Franco says he doesn’t engage in gay sexual behavior or desires (as far as we know), but he’s always making gay work. It makes you wonder: What makes a person “queer” anyway? By Kristen Cochrane.
James Franco, if you’re reading this, let me just say that I’m a fan. Sometimes I think we could be academic BFFs who go to sex parties “just for the experience.” We’d just be voyeurs (consensually, of course), and then go home and talk about E. Ann Kaplan’s rebuttal to Laura Mulvey on whether the gaze is actually male. You would say, “But what if the gaze is queer?!” And you’d tell me about your next cinematic rendering of Kenneth Anger’s homoerotic reverie Scorpio Rising, and how you plan to make it amenable to the anxieties of late capitalism in 2016. Sigh… a girl can dream.
In this week’s New York magazine, in a hilarious interview with the fireball art critic Jerry Saltz, Saltz brought up James Franco’s double-life of being straight and acting gay — in the films he’s involved with, in his art practice, and even on his Instagram. If Franco is always saying he’s not gay, but making gay works, doesn’t that mean he’s a queer tourist? And is this chill or nah?
As I’ve talked about before, queer female sexualities are fetishized like crazy. Women making out with women is considered “hot,” whereas men making out with men is not supposed to be considered hot, #becausehomophobia. (The key phrase here is “supposed to be,” because if you look up statistics or get women talking, a lot of them are into gay male porn.) Because of this double standard, it surprised me when a straight-identifying guy I was seeing confidently told me about a debauched group sex evening in which a guy came over to him and began performing oral sex on him. He said he wasn’t actually turned on by the blowjob, but that it still felt good—like any blowjob. How totally progressive of him to tell me and my sister this story over brunch?, I thought. And isn’t being progressive sexy? Aren’t these the guys we love now, from Matt McGorry to Joseph Gordon-Levitt?
Then I realized…wait. Because ~progress~ is so cool and holds so much cultural capital and social value in our current moment, people are utilizing this to gain this kind of capital and value. Think about it this way—if someone you thought was cool adds you on Facebook and you realize they have posted a series of news articles praising Ted Cruz for his views on female sexuality (i.e. not progressive but mostly Satanic, and possibly reptilian), that person would generally lose cultural and social capital, because they look like an ignorant moron now. But to not look like an ignorant moron, we have to hold particular ideas and views, or you become a social pariah. Which I think is good, and hopefully others do too.
People have been obsessed with gay people for ages, so now people make movies and TV shows about gay people. Movies that did very well, like Philadelphia (1991), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) are good for gay visibility, but the question of how much money these films generate and for who they generate money is concerning. And this goes back to Franco. Is he profiting from his works economically or culturally? The economic benefit can be obvious, but the cultural one is nuanced.
James Franco dressed in drag on the cover of Candy. Via
In the hilarious New York mag interview, Saltz gets bold, in a way that sounds like David Letterman when he’s about to ‘splain something to someone who doesn’t understand: “You’ve said you’re gay in your work,” Saltz says. “In a way, I think in my work, I’m sometimes assholish, and a few – other things like that — hysterical.”
“It’s a bit of a persona,” Franco replies.
“But if I’m honest, my second self is also real,” Saltz counters. “So if you said, ‘I’m gay in my work,’ I guess that must mean that you’re also gay,” Saltz continued. “If I’m an asshole in my work, I’m also an asshole. A lot of gay men have said to me, well, Franco’s kind of a gay cock tease.”
Where it gets complicated with Franco is that he says he does not engage in gay sexual behavior or desires (as far as we know), but at the same time, he’s making queer cultural artifacts, texts, and productions. But it’s important to acknowledge that a person can be queer without being in a queer relationship with someone, or having sex with people of the same sex. In 2003, sex educator, author, and niece of novelist Thomas Pynchon (lol) Tristan Taormino wrote a compelling and groundbreaking essay in The Village Voice. She said that after the 1980s and 1990s where the focus was just on coming out, there are different ways to think about our identities:
“How does one spot a QH?” Taormino asks in The Queer Heterosexual. “In some cases, it’s based on either one or both partners having non-traditional gender expressions, like she’s tough-as-nails butch (yes, straight women can be butch—have you been to Montana?) and he’s girlish and lets her take charge (which may or may not include bending over), or they actively work against their assigned gender roles,” Taormino writes. For Franco, maybe his enjoyment playing queer characters consolidates his identity as a queer heterosexual?
