Authors Archives: Frederik Dhaenens

Review: Screened Out. Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall.

Richard Barrios

London: Routledge, 2003.

At the time Richard Barrios published Screened Out in 2003, the cinema going audience had not yet met with Ennis and Jack, the two ‘gay cowboys’ from Brokeback Mountain (2005). At the point of writing this review, we still have to wait for the theatrical release of Milk, Focus Features’ next ‘big’ gay film. Just like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Milk is directed by a well-respected director (Gus van Sant) and has major stars as its gay protagonists. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger were praised for their acting, and it is likely that the same will happen for Sean Penn who plays the San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected for such a substantial political office. What makes both these films outstanding is their singularity. Major films that feature gay and lesbian characters as main protagonists remain rare in mainstream cinema. One still has to turn to smaller art houses for independent queer film productions. Homosexuality is often used as a source for stereotypical parody, and although a slight sense of subversion should be encouraged, one could wonder if popular mainstream comedies such as I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry (2007) can make a difference in representing the queer community. Independent film production, world cinema and certainly television production do dare to politically and socially challenge contemporary society’s presumptions on sexuality and identity. But ever-present Hollywood is staying behind in relation to the rest of Western society, portraying a reality where on-screen queer sexualities are often lacking. Of course, some dramedies such as My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) and The Object of my Affection (1998) had a ‘gay best friend’, but major adventure and action films did not yet feature a queer lead.

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Review: Screening sex

Linda Williams

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008

By Frederik Dhaenens

Linda William’s Screening Sex is undoubtedly indebted to the legacy of Michel Foucault. In 1976, he stressed that there is no essential truth and fixed meaning in relation to human sexuality. How one experiences and/or expresses sexual desires depends upon a specific time and place. He argued that there is no core identity that defines one’s sexuality. Rather, the construction of sexual identity happens within the realm of a specific society where hegemonic discourses define the sexual, and social, political and cultural institutions are used to subdivide sexuality into categories of preferable, deviant or restricted sex acts. Throughout history, each society has been relocating its boundaries and redefining what is approved sexuality and what is sexually perverted. Stephen Garton (2004) argued that because of this continuous shape-shifting it is impossible to draw up ‘a’ history of sexuality. Yet, he stressed that it is important to study the diversity of sexualities throughout history. In a similar way, Williams does not set out to write a history of the representations of sex but presents us an assessment of different discourses on the screening of sexualities throughout the history of the moving images. Although her book is a chronological retelling of cinematic representations, she does not consider her study to be a straightforward story that starts with humble kisses and ends with explicit in-your-face pornography. She is more concerned with how these screenings of sexuality became part of the carnal knowledge – the sexual awakening of an individual – of US American audiences. According to her, American audiences dealt with these sexual expressions like a child deals with carnal knowledge. She sees it as knowledge that came too soon or too late, in the shape of a vague, deferred and blurry revelation. To this end, she uses Sigmund Freud’s concept of primal scenes. This refers to the first moment a child witnesses its parents having sex. The child does not understand the scene and defines it as a violent scene while at the same time being sexually aroused by it.

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