September 17, 2015

Life is a Masquerade: Exploring the Unmasking of Gender Conformity and Fostering of Acceptance of the Trans* Community Through the Exploitation of Scopophilic Pleasure in Queens at Heart (1967)

 Not too long ago, I started Grad School.  Eek.  At the request of a few buddies, and considering the fact that this is also sort of a movies blog, I now present a paper I wrote now some time ago.  Notes and citations are near the bottom. 
Side note:
1)     The usage of “trans* individuals” and gender neutral pronouns will be employed to discuss the four interviewees in Queens at Heart (1967).  This will be done because, while they do discuss that they are anticipating and saving up for a sex-change operation, and host Jay Martin refers to them as “men,” the interviewees never refer to their own gender, and it would be unavoidably anachronistic to make any assumption in regards the gender pronoun that they would prefer (Killermann 2012).

Life is a Masquerade:
Exploring the Unmasking of Gender Conformity and
Fostering of Acceptance of the Trans* Community Through
the Exploitation of Scopophilic Pleasure in Queens at Heart (1967)

            Little production information remains about the short 1960’s documentary Queens at Heart, and what is accessible only raises more questions. Information on the company named in the Queens at Heart credits, Southeastern Pictures Company, is monolithic compared to that of the film’s host, Jay Martin, of which there is practically none (OpenCorporates 2014, OutFest 2009, 2013).  Likely released in 1967, its name appearing as an additional feature for another Southeastern Pictures Company film, She-Man: A Story of Fixation (1976) ( 2014), the relative lack of information about not only the host and the trans* individuals interviewed in the film, but information regarding its production, is not surprising given the political environment in which this film was released.  Until the landmark Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court Case in 2003, homosexual acts, deemed “sodomy,” were illegal in many states (Painter 2008).  Until the 70’s, there was only one state which didn’t actively restrict homosexual acts, Illinois, which was the first to remove the ban in 1962 (Painter 2008).  Filmed in this pre-Stonewall-riot environment, where public knowledge of homosexual acts could provide grounds for imprisonment or the citation of hefty fines, as well as provide illegal but socially sanctioned acts of hate-encouraged violence, keeping anonymous the names and identities of the trans* individuals would conceivably have been paramount to their being involved in its production.
           Archival restorations by The Outfest Legacy Project have provided an opportunity to hear the stories of these trans* individuals first hand (OutFest 2009).  The film itself provides for analysis an early attempt to promote understanding and acceptance of this subjugated cross section of humanity. Through a formal analysis of the film, combined with a discussion of the relationship between both male and female scopophilia and film, Queens at Heart ironically succeeds in exposing and thereby promoting tolerance and acceptance of trans* people in the United States.

