Saturday, September 6, 2008

Taking The Bite Out of Sex

When I first met critic Matt Zoller Seitz he disclosed that the initial thing he does when having a strong reaction to a film is to look in the mirror and ask, “Is the movie affecting me this way because I’m a white guy with a blue collar background?” It was a “Eureka!” moment for me, a summation of all the reasons I’d been a fan of his film criticism for so long, and why I’d always felt a kinship with his style. For questioning my own POV first and foremost has been my modus operandi for as long as I’ve been writing. And then I realized it’s also what elevates Matt above the rest.

Recently, I had another “Eureka!” moment when what I thought of as a “fairly innocuous comment” about the collective mindset of the movie-going public posted to my “Traitor” review at The House Next Door infuriated me. Instead of degrading the commenter I did what I normally do, took a good hard look in the mirror and asked, “What is it about me and my life experience that’s causing me to react this way?” Then I tried my best to candidly answer that question not as a “film critic,” but as a movie-goer in a personal essay titled The Movie-Going Public. And that’s where I got into a heap-load of trouble.

For any exploration of myself, my personal POV, inevitably includes a discussion of sexuality. For my gay male identity, my sexuality, inside my biological female form is a part of who I am, which isn’t all that interesting in-and-of itself. But that same gay male sexuality also guides my point of view, which is crucially important, since people like me on the margins of society don’t always have our viewpoints acknowledged. Tossing off what I thought was my own innocuous comment, a campy-toned reference to casual sex that didn’t make any of my gay friends bat an eye, I was chastened by the realization that not everyone in my audience understood homo code, taking the bite out of sex with flamboyant words (and perhaps simultaneously exploding the ridiculous myth about the “beautiful, dumbbell muscle boy” incapable of a conversation beyond protein bars and free weights. You know, just in case the governor of California hadn’t done so already).

The truth is I never even would have become an “erotica author” (a term as meaningless as “film critic” in this day and age), had it not been for my hustler/porn star lover who held a mirror up to my face, challenged everything I thought was “true” for six long years, sharpening my critical thinking skills, until he exhausted me – not with sex but with all his philosophizing. People like us are cut from the same cloth as Juan Antonio in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” who Javier Bardem, when asked about the in-your-face sexuality of his character, explained simply views sex as a starting point on a journey, not a goal. For me if the journey takes off great, if not it’s a fantastic daytrip, just another sport like the Thai boxing I’ve been doing for the past dozen years. And it never even occurs to me that someone might think I’d “brag” about an afternoon workout at the gym. But then I often forget my life experiences are not that of my audience, that my words are often lost in translation. Which is why I knew it was time for me to take another cold look in the mirror.

In all honesty, I often err on the side of candor because I packed up and left the world of the mainstream a long, long time ago. I’ve always been acutely aware that, straight guys especially, I make extremely uncomfortable so I’ve usually just avoided becoming close with anyone not on the margins, rather than sucking it up and having to censor myself. Subsequently, I haven’t learned much in the way of mainstream social mores, haven’t been exposed to as many hetero POVs as I should be. I don’t speak the language. (And it took me over a decade to figure out that as a genderqueer person, theoretically, I’m a straight guy’s worst nightmare, as bad as any horror flick body snatcher – a 100% biological female with an inner faggot out to suck their dick. The only difference between me and any other gay guy is I “pass” for a straight chick, foxily making my way into hetero beds without a hitch.)

And interestingly, I’ve discovered that a lot of the people I tend to offend with my bluntness are uncomfortable not necessarily with “strong women,” nor “female sexuality,” per se, but with flamboyant homos like me expressing sexuality if it’s not strictly within the confines of a pride parade, with our social code which very much includes talking flippantly about sex – i.e., with our POV – whether they realize it or not. But for me, not talking frankly about sex harkens back to the societal neutering of gays and lesbians in the fifties, when a seat at the table was dependent upon speaking a language that suppressed our sexuality. And like all those gay men who had to pretend they didn’t actually “do” anything with each other save for listening to Judy Garland tunes together, lest they offend the heterosexual majority by conjuring up horrific images of cock-sucking and anal sex (which, tellingly, are equally heterosexual practices), I instinctively respond with a rebel yell of “I’m here, I’m queer, I screw. Get over it!”

And rarely do I get flack from the margin, not so much because these people are my brothers and sisters, but because collectively we’ve known all our lives that our viewpoints are different from the majority. We try – and sometimes fail like all other human beings – not to blindly assume (like so much of the center does) that just because we think a certain way everyone does. In other words, we’ve been conditioned to be constantly checking ourselves in the mirror, the benefit being that it allows us to be open to self-doubt. So I have to say, the most humbling aspect of interacting with my readers online is I’m being taught to get over my own inexcusably innate, knee-jerk prejudice of straight people. For all those heteros who always seem to be rushing to my aid whenever I get attacked for causing offense aren’t defending a chick – they’re crying “not in my name!” Which is all the more humbling.

