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Week 12: A Time to Talk

In 1997, the famous Ms. Universe pageant asked, then candidate, Sushmita Sen a question that would trigger discussion all over the world. She was asked, “What is the essence of a woman?” To this, she replied,

“Just being a woman is God’s gift. The origin of a child is a mother, a woman. She shows a man what sharing, caring, and loving is all about. That is the essence of a woman.”

(Sen, 1997)

Although her answer highlighted the caring and nurturing qualities of a woman, it also put a spotlight on motherhood. And, while the whole world was discussing what should be the answer to this question, most were agreeing that to be able to give birth or to mother a child is the essence of being a woman. This, in itself, is troublesome because it puts aside women who are unable to produce children because of medical reasons. It also disregards women who choose not to have children, or could not adopt, or could not afford surrogacy, and so much more. Pinpointing the essence of a woman to just her ability to reproduce is locking her purpose into a society-given task which, if she fails to do it, would decrease or even eliminate her value as a person. Sen’s answer, as heartfelt as it is, highlighted “sharing, caring, and loving” as women’s traits, despite the fact that these qualities should be present in all types of people. As a matter of fact, in any way one looks at the question, there could never be a correct answer because the question, itself, is what is problematic. To look for the essence of a particular person is to basically ask what differentiates her/him from anyone else. It’s a question of identity, and it’s troublesome because it cages and reduces that person into a certain trait or quality. It is a question that does not seek to explain, but rather seeks to impose a definition, as a means of exerting power. The fact that this question was asked to a woman, in the most prestigious pageant in the world where she is supposed to reign, just shows how the world belittles a woman’s glory and tries in any way possible to take her away from her rightful pedestal. I, for one, would argue that the essence of a person lies in their sense of identity and the strength and determination that goes with assuming this identity. But with a world so obsessed with defining someone’s identity, this “identity” becomes a task, an element to be proven and questioned, rather than what one ought to live by. For people to live out their respective identities, they must face the challenge of getting out of society’s definition of them. This is exactly the unnecessary challenge imposed on members of the community, most particularly on the LGBTQ+ community.

With the rise of the LGBTQ+ empowerment, the world is determined to better understand their identity, but in the process of doing so, we are once again falling into the pithole of putting stereotypes. These stereotypes, not only serve as limiting entities, but rather they instill certain impressions on these groups of people in order to generate further hatred and avoidance geared towards that which they do not understand. It is only common, after all, to fear what one does not understand. 

“It is the ideological function of the lesbian body to warn the ‘normal’ woman about the dangers of undoing or rejecting her own bodily socialization. This is why the culture points with most hypocritical concern at the mannish lesbian, the butch lesbian, while deliberately ignoring the femme lesbian, the woman whose body in no way presents itself to the straight world as different and deviant.”

(Creed, p. 101, 1995)

The lesbian community, for example, have been stereotyped for being the “tomboy” persona, a woman who typically dressed and acted like a man out of her desire to be a man. This stereotype puts the “essence” of the community in the way they dress and behave. This also completely sets aside lesbians who are society’s definition of “feminine” in action and appearance. In the context of film, along with the butch lesbian is typically the comedic gay character, who acts “feminine” and dresses in women’s clothing. They are also typically shown in beauty parlors, as well as comedy bars. Do not get me wrong, some of these stereotypes are truthful. There are such people as butch lesbians and comedic gays in parlors, but there is an outrage for such representation in the media because it limits people’s image of them to just those. Such images are what people get used to, and when they end up being shown something else, they react negatively and shocked because, to them, what they are seeing is not anymore Queer Cinema, but misrepresented people who are “bad” examples. The danger is in idealizing a kind of queer because it marginalizes and, therefore oppresses, everyone else outside that limited definition.

 “…the politics of representation is still the method of choice in the popular gay press, where it has devolved into movie-star interviews that let us know which actors are out of the closet, and brief film reviews that help us to locate “positive” or “liberating” images of gay people.”

(Hanson, p.6, 1999)

The world is so curious and invested in people coming out of the closet. Whenever a celebrity does it, it’s always all over the news. A person’s sexuality is always a big deal to the point that people are bombarded with questions the minute there is a speculation about their sexuality. Someone’s sexuality is none of anybody’s business, whether the person chooses to hide it or not. It should be celebrated but it is not for another person to pry on. The dream is to live in a society where people don’t have to come out anymore because being queer is normal. Technically speaking, “coming out” is at the service of the heterosexual, as much as it is a celebration of the identity of the person coming out. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where sexuality is a huge part of gossip culture because to be queer is to be “unnatural”.

“We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us. Distorted to such an extent that our deformed body is what they call “natural,” what is supposed to exist as such before oppression. Distorted to such an extent that in the end oppression seems to be a consequence of this “nature” within ourselves (a nature which is only an idea).”

(Wittig, p.9, 1992)

By this definition of Wittig, during oppression, that is, in the state of queerness, one exists as an “unnatural”. She furthers by saying that “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (Wittig, p.10, 1992). I definitely agree that it is nurture and culture which forms the identity, and not biological factors. However, the use of the word “unnatural” is problematic for the masses. To say that being a lesbian, for example, is “unnatural” because women are formed and are not born by “nature” just makes it easy for society to tweak this and put on a negative connotation to being queer. We are arguing that gender due to nature does not exist and it is extremely ironic that nature, particularly biology, is also the primary argument for the discrimination of the queer community. People who take pride in discriminating genders would just argue that being “unnatural” connotes a problem, psychological perhaps. The challenge in this case is, therefore, how to translate the cultural contribution to one’s identity in a way that could be understood well by the masses and not be an added factor to further discrimination.

“To refuse to be a woman, however, does not mean that one has to become a man…For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man.”

(Wittig, p.13, 1992)

This beautifully put quote from Wittig further emphasizes that things are not just black and white. It was never about being just either a female or a male. There is a wider spectrum between the male and the female that people have to understand. And the breaking of these black and white definitions goes beyond furthering into the borders of masculinity and femininity. It also involves the refusal of an ideology and an economic and political assertion of power. To deny the dualist stereotype is to deny power to a system that placed dualism as a dominant structure in the first place. This is why the call for a progressive representation, not just in media, is important because it goes beyond dualism and tries its hardest to explore and understand the marginalized communities. But what is, in fact, a progressive representation?

“Instead of psychological complexity, we find predictable types and cardboard role- models. Instead of intellectual depth, we find a political slogan disguised as a narrative. Instead of aesthetic ingenuity, we find a stilted form of social realism. Instead of “accurate” or “positive” images of the gay community, we find an anodyne fantasy of the gay community.”

(Hanson, p.8, 1999)

“I was troubled by a pronounced audience tendency: the desire for something predictable and familiar up there on screen.”

(Rich, xxii, 2013)

As previously mentioned, it is very likely for society to keep falling into the trap of stereotypes, especially because queerness is attached to capitalism because it is linked to what is marketable and what the audience will like. We cannot change the tendency that the audience will want to look for a familiar stereotype or something that they are used to. However, we can try to change that which they are used to. 

“Instead of being politically correct about what we see, we are asked to be politically correct about how we desire.”

(Hanson, p.13, 1999)

We need to examine our own desires as much as we need to examine what is being desired. It is important to call out misrepresentations, but it is equally as important to look into our own tendencies and, therefore, our own standards because, more often than not, these standards are highly influenced by the power in play in the society. A progressive representation is that which is inclusive, therefore, our standards have to be inclusive, as well. All representation matters because, the moment you put people in a box, you oppress them. Queer people, just like any other character in a film, have to be able to be everything, from heroes to villains. Their representation should not be limited only to what is “politically correct” because this is, yet, another definition that may be limiting. When there are limitations, chances are, you remove their possibilities. 

In order to promote inclusivity in forming queer characters in cinema, there has to be enough discourse. Another danger to this is the bias against emotional discourse. Wittig describes it as “the one which says: you do not have the right to speech because your discourse is not scientific and not theoretical“ (Wittig, p.26, 1992). It is, in essence, a wrongfully put assumption that you do not know what you are talking about because of your biological limitations characterized by your emotions. For example, people feel strongly about their sexuality as being queer, but this identity is invalidated by society because they assume that it is based on emotion and not scientific facts. The society nowadays, being in an age of exploration and new discovery is, fortunately, more open to discourse. However, in this discourse, a common mistake is to engage in conversation for the mere purpose of generating yet another definition. Society should stop trying to define. It seeks to get a glimpse of queerness, for example, just so it could be put on a canvas. It’s effort to understand is equated with the effort to produce something marketable and definable. This way, cinema is not progressive in its totality, but performative because, more than trying to market queer, it is also still sanitizing it to fit a certain definition. Current cinema, in this sense, is still a barrier to progressive representation.

Lastly, just as with the argument that nothing is ever natural and that culture prevails, we have internalized everything, including homophobia and biased judgment towards the queer community. We were not born politically correct and incorrect. Rather, it is us who decided which aspects of culture we will allow ourselves to be instilled with. This is why discourse is extremely important. We need to keep talking about these things because they matter in as far as people are actually being oppressed. The moment we stop talking about something, it ceases to matter. So we need to keep discussing progressive representation, especially in the media, which is highly influential. And in doing so, we need to ask the right questions, and not keep questioning the essence of things, seeking to define a scope which is immeasurable in the first place because, at the end of the day, the essence of a person is not what matters, but rather her/his freedom to assume fully the person that s/he is born to be.

