Queer Paratextual Politics in Fellowship of the Rings
This blog has been dormant for way too long. See, life intervened, in the form of my lovely daughter Abigail. Over the last 17 months, I’ve realized how truly amazing anyone who can be productive while being a parent is, as I’ve struggled to reinvent myself as an academic who works at sane times that allow me to parent. I’ve had time to blog, for sure, but usually been too tired. But I’ve missed writing, and missed blogging in particular. So let’s see if I can get this back up and rolling.
Towards that end, I thought I’d elaborate on a very specific paratextual fragment, by way of making some comments about paratexts, identity politics, authorship, and queer readings and writings.
This stems from a talk I recently gave in Bologna, at a conference all about paratexts (!), where I was given the opportunity to revisit Show Sold Separately. Since writing that book, I’ve been excited to see the wealth of scholarship on paratexts that is now published, forthcoming, or in the works. The stuff that’s excited me most, though, has reminded me what the project was really about, since it’s the stuff about paratextual politics that I find most innovative. In particular, let me point to an excellent article in Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture by Jimmy Draper, called “Idol Speculation: Queer Identity and a Media-Imposed Lens of Detection.” There, Draper looks at the case of Adam Lambert, a glam contestant and runner-up on American Idol. One of the things that interests Draper is how American Idol the television show avoided declaring Lambert’s sexuality, which as a result held significant queer potential; paratexts surrounding the show, however, applied a “lens of detection,” forever asking “is he gay?” and thereby foreclosing the queer potential of Lambert by reducing the performance to a “gay or straight” binary. I love this piece since it captures how paratexts can be the site at which politics are declared, or where they can be muted or mutated. Indeed, I hearken back to one of the first articles explicitly about paratexts/extratexts, by Robert Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus, in which they similarly find a paratext – the DVD bonus materials – working to curtail queer readings of Fight Club.
Paratexts are important textually, and that was the argument of Show Sold Separately. But in making that point, I didn’t underscore enough why that matters: because they can and do therefore play a constitutive role in determining the politics and ideological work of texts. Above I note two examples of paratexts dampening the ostensible politics of “the work itself.” For another such example, we might look to many of the paratexts that surround Glee: for all the television show’s often self-congratulatory attempts to include storylines about LGBTQ identities, from the 3D Concert Movie (hat-tip to Kyra Hunting for telling me about this) to many of its other paratexts, this interest and commitment ranges from quieted to entirely absent. But, and on the other hand, we might also look to paratexts as a realm in which other political or ideological readings and meanings can be added or amplified.
That sounds like a tidy binary: paratexts either add or subtract politics. Of course, though, it’s not that simple. Not only is it problematic to use the terminology of “add or subtract,” given how they imply meanings were or were not definitively “there” already, but we also see examples that are more murky. Below, I want to consider one of those examples.
The example is a snippet of the cast commentary track on the Fellowship of the Rings DVD. Following a run-in with the Ring Wraiths, an injured Frodo is taken to Rivendell to heal, and when he awakens, Sam runs to his bedside, both characters’ faces light up, and Sam takes Frodo by the hand. On the cast commentary track, Ian McKellen offers background on the filming of this scene:
When I suggested to Sean [Astin / Sam] that he take Elijah [Wood / Frodo]’s hand, I thought it was because anyone who knew the book would care about the deep friendship, often of an innocently physical nature, and that that might be missed by two resolutely heterosexual actors who mightn’t appreciate that gay people like myself saw in a touch something perhaps more meaningful than others might. And so to persuade him to touch Elijah, I’d say, “well, look, it’s in the book.”
We then cut to Sean Astin, who makes no reference to the scene’s potential queer reading, but instead confirms that McKellen brought the book to him before he filmed the scene, told him that fans would expect Sam and Frodo to touch hands, and that he therefore played it this way. Astin then notes that he got a fan letter saying how much this meant to the woman who wrote the letter. Elijah Wood then marvels at how great that is.
