Who Tells Your Story: The Literary Politics of Hamilton The Musical’s Curious Online Afterlife

So here’s the deal: they let the slave rapist out on bail and now he’s eating lunch with the theatre kids. When he gets done with lunch, he rubs his friend’s feet down with baby oil and tickles them with a feather. If the tickling gets tired, he might head back to his Stanford University dorm room and watch political documentaries on Netflix until he gets bored, at which point he might tease out a melody on his beloved violin or engage in filthy Skype sex with his boyfriend and fellow Founding Father.

If you’re not surprised that the third president of the United States could be engaged in the activities listed above, you might have a very active imagination. More likely, you have some literacy in Hamilton fanfiction, a sub-genre of writing developed in response to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster 2015 musical Hamilton: An American Musical. Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, through the lens of the background he and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda share: both were immigrants from the Caribbean. The musical, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016, was met with overwhelming critical acclaim. Besides the Pulitzers and Tonys and visits from Obama, however, there’s another rave audience for Hamilton, if you know where to look: self-proclaimed “Hamiltrash,” a unique subsect of theatre kids and tumblr users who have flocked online to obsess over the musical via fanfiction, comics, roleplay, and more.

 Between fanfiction.net and Wattpad (a similar site publishing user-generated stories), there are more than 40,000 stories tagged “Hamilton,” a considerable number of which feature founding father and Hamilton character Thomas Jefferson. Many of these works of historical fiction feature scenarios even more outlandish than those already described, and often pair Jefferson with James Madison in the popular “ship” (short for relationship pairing) JeffMads. In one fanfiction by “artemisartsandreads,” Thomas Jefferson survives the attacks on 9/11 and greets Hamilton’s son, whose dreams of working in the World Trade Center are crushed, from his hospital bed. Another fanfiction written by “ImCringeyTrash” takes place in the OmegaVerse, a fandom world in which Omegas, or “bitch males,” can get impregnated by alpha males: in this story, Alexander Hamilton goes into heat and pines for his alpha roommate, Thomas Jefferson. Given the extensive imaginative scenarios that Hamiltrash writers dream up for our Founding Fathers, it might come as a surprise that relatively few fan creations opt to engage with historical conditions of Jefferson’s life: among them, his enslavement of and sexual engagement with 16 year old Sally Hemings. 

Hemings, who is thought to have mothered six of Jefferson’s children, was just one of the more than 600 persons Thomas Jefferson in his lifetime. But in recent years, Hemings has taken center stage in conversations about Jefferson’s life and legacy with the publication of books like Annette Gordon-Reed’s “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” and Stephen O’Connor’s controversial but well-reviewed novel “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings.” O’Connor’s novel, which explores, in his own words, “the spectrum between love and Stockholm Syndrome” existing in Jefferson and Hemings’ relationship, prompted writer Roxane Gay to tweet “Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. Why can’t y’all just accept that? He’s been dead for a minute. It’s okay to admit the truth” (notably, this tweet has since been taken removed from Gay’s profile).

Tumblr users who tag their posts “anti Hamilton” have offered similar critiques targeted towards obsessive Hamilton fans. It’s not as if Hamilton fans don’t know that the Founding Fathers enslaved people, however: the musical explicitly mentions slavery, though the lyrical references to the peculiar institution are few and far between. Jefferson’s status as a slave owner is presented as a diss in “Cabinet Battle #1” as Hamilton calls out Jefferson’s hypocrisy with the line: ““We plant seeds in the South. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting” (a line which, Annette Gordon-Reed notes in a critique of the musical, is itself hypocritical; Hamilton bought and sold slaves for the Schuyler family). Hemings even gets a mention, though very superficially (in “What’d I Miss,” Jefferson’s introductory number, Jefferson sings “There’s a letter on my desk from the President / Haven’t even put my bags down yet / Sally be a lamb, darlin, won’tcha open it?”).  The lack of historicity in fanfictions can’t be attributed to ignorance then, but to a quality of the musical itself which renders the historical backgrounds of its characters irrelevant. This seems paradoxical: for a musical entirely about American history, why does history matter so little to its fans?

If at this point you’re thinking, “Because it’s fanfiction, for the love of God, when has historical detail ever governed poorly written online smut?”, then I regret to inform you that the issue is not localized to fanfiction. Any historical narrative in a broad sense leaves out certain details: the historical erasure of Sally Hemings from Jefferson’s story is proof of that. It’s not that the facts of Hamilton are historically inaccurate; the team behind the musical employed Ron Chernow, who wrote the hefty biography on which the musical is based, as a historical consultant. Hamilton, however, approaches history in a way most closely described by a concept called “Founders Chic,” a term coined in a 2003 Atlantic piece of the same name by historian H.W. Brands. “Founders Chic ” refers to the phenomenon in which Americans project onto the Founding Fathers intellect, virtue, and savvy in spades. Brands interrogates whether renewed popular interest in the Founding Fathers (since the early 2000s and beyond) is due to anti-liberal sentiment and a desire to canonize the individual rather than to negotiate multiple broad historical processes. Hamilton very clearly embraces “Founders Chic,” even from the first lines: within the first 30 seconds of Hamilton, John Laurens asserts: “The ten-dollar founding father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.” And it is dramatically useful to do so — “Founders Chic,” which, in the words of Ken Owens, plac[es] the roles of specific, prominent individuals at the heart of sweeping narratives of the founding era,” is essentially history as a character study, which, of course, is jackpot for a composer looking to write a historical musical.

The twist? Hamilton’s Founding Fathers are not the white stuffy elders of AP U.S. History textbooks, but rather lively young men of color who sing and rap their way through Cabinet meetings and political treatises. While the choice to cast nonwhite men and women in these roles was originally described by critics as “colorblind casting,” director Thomas Kail doubled back on that phrase for the British production, saying “We never imagined casting the show in any other way – never for one second,” he said. “We are very conscious of what we are doing here. This is not colour-blind casting.” Hamilton’s race-conscious casting has been widely praised by critics who believe the multicultural cast makes American history newly accessible to and claimable by racial and ethnic minorities. On the opposite side, some view Hamilton’s casting as a glossing over of its historical issues: Annette Gordon-Reed wonders whether the casting helped “submerge” the issue of slavery, while history scholar Lyra Monteiro questions why historically black characters are absent from Hamilton though the musical features many black cast members.  In his review of the musical, critic Hilton Als addresses the irony head-on:

Part of what the audience members delight in—what makes them feel so high and intelligent as they watch the show—is the fact that they’re in on this fabulous joke. Here is a boricua actor—whose Puerto Rican brethren, with their Spanish, African, white, and Carib Indian roots, are American citizens but cannot vote in national elections—playing a white slave inspector turned abolitionist and politician…  Who could be better for the role?

