Hot Shots

WHY IS IT that I, a straight woman, find the performance of gay male desire so beguiling, so portentous, so invasively carnal? Why is it that most screen enactments of hetero desire, to quote the estimably blunt Polly Harvey, leave me dry? Am I alone in my responses?

I put the facts before my online writers discussion group. "Oh, my dear," sniffed one scribe, "straight women always say that."

Immediately I felt like a middle-aged guy in a beige raincoat, pushing quarters for the "lesbian" floor show. Whether that was her view of me as well, I don't know; in the face of such well-honed impatience, I hadn't the courage to ask. Stewing in that grubby raincoat for a moment, though, made me realize how little credit we give others for the complexity of their desire. Feminists know that the straight man into lesbian scenes always imagines his penis-gifted self-transforming queer sex into real sex--indeed, that fantasy is carried out in porn flicks whenever a male actor joins the girlie fun.

But what if we're wrong, even partially wrong? What if there's something else about women touching each other, however artificially and awkwardly, that stirs the male psyche in a deeper way? I don't hesitate to allow myself several explanations as to why I get off on men getting off with other men. It's palpably obvious, for example, that the conventions of screen heterosex have become as rigid as rigor mortis. Anthony Minghella's The English Patient first appears to play with those expectations: After the Ralph Fiennes character rips open Kirstin Scott Thomas's bodice, he's shown sewing it back up. But the movie still assumes that the female body is passive in desire, acted upon by the furiously needy, greedy male; and the resulting images--close-ups of an increasingly dishabille Thomas--are tediously routine. In My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant actually froze his hetero lovers in similarily standard positions, arriving at a droll series of snapshots: hand on thigh, mouth on nipple, female neck arched back, etc.

The wily filmmaker of the '90s escapes this killing banality by returning to the cinematic days when sex could not be shown. As much as I revere Jane Austen and "screwball" comedy, though, there's something cowardly about pretending sex doesn't happen 'til after the last frame. A filmmaker not unacquainted with her imagination tries to reinvent screen heterosex precisely because the usual is so tired. When, in Jane Campion's The Piano, Holly Hunter traces a finger across Sam Neill's chest--and refuses his response--her character's unexpected gesture resonates with information about this beleaguered couple. Not only does the scene further the film, it makes lust again disturbing, and deep.

Still, such a taste for complication is rare in straight filmmaking. Whereas gay screen sex complicates by its very nature: My eye is not yet familiar with the ways these bodies fit together; I'm not sure yet what it means when one body presses and the other--its physical match--yields. Viewed through my uncertainty, these courtships and kisses do not appear rote, however much some of them--The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, Beautiful Thing--follow romantic scripts right out of The Breakfast Club. The sex feels risky, as sex should. But for how long? How long before we insatiable consumers exhaust this difference-as-product and render it safe, sane and inconsequential?

The novelty theory doesn't account for why some straight women get a bigger charge out of male same-sex spectacle than the female garden variety. Such predilections, my cranky e-mail critic might well suggest, reveal a repressed disgust or discomfort with the female body. If straight women do at some level fear viewing their own shape with desire, however, I don't think internalized hatred is the only cause. My own fear, I believe, has more to do with a suspicion that the image-of-female-body-as-object-of-desire still reads submissive. I am afraid that adding my admiring gaze to straight men's will only encourage the cultural production of passive, receptive female characters, white-slate "mysterious" in their dumb non-subjectivity.

According to feminist lore, straight men freak out about gay sex because they can't bear the thought of becoming women--conquered, penetrated, prone. What I like about watching gay sex is that I can identify with the fucker: I'm still having sex with a man, per my affective preference, but now I'm as strong as my partner. I could hurt him if I am not careful (I could swoon with the awareness of restrained power). Then again, he could hurt me (I am not the only subject). We are both vulnerable (I imagine), both ferocious. A question: Could a vicarious relief from their usual role be part of why some straight men fetishize "lesbian" sex?

Hetero reciprocity of this nature has been portrayed in film, but not nearly often enough--especially given the tremendous number of screen rapes. It's so easy, even for a director as interested in women's stories as Minghella, to slide his sex scenes into the usual greasy tracks. How much more difficult to present a more mutable, muddled model by breaking through the thin wall between conqueror and conquered--as difficult, and rewarding, perhaps, as our real-life adventures. CP

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