17 comments:

Jonathan M said...

Hi Lauren,

It's interesting that you see yourself as working through your opinions on straights. Because I see a lot of Republican in your views.

I'll clarify ;-)

As a straight guy (from the UK admittedly) I see nothing of myself in the mainstream that is championed by the Republicans. The "us" the Republicans project when they talk about being pro-life, opposing gay marriage, loving Jesus and so on is not real to me. Most UK people I know and most Americans I've met do not care sufficiently about GLBTQ people to actively dislike them.

The Republicans manufacture this fake mainstream consensus in an attempt to get people to support them, but I think you're also doing something similar. I think you've constructed a fake idea of what straight people think in order to focus your ideas about who you are.

Some straight guys are more comfy in the margins too :-)

Love the blog by the way... keep up the good work.

Lauren Wissot said...

jonathan,

I absolutely agree I have no idea how straight people think. That's a big blindspot of mine, no doubt. I can only compare notes with my other gay friends who have unwittingly provoked similar reactions.

And I take the "a lot of Republican in your views" as a compliment. I'm very conservative in many ways. But don't get me started on why I don't like the idea of gay marriage...

Jonathan M said...

Well, Quentin Crisp (I think it was) said that legalising homosexuality took the fun out of it :-)

Lauren Wissot said...

Gore Vidal dances to my tune as well.:)

shewarrior said...

Hello, Lauren!

Once again, you have written an insightful piece. You are bold in the way you speak, yet you are vulnerable in opening up and letting people into your life.

If more writers were like that, no...if more PEOPLE were like that...what a WONDERFUL existence we human beings could lead.

Thank you for your honesty...and here's to those of us that live on the fringe. ;)

glenntkenny said...
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jean luc godard said...

What the fuck are you talking about. Your homo code is the stupidest thing i've ever heard. There are people who are extremely immature and have to flaunt their sexual experiences to validate themselves and then there are people who like to fist fuck and give/receive anal in private.

But beyond your homo code i think you have a lot of issues your blog and film criticism cannot help you with.

I should add heterosexuals never give blow jobs and have anal. Eww, what a thought! We only have sex missionary style and a couple times a year, when drunk, we do it doggy style.

Filmbrain said...
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Lauren Wissot said...

This post is how a genderqueer person thinks. Unless a straight person is going to come out and explain how a straight person thinks these comments are completely unhelpful.

Lauren Wissot said...

Filmbrain,

Once people like you stop going “on the record” that they don’t believe a bodybuilder could talk Dietrich, people like me will stop having to fight condescension by referencing all the “bimbo” hustlers/porn stars they know that very well can - and more. The mention will be irrelevant when the stereotypes cease.

“Shortbus” made my Breillat Awards: Top Unsexy “Sexy” Films at Spout. I hated it.

And “for the record,” I’m every bit as disappointed in you as you are irked by me.

glenntkenny said...
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glenntkenny said...
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shewarrior said...

great observations, jonathan. a critique without hateful words...what a concept.

filmbrain, "why do i think you are one of those people who found SHORTBUS edgy"... why do i think YOU are one of those people who judges others based solely on what movies they attend.

mr. kenny...wow, you love to name drop. lol...did you just write et-fucking-cetera? well, i have the temerity to say to you, this "straight person" thinks YOUR copy is lousy, sir...you are a boor. and that, really, is all. (unless i think of two more asinine comments to add just to hear myself talk.) Christ, indeed. lol.

Keith Uhlich said...

To Filmbrain and Glenn-

I've done my best to stay out of this online discussion, but the exchanges over Lauren's pieces have made me too sick to my soul. I address you both personally because you're my friends, and because Lauren is too.

I understand that we see Lauren's work differently. If I may presume: I see a brave, direct, and unique voice; you both see self-absorption, an obsession with inapplicable details, and an old-hat desire to shock. I'm not here to argue perceptions, but the way this conversation has gone over several blogs has distressed me to no end.

I would no doubt feel differently (though I would hope, still, empathetically) if the experience of these published comments were entirely Lauren's. But I feel I've been dragged into the discussion in ways both explicit (The House Next Door's name taken in vain and lambasted in the comments section of Glenn's blog) and implicit (the constant questioning of Lauren's presence at The House Next Door as if she is an intruder rather than an invitee).

