggy don't have a sexual orientation? Like the anthropomorphic projection of gendered atttraction doesn't so wholly set them as a romantically-paired male and female couple that it overrides the fact that one is a frog and the other a pig?

A frog and a pig, dude. Clearly gendered male and female -- explicitly so with Miss Piggy. Clearly romantically attached. Clearly sexually oriented towards each other if nothing else. The fact that they're puppets doesn't override the projection of human emotions such as romantic love. On the contrary, it allows that human dynamic to trump the complete biological incompatibility of two wholly different species.

A frog and a pig, dude.

A frog. And a pig.

*

Think about it. Kermit and Miss Piggy are less anthropomorphised than Bert and Ernie physically, equally anthropomorphised as characters when it comes to "human traits and frailties." Do they somehow "remain puppets." Do they somehow "not have a sexual attraction"? No, they do not. Miss Piggy is a veritable crazy and controlling predatorial stalker for her Kermie, and a physically abusive one at that, ready to karate chop him whenever he steps out of line. Sexual attraction? We're talking Fatal Attraction. It's not only a romantic relationship but an unhealthy one. And maybe interspecies romance doesn't count as bestiality if neither of the parties are human, but somehow in the world of the Muppets a female pig and a male frog can be an item -- that's all A-OK -- but when it's two male humans... suddenly they're puppets and just don't have a sexual orientation.

Bullshit, I say. If Bert and Ernie don't have a sexual orientation being puppets and all, neither do Kermit and Piggy: they're just sweet on each other, chastely romantic. But if Kermit and Piggy can have a chaste romance sans sexual orientation, so too can Bert and Ernie.

Don't get me wrong. Saying that Bert & Ernie are just best friends isn't the problem in and of itself. I wouldn't grouch if the producers at Sesame Street had just said they were riffing off comedy acts like Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello, Jack Lemmon & Walter Mattheau, that those are bromances at heart, that to marry the characters would change the relationship. That's a legitimate argument whether you agree with it or not. However, the handwaving that as puppets they don't have a sexual orientation at all is just a cop-out. And behind that transparent handwaving it's hard not to see the true reason, the true denial: it's not that puppets don't have sexual orientation; it's that they don't have buttsex.

Not that puppets have sex at all, I mean, but if there's no need for a denial of "sexual orientation" with Kermit and Piggy, no need to insist on the absence of the genitalia and carnal desires that would lead to sex between a male and female muppet, there is no need for such a denial with two male muppets. If it's impossible to deny the straight desire because it's blatantly displayed indeed, the denial of desire per se (inconsistently) applied to gay desire is equally unsustainable and can only logically be a strategy for indirectly denying something else. Since the only difference in play here lies not in the desire but in the genitalia and the nature of the sex acts performed with them, the only possible purpose to a denial of Bert & Ernie having "sexual orientation" can be to banish the spectre of buttsex.

Doing so without actually mentioning buttsex is of course preferable. More probable too, I reckon, in so far as the denial is patently neurotic. If you don't feel the need to insist that Kermit doesn't muff-dive Miss Piggy, but do feel the need to insist that Bert doesn't sodomise Ernie, if a straight pairing doesn't but a gay pairing does spark a buttsex angst expressed via insistence on the sexlessness of puppets who might be imagined buttsexing, it doesn't take a Freud to recognise that such denials are largely about trying so hard to not imagine the angst-inducing buttsex that your buttsex angst is constantly throwing out denials that are largely about trying so hard to not imagine the angst-inducing buttsex... and so on.

For the love of Cunt, for the sake of humanity if not your own sanity, if you're dysfunctioning due to buttsex angst, please to deal with it and not inflict it on the rest of us.

*

For those of us without that buttsex angst, you know, that whole "puppets got no gonads" gambit with Bert & Ernie is just pathetic. We don't suddenly see muppets as creatures that fuck just because it's two men rather than a male frog and a female pig. I don't, anyway. How about you? You don't throw a conniption over Kermit and Piggy, do you? You can miraculously imagine them being in love, maybe even marrying, without suddenly thinking, No! No! Muppets don't have genitalia! Muppets don't have carnal desires!

Kind of the point of bawdy/subversive parodies like Meet the Feebles or Avenue Q is that we hardly imagine Miss Piggy's somewhat aggressive expressions of affection going full-on BDSM. We don't imagine her leading a gimp-masked Kermit around on a leash, whipping his ass with a riding crop. We don't even imagine them engaged in the most vanilla of sexual interactions. Miss Piggy doesn't have a coil up her vageegee. Kermit doesn't roll a Trojan down over his dong. They don't make love in the missionary position or any other, rattling the headboards until he cums and she orgasms, then lying back to share a smoke. Not unless it's a ribald parody deliberately fucking with the whole notion of muppets.

