Ciara and Dean co-host The Sundae Presents, a podcast in which each of us makes the other watch films they haven’t seen. This episode, Ciara makes Dean watch one of her actual favourite films, Dog Day Afternoon. They talk about sexuality and gender, optimism and the Attica prison massacre.
“To get a little academic for a second, the primary emergency of gay history in its first decades was to uncover and to restore histories of gay movements and of gay heroes. And while the culture of academic research has certainly moved on from that, the public conversation really hasn’t.”
Say Anything are a strange band in the history of pop punk, not least because, well, are they a band? Max Bemis, lead singer and sole constant member, wrote all their lyrics and most of their music, and his work is, if not autobiographical exactly, then certainly confessional, in a way that reminds me alternately of Sylvia Plath and Eminem. He mentions people in his life by name in his songs a lot, particularly his wife and children in his later career, and usually without bothering to explain who they are for the unfamiliar listener. But other members of Say Anything have co-written music on most of their records, and many of them just credit Say Anything, rather than breaking down who did what. On the sliding scale between a solo project with a band name and a regular band with a primary songwriter, I tend to file Max Bemis and Say Anything in the same folder as Robert Smith and The Cure, Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails or John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats: bands that consist of one person and whoever they’re making music with at the time, too collaborative to be solo projects, but too mercurial to feel like a regular band.
Their sophomore album …Is a Real Boy is widely acclaimed as one of the best pop punk albums of all time and particularly regarded as one of the crown jewels of Bush-era emo, but they’ve pretty much never had a major hit. Not even …Is a Real Boy, which didn’t chart in a year when Blink-182, Green Day, Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, New Found Glory, Taking Back Sunday and even The Offspring (on their seventh album!) made the Billboard Year-End 200. Good Charlotte had two albums on it, and Green Day moved from #86 in 2004 to #2 in 2005 as the worldwide success of American Idiot turned it into one of the best-selling albums ever. My Chemical Romance released their sophomore album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, in 2004 too, and also missed the year-end chart, but in 2005, they joined Green Day in the top 200 with Fall Out Boy, Simple Plan, Good Charlotte, Bowling for Soup and Jimmy Eat World. Say Anything had no such luck.
…Is a Real Boy had by far the biggest single of Say Anything’s career, “Alive with the Glory of Love”, a staple of alternative rock radio then and of alternative rock playlists now, but not a song that caused much of a ripple in the zeitgeist: it peaked at #28 on the alternative chart. Every subsequent Say Anything album has charted, but every subsequent Say Anything album except In Defense of the Genre, their sprawling double album full of collaborations with other pop punk and emo artists, also sold fewer copies than …Is a Real Boy. Almost twenty years later, …Is a Real Boy is still the album they’re primarily or even exclusively known for. They’ve had two other singles chart – “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur” and “Hate Everyone” – but “Alive with the Glory of Love” is still the closest they’ve come to a hit song. It’s not an uncommon story, really, but it just feels kind of ridiculous that a band this influential and iconic within the genre, who’ve collaborated with Gerard Way, Hayley Williams, Tom DeLonge, Matt Skiba and dozens of other beloved pop punk, emo and indie artists, have never really been that popular. It’s not like they’re critical darlings either: the reception for most of their albums after …Is a Real Boy skews positive, but it’s usually mixed and frequently polarised. I guess they’re kind of a love-it-or-hate-it thing, but even Marmite sells, for God’s sake.
…Is a Real Boy is a masterpiece, possibly the best pop punk album ever, and certainly my favourite, but it’s also been a bit of an albatross around Bemis’s neck. A lot of the band’s later experimentation is a fairly transparent effort to escape the shadow of …Is a Real Boy by refusing to even have a core sound. The second verse of “Judas Decapitation”, from their 2014 album Hebrews, is a screed aimed directly at the archetypal bad Say Anything fan who venerates …Is a Real Boy and hates the work the band has done since Bemis became happier, healthier and met his wife, Sherri DuPree of Eisley: “I hate that dude! / now that he’s married / he’s got a baby on the way / Poor Sherri!” Bemis is open about suffering from bipolar disorder and famously experienced a severe manic episode from the stress of making …Is a Real Boy, so there’s always been a dark undercurrent to the idea he needs to “go back” to making albums like it, as if he can’t make good music unless he’s untreated. You can hear the venom in his voice as he spits out the last lines of that verse: “be nineteen with a joint in hand / never change the band / never ever be a dot dot dot real man”, with the “dot dot dot” in the wrong place, just to piss them off even more. It was a bit of a surprise, then, when Bemis announced a sequel.
Oliver Appropriate, released in 2019, is the band’s presumptive final album, released a few months after a lengthy statement in which Bemis came out as queer, revealed he was retiring from touring for health reasons and announced the end of Say Anything as a recording project (though the third paragraph promises they’ll “return one day to play festivals and scoff at our career”.) Like many concept albums, the concept “lore” is almost entirely secondary to the experience – I’ve never read the liner notes of any concept album ever – but unlike, say, The Black Parade or the concept albums of Cursive (one of Bemis’s more transparent non-pop punk influences), it has a fairly clear narrative, even clearer than pop punk’s definitive concept album, American Idiot. Oliver is a washed-up, single, middle-aged, ex-punk rocker punching the clock at a marketing job and spending all his free time and money on drink and drugs, drifting from bar to bar, club to club, party to party, falling into bed at the end of the night with whatever woman will have him.
