No, You Didn’t Understand.
It’s Pride Month, and since this little weekly essay seems to have settled into critical discussions of media, I think the line of best fit is to meditate on my own queer experience in a straight media landscape. This week will feature a story from my past, the next from my relative present, and a third on how I go about contemplating my future.
There’s a scene late in the 2004 film Miracle when Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), a hockey coach whose unorthodox style has brought his ragtag team to the 1980 U.S. Olympics, insults one of his players during a halftime pep talk by calling him a “candyass”. The comment inspires fury in the player, who resolves to fight through the serious leg injury he’s just sustained and continue playing in order to prove him wrong. (This, of course, turns out to have been Brooks’ plan all along — it’s the crowning moment in his campaign of clearly abusive behavior towards the players, a training strategy which Miracle lionizes.) Rewatching the film this week, the sudden homophobic slur was startling in no small part because I hadn’t thought such a word would be allowed in a PG film by 2004 — not, of course, because the film industry wanted to encourage respect for the queer community, but because of the word’s clear sexual connotations and taboo subject matter.
But perhaps I just don’t remember what used to pass the MPAA’s muster, since evidently I didn’t remember much about Miracle whatsoever — barely a lick of the plot, and hardly a beat of the performances — even though it may be one of the films I’ve seen the most in my lifetime. In the era of DVD rentals, it was a favorite in my family’s rotation — my siblings enjoyed sports movies, I tolerated them because they were movies, and Miracle, with its true story of a morale-boosting American triumph during the Cold War, probably tickled something of my parents’ nostalgia for ’80s media (unfailingly antagonistic to Russia, and tailored to the public’s rightward swing) without having to pull directly from that media. The films that they remembered from their halcyon days were always a risk, because, like me, my folks often remembered only their favorite moments while forgetting that there was much in the films that now alarmed their Evangelical sensibilities, and which they certainly didn’t want to show their children. Ironic, then, that what seared into my brain from the family-friendly Miracle while the chaff of the plot and performances sloughed off were the plentiful scenes of unintentional homoerotica.
Unhindered by the network of disgust and shame that subordinates women and transfolk, the cisgender male is free to fetishize his own body. Often, Miracle plays like a two-hour, hockey-themed riff on Michelangelo’s David, pure masculine strife riddled with slow-motion shots of men sweating, lunging, colliding with one another. Montages show the U.S. team in showers and locker rooms, in various states of wetness and undress, exerting themselves at close quarters. No film in 2004 would ever have attained a PG rating if the same shots were taken of women — male exhibition will always be more wholesome than female; the art teacher at my private Christian grade school kept a full-frontal magnet of the David at her desk, but no class I can recall taking with her examined paintings of the female form. Parents would have complained.
Not that I cared so much at the time. The magnet suited me just fine when that teacher’s desk was in my homeroom in sixth grade. I didn’t think of myself as queer at age 11, but I knew that I very much liked to look at penises, and beards; that when I did I felt some odd thrill that I couldn’t place. It would be a long time before I made the connection: the sex talk I got, such as it was, spoke only of men and women; a budding pansexual, I liked women just fine, so the single box of attraction and sex which had been provided me was already ticked. I knew, in the abstract, that homosexuals existed — that a summer camp counselor had told me never to use the word, and that the older boys in school slung “gay” at each other as an all-purpose put-down — but they existed somewhere out in the ether of “the world.” The closest they, the other, came to me was on magazine covers that would provoke my dad to ponder aloud why we paid the subscription fee, or on public radio broadcasts which my literature teacher would broach apropos of nothing in the classroom, his face and voice coiled in revulsion. The thrills of Miracle’s musclebound cast or the momentary heart skips I felt when the boys I crushed on brushed me as they passed in cramped classrooms were completely removed from that ether, entirely internal and so natural to me that I was barely conscious of them until I realized that I would have to keep them secret a few years later.
I’m sure that if some of those boys were to read this — and maybe they will — they’d wonder if they were the boys I’m talking about, if there was some ulterior motive affecting the friendships we cultivated, if any of the times I smiled or laughed with them were tinged with attraction or lust. But after so many years of ambiguity in their company — wondering in terror if they knew what I was, and what they thought of me if they did, and in either case what that knowledge might motivate them to do — the thought of them facing their own ambiguity troubles me little. It is their turn to wonder.
And anyhow, that they might harbor such anxieties after all these years speaks to its own range of social ills. I have found that straight boys, even the most accepting ones, are uniquely prone to preoccupation if you confess attraction to them, however fleeting or mild. They will behave as if your sexuality affects theirs by application. Trained by heteronormative society to associate androphilia with womanhood, they will place you in their mind with women, doomed by the patriarchy to be less important, less meaningful, less able to contribute than their fellow man. That toxic perspective, along with its racist and xenophobic brethren, is roundly reflected in Miracle. There is only one female character in the script, Brooks’ spouse Patti. Her fundamental foundation is the trope of the nagging, frivolous wife, and the writers’ slipshod attempts at salience and wit crumble completely when built on it. Patricia Clarkson is wasted on the role, her every shot at depth foiled when the character inevitably acquiesces to Brooks making every interaction about himself. Besides her, the only other women mentioned in the film are unseen, victims of the objectifying banter meant to serve as shorthand for the players’ lovable impishness and youthful virility. Elsewhere, glimpses of a Women’s Liberation banner in the opening newsreel montage and racially diverse crowds at the film’s two climactic games (the only acknowledgement the film makes at all of the existence of nonwhite people) read as props carelessly tossed in to bolster the narrative of America’s white male saviors.
Of course no one who worked on Miracle actively intended to perpetuate these toxic attitudes, or at least they probably didn’t — they simply didn’t think to counteract them. But that the default, non-thinking mode of writing and filmmaking is so riddled with these issues is precisely the problem. No one working on the film seemed to have realized it was sexist, but then they didn’t seem to have realize it was homoerotic either, just as my parents certainly didn’t realize it was fanning the first sparks of my own sexual awakening. And so, through unchallenged defaults, the story of the film becomes a story of dashed intentions.
Because Miracle wants to be a lot of things, but isn’t. It wants very desperately to not be Another Sports Film, yet it falls right in line between The Rookie and Invincible in Disney’s Hoosiers-descendant trail of nearly identical period sports dramas. It wants to be a film about Being an American, an ideal which cracks with every instance of casual xenophobia or blind patriotism and ultimately shatters when Brooks’ closing voiceover about how his team came from “such different backgrounds” undergirds shots of a uniform line of college-educated white boys with identical jawlines and haircuts. And it wants to be a film about Being a Man, but if any of the actors who made the film (or the folks they portrayed) learned how it made this candyass feel, the supposed strength and security inherent in masculinity would doubtlessly wash away in a torrent of “no homo”s. Honestly, though, I suspect the patriarchal construct needs little help from me to fail: in a historical anachronism much more potent and poignant than anything in the script, the film’s credits noted that Dave Silk, one of the players portrayed in the film, had since become an Asset Manager for Bear Stearns.