“I’m a bad motherfucker, don’t you know / And I’ll crawl over fifty good pussies just to get to one fat boy’s asshole …” — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Stagger Lee”
In Nick Cave’s 1995 take on the “Stagger Lee Blues,” an often-covered American folk song about a murderer named Stagger Lee, Cave twists the original tale. Now Stagger Lee isn’t just a murderer, he’s a gay murderer, and he forces his victim, “Bill Dilly,” to perform oral sex on him before murdering him. I didn’t know much of anything about Nick Cave until my supervisor wrote a book chapter about his work earlier this year, and listening to All The Nick Cave became one of my research tasks (too spooky for me; listening to Nick Cave albums late at night was a good way to end up convinced there were serial killers hiding in my back yard). While plenty of Cave’s songs emphasize male violence, they mostly feature violence against women. “Stagger Lee” is an odd song out, and I was left wondering why the thing that ultimate badasses are made of is sexual desire for other men.
And here I am again, wondering the same thing about the villain in Cave’s new screenplay, Lawless. An adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World, a “true” story of the author’s own grandfather’s and uncles’ bootlegging operation during prohibition in the US South, Lawless follows the heroes’ struggle against corrupt lawmakers. Guy Pearce plays Special Agent Rakes, a cop turned extortionist, who comes to the backwoods community from the big city, on behalf of a similarly corrupt politician. This outsider wages a campaign of violent terror against the community’s bootleggers, and in particular against the Bondurant family, who refuse to give him a cut of their profits.
The film is brutally and straightforwardly violent, much like Cave’s last screenplay, The Proposition. There are more than a few fight scenes, complete with brass knuckles, broken teeth and blood oozing from characters’ mouths. The flesh-on-flesh impacts are played extra loud, for cringeworthy effect. The film’s heroes are surrounded by a legend that they’re immortal, which they test by getting themselves repeatedly blugeoned, stabbed, and shot, with every detail drawn out for the audience’s pleasure. The movie’s only sex scene, unfortunately, is not shown. I guess heroes are for kicking ass, not cunnilingus.
While the Bondurants carry out a few murders and at least one very bloody castration, most of the violence is orchestrated by Special Agent Rakes, who we are to understand is Very Evil. And this is where the movie gets weird.
Cave adapts Bondurant’s villain, described in a Guardian promo piece as a “redneck country cop,” to what he claims is a more “memorable” role. The change was made to get actor Guy Pearce, who is more than convincingly creepy in the role, on board. Cave’s Rakes is an urban dandy: affected, flamboyant, dressed to the nines, and very emotional. (In the Guardian interview, Cave said he made Rakes more like himself.) Rakes is established as a deviant in two interactions with women.
First, he recognizes one of the heroes’ love interests, Maggie, as a stripper who fled the city for a quieter life in the country. He calls her out at a hotel where they are both staying, holding her door open with his foot as she tries to escape into her room. She tells him to leave her alone and he replies “don’t worry about me; I don’t want to drink from a greasy cup.” It’s a great line, but it’s also a weird scene, since it comes only after Rakes is made as obviously and pointedly sexually threatening as possible. Now he’s a threat, but he’s not sexually interested in the beautiful woman.
Later, Rakes is shown in his own room, dressed even more lavishly than usual. As he opens his door to find the giftwrapped testicles of one of his minions, we see a black woman, a prostitute, sitting on newspaper on the neatly made bed. There is no dialogue between them, but she’s crying. He has obviously done something awful to her — and something awfully deviant, since they don’t appear to have used the bed for fucking. Rakes has been shown enjoying causing pain in a few other scenes, so we presume him to be a sexual sadist. Can he get any more evil?
Well, then there’s the boy he kills. Cricket, physically disabled friend to the heroes, is their employee and engineering mastermind, doing everything from building the distillery to amking their cars go faster. As far as this movie goes, he’s as innocent as you can get. So, naturally, Rakes kills him.
What the film shows is Rakes leading Cricket into the woods, finally pushing him through a dark doorway into an abandoned building. Rakes is about as nice as he gets in the film, questioning Cricket about why one of the other men called him a “nance.” Rakes stands behind Cricket, choking him and covering his mouth, repeating “he called me a nance” before finally snapping the boy’s neck with his bare hands. “I’m not a nance,” he says.
This scene marks a turning point in the community: the sherrif, who has been coerced to work on Rakes’ side, tries to make up with the Bondurants. In two separate scenes, he explains that Cricket’s death is over the line: “What he done to that boy” is “beyond forgiveness” and “there’s no absolution.”
Nobody says the boy was raped before he was killed. In fact, for a movie that gleefully shows scene after scene of bloody violence, the actual depiction of Cricket’s death is surprisingly peaceful; his neck snaps, they have a funeral, and that’s that. While most of the movie’s shock value is in the horrors they do shown, this is about what they don’t show, and apparently can’t even say.