There’s so much going on in this tiny fragment that I don’t know where to start. Let me instead list some:
1. McKellen queers Sam and Frodo, to state the obvious. He invites anyone so “resolutely heterosexual” in the audience who has not already seen Sam and Frodo as potentially queer to do so now. I’d like to think he’s stating the obvious here, but I’m nevertheless amazed and disheartened by how many of my undergrads had no sense whatsoever that Sam and Frodo might have more to their friendship. For those who hadn’t already done so, then, there is the invitation to see this entire 12-hour long epic as a tale, in part, of how Sam’s love for Frodo allows the latter to keep going, to defeat evil, to succeed in the face of darkness. Arguably the most famous epic adventure in Western fictional history is now helmed by a queer hobbit.
2. Ian McKellen outs himself (“gay people like myself”), and while anyone aware of McKellen’s public image would already know that he is gay, not all viewers of the bonus materials for LotR might. And thus, he potentially queers Gandalf. Given that Gandalf is a force of good throughout the film, a wise, noble, caring leader, this small invitation to read Gandalf as gay is interesting (though not unproblematically so: see my colleague Derek Johnson’s excellent article on McKellen’s characters and his gay identity here).
3. McKellen queers the whole trilogy. Ironically, McKellen’s iconic moment from the films saw him guarding a narrow bridge booming out (at the Balrog) “you shall not pass!”, but if Sam, Frodo, and Gandalf are all queer, McKellen potentially opens the gate wide to others being queer too.
4. McKellen claims authorship. The story is notable for the absence of Peter Jackson, the film’s director. Neither McKellen nor Astin include him in the story as mediator; rather, we are presented with an image of the set in which one actor can give notes to another actor directly. And since this particular note has no small ramification, especially when it opens up the text to the above, we are presented with the possibility that McKellen – known for his gay activism – was allowed to put that stamp on LotR.
5. McKellen’s authority is based on Tolkien’s. As I’ll shortly discuss, McKellen frustratingly somewhat discounts his reading, but I do like how he nevertheless claims that Astin and Wood may have “missed” it, thereby implying it is objectively “in the book.” Here, I should point out too that McKellen has by this point in the commentary and DVD been framed as knowing his Tolkien. Christopher Lee is granted greater knowledge, but McKellen is often quoted on what is in the book, and his claims to authority have elsewhere always been endorsed. There is a sense, then, that Tolkien wrote it that way.
6. TPTB (somewhat / seemingly) accept and implicitly echo that claim. Importantly, too, McKellen didn’t just make these comments off the cuff at a live event: they come to us on the DVD bonus materials as selected. The cast commentary track includes a large number of the cast, yet they were clearly recorded separately (or in groups, as with the hobbits), and thus McKellen’s comments needn’t have been chosen for the DVD. We could just as easily have heard other cast members’ musings. Or, since commentary tracks regularly overlay stories or information randomly when no relevant connection is offered, we could just as easily have heard a random tale about life on the set, for instance. If McKellen makes a claim at authorship, it is partly accepted by the DVD producers, through not being contested and through being included on the DVD. Which in turn suggests that those above McKellen on the authorial hierarchy ladder (including Jackson himself, who at every turn is suggested to have control over the DVD) may accept his queering of the text and characters.
7. But that claim is framed as trickery. One way to read this snippet, as I have done above, is to see it as McKellen inviting a queer reading, and the DVD producers and Jackson as endorsing that. However, another, less exciting way to read it is as trickery. As I detail in Show Sold Separately, the cast commentary for LotR amusingly aims to show traces of characters in the actors, with McKellen often framed as the sage voice of reason, the hobbits often being more playful, and so forth. This snippet plays into this “characterization,” as McKellen pulls one over on Astin, whose naivety is then echoed by Wood’s similar blindness to what has just happened. Both readings can co-exist, but this latter one risks taking the limelight, and it also risks reducing McKellen’s “authorship” as very fleeting, contained to a specific moment, and/or playful rather than serious, sincere, and activist in nature. Meanwhile, we’re left with the possibility that the story was included not because anyone else involved with the production of LotR agrees with McKellen’s queering, but simply because it’s a cute little tale. And a precept to McKellen’s claim to authorship is a denial of Astin or Wood’s own rights as authors of their own characters and performances, since the snippet suggests they had no conscious role in the queering of their characters.
