The Heathers Conundrum

Heathers 1

It’s been a while since I’ve posted in the blog.  I try not to post raging screeds on here, and these times call for a lot of raging screeds – that’s for Facebook or Twitter.  Instead, I work hard to keep my posts here measured and thoughtful.  There’s a significant backlog of ideas I’d like to write about, but let me start with something topical.

Heathers is an amazing film (the original (1988), not the rather concerning planned Remake?).  It was surreal, raw, and touched something painfully and laughably real about high school life, particularly life for people who are “different.” The Breakfast Club tackled high school cliques several years earlier, and while it’s dramatically a better film, that is, had characters with much more emotional depth, the overall message of The Breakfast Club is “Gee, everyone is facing problems, maybe we just need to reach across the aisle and empathize just a little.”  But in Heathers Kum is definitely not Baya, and it pulls no punches.

The characters are designed to be shallow and utterly and surreally devoid of empathy.  The only character even capable of flawed empathy is the protagonist, Veronica (Winona Ryder in one of her best performances).  There are a few characters worthy of empathy – Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock, Heather McNamara, Betty Flynn – but they aren’t given opportunities in the story to model empathy, they rather serve as opportunities for Veronica to develop hers.  The “prophet” of empathy, Pauline Fleming, the “hippy” on the school faculty, wants to hold group mourning sessions (with press recording) and help everyone get in touch with their feelings (to the intense eye-rolling of the rest of the apathetic faculty).  Students are only too willing to get out of class to play along.  Fleming states that, “Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.”  The earned cynicism of the film scorns the liberal “let’s all just hug” approach as much as the conservative “Goddamit, even the football guys were fags?” approach.  Adults just don’t get it, and neither do most of the kids.

There are some very dark themes in this movie, and even at the time I first saw it, my genuine laughter was tinged with just as genuine discomfort (by design, I suspect).  Veronica, despite wanting to run with the popular trio of Heathers, despises the way their social power is used to demean and further marginalize the cliques further down the hierarchy.  They force her to use her talent for mimicking the handwriting of others to create embarrassing fake love notes simply for amusement.  She confesses in her diary to fantasizing about killing Heather Chandler, the Queen Bitch, who makes Veronica and the other two Heathers act upon her cruel whims.

J.D. (Christian Slater) is only to happy to oblige, and so begins an adaptation of Faust on par with Little Shop of Horrors – the innocent desire for justice and kindness becomes a brick road of blood and moral decline.  J.D. drags Veronica into being an accomplice to a number of homicides, staged as the suicides of popular people that “just weren’t understood,” thanks to Veronica’s ability to mimic handwriting.  But knocking down one Heather only apotheosizes her after death and raises another in her place.  Likewise, the prominent suicide prompts some people who truly weren’t understood and the victims of Heathers’ (and Veronica’s unwilling) bullying to attempt suicide, culminating in J.D.’s plot to blow up the entire school as some sort of symbolic teen message to an uncaring adult world.  Veronica breaks free of his influence, foils his plot, claims the crown of popular girl, but in the service of empathy to the marginalized (a happy, but bitter and qualified, ending).

An amazing film, but a squirm fest for anyone who has lived through the endless stream of school shootings since Columbine.  One of the things that has upset me about the response to the most recent (as of this writing) school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida is the compartmentalization of school shootings from other mass shootings.  It has allowed the NRA and opponents of any gun control to deflect the underlying gun problem in our overall society to the specific problems of high school culture.  So, age limits and armed teachers are proposed, which in the best of scenarios may only reduce mass shootings (and overall gun deaths) by a miniscule fraction (still, a miniscule fraction is a step farther than the NRA has let us come before, so, sure, let’s entertain the ideas for a moment).

Heathers 2'

But, as much as I want to embark on a raging screed against the idea of arming teachers, I told you at the beginning that wasn’t my goal here.  So, despite the overall problem of gun violence not being a problem specific to schools, I want to focus on a high school specific dimension of the issue – the high school revenge fantasy.

Heathers didn’t originate this fantasy, but it expresses it in an honest and dissectible form.  Veronica, the most able to see the cruelty and evil of the teenage amplification of the general human trend to hierarchize and marginalize, is also the most able to articulate a fantastic destruction of that system – kill the bullies, tear it all down.  It’s important to note, that at every turn, Veronica does not actually want her fantasies to become reality.  She doesn’t actually want anyone to die, and J.D.’s Mephistophelian literal interpretation of her fantasies eventually forces her to confront the implications of her fantasy.

But seriously, didn’t most of us have some version of that in high school?  In my case, I created haikus for each member of my (relatively small, geez who writes hundreds of haikus?) class imagining creative death scenarios for each – this included some of my best friends.  It was meant to be humorous, and I shared it with some friends, including those mentioned.  It was sort of a Gashlycrumb Tinies sort of thing.  Some others in my class designed bombs in their spare time, which they tested on local wildlife – some of them went on to become rather successful engineers with happy and loving families.  Nowadays, they and I would probably be ferried off to the guidance counselor’s office.  I would hope they would probe more deeply before red-flagging us or sending us off to the proposed asylums.

It’s a dilemma that some of the same sorts of people who have a robust fantasy life can either be the best at delineating fantasy from reality or the worst.  What is a parent, teacher, guardian, or security guard armed to the teeth supposed to do with that fact?  Heathers, unfortunately, offers a rather cynical view.  Parents, teachers, and fellow students are so caught up in their own petty concerns that they are blind to the crisis of meaning of those very few students who are, in fact, grappling with questions on meaning, positive or negative.

