To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet - No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

Beyond “Words, Words, Words”: Soliloquies, the Graphic Novel, and the Great Shakespearean Divide

The following post is an excerpt from an article I am working on originally written for my class on Shakespeare: Editing and Performance, offered by Peter Holland at the University of Notre Dame (Spring 2012). This paper was presented at the 2013 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 20th, 2013.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

Beyond “Words, Words, Words”:

Soliloquies, the Graphic Novel, and the Great Shakespearean Divide

The fourth soliloquy in Hamlet, commonly referred to as the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, is considered to be the crown jewel of the play. It is not only the portion of Hamlet that is most referenced to in scholarship and popular culture, but it has become intricately tied with the concept of the soliloquy itself. When watching a performance of the play, it is the moment that we most anticipate as spectators, and its delivery has the capacity to either enhance or damage the overall perceptions, attitudes, and affinities of the play as a whole. This is precisely because this soliloquy not only encapsulates the core issues and rhetorical appeals of the plot, but also because it outwardly presents the most intense and direct codification of who prince Hamlet is, and more importantly, who he is not.

But this codification is more complex than it initially presents itself as being. Hamlet’s struggle is simply not a matter of choosing what to be or what not to be, but rather, it is also his struggle to define himself within an external world with demands of its own. Furthermore, the complexity of codifying this soliloquy is enhanced when taking into account its inherent disorganization and enigma, and the fact that readers and viewers tend to overestimate their familiarity with the speech. As Douglas Bruster argues in his treatment of this pinnacle soliloquy:

While Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy remains one of the central speeches of all of Western culture, it is also one of the most mysterious. There are reasons for this mystery. […] the speech as a whole is quite messy. And its beginning (the most orderly part of the soliloquy) seems so familiar that we think we know the entire speech better than we do. No matter how many times we hear it begun, though, it is easy for us to get lost in the middle and end. […] the speech turns on itself time and again, sometimes like the back-and-forth rallies in a tennis match, at others like the coils of a snake moving sideways through the grass.

This disorder and ambiguity increases the difficulty of determining the intentions of Hamlet’s monologue and its overall climactic role within the structure of the play. Moreover, it becomes tricky to determine whether the target of Hamlet’s words is either himself or an external force in the form of King Claudius: is Hamlet contemplating suicide in the fourth soliloquy, or is he debating between action and inaction towards his uncle? Once again, we find ourselves in a situation in which language fails to sustain an exact interpretation of Hamlet’s words, and thus, we rely on performative interpretation to point us toward a specific direction.

What is clear, however, is that the soliloquy is designed to challenge and shatter dichotomous views present within Hamlet’s perspectives, making clear that life does not consist of clear-cut choices, and that all decisions ultimately bear consequences. Keeping the literary, contextual, cultural, and structural importance of the fourth soliloquy in mind, it would be easy to assume that graphic novel adaptations of Hamlet would place significant aesthetic and creative effort into its depiction and interpretation. Given the correlation between rehearsal and the process of creating comics, it can also be assumed that a great degree of experimentation would be embodied in the manifestation of this soliloquy in comics format. In other words, seeing that the fourth soliloquy is arguably the epitome of English soliloquies, and seeing that a decoder has high expectations of this speech, the adapter and illustrator would do their best to exploit the possibilities of comics to concretize the struggles, paradoxes, and inevitable outcomes depicted in the playtext. Alas, as seen in the following panel, this is not always the case:

1

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Magic Wagon.” Illustrated by Ben Dunn. Rebecca Dunn, Hamlet – Graphic Shakespeare (Edina: Magic Wagon, 2009). 20. Print.

This panel is taken from Rebecca Dunn’s adaptation of Hamlet, an adaptation that is overall very short, abridged, and focused on plot-driven performative realism. But more than anything, the adaptation is very clearly a text designed to chew Shakespeare’s original text, partially digest it, and regurgitate the remains onto page.

Dunn’s adaptation is extremely plot-driven and focused primarily on giving the decoder a simple and straight summary of the tragedy. As can be seen on the panel, the entire fourth soliloquy has been condensed to a sequence of four external speech bubbles, and no effort is put into the concretization of the imagery imbued within the language. We simply encounter a depiction of Hamlet, with a stern façade and his hand on his chest, uttering a short series of words before the sudden arrival of Ophelia. There is little to no attempt to convey any of the aforementioned qualities and rhetorical appeals of this soliloquy, and there is nothing that demands close attention or scrutiny. The juxtaposition of word and image creates no resounding effects within the reader, and there is little difference between approaching this particular adaptation and approaching a summary of the playtext—except that a summary of the playtext arguably would not stifle the imagination as much as this adaptation does. Perhaps the intention of this adaptation was to try to make Hamlet more accessible to younger readers, but as evidenced by the depiction of this soliloquy, I assume that even young readers would find the text excruciatingly boring.

When the conventions of comics are invoked and employed effectively, and when the graphic novel makes effective use of the source playtext by focusing on performativity rather than the reduction of the plot, the results are exciting and fresh. In my opinion, the best adaptations are those that approach Shakespeare’s soliloquies not only as tributes, but as independent works of art with a distinctive style that instills particular emotions and decodings. Let us now turn our attention to how Sexton, Pantoja, and Babra approached the quintessence of Hamlet’s soliloquies in their adaptations, beginning with an excerpt from Sexton and Pantoja’s interpretation of the soliloquy:

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

Within Sexton and Pantoja’s interpretation, the absence of speech bubbles establishes the interiority of the speech. The overwhelming presence of black and shades of gray in this soliloquy can be interpreted in many ways; in a sense, the theme of this soliloquy is darker and more concerned with the topic of death and suicide when compared to the other soliloquies in Hamlet. Perhaps this use of color is also an illustration of how Hamlet himself is slowly descending into the darkness of his own folly and inaction. The interiority of this interpretation is emphasized with the fact that Hamlet does not look into the decoder’s eyes, and in the first panels presented in the excerpt, he has his back facing the decoder. This gives the sense of the decoder as an intruder who is overhearing the prince’s thoughts. Furthermore, it depicts a sense of aloofness, solitude, darkness, and impartiality, thus reinforcing the image of the character distancing himself away from his world, and from our interpretive purview.

