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Friday, August 08, 2008

 

Writing against your orientation Part 2

Donalbain asks in response to the post below about writing a character whose sexual tastes differ from your own:

have you ever written of m/m couplings? How did you find that? My imaginings would be that it would be easier to write a gay relationship where the partners were the same gender as the writer, than if they were the other gender. Especially when it comes to the sex scenes..

It's a good question. And I think I'm inclined to agree.

As yet, I haven't written a gay male protagonist; I may at some future date if it seems likely to improve a plot, but it's something I'd definitely consider a challenge. Writing against your orientation demands some imaginative projection; so does writing a character the opposite sex from you. For me, a gay hero would be conflating the two.

In fact, I'd consider male-male the biggest challenge of all, because it's the one I have absolutely no experience of. I know what it's like to be a woman feeling desire, which I can translate into desire for a woman. I know what it's like to be a woman desired by a man - in the book that comes out next year, for instance, there are a few moments when my male lead feels a confused sense of attraction towards a woman, so what I basically did was considered situations where I'd been around a man confusedly coming on to me, thought about how he acted, and tried to put a sympathetic interpretation on his behaviour.

Furthermore, I have a motivation when picturing male-to-female desire: it's something I have intensely wished for every time I found myself desiring a man. Even if I haven't experienced it, I've spent a lot of effort trying to generate it, and observing closely to see whether I've succeeded or not. Consequently, the symptoms of its presence or absence are familiar to me. I have an investment in male-to-female desire.

But desiring a man in a male way? That's a situation I've never participated in except as a bystander. And a more or less disinterested bystander at that: unlike the 'does he fancy me?' situation, whether or not one man fancies another is really not my business. My observation is correspondingly less personal; I'd like to think that every gay man found the fella of his dreams, but that's because I'd like as many people as possible to be happy. It's a pretty broad wish, and not one given to intimate observation. You simply never ask yourself if someone fancies your friend as passionately as you wonder whether someone fancies you. To write a male-male romance scene, I'd probably have to use an invisible woman somewhere.

The trouble is, the invisible woman would run into difficulties. On the face of it, that perhaps shouldn't be the case. After all, gay men and I have something in common: we fancy men. In theory, that should suggest that it's actually easier for me to write a gay man than a straight one; at least he'd be attracted to the same sort of people. I'd just have to put the invisible woman in the position of desiring protagonist, then lift her out again.

But actually, no. For one thing, you'd expect a gay man to be attracted to other gay men, and while there's no one physical or gestural type for 'gay', the overt mannerisms and fashions of gay subculture send out a signal that says to me, 'Not an option', which is something of a turn-off. Working out what it would be like to be attracted to them would take a lot of thought. Of course, plenty of gay men don't have big signifiers reading 'I Like Men!' all over them, and it would be easier to write being attracted to someone like that, but still, it would be a factor to consider, and I'd expect to do some research, as well as running it past an actual gay man to check I sounded convincing.

But, most crucially, there's also the question of different gazes. Reflecting on the last post, I recalled Alison Bechdel (author of Fun Home and Dykes To Watch Out For, highly recommended) remarking that 'woman as fetish', ie sexual features grotequely exaggerated, was a common cartooning style - so common that it's easy to overlook. She remarked that a character in Poppers by Jerry Mills was the gay male equivalent, a male body caricatured with biceps and pecs to impossible proportions. That sounded like a useful reference, so, thinking of mentioning it here, I did an internet search for further images that turned up nothing. When I tried 'gay comics' on Google Images, I struck something else (apart from horrifying numbers of Simpsons characters playing hide-the-sausage, images I'm trying to forget as soon as possible): lots of images of attractive men, drawn by men for men, that had a completely different feel from how attractive men look in my eyes. (You can repeat the search, but all of it's not worksafe, so I won't link here.)

There's something different about the male and female sexual gaze. Looking at a man through male 'eyes' is not the same. It's notable, for instance, how different films made by men and women are. Consider Point Break by Kathryn Bigelow, a film thronged with fit, half-naked actors, and compare it with Wild Things, directed by John McNaughton. (I was hoping to find an example of male-on-male gaze to compare to Bigelow's female-on-male, but, frustratingly, YouTube has failed to supply any of the examples I could think of, so bear with me. Or if you can think of examples, point them out.) McNaughton's cinematography lingers on the actresses in a familiar way: lots of shots of pretty bottoms and thighs, the camera's gaze often zooming slowly up the body, taking it all in, a piece at a time. This is a shorthand we all understand: the camera is leching at the girls. (Entirely appropriately for the mood and theme of the film; I'm not suggesting that McNaughton is necessarily a lech.)

