Posts tagged ‘xeth feinberg’

December 18, 2008

Queer Heteronormativity, or How “Queer Duck: The Movie” is Straight-Laced.

by Craig Martin

When the feature-length animated film, Queer Duck: The Movie (Xeth Feinberg), was given a limited theatrical release in July 2006, it was lauded a queer triumph by the popular GLBT press. Reviewing the film for US national gay and lesbian newsmag, The Advocate, Alonso Duralde described it as ‘naughty, outrageous, … the must-see animated film of the summer’ [1]. Despite this and other enthusiastic accolades [2], Queer Duck: The Movie rarely lives up to its name. Certainly, the film lampoons homosexual panic, performative gender stereotypes and ex-gay cults, but it also endorses homosexual/heterosexual binarism and reinforces gender stereotypes, even as it benignly pokes fun. As such, Queer Duck: The Movie contains a considerable lack of authentic queer content, which we will soon explore. What follows is a brief attempt to describe aspects of queer theory for the purpose of illustrating how Queer Duck: The Movie might be considered straight-laced. Let’s commence with a working definition of queer theory.

Perhaps the most important point to make about ‘queer’ is what it is not, and how often it is misunderstood. Annamarie Jagose observes that queer is commonly thought of an “an umbrella term for a coalition of culturally marginal sexual self-identifications” [3] and notes that the term is regularly appropriated as interchangeable for lesbian and gay. Queer is, of course, concerned with sexuality and sexual identity, but it challenges notions that these are fixed. To suggest that queer is merely an alternative label for homosexuality is erroneous, despite the fact that such labeling persists. Queer rejects labels and categories and is committed to displacing ideas of normalcy, exploring instead what Harry Benshoff describes as “spaces wherein normative heterosexuality is threatened, critiqued, camped up, or shown to be an unstable performance identity” [4]. Because queer rejects ideas of normalcy, it also serves to “interrogate and complicate the term ‘gay and lesbian'” [5] as well as challenge binary categorisations of male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual, in favour of fluid and transgressive sexual identities. Through such a lens, heterosexuality is deemed an artificial construct, despite hegemonic assertions of its naturalness and normalcy. Present within the same binary, homosexuality is an equally contrived and restrictive social construct. Its characterisation as aberrant, or a deviation from heteronormativity, ostensibly delimits heterosexuality, or, as Meredith Li-Vollmer and Mark LaPointe express it, “one function of the deviant is to help define for others that which is not deviant” [6].

Instead of fixed binaries, queer creates a space that argues for the validity of unstable constructs of sexuality and gender, which Alexander Doty refers to as “a place not concerned with, or limited by, notions of a binary opposition of male and female or the homo versus hetero paradigm” [7]. Queer is certainly inclusive of lesbian and gay subjects, but it is also concerned with alternative expressions of sexuality that, according to Jagose, include “cross dressing, hermaphrodotism, gender ambiguity and gender-corrective surgery” [8], as well as transgressive heterosexual behaviours such as masturbation, fetishism, prostitution, bisexuality, and alternatives to monogamy and procreation. Benshoff broadly encapsulates queer as a description of any sexuality “not defined as heterosexual procreative monogamy … [and includes] people who do not organize their sexuality according to that rubric” [9]. Using this amorphous understanding of queer, we can briefly explore the contrasting heteronormativity that characterises Queer Duck: The Movie.

Queer Duck: The Movie appeared at a time when mainstream lesbian and gay movements, according to Diane Richardson, were “increasingly demanding rights of citizenship on the grounds of being the ‘same’ as most heterosexuals” [10].  Unfortunately, in their pursuit of equal rights, gay and lesbian groups capitulate to the heterosexual/homosexual binary in an effort to create a legitimate, or normalising space for homosexuality. Thus, in their desire for respectability and recognition, significant segments of the lesbian and gay movement have effectively abandoned, or at least, minimised their transgressive identity. Observing this trend, Richardson states that, “both feminist and queer academics and activists have been highly critical of the normalizing politics that form the basis of mainstream lesbian and gay movements organized around claiming ‘equal rights'” [11], because they ostensibly validate social constructs designed to control and limit human sexuality.

Mike Reiss, creator of the Queer Duck universe, is a co-producer and regular writing contributor for The Simpsons. It may not be surprising then, to learn that Queer Duck: The Movie similarly contains an endless flow of parody, pastiche and intertextuality. Its characters eat Quentin Crisps and drink Harvey Milk, and during one promotional interview, Reiss described his film as “Brokeback Rocky and Bullwinkle” [12]. The film exploits almost every lesbian and gay stereotype and is crammed with wall-to-wall jokes about Disney resort ‘Gay Days’, Broadway musicals, drag queens and showbiz Divas. But does this make it queer? Interestingly, the film displays a keen awareness about the anthropomorphism of animals in animation, and this is perhaps its queerest characteristic. Animation is endemically queer because, as Alice Kuzniar argues, it has the ability to “frustrate the laws of nature” [13] that Philip Brophy calls “an incursion or irruption of reality” [14], which makes animation, with its transgressive qualities, an ideal medium for exploring queer issues. We certainly see this in Warner Bros’ Bugs Bunny cartoons, in which the waskily wabbit is forever dressing in drag and kissing the fall guy. Likewise, in Queer Duck: The Movie, the most transgressive aspect of the film is not its endless homosexual references, but its interspecies coupling. A parody of the Rex Harrison voiced song ‘Talk with the Animals’ from Richard Fleischer’s 1967 musical fantasy, Doctor Dolittle, declares we can instead have “Sex with the Animals.” The self-reflexive song winks at the film’s cast of animals and the prevalence of inter-species relationships, highlighting the obvious necessity for bestiality. The characters have drag names with humorous puns that describe their sexuality and species. Along with the titular Duck, there is his sensitive partner Openly Gator, and their friends, Oscar Wildcat and Bi-Polar Bear.

