Reading and Viewing Questions

Rachilde, Monsieur Venus

  • How does the novel present gender and gender roles?
  • How does the novel present sexuality?
  • What is the role of cross-dressing, S/M role play, and violence (e.g. Raoule’s, Raittolbe’s towards Jacques and Marie–think also of verbal violence)?
  • What role does homoeroticism play for the relationships, rivalries, and desires between the “queer love triangle” of Raoule, Jacques, and Raittolbe?
  • What role does sado-masochistic imagery play throughout?  How does the relationship between dominant/submissive change at times, and to what effect?
  • What other relationship triangles are there in the novel besides the central one mentioned above?
  • What other “pairs” of protagonists function as foils here, and for whom?  As a reminder, the other important figures in this novel are Marie Silvert, Aunt Ermengarde, and Martin Durand.   What are their functions and purposes in the novel?
  • Note that some typically Decadent themes appear prominently in this novel.  They include (and this is not an exhaustive list): death and sex, a love of art and collecting (pay attention to what kind of art and objects are featured repeatedly throughout the novel, and what their significance might be), unorthodox sexual practices and tastes, challenges to organized religion and morality, extreme individualism, pathological imagery, organicity versus artificiality, etc.
  • What are some of the major allusions to mythology, history, and literature here, and what is their role and function, in each case?  Do some of these allusions work together to create and support certain themes?  Which ones?
  • role of religious imagery in the novel (especially the ending)
  • Look at the censored passages (passages the censors excised)–mainly the first few paragraphs of chapter 2, the whole of chapter 7, and parts of the penultimate sentence of the ending.  What could have made them so shocking, and why?
  • Rachilde was actually a staunch antagonist of the women’s rights movement of her time (she disdained it).  How can this novel nevertheless be read as a quasi-feminist text?  And what arguments from within the text might possibly speak against such a feminist interpretation?  (pro/contra)
  • Is the shocking ending ironic or not, in your view?  Why? (pro/contra)
  • How does this 1884 novel compare to, speak to, or rub up against, contemporary theories and cultural views of gender and sexuality, in your view?

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

  1. Interestingly, Giovanni’s Room is the only one of Baldwin’s novels without an African American character, even though it has autobiographical connections (Giovanni is based on a young Swiss man Baldwin himself met in Paris, Lucien Happersberger). Do you think this is significant for the topic of the novel, or not?  Why or why not?
  2. What are the main points of crisis for the narrator (David) as he comes to terms with his own homosexuality—what is he most conflicted about?  Think not only about his own desires and feelings (Joey, Giovanni) but also the role other characters such as Jacques, Guillaume, his father, Hella, and others play as embodiments of certain fears and conflicts in David.  Make sure to mark passages that seem particularly important.
  3.  There are some moments of great literary beauty in this text (language, imagery).  What are some of them, for you?  Why and how do they strike you as beautiful?  Are these moments related to eroticism or sexuality?
  4. What are some blatantly homophobic passages, and how are they related to David’s development in the novel?  What purpose do they serve?  Make sure you find at least two good examples.
  5. There are some interesting passages about being an American (as opposed to being French, Italian, etc.).  Pay some attention to these.  What relation do they have to the main themes of the novel, i.e. homosexuality and coming of age?
  6. Think about the main metaphor of the title: Giovanni’s room.  What symbolic role might this room play in the novel?  How does this “room” relate to another main theme of the novel, that of being/coming/being away from/making a “home”?
  7. What other largely symbolic moments, images do you find in this novel (e.g. idea of the Garden of Eden, etc.)?
  8. What is Hella’s role in this novel?
  9. What role does class play in relation to race and to queerness here?
  10. What do you make of the central presence of aging or aged gay men in this novel (i.e. Jacques and Guillaume), especially in relation to the young men they meet and woo?  What gaps and hierarchies does that reveal within the gay male community, as it’s being depicted here? What does all this have to do with the crime that happens later in the novel
  11. What is Giovanni’s “defining moment” in Part 2, Chapter 4?
  12. Overall, what sorts of contribution has Baldwin made to the development of queer literature, as we have traced it in this course so far?  How does it reveal both a new step (progress) in depicting homosexuality in literature, and carry the burden of queer literature’s past?
  13. How does this novel address transgression and taboo?
  14. What do you personally think of the ending of this book?  What “lessons” do you think readers might possibly take away from it, if any?

