Back to top

Dixon's Straight

Page

Straight: Constructions of Heterosexuality in the Cinema.

Winston Dixon, Wheeler. New York: SUNY Press, 2003. 224pp., $65.50, hardcover. ISBN: 0791456234.

<1> Wheeler Winston Dixon's Straight is an odd book. An interesting book, to be sure, but one that falls short of its promise or, rather, its many promises. While its title, especially the definite article in its subtitle, would seem to suggest a rather abstract and general treatment of constructions of heterosexuality in "the cinema," a cinema somehow constructed as a totality, the book is both inspiring and frustrating in its unsystematic approach to its object(s). "Object(s)" because it would be difficult, even without raising any objections to the construction of the cinema as a singular totality, not to recognize on the pages of Straight the very multiplicity of cinemas that the title withholds. This is all the more puzzling because the scope of Dixon's effort, the heterogeneity of his objects and approaches, is at the same time the book's greatest asset. As Steven Shaviro puts it in a review reproduced on the books' back cover, Dixon has "a vast knowledge of Hollywood, international, and alternative cinemas". Shaviro is justified in using the plural and so would have been Dixon.

<2> Dixon jumps right into the heart of the matter in his introduction, exploring the many meanings of the word "straight" and establishing the underlying assumptions of his approach. Having defined straightness as a construct, "something that doesn't really exist, a concept that needs constant reaffirmation to keep it from disappearing" (1), Dixon goes on to argue that all societal mass communication is "heterosexually privileged", that straight couples are the best consumers, and that the cinema, by constantly reifying the dream of heterotopia, is therefore urging "us" to "consume more, more, and still more, so that there will always be a marketplace to serve" (4). Having defined in advance both the conditions under which cinema constructs heterosexuality and the aims with which it does so, Dixon proceeds to write an unusual history of constructions of heterosexuality in the cinema. Again, I believe one is justified in omitting the definite article before "constructions," because Dixon's history is too fragmented, too fascinated with the details of singular cases in order to give us either "the" history of constructions of heterosexuality or a history of "the" constructions of heterosexuality.

<3> What he does, in fact, is to move from a more general discussion of the films of Edison, Méliès, and other early cineastes to specific case studies of very diverse objects, including the "world" of Jim Thompson's gloomy visions of dysfunctional heterosexuality in the 1950s, the subversive performativity of the "Carry On" comedy films and their stars, the work of director Robert Downey (focusing on Chafed Elbows, 1966, and Putney Swope, 1969), an eclectic history of Old Tuscon Studios, the location of "the" classical Hollywood western, and the destructive potential of contemporary British knockabout comedy (focusing on Guest House Paradiso, 2000).

<4> Straight is promising precisely because of its unconventional take on the history of film and its correspondingly un-canonical selection of cases. And it is because the book is so promising that it seems worth the effort of discussing a number of its near successes and merits in some detail here. To be fair, Dixon informs his readers of his intention to write an "eccentric" text in his introduction:

I want to create in Straight an eccentric text, one that refuses to adhere to the standard model of straight hegemonic discourse. I consider not only the films and the directors and the actors who made them, but the societal forces that shaped theses performers and their works to give the reader some insight […]. (11)

Yet, his non-adherence to the standard model of straight hegemonic discourse -- which he unfortunately neglects to elaborate on and which I take to mean a general digressiveness and his refusal of the standard film canon -- is quite distinct from what I would criticize in his approach. Many of these aspects already become apparent in his introduction, and I will begin with a discussion of these.

<5> On a general note, pivotal notions such as "culture," "society" and "hegemony," which Dixon's argument relies on, remain undefined and ambiguous throughout the book. For instance, when he claims that "straight society," "sees those who reject its boundaries as violent, disruptive, sexually anarchic, [and] selfish," the reader is left to figure out just who or what exactly Dixon is talking about here for herself. Is there another society besides "straight" society? Are we all part of straight society, regardless of our personal beliefs, orientations, and performative identity?

<6> In terms of digressiveness, some of the information Dixon integrates into his overall argument raises the question of relevance -- not because it is not conceivable that there are connections to his argument but because these connections are not established by the author. Consider, for instance, his claim that "advertisements, once rare on the Web, have become ubiquitous" (17). It is likely that the nature of advertisements, and even the ubiquity of advertisement on the Web, has some impact on constructions of heterosexuality (albeit not in the cinema), but Dixon never spells out the relevance of this to his general argument.

<7> This particular loose end is also part of another questionable feature of Dixon's book, a running polemic against contemporary popular culture that strongly resembles the kind of cultural pessimism that goes with theories of false consciousness. It is in these terms that the mere presence of ads in and of itself is read as proof of complete cooptation and as automatically disqualifying any medium (such as Mad magazine) from voicing social critique. His claim that "conditioning starts at the cradle and continues until the day of one's death" (134) and that there is no escape from this, especially not for children, is not the same as arguing the social (re)production of norms and values. Rather, it reinstalls a simplistic transmission model in which "the people" are brainwashed by the elites without the chance to "escape."

