The New Queer Animal

Queer Ecologies and Cinematic Representation
Jana Gridneva

Section

Media & Resources

Classification

Essay

Artist

Jana Gridneva

Project

Speculative Ecologies

The term New Queer Cinema was coined by the academic B. Ruby Rich in 1992 to define a movement in queer-themed independent filmmaking in the US in the early 1990s. It aimed at reforming the existing representational structure and this reform could not happen without rebuilding the relationships between human subjects and “nature” in which nonhuman animals played an important role.

 

Talking about the NQC, the critic Barbara Mennel says: “Instead of coming-out stories and tragic homosexuals intended to solicit tolerance, the characters of New Queer Cinema — kings, poets, hustlers and murderers — unapologetically express deviant desires and engage in queer sexual practices in rough and gritty images.”1 Indeed, NQC infiltrates American cinemas at the very the moment when homosexuality had already become speakable in cultural discourse, but was yet constantly engaged in “soliciting tolerance” through film plots in which “gays dropped like flies, usually by their own hand […]. In twenty-two of twenty-eight films dealing with gay subjects from 1962 to 1978, major gay characters onscreen ended in suicide or violent death.”2

The NQC thus became a rebellion against these representation strategies employed by Hollywood to present homosexuality, and constituted an attempt to free homosexuality from its connection to victimhood. B. Ruby Rich identifies the conflict with humanism and the alignment with the postructuralist view of society and identity as the main drives behind NQC’s filmic experiment:

Of course, the new queer films and videos aren’t all the same and don’t share a single aesthetic vocabulary, strategy, or concern. Nonetheless, they are united by a common style (…) In all of them, there are traces of appropriation, pastiche, and irony, as well as a reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind. Definitively breaking with older humanist approaches and the films and tapes that accompanied identity politics, these works are irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist, and excessive.3

However, in order for this experiment to be successful, the very basics of film as a representational medium had to be shifted.

Feminist film theory argues that the film as a medium is deeply informed by heteronormativity. As it relies on the dynamics of looking and being looked at, it depends on generating two different kinds of pleasure: voyeurism and exhibitionism.

The concepts of voyeurism and exhibitionism are shaped by gendered assumptions about heterosexual male voyeurs and female exhibitionists: the pairing of man and woman as husband and wife inscribes the structure of looking and being looked at, in which masculinity is associated with a desire to look and femininity with a desire to be looked at, bound together by the heterosexual contract.4

As these processes always take place between two polarized entities, a man and a woman, Hollywood presented homosexuality as being similarly informed and reliant on this binary. Hollywood’s homosexuals thus were either feminine men (sissies) or dangerous and evil masculine women. To overcome this limit inherent in the very medium in which they wanted to work, the NQ directors had to recast the cinematic representation in different terms.

The scheme that supports traditional cinematic representation is essentially mimetic. It relies on the assumption that a representational medium reflects, or can reflect, reality. However, “the mirror of reality” that Hollywood offers to its spectators is also one where a whole range of “others” cannot find themselves, and this includes all those standing outside the heteronormative status quo. NQC therefore distances itself from the traditional humanist understanding of representation and designs a new symbolic framework that frees it from the impossible and ideologically compromised task of “accurate reflection.” Instead, it declares representation to be intrinsically violent.

Relying on Derrida’s concept of “arche-violence”, Roland Barthes’ thinking on violence and representation and others in the poststructuralist tradition, Slavoj Žižek speaks about three kinds of violence:5

  • Subjective violence — the most visible form of violence enacted by a clearly identified agent.

  • Symbolic violence — embedded in language and the structures of discourse (no correspondence between the signified and the signifier).

  • Systemic violence — naturalized and therefore invisible violence that is caused and sustained by the dominant socio-cultural order. (also connected to representation but acted out in the actual social realities).

The violence of gender is of the systemic kind and is largely invisible. However, this invisibility depends on the point of view adopted. Thus, from the point of view of the internalized heteronormative position, the status quo position, the violence committed on homosexual characters in Hollywood is largely invisible, as it pretends to be just the normal, “natural” order of things. However, all kinds of violence become more visible and noticeable as such from the point of view of the marginalized being.

