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Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword & Sandal Film, edited by Michael Cornelius


“Hercules!  Table for eight!” one of the bots says on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  The feature ripe for riffage stars Steve Reeves, has sub-par dubbing, and copious shots of Reeve’s chiseled torso.  Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword & Sandal Film explores the history, interpretation, and sexual politics of the sword and sandal film.  Michael Cornelius editorial acumen brings together numerous academic essays focusing on this particular film genre.  The first set of essays focus on the sword and sandal film (also known as the peplum, the name of the short skirt-like garment wore by the muscle-bound heroes).  These essays investigate the peplum film’s development and history.  The second set of essays focus on specific pop cultural products in the peplum genre, ranging from film to TV series to animation and parody.  The essay collection functions simultaneously as a précis and a convergence of numerous disciplines (film history, gender studies, pop culture studies, classical studies, literary theory, and others).  One can hope to see a more thorough investigation of the peplum genre that build off this initial essay anthology, either in the form of monographs or a tighter anthology refracted through one of the various aforementioned disciplines.

This Barthesian excursion into a much-maligned genre seeks to revivify it through reconnections with its classical roots and older waves of peplum films.  The genre originated in Italy with the Maciste films (one even had proto-fascist poet and adventurer Gabriele d’Annunzio as a screenwriter), being a modification of the “strong man” film genre.  The connection to d’Annunzio is further complicated by the Second Wave peplum films, those produced in the Fifties and Sixties with American bodybuilders as the “Hercules” figures and financed by Italian production companies.  (Also those routinely skewered by MST 3K.)  Maria Elena D’Amelio’s essay “Hercules, Politics, and Movies” posits that American stars and Italian funding helped viewers negotiate with the Fascist past.  As evidenced by plots involving the musclebound hero liberate an oppressed populace from a tyrant.  The peplum hero also works in a similar way to American Westerns, in that the liberator does not become the ruler, only as a means to restore the political status quo.  While Westerns have the White Hat Hero riding off into the sunset, the peplum usually has the hero heading back to his farm and reuniting with his wife and child.

Heteronormative fail.

On a similar note, several essays explore the problematic sexual politics of the peplum film.  The most notorious film, the recently released 300, had obvious heterosexual cheerleading and made the villains into gay caricatures.  (As one blogger snarkily put it, turning Xerxes’s armies into “a gay pride parade from Mordor.”)  Another essay, by way of counterexample, explores the intentionally problematic sexual politics of Pasolini’s Medea.  Pasolini received short shrift from contemporary film critics because of his status as a gay Catholic Communist filmmaker and poet.  The connection between heroic heterosexuality and conservative politics makes 300 a popular film among American conservatives, but also, predictably, at least given the clockwork-like predictability of Republican gay sex scandals, one of the most unintentionally gay films released in recent years.  However, film fandom operates in strange ways, perhaps giving rise to a resurgent gay fandom for 300.  The film’s ham-fisted sexual politics beg for audience mockery and derision.

The author is a child of the Eighties and grew up playing with and watching the Masters of the Universe TV series.  Michael Cornelius writes an essay finding parallels between the Masters of the Universe franchise and the gay clone subculture (e.g. The Village People, Tom of Finland).

In an overall worthy collection, it is the final essay that disappoints.  Daniel O’Brien’s essay investigating The Three Stooges Meet Hercules in terms of parody within the pepla genre fails not in content, but in execution.  The serious tone of academic writing clashes with the film’s comedic content.  Visual gags and the crazy plot get explained, but the ill fit occurs when O’Brien’s prose belabors the obvious.  Understanding parody and burlesque is instrumental in understanding the pepla genre, since it is another aspect of pepla’s multifaceted nature.  In the end, this reviewer kept uttering the phrase, “Well, duh,” while reading O’Brien’s anodyne explanations.

Despite the final essay’s shortcomings, Of Muscles and Men offers a variety of analyses into the pepla genre and its attendant pop cultural significances and problematic sexual politics.

“It’s Always Sunny in Pyongyang”: A Tribute to Kim Jong-il


Dictatorships: Leading an Insane Clown Posse of One’s Own

Late last year, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il died.  Along with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and global supervillain Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong-il (1941 – 2011; Supreme Leader, 1994 – 2011) joined an esteemed list of rat bastards no one will miss.  At least no rational person.  That’s the rub, since the Supreme Leader of the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea has been perceived as a crazy lunatic nutjob.  Everyone from David Letterman’s writing staff to the writers on Cracked.com have made a cottage industry from the simple equation: Kim Jong-il = Crazy!

As illustrated in the clip from 30 Rock, Kim Jong-il acts like a hyper-positive weather man, asserting that North Korea is “always sunny all the time.”  In a gonzo performance, comedian Margaret Cho turns the dictator into a goofy clown with absolutely no connection with reality.  (Which makes him totally different from our esteemed political leaders.  Right, guys?)

Critiquing dictators is nothing new in pop culture.  The most prominent historical example is Charlie Chaplin’s the Great Dictator (1940).  What is new is the twist given to this critique, that of insanity.  Its usefulness shouldn’t be underestimated.  With an accusation of insanity, a critic does not need the obligation of taking the target seriously.  The critic also comes from the privileged position of “sanity.”  Unlike other people who are labeled “insane” or “mentally disturbed” (the homeless, the elderly, etc.), Kim Jong-il possessed a massive concentration of military power and the unswerving obedience of the Party machinery.  When not making ridiculous claims, saber-rattling North Korea’s neighbors, and living in obscene opulence, he came across as threatening as an Elvis-coiffed garden gnome.

