Still breaking rules, but that’s okay

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer (Sourced at entertainment.ie.)

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer are married. It seems unlikely either man will read my blog but that is the myth of modern celebrity isn’t it? – the proximity of those who are famous – the modern celebrity seems close to us, almost familiar. In earlier  times fame meant distance, not closeness. In keeping with that modern feel I can send out a message of congratulations to them both as if I might meet them at the supermarket next time I buy my fruit and vegetables.

My next comment probably has both men in mind, but Stephen is its focus. For two persons of such differing ages to be sexually intimate – and be very public about that – is not typical of our time. I am not saying Stephen Fry is ‘one of those bad types’. There is a rule of thumb which asserts a partner ought not be younger than ‘half your age plus seven’. Stephen Fry is 57, so by that rule his sexual partner should be older than 35 (approx.); Elliot Spencer is 27. It is my assumption this rule applies to Elliot as well – he isn’t meant to go for those older guys – a partner can as easily be too old as too young.

Let me say it again, no way am I hinting that Stephen is ‘minor attracted’, and yet the discourses of sexual assault, child abuse, negative narratives about what male culture is perceived to promote, all position Stephen Fry badly. For all that his profile is doing fine; he is even viewed by some commentators as likely to get the nod from upper-class English society for some honorary title in the near future. Truth is some see him as a darling of the British public – the British Royal Family included. Where I sourced that view was listening to John Crace’s podcast for The Guardian, he discussed this very point we taking of Stephen Fry’s new book – More Fool Me.

So has Britain turned the corner on tolerance to the older man who is attracted to the young, where the guy’s interest is younger than ‘half your age plus seven’? No, I don’t think so. A New Zealand woman – Justice Lowell Goddard – has just been appointed to head a British inquiry into child sex abuse in British society, aimed right at the very group of people a chap like Stephen Fry is likely to do his local shopping with – the upper class of England. No, what Stephen – and very likely Elliot as well – have done is to manage their profile. I argue they have done this because they understand what has changed inside Western culture and have kept all that negative stuff at arms length.

What sits at the centre of what is offered here is sociological, not psychological. I can actually take a middle position here and say I find a psychoanalytic discourse more helpful here than the text so often offered by psychology. Desire is a very broad category and a very ‘thick’ one – there is a lot to consider when using the term ‘desire’. When discussing or viewing the desire of the minor attracted person one is not looking at some kind of desire different from what is so readily acknowledged by the adults who view the sex they experience as ordinary.  I argue desire is this aspect of the human condition that everyone has as part of who they are – straight, gay, minor attracted – it’s all desire and its all part of who a person is. In my view the term ‘sexual orientation’ is a modern term that attempted to convey this radical and fundamental equality and ‘sameness’ that can be understood to unite the gay and the straight worlds – this term carries the message we are all in the same boat.  I am saying the boat has more than two people in it.

To gloss over this issue without making an effort to say what I mean would be a mistake, but I also know the value of being precise. There is a need to speak briefly rather then offer long paragraphs.  It is my view the language used to speak about what we experience has been influenced in recent decades by a reductionist view of the person. Sex and desire has become merely stimulus and response; sexual life is viewed more and more as the management of mechanical bits. People are being told to manage their sexuality as if it is only an issue of ‘sexual urges’. Actually that view is itself problematic. Why all this matters is because the minor attracted person finds themselves being told to stop urges and to stop his or her desires as if they are different in kind from everyone else. The truth is they aren’t different – desire as one finds it lodged inside the texts of literature and poetry is at the heart of who we are and – for everyone – understanding it is vitally important.

Thus when attempting to see what has gone on for this celebrity gay British couple it is not about what desire is allowed to have our social/cultural support – gay and straight get a thumbs up; minor attraction gets a thumbs down; it is about how sociological shifts have unfolded over time and how Fry and Spencer have managed their profile. Both know how desire feels – they  have fallen for each other. What is clever, and I think it has been a matter of being smart, both men have worked to prevent their profile being spoiled (to use Irving Goffman’s term).

