Bodies in Between
It’s a perfect, warm Saturday. I want to feel like a human being with other human beings so I walk up Lincoln Avenue past the enormous Oakland LDS temple, then farther up to Joaquin Miller park and its stone steps leading to the amphitheater, home of the Woodminster Musicals — “Oakland’s Broadway in the Redwoods” as the press materials say. The park is dotted with blankets. Oakland has yet to paint circles on the grass, but groups have arranged themselves appropriately without the need for state interference. Occasionally one body will approach another blanket to refill a wine glass, or a stray ball will roll into a group and someone will toss it back. There’s always going to be messiness between us.
Every apocalypse movie is about what’s going on right now. Contagion (2011) is a little too on the nose for me; the one I’m thinking of is Café Flesh (1982), a culty, high concept adult film directed by Rinse Dream. As porn it’s inscrutable. The actors wear grotesque costumes and none of the (few) sex scenes portray anything resembling pleasure. However, the premise — an apocalypse has rendered most of society unable to engage in intimate acts — is extremely COVID-19.
The text scroll at the opening of the film begins: Able to exist, to sense… to feel everything — but pleasure. In a world destroyed, a mutant universe, survivors break down to those who can and those who can’t. 99% are Sex Negatives. Call them erotic casualties. They want to make love, but the mere touch of another makes them violently ill.
I can’t stop thinking about bodies, sociality, intimacy. I think I’m getting out of practice. I went to a friend’s (small, socially distanced) wedding last week. It was the first time I’ve interacted with more than a handful of other people since early March. I found myself silently watching everyone. It was as if my friends were bots that I could observe but not talk to. We all stood around with masks on, making muffled conversation and staring at our full wine glasses.
Most of the scenes in Café Flesh take place inside the café of the film’s title — a single claustrophobic room. The cafe features live sex shows performed by sex positives — the one percent of the population who are still able to feel desire. All sex positives are conscripted into service and forced to labor this way. Typically, affective labor is designed to make the recipient feel connected; think of the cheeriness of nurses or the conversation a hairstylist makes with you while you sit in their chair. In this film the sex is a form of aggression against the audience — it makes them feel even more alienated from their bodies and experiences of desire. Even the emcee, Max Melodramatic, aggressively taunts the viewers about their terrible lives. The viewers sit in the dark staring grimly at the stage. The most remarkable thing about the Café Flesh is how unsexy it is. Take for instance the first scene in which a milkman, wearing a white leotard and rat costume (complete with phallic tale), has sex with a housewife while demonic adult babies sit in highchairs. The viewers are repulsed. It’s a moralizing performance: without intimacy there’s only perversion.
In the mid 2000s, the magazine I worked for sent me on a press trip to Tasmania. Being gay was illegal in Tasmania until 1997, but in the mid 2000s the Tasmania tourism board started courting the LGBT press trying to drum up some gay tourist dollars. The night I arrived I went to dinner with a famous gay historian, an epic feast with multiple courses and many bottles of wine. After, he took me on a late-night, impromptu tour of the ruins of one of the nineteenth century women’s prisons. The moon was full. It was spooky, with bats flying around, the whole thing. He explained that when prison officials suspected women prisoners of forming romantic couples, they’d ship one or both off to work as servants in remote parts of the island. The women couldn’t stand to be apart and would break the law again in order to be sent back to their lovers. This happened so often that the prisons had to keep inventing crueler ways to keep prisoners separated. Repeat offenders were locked into iron collars set with spikes several feet long, which made being close to any other person impossible.
The state can manage and organize bodies. But there will always be conduits of desire beyond its control.
Walking through the park brings me back into my body. There are lots of people running up the amphitheater steps for exercise, and I squeeze past a couple of power walkers on my way to the top. There’s a picnic table to the right of the theater with a panoramic view of the bay. Once or twice a week I climb the stairs to sit and read. Everyone is wearing cute workout outfits. There are a bunch of women, maybe in their early twenties, doing squats on the steps. They are all very pretty, wearing makeup and high ponytails. It’s a very Instagram look; the well-coiffed fitness enthusiast. I just read an article about “Instagram Face,” that perfect-skin, exaggerated-makeup, Kardashian-esque look. It’s an aesthetic that works best on social media. In the real world, you’d look like a praying mantis.
Instagram Face is the selfie equivalent of Grand Odalisque, the 1814 painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres whose subject is proportionally impossible. If she were to stand, her extended, serpentine torso would sway under the weight of her head and breasts.
My park look is un-Instagrammable. I’m wearing an ill-fitting tennis skirt and anti-bullying t-shirt that reads, “Be cool, not cruel.” My sartorial skills: another casualty of too much time inside. A man gives me a thumbs up and then takes off his mask to tell me he hates bullying. (Does anyone like bullying? Maybe bullies do.) I smiled behind my mask which of course he couldn’t see.
The exercising women are winning at gender. Femininity delights me. I think I’m jealous. That sort of femininity is another form of affective labor, and I generally perform it only when I can see a direct benefit. Is anyone still shaving and wearing a bra? I, personally, have altered my gender presentation in a way that is best captured by artist Allyson Mitchell’s giant fun fur sculpture Big Trubs. With her massive girth and body covered in hair, she’s a version of femininity that I subscribe to.
Each time I get dressed and venture out I realize how many steps are involved in looking and feeling like a person in the world. Femininity takes work and keeping it up requires constant maintenance. It’s not just there under your dress waiting to be revealed; femininity is a series of gestures that you have to learn and, for me at least, those gestures need to be practiced regularly. We learn them early but we perfect them in social situations. I may have already forgotten some of them. I wonder what my gender will look like when this is over?