In reality, I think people are capable of more empathy than Heathers allows, even if we live in a very empathy-challenged era of our history.  But, even the brave high schoolers from Stoneman Douglas cry that everyone knew the shooter was weird and dangerous.  Yes, the many tips given to local law enforcement seem to have been insufficiently investigated in this case.  But what if we start harassing everyone deemed “weird and dangerous”?  In some communities that might mean people who “look at you funny” or “acted like some autistic kid” or were seen “dressing like a goddamn girl” or were really into Japanese anime cosplay.  In this case, the reports of weirdness perhaps needed to be investigated further, but this is a fine line, and in the hands of the wrong people it can become a state-sponsored sanction of further bullying.  Even though, for though love of the gods, a better mental health system in our schools is desperately needed, that must be done without stigmatizing those who are simply not the norm – and as Heathers grasps, not even the apparently normal are really normal.

How do we distinguish, and how do we balance?  This is the Heathers conundrum.


Occupy The Square

See The Square (al-Midan), a documentary film directed by Jehane Noujaim following a circle of associates drawn together by the events of Tahrir Square in Cairo from the ouster of Mubarak up through the ouster of Mursi.  It’s currently available for streaming on Netflix and is showing in many cities in the U.S., which will probably increase due to its Oscar nomination.  The film’s three principal protagonists represent three of the constituencies that participated in the Revolution – Ahmed Hassan, a working-class youth down on his luck who transforms into a first-class revolutionary orator; Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was imprisoned and tortured for that association during the Mubarak era; and Khalid Abdalla, a fairly successful British-Egyptian actor from a family of Egyptian dissidents.    Around these three are a number of other revolutionary figures – Pierre, whose apartment overlooking the square becomes a revolutionary salon with a great filming vantage point; Aida, a social-media activist; Ragia, a human rights lawyer; and Ramy Essam, a musician who becomes the Arlo Guthrie of Tahrir Square. 

The film is not a history lesson.  In fact, it provides almost no context at all, other than the experiences of the people in the film.  It’s also not a global analysis.  There is no discussion of the international dimension of the Arab Spring, or even just the overall demographics of the Tahrir Square protests.  Everything is seen from this one slice of the movement.  This narrow choice, however, is what helps the film transcend the specifics of its events and highlight more universal themes, such as the tension between secular and religious visions for the state, the intersection of the media and political power, and the development of revolutionary consciousness.


One of the fascinating things about the film is how the expatriate Egyptians, such as Khalid and the filmmaker, see through the duplicitous character of Egyptian military leaders, while local Egyptians, like Ahmed and Magdy, have trouble finding fault with the military.

The most important element that prevents the documentary from becoming just a hymn of praise for a bunch of plucky social-media savvy liberals is the arc of Magdy, whose conflicted relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood adds layers of depth to the story.  In defiance of Brotherhood orders to stay away in the early days of the protest, Magdy comes to the square and develops a friendship with Ahmed, sharing stories of the wrongs done them by the regime and the promise of national unity represented by the diverse protesters, crossing lines of gender, economics, education, and religion.  We see the friendship strain, but survive, the growing divide and increasing violence between the Brotherhood and liberal revolutionaries after the ouster of Mubarak.  But when Mursi in turn is called upon to step down towards the end of the film, Magdi makes a reluctant choice to stand with the Brotherhood.  In the moment that I found the most striking in the film, he says that if the Brotherhood cannot stay in control of the government he fears that he and many others will once again be jailed, tortured, and possibly be executed as part of an outlawed group.  His frustrating and tragic inability to imagine a politically pluralist state stems from his own very real experiences of exclusion and brutality.

Noujaim may be familiar to some as the director of the film Control Room, a documentary about al-Jazeera and its struggle to cover the war in Iraq.  Both films share a desire to explore ways new media forms can challenge the state’s and military’s management of information and propaganda.  Like al-Jazeera, the You Tubists and Twitterers of The Square remain aware of the power of emotional spin and access to the public.  The space of Tahrir Square serves as a metaphor for so many things in the film, but one of the strongest resonances is with the new public space of the internet.  The revolutionaries choose to record everything and play the videos back to others to galvanize opinion.  And through Khalid’s frequent Skype chats with his father in Britain, we see ways in which the revolutionaries can harness the trans-nationalism of the net to make an end run around the Egyptian military’s attempts to control and limit access to information.  Noujaim’s comments during an interview with Jon Stewart reinforce the idea that occupying webspace may have been as important as occupying physical space to creating possibilities for more voices to be heard in Egyptian politics.  But aren’t those voices primarily those of tech-savvy urbanites with friends outside Egypt?  The film acknowledges the question from time to time, but too often falls back on the discomfiting argument that the intelligentsia must sometimes stand in as the voice of the voiceless.  For better or worse, this is often the crux of the liberal conundrum.

Like a lot of Americans I’ve spoken with, I’ve sometimes been disappointed about the progress of the Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere.  The military seems back in control again, so aren’t Egyptians essentially back at square one?  The film’s unexpectedly upbeat answer is an emphatic “No!”  In a society that for more than 30 years had been inculcated with the idea that political participation is dangerous and ineffective, being able to affect significant change at least 3 times in the last 2 years has indeed been revolutionary.  The film’s protagonists are often ambivalent about the actual changes that occurred, but they are not ambivalent about the political empowerment they’ve felt.  The illusion of the state’s infallibility and inviolability has been shattered, as has their stranglehold on information.  A door of protest has been opened that will not be easily closed.

Boycotting Buggery

Ender’s Game the film comes out in the US in November

I’ve often said on this blog that science fiction and fantasy – imaginative literature – when it’s at its best, makes use of the Verfremdungseffekt (Brecht’s term for deliberately stylizing drama to create a sense of distance between the audience and the action) to encourage its readers/viewers to reflect on the human condition, ethics, or society in a new way. Growing up, perhaps no science fiction work caused me to ruminate on “the meaning of life” as much as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Its protagonist, the young Ender, is a brilliant, earnest child, violently and brutally bullied by his siblings and peers and cynically manipulated by adults (and a military) who wish to shape his fate and talents to their own desires and needs. The character has spoken and continues to speak to angsty teenage nerds everywhere.

