Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Passion of Mr. Gaeta

Like so many gay nerds, I devotedly watched the last season of Battlestar Galactica. Let me tell you, as a queer boy, I feel cheated. No, I am not just complaining that Apollo didn’t have another towel scene (Although . . .). Nor am I complaining about the fairly predictable ending (The Galactica crew, more or less, are the progenitors of our contemporary world who settled on earth 150,000 years ago – Gee, did they just phone it in?).

Instead, I am less-than-impressed by the show’s consistent ineptness around queer sexuality. For the record, I don’t count Baltar’s pajama-less pillow fights with the female “three” and “six” as queer. I think of that as soft-core hetero porn.

BSG apologists might stop reading now. Tune in next time at CoG when we will be discussing how to combat black mold and soap scum with grace and dignity.

For those whose first association with Battlestar Galactica still involves the soft, shiny, feathered hair of Dirk Benedict, allow me to update you. The “reimagined” Battlestar Galactica (BSG to its friends, Mr. Galactica, if you're nasty) has actually been a critical and commercial success. During its four seasons on the air, it did not fear treading into contemporary political quagmires like abortion, the Iraq war, or religious zealotry. The topic that was just too hot to handle, however, was queer sexuality (If I am really honest, BSG also had an uneven hand around questions of race, even with its racially diverse cast (including a Chicano lead!) – but that is different entry).

Way back in 2006, the gay fans asked Ron Moore, the executive producer of BSG, why such a savvy and thoughtful show totally ignored queer sex and sexuality. “It's a fair question,” he responded at the time, “I think homosexuality definitely exists in the world of Galactica, but I frankly haven't found a way to portray it yet. It's a texture that I'd like to introduce into the series without doing ‘the gay episode.’”

Yeah, because the last thing that you would want to do is create a sensationalized queer character for a one-off story line. I mean, it’s not like you would give us a maniacal lesbian incarnation of Captain Bly, would you? Surely, BSG would treat queer sexuality as part of daily life and not add a queer character just so that she could be immediately killed off by her ex-lover, right?

Oh, except that was exactly BSG’s decision. Yes, in response to gay people’s complaints that we weren’t represented in the BSG universe, they handed us the psycho-killer-lesbian-from-outer-space miniseries two years ago. In that train wreck, lesbian Admiral Cain (who unknowingly had an affair with a cylon) was the antithesis to the gruff, but kindly, hetero patriarch of the show, Commander Adama. If Adama was reasonable, Cain was psychotic. If Adama sought humanity's survival, Cain lived for revenge. If Adama balanced his military power with the civil government, Cain wanted a tyrannical dictatorship. In the end, the lesbian had to go -- Shot no less by the former cylon lover who she was torturing for information. As I recall, we were not amused.

This last season, BSG decided to up the ante by outing (Well, "sort of" outing – More on that in a minute) the long-suspected queer character Lt. Felix Gaeta. Yes, he was [sort of] out of the closet just in time for him to be executed for treason. So, when BSG did acquiesce by giving us queer characters, those characters always had to die, die, die. And who says that science fiction is hostile to queer people?

If the apologists are still reading (and, really, I implore you to stop), they are probably saying, “But, GayProf, you just don’t get it. See, it’s an alternate universe where sexuality doesn’t matter and our narrow identity labels don’t apply. The BSG crew has fluidity in their sexuality. They are beyond our hangups around sexuality.”

Nice try – If it didn’t matter in the BSG universe, then why didn’t we see men hooking up with other men week after week? Why weren’t women pilots taking time out of their busy day for a little womanly love? If sexuality was so fluid in this fictional universe, then why were none (o) of the main human characters ever in bed with somebody of the same sex?

Now, it’s true that I’ve never been trapped on a doomed space voyage for years on end; however, I imagine that sexual experimentation probably would help pass the time. Goddess knows that we saw every possible combination of hetero sex on the show.

And that brings us to the “sort of” outing of Mr. Gaeta. How do we know that Gaeta was queer? Well, you would have to have watched the special “webisodes” entitled “Face of the Enemy” for that information. Wait – Are you not part of the 1.4 percent of the viewing public who bothers watching webisodes of their favorite shows? Oh, gee, then you wouldn’t really know he was queer. For never once, not at all, did the actual televised show make any direct reference to his sexuality – Ever. In fact, “Face of the Enemy” was filmed long after production on BSG had ended – Leaving open the question about whether the cast was even aware there was a queer story line.