            Before discussing this documentary, it must be established first that documentary films, unintuitively, operate in the same way traditionally scripted films do, primarily because they are not fundamentally different. John Burton and Caitlin Thompson examine this concept while discussing the production of what is widely considered the first feature length documentary, Nanook of the North (1922), in their essay “Nanook and the Kirwinians: Deception, Authenticity, and the Birth of Modern Ethnographic Representation” (2002).  Billed as “a story of life and love in the actual arctic,” only half of this tag was necessarily true.  The majority being filmed in Port Harrison, Quebec (Burton 2002: 78), at the very least Nanook certainly was a story, and one well enough told that when, in Burton and Thompson’s experience, the nature of the completely fictionalized, or at least heavily dramatized, scenes are revealed to unsuspecting viewers, they become dismayed, to say the least (Burton 2002: 78).  Even if director Robert J. Flaherty hadn’t believed that the film was somehow more authentic by staging the scenes and manipulating the “actors,” and in same case non-parenthetical actors, the “persistent filmmaker” is always present (Burton 2002: 79).  Meaning that, simply by choosing to shoot certain scenes, or by allowing an editor to cut the film at all, a narrative is being created, weight and significance are being added, where there previously was just ever flowing, subjective, relative time.  Capturing the “truth” of a scene is impossible, as, even if the footage were to be one static shot, in real time, there are still frames around the image, be them the temporal frames of a start time and a stop time, the gaps between the individual frames on the film reel, or the edges of the camera and subsequent screen. Though the people on the screen were once “real,” the four dimensional reality of them has been flattened and cropped, creating, quite literally, only a limited projection of their real selves, thus making them comparable to any more formally scripted character.  Much like Nanook of the North, in an inescapable way, Queens at Heart is also “clearly a combination of fiction and fantasy, imagination and fact” (Burton 2002: 82)
            Queens at Heart starts with playful, light, semi-psychedelic music dubbed over the title card, and an opening shot of our host, Jay Martin, sitting behind a desk positioned in the right half of an otherwise unassuming wood-paneled office.  Martin reports that this film is the result of a “six-month psychological project,” and that sitting on his office’s couch, just off screen, are the runners up in a recent “masquerade” beauty contest.  Martin doesn’t immediately draw a connection between the two statements, but after a the camera pans to the couch, and a few quick questions are posed to its occupants, he reveals that each of these individuals “is a man,” and that he is refraining from using their real names, as they are all “currently breaking the law.” Before continuing on to his one-on-one interviews with the trans* individuals, the film cuts to documentary footage of the aforementioned, as Martin calls it,  “masquerade,” or “drag ball,” showing contestants and, presumably, other individuals just there for the show, or to participate in the clearly active and supportive community.
            Briskly moving on to the one-on-one interviews, Martin slowly takes three of the trans* individuals, Sonya, Simone, and Vicki, through a series of questions, asking them about their sex lives, their dating lives, their work lives, their home lives, and how these lives interact and intersect. After these probing questions, the filmmakers cut to a dramatization of a day in the life of one of the trans* individuals, Vicki’s, shooting scenes with them getting ready to leave the house for work, walking down the street, and arriving at their hair salon for work.  Though clearly staged, through an understanding of how objectification operates within this film, an understanding of how female scopophilic pleasure operates, and an understanding of how gender is simply a performance, this short segment gives us the most significant hints as to filmmaker’s motives.
            First, one must understand how Freud’s theory of scopophilia operates within film itself.  In her revolutionary essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), Laura Mulvey describes scopophilia as “looking itself as a source of pleasure” (Mulvey 2009:16-17).  She describes how by “taking other people as objects, [and] subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze,” one can derive pleasure, or “sexual stimulation[,] through sight” (Mulvey 2009: 18).  Mulvey describes how film positions women into an iconic, “traditional exhibitionist role” where they are “simultaneously looked at and displayed,” their images no longer those of women, but of signs for eroticism and, as Mulvey puts it, “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 2009:19).  And by identifying with the active male figure, “through participation in his power,” the male spectator can “indirectly possess” (Mulvey 2009: 22) the passive female icon.
            Throughout the film, we see this objectification with the way the shots centered on the trans* individuals in Queens at Heart are composed.  When introduced, the camera pans slowly from the square-shouldered, desk-obscured, dull-jacketed Jay Martin to the couch with our four trans* individuals.  Their crossed legs laid bare, their reclining bodies fully unobscured, huddled together on the couch as though recoiling from the man on the other side of the room, our four appear defenseless, docile, demure.  When they have their one-on-one interviews with Martin, Martin is rarely present in the shot, the camera lingering on them from a high angle, sure to catch at least the tops of their bare, crossed legs.  When Martin is in the shot, he is generally positioned closer to the center of the frame, leaning in towards his current subject, while the interviewee leans back and avoids his direct eye contact.