But there's a lot of pleasure taken in the handsome actors of Bigelow's film too. It's just taken in a way that feels, at least from my own experience, distinctively feminine. Rather than pausing on the biceps, stopping to check out the pecs, moving down to the thighs, Bigelow favours shots from the middle-distance, in which we see the actor's whole body, or body from the waist up. The camera is generally still; rather than moving up and down the actors, the actors move within a poised frame. Birdwatching refers to the 'GISS' or 'giss' of a bird, which I believe is an acronym for 'general impression size and shape': the sense of a bird's bird-ness that enables you to identify it at a glance. Bigelow's camera is enjoying the beauty of the actors, but is taking satisfaction their giss.

And that feels feminine. At least in my experience, what I find attractive in a man has much more to do with giss than specifics. Things like the set of the shoulders, posture, movement, harmonious body line, can be very attractive - but you have to see the whole body to see how they work. This isn't necessarily any less 'objectifying' than the male gaze: enjoying how a man moves does not necessarily mean you're interested in his personality. It is, rather, a different way of enjoying a beautiful object: standing back to admire, rather than going in with a magnifying glass. On purely anecdotal evidence, I think it's significant that Point Break is the only movie I've seen that made me find Keanu Reeves or Patrick Swayze attractive: seeing them through female eyes made them look a whole lot better. But if Bigelow's camera had zoomed in like McNaughton's, the whole film would have had a different feel: it would have felt like the work of a gay man.

Lingering, up-and-down, sexual-feature-specific camerawork, in short, feels closer to the male sexual gaze than the female. I suspect this is a major reason why 300 looked so gay: its exaggeration of the actors' six-packs was the CI equivalent of giving an actress a boob job (feature-specific), while its half-naked actors were repeatedly filmed in slow motion (lingering up-and-down gazes). Everyone recognised the conventions of the male desire lens, and being directed towards male actors, it was hard to draw a hetero conclusion.

I'm wildly generalising here, so any gay man, straight woman or vice versa is welcome to post and disagree. There are plenty of exceptions; Craig Thompson's beautiful graphic novel Blankets, for instance, draws his beloved with a tender, sensual delight in the line of her whole body, and that's undoubtedly a male gaze. I'm mostly talking about my own overall impressions. But, of course, those are all I have to go on when writing fiction. Mostly, this is a roundabout way of saying that yes, I'd consider writing a gay woman easier than writing a gay man, because it's closer to my own experience...


On a different note, as the comments on the previous article were interesting but it's buried in what's-your-name posts, Anon commented:

I've heard a couple of lesbian writers saying that they have difficulty writing sex scenes with women in because it feels a bit too close to home. But if it's a man-on-man scene, they can let their imaginations run wild without feeling overly exposed.

I don't know if those writers are professionals or not - for all I know, they may be bestselling and brilliant - but it's my belief that you have to expose yourself if you're going to write well. I'm not exactly comfortable with my family reading my sex scenes - they read the stuff I write after it's published, and we have a don't-ask-don't-tell custom - but any kind of honest writing is putting yourself out there. To me, it feels just as exposing to write female-female sex as to write female-male, and no more exposing than to write a description of riding the bus. Any piece of writing exposes how you think, how you see, who you are, just as much as any other piece. It's all looking at the world through your own eyes, even if you've put on character-tinted spectacles. If you're trying to hide behind your writing, your priorities will be concealment rather than honesty, and you won't be writing your best. You gotta be brave about this stuff.

Comments:
Some good stuff here.
 
If nothing else, the pure mechanics of the m/m sex scenes must be rather difficult for a woman to write. Or so I imagine, with my tragic inability to write ANYTHING that hasnt really happened!

If you are writing a f/f scene you can think "Hmmmm I like it when Mr Man does XYZ to my ladybits, so if I make a woman do that to my character's ladybits, she would probably enjoy that as well."
 
