Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/05/2010

Mulholland Drive, Midnight Cowboy, and Gay Boys’ Suicides

on Mulholland Drive

on Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive is, as every reviewer and academic film wag in the country knows, a complex, complicated, indecipherable, post-modern (or is it post post-modern) filmic questioning of either the film industry or all of life. In short, like the film industry and all of life, it’s nearly impossible to figure out. Except for one scene. In that scene Naomi Watts and Laura Harring not only take off all their clothes, but they touch each other. Yes, they have sex. It is, however, a rare dignified and tender moment in the film. That’s due in large part to the beauty of the two women and the care with which the scene is filmed.

My students’ next assignment is to write an essay arguing that Mulholland Drive either does or does not fall into the category of the “grotesque” as defined by Flannery O’Connor in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (1). They’ll sidestep altogether the questions of post-post-modernity and obscenity and use the film to try to do some critical thinking—almost simply for the sake of doing some critical thinking. That will necessitate thinking about the sex scene. At least one of my friends is shocked that I used the film in class.

Soon after I took college English courses, an X-rated movie won the Oscar for Best Picture. Midnight Cowboy is a love story. A story about two men who come to love each other. Not sexually, but as friends who learn to face the rotten world of the ‘60s together. One of the men is a prostitute. The movie has no full-frontal nude scenes, and the prostitute’s sex encounters are suggested by bare butts and shots of (presumably) naked people from the waist up. There’s quite a lot of dialogue about prostitution, but nothing in the movie would raise an eyebrow very far these days.

A gay friend told me last night that punishing the Rutgers University student whose incredibly cruel act led to the suicide of his roommate last week would have to be done with great care. The brains of people (especially males) his age are not fully developed, so, my friend said, they do not have ability to think through the consequences of their actions as mature persons.

If my students can think critically enough to find a connection between Flannery O’Connor and David Lynch, two university students can predict a connection between their own cruel and ego-maniacal behavior and the suicide of a gay boy.

There is no excuse. Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei—whether their prefrontal cortexes are fully developed or not—are 100% responsible for their own behavior. I don’t know—and neither does anyone else at this point—if they are guilty of a crime. If they are, immaturity is no defense. At the age of most college students, the limbic system (which controls emotional responses) may well be further developed than the prefrontal cortex, but college students I know are able to use the “control center for thinking ahead and sizing up risks and rewards” (2). Violence is avoidable. Especially violence that seems to be only a prank, only a joke about the acculturation of another student.

I am sick unto death of the argument (and I do not mean “argument” in the classic rhetorical sense) about whether or not homosexuality is moral, or condemned by the Bible, or genetic, or . . . I’ve been listening to those arguments (and once in awhile when I can’t resist being pulled in, participating in them) all of my life. Ad nauseum. Without ceasing. Forever and ever. I have one observation that’s so common place I shouldn’t embarrass myself by saying it: most of this argument revolves around religion or around the cultural mores most often associated with religion. It almost seems that the more religious a person is, the more she is obsessed with sex—and with preserving the culture supposedly based on that religion.

One might think that the underlying religious and cultural warrant of the endless discussion of homosexuality has changed (or has at least begun to change). After all, we’ve come a long way from the Ellen DeGeneres is-she-or-isn’t-she sitcom character to the gay family unit (including adopted child) in “Modern Family.” Six states now allow gay marriage. Several of the national “mainline” churches ordain gay clergy, and one—the Episcopal Church—has one gay and one lesbian bishop. Some of these churches “bless” gay unions. (However, I can find no evidence that any of these churches will, in fact, allow church marriages for same-sex couples, even in the states where gay marriage is legal.)

Cowboy and friend

Cowboy and friend

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Why, then, did four gay high school and college students commit suicide last week?

It seems to me that our very use of language is the problem. This is not the place (nor have I the capability) to discuss the language theories of the last twenty or thirty years. The interested reader can find the work of Lacan, Barthes, Irigaray, Foucault, Lyotard, Spivak and the like and read on her own.

The problem is much simpler than the fascinating and challenging academic/philosophical thinking of rhetoricians. The problem is that we have yet to find a way to end the “linguistic violence” inherent in naming gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons in a way that sets us apart. We are so acculturated to finding and naming the “other” that we believe it is part of our nature. We name the “other” by race, by nationality, by religion, by hair color, and by every difference we can find between/among ourselves.

Naming those of us who are sexually attracted to persons of our own sex with descriptive words denoting difference already, a priori, sets us apart. Verbal removal from the norm of society is already a violent act. We use direct violence, that is, calling an individual a name like “faggot;” we use structural violence, that is, creating public policies such as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; and we use cultural violence, that is, the combination of the two. All of these separate us from the norm because

Direct linguistic violence is an event. . . structural linguistic violence is a process with ups and downs. . .and cultural linguistic violence is an invariant, having a “permanence” that remains essentially the same for long periods, because of the slow transformations of basic culture. (3)

Our use of the language of separation must, in some inconceivably distant future, change—all language of separation, racial, sexual, religious, cultural, all separation. Those of us whose sexual attraction is for members of our own sex would be better off if the word “homosexual” had not been coined in 1869. Imagine a world in which persons attracted to members of their own sex could not be singled out as “homosexual.”

I have made a conscious effort not to use the words “lesbian” or “gay” or “homosexual” in class discussions of Mulholland Drive. The students refer to the “love scene” without modifying it with any pejorative adjective. Whereas even the innuendo of sex between two men gave the best movie of 1969 an “X” rating, it is possible—it is—to discuss a movie sex scene between two members of the same sex without any judgment .

Before homosexuality

Before homosexuality

I have no clue how to bring about the “slow transformations of basic culture” except one college writing class at a time. This is the work of our entire civilization. Over millennia. A basic change in all of society of such enormity that even calling attention to the need is ridiculous.

That unfortunately means many more gay boys will most likely commit suicide.
(1) O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962, 36-50.
(2) “Teens and Decision Making: What Brain Science Reveals.” Scholastic Choices 23.6 (2008): 24-26.
(3) Galtung, Johan. “Cultural Violence.” Journal of Peace Research 27.3 (1990): 291-305. Quoted in: Staples. Jeanine M. “Encouraging agitations: teach teacher candidates to confront words that wound.” Teacher Education Quarterly 37.1 (2010): 53.


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