Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Detective

Some evenings ago, I had finished with a hard day of accomplishing nothing on NERPoD: The Sequel (Which reminds me, have you ordered your copy of the original NERPoD from your favorite on-line bookseller? All the really cool bloggers have already read it. Why haven’t you?). This meant that I needed some form of entertainment to distract me. My mindless channel surfing stopped at the start of The Detective (1968). Now here was a film that would allow a lot of self-justification for watching the idiot box. I knew of this film from Vito Russo’s classic Celluloid Closet (and the later HBO documentary of the same name), but had never watched it in its entirety. Parking on the couch to watch this wasn’t me blowing off the evening. Rather, I was assessing a critical primary source that would shed light on past notions of sexual difference. Hey, it’s tough work, but somebody has to do it.

For those who have never heard of The Detective (and I’m going to guess most people have not), it was one of the first explicit representations of gay men at the local picture palaces. The year 1968 had brought significant changes and challenges to the nation. The Civil Rights movement was dealt a serious blow by the death of Martin Luther King, Jr; LBJ served his last year in office; Pierre Trudeau became Canada’s Prime Minister; Andy Warhol got in the way of radical feminist Valerie Solanas’ bullets; and Hawaii Five-O premiered on television (for the first time). That last one alone sent many people into an existential crisis from which they never recovered.

The year 1968 also brought an end to the draconian censorship of the Movie Production Code. Moviegoers demanded that films start reflecting the bleak and turbulent times. In place of the censorship Code, which sought to keep everything squeaky clean for all audiences, films started having a letter rating (G, PG, R, and X) that parents could totally ignore when considering which films were appropriate for their families.

Twentieth Century Fox rode that new rating train all the way to the bank with their highest grossing picture that year, The Detective. None other than Frank Sinatra occupied the titular role. The movie, based on a novel by Roger Thorpe (the man who later brought you Die Hard (more or less)), included topics like marital infidelity, corruption, civil rights movements, anonymous sex, and, of course, homosexuality. They probably couldn’t have included any more salacious story lines unless they made it a flat-out porno.

The start of the film lets us know that this ain’t no Doris Day flick. New York Detective Joe Leland (ol’ blue eyes) arrives at a crime scene. Upon entering the upscale apartment, he casually observes that the victim was a “male Caucasian, nude laying on the floor. Penis cut off, laying on the floor of the living room.” Leland’s partner, a novice African-American policeman, nearly hurls his cookies onto the floor. In contrast, Leland has seen it all and casually asks Quincy, or, er, Jack Klugman to wrap up the penis in newspaper to keep people from accidentally kicking it around the floor.

The audience is left asking, who could have perpetuated such a gruesome crime? Well, it was a number of years too early for people to imagine that Bobbit story.

We start to get clues about what might have transpired as Leland tours the deceased’s apartment: Nude, greco-roman male statutes in every corner? Check. Unknown drugs in the medicine cabinet? Check. Semen stained sheets? Check. A pile of barbells and a half-gallon jug of mineral oil? Check and check! Even Scooby-Doo could have pieced together that this man was as queer as Fred’s ascot. The Detective is that subtle.

But this was post code! No longer did movie makers need to hint broadly about the sexual identity of its dead characters through objets d`art. The Detective spelled it out plain and cold: “Junior over there was a homosexual” remarks the medical examiner. Just how the doctor determined this posthumously is never revealed, but he assures Leland such an end is typical for men of his persuasion. When asked about the cause of death, he glibly replies “Lover’s quarrel, that’s how they settle it.. . . Twenty years and they still disturb the hell out of me.” Who can blame him? Most of my man dates usually follow the trajectory of drinks; then dinner; then a movie; then sex (possibly slathered in mineral oil); and then a bloody death match on the livingroom floor. If I come out alive and with my member intact, I hope he calls me again.

One doesn’t need an extra eye to see the homophobia dripping out of the film. It is for this reason that The Detective has been rightly disparaged by generations of queer scholars and moviegoers. The film makers promised, and delivered, the first celluloid glimpse at “gay” life. Following the chairman-of-the-board through his investigation gave a voyeuristic glimpse at all the joints that gay men apparently inhabited: gyms, boarding houses, the docks, and orgies in semi-trucks. Or, as I think of it, Tuesday. Each time they encounter a gay person, an ancillary character comments on how “sickening” it is to normal men like him.