“Chu T’ien-Wen, “Bodhisattva Incarnate” and Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain”

  • Why does Little Tong think about his body in terms of a dried fish, water, floating etc. in “Bodhisattva Incarnate,” and how does this metaphor function as a signal of his inner anxiety and fear of isolation throughout the story?
  • How does postmodern urbanity (the city) play into the representation of the queer experience and “identity” in this story?
  • Some interesting info: Chu T’ien-Wen is a heterosexual woman who has made a living writing stories about gay males, often dealing (as in her famous novel Notes of a Desolate Man) with the AIDS crisis and its aftermath in Taiwan.  See the short intro to the story.  Any thoughts on this?
  • What about the title of the story and Chu’s bringing together of “nothingness” with queerness?  Is that problematic or is nothingness perhaps a liberating concept in the context of the story? Why or why not?
  • Does either story contribute to the topic of a queer family which we have started to discuss in class these past two weeks?  How so?
  • Does one or both of these stories compare or contrast with other texts (films, literature) we’ve studied thus far?  (I’m interested in any connections or contrasts you see to other texts in the course.)
  • How do heteronormativity and heterosexually identified masculinity function in “Brokeback Mountain”?  Think of the cowboy life as the ultimate image for both, and consider how the story works with these concepts to say some things about queer desire. (If you have seen the movie Brokeback Mountain, feel free to write a response comparing short story and film.)
  • What possible thematic connections do you see between these two stories, for instance with regard to importance of irrational spontaneity or existential “nothingness” in each story?  What are some important differences?
  • How does each story play with, mimic, or transform conventional notions of romance, falling in love, the quest for the beloved?

Paris Is Burning, together with Judith Butler article, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”

  1. What role does race play in this documentary?  Jot down observations of scenes, setting, or statements by participants in the documentary that seem particularly important for this question.
  2. How is a notion of queer family developed here?  (Also note that there are different “Houses” and “mothers” here—what does this mean for queer self-organization, belonging, identification?)
  3. As a performance event and space, how is a typical Ball organized and what are typical features of the participants’ preparations and expectations?
  4. How does or doesn’t this film illustrate the idea of “doing one’s gender”?  This is an allusion to the Butler article.  Please think about how the Butler article may help us understand this film (even though it is not about this film at all), and also what the Butler article may “miss” compared to this movie (aspects the film brings up but Butler doesn’t; aspects that shed a different light on certain statements Butler makes, etc.).

PLEASE NOTE:  A while ago, I sent around a handout with important Gender and Sexuality terms.  You might want to take a look at that before class on Monday.  I’ll post it on our Coursework site in case you need another copy.

Pedro Almodóvar, All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre)

This is an amazingly complex film by one of the masters of contemporary cinema (not just queer) cinema (although queer filmmaking an immediate context for Pedro Almodóvar, who is gay).  The viewing questions here only cover some of the ground we’re likely to tread in class, but I’d like you to be aware of them as you watch and think further about the film.  Also, please make sure to read the article I put up on Coursework, about All About My Mother and transnationalism, since it gives a very interesting perspective on the film and includes some important context that most of you will be unaware of when you first watch the film (I know I was!).  It concerns the role of nation and inter-/transnational aspects (including the pervasive references to All About Eve—another lesbian cult film, by the way, whose title is also a direct inspiration for the film title) and Tennessee Williams’s great play A Streetcar Named Desire. (Williams was gay, too, so there is a whole range of indirect references to LGBTQ filmic and literary history embedded in Almodovar’s movie).

So here are some specific topics or aspects to think about as you watch the movie.  I’m sure you and I will have more in mind by Wednesday.  I really look forward to our discussion!

  1. The importance and highlighting of various TRANS moments and identities throughout the movie: TRANSplant, TRANSnational, TRANSgender, as well as the notion of physical TRANSition that includes moving around on trains, between cities, the past and the present, etc.   What does such an emphasis on “trans” mean for the notion of identity in this movie?
  2. The notion of “authenticity” versus artificiality.  See Agrado’s speech (on stage) about the dream of being as authentic (in this case, a woman) as possible to get as close as possible to “what one has dreamed to be” (although it’s clear that Agrado’s “authenticity” is wholly artificial and has in fact cost her a lot of money!).  How does this compare to the idea of truth versus mask in Oscar Wilde and in Velvet Goldmine, for example?  Is “authenticity” here the same as a “perfect mask,” or would you say it’s closer to the idea of “truth”?  This is a complex question; please think about it a little in advance of class.
  3. The notion of family: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters—both biological and “adopted” (i.e. family by choice).  There is also a very queer family here at the end.  What counts as (positive) “family values” for Almodóvar, as you understand the film? How can we best describe the new sort of family he presents here?  What are some important scenes in the movie that would help us explain that new idea of family?
  4. How does this movie’s portrayal of family compare to Alison Bechdel’s presentation of family (and specifically, the relationship with her mother as well as her father)?  Also, note the parallels between these (otherwise unrelated) texts (i.e. Bechdel’s novel and the movie) with regard to their incorporation of literary and cultural references that help them explain, weave, make meaning for their respective stories about families.  Why this importance of previous writings/authors/films/cultural references—what can Bechdel and Almodovar do with and through these references that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do (quite as well)?  In other words, what precisely do these references help them do, how do they enrich and deepen the respective stories they tell?
  5. The film’s treatment of grief, also of nostalgia (also note the important role of the music for the moods Almodóvar creates)
  6. Any thoughts on Esteban the First (i.e. Lola), who only appears very late in the film?  Or on Rosa the first (Sister Rosa’s mother)?  Note that there are three Estebans and two Rosas here who are all parent-child pairs; the third Esteban and the second Rosa making the third parent-child pair in a cross-over pattern.  Unfortunately, none of these are happy pairings (missed connections, open resentment, or complete loss).  Surely that is not a coincidence.  What do you make of this obvious pattern—how does it shed some light on the notion of [dysfunctional] biological families and/or individual identity?
  7. The film opens with a hospital scene and closes with people either dying of or being cured of AIDS.  AIDS was a huge, looming, terrifying presence in the queer family of the 1980s and 1990s LGBTQ scene.  How does this film offer some hope or redemption through the way it presents AIDS?  And is there a parallel between the image of Esteban’s heart being transplanted (and a second Esteban being born almost “to” Manuela) on the one hand, and the miraculous “cure” of AIDS in the baby Esteban?  In other words, do you think it’s possible to read the film as a commentary on the AIDS crisis, offering some hope and redemption?  How so (regarding yes or no)?
  8. Notice the centrality of the notion of writing, storytelling, others telling a story about you that dominates the film (Esteban’s notebook, the fact that he wants to write a story about his mother, the stories by other authors and filmmakers that the movie incorporates), the fact that Almodovar dedicates the film to his mother and others (telling a story about motherhood) …

