Sigourney Weaver’s red ribbon: A reaction to Jeffrey (1995)

Hello again everyone.

This is going to be the last film review for the semester. (Yay!) I can’t tell you how sick of writing these I am. Don’t get me wrong here, I am enjoying that I am finding something to write for school AND for the blog. However, I am finding myself hating the focus on movies that this class has. I am not a movie person in the slightest. When I do indulge in watching a fictional film, typically it is something silly, girly, and childish. When I am watching something that isn’t fictional, the films tend to be dark, scary, and documentary pieces. Other than that, I don’t really have much of an appetite for film.

So, yeah, I am glad that this is almost over. However, there is going to be one final paper due for the class. I am sure that it is something that I could post here as well. Though, I will have to think about how I am going to manage that. I am sure that if you have been interested in my writings so far that you will be interested in that as well, but it is going to be rather long (like 20-pages long). So, I will think about it.

Anyway, the film that I am working on today is called Jeffrey. The movie features a number of big names from the 1990’s. While I would love to summarize the movie quickly for you here, I am not sure that I can think of anything more to say about it than what is in the reaction below.

[Image] Jean-luc Picard in typical Make it so fasion.

At least Jean-luc Picard was in this movie.

Jeffrey (1995) is a gay romantic comedy about a man who gives up sex and ends up stumbling into Mr. Right in the process, but unlike all other romantic comedies, Jeffrey relies on AIDS—a deadly, incurable, sexual transmitted virus—for the majority of its punchlines. In doing so, the film awkwardly attempts to further acceptance for those living with HIV/AIDS. However, because of its frequent departures into the absurd, the film could easily pass as a satirical piece. In this, the film’s point could be to call out the stupidity and arrogance of the blasé treatment of safer sex practices in the post-AIDS crisis era or simply homonegativity itself. However, the ambiguous relationship between this film and the satire contained within leaves the viewer to decide whether it is truly a work of irony or a serious romantic comedy. As with all things, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.

In viewing the film, I was left with a deep sense of confusion over my inability to tell where satire ended and the plot began. Throughout the film, there are many points that are clearly meant to be satirical in nature. Some of these arose from characters, such as those played by Sigourney Weaver and Nathan Lane, which were included almost entirely for comedic effect. Because of this, however, it becomes unclear whether the same ironic reading could be extended to the likes of Sterling (Patrick Stewart), Darius, or even Steve—characters with a much more substantial impact on the plot of the film.

More worryingly, this problem I had in differentiating the satirical from the substantial extended to aspects of the film beyond its characters and plot. This means that, while I feel that many aspects of the film were problematic, I feel as though any raised concern can simply be countered with a defence stating that that aspect was intentionally absurd. Because of this, I wonder whether this film could be marked as the first film to demonstrate so-called “hipster homophobia.”

Hipster homophobia is a concept, similar to hipster racism or hipster sexism, where homophobia or homonegativity is presented in such a way to make it intentionally absurd or subjectively ironic. In this, those perpetuating hipster homophobia are attempting to challenge the societal expectation of homonegative depictions through over the top uses of these very depictions. In this way, the creator of the work is expressing their belief that blatant expressions of genuine homonegativity are no longer taken seriously and that such obvious depictions of such are seen as humorous and/or whimsical.

However, portrayals of this type often backfire on their creator. As Poe’s law would suggest, there is always going to be a subset of the audience of any satirical work that will not understand its satirical nature. As a result, these people will accept the work for its face value and not for the message at its core. In the context of hipster homophobia, this means that some of those in the audience will take the over the top depictions of stereotyped gay men as the way things actually are rather than taking them as the ironic representations that they were meant to be. Because of this, hipster homophobia inadvertently supports the homonegative actions of those who do not understand its irony and allows for (or encourages) the continuation of homonegative actions under the guise of satire or humour.

Of course, this is only one way of interpreting this film. The other obvious way of doing so would be to take the film on its face, as a realistic portrayal of the creator’s feelings about gay men. In this interpretation, the film moves from inadvertently supporting homonegative assumptions to actively bolstering them, taking on a much darker tone as it does so. This is because the film then becomes little more than a collection of harmful stereotypes and irrational ideas, not the least of which involves the active questioning of safer sex practices.

While the main character does eventually warm to the idea of practising safer sex towards the end of the film, the way in which he announces this seems as though he is making an exception for his desired partner. Prior to this, the message of the film about safer sex practices was one showing them as tiresome, dull, and romance-destroying. This presentation of safer sex practices offers support to misconceptions which pervade our society about these practices, and only serves to discourage their employment by the masses. Given the very serious nature of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, Human papillomavirus (HPV), and antibiotic-resistant gonorrhoea, the discouragement of effective prevention measures is irresponsible, but yet all too common.