The first panels of this soliloquy depict a shadowy Hamlet scrutinizing a dagger while thinking about the act of directly dealing with the troubles that haunt him. The act of taking arms against “a sea of troubles” is materialized with his holding of the dagger in front of his face, as if he were placing himself in a battle stance, ready to duel. Yet, as his thoughts pivot to thoughts of suicide, we see a clear and shadowless depiction of the character as he changes the direction of the dagger’s blade and points it to his neck. We then cut to another panel in which we are exposed to the handle of the dagger moving in a thrusting motion accompanied by a splatter of blood, reinforcing the interpretation of the soliloquy as a gesture towards suicide. Note that Sexton and Pantoja depict this soliloquy with a graphic and violent hue, highlighting physical images of death rather than metaphorical or subtle ones.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

The graphic violence escalates as we shift our view to the next panel, in which we see Hamlet desperately clutching his own neck as blood flows through his fingers. The visible fear in Hamlet’s eyes and expression is complemented with his thoughts about the uncertainty of what comes after death. Note that the page depicts Hamlet being caught between a heavenly figure with wings, and a deathly figure below, thus highlighting Hamlet’s position between two oppositional forces salvation and eternal punishment; action and inaction. Notice that Sexton and Pantoja also made the choice to illustrate Hamlet as half-naked, which is an interesting aesthetic choice that further highlights a dualistic struggle: half of his body is covered with man-made clothing while the other half depicts a natural and nude man. With this in mind, the panel reinforces another binary perspective between the realm of man and the enigmatic realm of the afterlife; not only is Hamlet unaware of what comes after death, but he is also unsure of the effects that his death will induce in the mortal realm. All in all, we get an image of a man who is not only confused and conflicted, but a man unable to define himself in a world defined by choices, paradoxes, and binaries.

I will proceed to close my discussion on the fourth soliloquy by analyzing Neil Babra’s take on Hamlet’s crown jewel. But first and foremost, credit must be given to where credit is due. Before engaging in this project, I studied countless graphic novel adaptations of Shakespearean works, including excruciatingly tedious full-text adaptations of Romeo and Juliet[1], a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream[2] clearly geared towards children, and even an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet[3] that took place in the future in which the Montagues are depicted as robotically enhanced cyborgs and the Capulets are depicted as genetically modified humans. Nonetheless, of all the adaptations that I read before settling on the study of soliloquies in Hamlet, I must acknowledge that Babra’s work was the most effective not only in terms of transmuting the essence of Shakespeare into a comics format, but also in terms of presenting itself as a standalone work of art. Let us take a look at how Babra interprets the soliloquy:

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet - No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

Babra’s illustration deeply emphasizes the interpretation of the soliloquy as Hamlet’s negotiation between living and committing suicide as a way of ending his troubles. It also stresses the many paradoxes and dual manifestations peppered throughout the speech. Seeing that this soliloquy is a deep struggle for Hamlet to find conciliation between his interior desires and external social/spiritual demand, we see the separation of Hamlet into two: the passive Hamlet and the inactive Hamlet, the Hamlet that suffers in life and the one that rests in death. The soliloquy therefore begins as a debate or a negotiation between the multiple and binary sides of the character in order to find a space in which he can make sense of his convoluted emotions and thoughts.

Babra depicts the monologue as one that begins with a physically external delivery and progresses into a subconscious and mental dialogue. While reflecting on the opening lines of the soliloquy: “To be… Or not to be,” Hamlet stares into a pool of water in which he sees his reflection as a skeletal corpse donning his clothing, thus illustrating the tension between living or ceasing to exist. As he proceeds to think about the tortures of enduring the pains and tribulations of life, he envisions Claudius as a grand and Cthulu-esque agent whipping him with tentacles as arrows pierce the flesh on Hamlet’s back, depicting life as difficult to endure and physically painful. When pivoting to the thought of suicide, emphasis is placed on a panel in which Hamlet is removing a sword from its sheath. We then observe the split of Hamlet into two bodies, where the active Hamlet proceeds to stab the inactive Hamlet in the chest with the sword. In an eerie move, a close-up of the inactive Hamlet’s stabbing shows the fusion between the living Hamlet and the skeletal figure, and in death, he flashes a wide grin, as if the end of life has granted him the release that he desperately craves for. The struggle and rigidity between living and dying is made blatantly obvious in the imagery, and it reinforces the binary tension that refuses to situate Hamlet.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet - No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

Taking advantage of the possibilities of the comics medium, an elongated panel is used to give the impression of Hamlet falling into a pit, with his head in a cloud as to illustrate the notion of sleeping or dreaming. In another unnerving move, we then observe how Hamlet’s flesh begins to unravel and disengage from his body like the peel of an orange as the text displays his questioning of the dreams that come after death. The physical skin continues to peel away as Hamlet reflects on the enigma of existence after death, and how fear of the unknown prevents him from taking action in terms of self-slaughter. The inner essence of Hamlet is revealed in its entirety with the removal of his skin, and we observe him floating in the sky as a pair of celestial hands manipulate this unraveling of the flesh. On one hand, this may indicate the exposure of the soul and its judgment in an afterlife. On the other hand, the act of having one’s skin peeled away is an extremely painful and physically violent act, thus alluding to the pain that his indecision is provoking, and the possibility of punishment after committing the sin of suicide.

After depicting the troubles of humiliation, pain, embarrassment, and other follies in the physical world—which are so intense that they induce the image of Hamlet’s heart breaking—the page concludes with a panel illustrating his resignation towards self-slaughter: instead of taking arms against the sea of troubles, he puts his sword back into its sheath. Babra’s interpretation of the soliloquy not only depicts the tortuous consequences of choice and of being caught between a dichotomous split, but it also emphasizes how death manipulates the prince’s mental processes. This is important because death is a central theme of the tragedy as a whole. The play begins with the apparition of a dead king, it climaxes with a mental debate about living or dying, and, spoiler alert: it ends with the death of all the central characters. Dichotomies are ever-present in this soliloquy: the struggle between action and inaction, sleeping and awaking, living and dying, suffering and relief. There is no easy way of dealing with these binaries precisely because they are not able to encapsulate the intermediary position that Hamlet is positioned in, which in due course causes the peeling and unraveling illustrated in Babra’s interpretation. Ultimately, Babra’s adaptation was a magnificent effort to concretize this struggle and eventual externalization, and to demonstrate the tidal forces of this sea of troubles.