Then he sees Karl at a bar, and it’s like a bolt of lightning right into the darkest part of his heart, the secret place he’s been hiding his attraction to men from himself and everyone else. It’s a beautiful album about the misery of alienation, the agony of the closet and the thrill of first love. It’s also a very dark horror story: the album ends with Oliver drowning himself in the San Francisco Bay with Karl’s body.
No question has dominated pop cultural writing over the last decade as much as this: what do you do when one of your faves is problematic? The situation is obviously a lot more nuanced than that, but that’s the essence of the dilemma, the question that people struggle with. How should you feel, and what should you do, when – not if – the creator of a work of art you love does something evil? How should you feel about them? How should you feel about their work? Should you go see their next film or buy their next book?
Last year, J.K. Rowling publicly confirmed, after years of speculation by fans of her work, that she hates transgender people. Rowling would obviously disagree with this characterisation, but I’m not interested in trying the case against her, I’m just describing my view. She’s often described by critics as a TERF, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist, but I don’t actually think that label is accurate. I remember when the term “TERF” was first popularised, and the entire point of it was to describe a specific kind of transphobic bigot, a radical feminist who denied that trans women are women, not just anyone who uses any kind of feminist rhetoric to justify their hatred. While some figures involved in recent anti-trans political activity in the UK fit that description, the vast majority wouldn’t be caught within a country mile of the actual political tradition of radical feminism. Those that are feminists at all are almost exclusively liberal feminists borrowing the arguments, but not the principles, of genuine TERFs, just as certain elements of the far-right use the contemporary rhetoric of antiracism to advance a white nationalist agenda.
J.K. Rowling is one of those liberal feminists. She’s not a TERF, just a garden-variety bigot trying to coat her hatred in a thin gloss of moral righteousness. I appreciate this might seem like a pedantic point, but I think it’s important to be fair, accurate and precise about people’s political positions, especially those of your political opponents. You can tell Rowling and other anti-trans feminists of her ilk aren’t proper TERFs because they can’t even make their shite arguments as well. They’re just regurgitating dunks they saw on Twitter or Mumsnet, passed on through some massive game of transphobic telephone, without ever understanding the underlying philosophy that motivates them. All their arguments are purely instrumental, just a way to advance the cause, itself motivated by more-or-less unmediated hatred and disgust toward trans people (especially trans women), rather than any even internally coherent set of values or ideas. Not that proper TERFs are less motivated by hatred, exactly, but at least it’s an ethos. These liberal knock-offs (I’m shocked “astroTERF” isn’t a thing yet) say shit like “you can’t just go around changing the definition of womanhood”, because that’s what all the other transphobes – or “gender-critical feminists” – say. But underneath it, even if they were speaking in good faith, it’s doubtful they could elaborate beyond a few more online talking points on how they define womanhood or how trans people’s existence undermines it.
This is not, despite the title, a takedown of J.K. Rowling’s personal bigotry towards trans people or her political activism to curtail efforts to expand their civil rights, access to healthcare and general ability to live safely in a world so hostile to their lives, not least because the definitive takedown already exists. She’s just a useful tool for thinking about the relationship between the art and the artist. Partly because she is, for better or worse, one of the most famous, influential and successful artists of the last fifty years. Partly because her common habit of publicly asserting things about the universe of Harry Potter that aren’t present in the books – e.g. that a Jewish wizard named Anthony Goldstein attended Hogwarts during the events of series or that wizards used to shit on the floor and magic it away until the eighteenth century – has already provoked lots of discussion on whether fans have to accept, believe or give a shit about what Rowling says is true of the world she created. But mostly because she’s been one of a few constant cultural figures my entire life, someone whose works were formative touchstones of my childhood that I returned to regularly up until a few years ago. I even wrote a (not very good) dissertation on them in my final year of college. Every shift in my attitude towards this question of the art and the artist – a topic I’ve been struggling with for years – has been informed at least in part by my changing relationship to both her work and her public persona. I learned how to bury authors from watching her dig her own grave.
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.
We don’t much like giant media conglomerates around here – they make art inaccessible to the poor and abuse the copyright system to steal from the entire human race. But if I could smash just one of the huge corporations that dominate the entertainment industry, it would be Disney, no question. The Walt Disney Company is now the second-largest media conglomerate in the world following its acquisition of Fox, just behind AT&T. It is by far the largest film company in the world, collecting over a third of the global box office this year alone. And it’s a terrible, evil company that can’t be trusted with the power it’s acquired.
