Queer Film Club: Death Becomes Her

I don’t really know how to be critical about a whole film, but I think it’s important to understand that Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her is not a deep film. It has no desire to make an incisive comment on the state on vanity in California. Not being deep is a core criticism of the film I can find from a cursory glance of the film’s reviews. It’s ridiculous to use depth (an arbitrary measure anyway) to measure the quality of a film. Films like Death Becomes Her suffer greatly from this search for depth to qualify a work’s artistic integrity. Films like Death Becomes Her are not trying to be deep, because they are concerned with the surface. Surfaces are important to think about for a lot of reasons. One is because they are where we express our internal world in an understandable way to others. Another is that surfaces are where the external world gets inside and affects our internal composition. Basically, surfaces are porous or partially permeable in some way. So, films like Death Becomes Her are important because of their focus and exploration of surfaces, because they demonstrate how surfaces are an interface between the internal and the external.

I think surfaces are important for queer people because they are prohibited from queer life. What I mean by that is that there is no right way to express a non-normative sexuality at a surface level in a heteronormative culture. Queers are constantly criticised for expressing their queerness on the surface. Any queer person is likely to have encountered the phrase ‘don’t shove it in my face’ from someone. It’s used against pride goers who are dressed and painted and expressing their sexuality in the most outrageous way possible at the surface. It’s used against couples who are holding hands in public. Conversely, queers will also experience instances where they are not being queer enough in the surface expression of their queerness. There is no right amount or right way to express queerness on the surface. It makes sense, then, that queers celebrate and become attached to things where surface is the focal point. Halloween and drag are probably the most recognisably attractive things to queers. Costume is all about surface and changing the way your body appears to meet an intended expression. It might be temporary, but a socially acceptable moment to express your identity at a surface level is presented and taken by queers at halloween and in drag.

It’s also worth noting that for heterosexuals there are ‘right’ ways of expressing gender and sexuality at the surface level. Women, I think (I’m not a woman, so I won’t ever have a first-hand knowledge to draw from) experience prohibitions and limits on the surface expression of their gender identity. Men, as well, face prohibitions when it comes to the surface expression of their gender identity, though to a much less limiting extent than women or queers. I wouldn’t know where to begin with the ethnic and racial dimensions of the surface expression of gender identities. However, one prohibition that comes through to all heterosexuals in their surface expression of gendered and sexual identities is the playground derogatory phrase ‘that’s gay.’ If the surface expression of your identity is in any way queer, it is mocked, derided, and prohibited. I’m going on this lengthy tangent because it furthers my argument that instances of acceptable surface expression of queerness are few, far between, and revered by queers in their own queer way.

Films like Death Becomes Her are all about surface. Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn only care about their surfaces, their outward experience, the ‘look’ of their pallid, dead, flesh. The Gothic qualities of the film (the large, architecturally confusing Beverly Hills mansion and castles, the potion itself, Steep and Hawn’s character’s undeadness) allow for heteronormative control of surface expression of gender to be destabilised. All men in the film effectively act as servants to the women in the film. Streep, Hawn, and Rossellini find limitless power in their youth and beauty–they invert the subjugating power of the male gaze to gain power. In a broad sense, this is an act of queering. By seizing control of their surface identity expression through the potion in the film, their femininity is empowered using the very tools that would normally exert control over their surface identity expression. The film’s Gothic aspects destabilise the power dynamics that corroborate with fixed gender identities, queering the femininity of the film. Consequently, this exposes the celebratory politics located in the Gothic’s generative qualities.

