The Place of Rage and Imagined Violence in Ridley Scott’s ‘Thelma and Louise’ and Lisa Cholodenko’s ‘The Kids Are Alright’, (Film Essay), April 2014

thelmaIn the following essay I am going to look at Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991) and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010) in the light of Judith Halberstam’s article “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence, Representation, Rage, and Resistance”. I will look at both films in relation to the place of rage and imagined violence and the significance of their presence and absence. Beyond Halberstam’s analysis of the place of rage in cinema, I will aim to point out the consequences and significance of eradication of violence in popular culture in favour of positive images, which I hope to demonstrate in relation to The Kids Are All Right. In subsequent paragraphs I will explore Halberstam’s elaboration on the link between fantasy and reality, and their relation to representation and identity. Halberstam notes that “the excess is the disruption of identity and the violence of power and the power of representation; it is dis-integrational; the excess is QUEER.”[1] Whilst referring to the notion of queerness, I will support Halberstam’s definition, wherein she states that queer denotes “a postmodern, postidentity politics focused on but not limited to sexual minorities.”[2] Halberstam further quotes Audre Lorde who notes that “imagined violence disintegrates the power of (…) the mythic norm,” [3] which reveals its most significant potential. Further in support of Halberstam’s arguments, I will connote the imagined violence with the potential queer holds with respect to representation and identity. In the same way as Halberstam argues that Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), “despite the desire and destruction around a web of lesbian killers”, is not a homophobic film, I will argue that Thelma and Louise is not an anti-men film, but, whilst taking up a reverse discourse against repressive heterosexism, it is primarily pro-queer. Similarly, I will also argue that The Kids Are All Right, with its lack of rage and violence, does not subvert but is subordinated by the “mythic norm”, defeating the queer potential of the early 1990s popular culture expressed in Thelma and Louise.

The common belief echoed in Halberstam’s essay is that fantastical violence generates real violence. Halberstam talks about the common “moral imperative to not fight violence with violence.”[4] The controversy around violence on screen continuously resonates in popular discourses, with representations of violence attracting a lot of media attention to filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino. Alison Young in her book “The Scene of Violence: Cinema, Crime, Affect” notes, for example, that “video certification for Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) was delayed for two years in the wake of the (…) debates about media violence after the murder.”[5] Here Young references a mob murder committed at the time of the film’s release date. Halberstam stresses in relation to Thelma and Louise, however, that “there is no direct and simple relationship between imagined violence and real effects: (…) it would only restabilizie the relationship between the imagined and the real to claim that representing female violence quells male attacks,”[6] Halberstam’s main argument against the immediate effect being the constant refiguring the relationship between desires and representation. As the effect of negative images is disputed, these debates consequently lead to questioning the significance of a positive image as I will argue in the course of the essay. B. Ruby Rich in her book “New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut” whilst referring to Basic Instinct and Thelma and Louise argues that “both films echoed the NQC’s contention that ‘negative images’ could be reclaimed within a new postmodern, queer moment: the cultural attitudes evolving at breakneck speed into ‘queer’ required the redemption, even transfiguration, of the negative into the positive.”[7] Films like Thelma and Louise, Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), Marcelo Piñeyro’s Burnt Money (2000), Gus Van Sant’s My Private Idaho (1991) weave into the queer moment Halberstam refers to, as they call into question the status and significance of positive images in relation to a queer subject. The Kids Are All Right, on the other hand, seems to reverse this. Through its rigid portrayal of family life, sexuality, race and most of all economic and social relations, the film limits a scope of representation and identification. Consequently, it calls into question the credibility of the image itself and its relation to representation and reality. I have found Robert Stam and Louise Spence’s discussion on the consequences of positive images in “Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction” helpful to my critique of superficially positive image The Kids Are All Right purports. Stam and Spence call ‘positive image’ reductionist, if not wrong and “inadequate and fraught with methodological dangers.”[8] In terms of representation and identification, I argue that The Kids Are All Right does not allow queering of the image and whilst supporting the heteronormative structures as well as those associated with white patriarchy, it consequently falls into the preexisting structures queer rejects in favour of conscious and purposeful ambiguity which can be located in Thelma and Louise.