But the central engine of Ender’s Game and its sequels runs on a profoundly ethical problem. At the story’s climax, Ender believes he is participating in a simulated war game, when, in fact, his commands are being passed down to a real military force in the field. Using his strategy, the fleet proceeds to annihilate the homeworld of an alien species (the “Buggers”), perceived by some in the human military as an existential threat. Ender becomes the Xenocide, “killer of the Other,” hero of the militarists but despised by himself. The rest of Ender’s saga develops from his desire to atone for the killing, however inadvertently, of an entire sentient species. Enders’s Game and its sequels highlight and explore the concept of empathy at its roots. How can you learn to feel ethically responsible toward even the most strange and alien of creatures, no matter how repulsive their customs and habits?

The story also raises interesting questions about military and political ethics (which might be why it’s often assigned in military training): How responsible was an average guard at Auschwitz for what went on there? Was the Hiroshima bomb justified, and even if it was, what kind of ethical responsibility still falls on those who dropped it? How do you balance the need to make a soldier a killing machine with their humanity? And can we act ethically in a society that is guided by military-industrial priorities?

From the Marvel Comics version of Ender's Game

Would you let your mother marry this bugger? Ahem . . . I mean, would you let your mother defend this queen? Ahem . . . no, well, this is embarrassing. Orson Scott Card says, “Just don’t do it!”  Wait, do you see the muscles on that dude?  Ahem  . . .

Given the theme of the stories and the impact they had on a blooming xenophile and quasi-pacifist such as my teenage self, it was with some distress that I learned in later years that Orson Scott Card is one of the most noxious, homophobic writers in America. He has felt strongly enough on the issue to produce numerous screeds, advocating, among other things, that homosexual behavior should lead to the revocation of citizenship, that homosexuality is the result of abuse, that same-sex marriage will lead to the downfall of America and civilization as we know it, and that right-thinking Americans should rebel against any government that seeks to legalize it. He has even become a board member for the National Organization for Marriage, one of the more powerful anti-gay hate groups currently active. To be honest, in the context of NOM none of his arguments are particularly original, although he’s a talented-enough writer to convey his utter apoplexy at the thought of gay people existing. But it does kind of hurt to hear this kind of stuff coming out of the mouth of an admired author.

There have been calls to boycott the upcoming film adaptation of Ender’s Game, starring Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and some promising younger talent. Card has been the target of similar boycott campaigns in the past. Only recently, he was dropped as writer for a series of Superman comics when fans and the project’s lead artist protested. Card has recently asked people to not boycott the film because the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA renders his opposition to gay marriage “moot.”  He adds, obnoxiously or willfully ignorant of what the word tolerance means,  “Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”  Many in the blogosphere have resisted calls for boycotts, saying that he’s just the product of a Mormon upbringing (as if every Mormon out there campaigns for NOM) or that a boycott may backfire in unpredictable ways.

I’m on the fence about boycotting, in part because I’m not all that big on boycotts anyway, but also I’m on the fence about the growth of the boycott and retribution culture we seem to revel in these days. I think Card is an interesting case, because the degree of his involvement with anti-gay causes makes his case different from, say, Paula Deen’s racist remarks and fantasies. Likewise, since Ender’s Game is not particularly a story about sexuality (it’s striking in its asexuality, in fact), the work itself doesn’t seem to be wound up in the ideologies of its creator in the same way Wagner’s Parzival extols racial purity in the face of the Wandering Jew. I think it’s worth exploring why Card’s case may be different from both.

Kermit knows it’s not easy being green.


In our instant social media existence, the slightest offhand tweet or Facebook post by a celebrity inevitably leads to canceled advertising contracts, insincere public apologies, and the endless analysis of 24-hour news channels that have long since given up spending the money to bring their audiences information about the actual world beyond the bubble. The recent flap about Paula Deen is a great example, I think, of our boycotting culture. Her frequent, albeit non-public, use of the N-word and planning a wedding reception that had an ante-bellum costuming theme (complete with racially-accurate servants) are indeed pretty disgusting. But she has lost many, if not most, of her contracts, as a result. I agree she should be ridiculed and taken to task for her casual racism (and that her brother should be taken to court for his alleged racial and sexual harassment), but that could have been a starting point about a conversation about what exactly is “casual racism.” Instead, the focus seems to be on destroying her career. Now, if it turned out she was a leading figure in the KKK, if she had stolen all her recipes from an unknown and uncredited African-American cooking genius, or even if she had a public Gibsonian drunken meltdown, some of these responses might be warranted.

Unfortunately, this sort of overkill vengefulness often results in a backlash that brings the episode to a disturbing denouement. At the end of the news cycle, instead of thinking to themselves, “Gee, Paula really shouldn’t have said that. I hope she can rise above her racist background,” the American CNN-viewing public will more likely respond, “Hey, back off! Paula has a right to be racist!” In the hands of the right-wing media, you then get the sense that using the N-word is a way to exercise your patriotic duty to speak freely or the would-be-funny-if-not-so-sinister claim that “creepy-ass cracker” is a reverse-racist equivalent of the N-word.

Let’s take another, contrasting example, Chick-Fil-A. Some of us had been aware of reports of discrimination against gay customers and employees going back years, but their stance became more public when they decided to co-sponsor a “marriage” conference in 2011. This led to calls by some LGBT organizations to boycott the chain. This was followed by an un-boycott, as evangelicals flocked to consume fast-food in the name of Christ. This case is different from Deen, in my opinion, because Chick-Fil-A decided to make their bigotry part of their public image, and have been pursuing that agenda consistently for a long time. If you patronized the restaurant, you knew that a portion of what you spent there would go to certain ultra-conservative causes (They claim that they no longer donate to anti-LGBT organizations, but the owners, the Cathy family, are still visible and vocal in those circles).