Let us unpack things even more.  A Western philosopher writing in the distant past was read, even admired, but there was no expectation for that person to write about their sex life. There are those who will say they know what Socrates and Plato were, sexually, but in reality this says more about the readers than it does about the philosophers.  The two men’s private lives were not seen as warranting our investigative gaze. Move closer to our time – say Emanual Kant – and I would say never in any of the writings about his philosophical views are Kant’s sexual interests referenced. However by the time we get to Jean Paul Sartre we see a shift. The relationship between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir is an important part of how Sartre is read as a philosopher and an author. Come even closer to today and this year one of the films nominated for a film award is about  Stephen Hawking.  The modern biography references things we would never expect to be told about Kant. A good read that documents this shift and these features of modern Western society is Erving Goffman’s book, Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled profile.

Where the modern biography – and even the notion of a profile – gets interesting is when one has a negative bit, a fact or factor that might be construed as bringing the person’s reputation into question. Take Martin Heidegger for example.  His links to the German Nazi movement are often pointed out when commenting on his work and assessing its credibility; not all commentators will reference the matter, but there is no surprise when the connections are discussed.  In a very different field we have the example of Richard Wagner and how Jewish feeling against him and his music can be very strong because of particular features of his profile.

The ‘modern’ way to manage this sort of thing is to actually put it out there early  to acknowledge the difficult bit, and not attempt to hide it. Where a person offers a profile and later a difficult bit surfaces, one’s audience feels ‘wronged’ somehow, the reaction against the person can be very strong. What I am saying here is that, in our modern ways of thinking and behaving, we seem to have shifted what we consider privacy involves. One gets the feeling that, for a celebrity, privacy is simply not something this person has a right to.  The profile of the sex offender is actually a kind of modern-day criminal celebrity.

To date, Stephen Fry has published three books that make up his ongoing narrative about himself. It is more memoir than biography. It is my belief Fry has rightly understood how this is all done.  Pulling no punches, his latest volume – More Fool Me – details his use of cocaine as a younger man, putting out so much ‘stuff’ for us to consume that it seems like oversupply, a surfeit.  In a sense we are shock-proofed regarding who he is as a person. I had considered buying Fry’s latest book about himself but after reading the reviews I am reluctant to do it because it all seems just too much. I argue it is this rather novel way of  putting himself out there that has allowed him to retain his on-going social and cultural position as ‘the darling of modern England’ and at the same time self-narrate himself as an admirer/lover to another who is very much his junior. A classic case of “still breaking rules, but that’s okay”.

I will close this post by making a brief comment on the inquiry Justice Lowell Goddard has been set up to lead. Goddard is not the first person to be put in this role, the first two leaders having been obliged to resign. What is significant is the new feature this body has – statutory powers to compel a person to appear before it and answer questions. In America’s past Joseph McCarthy and his links to the House Un-American Committee have become an icon for what can be called state ‘over-reach’. I can imagine the notion of loyalty to America and the stigma of being thought ‘a danger to the American dream’ is not too far from what the modern day call to rally around the flag of the fight to oppose sexual abuse of children has come to be for us. I am, of course, not wishing to denigrate national loyalty to one’s country – in this case America – any more than appear to be dismissive about the need to address how children can be treated terribly by adults. It is my perception that England is very much in the grip of a process that is a very serious indeed. It is my hope, of course, that the statutory powers this current inquire now has will be exercised with care. The last thing we need is for the specter of Joseph McCarthy to walk amongst us.

Justice Lowell Goddard is one of sixty three New Zealand judges who have been ranked in 2014 and the results posted on the Kiwi First website.  What follows are comments that flow from three items found on this site.

