Body horror is a genre characterised by what Ronald Cruz calls the “manipulation and warping of the normal site of bodily form and function”. It is a genre which unsettles us through its disregard for the human body as it assaults audiences with distortions of the familiar sights, sounds, movements, and functions of the body. Throughout the eight episodes of HBO’s gothic thriller Sharp Objects (2018), there is a growing unease regarding the body which erupts in moments of supreme shock and disgust. The three central characters – Camille Preaker, her mother Adora and sister Amma – all display the genre’s “gruesome disregard for the human body” in various ways as they exist within the narrow confines of femininity permitted in the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri. The female body in Sharp Objects is the site of the series’ most shocking moments of horror and the driving force of the entire mystery plot: the horror it endures and produces is the horror of the series.
The Crying Game has been reduced to a single scene in the public imagination. Fergus (Stephen Rea, it wouldn’t be a Neil Jordan film without Stephen Rea) is about to have sex with Dil (Jaye Davidson) for the first time, when it’s revealed – both to Fergus and the audience – that she is transgender. She takes off her robe and the camera tilts down her body to show a penis. Fergus’s reaction is, to say the least, not great: he hits her in his attempt to push her away, and he throws up in the bathroom. Dil meekly says she thought that he already knew.
If you know anything about The Crying Game, it’s this scene. It’s this twist. To some extent, that reputation was deliberately cultivated: after flopping in the UK, it became a hit in the US with a marketing campaign built around the twist. And in isolation, it makes The Crying Game sound like a relic, in a way I’m sure puts people off watching it. When critics revisit The Crying Game now, it’s mostly to measure its understanding of trans people against our modern sensibilities. It’s good to re-examine representation of trans characters from the past, obviously, but it can be reductive when historical transness is purely viewed through modern lenses. Mainstream understanding of trans people has transformed so quickly so recently that a film from 1992 sounds like an ancient artefact.
But The Crying Game is an incredibly rich, complex, and beautiful film. It has a deft touch for the nuances of gender and sexuality, but it’s about so, so much more than that. It’s a film about shifting identities whose own identity is in constant flux: it’s a thriller, a romance, something else entirely. And at its centre is a character whose identity is shifting: not Dil, but Fergus.
In the largely forgotten 1994 film Sleep with Me, Quentin Tarantino shows up for one scene to explain the gay subtext of Top Gun. “It’s a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality,” he says, explaining that Maverick is torn between “the gay way”, represented by Val Kilmar and the fighter pilots, and heterosexuality, represented by Kelly McGillis. “The more he talks, the more plausible his theory sounds,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. By the end of the scene, initially sceptical Todd Field is enthusiastically on-board.
Despite gay subtext’s long history in literary studies, it’s recently gotten a bit of a bad rap, in part due to the over-extension of the term queerbaiting. Queerbaiting, a fandom-coined term, refers to media, usually in serial formats like TV shows, teasing characters as LGBT or forming same-gender relationships in order to pander to LGBT fans but with no intention to follow through. Queerbaiting is definitely a thing that has happened on occasion – the TV show Supernatural, mostly – but it’s a term without nuance or historical root, that requires both projecting intent on the creators and flattening the relationship between subtext and text into a simple dichotomy.
But the relationship between gay subtext and overt gay text is complex and contingent. When Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture, many news outlets called it the first LGBT winner, and it made me feel vaguely uneasy. It is true, in some sense: there definitely hadn’t been a Best Picture winner that portrayed gay relationships as openly as Moonlight. But is Midnight Cowboy an LGBT film? Many of these articles rationalise that it is not because Joe (Jon Voight) only has sex with men for money, but that’s equally true of Keanu Reeves’s character in My Own Private Idaho, often listed as an unfairly snubbed LGBT film in these same articles. In one scene, Joe is unable to get an erection when with a female client, so they play Scrabble, and she spells out “G-A-Y”. The relationship between Joe and Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) is one of intimate partnership: I think often of Joe wiping Ratso’s face with his shirttail and Ratso clinging to his bare belly. Hoffman asked director John Schlesinger (a gay man) why they weren’t sleeping in the same bed, and Schlesinger said, “Oh God! Please! It was hard enough to get the financing.” After Midnight Cowboy was awarded Best Picture in 1970, John Wayne infamously called it “a story about two f*gs” and a “perverse movie”.