For all the focus on the multi-ethnic casting, however, most critics don’t address the most obvious and basic tenet of the play: the racial subversion inherent in Hamilton’s casting is first and foremost implied in its language. The songs of Hamilton are written primarily as rap, which began (Als does note this) as a black-male art form. To hear an entirely white cast rap the tracks of Hamilton would be cringe-inducing at best. The implication of this is that a multi-ethnic cast is necessary to fulfill the audience’s expectations for who should and can deliver its language, which, of course, came before the casting itself. Scholar Lyra Montiero writes 

“The racialized musical forms that each of the characters sings makes [the fact that casting is not colorblind] particularly clear. For example, among the actors playing the three Schuyler sisters, the one who sings the ‘‘white’’ music of traditional Broadway (Philippa Soo as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza), reads as white (she is actually Chinese American), while the eldest sister Angelica who sings in the more ‘‘black’’ genres of R&B and rap, is black (Renee Elise Goldsberry). Similarly, King George III, who sings ‘‘white’’ ’60s Britpop is performed by a white actor… while the hip-hop-spouting revolutionaries are all black and Latino.”

The racial connotations of the language they use designates the Founding Fathers of Hamilton as black and Latino, regardless of their casting. Which creates a remarkable situation: even without the visual image of black and Latino men portraying the Founding Fathers, through language, Miranda has enabled these characters to be understood and written about after the fact as black and Latino men. This becomes notable in fanfiction, where the name “Thomas Jefferson” no longer simply references the historical plantation owner. Rather, when the character name “Thomas Jefferson” is used in fanfiction, it connotes and conflates both the slave owner and the actor Daveed Diggs (who portrays Jefferson) in costume as the slave owner. Fanfiction about Jefferson references his “black curly hair… dark skin and… light stubble.” Fanart about Jefferson portrays him as Diggs.

The real strangeness of Hamilton fanfiction, then, is not that obsessive writers are penning fanfiction about slave owners going to Stanford together or tickling each other’s feet. It’s that the same proper name — Thomas Jefferson — now connotes both a bevy of historical associations, and the total subversion of those associations, which Miranda has achieved by gifting Jefferson a racialized style of communication. In Stephen O’Connor’s novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings plays with this idea; Jefferson is solely described as “Thomas Jefferson” throughout the novel when O’Connor narrates in the third person, rather than “Jefferson” or “Thomas.” But in fanfiction, the third president is both of these, as well as “Tommy;” he is not bound not by name, sexual orientation, association or time period. 

In making Thomas Jefferson a character, Miranda thus liberates him somewhat from the burden of his own history, a liberation that occurs by putting black language in a historically white mouth. And observing the fandom’s willingness to embrace and envision these characters as people of color, Miranda’s musical is not just an award-winning Broadway sensation: it is also a radical act of historiography. In his review, Hilton Als comments that “Miranda introduces his characters with a child’s wonder but a father’s authority; you can feel him standing at the edge of the game he’s created, a historical world he has remade in his image.” It’s no surprise then, that when Miranda shows up in Hamilton fanfiction, it’s as a foster dad who adopts and cares for the struggling Founding Fathers, who have notably faced abuses in numerous homes and orphanages. Whether “DemiGodGirl517” realizes it in “Alex and Foster dad Lin”, she is confirming with her scenario what critics of the musical have begun to uncover: Hamilton is not just re-envisioning and reclaiming American history, but redeeming it.

Works Referenced

Als, Hilton. “Boys in the Band.” The New Yorker. March 2, 2015 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/09/boys-in-the-band

Brands, H.W. “Founders Chic.” The Atlantic. September 2003. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/09/founders-chic/302773/

DemiGodGirl517. “Hamilton One Shots. Chapter 6: Alex and Foster dad Lin.” August 31, 2019.  https://www.fanfiction.net/s/13377051/6/Hamilton-One-Shots

Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “This isn’t colour-blind casting’: Hamilton makes its politically charged West End debut.” The Guardian. December 20, 2017.  https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/dec/20/colourblind-casting-hamilton-west-end-debut

Grady, Constance.“Thomas Jefferson spent years raping his slave Sally Hemings. A new novel treats their relationship as a love story,” Vox Media. April 8, 2016. https://www.vox.com/2016/4/8/11389556/thomas-jefferson-sally-hemings-book

Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Report of the Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Appendix H: Sally Hemings and her Children.” January, 2000. https://www.monticello.org/thomas-jefferson/jefferson-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-a-brief-account/research-report-on-jefferson-and-hemings/appendix-h-sally-hemings-and-her-children/

Meneo, Liz. “Correcting Hamilton.” The Harvard Gazette. October 7, 2016. 

Miranda, L. (2015). Hamilton: an American Musical [MP3]. New York: Atlantic Records.

Montiero, Lyra D. “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.” The Public Historian, Vol. 38 No. 1, February 2016 (pp. 89-98).

O’Connor, Stephen. Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings. (New York: Penguin Books, 2016). 

Owen, Ken. “Historians and Hamilton: Founders Chic and the Cult of Personality.” The Junto. 

April 21, 2016. https://earlyamericanists.com/2016/04/21/historians-and-hamilton-founders-chic-and-the-cult-of-personality/

Fleabag’s Fourth Wall: Whether Direct Address in Filmmaking is a Successful Tool for Feminist Subversion

In light of today’s feminist media landscape where the strong, brave, capable woman is preferable to the damsel in distress, I feel almost embarrassed to admit that I am a massive scaredy-cat. The hum of a whirring dishwasher or whisper of wind outside my window while I’m nearly asleep is enough to send my eyelids flying wide open and my fight or flight response into overdrive. As a middle school latchkey kid, I’d sit beside my apartment door after school with my algebra homework and the biggest kitchen knife I could find. Naturally, Black Mirror and American Horror Story are off-limits after sundown, lest I have a nervous breakdown and dial 911 after mistaking my sister for a home intruder. But the most unnerving moment of television I’ve watched recently didn’t concern ghosts or vampires or chainsaws. I was most unsettled when a supporting character from the show Fleabag I’d been watching from the comfort of my bed all season seemed to notice me lying there, and yelped.