Thanks, Greg. :-)

In a way, the mechanics might be less difficult than the emotions. If you've had sex with a man, then you know how a man reacts and behaves during sex. You don't know the precise sensations, but that would be the same writing a sex scene from a straight man's perspective - and if you know how a man behaves during an orgasm, and you've had an orgasm yourself, you can probably put two and two together.

So, once again, the basic sensations and behaviour are things that a hetero woman will have seen up close. In addition, most of the stuff two men can do together, straight couples can do some variant of, if they're so inclined - and as different gay men favour different acts, I gather, you can always create a character who likes doing whatever you're most familiar with.

Also, technical stuff is probably easier to research; you can read sex-ed material, or else erotica written by men if you want to get a sense of the sensations (all that stock footage involving rockets and fireworks comes to mind).

So if I were writing a male-male sex scene, the mechanics would worry me less than describing the emotions. And thinking about it, I suspect that a sex scene would be easier than the eyes-across-a-crowded-room scenes that would precede it, because they're all emotion and no technique...

(Of course, one day I may attempt the feat, and find myself completely changing my mind on all this!)
 
Women can have orgasms??? When did that start? I must make sure that my future girlfriends never read this blog, lest they get ideas.
 
The visuals of "300" you mention, and "Point Break" versus "Wild Things", put to words the different "feels" that various movies have.

I wonder if there are similar textual POV differences in something like a romance novel versus a male oriented action adventure.

The movies use different kinds of camera angles. I wonder if novels use different kinds of sentences and word structures? Or if it is purely a contextual difference?
 
Based on my experiences with the Gender Genie (which you can read about in all their exciting detail here: http://www.kitwhitfield.com/2007/02/i-am-gender-confused.html) I'm inclined to believe that guessing gender based on sentence structure is unreliable. I think it's more a question of what the narrative choses to look at, the same way a camera does, and the emotional tone struck in response to what's observed.

If you read men and women describing their sexual experiences, men tend to say 'I did this - then she did that - then she did this - then I did that...' while women tend to say 'He did this - and I felt that - and as I felt that I thought this - and then I did this - and he reacted like this - and that made me feel like that...' Male sexual narratives are often balder, female ones more interiorised and discursive.

I'd speculate that the baldness may be to do with the visually-stimulated thing. If you say, 'He put his hand on her breast and then moved it to her bum', a woman's going to find that uninformative to the point of crassness, because it conveys no information except the basic acts. But possibly a man will have a visual image of the acts in question; if so, then you've got him picturing a breast and a bum, which is a happy, happy place.

For some reason, I'm thinking of the song 'I'll Know When My Love Comes Along' in Guys and Dolls, a man and a woman singing about their romantic ideals. She goes into details:

For I've imagined every bit of him
To the strong moral fiber to the wisdom in his head
To the home-y aroma of his pipe ...
I'll know by the calm steady voice
Those feet on the ground.
I'll know as I run to his arms
That at last I've come home safe and sound...


That is, she's thinking about sound, scent, physical presence - while he's thinking about sight:

I'll know at the sight of her face
How I care, how I care, how I care
And I'll stop. And I'll stare.
And I'll know long before we can speak
I'll know in my heart.
I'll know and I won't ever ask
Am I right, am I wise, am I smart.
And I'll stop. And I'll stare
At that face in the throng...


Both are being romantic, so it's not that visual stuff is unromantic when put into words, but when you're describing something in narrative, the visual stuff can lead to simpler writing. In effect, the reader can be brought in as observer rather than participant: they need to know what it looked like, not what it felt like.

I'd guess that it's not something you could quantify through sentence structures without creating a lot of exceptions, but it's a know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing.
 
As someone who is sexually inexperienced, I find writing this sort of thing very challenging. And by 'this sort of thing', I mean everything from actual cavorting in bed back to the lingering glances over drinks earlier in the evening/month/relationship. I'm not entirely sure of my orientation, either - may be one thing or t'other - which probably means bi, I suppose. Any rate, this isn't a 'pity me' thing. As far as I'm concerned it isn't a great personal tragedy, but the result of a series of choices that I'm still comfortable with.

What does suffer is my writing. Whenever you have a set of characters interacting, sexuality will at some point become an issue. Is it a mistake to attempt to write what you have no experience of at all? I don't think so, but it's a challenge. Invisible men and women aren't much of a help at this point. (Mind you, my literary efforts so far have been clumsy and amateurish even without this extra difficulty.)
 
