Jessica Hoffmann

"Queer" as a Challenge: Notes on Louise Bourgeois, Milk, Revolutionary Road, White-Led Feminist and Gay-Rights Movements, and Etc.

Filed By Jessica Hoffmann | December 26, 2008 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: Briggs Initiative, Harvey Milk, heteronormative, homophobic behavior, INCITE!, Jeanette Winterson, Louise Bourgeois, Milk movie, queer, Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates, The Canon, violence, Virginia Woolf, white feminism

Queer, as in "strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint" [Random House Webster's Unabridged]; "questionable ... differing in some way from what is usual or normal." As in "often disparaging: homosexual" or "sometimes offensive: gay." As in "a contemporary antonym of the heteronormative"--or, wait: "a zone of possibilities." As in: [more after the jump]


I want to say that even a man and a woman in a sexual relationship, and/or a romantic one, might be doing something queer. Even a mother and father, married and raising a child or two, might be queer in some sense. (And I do not mean in the sense of "queering heterosexuality," an appropriative idea that generally seems to me to occur without any letting go of a grip on straight privilege -- rather, that privilege allows a flexibility around gender and sexual roles within "straightness" that is safe in the way privilege tends to make things.) I mean: when that mother or that father, mid-marriage, child or two at hand, is actively and bravely questioning straightness, gender roles, norms. I mean when that mother is looking at the kinds of sculptures famous (male) artists are making -- the look of them, the aesthetic of the moment, the shapes that are cropping up in galleries -- and then she puts herself to the hard and long work of making some sculptures of similar shapes and styles, right in that same aesthetic realm, except in hers the central figure represents a wife/mother, with elliptical shapes representing children hanging from the area that would be her waist, heavy ends down.


I saw the Louise Bourgeois show at MOCA this past weekend. I arrived expecting to be, just, whelmed. An afternoon at a museum (a space with its own hanging weights of all sorts -- see right column for another way of looking at that sculpture) with some family in from out of town (other weights); a show of an artist I knew little about whose work might be nice to look at for an hour after lunch. I read the text on the wall at the entrance, made the eye-rolling, world's-preposterous-isn't-it? report to my partner that "she was the first female artist to have a major show at MoMA -- in nine-teen-EIGHTY-TWO!" I looked at some small, framed pencil sketches of women with houses, entire tenement buildings, over their heads and torsos, drawn in the late 1940s. And then I looked at Quarantania I, a sculpture that from a distance looked like just another one of those mid-century sculptures that sculptures looked like then, till I read the explanatory text on the wall and looked again at those child-shapes dangling from the waist of the central figure, just there, hanging from her waist.

("The Canon was admirably free from modern Existentialist Doubt. It knew who belonged and who didn't belong.
'Excuse me?'
'Who said that?'
It was Virginia Woolf addressing The Canon,"
Jeanette Winterson wrote, in Art [Objects].)

I looked again at those pencil sketches, so obvious in 2008 retrospect but amazing for the time and still striking: houses over women's heads, a naked woman on all fours with an entire tenement over her upper body. I wrote in my notebook: The issue is not that white, class-privileged women documented, and mined, their particular gender oppression, but that they presumed it was universal, took up so much space with it, put it at the center of a movement they should have known better than to think themselves rightful leaders of (but of course they didn't ... ), failed to recognize other and different experiences, and finally, as a group (because of course there were exceptions, but I mean as an overall pattern), failed to act in anything like solidarity with people whose experience of gender oppression was different from theirs. Which is the same sad damn thing happening today.

What Louise Bourgeois was doing in those works was a major intervention, a kind of revolution, a brilliant and necessary document of a particular (though not individual) experience of womanhood -- of personhood within particular sociocultural bounds -- a brave insistence, a challenge that moved me, standing there in 2008 with no personal connection to housewifehood, more than I had any expectation it might. What she did in the next decade, with Sleep II,
blurring "male" and "female" at the supposedly essential level (at the body, the reproductive organs), sculpting huge genitalia that is both/and, not either/or or opposite or complementary but, beautifully: a kind of phallic symbol that is round and squat, a phallus sculpted in hard, rigid material that is somehow soft, layered, slipping ...