In this presentation, I offered examples of the rhetorical, analytical, and evaluative possibilities that close-decodings of Shakespearean graphic novels can offer. Bear in mind that my interpretations and decodings of the soliloquies in comics adaptations of Hamlet are in no way definite or conclusive, seeing that there are many other interpretive directions that one could take in terms of the images, their juxtaposition with traditional text, and usage of the conventions of comics to convey imagery and ideas. Nonetheless, I hope that my interventions of these works stress the overall aesthetic and semantic richness present within comics adaptations of Shakespearean works, and how notions of the soliloquy are translated, transformed, and permanently altered in this medium. No longer is the soliloquy abstract and subject to the partialities of language: the character’s mind, through the comics medium, literally becomes illustrated in ways that transcend the realm of the realistic and the physical. When it comes to soliloquies in comics, the wall between the character’s mind and the decoder is not shattered, but it is ultimately non-existent within the medium when and if the conventions of comics are employed effectively. Therefore, with the lack of a wall to block a full view of the character’s mind, the question that remains is how far are we able to take these elucidations of Shakespeare, to new interpretive heights. How will we envision the dreams that are to come with the inclusion of comics into the interpretive norm? That is the question, and I hope that I have provided some answers.


[1] McDonald, John, et.al. Romeo and Juliet – The Graphic Novel: Original Text. Litchborough: Classical Comics, 2009. Print.

[2] Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Saddleback’s Illustrated Classics. China: Saddleback, 2006. Print.

[3] Work, Max, Stan Lee, et. al. Romeo and Juliet: The War. Dallas: Viper Comics, 2011. Print.

WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED

Babra, Neil. Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare. New York: Spark Publishing, 2008. Print.

Babra, Neil. “On Writing and Line Editing.” NEILCOMICS– Hamlet. March 2008. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.

Bruster, Douglas. To Be or Not to Be. New York: Continuum, 2007. Web.

Dunn, Rebecca. Hamlet – Graphic Shakespeare. Illustrated by Ben Dunn. Edina: Magic Wagon, 2009. Print.

Eisner, Will. Comics & Sequential Art. Tamarac: Poorhouse Press, 2001. Print.

Erne, Lukas. Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Grant, Steven and Tom Mandrake. Classic Illustrated #5: Hamlet. Hong Kong: Papercutz, 2009. Print.

Knight, G. Wilson. “Hamlet Reconsidered.” The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy. 4th ed. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1964. 298-325. Print.

Maher, Mary Z. Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003. Print.

Melchiori, Giorgio. Shakespeare’s Dramatic Meditations: An Experiment in Criticism. London: Clarendon Press, 1976. Print.

Mott, Lewis F. “The Position of the Soliloquy ‘to be or not to be’ in Hamlet.PLMA 19.2 (1904): 26-32. JSTOR. 16 Apr. 2012. Web.

Newell, Alex. “Images of the Mind.” The Soliloquies in Hamlet: The Structural Design. Cranbury: Associated University Press, 1991. Print.

Sexton, Adam and Tintin Pantoja. Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition. Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2008. Print.

Matthew Trevannion and Carsten Hayes in the production of "Bound East For Cardiff" that took place at the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian (2012)

Heternormative Tragedies? The Queerness of Eugene O’Neill’s “Bound East for Cardiff” and Henrik Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm”

Both Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff (1914)[1] and Henrik Ibsen’s Rosemersholm (1886) can be considered tragic, not only because they display characters that are unable to fit within the context of their social norms, but also because both plays portray the mortal downfall of its main characters. Nonetheless, the complexities of these “failures” increase in voltage when we interpret them through a gendered lens. Both plays are typically approached as radical from a gendered perspective because their tragic elements[2] invite interpreters to scrutinize the extent to which the characters’ so-called failures are symptomatic of cultural and social ills. However, when queering the interpretation of the plays, it becomes evident that both O’Neill and Ibsen tap into heteronormative anxieties, especially when concerning futurity (or the lack thereof). Even though both plays exhibit qualities that make them productive from a queer perspective, I argue that the plays fluctuate between the boundaries between queer and heteronormative collapse. In other words, while the tragic (gendered) elements of these plays can be approached as a harsh commentary against the laws and restrictions imposed by heteronormativity, they can also be approached as texts that foster an ideological justification and privileging of heteronormativity.

O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff focuses primarily on the very close relationship that exists between Yank and Driscoll, two sailors of the British tramp steamer known as the Glencairn. Throughout the Glencairn’s voyage from New York to Cardiff, the reader becomes aware of the fact that Yank is dying. One soon encounters the two sailors in a moment of solitude; they begin to reflect on the loneliness and misery ingrained within the life of a sailor, and they begin to contemplate how differently their lives would be if they had chosen a different path. During their discussion, Yank exclaims that he is “goin’ to die, that’s what, and the sooner the better!,” (O’Neill) to which his companion, Driscoll, wildly replies: “No, and be damned to you, you’re not. I’ll not let you.” (O’Neill). Throughout their conversation, the level of intensity in their relationship begins to increase, to the point in which their affiliation can be interpreted as amorous or co-dependent rather than simply sociable or friendly—they not only depend on each other, but it is clear that one does not want to live without the other.

The intensity of their relationship could be attributed to the fact that they spent years sailing together; nonetheless, there is a particular confession that Yank makes that further increments the possibility of queer desire between the two sailors. As Yank discusses how the life of a sailor is acceptable for a young man, he begins to lament the fact that this adventurous life has prevented him from achieving any degree of normalcy, which in his view includes heteronormative touchstones such as marriage, children, and a stable home. As illustrated below, Yank then shares his secret desire to move to a distant country in order to begin a farming endeavor with Driscoll:

YANK: Sea-fain’ is all right when you’re young and don’t care, but we ain’t chickens no more, and somehow, I dunno, this last year has seemed rotten, and I’ve had a hunch I’d quit—with you of course—and we’d save our coin, and go to Canada or Argentine or some place and git a farm, just a small one, just enough to live on. I never told yuh this ‘cause I thought you’d laugh at me.