The other night, this hypermasculine Irish guy visiting Toronto was hitting on me. I was dressed like a Gen Z Millenial lesbian, or at least sexually fluid young woman, which is what I am, so I’m not “playing a sexually fluid Gen Z Millenial” for my work. I am a sexually fluid Gen Z Millenial.
But anyway, dude was hitting on me, saying he wanted to take me home and put my legs over my head, and eventually grabbed my ass, right in the crack—like “credit-carded” me with his fingers. Unwanted physical touching aside, I thought it was funny because I was wearing a backwards Nike cap and running shoes that I wear to play tennis. When I would go to bars in Toronto when I was a university student at 19, people would ask me if I was into women, or bisexual. Like, a lot. And I think it was my disposition. The way I stood, the way I looked around the room, the way I challenged men who hit on me with a gaze that probably read as detached and disinterested.
But no longer do men ask me if I am into women or if I am bisexual. Even now, when I often dress and act like what writer Sally Munt called the lesbian flâneuse: a renegade female who walks down the street with her butch haircut (except I don’t have the butch haircut; I wish!), strong gait, and ruptures gender expression like it’s NBD, I don’t get asked about what I am or who I am attracted to.
And I’m pretty sure that means that we have reached peak Queer Heterosexual. In a significant way, a lot of us are bursting out of our cocoons of suffocating heteronormativity and embracing our queer heterosexuality.
“Some queer heterosexuals are strongly aligned with queer community, culture, politics, and activism but happen to love and lust after people of a different gender,” Taormino writes in The Queer Heterosexual. “I also consider folks who embrace alternative models of sexuality and relationships (polyamory, non-monogamy, BDSM, cross-dressing) to be queer, since labeling them “straight,” considering their lifestyle choices, seems inappropriate. Then there are those folks who may be straight-looking and straight-acting, but you can’t in good conscience call them straight.”
It sounds like James Franco can’t in good conscience call himself straight, which is why he is straddling the lines of what constitutes heterosexual and queer. Could it be that we, the critics and the press, are really the problem, simply for asking him to decide what he is?
James Franco playing himself as a narcissist who flirts with himself and then kisses himself in a short film he made for the New York Times Magazine Hollywood Issue in 2010. Via
In the April 2016 issue of Rolling Stone, Franco talked about his recurring interest in reckoning with queer subject matter. “When I was studying at NYU, I took classes in critical studies, and one of my favorites was on queer cinema,” Franco told Rolling Stone. “We’ve been told the straight, heteronormative stories ad nauseum by now, in our movies, our shows, our commercials — everywhere. I think it’s healthy to make work that disrupts and questions that, and shows alternative narratives,” Franco said. “That is what an artist should do.”
Franco is not wrong, but the queer tourism of which Franco has been consistently accused of is a form of cultural tourism where someone with a more privileged identity hangs out in less privileged spaces (think white boys from rich suburbs taking selfies in Compton because they like rap music). And this angers a lot of people, especially when you’ve been shut out of spaces by straight people or white people, nd when you make your own, the straight and/or white people want to join the party, too.
One of Franco’s many queer heterosexual Instagram posts, which he unsettles and disrupts even further with the incredibly bro expression “total frat move.”
Still, queer tourism is complicated. The notion of “queering” something is a hot topic in the humanities right now, especially in the academic realm. When we queer something, we unsettle heteronormative narratives that hold us back from expressing ourselves in ways that look or feel like they could transgress the false notion of normalcy. For instance, fans can queer heterosexual characters from books and ship them as a gay couple (e.g. Drarry, the coupling of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy). Or, you can queer a film’s story by suggesting that the non-sexual character has not openly identified as queer, but that there are suggestions and possibilities for the character to be queer.
So is James Franco a queer tourist? Maybe. But is he bringing cutting-edge, queer cinematic works to the fore, when they have been at the margins for so long? I would say so. Whether Franco is messing with us our not, he’s bringing a visibility to the everyday of being gay, from gay poets to homoerotic aesthetics. And this should be celebrated.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her most recent essay for Slutever, “What, When a Woman Talks Openly about Sex, Do We Instantly Assume She’s a Whore?,” HERE :)