All About Praxis

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Part 1: Queer Rhetoric and the Therapy of Watching Movies

Judith Halberstam, in “Shame and White Gay Masculinity,” her response to the University of Michigan’s 2003 conference at the University of Michigan on Gay Shame, worried about the potentiality for projecting that shame in other, identity-based ways (her article particularly concerned around race).  Certainly Michael Warner anticipated this in The Trouble With Normal when he posited that the usual response is to take our shame and “pin it on someone else.”[1]  The recent volume Gay Shame (edited by David Halperin and Valerie Traub), which collects essays from and related to that same 2003 conference, nicely unpacks, from a variety of perspectives, the ways in which shame has been reclaimed in the gay academic vernacular, such as Ellis Hanson’s self-questioning plea in “Teaching Shame”: “Can I be affirming about my shame?  Can I find it beautiful?  Can I teach it?  Would I be good at it?  Shame is at once elusive and ubiquitous.”[2]  This essay endeavors to depict an alternate path in which the shame of homosexuality—so commonplace in depictions of homosexuals prior to the Gay 1990s—has been reclaimed: by the communities and created families of homosexuals in the decades since Stonewall who have developed their own coping and curative mechanisms.  Conscious of the warnings of Halberstam and Warner, and thinking about the ways shame can be discursive and hidden, per Hanson, we should hearken to Jose Muñoz, in Disidentifications, when he reminded us that “Minoritarian subjects need to interface with different subcultural fields to activate their own sense of self.”[3]  One such possible cultural space is the cinema, and this essay endeavors to articulate the ways in which a minority group (in this case, gay men) can use that cultural space to create (re-)generative space to circulate shame into new, remediated purpose.  Through an exploration of the psychological work of Silvan Tomkins, Christopher Bollas, and D.W. Winnicott, we’ll see ways of incorporating traditional psychological tropes into nontraditional “therapy.”  Whether a community can collectively reclaim shame seems much in debate;  certainly Judith Halberstam’s response to the Gay Shame conference would indicate a preponderance of concern about identity politics, and Leo Bersani’s own declaration during the conference, reprinted in the Gay Shame volume, notes that “a conference on gay shame risks becoming yet another occasion for gay self-congratulation…you would never have known from the combination of political correctness and infighting that has largely characterized today’s events that psychoanalysis exists.”[4]  Nonetheless, this essay posits that we must consider individuated ways of remedying the potentially crippling effects of gay shame, and uses the notion of creating satisfying play space through a celebratory script that is effected in the simple act of watching a movie in safe, communal spaces that creates individual therapeutic space (while concomitantly a joyful movie-watching experience).

The film All About Eve is widely considered a classic: Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is a waif on the street who becomes the dresser of aging stage star Margo Channing.  By film’s end, she has become a star herself, using and abusing those who took her in.  It has been venerated by film critics and gay men alike for its smart, scathing script about show business and human nature, and its delirious one-liners (most famously, “Fasten your seatbelts!  It’s going to be a bumpy night”).  The film has even inspired a tell-all book specifically catered to the camp value to gay men: All About All About Eve is Sam Staggs’s richly detailed feast of information on the classic film—chock full of pithy and bitchy anecdotes about Baxter, the feisty Celeste Holm (who played the loyal Karen, and who hangs up on Staggs when he requests an interview),[5] famed writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz, designer Edith Head (responsible for at least one legendary off-the-shoulder party gown), the young and nubile Marilyn Monroe (as “a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art”), and the star turn of Bette Davis as Margo Channing.  Staggs’s tome is particularly worthwhile for his willingness to make the potentially grandiose claims that the audiences of the film (and presumably, his book) were vanguard gay men “who have ‘read’ the film as though it beamed a limelight into the closet of their hearts.”[6]  Staggs anticipates criticism of his specifically gay critique by inviting “ironic skepticism” and “loud debate” before launching into a laundry list of the ways gay men over the last fifty years could relate to the film.  Margo: the clone of Bette Davis?  Check.  Margo: the caricature of female impersonation or drag queen impersonation?  Check.  Margo: the exemplum of the perfect life (big city glamour, money, and devotion)?  Check.  Glamour, wit, bitchery?  Check, check, check.  Although the image of the queen doing a “Bette Davis” impression is a staple of 1970s sitcoms and films, played for laughs, it’s a performance that has, in its repetitions and duplications, yielded a different fruit for queer subjects: the formations of community, reparation, and the repurposing and potential eliminations of shame.

Staggs’s examination of the gay fascination with the film culminates with an extended replication of conversations held by his friends after a viewing of the film.  Rather than confirming one, universalizing gay subject position for responding, the five or six men in his forum discuss and comment on a variety of topics—from the humdrum musings on Margo’s earrings and sly bon mots on Bette Davis’s shoe size and chain-smoking to more serious commentary on Margo’s aging and how it mirrors their own aging process (and, similar to Hollywood’s unforgiving attitudes towards aging actresses, the communal distaste for aging among gay men).  This otherwise unremarkable colloquy reveals a variety of subject positions and concerns regarding the film, and each uses it for his own personal values, often un-dramatic. We all use the film in some way or another: as political, or campy, or psychological, or escapist, or introjective.  It’s entirely in the process of recognizing the viewing of the film—as well as the matrix of identifications—as an environment of personal renaissance and reparation that All About Eve takes on a new dimension.  It’s not just a great movie, but therapeutic, too: gay therapy.