Beyond this, however, Jeffrey did no better in its portrayal of the gay man. In fact, the film defined gay men (and perhaps men in general) in such a way as to make giving up sex a laughable, foolhardy endeavour. This was not done through the strength of writing or the power of performance, but instead it was accomplished through relying on tired tropes about men and (gay) men’s sexuality. These stereotypes of the oversexed man and the uncontrollable male sex drive are nothing new to media representations of gay men. In fact, it is for this very reason that gay men have historically been viewed as sexual predators exploiting others for their sexual desires. While this harmful generalization could be seen as applicable to heterosexual men as well, it is often assumed that gay men are far more sexual than even their heterosexual male counterparts. This makes representations of the uncontrollable gay male sex drive all the more salient to the audience and all the more problematic for the gay male community.

In addition, the main auxiliary characters in the story, Sterling and Darius, do nothing to improve this stereotyped view of gay men. With Sterling being a catty interior decorator and Darius being a “chorus boy” in the production of Cats, these characters are the epitome of the feminine gay male archetype. As such, these characters do little to move beyond the regressive notions that conflate homosexuality with gender transgression. Further, those in other marginalized communities do not get much better treatment. After all, the film’s only non-white character (a Black man) is portrayed as a server at a restaurant, and the film’s only transgender character is played by a masculine-looking cis-man in a dress and is depicted eagerly awaiting surgery.

Because of these heavily stereotyped representations that clearly harm the communities on which they are based, I almost hope that the creator of the film was aiming entirely for creating a work of satire. However, as I mentioned above, I am sure that the truth lies somewhere between these two opposing interpretations of the film. The reason that I believe this is because the film seems to have a plot that is far too serious to lend itself to an ironic interpretation. However, it is clear that many aspects of the film are not meant to be taken seriously at all. It is because of this that I feel that the line between satire and seriousness has been blurred. However, with either interpretation (or some complex mixing of the two), something that the film can not escape is the sense of unironic hypocrisy that comes with its attempted advancement of acceptance for those living with HIV/AIDS.

During the contrived courtship between Steve and Jeffrey, Steve mentions that he does not want to be Jeffrey’s red ribbon. In this, Steve expresses that he does not want to be reduced to a decoration highlighting Jeffrey’s acceptance of those with AIDS and implies that such self-centred, surface level engagement with the cause is all too common. Nevertheless, those in the cast and crew of this film do not seem to actually engage with this message. Instead, it feels as though many of the big names who got involved with this film did so as a way of publicly displaying their humanitarian efforts. In this way, the film serves as the red ribbon for its cast and crew, a status Steve expressed his explicit disapproval of.


The Rape of Alice: An Exploration of the Abuse in The Killing of Sister George

* * * TRIGGER WARNING :: Depictions of Abuse, Stalking, Rape, and Homonegativity * * *

Hello again!

For one of the courses that I am taking at University, I have been tasked with writing 6  reaction papers over the course of the semester. Many of these take the form of psuedo- film reviews, where my reaction is to a film that we watched in class. The first of these was to the film Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). This was not published here as, well, I didn’t think about it at the time. This, the second reaction paper is in reference to The Killing of Sister George (1968). However, before I begin with my write-up, I just want to point out again that there is a trigger warning on this post, as well as on the movie being referred to, for depictions of rape, stalking, abuse, and homonegativity and discussions thereof. Please tread carefully and remember self-care.

[Image] A person with painted nails holding up a card saying "It's NO until I say YES without coercion"The Killing of Sister George (1968) contained quite a few problematic elements. Ranging from conflation of femininity with infantilism to the complete inability to resolve the plot, the movie seemed quite content to make wild, unfounded generalizations and then leave the audience hanging. However, perhaps the most problematic elements of the movie did not lay in the mechanics of plot development or basic storytelling, but instead with the depiction, and implicit normalization, of manipulation, abuse, and rape within lesbian communities of the time.

These themes were almost omnipresent throughout the film, but were mostly tied to those who took an interest in Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught. From the very first scene, it is shown that the relationship between June ‘George’ Buckeridge and Alice is one marked by alcohol, control, and abuse. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, June is aggressively questioning Alice about who she has been drinking with, as if an empty glass on the table is an indication of sexual indiscretion. Despite this concern being quickly dispelled, June follows up by once again accusing Alice of sexual impropriety, this time with her boss at work. This leads into one of the most awkward and blatantly abusive exchanges in the movie when June screams at Alice “If that’s what he’s like, then why hasn’t he had a go at you?” This is quickly followed up by June exasperatingly adding “No one ever tells me anything” to Alice’s assertions that she is being honest, forthright, and true.