... what she did there is enormous, world-split-open. Looking at it forty years later, I want to cry, it's so beautiful, so ...

After that (I'm walking through the rooms in the big, financially flailing museum), she moved to malleable materials: "Rigidity then seemed essential. Today it seems futile and has vanished," she is quoted, on the wall, as having said of this change.

By the late '60s the project is explicitly about androgyny -- or is it more about the multiplicity of gender? A vaginal opening at the end of a shaft, a phallus that might be two breasts.

Later still she constructed large installations: the child's room, the parents' room. In the next room, she insists that the arch of hysteria is not specifically female.

Oh, maybe it's not that that mother, or her husband, is queer, and for now I'm going to skip over the essay in the exhibition catalog called "Feminism: Is She or Isn't She?" What I want to say is: the mainstream of the western women's movement failed in placing the experience of the white class-privileged housewife as its center. But what Louise Bourgeois did, placing that mother with child-shapes hanging from her waist in the center of a sculpture that from a distance looked so like the sculptures other (male) artists were making at the time: that was a challenge -- to the art world, to the gender hierarchy of the particular cultural milieu/s she was living within, to the hopeless emptiness that is keeping good and quiet, playing by the rules and rigid roles, playing it safe.

I like to think of queerness, a term and a political identity reclaimed by people with an intent to liberate from its definition as "odd from a conventional viewpoint," sort of like that: as a challenge, one made with survival, honesty, something like real lives in mind. A challenge, with liberation in mind.


When my friend Hilary and I walked out of the theater after seeing Milk last week, we were both "sad." That's the word that came out when we faced each other on the sidewalk: "So sad." I don't think either of us meant only the early and stupid death of Harvey Milk, or homophobia (and though history and biopics, both with their impulses to impose a narrative that has some kind of structural integrity, want to softly suggest that these things -- Milk's death, anti-gay bigotry -- are related, it's not at all clear that they are, though both are real, and sad). Beyond those sad things there was something else: the knowledge that in these thirty years since, the most prominent voices in GL(-and-sometimes-B-T-and-Q) struggle have not been advocating for anything like liberation (for anyone, let alone everyone). Instead, they have been fighting mostly for inclusion into the straightest of institutions, and meanwhile homophobia is still widespread, and gay men -- and people of many other identities -- still die daily of stupid violence.

"What if gay-liberation organizing had moved in the direction of broad-based antiviolence organizing?" I asked Hilary that night, wishing I could trace a lineage from the fight against the Briggs initiative (very partially documented in Milk) to INCITE! (And I don't mean to say that hasn't happened at all -- there are plenty of queer people active in all sorts of antiviolence work -- but we all know that's not been the center of gay-rights organizing in the last thirty years.) We traded more what-ifs for a few minutes, and more sad eyes on the sidewalk, and then, as Hilary walked me to my bike, I mentioned how that trailer for Revolutionary Road we'd seen before the movie (featuring a Nina Simone song that simultaneously made my heart hurt, as it was meant to do, and made me angry on weak pretend-behalf of a woman I imagine would not have wanted her song used as a crutch to support the emotional impact of a tale of middle-class American white people's dissolution -- I mean, not in this way) -- "that trailer reminded me I've been meaning to read that book for years. I should read it."

So (though the snob-I'm-trying-to-grow-out-of in me wants not to admit that it was seeing the film trailer that finally motivated me to do it) a few days ago I bought a copy of the Richard Yates novel the film's based on, and these last few nights before bed I've read it.