  • The first article offers its version of how that ranking of New Zealand judges was done – “… sixty-three judges in total were ranked, based upon their melded average score of four factors, on a scale of 1 to 10; perceived intelligence, fairness, knowledge of law and personal character.” What is noteworthy is Goddard sits at the lowest slot on that list.
  • In another piece on the same Kiwi First website Goddard is profiled and the picture is far from comforting. It seems best a reader go look at what is said for themselves. What seems a common perception of her is put in this sentence found on the site – “Lawyers who appear before Justice Lowell Goddard generally have little regard for her as a judge who is willing to conform to law or to rule consistent with relevant facts.  They are far more impressed with her impeccable dress and makeup.”
  • The most damning statement, and the author of this web item links what is said directly to the new appointment of Justice Goddard to the UK role, the comment is made –”her due diligence determined lawyers in New Zealand broadly consider Ms Goddard a political puppet.”

Justice Goddard is presented by some in very different images in the media items that come to us via our televisions and the radio. That is on its own a real source of concern. If the internet can offer such a significant set of criticisms of her and yet the mainstream media are silent on any of this then I find myself asking why. This move in England to set up this inquiry is significant and I am convinced a thoughtful and critical eye needs to be kept on what unfolds.

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We see what we want to see

Source for image for The Imitation Game gained on the Variety film review - details offered below.

Source for image for The Imitation Game gained on the Variety film review – details offered below.

A friend recently invited me to a screening of “The Imitation Game”, a movie that offers a portrait of “mathematician, cryptanalyst and war hero Alan Turing”, as one reviewer describes him.

Susan Sontag, in her essay Against Interpretation, worked to make readers more aware of what she saw as a false claim to be merely describing something or that modern Western self-belief that one can remove subjectivity and have only some bare-bones way of writing.  She felt that was just one more rule-bound way of writing, claiming “there are no rules telling me how to write.”

Sontag’s self-awareness as a writer and a critic is precisely what I want to work with here.  If a Jewish patron were to see The Imitation Game, they would very likely see more than the story of Alan Turning the wronged cryptanalyst; the ‘wrong’ here would for them necessarily and inescapably involve an understanding of what went on in the death camps of Nazi Germany.

We would be unlikely to find a survivor from Turing’s time in the movie theatre; if I were to talk of Turing as a wronged homosexual some of my readers would nod their heads in agreement.  It would be interesting to locate – or, better put, acknowledge – what other current-day wrongs can be mapped onto Turing’s story.

While writing this blog piece I noted that in the reviews, some from well-known sites, the reference to Turing’s homosexuality was often not explicit, as if the reader would take it for granted.  What is going on here represents a further social marker of change – the homosexual man is in the process of being socially repositioned.  Western societies and cultures now find themselves ‘after’ a period of emancipation; they live inside what sociologists call a phase of normalization.  The homosexual man is just like all men: he is now ‘included’ and the putting right of the wrong includes no longer having his sexuality referenced.  In other parts of the world – in certain African states and in Putin’s Russia, for example – Turing’s experience of prejudice and socially-configured hostility is playing out as violence sanctioned by church and state.

I’d be doing a bad job if I failed to acknowledge inside mainstream Western societies and cultures there are other voices, other messages – and the gay lobby, I suspect, is well aware of this.

What I find perplexing is a subtext which insists that the Turing story is only about gay men, that to do what I am doing now is somehow not valid.  As a critic and a film viewer I would want to leave open how a movie might be interpreted.  Jews, persons of colour, and women have every right to see themselves inside this movie’s depiction of individuals who are wronged.

What I experienced whilst watching The Imitation Game was that feeling you have when you see what you want to see – Morten Tyldum‘s Turing is  there, of course – but what is most striking is that whatever piques one’s interest is there as well.  What I saw was not limited to the story of a homosexual man; I also felt an empathy for the experience of those who are currently labelled ‘paedophile’.

One begins to hear all the reasons why this can’t be the case – mustn’t be the case.  Turing was brilliant; that is not what one expects to see inside the profile of the paedophile, is it?  Well, actually, the modern gay movement knows only too well most gay men aren’t brilliant either, but they expect to be afforded respect as persons on the basis of the consumerized, value-added Alan Turing the film serves up to us.

