Bright Lights Film Journal

Glancing, Cruising, Staring: Queer Ways of Looking

Ecce homo

I looked at him closely and more quickly (one can, without taking one’s eyes off an object, look very quickly. At that moment my “gaze” swooped down on the image). In a few seconds he would disappear from the screen.
~ Jean Genet, Funeral Rites

. . . for every lesbian or gay man who grew up delighting in the promiscuous pleasures offered by the movies, there are numerous others who never progressed beyond the desire to see themselves reflected on the big screen.
~ Paul Burston, “Confessions of a Gay Film Critic,
or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cruising

Commenting on an earlier volume of queer film theory entitled How Do I Look?, Ellis Hanson has suggested: “The question ‘How do I look?’ is seen to be about either cultural representation (as in ‘what am I supposed to look like?’) or spectatorship (as in ‘is the cinematic look queer?’)” (6). Rather than worrying about the politics of stereotyping, Hanson suggests that we pursue the second question and ask what ways of looking are available for queer pleasure and desire. The shift is thus from asking “who” gets represented, to a question of “how” we look at them or with them. The concept “ways of looking” will be left open here, in the hopes of not streamlining the possibilities for looking into a monolithic “male gaze.” I am inspired by Elizabeth Cowie’s suggestion that “there is no single or dominant ‘view’ or look in cinema (either the male gaze or Metz’s identifying with oneself seeing), but a continual construction of looks, with a constant production of spectator-position and thus subject” (137). Resisting the “progress narrative” established by the documentary version of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet (Epstein and Friedman, 1996) or by GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), my admittedly selective catalog of queer looks will attempt to connect the early 1970s with the early 1990s in a way that avoids a linear story of progress. The ways homophobia and heterosexism have structured the visual field has been an explicit theme of queer filmmaking since the 1990s, in particular in Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1991), and in the films of Todd Haynes, especially Poison (1991) and more recently Far from Heaven (2002). But I also want to consider Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) and John Waters’ Female Trouble (1974), so as to challenge the assumption that “queer” cinema marks a generation gap. I will thus provide an account of how the gay closet affects cinematic ways of looking and “cruising” that goes against chronological order, revisiting some by now “classic” axioms of feminist and gay film theory with the goal of putting them in dialogue with queer theory. My goal is to pluralize our ways of looking (both onscreen and off) and to demonstrate how homophobia and homoeroticism sometimes unpredictably affect the visual field. I will illustrate a set of queer looks: moving from the question of “the homophobic gaze” to what I am calling “glancing,” “cruising,” and “staring.”

Monitoring: The “Trained Eye”

Early on in Paris Is Burning, images of white and black “straight” men and women enjoying their heterosexual privilege in public are accompanied by a voice-over that explains: “When you’re a man and a woman you can do anything, you can almost have sex in the street if you want (. . .) But when you’re gay, you monitor everything you do. You monitor how you look, how you dress, how you talk, how you act. Do they see me? What do they think of me?” Shots of drag queen and transsexual contestants fixing their hair in the ballroom illustrate this awareness of being looked at. They perform a stylized embodiment of femininity connoting “to-be-looked-at-ness” (following Laura Mulvey’s well-known argument), but also convey a somehow specifically gay and transgender form of auto-monitoring.

In the film, Dorian Corey explains that it is about being “able to blend, that’s what realness is. If you can pass the untrained eye — or even the trained eye — and not give away the fact that you’re gay, that’s when it’s real (. . .) it’s really a case of ‘going back into the closet’.” Yet this complicated explanation of an important subcultural term posits two types of look: the untrained eye and the trained eye. The untrained eye is presumed to be straight and homophobic, invested in a gender binary in which a “real” man is a straight man, and a “real” woman is not a drag queen. Another “informant” voice-over describes the desire to avoid questions by giving the society they live in “what they want to see” by erasing all the “mistakes,” “flaws,” and “giveaways” to make the illusion perfect. Blending-in is a way of closeting the fact of gayness (construed by a homophobic imaginary as mistake, flaw, the secret that always gives itself away, etc.). Yet it is the trained eye that is being performed for in this particular scene: the audience and judges who ideally come to the ball not to be “shady, just fierce.” Thus the queer space of the ballroom is juxtaposed with the homophobia of “society” and “the street.” Bell Hooks has argued that this anti-homophobic “ritual” aspect of the ballroom is eclipsed by the sexist, racist, and classist fantasies enacted as a “spectacle” for the outsider’s gaze. But already the documentary voice-over structure has begun to complicate the question of who is looking and who is being looked at, whether the audience of this film has a trained eye or an untrained eye for gender, and whether crossdressing is being used to closet or make visible the supposed “fact” of sexuality.