I will not be so reductive as to say it's an indictment of marriage, or of parenthood, or of white-middle-class conformity, or of straightness, or of the American Dream, or of the suburbs, or etc. -- though it is certainly not a flattering portrait of any of those things. And while it is there among other things, there is definitely something of the particular kind of gender oppression experienced by women of a certain class, culture, and time documented in this bleak -- yes, sad -- book. She is there, trapped in a good-sized suburban home, in a housewife/mother role, in a life that is a lie she is bitterly, angrily, desperately trying to flee or fight her way out of. When I typed "hopeless emptiness" up there, those weren't my words. Those are words spoken in the novel by the husband of the angry fighting woman in Revolutionary Road, a woman who within the space of the book only gets the close-third-person narrator's closeness at the very end.


I haven't seen the movie yet. I suspect it will bother people who believe very earnestly and uncritically in marriage and stable jobs and things, and will differently bother people who are not sure whether they're "really living" or deluding themselves into thinking they are while their hopelessness, and emptiness, grows inside lives that seem safe or secure or necessary or etc. There will be some people -- and in moments I'm tempted to count myself among them -- who will feel a different kind of "safe": safely outside all that, safe in the knowledge that we are not self-deluding that way. (I'm not married and won't be, we might think to ourselves. Or, The work I do is work I love. Or, ... ) And this too-easy reliance on superficial signs is just what the the novel (and reality, for that matter: Louise Bourgeois, it seems, made her challenge from a place not of despair within motherhood and wifehood but from a place of loving her husband, and her children, very much) refuses. The temptation to any kind of self-delusion is just where the novel pricks: it is not an indictment of marriage, or the suburbs, or even that dead-end job, per se. It's not those things in and of themselves. It's -- it's hopeless emptiness, I think, that the novel is challenging. It's any of those things or none of them and a whole different set of things, but it's wherever hope is draining, then drained, and there's no heart or love or meaning or life left, whatever the shell supposedly containing those things may be.

What's the alternative? How does one escape that? I think, within the novel, Yates doesn't quite answer. Not having seen it, I don't know what the movie says, but given that it features big movie stars and is screening to a society whose romance with individualism might just be the ultimate hopeless emptiness that pretends it's not, I think a lot of people's answer is going to be something about being "true to oneself," as if that is a knowable one true thing -- inalienable, essential, and all that. And I'm wondering if there's a way other than dishonest, hopeless emptiness that does not replace the atomized nuclear family with the atomized individual. I'm wondering whether, and if so how much, this particular emptiness has to do with whiteness (assimilation), or safety as an entitlement it's terrifying to let go of (privilege). And I'm wondering -- if compulsory heterosexuality, gender binarism, and upward mobility are hope-draining emptiness; if queerness is an outsiderness in relation to convention; if queerness is a challenge meant to liberate -- how to imagine and live nonconformity that is not selfish, honesty that is not cruel (those drunken bitternesses spewed behind closed doors on Revolutionary Road) but loving -- an alternative to hopeless emptiness that is not a lone ranger escaping but people, of various identities and ideas, in various configurations, in relationship. I mean: what if the alternative to a French woman on all fours with an entire tenement building over her head and the bitter rot of a suburban '50s American Dream and the sad waste of mainstream feminist and gay-rights movements that have replicated the very kinds of limits and hierarchies they meant to challenge was not singular or individual but were many and various imagined-while-enacted experiments in relationship, in movement, in honesty, in love, and in hope?

I think that is what I want to, try to, mean when I say/think/feel/act/live queer.

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Wonderful. Wonderful.

Thank you for nudging my thinking into new directions.

I loved this.

I'm brimming with more to say, but haven't found the words. Except - yes. And thank you.

"how to imagine and live nonconformity that is not selfish, honesty that is not cruel... but loving -- an alternative to hopeless emptiness that is not a lone ranger escaping but people, of various identities and ideas, in various configurations, in relationship."

Reading this felt like putting words to goals, aspirations, and ethics that often sound quaint and tired when I speak them aloud but feel quite the opposite.