Fleabag is written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a British actress and comedian who adapted the television series from her one-woman show of the same title. The series follows the life of a sarcastic young Londoner, nicknamed “Fleabag” though her name is never spoken in the show, who must navigate the death of her best friend, changing family dynamics, and a series of men who are interested in her affections. The defining stylistic feature of the series is Fleabag’s constant breaching of the “fourth wall,” a narrative device which allows Waller-Bridge to deliver quips, background information, and emotive expressions directly to the audience. Fleabag’s direct addresses to the viewer allow an intimacy to develop strictly between Waller-Bridge and the audiences who receive her confidences, as no other character in the series can hear Fleabag breaching the fourth wall to share her private thoughts. That is, until the attractive priest who Fleabag develops romantic feelings for in the show’s second season (played by Andrew Scott) can sense that Fleabag is “going somewhere” but cannot hear what exactly is said to the viewer. The effect of this discovery is jarring for protagonist and viewer alike, who had assumed that as a stylistic element of the cinematography, Fleabag’s direct addresses were not negotiable amongst other characters. As the series progresses, Fleabag’s quips thus transition from the medium in which Fleabag communicates to a point of conflict between Fleabag and The Priest, as Fleabag refuses to disclose where she “disappears to” when The Priest inquires.

 

Fleabag is not simply excellent for its hysterical writing and exquisite acting. The series is extremely innovative in that it marries a cinematic technique — breaching the fourth wall — with an element of Waller-Bridge’s character — the guardedness and performativity that prevents Fleabag from engaging in vulnerable conversations with the other characters in the series. This innovation generates in turn a captivating paradox that pits viewers against the characters they view: Fleabag’s lack of vulnerability with the other filmed characters is heightened by her divulgences in us. Audiences, through the very act of viewing Fleabag in her eponymous TV show, are now implicated in preventing the protagonist from achieving her desires within the series.

But Fleabag’s deadpan confessions to the camera also allow the viewer insight into the female psyche which can increase our intimacy with and empathy towards her. Fleabag refers to the audience as “friends” in the first episode of the second season and acknowledges we are “always there.”  Thus, a second paradox emerges: Fleabag is ostensibly sharing her most honest thoughts while confiding in the viewer, but her confidences are delivered in a distinctly performative strategy, making her asides potentially unreliable as the series progresses. Is breaking the fourth wall thus a visual strategy that allows the viewer a greater understanding of a female subject being viewed and greater agency on the part of the female subject, or does direct address permit a female subject to manipulate the viewer while the viewer confuses this manipulation for intimacy? 

To approach this question without some context of the history of direct address within filmmaking and theatre would be injudicious. “The fourth wall” is originally a theatrical formulation referring to the collectively imagined partition separating actors who purport to portray realistic narratives from audiences who consume these fictions. The original staged production of Fleabag relied on “breaking the fourth wall,” a tactic in which an actor dissolves the partition by addressing her spectators directly. As Fleabag was originally a one-woman show, direct address is not unexpected as a narrative strategy: since there is no other character onstage that Fleabag could enlist to share her narrative, the audience must be her scene partner.

However, direct address can still occur when there are multiple characters onstage or on screen. Shakespeare utilized the tactic when his characters make “asides” to the audience, and the fourth wall was noticeably absent in vaudeville theatre. In his book “Breaking the Fourth Wall,” scholar Tom Brown notes that early motion pictures were “frequently more concerned with what might be called a ‘vaudevillian’ engagement with its audience than with a more rigorous creation of a unified fictional world” — early cinema screens, which were placed in vaudeville theaters, projected characters who joked, flirted, or threatened with the viewer by way of the camera.  Film scholar Jane Feur posits that direct address in cinema is thus not “inherently subversive or radical” — Feur claims direct address can signify (though I’d argue, simulate) the “intimacy of live entertainment.” In the early decades of the 20th century, however, both film and high theatre transitioned towards a “realism” which positioned viewers as passive observers of narrative screen fictions. Fearing that this passivity could allow actors to manipulate audience emotions, German playwright Bertolt Brecht radicalized direct address in the 1930s as a tactic of his Verfremdungseffekt, or “defamiliarization effect,” in which actors were encouraged to remind viewers that a play was but a representation of reality rather than an actual occurrence. While Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt was specific to the social theatre practice he sought to develop, the basic concept of unmanning a spectator of narrative fiction is clearly applicable in feminist film interventions in the later 20th century and beyond.

In her oft-cited 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure in the Narrative Cinema,” film theorist Laura Mulvey argues that the passive spectator of illusionistic cinema might actually be an agent perpetuating patriarchal control. In making the camera’s look invisible to the viewer, and seemingly invisible to the actors it confronts, narrative cinema allows voyeuristic viewers to project themselves into the action of the screen: 

There are three different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the profilmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience . . . (Mulvey, 843).

The minimization of psychological distance between screen and viewer allows the feminine subject to be uniquely fetishized as the spectator takes pleasure in the act of looking unseen  — meaning if the framework were reversed, and the separation of looker and looked-at were exposed, the resulting art would have revolutionary feminist potential. The revolutionary potential of disrupting the illusion of narrative immersion had already interested Brecht, who viewed direct address as a tactic through which to achieve this disruption. Mulvey’s addition was the implication that direct address by women could be a tactic to overturn or unnerve the traditional masculine gaze. 

Enough male protagonists have broken the fourth wall in mainstream cinema for the practice to seem “gimmicky” (see: Fight Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Wayne’s World, and so on). But if critics reread direct address as an attempt on behalf of male characters to control their portrayal and thus assert control over the audience’s interpretation of the narrative (by gaining their sympathy and identification), then the “gimmick” might actually be subtly referencing its own ideological power. The television drama House of Cards, and an incident occurring after its lead actor Kevin Spacey was fired from the show amidst sexual assault allegations, demonstrates this principle unnervingly. 

In House of Cards, Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a politician scheming his way into powerful government positions. Underwood frequently addresses the viewer in House of Cards to deliver political advice, ask rhetorical questions, and make statements about the nature of leadership, in the style of a government official offering a televised address. While Brecht conceived of direct address as exposing the manipulations of narrative fictions, once direct address is normalized as a stylistic component of a show, characters might actually weaponize direct address to manipulate viewers into a certain version of that narrative fiction. When Spacey was fired from the show, the writers behind House of Cards made the decision to kill Frank Underwood and thus sever his addresses to the viewer. A year after the allegations surfaced, in his first public appearance since his termination from the show, however, Spacey filmed one last direct address “as” Frank Underwood: a three minute monologue posted to his YouTube channel titled “Let Me Be Frank.” In “Let Me Be Frank,” Spacey blurs the line between himself and his character by subtextually addressing his sexual assault allegations while still “in character.” “Oh sure, they may have tried to separate us, but what we have is too strong, it’s too powerful,” says Spacey/Underwood. “I mean, after all, we shared everything, you and I. I told you my deepest darkest secrets…  And you trusted me, even though you knew you shouldn’t.” 