My analysis is further informed by critical commentaries and readings of The Kids Are Alright. Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush in “Alternative Scriptwriting: Beyond the Hollywood Formula” note, for instance, that “it’s Jules who explores the premise of the film. That premise, am I homosexual or heterosexual shakes up the stability of the family.”[9] Dancyger and Rush also state that “Jules is very much the emotional labile female in her relationship with Nic. Nic on the other hand is the stable, critical male.”[10] Instead of developing a new language and new structures, Dancyger and Rush reverse this potential and discuss the film in rigidly heteronormative terms, making their arguments appeal reductionist and even homophobic. This preexisting heteronormative language, however, can be located in the film itself, therefore justifying such critical debates. The film elicits clear and defined identities in its portrayal of the family. This is evident in a number of instances. When Jules decides to break off her sexual relationship with Paul, one of the arguments she uses is the fact that she’s a lesbian. Jules avoids specification or, more importantly, ambiguity in favour of a clear identity, the stability of which she finds safe and reassuring. She thus positions herself outside of the ambiguous heterosexual attraction she feels for Paul. This is not to question Jules’ homosexuality but to critique film’s relying on an empty identity that in the course of the narrative lacks substance. Indeed, her sexual attraction towards Paul is given more time and credibility than her sexual drive towards Nic.

the-kids-are-all-rightThere is also no potential for queering the family. Even in terms of narrative structures, the film preserves its character of the family melodrama as the threat to the family (Paul) is removed and the family, its “mythical norm”, is restored. There is no further attempt at reconstructing the family structure. To this end Stam and Spence note that “we should be (…) suspicious of a naïve integrationism which simply inserts new heroes and heroines, this time drawn from ranks of the oppressed, into the old functional roles that were themselves oppressive.”[11] The family is repositioned and thus subordinated by the heteronormative structures, with Nic clearly presented as more masculine and Jules as more feminine. What is more, The Kids Are All Right does not question the patriarchal gender roles within its imitation of a heteronormative couple’s lifestyle. Nic is a stable, decision-making breadwinner whereas Jules is weaker, as illustrated by her affair with Paul and disorganized professional life, and financially dependent on Nic. To go along with Judith Butler’s “Gender Is Burning” and her critique of drag, similar imitation in The Kids Are Alright supports not only the heteronormative but patriarchal structures, as it makes no attempts at subverting these images.