DRISCOLL: (enthusiastically) Laught at you, is ut? When I’m havin’ the same thoughts myself, toime afther toime. It’s a grand idea and we’ll be doin’ ut sure if you’ll stop your crazy notions—about—about bein’ so sick. (O’Neill)

At this point of the conversation, both Yank and Driscoll admit to have contemplated the possibility of delving into entrepreneurial endeavors together in a distant country, but there is also an implicit desire to construct a domestic space in which the two men could live together. This space would entail both a shared location, a shared economy (in that they both save and invest money), and the production of just enough resources to get them by. Throughout this confession, it is apparent that their desire to move to a distant country not only indicates a longing to remove themselves from a known social and cultural location, but also a desire to achieve a life that is not possible for them at the present moment. This longing for domesticity and stability is so “crazy” and foreign, that they only envision it occurring within a displaced or imagined location.

Matthew Trevannion and Carsten Hayes in the production of "Bound East For Cardiff" that took place at the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian (2012)

Matthew Trevannion and Carsten Hayes in the production of “Bound East For Cardiff” that took place at the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian (2012)

Although the reader is uncertain whether or not Yank and Driscoll have ever acted on their queer desire, it would be questionable to suggest that this desire is not present in the first place. As Yank grows nearer to dying, he paradoxically begins to talk of women and heteronormative endeavors while upholding the aura of queerness imbued within their exchange. Yank not only endows Driscoll with a part of his salary, but he also gives Driscoll his watch—his most prized possession. The emotional link between Yank and Driscoll is further highlighted when Yank eventually dies, as the reader encounters Yank expressing both a heartbreaking degree of sorrow intertwined with a degree of hesitation:

DRISCOLL: (pale with horror) Yank! Yank! Say a word to me for the love av hiven! (He shrinks away from the bunk, making the sign of a cross. Then comes back and puts a trembling hand on Yank’s chest and bends closely over the body.)

COCKY: (from the alleyway) Oh, Driscoll! Can you leave Yank for arf a mo’ and give me a ‘and?

DRISCOLL: (with a great sob) Yank! (He sinks down on his knees beside the bunk, his head on his hands. His lips move in some half-remembered prayer.) (O’Neill)

Driscoll’s despair is not only saturated with sorrow and extreme bereavement, but it is also physical. Driscoll grows pale and yells, and he eventually places his hand on Yank’s chest while bending closely to his body—which illustrates a degree of physical and emotional intimacy between the two sailors. Interestingly, when Cocky, another shipmate, calls Driscoll from the alleyway, Driscoll immediately removes his hands and himself away from Yank’s body and focuses his attention on delivering a prayer. Regardless of his intention of doing this, it can be suggested that Driscoll did not want to be seen by Cocky in such a vulnerable and intimate position with Yank.

True, it is important to note that O’Neill might have not intentionally intended for this exchange between Yank and Driscoll to be perceived as queer, yet perhaps it is inevitable for us to approach this give-and-take as such due to our modern sensibilities as readers. How does this queering of Bound East for Cardiff inform the way the play approaches its tragic element through the death of Yank? At first, it might be tempting to approach this play as a critique ofthe gendered norms that exist during the reception of the playtext. Indeed, it may be possible to interpret this play as a comment of Yank’s and Driscoll’s inability to create their own domestic space within their current social and cultural conditions, simply because that notion would seem bizarre or crazy to other spectators. With this in mind, the tragedy can possibly be approached as a queer tragedy, in which the lamentation is focused on the characters’ inability to comply with their sexual, amorous, and domestic desires because they do not comply with the demands of a heteronormative culture.

However, what happens when we interpret the notion of queerness in O’Neill’s play through the lens of futurity and reproductive futurism? These notions are explored by Lee Edelman’s as he discusses queerness in his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. According to Edelman, queerness can generally be described as an attribute assigned to ideas or people who do not perpetuate the idea, or fight for, futurity: the possibility and the continuity of heteronormative designs as ideologically facilitated by the notion of the Child. In other words, queerness is a label assigned to all that goes against the notion of reproductive futurism, which can be described as concepts that “impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable […] the possibility of queer resistance  to this organizing principle of communal relations” (Edelman 2). This is precisely why the queer is viewed as a threat: it challenges the notion of the Child and of reproductive futurity because the queer is not typically associated with notions such as reproduction or the bearing of children, but rather, on so-called egotistic and self-centered gratifications. As Edelman points out, if “there is no baby and, in consequence, no future, then the blame must fall on the fatal lure of sterile, narcissistic enjoyments understood as inherently destructive of meaning and therefore as responsible for the undoing of social organization, collective reality, and inevitably, life itself” (13).

Lee Edelman's "No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive"

Lee Edelman’s “No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive”

When one applies Edelman’s views to O’Neill’s play, the notion of its queerness being approached as emancipatory becomes seriously challenged. Going back to Yank’s and Driscoll’s conversation in which they discuss the prospect of moving to Canada or Argentina, Driscoll posits that the there is a possibility for them to pursue their domestic desires if Yank’s condition ameliorates. Nonetheless, Yank’s death completely obliterates this possibility—not that their domestic desires were much of a possibility in the first place seeing as it was presumably uncommon for two men to move in together and start a small farm during the early 1900s. The act of moving to a different country to begin a small self-sustaining farm in which these two men would ostensibly spend the rest of their lives indeed goes against the notions of reproductive futurity. Even though a farming endeavor is indeed productive and a marker of futurity, note that they are only interested in producing “just enough to live on” (O’Neill), thus enabling its classification as queer. By delving into this domestic endeavor, the men would hinder their chances of finding a potential female mate, and the relationship would also not produce any children or offspring. Thus, Yank’s death not only prevents this queer future from occurring, but it also assures that the values of heteronormativity are privileged and upheld. The reader of the playtext can only begin to imagine what would happen if Yank survived his illness. Would they move to Canada or Argentina to start their own farm? Would they remain living the life of a wandering sailor, which in and of itself is a lifestyle that is queer in that sailors have no future? Can the lack of futurity and the privileging of heteronormativity still be approached as an emancipatory critique in O’Neill’s play?

