One of the highlights of this past weekend’s &Now Conference was, for me, the “What’s that Mess? It’s Excess!” panel, where Johannes Goransson spoke about watching Disney’s The Lion King with his children (child? …I forget how many), and made a case for the film’s villain, the effete, swishy, nonsensically-accented “creepy uncle” Scar, as supplying the most compelling parts of the film. Art, he argued, is the “creepy uncle.”
When I was a kid, Scar was my favorite character in the Lion King. I staged backyard performances with the children of a family friend, where we sang songs from the Lion King. I always insisted (without much resistance) on singing Scar’s song, “Be Prepared.” I loved inhabiting Scar’s persona, his elongated vowels, the revolution of his wrists, the curl of his queeny nails. I loved sulking, stalking, flailing, plotting, preening. Flaring my eyes. I liked to imitate his line delivery when Simba says, “You’re so weird, Uncle Scar,” and he responds, suggestively, “You have no(ooooo) idea.”
When I wear my black-feathered performance jacket, I feel a little bit like Uncle Scar. Like a French Libertine or Batman villain. Like an emu ready to stretch my neck and peck out your eyes. Whereas some of my sleeker, skimpier, more traditionally feminine performance fashions leave me feeling exposed and vulnerable, the feathered jacket makes me feel like a powerful and imposing uber-dandy. It’s no less faggy, but it’s brimming with swag.
In his &Now talk, Johannes moved from the creepy uncle into a consideration of the work of Raul Zurita, whom Johannes has written about quite a bit at Montevidayo. In his artistic response to Pinochet’s regime, Zurita staged pageants wherein he appropriated the evil of fascism and turned it on his own body, for instance, by scarring his cheek with acid — compelling, fascistic, “creepy uncle” art.
In the audience, Gene Tanta asked what happens when evil becomes fun.
But this seems like the wrong question. Evil is always fun! Or there is always some degree of fun in evil. It seems to me like the question should be, How is evil fun? How is a particular work of art, or a particular text, engaging the relationship between evil and fun, evil and pleasure? Or, how is the viewer/reader/consumer, etc, engaged in these questions?
My sister Paige and I used to play a game called “bad guys.” It was my favorite game to play with her, because I loved the character I got to inhabit. We would concoct elaborate plots to kidnap and poison her younger sister’s dolls. Our emphasis was more on our machinations than their execution. I loved to dramatically vocalize my plotting and my “muah ha ha.” As with Uncle Scar, I relished the gesture, the flourish, the sneer.
Everybody knows the villains are the highlight of any Disney movie, and are also depicted through some of the freakiest, most hallucinogenic and artful animation work. Although Scar is queer-coded, many of Disney’s psycho diva bitch villainesses have become queer icons, most especially The Little Mermaid’s Ursula the Sea Witch and Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. As Eric Henderson delightfully outlined in a series of Disney movie reviews for Slant Magazine, most Disney villains direct their evil toward heteronormativity and patriarchy’s self-declared inevitability. And they’ve all got some fierce-ass swag. Try shaking your bosom, whether material or imaginary, and intone, BODY LANGUAGE.
I consume a lot of melodrama and soap opera. On any soap, the shrewdest, most stylish, most enjoyable characters are the villains. Soap villainesses are power pumps, shoulder pads, hair. When I wear my silky cropped jackets, my boleros, my sequined, studded shoulder pads, my hats and jewelry, I feel like a soap villainess.
The soap opera villainess is defined primarily by her treachery. The greatest evil, on soaps, is deceit, especially lies told to male husbands and lovers, or to separate dull heterosexual couples. This obsession with dishonesty, which provides soaps their most compelling and animated moments, reminds me of Johannes’s repeated insistence that art is counterfeit. Currently, I am watching no less than two nighttime soap operas where twin sisters swap places and must deceive their sisters’ nearest and dearest. If art is the evil uncle, perhaps it is also the evil twin.