Audiences accustomed to hearing from Underwood via direct address might read this video as another instance of Underwood breaking the fourth wall, although Underwood’s words clearly reference actions attributed to Spacey. When you think about it, this is rather extraordinary: though Underwood’s character had by then been written out of House of Cards, Spacey liberates the character of Underwood from his own narrative by utilizing the same stylistic device as Underwood to deliver a coded message about his real life. To put it another way, Spacey is still breaking the fourth wall even though none of the other three are still standing for him. The pun of “Let Me Be Frank” — concurrently an admission of total honesty and a plea from Spacey for his role back — shows how Spacey can now only credibly communicate “honestly” with the outside world through an Underwood-esque direct address. Direct address, which once signaled a departure from illusionistic narrative to communicate with reality, now is constituting hyperreality. The tactic is unnerving, and garnered Spacey 11 million views.

Given the power of direct address as a tool to dismantle fetishization which can (at least in Spacey’s case) blur the lines between fictive and real and manipulate audiences, it is understandable that if filmmaking is indeed as patriarchal as Mulvey believes, there are far fewer examples of women breaking the fourth wall within filmed narratives. And when they do, their observations are often readable as meta-commentary about the camera’s gaze as it pertains to women. In the film Amelie, the moviegoing protagonist says frankly to the camera, “I like looking back at people’s faces in the dark.” The moment is almost confrontational, until the camera pans to the cheerful lit faces of the moviegoers behind her, our mirror image; we are effectively let off the hook (Amelie is a twee comedy, after all). But House of Cards does not spare the viewer scrutiny when a woman finally addresses the camera. In Season 5, Episode 11 of House of Cards, Frank Underwood’s wife, Claire, addresses the viewer only previously communicated with by her husband Frank. “Just to be clear,” she says gazing intently into the camera. “It’s not that I haven’t always known you were there. It’s that I have mixed feelings about you. I question your intentions.” 

Claire Underwood’s distrust of the camera’s gaze stands in stark contrast with Fleabag’s total embrace of the camera as friend and confidante. The first season of Fleabag follows the plot outlined in the staged production — it makes sense, then, that Fleabag’s direct addresses are not questioned thoroughly in the first season, as these asides are intentional emotive vestiges of the show’s transition from stage to screen, “signifying the intimacy of live entertainment” as Feur put it. But in the second season, as The Priest notices Fleabag confiding in the viewer, Fleabag’s asides become self conscious. 

It is relevant that a priest is the only character who can witness Fleabag’s communications with the viewer. In Catholicism, priests are the conduit between laypeople and God, the interpreters of the message. Similarly, Fleabag’s asides to the camera are a conduit between the action of the illusionistic narrative and the spectators of that narrative. If these two roles are intentionally juxtaposed, then Fleabag is comparing the destruction of the fourth wall with communications to God, putting the audience in the role of the omnipotent. The Priest is perhaps the only person to notice Fleabag’s direct addresses because they resemble direct communication with the divine. Both The Priest and Fleabag are thus inaccessible to each other because they are first and foremost in communication with forces beyond what can be represented in the narrative — The Priest with God, and Fleabag with the audience. However, while Fleabag views the priesthood as noble, The Priest views Fleabag’s quips to the viewer as cripplingly performative. In the season finale of Fleabag, the ill-fated pair parts forever, and when the camera attempts to follow Fleabag walking away, she shakes her head “No.” One way of reading this scene is that Fleabag’s refusal to allow the camera to follow her onwards confirms that her direct addresses were hindering her own subjecthood, and to be more vulnerable in her life (as a character), she must abandon the crutch of speaking to the camera rather than to her fellow scene partners. Alternately, this moment can be read pessimistically as Waller-Bridge the screenwriter giving up on the hope that direct address might be a radical feminist tool — Fleabag, after all, is seduced by the possibility of a love story within the illusionistic narrative, and notably does not make asides to the camera while fully invested in those scenes. But Fleabag the character is in a clear Catch-22 — having begun the series with a constant acknowledgement of the camera, Fleabag cannot now pretend not to notice the camera’s gaze and absorb herself fully into the story. The camera has thus trapped Fleabag and women in film generally in a frustrating binary: if a woman does not break the fourth wall, she is succumbing to patriarchal voyeurism, and when she does break the fourth wall, that action may be subject to scrutiny by her male scene partner. Waller-Bridge thus proceeds with the only fathomable solution: ending the series entirely, denying the camera any further looking at all. Without any looks to make her aware of her objecthood, Fleabag reaches the ultimate subjecthood (or so says Sartre). The choice to end the series this way was frustrating to many who crave another season of Fleabag’s witty woman-centric storytelling. But until filmmaking can find a way to tell stories about women which do not fetishize them nor deny them the agency gained by looking back, Waller-Bridge might just be preserving Fleabag’s dignity by keeping her from prying eyes. 

References

Amélie. 2001. France: Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Brown, Tom. Breaking the Fourth Wall: Direct Address in Cinema. (Edinburgh: Edingburgh University Press), 2012.

Feur, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 1993, 39. 

Fleabag. 2016-2019. United Kingdom: Harry Bradbeer.

House of Cards. 2013-2018. Multiple directors.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. (New York: Oxford UP, 1999). 

Spacey, Kevin. “Let Me Be Frank.” December 24, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZveA-NAIDI

Suzy’s Stare: A Close Visual Reading of the Female Gaze in Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’

Outside, checkered cabs whizzed by. Pigeons cocked their heads at clouds, and manhole covers huffed up sewer steam. But in Theatre Five, the first screen off the broken escalator at Lincoln Square Cinemas, I was on a beach in New Penzance, watching hungrily as a pair of twelve year olds practiced French kissing. By my thirteenth birthday, I owned three pairs of saddle shoes – one cheap black and white pair from the online costume retailer, another yellow pair (real leather), and the last, thrifted slip-ons. I listened to Françoise Hardy and Benjamin Britten, and willed my breasts to shrink so shift dresses would fit me properly. All this is to say that seeing Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom at age twelve was not enough for me – I wanted to climb inside of it.