Similar questions arise when trying to queer Ibsen’s Rosemersholm, which presents various instances in which the lack of futurity challenges the emancipatory gendered readings one may have of the play, especially when focusing on the work’s tragic elements. Although Rosmersholm has typically been regarded as an attack on the aristocracy or the ruling class, especially in terms of their imposition of ideals such as morality, ethics, and Christianity, it also has much to say in terms of gender dynamics, queerness, and futurity. The play itself opens one year after the tragic suicide of John Rosmer’s wife Beata, who killed herself by jumping into a mill-race. Beata was always considered “unstable” and insane by her husband and by those who surrounded her, to the point where many attributed her suicide to mental illness. Later on in the play, it is pointed out that Beata’s mental instability began to surface when she discovered that she was barren. As Rebecca, Beata’s friend and Rosmer’s current companion points out: “she seemed to go quite distracted when she learnt that she would never be able to have a child. That was when her madness first showed itself” (Ibsen 55).

Although it is later revealed that Rebecca encouraged Beata’s suicide as a way of assuring that John Rosmer would be hers, it is interesting to note that the seeds of Beata’s so-called insanity were due to her inability to procreate. Part of Beata’s depression, or lack of sanity, were due primarily to her inability to bear children and to assure the continuation of the Rosmer bloodline within the household. This notion of continuing the bloodline, and of assuring Rosmer’s happiness, is the reason why it was so easy for Rebecca to convince Beata to end her life. Beata’s suicide and her mental illness can be classified as symptomatic of queer tension due to the fact that they were triggered by her inability to assure reproductive futurity, and due to her fixation on Rebecca herself. As Rebecca states later on during the play, “You know she had taken it into her head that she, a childless wife, had no right to be here. And so she persuaded herself that her duty to you was to give place to another” (Ibsen 70). Thus, Beata’s suicidal act can definitely be viewed as a product of heteronormative anxiety, in which she removes herself from the equation in order to ensure that the cultural values of the “nuclear” family were upheld, assuming that after her death, Rebecca would marry Rosmer and bear children.

A queer reading of the play, however, not only happens within a literal level in terms of reproductive futurity, but it also manifests in a metaphorical level when analyzing the case of John Rosmer and his evolving politics. Rosmer has made the decision to become a freethinker, a person who values reason and empiricism over tradition, which has led him to offer support to a government with a revolutionary agenda. This change of heart and perspective has not only led Rosmer to give up his faith in ruling classes in favor for a more democratic government, but it has also led him to give up his faith in religion as well. This change of political views causes Kroll, Rosmer’s brother-in-law, to react harshly towards the loss of the traditions of Rosmersholm. As Kroll states during a discussion he has with Rosmer:

[Y]ou have a duty towards the traditions of your family, Rosmer! Remember that! From time immemorial Rosmersholm has been a stronghold of discipline and order, of respect and esteem for all that the best people in our community have upheld and sanctioned. The whole neighbourhood has taken its tone from Rosmersholm. If the report gets about that you yourself have broken with what I may call the Rosmer family tradition, it will evoke an irreparable state of unrest. (Ibsen 37)

Interestingly, Rosmer’s new political views imply the lack of futurity for the Rosmersholm traditions. His choice, according to Kroll, is viewed as selfish and self-interested, focused on what Rosmer deems to be good rather than focusing on the continuation of the system in which Rosmer was raised in.

Ibsen’s play concludes with both Rebecca and John Rosmer jumping into the mill-race, echoing Beata’s act of suicide as a form of alleviating the tensions present in their lives. Rebecca, on one hand, was unable to deal with the guilt of leading Beata to her doom. John Rosmer, on the other hand, thanks in part to Kroll’s influence, feels as if he’s unable to trust Rebecca, but it is clear that he still loves her. Even though Rosmer originally asks Rebecca for her hand in marriage, Rebecca’s guilt does not allow her to transgress the “insurmountable barrier between [Rosmer] and a full, complete emancipation” (Ibsen 68), thus leading both characters to desire a union that is not socially acceptable. It is through their joint suicide that they are able to create a space in which their union would be socially adequate: death, a space where futurity is not necessary for two to be one.

When one queers Rosmersholm’s approaches towards futurity, it is apparent that Beata’s death, John Rosmer’s change of politics, and Rosmer’s and Rebecca’s joint suicide are either products of the lack of (reproductive) futurity, or are in due course the root of this lack. As in the case of O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff, one encounters a dilemma in terms of the radical possibilities of the playtext, and the overall nature of the tragic elements that are manifest in the play. The three suicides in Rosmersholm can definitely be attributed to heteronormative anxieties: whereas Beata was unable to reproduce and bear children in order to assure futurity, Rebecca and John Rosmer were unable to ignore their mutual feelings but had no intention to comply with them due to the gender norms of their time. All of these characters embrace queerness in that they deviate from heteronormativity, and they also deviate from futurity. But can Rosmersholm be viewed as a queer tragedy? If one interprets Ibsen’s play as a critique of these norms, it absolutely can. On the other hand, the fact that these characters comply with these heteronormative anxieties by responding to the death drive may be viewed as rhetorically restrictive rather than emancipatory. While both plays can be viewed as social critiques, it is also possible for these plays to be viewed as handbooks that illustrate the consequences of deviating from futurity, reproductive or otherwise. Thus, do these plays represent a collapse of the queer, or a collapse of the heteronormative?

These plays cannot be labeled as a queer failure, nor are can they be entirely approached as heteronormative failures. Both Bound East for Cardiff and Rosmersholm refuse to be entirely situated in either side of the so-called binary, often resting on the interpretation of the reader in order to be classified as either one or the other. In due course, it is the futility of this binary, and the fact that these plays cannot neatly be placed as either a heteronormative tragedy or a queer tragedy, which makes them “queer” in the first place. What is clear, however, is that to some extent, both plays tap into heteronormative anxieties, especially as applied to futurity, in order to illustrate how and why some characters are unable to fit within pre-designed socio-cultural molds, and why this ultimately leads to their removal from the social equation. Whether this heteronormative anxiety is used to challenge the perceptions of the audience or comply with them is up to debate, but it is interesting to see how a work can comply with both ends of a rhetorical spectrum.

Works Cited

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. Rosmersholm: A Play in Four Acts. Trans. R. Farquharson Sharp. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 2001. Web.

O’Neill, Eugene. Bound East for Cardiff. EOneill.com. Web.