The other, acknowledged rape in the story also isn’t shown. When two of Rakes’ henchmen rape Maggie, we are shown her bruises afterwards to confirm that the assault has taken place. Even when her love interest, headed out for revenge, questions her about it, she denies that anything has happened, repeating “they didn’t do nothing to me.” While Maggie’s rape is made undeniable to the audience, rape is the atrocity the film leverages, but never attempts to represent.
On the surface, Lawless was a decent action flick, packed with plenty of gore, shooting and suspense, and driven by a decent “Robin Hood” plot. But it’s also a homophobic fantasy about a community of white rural men who need to band together to protect themselves when an urban queer shows up in their midst, and threatens their economy, their values, and their family. The queer is the threat — a powerful physical and sexual threat — to the normatively masculine men, not the other way around. It’s the stuff “gay panic” is made of. Only when Rakes has been killed (overkilled) can the brothers — including the one who has not had a love interest at any point throughout the film — marry their sweethearts and spawn buckets of little children.
In LTST605, we read a critical edition of Heart of Darkness in which much of the debate centred around whether Joseph Conrad was really racist in his representations of characters of colour, or whether he was reproducing Victorian ideology about race in order to subject it to critique. I might ask myself the same question about this movie: is Cave just a homophobic writer? Or is he leveraging homophobia in a way that accurately captures the homophobia in American cultural mythmaking? (And does it matter that the film valorizes, if not confirms, other myths of masculinity, like the heroes’ invincibility? Or that Cave claims to identify with the villain?)
I’ve been copying blog posts from my school blog to populate this new one without copying comments because most of the posts weren’t public, so commentators had an expectation that their comments would stay within the school community. But this time the post was public, and I think my supervisor, Mark’s, comment adds a lot to this analysis:
One possible way to interpret (if not decisively decode) the gender and sexual ambiguities of the character played by Pearce here is to read it in the context of other roles he has played. In performance studies, the ability of an actor playing a given role to quote or otherwise evoke prior roles in other productions is a phenomenon called “ghosting.” For instance, in my Battlestar Galactica article I discuss how the Commander character played by Edward James Olmos ironically “ghosts” his previous role in Blade Runner: the irony obtains in the fact that both characters, in the course of their respective productions’ plots, become suspected of being not human but androids, or “replicants.” Part of the irony then is how the recurrence of the same actor in these successive roles enacts a repetition that augments each role’s suspicion of being a replicant, a copy.
I’m not thoroughly acquainted with all Pearce’s prior roles, but two that occur to me in the context of your analysis are those which he played for Cave’s prior screenplay, Charlie Burns in The Proposition, and for a much earlier film: Felicia Jollygoodfellow in Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994). He also played a role in LA Confidential (1997), a movie that, I dimly recall, involved homosocial and gay themes, though I think these were concentrated in the Kevin Spacey character. Then again, in The Road (2009), Pearce plays a folksy family man – you know, the kind defined by not being a cannibal.
This is a reproduction of a post from September 9th 2012 on my blog at https://landing.athabascau.ca/profile/sarahma108
I have to come out about something: I love action movies. The skimpier the plot, and the more the explosions, the better. There are few things I’d rather do than sit down with the Die Hard franchise and have an all-day movie marathon (and my librarian friend, Alan, and I already have a date to see the new one on Valentine’s Day). I’ve never been crazy about Bond movies because his hyper-heterosexual “sexiness” just isn’t sexy to me. I like a little more parody with my fucking, thanks. But as the kung-fu movie I wanted to see was suffering technical difficulties, I ended up watching the latest Bond flick, Skyfall.
Skyfall has its good points. LOTS OF STUFF blows up. Many people get shot, and there is at least one good stabbing. It doesn’t pass the “Bechdel Test,” but it does have two at least somewhat rounded women characters (though one, the only woman of colour in the film, is pretty much just there to screw things up, sleep with Bond, and put Moneypenny back to work as a secretary — FYI: Hollywood has not gotten any less racist or sexist). I had a lovely time watching it with my friend Dan. And it has absolutely the best take on the “queer villain” I’ve yet seen in an action movie.
Queer Villain, Handled Remarkably Well
In many stories, the villain is vaguely queer: a little too feminine, a little too fixated on the handsome hero, not physically strong, conniving, petty, jealous — in short, all the worst stereotypes of faggy. (Of course femmey queens of all genders are way cooler than that in real life.) Skyfall‘s villain, Silva, is no exception. Except when he has Bond tied to a chair, he doesn’t approach Bond’s testicles with a highly symbolic laser, he straight up hits on him, with ample nuzzling, stroking and groping. I’m no expert on the Bond franchise, but I’d hazard a guess that men in general, and Bond himself, haven’t often been portrayed as vulnerable to sexual violence.
Being a hairy, angry dyke in the middle of an audience of mostly teenage boys during that scene, however, was a bit uncomfortable. For every advance from Silva, the audience’s laughter got a little more uncomfortable, and a little meaner. Straight people say they’re liberal and tolerant now that we can get gay married just like them, but I don’t really buy it. The torches and pitchforks are hidden, not gone (just ask trans women of colour how “tolerance” is going). But the scene was handled in a truly interesting way.
As he runs his hands up Bond’s thighs, Silva murmurs: “There’s a first time for everything, Bond.”
And with his trademark cool, Bond replies: “What makes you think it’s my first time?”
For decades, Bond’s sexuality has been misogynistic, heteronormative, hyper-masculine, upper-class, and, well, repugnant. The new Bond isn’t just blonde and a little less clean cut. He’s vulnerable to pain and doubt (he is injured in the movie and exhibits dependence on painkillers), vulnerable to sexual violence, and maybe even queer. With one line, the scene suggests that there are other ways for men — and not just any men, but the shining example of a manly man — to be masculine. Kudos, Bond.
So why did I hate it? Because of the pointless, degrading, rapey, stigmatizing, misogynistic-beyond-misogyny inclusion of a sex worker character.
Three Steps to Degrading Sex Workers
Normally, I love seeing whores everywhere I go: whores are smart, with great people skills, even better self-preservation skills, and on the whole, sexy as all hell. Whores make excellent femme fatales because we all know they’re smarter than Bond and can probably kick his ass, too. But this is corporate capitalist culture, not a street that I’m afraid to walk down by myself at night, where I am happy to know there are women out who have my back. And stories about whores, in corporate media, only ever get told one way.
Here’s how to make sure, if you include a sex worker in your movie, you let everyone know her life is essentially worthless:
STEP ONE: Bond meets the femme fatale, Severine, in a casino, where there is some risk that he will be shot and/or eaten by lizards. They talk about an assassination he participated in, and, noticing a tattoo on her wrist, he figures she’s not a femme fatale after all, but in actuality a helpless victim of sex trafficking. I don’t know enough about the sector of the sex industry she’s supposed to work in, but it’s worth noting that she’s depicted as white — while anti-trafficking and other criminalization schemes disproportionately target women of colour, as Shawna Ferris points out in her essay “The Lone Streetwalker,” visual images of sex workers almost always show white women. (Because they want the women to look vulnerable, and in a racist culture, only white women pull on the right heartstrings.)
Surmising that she works for Silva because she was desperate to get out of the sex industry and couldn’t tell an abuser when he tried to buy her, Bond tells her what he’s figured out and adds “how old were you? 12?”
Because hey, who doesn’t like to have their sexual trauma narrated to them, based on a set of well-trafficked assumptions, without getting so much as a word in edgewise.
In cultural representations of sex workers, whores, even fictional ones, are not permitted to narrate their own experiences.
STEP TWO: Bond agrees to meet Severine later on a boat, provided he doesn’t get shot and/or eaten by lizards on his way out. If she leads him to her boss, he’ll save her from the bad guy. He survives a decent fight scene (in which someone gets eaten by lizards, at least), and catches the boat as it is casting off. Severine, thinking he is dead, is in the shower when he arrives. So, natch, he strips down and joins her, and they fuck, without a word.
Because hey, he’s saving her from the sex industry. She owes him. And we already know she can’t tell the difference between exploitation and love, so what’s one more cock?
Even when they’re not doing sex work, sex workers are under their “saviours'” power, and still — and always — available for exploitation. There is an entire “helping” industry built around this idea.
STEP THREE: Bond and Severine are promptly captured. Bond and Silva flirt a bit, and when Silva’s advances don’t scare Bond the way he’d like, they go outside to find Severine beaten and tied in a courtyard. Silva places a shot glass of whiskey on her head and tells Bond that the first of them to knock it off her head wins. Bond shoots and misses. Silva shoots Severine in the head, knocking the shot glass to the ground. What do you think of that, he asks Bond.
“Waste of a drink.”
Because hey, her life was pretty much already a waste, so why, after she fulfilled her end of the bargain, and — bonus — fucked him, should Bond give even half a crap if he didn’t do what he said he would and help her out?
The reason for including a sex worker character, in the end, was so that a woman could be killed on screen without the inconvenient problem of anyone in the film or in the audience giving a damn. The contrast between this scene, and the one in which six unnamed, unseen military personnel are mourned, their coffins draped in the British flag, speaks volumes (not only about how worthless sex workers’ lives are to the filmmakers, but also about American militarism, projected onto England).
But Can’t you Just Enjoy the Movie?
Thing is, contrary to the media image of being women who never do anything but flaunt their safety on the streets and fuck for money, women and men sex workers can and do go to movies. If you thought being a queer in the middle of a homophobic audience trying to grapple with the queer scene sounds scary, imagine being a sex worker, in the middle of an audience who’s just had it confirmed — and has had it confirmed almost every time they’ve seen any film or teevee with a sex worker in it — that your autonomy, sexual safety, and, ultimately, life are worth less than a shot of whiskey.
In a movie that does a good job with a parodic re-presentation of the tropic queer villian, I think it’s obvious that we do have a choice about how to represent sex workers as well. There is certainly nothing new or creative about Severine’s characterization; it’s high time we see this trope skewered, too.
This is a reproduction of a post from November 16th 2012 on my blog at https://landing.athabascau.ca/profile/sarahma108