The “Homophobic Gaze”

Norman Bryson has argued that “the homophobic gaze” itself is caught in a contradiction:

This is the double bind of the visual field of homophobia: in order to establish and secure heteronormativity as a stable edifice, that gaze seeks out its enemies; yet so fleeting, deceptive, and indistinct are the signs of homosexuality that the gaze of the stigmatizor comes dangerously close to entering those forbidden bodies, groupings, postures, expressions, as an insider (. . .) What are sought are telltale indices, clues that are barely perceptible to the uninitiated. But, the moment when these are found, shall we say at the moment when they are about to be found, is one of acute visual disturbance. From the stigmatizor’s viewpoint the stigma is intended as a brand(. . .) but at the same time the stigma is the very point closest to desire, where complicity becomes inescapable, and alien desire irrupts into the visual field of the stigmatizor. (online)

Thus, the need for a clear method of “identification” is mixed with desire in a way that complicates the homophobic gaze. Indeed, much of homophobia attempts to keep identification and desire separate (wanting to be like a male idol versus wanting him: so cleverly blurred by Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, 1964). Likewise, the homophobic taunt “What are you looking at, faggot?” hopes to distinguish looking lustfully from looking disgustedly at another’s desire. Yet this stigmatization of the look ironically produces coded forms of queer desire.

The Genet-inspired “Homo” sections of Todd Haynes’ Poison explore the way this homophobic stigmatization informs the eroticism of the Fontenal prisoners. Bryson clarifies:

In Poison, the centrality of stigmatization as the basis for eroticism is perhaps clearest in the Genet sequences, where the rule that governs the sexual games among the prisoners is that they always return to and re-enact conditions of originary homophobic persecution. In our first introduction to these games, the head honcho of the penal hierarchy is found being serviced by one of the lesser prisoners while he meanwhile subjects the latter to a torrent of abuse whose main expressions — pussy, scum, crawl for it — come straight from the repertoire of homophobic taunting. Subsequent sexual scenes follow much the same pattern. The regime of the prison is hardly austere; opportunities for sexual contact are abundant, for in Genet it is as if the whole persecutory apparatus of the law has been internalized and sexualized. (online)

Bryson is right to point out how Fontenal is not really an example of a perfect panopticon: Haynes and Genet emphasize the blind-spots of the prison guard surveillance (stairwells, shadows, etc. and the way the guards themselves “turn a blind eye” to the complex rituals of humiliation and seduction among the prisoners). However, like Foucault’s panopticism, the prisoners have “internalized” the surveillance and its stigmatizing powers, but with unforeseen results.1

What we discover is a way of looking which is as furtive as the prisoner’s gestures, and which is drawn to the stigma as literal mark of violence and love. When the protagonist John Broom watches Jack Bolton showing off his scars, Haynes cleverly uses the play of chiaroscuro to emphasize that his is a furtive and precarious mode of “glancing.” John is invited to examine each scar while Bolton tells the story of its origin: “I got this when I was a kid, this guy was always calling me ‘pretty boy’ so I cut him.” He is invited to look closer at another scar: “you can’t really see it, it’s right there, it’s the pink, see it?” to which he responds “uh huh” and quickly looks away. The muscular male body therefore invites a look that pretends to be disinterested, and this look risks violence for finding it “pretty” rather than “tough.” Yet for Genet’s narrator — and his cinematic representative — it is clearly both.