[1] I used the e-book version of O’Neill’s text, which is why no page numbers accompany the quotations of this work in this review essay.

[2] In this discussion, by tragic elements, I am referring not to the genre of tragedy, but rather to the sentimental and emotional aspects of tragedy as a descriptor (unfortunate, lamentable, catastrophic, and/or heartbreaking).

personalitypagephoto

When (Gay) Porn and Academia Collide: Pornography as Emancipation?

Never in my life did I think that I’d be writing about porn within an academic setting, but I guess there is a first time for everything (especially if you work in areas such as gender or queer studies)!

While surfing the web and perusing through Buzzfeed (a website that provides a snapshot of the viral web in real time), I encountered an article titled “Why Are We Afraid to Talk About Gay Porn?,” written by author, teacher, and gay porn star Conner Habib. According to Habib’s fact sheet, he pursued an MFA in creative studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he also taught literature, creative writing, and composition for three years. He also claims that he is perhaps the only person who has won awards for his teaching, his writing, and his porn performances. Talk about a triple threat!

Habib

Writer, teacher, and gay porn star Conner Habib.

Recently, the web has been abuzz with news that Habib’s presentation on sex and culture–to be offered at Corning Community College–was cancelled after the college’s president found out that he was an active porn actor. Of course, this may be unsurprising to many seeing the staunch resistance that people in general have when it comes to the discussion of sex within a public space–indicating that indeed, Michel Foucault was absolutely right when discussing the enclosure of sex within the private sphere.

As a doctoral student myself, and particularly as a scholar of literature and gender studies, I often find it surprising that many students, classmates, and colleagues have this almost mystical fear of discussing sexually-charged topics within the classroom. And if the topic has somehow come up within the class, people speak with either scorn or hesitation.

According to Habib, the president of Corning Community College decided to cancel his presentation after finding out that he immersed himself into the porn industry after (not prior to) becoming an educator–thus cementing the notion that progressive sexual politics should not be linked in any way to pornography. This notion echoed the sentiments of many of my classmates in the Theory and Practice of Gender course that I am taking at Notre Dame: according to some of them, pornography is a social ill or evil that is linked to the patriarchal values that are degrading our society. Never mind that fact that there are many around us who watch porn on a regular basis, yet they refuse to “confess” this fact. My question is: what about those porn actors who are empowered by their work? Is porn always degrading? Can porn be viewed as emancipatory or liberatory in any way or fashion?

The discussion that took place in the classroom was inspired in part by a discussion of Catherine MacKinnon‘s views towards pornography, sexuality, and patriarchy. In her (dated) article titled Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: ‘Pleasure under Patriarchy’, MacKinnon offers us the expected and typical view of pornography as an anti-feminist and patriarchal embrace of all of the attitudes and desires that force our culture into a so-called state of stagnancy and repression. Focusing mostly on the brutal and “degrading” aspects of pornography, MacKinnon presents a defense in which many audiences are denied a voice and a presence within the market of porn.

The article does not take into account the fact that there are plenty of women (I know dozens of them) that watch porn, it does not delve deeply into the implications of gay pornography, and in all honesty, it can be said that MacKinnon focuses on the pornographic genres focused on abuse, masochism, and brutality–even going as far as to depict soft core porn as a genre portraying the fantasies of possession and objectification. As she herself puts it:

Pornography permits men to have whatever they want sexually. It is their “truth about sex.” It connects the centrality of visual objectification to both male sexual arousal and male models of knowledge and verification, connecting objectivity with objectification. It shows how men see the world, how in seeing it they access and possess it, and how this is an act of dominance over it. It shows what men want and gives it to them. From the testimony of the pornography, what men want is: women bound, women battered, women tortured, women humiliated, women degraded and defiled, women killed. Or, to be fair to the soft core, women sexually accessible, have-able, there for them, wanting to be taken and used, with perhaps just a little light bondage. Each violation of women-rape, battery, prostitution, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment-is made sexuality, made sexy, fun, and liberating of women’s true nature in the pornography. (326-327)

First and foremost, it must be made clear that MacKinnon wrote this article in 1989. Much has changed since then, but it is eerie to realize that many of these attitudes are very prevalent in today’s society. Now, I will be the first to admit that porn is definitely not an accurate presentation of reality: it is a deliberate construction or staging, in which sex is depicted in a way that is meant to provide both entertainment and arousal. Porn is also rhetorical in nature, in that it is meant to reach specific audiences with particular tastes and expectations. But is it productive to approach porn solely as a patriarchal and repressive agent? Do we want to go as far as to link pornography with deviant sexual acts such as rape, abuse or molestation, such as MacKinnon does in her discussion?

Admittedly, there is porn that is catered to people who enjoy portrayals of rape and abuse. MacKinnon may have a point when it comes to porn that projects abuse, torture, rape, or other social ills. This, I imagine, is not the aim nor the purpose of all the porn that is out there. Yes, porn’s mere existence thrives on objectification, but I’d question whether the aim of this objectification is at all times patriarchal or repressive. Furthermore, when it comes to the existence of pornography that is catered to women or gay men, do we necessarily want to imply that these genres also perpetuate the same exact ideals and ideologies that MacKinnon presents in her discussion? I do not have a concrete answer to this question, but others certainly do.

What I found so innovative and refreshing about Habib’s views is that he approaches porn, and specifically gay porn, as a medium that is intricately tied to the LGBTQ rights movement. Through Habib’s perspective, porn is not viewed as an agent of repression or patriarchal objectification, but rather, it is viewed as a liberatory or emancipatory agent that gives a voice, and a sense of belonging, to those that live within the socio-cultural margins of society. As Habib himself puts it:

Where I grew up, just outside of Allentown, PA, I watched, right through my adolescence into adulthood and early college years, while straight people paired off and experienced sex. They were able to engage with a basic aspect of human life that seemed unavailable and distant to me. Unlike today, there was no discussion about gay marriage, nor were there many gay characters on TV. But even if there had been, neither would have rounded out my experience as a man with homosexual feelings because so many of those feelings were — unsurprisingly for a young man — sexual. Gay sex was a lonely venture. It wasn’t easy to find, and was only mentioned in slurs and the butt of jokes. “Cocksucker” and “butt fucker” were insults; stand-ins for “faggot.”