Well, I can't really comment on the 'sex' aspect of it, but the romantic moments surrounding it I have worked with. This is mostly because I tend to write about kid heroes who don't get into that, but it allows me to write against orientation. A lot of it is practice and mental prep. I write various little scenes just to get a feel before I even commit something for the story.
 
I'm going to go ahead and say that your generalizations are probably wrong, on the basis that they seem to contradict each other.

Consider:
The descriptions of Rose's girlfriend, he reckoned, might be plausible coming from a man who's looking at a woman he deeply loves or has a major infatuation with, but ordinary male attraction isn't quite that caught up in the fine details, like the colour of hair on someone's arms, or exactly how they turn their ankles. This was convenient enough - my heroine is a woman, after all, so having her look at a woman with feminine desire was exactly what I was aiming for - but I wasn't entirely surprised. I'd spent a bit of time in the previous book describing a man being attracted to a woman, and the writing had been more stark, more straightforward.

But then:
McNaughton's cinematography lingers on the actresses in a familiar way: lots of shots of pretty bottoms and thighs, the camera's gaze often zooming slowly up the body, taking it all in, a piece at a time. This is a shorthand we all understand: the camera is leching at the girls. (Entirely appropriately for the mood and theme of the film; I'm not suggesting that McNaughton is necessarily a lech.) But there's a lot of pleasure taken in the handsome actors of Bigelow's film too. It's just taken in a way that feels, at least from my own experience, distinctively feminine. Rather than pausing on the biceps, stopping to check out the pecs, moving down to the thighs, Bigelow favours shots from the middle-distance, in which we see the actor's whole body, or body from the waist up. The camera is generally still; rather than moving up and down the actors, the actors move within a poised frame. Birdwatching refers to the 'GISS' or 'giss' of a bird, which I believe is an acronym for 'general impression size and shape': the sense of a bird's bird-ness that enables you to identify it at a glance. Bigelow's camera is enjoying the beauty of the actors, but is taking satisfaction their giss. And that feels feminine. At least in my experience, what I find attractive in a man has much more to do with giss than specifics.

They seem opposites, no?
 
Ah, good point, which forces me to reclarify my thoughts. On reflection, I think is because I overlooked something: there's a difference between focusing on secondary sexual characteristics like breasts and bums, and on fine details, like eyebrows and elbows. From what I've seen, it's generally women who invest sexual energy in depicting the latter.

Given that I'm a woman rather than a hermaphrodite with no stake in any comparisons, it's hard to describe what I mean without sounding like I've favouring one gender over the other. This probably affects my clarity.

So let me try this is as equal-rights language as I can. I think that, while women undoubtedly look a a man's crotch or pecs if they think he can't see them, they're less likely to do it with a camera or a pen than their male equivalents. They either hang back or go in really, really close - and when they zoom, they're less likely to zoom onto the secondary sexual characteristics.

My guess is that porn has something to do with it. Traditionally porn has been a male enclave, and has also been pretty directly focused on specific sexual features: Big Bums Monthly; All Natural Breasts; Brazilian Wax Extravanganza. With magazines like that (all invented by me, but you know what I'm getting at), women are often somewhat uncomfortable, because they're definitely not invited to that party.

So - I'm speculating - it's possible that, when it comes to depicting attractiveness in film or fiction, women have a lot of bad associations with, say, just staring at a guy's ass. Staring-at-asses is top shelf territory, and the top shelf has a 'No Girls Allowed' sign hanging from it. Not necessarily in real life, but in depictions thereof.

What I mean is that there's a visual history to shots like that, which feels male and is a less happy place for women. A woman in real life will happily consider a man's ass, but give her a camera or a computer and she might go elsewhere.

Most importantly, I think, there's a big difference between what you'd film and what you'd write. (You'll note that Rose is a written character and McNaughton was making a movie.) Physical presence, in female terms, is very important, but exactly how you convey that is dependent on the capacities of the medium. The looking-at-specific-features with a camera can feel, to me at least, kind of exclusionary: yes, nice bum, but where's the rest of him? You're cutting his physical presence out of the screen!

