I’m calling House of Cards a TV show, even though it isn’t, although that is the form it takes, if not the distribution method. Suggestions?
Every once in a while I make a comment on a blog somewhere asking why bisexual men don’t write their own stories. But of course, I don’t just mean bisexual men, whoever they are. I mean men who have or have had sex with men from time to time. Gay men write those stories from their youth, about their sexual encounters with guys who grew up to get married to a woman and have kids. Why don’t the straight men in these encounters write those stories? Is it because more gay men grow up to be writers? I’ve had a handful of those encounters myself and, as far as I know, those boys and young men grew up to be straight men who were not writers. It does convince me that there’s something about being gay that compels us to tell stories.
Maybe it’s because straight men are pussies and wimps as writers about their own sexual histories and that they’re always on the down-low?
I really don’t know. But it seems like the writing we have so far, as long as I’ve been reading and watching — and for the purposes of this post I’m including writing for television in this — that it’s been gay men writing those stories. But, it takes two, you know.
Home Boy by Jimmy Chesire is the only book I can think of written by someone most would call a straight man that delivers in no small erotic detail what happens between adolescents in a Catholic home for orphaned boys. (I have no idea how Chesire labels himself but he is married to a woman and has kids, and the only other book he’s written since is about softball.) It’s fiction but it’s based on Chesire’s own experiences in a similar home in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s a lyrical, brave and unabashedly sexy look at adolescent love and romance. It’s brave precisely because it’s unabashedly sexy and romantic. There still are taboos in our supposedly free and sophisticated culture, including adolescent sexuality, intergenerational sexual activity and yeah, cross-orientation sex and romance.
(Side note: I did find it touching that Dave Eggers stated he was not a Kinsey 0 in the preface to his meta-masterwork, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But, if you were reading honestly, just as Eggers writes, you would have already known that. Also, I’m 3/4 of the way through Martin’s A Game of Thrones and wondering if the all-male, hetereosexually celibate Night’s Watch will reveal any homosex action. If not, and if Martin’s world were real, it would be the first time in history that such situations would remain “pure.” Only in the mind of religious fundamentalists. And lazy writers. But if the heterosexist television series is any indication, “gay” characters not withstanding, I doubt that gay people or gay sex exist in the 7 Kingdoms except as a shadow of corruption.)
It’s for all these reasons that I hope that the writers of Netflix’s House of Cards are straight, or at least some of them are, because the scene I’ll talk about below represents a significant step forward for the cultural representation of what it feels and sounds like to be a man in love with a man and having sex with him but not necessarily considering oneself gay. And also, importantly, not being afraid to talk about it or be defensive when you do, which is, I’d say, all about being a man.
Yesterday I trimmed the relevant episode of House of Cards and uploaded the excerpt to YouTube and also GayForIt. As expected, YouTube, or rather, Sony, blocked it. Unexpectedly, so did GayForIt. Such bullshit. If how I’m using it isn’t fair use, then there is no fair use. And there might not be. Sony certainly sees it that way. But anyway, if you haven’t seen s01e08, you can download just the scene here and here. It’s only 17 Mb.
I’m not going to provide much background information about the character of Francis or the show itself. If you don’t know it, here’s the Wikipedia article.
Unlike most episodes in the series, this one takes place outside of DC, on the military school campus of The Sentinel which Francis attended. The school is opening a new library and naming it after him. What starts out as a pedestrian affair reeking of fake sentiment and cronyism turns into a nostalgic, college-boy romp for Francis and the friends from his past who show up to attend the ribbon-cutting.
The scene begins with Francis and friends marauding through the old library and pushing each other around on carts, crashing into things. Then, there’s some friendly physical competition. Francis and his best-friend-from-school, a butch dude named Tim who conducts white-water-rafting tours now, lay side by side and do push-ups. The buddy wins and Frank complains that his heart is beating so fast he might have a heart attack. Tim says his is, too, and reaches over, grabs Franks hand and puts it on his own heart.