A decade earlier, Biblical epic Ben-Hur won Best Picture, into the screenplay for which Gore Vidal had consciously written a homoerotic subtext. A decade before that, All About Eve won, a film that only makes sense if Eve is a lesbian. (All About Eve has been criticised for homophobia while simultaneously achieving cult status among gay audiences, in no small part due to Bette Davis’s fabulousness.) At the very first Oscars in 1929, one of two Best Picture awards was given to Wings, the first film to portray a man kiss another man on the lips, accompanied by the title cards, “You – you know there is nothing in the world that means so much to me as your friendship” and then, “I knew it – – all the time – – ”
But whether a film has a gay subtext is ultimately a question of whether the viewer can make a legitimate case that it does. Something doesn’t have to be widely agreed to be present in a film for it to be present. Three years after John Schlesinger couldn’t have two men share a bed in Midnight Cowboy, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) share a bed in Mean Streets, a film almost no-one thinks has a gay subtext. But as one of those few and proud: the film cuts from Charlie and Johnny in bed together to Charlie sleeping with his girlfriend, in a kind of displaced homoeroticism. Later, there’s a scene where two gay guys get into the car with Charlie and his friends, and it’s a bizarre, meaningless and pretty homophobic detour unless you think that the guy flirting with Charlie has clocked him – LGBT people recognise each other in a way cis straight people do not – and Charlie’s discomfort is his unease with his own sexuality.
It can be easier to make the case for the homoerotic undercurrents of Midnight Cowboy or Ben-Hur because we know that people involved in their production were LGBT – John Schlesinger and Gore Vidal, respectively – but meaning exists in the piece of art itself, it is not just injected into it from its surrounding context. If a higher burden of proof is placed on gay readings than on other interpretations, it eliminates the possibility of stories from the closet – whether that means art about closeted characters, or art that is itself closeted. It’s rooted in the assumption that all people are straight until they disclose otherwise, and cuts the contemporary moment off from all historical precedent. It paternalistically reduces the glint of recognition in the eye of the LGBT audience to being hoodwinked.
“You can watch any movie, and it doesn’t matter what the director was thinking, or what the people making the movie was thinking, if you can make a case for it, you can lay in a subtext into a film, make it a… much more enjoyable way to watch the film,” Quentin Tarantino told Craig Ferguson in 2010, “Like gay subtext! Gay subtext for instance. Always makes every movie better.”
Which brings us to Reservoir Dogs.
The American version of The Office is a much lighter, goofier show than its BBC counterpart. Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s original show is cynical and essentially misanthropic, such a pure distillation of cringe comedy that it’s uncomfortable to watch. Although the NBC version started as an almost beat-for-beat remake, it quickly became a radically different show: warm and pleasant, with characters who seem like nice people. The BBC show is painful, exquisitely so; the American remake is a go-to comfort show for many.
So it’s kind of weird that it’s in the American version that the main character gets raped.
Pretty much the only time you’ll hear someone mention the canon in the year of our Lord 2019 is to explain why it’s bullshit: the canon is a bunch of stuff made by old or dead white dudes that a bunch of other old or dead white dudes decided was important, and everything outside of the canon is deemed, by implication, not important or worthwhile or particularly good. The canon is the epitome of cultural elitism; any English undergrad can tell you all about it.
The idea of a canon comes from the Bible, with the books deemed good, important and true being preserved and assembled as part of the Biblical canon, and other writings – like the gospel where the cross is a character that talks, or ones about Jesus as a kid – getting left on the cutting room floor. The idea of a literary canon is a kind of outgrowth from this: collecting the good and important works of literature – Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare – as the ones worthy of study, the ones any educated person should be expected to have read. The literary canon is the stuff you’re supposed to read in school or college, but probably didn’t. There are tons of very legitimate criticisms of what makes up the literary canon: it tends to be disproportionately male – Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Virginia Woolf would be the big exceptions when it comes to novelists – and almost exclusively white, and the people who decide what gets deemed canonical (academics and critics) have similar demographic problems. But the big difference between the Biblical canon and the literary canon is that there is no official list of classic books, with everything else likely to be lost or destroyed. The literary canon is necessarily in flux. When Herman Melville died, he was an obscure writer living in poverty, but a few decades later some hip literary types in New York realised no, wait, Moby-Dick is really good, actually, and now here we are.
In 1994, feminist writer bell hooks wrote an article about gangster rap. She both condemns the misogyny and violence of gangster rap and the hypocrisy of its white critics, who treat that misogyny and violence as unique to young black men. Gangster rap, she says, is not an aberration or subversion but a reflection of mainstream culture’s values. I don’t really agree with a lot of her points – the part where she describes the cover of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle as pornographic seems over the top, and she makes no room for genuinely subversive racial politics in gangster rap – but I get where she’s coming from. To make her point, she wants to draw contrast with another popular piece of art, made by a white woman, that also reflects the mainstream valorisation of misogyny and male violence but hasn’t received the same backlash. She picks a terrible example.
bell hooks is wrong about The Piano.
