The Suspension of Heterosexual Belief (1 of 3)
Part one of three of my review of Spanked
I’m reading erotica and watching porn differently these days. For years – since before I came out – I’ve been an, uh, active reader of erotica and smut collections, with almost exclusively lesbian content.
Lately I’ve had the opportunity to review various things through this site, things I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up, like Crossdressing and Chemistry 3. Books and films which include various orientations; straight, bi, gay men, lesbians, threesomes.
In the past, I would probably not have even considered reading these collections or watching these films. My brain would think, ewwww, flesh-and-blood penises. That’s the “ick factor” right there (more on that in part two). But since I was doing it for research, and for review, I figured I’d give it a go … and it turns out that some of it really turned me on. Sometimes completely unexpectedly.
That was a bit uncomfortable for me, really.
It wasn’t until I read Kate Bornstein’s excellent article on the film WALL-E that I placed it: especially with erotica, I am able to suspend my reading of biological sex and only read gender. Male pronouns and male body parts don’t bother me, even though my orientation is pretty strictly lesbian, because I can get so deeply into the play of gender, I can “suspend heterosexual belief.”
Back to that in a moment. First, more about the film WALL-E and Kate’s (did I say brilliant? brilliant!) analysis of gender presentation, WALL-E: A Butch/Femme Love Story … or, Silly Rabbit! Robots Have No Gender.
… [A] pair of lesbian robots who fall madly in love with each other. WALL•E is nothing short of hot, dyke Sci Fi action romance, some seven hundred years in the future! Woo-hoo! Isn’t that what you saw? No? What movie were you watching? Did you see a heterosexual boy robot fall in love with a heterosexual girl robot? I did… at first. [...] [W]hen I first saw the film, I saw a boy robot and girl robot. My question is this: how and why did most of us jump to that conclusion?
Kate goes on to examine the different ways that we determine both “biological” sex and the robot’s heterosexuality:
Is it because of their names? … both names are acronyms for each robot’s prime directive and function. Nothing to do with boy or girl there. … Is it simply by looking at the robots, we can tell? … We’ve got no way to spot those robots as male or female by using secondary sex characteristics. … neither robot has a DNA strand, so there is no way to type them by XX or XY. … Barring hormones – which I didn’t get a whiff of during the entire film – that just about exhausts the physiological basis for determining gender.
Examining some of the ways that we determine sex and orientation – hormones, chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics. And there’s the whole obsession with Hello, Dolly as the only model WALL-E has for romance; it is a campy presentation of sweet courtship, and a classic musical.
So, Kate keeps asking, what is it that is tipping us off? How can they be portraying these very human, very gendered, characteristics, yet still be robots?
Pixar and Disney … knew we’d see WALL•E as boy and EVE as girl. Both of ‘em are gosh-darned CUTE, right? Oh, come on. You know they’re SO adorable, right? How can they be that in nearly everyone’s eyes… gay or straight? I think the answer is that we shift our mind’s criteria for gender when we watch a film or listen to a love song or read a novel. We all blithely switch genders in our minds, the better to identify with the vocalist or character. [Emphasis added]
This is the genius part, in case you missed it. This is the part in the article where I exclaimed aloud, “Dammit, why didn’t I write this!”
There are, sometimes, and especially in art – love songs, films, novels – things that trump gender. When art begins speaking the language of emotion, that can transcend orientation or gender presentation and instead we just get the character’s attraction to each other, their courtship, their surges of emotion and desire for connection. I think this may be especially true for queers, who often do not see ourselves represented in popular media, so we learn to “suspend heterosexual belief” and instead see only the presentation and language of gender.
Kate gives some examples of other media – a Tegan & Sara song, Marlene Dietrich, Justin Bond. But wait, Kate’s not done:
Gender ambiguity — when it’s safely positioned onstage or up on a movie screen — is and always has been sexy to damn near all of us, no matter what our gender might be. … What is it that’s signaling sexual attraction to an audience with such a wide range of gender identities and sexual desires? I think the answer is that WALL•E is butch, and EVE is femme, two genders defined by the expression of strong, respectful, sexual desire.
I just love butch/femme as “the expression of strong, respectful, sexual desire.” That’s beautiful.
Butch and Femme are sexy dance steps with unlimited variations. Butch is gallant, femme is gracious. Butch is hail and hardy, femme has wicked cool wiles. Butch is handsome. Femme is pretty. Butch/Femme is all about relating to each other like ladies and gentlemen—no matter our genitals. … Butches can be dominant or submissive, strong or weak, honorable, or complete rats. So can Femmes. Butch and Femme have nothing to do with who makes more money. … There’s no perfection in the dance, there’s only the totality of self-expression and how that self-expression dovetails with someone else’s self-expression.
Yes, EVE is pertly streamlined. EVE’s eyes literally sparkle and dance. EVE giggles, for heaven’s sake. EVE is kick-ass strong and powerful. EVE is performing Femme. WALL•E is rugged and protective and shy and loyal. WALL•E is a sensitive little thing, held together by sheer will and rubber bands. WALL•E is performing Butch.
… And this is the part that gets me teary. I love that butch is a “sensitive little thing, held together by sheer will and rubber bands.” and that femme is kick-ass strong with sparkly eyes. Oh if someone had given me that possible explanation years ago!
Once we begin to look at the characters as Butch and Femme — not male and female — we can assign to them any gender we like. Sure, the film can be about a boy robot and a girl robot. But how about EVE as a sweet femme boy robot, like performer/chanteuse extraordinaire, Justin Bond. And WALL•E is a sweet butch girl robot, with a heart of solid gold, like performer/chanteuse extraordinaire Lea Delaria?
How freakin great is that! I love this way of analyzing popular media. Kate writes, “You’re the audience. You get to decide.” and goes on to mention a few other Disney films – Mu-lan, Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid. I took a “Feminist Interpretations of Disney” class as a gender studies undergrad, I have watched these films and examined the gender in them in depth.
But I’ve never thought about it like this. And I love it. (Writing through this has made me really want to see WALL-E, and some of those others, again.)
As someone who has a background in academic gender studies and feminist theory, I do take a certain amount of pleasure in the reading of texts like Disney films as reproducing the heteronormative, gendernormative binary, so in some ways revisioning media this way makes me skeptical. I don’t think the critical analysis should be discounted entirely, especially when it has such an affect on girls (this calls to mind the Princess Collection and discussions with feminist/progressive parents of little girls who are close to disgusted in their daughter’s obsession with princesses). But I do think it’s another fascinating way to look at popular media through the lens of gender presentation and expression.
So: that’s how a little love story about two robots can be read as butch/femme. And that’s how we can – and already do – suspend heterosexual belief when consuming popular media.
But when we’re talking about representations within the sex industry … written erotica, visual porn, or any smut, there tends to be the aspect of sexual anatomy. And for queers especially, it seems, the reality of a wet vagina for gay boys or hard penis – or, worse, a coming penis – for the lesbians actually grosses us out. It’s much harder to suspend heterosexual belief when the physicality of the different biological sexes is so prevalent – and, indeed, part of the point.
What is this ick factor? How does it work, and how does it affect us? Also, how do we get over it?
That’s part two, coming tomorrow.