<8> That Dixon's cultural pessimism often takes ambivalent forms often results from its articulation with an automatically positive evaluation of anything that can offer an alternative to the heterosexual model. Consider, for instance, his claims that "the recent wave of interest in Hong Kong action films foreshadows a culture in which violence replaces thought, endless aggression replaces dialogue, and the warrior-opponent model does away with the structured conceit of the two heterosexual lovers" (152). While violence replacing thought is clearly seen as negative, the replacement of the structured conceit of heterosexuality seems like a good thing. Whether one sees the second aspect of his stance as problematic in its own right or not, the trouble is that Dixon does not seem to be aware of the conflicting aspects of his position towards (contemporary) popular culture. His reference to popular culture as appealing to the "basest appetites" of the audience is only one among many examples of this, but it also indicates Dixon's ambivalent stance towards the audience (37). The pejorative aspect of this ambivalence is perhaps best exemplified in his polemic against "the sad litany of tabloid fodder […] enthralling audiences who feel that, because misfortune befalls others, they will no longer be at risk" (14) [1 ].

<9> Dixon's claim, established in arguing the case for an "eccentric" text, that has analysed "the societal forces that shaped" the performers and works he discusses, raises expectations for more than just an occasional reference to cultural contexts. Bits and pieces of context emerge only every now and then, but asides such as "all of this takes place against the backdrop of the actual destruction of welfare as a social system in the United States" are a far cry from contextual analysis as practiced, for instance, by Lawrence Grossberg (153). His focus, perhaps justifiably so, remains on filmic texts and filmic practices, while context -- or, rather, an analysis of specific historical junctures - is at best marginal. This becomes manifest in Dixon's tendency to juxtapose, without taking into account concrete contexts, examples from various eras, national contexts, and levels of analysis: his argument jumps from "spam" via Nicole Kidman to Tony Perkins. But it is not simply that his eccentric text is far from chronological -- except on the most general level -- but rather that enumerations of this kind are often left to speak for themselves.

<10> Another odd feature of Dixon's introduction -- and one which persists, to some degree, throughout the book -- is the opposition he constructs between the cinema and television. In this, individual television series appear as articulating the "fact" that the heterosexually based model is "crumbling beneath the weight of its own imagistic prison", whereas mainstream film is supposedly still desperately "advertising" it (14). Intriguing as this thought may be, Dixon does not pursue it further, nor does he attempt an analysis of why television would be more open to deconstruction than film.

<11> A further point of controversy is illustrated by the way Dixon reads a social "fact" off individual texts such as television series: much of Straight is based on the assumption of necessary correspondences between textual meanings and cultural effects (e.g. between the appearance of computer generated actors and an "inevitable" rise of plastic surgery or between the "force-feeding" of young boys and girls with an "avalanche of artificial desire" and their being "cued" to respond only to certain stimuli). As with Dixon's general attitude towards popular culture, the logic of this particular argument implies not only notions of false consciousness but also the critic's privileged access to truth.

<12> Having discussed these rather general points, there are several things worth mentioning with respect to many of Dixon's case studies. In most of these, Dixon's understanding of context remains restricted to a strictly biographical level, which he draws on to substantiate his analysis of individual works or careers. The most notable exception to this general rule is chapter one: "Constructing Straightness." In it, the author reads Edison's early films as already "encod[ing] a heterocentric world of idealized romantic couples, racist stereotypes, relentless exoticization, and othering of European, Asian, and African culture" (39). More significantly, he complicates the conventional image of Méliès' work by focusing on its disturbing heterosexual fantasies and use of women as suggestive props.

<13> Equally unconventional is Dixon's assertion that the work of women filmmakers during the silent era demonstrates that, "during the formative years of the medium, there was indeed an alternative to that vision of the contemporary dominant cinema then being practiced in Hollywood" (42). This claim, however, is based on a somewhat partial (and hence unconvincing) account of the work of women filmmakers: consider, for instance, his parenthical aside that "(There are, however, unfortunate racist moments in Blanché's work)" (42). Wishing to retain a positive interpretation of her work, Dixon is forced to treat these aspects of her work as regrettable "defects of vision," marring "the otherwise egalitarian spirit of Blaché's work as a whole" (42f). What remains problematic in this argument, irrespective of Dixon's agenda of valorizing Blaché's work, is the notion of the work "as a whole," the necessity of claiming an artist as "wholly" progressive or regressive.