8. McKellen discounts his reading more than I’d like. The reference to Sam and Frodo’s relationship as “innocently physical” seems too clearly to insist on a chastity. And while he outs himself, he also declares Astin and Wood’s “resolute” heterosexuality, while the cut to their clueless discussion about how cool it is that a (female) fan liked how they played the scene serves as further proof that they are indeed “way” too straight to get what’s going on. For a commentary track that, as noted above, has been laboring to see characters in their actors, this double-backs and insists on the straightness of the couple.
9. An alternate, stereotyped reading sees McKellen as the lecherous old queen getting off on the idea of two handsome young actors in love. In spite of all the rich potential for queering, therefore, a truly polysemic accounting of the snippet must allow that it contains his queer reading within a frame that renders him a dirty old man (granted, this hardly serves the larger purpose of the DVD, but the reading is there).
10. Who put this line in? In #6 above, I say that we could interpret the comment as endorsed. But who actually endorsed it? This raises fascinating questions about paratextual production cultures – a key missing part of Show Sold Separately. Because whoever edited this has significant power to set the parameters for the queering or not of one of the biggest blockbuster successes of all time. Paratexts can be where politics happen, where they are sold, or where they are evacuated, so it really matters who makes them.
11. Who heard it? Or read someone who heard it? I say “significant power to set the parameters for the queering or not,” but that’s only for those who hear the comment. These DVDs sold really well, yes, but when I spoke to Disney’s head of Blu-Ray and DVD in 2008, he bemoaned how little of his labor was ever seen, according to his market research. Blooper reels and extra scenes, he said, were all that most people get out of a DVD. So it’s wishful thinking to expect too many people to have heard McKellen’s comment. Arguably a larger number of people read of it from those who heard of it, but even then we’re talking about a small group, I imagine. Not enough to control the dominant meaning of the text. Paratexts could control that meaning, I argue, but that’s not likely the case here.
What are we left with, then? A snippet that is perhaps more helpful for illustrating the range of things that such snippets can do than it is clear in saying exactly what it is doing.
That said, it’s perhaps no coincidence that the examples that open this post and the one on which I’ve focused are about whether or not a text or character is gay, queer, or straight. In an America that is frequently so very hostile to and that regularly excludes sexual minorities, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that something’s or someone’s gayness or queerness is pushed towards the paratextual margins. Like J. K. Rowling outing Dumbledore in an interview not in the umpteen pages of Harry Potter itself, like Xena Warrior Princess never explicitly acknowledging the lesbian relationship between its two leads, and like the constant chatter in the tabloid press about whether John Travolta, Tom Cruise, or Vin Diesel are gay or bisexual, texts’, characters’, and actors’ and actresses’ queerness is so often outsourced to paratexts.
I’ve run too long with this post, so I need to wrap up. I’ll so do by posing that this suggests something beyond Stuart Hall’s preferred meaning. In Show Sold Separately, I say that paratexts regularly set preferred meanings, and I stand by that. But they also offer semi-preferred meanings, meanings that aren’t offered as canonical, yet are given some nominal endorsement, such that they exist in a limbo between preferred and un-preferred. Hopefully I’ll get to explore what this means in future posts.
Tags: bonus materials, commentary tracks, fellowship of the rings, Frodo, Gandalf, gay, Ian McKellen, identity poitics, lord of the rings, paratexts, queer, Sam