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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Doing Drag Readings

severely-mame
Drag Queen Severely Mame. I just like this picture, it doesn’t have much to do with the content of the post.

My PhD thesis is becoming more structured in my head in terms of what I want to explore and the time period I want to consider. There are going to be two main threads of argument that work off of each other. My first line of inquiry explores the Gothic drag, considering how the Gothic intersect with drag and what the Gothic does the drag. Particularly, I want to explore how aspects of monstrosity colludes with drag. There is a wealth of texts that explore transformation in the Gothic, and a wealth of texts that explore Queer Gothic, but I have yet to find something that brings the two together in the context of drag. When drag performers and acts like Sharon Needles, The Boulet Brothers, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the entire cast of Dragula, and pop culture phenomenon Elvira (and to some extent Morticia Addams… the Jennifer Huston one in particular), I really don’t understand why no one (as far as I can find) talks about drag, and that subset of drag that is monstrous gender performances, within the various queer, transformation, Gothic, or fashion theory fields of academia.

As I’m reading more and more (currently, I’m reading Majorie Garber’s “Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety), I’m starting to notice patterns when academic talk about queer gender performances, gendered clothing, and causing ruptures at sites on the gender binary. Mostly, I’m noticing how a lot of these texts were written in the late 80s and 90s, a period that is synonymous for me with opaque and lengthy academic writing. Undoubtedly, this is because of the establishment of theory in the arts and humanities critical toolkits. In my area of interest, no doubt I’ll have to go and read “Gender Trouble” at some point, though I’ll put it off as long as possible, because Butler is the queen of opaque and lengthy academic writing. But one other thing that is synonymous with the 80s and 90s academia, is a kind of underlying misunderstanding of queerness, clothing and gender performance (I’d even argue a casualised homophobia is fairly frequent). I have yet to fully untangle and concretely think about all these misunderstandings, but my ultimate pet peeve is this god awful tendency for these texts to regard “Cross-dressing”, “drag”, “transvestite”, “transsexual”, and “transgender” as interchangeable synonymous term. This is a real pain when the second line of argument in my PhD intends to use drag as a tool for reading and interrogating the Gothic. Garber frequently does this in “Vested Interests” and it really gets on my nerves, because the text is otherwise promising (this will be laid out in a proper review of the text when I’ve finished it.)

Viewing these terms as interchangeable degrades each terms meaning. It’s not just the mild transphobia of equating “cross-dressing” with “transsexual” that’s makes these texts miss points and make mistakes. It’s more the fact that critics following on from the initial 80s/90s gender performance and queer texts keep doing it. Transgender/transsexual has largely been dropped and isn’t seen as interchangeable with the other terms (good), but “Cross-dressing”, “drag”, and “transvestite” are largely perceived as meaning the same thing. I imagine no one thinks it’s important to draw discrepancies between these things, but I imagine anyone who knows a damn thing about drag or transvestism probably knows those discrepancies are present, and important. So, in my limited knowledge, I’ll lay down how I intend to approach and use these terms, for the sake of “doing drag readings”. This is subject to change as I continue to research and develop.

“Cross-dressing” is probably the easiest because it’s the most explicit. I see cross-dressing as simply the act of wearing clothes that cross a boundary. Largely, this is the gender boundary, but I don’t see why it can’t be considered cross-dressing when someone crosses a boundary like class, status, or something else (was Cinderella a cross-dresser?) Cross-dressing does not have to cause a rupture in the boundary, it does not have to have any wider political stance. In my opinion, cross-dressing is the act of dressing in such a way that the individual crosses a boundary.

“Transvestite” as far as I am aware is the fetishisation of cross-dressing. It turn the person cross-dressing on. Again, this largely is known to cross the gender binary. Dressing as a woman turns the man underneath on. Again, I don’t see why transvestite can’t relate to other kinds of boundary crossing. Is a “Puppy” a transvestite because they are aroused by “being” an animal? That’s for someone with more interest in the subject to dissect. The main point still stands. The act of crossing a boundary through dress is fetishised for the transvestite.

“Drag”, for me, is the more complex one, but again, the distinction from the other two terms is fairly simple. To me, drag is the simultaneous celebration of queerness and mockery of heteronormativity through the act of cross-dressing and explicit gender performance. I’m being intentionally vague here because I need this idea to encompass drag queens, drag kings, bio-drag (I’m not a fan of the term “bioqueen” as it takes drag out of the title, so assumes the “bioqueen” in question is not doing drag and therefore not mocking heteronormativity or celebrating queerness), and other drag performance styles. When you get into the specifics of each type of drag style, there will undoubtedly be more nuance to these actions. I also think that that the mockery and celebration elements are distinct from each other, not a “two-side of the same coin” situation, though the drag performers probably do both at the same time anyway. A drag performer does not get aroused by being in drag (though you can be a drag queen and a transvestite). A drag queen mocks heteronormativity by explicitly performing as a “woman”; a pageant queen does this by participating in pageant and becoming a “beautiful woman” (usually with heavily exaggerated female features to hide the man… again, something to untangle); a horror queen does it by becoming a “feminine monster”; bio-drag performers are women performing as “women”… mockery.

Celebration takes the form through the overt and explicit queerness. Drag is rife with coded language (a reclamation/evolution of the coded language lgbt+ people would use back when being lgbt+ was illegal) and reclaimed terms (“queer”, “faggot”, “bitch”, “cunt”, drag reclaims queer and feminine insults and makes them positive and affirmative). Drag performers are explicitly queer and they take center stage at Pride events for that reason. Mocking heteronormativity and celebrating queerness rupture the gender binary, which is reflected back onto the drag performer and encoded in their clothing, character, makeup, and all those other things which encompass drag. The differences between these terms are important because with such discrepancies, we can begin to unpick and perform solid critical and cultural analyses.

Now, with these discrepancies somewhat outlined, go and look at pictures of drag queens and think about the different ways they celebrate queerness and mock heteronormativity.

I want to do more with this, but I’ve exhausted my brain writing this and I think it’ll be two full blog posts so I can properly begin exploring this. I should also probably try and write these upcoming “readings” posts with a little more care than my usual dribblings. I think I’ll do one on Gothic Drag, looking at Elvira as a key example of that, and one on Drag Gothic, considering if the book “The Lie Tree” features drag (I think it does). These two upcoming posts would work nicely off each other as they both focus on women performing doing drag, which is quite handy for me.