Thursday, December 31, 2020

Todd Haynes | Dottie Gets Spanked

saving love for another day

by Douglas Messerli

Todd Haynes (writer and director) Dottie Gets Spanked / 1993

As Will Fabro muses at the beginning of his excellent essay in Bright Wall/Dark Room on Todd Haynes’ 1993 short film, Dottie Gets Spanked:

“Queer people are often asked “When did you know?” as though there was simply one irrevocable event that changed us, a clearly signposted fork leading us off the default path of heteronormativity. The question is fallacious at its core, not just in its presumption of a dominant heterosexual identity compromised, but also in its binary notion of cause and effect, i.e. This happened and you became That. My experience, instead, was one of sporadic but seismic rumblings—sometimes self-aware, mostly subconscious, and others externally applied—of difference throughout childhood that marked me as queer long before any actual sexuality asserted itself during puberty.”

     So too did I experience my own unconscious and knowing instances of self-awareness that ultimately led me to perceive I was gay. There are hundreds of small moments that began early in childhood—one time asking a neighborhood girl to switch roles in our game-playing activities so that I might be the Mother and she be the Father; the early bullying and name-calling which baffled me, particularly when I was designated as a “queer,” which, without knowing its sexual meaning I gladly excepted, knowing I was indeed a bit “odd” in comparison with my male companions; my early childhood attraction to theater, even as a six-year-old asking a friend to “play play,” for which his mother rapidly accused me of speaking baby-talk and, soon after, my complete devouring of the Burns-Mantle Best Play Books I’d discovered in the local library from which I memorized the dates of plays, the theaters in New York in which they were performed, and the number of performances they survived; and my general disinterest in all male-oriented toys, my parents finally breaking down one Christmas to buy me a marionette, Robin (as in Robin Hood), the closest thing to a doll they might have imagined as an appropriate gift for their eldest son—but only four mind-searingly instances in my later youth that served as deeper revelations of my hidden sexuality. After two years in high school revealing to the head coach that I had utterly no talent in any sport, he offered the former basketball coach and current superintendent of school’s son, me, the opportunity to serve as team “mascot”—which meant traveling with the various football, basketball, and track teams to all their venues and cleaning up after the athletes’ showers the towels and other debris they left behind. At one point, while hanging out in the locker room while they changed back into their street clothes I caught a glimpse of the football team captain, Doug Reed, in the nude. I don’t know if anyone noticed my eyes captivated by the sight, but I do recall my immediate erection, which might explain why later that day several of the team members grabbed and stripped me with the intention of some vague sexual initiation which, upon noting my bodily immaturity, they quickly abandoned. I remember being disappointed instead of relieved as I should have been.

      A second moment of self-awareness stole over me as I found myself in a drugstore leafing through the pages of a fan magazine, lusting after the image of the long-flowing mane and hairy chest of Barry Gibbs of the Bee-Gees, his penis out-lined clearly by his tight pants. I could hardly put the magazine down but was embarrassed in case anyone might spot my entranced stare at the pages of a magazine clearly intended for teenage females.

      And sixteen I had finally admitted to myself, as Adam Lambert has recently described his own childhood self-revelation, that “I was not wired like most of the other guys.” Living in a dormitory in Norway I had developed a secret crush on the dark-haired ice-speedskating champion of the school, Halvard. One afternoon, as I laid reading on my bed, he entered my room, obviously frustrated by my unconscious flirtations, and, marching over to my bed, splayed his body face-to-face across my own. What was I to do with my roommate sitting across the room? I gasped and laid as still as if I were dead, an act I still regret and will to the moment of my actual death. If only I could have lifted my arms and wound then round him. I was still not gay in my head.

      Finally, having returned to the US that same year, I read in the June 24, 1964 issue of Life magazine their pictorial commentary on homosexuality in America, accompanied by an essay, basically outlining the “sad, sickness of these desperately lonely men,” by Paul Welch. I recently reread that sad and sick essay, but can’t find the phrase I remember it for. It doesn’t matter, I felt that it suggested that they had even seen men kissing one another, which I might have concocted in my 17-year old mind from their account of how the police watched to see if these men demonstrated any sexual enticement, which in those days might even be evidenced by placing one’s hand on the shoulder of a friend. But I do remember that I was not disturbed by any such enticement but the reporter’s seemingly incredulousness about the fact that two men, attracted to one another, might want to follow it up with a kiss, and found it absurd that this was something about on which they felt the needed to comment. I never once had discussed anything about sex with my father, but for unknown reasons felt it necessary to mention my observation to him. Suddenly the seemingly quite, gentle man I knew grew enraged, his face almost turning red. “If ever a son of mine would be found to be a homosexual,” he almost screamed, “I would immediately disown him!” If I had merely spoken out of my confusion, I now was suddenly awakened into a new realization. I didn’t know the word then, but I might now express by describing father a brutal homophobe. His terror took my breath away, transforming my innocent wonderment of two men wanting to kiss into something darkly and emotionally terrifying—and inviting. I didn’t “come out” until two years later, but I now already knew I had been waiting all those years to be raped, or at least kissed.

      At the same time that I was “playing play” or as I would now describe it, performing improvisatory theater with my friends and even, from time to time, my disinterested brother and sister, Hayne’s six-and a half-year-old, Steven Gale, was fixated by the television show starring Dottie Frank (Julie Halston), based loosely on Lucille Ball’s I Love Lucy. I too watched that weekly with my mother, knowing, as does Steven, that it was not my father’s idea of good TV, which consisted for him, as it does for Steven’s father (Robert Pall), of westerns and football broadcasts. Steven is as utterly focused on Dottie as I was on all things theater, drawing pictures of and Dottie and her fellow characters with a creative energy that I put into listing and learning about Broadway venues and playwrights.