All About Eve is not just a site of polysemous identification, but also one of therapeutic genera that can help remediate shame without projecting it onto an “other” group.

In his seminal work Homos, Leo Bersani analyzes Proust’s Sodome et Gormorrhe as a mirror for exploring our own gay communities today.  He admits, “Proust is probably right about the role of great misfortune in coercing gays (like Jews) into solidarity, in making it impossible, or at least momentarily unacceptable, to go unnoticed as part of the general (which of course means heterosexual) population.”[7]  So often these “great misfortunes” have been sketched as crises (such as pre-Stonewall oppression and the spectacle of AIDS) but there is another misfortune which creates gay solidarity: the specter of shame.  It seems facile to term gay men as bearers of shame, but it is certainly apt to consider that many self-avowed gay men have endured some level of rejection (by the self and the other) that could certainly generate the kinds of shame Silvan Tomkins refers to here:  “We have found abundant clinical evidence that…sexual excitement requires an exaggerated shamelessness or power to undo, reverse, and deny the power of the other to evoke shame for one’s own sexuality…[T]he strategy of power means that we must expect that all those who have suffered chronic shame must nurture a deep wish to humiliate the other…”[8]  Certainly shame is tyrannical in matters of sexuality, and the elements of allure in Margo Channing can function as defenses against shame and humiliation (particularly by the other).  Margo Channing—Bette Davis as Margo Channing—provides ample therapeutic space for working out any shame concomitant to homosexuality.  Bitchery, wit, and glamour all have viable defenses against oppressive and repressive forces—particularly when the defenses are collectively shared within a self-constructed community.

Tomkins was a psychologist who primarily worked with script and affect theory, and whose work was given a new audience by an edition (Shame and Her Sisters) co-edited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank.  He described celebratory scripts as scenes of high affect and/or action that must be expressed or communicated, whether social or individual.  It is expressive of wonder or horror, but, salient to our watching All About Eve, it “serves a critical role in the bonding of a group, whether it represents a victory or a defeat, a festivity or a mourning.  It may serve the same function for a dyad in the sharing of remembered experience in a long friendship.”[9]  Tomkins discusses script theory at length in his body of psychological work, but his delineation of the nonnuclear celebratory script is particularly revealing in the context of considering the communal space that views All About Eve.  As a site predisposed to camp, it concomitantly fulfills the “high affect” identification and the script’s particular concerns with aesthetics.  Where nuclear celebratory scripts “tend to be primarily analogic of a nuclear scene long forgotten but kept alive by repetitions… [They] are perennial, more often negative than positive, and proving the same thing over and over” (194), the nonnuclear script we’ve talked about casts aside the negative reinforcements that so many of our personal scripts reify and works, like so many drag queens and practitioners, to reimagine what is previously known in new dimensions.  Whereas many nuclear scripts are ruthlessly cyclical in their destruction and reification of shaming, this nonnuclear celebratory script is a fruitful site of ritual and genera—of creativity and healing.  In the cases of the gay men demonstrated in Staggs’s viewing party, these men have chosen the viewing of the film as a space to create new, dynamic readings—individually and collectively—that cast off repetition and shame, and create new queer rhetorics through identification and performance.   The psychologies that, in the distant past, could often be used to punish and subdue homosexuality have now been repurposed into a fruitful, generative process for these men.

We need places to play—in older psychotherapeutic texts, homosexuality was often a site of trauma, such as Christopher Bollas’s Being a Character, which devotes a chapter to “Cruising in the Homosexual Arena,” yielding the following observation of what he terms a “traumatic scene”: “Although homosexuals suffer the stigma that arises when any group of persons ‘comes out’ of the closet of the internal world to declare their erotic fantasies, they have benefited from a collective thinking-through of the nature of that erotic life and in this respect know a good deal more about themselves than to other sexual groups…”[10]  What seems traumatic (rightly) to Bollas (whose work here is from the 1990s) in his experiences with patients is the mental anguish of marking yourself as Other in the “coming out” process, and while he carefully analyzes the sensuality of cruising without ostensible bias, he fails to consider ameliorative treatments for his patients’ psychological progress; he marks the loci of shame without positing therapeutic options, and certainly he would not anticipated the ways in which shame and the gay community could be complicated by the formulations of Warner, Halberstam, Muñoz, et al.