While its romantic plot certainly factored into my obsession with the film (like most adolescent girls, I craved a love story to call my very own), much of my ensnarement could be attributed to the film’s whimsical quirks and meticulous world-building, aspects of production for which Wes Anderson is well revered. Very few directors have a visual vocabulary as recognizable as Anderson’s; flattened images, planes of symmetry, parallel lines, lengthy tracking shots, slow motion sequences, and oversaturated color palettes are all signatures of Anderson’s style. In contrast to the narrative driven editing of big-budget films, Anderson’s films reveal a stylistic, aesthetic approach to filmmaking that has garnered him immense critical acclaim. Anderson’s proponents call his work delightful. Anderson’s critics peg him as “precious” and “twee.” Barely any critics, however, call attention to the subtle way in which Wes Anderson’s work perpetuates the cinematic male gaze.

In her landmark 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” cultural critic Laura Mulvey introduced the “male gaze” as a concept in cinema wherein women are portrayed as the objects of a “controlling and curious” look. Mulvey argues that the practices of mainstream cinema that enable audiences to perceive films as “real” – darkened theaters, shots with deep focus, continuity editing – are, in fact, subjective elements which encourage a voyeuristic relationship that objectifies onscreen women by promoting audience identification with a male protagonist. “Camera technology…  camera movements… combined with invisible editing (demanded by realism) all tend to blur the limits of screen space,” Mulvey writes. “The male protagonist is free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action.”

One cannot dismiss or look away from the rigid male control that underlies Anderson’s fastidious filmmaking. Anderson’s signature precision, after all, is derivative of the collaboration between a male director, a male cinematographer, and a male editor.

The blurring of the line between screen space and real space is an essential aspect of Mulvey’s. The disintegration of the visual boundary between audience and screen allows viewers to identify with male onlookers, cementing the illusion of control. Wes Anderson’s films, however, do not blur these boundaries quite so much; since Anderson does not employ realist editing techniques (instead favoring carefully crafted tableaus), his viewer is consistently aware of the performance of his or her watching. Watchers of Anderson’s films are rarely permitted to regard them as ready-made. In this way, Anderson’s films create a paradox that is difficult to reconcile with Mulvey’s claims. On the one hand, the unwavering presence of the camera’s look in Anderson’s films might prevent viewers from partaking in the voyeuristic identification that Mulvey claims realist editing promotes. On the other hand, one cannot dismiss or look away from the rigid male control that underlies Anderson’s fastidious filmmaking. Anderson’s signature precision, after all, is derivative of the collaboration between a male director, a male cinematographer, and a male editor. Anderson’s perfectionism is noticeably present in his protagonists, almost all of whom are neurotic, hyper-controlling white men. And so we arrive at the puzzling question: can a film that uses non-realist editing techniques still be subject to the male gaze? And if so, what techniques besides realist editing perpetuate this gaze? Where does the identification occur?

Moonrise Kingdom provides a particularly useful case study, since it is a film in which the “look” is constantly negotiated. Moonrise Kingdom weaves the tale of two tween penpals, orphan-turned-Boy-Scout Sam Shakusky and troubled schoolgirl Suzy Bishop, who decide to run away together in the summer of 1965 after their correspondence grows romantic. Sam’s background as a Boy Scout training imbues him with the overconfidence and attention to detail characteristic of Anderson’s protagonists. Suzy has neither quality in spades. Rather, Suzy is a girl who makes up for in hormonal outbursts what she lacks in parental affection. Suzy’s status as “disturbed” is confirmed around 25 minutes into the film when she shows Sam “Coping With the Very Troubled Child,” a book she discovered her parents had hidden on top of the refrigerator. (**It is worth noting that the trope of “troubled female” is relatively common in Anderson’s films. A particularly similar example to Suzy is Margot Tenenbaum, the chain-smoking, promiscuous, “damaged” sibling from Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. In fact, Margot and Suzy are so similar in appearance and countenance that some fans have even posited that Suzy could be Margot’s mother**).  In a flashback sequence shortly after, the viewer is treated to a montage of Suzy’s letters to Sam, in which she confesses to yelling at her teacher, punching the glass out of a windowpane, and getting into a fistfight with a classmate.

However, Moonrise Kingdom hints at Suzy’s emotional disturbance far before we watch her picking glass out of her mother’s hair. The opening sequence of Moonrise Kingdom is a series of tracking shots that pan throughout the Bishop household, revealing the mundane and compartmentalized business of its inhabitants as the camera mozies from room to room. Suzy’s brothers play jacks. Suzy’s mother files her nails; her father reads the newspaper. Each of these visual scans of the house, ends with with Suzy staring directly into the camera, her eyes glued to a pair of binoculars. The effect is eerie – Suzy, disengaged to a point of catatonia as she intently peers, cannot be disrupted from her silent vigil by the goings on of her family members.

Anderson’s panning shots are unapologetically voyeuristic – the artistry of the scene hinges upon the illusion that we are watching a regular family go about their regular activities. Anderson frequently uses these tracking shots, which exemplify a phenomenon that scholar Thomas Y. Levin refers to as “diegeticized surveillant omniscience.” This technique operates by normalizing the voyeurism of the “impossible shot” – film jargon for a shot from a vantage point unattainable to the human eye, such as inside of a fireplace – by depersonalizing the camera. In other words, Anderson’s tracking shots normalize the violation of the Bishop family’s privacy by providing an omniscient and impossible viewpoint, relieving the viewer of the feeling that such voyeurism is realistic while simultaneously inviting the viewer to partake in surveillance. However, every time the viewer becomes comfortable accepting Anderson’s surveillant practices as a natural aspect of his filmmaking, Suzy appears suddenly, gazing intently back at the viewer. Suzy’s unyielding gaze breaks the fourth wall in a sort of feminist sousveillance: Suzy subverts the voyeuristic look by making the viewer the subject of his or her own gaze. Suzy’s binoculars therefore provide an alternate gaze; a markedly female gaze, a means of resisting the camera’s masculine voyeurism.

Suzy’s unyielding gaze breaks the fourth wall in a sort of feminist sousveillance: Suzy subverts the voyeuristic look by making the viewer the subject of his or her own gaze.

This resistance, however, is framed as threatening. Though Suzy refers to her binoculars as her “superpower,” the film’s editing choices instead connote Suzy’s persistent gaze as predatory. In the opening sequence, Suzy appears suddenly and creepily, foregrounded in unexpected nooks of the house. Further, Suzy’s categorization as “troubled” erodes the legitimacy of her defiant look; viewers are to understand, subconsciously or consciously, that Suzy’s watchfulness is a result of her profound distrust for those around her. Suzy’s persistent gaze is therefore not a liberating one; rather, her gaze represents an obsession that, like her other “troubled behaviors,” precludes her integration into civilized life.