<14> Another conceptual problem in Dixons's work arises with the manner in which he ascribes agency to the cinema without problematizing this move. For instance, he describes the "typage," i.e. stereotypical portrayal of villains in classical Hollywood cinema as sexually obsessed and/or sexually indeterminate as "the beginning of a long campaign by the cinema to demonize gays, lesbians, and racial minorities" (45). Far from being an isolated case, the quoted passage illustrates the way in which Dixon continually ascribes a simplistic agency to "Hollywood and its allies" (25). None of this would be problematic if Dixon took the trouble of defining what is actually meant by "Hollywood." A collective actor, a historical force, or a set of social and semiotic practices? Dixon's construction of Hollywood's agency is especially pronounced in those sections of chapter one, which deal with Hollywood's ethnic othering. From another angle, however, it is precisely Dixon's analysis of the stage-managed "documentaries" Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926), both by Robert Flaherty, which supplement this section's more conventional account of the "race" drag of "yellow-peril" films in the vein of Dr. Fu Manchu.

<15> In his second chapter, "Breaks in the System," Dixon moves to the films of the grim Great Depression-era 1930s, a period when "audiences were eager for anything that diverged from normative values" (60). To be precise, he focuses on the years between 1930 and 1934, before the Hays-Breen office enforced the Motion Picture Production Code. The films of this period, so Dixon further, portray a vision of life as anything but the heterosexually based bliss that became embodied in the figure of Shirley Temple after 1934. In his words, what these films present is "a world shorn of decency, hope, and faith, a world in which sheer economic necessity drives people to sell themselves to the highest bidder" (61).

<16> As in the previous chapter, Dixon establishes problematic relationships between films as univocal signs and society as the signified. He argues, for instance, that these films "signalled the collapse of American confidence in government, the press, and the fabric of heterosexual family life" and that the Andy Hardy series demonstrate "that Hollywood was now desperate to restore confidence in a heteronormative system of values that had been seen as bankrupt only months before" (62, 63). Taking for granted the necessity of these correspondences, Dixon does not explore the specific relations between social, cultural contexts and the discourses they enable and restrict.

<17> Moving to the post-Code era, Dixon goes on to trace the establishment of the basic, generic pattern for the marriage contract, the courting ritual, and the supposed polarity between men and women to the films of the mid 1930s. At this point in American history, the straight world was seen as encompassing all social commerce, and all exceptions were ruthlessly marginalized. It is at this point that John Wayne emerged as a new standard of straight, white, masculine stoicism in what Dixon reads as the "misogynist joint vision of Wayne and his mentor, the director John Ford" (65). As with so many of his observations, Dixon is onto something when he remarks that many of the films from the mid to late 30s would be remade in the late 1950s and early 1960s "as a response to the perceived threat of communist influence in Hollywood," but as with most of his comments of this kind, he fails to establish the significance of this fact (64).

<18> Following upon a sound account of film "in the wake of the House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings," in which he detects the necessity of maintaining the inflexible construct of straightness in the face of a constructed external threat, Dixon moves to one of the books' more remarkable pieces: a case study of the Old Tucson Studios based largely on interviews with the members of the studio. Drawing also upon many of the films shot on that location, Dixon is able to create in this an image of Old Tucson as "a phantom zone of images, voices, and locations, reassuringly heterosexual, yet capable of being queered" (93).

<19> Chapter three: "Performativity and Rupture" opens with an equally compelling, yet altogether different kind of case study. Taking films based on or derived from the novels of Jim Thompson as its point of departure, this section focuses primarily on Thompson's childhood, tracing his work as a novelist to his rejection of his father's performative heterosexual model of Midwestern stoicism. In Thompson's works, so Dixon, heteronormative behaviour exists "only to be undermined by murder, alcoholism, incest, drug addiction, psychotic delusions, paranoia, lust, and a host of other human failings […] his vision of the world as a living hell" (104). Dixon follows this section with a case study of Robert Downey, Sr., and his work as a director. Like the work of Thompson -- although for altogether different reasons -- the films of Downey are read as anarchically disrupting and critiquing "norms" of American culture, including race, sexuality, authority, and film narrative itself.

<20> Following upon these well-argued pieces, Dixon's reading of Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader, based largely on an interview with Babbit, is perhaps the least convincing case study in the book -- primarily because it reproduces the interview in some detail without maintaining a critical distance to Babbit's discourse. A similar charge might be laid against the subsequent section on British television comedy: it valorises a group of young comics in Britain who, according to Dixon, have been busily transforming the heterosexual-based television situation comedy into "a zone of contested desire, socially disruptive violence, and grossly excessive heterosexual performativity" (122). The exemplary case is Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall's Guest House Paradiso: "a brilliant and unremittingly savage attack on … the myth of the happily married heterotopic couple" (124). In his enthusiasm for Edmondson and Mayall's work, Dixon becomes entangled in a number of contradictions: reading their characters in the film as "exemplars of a society in collapse" and congratulating them on their "accurate lampooning of the last frayed remnant of the British social and heterosexual fabric," he seems to be lashing out against that society, cherishing its "collapse," while at the same time maintaining that the heterosexual fabric still dominates society and goes unchallenged in the cinema (128, 130). Dixon never resolves these contradictions, never spells our whether the tension is between the cinema (or, rather, Hollywood cinema) and television, or between the U.S. and Europe.