This seemingly confused behaviour on the part of June seeks to throw Alice off balance and pressure her into a certain pattern of responding. This is shown more clearly later in the film when June unexpectedly shows up at Alice’s work to find that her boss is not the sexy, suave, lady-killer that she was expecting, but rather an older, married, Jewish man. In this scene, June insists that Alice lied to her about the sexual appeal of her boss; However, Alice did no such thing. Rather, she gets pressured into responding in the affirmative simply to defuse the anger that was being directed her way by June. This pattern of denial, followed by continued abuse, and finally complete surrender is one that repeats itself throughout the film, and a truism of long-term abusive relationships: learned helplessness.

Alice isn’t the only person to be a recipient of June’s abusive behaviour, however. Rather, this list includes a pair of random nuns in the back of a taxi, as well as the entire cast and crew of the BBC soap opera June was working on. In both of these cases, alcohol fueled her exploits, leading June to act inappropriately. With her peers on the set of her soap opera, June simply hurled abusive barbs at those members of the cast she didn’t appreciate. However, with the nuns earlier in the film, it is suggested that June sexually assaults either one or both of these women, a fact that she uses to taunt Alice later on.

As with many abusers, June also shows a history of abusive, consent violating behaviour. In a scene detailing how June first met Alice, June recounts the story of how she stalked Alice, violated many of her personal boundaries, and even took a piece of her property as a souvenir, all prior to even speaking a word to Alice herself.

June: That takes me back years. When I first met you…

Alice: That awful boarding house.

June: You know, for weeks I watched you come and go, and I never spoke a word to you. Every morning, you set off for work punctually *giggle* at 10 past 9. You were always in such a rush.

Alice: I had no idea you were watching me.

June: Then, one night I went into the bathroom just after you had had a bath, and the mirror was all steamed up and the bathmat was all wet and glistening where you’d be standing on it. And, there was a smell of bath crystals and talcum powder. It was like an enchanted wood. And I stood quite still on the bathmat in your footprints and then I noticed that you’d left your comb behind, it was a pink plastic comb and it had your hairs in it and I kept that comb as a souvenir. And all that time, I’d never spoken a word to you.

This extreme example very much mimics the way that abusers and rapists choose their victims. They often violate social norms and minor personal boundaries as a way of testing whether the victim would be likely to rebuff their advance or challenge their presumed power. If these small invasions are successful, the abuser moves to larger boundary breaches and more controlling behaviours. Often, by the time the victim realizes what is actually going on, the abuser is far too close or far too connected to push them from their place of power and control. [Dick pictures as minor boundary breaches]

This entrapped nature of abuse, and the random, often unpredictable nature of the abuser pushes the victim in to a state of learned helplessness, much like that exhibited by Alice. In this, the victim often surrenders to the abuse, even when it is over things that aren’t factual or believable, simply because they know that correcting the abuser will only make matters worse. With this in mind, the sex scene at the end of the movie begins to look less like a failed attempt at romanticism and more like a new abuser using the learned helplessness of Alice to take a place of control and power. At the beginning of this scene, Mercy Croft places her hand on Alice’s breast, Alice pushes her hand away, not once, but twice, Mercy continues to push Alice’s limits until, finally, Alice gives up, “allowing” Mercy to do as she wills.

This pattern of learned helplessness does not imply consent; However, in the many years since the films release there is little to no discussion about how the sex scene at the end of the movie may actually be an act of rape. This may be because of general perceptions of rape as a wholly violent act, against a thrashing, fighting, completely unwilling victim. Patterns such as the one described with Alice are often not only discounted from rape discourse, but actively eroticized by generations of romantic comedies. This, along with the passing reference to a sadomasochistic relationship between June and Alice, offers real life people who act like June and Mercy social license to operate. This allows them to use the benefit of the doubt created by “gray rape” romantic comedies, and other aspects of rape culture, to continue their track record of manipulation, abuse, and rape.

Considering that Alice, June, and Mercy are the only developed lesbian characters, and given that not one of the three of them is a positive, strong role model (to say the least), it is safe to say that this film, much like Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) is highly homonegative. Further, since many of the major character flaws present within Alice, June, and Mercy can be tracked back to stereotypes and beliefs about the butch/femme dynamic of lesbian relationships (butch as sexual and physical aggressor, femme as childish, innocent, and passive), the film actively supported the hatred, fear, and misunderstanding that surrounded lesbian women and gay men at the time.