“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
When war is instigated, it’s safe to assume an awful lot of people are about to get fucked. We all know, of course, that VD was an issue for men and women “overseas” at war throughout the 20th century (and still is now). A few of other things we know, of course, are that some men have sex with other men, sex is not always consensual, and rape (especially rape of racialized women) is a widely used and effective weapon in wars. These are important things to keep in mind as some of the realities that fall outside the limits of dominant discourse, so we can see more clearly the work done by discourse.
I have limited information about the posters below. They were all posted as a part of the “100 Years of Sex” campaign by The San Francisco City Clinic, but without information about when they were made, where, how widely they were distributed. And that’s why I say ‘dialogue,’ because I am reading them as evidence of an ongoing covnersation, not a chronologically developing statement. (There’s 100 posters there, one from each year the clinic has been open — totally worth checking out.)
As far as information about how to not get syphilis goes, this is pretty useless. Chances are, all of those men do not have syphilis (probably not the ones who are smiling, anyway — festering genital sore = frowny face), and even if they did, no one is going to catch it by dancing with them.
But that doesn’t mean dancing’s not dangerous business. This commentary, from the extreme end of the religious right, neatly captures the “trouble” with dancing:
Even back in the 1940s, my mother and her friends—no doubt like millions of mothers all across the United States—had pushed me and dozens of my classmates to attend “dancing school”—where we were taught to dance face to face and chest to chest with young girls barely entering their puberty. We were just little children who wanted to play baseball and “kick the can.” God does not forbid dancing, of course, but He does command us to “flee sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18). Why did our mothers push us into the kind of semi-romantic, semi-sexual behavior involved in that kind of dancing when we were only twelve years old?
The commentary is about violence against women and its causes (and it’s about as useful as the poster is for preventing syphilis). First syphilis, now violence: dancehalls can’t catch a break in this post. Dancing is sexy, so I’ll give them that much, but the poster has more to say. Amy Leigh writes:
[…] as the United States struggled with the ethical and racial issues surrounding jazz music in the early twentieth century, legal boundaries, doctrine, and personal rights evolved to accommodate and embrace changing prevailing views. This co-existing development appears especially in the use of ordinances, zoning laws, and restrictive covenants as weapons to insulate middle- and upper-class white communities from the “evils” thought to exist in black communities, red-light districts, and dance halls. Prevailing community ideals held that the goals of maintaining a white, middle-class homogeneity and a proper moral environment suited for childrearing justified all efforts to segregate blacks in American cities.
Public health discourse, like zoning law, is a way that governments can attempt to regulate people’s movements. After all, the poster doesn’t say “women: don’t fuck,” it says to stay not only out of, but entirely away from dancehalls. The men in the poster may all be white (and that helps to target an audience of white women), but the syphilis-infected men dancing with white women in the cultural imagination probably were not.
That the men are evidently returning ‘home’ from ‘away’ — we see them exiting a train — makes this a story of men’s movement as well, referencing the sexual threat of conquest and pillage (the mission just completed, where we must assume the men picked up the VD) and, because it is a racialized message in the US, the lingering exoticized foreignness of racialized masculinity. (I need to know a word for “un-citizenship,” btw. What do I mean by un-citizenship? Consider the zillion of so citizens who can’t vote because of their “criminal” records. There’s citizenship on paper, and then there’s citizenship in practice)
Sexual threat brings us pretty neatly to the next image, a picture of Donald Duck, who would be having a super-good day if only he had a condom. Also, he would be raping someone, but ‘the West’ has always had, and still has, a pretty fucked up discourse around sexual assault and sexual consent. That doesn’t make it ok, just unsurprising. (Just because it really can’t go without saying, having sex with someone who is asleep is rape, regardless of where she’s sleeping, how she came to pass out, and what she’s wearing at the time. Not being on guard against rapists 24/7 is not an invitation for sex.)
