Friday, April 25, 2014

It Is Not Cats Who Are Perverse but the Society in Which They Live

A few days ago, one of my closest friends told me that she and my other friends are concerned that I am becoming a 65 year-old crazy cat lady, and that my obsession with cats has become “pathological.”

Her comment made me realize that, in spite of my constant posting about my cats and their antics, I’ve never written about why my obsession with cats (and, particularly, my own cats) is so deep and intense. I wonder if doing so will illuminate some things about the roles of cats in our lives and our culture. So, I’ve decided to write a lengthy blog entry about it. After all, isn’t that what a 65-year-old crazy cat lady would do?

Exactly a year ago today, my partner J. called me from work to tell me that he’d found two tiny abandoned kittens, a black one and a gray one, on the doorstep of his office, huddling together to keep warm. He and his co-workers put them in a box and brought them to a shelter. The shelter employee said that she would have to euthanize the cats, because their eyes were swollen shut from an infection. They also had upper-respiratory infections. J. and his co-workers then brought them across the street to the vet. When J. put the box down, the gray kitten (who is now called Mel) jumped out of it, terrified, and ran straight into a wall because he couldn’t see. When the doctor reached into the box to pick up the black kitten (now called Stevie), she swatted and hissed at him so vigorously that he got scared and went flying against a shelf in the office. This introduction would tell us everything we'd need to know about their personality types.

The doctor said that, with some TLC and antibiotics, we could nurse the cats back to health and they could live happily as domestic cats. If J. had found them a week or two later, they would have turned feral. J. called me and asked if he could bring them home, so that we could revivify and possibly find a permanent home for them. I immediately said yes since, contrary to popular belief, I was obsessed with cats long before Stevie and Mel entered my life. I’ve always identified with them more than most humans, and even generally unfriendly ones are drawn to me. I think that cats immediately warm up to people who both love their weirdness and respect their boundaries, and I am the same way. 

Strangely, in the months before Stevie and Mel showed up on the doorstep, I had dreamt about cats a lot, and told J. I wanted to think about getting a pair of feline siblings to keep me company while I worked from home. I sometimes think that, like the Children of the Damned or the muses from Xanadu, Stevie and Mel were preparing me for their arrival through telekinetic brainwashing. They have those skills.

I remember looking down at the helpless kittens for the first time when Jason took the towel off of the box. I could tell that they were dangerously adorable, even though their fur was dirty and unhealthy, their eyes emanated green goo, and their faces were covered with crust. They were terrified of the gigantic monsters who had kidnapped them. Whenever one of us reached into the box to make contact with them, they’d hiss, but no noise would come out of their tiny throats. 

This, I think, is an important root of my obsession: They were terrified of us. They didn’t want us to touch or come near them. Gradually winning the trust, confidence, and love of these tiny, helpless creatures who had no reason to warm to any human was one of the most profound experiences of my life. As somebody who once hissed when touched—at least on an emotional level—again, I understood their experience. I think they knew.

I recently read a blog by a new mother about whether or not to show baby photos on the internet. She said, “I’d certainly rather look at pictures of babies than of cats.” I’m pretty sure that this is a common comparison, and a commonly held value system. I don’t—I really don’t—understand why cats are considered less worthy as the children of humans. I would find the notion that they are more worthy as the children of humans offensive, but I find the notion that they are less worthy as the children of humans unfair. How are feline children and human children different? Cats don’t grow beyond infant size. They are covered in fur. I suppose that they’re less intelligent, at least according to human standards of intelligence. They are likely to die before us, and will not be there for us when we’re old (something that does disturb me endlessly). Although I don’t have evidence to back this up, I suspect that the biggest reason that cats are invalidated as children is because they’re non-verbal, so they allegedly can’t communicate with us in any kind of nuanced way.

At the same time, cats and human children both need to be nurtured and loved in order to grow. Cats and humans both look at you adoringly because they know that you are their guardian. Cats and humans both absorb the characteristics of their guardians and emulate the family dynamics in their home (trust me, they do). Different cats have different relationships with each parent. As for verbal communication, I talk all the damned time. I have actually profoundly valued having the opportunity to learn to communicate non-verbally with my cats.