The treatment of Suzy’s gaze and its relationship to the plot of Moonrise Kingdom sheds light on the ways that Moonrise Kingdom promotes the male gaze. Throughout Moonrise Kingdom, viewers are invited to assume Suzy’s gaze through the usage of binocular shots, wherein the ocular circles of Suzy’s binoculars frame a wide or panning shot. The addition of the binocular frame lends these shots a constructed intimacy, as the purpose of binoculars is to narrow the gaze on a person of interest. These binocular shots are explicitly voyeuristic; this voyeurism depends upon the viewer’s recognition of Suzy as the articulator of the gaze. In other words, the binocular frame augments Suzy’s presence in the shot as the silent “looker.” However, there are ample shots from Suzy’s perspective that do not feature binocular framing. One such shot occurs as Suzy observes a secret rendezvous between her mother and an island police officer. Before Suzy dons her binoculars, viewers simply see a wide shot of a police car and a miniature lighthouse. When Suzy puts on the binoculars, a viewer sees the exact same wide shot, except now with binocular frames and a minor degree of magnification. However, a viewer understands the first shot (upper left) as objective, and the second (bottom left) as “surveillant,” solely because the latter is framed by the binoculars.

Anderson thus sets up a gendered dichotomy between these two shots: the binocular framed shots, which are the vehicle for the female gaze, are surveillant, voyeuristic, unnerving, and intimate; the wide shots, which are everything but the female gaze, remain unmarked, objective, and detached. By associating surveillant qualities with Suzy’s gaze, Anderson renders the female perspective uncomfortable and undesirable. Undoubtably, the viewer would feel uneasy if the entire film were shot through binoculars; since they depart from the classic wide shot, viewers understand that the binocular shots are unstable and temporary, mimicking Suzy’s unstable character. The controlled shots are, in contrast, coded for as male. The usage of binocular shots is therefore sparing, temporarily subverting the look in order to reaffirm for viewers that a masculine “objectivity” is preferable.

By establishing Suzy’s gaze – the binocular shots – as visually separate from the “objective” look of wide shots and panning shots, Anderson encourages the viewer to assume that these latter types are not from Suzy’s point of view. In other words, the fact that binocular shots are singularly associated with Suzy marks her gaze as different, queer; however, the gaze of the male characters is always synonymous with the “objective” shots (shots that are not framed by binoculars). The male gaze, masquerading as the “objective look,” is then able to assert its scopic power back on Suzy. In the series of shots mentioned previously, Suzy’s binoculars magnify the police car only slightly. However, when the camera cuts back to Suzy, she is depicted in a much closer frame than in the previous shot of her. The gaze which looks back at Suzy, while invisible and omniscient, is therefore stronger than the gaze Suzy herself exerts.

The female gaze is also destructed when male characters confront it directly. As soon as Sam realizes Suzy is observing him through binoculars (in the stills to the right), the look is taken away from Suzy and granted to an omniscient viewer. From a courtesy perspective, this shift makes sense – if not blatantly rude, it is at least unusual to look at someone through binoculars after they have acknowledged your presence. This custom may be based in the notion that unobstructed vision denotes a more objective “reality.” In Moonrise Kingdom, however, the female gaze is consistently obstructed by binoculars, rendering it inherently subjective. Anderson’s wide shots, however, are unobstructed quite literally; the flatness and wideness of Anderson’s film technique makes characters and their interactions hypervisible. Therefore, Anderson’s jump cut to a wider shot after Sam notices Suzy surveilling him represents Anderson’s need to show the “whole picture.” This, however, implies that a complete reality cannot be fully shown from Suzy’s perspective. Therefore, the shots that viewers take to be the camera’s unbiased look (such as the wide shot) are in fact shots in which female visibility is demanded. And in order for Suzy to be visible, she must be coaxed into giving up her gaze.

Unlike the realism of “narrative cinema,” which affirms male viewers by giving them the illusion of articulating the look, Anderson’s editing reserves an omnipresent, surveillant control for himself.

And that’s where Sam comes in. Sam, like many of the archetypal Wes Anderson perfectionists, is a stand-in for Wes Anderson himself. By imposing his control on Suzy, he is able to pry her away from her binoculars. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, Sam and Suzy decide to get married. Suzy, who is never without her binoculars, forgetfully leaves them in the wedding chapel. Suzy’s forgetting of her binoculars upon marriage implies the gaze is a radical threat that can be mediated through marriage or male intervention. This idea is furthered in the final sequence of the film (shown below), when Sam’s look causes Suzy to relinquish the gaze: after Sam looks up at Suzy directly, Suzy lowers her binoculars and blows Sam a kiss. What follows is a near replication of Moonrise Kingdom’s opening scene; except this time around, rather than donning her binoculars and gazing outward, Suzy removes her binoculars and walks into the home. Without the distraction and burden of wielding the gaze, the ending of the film implies, Suzy will be able to commit more fully to her place in the home.

So if Suzy doesn’t hold the gaze, who does? The answer is deceptively simple: Wes Anderson, of course. Unlike the realism of “narrative cinema,” which affirms male viewers by giving them the illusion of articulating the look, Anderson’s editing reserves an omnipresent, surveillant control for himself. In Moonrise Kingdom, this control is exerted by making his characters hypervisible, which requires the eradication of the female gaze. It is not that viewers of Anderson’s films do not identify with men – it is simply that in Wes Anderson films, viewers identify with the man behind the camera rather than the man onscreen. This identification operates through the vehicle of style, allowing Anderson to become the super-protagonist of every film he meticulously crafts. And viewers who seek control can identify with this super-protagonist, allowing for an arguably deeper voyeurism than identification with a protagonist allows.

So who’s excited for The French Dispatch?


References

Focus Features and Indian Paintbrush present; an American Empirical picture; produced by Wes Anderson et. al; written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; directed by Wes Anderson. Moonrise Kingdom. Universal City, CA: Santa Monica, CA; New York, NY: Universal Studios Home Entertainment; Focus Features, 2012.

Levin, Thomas Y. “Rhetoric of the Temporal Index: Surveillant Narration and the Cinema of ‘Real Time.’” CTRL [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Thomas Y. Levin et. al Eds. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 2002.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. (New York: Oxford UP, 1999).