Many of Chick-Fil-A’s supporters felt that calls for a boycott amounted to a restriction of free speech. Obviously, such people haven’t thought about the Constitution much beyond what Bill O’Reilly tells them is in it, but they do raise an interesting question, even if it’s not the one they thought. As a consumer, to what degree do I feel the need to patronize only places of business owned by people I agree with politically? Will I buy a drink from a bartender I know voted for Bush? What if he talked about how much he likes Bush to his customers? What if he volunteered for the Bush campaign? What if he liked to talk about how stupid Democrats are? What if he were Bush’s chief policy advisor? What if he was even the one who invented hanging chads? Somewhere along that line, I would stop wanting to buy his beer, but I’m not sure if I could come up with a hard and fast rule for the exact point where bygones-be-bygones becomes get-off-of-my-lawn. If I boycotted local businesses whose owners belonged to the NRA, I’d have to start raising my own food.

I do boycott Chick-Fil-A (and had before 2011), but, to be honest, I never ate there anyway nor had any desire to. Essentially, I’m taking credit for doing something politically I would have done apolitically anyway. I also boycott Lowe’s, although I feel kind of bad about it. They had advertised on the TLC reality show All-American Muslim, which had as its task the depiction of the banal day-to-day lives of ordinary Muslims in America (Episode One: Khadija buys laundry detergent!). But the American Family Association threatened to boycott them for supporting a program that dared to suggest that Muslims were normal and not terrorists lurking in our backyard (How that’s a “family values” issue, I’m not sure, but if there’s one thing these folk hate more than gays, it’s Muslims. Fun trick: Tell them you’re a Gay Muslim Socialist and catch their facial expression with your cellphone – Priceless!). Lowe’s pulled their ads. So now, I’m boycotting them for having a really weak spine, which isn’t completely fair, since they’re only secondarily involved. But if you can’t stand up to something so pernicious, what good are you? It balances out, because the AFA boycotts Home Depot for sponsoring Gay Pride events. As long as everyone can get their fluorescent light bulbs replaced somewhere, it all works out, I guess.

However, I don’t boycott Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, or Apple, even though they have some very questionable labor practices at home and abroad. Nor do I boycott Facebook, even as it colludes with (and actively designs algorithms for) the NSA and FBI to subject us to constant invasive surveillance. Apparently, it boils down to whether a boycott would constitute an inconvenience to me. I guess I’m not as ideologically committed as my conservative relatives think I am. But I think I’m probably not that different from the average consumer, in this regard. At least I thought about boycotting them. Does that count for something in the karmic wheel?

Wagner’s Parzival Act 3: A little soda water will get rid of that little stain of Judaism, don’t you worry!


The other contrast I wanted to make with Card and Ender’s Game is the case of Wagner – no, not that The Case of Wagner, my overly erudite readers, although Nietzsche’s observations about anti-Semitism and the relationship of the creator with the creation make a good starting point. One of the first things you learn about Wagner if and when you study him in Music History is that he was a rabid anti-Semite. Not only did he write about it, but there are several plainly anti-Semitic characters in more than one opera. In Das Rheingold Alberich the money-hungry dwarf renounces love to claim the eponymous gold, thereby starting the chain of events in the Ring that brings down the gods. (Ever notice that depictions of Tolkien’s dwarves have exaggerated hook noses right out of a 19th-century anti-Semitic caricature?). And then there’s Kundry in Parzival, a very literal depiction of the Wandering Jew legend, condemned to wander the Earth deathless until the Second Coming for mocking Christ on the Cross. The Wandering Jew motif shows up in less literal fashion in Der Fliegende Holländer. Hitler loved Wagner and these operas, and for this reason, many have boycotted Wagner over the years. Whether Wagner would have approved of the extremes Hitler embraced remains an unanswered question, but without a doubt Wagner and his work contributed, in more than small ways, to an environment in which German National Socialism could come to power.

But I love Wagner. I think his operas are on par with of some of the best imaginative fiction of more recent times. He presents the surrealism of mythology, framed in the incredibly stylized conventions of opera, and explores love, sacrifice, human destiny, and religion in thoughtful and moving ways. Admittedly, Wagner is an acquired taste, and one needs to spend many, many, many, many hours to develop that taste. But he knew the power of a booming score and flaming explosions more than a century before Michael Bay. Hollywood owes a lot to his production philosophy and aesthetics. Unfortunately, he skipped the class of storytelling called “show, don’t tell.” Wagner characters spend a lot of time describing their life histories in rhyming couplets in the middle of what ought to be incredibly gripping scenarios. “I’m here to murder you, foul temptress! But first, sit down and listen to me recount the story of my mother’s long and tragic tale, after I remind you of the underlying philosophical structure of the cosmos.”

This may sound counter-intuitive, but knowing of Wagner’s anti-Semitism deepens my enjoyment of his operas. Deconstructing an author’s psyche is part of the fun of great art and literature, isn’t it? You can watch Birth of a Nation and appreciate its visual storytelling, even if you find its themes disturbing and bizarre. But is that enjoyment a function of the cushion of time? The era of virulent German Anti-Semitism is (mostly) past. The Ku Klux Klan, while still extant, is largely viewed as a de-fanged fringe group. I do have to say, however, that recently re-watching the film Red Dawn (the original) made me feel icky. I didn’t quite grasp this in my youth, but it goes through all the NRA talking points (evil gun registries, commies might invade YOUR town tomorrow, etc.) over the course of the movie, and it’s been a great recruitment tool for the militia movement. I am glad, though, that I went to see Zero Dark Thirty, even if the thought of boycotting it crossed my mind. The ideas were worth engaging, even as a more antagonistic audience member.

Maybe he just needed to be bullied less as a kid.


Ender’s Game, however, is yet another category. Although many have searched for homophobic themes in Card’s work (more prominent in some than in others), it’s not a story thematically linked to anti-gay bigotry in the same way that Parzival relies on notions of racial purity. The odd attitude of Card and his characters to sexuality and the body are certainly worth deconstructing, but they are hardly part of heavy-handed propaganda. I think in many ways, the product is separable from its creator. Perhaps it even deserves to be rescued from its creator.