<21> While his reference to contemporary Hollywood cinema as still doing "all business as usual" seems to suggest the first alternative, the second alternative is made plausible by the somewhat romanticized vision of Europe that emerges in the context of a critique of "Middle America" (meaning the U.S.) (159):

Unlike people in Holland, Belgium, Sweden, and other more enlightened countries long ago learned to embrace the concept of difference; unlike them, American society is frightened of difference. (3)

Apart from the flawed syntax of the first sentence and the historical inaccuracy of this generalized claim, Dixon does not bother to do the work that would be necessary to establish a sound perspective on the history of these countries and their attitude to difference (always assuming that whole countries can have a homogenous attitude).

<22> The fourth and last chapter, "The Commodification of Straightness," does not so much focus on any specific cases as meander through a number of illustrative, mostly contemporary examples. It contains, for instance, a reference to Romance (1999) and Baise-moi (2000), ostracizing both films for being no different from the most repressive films of the 1950s -- "a phantasmal exhibition of virtual bodies, anchored only in the realm of performance" (141). Unfortunately, Dixon does not argue this claim and it therefore remains unconvincing, especially in the face Laura Mulvey's more elaborate analysis of these two films at a recent conference (Vienna, 2003), in which she singled out precisely these two films as having found an acceptable mode of representing woman's body -- one which denies the pleasure of the male gaze.

<23> As in previous chapters, Dixon's enthusiasm for specific works sometimes gets the better of him in his conclusion. This is the case when he claims that the short films of Barbara Hammer, "having acquired a certain currency and notoriety through repeated non-mainstream screenings at museums, festivals, and smaller theatres," could by themselves accomplish a loosening of the "heteronormative stranglehold of the production code" and replace it with "a more questioning and open cinematic discourse" (142). A similarly selective perception seems to form the basis for Dixon's enthusiasm for Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch's "Material Actions" -- whose superficially subversive use of blood in fact merely camouflages a return to Christian mysticism.

<24> Since this chapter also serves as something of a conclusion to Straight, the structure and progression of its argument deserve some discussion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the general shortcomings of the book are particularly evident in this context. Firstly, in his use of numerous illustrative examples in summing up his argument, Dixon jumps from contemporary texts to films of the 1940s (e.g. page 143f) without even mentioning, much less analysing the social context. Secondly, Dixon repeatedly reads social configurations off individual texts -- arguing, for instance, that "[a]s revealed in The Mummy Returns, it is not enough to be a couple -- one must also reproduce to provide proof of the permanence of the heterosexual union" (143). Would more careful phrasing have removed the unease that such interpretations create in this particular reader? Perhaps, but most likely only at a surface level, for the logic of Dixon's argument is itself casuistic. Thirdly, there are problematic gaps in the textual progression of Dixon's conclusion. On page 142, for instance, he ends a paragraph with a number of intriguing questions as to the questionable status of a new generation of actors and directors and begins the next paragraph with a phrase indicating an argumentatively derived conclusion (indicated by the conjunction "thus"). In the case of this particular argument, which appears to contain the answer as to why "the cinema" has "a history," both being in the singular, such an argumentative gap seems especially hazardous.

<25> Unfortunately, it is only on the last pages of the book that Dixon introduces an issue that might have provided a suitable frame of reference for his eccentric text: the public's fear of the other as "reinforced by decades of cinemagoing" (160). If showing that and how "the cinema" has reinforced the public's fear of the (non-straight) other is the real object of Straight, then the last page of the book is an odd place to bring up the issue. The various analyses and case studies, at any rate, are never articulated within that frame.

<26> Dixon ends his book on a note that is more lyrical than it is philosophical: "What will we do when we are forced, at last, to see ourselves?" Disregarding the fact that this question implies the notion of a true "self" one might be able to see, there is no way to relate this question to the text immediately before it, nor to the book at large for that matter. Is enabling us to "see ourselves" the real task of cinema, according to Dixon? Or is this "forcing" of self-recognition to be accomplished only by refraining from going to the cinema for yet another "fix"? Is Dixon promoting abstinence?

Markus Rheindorf

Note

[1 ] Occasionally, Dixon takes a very different stance toward the audience, such as when he draws on Baudrillard's The Illusion of the End and argues that "closure for all fictive narratives is located not within the work itself but in the circumstances of one's own existence" (136). According to Baudrillard, all dystopian or utopian narratives therefore remain subject to modification by the real of our actual lives and managing the end becomes synonymous with the management of catastrophe. [^]