And if you say that I am projecting their personalities and responses onto them, then I say that you are totally wrong.

I often think that cats are de-valued in our society because they’re queer. I don’t mean queer as in homosexual, although that happens. I mean queer as in “disrupting the norms of society in ways that are disturbing to the majority of people.” Cats take more flack than dogs because dogs aim to please people. It’s like they all saw It’s A Wonderful Life and learned that all would be well if as many people as possible liked them. Cats, like me, would probably view It’s A Wonderful Life as toxic propaganda promoting co-dependency and excessive self-sacrifice.

Cats take care of themselves before taking care of others. They violate our society’s cultural hierarchy, which insists that the more helpless should take care of the dominant. I think it’s admirable. Inspiring.

Dogs jump around athletically and often try to engage with people, even strangers. I love dogs. I really love them. And I don’t mean it as a criticism when I say that most of the ones I’ve met seem to belong in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Babies slowly learn to walk and engage like their parents. Unless they in some way grow up different...queer.

Mel walks around like Pepper LaBeija.

Stevie slinks like the love child of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Lena Horne in Cabin in the Sky. She schemes like them, too. 

Queer. Socially disruptive. Evil? Misunderstood. Punk. Independent. Groundbreaking. Captivating. I think a lot of people don’t get it. The rest of us are the lucky ones.

I know that this is a totally crazy cat lady thing to say. But I find it hard to imagine that anybody wouldn’t be obsessed with these creatures. If you spend as much time observing cats as I do (since I work from home, and since I am fascinated by the behavior of all living things), it’s impossible not to be enthralled by their crazy dynamics and the sometimes inexplicable but definitely conscious decisions that they make. Why does Mel sometimes ONLY, repeatedly bring his fetched soccer ball to J., even if I’m the one who keeps throwing it? Why does he switch the dynamic another day?

Is Stevie purposefully disappearing and hiding every night before J. and I go to bed, because she knows that one of us will go looking for her to make sure that we didn’t accidentally lock her in the closet, and it will give her an extra opportunity to appear out of nowhere, run into the "off limits" bedroom, and hide in the closet?

Then, of course, there’s the love and support that they give to those who earn it. I can never lie on the couch and watch TV without Stevie insisting that I spoon her. As somebody who secretly craves a lot of validation and affection, it satisfies me emotionally that she always wants to climb on me, receive affection from me, and “mark” me as territory by rubbing her head on me. I both get annoyed by and adore the fact that if I don’t pay attention to her within one minute of her entering the room I’m in, she meows. Once, when a visiting friend started crying over a recent breakup, Stevie rushed over to comfort her.

Nothing feels better than Mel plopping down on my lap to watch a movie when I’m wearing his favored pajamas (I admit that he's likely to ignore me if I'm not). He sits enraptured during old, Technicolor musicals and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. He hates, HATES the MGM lion, the Poltergeist movies, and Madonna’s recent concerts. He prefers J. Crew quality flannel.

"They're back."

There is watching them grow bigger, and seeing their personalities and relationships to me, J., and each other change. Nothing has made me so aware of the passage of time, and it both excites and terrifies me. I think that this is exactly what parents of humans experience.

So if I am a Crazy Cat Lady, I celebrate it. You can send me to the guidance counselor. It would not be the first time.

The queer beings on this planet must stick together and take care of one another, be obsessed with one another. And I will never stop being obsessed with my cats, no matter how socially unacceptable it may seem, because I am happily addicted to the brain chemicals released by all of that love.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Talking Back to the Screen: A Brief History of LGBTQ Activism and the Movies

William Friedkin's Cruising (1980) has garnered a notorious reputation, largely because of the national protests by LGBTQ activists that it inspired during its production and release. However, while the protests that surrounded Cruising were the first to get widespread attention from mainstream (or, in other words, non-LGBTQ) people, they were only the most highly publicized examples of LGBTQ activist engagement with mainstream Hollywood films, which began at least a decade earlier.