Call-Back or Call-Out?: Midnight Movie Fandoms and the Politics of Queer Expression

If you ask me the one thing I wish I’d done before I left New York City for the Berkshires, I’ll probably say I regret never having taken the 1 train to Chelsea to watch people in false eyelashes and glitter call Susan Sarandon a slut for an hour and thirty-eight minutes. The more common name for this activity is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which plays every Friday and Saturday night at Cinépolis Chelsea Cinemas on West 23rd Street. At first glance, Cinépolis is an unlikely home for Rocky Horror, the 1975 camp classic about a pair of prim Midwestern lovebirds (Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, played by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who accidentally stumble into the seductive world of transvestites, mad scientists, and monsters. Unlike Rocky Horror’s Greenwich Village birthplace, the Waverly Theater, Cinépolis is not an art cinema, nor located in the heart of New York’s gay community. Rather, Cinépolis, which draws an eclectic fandom of BDSM enthusiasts, crossdressers, and queer teenagers to its doors on weekends, is a remarkably ugly chain movieplex in a neighborhood that geographically straddles the queer cornucopia of Greenwich Village and fiscally conservative, buttoned-up Midtown. Chelsea also bridges these two neighborhoods culturally; while certainly not the badlands for queer life, modern-day Chelsea is a place of residential respectability and art-collector aesthetics rather than the loud BDSM shops and floor-to-ceiling pride flags found further south. 

Rocky Horror’s symbolic migration from Greenwich Village to Chelsea may appear obvious given the movie’s uptake in mainstream media, from the 2010 Glee tribute episode which controversially changed the line “Transsexual Transylvania” to “Sensational Transylvania,” to the terribly received 2016 Fox TV tribute, Rocky Horror has witnessed a clumsy creep from midnight to primetime.  It would not be surprising if the rampant sanitization and straightening out of Rocky Horror caused once dedicated fans to abandon it entirely. However, to assume that casting Victoria Justice – the former tween Nickelodeon star who possesses a mere thimbleful of Sarandon’s charm – as Janet would cause the Rocky Horror fandom to combust is to misread the place of the movie in its own fandom. Though its homophilic plot arc, campy costumes, and beloved musical numbers are of obvious import, it is the extra-textual facets of Rocky Horror – the shadow-casts, call-backs, and initiation rituals present at its midnight screenings – that define the Rocky Horror fandom. Despite recognizing this, many who bemoan Rocky Horror’s cultural dilution denounce changes to the film’s text, such as Glee’s in-text alteration, rather than questioning the shifts in the idiom of the fandom itself. To put it another way, while the script, songs, and plot of Rocky Horror are susceptible enough to uptake by mainstream media distributors, fans of Rocky Horror believe the inherent unpredictability of Rocky Horror showings – characterized by their ever-changing call-backs and dynamic audience, the rampant and unfettered sexuality, the throwing of items at the screen  – will preclude their takeover by mass culture. While the content of Rocky Horror is accessible to the mainstream, the experience of Rocky Horror is singularly queer. Such, at least, is the argument. 

Enter The Room. Critics have denounced The Room, a 2003 melodrama centered on a woman named Lisa who finds herself in a love triangle (of her own creation, granted) with her fiancé Johnny and his best friend Mark, as “terrible,” “ludicrous,” and even “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.” Critics and amateur watchers alike can easily name a litany of faults in both the technical and creative aspects of the film; shots veer in and out of focus, there are a bevy of incredibly lengthy and gratuitous sex scenes, and, perhaps worst of all, The Room’s leading man is Tommy Wiseau, a terrible actor with an unplaceable accent who looks as if his face were melted down and crudely sculpted back together again. The widespread distaste for the film has made it a sleeper hit with the contrarian set, who boldly claim the film’s merit lies in its complete lack of artistry. Though a flop when first released, The Room has since earned back its $6 million budget from the revenue of years of midnight screenings. These midnight screenings are attended by members of its wide cult following, who resemble Rocky Horror’s fans in behavior if not in demographic. The Room has its own particular set of screen call-backs, objects to throw, and even features shadow casts in some theatres. In fact, the two fandoms are so similar that some critics have taken the syllogistic leap of labeling The Room a “camp classic.”  This seems far-fetched. Or is it? 

In a 2017 New York Times article about The Room titledWhen Your Movie Is a Hit for All the Wrong Reasons,” writer Sarah Lyall explains what makes The Room campy:  its “amalgamation of absurd non sequiturs, continuity problems and characters of dubious motivation who come and go for no particular reason in the service of a story involving a cheating girlfriend, a betrayed friendship and a lot of scenes of guys tossing around footballs.” Many of the elements of style Lyall observes in The Room match the criteria for camp laid out by Susan Sontag in her seminal 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” considered to be the first and definitive academic contribution on the study of Camp. “Pure examples of Camp,” writes Sontag, “are unintentional… It seems unlikely that much of the traditional opera repertoire could be such satisfying Camp if the melodramatic absurdities of most opera plots had not been taken seriously by their composers.” This surely holds for The Room, whose fandom is organized around the assumption that The Room’s creator, Tommy Wiseau, intended The Room as a earnest drama; curiously, this criteria does not apply to Rocky Horror, whose campiness is thoroughly intentional. Sontag’s final note on camp anticipates The Room’s most frequent defense: “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”

While the absurdities of and intentions behind The Room nudge it towards a camp classification, its lack of spectacle may cause it to fall short on meeting Sontag’s other provisos.

“Of course,” falters Sontag after a telling ellipsis, “one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.” While the absurdities of and intentions behind The Room nudge it towards a camp classification, its lack of spectacle may cause it to fall short on meeting Sontag’s other provisos. What are we to make of the “scenes of guys tossing around footballs”? Rocky Horror offers much more than The Room in the way of visual abundance and gay spectacle. Surely the spare style and overall drabness of The Room do not conform to the “spirit of extravagance” Sontag deems a “hallmark of Camp.” 

Perhaps the difficulty in determining whether The Room and its associated fandom qualifies as camp is that for fandoms where fan engagement with the movie is of equal importance to the movie itself, a critic must consider not only the textual aspects of the film, but also the relationship between the film and its audience. Sontag describes camp as a “way of seeing”; deciding if The Room is camp (and assessing the potential implications of this decision) requires applying Sontag’s conceptual “way of seeing” to a participant’s physical experience of seeing the film (in this case, at a midnight showing). 

The Rocky Horror fandom de-sanitizes its material; the result, a humor almost innocent in its own dirtiness, as if the call-back script were formulated by a room of snickering eighth-grade boys.