The charge of insanity made it easier for Internet comedy writers, but was it actually useful or effective?  It is hard to quantify in real foreign policy terms.

The Political Aspects of Insanity

Thus far, we have taken insanity as a given.  If you’re a North Korean despot who claims to have invented the cheeseburger, the charge of insanity seems firm.  However, insanity itself is a slippery concept.  Like the words “reality” and “culture”, insanity can become a loaded term.  How does one define “insane”?  Who defines the term?  What power do they have?  What are the political aspects of insanity?

Insanity is a different breed of affliction than, say, high blood pressure, asthma, or tuberculosis.  One can point at a chart, an X-ray, or read-out and come to an agreed upon conclusion.  The term itself (“insane”) has become the cultural shorthand for the different and maladjusted.  This should not be confused with those who suffer from brain defects or neurological disorders.  Unlike a severe cranial trauma or brain deformation, insanity has as much to do with medical knowledge as with political consensus.  Kim Jong-il was such a real-life caricature of state terror, that is was easy to label him insane.  Kim’s father, Kim Il-Sung, represented a very dangerous threat to national security and his totalitarian rule was nothing to laugh at.

Today charges of insanity usually arise on Internet discussion boards when one voices doubt in the inherent durability of the American two-party system.  Because the economic and global situation has become so bad, it would be utterly insane to vote for someone other than a Republican or Democrat.  (Because these same two parties and the same people in power have done such a bang-up job, I should keep them in power.  Now who’s being insane?)

Because the first step to being different is thinking different, insanity has been used as a regulatory measure to control one’s family life, sexuality, and personal associations.

“Only an insane person would like _______” (Pick what you detest most.)

A. Gay people marrying.

B. A literal interpretation of the Bible.

C. Kim Jong-il.

D. The Atlas Shrugged, Part I movie.

What becomes dangerous about the definition of insanity is it becomes the psychiatric tool of political consensus.  Attacking the opposition by characterizing them as insane lunatics has caused the usual heated American political discourse to become completely abandoned.  Since the Occupy member thinks the Tea Party member is crazypants, then it’s no use even talking to them.  (The reverse is also true.)  Both sides need to abandon the hyperbolic rhetoric and realize they are missing the forest for the trees.  (Obviously, both those groups are insane.  Hey, isn’t that no-account, corrupt, adulterous sleazbag up for re-election in my district.  I need to keep him or her in office for another term to fix things.  To the voting booths!)

Insanity: That’s so Gay!

The political uses of insanity have had real consequences, damaging to individuals and their families.  The fields of psychology and psychiatry buttressed and refined what was formerly the province of religion.  Religious persecution of homosexuality is a given with examples, modern and ancient, too numerous to recount.  Adding fuel to the fire was the psychiatric community’s assertion that homosexuality was a form of insanity.  Like other forms of insanity, it was seen as something “curable”.  In a peculiar twist that shows the circular relationship between religion and psychiatry, certain religious organizations make routine claims that they can cure homosexuality.

Only in 1973 was homosexuality removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).  Its presence in the DSM made homosexuality easier to criminalize and prosecute, since persecuting homosexuality on religious grounds violates First Amendment protections.  (While the First Amendment guarantees free exercise of one’s own religion or non-religion and not getting taxed by an established religious authority, the amendment does have its limits.  These include human sacrifice, bigamy, and violent persecution of another group.)

Consensus can become a dangerous weapon, especially wrapped in the garb of the scientific rhetoric used in psychiatry.

Occupy North Korea

One of the predictable criticisms of the Occupy movement is that Communists run it.  But this is a critique too boring and too predictable to comment on.  What naïve leftists within the Occupy movement need to realize is that free market plutocracies aren’t the only places with an oppressive One Percent.  It takes many forms, usually dynastic.  One sees this with the Saud Family’s financial mismanagement, monumental corruption, and radioactive hypocrisy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Two despots, one car: The Rolls Royce of Czar Nicholas II and Lenin.

North Korea also has its One Percenters.  And like the United States, it asserts it is a democracy run by the people.  (Don’t believe me?  It’s in North Korea’s name.)  The upper echelons of the North Korean Communist Party and military apparatus sport huge waistlines and live in grandiose mansions.  A North Korean Party hack represents the average North Korean the same way an overpaid, multiple-married, pill-popping AM talk show host represents “the Real America.”  Faux North Korean Communism is as real as Faux Conservative Populism.  Both are hard to take seriously and both are manufactured and targeted at rubes too dumb or too scared (or both) to think for themselves.  “If those Democrats are elected, then Obama’s gay Muslim abortionists will take my Bible away!”  “If those Republicans are elected, they will ban abortion, bomb Iran, and make us all Protestant!”

And Kim Jong-il invented the cheeseburger.

In the words of self-styled exercise guru Susan Powter, “Stop the insanity!”

Happy Independence Day!


What better way to celebrate Independence Day than to have Patton Oswalt talking about KFC’s Famous Bowls.  Time to wrap your patriotism in a high calorie bowl of sad.

And to celebrate New York state legalizing same-sex marriage, here’s Brian Posehn talking about Slayer.  Hopefully this will assuage the gay panic of the cultural conservatives that make up our readership.  (All seven of you.)

And what better way to celebrate America than with that most of American of series, The Wire.  With our current economic unpleasantness, the question remains: “Product or territory?”