            Martin’s dominance over his subjects in these scenes is no mistake.  After Mulvey notes how, in film, women are presented as passive icons, as opposed to the active male figures (Mulvey 2009: 21), she goes on to explicitly state that there are three different gazes operating within film: that of the male characters upon the females characters within the film, that of the male gaze provided by the camera, and that of the male gaze of the audience (Mulvey 2009: 26).  All three gazes being male, most importantly that of the audience, Mulvey goes on to say that “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification” (Mulvey 2009: 20). Men are reluctant to objectify other men on the screen, instead they prefer to feel as though they are “the representative of power,” that they are in control of the “film fantasy,” an illusion made possible through filmmakers “structuring the film around” a “controlling figure with whom the spectator can identify” (Mulvey 2009: 20).
            Martin, in this sense, is the controlling figure of this film. He is the first and last person we see, he is always filmed from angles which reassert his dominance over the interviewees, and, until the end, through the asking of probing, often times uncomfortable questions with a stern and confident tone of voice, appears to be aligned with the dominant contemporary opinions on homosexuality.  The male spectator, is an active figure, he demands of the film “a three dimensional space” which, in his eyes, accurately reflects back at him his own assumed and perceived dominance, and into Martin, a veritable “figure in a landscape,” the male spectator finds projection an easy task (Mulvey 2009: 21).
            Mulvey does not, however, leave female spectators entirely out of consideration. She expands on her theories regarding how one can also derive pleasure, through “narcissism and the constitution of the ego,” by “identification with the image[s]” on the screen (Mulvey 2009: 18) in her follow up essay, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946)” (1981). Mulvey begins by discussing Freud’s theories on femininity.  She discusses how, according to Freud, as women develop, they go through an internal struggle brought on by “disturbances by the residual phenomena of the early masculine stage” (Mulvey 2009: 32-33).  In this struggle, they find themselves shifting between passivity, coded as feminine, and activity, coded as masculine, with the “correct” final path being that of the repression of the active (Mulvey 2009: 33-34).  Though rarely occurring, again according to Freud, women may find themselves “regressing to the pre-Oedipal phase,” a regression which brings about a “repeated alternation between periods in which femininity [(passivity)] and masculinity [(activity)] fain the upper hand” (Mulvey 2009: 33).  As a result of this semi-frequent, naturally occurring oscillation, Mulvey states, “for women (from childhood onwards) trans-sex identification is a habit that very easily becomes second nature” (Mulvey 2009: 35).  Mulvey meaning by this that, simply, women are, more so than males or not, capable of viewing from the perspective of the “active male,” as well as from that of the “female icon.”
            Expanding on this, in discussing what could ostensibly be called “the female gaze” in regards to the classic era film star Rudolph Valentino, Miriam Hansen writes in her essay “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification; Valentino and Female Spectatorship” (1986), that the cinema itself finally offered women an “institutional opportunity to violate the taboo on female scopophilia” (Hansen 2000: 234). In other words, the movie theater gave women a sanctioned venue in which to find pleasure in sexually objectifying others in the same way men have, as opposed to only being allowed to find pleasure in being objectified, in their “to-be-looked-at-ness.”  However, It was not just that women were now able to find pleasure scopophilic-ally, as Gaylyn Studlar points out in her essay “Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of Cinema” (1984). 
            Although Studlar was discussing the possibility of “male identification with the female … or … with a ‘feminized’ masculine character” (Studlar 2000: 219) when discussing psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel’s theories on scopophilia, her invocation of his observations could just as easily be applied to female spectators.  Fenichel believed that scopophilic pleasure was dependent on taking the position of the opposite-sex character, as opposed to the same-sex character (Studlar 2000: 219).  He also believed that these pleasures were not limited purely to the male spectator, or the female “only if she abandons masochistic identification with the ‘female object’ and then identifies with a male spectatorial position defined only by control” (Studlar 2000: 219).  This introduces a conflicting position on scopophilic pleasure, that it is dependent on the spectator’s relation to the opposite-sex character.  But this does not so much complicate our understanding of scopophilia as much as it extends the limit of possible lenses through which to view the formation and consumption of scopophilic pleasure.
            Simplified, this is all to say that one of the results of these interweaving statements is the idea that women-viewing-as-men, referring to female spectators gazing from a masculinized position, are capable not only of identification with the active male figure present on the screen, but also of deriving scopophilic pleasure from objectifying women.  What this means for Queens at Heart is that female spectators are capable of viewing and objectifying the trans* individuals, and at the same time identifying with the active male figure of Martin, in the same way that male spectators are.  The filmmakers behind Queens at Heart are using this to their advantage.
