Tuesday 16 November 2010

Sexuality, Gender and Colours in a Single Man By Iain Morland

Below is an essay by Dr. Iain Morland from the Cardiff School of English, Communication and Philosophy (ENCAP) at Cardiff University and relates to our sciSCREENing of A Single Man in March.

My research interests are sexuality and gender studies – in particular the relations between sexuality, gender and time – so my response to A Single Man centres on the question: for whom is it a ‘gay film’? Does a viewer have to be gay in order to experience A Single Man as gay cinema, via an identification with the central character, George? I would argue that they don’t, by focusing on the film’s form rather than its content – in other words, by analysing the formal qualities of the film, instead of the content of its characters. Specifically, I think the use of colour in A Single Man makes it possible to view the film as gay, irrespective of whether a viewer identifies as such. Before saying more about colour in the film, I want to explain a little about the relations between gender, sexuality and time. In medical sexology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, homosexuality was generally characterised as ‘inversion’ – a displacement of gender whereby a gay man was understood to have a female soul in a male body, and a gay woman was correspondingly understood to have a male soul in a female body. One curiosity of this theory of sexuality was that it didn’t actually allow for anything other than heterosexuality: sexual attraction was always cross-gender, albeit at the level of the soul rather than of the body. So in this theory, if you were gay, it was because your gender-inverted soul was attracted to individuals of the opposite sex to your own soul, not because your body was attracted to individuals with the same bodily sex. Beginning with the work of Sigmund Freud at the turn of the twentieth century, the inversion model of homosexuality was gradually eclipsed by a developmental model. In the latter, sexuality is not innate to one’s soul, but a quality that develops over time. For Freud, such development conventionally required a relinquishment of one’s mother, an identification with the parent of the same sex as oneself, and the cultivation of a desire for individuals similar to the parent of the other sex. This developmental account certainly stigmatised homosexuality: it regarded same-sex attraction as immature, a failure to disentangle identification from desire in one’s relations with one’s parents. Homosexuality in this view was a kind of arrested development, a deviation from the path to adult sexual relations that were presumed by Freud to entail cross-gender desire. However, the developmental model has also been powerfully reclaimed. Gay scholars and activists have suggested that a key, life-affirming strength of homosexual communities has been the facilitation of ways of living that do not follow a narrowly-defined path to presumed maturity – birth, work, marriage, children, retirement, death. To live outside of that mainstream timeline can mean enjoying an extended adolescence with profuse disposable income; it can also involve a sobering awareness that advances made by gay liberation coexist with conservative social norms and policies. Both of these are ways of feeling outside a single, dominant timeline stretching from past to future. Whether one lingers in an apparently immature but fun lifestyle, or remains interested in seemingly unsexy political activism, one is somehow out-of-date. The cultural critic Elizabeth Freeman has called this ‘temporal drag’. She’s punning on the practice of drag queening and kinging, but referring to not only unusual performances of gender and sexuality. Temporal drag describes too how the past pulls on the present, and how that feeling of being out-of-date can itself characterise a sexual identity. I was reminded of this when watching A Single Man, particularly when Kenny tells George that ‘the present is a drag’. But I was also reminded of Freeman’s formulation by the film’s use of colour. Much of the film is presented in a washed-out, slightly sepia tone. It looks old, and suggests how grief can make one feel out-of-date, continually reflecting in the present on what was lost in the past. This is not its only function. The use of washed-out colour, as a way of depicting grief on a formal level, emphasises that George is stuck in the past specifically because of his homosexuality in a homophobic society: were George able to speak openly about the loss of his male partner, his past would drag less on his present. Interestingly, there are moments in the film when George does seem to move from being out-of-date to being fully in the present. At those moments, the colour returns to the film. Strikingly though, the washed-out look is replaced never by normal colours, but instead by excessive saturation – everything looks too Technicolor, too gaudy. This fascinated me, because far from bringing the film formally into the present, it still looks old. Imagine browsing an album of photographs from the 1960s and 70s – some look out-of-date because they’re washed out; others look out-of-date because they’re over-saturated. It’s for this formal reason, then, that I’d call A Single Man gay cinema. Shifting from washed-out to excessive colour, without stopping in a recognisably coloured present moment, the film gives the viewer an experience of permanent displacement from a straightforward timeline between past and future. And vitally, it gives this experience of temporal drag to any viewer, not only those who identify with George as gay. Further Reading Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005). Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

1 comment:

  1. For those of you who are interested in this essay - you can access this, along with other pieces of work by Iain Morland on his website www.iainmorland.net.