In relation to representation, Halberstam notes that the key lies in regaining power over representation and reclaiming it. Halberstam thus states that “my entry into representation may erase your control over how I am represented.”[12] This can be literally applied to The Kids Are All Right. It should be noted that it is a lesbian director directing a film about a lesbian couple. Therefore, unlike Thelma and Louise – the violent woman figure as seen through the male gaze of Ridley Scott, however created by the female writer Callie Khouri – Cholodenko gains power of self-representation. Halberstam, engaging with David Wojnarowicz’s writing, touches upon the epidemics of AIDS, stating that the disease “maps out the limits of identity, the murderous effects of inadequate health systems, the ideological investments of medical institutions, and the breakdown of even the unity of the Right.”[13] The disruptive force of violence, in this case, the AIDS-stricken body transformed into a symbol of postmodern politics[14], engages thus extensively with the question of social morality and ethics, strictly interwoven with questions of identity with its total disruption of structures. It calls for a lack of separatism between social, cultural, gender and sexual identities and socioeconomic status. Rupa Huq in “Making Sense of Suburbia Through Popular Culture” states the following: “The Kids Are Alright (2010) depicting a lesbian couple (making it unclear exactly who is ‘the wife’) and their family situated firmly in suburbia where they instill middle-class values into their children including sending thank you notes for presents received.”[15] Yet, Cholodenko limits the queer potential of the film to a narrowed representation of a white, middle-class lesbian couple. This hardly leaves any points of identification for other non-middle-class, non-white lesbian, bisexual, queer subjects or, indeed, repressed by heteronormative structures men and women. In its rigid portrayal of racial and class relations, the film consequently reaffirms rigid sexual and gender representations. The Latino gardener Luis is portrayed as unsympathetically grotesque, playing into racial stereotypes of Mexicans and Latin Americans living in the USA. Cholodenko therefore happily abandons action against oppression for a comedic effect. Women, queer, gay, lesbian and racial minority movements mutually supported each other as groups repressed by white and male dominated heteronormative power and only such mutually supportive representations could elicit structural change. Cholodenko positions her characters within the same structures of hierarchy and class supremacy. When Luis is fired by Jules, the action moves on without a thought on significance of losing work by someone with a highly disadvantaged social (supposed status of an illegal immigrant) and economic status. Yet, a considerate part of the narrative is consumed by Jules not being able to find fulfillment in her professional life, proving again ethically dubious and bourgeoning considerations. In terms of representation of sexuality already touched upon, it is important to stress Cholodenko’s own sexuality as she wields the power of self-representation. This seems particularly important in terms of the representation of a lesbian sex on screen, where it is often subordinated and recreated to the pleasure of the male gaze. Cholodenko chooses to, quite literally, hide her characters under the blankets as the couple has oral sex to a questionably and, more importantly, explicitly shown male porn. There seems to exist a questionable grading, wherein sex between Jules and Nic is denied, gay porn images are visible to the viewer, whereas sex between Jules and Paul is daring and explicit. The justification of such erasure of lesbian sex can only be attributed to the figures of Jules and Nic made closely associated with the acceptable family model in moral opposition to porn and cheating. Such analysis would, however, seem to inscribe not only to the heteronormative structures but their highly conservative end, making such attempts on the part of Cholodenko even more questionable. I therefore see the difference in representation of a sexual act as a moral compromise, supporting the invisibility of lesbian sex in the mainstream cinema. Such representations further undermine the credibility of a lesbian sexual act, which has always been invisible in a society, the legal definition of homosexual acts applying only to those committed by men.

Rich quotes Lynda Hart who in her book “Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression” presents arguments for a lesbian reading of Thelma and Louise. Hart points to linking of a lesbian figure with that of a criminal in popular culture. Hart notes that “if the lesbian has been constructed as the manifest figure of women’s latent criminality; we can expect that representations of violent women will be haunted by her absent presence.”[16] The ingrained representation of a violent and emasculated lesbian figure constructed in the opposition to the delicate heterosexual femininity, which has been culturally structured and saturated in opposition to a dominant male. Rich elaborates upon this further noting that “men may indeed appear along Thelma and Louise’s journey (…), but Hart’s theories of expectation and disavowal suggest that the very presence of the men becomes proof that there is something so intense going on between the women it must be masked.”[17] This ambiguity calls for a broader scope for identification and consequently through its broad representation allows itself to be a trigger of a bigger change. Sharon Willis, whilst drawing on Thelma and Louise in “High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film” states thatThelma and Louise became an instant cause célèbre: women went to see it over and over, while male pundits (…) denounced the film as immoral for glamorizing murder. A deadly gender war was trumpeted by the media in response.”[18] Wills elaborates on this gendered reception, noting that “men critics expressed fear and anxiety” whilst female critics always “whether they attacked or defended the film always felt compelled to address the crude question of role models.”[19] Wills also notes the personal dimension of media criticism of female critics, ascribing this to the film’s “openness to the fantasmatic scenarios one can bring to it.”[20] This corresponds clearly to the ambiguity of the image which opens the possibility of queerness and change unlike the rigidly structured representations and identities in The Kids Are All Right.