References:

  • Creed, B. (1995). Lesbian Bodies: Tribades, Tomboys and Tarts (1st ed.). London: Routledge.
  • Hanson, E. (1999). Introduction. In E. Hanson, Out Takes. Duke University Press.
  • Rich, B. (2013). Introduction. In B. Rich, New Queer Cinema. Duke University Press.
  • Wittig, M. (1992). One is not born a woman, The Straight Mind. In M. Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Beacon Press.
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Film 270 Post

Week 9: A Question of Possession

Let’s get a bit personal. When I was a child, I was introduced into the world of fairytales through the very first Disney princess film that I watched, Cinderella. Young as I was, I automatically fell in love with the idea of having a fairy godmother, wearing pretty dresses, singing with animals and, of course, falling in love with a prince and living happily ever after with him sweeping me off of my feet and into the castle of my dreams. However, as I grew up, my fondness in reading and watching has introduced me to many more versions of Cinderella such as Ella Enchanted and Ever After, which tackled her story in different ways, but with both refusing to portray her as a damsel-in-distress, but a rather independent and strong character. Of course, in my fascination, I eventually ended up discovering some other versions which are very grim and involved sisters cutting off their heels and getting their eyes pecked by birds. Still, I read and read and was fascinated by the different portrayals and versions of the same character throughout different times and cultures. The same is true with my relationship with music. Being a musician, myself, I have always been fond of listening to modern takes of old classic hits. It’s always refreshing to hear an artist cover a song because each take is reflective of different emotions and contexts, making each listening experience unique and new.

As evident with what I have shared so far, I have always been more inclined to focusing on the content rather than who made it. I was always the person in the group who knew the song but not the singer. This tendency of mine made it difficult for me to adjust in my years in secondary school, as well as in college, because higher education demanded a certain fixation on authorship. In every literary lesson, there always had to be prior research and discussion on the author before we proceed to talk about the work. Everything was talked about—from the author’s childhood, career, issues, difficulties, advocacies, down to gossip. And all these were somehow incorporated into the discussion of the work as an effort to “contextualize” it. This led me to my understanding that the need to always look for and get to know the author was a staple item in the process of the analysis of art. With this, I have identified four main reasons as to why there is such a need in the first place.

First, and probably the most relevant reason nowadays, is the demand for accountability. We live in a fortunate time where change is being proactively pushed for. To state an example in the context of cinema, early films have always been about strong masculine characters saving damsels-in-distress. Female characters have always been subjected to the male gaze, and their primary purpose in a film is to supply the sexual visual needs of the dominantly male audience. Back then, white actors painting their faces black to portray African or Asian characters was totally acceptable. Stereotyping was the norm, racist and sexist jokes were also funny to the audience, and LGBTQ+ characters were always comedic side roles. Fortunately, the succeeding generations have grown to realize that these portrayals are not accurate, and neither are they okay. “Clearly, the cinema “reproduces” reality” (Comolli & Narboni, p. 755, 1971), and these portrayals unrealistically fail to capture the totality of the human beings they have been trying to show. Instead, they created their own version of reality that was watched by all and, thereby, influenced the actual reality to be shaped accordingly. And now, humanity has been shaken enough to understand how they have been played by what was shown to them all along. This led to anger, frustration and, eventually, the demand for change. 

The primary steps taken in this demand was to call out the continued misrepresentations and, in contrast, to acknowledge those who are doing things rightfully. In the process of calling out, it is understandable that there is a need to identify who is responsible for such work of art. This eventually puts emphasis on the determination of who is accountable for this wrongdoing so that the public could criticize and, somehow, crucify the author. Although some call outs are necessary because this is how the generation of artists will learn from their mistakes, still, there are some call outs that are unnecessary and were only triggered by the “cancel culture”. Nevertheless, such are reflections of a society outraged by the tremendous errors of the past. On a positive note, the same society also looks for the author of a “rightful” piece and glorifies her/him for getting things right. The author is amplified as much as her/his work so that s/he may serve as an example to aspiring and current artists about what the current generation demands for in terms of content. Such process is, indeed, a product of the evolution of society and, with it, the evolution of art.

The second reason for the need to identify a sole author of an artwork is the innate human desire to interpret art. I would like to quote a statement by Susan Sonntag that absolutely agree with,

“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”

(Sonntag, p.4, 1966)

It is very human for us to look for the meaning behind things which we do not understand. Art can be a surreal experience, unique and different to each who views it. Despite the fact that some art aims to mimic reality, realities of the artist still differ from the realities of the viewer. This tension behind realities creates confusion and possible misinterpretation of the work. Naturally, we are scared of what we don’t understand, so we seek comfort in one who can explain things. In the case of art, this pertains to its maker—the author.