Beginning in the early 1970s, movies and other media became part of LGBTQ activism in three ways: 1) Activist organizations used community film screenings to gain numbers, and help lesbian and gay people develop a more subversive understanding of mainstream media. 2)  The writing of lesbian and gay film history was part of ongoing efforts, on the part of activist-academics, to establish lesbian and gay histories and, at the same time, help lesbian and gay people better understand their institutional oppression. 3) Large lesbian and gay protests of films that “negatively represented” the community were major, highly publicized venues of LGBTQ activism in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Movies and popular culture became important parts of queer activism shortly after such activism became widespread after Stonewall. Stonewall was a major political uproar that took place outside of a gay bar (The Stonewall Inn) in 1969.  After police raided the bar and began arresting its patrons (a regular occurrence at the time), they were surprised when the patrons fought back and protested.  The Stonewall riots, which lasted for several nights and received a great deal of media attention, are thought of as a watershed moment for LGBTQ political activism.

Vito Russo, a gay New Yorker who was intensely devoted to gay activism and to movies, was largely responsible for bringing the two together in the early 1970s.  

Russo was a member of The Gay Activists Alliance, one of the major activist groups of the 1970s.  GAA believed that, in order to create strength in numbers, they needed to make their organization a social group in addition to a political group. In their central headquarters, a firehouse in New York, they held very popular dances and performances by LGBTQ artists. 

Russo added public screenings of Hollywood movies to the calendar of social events. He argued that, in order to politicize as many lesbian and gay people as possible, the GAA needed to create a safe environment for them where they could meet people and have fun. In doing this, he hoped to attract the “timid” and “non-political”.

Russo would show early movies that represented lesbian and gay people, like The Children’s Hour (1962), starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as schoolteachers accused of lesbianism.

He also showed more independent, politically oriented gay films like Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), a documentary about a black, gay hustler:

And Rosa Von Prauheim’s controversial It Is Not the Homosexual That Is Perverse But the Society in Which He Lives (1971).  He could not leave out programming that didn't overtly represent queerness, but that had a large queer following, like Barbra Streisand’s 1960s television specials, Calamity Jane (1953), and Judy Garland movies. 

After the program, Russo would lead discussions about the programs and what they meant to the LGBTQ audiences in attendance. Watching and discussing films became another form of consciousness raising. Russo believed that films could allow people to process their oppression and experiences, and experience the ecstasy of liberation, in a more direct way. 

Just as importantly, these screenings empowered people by allowing them to experience movie-going as their straight counterparts had for many years.  Suddenly, a woman could go to a movie and hold hands with her girlfriend. A couple of guys could make out in the back row.  In the great book Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo, Michael Schiavi beautifully illustrates what these screenings were like.

“The Flicks were designed for people like Fred Goldhaber, a closeted twenty-four year old teacher who attended Vito’s Halloween 1971 double feature, Village of the Damned (1960) and Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Fred was dragged to the Firehouse by GAA member Steve Ashkinazy, who wanted to give his friend a sink-or-swim introduction to gay culture.  As Village began, the audience responded with happy fright: they would, Fred recalled, ‘shriek and turn to the person on the left or the right and they would hug and hide their eyes in the other person’s armpits, and it was simply wonderful. It was so much fun, and I found myself doing it, too. I lost all my inhibitions. It was hypnotic, intoxicating, just glorious. I had never in my life experienced such freedom.' Fred laughed along with everyone else when a lesbian yelled at Night’s flesh-eating zombies, 'Save me a breast!'…[He said] 'At that moment I became a soldier in the army of the gay rights movement.'” (100)

"Save me a breast!"

Although many people found these screenings deeply satisfying and politically stimulating, they were not wholly edenic and without division. Lesbians, for example, sometimes complained that they were underrepresented in the films Russo chose, and the audiences that attended them. Russo did, however, make an effort to diversify his programming: a good example of how subgroups within the community could come together to create positive change when they communicated. Similarly, certain gay men complained that Russo’s promotion of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and campy movies went against the ideals of promoting gay male masculinity.  