Whether I bought it from the adult video store or, later, downloaded it, gay porn helped me encounter positive images of gay men enjoying the act of sex. Gay porn was a window into gay sexuality that was free of shame and guilt, and revealed a different world where sex wasn’t a lonely prospect, confined to the shadows or just my imagination. (Why Are We Afraid…)

Conner Habib makes some very interesting assertions about the freeing nature of gay pornography, assertions that only increase in intensity when bringing in notions and conceptions of race. As a performer of Arab descent, Habib admits to receiving countless letters and feedback from countries in which homosexuality is criminalized, for he portrays sex in a way that is free, unrestricted, and honest. Thus, from their perspective, gay porn is viewed as a Utopian fantasy that, according to Habib, provides a sense of empowerment and fosters a sense of imagination. Although from this perspective porn can be harmful in that it fosters a desire for that which is not lawfully permissible, I do agree with Habib’s views of gay porn being able to spark empowerment (and perhaps resistance to the status quo?) .

In due course, Conner Habib points out that an acceptance of LGBTQ individuals entails not only an acceptance of their public lives, but also of their private lives. This is no easy task, especially when focusing on the private nature of sex, generally speaking. Regardless, I think that Habib does add a lot to the conversation of pornography within academia, and he is pushing us to ask ourselves questions that need to be addressed. Furthermore, part of understanding gender, and even more so, part of understanding culture and society in general, entails an exploration of the good, the bad, the ugly… the private and the public… the “speakable” and the unspeakable.

Perhaps porn and academia should collide more often, especially if we’re not comfortable with the collision in the first place. Just that fact that it provokes discomfort gives us much to say about culture and the human condition in the first place.

Letter

A Note on the “Death of the Author”: A Discussion of the Viral Letter from a Dad to his Gay Son

Letter

Yesterday, a letter from a father to his gay son went viral on the internet. The image above was posted on the Facebook page of FCKH8, and as of now, this post has garnered over 80,000 likes. Here’s a transcript of the letter if you’re unable to read it in the image above:

Nate,

I overheard your phone conversation with Mike last night about your plans to come out to me. The only thing I need you to plan is to bring home OJ and bread after class. We are out, like you now. I’ve known you were gay since you were six, I’ve loved you since you were born.

– Dad

P.S. Your mom and I think you and Mike make a cute couple

Naturally, I began to read some of the comments people have written on this post, and of course, there are many who claim that the letter isn’t authentic, and that virtually anyone could write this letter and post it online. I conducted some online research for a couple of minutes, but I was unable to find this letter’s original source, and I was unable to identify who “Nate” and “Dad” are. True, anyone can be Nate, and anyone can be dad. I can grab a piece of paper, write this exact same message, and share it online for the world to see. Thus, it is unsurprising to see how many people are calling the letter a fake. Not only are they questioning its authenticity, but they are also demanding to know who originally wrote this letter.

My question is, does it really matter whether this letter is authentic or not? Does the message behind the letter lose any rhetorical power or agency if we determine that it is indeed a fake? Are the words in this letter unable to stand on their own without an author? Perhaps not.

Fiction, whether it be in the form of a novel, a letter, a short story, or even a poem, has always been deemed to exhibit emancipatory and inspirational potential. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for instance, is deemed to be one of the many literary texts that were capable of promoting social change. There’s even a story (or perhaps better said, a myth) in which Abraham Lincoln himself supposedly exclaimed “So this is the little lady who started this great war” when he met Stowe for the first time. Regardless of whether or not this statement was actually uttered by Lincoln, it still says a lot about the common belief of words possessing the power to change.

The viral letter under scrutiny has invoked a lot of positive response from the media and from people around the web. Many consider the letter to be heart-warming,  a clear indicator that times are changing. Others view the letter as a symbol of social progress, and that the act of “coming-out” is becoming less of an issue in our present day and age (I also discuss this notion of the issue of “coming-out”  and gay visibility here and here). Others were angry at the letter, claiming that it is fake, and that it is simply part of the media’s attempt to depict our society as more progressive and liberal than it actually is. What is definitely apparent is that the letter, regardless of its lack of background and context, still has the capacity to mean something to an interpreter. This notion reflects the ideas once posited by French literary theorist Roland Barthes in his 1977 essay titled Death of the Author (you can access the full-text essay here).

According to Barthes, readers generally tend to “glorify” the author, as if he or she is the absolute authority (pardon the pun) over what the text does or does not mean. Thus, the author tends to be approached as “the voice of a single person, […] ‘confiding’ in us” (Barthes), although when realistically speaking, once something is unleashed into the world or published, its meaning is no longer fixed nor stable.

True, a text or a product will always have a creator, but the creator is no longer the guardian of the semantic and cultural meanings that the product possesses. Popular internet memes succumb to this “death.” Indeed, many popular internet memes, such as Me Gusta and the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy have a point of origin and a creator, but these creators no longer control the meaning of these memes, or the eventual evolution of these meanings (for instance, note how “Me Gusta” eventually developed derivatives such as “No Me Gusta” and “Me Gusta Mucho).

What Barthes means by the “death” of the author, is that meaning should not centered on authorial intent, but rather, on the interpretative abilities of the reader. This, in due course, is because meaning itself is unfixed and unstable–what “happiness” and “pleasure” means for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean for me. As Barthes himself puts it:

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. (Barthes)

The reader is therefore the nexus of all the culture, the history, and the psychology needed to understand and interpret words, whether they be on paper, on a screen, or even if they’re transmitted orally. There is no possible way for you to read orhear a set of words and understand exactly what an author meant. Thus, when it comes to the viral letter from a dad to his gay son, authorial intent does not necessarily matter, and to some extent, it is not absolutely necessary for us to know exactly who created this letter in the first place. What matters is that the words written on that sheet of paper are capable of meaning something valuable to someone. Even if the letter isn’t exactly an authentic indicator that times are changing, it is capable of transmitting an the idea that the idea of change is tangible, palpable, and desired.

We’ve generally accepted the idea that fiction–including novels, stories, television, and movies–is capable of changing us and influencing us (for better or worse). Why does it matter then whether this letter is fictional or not? Regardless of what many think, the idea of the social and cultural emancipation of gender–to the point where coming-out is presented as a non-issue–is a fiction that I’m willing to embrace.