Second objection would be: but we see homosexuals differently today; we know better.  Funny that – seems to me that’s what the movie is on about: how a society can get things so wrong.  For those who are unaware of the work of John Money, he was a New Zealand sexologist (1921–2006); one of his professional concerns was what he referred to as ‘paedophilic genius’ (discussed inside Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions).  Money gave Lewis Carroll and JM Barrie as examples of paedophilic genius.

As with the homosexual man in the 1950s – and (as discussed above) in some non-Western countries today – social stigma all too often blocks and hides the contribution and giftedness of the ‘deviant’/’pervert’/’child sex-abuser’. I know some readers will be very angry with what I say next: in my lifetime, Michael Jackson would have to be the West’s poster-boy when it comes to paedophilic genius (Tom O’Carroll has authored a text under the name of Carl Toms called “Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons: Arvizo, Barnes, Bhatti, Chandler, Culkin… The A-Z of All the King’s Boys“).

The homosexual story is a good teacher when it comes to understanding how stigma works and what is at stake when it operates in full swing.  Those of a more academic bent might take a look at Stanley Cohen’s “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” (The 1972 version of this book is referenced below; the link offered in this paragraph is the 2011 Routledge Classic of the same book.)

Sociologists refer to stigma in terms of social distance. A recent study – “Stigmatization of People with Pedophilia: Two Comparative Surveys” – looked at stigma and the paedophile noting that in our current societies and cultures the paedophile is the most strongly negative profile inside our spaces.  This condemnation – and even hatred – is practiced inside our societies, perhaps because people tell themselves this social practice keeps children safe; Jahnke, Imhoff and Hoyer argue this is not the case; in fact the very opposite may be true – stigmatization of the paedophile may make child sexual abuse more likely.  The abstract for this paper states, “The strongest predictors of social distance towards people with paedophilia were affective reactions to this group (anger and, inversely, associated, pity) and the political attitude of right-wing authoritarianism …)”.

Given that we see what we want to see, was what I felt when watching that film an example of personal delusion?  I don’t think so; in my view, seeing what you want to see sits at the heart of all art.  If that is the way things work, then failing to admit this is where real delusion lives.

What I think is important is not how one’s sense of empathy for Alan Turing as a gay man might map onto the paedophile.  The real issue is seeing the ‘person’ who would want to punish Turing in his lifetime.  The key question is, Does that person – the one who sees a subhuman object they can kick, punish, imprison for being ‘that way‘ – live in our world today?  My sense of things is that yes, that person is very much alive … and kicking.

Put “The Imitation Game” on your list of films to watch – see what you see.


DETAILS:

  • Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition). London and New York: Routledge
  • Downing, L., Morland, I., & Sullivan, N. (2015, 4/01). Pervert or sexual libertarian?: Meet John Money, “the father of f***ology” [Excerpt from the Book “Fuckology: Critical Essays on John Money’s Diagnostic Concepts”]. Salon (USA). Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2015/01/04/pervert_or_sexual_libertarian_meet_john_money_the_father_of_fology/
  • Jahnke, S., Imhoff, R., & Hoyer, J. (2015, 20 June). Stigmatization of People with Pedophilia: Two Comparative Surveys. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(1), 21-
  • Pedophilia: Biosocial Demensions. (1990) (J. R. Felerman, Ed.).
  • Songtag, S. (2001). Against Interpretation. USA: Picador.
  • Staff Writer. (2014). The Imitation Game [Web commentator on Film and TV shows.]. In Rotten Tomatoes (Movie Info).
  • Toms, C. (2010). Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons: Arvizo, Barnes, Bhatti, Chandler, Culkin. The A-Z of All the King’s Boys. Leicester, United Kingdom: Troubador.
  • Tyldum, M. (2014). The Imitation Game [Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong.]. U.S.-U.K.) A Weinstein Co. (in U.S.)/StudioCanal (in U.K.) release and presentation of A Black Bear Pictures/Bristol Automotive production. (International sales: FilmNation Entertainment, Los Angeles.) (113 minutes). Retrieved from http://variety.com/2014/film/reviews/telluride-film-review-the-imitation-game-1201294590/