This is true of Ender’s Game more than most. Ender is raised to hate the Other. The inhumanity (literally, in this case) and danger of the Buggers has been reinforced by Ender’s commanders, the politicians, and the media his entire life (comparisons to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers are apt up to this point). But then, catastrophically, devastatingly, Ender learns that all of that has been wrong. He comes to believe that the Other has intrinsic value, simply by being, and that the right of Others to simply be is worth struggling to preserve. Ender dedicates the rest of his life to that end.

I have to recognize that reading Ender’s story as a kid contributed, in some way great or small, to my ethical formation and that of many others, such that we can see Orson Scott Card’s virulent, over-the-top hate for what it is and reject it. I find it tragic that Card himself cannot see the bitter irony. Assuming it gets halfway decent reviews (I’ve been burnt before), I will not be boycotting the film, but I will see it affirming what the story can stand for rather than what its author has chosen to stand for.

P.S. I have to pat myself on the back for my choice of title, just in case no one else decides to do so. It’s a triple entendre!

“But I’d Rather Just Sing!” Homoeroticism at Court

This may be a bit of a meandering post, but it does have a destination (I swear!) and manages to touch on nearly all of the themes of this blog:

I’ve been working my way through the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin and its attending Game of Thrones TV series (on DVD, since I’m resistant to subscribing to HBO for just one or two shows, but I don’t particularly like piracy either).  One of the characters, Renly Baratheon, is in a same-sex relationship, implied strongly in the novels (we never really see the narrative from Renly’s point of view) and made explicit in the adaptation.  Judging by the various fan forums, the fan reaction to this ranged from homophobic rage at the inclusion of gay characters to waxing poetic about Renly’s “manscaping” scene with his lover Loras.  Others like me have had more ambivalent reactions, uncertain of whether this is a perpetuation or a satire of an old trope (or both).  The camping of Renly can’t really be lain at Martin’s feet, whose writing is unusual in the forefronting of gender non-conformists.  I chalk it up more to HBO’s desire to add gratuitous and “boundary-pushing” (i.e. actually rather banal) sex scenes and nudity in all of its series to justify its “premium cable” status.  But while Renly’s likeable character is certainly not as egregious as the depiction of Edward II in Braveheart, the homosexual or effeminate noble is an easily recognizable trope in both imaginative literature and in historical literature.  It’s not a random trope, though, and delving into the history of it reveals some very interesting things about the intersection of perceptions of homosexuality, social class, and foreignness (and Muslim-ness in particular).  (See my definitions page for how I’m using the terms homosexuality, same-sex attraction, and gay).

Game of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony): a real man’s man with royal power, but doomed to die of excessive special effects in the second act.

Central to my discussion is the historical connection between adab (courtliness, belles lettres) culture of middle period Islamic courts and the courtly or chivalrous ideology of the European medieval period.  Until recently, the connection was denied, in part because of European (and particularly Franco-era Spanish) refusal to acknowledge Islamic influence on European culture.  But most European historians now acknowledge that the European tradition of courtly etiquette and courtly love (i.e. romance, in its original sense) owes a lot to Islamic court mores and practices (which itself had roots in Greco-Persian court practices).  European and Islamic court cultures were, of course, not identical, but the connection between the two is concrete and traceable, even to the point of European individuals who spent time at Spanish Islamic courts.  The era of the Crusades only increased this effect, as fanatic knights returned home with more nuanced conceptions of “civilized” behavior.  This is not to say that the European courtly traditions were adapted cookie-cutter style or exclusively from their Islamic equivalents, but the influence is now considered undeniable and not insignificant.

Interestingly, the attitudes toward same-sex desire and homosexual activities at court played out along similar lines in both Islamic and European cultures.  The reactions among the religious classes and sometimes the common classes associated the tolerance of homosexuality to either an upper class libertinism or to the influence of foreign or ancient (pre-monotheistic) indulgences.  Christian Europe came to connect same-sex desire with Islamic influence, in addition to ancient Greco-Roman hold-overs.  Obviously, medieval European attitudes toward same-sex desire are complex, and I’m only attempting to shed light on one dimension here.


Narratives set in real or fantastic medieval contexts often make an implicit link between social privilege, insufficiently martial masculinity, and libertinism (as well as implicitly defining homosexuality as an expression of libertinism), which derives in part from the construction of an isolated social circle by courtiers themselves.  From the medieval Islamic perspective, it is not uncommon to find a distinction between the elite (khass) and the common (‘amm) folk.  Sensually-oriented poets and intellectuals at court used the elite/common distinction to suggest that Islamic Law (shari’a) could be interpreted differently or more loosely for different social classes.  Wine-drinking was exceedingly common at Muslim rulers’ courts in the middle periods and was referred to in matter-of-fact terms even in the most proper of political etiquette texts.  Even the ascetic Sufis, only some of whom may have indulged in actual wine-drinking or same-sex love, made use of intoxication and homoerotic imagery as a metaphor for the overwhelming emotional power of God’s presence and love.

While the elite/common dichotomy may have justified religiously deviant behavior, the scimitar cut both ways.  The career of Abu Nuwas (a nickname meaning “Father of the Flowing Locks,” d. 814) is a prime example of the ambiguous status of courtly elites who experimented with the limits of sexuality.  His poetry is sharp, biting, blasphemous, and unapologetically raunchy:

Satanic Pride

I quarreled with my boy – my letters
Came back marked ‘Unknown at This Address – So Bugger Off’
In solitude & tears I damply prayed – to Satan:
‘Weeping & insomnia have got me down to 90 pounds –
Don’t you care that I’m suffering?
That I’m so depressed I’ve almost run out of lust?
This obsession’s getting in the way of my duty to thee;
My sinning’s half-hearted – I feel a fit of repentance coming on!
Yes!  Thou hadst better stoke up some love for me in that lad’s heart (you know how!)
Or I’ll retire from Sin: from Poetry, from Song, from pickling my veins in wine!
I’ll read the Koran!  I’ll start a Koranic Night School for Adults!
I’ll make the Pilgrimage to Mecca every year & accumulate so much virtue that I’ll . . . I’ll  . . .’
Well, three days hadn’t passed when suddenly my sweetheart came crawling back
Begging for reunion.  Was it good?  It was twice as good as before!
Ah, joy after sorrow!  Almost the heart splits with it!
Ah, overdose of joy! . . . And of course, since then I’ve been on the best of terms
With the Father of Lies.