A suitable counter-argument to this would cite the end of the film, where Streep and Hawn leave Bruce Willis’ funeral. Willis’ character’s narrative ends with indication that he led a full life after leaving the shallow, nightmare world of Beverly Hills. Meanwhile, Streep and Hawn look the same age, but their undead bodies are even more delicate from years of continual abuse. They are unable to paint their bodies well, and so look kind of terrifying and kind of funny. The film ends with Streep and Hawn falling and their bodies literally breaking apart. This scene would seem to indicate that a gravitation towards youth and beauty is a bad thing. The film’s Gothic elements take this point to an excessive conclusion by showing our undying anti-heroine’s bodies literally collapsing. Meanwhile, the dead guy has had a rich and full (and whole) life. This scene suggests that excessive surface expression of identity, to the point where gender identity is destabilised, prohibition and the expected power positions attributed to a binaristic man(top)/woman(bottom) gender system done away with, is a bad thing to be craved by anyone. This scene suggests that the status quo, mortality and a good, but short, life is the preferred outcome. Indeed, the film can easily be read as using the Gothic to maintain the status quo by showing the terrors of destabilisation. This reading, however, skips over Rosselini’s warning earlier in the film. Rosselini’s character tells Streep and Hawn to ‘look after their bodies’, which they blatantly do not do. Hundreds of other characters have been successful in this endeavour in the film, including Marilyn Monroe and Elvis. The gala scene proves that. It is not Streep and Hawn’s vanity, and the broader queering the film does to gender, that is criticised by this scene. It is their disregard of this instruction from Rosselini. When we think of this line across the whole room, with Streep and Hawn’s characters not looking after their bodies, it is clear that Death Becomes Her has no qualms with vanity or queer surface expression. It continues to celebrate it, through and through, provided you look after your body. That is what makes the film an even more deliberate celebration of surface expression. In combination with those broader queerings going on, a celebratory queer Gothic politics emerges in the film, which is what I think makes Death Becomes Her such a popular film within the queer community.

Death Becomes Her, in its comic Gothic way, expresses a control over surface identity prohibited from queer people in daily life. Intentional or not, Streep and Hawn are textual representations of a political queerness that is realised by the Gothic qualities Death Becomes Her employs for comic effect.

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So this was fun and I’ll do more of this as I watch more films. Some things I couldn’t talk about in this were that I think that Hawn and Streep’s characters act in similar ways to drag queens. I think this because of the characters’ textual queer politics, their disregard of expected gender roles and binaries, their over the top characteristics, campness, cattyness, and endless quotability. Interestingly, this parallels a lot of Gothic conventions, particularly the elements concerned with exploring the instability of boundaries, tendencies towards excess, and referentiality. I would call this reading a ‘drag reading’, and I think to some extent, I’ve performed a drag reading in my analysis of Death Becomes Her. So my questions really are this:

Is Death Becomes Her a queer film for other reasons?

Are Hawn and Streep drag queens in this film?

What are your thoughts on my thoughts?

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Queer sexualities and Gothic Drag – The Boulet Brothers

In my first blog post, I touched on how Queer, more specifically queerness embodied by drag, tends towards horror, the Gothic, and monstrosity. Well, I mentioned the Boulet Brothers and that I’d talk about them anyway, so this is that. The Boulet Brothers are fixtures of California’s underground punk/fetish scene, identifying themselves as ‘fetish queens’ on occasion. It makes sense. They met in a fetish club, their costumes always have latex and other fetishistic fabrics somewhere in them, and their drag nights (Beardo Weirdo, Dragula, and a third one I’ve forgotten right now) very much celebrate countercultural punk attitudes with a queer drag flair.

At the same time, every image of them that I see makes me think Gothic more than fetish. To some degree the two intersect, but I’d like to put forward my case as to why they make me think Gothic. First, their signature look is ‘creepy twins’ all over (‘the house down’ if you want to be draggy about it). Eerie twins abound in the Gothic. I don’t really feel the need to support that with evidence, when it is such a common trope. It becomes extra creepy when we factor in how their uncanny resemblance is achieved through the tools of drag. Skilled with makeup and costume symmetry, the Boulet Brothers become creepy twins. They also look hauntingly stunning (I hate using such stereotypical Gothic essay words like haunting), embellishing this eeriness further. They frequently feature a slit throat motif, either with makeup (below), necklaces (macabre and humorous pearl ones probably), and contacts that either black out their eyes totally or colour their irises unnatural shades.

boulet-brothers

(unclockable, horror women demons from a Guillermo Del Toro Crimson Peak knock off B-movie. I LIVE)

What excites me about the Boulet Brothers particularly is that they excellently support my notion that queerness is monstrous to heteronormativity (and that that is used is a celebratory fashion in drag). Their identification as ‘fetish queens’, intersecting the taboos of fetish sexuality and queerness, manifests through monstrosity. The Boulet Brothers present an interesting amalgamation of sexuality that deviates from established social norms, using Gothic aesthetics. Their carnivalesque drag nights effectively become spaces to celebrate deviant sexuality, and their use of Gothic aesthetics highlights the inherent perception in heteronormative culture of deviant/queer sexualities as monstrous. Obviously, carnival is something of a double-edged sword as the celebratory space can quickly be demarcated outside the norm, blocked off and isolated to the realm of the carnival (or clubs in this case). That said, drag is more overtly becoming part of pop culture, primarily because of the appropriation of queer/black (in America at least the two have had a consistent relationship since at least the emergence of the ball scene in the 70/80s) language by predominantly white pop culture media outlets (a fancy way to say Buzzfeed uses RPDR gifs a lot and the term ‘Shade’ incorrectly). There is currently a competition show on YouTube hosted by the Boulet Brothers called ‘Dragula: The Search for the World’s First Drag Supermonster’. (I honestly can’t tell if the budget was very tight for the show, or if they’re deliberately evoking B-movie horror. Either way, it’s good). The internet is very much the best medium for queer carnival’s embodied by the Boulet Brothers to break the carnival’s isolationist tendencies.