A useful place to start, then, is perhaps by examining each fandom’s “call-backs,” or the improvised lines that become codified participation rituals. A close look at the call-back culture of Rocky Horror and The Room reveals interesting differences between the types of call-back each deems acceptable.. Rocky Horror’s call-backs by and large utilize crude humor — participants swap words into lines to alter their meaning in humorous and raunchy ways. Glee’s changing of “Transsexual Transylvania” to “Sensational Transylvania” is particularly amusing when one considers that for Rocky Horror fans, the text of Rocky Horror is already the “clean” version, a script begging to be imbued with even more innuendo. The Rocky Horror fandom de-sanitizes its material; the result, a humor almost innocent in its own dirtiness, as if the call-back script were formulated by a room of snickering eighth-grade boys. Call-back lines such as “When I saw Jeanette Scott [‘Unison’ When I saw Janet’s twat]” or “Here they come! [All over the church? That’s disgusting]” demonstrate one of Sontag’s provisions for camp, which is that it “typically, convert[s] one thing into something else” – here, the addition of innuendos before or after a line can re-contextualize it and reframe its meaning. The simplest of all Rocky Horror call-backs demonstrates this principle of subversion, if more subtly: every time Janet’s name is said, audiences scream “SLUT!” One critic from the Houston Press writes:

“It’s only on the other side of a lot of reading and critical thinking that I’ve started to realize how bloody wrong [calling Janet a slut] actually is, and the problematic aspects of society it reinforces. Why is Janet the slut? She has sex twice in the film, but so does Rocky, and Frank has it three times. In fact, the character that is literally created to be a sex toy somehow weirdly escapes any sort of repetitious audience comment on his promiscuity. Only the woman gets the label.”

This critique misses the carnivalesque, liberating beauty of this particular call-back: at Rocky Horror, where new participants are labeled “virgins” and clothing is entirely optional, “slut” becomes a compliment, a title more akin to “Her Majesty” than “harlot.” That Janet accrues this label despite having fewer sexual encounters than her male counterparts is not a sign of the audience’s shaming – in fact, it further identifies “slut” as a celebratory term of sexual encouragement that, in the fashion of the carnivalesque, subverts typical gender expectations.

While Rocky Horror’s call-backs are juvenile and subversive, The Room’s call-backs are often vocalizations of protest towards the chaos and misogyny that pervades Wiseau’s script. One of the most popular call-backs in The Room is “Because You’re a Woman,” delivered every time Lisa is required to field a patronizing or sexist comment (hint: often). This call-back becomes a call-out; unlike the celebratory repurposing of “Slut,” “Because You’re A Woman,” remains patronizing even in the throes of its sarcasm because there is no absurd or playful break from the line’s original context. In other words, calling Janet a “Slut” is liberating because it is fully unjustified in the context of the movie, and therefore a goofy declaration; but since “Because You’re a Woman” is wholly justified, it allows The Room’s viewers to act out the policing of the very media they actively consume. Many of The Room’s call-backs are disciplinary in this sense; one notable example arrives when the audience physically exits the theatre during the third lengthy sex scene. And although AV Club recommends watchers to “[hurl] the cruelest jokes about the actors’ bodies/movements that one can conceive,” they strongly caution against referring to Lisa as “fat Britney” (a reference to her resemblance to Britney Spears). This begs a question: if the movie is so retrograde, why not simply stop watching it instead of attempting to correct it? There are bad films aplenty that do not feature rampant misogyny. Men in the audience who scream out “Because You’re a Woman,” but do not think twice before calling Lisa’s mother, an unbecoming older woman, a “whore” only minutes later might provide a clue: unlike in Rocky Horror, where the mockery is equally distributed, The Room allows for selective ridicule. Commonplace social norms, such as age and attractiveness, shape the derision characters in The Room face from ruthless audiences. 

By co-opting the framework of Rocky Horror’s fandom, The Room offers a model for straight counterculture, a camp that can distance itself from the weirdos at Cinépolis.

The problem then with The Room? It is a camp film with an un-camp fandom. “Camp taste is a kind of love,” Sontag says. “It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” Judged alone as a film, The Room might, in fact, be campy, and yet the fan culture surrounding it does not adhere to the camp “way of seeing.”  In other words, the real threat to queer culture is not its assimilation into the mainstream; mass media has always provided ample fodder for camp, whether in the films of Judy Garland or the music of Cher. The problem is not that Rocky Horror has symbolically or geographically moved to Chelsea; it is that The Room, through its midnight showings at Houston Street’s Landmark Sunshine Cinema, has taken up residence downtown. By co-opting the framework of Rocky Horror’s fandom, The Room offers a model for straight counterculture, a camp that can distance itself from the weirdos at Cinépolis. Viewer guides for The Room admit this: “It’s like going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show,” says one “sans the music (and transvestites).” Rocky Horror’s fandom represents the fine art of turning straight culture on its head –  the expressions that define the fandom, such as throwing food, heckling, and making sexually explicit comments, subvert the arenas in which these activities normally occur, spaces of intense masculinity such as football games. If Rocky Horror is a cultural one-eighty, The Room comes full circle: under the guise of “counterculture,” straight people once again are allowed to throw things, heckle, and make sexually explicit comments. What is “straight camp” if not the football game transposed to the movie theatre? If you think this is a stretch, consider that the same viewer guide that refers to The Room as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show sans transvestites” lists a “Football” as the first item to bring to a screening: “When the movie shows the guys ‘playing football,’ you should toss the football with someone in your group,” it states. The Room’s categorization as “Camp” therefore undermines the possibilities that Camp provides for alternatives to heterosexual culture, simply by rebranding heterosexual culture as counterculture and even an instance of Camp itself. Next to this, Victoria Justice is looking pretty damn good.


References:

Bakhtin, Mikhael. Rabelais and His World. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), 1965. 

Bradshaw, Eric. “Riff Rag’s Rocky Horror Picture Show Call-Back Script,” 1985.  http://web.mit.edu/adorai/Public/rhpscb.htm

House of Qwesi. “A Viewer’s Guide to the Room.” AV Club. March 11, 2009.  https://www.avclub.com/a-viewers-guide-to-the-room-1798215944

Lyall, Sarah. When Your Movie Is a Hit for All the Wrong Reasons.” The New York Times, November 29, 2017.  

Moskowitz, Sam. “Rocky Horror Midnight Show is Born.” Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, April 1, 2016.  http://gvshp.org/blog/2016/04/01/rocky-horror-midnight-shows-turn-40/

“The Room.” IMDb.

“The Room Audience Participation Guide.” Lost Highway. http://www.the-losthighway.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/The-Room-Audience-Participation.pdf

“The Room Audience Reaction (Full)” YouTube video, 1:37:32. Posted by “Giovanni Hernandez” June 13, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWQ3NXh5tUE,

 “The Room Guide.” The Room Guide. http://roomguide.weebly.com/

Rouner, Jef. “Looking Back, The Rocky Horror Picture Show Hasn’t Aged That Well.” Houston Press. July 13, 2017.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp,’” 1964.