If the image of Bert & Ernie standing in tuxes at an altar has a different effect on you than a comparable image of Kermit & Piggy, more in line with some sort of Meet the Feebles filth, I humbly suggest that that's your fucking problem, and you should deal with it, thank you very much, because as a wise man once said, I am not innarested in your condition. No matter what your sexuality, bullshit like this is still bullshit:

Retrofitting Mickey Mouse, or SpongeBob, or Mike and Ike, or Ernie, or Ratatouille, or the Pillsbury Doughboy, with genitalia, and by extension, carnal desires, is brutish, I think. It despoils them.

Mickey Mouse, I'll simply note, first appeared in a silent 1928 short called Plane Crazy, which also featured the female character of Minnie Mouse... who Mickey repeatedly tries to kiss through the course of the story.

Three quarters of a century later, don't fool yourself into thinking this is about the "cute innocence" of cartoon characters, keeping them "unmarred" by romantic attraction in general, when it's wholly about the fact that Mickey hitting on Minnie would suddenly lose its "cute innocence" if it had been directed at Donald instead, and apparently because you can't help reducing gays to, defining them by, a sexual act you're prissy about.

It's not an onerous request. Somehow, from 1976 to 1981, from the age of 5 to the age of 10, I managed to watch The Muppet Show as it aired in the UK and understand that Miss Piggy and Kermit had a romantic relationship (albeit a dysfunctional one,) without this ever requiring them to be "retrofitted," in my imagination, with genitalia and "carnal desires." The wonder of the world conjured in this little nipper's noggin was not "despoiled" by lurid visualisations of cunnilingus and fellatio, no more than seeing Bert and Ernie in bed together soiled that "idyllic land of imaginary beings" known as Sesame Street with image of buttsex. I do not think I was alone then in not picturing Kermit and Piggy making the beast with two backs. And I do not I am alone now in not picturing Bert & Ernie making the beast with one back.

In both cases, I'll go so far as to say, I rather think that if you're not with me, you may want to carry out some self-scrutiny before you start playing protector of the innocent. Because every stain of despoiling, every brutish ruination of the pure you see through your buttsex-tinted glasses is the ugliness in your own deep and dirty being reflected back at you.

Me, I think it's sad that Ms. Mookerjee's buttsex-tinted glasses seem to lead her to much the same position as the NOMnuts who got up in arms over Spongebob Squarepants, that worldview in which desire automatically conjures the "carnal" gratification of desire with "genitalia," in which a (frankly unhealthy) sense of sex-acts as essentially shameful apparently gets her as hot under the collar at her imaginings as a Victorian preacher at the sight of a lady's ankle. It's sad that she sees a life bereft of sexuality as one "unmarred" by it. Sad, but basically just priggish.

It's really quite lamentable however that someone who herself identifies as gay should join the bigots not just in this neurotic debasement of the sacred communion of flesh but in the pathological deepening of it, whereby it's specifically homosexual desire that conjures the carnality, while heterosexual desire... not so much. It's bad enough when the Christian Right turn us sodomites into an encapsulating symbol of all the squick they attach to sex, to the flesh itself, when the fuckupery of their miserable rotted souls means they can't look at two men holding hands without picturing a cock in an arse. It's truly grim when someone who should know better seems rather to be fighting their corner.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Matthew Cheney said...

Great stuff, Hal. ("Buttsex-tinted glasses" is a term of genius.) You get at so much of what is loathsome in that essay, so much that is heteronormative and self-loathing and paranoid and stupid. (Not that I'm really against self-loathing, actually. I don't know about y'all, but bourgeois Americans could stand a bit more of it...)

Anyway, Mookerjee's idea that queering is somehow new and all about marketing is ignorant. It may certainly have become at times a commodified gesture, but as a friend of mine once said to me, "I just assume everything's queer until definitvely proven otherwise."

Which reminds me of Catherine Grant's lovely video tribute to Alexander Doty, "The Beautiful Wickedness of Queer Reading".

3:21 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Cheers for the link! Nice tribute and Doty nails it even in that short quote. I haven't read him, going to have to now.

8:40 pm  
Anonymous Harry said...

I always thought that Thomson and Thompson from Tintin were brothers. If that's true, then her buttsex-tinted glasses got even more weird and unpleasant.

5:54 am  

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