With writing, that's not such a problem: writing is always cumulative, you can never present someone's entire giss in a single word, so a gaze that flicks around and takes in small details is gradually building up a picture. And at that point, small elements can become relevant. Because of the porn associations, a lot of your female audience might be thrown if you just focus on bum and package, besides which, they convey a less detailed picture.

There are, for one thing, a limited number of ways you can describe an ass. Was it big? Small? Smooth? Hairy? Round, oval, slightly rectangular? Different asses look different, but the limitations of language mean that they're going to sound fairly similar when you describe them - unless you want to get into such precise cataloguing that you sound like you're taking a field survey rather than ogling. To convey the specifics of a person's body, you more or less have to move around, finding what's unusual about it - and there's a limit to how unusual an ass can be. The absence of pictures, if you want to convey a physical presence, forces you to get diffuse.

The alternative is to say that the narrator likes, for instance, big bums, and then communicate that their beloved has one and thus satisfies their criteria for attractiveness. But that puts us back with Big Bums Monthly, and most of the writers I've seen do that are male.

In order to convey a female eye, in short, film and fiction possibly have to vary more than they would to convey a male one. Perhaps.

In any case, I'm sure there are exceptions; it would be a dull world if all generalisations were true. Any men who'd like to compare their own experience, do let me know and broaden my understanding of the human race... :-)
 
I found myself with a similar problem when I gave myself a bisexual protagonist in =Aristoi.=

In the end, I ended up doing the fictional equivalent of panning to the clouds during the guy-on-guy scenes. It wasn't the physical act that deterred me, but--- like you--- I was afraid of getting the emotional textures wrong.

There were some tricks I was able to employ. From reading gay writers I knew that they often focused on parts of the body that straight writers wouldn't notice--- hands, wrists, and ears come to mind, as well as (if you're Chip Delany) fingernails.

I think writers shouldn't be afraid of panning to the clouds when necessary. It's not cowardice; it's knowing your limitations.
 
From reading gay writers I knew that they often focused on parts of the body that straight writers wouldn't notice--- hands, wrists, and ears come to mind, as well as (if you're Chip Delany) fingernails.

Ah, that's interesting. Do you mean male or female gay writers? Because if it's male, that rather louses up my theory; I was theorising that it tends to be women who do that!
 
Love for Point Break! AWESOME! Thank you, Kit!

Seriously...as a straight man, thanks for identifying something I've always sensed in that film but never could quite pinpoint (that being Kathryn Bigelow's gaze directed on the male actors) . Looking back at it again, you can feel it very strongly in the scene where Keanu almost gets beaten up by the speed-dealer surfers. The big Tahitian guy, and Anthony Keidis, are filmed in a way that you always feel very strongly the strength and power of their torsos, without ogling their pecs and abs.

As far as a male on male gaze equivalent to Bigelow--perhaps the way John Woo shot his actors in The Killer and Hard Boiled? Or Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs? Or John Ford's iconic images of men like John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Will Rogers?
 
Wrote that in a hurry and thus used "feel very strongly" twice. Sorry. I'm not that poor a writer. : )

Someday the word verification thing is going to be "chtulhu ftghan" and I will start screaming.
 
... because for some reason, my blog won't let me post a reply on the comments thread, and I wanted to answer JJ's point. Here's what I was trying to say:

As far as a male on male gaze equivalent to Bigelow--perhaps the way John Woo shot his actors in The Killer and Hard Boiled? Or Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs? Or John Ford's iconic images of men like John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Will Rogers?

I'm not sure you could quite get an equivalent male-on-male gaze to Bigelow's from a heterosexual director; Bigelow is, after all, wired to find the male body attractive, while I'm pretty sure the directors you mention are into women. A heroic shot isn't the same thing as an attracted one: it's homosocial rather than heterosexual, and that's a whole different game.

My fiance thinks Tarantino has a thing for feet, on the grounds that you see an unusual number of pretty foot shots in his movies. Thinking of the Pulp Fiction shot that introduces Uma Thurman by following her from the ankles down (which I'd simply thought of as stylish) that, perhaps, is close to Bigelow: it seems to be enjoying without leching McNaughton-style. But that might just be because Tarantino's cinematography tends to be well-considered.