– Trans. Peter Lamborn Wilson, Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam, cited in Night & Horses & The Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, ed. Robert Irwin (pg. 125)

Abu Nuwas was tolerated, even celebrated, at the court of caliph Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Amin, but al-Rashid’s other son, al-Ma’mun, was rather more disapproving of Abu Nuwas, although it is unclear whether his sexual proclivities, his acid tongue, or his support of al-Amin during the civil war between the brothers was the chief cause of his imprisonment and death – his critics cited all of these.  That being said, his odes to the beauty of young cupbearers are considered the best of the genre.  The very existence of whole poetic genre revolving around erotic encounters with pages is telling in itself.

The 10th-century Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna and his slave and beloved Ayaz: Mahmud is celebrated in courtly and mystical poetry as the proverbial slave of a slave

For the sake of accuracy, it’s important to issue several caveats to avoid projecting our modern concept of “gayness” onto this material.  First, adabi homoeroticism was typically, but not exclusively, asymmetrical, like the predominant structure of Ancient Greek and Persian homosexual relationships.  The “active” partner was generally of a higher age and/or social class.  Young male servants not yet married were the “passive” partner.  Socially equal relationships were not unknown, but they would probably have been the minority and carried more of a stigma even at court, particularly if you were the “bottom.”  Second, these homosexual relationships were not expected to preclude heterosexual marriages and relationships.  It is likely that not all participants in these relationships preferred the same sex, and there was not an identity marker (like the modern term “gay”) to distinguish those who truly preferred the same sex from those who participated in homoerotic relationships or behaviors for the sake of pleasure alone.  In fact, homosexual liaisons were considered more similar to extra-marital liaisons with female servants or mistresses than to sex in the context of marriage – for those at court, sexuality and marriage were not coterminous.   And third, not all of these relationships would have been sexually consummated.  Many thinkers considered the erotic admiration of the male form praise-worthy in itself both aesthetically and morally, as long as it didn’t overstep the idealized form – not unlike the chivalric European knight taking on a female patron, to be adored but not touched (Lancelot crosses this line, bringing doom upon the kingdom).

In both the Christian and Islamic contexts, disapproval of same-sex relationships was often connected to a critique of class privilege and lax religiosity, and usually subordinated to it.  Such critiques usually came from religious leaders (even as other religious leaders participated in court culture).  The elite somehow escape the consequences of disobeying the religious law, it would be lamented.  Sexual deviancy came to be connected to other infractions of the law: drinking, adultery, inappropriate contact between the sexes, wearing silk, etc.  This is not to say that homosexual behavior among other classes didn’t happen – it certainly did – but this rarely attracted the attention of chroniclers more interested in the exploits of rulers and courtiers (such as themselves).


An interesting subtext to both the medieval Islamic and Christian critiques of homosexuality was the idea of its inherent foreignness.  Arab critics attributed the practice to pre-Islamic Persian courts.  Christian writers attributed the practice to Muslims and Jews.  From the perspective of the critics, homoeroticism at court was not just a function of coddled privilege; it was also a matter of “foreign influence,” a betrayal of native purity.  (It is an irony-drenched irony that Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a Persian Muslim, has denounced homosexuality as the export of European colonialism.)

In medieval Islam, figures like Abu Nuwas were embroiled in a cultural struggle to define the civilization.  On the one side were those who felt the spartan martial values of the Arab Bedouins had been diluted by centuries of effete city living among diverse peoples.  On the other were those who believed that the adoption of the urban lifestyles of the ancient empires (particularly the Persian) was the best thing to happen to Islamic society (guess where Abu Nuwas came down).  A late expression of this tension can be seen in the theory of the venerable ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who believed that the cycle of history was driven by waves of nomadic peoples with purer social values and stronger sense of tribal solidarity conquering decadent and diverse sedentary peoples, only to succumb themselves over time to the strength-sapping temptations of the conquered cultures.

Islamic courtly homoeroticism existed well into the 20th-century (and beyond, if certain rumors are true), but so did the discomfort with it among certain religious scholars.  The Egyptian traveler Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi, who visited Paris in 1826, reveals his ambivalence as he notes the absence of same-sex love in French society (He perhaps wasn’t looking hard enough):

“Amongst the laudable traits of their character, similar really to those of the Bedouin is their not being inclined toward loving male youths and eulogizing them in their poetry for this is something unmentionable for them and contrary to their nature and morals.  One of the positive aspects of their language and poetry is that it does not permit the saying of love poetry of someone with the same sex.  Thus, in the French language a man cannot say: I loved a youth (ghulam), for that would be unacceptable and awkward wording.  Therefore if one of them translates one of our books he avoids this by saying the translation: I loved a young female (ghulamah) or a person (dhatan).”

– cited in Khaled el-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World (pg. 2)

While homosexual acts were condemned and punishable in Islamic Law (although the death penalty was rarely a punishment on the table – it was not considered adultery since it did not violate a husband’s exclusive sexual rights to his wife), there is little evidence for an institutionalized response to homosexual activity beyond the criticism and lamentations from the religious scholars.  The European response, however, was often brutal and systematic.  The Spanish Inquisition, designed to enforce the orthodoxy of Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity (as a condition for keeping their homes or sometimes their lives), often specifically targeted those suspected of engaging in homosexuality, seen as a mark of retaining the values of Islamic culture.  Among the crimes attributed to the heretic Cathars and Templars included homosexuality.  Even if such accusations were unfounded or exaggerated, the association between sexual activity and the dangerous other is clear.