The merger’s first victims – after the thousands of people who lost their jobs because of it – were independent cinemas. Disney has a unique policy about who can screen its new and old films. It divides theatres into commercial theatres (which can show new Disney films, but not old ones) and repertory theatres (which can show old Disney films, but not new ones). Most independent theatres don’t fit this binary, of course. Many will screen some new releases so their foot traffic can subsidise smaller films or releases. After the merger, Disney extended this policy to the 20th Century Fox back catalogue, with disastrous implications for independent theatres. Disney is arbitrarily ruling theatres commercial or repertory, often without communicating this fact to their management, so they only learn when an attempted booking goes nowhere. The Fox catalogue contains loads of classic films whose well-attended rereleases are the financial backbone of many independent theatres: Young Frankenstein, Alien, Raising Arizona, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Die Hard. Without them, independent cinemas will struggle to survive. (There is a purported exemption for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for unexplained reasons.)
But it won’t stop there. Disney doesn’t care about the collateral damage of its endless pursuit of profit for its own sake. The people who run it are perfectly willing to lay waste to anyone who delays them even one second on their way to the next billion dollars. Disney will only grow more and more powerful unless it’s broken up by state action.
Until then, here’s some other things Disney will destroy.
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, manynewsoutlets 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 Scribbage, and when Joe can’t think of a word with Y in it she suggests “gay”: “Is that your problem, baby?” 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.”
But, most importantly, we kept writing and publishing, and now we have even more stuff to choose from for our second best-of round-up. So, if you’re a long-time reader, here’s an invitation to revisit the classics. If you’re a recent reader, catch up on some stuff you might not have read. And if you’re a brand new reader, take a crash course in what we’re all about.
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.
“Queer coding” is one of the more interesting ideas in media analysis to be almost exclusively applied to the samethinkpieceaboutDisneyvillains over and over. It’s not a well-defined term but I’d describe it something like this: characters and relationships in art are queer-coded when they have traits that read as queer to at least some of the audience, but are not explicitly so. It’s slippery and subjective and can easily get muddled up with other ideas. It’s sometimes used interchangeably with ideas like queer subtext (when queer themes run under the surface of a piece of art otherwise not overtly queer) or queerbaiting (when writers tease that characters are queer and may form relationships to pander to LGBT fans, but never follow through). Queer subtext has a long history in literary studies, e.g. The Great Gatsby as a story of Nick Carraway’s unrequited love for Jay Gatsby, while queerbaiting is a very recent term, originating in fandom and mostly used in reference to serial formats, e.g. TV shows like Supernatural (with baited characters Dean and Castiel) or film series like Pitch Perfect (with baited characters Beca and Chloe).
Queer coding is different: it doesn’t need to hold up to scrutiny like an argument for subtext does, and it doesn’t have to be deliberate on the part of the artist like an accusation of queerbaiting does. It gets at something narrower and subtly distinct – queer coding often describes stereotypical traits (e.g. limp wrists) but it can also refer to ineffable qualities that aren’t burdened with connotations of queerness in larger society. Taking it back to Disney villains for a second, sometimes I totally see where people are coming from when they read them as queer. Jafar from Aladdin is unmarried, wears winged eyeliner and has a lisp, I get it. But then someone says Hades is like a sassy gay guy and it just doesn’t connect at all. We’re into something altogether more subtle and subjective, because there are lots of “sassy” or “snarky” character archetypes – black women and Jews spring to mind – and characters can even be those things without fitting into or referencing archetypes. That can just be their personality. Yet, even without anything in the story that implies it’s the case, there’s something that makes Hades read queer to some people and not to others. (He reads Jewish to me, for the record.) And while a lot of queer coding can be explained as a kind of glint of recognition in the eye of an LGBT audience, that’s not exclusively the case. Characters and relationships can come off as queer to straight people too.
I’ve been thinking about queer coding a lot ever since I watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The first time I clocked a deceitful edit in RuPaul’s Drag Race was my second viewing of the show’s sixth season. During preparation for that season’s iteration of Snatch Game, a challenge in which the queens impersonate a celebrity, RuPaul cast doubt on competitor BenDeLaCreme’s plan to portray Dame Maggie Smith. Three shots follow: first, Ben looks at RuPaul while audio from one of Ben’s confessionals plays over it (“Ru does not seem into my idea.”); next, a shot of Ben’s wig on a foam head while the audio continues (“I’m shaken–my confidence is definitely shaken, but, I–”); finally, it cuts to the confessional itself where a puffy-eyed Ben is speechless, either just finished crying or just about to start.
Except that last part isn’t true, because, later in the episode, Ben talks about his adolescent struggles with body image and his mother’s death from cancer when he was thirteen. “I just–”, he begins to describe the loss in voiceover, and then it cuts to a much longer shot of Ben speechless in the same confessional from earlier. It’s clear in this longer shot that Ben is stumbling over his explanation of how he felt when his mother died, not Ru’s lack of enthusiasm for his Maggie Smith impression, especially since he actually won Snatch Game. The editors had blatantly cut footage of Ben crying as he recalled his grief and moved it earlier in the episode to make it look like Ru had shaken Ben to his core.
Ever since, I’ve been completely sceptical of the Drag Race edit.