Which might mean I'm seeing the male gaze primarily in terms of gratuitous T and A shots*, which is probably not very fair of me; given greater equality, we may well see more gratuitous butt shots from women too. I found Bigelow's camerawork attractive as well as tasteful, though, which seemed female to me, but perhaps the world is thronged with straight men who'd like an equivalent...

*Though I do have an imaginary Loaded reader in my head yelling 'Gratuitous? No such thing! There is never a bad time for T and A!'
 
the overt mannerisms and fashions of gay subculture

Ugh. Please, no. Would you use "mannerisms and fashions" of any other subculture.

When I tried 'gay comics' on Google Images...

Howard Cruse is your man. Great comics about all aspects of gay life, from the "T&A" to two men (in their 70s, as I recall) talking about their love for each other. Beautiful (in art, language and truth) comics.
 
Woo and Tarantino are very much into women. Ford was too, though there is some legitimate question as to whether he was bisexual. But that's neither here nor there, ultimatly.

I was trying to think of (mostly) straight directors who made men look sexy and attractive in way that was distinctively masculine yet non-lecherous ("attractive as well as tasteful".) I came up with the idea of "cool". Cool is Chow-Yun Fat posing brilliantly in the midst of a gunfight; cool is Tarantino's guys in their matching, well-fitted suits, standing and slouching togethor and apart; cool is Will Rogers grinning behind a judge's bench, Henry Fonda walking down a road, John Wayne silhouetted against monument valley.

And yeah, Tarantino is foot fanatic. Legs and feet in general, it seems. But he's stylish in the way he films lower extremeties, which saves him from lechery.
 
But he's stylish in the way he films lower extremeties, which saves him from lechery.

Ah, now that's interesting, isn't it? We seem to be back to the very traditional definition of obscenity: that it's provocative without any redeeming artistic value or purpose. What do people think of that definition?

For myself, I have nothing against obscene materials as long as they're made in safe and consenting circumstances - or at least, many of them may repel me, but that doesn't mean I think they should be banned.

But when it comes to art, I'd say my objection is to anything that lacks an artistic point or justification, obscene or not. A gratuitous sex scene irritates me; a gratuitous action scene bores me: gratuitousness is the problem. Of course, the desire to see people in the nip is a strong drive, so gratuitous sex is one of the likelier things to crop up, and it can be particularly problematic if it's done in a demeaning way ... but in general, I think anything that's unnecessary to a work of art is wrong, and artistic standards probably keep offensive nudieness out of art better than 'moral' standards.
 
Ugh. Please, no. Would you use "mannerisms and fashions" of any other subculture.

Um - well, yes, I think so, depending on the subculture. Rapper subculture, for instance, has some distinctive mannerisms and fashions. I certainly didn't mean to imply that gay subculture is 'mannered' or 'fashion-obsessed'; I just mean identity-signifying behaviours, which lots of groups employ.

It's a tricky thing to phrase accurately. The trouble with 'gay subculture' is that gay is an orientation as well as a subculture, and the overlap between the two can be complicated. You'd expect pretty much every rapper to be part of rapper subculture, but not everybody gay is part of the 'gay subculture', if by 'subculture' we mean people who share activities, venues, fashions and acquaintances.

So while no one form of behaviour is inherently 'gay', 'straight' or 'bisexual' - everything's a matter of convention, as far as I can see - there's also 'gay subculture', which doesn't necessarily comprise or represent every gay person, and which can, in some of its branches, involve more distinctive identity-display behaviour, like clothing and body language, in the same way that a rap fan might dress and move like a rapper. That's more or less what I was talking about.

I could have said something along the lines of 'overtly camp behaviour', I suppose, because camp is a recognised part of some elements of gay subculture, but a) I wasn't sure if 'camp' entirely expressed what I was getting at, and b) I couldn't think of a way of saying it that didn't either imply that all gay men are camp, which would be stupid and incorrect, or require a long and elaborate set of qualifications to explain why I wasn't suggesting that - which I seem to have mired myself in anyway... :-)

If you can think of a better way of putting it, do suggest one, as I wouldn't like to offend anyone, but I honestly think the problem here was complicated wording of a concept rather than implied insult. Mostly what I was trying to say was that some gay men are camp and some aren't, and the camp ones don't attract me, but I think I got too abstract in saying it.