Jean-Leon Gerome, The Serpent Charmer (1880): fatefully used as the cover art for Edward Said’s Orientalism

The popular association of Islamic culture and sexual permissiveness up into the 20th-century has been well-documented by historians of Western Orientalism.  The “Islamic culture” under discussion, however, is court and elite culture more specifically. It is interesting to note how the contemporary Western imagination has shifted its image of Islamic sexuality 180 degree in the last fifty years or so, which perhaps says more about the West than it says about Islam.


Spoiler: They’re really crab people from beneath the Earth plotting the overthrow of surface dwellers

While there are many dimensions to modern American attitudes toward homosexuality over the last century, the perception of it as an elite luxury and as a “foreign” practice persist, particularly in the popular association of gay culture with the performing arts and Hollywood.  Traditional American understandings of masculinity could be characterized as aggressively heterosexual.  Up until recently, gay characters in popular media were typically relegated to subordinate or support roles to the leading man – in effect, courtiers: hair stylists, costumers, interior designers (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy annoyed many gay rights advocates for this very reason, even as it contributed to a trend of positive and non-threatening media depictions of gay people).  Just as the association of homosexuality with court, the association of homosexuality with Hollywood is not a baseless connection.  Until recently, show business had the highest proportion of out constituents.

But it’s here that I would like to flip the narrative.  Is the “luxury” of being openly gay a function of elite cultures encouraging the abandonment of traditional morality or is it rather that social power grants “relative” immunity from the social and physical sanctions that attach to being gay among other social classes?  In other words, courtliness might not be the dividing line between gay/not gay but between visible/invisible.  Projecting the origins of homosexuality onto others – economic others, religious others, ethnic others – has allowed certain assumptions about “authenticity” to persist: real men, true Americans, right-thinking Christians.  Perhaps the true revolution in the past several years has been the disintegration of this trope and the undermining of the illusion that “there are no gays in these here parts.”

One of these things is not like the other! Or is it?

Argo between Scylla and Charibdis

I think I might be reading too much Daily Kos and Huffington Post because I went into seeing both Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, two A-list Oscar-nominated movies dealing with America’s relationship with the Islamic world, expecting to have my Islamophobia outrage meter go off the charts.  But it didn’t happen either time!  Is Hollywood learning?  Or maybe Hollywood just doesn’t want to wade into the strange right-wing politics of the Islamophobia Industry.

Since I wrote a response about Zero Dark Thirty, I thought I’d weigh in on Argo.  First of all, I enjoyed Argo immensely.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  “Enjoy” is probably not the word I’d use to describe my experience with Zero Dark Thirty.  “Disquieting” would be more appropriate.  Strange fellow that I am, though, I like it when my movies disquiet me, make me think and reflect on the world in a new way.  In short, Argo is a little more of a formulaic Hollywood thriller with its beats in all the right places.  It does this well, though.  So, while Zero Dark Thirty was a rough experience that earned my respect after reflection, Argo was a rollicking good time that gave me a little more pause on reflection.

Sahar under examination


Argo really isn’t Islamophobic.  Its depictions of post-revolutionary violence, by all accounts, are fairly accurate.  There were vengeance squads and a generous supply of the Angry Muslim MobTM shouting “Death to America.”  And the movie doesn’t forefront the religious dimension, so I want to give credit where it’s due.  But it does nothing to encourage the audience to reflect on its stereotypes about Iran and Iranians.  We are told, in an animated prologue and in a few opening snatches of dialogue, about the reasons the revolutionaries hated America, reduced mainly to the CIA-backed coup d’état against Mossadeq and (re-)installation of the Shah in 1953.  But we don’t see any of the cruelty of the Shah alluded to in the prologue reflected in the lives of the characters.

In fact, the movie’s main flaw is the lack of character development.  The only character we really learn much about is Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez, who is working through his relationship with his estranged wife and son during the plot of the movie (a page from Spielberg, perhaps?)  We learn tidbits about the Houseguests (the six rescued embassy employees), but not really much to make them different from one another, except for the one couple that has doubts about the scheme.  Characters in a narrative are made known through their choices, but very few choices outside those of Mendez are ever shown to us.  Even the Canadian ambassador, who arguably makes the most fateful choice of the plot, does so off-screen.  Why not a scene depicting a discussion with his wife about the pro’s and con’s of harboring American fugitives?

One other choice comes to the fore, and that is the choice of the Canadian ambassador’s maid, Sahar.  When questioned by the Revolutionary Guard, she decides to stick to the story that the Houseguests are Canadians and have only been in the house a couple days, thereby throwing the villains off the track.  We see her again at the end of the movie crossing the border into Iraq, so at least we know she got out (on the eve of the devastating Iran-Iraq war).  What a missed opportunity!    She would have been the perfect vehicle for exploring the conflicted relationship Iranians have with their revolution.   We don’t know why she made the choice she did.  We know nothing about her family, her background, and how she has been affected by the Revolution, other that the fact that people getting shot makes her upset.   In fact, for most of the movie, we are led to suspect that she might betray the Houseguests.  Surely a dialogue between the ambassador’s wife and the maid would have fleshed out both characters (From what I’ve read, the ambassador’s wife did an awful lot herself to aid the mission, at great risk).

All other Iranian characters are amazingly flat.  The Revolutionary Guard are unambiguously villainous (OK, I’d concede they’re pretty yucky in reality, but universally so?)  And the everyday Iranian is depicted as a volatile fanatic, such as the scene in the bazaar with the enraged photographed man, which apparently did not actually occur.  On a side note, Iranian Shi’ite attitudes toward image making and photography are radically different from those of the Taliban, who only used photography when they felt it would aid their ideology.  Yeah, it adds drama, but it also adds to stereotypes.

