Twice in the last two weeks I’ve told people that the reason I haven’t taught my Using Humor in Writing seminar in so long is that I stopped wanting to teach on Thursday nights (and our MFA Program holds every seminar on Thursday nights). This got laughs from the people I was talking to, one a student and one a colleague, and when they naturally asked why, I gave the same answer, the only answer I could come up with that felt honest: I’m still an undergraduate at heart. I always want a longer weekend.
I’ve written about this before, but as a queer person, one who probably won’t have kids, I’ve plucked myself out of the Adult Narrative that our stories keep asserting as normal. I’m 42, and when I look back on what I remember of This is 40 it seems like some weird fantasyland. Probably I’m less alone in this feeling than I feel. Possibly a lot of these feelings stem from my being the youngest of three, and only really feeling like myself when I find myself around older folks and get to play at being the most naive and childish of the bunch.
What I mean is the other night, N had a sleep study, and after dropping him off at the clinic I came home and had the whole apartment to myself for the night. I stood in the middle of our little room and looked around and tried to find an activity. My guitars were locked up in the campus office they’ve barred us faculty from entering, and anyway I didn’t feel like playing the guitar. I decidedly didn’t want to read. Did I want a second drink? I didn’t, especially, but I poured myself one for lack of any better ideas.
I didn’t want to watch TV, because it seemed like such a waste of time. Watch TV is what we do every night. Usually when I’m alone and there’s a movie to watch it’s a horror film, because N isn’t into horror films, but I didn’t want to have to muster the concentration to sit through a new movie. Probably these are the signs of depression, if not clinical then the depression most of us have been weathering this year, when so much of what used to be the world we lived our lives in has been shut off to us.
I didn’t think that night about my friends with kids—and especially my friends with schoolkids who have told me how unimaginably difficult it is working from home and parenting all day while kids try to learn remotely—but I’m thinking about them now. It must be hard to raise even one kid, much less multiple ones. Perhaps to a parent, getting to stand alone in a quiet room able to do anything I wanted seems like a luxury, but as hard as it is to raise kids, at least with a kid you never find yourself standing alone in a room and feeling like a useless human. The duty of helping a kid grow into this world must always infuse your life with purpose and meaning, and in the lack of those feelings the other night I decided to watch Rocky Horror Picture Show.
A safe estimate is that this was the 30–35th time I’d watched the movie, which my friend Mark and I grabbed from Blockbuster one sleepover night in 1991 and brought back to my place to watch. I was transfixed. One of my talents as a homo is an inborn understanding of camp. Mark was straight (well, so was I), but like me sought out the unusual, and so we rewound to the part where they did the Time Warp and practiced it that night to show off in school the next day.
This is one way that RHPS is coded for me as an adolescent pleasure. The other way lies somewhere in the movie’s spirit. RHPS is bratty, clowning. Its parody-embrace of old RKO creature features, and its queer camping of those tropes—that’s what it offers. It’s not about saving the world. It’s not about being a better person or living a more fulfilled life. It’s decidedly not about facing the stark realities of our world, and nor is it a fantasy that gives us heroes to emulate. (Well, that’s ultimately not true, but I’m getting there.)
More than any cartoon movie—Spongebob, say, or one of the Minions movies—RHPS feels like the exact opposite of a movie like Revolutionary Road or Marriage Story or 1917 (none of which I can bear to watch), in that any movie for kids is always also a tool for parents. Adult things involve children and their care. Every adolescent is divorced from the adult world—no longer its concern but not yet allowed to be a part of it.
But also RHPS is not Twilight, adolescent movie par excellence. RHPS is disinterested in reducing the complexities of human emotion into good-evil binaries, and RHPS never argues that love comes always to the most deserving.
One of the chapters every adult homosexual has to go through (some gifted queers might achieve this in adolescence, and if so bully for them) is solving the problem of desire and identity: Do I want to fuck this person or be this person? It’s a conflict borne obviously from same-sex desire (i.e., heteros are nothing like the people they want to fuck, nor can ever become them), but less obviously from a feeling of being lesser or unfit—which, given how 95 percent of the stories our culture tells involves heterosexual men and women having a hard time being a family unit, is a common feeling among us gays.
To see how this works, let me show you some lines from this Leo Bersani article. I’d use the term “seminal” to describe it, but that word doesn’t mean for homos what it means for heteros,[*] so I’ll use the term a friend of mine learned when she clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” is a pathbreaking work of queer theory, and one of Bersani’s main points is how homosexual desire involves (or carries the potential for) a love for one’s enemies (i.e., the masculine-reading straight men who make our lives worse). Here he is on camp:
Parody is an erotic turn-off, and all gay men know this…. The gay-male bitch desublimates and desexualizes a type of femininity glamorized by movie stars, whom he thus lovingly assassinates with his style, even though the campy parodist may himself by quite stimulated by the hateful impulses inevitably included in his performance. The gay-macho style, on the other hand, is intended to excite others sexually, and the only reason that it continues to be adopted is that it frequently succeeds in doing so.
Not all gays are campy, but campy is what many of us gays are; it’s not, Bersani argues, what we desire. We desire macho, which is what we’re not (or at least, how we don’t feel, given how macho has been defined for us, and sometimes even by us). Here’s the desire/identity bind spelled out for us once again. It’s what makes us heterosexuals, maybe: we want what we aren’t.