Thanks for the link, anyway! I'll look out for him. :-)

Here's a question, actually, for anyone who cares to weigh in: if I'm a straight woman who's turned off by body language that suggests a man is gay (whether I'm guessing correctly or not), then if you're a gay man or woman, does overtly look-how-hetero-I-am body language act as a similar turn-off? Or not?
 
I agree. I probably should have said that it saves him from gratuitous lechery; lechery in and of itself can have it's place.
 
On the subject of 'foot fanatic' - an entirely fair way of putting it - I'd like to speak up for the so-called 'foot fetishists'. It's always seemed to me an unfair categorisation.

After all, if a guy has a particular thing for women's breasts, asses or legs, they call him a 'breast man' an 'ass man' or a 'leg man'. Why is it that moving a couple of inches below 'leg' suddenly gets you called a 'fetishist' instead of a 'foot man'? Women's feet are just as distinctively feminine as their legs or chests, and some women's feet are very pretty; it seems unfair to imply there's something eccentric about liking them. It implies that men who like dainty female feet are weird, and that women have horrid ugly feet that only an obsessive oddball would like looking at. Most unjust. :-)
 
On a point of comparison re discussing mannerisms, and also just because I found it an interesting train of thought, I'm pasting here a comment I put on Slacktivist a while ago(http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2008/06/lb-heebie-jeebi/comments/page/7/#comments), analysing English versus American mannerisms. I don't think I actually used the word 'mannerisms' in the post, but I did talk about body language... Anyway, it's Friday, so thinking about Mary Poppins can't be all bad.

Just to explain, I'd said that Dick van Dyke was unconvincing as an English sweep, not only because his accent was wrong, but because his mannerisms and movements were too; somebody asked whether it was because he was too tall...



I don't think the height had much to do with it; when he stands next to Julie Andrews, who actually was English, he doesn't look especially tall for a man. (You can see them fooling around side-by-side here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=gquqL_k0FnE&feature=related) The Net informs me that Andrews as 5ft 7, which is tallish for her generation, but still, van Dyke was around six foot, which is by no means unusual in England. You wouldn't expect a half-starved chimney sweep to be that big in the Edwardian era, but it's not exactly a realistic film: the main thing is that he's a few inches taller than the woman he's usually next to, and looks pretty normal, height-wise.

He's just all-American in every line and gesture. If you bit him, he'd taste of sweet pickles and mayo rather than fish n chips.

It's his open-mouthed smile, his white white teeth, the texture of his skin, his ability to look squeaky-clean while covered in soot, the way he keeps looking around fluidly instead of keeping his head poised, the way he looks loose-limbed and tight-knit at the same time, the way his elbows cock slightly outward when he walks (that's an aggressive gesture in England), the way his pose and body have an air of roundness without fatness (you'd expect there to be something angular in an Englishman of that build) ... all sorts of stuff.

Even his dancing is just not the way you'd expect an Englishman to dance. Englishmen don't bounce like that; a fit Englishman would dip his shoulders from side to side as he walked rather than skipping on his heels, and that knees-up stride of his (http://youtube.com/watch?v=te_Nv3lMUnA&feature=related) - well, the only Englishman I can think of who's ever done something similar is John Cleese doing his famous silly walk (http://youtube.com/watch?v=IqhlQfXUk7w), and you can see the difference. There's a tension in Cleese's legs and spine where van Dyke is loose and springy; Cleese holds his head steady and forward, like he was balancing something on it, where van Dyke keeps turning and tossing his; Cleese stands with his legs straight when he's at rest where van Dyke bends his knees... you get the idea. Van Dyke is too rubbery to be English. We don't move like that; we hinge rather than bend, especially the men.

He's touchy-feely, too: English people keep out of each others' body-space - it's a crowded country, and not squashing is a token of respect - but van Dyke keeps getting right up to people, all patty and cuddly like a puppy. You rattle English people if you do that. We're too packed together as it is, and it's a gesture of consideration of you keep a comfortable distance.

There's also his air of benevolent instruction, which has a particularly American tang. You might expect an English adult to be benignly instructive to children, but there'd be a sense of an age gap and authority, as with Julie Andrews, unless they were encouraging mischief, in which case they'd have a conspiratorial air that van Dyke lacks.