Non-aligned hero?


Let’s face it.  The war drums are pounding for a confrontation with Iran, even though many analysts warn against it, even while the current Israeli regime tries to ramp it up.  I don’t think many people doubt that Iran does indeed want nuclear weaponry and that their threats against Israel are credible (although perhaps only in the pressure of desperation).  But while many Iranians are very dissatisfied with their government, violent revolution or foreign invasion is not something most want to go through again anytime soon.  Recent assessments have suggested that the average Iranian isn’t as anti-American as the state-sponsored anti-American chants after state-required Friday prayers would suggest.

The Iranian situation is far more complicated than either Iraq (dictator with small elite class) or Afghanistan (already in a state of civil war).  It’s a theocracy, but its nexus of power is not focused on one person or class, as the tensions between unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and elected populist President Ahmadinejad indicate.  Ahmadinejad’s term limit will end in 2013, when there will be a new elected president.  It’s not clear if the nuclear ambitions of Iran derive from the President’s or the Supreme Leader’s office, but the politics of Iran are complicated and factional.  There are multiple parties, within certain theocratic limits. Will new diplomatic options open up next year?

There have been few opportunities to educate the American public about the incredibly complex situation in Iran.  Argo, as a big-budget A-list actor production, had a real platform to fill this void, and it decided not to.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I’ll chalk this up to lack of vision rather than a deliberate attempt to obscure.  If you want a more nuanced view of revolutionary Iran, take a look at Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiography Persepolis, also a film.  It represents the view from the Iranian left, a victim of both the Shah’s regime and the revolutionary regime.  I’d also recommend the writings of ‘Ali Shari’ati, a leftist-religious dissident who died before the Revolution, but is certainly one of the fathers of the Revolution.  He’ll make you understand the passion behind the revolution more than anyone else.  Rejecting Khomeini’s vision doesn’t mean we have to make the Shah look great.  Argo, while being a fun time, made the choice to not make us think about this complexity.  Perhaps that tells us something about Affleck’s character.

Half Past Midnight

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty: Who’s really the one in solitary confinement?

I had been reluctant to see Zero Dark Thirty. Despite having seen the glowing reviews, I had also read an awful lot about its severely problematic assessment of the role of torture in uncovering the key intelligence that, after years, eventually led to bin Laden’s courier. Of all the hideous things America has done to itself after 9/11, the rampant use of torture and indefinite detention in Guantanamo and other places has been the issue that upsets me most – on a daily basis, in fact. So, let’s just say I went into this with a pretty hefty bias, expecting it to be a piece of jingoistic, Islamophobic, triumphalist claptrap. However, I don’t like trashing movies without seeing them, and, boy, did I want to trash this one.

But I can’t. It does have exactly the problems the negative critics and historians say it does. But it’s also a complex, multivalent movie. I’m convinced that what I took away from the movie was profoundly different from what the frat boys and VMI cadets who were in the audience on a Saturday night took away. But I suspect all of us will be thinking about this movie for a long time.

The scene that had Obama’s interview condemning torture playing on the TV in the background was one of the few chuckles offered by this movie.

But let me be clear. The assertion that torture was instrumental in finding bin Laden is not just a false premise of the movie. It is the central premise of the movie, reiterated again and again and again, all the way up to one of the final scenes where a child is compelled to identify the dead body of her father, bin Laden. But oddly, this premise is what allows the movie to hold up a mirror to the American audience. For the most part, it doesn’t preach or force you toward a particular stance on torture. My views on torture have certainly not changed or even been challenged, and I suspect that some in the audience more tolerant of enhanced interrogation techniques feel the same way. I don’t even think that is the movie’s intent.

“Zero dark thirty” is a military designation for 12:30 AM, the time of the raid on the Abbottabad compound. But it also designates the amoral tone of the movie: half past midnight. The audience is plunged into an insular world of spooks without context. For the first half of the movie, the only things we see are interrogation scenes, the group of about half a dozen intelligence operatives strategizing interrogation, or terrorist attacks. After the first couple unexpected explosions, you become conditioned to realize that if the camera strays from the CIA universe, something’s about to blow up. Despite being set in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rarely do we see any of the characters engaging the locals, who are glimpsed from time to time in the background. Green zone to black site to green zone.

Interestingly, I think it’s this de-contextualization that allows the film to avoid the trap of Islamophobia. The only Muslim religious activity we are shown is a CIA administrator praying in his office. The Angry Muslim Mob just makes one brief cameo appearance. Religion doesn’t even come up in the interrogation scenes, as far as I recall. Other than assumptions brought in by the audience, there is barely anything to even suggest that the terrorists are Muslims. In an era where Hollywood uses a brief shot of a minaret as a cipher for “OMG, terrorists are nearby,” this film deserves a lot of credit for effectively removing Islam from the center of the discussion about terror.

While bin Laden’s followers are antagonists of a sort, the true antagonist in the second half of the film is the very context that had been avoided in the first half of the film. Political roadblocks, bureaucratic (and male) bravado, and the weakening will of the American public to condone torture continue to confound the heroine, albeit indirectly. I say antagonist, and not villain, because the movie permits us to wonder if perhaps applying the brakes might be warranted. Maya may be the heroine, but her obsessive monomania makes Inspector Javert look like a flighty dilettante.

Most reviews talk about the incredibly graphic and incredibly long torture scenes (although I imagine those scenes are barely half as graphic as the real thing), but the early scene that really stuck with me is when Maya, Jessica Chastain’s character, arrives at her desk in Pakistan for the first time. She notices the thick dust and grime on the desk, makes a half-hearted attempt to brush it off, sighs, and then sits down. She and the other characters can turn off any sense of ethics like a switch, and it is only the shutting out of context which permits this. The movie doesn’t tell us if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it does show us that it has had a very steep price. It asks us if the price was worth it and allows us each to provide our own answer.