In their determination to change the representational structure, NQC is not guided by an illusion or an utopian idea to achieve “innocent representation.” Rather, their aesthetic is informed by the idea that “violence is ever present and actualized in different forms,” as expressed by Derrida in Writing and Difference.6 Commenting on Derrida’s insights, Benjamin Noys says “It is only by thinking about a general violence that we can truly capture the forms and specificities of violence; otherwise we cast out violence as only ever secondary and accidental to some primary innocence.”7

It is exactly this Judeo-Christian, mythological primary innocence that NQC refuses to believe in as well. Instead of embarking on a quest for the framework within which representational violence is eliminated, they overemphasize and overactualize the forms of systemic violence to the point when they become visible and therefore, analyzable. Thus, they do not so much get rid of the traditional violent structures, but rather commit even further violence on them, and this kind of subversive violence that de-normalizes the status quo we can call “queering”: “Queerness, in my opinion, is not about realizing a programme, identity, or fantasy but about disruption, disturbance and laying a challenge to the very process and desire behind the act or impetus to ‘realize’ anything.”8

Behind the NQC’s urge to create more violence where there had already been enough is not the intention to create a new identity that would look good on screen, but to create a place for non-identity; a place where identity is always under construction and, most importantly, visibly so. Following in Judith Butler’s steps Claire Colebrook argues that “queerness (…) can only be the effect of an explicit theorisation of the conditions for recognition: it is because one becomes human or a subject only through processes or iteration that there is also, necessarily, a failure or ‘queering’ of identity.”9 Theorization here stands for thinking about the processes of subject-formation. NQC recognizes that gender-binary plays a significant role here. One has to be recognized as belonging to, and repeatedly confirm their identification with, one of the sides of the binary in order to be readable as a subject, and the nonhuman animal becomes deeply implicated in this processes of subject-formation, as the NQC shows. The critic Nicole Seymour writes: “The concept of nature has been used in religious, political, and other public discourses to invalidate queerness and, in turn, validate Heterosexuality,”10 pointing out that form the very start, Queer Theory had a very tense relationship with “nature” as a set of concepts used ideologically to justify certain practices while condemning others. Animals, who are, as Lévi-Strauss has noticed long ago, “good to think with,” have always played an important role in the ideological processes defining our perception of “nature” and “the natural.” The editors of the Queering the Non-Human Collection further argue that “animals should be of interest to feminist theory because they are deeply implicated in discussions of sex, gender, race and sexuality.”11

For the NQC, an animal becomes a place where representational violence can be easily rendered visible, as animals have always been already overloaded with all kinds of symbolic/ideological meaning. It is in the animal, ontologically the ultimate other of the human and thus the utterly marginalized and violated being, that the violence of representation becomes most visible. By interweaving animals, gender and sexualities in its images, NQC reformulates the very terms on which something or someone become “natural” or “unnatural.”

One highly ironic and parodic scene from The Living End takes the controlling and restrictive features inherent in the concepts of familial monogamy and exaggerates them to the point of absurdity. Not surprisingly, the animal to play an important role here is a dog. In the scene, the protagonist, a gay man, is lying in the bed with his lover. Suddenly, the lover’s wife, after giving an emotional speech (“It’s not the 70s anymore when being married to a bisexual was fashionable”), suddenly and no doubt to the surprise of most viewers, takes a huge kitchen knife out of her innocent looking clutch bag and stabs her husband. We are then shown a hand covered in blood and the family dog licking it hungrily. The dog then runs out of the house with the protagonist and happily jumps on the lawn and disappears into the darkness, seemingly with no intention to ever come back.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, a dog, or a pet in general, is an “oedipalized” animal or, in other words, an animal devoid of its subversive potential and consumed by the oedipal relationships governing the family as a unit.12 The movie, however, exposes the Oedipal violence committed on the dog. She/he loses the timid aura of a creature that has accepted the Oedipal terms of being and becomes a freedom-loving wild thing who leaves the house in ecstasy. This, however, is not the dog’s new realistic identity but rather just another symbolic structure within which it is inscribed. What this new symbolic dog manages to accomplish is to present both poles of the nature-culture binary opposition as just random stops in the flow of signification. While the oedipalized dog is deconstructed through the plot that turns it into a blood-hungry beast, the wild dog is deconstructed through the distance created by the obvious exaggeration and irony.