A contrast to Bollas is in the notion of the “holding environment,” which is implicitly discussed by D.W. Winnicott in Playing and Reality as the space created by the good therapist that allows the patient the freedom to “play” and enact transcendent psychic work.  In discussing the “playing” of a young child, Winnicott, an English pediatrician and psychologist working extensively in the 1940s and 1950s, particular with object relations and play, establishes certain definitions for his use of the term: “The area of playing is not inner psychic reality.  It is outside the individual, but it is not the external world.  Into this play area the child gathers objects or phenomena from external reality and uses these in the service of some sample derived from inner or personal reality…Playing implies trust, and belongs to the potential space between (what was at first) baby and mother-figure…Playing is essentially satisfying.”[11]  The space created by the Tomkinsian notion of the nonnuclear celebratory script in the viewing of All About Eve contemporaneously allows each participant in the viewing to “play” in the holding environment.  This adult deployment of play is consistent with Winnicott’s comments on the locations of cultural experience: “The place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object).  The same can be said of playing.  Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in play.  For every individual the use of this space is determined by life experiences that take place at the early stages of the individual’s existence” (135, author’s emphasis).  The act of watching this film creates cultural experience as implicitly as the act of creating the viewing party—similar to the therapeutic exoskeleton of a support group—provides remedial and restorative genera.  For the viewer, it is no longer a question of punishing a doll or a security blanket from the vagaries of youth, but the adult experiences of developing and interacting with environments that provide new opportunities for play, and the developmental blossoms that sprout from these loci of cultural experiences.

All About Eve is timeless in its themes, performances, direction, and pertinence to film art.  Many will have appreciations for it so long as films are consumed by new generations of cineastes and moviegoers alike—it’s a site of multiple identifications.  The links formed by gay men in watching this film, desiring this film, mocking, imitating, camping up, and venerating this film are more than simply eschewing “politics, psychology, or camp” or developing social amity.  It is in this new, malleable communal space that much work is done therapeutically in the name of cultural experience and celebratory scripts.  Shame, humiliation, and disassociation are filtered and refracted through these matrices of identification and from them are generated bonds of pride, laughter, and community.  Bollas writes, “A cinema for one homosexual is a place to watch the film; for another it is the arena [of cruising].”[12] Yet in this group-created cinema as demonstrated by Sam Staggs’s text, the space is not marked as a furtive porno arena, but as Winnicott’s palliative holding environment.  The reception of the film helps create a different visual rhetoric—one that is registered as queer and repurposed as providing communal generative space for those who perform/participate in the reception.  The film is not a generic pharmaceutical panacea for the gay psyche, but in the creation of the communal viewing space, each participant exoskeletally supports his fellow viewer in casting off his individual psychological harms, in non-disruptive ways to collective identity politics and consistent with Muñoz’s notions of how a minority subject can activate a sense of self.  That the therapy is executed with the glamour, wit, and bitchery of Bette Davis and Margo Channing merely adorns the vital work with appropriate élan, and helps eschew gay shame with characteristic good taste.  Though the psychoanalytic work of D.W. Winnicott, Christopher Bollas, and Silvan Tomkins, we’ve seen the dissemination not of a queer visual rhetoric but the reception of a queer rhetoric through visual means—the movies. There was once a time where being a queen on screen (and a gay man was either Dirk Bogarde or a queen) meant death or treatment for the gay “affliction.”  At some point between the early 1980s (Cruising, Making Love) and the late 2000s (Milk), it became possible for gay men to be depicted as healthy, sexually vital, and morally upright (if still consigned to the margins of the mainstream).  In hearkening back to the halcyon days of Bette Davis and All About Eve, we regain from our history significant icons for many gay men that help do significant reparative work (without transferring the shame elsewhere).

Notes to Part 1

[1] Warner, Michael. The Trouble With Normal  New York: The Free Press, 1999, p.3

[2] Hanson, Ellis.  “Teaching Shame.”  In Gay Shame.  Eds. David M. Halperin & Valerie Traub.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 133.

[3] Muñoz, Jose Esteban.  Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, p. 5.

[4] Bersani, Leo.  “Excluding Shame.”  “Teaching Shame.”  In Gay Shame.  Eds. David M. Halperin & Valerie Traub.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 176.

[5] To be fair to the patrician, geriatric Holm, Staggs’s credentials are hardly the stuff of Addison DeWitt: a few magazine articles in Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest (among others), a book on Marilyn Monroe, and the editorship of legendary gay porno mag Mandate.

[6] Staggs, Sam.  All About All About Eve.  New York: St. Martins, 2000, p. 241.

[7] Bersani, Leo.  Homos.  Boston: Harvard UP, 1995, p. 131.

[8] Tomkins, Silvan.  Shame and Its Sisters.  Eds. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank.  Durham: Duke UP, 1995, pp. 72-3.

[9] Tomkins, Silvan.  Shame and Its Sisters.  Eds. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank.  Durham: Duke UP, 1995, pp. 193-4, author’s emphasis.

[10] Bollas, Christopher.  Being a Character.  New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 146.

[11] Winnicott, D.W.  New York: Routledge, 2005, c. 1971, pp. 69-70, author’s emphasis.

[12] Bollas 164
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