Another scene of clandestine looking occurs in Haynes’ meta-melodrama Far from Heaven. Like Poison‘s moments of macho toughness, the scene begins in an almost hyper-masculine tone but quickly follows the logic of queer “initiation.” Frank Whitaker leaves a business dinner at a steakhouse with his colleagues who ask him if he’s OK walking home alone, and he responds by reminding them of his military rank. Passing a kind of “red herring” (a woman who solicits him), we watch as he goes to a movie theater. In the lobby, in front of a poster which ironically comments “We promise to satisfy your. . . Hunger, Thirst, Sweet Tooth,” we see him watching two men cruise one another. Like a film noir detective shadowing a criminal, he then follows two men as they leave down an alley towards an unmarked bar. But unlike the objective investigation of the detective tailing a criminal, we can see that he is being drawn into a world that resembles the shadowy gay bar scene of Advise & Consent (1962, above). As he enters and scans the men at the bar, a disembodied voice demands “Identification.” He is confused by the request (the bouncer clarifies “driver’s license”), which suggests that this scene itself is “about” the question of identification: does looking at the various homosexual types in the bar involve identifying himself with them? One man at the bar gives him a cold stare that seems to say: “you’re one of us.” But this rather abject cruise is interrupted by a man who approaches the bartender and asks for “one more of the same” (scotch, neat). This, too, ironically comments on the identification and desire between these more “straight acting and appearing” men. This scene offers a meta-commentary on cruising: first we see how cruising works at a distance, then we watch as our “detective” becomes a part of the 1950s gay demimonde by being cruised himself.

Later in the film, after an attempt to rid himself of his homosexuality through therapy and a “rest cure” in Florida with his wife Cathy, we see Frank actively cruising a young man at the hotel with his family. He deflects his obvious desire by complimenting the paterfamilias: “You have a beautiful family.” Later, sitting with his wife by the pool, he watches the boy, still with his family. For a moment it seems that Cathy has seen him looking as she exclaims, “That does it!” But in fact she is referring to her magazine, and provides him with an excuse to go back to the room. There, he sees the young man who stands in the doorway in his bathrobe. But the scene is filmed in a mirror to emphasize his hesitation. This play of looks in the mirror has been explored by Hervé Guibert in a chapter of his Ghost Image entitled “Diffraction.” When admiring another’s reflection in the glass of the windows of the métro, desire is diffracted, deniable (it is easy to claim you weren’t looking at anything but simply staring into space), and secret, which for Guibert makes it valuable. The gaze filtered through its reflection loses some of its brutality and gains in impunity, complicity, and perversity (97). But rather than being fleeting, the scene of Far from Heaven confirms his desire as he turns to look directly at the boy, thus proving the reciprocity of the “cruising.”


Cruising is not an easy art of looking, despite the testimony of gay men like Daniel Harris, who explains that the manner in which he cruises is “out”:

I do not look askance at the men who attract me, casting shamefaced glances in their direction, lowering my eyes modestly and then sneaking another peek, but instead stare at them brazenly and even spin around 180 degrees to ogle their butts as they saunter past, just as packs of horny construction workers gawk at pretty women forced to run the gauntlet during their lunch hours. Gay liberation has taught me to express my desires openly, to dispense with the shifty game of peekaboo with which most gay men cruise, concerned as they are not only with being caught and assaulted with the insult “What are you looking at, faggot?,” but also with lowering their value in the eyes of other homosexuals, who seek to preserve the excitement of secrecy, of the nocturnal prowl, which lends an air of underhanded mystery to the search for sex. (95)

For an account of closeted cruising, we can look to Vito Russo’s discussion of the film Death in Venice (Visconti, 1971):

Once homosexuality became a fit subject for screen treatment, it was open season. The movies made gay self-hatred an inherent part of the species, but they never explored their own sexual attitudes (. . .) Mainstream cinema simply explored the gay self-hatred that was a result of some of its own early teachings (. . .) Village Voice film critic Stuart Byron (. . .) identified two emerging issues of gay liberation as ones raised (but not explored) in Luchino Visconti’s film based on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1971) and Harvey Hart’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes. In Visconti’s version of the composer Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), Byron saw [. . . a classic, “pathetic” . . .] constant cruiser, dominated by a heterosexual vision of his own homosexuality and therefore unable to relate to the young Tadzio as anything but a sexual object (an “ideal of beauty”) (. . .) The necessity of maintaining heterosexually oriented roles also forces Aschenbach to turn himself into a female sex object, dyeing his hair and painting his face pathetically for the “hunt” (. . .) In Aschenbach’s dye-streaked face, Stuart Byron identified questions for gay liberation: Do homosexuals accept such role playing? (Russo 196)