Halberstam concludes by stressing the power of imagining violence and its production and projection within a fantastical realm, where she claims that “films like Thelma and Louise suggest (…) not that we all pick up guns, but that we allow ourselves to imagine the possibilities of fighting violence with violence.”[21] Halberstam again links the fantastical and the real and stresses that expressions of rage and violence “might lead to something spontaneous, something that spills across the carefully drawn police lines, something threatening.”[22] The key to the imagined violence and its full potential is its continuous unpredictability and a broad scope of identification and representation. The imagined violence is also the production of previously internalized, or at least not fully visually realized, acts of resistance. The shock factor of unexpected violence serves awakening and disrupts. It exceeds the violence audiences are accustomed to, the same way queerness disrupts “the mythic norm” as far as identity is concerned. David Wojnarowicz, quoted by Halberstam, in Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration identifies the disruptive to the norm identities in “the person with Aids, the junkie, the homeless person, the queer”, whom he ascribes the power “to wake you up and welcome to your bad dream.”[23] Halberstam acknowledges that “violence against white men perpetrated by women or people of color disrupts the logic of represented violence so thoroughly that (at least for a while) the emergence of such unsanctioned violence has an unpredictable power.”[24] The imagined violence calls for disruption, it is radical in its advocating the revolution, demanding a radical and thorough rethinking of the norm it revolts against. Despite being cinematically conventional, directed by an already established Hollywood director, with a number of establishing, panoramic shots and conventional narrative structure, Thelma and Louise does not allow space for avoiding the fight against repression. Fantasy, as Halberstam notes, “contaminates” and through this viral nature and power to contaminate it is most powerful. It is furthermore “transmitted via images which enter language and mutate.”[25] It therefore serves as a catalyst for furthering the fantasy of rebellion. Agreeing with Wojnarowicz, I believe that imagination does not operate within structures or limits, it constantly evolves, its liquidity disrupting oppressive status quo through its continuum of transmission.

To conclude, in my essay I have hoped to point to significance of imagined violence and rage in cinematic texts I chose for my analysis. I have aimed to exceed Halberstam’s analysis and point to the consequences of lack of imagined violence and rage in mainstream cinema which I found the example of in a recent The Kids Are All Right. I therefore agree with Halberstam that the point of violent fantasies is to challenge gendered, sexual, racial and class repression and “create a cultural coalition of postmodern terror,”[26] which Thelma and Louise does through its direct message yet ambiguous identity, therefore broadening scope of identity and representation. In my use of Stam and Spence’s article I intended to further stress the inseparability of heterosexism from repressive class and racial structures, questioning further the status and use of positive image in mainstream culture. I hoped to argue that The Kids Are All Right shows retreat to structures it is trying to challenge through its dubious gender, class and racial representations, thus. Through this, as I have argued, it defeats the queer potential Thelma and Louise holds. It is precisely imagined violence that creates the potentiality for the structures to be continually destabilized, therefore allowing for a more democratic and more inclusive representation.

Bibliography:

Dancyger, Ken and Jeff Rush. Alternative Scriptwriting: Beyond the Hollywood Formula. Burlington: Focal Press, 2013.

Halberstam, Judith. “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence, Representation, Rage, and Resistance.” Social Text 37 (1993): 187-201.

Rich, B. Ruby. New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut. New York: Duke University Press, 2013.

Stam, Robert and Louise Spence. “Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction.” Screen 24, no. 2 (1983):

Young, Alison. The Scene of Violence: Cinema, Crime, Affect. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Wills, Sharon. High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film. New York: Duke University Press, 1997.

 

[1] Judith Halberstam, “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence, Representation, Rage, and Resistance,” Social Text 37 (1993): 193.

[2] Halberstam, 190.

[3] Halberstam, 193.

[4] Halberstam, 191.

[5] Alison Young, The Scene of Violence: Cinema, Crime, Affect (New York: Routledge, 2010), 23

[6] Halberstam, 191.

[7] B. Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut (New York: Duke University Press, 2013), 105.

[8] Robert Stam and Louise Spence, “Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction,” Screen 24, no. 2 (1983): 241.

[9] Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush, Alternative Scriptwriting: Beyond the Hollywood Formula (Burlington: Focal Press, 2013), 222.

[10] Dancyger and Rush, 222.

[11] Stam and Spence, 241.

[12] Halberstam, 195.

[13] Halberstam, 194.

[14] Halberstam, 193.

[15] Rupa Huq, Making Sense of Suburbia Through Popular Culture (London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 14.

[16] Rich, 106.

[17] Rich, 106.

[18] Sharon Wills, High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film (New York: Duke University Press, 1997), 101.

[19] Wills, 101.

[20] Wills, 103.

[21] Halberstam, 191.

[22] Halberstam, 189.

[23] Halberstam, 191.

[24] Halberstam 191.

[25] Halberstam, 194.

[26] Halberstam, 199.

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