Having dismissed the family as a violent, rigid and controlling institution, NQC offers other forms of being together. These come in many forms in these movies but all of them share one important feature: they take the relationships of care and love beyond kinship and marital structures. In Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,13 this alternative form of being together takes a form of a feminist commune that has illegally occupied a ranch formally having served as a beauty institute for women to get in better shape. This commune also has an animal to accompany it in the movie — a whooping crane. These endangered birds have chosen the ranch as a stop on their migratory flight path. They also become the reason behind the cowgirls’ conflict with the American authorities who demand access to the birds. The cowgirls say that because the capitalist patriarchal system of exploitation is responsible for driving the birds to near extinction in the first place, the authorities do not deserve to see them. The whole standoff is highly ironic and funny to watch.

Susan McHugh argues that we tend “to see wild birds as anything but individuated subjects, perhaps even as manifesting a collective social sensibility that itself appears increasingly endangered.”14 The fact that they all look the same makes it highly problematic to see them as individuals, which has been the problem with which nature films have always struggled — there are no characters, let alone protagonists, in a flock of wild birds, so the directors have to make them from scratch. The same applies to most other animals living and moving in groups who “disrupt conventional assignments of personalities to bodies.”15 Moreover, according to McHugh

[…] traditionally revered and feared for nesting or dwelling in hives or colonies, birds along with bees (not to mention nomadic indigenous peoples) have inspired horror and loathing because they represent the obverse of the domestic subjects who anchor bourgeois households.16

All this makes birds a good example of an animal that resists oedipalization. In Cowgirls, the moment when the flock of whooping cranes finally takes off, refusing to stay even in the feminist commune, serves as the movie’s culmination. However, it is accompanied with such cheesy music and the cliché Hollywoodesque scene of everybody looking at the skies, that the ironic distance remains preserved. The movie makes it painfully clear that, in terms of ecology, there are no winners in this conflict between the capitalist establishment and the feminist commune. The feminists are also already compromised by the processes inherent in the way they relate to nature which drive them towards ecological catastrophe — the ending of the movie reveals that the feminists used drugs to manipulate the crane into staying on the ranch grounds and to claim the high ground in their conflict with the authorities.

Therefore, it is not the commune but the birds that transmit the movie’s revolutionary message: an alternative form of living together presupposes a new type of subjectivity that relies less on competitive individualism and more on the interaction with multiple agents. However, the movies like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (showing a commune open to everybody who wants to take down capitalism and patriarchy), Go Fish17 (the “family of choice” the protagonists create for themselves also continues to accept new members) and The Living End18 (where friendship between a man and a woman becomes more important than the loving relationship between two men) do present us with an idea that these alternative forms have to be developed through queering of the traditional modes of being. Love and care here are unconstrained by any pre-conceived ideas about whom we should care about first, be it our blood relatives or partners. The relationships we witness in these movies are theoretically closer to Donna Haraway’s work which contrasts stable independent agents with companion species that are always in the process of becoming through multiple and endless interactions with one another. Nicole Seymour points that “queer values — caring not (just) about the individual, the family, or one’s descendants, but about the Other species and persons to whom one has no immediate relations — may be the most effective ecological values.”19 A truly queer commune, therefore, would be the one where even the divide between species is not respected.

Images courtesy of BCAAsystem.


Works Cited

Mennel, Barbara. Queer Cinema: Schoolgirls, Vampires and Gay Cowboys. Columbia University Press, 2012.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Harper & Row, 1987.

Rich, Ruby B. New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut. The Duke University Press, 2013.

Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. Picador, 2008.

Noys, Benjamin. “The Violence of Representation and the Representation of Violence.” Violence and the Limits of Representation, edited by Graham Matthews and Sam Goodman, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 12-28.

Seymour, Nicole. Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination. University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Colebrook, Claire. “How Queer Can You Go? Theory, Normality and Normativity.” Queering the Non/Human, edited by Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008, 17-35.

Hird, Myra J. “Animal Trans.” Queering the Non/Human, edited by Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008, 227-248.

The Living End. Directed and written by Gregg Araki, Cineplex Odeon Films 1992, 00:12:56-00:14:00.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Directed by Gus Van Sant, Fine Line Features, 1994.

McHugh, Susan. “Unknowing Animals: Wild Bird Films and the Limits of Knowledge.” Animal Life and the Moving Image, edited by Michael Lawrence and Laura McMahon, Palgrave, 2015, 271-287.

Go Fish. Directed and written by Rose Troshe, Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1994.