Lauren was brought on by Matt Seitz in the early days of the site to write a review of Lust, Caution. I'm not sure who contacted who, but Matt was very welcoming, as was I. Lauren's perspective was one that I hadn't before encountered and her experiences (sexual, cinephilic, etc) were ones that I thought would be interesting to apply to the world of film. She quickly became one of The House's most prolific and enthusiastic writers, and I've seen her grow significantly as a critic since her debut. Of recent, I was particularly impressed with her one-on-one interview with Malcolm McDowell, which I was on-hand to record. She asked terrific questions, and I could see McDowell was charmed by her attractiveness and intelligence both.

I've also visited the House of Domination Lauren works in (we recorded an as-yet-unpublished interview with Anna Biller, the director of Viva, at an adjoining club) and had chance to meet the Russian woman who she mentions in her initial piece, a fellow dominatrix colleague whose knowledge of Russian film is indeed encyclopedic.

Filmbrain, I think it was you who called into question Lauren's story about the bodybuilder she mentions in the first "Movie-Going Public." Having seen several facets of Lauren's life first-hand, I have no reason to doubt her, and I also don't believe that the reference was dropped flippantly, but was entirely relevant to the point she was making: that the movie-going public encompasses a vast array of people and perspectives, and - more humorously to me - that a fantastic afternoon tryst can so easily be spoiled over a disagreement about movie stars (personal intimacy and movie-love collide and crash as often as they harmonize).

This leads into my larger issue about Lauren's presence on The House. With few exceptions (e.g. Andrew Johnston's Mad Men recaps, which Matt edits, lays out, and publishes himself), all House articles go through my eyes before they are put up on the site. I therefore share some measure of responsibility for the site's publicly available content, whether I write the entry in question or not.

I worked on both of Lauren's articles, we e-mailed a time or two back and forth, and we both mutually approved the final versions. It was my idea to let the articles run without image support, in particular because I felt the words and ideas were strong enough on their own. I figured there would be some measure of disagreement to the piece's content, but I did not anticipate (as I almost never do) the sheer outrage and vitriol, the indignant bullying that emerged in the first article's wake.

Please don't misunderstand this as a knee-jerk accusation of sexism or straight-male myopia. I would hope both of you realize that I don't think of either of you that way, that you are both dear to me in ways that I feel I have expressed both in print and in person. (Lauren is also a friend and she will have a berth at The House for as long as she wants, with all the resultant commentary that comes with the gig - the funny thing in all this, for me, is that she's proven to have a much thicker skin for criticism of her work than I do.)

If our friendship and my word means anything in this context, I would like to ask you both to please step back from this situation and to also, in the future, consider my own advocacy for Lauren's work before responding to it. But this current discussion has gone as far as it can reasonably go, and it is wreaking havoc on me personally to see a writer and a friend I respect deeply being continuously raked over the coals by two who I love also.

For what it's worth.

Keith Uhlich

John S said...

"This post is how a genderqueer person thinks. Unless a straight person is going to come out and explain how a straight person thinks these comments are completely unhelpful."

Straight people think the way gay people think, and straight people don't think alike any more than gay people (or genderqueer people) think alike.

You write to provoke in a sexual way. That is fine, and there are reasons why some people who happen to be gay will find that particularly endearing, but that is not the same thing as writing with a gay voice. Armond White's identity as a gay man infuses every sentence he composes. Your recent House pieces, with their unexpected sexual charge and attempts to control and label responses to them, seem more rooted in your interest in S&M.

Also, you might get unconditional love and support in certain quarters from people who might otherwise reject your work. For them, it's more important to defend your right to say it. Does that make you a good writer? Yes, but only of a kind, and unconditional support is the enemy of great writing.

P.S> Don't assume I'm white or black, gay or straight, male or female. I'm not going to tell you. So there.

Lauren Wissot said...

Some final thoughts…

If Steve Boone, my straight colleague who I adore, had typed, “fantastic afternoon sex with a hot gymnast” would the response have been as vitriolic?

If Keith Uhlich, my gay editor who I adore, had typed, “fantastic afternoon sex with a hot bodybuilder” would the response have been as vitriolic? Would there have been any silent discomfort?

And if all this outrage has nothing to do with my female form nor my gay sexuality, but simply with my disclosing facets of my personal life, why is no one offended by my mentioning my stint with The Living Theatre, to me the most close-to-my-heart revelation of all?

Filmbrain said...

Well, given that you asked....

Yes, I would be as critical of Steven or Keith had they included the same (or similar) details in a piece such as yours.

Perhaps you should carefully read through the comments left here, at The House, and on Steven's blog -- people spell out, in no mixed terms, the problems they have with your mentioning it. I needn't repeat them here.

As I stated before, I enjoyed the subject of your post, but your adding of those personal details both weakened your argument and smacked of insecurity.

Let me also take this opportunity to apologize for my flippant behavior in a) questioning the existence of said bodybuilder and b) assuming you were a champion of Shortbus. (I'm genuinely pleased you aren't!)