To make a long, convoluted story shorter, Nancy Sinatra's father thinks that he finds his man, Felix Tesla, at a sketchy boarding house. The suspect fits with what sixties mainstream society imagined for gay men. In other words, he was totally drugged out . . . or nuts . . . or both. It didn’t really matter. Listening to his contorted speech patterns, it’s hard to believe this man was lucid enough to ride a city bus much less have an extended relationship with a prominent millionaire. But, whatev’s.

Tesla arrives at the police station for intensive interrogation, which does result in some of my favorite campy movie dialog ever. When questioned about life with the victim, Tesla proclaims, “He was a bitch!” Oh, honey, I’ve been there. The rest of the scene played out more peculiarly as Frank Sinatra more-or-less seduces his suspect. A gentle touch here, an oblique reference to a gay bar there, questions about the victim’s body (“soft, like a girl’s” btw). Before you can say “police coercion” Leland has his suspect singing like Billie Holiday. You can guess what happens next. Yep, the gay man goes immediately to the electric chair and fries faster than a bucket of chicken. All the cops and politicians are delighted. The detective wins a big promotion and everybody enjoys some stiff brown drinks. A happy ending in heteroville. Well, except . . .

Turns out maybe Tesla wasn’t so guilty after all. Through an unrelated investigation, the detective discovers that another man has jumped to his death at a local race track. The newly deceased? A closeted gay man who had been involved in some mighty shady deals in the city. Apparently the director couldn’t let a full twenty minutes of celluloid lapse without having a gay man facing some type of peril: dismembered, strangled, beaten up, threatened with a gun, threatened with imprisonment, electrocuted, or just clumsy on a ledge. Like all gay men, The Detective lets us know that the most recently departed deserved his fate. He helped a crew of politicians and real estate brokers embezzle millions of dollars, all at the expense of the poor. Yet, this was not what set him over the edge, literally. He just couldn’t handle his deep, deep desire for some man love. I mean, committing outrageous acts of fraud and theft are one thing, but kissing another man? Somebody has to die.

Leland uncovers a taped confession that outlines the closeted man’s torment. Oh, you know the type. He had “experimented” in college, but since then had become 100 percent heterosexual. Think an accountant version of Ted Haggard. To prove his new found straightness, he even married the glamorous Jacqueline Bisset. Hey, if you’re going to get a beard, go top of the line is what I say. Trouble was that sometimes he just needed somebody in bed who was, shall we say, a bit more hairy. He turned up at a local gay bar and went home with the millionaire. And, as we were told early on, the inevitable happened when two gay men connect: murder. Sinatra emotes some remorse over turning Tesla into a human flambĂ©, but not enough so that he can’t end with a sanctimonious speech about city corruption.

All in all, the movie leaves you with the impression that gay men are self-hating, drug addled, murderous embezzlers who keep the mineral oil industry afloat. Yet, in watching the film I was surprised to see that it also contained a (very modest) counter vision of gay men. The police contemptuously questioned the victim’s beard, or er, occasional “date” to parties. She defended the victim. “I knew he was gay," she said without apology, "but he was civilized and he a bit of wit, which is more than I can say for most people.” Though most of the police rough up the gay men whom they encounter at the docks, Leland reminds them to “take it easy. These people aren’t murderers.” Of course, that line would have been more convincing if the film hadn’t already presented gay men as only murderers. Later in the film, he tells Tesla “I believe in live and let live.” Of course, that line would have been more convincing if he didn’t later send Tesla to die in the electric chair.