“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author “confiding” in us.”

(Barthes, p.313, 1967)

People demand for the explanation when they are aware of the existence of the person who they can demand it from. By pinpointing who is accountable for a work, they seek the affirmation of their interpretations because having a realm of endless possibilities to a story is more frightening than taking a single explanation as it is and moving on. People crave for the gossip, the facts, the ultimate “truth” of the art, and they do not hesitate in identifying the author, cornering her/him, and imposing that it is her/his responsibility to explain the art which s/he enabled them to consume. This desire to interpret ultimately leads to the third reason for seeking the author, which is the people’s urge to criticize.

“When the Author has been found, the text is “explained” — victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic. In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered.”

(Barthes, p.316, 1967)

Back then, when criticism was largely equated to interpretation, the goal was to derive meaning from the work, and the easiest way to do so was to let the artist explain. The reason behind this was most likely because of the urge to verify first the meaning of a work before saying something about it. It was ultimately playing safe to avoid errors in judgment and to form a more concrete opinion based on the established meaning of the work, rather than one’s own interpretation, which is deemed unreliable as compared to the artist’s claim. Once one true interpretation has been established, another objective might be to find loopholes.

“Once we realize that it is the nature of the system to turn the cinema into an instrument of ideology, we can see that the filmmaker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”…Certainly there is such a thing as public demand, but “what the public wants” means “what the dominant ideology wants.””

(Comolli & Narboni, p. 755, 1971)

As a capitalist product, cinema, both consciously and unconsciously, complies to the system it adheres to. In line with criticism is the objective to inspect whether or not the work of art complies (or complies enough) to the standards revolving around the ideology it is bound to. The critic will, not only try to find loopholes in the work’s adherence, but also question the sufficiency of its conformity. The critics are also tasked to determine how the author makes use of the ideology in the work, whether or not s/he tries to oppose or agree with it, and whether the art is a criticism of this ideology or a complete product of it. 

“Every film is political, inasmuch as it is determined by the ideology which produces it.”

(Comolli & Narboni, p. 754, 1971)

“In this sense, the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society.”

(Foucault, p.305, 1969)

Another task of the critic, once provided with the definition and meaning of the art by the author, herself/himself, is to determine the politics of the work. In its purpose of disentangling the work, rather than deciphering it, the critic determines where the art stands in terms of its politics. Whether or not it goes for or against the system, there will always be criticism depending on the standards of those in power. Ultimately, the author will be held accountable for the work’s standpoint in matters that it does not necessarily address, but is obliged to address as per the dominant ideology. 

The final reason for the need to identify a sole author of an artwork is the desire to humanize the work. When a work of art is associated with a singular name, its transcendence is reduced to a humanized entity, thereby making it more accessible to those who wish to grasp it. The artwork, in its full form, is beyond human understanding. When it is (a) accounted for, (b) interpreted, (c) criticized, and thereby (d) humanized, it is reduced to something tangible and ultimately to what it really is—a capitalist product. When the viewers are finally able to take a hold of art, they eventually are inclined to possess it and, finally, co-author it.

“We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

(Barthes, p.316, 1967)

In society’s quest to dwell on the author, I would like to state that it is impossible for a work to have one singular author. There is no such thing. Each person holding a pen, a brush, or a camera has realities which are products of the works that precedes them, as well as the evolution of the society they live in. There are multiple influences in one mind and, therefore, many voices in one text. To give credit to only one voice is to disregard the history of the others. The experience of art is unique to each individual, based on their own personal realities. As a reader, for example, reads a text, s/he reads it and reflects on it based on her/his reality. Therefore, the meaning of the text diverts away possibly from what the “author” originally intended. As the reader unintentionally personalized the text, s/he becomes co-author of the work because, by this time, the work is already her/his own. Art, then, becomes possessed by s/he who digests it, reflects on it, and embodies it. It is rare for art to be taken as it is. Even so, it is still contextualized according to the realities of the readers-turned-co-authors. Ultimately, consumers of art are co-authors because they take the art and make it their own. During this process, the initial “author figure” is aware that s/he must let go of the work because it is not her/his anymore. Art is and has always belonged to everyone. The sooner we realize this, the more likely we can finally focus on giving due appreciation to the power and transcendence that every work of art rightfully deserves.

References:

Barthes, R. (1967). The Death of the Author. Aspen, 313-316.

Comolli, J., & Narboni, P. (1971). Cinema/ldeology/Criticism.Screen121(1), 752-759.

Foucault, M. (1969). What is an Author?. Lecture, Collège de France.