In Russo’s view of this as “pathetic,” we can hear a gay man’s embarrassment at effeminacy, here oddly translated (like Harris’ confession) into the language of “female sexual objectification.” This is undoubtedly how the film understands the spectacle of Aschenbach’s transformation and makeover as he pursues Tadzio through the streets of Venice, but it also marks the way in which Russo and Byron’s feeling of shame when watching this image is actually a symptom of gay liberation. The language of female sexual objectification — at first applied to the “pretty” Tadzio (Björn Andresen), then seen as pathetic when enacted by Aschenbach after his makeover by an Italian barber — reveals how male beauty is now only readable in terms of femininity (this is the paradox of “the metrosexual” as defined by the straight orthodoxy). Part of this plays out the scenario outlined by Laura Mulvey with “Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look” — where woman connotes “to-be-looked-at-ness” (62) — but it also complicates it (especially since there is arguably no more enfranchised group than Caucasian teenage boys like Tadzio). It could be argued that due to the suppression of classical Greek “ephebe” models of beauty, male beauty can only return as “uncanny” (in Freud’s sense as the return of the repressed, the familiar which comes back as unfamiliar: Phaedrus as Tadzio; beloved as garçon fatal; dandy as “metrosexual”). This uncanny return means that male attractiveness can only be figured using the feminine, since the commonsense that women are the “fairer sex” renders all sexual objectification feminizing. Or a man’s attraction to a boy’s masculine beauty must also be figured using the feminine, following the “inversion” model of homosexuality deployed by Thomas Mann: “still we are as women” (60). Thus, Mulvey’s formula might be inverted: Boy as Image, Bearer of the Look as Woman.

Or, since Death in Venice is really a film about love — the amorous relation — and the anxiety endured by the lover in relation to the absence/presence of the beloved, this lover/beloved relationship renders a man effeminate, following Roland Barthes’ claim that “this man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized. A man is not feminized because he is inverted but because he is in love” (Lover’s 14). Aschenbach is rendered feminine by the anxious lover/beloved relationship, along with Tadzio (“inverted” only insofar as this relation is queerly gendered). The problem for the film is that Tadzio’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” renders Aschenbach visible, he “makes a spectacle of himself.”

Through careful manipulation of tracking, panning, and zooming, Visconti’s film is literally a lesson in cruising, Visconti’s camera lovingly renders Tadzio as “to-be-looked-at” through what appears to be Aschenbach’s point-of-view. However, though we are not given point-of-view shots from Tadzio’s perspective, the film gives us ample evidence of Tadzio’s “looking back” or even “looking for” Aschenbach. At one point, in a swoon after they cross paths and Tadzio stares at him with a slight smile, Aschenbach declares to no one (to the viewer) “You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone. I love you.” At one level, this film is about the perils of cruising, especially of cruising a young man in the presence of his family (like Far from Heaven). But the multiple levels and types of look in the film cannot be subordinated to active looking/passive looked-at, male/female, or even homo-/heterosexual. The only binary maintained is that between youth/old age. After collapsing in tragic laughter, with streaked makeup, while cruising Tadzio through the burning streets of a plague-ridden Venice, Aschenbach awakens from a nightmare to a voice-over of his Nietzschean composer friend telling him “You are old.” The next shot is an extreme close-up of Tadzio’s radiant youthful face. All of this is stunningly homophobic of course, but again we see the uncanny return of that basic premise of Greek male love, the juxtaposition of the youthful beloved with the older lover. But here it returns as tragicomic (as Marx insisted, everything historically important returns, but as a farce [cf. Barthes, Neutral 80-1, 229n9]).

The important question is how the film renders Aschenbach’s desire for Tadzio as a spectacle. In the very beginning of the film, Aschenbach arrives in Venice only to be confronted with the sight of a “ridiculous” effeminate man, wearing pancake make-up and lipstick, who laughingly welcomes him to Venice with a kind of lascivious familiarity (as in the bar scene of Far from Heaven). Likewise, late in the film, an intense exchange of looks between Tadzio and Aschenbach is interrupted by another older man with a painted face, a sickly musician who laughs hysterically in a way that seems directed at Aschenbach. But the scene in which laughter is experienced as most shaming by Aschenbach comes when he is caught in close quarters with Tadzio and his affectionate friend Jasciu in the elevator, and Jasciu whispers something which makes Tadzio laugh. This causes Aschenbach visible dismay, complicated by Tadzio’s brazen stare at Aschenbach upon exiting the elevator. This sort of “look back” also occurs in Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998) as a clear indication of a sexual liaison to follow. But in Death in Venice it causes him to flee the hotel, only returning after a travel mishap provides the excuse to return. The laughter in each of these instances is experienced as directed at Aschenbach, which fits Barthes’ account of the experience of feeling “écorché/flayed: The particular sensibility of the amorous subject, which renders him vulnerable, defenseless to the slightest injuries (. . .) I do not suffer jokes lightly. The Image-repertoire is, in fact, a serious matter” (Lover’s 95). Thus, Aschenbach’s succumbing to Tadzio’s image results in the painful experience of his own Image-repertoire.