(Watch this damn trailer and don’t for one second tell me that queer sexualities aren’t laced with the Gothic in the Boulet Brothers at the very least.)

Writing academic things like this is hard without scholarly material available to me to back up my thoughts, so forgive me if certain critics would work really well with these thoughts.

I guess what I’m trying to get at with all this is that gothic drag works often as a vehicle for queer and often deviant sexualities. The monstrousness highlights the otherness of queer/deviant sexualities, and drag works to celebrate that otherness. Creepy as all hell it may look, it demonstrates the positivity of drag and how monstrosity forms a very particular part of that positivity. As I mentioned in the first post, Sharon Needles’ songs often imbricate celebratory attitudes to queerness and queer sexuality, and then mix in Gothic horror motifs to challenge the perceptions of monstrousness that queer and so-called deviant sexualities permeate heteronormative culture. The Boulet Brothers demonstrate that well, because their drag intersects queerness with fetish and monstrousness, celebrating their monstrousness, and throwing it almost defiantly at a culture that would otherwise stigmatise queerness and fetishism.

Again, there is a lot to unpack in all of this, and I definitely would do better with some resources, but at least my ideas are stored somewhere other than in my head. What I want to think about with the Boulet Brothers is: What Gothic do they invoke in their drag? How does drag alter the Gothic? How does Gothic alter drag? And what is the result of all this?

boulet-brothers-2-jpg

“Legendary” and Gothic Drag

This is an idea I’ve been playing around with in my head for a while. “Legendary” and “Iconic” are words thrown around in drag seemingly all the time, and they’re both very flexible terms. It can reference certain drag performers, performances, looks, films, and so on. It seems to me, in some part, to be a way of establishing, for want of a better word, a canon of drag and to work to create referential cultural moments with drag/queer/LGBT (sub)cultures. I’m not sure. All I know is that the following are some prime examples of “legendary” drag things in action:

Films:

Obviously, the legendary films relating to drag are Paris is Burning and Pink Flamingos (though this may be because Divine herself is an icon). I don’t really know what makes them iconic beyond the fact that they achieved a mainstream level of success for a sub/counter cultural performance style that is drag, punk and the ballroom scene to varying degrees.

I’ll likely post about film at a later date when I’ve give it a little more though because there’s definitely more to these reference points than just them being queer films (and drag queens draw on traditionally heterosexual/normative film, tv and lit as well, so I’ll need to think about it more anyway).

Queens:

Iconic and Legendary queens abound. James St. James makes a point in one of his ‘transformations’ episode on YouTube about queens being “legendary” in certain regions and for a limited time, so being truly “legendary” is something that is constantly worked on for queens to retain their relevance. That said, there are certainly “legendary” queens now, thanks to things like RuPaul”s Drag Race providing a platform for queens to generate an iconic, legendary status. If I were to cite “Legendary” queens, I would undoubtedly have to include breakout stars of RPDR like Raven and Jujubee, Raja, Latrice Royale, Ongina, Sharon Needles, Alaska Thunderfvck 5000, Jinkx Monsoon, BenDeLaCreme, Bob the Drag Queen, Violet Chachki, and so on. In addition, there are queens from RPDR and more general internet and television fame like Kim Chi and Willam to add to that list. Finally, there are the queens who have made a name for themselves and achieved a legendary kind of status like RuPaul, Lady Bunny, Bianca Del Rio (also a winner of RPDR), Lily Savage, Divine, and Dame Edna Everage. These queens are all so stunningly vibrant and excel in so many varied ways that comparison between them isn’t begged but may be necessary later on for investigative purposes. They are legendary for their impressions on audiences, their skills in certain facets of drag, and for other reasons I haven’t really thought about.