So, what did we learn from the webisodes? Well, Mr. Gaeta was having a relationship with the male Lt. Louis Hoshi. He also had a previous relationship with a female cylon “eight” who used information from him to execute scores of innocent humans. If one were inclined, one could suggest an argument about this representation as anti-bisexual (Though I am content to leave it as anti-queer). Gaeta, while an idealist, always ended up on the wrong side of every issue (And, let me point out again, he was shot -- for treason (Oh, and did I mention that he had already been shot once before and lost a leg? And some people say that sci-fi encourages queer bashing.))

BSG Apologist: “Aren’t you forgetting Lt. Hoshi, Gaeta’s lover? I mean, he got to be Admiral of the fleet! How do you account for that, GayProf?”

Oh, no, I haven’t forgotten Lt. Hoshi, though everybody who isn’t queer probably has. I am certain that the number one question on everybody’s mind when he was made Admiral was, “Who is that guy?” I won’t linger over the fact that he resigned the admiral position, claiming that he was much happier to be a lieutenant who took orders rather than gave them (Way to empower queer people with authority!). What I will note is that nothing on the televised show would have given the regular viewer any knowledge about Hoshi’s sexuality. In fact, did Hoshi even have more that twenty lines of dialog in the entire four seasons BSG was on the air?

I have started to think that there is a new way that purveyors of popular culture are dealing with queer discontent. Queer activists and regular gay viewers are becoming more adamant that our favorite programs acknowledge our existence. Yet, producers of sci-fi just aren’t that interested in rocking the [hetero] boat. To quote Ron Moore, this time discussing his queerless Star Trek days, “The truth is that it was not really a priority for any of us on the staff.” Hey, you can’t get more honest than that.

It isn't their priority, but they can't avoid queer demands entirely, so they have created the “open secret” approach to sexuality. Rather than include queer characters as full equals with their hetero peers, we are given side characters whose queer sexuality is only “unofficial” or known in the “expanded lore.” We can see this, for instance, in Harry Potter’s Dumbledore. The most powerful wizard in those books was only vaguely hinted at being queer when he had a deep friendship with another wizard (Who turned out to be a psychopathic killer – ahem). Yet, none of the books say anything explicitly about Dumbledore’s desires for a same-sex romantic relationship (Unlike the hetero characters, who almost all end up happily partnered). The only way we “know” Dumbledore’s sexuality is through J. K. Rowling’s later claim that she intended for him to be gay all along. Apparently it slipped her mind to include that little tidbit in the actual text.

We can see a similar pattern in ScFi’s other highly ranked show Eureka. The producers like to claim that Eureka represents a type of utopia where race, gender, and sexuality just don’t matter. For a town where such things don’t matter, apparently there is only one gay man to be found. Vincent, the town’s chef, is popularly discussed as gay, but (to my knowledge) never explicitly so in the show beyond slight hints. Certainly, he never is in a relationship. It’s just another “open secret” where his sexuality is known, but never needs to be explored on screen. And, of course, he is the most minor character in the cast. In fact, I couldn't even find a picture of him to include here. So, here is Apollo naked instead. I think it is an ad for mink coats or something:

Popular media has consented to allowing queer characters to exist, but only if their sexuality never has to be seen as equivalent to the hetero characters' relationships. If we are quiet and closeted, in other words, we are just fine. If you are a pushy queer, like that bossy Cain woman, expect the worst.

This is a pretty half-assed approach to queer liberation. Covert representations of queer characters are better than no representation at all, I suppose. The problem with such “open secrets,” though, is that they reenforce the closet more than they tear it down. To find out about these queer characters’ sexualities, one has to do more sleuthing than Angela Lansbury. Queer sexuality becomes information only for those “in the know.” Keeping that information out of the canonical representations implicitly upholds the notion that queer sexuality is something that needs to be guarded against lest that it scare the horses or offend the general public. Eve Sedgewick reminded us many years ago that closetedness is a performance “by the speech act of silence.” Well, BSG’s silence around queer Gaeta and Hoshi’s sexuality was deafening. Apparently in space, nobody hears you come out.

In what seems like a desperate bid to keep the queers watching, Ron Moore has now promised that there will be gay characters on his new show Caprica. This time he really, really means it. Maybe he does, but I'm not holding my breath.