Watching RHPS the other night, I saw in Frank the way out of the bind.
We’re in the laboratory, before Rocky’s unveiling. Brad and Janet stand in their underwear, men’s shirts draped over their shoulders.
Frank: It’s not often that we receive visitors here, let alone offer them hospitality.
Brad: Hospitality? All we wanted to do was use your telephone, God damn it! A reasonable request which you’ve chosen to ignore!
Janet: Brad, don’t be ungrateful!
Brad tugs off his eyeglasses and glares at Frank, who’s holding a coupe of champagne in a hand covered in a fingerless sequined glove. Frank smiles and looks as though he’s fallen in love.
Frank: How forceful you are, Brad. Such a perfect specimen of manhood. So…
Frank looks down at the bulge of Brad’s briefs.
Up in the gallery, the Transylvanians gasp and titter, and one of them leans in, replacing her eyeglasses with some kind of fey opera glasses, so as to see Brad more clearly.
Brad looks down, covers himself up, and doesn’t say another word. Frank proceeds to flirt with Janet, and he makes her giggle when he asks if she has any tattoos.
Here, suddenly exposed and looked at, so under everyone’s gaze, the dominant straight man is either cowed or sheepish. (Pick your animal.) Brad’s performing, let’s call it, the straight-macho style, which is intended to frighten or intimidate others, and Frank’s power in this moment is how he turns those macho intentions into erotic fuel. He doesn’t out-macho Brad. He knows that the macho style is a scrim, a void, and it’s camp that tells him this. Camp teaches us that we’re all always performing. As the witting, intentional performing audience to Brad’s unwitting performance, Frank becomes alpha, with a string of wide pearls around his neck.
Note that for this to happen, Frank has to be understood as speaking very sincerely. He really does see Brad as a perfect specimen of manhood. The sudden presence of that real desire is what disarms Brad. If there’s any talent we have as gays it’s to speak of sex when straight people aren’t prepared for it—not as a way to be bratty or immature (which are hetero dismissals that say it’s time to put away childish things, like adolescent hormones), but as a way to remind the world of desire’s permeation.
Later in the movie, Frank turns all the humans into statues so he can dress them up like himself and make then do a show for/with him. It’s a gift they seem to appreciate but ultimately not learn from.[**] Here’s what Janet sings during her part:
I feel released.
Bad times deceased.
My confidence has increased.
Reality is here.
The game has been disbanded.
My mind has been expanded.
It’s a gas that Frankie’s landed.
His lust is so sincere.
My emphasis, but maybe not given the ritard and what Janet’s voice does there. Frank collapses the desire-identity bind by being both: I want him (because the movie continually demonstrates he’s very good at sex) and I want to be him, because he is so much more than I am, but also because he is so fully himself.
It’s unlike, say, with musclebears, because in wanting (sometimes, I’m not proud of this) to be another musclebear, I want to be able to feel like an object of desire as I understand it. That is, I want, by looking like that object, to feel the receiving end of my well-known desire. This is not the same as wanting to be the musclebear. This form of wanting to be the man I want to fuck doesn’t take into account the actuality of the other. It’s, when you think about it, another form of narcissism.
Instead, by being Frank, I want to feel less like (my own) object and more like a subject—the subject of such a knowing, wise, and generously (here it comes again) disseminated desire.
Even homos want to be completed. Every homo wants someone who is more than they feel, or has more or has achieved more. The gay-macho ideal is a fantasy that believes we ourselves can achieve, through sex, or through being seen as desirable, an identity always already validated by the culture. And when your identity is nearly always invalidated, that fantasy is HOTT. And because I am campy and I hate myself, I have to hate camp and loathe it in bed, for how quickly it destroys the fantasy of my macho becoming.
Frank shows us all how camp can deliver us to, and remain a part of, a self-eroticized sexuality. I don’t mean this in the way gays are so often dismissed as narcissistic. I mean an erotic imaginary that comes from a total acceptance of yourself and a full understanding of what you want. This is far more difficult to achieve than muscles and a beard,[***] and that’s what makes Frank (not devoid of macho, we should finally admit) one of the sexiest men ever to appear on screen.
I mean, look:
And to return to where we began, there’s something bittersweet in going back to the things that gave you pleasure in adolescence. The bitter: Why can’t I grow up and move on? or Nobody else wants to talk about this movie but me, and why isn’t that making me better? and also Why couldn’t I see Frank’s promise at 13, when I most needed it?
The sweet comes when you see that no art is adolescent—or all art is, if adolescence is ultimately best understood as a time of rapid growth and becoming.
- Given what I’d bet is a far higher ingestion rate of semen among the homo population, a queer definition of “seminal” might be: experienced or taken in less for nourishment and more for pleasure or fellow feeling. As in, Have you watched the Unsolved Mysteries reboot on Netflix? It’s totally seminal, but also has a public service element.↵
- Warning: the Netflix edition of the movie cuts out the “Super Heroes” number at the very end, thus taking away whatever moves this movie makes to make meaning happen. This might be a smart choice, in that “Super Heroes” is a total tonal 180 and really does come, narratively, out of nowhere, but I still think RHPS—as much a tragedy as anything by Aeschylus—is better with it.↵
- And once achieved, it sees the campy performance behind muscles and beards.↵