Post 9: Green Book and Eve Sedgwick’s Gender Theory
In our current society (and as in the discipline of sociology), gender and race are two of the most provocative topics. So, what if someone is black and homosexual at the same time? In the film Green Book, such a character is depicted and I want to use the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick’s paradigm to understand this role.
Sedgwick is an American scholar and author who specialized in gender studies. She is best known for pioneering the concept of “the queer theory” in her book “Epistemology of the Closet”. As shown in the book’s name, one of the most fundamental concepts is the “closet”:
“Closet — the relations of the known and the unknown, the explicit and the inexplicit around homo/heterosexual definition — have the potential for being peculiarly revealing, in fact, about speech acts more generally” (Sedgwick 1990: 10).
Here, Sedgwick considers the closet as the attempt by those with homosexual identity try to conceal these traits from the general public either partially or entirely, which has become one of the most famous concepts in the world of queer theory, and the idea of “coming out of the closet” has entered the general pop culture since then.
Specifically, Epistemology of the Closet centers around Sedgwick’s argument about 1)the standard binary oppositions about gender and sexuality, 2)different perspectives about what makes up human sexuality, and 3)the concept of universalizing and minoritizing.
To begin with, Sedgwick points out that traditional binaries such as homosexual/heterosexual, masculine/feminine, and other similar “oppositions” are way too simplistic to cover the nature of human sexuality because they are too extreme, unstable, and cannot truly exist without the other. For instance, for a term like “public” to exist, there must be some element of “private.” Therefore, there will be no clear and independent meanings of different terms. What is more important, Sedgwick argues that it is not about which side we take, but what we do on the top of our side. She also uses Foucault’s words to bolster this idea:
“There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses” (Foucault 1978: 27).
Secondly, Sedgwick introduces three different views to explain the formation of one’s sexuality, which are constructivism, essentialism, and spiritualism. Constructivism was first proposed by Foucault, stating that people’s behaviors are the result of the cultural system or linguistic structure; essentialism emphasizes what lays outside the system, such as DNA, inherent sexuality, or biological elements; and spiritualism concentrates on non-cultural and non-gender factors, such as soul or spirit.
Eventually, Sedgewick introduces two reasons why people study sexuality. Minoritizing refers to when the study merely aims to contribute to the course itself while universalizing takes the opposite side, which believes that the primary purpose of learning a certain subject is to better help society to understand the course as a whole.
The film Green Book was released in 2018, which tells a story between a black pianist Dr. Shirley and his Italian white driver (and bodyguard) Tony Lip. They traveled from New York to the southern parts of America to help Dr. Shirley break the racial and musical boundaries.
Constructivism helps explain the “unfair” treatments Dr. Shirley underwent in the southern states. While New York was a modern and wealthy area, its people considerer homosexuality common. However, the southern part still held relatively conventional and restricted perceptions on sexuality, where people viewed “gay” as abnormal, creepy, and even illegal. There are no truly objective standards for sexuality and intercourse but are social and cultural norms that influence people’s perceptions. As Judith Butler states, sexuality is performative. There is no true “gender” but they are all various kinds of actions people choose to behave. For example, big breasts and beards shall never be considered typical symbols of “male” or “female”, but anyone can choose to have them and play the role they want to be. In the southern part, residents played the very conventional roles that conflicted with the modern characters from New York.
As a result, carrying our sexual behaviors with another man in a southern YMCA, Dr. Shirley was caught and arrested. The policemen not only beat him but also refused to give him any clothes. When Tony rushed to the church to save his boss, he saw naked Dr. Shirley crouching in the bathroom’s corner. From this scene, audiences can understand how people are socially constructed regarding gender and sexuality, so the southern policemen would discriminate against Dr. Shirley.
However, there are also scenes where the gender demonstration is a bit inappropriate. At the movie’s peak, Dr. Shirley shouted in the rain: “so if I am not black enough, and if I am not white enough, and if I am not man enough, then tell me Tony, who am I?” Here the movie unconsciously views being gay as “not man enough”. Firstly, what is “man”? So, what is not man enough? We should neither assign any social stereotypes to man nor using a binary approach to analyze gender, namely not thinking about gender “man” or “not man”.
Secondly, even if we follow the most prevalent path to understand what is “man”, why being gay is not man enough? This corresponds to one of the gay characters of Sedgwick, she illustrates how homosexual men are often seen to be weak and effeminate because they reject the traditional masculine behavior of pursuing women. However, Sedgwick later opposed this character by herself because she thinks that human nature should not be so simply defined. Also, she suggests that it also possible that when a man extremely admires masculinity, he also chooses to love another man. Hence, we can see that Green Book has narrowed down the characteristic of gay, making it too extreme and biased, which could have misled the audience’s views about gay, and indirectly affecting homosexual people.
Moreover, I think Green Book somehow unethically creates a black gay (Dr. Shirley was not homosexual in real life according to his family) and a white savior Tony to appeal to white audiences. The movie simply turns Dr. Shirley into a gentle, helpless, and naked black gay who needs Tony to protect him from being robbed and bullied. More importantly, Dr. Shirley needs Tony to help him understand and integrate into other black people. By many times Tony demonstrates to him the local black music and food and lastly says “I am way blacker than you” which provokes the doctor. In other words, the doctor in the movie does not have MOTIVATION and SUBJECTIVE INITIATIVE to discover his own life meaning. On the screen, Green Book actively chooses to present the cliché and unsurprising scenarios as a way of positioning Tony as a savior, a hero, which can please white audiences while lowering the position of both black and gay people.
Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality. Volume I: ‘An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.
Sedgwick, Eve. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.