Perhaps The Detective can be understood as exploiting the contradictory attitudes about sex and sexuality swirling around during the 1960s. On one hand, the film didn’t shy away from pointing out that gay men actually existed and were out having a good time. Well, at least until they died in some gruesome way. When they did die, it was usually their own fault or at each other’s hands. Those depictions of gay men, though, have to be placed into the larger context of the way the film presents other forms of sexual behavior. The Detective didn’t just delve into gay men as the only symbol of sixties sexual corruption. In an ancillary plot, Leland's own marriage falls apart when it’s revealed that his wife likes to have anonymous sex with strangers whom she meets at bars (Don’t ask). The increased sexual freedom of the era costs Leland personally and left him disillusioned.

Leland thereby comes off less as a crusader for social justice than as a libertarian who has himself been victimized by the sexual revolution. The film reassured audiences that good straight white men, like Leland, always fight for the less fortunate and provide stability in a world run amok. His mild defense of gay men served to make him appear more generous and “by-the-book,” unlike the crooked cops who surrounded him. He was a hetero patriarch that audiences were supposed to embrace. It ignored that such straight cops were often the ones harassing anybody who dared to break the social mores.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Baby Nation

Given that I am a junior faculty member, I sometimes attend professional panels for career advice. Most often, the advice is fairly predictable (e.g. Publish, publish, publish; keep your c.v. updated; don’t sleep with your students; teach well, but don’t let it interfere with publishing; avoid unprofessional journals/presses that take 8 months to decide whether to even send out a piece for review; wear sensible shoes). What emerged during one such recent discussion among distinguished faculty left me gobsmacked. Yeah, that’s right. I used “gobsmacked” in a sentence. American slang just doesn’t have a good enough alternative. Or maybe I have been watching BBC America a wee bit too much.

Whatever the case, there isn’t much that can surprise me about the academic world these days. Like the immortal character of Kelly Garett, I’ve been around. So you might imagine that it took me quite a bit aback when one of the male panelists charged with mentoring junior faculty suggested that the key to maintaining one’s balance and success in the academic realm was having children. He did not present this as one of a menu of options (i.e. “One needs to have focus on things beyond the job, like having children; or a series of romantic relationships; or a pet poodle; or building ships in a bottle.”). Nope, the key was children and the unnameable, but miraculous, power of parenthood to transform an individual to a higher plane of consciousness and zen clarity. Only then would you succeed.

Had he been a lone voice on the panel, it might have seemed a peculiar, but dismissible, comment. Astoundingly, though, the majority of the panel, a mixture of men and women, agreed enthusiastically with him. This was not a panel riddled with Christian fundamentalists. These were some mighty smart people who themselves write about issues of social difference. Yet, they saw few problems with promoting a pretty strict type of conformity (and, I would suggest, unrealistic expectations). Only two dissented with the parent agenda: One who agreed that children was a must for a happy life, but meekly suggested that waiting until after tenure might not be a terrible idea for some people. This left just one panelist who pointed out that: a) Not everybody wants children; b) Not everybody can have children; c) Having children (or not) has little, if anything, to do with the path to tenure or one’s professional identity.

To that, I would have added that such advice intentionally ignores the very serious work and time that parenting requires. It keeps in place the myth that being a parent is all reward and no sacrifice. Or, if there is sacrifice, one hardly notices it. Those who might suggest that parenting is often unrewarded drudgery might as well say that they keep their kids locked in the basement.

The panelists’ advice also veiled the reality that women remain disproportionately responsible for childcare in most households. For junior faculty, it is likely that women's careers will be more impacted than their male counterparts. Looking from the far (FAR) outside, it seems to me that even suggesting that becoming a parent would somehow ease the burdens of a tenure-track career is more than slightly disingenuous. It is a lie.

Finally, this advice is riddled with a particular brand of heterosexist privilege. Let’s pretend that I, GayProf, actually desired a human worm larvae of my own (Which I don’t – Trust me). The chances of me having a baby via sex are pretty slim (but that doesn’t mean I am not willing to keep on trying!). The effort that I would need to expend to obtain said larvae would far exceed all the sweat that went into NERPoD (Currently available for purchase at any of your favorite on-line book stores). States like Arkansas, Utah, and Mississippi even make it illegal or nearly impossible for gay men to adopt, no matter how much money they throw into the system. Along the same lines, many heterosexual couples are unable to have biological children for a variety of reasons. For them, hearing that children is a must for maintaining one’s sanity in the academic profession could only be construed as coming from a source of parental privilege.