Dennis Reynolds is a bad man. All the characters on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are awful people – it’s kind of the premise of the show – but Dennis still stands apart. Like the rest of the Gang, he’s all narcissism, bigotry, and rage, ready to explode at any moment at anyone he perceives to have crossed him. Once, when a guy called him a narc, Dennis’s revenge was getting the guy to chain himself to a tree overnight during a storm while Dennis slept with his girlfriend, and that’s pretty mild when you’re grading on the Dennis curve of bad behaviour. He’s a prolific rapist, and he might be a serial killer.
He’s also one of the best characters in the history of TV.
There was a time not that long ago when Netflix could have had an actual identity instead of trying to become all of television by churning out exponentially more content than anyone else. It was a brief moment, between the initial excitement of the binge-viewing boom and the current glut of infinite trash when there were signs that Netflix, whatever else it was, could be the place to find the most innovative and exciting television anywhere in the world. Freed from the content limitations of traditional television, disinterested in dominating the direction of their original series, for a second there, Netflix was making television that was unlike anything else you’d ever seen. Some of it was thematically groundbreaking – Orange is the New Black, BoJack Horseman, Jessica Jones – and some of it was blowing up what we thought television could be as a medium – Lady Dynamite, The Get Down and, more than any other, Sense8.
But now it’s the future and the ones that were redefining the medium are all cancelled and Jessica Jones is gone to shit and Netflix’s brand is just excess for its own sake. When someone tells you about a new HBO show, HBO’s reputation tells you what the pull is: high production values, name actors, writer-driven shows with dark and complex themes. When you hear about a new Netflix show, there’s no sense of what it might be, because you’re already thinking about how you’re not going to watch it because you still haven’t watched the fifty other shows Netflix released in the past twenty minutes.
I mean, you haven’t even watched Sense8 yet, and Sense8 is one of the greatest television shows ever made.
Rewatching The Inbetweeners in 2018 has been full of surprises. Mostly, I was taken aback by how evocative it is of its time. I rarely think of the late 2000s as having any kind of distinct culture – it seems most of the time that we haven’t had a decade, in a cultural sense, since the 1990s – but The Inbetweeners looks and feels like a show made very specifically between 2008 and 2010, like a weird kind of time capsule. The cringe comedy, the music choices (remember The Wombats?), an honest-to-God reference to Crazy Frog. There’s some stuff that hasn’t aged well – the voiceover narration always struck me as gratuitous, but I think I’d blanked from my memory how every episode ends with basically a highlight reel – but mostly it made me feel very fond. I love teen movies and shows, but rarely because they remind me of my own teenagehood outside of the broad emotional strokes. The Inbetweeners feels like a show about kids that I grew up with: there’s a relentless ordinariness to it, and a disgustingness that feels, watching it as an adult, surprisingly, sweetly innocent.
The Inbetweeners follows four teenage boys in some anonymous small suburban town in England: Will, a posh ex-private school wanker moved to a comprehensive after his parents’ divorce; Simon, who initially seems like “the normal one” but quickly reveals himself as probably the most fucked-up of all, short-tempered, needy and incredibly sensitive; Neil, who is basically a complete idiot but probably the most together of the four when it comes to actually interacting with other people; and Jay, self-appointed sex expert and pathological liar. They want to get drunk, and pull a girl, but mostly just hang around, talking shite.
Here’s a terrible advertisement for Diet Coke:
There are so many things I hate about this ad. That it contains the term “ath-leisure.” The background music. That it’s painfully obviously a line-for-line recreation of an American ad, because no English person would use the phrase “yurt it up” (the American version, for the record, was directed by my old nemesis, Paul Feig, for some reason).
But the thing I hate the most about it is “If you want a Diet Coke, have a Diet Coke.” Life is short, is the ad’s premise, so do more things you want to do: live in a yurt (whatever that is), run a marathon (though it backhandedly suggests you probably shouldn’t bother), drink a Diet Coke. But drinking a Diet Coke isn’t like living in a yurt or running a marathon, because Diet Coke is bad for you. The actress in the ad says that it makes her feel good, which it might for a moment. And according to the ad, that doesn’t just mean it’s okay and you shouldn’t feel bad about it, but that you actively should drink Diet Coke, whenever the thought occurs to you.
The thing I hate the most is that the ad treats all wants as basically the same. That pursuing all those wants amounts to making the most of life, or being true to yourself.
But, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, that thought has a brother: that if you do not pursue all your undifferentiated wants, you aren’t making the most of life, and you are not your authentic self.