            Before understanding how, there is another pertinent theory operating within film that needs to be considered. Mulvey discusses, again in her essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” She suggests that the image of the female figure “poses a deeper problem” (Mulvey 2009: 22).  Mulvey writes that, while the spectator disavows this, as the acceptance of it would only promote “unpleasure,” the image of a woman can’t help but connote “her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration” (Mulvey 2009: 22). She writes that the male spectator’s unconscious is able to escape from this “castration anxiety” through enacting a “preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma,” which she describes as playing out either as an investigation or demystification of the woman in question, or through “evaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object” (Mulvey 2009: 22).
            We see both of these scenarios playing out throughout Queens at Heart. The purpose of this film appears to be to serve as an opportunity for the filmmakers to sit down and thoroughly analyze individuals they see simply as being men dressing up as women.  It operates like a strict investigation into an unknown world.  Martin poses deeply personal questions including but not limited to the intimate details of what Simone does with a man they have taken to bed.  He pries into their personal lives as though this information were rightfully his to discover. Throughout the film, Martin will pose his questions in an accusatory tone, using denunciating vernacular, at one point blatantly saying to Sonya, “you don’t lead a normal life, in terms with which we’re familiar.”
            By using the same cinematic techniques employed by other filmmakers when filming cisgendered women, objectifying them, inciting a desire to possess or rescue them, both of which visually implying their lack of a penis, the Queens at Heart filmmakers are visually conflating these trans* individuals with cisgendered women.  Martin is treating them in the same way they he would treat a cisgendered woman.  Both men and women-viewing-as-men are drawn into objectifying the trans* individuals through the variety of objectifying cinematic techniques, again, conflating visually Sonya, Simone, and Vicki with cisgendered women. This correlates with Mulvey’s theory of the male, objectifying, gaze of the camera.  Both men and women-viewing-as-men are also drawn into identifying with Martin, who acts out the powerful, active male figure in the film, his gaze operating as Mulvey’s theory of the character’s male gaze.  Men and women-viewing-as-men, themselves operating as Mulvey’s theory of the male spectator’s gaze, through objectification and its subsequent possession of the trans* individuals, are henceforward invested in the “saving of [these] guilty object[s]” (Mulvey 2009: 22).  Even though they, by definition within the heteronormative constructs of these theories, do not have penises, women-viewing-as-men are experiencing this fear of castration, which at this point has been taken as a sign of the loss of masculinity, power, agency.
            By providing these spectators with a sense of a vested interest in Sonya, Simone, and Vicki, the filmmakers are asking the viewers to save their newly “possessed” “objects” from the harm the prejudiced outside world would enact on them.  The result of this, one encouraged by the film’s closing statement, Martin asking in effect who are “we to judge,” is the encoding of the notion that, despite the contemporary views on homosexuality and “transvestites,” as termed in the film, these individuals should at the very least not be thought of not as psychotic deviants, but as individuals born into bodies which don’t match their gender.
            It is at this point that the discussion of gender becomes key to analyzing the full impact of Queens at Heart.  Taking again Hansen’s assertion that “the cinema … offers women an institutional opportunity to violate the taboo on female scopophilia” (Hansen 2000: 234) and considering it alongside Mulvey’s theory that pleasure can be derived from “identification with the image” (Mulvey 2009: 18), it can then be implied that women are not simply capable of being women-viewing-as-men, but that women can also be women-viewing-as-women.  As already established, because the trans* individuals are objectified by the three male gazes in the same way they would be if they were cisgendered women, the female spectator viewing this film would be able to identify with the trans* individuals in the same way that she would were the trans* individuals cisgendered women.  Again, in this case, because the film conflates the trans* individuals’ images with cisgendered women, women-viewing-as-women are capable of deriving scopophilic pleasure from identifying with the four trans* individuals.
            With this identification, female spectators of Queens at Heart will be exposed to the concept that gender itself is a performance.  From here, female spectators are capable of identifying with all the things the trans* individuals have to do to make themselves look like a “cisgendered women,” put on specific styles of clothing, do their hair in a certain way, wear a certain type of shoe, have a certain amount of make up on, because these are the things they the patriarchal society is requiring from them as well.  The concept is now made available to female spectators that if the trans* individuals are “performing” as “women,” if their preparatory actions to adhere to the patriarchy’s rigid aesthetic expectations are no different than those of cisgendered women, then cisgendered women are also “performing” as “women.”  If cisgendered women are being devalued, objectified, and possessed, simply because they are “women,” and “women” in a tangible, non-performativity sense don’t actually exist, then not only does this further imply that “gender” itself does not exist, but also that the reasoning behind the subjugation cisgendered women face on a daily basis because of their “gender,” such as inexcusably lower wages, being forced to live in rape culture, and fewer basic human rights in many parts of the world, has no basis in reality, and thus too is a construct with designs to keep women in a position of powerlessness.