The camera’s movements in each of the scenes in fact attest to a double effect of visibility. When Aschenbach first sees Tadzio in the hotel lounge with his family, the camera alternates between panning around the room, finally “landing” on Tadzio, and close-up shots of each (“reaction shots” of Aschenbach to Tadzio’s beauty). But this panning is not actually a point-of-view shot, rather, as it pans “back” from Tadzio, the camera includes Aschenbach in the frame. This technique is repeated throughout the film in elaborately choreographed camera movements and zooms, thus acting as a lesson in cruising — framing and constructing Tadzio as beautiful “to-be-looked-at object,” and making Aschenbach’s desire visible2 — and rendering Aschenbach himself visible as potential spectacle.

What we may then conclude is that even at the film’s most homophobic moments, it has worked to render Aschenbach’s attraction to Tadzio “natural” and inevitable to the viewer, we are instructed in looking for Tadzio and in looking at Aschenbach as he looks at Tadzio. However, the film also separates the natural spectacle of Tadzio’s beauty from the unnatural image of Aschenbach making a spectacle of himself. What is remarkable about Death in Venice is that we are actually made aware of the camera’s presence as “third party” to the cruising (through shots including them both). In fact, this is what is “explored” by the film.


Are there other queer configurations of making a spectacle of oneself? Let’s return to Paris Is Burning. Despite Hooks’ condemnation of spectacle (154-5), making a spectacle of oneself has the power to make ways of looking visible. Homophobia, heterosexism, the “untrained” versus “trained” eye, are each offered up to scrutiny. This may in fact be a challenge to the power of abjection in stares directed at the participants in public life on the streets. Their situation is conditioned by homophobia, but as we have seen, the effects of homophobia on queer desire and vision/visibility are by no means straightforward.

John Waters’ Female Trouble (1974) pushes this question of public performance and “making a spectacle of oneself” to the foreground in a scene of a Divine sashaying down the streets of Baltimore, with a scarred face and a scandalous tight dress. What Divine referred to as one of her “glamour fits” is accompanied by ’50s pop lyrics: “D-I-G means look. D-I-G means stare. D-I-G means see. D-I-G means glare. D-I-G means to use your eyes so dig, dig, dig you crazy guys.” We see the shocked reactions of (mostly black) men and women on the street in Baltimore, inter-cut with a “reaction shot” of a white man losing his glass eye in exaggerated surprise (unlike Paris Is Burning, the racialization of these looks is not emphasized). But these supposed looks of horror are undermined by the lyrics insisting that to look, to stare, or to glare is really to dig, to desire. Divine’s thrilled response as she explains her experience to the Dashers underscores this refusal of abjection: “God my walk over here was fabulous, everyone was staring and gawking at me like I was a princess.” Donald Dasher explains “We all know you’re beautiful (. . .) it just takes this stupid little world a little longer to catch on, always has.” Perhaps we hear John Waters himself, who dubbed Divine “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” This demonstrates what Michael Moon and Eve Sedgwick have called the “interface” between abjection and defiance, or between shame and exhibitionism.

Each of these examples complicates certain axioms of early feminist film theory, in particular Mulvey’s “Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look,” but they do not entirely depart from that structure. Ellis Hanson has argued that queer theorists, troubled by the account of the “male gaze” in Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” have “already discovered that the heterocentric and exceedingly rigid structure of the look in Mulvey’s analysis — patriarchal masculinity leering at objectified femininity — writes homosexuality out of existence” (13). Yet the advantage to feminist psychoanalytic film theory is that it asks the question “How do I look?” with a different emphasis, by regarding the how of spectatorship “as a social and psychological construction” to account for “the pleasures of the look and the relationship of those pleasures to gender and sexual identity” (12).3

Mulvey herself attempts to break up a monolithic and totalizing “paradigm of vision,” in an important passage on the three looks in cinema:

[T]he voyeuristic-scopophilic look that is a crucial part of traditional filmic pleasure can itself be broken down. There are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic 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 camera’s look is disavowed in order to create a convincing world in which the spectator’s surrogate can perform with verisimilitude. (68)

Mulvey insists that to break with this monolithic structure, the camera must be freed in its materiality in time and space, and the look of the audience must achieve distance from the image in front of them (68). However, moments earlier, Mulvey almost praises the genius of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) for the way the “spectator, lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent legality of his surrogate, sees through his look and finds himself exposed as complicit, caught in the moral ambiguity of looking” (67). In Death in Venice we are made to look through a point-of-view only to find ourselves exposed as complicit in the cruising. In Female Trouble we are told that to look is to “dig.” How then to approach these multiple ways of looking? Distance or fascination? Detachment or complicity? How to break up the monolithic “male gaze” to account for queer ways of looking?