      And gradually the child at the center of Haynes work grows to realize that unwittingly his infatuation is somehow not quite normal. The first time he perceives this is when he mother is being visited by a neighborhood lady who, observing Steven’s total attention to the situation comedy, remarks on how strange it is that he is so completely wrapped up in his observations, reporting that they can hardly keep their daughter still despite her husband’s regular spankings. Mrs. Gale, who might remind one of Barbara Billingsley who played the mother on TV’s Leave It to Beaver, quietly objects “We don’t believe in hitting.” Yet Steven, like most children, has overheard what parents often think their children have tuned out, an inexplicable comment about the appropriateness of his behavior.

       This process of gendering even public entertainment continues as the next day Steven boards the bus, where three girls are engaged in an intense conversation about their personal likes and dislikes, including their shared enjoyment of the Dottie show. Later, while he waits at the end of the day to be bussed back home he overhears his three female classmates discussing the color of Dottie’s hair (red, apparently, as was Lucy’s) and her hairdo, information which he knows—probably through a fan magazine like the one I was consulting at a far too advanced age—and cannot resist sharing with them: she wears a wig, and the natural color of her hair is brunette. The girls giggle in horror that a male has entered into their female territory, knowing more than they do about hair color and appliances. In a long held camera frieze Steven looks down at his white and black leather oxfords in embarrassment for having entered a territory that he had not even recognized as being defined by gender. By the next morning, one of the girls calls Steven over to taunt him for his intrusion: “My sister says you’re a feminino!” I doubt that Steven even knows what that might mean, but like the word “queer” hurled at me, he recognizes it as a label of otherness, of something he was supposed not to be.

      By the time his father demonstrates irritation for his son’s sacred program that interrupts his time for watching football, Steven has begun to learn he too is not “wired” like the other boys at his school, and that his innocent love of a television figure is somehow not appropriate. As Fabro nicely summarizes the situation: 

“Steven, with loving parents and an almost satirically archetypal suburban home, seems like a fairly ordinary child—sweet and dutiful, though maybe too meek for a “normal” boy—until the intensity of his heroine-worship initiates a slow but persistent recognition of his difference, a minor but profound transgression that Haynes insinuates as queer. Steven’s love for Dottie is desire, but not a normative/heterosexual one; it is instead an act of emotional transference and identification. To be a queer child is to disrupt norms you are just beginning to understand; to be aware of the burgeoning self-consciousness of your othering. Over the course of Dottie Gets Spanked’s 30 minutes, Steven Gale’s Dottie idolatry increasingly ostracizes him from his family and peers due to the implications of his deviation from a more conventional, and less complicated, expression of desire.”

     Although his father resists, Steven’s mother helps him to fill out an application for her son to attend a shooting session of Dottie’s series, which despite Mr. Gale’s refusal to even put it in the mail, he wins, along with girls and their mothers from other parts of the country.

     Haynes brilliantly hints of several lessons the six-and-a-half-year-old boy learns from his studio visit. The Dottie he meets there is not at all like the wacky, scheming, housewife Dottie of the TV screen but is a tough-talking, cigarette-smoking, and somewhat course woman of power on the set. She receives the book that Steven has prepared for her of his precious drawings with near diffidence; certainly with none of the charm of someone like Steven’s mother. Out of costume, Dottie is consummate artist demanding the retake of scenes and at the point, as she is about to be spanked by her husband for her bad behavior, cuts the shot, approaching the cameraman to check out the height of the couch on which her husband sits in relationship to her position, and demanding that it be raised in order to better position her in relation to the action.

      This is not the same woman he witnesses upon the TV screen nor is she anything like the women he’s encountered in his suburban surroundings, information that, when combined with his own terror of being spanked like the neighbor’s daughter, is expressed by a wildly colorful artistic rendering of Dottie getting spanked. When his father catches him in his room portraying his imaginative recreation of the emotional scene he has witnessed, he might as well have been caught masturbating, something about which his father clearly disapproves but says nothing. In this new work of art, Steven is no longer drawing a cartoon-like version of what he observes about Dottie, but is painting a personal and almost abstract reinterpretation of what he has seen combined with what he now recognizes as the powerfulness of her position.

     Is it any wonder that he dreams of himself as being a sort of king who nonetheless has been ordered to be spanked by a muscleman of enormous proportions, almost as if he were a muscle-builder out of the 1950s bodybuilding magazines of Bob Mizer and others? Through his love of Dottie (Lucy) he has himself somehow become a powerful force which must be punished for transgressing the standard patriarchal order. 

     Is it any wonder that he dreams of himself as being a sort of king who nonetheless has been ordered to be spanked by a muscleman of enormous proportions, almost as if he were a muscle-builder out of the 1950s bodybuilding magazines of Bob Mizer and others? Through his love of Dottie (Lucy) he has himself somehow become a powerful force which must be punished for transgressing the standard patriarchal order.

     Having just written about Werner Schroeter’s important film, The Rose King, I cannot but reminded that Steven’s almost sacramental act is similar to the young Albert of Schroeter’s film burying his rose king in a sacred grove with the hope that it/he may flower at another time with the full force of love with which it/he has been recreated and temporarily sacrificed.       

Los Angeles, New Year’s Eve, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (December 2020).



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