In the late 1970s, Russo began conducting more formal research in an effort to write the first major history of gay men and lesbians in mostly Hollywood films. The resulting book, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (first published in 1984), became a contribution to the body of academic writing on LGBTQ film that was just beginning to spring up at that time. However, I’d like to emphasize that Russo's researching, writing, and publishing of the book constituted a large part of his activism.  

It’s important to note that a written history of lesbian and gay American film was completely non-existent when the book was published. Russo spent hundreds of hours watching films and poring through archives looking for hints of queerness in movies from the silent era to the 1960s, many of which had been all but lost. His insistence upon a queer film history remains politically important. In many American film history survey classes, and survey books on the subject, there is a tendency—intentional or unintentional—to overlook LGBTQ film history, even now.

Furthermore, I consider The Celluloid Closet to be activism because it’s written like a manifesto.  Even though Russo loved movies, its tone is angry. Russo hoped to make his readers aware that mainstream film was another institution, like the government, the nuclear family, and the mental health industry, that contributed to the oppression of LGBTQ people by representing them in offensive or indirect ways, or by not representing them at all. The Celluloid Closet is, in a sense, a call to action. His call to action worked.

I think that when a lot of people hear “activism” they think of “protests.” The gay liberation movement, largely because of Russo’s efforts through public screenings and his book, made LGBT people aware of Hollywood’s ability to oppress them with its films. As a result, they took to the streets.

In 1970, the film The Boys in the Band (based on the hit play by Mart Crowley and directed by William Friedkin, who would later direct Cruising) was released. The film, about a bunch of gay men gathering for a friend’s birthday party, was the first mainstream movie featuring an all gay male cast of characters. Many activists found the film’s characters to be self-hating stereotypes, so they picketed outside theaters showing the film, and distributed gay liberation pamphlets.

However, LGBTQ protests against films received the most controversy and attention, and a watershed moment, in 1980 with United Artists’ release of Friedkin’s Cruising.  

Cruising was a major Hollywood film, starring Al Pacino, about a cop who goes undercover in New York’s leather community to find a serial killer of gay men.  In the end, the killer is revealed to be a self-hating gay man himself.  Furthermore, the movie ambiguously suggests that Pacino’s character becomes a gay killer after spending time in the leather community. Gay activists were not happy. 

Arthur Bell, a popular Village Voice columnist, found out about the film before it went into production on location in New York City.  He urged activists to do everything they could to interfere with the film’s production and give its makers “a terrible time.”  Activists complied.  

Hundreds of protesters made so much noise during filming that the film’s entire soundtrack had to be re-recorded in post-production. People would go up on rooftops with big mirrors reflecting the sun to screw up the film’s lighting.  At one point, there were so many activists crowding the locations that Al Pacino had to be escorted to his car through two human walls of police officers.  Later, when the film was released, activists protested outside theaters where it was being shown.

Again, the activism against Cruising raised some divisiveness in the community. Activists protesting Cruising were pre-dominantly upset about two things: 1) That it made connections between gay men, pathology, and murder—a common Hollywood trope; 2) It suggested to audiences that gay S and M leather sex was “the gay community.” Leather men played themselves in the film, and participated in some extreme forms of gay sex. They felt that, through their protests, assimilationist gay activists were denouncing them. Other members of the LGBTQ community felt that, by trying to shut down the film's production, activists were participating in censorship.

On a more positive note, the protests of Cruising were tremendously influential and, in many ways, effective. In the 1980s and 1990s, gay activists continued launching major protests against films like Basic Instinct (1992), about a decadent bisexual killer, and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which features a grotesque killer who activists argued was characterized as transgender.  

Basic Instinct (1992)
Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The documentary Blonde Poison: The Making of 'Basic Instinct' (2001, Jeffrey Schwartz) contains great footage and discussion of the protests that surrounded the film, and really brings this activism to life. This footage begins at the 5:00 mark in the first YouTube video below, and continues into the second:

These protests brought the issue of LGBTQ media representation (and misrepresentation) considerable mainstream attention, and I do think that they contributed to the wider variety of mainstream representations of LGBTQ people that we see today.  Some would probably argue that it would be nice if we didn't see gay killers as a recurring trope in films anymore, but if you saw Skyfall, the 2012 James Bond movie, you know that that’s not the case.  