Queer Spectatorship

In Roland Barthes’ meditation on “Leaving the Movie Theater,” he advocates discretion and distance from the image, but not a disavowal of the image since he remains fascinated: “that, ultimately is what fascinates me: I am hypnotized by a distance; and this distance is not critical (intellectual); it is, one might say, an amorous distance” (Rustle 349). Like Barthes, I want to ask: What happens when we leave The Celluloid Closet? My example of such a discretionary, amorous, and amused scene of queer spectatorship comes at the end of Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). A Hollywood executive tells the implicitly queer “sissy” Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) that they want to make his story into a movie (the story we have watched up to this point of the loss and retrieval of his beloved bike). At a drive-in theater Pee-wee is reunited with all of the characters from his epic journey, in the audience, as they watch the Hollywood-ized version of the story. Everything on screen is unrealistic: Pee-wee is replaced by a bearded masculine action hero on a motorbike, his Platonic friend Dotty becomes a sexed-up glamorous sidekick, and Pee-wee himself appears in a cameo as a bellboy who awkwardly speaks his lines in a deep over-dubbed voice. In his “big scene” Pee-wee the bellboy makes all the mistakes which Hollywood’s technical transparency is supposed to erase: he lip-synchs other people’s dialogue, he acknowledges the camera and the stage-direction, he moves so as to be included in the framing of the proper heterosexual romantic couple. Throughout this whole parodic restaging Pee-wee and his audience laugh and giggle infectiously, enjoying the distance and the mismatch of the Hollywood version. Pee-wee and Dotty laugh at the way in which their queerly asexual friendship is romanticized and hetero-normalized onscreen. To her surprise, before the movie ends Pee-wee says “Let’s go!” and explains that he doesn’t need to see how it ends because he “lived it,” thus presenting us with a startling example of selective, discretionary viewing.

But we are also presented with the amorous distance enjoyed by the assembled mass at the drive-in (surely a site of promiscuous pleasures), a distance which the audience of this film also enjoys as we are “in on the joke” through our previous knowledge of the supposed real events. There is no call for realism or accuracy here, no denigration of the sissy as an embarrassing stereotype, but rather a championing of this figure and of the camp pleasure and humor he offers.4 It is no surprise that Paul Reubens was punished for enjoying the dark eroticism of the movie theater — when he was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult movie theater — and for re-sexualizing the de-sexualized image of the sissy that Epstein and Friedman’s version of The Celluloid Closet finds so objectionable. In the end, the surrounding press scandal blurred representation and reality in calling for Reubens to discontinue his children’s television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

The playhouse and the movie house offer promiscuous pleasures that are not the same as getting glued to representation. Taking off from Mulvey’s suggestions, both the erotic complicity of cruising and releasing the audience’s look from its subordination to diegetic looks might allow for a queer audience’s activity. Victor Burgin explains how Barthes “sliding down in his seat, adopts a posture toward the film that cannot be assigned to a simple position on a scale between enthrallment and vigilance” (29). In order to distance, Barthes complicates a “relation” by a “situation”; to the relation between spectator and image he adds a situation of the movie theater itself (Rustle349). Despite its limitations, the virtue of The Celluloid Closet is in giving voice to this experience of being a member of a larger audience, one with a difficult but insistent investment in film as a potential source of queer pleasure. Eve Sedgwick argued that queer is a way of making gender and sexuality not “line up” or signify monolithically (Tendencies 8), but it is up to us to apply this to the looks in cinema. We need to challenge the simplistic opposition between identification and desire that underlies our assumptions about gender and sexual orientation, and to reconsider how homophobia works to stigmatize queer visibility, since ironically such abjection might enable other forms of queer desire and vision.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Farrar, 1975.

——. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments.Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, 1978.

——. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

——. The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France (1977-1978). Trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Barton, Sabrina. “‘Crisscross’: Paranoia and Projection in Strangers on a Train.” Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture. Ed. Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. 216-38.

Bryson, Norman. “Todd Haynes’ Poison and Queer Cinema.” [In]Visible Culture (1999) [online]. [Accessed 12 February 2006]. Available at:

Burgin, Victor. “Barthes’ Discretion.” Writing the Image After Roland Barthes. Ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. 19-29.

Burston, Paul. “Confessions of a Gay Film Critic, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Cruising.” Anti-Gay. Ed. Mark Simpson. London: Freedom, 1997. 84-97.

Butler, Judith. “Gender Is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion.” Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993. 121-40.

Cowie, Elizabeth. “The Popular Film as a Progressive Text — a Discussion of Coma.” Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. New York: Routledge, 1988. 104-40.

Doty, Alexander. “The Sissy Boy, the Fat Ladies, and the Dykes: Queerness and/as Gender in Pee-wee’s World.” Male Trouble. Ed. Constance Penley and Sharon Willis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. 183-201.

Dyer, Richar. The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume I, An Introduction. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1990.

——. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Genet, Jean. Our Lady of the Flowers. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove, 1963. ——.The Thief’s Journal. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove, 1964. ——. Funeral Rites. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove, 1972. ——. Miracle of the Rose. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove, 1972.

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  1. While Haynes “reshuffles” scenes from Genet’s prison novels, the other clear cinematic intertext is Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971), especially a scene where the effeminate “Queenie” (Michael Greer) and the tough-guy Rocky attempt to out-humiliate each other, and their ambiguous deployment of homophobic language works like a turnstile:

    Queenie: I’m not jealous, Rocky, I’m really not. But I do hate to see a nice guy playing pussy to a third-rate hustler.
    Rocky: Don’t push me, faggot.
    Queenie: Oh shit, you’re talking to Queenie, baby. Not your punk, not Mona, and not Catso.
    Rocky: How come you’re so smart for a homosexual?
    Queenie: How come you’re so dumb for a faggot? []

  2. Robert Tobin explains the connection between desire and sight in Thomas Mann’s novella: “When Aschenbach sees the stranger, the narrator reports: ‘His desire acquired vision’ (5). The German is somewhat different: ‘Seine Begierde ward sehend’ (‘his desire became seeing’). Its unusual, untranslatable construction, with an archaic preterit [past tense] of the verb ‘werden’ (to become) and unconventional use for German of the present participle ‘sehend’ (seeing), makes the sentence stand out, sound almost biblical. Since it is clear from Mann’s statements about homosexuality in his diary that he regards same-sex desire as something for the visual realm, the prominence of this sentence underscores an important clue, pointing to the visual, aesthetic, and thus for Mann homosexual nature of this desire” (Tobin 222). []
  3. Sabrina Barton has noted that “In an effort to depart from the rigid gender alignments of our by now all too familiar male gaze/female object model of classical Hollywood cinema, and in order to reconsider the constitution of the female subject, feminist criticism has recently taken a surprising turn: the interrogation of the male subject” (216-7). []
  4. Camp may be a way to move away from the politics of “representation” towards different queer readings of “figuration” in the text. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes clarifies this distinction: [T]he text itself, a diagrammatic and not an imitative structure, can reveal itself in the form of a body, split into fetish objects, into erotic sites. All of these movements attest to a figure of the text, necessary to the bliss of reading. Similarly, and even more than the text, the film will always be figurative (which is why films are still worth making) — even if it represents nothing. Representation, on the other hand, is embarrassed figuration, encumbered with other meanings than that of desire: a space of alibis (reality, morality, likelihood, readability, truth, etc.). (56)

    In one of his characteristic parenthetical gestures, Barthes here sweeps aside all the impediments to a reading based on the pleasure or bliss to be taken in a text (camp’s unique form of “love”). For instance, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963, below) abounds in a shattering jouissance of figuration — in fetishist sites of the erotic — without these alibis of representation. However, his film was censored on the grounds of morality, and as if it were reality. Yet Barthes’ list above also sounds like the qualifying criteria of GLAAD: reality, morality, likelihood, readability, truth, etc. This is why we might want to critique the emphasis on “representation” in reading films as texts. Barthes explains: “That is what representation is: when nothing emerges, when nothing leaps out of the frame: of the picture, the book, the screen” (57). []