At &Now, my performance project LIT DIVA EXTRAORDINAIRE was paired on a panel with Christine Nguyen and Leon Baham’s wonderful “Flinch.” Christine commented that one quality common to both our performances was their exploration of vanity. The word “vanity” was a revelation for me. Although I have spoken at length about how my Lit Diva project foregrounds the ego involved in any artistic endeavor, it somehow had not occurred to me to apply this far more specific and far more accurate language of “vanity.” Vanity is also one of the seven deadly sins, one of Christianity’s traditional barometers of evil. At &Now, the seven deadly sins came out to play every night, in the form of a neon-lit art installation attached to the top of one of UCSD’s taller buildings, each sin a different color, flashing in a rotation. In mainstream, institutionalized literary culture, vanity is often treated as though it is the deadliest sin. Good little writers must be read, not seen or heard. Peacocks and strutters are shunned. But for queer people, vanity is resilience. Bitch, I KNOW I look good.
In Disney movies, the hero can never kill the villain, for this would soil their virtue irrevocably. Villains always die at their own hands, as the result of their own vanity, envy, wrath. Often, they fall from very high places. Cliffs. Parapets. They attack the (golden, heteronormative) hero and lose their footing.
In her presentation during the “No Future” panel at &Now, Joyelle McSweeney made a case for a model of artistic evolution that rejects progressive, heteronormative, capitalist narratives in favor of embracing evolution’s failures. Art is found in the mistakes, the momentary, the fleeting, the doomed. Insects with gaudy, unnecessary adaptations and appendages, who flare up and flare out. Who dance with abandon on the edge of cliffs.
In Joyelle’s explicitly queer formation, these artist-insects dwell in the necropastoral, a liminal space that rejects the traditional pastoral’s dichotomy between nature and the unnatural, that acknowledges the boundary between the two is a permeable membrane, and that “unnatural” wastes and pollutants have already shaped and are continually shaping the so-called natural.
In The Lion King, The Pridelands are a bucolic, idealized pastoral space where nature exists in balance, and this is dichotomized with the urban slum of the elephant graveyard, where the black-coded ghetto trash scavengers, the hyenas, dwell. But the boundary between the two realms is never stable. Simba, the golden boy, is inexorably drawn to the graveyard, and it is against the graveyard that Simba first inscribes his heteromasculine heroism. When eventually, the graveyard encroaches on the Pridelands, and the hyenas have the run of the place, the resulting chaotic wasteland provides some of the movie’s most striking images.
No king, no king, la la la la la.
In Gene Tanta’s question, “What happens when evil becomes fun?”, I perceived (perhaps incorrectly) a different question, which is — What happens when art reinforces, or is complicit in, the material effects of evil in the “real world?” But for me, within our current linguistic and cultural systems, this notion of “evil” can never fully separate those things I as an individual might associate with “evil” — say, violence, harm, injustice — from qualities associated with queerness and abject populations, qualities that in my stigmaphile politics and artistic practice I actively embrace, qualities like decadence, depravity, perversion, obscenity. And I think reveling in “evil’s” fun results in far more compelling art.
2 thoughts on “On Evil Uncles and Power Pumps: Riffing on Johannes Goransson and Joyelle McSweeney’s Presentations at &Now”
I’m glad my question played a role in provoking such thoughtful and personal reflections on Johannes’ linking of the social (and absolutely normative) category of “evil” and queer being.
In a sense I write because I disagree that “What happens when evil becomes fun?” is the wrong question. It seems like this question is a more dangerous question than the traditional epistemological question of how is art evil. Though, of course, both are worth asking, my question wagers more precisely because it forces us to admit that living in a morally relativist world does not offer an escape hatch from normative evaluation of what is good and bad.
The shock of seeing a man perform female qualities wears off, is even fun, but the more lasting intervention would be to make people aware of the gender gap they work so hard to uphold and the ethical and moral consequences of upholding it.
You (unlike many) seem aware of your function as a consumer of fashion and of the fact that one of the consequences of such purchase is being distracted from what you are (a consumer of the ongoing production of lifestyle and its accoutrements). Johannes brushed off our need to be critically self-aware as less interesting than the aesthetics of self-torture as a means of resistance. Maybe this is progress or even a successful circumvention by life-art of the entire positivist project of allowing for only one future, maybe it is just another fashionable boa distracting us from the monsters we animate. Who’s to say?
Asking who does the valuation when we re-evaluate our values is the dangerous question, less so the one pointing to the fact that the exotic connection between life and art titillates.