P.S. I think the postscript on the letter under scrutiny is absolutely adorable.

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Would you get into a bathtub with your friend? HBO’s [Girls] and Non-Sexual Intimacy

Girls

I finally got a chance to watch an episode of Girls, an American television series that began airing on HBO during 2012. The show stars and is written by Lena Dunham, and the show is partly inspired by Dunham’s real-life experiences. Strangely enough, I did not watch the first episode of the series, but rather, I watched the fourth episode of the second season titled “It’s a Shame About Ray.” Although I had very little context of what the show was about, it was clear that this show is a realistic and raw approach to the lives of four friends living in New York city. Think about the show as a middle-class Sex In the City fused with Seinfeld, with just a dash of the wit and unapologetic humor of Judd Apatow (who happens to be a producer for the series).

Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of "Girls," played by Lena Dunham.

Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of “Girls,” played by Lena Dunham.

Regardless of my lack of context and background while watching Girls, I was amazed on how issues of gender were approached by this show, especially when concerned with its depiction of the female body and friendship between women. According to what I’ve read and been told, the show’s protagonist, Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham) is constantly nude throughout the episodes of the series. Now, Hannah does not necessarily comply with the so-called normal standards of beauty. She is not supermodel thin, she has a tattoo on her arm, and she does not wear a lot of makeup. Nonetheless, Hannah is completely comfortable with her body, and she has no qualms of being naked in front of other people.

There was a moment in this episode that particularly caught my attention, not only because it depicted a situation that we don’t often encounter in television, but also because it challenges most of the ideas and assumptions that we have of gender, relationships, and the body. Check out this scene in the video below:

In order to provide some context to this video, Hannah is the person singing Oasis’s Wonderwall while taking a bath. The other person who steps into the shower is Jessa Johansson, a close friend of Hannah’s who considers herself a free-spirited bohemian. In this scene, we witness an encounter between the two friends soon after Jessa realizes that her sudden and unexpected marriage with a successful business man has collapsed. Jessa steps into the shower, hungry for an understanding soul, and we witness the intensity of an authentic friendship between two women.

I for one, have many close friends, but when it comes to nudity and my body, I definitely aim for privacy at all costs. Sure, there are friends who change in front of each other with no hesitation, but unfortunately, I am not one of those people. In all honesty, I even have issues when people stand too close to me while I’m taking care of business at a urinal in a public restroom. Thus, what was so surprising to me when watching this scene is that Hannah seems to be completely comfortable being naked in front of her friend. She does not flinch, nor does she panic. When Jessa strips off her clothes and steps into the bathroom with Hannah, my jaw nearly dropped. Naturally, as a viewer, I was expecting to see some sexual tension or nervousness between the two characters. After all, at least when it comes to film and television, what can be more intimate and sexual than two people sharing a bath together (think of bath scenes in movies such as Pretty Woman)? It is rare that we encounter two characters sharing a bath, albeit in a non-sexual fashion.

Now, if I have trouble changing in front of my friends, imagine how I would feel if one of them stepped into a bath while I was in it! Let’s just say that there would be name-calling and hair-pulling involved, to say the least. However, the level of trust between these two characters is so intense, that it only seems natural for Jessa to join Hannah in the bathtub. And to my surprise, there was no obvious discomfort portrayed in this scene in terms of nudity, and there is no embarrassment portrayed as the friends face each other naked. What surprised me most, however, is that when we encounter an intimate scene taking place between two people of the same gender in a bathtub, we automatically assume that there will be a level of homoerotic acknowledgement or sexual tension taking place in the scene. However, homoerotic or sexual tension are nowhere to be found in the exchange between Hannah and Jessa–what we get is simply a moment of non-sexual intimacy between two close friends.

We witness Jessa breaking out into tears as Hannah gently holds her hand. No words are exchanged, but it is clear that words are unnecessary during this moment. What started out as tears turns into a hilarious exchange of the grossness and indecency of a “snot rocket” taking place within the context of the bathroom–which is interesting seeing as peeing in the bathtub, or even sharing the bath with a friend are ultimately considered normal in this friendship.

While discussing this scene with a friend, she pointed out how the depiction of both friends naked within the tub seems more comfortable and natural than if Jessa were to keep her clothes on as the sympathetic exchange was taking place. It’s almost as if the nudity, and the presence of both characters within the private space, further enhances the sense of realness, rawness, and authenticity portrayed within the scene. Here we witness characters who are not only friends, but friends that know and understand each other in ways that most of us can’t even begin to comprehend.

Girls Bathtub Scene

Hannah and Jessa share a bath.

This scene makes more sense if we use Adrienne Rich‘s perspectives of the lesbian continuum in order to interpret this scene, which is a way of viewing heterosexuality and lesbianism as two ends of a continuum rather than a conceptual split. According to Rich, many sexual experiences that women face in their daily lives can be placed somewhere within this continuum, and there are some non-sexual experiences that can still be considered lesbian, or that invoke some degree of connection between two women. What we observe in this bathtub scene is an intimate exchange between two women in a bathtub, yet paradoxically, I personally am resistant to classify this scene as erotic, sexual, or even purely lesbian for that matter.

I think that this resistance is what highlights the validity and productivity of Rich’s lesbian continuum. If I were to merely describe the scene to someone, I think that their immediate reaction would be to consider this scene as a purely lesbian or homoerotic encounter. But after watching the scene, it’s easy to see that although it may seem sexual and homoerotic superficially, the profundity of the exchange nullifies any sexual or lesbian traits that we try to project onto the characters. Is it possible that a resistance to approach this scene as lesbian or homoerotic is due to the heteronormativity that is ingrained within our culture? Does it have to do with the non-sexual nature of the scene? Or, is it possible that this scene depicts a situation that resists easy categorization? I am inclined to go with this last assumption, but there is still much to be said and done with this scene.

Girls is not only providing rich food for thought, but it is also taking us into uncharted territory when it comes to the portrayal of gender in television and media. Can watchers of this show describe other instances in which Girls challenges our preconceived notions of gender, intimacy, and sexuality? Do any of you have any thoughts or opinions regarding this scene? Can any of you help me make sense of what is going on here?