This jibes with pretty much every encounter with a straight boy I’ve ever had, and lots of encounters I’ve heard of and read about. It begins with some masculine activity, often sport that requires touching the other guy, and then someone makes a move — a wholly unnecessary move, like a hand on a heart, but one that makes sense in context and could be construed as either innocent or suggestive, with plausible deniability should the move be rejected.
The move in this scene between Frank & Tim is neither rejected nor accepted. The narrative pauses for a few seconds, in a medium shot from overhead as the two of them feel and consider, and then Frank gets up and says he needs another drink.
In the scene that follows with Frank and Tim, they reminisce about their own relationship. But first, Frank asks the question, Did any of this mean anything? He’s referring, directly, to the old library they’re in, and to the institution that enclosed it and that enclosed them, back in their youth.
“Do you think this place made us? Is this just a place where we spent four years of our lives, or was there more?”
Frank declares the library named after him is a sham:
“The library doesn’t matter. But I’d like to think this place did.”
Tim replies, “I think it meant a lot to us…then.”
Frank’s been talking about the school, but, he’s also referring to them, the couple they were, and Tim has realized that as well.
But Frank makes it clear:
“And what about us?”
Tim says he hasn’t thought about it much.
The following exchanges show a series of advances on the part of Frank and a set of gentle ripostes on the part of Tim, who’s willing to acknowledge the sexual aspect of their friendship then, and that they were brothers — Frank says, “more than brothers” — but that what they did in the past has no real bearing on who they are now. To Frank, however, it’s clear there is an enduring connection, or that he wants there to be.
(We realize, simply by watching, that there is an enduring connection, by being aware of the fact that throughout this potentially uncomfortable exchange, they have never taken their eyes off each other, or stopped smiling.)
Tim realizes this, then, and so in order to gently move focus off of what Frank seems to be suggesting, wonders, “Do you have anyone, Frank?”
Frank says he has Claire, his wife, confidante and co-conspirator in politics.
Tim almost — almost — rolls his eyes. “Besides Claire.”
“I have from time to time. When I want someone, I want them. It’s attraction,” Frank says, looking even more pointedly at his friend.
Tim then gives the longest pause of a conversation marked particularly by its quick replies, still smiling, he says:
“Made me happy to make you happy, Frank. Didn’t see any harm in it.”
There is a difference in orientation here, perhaps, and in levels of attraction, but the emotional truth of the scene, and of the past the characters share, is the same. That’s one of the things that makes it fine, brave writing, and also unique. I guess it also points out the superiority of television writing at the moment as compared to writing for the movies.
Can you think of a similarly honest scene in American film in even the last 10 years? I can’t. The depiction of male characters in the movies continues to be as restricted, stilted, and constrained by genre and classical notions of masculinity as it ever was.
(Kelly Reichart’s Old Joy is an interesting kind of counter example. In it, two men who used to be close friends but who have been separated by time and geography, take a trip together and well, nothing much happens other than a strange bathtub scene in the woods in which one guys washes the other — someone with an extremely opaque and placid personality. The film conveys an aching sense of nostalgia more than anything else, and to the extent it works, it works by refusing to address directly about what the two men may or not be feeling about each other. As an art film, it’s fascinating but also frustrating. For the sake of style, Reichart turns away almost completely from everything this tiny scene in House of Cards faces squarely.)
The scene is particularly poignant in House of Cards because up until this point, we’ve known Francis as an unsentimental manipulator, uninfluenced by whatever innocence he might have possessed in his past. Now, we see him as a man capable of affection, and with a more complex and varied sexuality than we’d imagined.
The writers were able to imagine him as more, and this imagination enriches our experience of the character. But it also dramatizes a scene that has no doubt played out with infinite variations between men in the real world who share intimate memories. There are honorable and honest ways of writing these scenes if a writer simply has the balls, and this scene proves it.