Whiteness, once again, is a funny thing in conversations about disease and sexual threat. Donald Duck is a soldier in this image, stationed somewhere where tropical plants grow. I don’t know if ducks can be ‘white,’ but I’ve never seen Donald Duck pictured as other than white. The woman napping under the plants is pictured as an alluring and vulnerable white woman. Despite the fact that Donald Duck is considering raping the woman, it’s her body, not his, that’s cast as a sexual threat: she might have VD. Given our cultural myths about rape, we might even assume she’s promiscuous — she is, after all, ‘asking for it’ — so then, according to many of the posters on the site, she definitely has VD.
But the reality this poster is interacting with is one where soldiers stationed in the global South have sex with (and rape) women who are not white. And if the poster had shown a racialized woman napping under a bush, with Donald Duck poised to rape her, if only he could do so without risk to himself, well, that story would resonate almost perfectly with the history of American imperialism. It’s not quite a “don’t rape” message, but it’s definitely a warning, casting racialized women’s bodies as simultaneously absent and threatening: to the integrity of male American soldiers and, in the dialogue between the poster and the reality it speaks to, to white women’s privileged desirability.
The ‘exotic’ plants place this threat ‘far away,’ but of course, as American soliders impregnate racialized women in far away places, we have every reason to fear migration.
Speaking of fear, Hitler is very scary. So is that other guy, who might be Hirohito, but, as it now occurs to me, I really don’t know anything about the Japanese leadership during World War 2 (or at any other point in history, for that matter), so it could be some other commander-type whose face was familiar to Americans. I wonder why Japanese leaders never became iconic in the same way as Hitler did, but I suppose that’s best left unanswered, as it’s quite off-topic.
We can repeat the dialogue above about sexual threat and threatening sexualities, taking note in this case the construction of women’s bodies specifically as weapons in war, instrumental to the political (and musical?) designs of these caricatures of fascism. This instrumentality contradicts the real use of women’s bodies in war, as people who can be raped to establish dominance over an ‘enemy’ population. (Have I mentioned rape enough in this post? That’s because war is super rapey. Hey, Canada’s at war in Afghanistan right now. And we’ve been occupying Haiti for, like, ever. We should probably be talking regularly about how frequently women involved in war in any way, as soldiers or as civilians, are sexually assaulted.)
Anyway. The next two posters mark a shift in the conversation we’ve been following.
This looks like an aircraft carrier, and the higher production value and inclusion of technology in the image suggest a later date than the others, but who knows? (Does someone know? I think it would be fascinating to be able to arrange this dialogue chronologically without my half-baked guesswork.)
This is my favourite (in the sense of “I’m excited to deconstruct this,” not “this is a good STI-prevention tool”) of the posters I pulled from the site because the movement of sexual threat from sexualized remediated bodies to sexualized space and place is so apparent. The weather vane indicates that “whereever you go” is a movement from North and West to South and East, identifying the trajectories of invasion and occupation in American imperialism, even as its consistency with the viewer’s gaze helps to normalize them. The sexualized threat isn’t women’s bodies, but the places themselves, characterizing the global ‘East’ and ‘South’ as always and already infected: a discourse reflective of American views on ‘foreign’ (and the exceptional ‘homegrown,’ always said with surprise as if to entrench its natural foreignness) terrorism, fascism, primitivism and communism, but also one that negates the infectious nature of Western military and economic movement around the world. (Think of american army bases and McDonalds restaurants popping up like clusters of herpes blisters, while violence and hunger cause suffering in those same places. Capitalism is the ultimate opportunistic infection.)
So, last but not least, we come to the point of the VD dialogue. What, if sexuality and bodies aren’t necessarily connected in discourse, are we protecting? And in the weird imperial dialogue of VD, the ‘citizen’ finally makes an appearance among all the infected un-citizens. He’s an interesting character: white and male, of course, and he’s a child, necessarily subjected to the rule of a higher authority. The citizen, in whose name we engage this weird discourse of sexual morality, sexual conquest and sexual threat, is a promise (or a dream) as much as a person; something we can work toward, but never embody.
This is a reproduction of a post from April 29th 2011 on my blog at https://landing.athabascau.ca/profile/sarahma108