Thanks. You've given us a lot to think about. This is lovely and complex and dense, and I'm still mulling over it.

And now I also blame you for the fact that I might actually voluntarily see a DiCaprio flick.

On second thought, perhaps I should read the novel first.

Seriously, thanks.

Jessica, I like your existentialistic style. Wow. Reading you is quite a trip and synchronistic to my experiences in so far as people I have known and powerful themes. I met Louise in New York the Christmas of 1975 at a loft party. She was a friend of my then girlfriend, Susan Penzner who was an editor for ArtForum magazine. She was very warm and a kind person and I think she was recently widowed. We had a good time and we all thought then that we were true to oneself. We must constantly look at ourselves in order to reinvent who we are. It changes sometimes just by living in another country. Coming back from living in Europe, I saw America and in a totally different perspective. Looking forward to seeing the film. So little time to read these days, facing U.S. tax court trial, maybe prison and looking after my husband who had a bout with drugs. Happy to say he is now recovered without the help of "higher power" Christian nonsense.

I would think the same thing about the way people would interpret the book - that it's about "being true to oneself." When you were going over the plot, in fact, I was thinking that was the writers' intention.

I personally have a lot of issues with that idea, some of which you touch upon, but, gawsh, it's such a nice idea. Just do what you want and you'll be fine. Just don't think to hard about what you "want."

Thanks, everyone, for these lovely comments. It's a pleasure reading them at the end of the day.

Alex -- I love how you've phrased that: "Just do what you want and you'll be fine. Just don't think too hard about what you 'want'." (And maybe Yates *was* trying to say that, but maybe not, and in any case I am interested in how we might read that plot other than that way.)

Yasmin, two things:

1) read the book first! or maybe not. i mean, thinking about the reception of the film right now surely doesn't demand reading the book first, but if you want to think about the thing all around, then ...
2) if you were in LA or I were in Chicago, I'd be insisting you be my date to that movie! I think it'll be the second time I've paid to see a DiCaprio movie. (The first was The Basketball Diaries, which held a certain appeal to the trying-to-find-counterculture high-school student I was then ... ;)



I also believe that not only have garnered quite a few compliments, but now have the title of "longest blog post title on Bilerico Project." :)

Oh, I am incorrigible about the long titles! My partner does the design for make/shift, and it's always the titles I wrote that elicit the biggest protests at the layout stage (C'mooon, you *have* to cut this! This title is taking up so many inches!) -- too-long titles and footnotes. I am no fun in layout. ;)

I like the note you end on, but I can't help but think, "well, what does that entail exactly?" The hypothetical roads I start down all seem to wind up either impractical or at the same end as those you mentioned.

Consider: the regard we hold for the progenitors of the movements we respect most is largely for their vision and innovation and values to begin with. They were stretching their imaginations as far as they could only to see an eventual crumbling (all too human...) end. So perhaps to some degree we need to accept the eventual failure of our highest aims no matter the spirit and brilliance with which they're forged. That's the spirit of experimentation, right?

In any case, I'm reminded of Camus' thoughts on rebellion (iirc: the point at which the switch flips and one rises up, faces the master and says "no") and revolution (the thoroughly plotted and ideologized "movement") from The Rebel. I need to go back and re-read that...


Then I'll definitely read the book first. And maybe, at some point, if you should feel like rewatching it, we can rent the movie - if we should be in the same city.

Your piece and comments remind me of my earlier interest in DiCaprio. I don't think I'm alone in remembering him from his early years as the homeless young kid in Growing Pains. There's something about LDC as the young and, to me, always queer youth, that haunted me. As opposed to, oh, Blood Diamond, which I know, sigh, I'll have to see some day soon but which seems to do nothing more than position him as the uber-white male.

See what else you did? Now I'm thinking he warrants a blog item...


Wow, Jess. This is a great post. It actually provoked some serious emotions in me. =)