Similarly, he's completely displaced in terms of class, which makes him look entirely foreign, especially in a story where a big part of the plot involves two middle-class children whose genteel governess takes them on a tour of various social states lower down the ladder than their own. Mary Poppins is an employee who maintains her standing with a properly ladylike air, combined with a schoolmarm crispness. Bert the sweep is supposed to be a cheeky chappie, but van Dyke can't do cheek: to get it right, you have to be aware that somebody outranks you and enjoy the game of playing on the dignified restrictions their social status imposes, teasing them yet never quite stepping over the line - a delicate business that's quite beyond van Dyke. He acts as if he's unaware of class distinctions rather than having fun playing with them, and that's totally wrong.

To have a character in Edwardian England who doesn't notice class at all, he'd have to be in the tradition of great English eccentrics, and van Dyke is too relentlessly normal for that. There's something confidently mainstream about him, but by the standards of his setting, he's alien to the point of oddness. My boyfriend's childhood theory was that Mary Poppins was a friendly angel and Bert the sweep an affable devil, who are better friends than theology would have you suppose; considering van Dyke's performance, it's actually a good working theory, because he definitely ain't from around 'ere.


Herendeth the reflections, make of them what you will...
 
I still think you are reading too much into the casting of DvD for Bert, even if it did throw off your ability to appreciate the film. I really do think Disney just wanted a box-office ringer who could dance and tell jokes.
That being said, when I spent time in England in my early 20s I was always struck by how apparently obviously American I was, even though I dressed the same way the British kids did (no really! I didn't even bring trainers or jeans with me!). I had a priest after mass ask me how long I had been in the country, even before I opened my mouth. Apparently the way I took communion was enough to mark me as a Yank.
Tiny little things.
 
I never said he was a fetishist! He just likes legs and feet! Nothin' wrong with that! : )
 
I don't really think I'm 'reading' anything into the decision to cast van Dyke, except that the producers didn't much care whether the film or his performance were convincingly English or not - which is a conclusion pretty supported by the evidence, I'd say.

This is kind of a bugbear of mine. American producers, on the whole, seem to care primarily about American audiences even if the film has an international release. Since movies are one of America's biggest exports, that sort of thing is bad for public image: it advertises lack of awareness of the reality of other nations, while still trying to sell them movies based on that same lack of awareness, which tends to raise international hackles. It's also artistically careless.

But all I was saying about van Dyke is that he has an extremely American manner. Partly that's me griping about a bugbear, but it's also just interesting to look at the different mannerisms that identify one nation or another. Mostly I re-posted this because I'd found it quite an intriguing study once I started it.

JJ - Oh, I know. I was talking about other people, not you. :-)
 
Whew. : )


(Word verification is "frgfu". Wonderful. Random combos, riiight.)
 
Here's a question, actually, for anyone who cares to weigh in: if I'm a straight woman who's turned off by body language that suggests a man is gay (whether I'm guessing correctly or not), then if you're a gay man or woman, does overtly look-how-hetero-I-am body language act as a similar turn-off? Or not?

I can only speak for myself, but I'm a lesbian who has always found overt hetero-normative body language to be a turnoff. On the other hand, I find queerness as an attribute to be very attractive, especially androgyny and gender-switching behaviours. Meaning that sometimes I even find myself attracted to gay men on the basis of that queerness, despite the fact that the idea of sleeping with a man (not even considering what he thinks of it) is one I find kind of unpleasant. But yeah--I find boyish girls and girly boys attractive, and am actively turned off by girly girls and "manly men". I'm positive that's not universal, though, even where universal=all lgbtq folk, given the traditions of femme lesbians and gay leather subcultures.

(Also, in your Lexicon, you talk about looking for a word for that thing dogs do where they put their paws between their front feet to ask you to play? (Though you may already know this.) It's a "play bow".)
 
Thanks for the very detailed description of van Dyke's American mannerisms/physicality. All of that got right past me. (Unsurprisingly, since I'm American.) Point well taken that American producers basically seem (or seemed at the time--there's a lot more conscious globalization in entertainment now, I think) to expect everyone else to adjust to the American audience.

Your description of DvD reminds me of Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People. Several people noticed that the way he held himself--like the native Californian he was--was too "open," too casual, for the Midwesterner he was supposed to be. In particular, he seemed to have no idea how you convey that you're walking down the street on a cold day.
 
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