            Viewing gender in this way is nothing new to film theorists. Ann Kaplan in her essay "Is the Gaze Male?" (1983) wrote that women in film “do not function as signifiers for a signified (a real woman) as sociological critics have assumed, but signifier and signified have been elided into a sign that represents something in the male unconscious” (Kaplan 2000: 120).  In regards to film forming signs in the male unconscious, Elizabeth Cowie, in her essay “Woman as Sign” (1978), mirrored Mary Ann Doane’s sentiment in her essay "Woman's Stake: Filming the Female Body" (1981), that the massive filming of the female body has produced in the male unconscious an “unproblematic category” of “woman,” seen only “as mother, housewife, worker, sexual partner” (Cowie 2000: 48),    “which constructs and maintains a hierarchy along the lines of a sexual difference assumed as natural” (Doane 2000: 87).  To men, Cowie continues, there is an assumed definition of “woman” which has existed in society prior to its representation within film (Cowie 2000: 49).  But Cowie argues that, among other sign shaping systems, film “produces meaning through the articulation of signifying elements, ” that “as a system of representation,” film “is a point of production of definitions” (Cowie 2000: 49).  Cowie ends optimistically, saying that “it is therefore possible to see ‘woman’ not as a given, biologically or psychologically, but as a category produced in signifying practices” (Cowie 2000: 61).
            It isn’t just Queen at Heart’s female spectators that have revealed to them the film’s assertion that gender is a construct.  Not only through reassessing from the male spectator’s perspective Fenichel’s beliefs of scopophilic pleasure’s dependency on opposite-sex character identification, in this film operating as male spectators identifying with the trans* individuals (Studlar 2000: 219), but simply through relating back to Mulvey’s argument that men wish to identify with the power-representing, film fantasy-controlling figure the film is structured around (Mulvey 2009: 20), is the male spectator offered an opportunity to understand this concept.
            In that last scene, where a day in Vicki’s life is dramatized, we see Vicki dressed and gender-performing as a “man.”  Male spectators, with no other controlling figure featured in this scene, are forced to identify with Vicki, and in doing so, are compelled to empathize with their plight.  The scene shows Vicki forcing themself to wear clothing they would not otherwise choose to wear, at one point looking longing at items in the window of a shop that they wished they weren’t, to a certain degree, legally prohibited from being drawn to.  They lack agency in their lives to live the way the wish.  Male spectators are compelled to feel frustrated and empathetic with Vicki’s frustration.  They are also made aware by how Vicki, who has been successfully visually conflated with the image of a cisgendered woman up to this point, is as capable of dressing and performing as a “man” as they are as a “woman,” that their own gender is just as malleable as that of women’s.
            In applying these concepts to Queens at Heart, we can see that by questioning these constructs, by using film as a system to reconstruct and redefine what it is to be a “woman,” the filmmakers are advocating for acceptance, and arguing that these non-heteronormative humans are no different, fundamentally, than any other human. How they present themselves, and express their gender identity, is just one flat dimension of their otherwise fluid, ever changing, four-dimensional reality.  Reducing their existence simply to their image, and judging them on this, would be akin to racist assumptions that Inuit tribes in the early twentieth century were so behind western civilization that they were unaccustomed to using guns, dealing with paper money, or understanding what a phonograph is (Burton 2002: 78-79).
            Queens at Heart was not widely distributed (OutFest 2009), and while we can’t know what effect it would have had had it been released nationwide, it still provides us with an optimistic look at our past.  The filmmakers may have filmed these four endlessly polite and unquestionably brave trans* individuals in an objectifying manner, they may have posed questions that were deeply personal, and their vernacular may not have been as culturally sensitive as we rightfully expect of our fellow citizens today, but their good intentions overwhelmingly bleed through the celluloid. The filmmakers packed up their gear and actually went to one of the balls, to see it for themselves, presenting it not as some seedy, disgusting den of sin, but as a thriving, supportive community.  Martin does not leer at, or recoil from Sonya, Vicki, or Simone.  After spending twenty minutes drawing in the audience, his closing statements blatantly call into question the common contemporary prejudices, effectively making the audience complicit in the reevaluation of their prejudices.  These are the actions of strong willed, capable, and knowingly privileged trans* allies.   While there is, even today, still a staggering amount of ground to gain, Queens at Heart (1967) gives us an encouraging opportunity to bear witness to the hard work, and great risk, that those whose who face overwhelming prejudice are willing to endure to simply stand up for the rights of their fellow human beings.