However, it's important to note that Javier Bardem’s villainous character wasn’t presented as a killer because he was gay, and that’s progress.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

My response to "What Should Happen to Woody Allen?" by Leonard Jacobs

Thank you so much for writing this important article:

As somebody who (in this situation) feels something of an investment in both Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow for different reasons, and who does not think that any of us have enough knowledge to definitively “take a side” at this point (unless it’s the side of two people embroiled in very tragic and maddening circumstances), here is what I want.

1) If Woody Allen abused Dylan Farrow, I want him to admit it publicly, to publicly validate her claims, and to apologize to her. Because if she was abused by Allen, it must feel terrible to have your traumatic experiences publicly invalidated constantly in various ways, from all of the honors that go to Woody, to people saying that Dylan’s letter is “over-dramatic” and “bitchy,” that her memories are “false,” and that she is the victim of her mother’s anger at Woody Allen. I want this to happen both for Dylan’s sake, and because–if Woody Allen did abuse Dylan–his admission would be a very public counteraction of a trend in our society in which people sweep abuse under the rug and side with the perpetrator.

2) I don’t believe that Dylan came up with these memories out of nowhere. I just don’t believe that people make up sexual abuse histories out of nowhere. If her memories are, indeed, false (and I will be frank, I think that the notion of “false” or “implanted” memories is really problematic, and maybe impossible), then I suspect that Mia Farrow, or litigators, or *somebody* other than Woody Allen, knows that he did not abuse Dylan, and I would like for them to admit it publicly and apologize to both Dylan and Woody Allen. Because if Woody Allen is innocent, then it must be horrible to live with having these accusations made against you all the time. And, selfishly, I would like to be able to watch some of my most beloved, comforting movies of all time without feeling disgust. Without having to question whether I should feel disgust.

3) If Woody Allen did not abuse her, but Dylan Farrow believes he abused her, then I hope that somehow, they can both find peace–publicly or not.

4) If the situation is going to remain ambiguous forever, and if nobody other than Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow know what happened, and if Dylan Farrow’s memories of abuse might be real or might have formed out of nowhere, then what can I want to happen? What can happen? I guess if that is the situation, I hope that Woody Allen is not guilty, and I still hope that eventually he and Dylan Farrow can find peace.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

On Woody Allen and being horrified by the artists who we need.

Today Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter for The New York Times blog about her alleged sexual abuse by Woody Allen:

Much of my work is devoted to the idea that sexual abuse needs to not be swept under the rug. Especially because there are powerful social structures in place that want to sweep it under the rug, badly, and they usually succeed. Especially when a beloved man is the perpetrator.

I almost lost my mind over the Penn state scandal. So it's basically torture for me to be aware of myself not wanting to believe Dylan Farrow, wanting to look away, wanting to rationalize, wanting to think that somebody made her lie. Because I love and value Woody Allen's work so much. Because it speaks to me and makes me so happy. Because I've looked up to him as a writer and director. I feel like I need his work. It's easy for me to fiercely bitch about people overlooking the rape of boys because of sports, which I hate anyway. To call for change. But what about when the question arises about one of my five favorite filmmakers?

The Soon-Yi situation always struck me as pretty tasteless and offensive but also, in the end, consensual. This--which I guess I was too young to know about when the Woody/Mia scandal went down--is something else. I always make the choice to believe somebody who claims that she was sexually abused over a perpetrator and the endless powerful people who take his side and who want to invalidate what happened. I don't think that most people lie about being abused, no matter what certain mainstream discourse would like us to think. Most people don't *want* that shame and stigma. I read this open letter and it all rings true.

People defensively say that you need to separate a man from his work. I've done it with Roman Polanski who, ironically, understands the subjective experience of sexual trauma more than practically any mainstream filmmaker I can think of. But honestly, I don't know if it's right. I think it's an easy knee-jerk reaction because me need their work, like sports fans need to worship their coaches. I think that loving these filmmakers and buying their films does probably make me somewhat complicit in a system that I absolutely abhor, and that I've done a fair amount to work towards destroying.

It all breaks my heart. It really, really, really breaks my heart.