This emphasis on parenting occurs despite the economic recession/depression, global hunger, and environmental strain. Rarely do I see any call for U.S. citizens to consider the ethical implications of our parenting choices. Each new human born in the United States will consume 30 times more than a brand new human born in India and 20 times more than a new human in Africa. Given that our nation represents only 5 percent of the world’s population, but consumes 20 percent of its resources, it is hard not to imagine that some consider our nation as giving birth to weapons of massive consumption.

Is this to say that I would argue against having children while untenured? Not really. I actually don’t care. We are lucky to live in an era when becoming a parent is still a choice. I would say such choices should be weighed seriously and with an understanding about the local, national, and global costs of an excessive population. Moreover, if you are with a spouse (or two) who won’t put in equal effort towards the kid, you really should think again about whether you want those spouse(s) around.

This panel, though, reminded me how obsessive our society has become about parenting. It left me thinking that if a group of people who are otherwise committed to questions of social justice could/would generalize so easily, just what has happened that natalism has become the benchmark for an individual’s success? Not since the middle of the twentieth century has parenting become a defining element of one’s place in our society. Much like the 1950s, those who do not have children are imagined as pitiable, selfish, immature, bitter, or simply crazy. As a single gay man with no family plan, I have a problem with that. Moreover, since I spent the larger part of my childhood living in fear of one of my parents, I am not inclined to see the mere act of becoming a legal guardian as necessarily representing an enhancement of one’s moral being. As I have mentioned in other posts, I am disturbed by children’s lack of rights and the assumption that they basically “belong” to their parents.

The career panel was surprising because it was a formal event, but it is not the only place where I have heard such messages. Indeed, I have one colleague at Big Midwestern University whom I see fairly rarely (My department is quite massive). Nonetheless, the few conversations that I have had with him have always centered on his efforts to convince me that I need to have a child. Part of this, I think, is an ingrained tendency that we all have to want other people to make the same choices that we have made. The first conversation seemed fine. After the third, I made a direct statement that I had no desire for children. He nonetheless continued and assured me that I didn't really know what I wanted. While he is generally a nice guy, it started to feel a bit like harassment.

If a single gay man is getting this type of insistence, I can’t possibly imagine what women (of all sexualities) are facing. Unlike the 1970s, where a question might be about whether a woman wanted children, the question is now when a woman will want children. It seems to me that modern feminism has left unchecked the notion that women must be defined through their role within a family. This can be seen across our culture. Popular magazines and blogs obsess about famous women and whether they have a “baby bump.” The professional accomplishments of women actors and singers are sidelined once reporters develop a creepy fixation on the occupancy status of their uteruses. Their goals or success prior to pregnancy, we are told, were just illusions of happiness. Only babies make women truly happy!

Take, for example, the coverage of Oscar winner Natalie Portman. Before she even won the award, at least half of the coverage that I heard focused on her pregnancy rather than, you know, her hard work in the film Black Swan (Personally, I didn’t care for the film, but that is another entry entirely). Her professional identity was swept aside in ways that would never happen for a male actor who was at the same stage of having a child.

One of the problems, then, with the hyper investment in parenting is that it also threatens to return us to some pretty retrograde notions of gender and familial roles. Not only has parenting become compulsory for one’s place in the world, but the choices about parenting are also highly scrutinized and policed. Witness the recent kerfuffle over “Tiger Mommy.” Or ultraconservative Mike Huckabee's accusation that Portman "glamorized” unwed pregnancy. Responding to Portman’s statement that her fiancĂ© had given her “the most wonderful gift [a baby],” Huckabee sputtered, “He didn't give her the most wonderful gift, which would be a wedding ring!” Portman apparently didn't realize that there is still a "natural" order to life when she skipped over that all important wedding.

Compulsory parenthood comes with seem pretty high costs it seems to me. My sexuality will always be at odds with a discourse that asserts that our best potential is realized through replicating ourselves. We should be leery of retuning to an era when biology was destiny and the patriarchal nuclear family reigned supreme.