It seems that “Legendary” encompasses a kind of non-fame, or maybe anti-fame?. “Legendary” Queens are famous and revered in their very small circles. “Drag will never be mainstream” is something that I’m paraphrasing, but RuPaul says it often enough. “Legendary” status is memorable, culturally impactful, those regular famous this. But it is also inherently queer and countercultural. To be “legendary” is to be a queer kind of famous, both in the sense of actually being queer but also in the old use of queer as strange (if that makes any kind of sense). It speaks and appeals and becomes famous because of its queerness, and in heteronormative culture that also shuns it. I don’t  really know how to explain it, because “Legendary” things (in my experience) also bring up physical and mental reactions in me. Take the “Legendary” Tandi Iman Dupree performance below. This is a performance I have watched many times and it still makes my brain scream “yasssssss” very loudly. It makes my head move and my mouth drop. If I was partial to it, I would probably snap my fingers viciously and cheer every time it happened (and if I weren’t in public). It invokes a physical and emotional response that celebrates queerness and is queerness embodied in itself. A man in a wonder woman costume fell from the ceiling into a split, broke her heel and continued a performance of spins, kicks, dance moves and choreographed launching, all whilst perfectly lip-synching “Holding out for a Hero”. If that doesn’t make you go “yassssssss” and doesn’t evoke a physical and emotional response, you’re probably a happy heterosexual who’s never experienced a sudden release and celebration of their sexuality. But I think that’s what “Legendary” is, to some degree anyway. And it comes out in so many ways, so let’s get to the bit I want to talk about the most: when monsters are brought into drag…

(YES MISS TANDI)

So, if “Legendary” equates to queer in every sense of the word iconic/famous moment, then it makes perfect sense that monsters and monstrosity quickly become iconic looks. There are a plethora of looks and Queens I can draw on for this, but none really do this specifically as well as Sharon Needles. I could make reference to the Boulet Brother here or British Queens like Meth and Bruise, NYC Queens like Severely Mame, and more I probably don’t know, but Needles really does monstrous drag the best. The Boulet Brothers I’m gonna talk about in a different post when I’ve put more thought into monstrosity’s relationship to fetish in what I’m broadly labelling as Gothic Drag. Now, miss Needles.

Take this for example:

That runway is “Legendary” because of it’s spectacle, because nothing like this had been done before through a televisual medium (Drag Race has always had a difficult relationship with certain drag styles… Sharon kind of changed that).  It’s “Legendary” because it’s a moment that is so famous, and it is queerness in so many senses of the words. It’s a zombie, with blood pouring down its face, but there’s still drag makeup contouring, and heels. A zombie. In heels. It’s audacious and brilliant, beautiful, queer and uncanny. In a word, “Legendary”. Okay, I’ll try and be critical and not just gush over this look. Sharon does this constantly. Her aesthetic, in her words, is “beautiful, spooky, and stupid”. She has Lovecraftian looks, vampire looks, zombie looks. She’s dragged up Freddy Kreuger and Poltergeist.

Monstrosity, for Needles, lends itself well to “Legendary” status. I’m not fully sure why, but I think there are multiple reasons. Monstrous bodies are Other to “(hetero)normal” bodies, so they interpolate well with bodies indicted with queerness, as in drag queens. Does it create something new, smushing monsters with queerness? Yes, but I don’t think it’s as simple as Queer monsters, because LGBTQIA bodies are already queer monsters. I think it brings those anxieties to the surface by fully realising the monstrous and queer sexuality (more on that in fetish and gothic and the Boulet Brothers). And also, using iconic monsters in this way also takes them from their traditional heterosexual context. I’m not suggesting Bram Stoker was queer or anything… what I’m trying to get at is, gothic drag appropriates the queerness of monstrosity, intersects that with the existing monstrousness of non-heterosexuality, and compounds it into a body that celebrates its otherness (I think this is also why many queer music videos create spaces where gayness for want of a better word is on display and celebrated as well… Very few of Needles’ songs/videos don’t bring sex(uality) into it as well). In turn, this affords its “Legendary” status, because its queerness embodied, celebrated, and made famous (kind of). And by celebrating queer monstrosity, reappropriating it via dragged out monsters from heteronormative culture, the practice of Gothic Drag becomes inherently celebratory in a lot of ways. I’m not really sure where it goes beyond that and I definitely need to unpack all of these ideas more and research them more, but I think that’s the basis of my thoughts to do with “Legendary”/“Iconic” moments and the Gothic at the moment. So… yeah.

Also, I’ll do a proper post that provides more kinds of “Legendary” or “Iconic”, but I think you get at least the base idea from this short post.