Throughout BSG, we never saw any actual romantic intimacy between the male characters. To my mind, it’s still a sad day when television has no problem showing a robot disembowel a human or the near heterosexual rape of a young woman, but can’t stomach showing two men kiss each other out of affection.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Advice for the Newly Hired

A few nights ago I had a cocktail with a junior colleague from another department. After an hour, I couldn’t believe the yarn that ze was weaving. Sometimes junior faculty have legitimate concerns and sometimes they have an astounding sense of self entitlement. This was definitely the latter (e.g. “I should have a full year off, with pay! – I should be given classes no larger than 10 students – My salary should be higher (even though I haven’t actually produced anything yet)! – My research is clearly so much more difficult to accomplish than all of my junior peers! Why don’t they get that?”). Usually such tales of woe end with, “At my former graduate institution, they always did such and such.”

I don’t mention this to dismiss or even criticize ze’s feelings of frustration or worry. While I think some of ze’s expectations are out of touch with reality, I also recognize that they partly emerge from the stress, fear, and pressure of how ze will attain tenure while being pulled in a thousand different directions. Having to balance your own research with the demands of teaching and service work do seem insurmountable. For many, the task appears so daunting that having a year off appears the only way it will actually get done. Nobody, though, gets that year off without doing some hard work to attain it (Find a grant, young man (woman/genderqueer), find a grant).

It got me to thinking that the transition from graduate student to junior professor is often the most difficult one that people make. Few people ever discuss how hard it really is.

There are definitely good parts to that transition. Your annual income triples or even quadruples. You get genuine office space. You also can finally claim to have a real “career” rather than appearing as if you made “poor life choices.”

But there are also real struggles to that transition. As a graduate student, you are given free reign to do almost anything that you desire and have few demands placed upon you. Your adviser and/or committee members probably read things that you wrote with a critical eye and gave good feedback. You are shielded from internal squabbles between faculty members, if you are even aware that they are occurring. With the exception of the occasional TA assignment, your job has been one of luxury, simply reading and writing all day. It’s a rude awakening to find out how many other things that you will have to do as a professor. Dirty, dirty things.

I also think that most junior professors have such a hard go of it their first couple of years because it is often the first job that they have ever had, ever. Since I have been working since I was 14 or 15, this astounds me. As an undergraduate, I also worked full time or virtually full time as a secretary. So, I feel that I had a sense of what it means to be an employee in a way that many (most?) of my junior colleagues didn’t. If you have never actually worked for wages before, it can be jarring to find out that your paycheck comes with many expectations about how you spend your time. You also won’t appreciate what a sweet, sweet gig that being a professor actually is.

This is the time of year that many people are learning whether they were hired into a junior professor position. I would never hold my own career out as a model (trust me), but I’ll offer advice to all those newly employed folks anyhow.

    * Publish or perish.

    The oldest cliched advice is still the best. If your department/college has specified that you must have a book and two articles (or equivalent) and you don’t have them by the time your tenure clock runs out, they will deny you tenure. It might break their heart to deny you tenure because you might have been a great colleague or a fantastic teacher. Or, if you are in a hostile department, they might delight in denying you tenure. Whatever the case, if you haven’t produced the scholarship, expect the worst.

    * Wear comfortable shoes.

    It's just better for your legs and lower back during an active day.

    * Don't confuse yourself with your dissertation adviser.

    Did you study at the feet of the most renowned scholar of the ancient Olmec? Is your adviser the ultimate authority on Beatlemania? That’s fantastic! It means that we all think that you received some very solid training.

    It does not mean, however, you are the most renowned scholar of the ancient Olmec. It does not meant that you are the ultimate authority on Beatlemania. Until you have the publication record, your position in the field is more speculative. Your adviser became that expert through decades of hard work. That’s work you have yet to accomplish.

    * Learn to drink as if you were a cast member of Mad Men.

    Drinking helps ease the stress. Or I suppose you could learn yoga instead, but, whatever. . .

    * Remember that teaching is seductive.

    Teaching, while rewarding, is simply easier than writing and researching. You also get more positive feedback from it. It is therefore easy to allow it to consume all of your time. Fight this urge. Figure out a way to block teaching from your mind and your schedule to get those publications out. Six years can disappear real fast.

    * Don't skimp on your home surroundings.