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home

  1. How does the novel use other literary, mythic, and cultural references to ‘make meaning’?
  2. What about the ‘tragicomic’ in the subtitle? Where can we find specific examples of the tragicomic mode in the novel?
  3. What do we learn about Alison herself?
  4. What do we learn about her dad and her relationship with him?
  5. Find a few examples where the text and the accompanying images are really different but a) somehow importantly complement, or b) contradict the words. What is the effect of this parallelism on the reader, and why is it an important technique in this novel?  In other words, what does it contribute to, or how does it help shape, our experience of the story?
  6. Comparisons to other texts we’ve read in the course? Shared themes or sentiments? Also, what’s new for you in this type of text–what does this particular novel contribute to our conversation about queer literary studies this quarter?
  7. What do you think about the comic book/graphic novel for at for a queer autobiography? Does it work for you as a reader? Why or why not?
  8. What do the maps, letters, diary entries (fictional or not) contribute to the story–what do they express, and how do they work both similarly and in addition to the literary, mythic, and cultural references in the novel?

Leontine Sagan, Girls in Uniform

1. How are lesbian desire and identity presented here, directly and indirectly? Don’t just think about the relationship between Manuela and Fraeulein von Bernburg (the most obvious center of the film), but also about the community of girls here.
2. Think about the whole scene of the play and the “trouser role” Manuela plays (and her drunken confession afterwards).  How does that fit/not fit within the gendered narrative?
3. The film is just as important to queer history in film as it is to anti-authoritarian statements right before (!) the Third Reich. How does the film present authority?  How does the focus on girls fit/not fit within that critical framework?
4. Pay attention to the setting and mise-en-scene (the staircase! etc.) as well as to the symbolic or attention-grabbing use of lighting in this film (the movie is famous for the latter).  Any scenes that stick out for that?  How do these scenes direct our attention (or our mood) in ways that are important for our interpretation of the movie?
5. Finally, think about this movie a bit in terms of queer history.  Remember, it was made just about four years after the Well of Loneliness was written, so it’s speaking to a similar sexual inversion/mannish lesbian context.  How does it compare with The Well of Loneliness for you?

Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (excerpts)

See also Radclyffe Hall handout (CW)

  1. Presentation of Stephen’s childhood in Book 1—characterize and analyze.
  2. Presence of religious elements/imagery in the book—what may be their role?
  3. Rather traditional writing style and plot development, influenced by sentimental romance and melodrama—why?
  4. The novel heavily reflects 19th-century theories of “inversion” and the attached views of gender and sexuality, and Hall tries to use them to her advantage in creating empathy for her protagonist. Which passages or features in the physical descriptions (i.e. descriptions of people) remind you of ideas and opinions in the sexological theories we’ve briefly studied  (Ellis, Carpenter and the Sexology handout)?

Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine

  1. Note the role Oscar Wilde plays in the film from the beginning on—collect instances of references to him from the opening scene on, and any references to Wilde’s works/quotes you recognize throughout the film.
  2. Velvet Goldmine refers to the title of a song by David Bowie, a famous star of the glam rock era (and beyond) and famous gender bender.  Please look up some basic information on Bowie online, as well as on Iggy Pop and Eddie Izzard (this will help you better understand the film in so many respects).
  3. What does the film suggest did the glam era have to do with dandyism (Oscar Wilde)?
  4. What visual cues, scenes, or specific props (in addition to the plot, the characters) does the film use to put forward what I would call a queer genealogy (across time and space)?  Make a note of anything that strikes you that would help us analyze the ways in which the film constructs its queer genealogy and sense of queer time.
  5. How does the film treat the idea of coming out?
  6. What role do women play in this movie?
  7. Think a little about the film’s narrative structure, which has to do with finding out the truth about Brian Slade (one of the movie’s central characters).  What does the structure have to do with the coming out film and with the way the film treats the relationship between the past and the present. (Those of you who happen to know Orson Welles’s monumental landmark film “Citizen Kane” may be reminded of that film’s narrative structure and have some additional thoughts on possible parallels between the two movies.)

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