Burton, John W. and Caitlin W. Thompson. “Nanook and the Kirwinians: Deception, Authenticity, and the Birth of Modern Ethnographic Representation” Film History, Vol. 14, No. 1, Film/Music (2002), pp. 74-86 

Canaday, Margot. "We Colonials: Sodomy Laws in America." The Nation. Nation, 3 Sept. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. .

Cowie, Elizabeth. "Woman as Sign." Feminism & Film. Wellington Square, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford, 2000. 48-65. Print.      

Doane, Mary Ann. "Woman's Stake: Filming the Female Body." Feminism & Film. Wellington Square, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford, 2000. 86-99. Print.

Hansen, Miriam. "Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship." Feminism & Film. Wellington Square, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford, 2000. 226-252. Print.

Kaplan, E. Ann. "Is the Gaze Male?" Feminism & Film. Wellington Square, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford, 2000. 119-138. Print.

Killermann, Sam. "What Does the Asterisk in “trans*” Stand For?" It's Pronouced Metrosexual. Sam Killermann, It's Pronounced Metrosexual, 30 Mar. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. .

Mulvey, Laura. "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Inspired by King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946)." Visual and Other Pleasures, 2nd Ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 31-40. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Visual and Other Pleasures, 2nd Ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 14-27. Print.

Painter, George. "The Sensibilities of Our Forefathers: the History of Sodomy Laws in the United States: Illinois." Sodomy Laws. GLaPn: Gay And Lesbian Archives Of The Pacific Northwest, 4 Dec. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. .

Queens at Heart. Jay Martin. Southeastern Pictures Company.  1967.  Film.

"QUEENS AT HEART." Http:// N.p., 9 May 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. .

"QUEENS AT HEART (mid-1960’s)." OutFest. OutFest, 6 Jan. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. .

"SOUTHEASTERN PICTURES CORPORATION." OpenCorporates: The Open Database Of The Corporate World. OpenCorporates, 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. .

She-Man: A Story of Fixation. Advertisement. 1967.  Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Studlar, Gaylyn. "Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema." Feminism & Film. Wellington Square, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford, 2000. 203-225. Print.

No comments: