I once sang in a choir. No, really, I kid you not. I was raised by atheists, but sent to the kind of institution where you sang hymns every morning. Singing the praises of the Lord and his sexy, rock star son with the golden tresses and the gaping wound for a heart was an exotic activity for me. All my friends had gods to go home to, and their religions ran the gamut from obscure sects of Jainism to Islam. At the age of eight, for too many reasons to recount but mostly because I briefly longed for what, in hindsight, was really the drab existence of others (did my parents have to collect tantric sculptures, I’d wonder, when everyone else was content with reproductions of Monet?), I began a search for God. Any god would do. To the horror of my parents, I roamed from faith to faith, seeking the perfect saint or god. Guru Nanak’s giant heavy-lidded eyes were beautiful and kind, but I needed something more. I contemplated the Buddha, but he was too quiet and I moved on to Krishna.
Krishna. There was a god designed for love. Sex, precisely. Is there a cultural studies scholar from here to Gurgaon who will dispute that he is the god of masturbatory fantasies, created explicitly to enable young girls to ponder the mysteries of desire within the safe enclave of religious longing? The libertine god is famed for his conquests and is often shown playing, of all things, a flute. And always with scantily clad women at his side, in blouses so tiny that their breasts spill out from all sides -- giant orbs of sumptuous flesh thrilling to his song and touch. I lusted for them all, man and women.
My brush with faith didn’t last long. I suspect my disappointment with religion had everything to do with certain prayers going unanswered: entire pantheons simply deserted me. So I just kept reading. I couldn’t bring God/gods into the house, but I could read anything I wanted and I consumed everything from Dickens to Sybil. I have a distinct memory of going from the book to the dinner table and asking my father, too small for my feet to touch the ground, “What does the word “crotch” mean?” As I recall, crotches figured prominently in Sybil. Somewhere between lusting for forbidden gods and wondering about crotches, I must have become queer.
What does any of this have to do with Angelina Jolie?
I “came out,” whatever the hell that means, at the height of queer theory, in an English department swarming with queers who were determined to bust all binaries and turn the world queer as fuck. Being queer in academia in the mid-’90s, in certain spaces, was practically mandatory. We were going to conquer the world by applying our gerundive might to it, queering everything from sitcoms to manifestos.
Enter Angelina. You, my friends, might think of her bemusedly as she now bats her eyelids and murmurs about only having slept with four men. Two of them, she coyly reminds us, were men she married. Yeah, the girl’s practically a virgin. Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt, it will soon be revealed, is the result of an immaculate conception. Perhaps the press was on to something when it trumpeted the kid’s birth as the most anticipated since that of Jesus Christ.
But my friends and I remember someone else altogether, a woman who looked like she could drive off the edge any minute and who snogged her brother in public. We loved her for that especially, for going against heteronormativity: the thing that seemed the biggest curse of the time. Admittedly, the fact that she played a politically incorrect tomb raider did register with us on occasion. But we let that pass for a vision of the Jolie encased in leather. Angelina was our queer queen. Her madness and taste for blood and cutting added to our collective thrill.
Look at her now. A Mia Farrow for the 21st century, roaming the globe in search of children to adopt into her rainbow-hued family. When she gives birth, the event takes on portentous proportions. Some of us long for private rooms in hospitals, the kind where you don’t have to share the remote with the loon in the next bed who wants to watch the Home Shopping Network. Angelina got the entire country of Namibia.
Re-invention is the mother of celebrity. So while it shocked us when Angelina set up house with Billy Bob and turned earnestly and even insanely heterosexual, we knew what was up. There’s a point at which a hint of bisexuality is a sexy and profitable thing: both straight men and dykes get to fantasise about you and come to see your movies in droves. But there’s a point at which bi-ness can seem too much like, ew, ick, lesbianism, and the unacknowledged truth in the entertainment world is that a dyke is a box-office killer.
Why do I care? Why is Angelina on my mind? Is it because she is no longer as queer as I’d like or because she/queerness has simply failed to be interesting? I shall call my beloved M., with whom I shared a TA office. M., who put up that picture of Sigourney Weaver stretched out in a fishnet body suit. I like girls, it said. Deal. I shall call her tonight and muse aloud about what all this means and what the point of calling myself queer might be, and wait to hear her sardonic wit crackle back at me. “Your issues,” she once surmised in her usual brilliant and off-hand way, “have everything to do with cathexis.” Only M. could have managed to say that so gently but precisely.
There is, really, some strange sadness here. As if I’ve been betrayed by God, any god, many gods. Even the sight of Angelina’s sumptuous lips cannot allay my worst fears: this is where the queer ends up. Not with a bang that explodes the world as we know it, but with a shy whimper about only sleeping with the men she cares about. In an interview with Ann Curry, she spewed some twaddle about motherhood changing her, making her softer and gentler, like a woman should be. On top of everything else, she turns out to be a bloody essentialist!
Is this the end of “queer?” Or is this just what queer was always destined to be? As it turns out, Angelina is probably still as queer as fuck. She collects children and talks about how it’s not blood that makes families. She speaks well of gay marriage, which makes today’s queers really happy. She is the goddess of neoliberalism, a stunning face and body that appeals to our “humanitarian” impulses to give money to alleviate crises without worrying our pretty little heads about the harder issues around, oh, trade policies that actually create the crises in the first place.
Angelina, baby, has it all been a sham all along? I’m not entirely sure what queer means any more since, these days, I spend a good bit of my energy eviscerating queer theory for never having been anything other than an insidious handmaiden of neoliberalism. Much like those orb-breasted women mooning around Krishna. “Sybil,” it turns out, may barely have had one personality, leave alone sixteen. Much like Angelina, whose wild queerness turns out to have hidden a saintly girl who marries half the people with whom she sleeps.
On a not entirely unrelated note, here are my two latest reviews:
Samuel Delany, Dark Reflections:
Kenny Fries, The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory