Mr. Krabs: “Well, it makes you look like a girl.”
SpongeBob: “Am I a pretty girl?”
I know you are but what am I?
The first time I worked in film was in [John Waters’] Multiple Maniacs, a film about maniacs, obviously, and a giant lobster-turned-rapist.
–Cookie Mueller, who notoriously had sex with a chicken on film in the name of ART
Last week, I discussed my introduction to male looking and the male gaze through something akin to belittlement, a Lolitalment which I experienced at the age of thirteen through some surfer dude’s blue eyes.
Thirteen is trauma. A perfect starting point for baptism into patriarchal looking. Learning to go pp. patriarchal peeking.
The male gaze refers to the masculine architecture of visual culture, visual culture from a dude’s-eye view in terms of construction and consumption (although I hope I am decuntstructing (t)his house). This week, I move with the male gaze and away from it, towards aerobics and poultry. Both are succulent. Both involve breasts, legs, and thighs. Both feature chicks.
As a child queerdo of the 80s, I recall sipping lukewarm Dr. Pepper from a can in my parents’ family room. I gazed at a broadcast of an aerobics class, perhaps part of the Jazzercise franchise, on our midsize TV. This box stood on a fake wood cart next to our radically unnecessary fireplace. Carbonated prune juice tickled the walls of my mouth as I experienced so many paradoxical thoughts, feelings, and thoughtful feelings about what I was watching that math couldn’t keep up. Hot white women in pastel thong leotards were squeezing their hips and thighs and thrusting their abdomens on a screen near my face. Teacup breasts jiggled. Sweatbands crowned the Aphrodites. Hard nipples reached for me through Spandex suspenders.
You can’t spell isometrics without erotic.
What the Dr. Pepper was doing to my mouth gazing upon super tan broads doing aerobics was doing to the rest of my body. A disturbed tingle unified all my cells. One message I was receiving from the goddesses was that if I mimicked them, I could be them. However, at war inside me were these two feelings: I-want-to-be-them v. I-want-them. My envy was pregnant with lust.
This is the queer femme conundrum. (Well, there are others, but this is a biggie.) This is queer femme panic. My friend Wendy sums up this dilemma, and its impact, with characteristic eloquence: “In my early 20s, when I learned about the male gaze, I used to think maybe I wasn’t really bi but had just internalized this way of watching. It was pretty fucked for a while there.”
Although they are instructional exercise pieces, Jazzercise videos and the like are absolutely products intended for male consumption. Aerobics performances feature “characters” that become fetishized objects. They are frequently reduced to parts, the same parts one finds in the poultry section of most meat cases at the supermarket.
While my thoughts and feelings about televised aerobics classes confounded me, I worked them out through art. Through collage.
Art, and the gaze, and by the gaze I mean looking in a way intended to consume visual culture, both highbrow and popular, was fluently deployed in my household. I honed competence in looking at the world through an art lens because a) art is my gender and one is born into one’s gender and b) my Mexican grandmother, with whom I watched a lot of TV, was a painter. I painted and drew with her, and she often drew and painted me, teaching me that I was a subject worthy of artistic rendering. We practiced intergenerational gazing together. Did you do this with your fat Mexican grandmother? Did you watch Wonder Woman with her as she painted you in Mexican Technicolor oils, thus teaching you that you are both object and subject? I know, I’m lucky.
(If you squint hard enough at the reflection, you can gaze upon my grandmother’s dead face. The Mexican gaze…)
Although I liked drawing and painting, I worked out my Jazzercise issues through a distinctly queer art form. William S. Burroughs, the writer who gave us Junkie, Queer and Naked Lunch, also taught us that if you want to shoot your wife in the head and get away with it, go to Mexico, said this about the queerness of collage, albeit linguistic collage: “Cut ups are for everyone. Anybody can make cut ups. It is experimental in the sense of being something to do…Cut the words and see how they fall…Use of scissors renders the process explicit and subject to extension and variation … Cutting and rearranging a page of written words introduces a new dimension into writing enabling the writer to turn images in cinematic variation.”
A la Burroughs, I sat on a high stool at our kitchen counter with a stack of Peoples and TIMEs I’d borrowed from our magazine library, the toilet tank. The rest of my assembled art supplies–glue, markers, and typewriter paper–sat near my right hand. I got to work scissoring. I cut out images of things that looked cool, silly, or whatever. I arranged and rearranged the cut outs, making myself smile, giving my prepubescent eyes visual pleasure. Finally, I arrived at a visual composite that I wanted to make permanent. I wanted to marry these disparate pieces. I glued the scissored images to paper but not before decorating the whiteness with a single word that scrolled, in rainbow variation, over and over as backdrop: chicken. I wrote and rewrote chicken in red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple and then I did it all over again. This was a chicken’s world.
I pasted a chubby hen to the middle of chickenchickenchicken…
I glued accoutrements of Jazzercise–a headband, a towel, Reebok high tops–to her bitchy fluff.
Here was a hot chick inviting the voyeur to look upon her fowl body. Hey baby, do you like to cluck?
This image of Jazzercise chicken employed my queer gaze.
Jazzercise v. Jazzercise Chicken exemplifies modes of gazing. If the feminine leitmotif of the male gaze is “to-be-looked-at-ness,”
the gendered leitmotif of the queer gaze is “w-t-f-ness.”
W-t-f-ness invokes a multiplicity of refreshing huhs? in terms of who’s behind the camera, characters being represented, and spectatorial confusion. I’m not sure who or what I’m looking at, I’m not sure who or what created this, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to look at this, I’M NOT SURE HOW I’M SUPPOSED TO FEEL ABOUT THIS.
In her book Tendencies, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explains that “[t]hat’s one of the things that ‘queer’ can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” David Halperin pulls that taffy a little harder, stating that “‘queer’ does not name some natural kind or refer to some determinate object…There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers…”
Thus, the queer gaze makes a space for, sets out a welcome mat for, the weird, the grotesque, Peter Pan, earthquakes, Halloween, mistakes, confusion, nice clowns, evil clowns, lobsters that become rapists, rapists that become lobsters, lobster bisque, monotony, HIV, AIDS, cooties, and the beauty and triumph of failure.
The following images are intended for queer consumption. Some of them are classic queer whereas others are “neoclassic.” As you look at them, think about why they manifest queer gaze terms of who’s behind the camera, characters represented, and you, the spectater tot.
NEXT WEEK: Putting the gaze to the test…performance art performed upon the unsuspecting.