by Carl Wilson
There’s a recent essay by a person I know a little bit, the poet and critic Stephen Burt, called “My Life As a Girl,” in which he explores a twilit place in the gender continuum – that he likes to wear women’s clothing sometimes, but only sometimes, and doesn’t feel like he is a woman, but maybe that he’d wish to be one, at least sometimes. (That’s him above.) He muses that he is a grownup version of the “pink boys” that the NYT Magazine wrote about in August (that piece is well worth reading too).
I liked Stephen’s essay the way I like anything that tangles up the strings of the either-or. In the movement to recognize trans-people’s identities, as I think generally happens when there’s a breakthrough of recognition, realignments of categories, there’s a tendency to talk as though the boundaries are fixed and definitive. This is often necessary, in order to make practical demands or simply to establish some clear space. But there’s also some losses and diminishments that happen there, at least temporarily. “My Life As a Girl” reminded me of the way “queer” was used more in the 1990s to put forward the skewed inbetweenness of much of life and identity. No matter how you define yourself, you have a queerness to you, and Stephen’s piece really vividly challenges us to honour that – to “tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson advised.
I most identified with the section in which Stephen talks about his attraction to “twee” music, an indie-pop subgenre in which “nobody wanted, or tried, to be a real man.” In my aesthetic life, I’ve often embraced the apparently weak and girly, or at least the brazenly non-masculine – poetry, soap-operatic melodramas and miniseries, the fantastical, and so on. But as I’ve aged I’ve been drawn more to varieties of realism than I once was, and some of that tweeness has definitely drained away. I appreciated having the frillier, featherier part of my taste tickled by Stephen’s story.
Two very different movies I’ve seen lately touched a similar nerve, both of them through music. (And note, I’m going to “spoil” things about both, so if that kind of thing raises your umbrage, act accordingly.) The first is The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest epic, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix squaring off against each other in a life-duel – it’s a mentor-student relationship, a father-son one, and finally a suppressed love affair. That’s hinted at in various sequences in the movie but only fully acknowledged in their final scene together, when the Master sings “Slow Boat to China” to his wayward ward, shakily as a confession, almost an apology – that perhaps if he’d admitted his infatuation earlier, their dealings with each other needn’t have been so violent, one long wrestling lock between two scorpions.
The story is hypermasculine, although ultimately the most powerful person in it is a woman, Amy Adams’ beautifully controlled performance as the Master’s vigilant wife, who by seeing through the absurdity of the boys’ games is able to turn them to her advantage, at least as much as her subservient position allows.
Like Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, it’s about (among many other themes) the way that blinding your heart to the queer fractures in your self can be fatal, though how deliberate the resulting annihilation is (“fast living, slow suicide”?), it’s impossible to be sure.
And then there’s another recent Amy Adams movie – the one with Jason Segel, songs by Brett McKenzie (Flight of the Concords) and a whole bunch of muppets. And the Oscar-winning song, “Man or Muppet.”
There’s another male dyad here, but this is the triumphantly queer, comic version in contrast to The Master’s tragic one.
The queer hinge in the whole Muppets movie is Jason Segel’s relationship with his “little brother,” a muppet named Walter, who is small, asexual and childlike. It’s amusing throughout the film that the fact that his brother is a muppet a tenth his size has never given Segel pause until now, and what to make of that is unstable – at times it seems Walter might have some kind of developmental disability, or has somehow been traumatized (the absent parents, perhaps).
But the emotional crux of the plot is that Walter has to separate from Segel to take his place in the muppet world – a very queer storyline, about moving from birth family to chosen family, which Walter manages in a beautifully campy gambit I won’t give away. And Segel, meanwhile, has to separate from Walter to vouchsafe his hetero-masculinity with Adams, in line with the “manchild to family man” arc of a lot of the Judd Apatow-style, non-puppet-musical comedies that Segel’s normally in. (That said it’s worth mentioning that Adams’ very girly character is first seen repairing a car and later proves to be a master electrician.)
But the “Man or Muppet” song serves, in what might otherwise be a very rote story, to acknowledge and mourn the double-edgedness of that choice, with both Walter and Segel singing about their mutual queer-identity crisis into mirrors where the muppet sees himself as a man (Walter sees the actor who plays the Aspergers-savant case Sheldon on Big Bang Theory) and Segel sees himself in muppetface (which is at once funny and unheimlich). But the trick is in the chorus when they sing: “If I’m a muppet, then I’m a very manly muppet,” and “If I’m a man, that makes me a muppet of a man.” For all kinds of practical, life-map kinds of reasons, or at least in the eyes of Hollywood, you may have to make some socially legible choices around sex-gender identity as an adult, but you do need at least the leeway to affirm, the way Segel does at the end: “I’m a muppety man/ That’s what I am.”
(unfortunately I can’t find the actual movie clip, only the official trailer-ized one, in which other scenes from the movie are cut in – it doesn’t quite have the same effect, but you’ll get the idea)
… Otherwise you may end up confining your true self in a ship in a bottle, drifting so slowly it will never reach China or any other port, all by itself, alone. By contrast, Segel and Walter’s duet, like Stephen’s essay, is a true anthem for the Ambiguity Liberation Front.
PS: The muppet movie’s other delightful little ode to wholesome perversion is “Me Party” sung in a similar dissociated-duet by Adams and Miss Piggy, which includes a nice little Chaplin tribute, and gleefully owns up to its onanistic subtext in its final line. Adams just shines.