The film’s narrative is concerned with a chance encounter between Queer Duck and aging Norma Desmond-styled Broadway Diva, Lola Buzzard. The two hit it off to such an extent that Lola asks Queer Duck to marry her. He is mighty flattered, but reminds her that he is gay and couldn’t possibly consummate the marriage. Lola offers a solution, recommending that Queer Duck visit homophobic televangelist Reverend van Dergelding. After a few consultations, the Reverend cures Queer Duck of his homosexuality via a home brew. Queer Duck thereafter transforms into Straight Duck, complete with chest hair, stubble and a devil-may-care attitude. He and Lola immediately marry, causing no end of heartbreak for the duck’s former lover, Openly Gator. Straight Duck is the antithesis of Queer Duck. Whereas Queer Duck is talkative, flamboyant and seemingly asexual, Straight Duck is monosyllabic, assertive, sullen and sexually potent. On their wedding night, Straight Duck sees his withered bride waiting for him in bed and instantly develops an enormous erection. Their evening consists of non-stop sex and in the morning Lola speaks of her deep contentment before promptly dying from exhaustion, having bequeathed her fortune to the duck. Alone and lonely, Straight Duck reminisces about his old life and looks up his gay pals, who hire Barbra Streisand to turn him gay once again through the divine power of her nose. The procedure works like a charm and the remainder of the film involves a series of celebrations as Queer Duck reunites with Openly Gator, foils Reverend van Dergelding’s sinister plot to rid the world of homosexuals (by showering the gay populace with his ‘cure’),  and, finally, splurging Lola’s millions on his friends.

Despite its name, Queer Duck: The Movie contains little that is actually queer per se. Rather, the film emphasises the homosexual/heterosexual binary, problematically reinforcing a heterosexist, heteronormative paradigm. The only valid choices of sexual expression the characters are given is either gay or straight. Queer Duck readily abandons his homosexual lifestyle and friends, including his life partner, Openly Gator, and panders to stereotypes that homosexuals are incapable of long-term commitment and that a gay lifestyle is wayward, superficial and essentially sexually unsatisfying. Indeed, the only occasion in which an erect penis or sex acts find representation on screen is when Queer Duck is transformed into the virile, hyper-masculine Straight Duck. We subsequently learn that straight sex is infinitely more satisfying, potent, and even dangerous, as is evinced by Lola Buzzard’s post-coital demise. In contrast, when we see Queer Duck and Openly Gator in bed together, they do not touch, nor kiss. Indeed, their relationship is altogether asexual – oscillating between hystrionic and angst-ridden. There is of course a parodic element contained in the reversal of stereotypes that see straights oversexed and gays reserved and sexless, and this aspect of the comedy works well. Yet the fact remains that in the Queer Duck universe, homosexuality is confined to a superficial, self-loathing, agamous lifestyle primarily preoccupied with artifice, or what Susan Sontag describes in her Notes on Camp as “style at the expense of substance” [15]. Writer/Creator Reiss’ commentary on gay culture deliberately limits itself to artifice, offering a stereotypically camp view of homosexuality. While his cartoon seems, at first, witty and innocuous, there is little that is actually humourous or innocent about the way Queer Duck: The Movie exploits gay culture and negates transgressive sexual identifications. With so little actual queerness in Queer Duck: The  Movie it is fascinating to consider the enthusiastic reception the film received, especially from within the LGBT community. Or is it? Richardson’s observations about the quest for equality and – of even greater concern – assimilation among some gays and lesbians might lead us to conclude that Queer Duck: The Movie conspires to, if not strip queerness of its transgressive power, then at least tone it down. Straight society, Richardson effectively suggests, is more likely to accept homosexuality if it can distance itself from its transgressive roots and prove that it belongs. And there’s nothing queer about that.

[1] Duralde, Alonso. “Fine Feathered Fop.” Rev. of Queer Duck: The Movie, dir. Xeth Feinberg. The Advocate.  967 (18 July 1996): 57.

[2] The DVD cover for Queer Duck: The Movie includes a quote it attributes to BBC Television claiming that Queer Duck is “One of the 100 Greatest Cartoons of All Time.” Thanks go to Dean, who found that the source of this claim is a Channel 4 poll conducted in 2005 to determine the most popular cartoon characters and animated films. Queer Duck is listed 94th, while The Simpsons topped the list in first place. For the complete list of animated films, see http://www.channel4.com/entertainment/tv/microsites/G/greatest/cartoons/results.html

[3] Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996. p. 1.

[4] Benshoff, Harry and Griffin, Sean. “General Introduction.” Queer Cinema, the Film Reader. (Ed) Harry  Benshoff and Sean Griffin. New York: Routledge, 2004. p. 2.

[5] p. 1.

[6] Li-Vollmer, Meredith and LaPointe, Mark. “Gender Transgression and Villainy in Animated Film.” Popular Communication. 1.2 (May 2003): 89-109. p. 91.

[7] Qtd in Griffin, Sean. “Pronoun Trouble: The “Queerness” of Animation.” Queer Cinema, the Film Reader. Ed. Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin. New York: Routledge, 2004. p. 107.

[8] p. 3.

[9] p. 1.

[10] Richardson, Diane. “Locating Sexualities: From Here to Normality.” Sexualities. 7.4 (2004: 391-411. p. 391.

[11] p 392.

[12] Urban, Robert. “Queer Duck: The Movie is Sooooo Gay!” AfterElton.com Online 18 July 2006. 27 October 2008.

[13] Kuzniar, Alice A. The Queer German Cinema. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000. p. 239.

[14] Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967. p. 278.