    Many of us are still in grad-student mode when we move to our new town. We therefore get a crummy, but affordable, apartment. Given, though, that most of us in the humanities do a lot of our work at home, make sure that it is a pleasant place to be. The quality of both your work and rest will vastly improve if your home is a mini-sanctuary from the daily toil.

    *Be generous to your fellow junior colleagues.

    All of us are in the same boat. All of us have the same stress. It therefore astounds me when I see junior colleagues going out of their way to be unnecessarily rude to other junior colleagues. If a junior colleague asks a reasonable favor (proofreading, helping out on a committee, etc), do your best to be a member of the community and a friend.

    I also highly encourage you all to read each other’s work. My own research has benefited immensely from the advice and close reading of junior colleagues, even those far outside of my own field. Give your time (precious though it is) to do the same for them. Being secretive and coy about your own work will only make it weaker. Refusing to help others with their work will make you look like a selfish jerk.

    If, though, I can’t appeal to you on the basis of common humanity or notions of polite society, let me remind you of this: Every junior person hired before you will advance to associate professor before you will. This means that they will vote on your tenure file, too. If you think that kissing up to the existing senior faculty can offset terrorizing your junior colleagues, you are mistaken. They will weigh whether they want to live with such an uncollegial and self-serving colleague when pondering granting you a lifetime appointment.

    * Getting a job involved a lot of luck in your favor.

    There were probably other candidates who were just as qualified, if not more qualified, who got passed over. Maybe people didn't read their files closely. Maybe they forgot to wear comfortable shoes. Whatever the case, good fortune smiled on you.

    If you were hired with the rest of us, also assume then that we are all basically the same. We were all the stars of our individual graduate programs when we graduated. Don’t imagine that we didn’t all hear about how our work was so great and fabulous. Get over yourself.

    * Manage your career for the expectations of your field, not your current university or your department.

    There might be a general consensus about the requirements for tenure, but every university has its own set of rules and assumptions. Moreover, if you are in a department that praises one type of scholarship over another, they might offer advice and/or requirements that actually are out of step with where you want to be as a scholar. So, for instance, let’s say that you are hired into a department that specializes in legal history, but your work and training is all in cultural history. Chances are that the legal people are going to push your work to conform to their expectations. If, though, you never solicit advice from cultural historians outside of your department, your work will appear weak to them when it does come out. Even if you succeed at meeting local requirements, but aren’t well regarded in your field, then you will be trapped. If, on the other hand, you build a national reputation in your field and have a reputation of being a responsible colleague, you will have a secure place in your home unit.

    * Think of yourself as an independent contractor.

    There is no such thing as institutional loyalty. In any particular circumstance, an institution will have little trouble dismissing an employee. So, don’t imagine your career as being the same as the institution’s. If they hired you to put up drywall, satisfy the contract and put up the drywall.

    Do not believe people, however, who tell you that moving jobs in academia is impossible and you must be committed to that university. This is especially true if you are in a hostile department. Is it difficult to move? Oh, yeah. If you are in a super competitive field (20th Century US History, for example), it might take several years of trying to find a new job. It is totally possible, however, to change jobs and institutions. Sometimes a move can be a really healthy thing, especially if your current work environment isn’t supportive.

    * There is no “in” crowd in academia.

    In the years that I have been around, I have encountered many, many academics who have felt excluded from the “in” crowd and felt like misunderstood outsiders. Yet, I have never seen an actual “in” crowd. Sure, there are cliques (some are vicious). There are also people whose scholarship receives more attention than others. In the end, though, we are all working to the same goals and find our own niches and friends. Stop searching for the “cool kids” lunch table.

    * Tenure is not the end.

    I have seen many newly tenured people think to themselves, "Ok, now I've made it! It's all a breeze from this point forward." Alas, the academic world doesn't work like that. Don't get me wrong. Tenure is a very nice prize indeed.

    However, you still have to pay your dues and you still have to continue to work hard as an associate professor. While not a meritocracy, your status in the university will depend heavily on the number and quality of your publications. Gaining the label "trapped in rank" will start to feel mighty bad six or seven years from now.

    * Never start a blog.

    Seriously, it’s a bad idea.

UPDATE: Dr. Crazy has offered a fantastic alternative to this post here. My experience and advice are limited, especially in regard to SLAC's. Go read that post for important counterpoints to this post. My only quibble would be about the blog thing. What type of foolish junior professor would start a blog?